Bound by Shadows

Wayward giggles sputtered wildly from beneath her hand as she laid her cheek against the cool stone of the griffin’s back and peered into the courtyard from behind the creature’s folded wing. Twisted shadows stretched long across the luscious lawn, the offspring of the entire garden’s statuary cast into impossibly elongated shapes by the late afternoon sun.

He could be lurking anywhere and she wouldn’t see him. For one thing, he was the Master of Stealth. Or so he claimed. And she knew it to be the truth. She didn’t know anyone remotely as sneaky. He possessed the ability to move without a whisper of sound. No rustle of clothing. No click of sole against stone. Not a sniffle or a sneeze. Nothing to give him away.

She never knew from what direction he would come either. His lean figure offered him the ability to fold himself into some rather innovative hiding places despite his height, and she might walk right past him without even knowing that he watched her from inches away. On the other hand, she had it all over him in the size department. Compact and swift, she could outrun him any day. Well…at least in the short run. His long legs would eventually catch her up in the end, but she always made good use of the hundreds of statues and fountains within the massive, vine-draped walls of the Rain Gardens, darting wildly under and around sylphs, swords, wings, tails, legs, bridges, and a variety of sculptures and stone basins of all shapes and sizes. That’s how she’d shaken him off this time. That’s how she always lost him. Another giggle worked up through her throat, but she clamped her hand hard across her mouth, just barely managing to prevent its inopportune escape.

Fortunately, he usually found her again too, stalking her silently and inexorably among the immovable denizens of the vast park. Why, he could be right there, in the gloom-enshrouded space beneath the belly of Odin’s six-legged horse, the powerful stallion frozen in mid-prance. Or he could be over there, on the far side of General Benraven’s marble pedestal, his back pressed against the smooth surface as he sidled along, step by slow step, in the shade of the brave warrior’s upheld shield. He might even be creeping up on her right this very second, bent nearly double as he skulked across the dark ground beneath the widespread fan of the griffin’s magnificent tail.

She held her breath and listened, lifting her head as she concentrated with furrowed brow, hoping to hear him above the constant susurration of a hundred fountains, even though she knew that he never made a sound. Not until he captured her. Then he would fill the air with his warm laughter as he’d swing her around and around to release her down into the soft grass, and he’d stare down into her dizzily rolling eyes with a wicked grin, occasionally throwing in a random tickle to fuel her breathless giggles.

She peeped around the edge of the griffin’s wing as a chilly evening breeze slipped across her skin, eliciting a violent shiver. Where was he anyway? She could see that the shadows had deepened, and she chewed her lip in worry. He never took this long to find her. Uneasily, she gripped the edge of the stone wing and pulled herself up to peek over the top of the feathered appendage, her smile fading into a tight frown as she fruitlessly searched for a sign of her would-be stalker. Nothing moved except for a couple of cherry red finches, twittering noisily as they swooped and darted in their play, disappearing periodically into the tall hedgerow across the way. She drew in a sharp breath when she realized that the neatly trimmed wall of greenery formed the eastern edge of the park’s extensive maze. She’d completely forgotten about it.

She knew he’d never look for her in there. He was well aware of her inability to enter the labyrinthine interior of the maze, even with her hand tucked in his. The murky passages, thickly shadowed except when the sun hung directly overhead, as well as the furtive whispers of movement inside the darkly leafed hedges, never failed to terrify her. Her stomach queasily churned, even now, at the memory of the one and only time he’d taken her very far into the maze, after reluctantly caving in to her impassioned plea. They’d made it all the way through the first long passage, even navigated the first turn to track through the dew-damp grass of another lengthy section, but then they'd slipped through a narrow cut in the hedge into yet another claustrophobic passage that was even narrower than the one before. At that point, the closeness of the towering walls of rustling leaves had finally unhinged her. He’d carried her out with her tear-streaked face buried against his broad shoulder as he stroked her hair with soothing fingers in a vain attempt to quiet her wails.

No, he wouldn’t be in there, but…where was he?

A shadow separated from its companions and crept across the lawn, growing long as he neared. The ghost of a smile trembled on her lips as she ducked down, so relieved he’d finally come that she would have launched herself from the griffin’s back to wrap her arms around his legs, but she wasn’t yet willing to give up the game.

A lilting whistle floated up to her ears, and she shot upright to look down into the grounds again. He would never give his position away by whistling. Her heart dove into the tips of her sneakers at the sight of the park security guard sauntering past her with his big hands clasped behind his back, obviously on his last rounds before locking the gates for the evening.

Her heart rate picked up as she anxiously watched the guard vanish around the far side of General Benraven’s statue. Then she sprang into motion; fairly leaping across the griffin’s back and racing down the wide tail. Without missing a beat, she cut to her left, darting with the speed of a startled cactuar to skid to a halt behind the petrified robes of Ramuh.

She peeked beneath the old man’s uplifted arm, and seeing no one, threw herself toward the iridescent basin of the Abalone Fountain. From there, she veered around the wide base and dashed madly in the direction of the Drakan Fountain and the gigantic sculpture of Bahamut, resting on his haunches with his forked tail curved around his clawed feet.

The back of her neck tingled as she raced over the expansive lawn, knowing she was completely exposed. She pumped her legs harder in an effort to cover the open ground before she was spotted. A loud shout behind her lent her wings. She fairly flew the last few feet and somersaulted over Bahamut’s tail to come up running. She glanced over her shoulder to see the guard trotting in her direction, and although she only had to cross the Butterfly Bridge to reach the entrance to the glade, she opted for the opposite direction, tearing off toward the Porpoise Gate.

Her breath tearing painfully in her throat, she flew beneath the arch, a delicate chain of leaping porpoises etched in obsidian stone, and wove a maniacal path through scattered sculptures of all sorts of sea life, some real, some born of fancy, within the grounds of the Oceanic Exhibit. In short order, she emerged on the far side of the Fountain of the Emerald Mermaid, one of her favorites actually, though she didn’t pause to even look.

As she stumbled onto the Azalea Trail, her pace considerably slowed by the stitch in her side, she cringed at the deep shade beneath the tall oak trees and briefly wondered why she didn’t just stop. The park security guard would only help her find him. That was part of his job after all. Besides, he wouldn’t dare hurt her. He’d seen them at the entrance of the park and recognized him. She’d noticed the fear in the guard’s eyes.

Fairly gasping for air now, she pressed a hand into her side and dropped to a walk, anxiously scanning the thick shadows alongside the trail as she traversed the winding path through the bushes of vibrant azaleas that crowded the white gravel lane. A scrabbling sound to her right brought her to a dead stop in the trail, and she slowly turned to stare into the bushes. After a few breathless moments, when nothing appeared to attack her, she rotated completely around to look behind. The trail was empty.

The encroaching shadows loomed closer, their weight pressing against her, fingers of murky stillness closing tightly around her heart. She spun in the trail and ran for all she was worth, the dark inhabitants of the spaces between the trees hot on her heels.

Just when she thought her heart would explode from the suffocating pressure, she burst from the dense cover of the last cluster of azalea bushes and pounded across the wooden planks of the Auroran Bridge, not the least interested in the sleek, feather-finned pandagoran fish in the pool below. She was nearly there, and she couldn’t have stopped then even if she’d wanted to. Just another curve in the trail, then under the Rose Arch, and he would be there. She knew he would. She knew it because he’d promised her that if she ever lost him, he would wait for her there, and she also knew that he’d rather die than break a promise to her. She held that knowledge close to her heart, her personal shield against the perfidy of life

She skidded to a stop just the other side of the Rose Arch, almost falling as the white gravel spewed away beneath her feet. She stumbled and threw up a hand to grab the black wrought iron trellis, thickly laced with thorny white rose vines. A sharp cry flew off her lips when a thorn sank viciously into her thumb. She automatically popped the injured member into her mouth as she pulled herself upright and closed her eyes to force back her tears.

She resisted the sudden urge to scream his name, to call him to her. She didn’t want him to see her so scared, her heart pounding painfully in her chest, gasping noisily for breath because she’d been fleeing from harmless shadows, her thumb stuck in her mouth. Mentally, she counted to fifty, then a hundred, then invoked the alphabet and reversed it, then reviewed the names of each of her classmates, all 25 of them, just as he’d taught her. She worked stubbornly through each mantra, and as she did, her senses slowly calmed, her respiration returning to even keel, and the blood slowing in her veins.

She almost felt ready to face him, but she couldn’t yet. She still had three names left. She couldn’t go until she finished. If she didn’t name all the names, she’d be jinxed but good. Unfortunately, she was stuck.

Slowly, she counted them off on her fingers again as she mouthed the names of the kids in the last row. First Jera. Then Maja. Jon and Cray. But who came after Cray…? She closed her eyes and tried to visualize what that person looked like, and suddenly the freckled face flew into her mind. Leah! Yes! With her beautiful red locks. Then Jace and Zammer. Finally, she’d named everyone.

She straightened her back and lifted her chin high. She wanted to show him that she could be brave too, although she knew he would see through her false façade in a second, as always, but she pasted a tremulous smile on her face anyway, just for good measure. Then she walked through the arch into the tree-cloistered glade and turned to face the Fountain of the Rain Dancer.

Any other time, the fountain would have demanded her rapt attention. She would sit on the rim of the glittering pool with her feet dangling in the cool water and worship the Rain Dancer for hours, then come back and do it again the next day.

The crystalline figure of the Maiden of the Rain stood frozen in pirouette, her wavy tresses flowing to her heels. Captured at the very moment that she lifted her delicate arms in invocation with her face upturned to the sky, she danced motionless beneath the shimmering curtain of water that tumbled from the firmament above her. At her feet, her lover, the handsome Prince of the Night Wind knelt in adoration of her, completely oblivious to the gentle touch of the rain she’d called down upon them. A soft azure light glowed from within the sculpture to bathe the entire fountain with an ethereal glow, creating a scene so achingly beautiful in the evening dusk that she would have been held in thrall, except…

He wasn’t here.

All her carefully constructed bravado fled, and she ran, following the broad crystal basin around to the back despite the deep gloom that welled from the palisade of giant trees to stretch tenebrous fingers across the lawn, the leaf mottled grass undisturbed by human presence.

He wasn’t here.

Panic teased her mind as she pulled herself up to stand on the wide rim, gaining another three feet on her height. She started counting as she stepped daintily around the Rain Dancer and her lover, her frightened eyes roving the glade all around. She came to the front again and unconsciously dropped to sit on the wall, her wide-eyed stare sliding from the Rose Arch to the Angel Gate and back.

He would come. He would. He couldn’t break his promise to her. Through the arch or through the gate, he would come.

She shivered as stray droplets of water from the fountain splattered her back. The gloom of dusk steadily devoured the glade around her, the sun long set behind the city skyline. A light breeze rose from the north to restlessly stir the loose tendrils of her inky hair and raise goose bumps on her bare skin. She hugged her arms around her queasy stomach and anxiously bumped her heels against the glass basin as she continuously switched her eyes from the arch to the gate. The arch to the gate. The arch to the gate. Both entrances grew harder to see as the minutes ticked past.

Maybe he’d gone home. Her heart quailed at the sudden thought. She sprang to her feet on the wide brim. No, he wouldn’t leave without her. She knew that without a doubt. She shuddered when the breeze again splattered icy water droplets against her skin. He might have thought she’d gone home though; might think she wouldn’t remember the arranged rendezvous point. She should go home.

Absently, she swiped at the trickle of water that ran down her cheek as she stared hard at the Angel Gate, the portal to the fastest route back. What was she waiting for? It would be dark soon. She didn’t want to be here in the dark. That thought sent her leaping from the wall, but she stumbled when she hit the ground, going down onto her hands and knees in the grass. Shakily, she climbed to her feet and lifted her stinging hands to her face. Her chin quivered at the sight of the dark blood smeared across the fingers of her right hand. Compulsively, she wiped her hand against her jeans and looked again. Her brow wrinkled as she stared at her uninjured fingers in puzzlement.

Her thoughts froze. She dropped her hand and slowly turned in place, reluctantly dragging her eyes around.

“Nessa!”

She fell to her knees.

“Nessa!”

Bloody rain slid over the Rain Dancer’s serene face.

“Nessa!”

Her eyes flew wide.

“What?!” She cried out, her dazed mind slowly coming into focus on the concerned gray eyes of her husband, his face only inches from her own.

“You were crying…” Myron pointed out.

Impatiently, she waved him away, and he straightened to watch her sit up on the overstuffed sofa. Shivering, she drew her legs up under her and dropped her face into her hand with a tired sigh. He sank into the cushions beside her and hesitantly lifted her other hand in his, closing her trembling fingers inside.

“Bad dream?” He asked softly.

She nodded against her palm.

“Wanna talk about it?” He tilted his head in question as he studied her with worried eyes.

“No…yes…I don’t know…” She answered irritably.

He didn’t respond. He knew quite well that she would tell him if she wanted to. If she didn’t want to, not a soul on this planet would drag it out of her.

He released her as she drew her hand away to scrub the tears from her cheeks.

“Gods, how cliché…” She muttered, folding her arms tightly across her stomach.

“What?” He prompted.

She leaned into him and let her head fall to his shoulder. He rested his head against her hair and silently waited. The seconds stretched into minutes, and those into a quarter of an hour. He let his eyelids droop behind his glasses as he bided his time. He hadn’t been born to patience, but she’d taught it to him some years back.

“Remember the Rain Gardens?” Her voice came in such a low murmur he had to strain to hear her.

“Uh huh…” He waited.

“The park is gone now I guess…” She mused aloud.

“Yeah, buried in the slums somewhere I imagine…” He knew little remained of the Midgar of their childhood.

“I was alone in the Rain Gardens at dusk.” She shivered against him. “Back when I was just a kid…maybe eight or nine years old…”

Myron gathered her hand into his again.

“…And the Fountain…the Rain Dancer…”

“You’re favorite, right?” He prompted her when she fell silent.

“Yes.”

“What about the Fountain?”

“That’s what’s so silly.” She forced a laugh. “The Rain Dancer was covered in…blood…”

Myron tightened his hand around her fingers.

“That’s why you were crying?” He knew there would be more.

“No…” She paused, not even sure she wanted to answer, but then she decided she needed to say it, needed to hear it out loud, needed to release the thought from her mind.

“…He broke his promise...”

Myron didn’t have to ask who “he” was. He knew only too well. However, he wasn’t sure what “promise” had been broken.

“His promise?” He queried, careful to keep his tone bland.

“He…never…came…”

Myron closed his eyes. He knew she wasn’t just talking about the dream now.

Suddenly, Nessa erupted into motion, tearing herself away from his side. She jumped to her feet and whirled to stare down into his startled eyes.

“We have a lot of work to do, so I guess we better get busy.” She informed him brusquely. She spun on her heel and disappeared up the stairway that led to the kitchen. He rose and trailed up the stairs behind her, emerging just in time to see her fling aside the bat wing doors as she marched through to the front desk area.

Shaking his head, he crossed the room and slipped through the doorway to join her. He paused behind her as she tugged the guest registry from under the counter and slammed the heavy book down on the countertop.

“What are you doing?” He raised an eyebrow in surprise.

He flinched when she abruptly tossed her long braid over her shoulder and slapped open the leather cover of the book to rifle busily through the thick pages.

He moved to the counter beside her and leaned in on his elbows. Casually, he propped his chin on his clasped hands and peered up at her, his eyes magnified owlishly through his thick lenses.

“Are you expecting guests?” He inquired curiously.

“Yes.” She replied tersely.

“Really? Anyone important?” He smiled mischievously. “The Turks maybe? Or the President himself?”

She sniffed, tightening her lips against the smile that lurked there.

“I can almost guarantee the President won’t be coming, and I doubt the Turks will find much to draw them here, other than the lovely view. Although…” She lifted her head and stared into space, seemingly deep in thought.

“Okay, I’ll bite.” Myron straightened beside her. “Although what?”

“Well, if you open a tavern they might come.” His snort of derision did bring a smile to her face.

“So…you really wanna run the inn…”

“Why not? People will come eventually. We can finally have our own business…a home…” Something to keep when I’m gone… The smile faded from her lips as she turned her attention back to the registry.

“But it’s not ours.” He felt that he should remind her of that minor point.

She shrugged. “If Shinra Inc. wants it back, we’ll move on.” She found the first blank page and flattened the book out with both hands. “I imagine they stole it in the first place, one way or another. I doubt they came by this entire village legitimately.”

He leaned a hip into the counter and pushed his glasses up his nose. He opened his mouth to argue with her, but thought better of it. He really didn’t want to stay in Nibelheim. The creepy Shinra Mansion overshadowed the whole town, permeating the atmosphere with moldy decadence and pure evil. Just a glance at the place made him shudder, especially since he knew they were the only souls in town, probably in the whole valley. But she wanted this, for whatever reason, and he wouldn’t take that away from her. He just wished she would tell him why she’d been so pensive last night.

“Where’s your stray?” He finally asked, not willing to pursue any of the questions that plagued him, knowing it would be pointless.

“Crashed in one of the upstairs bedrooms.” She lined up two pens alongside the guestbook and pushed the button to open the till, the resultant ding loud in the small lobby. She knew what would come next.

“That girl’s kind of…er…scary, don’t you think?” He tentatively approached the subject.

“She’s just lost.” Nessa responded in a hard tone. “And all alone, with no memory of who she is.”

Myron nodded his head in agreement. “I know she is. I’m sorry. I’m just worried. What she did up there on the mountain…I’ve never seen anything like it...and she didn’t even know how she did it…” He fell silent. He knew what he wanted to say, but he couldn’t figure out how to communicate it to her, especially since she was definitely protective of the young woman.

Nessa pinned Myron with a narrow-eyed look. “Would you have me put her out?”

“No! No, not at all! Of course not!” He exclaimed, throwing his hands into the air. “You know I wouldn’t do that. I just think…we need to keep a close eye on her, that’s all.”

“Well, I plan to put her to work as soon as she gets her rest.” Nessa smiled at him. “You too. I have a list. That should keep both of you out of trouble.”

“But we’ve only been here a few hours.” Myron protested. “You have a list already?”

Nessa slammed the cash drawer shut and turned to face him. She pursed her lips in thought.

“You know…” She began slowly. “What Maya did up there…I have seen something like that before…”

Myron’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “You have?! Where in the world…”

“Just not like that…not even remotely close to that degree…and not without materia…” She pondered the significance of her realization.

“When have you been around materia?” He asked curiously, then suddenly remembered where she would have seen it. “Oh…never mind…of course…I know…” A shadow crossed the front window, and Myron stopped talking to lock his eyes on the lacy curtain panels, wondering if he’d imagine the fleeting movement. He stared intently and waited. Nessa propped her hands on her hips and studied his face.

“What’s the matter?”

The shadow slid across the thinly curtained window again, and he jumped past her to disappear through the doorway.

“Myron!?”

Perplexed at his behavior, she moved to follow him, but paused when he reappeared in the entrance to the back apartment. She silently watched him cross the carpeted lobby to draw apart the white curtains that covered the big window. He presented his back to her as he peered through the glass.

“Ah…I don’t think your adoptee…er…Maya…that is…I don’t think she’s asleep anymore.” Myron glanced over his shoulder at her, only to find that she’d left the front desk.

He turned back to the window and watched with some interest. He didn’t even look around at the sound of Nessa’s step, just scooted over when she crowded in next to him.

“Why’d you name her after your mother anyway?” He absently inquired.

“She reminded me of her.” Nessa replied, immediately drawn into the view outside the inn.

“I thought you didn’t remember your mother.” He responded automatically.

“Barely.”

Nessa raised one elegant eyebrow.

“What’s she doin’?” Myron pushed his glasses up his nose and leaned closer to the pane.

“Er…transplanting flowers?” Nessa asked unnecessarily.

“Where’d she get flowers?”

“I don’t know, Myron.”

“…But you know everything…”

“Not this time. You’re the one who took an extensive tour of the village. You tell me.”

Myron and Nessa both drew in a sharp breath, two pairs of eyes flying wide in astonishment.

“What the hell is that?!” Myron cried out.

He turned to Nessa, but she’d already dashed to the front door. She flung it wide and disappeared outside without another word.

Myron turned back to the window and leaned into the windowsill with both hands, his nose almost pressed to the glass.

“That’s one big bird…” He remarked to himself. His eyes brightened as a sudden thought occurred to him.

“Dinner!”

In two steps, he was out the door.




Vincent awoke to searing light, as though he’d opened his eyes to the noonday sun, the ultraviolet rays burning into his retinas. Twisting his head, he tried to bring his hand up to block out the brilliant glare, but his arm wouldn’t obey. The painful brightness nearly unbearable, he squeezed his eyes tightly closed, but the light blazed straight through, radiating a dull red behind his eyelids. Blindly, he jerked his head sideways and flinched when his bare cheek encountered cold metal.

A soft chuckle came from somewhere, and he cracked his eyes open to squint into the stygian gloom beyond the perimeter of the blinding aura, a cage of light that completely enveloped him. He could see nothing, not even so much as a movement, in the thick darkness on the other side.

“Who’s there?” He called out.

The chuckle came again, this time accompanied by a burst of musical laughter.

“I said who’s there?” He demanded. “Show yourself.”

“Listen my love, he wants to know who’s here…”

Vincent instantly recognized that voice. “Hojo!” He tried to rise, but found that he couldn’t move at all, his arms and legs, indeed his whole body, held down with thick leather straps.

“That’s Professor Hojo to you, Mr. Valentine.” The faceless voice from the shadows chided. “Or Doctor Hojo if you prefer. You should thank me for saving your pathetically pointless life, especially after all your hypocritical moralizing and meddling, but then I couldn’t let a fine specimen like yourself go to waste now could I? I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not one to let opportunity slip through my fingers.”

“Let me up!” Vincent commanded through gritted teeth. He strained against his bonds, but the thick leather wouldn’t give. He dragged in a huge breath and threw himself into the straps again, doubling his efforts and adding a hard twist for good measure. A gasp tore from his throat at the red-hot agony that violently exploded in his stomach and chest, effectively liquefying his resolve and snatching his breath from his lungs. He weakly slumped to the table and closed his eyes against the tortuous light, his nostrils flaring with his rapid breaths as he held a moan at bay behind his clenched teeth. Gradually, the pain started to ebb, and he threw his head up to try again, but a cool hand slapped hard against his brow and knocked his head back into the table with a dull thud.

“Oh no, we can’t have you moving around. You might tear open your incisions.” The professor informed him solicitously, his voice coming from behind Vincent now. “You are really quite the mess, you know. Especially that left arm. You shouldn’t have thrown it up like that. Now, I’m going to have to take it off.”

“Take it off?!” Vincent strained to turn his eyes to his bared arm as he wrenched his left wrist against the restraint. Although his view proved limited, he couldn’t see or feel anything that would warrant what Hojo planned.” You’re crazy!” He bit out. “There’s nothing wrong with my arm!” Vincent decided that Hojo was just trying to mess with his head, send him into a panic. It wouldn’t work.

The professor removed his hand and stepped around into the light to stand beside the examination table. He shot a glance into the shadows above Vincent’s head. “Hold him, my dear.” Vincent started as two warm hands slipped gently over his cheeks. His breath caught in his throat at the touch, and he tilted his head to look behind.

Lucrecia…

At his movement, the fingers abruptly tightened painfully against his cheekbones and shoved his head back down. He attempted to jerk free, but his unseen captor retaliated by digging sharp thumbnails into his brow, effectively locking his head in a cruel vise.

No…not Lucrecia. She was…gone…dead. Just more of Hojo’s sick mind games.

“Crazy bastard...” Vincent breathed.

Hojo sighed deeply and turned sympathetic eyes to meet the Turk’s defiant glare. “Now Mr. Valentine, you are hardly an expert in the diagnosis of abnormal psychological conditions, but you surely know that ‘crazy’ is a subjective term. I, for one, do not consider myself crazy, and as my opinion is the only one that matters here, I contend that I am indeed not crazy. It is also the consensus of everyone here, which would be me, and of course, my lovely assistant, that your arm must come off.”

‘No!” Vincent cried out impetuously, and then caught himself. He had to make Hojo see reason. He drew in a long breath and forced himself to speak calmly “You can’t do this. You know that don’t you?” Vincent waited for Hojo to answer, but the scientist merely shrugged. Tension coiled tightly in the Turk’s chest as he listened to the rhythmic tapping of Hojo’s shoe. “You must know you can’t justify it.” Vincent continued in the same vein. “You will have to answer to Jonas. He will demand an explanation…”

Hojo leaned over Vincent and gazed unblinking into his ashen face. Vincent fell silent at the predatory glint in the professor’s hooded eyes, the same look in the eyes of a poisonous coach whip when it was about to strike and sink its fangs deep. He swallowed hard and tried again.

“Hojo…are you listening…?”

The corner of the professor’s mouth lifted in a complacent smirk. Vincent saw it even as he spoke. In his mind, he knew Hojo’s expression didn’t bode well for him, but when the scientist moved, he had no time to react, and even if he’d had time, he had nowhere to go. In the blink of an eye, Hojo crammed a wadded rag down into Vincent’s open mouth. The Turk tried to twist his head away, but the professor jammed it in further with nimble fingers, then straightened away from the table. He clasped his hands loosely behind his back and watched with mild interest as Vincent gagged and choked on the oily cloth.

After a few seconds, he shook his head disdainfully. “As much as I’ve enjoyed our conversation, I’ve grown tired of your querulous voice. My dinner is getting cold, so let’s get on with it.”

Hojo turned to lift the rotary bone saw from the table behind him. With a small smile, he flipped it on. Holding the instrument up in front of his face, he raptly watched the blade whirl, the brilliant light glinting off the finely serrated edge as it spun. His smile stretched as he watched the Turk’s dark eyes widen in alarm.

Already, tears ran down Vincent’s face as he coughed and sputtered, struggling to draw a whole breath around the balled up rag that choked him. His throat jerked spasmodically as he desperately worked to dislodge the obstruction. Despite the agonizing flood of light that knifed squarely into his dilated eyes, darkness rapidly encroached at the edges of his vision even as his horrified gaze locked in on the whirring blade.

“You know, I’ve heard that fat old President proudly boast, ad nauseam, that his legendary Turks are impervious to pain.” Hojo casually remarked. His lips twisted in a bitter smile. “I’ve always wanted to test that hypothesis for myself.”

Vincent could scarcely think, much less hear Hojo’s quiet voice through the sound of the blood rushing in his ears and the buzz of the blade, amplified tenfold in his terror-stricken mind, but the professor’s words seeped into Vincent’s floundering brain anyway, and he comprehended his meaning quite clearly. Instinctively, he lunged mightily against his restraints even as he watched the blade slowly fall, his eyes frozen wide in shock, incoherent animal cries tearing the inside of his throat as his frantic words of denial futilely sought release.

Then the spinning blade touched his bare skin, and any semblance of rationality vanished into smoke as his mind instantaneously crystallized in that millisecond. In the next, the blade bit in, and all coherent thought exploded in a spray of billions of razor-edged shards as the tortured sound of his own agonized scream ripped his mind in two.

Vincent’s eyes snapped wide as he convulsively gasped, the cool air burning all the way down his raw throat to the bottom of his starved lungs. Instinctively, he clutched his gloved hand tightly against his chest in response to the brutal slam of his heart against his sternum. For long moments, he stared mindlessly into the crackling flames as the echo of his own scream reverberated faintly in his mind, fading away to hollow silence while he dragged in one ragged breath after another.

Abruptly, he rolled onto his back and wearily closed his eyes. Hesitantly, he lifted his hand to brush the clinging sand from his cheek, then trailed trembling fingers across his sweat-soaked brow to push the tangled hair out of his face. Then he let his hand fall to rest limply on his chest and opened his eyes again. He idly watched the fire shadows dance across the fissured vault of stone that curved above him as he drew in several long breaths and pensively waited for his pulse to return to normal.

This particular nightmare, as well as all its subtle variations on the theme, although quite familiar, as were all his recurrent nightmares, never failed to unnerve him. He couldn’t comprehend why he didn’t become inured to his dark dreams since he rarely managed to sleep for any length of time without having one. Still, he’d not had this one in awhile, and this new trend of casting Lucrecia in a less than favorable light unsettled him, and that had started after finding her alive in the Waterfall Cave. Also, the nightmare had definitely manifested itself in a more vivid and organized form than usual. A violent shudder worked through his body as his wayward brain suddenly regurgitated the vision of Hojo and his buzzing saw.

Annoyed at his emotional susceptibility to the twisted netherworld of his mind, as well as the fact that he’d carelessly allowed himself to fall asleep in the first place, he forcefully shoved himself to a sitting position before the fire. He shot a glance around the shadowy recesses of the small cave. Nothing had changed in the compact space since his cursory search of the meager contents earlier, a search that had ended when he’d discovered the tin box of matches on top of one of the crates that lined the walls. Wood and kindling had already been laid in the stone-lined fire pit, and his most pressing concern at the time had been to create some warmth inside the chilly cave.

Next, he’d planned to search the crates more thoroughly for anything he could use to treat Tifa Lockheart’s injuries, her wounded and probably infected hand in particular, but he’d made the mistake of dropping down into the sand to watch the fire after he’d set the wood ablaze. He wanted to make sure the fire stayed lit, and had used the time to take a few moments to rest. Then extreme exhaustion had taken him down unawares, probably the same culprit that drove his dreaming mind to achieve such amazing new heights of self-torment.

He brought his appraising gaze around to rest momentarily on the huddled form beside him, still in the same position that he’d left her in when he’d laid her down on the sandy floor of the cave, his heavy cloak still twisted around her body, her cheek turned into the sand with her matted bangs falling darkly across her nose and lips. She hadn’t moved an inch since he’d left her there, so still and pale that he might have thought her dead if not for the rise and fall of her shallow respirations.

Drawing his legs up, he crossed his arms over his knees and turned his eyes away from her face to stare into the pattering downpour beyond the shadow shrouded entrance. The feeble daylight, filtered through the dense cloud cover and the heavy curtain of rain, scarcely reached the dim interior of the cave to challenge the flickering, golden glow of the snapping fire. Still, he could see that the outside light hadn’t waned much. That and the fact that the fire hadn’t burned far down both indicated that he hadn’t been out of it too long.

He turned his intent gaze back to Tifa’s face, and leaned over to lay his fingertips against her smooth brow. The fever still burned hotly beneath her skin. Shaking his head, he trailed one finger across her temple and cheek to sweep the snarled clumps of dark brown hair from her face. She didn’t even stir.

With a weary sigh, he slowly climbed to his feet. He knew he would have to do something about her, but he was at a loss. Certainly, he was no doctor, but he did know this and that about injuries. After all, he’d been a Turk for nearly ten years, trained for just about any eventuality. In that time, he’d been forced to take care of a bullet or knife wound out in the field more than once. However, he had nothing to work with here. The Sleeping Man had apparently left the cave with everything of monetary or intrinsic value, if he’d possessed anything useful to begin with. Vincent couldn’t recall there being much here when they’d stumbled across this place during their travels, or on their subsequent visit. Still, even a man who sleeps his life away must have access to food and water. Well…any normal man.

Vincent started toward the closest crate, the one he’d found the matches on, in fact. He bent at the hip and slid the sharp tips of his metal digits under the edge of the lid. It pulled away easily, and he tossed it away. He straightened to peer inside, and then gave the wooden box a kick with the metal toe of his boot. The empty crate tumbled onto its side. Vincent spun on his heel and headed for the next one. He fully expected to find that one empty as well.

Quite frankly, Vincent had always been suspicious of the Sleeping Man, for several reasons. One, the man was dressed as a typical miner, yet the closest mines were located at the southern end of the Mythril Range, hundreds of miles away. True, the Mythril Mines were now closed, and perhaps the man had nowhere else to go. Perhaps the man was an antisocial hermit who didn’t want anything to do with other people; maybe he’d lost his place in the world and didn’t know where to go. That Vincent could understand. However, the fact that the Sleeping Man had always been right there in that cave, always asleep, no matter when they came by, and the fact that the Sleeping Man knew information that he shouldn’t have known, were factors that Vincent Valentine found too convenient.

He discovered that the second crate had already been upended, and he put the sole of his boot against the top and tipped it over, finding nothing beneath but sand, just as he’d surmised. He stepped around that one to reach the one behind it.

Someone had once suggested that the Sleeping Man was some sort of psychic, a clairvoyant, or something like that. There had been a time when Vincent would have dismissed such nonsense out of hand, but he’d seen too much since then, experienced too much himself, to repudiate the notion. The Jenova Project and the consequences thereof had turned all his preconceived perceptions inside out. Still, he knew that when you got right down to it, things were usually much simpler than first thought. In fact, due to his heightened senses and his ingrained powers of observation, some might think him to be psychic, however untrue, and he did not believe for a second that the Sleeping Man possessed supernatural faculties. Truthfully, all his instincts told him that the Cave of the Sleeping Man was a front for something, but he couldn’t imagine what it would be out here in the middle of nowhere.

Vincent prised the lid off the third box and stared inside. He narrowed his eyes on the contents within. Rocks? A box of rocks? Was this a joke? If so, he was not amused. He shoved the crate over with hand and claw and dumped the rocks into the sand. Setting the crate aside, he moved the stones around with the toe of his boot, and then he bent to lift one into his hand. He studied the rock closely as he turned it in his fingers. Suddenly, he slammed it into the pile at his feet, and watched it break in two. The rock was definitely just that, and an ordinary one as well, a run of the mill sedimentary rock.

Irritated, he whirled away and stalked over to the last crate, the one that stood against the wall near the foot of the Sleeping Man’s cot. The shadows were deeper here, a bulge in the craggy rock wall casting the niche into semi-darkness. Of course, Vincent’s eyes adjusted almost instantly to the change in light. He knelt on one knee and set the metal tips of his claw against the lip of the wooden lid. He noticed this one was nailed down, and he worked the sharp digits into the crevice between box and lid. He had just managed to lever it up enough to slide all four metal talons into the tight space when he noticed a string stretched tautly from the box to the floor, where it disappeared into the sand. He carefully drew his claw and gloved hand away from the box and leaned across to peer into the gloomy void behind. He immediately spotted the nail that had been driven sideways into the edge of the lid. The string had been knotted around that nail, and then strung down through a row of horseshoe nails that had been embedded in the side, the whole setup hidden at the back of the crate.

Vincent stood and rounded the cot. Placing hand and claw flat to the stone he leaned over the cot and studied the sandy ground at the base of the wall. Slowly, he moved sideways until he found what he was looking for, the reemergence of the string. He straightened away from the wall and bent to drag the rickety cot out of his way. Now, he could clearly see where a hole had been chiseled in the stone. The string ran up through a narrow tube that had been attached to the rock with rivets, reappearing for a couple of inches before it ran out of sight into the fissure. He dropped on all fours and stared into the dark opening.

Oh, he knew what he would find, and he wasn’t disappointed. Lift the lid high enough and the string would tighten and activate a simple trip device that would complete the circuit and ignite the small amount of explosive inside, a rudimentary setup, but effective, certainly proficient enough to take out anyone inside the cave, cowardly as well, and clumsily obvious to boot, fortunately.

With a snort of disgust, Vincent jerked his knife from his boot and flipped out the blade. He carefully placed the tip of a talon against the top of the string and sliced it through with a flick of his wrist. He then returned the blade to the handle and shoved it back into his boot. Standing, he yanked the string up from the sand as he returned to the box, rolling it up as he went. He decided to leave the device inside the wall. He had rendered the thing harmless for now, and he would completely disable it when he was alone. That way, if he slipped, he would be the only one to die. No great loss. Of course, he wouldn’t slip. That type of device was simple to dismantle. For now, he wanted to find out just what that crate contained that it would compel someone to set such a deadly trap. With a hard yank, he broke the string away from the nail and finished rolling it into a loose ball. Then he stuffed it into his pants pocket. He’d found a length of string to be a valuable resource on more than one occasion. He knelt beside the box again and slid his metal fingers into the inch wide crack. He applied some leverage, and the lid tore free with a loud screech. He dropped the wooden cover behind the box and slowly sat back on his heels as he stared inside for several long moments in disbelief.

Obviously, the Sleeping Man was either a few bullets shy of a full clip or so morally bereft that he found it entertaining to blow people to bits. Vincent shot a quick glance around the small cave, then returned his attention to the contents inside the wooden box. He had hoped for something valuable as well as useful, some mastered curative materia or perhaps some mega elixir, even a case of potions. Something…anything that could help her. He’d expected the box to be full of gil or mythril, illegal contraband, or most likely, air. He certainly hadn’t expected the contents to be so mundane. Still, he’d already found something serviceable.

Vincent reached inside and lifted the folded, moth-eaten gray blanket from the box with one hand. Underneath it was another, identical to the first. He gathered that one up, only to find another. Apparently, the Sleeping Man had rigged a box of blankets. Vincent collected the third one and noticed the black stamp at one corner. He didn’t have to look any closer to recognize the emblem of the Shinra Military. The Sleeping Man had apparently appropriated some military property, resourceful as well as crazy. From the tattered look of these blankets, he must have liberated them from a base trash dumpster, but at least they appeared to be clean.

With a shake of his head, he tossed all the blankets onto the cot behind him and returned his attention to crate. The last blanket had hidden a veritable cornucopia of odds and ends, most of it seemingly worthless at first glance. After a quick inventory of the visible items, he reached in and drew out a canteen. He held it in his claw and shook it, the metallic clink of the cap chain the only sound he could produce. Empty. He set the canteen at his feet.

Next, he carefully lifted out an object thickly bundled in some sort of satiny material. Deftly, he unwound the material to discover a half empty amber bottle with a crumbling foil label. He examined the brightly emblazoned red logo and grimaced. Gongaga Gold. An adequate concoction for those who lacked a discriminating palate and simply wished to get thoroughly tanked. Cheap and bitter and potent. Vincent lifted the bottle and read the label more carefully, particularly interested in the alcohol content. His mouth curved in a slight smile. Yes, this concoction was definitely potent.

He dropped the bottle beside the canteen and turned his attention to the length of embossed white satin that now tumbled across his knees. He took the cloth up in hand and claw. One dark eyebrow quirked as he worked the soft satin through his fingers, taking in the lines of the elegant, but stained dress, obviously a ball gown or a wedding dress. He traced the edges of a rose pattern with one sharp claw tip as he wondered why the Sleeping Man possessed such a gown and why he kept it in a wooden crate wrapped around a bottle of rotgut whiskey. An imagined treasure? The souvenir of a hard-won conquest? A bitter reminder? A poignant memory…

Unbidden, her image flowered full-blown into his mind as he unconsciously pulled the soft cloth through his fingers, and he let the memory come. His eyelids drooped as his thoughts flowed into the distant past, although not all that long ago for him.

He watched her walk toward him, her soft curves draped in a shimmering gown of emerald that highlighted her sparkling green eyes. The hem caressed her ankles as she glided across the marble floor. Her tawny tresses, freed from her customary ponytail, tumbled loosely over her shoulders and low-cut bodice, and her lips, an eminently kissable shade of pale pink, curved in a satisfied smile at the sight of his besotted gaze. She stopped before him and lifted delicate, pink-tipped fingers to smooth his immaculate lapel as she leaned against him, tipping her head back to peer up into his face. Her smile widened at his faltering attempt to maintain a stiff posture.

“Vincent? Will you dance with me now?” She invited, tilting her head as she waited for his answer.

“You know I can’t, Lucrecia.” He responded lowly. “I’m working...”

“Come on…” She slid her hands down his arms to tug him away from the wall. “What trouble can the President get into at his own wedding reception? Besides, he’s so enamored with his new bride, he won’t even notice you’re gone.”

“That may well be.” He replied, his hooded eyes tracing the gentle lines of her face. “However, Jonas will undoubtedly notice.”

Vincent brought his hands to her waist to set her away, and fought back a smile at the pretty pout on her lips.

“I saw that.” She said sternly. “Mr. Valentine almost, not quite, but nearly, just barely, did most assuredly, but imperceptibly crack a smile.” She playfully poked a finger into his chest before dissolving into giggles.

Vincent drew his hands from her waist and crossed his arms as he leaned back into the wall. “I do believe you’ve been sampling the liqueurs, Dr. Hodge.” He chided softly.

“Me?” She tilted her head and batted her sooty, mascara-tinted lashes. “Not I.”

Vincent shook his head in mock sadness, his brown eyes twinkling in amusement. “Prevarication is pointless.” He informed her as he forced his captive gaze away from her lovely face to scan the tightly packed ballroom. His eyes narrowed briefly while he watched the President dance with his stunningly beautiful bride, Dania, held tightly in his arms. Then he carefully inspected each person in the President’s immediate vicinity. “I have your number.”

“You just think you do, Mr. Valentine.” She spun away from him and turned her head to look over her shoulder at him as he brought his gaze back around to her dancing eyes, the green irises overflowing with barely suppressed laughter.

“Now I shall have to find someone to dance with until you are free.” She teased. “Whenever that will be…”

Vincent’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “When Lewis relieves me.” He answered shortly.

Lucrecia’s eyes flew wide. “You’re waiting on Lew?!” She exclaimed, dismayed. “I guess I better not hold my breath then.”

Vincent watched her silently as she stood on tiptoe and craned her long neck to search the crowd. His jaw clenched as he studied the sleek line of her slender throat, struck with a sudden and all-consuming need to sweep her into his arms where she belonged. He would sink his fingers into the lustrous hair that fell down her back and capture her willing lips in a bruising kiss. Forget about dancing.

“Oh! There’s Professor Hojo!” She flashed Vincent a brilliant smile as she sidled away. “I just have to ask him about something. I’ll be right back.”

She turned away at Vincent’s curt nod of acknowledgement, completely oblivious to the chilly glint in his dark eyes as he focused his attention on the arrogant professor, dapper in his black tuxedo, an adoring female attached to each arm.

Vincent was entirely convinced that the man had concocted some sort of formula in that secret lab of his, a chemical intoxicant that would draw women to him like flies, because he sure didn’t see the attraction. Although, he certainly didn’t care. As far as he was concerned, the laboratory Lothario could have all the women on the planet he wanted. Except for one.

Still, it was a puzzle. Shinra had money and power, and he could possess a harem of women like Dania despite his craggy face and lumpish body, if the law allowed. Hojo, too, had missed the boat in the looks department. He was short and slightly built, with a tendency to slump, and his face, at best, could be described as plain. His glasses were always sitting on the end of his nose, his beady eyes peering over the top, apparently his way of displaying his self-proclaimed intellectual superiority. He didn’t have money. Shinra didn’t pay him much, and as one of Professor Gast’s assistants, he didn’t wield a great deal of power, except maybe over his physiology students. Yes, it had to be a chemical attraction, cooked up in a test tube, with the ear of a Snow and the horn of an Ark Dragon. Dr. Hojo should market the potion. He’d become a wealthy man.

Vincent’s eyes glittered in amusement, and he smiled when Lucrecia suddenly reappeared. Standing on tiptoe, she raised her lips to bestow a lingering kiss on his cheek, then turned to go. Vincent caught her wrist lightly in his fingers and drew her back around.

“So what’s this guy have that I don’t?”

Lucrecia recognized the humor in his tone despite his narrowed brown eyes and tight-lipped frown, and she laughed at his pretense.

“Not a thing, handsome.” She replied with a smirk. “Except the answer to my question about a procedural phase of one of our ongoing studies.”

“Which is?” Vincent lifted his hand to his chin and pasted a studious look on his face, as though ready to delve into his capable brain for the expected answer.

“Well…the study involves the inhibition of eukaryotic DNA replication by…”

“Enough.” Vincent held up his hand, and she fell silent. Then he waved her off with a flip of his hand. “Go on. I’ll be right here.”

“And I’ll be right back.” She blew him a kiss and danced away to disappear into the crowd.

Vincent’s head fell, his thick hair sliding unnoticed into his face as bitter sadness squeezed his heart in relentless fingers. The beast of desolation that lurked deep within stirred, threatening to feed on his spirit anew if wholly awakened. Blindly, he stared at the amber-stained cloth as he folded the gown in his lap. He dropped the curtain on the bittersweet memories of his past even as he cursed the creator that had plagued him with the facility for perfect recall. He should have known better than to go there.

That night had been almost two years ago. No. He absently shook his head. Over three decades ago. In Midgar, when he’d been sure of his place in the world. Maybe not happy about his life, but content, until the tightly woven tapestry of his existence started to swiftly unravel, and he’d fought to retain his sanity. Then came Nibelheim and the Jenova Project…all the soul searching…and losing Lucrecia to that mad scientist…and that heartache…and watching and waiting…waiting…until it was all too late, and Hojo had won by default.

And what was left here? Everyone he had ever cared about gone. Dead. His soul stained black with their pain. Himself…a cobbled together monster hiding cowardly in a human husk, a misbegotten creature not fit to live, yet too stubborn to die.

A soft groan touched his ears and abruptly intruded into his mental self-castigation. He jerked his head around to stare at Tifa Lockheart, again annoyed that he’d completely forgotten about her, however briefly, to revel in the sludge of his own piteous thoughts.

He could see that she’d drawn herself into a tighter ball, curling her body around her injured hand, but her eyes remained lightly closed.

“Tifa?” He queried softly. She didn’t respond.

He shoved himself to his feet and turned back to the wooden box, now empty but for another batch of striated rocks, some personal toiletries, and what looked like the scattered guts of an old pocket watch. He noticed the corner of a piece of yellowed paper poking from beneath the scattered stones, and he bent to retrieve it. Slowly, he drew the crumpled paper into his hand, careful not to rip it, and dropped the folded dress back into the crate as he straightened. The garment was of no use to him. Dismissing the remaining contents of the crate, he folded the paper twice and tucked it away in his shirt pocket. Then he bent to grab the edge of the cot with his claw. He would investigate the contents of the paper later. Tifa needed attention, and he’d made her wait too long already.

Impatiently, he dragged the homemade cot across the sandy floor and positioned it crossways next to the fire. He schooled his restless mind to the task at hand, shutting out all else but the actual execution of his movements. With a curl of his lip, he swept his gloved hand across the bare canvas to brush away the sand and dust, as well as one dead beetle, its spindly legs folded tightly against its thorax. Then, he knelt to examine the rope lashings where they’d been knotted to the rough board legs. He didn’t want the thing to collapse beneath her.

With that image in mind, he rose and gave the flimsy piece of furniture a good shake. Just as he’d noticed earlier, the cot seemed quite wobbly. On a whim, he threw the full weight of his body into the canvas sling. The cot creaked loudly beneath him, but held. Satisfied, he rolled to his feet with a blanket in each hand and tossed them onto the nearest crate, then reached for the last one. Shaking it out, he inspected it closely before he folded it in half and spread it across the cot. His entire attention focused on the rough material beneath his fingers, he scrupulously smoothed away the wrinkles.

His preparations complete, Vincent fell to his knees into the sand beside Tifa’s crumpled body and gently eased her onto her back. A tiny frown crossed her serene face at the intrusion, and her mouth moved slightly, a whisper of incoherent verbalization slipping from her lips before she fell still again.

Cautiously, so as not to disturb her, he leaned over her and slowly pulled the buckles of his cloak loose. Then he clasped her wrist lightly in his sharp metal digits and lifted her hand free as he drew the heavily sodden material away from her body. Heedful of her swollen fingers, he rested her bandaged hand atop her stomach and rose to one knee to slide his arm beneath her back. He lifted her to him and caught her legs up in his metal arm, closing the sharp talons into a tight fist to keep from gashing her skin.

Her eyelids fluttered as he rose to his feet, and he paused to study her face for a long moment, torn between a fervent desire to see her awaken, a potential sign of improvement, and the desperate need to have her remain unconscious, at least until he finished cleaning and dressing her wound. He didn’t want her to suffer. In all honesty, he didn’t want to watch her suffer, knowing he was the cause of her pain.

Tifa showed no further sign of waking, no movement at all, other than the convulsive shivers that coursed through her body as he held her in his arms. Very slowly, he turned and gently settled her down into the sagging cot. With great care, he drew his arms from beneath her and moved to the foot of the cot where he’d left the blankets on the crate. She stirred, and he paused with his hand on the folded blankets. He lifted his eyes to look at her, and for the first time since they’d ended up on the mountain, he reluctantly took in every detail of her still form. He swallowed hard at the pitiful picture she made in the dancing firelight.

Lacerations covered nearly every exposed inch of her skin, most of them superficial glass cuts. Dried blood from the thinly sealed gash below her left knee stained the front of her leg all the way to her sock. Both knees were skinned raw, probably from when she’d fallen in the rocks, and a purple tinge stained her right cheek, the bruise stark against her ashen face. Her sodden shirt had pulled away from her skirt, and he could clearly see the edge of a dark bruise along her side as well as the four angry claw marks across her stomach. The fingers of her left hand were laced with tiny cuts, and the normally slender fingers of her right hand were swollen into fat sausages. Her hair fell around her body in snarled clumps, so hopelessly tangled that it would take a monumental effort to comb out the long tresses, and her clothes were soaked and filthy. He’d noticed when he was carrying her that her clothing, protected from the heat of the fire by the heavy cloak, was still quite wet, unlike his own clothes that had dried to him while he’d slept near the blaze. If he hadn’t been so tired, he would have thought to remove the cloak in the beginning.

With a mental scoff of disdain at his own ineptitude, he tore his eyes away and bent to remove her muddy boots. He set them beneath the cot and peeled away her soggy socks. A feeling of complete inadequacy threatened to overwhelm him as he worked, and he pondered the dire situation that Tifa Lockheart now faced, having no one but him to take care of her. He knew, without a doubt, he would be the last person on the planet she would choose to be stuck with; that he disturbed her, even frightened her. Vincent retrieved the other two blankets from atop the crate, and shaking them out one at a time, he threw them over her. Why wouldn’t he frighten her? He was a wretched freak of a man. A detestable monster. An abomination. With a heavy heart, Vincent leaned to tuck the edges of the blankets beneath her feet and legs, and then he straightened to survey his handiwork. He shrugged. There was no choice. He was all she had, and he would take care of her.

Resigned to the fact that he’d made her as comfortable as possible, under the circumstances, he walked across the cave to collect the canteen and the bottle of Gongaga Gold, and as an afterthought, he also recovered the folded gown from the box. His meager items clutched in hand and claw, he returned to her side and deposited them on the nearby crate. Then, he carried another of the capsized crates over and upended it, dropping down to sit on her right.

Without hesitation, he drew her injured hand across his knee and worked the tightly knotted ends of the wet bandana free with the tip of one talon. Once he had the knot untied, he took a deep breath and gingerly set to work, cautiously unwinding the long piece of cloth until he held her grossly inflamed hand in his own. His stomach churning, he peeled the linen patches away from her festering wound and stared in horrified awe.

“Sweet Shiva…” He muttered under his breath, shocked at how far the infection had spread in such a short time. He wondered if some virulent agent thrown into the maelstrom from the explosion over Midgar had contaminated the glass shard. His heart sank in his chest as he reviewed his options. It didn’t take him long. The list was short.

Vincent gently placed her hand atop the blanket and slipped his knife from his boot. He added it to the items he’d left on the crate and gathered the strap of the steel canteen into his suddenly clumsy metal digits. He’d not found any source of water inside the small cave, and the closest bend of the river still lay several miles to the east. He would have to collect some rainwater and boil it over the fire to destroy any microorganisms. Vincent couldn’t remember a time he’d set himself a task for which he felt so unprepared.

A whisper of movement, sensed more than heard, brought his head around. He found her wide eyes pinned on his face, the brown depths of her unfocused pupils glazed in pain and confusion. Frozen in dismay and completely powerless to tear his gaze away from her feverish regard, he silently stared at her as he vehemently willed her eyelids to close. He couldn’t do what he had to do if she remained awake.

“Oh…y…y…you...c…ame…b…b…back…” She whispered hoarsely, her violent shivers breaking her words apart, rendering her speech nearly incoherent. Vincent watched her warily, sitting as motionless as a granite statue beside her. He didn’t know whose face she saw in her mind as she spoke, but seeing the tender smile that touched her lips as she gazed into his crimson eyes, he knew quite well it wasn’t his.

“Y…y...you…w…won’t…g…g…go…a…a…way…a…a…g…gain…will…you…?” She stumbled through her words, determined to get them all out, and Vincent could see that it took everything she had to do it.

“No, I won’t go.” He responded woodenly, not willing to let her plea go unanswered.

She lifted her swollen fingers toward his face, and he instinctively shot out his hand to stop her, his own fingers closing too tightly around her wrist. She gasped at the white-hot flame that blazed a trail from her fingertips all the way to her shoulder. Instantly, he loosened his hold, ashamed that he’d hurt her when his only intent had been to save her pain. Very gently, he laid her ruined hand into the rumpled blanket as he pensively watched her struggle with the pain, her eyelids scrunched tightly closed, tears seeping through her eyelashes. Her lower lip trembled as she drew in a ragged breath. He pulled his hand away to grip the edge of the cot and shifted uncomfortably on the crate. He needed to go, but he couldn’t leave her like this. He dropped his eyes to study the metal-capped toe of one boot as he yielded to the knowledge that he’d have to outwait her.

P…pl…please...” She stuttered breathily, her syllables a bare wisp of sound slipping over her lips as she exhaled.

Vincent jerked his head up to find her tear-filled eyes homed in on his face again. Her mouth worked as she tried to speak, her lashes fluttering against her pallid cheeks as she fought to get a word out past her chattering teeth. All her efforts dissolved into a low moan.

Vincent leaned closer as she drew in another ragged breath and tried again.

“P…pro…mise…m…me…” She murmured breathlessly, her words inaudible to the human ear, but Vincent heard her quite clearly.

He unconsciously shook his head as he gazed wordlessly into her feverish eyes. For long moments, she held him in thrall, every muscle in his body locked in tension as he studied the wine-colored flecks in her liquid brown irises and wondered what to say. What promise did she want of him? No, not him. Whoever she was seeing in her delirious mind as she looked at him, unblinking. What promise? A promise to stay? Done. A promise to care for her? Given. A promise to answer some unspoken request that she harbored in her mind? How could he promise her? Who was he to promise her?

“P…p…le...ase…p…p…pro…m…missss…” Her breathy whisper trailed into silence, though her wide eyes held him captive still.

He couldn’t know what promise she asked of him, but he did know what promise he was willing to make, a promise he spoke in his mind. He drew in a shaky breath.

“I promise.”

A tremulous smile touched her lips, and her eyes swam out of focus, slipping away to finally release his anxious mind from their captivity. He watched closely as her eyelids drooped closed, and she let out a long sigh. Suddenly, her cheek fell limply against the blanket beneath her head, and she lay still.

Alarmed, Vincent impulsively tore his hand away from the tight grip he had on the edge of the cot to press his fingers into her throat, his own pulse leaping into high gear as he anxiously searched for hers and didn’t find it. He repositioned his fingers slightly as the murmuring accusatory voices crept stealthily into his mind, seeking to impale his spirit upon the bloodstained sword of self-recrimination. With a sharp jerk of his chin, he exiled them into the shadows, and slipped his fingers further along her neck as he brought his eyes around in search of any sign of respiration.

At the same time that he spied the slight movement of her shallow breathing, he felt her pulse flutter against his fingertips. Several emotions fought for primacy at that moment; gratitude to the powers that be for not dropping on him yet another burden, a bright spark of elation that she still lived, self-deprecation that he’d foolishly allowed himself to lose his equilibrium, if even for a moment, but above all, utter relief that his promise was yet unbroken.

He slumped weakly back onto the crate and stared at her peaceful face for several long moments as he slowly reclaimed his scattered senses. Then he swept his tangled hair from his face and stood, the canteen strap still wound through his claw. Spinning on heel, he headed for the arched opening in the cave wall, the empty canteen bumping against his leg. He would not waste a minute more. She had fallen into unconsciousness once more, and he wanted to get this thing finished before she awakened again.

Lifting his face into the cool rain, he stopped just beyond the portal and raised the open canteen into the runoff from the craggy wall above the entrance. Closing his eyes, he chased the unwanted emotions from his mind, banishing them down into the darkness as he drew a mantle of steely calmness about him, oblivious to the rain that runneled down his face. He stood in the downpour in perfect stillness until the canteen overflowed and welled out over his hand. He opened his eyes to recap the canteen with a couple of deft twists of his fingers, and then he reluctantly turned from the rain.

He paused in the threshold to watch the fire shadows dance capriciously around the walls and across the curved ceiling, the spawn of the guttering fire, nearly burned away in the time he’d spent with her. The spectral, twisted shades gleefully cavorted about the cave like celebrants at some dark ritual. Tifa Lockheart slept on the rickety cot in the center of it all, as though a sacrifice offered up in propitiation on the bloodstained altar of a greedy and malevolent deity.

He’d made her a promise. He didn’t know what the promise meant to her when she’d asked, even if she were to remember later, but he knew what promise he’d made in his own mind. In his own heart. He’d promised her that he wouldn’t let her die; a foolishly arrogant promise perhaps, but a promise that he meant to keep.

Still, he knew that with that promise, he’d set himself a path across fragile ice, and he knew quite well they could both end up in the frigid depths, one in death, the other in despair, but for him there was no other path to choose.

She was a creature of sunlight and blue sky, wind stirred flowers and sweet summer breezes, everything that was bright and good in the world, everything that he was not. Despite all that she’d endured in her life, she always managed to skip free of the shadows, and he’d be damned if he’d let the darkness take her now.

Firm in his resolve, he slipped silently through the shadows and joined the dance.




Nessa pressed her fingers against the edges of the tape to flatten it down, and then gave him a reprimanding tap of her finger on the end of his bandaged nose.

“OW!” He swatted her hand away and protectively covered his nose with the palm of his hand.

“Well, it could have been worse.” She pointed out as she gathered the scissors, gauze and tape into her hands and turned to dump them into the open drawer.

With a switch of her hip, she slammed the drawer shut and picked up a sheet of paper from the kitchen counter. She ran her eyes over the words she’d written there.

“You shouldn’t have been trying to catch that bird, and you know it.” She added as she dropped the list back onto the counter and spun to face him. “You’re lucky that bird didn’t dig out your eyes with his vengeful talons.”

“I could do without that visual, thank you.” Myron huffed, a shudder running down his spine at the thought.

“Well, think about it next time, before you decide to do something so crazy again.” She admonished. She leaned in and snatched his spectacles from his shirt pocket. She raised the twisted wire frames to eyelevel. He guiltily shifted his eyes away to peer with great interest through the kitchen window.

“No wonder my hair’s going gray…” She muttered as she worked the pliable metal in her fingers, hoping to return the glasses to some semblance of their former shape. She pursed her lips as she concentrated.

“Well, I just thought it would make a good meal. I don’t think the grocery store will be open for business tomorrow.” Myron reminded her.

“You know what they say about good intentions…” Nessa absently replied.

“Yeah…well…if I’d known that girl could hit so hard, I wouldn’t have bothered the blessed bird.” He grumped. “We should sign her up on the boxing circuit. She can earn her keep.”

Nessa suddenly reached over and gripped Myron’s chin in tight fingers, turning his head to face her. “She didn’t mean to hit you.” She informed him. She slipped the glasses onto his face, and Myron flinched when one of the arms caught in the shell of his ear. “It was an accident.” She lifted the arm of the glasses behind his ear and stood back to study the effect.

“Like hell it was an accident!” Myron’s brows drew together in a tight frown. “I told you that girl is dangerous.”

He jumped when Nessa abruptly jerked the glasses off his face. “You’ll live.” She said indifferently as she worked the arm back into line with the frame. She turned the glasses in her hands, and satisfied with her repairs, raised them toward his face, but he seized them from her hands. “I can do that.” He growled as he pushed the glasses up his nose. She shrugged and leaned against the counter to assess the fit.

The latch of the kitchen door clicked, and both pairs of eyes swung to stare intently at the slender young woman as she froze in the doorway beneath the weight of their regard. Her green eyes swam with unshed tears, her whole face a portrait of abject misery.

“Come in, child.” Nessa invited. “There’s no reason to be shy.”

Myron wisely kept his thoughts to himself, turning his gaze to the hardwood floor instead. With a huff, he folded his arms across his chest and slumped on the tall stool.

Maya crossed the large kitchen and stopped beside his elbow. “I’m really sorry about hitting you.” She bent and peered into his downturned face. “I’m sorry about your nose.” She glanced at the almost straight spectacles. “…And your glasses.”

Myron stared stonily at the floor and ignored her.

“Myron…” Nessa prompted.

He shrugged and lifted his eyes to the girl’s pained expression. One look into her sad eyes, and all his anger ebbed away.

“It’s okay.” He said gruffly. “I’ll live.”

A bright smile lit up her whole face and chased the shadows from her green irises. Myron couldn’t help but smile in return.

“Oh no! Your hand!” Nessa exclaimed. She lifted the girl’s injured hand in hers and examined the broken skin over her knuckles. “Let me put some iodine on that.”

Nessa tugged Myron off the tall stool and turned to swipe the paper off the counter as she held his sleeve captive in her fingers. She whirled back and thrust it into his hands. Startled, he shoved his glasses up his nose and glanced over it.

“That’s my list.” She informed him, urging Maya to a seat on the tall stool. “Get started.”

Myron rolled his eyes at her. “Any particular place? Or shall I start at the top?”

Nessa lifted Maya’s injured hand to rest on the counter, and she opened the drawer again to retrieve the iodine bottle and some paper-wrapped bandage strips. “I believe you should start in the pantry. I noticed some canned goods in there. See what we can use for dinner.”

“The pantry…” Myron repeated.

Nessa lifted the iodine bottle in her fingers and twisted the cap off.

“Yes, but watch out for the mice.” She flashed him a mischievous smile. “I hear they grow large around here.”

“Point taken.” He slid open the cutlery drawer and removed a butcher knife. “If I don’t come back…” Nessa laughed.

Myron trudged off across the kitchen, dragging his feet in mock resignation as he went.

Maya giggled as he gave them a hangdog face just before he closed the door. Then she turned back to find Nessa’s eyes on her face.

“He’s not mad at me is he?” She asked anxiously.

“Myron doesn’t stay mad about anything for long.” She reassured her. “He’s already over it.”

“I…I shouldn’t have hit him…but…I thought he would hurt the bird.” She bowed her head beneath Nessa’s steady gaze.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think the bird was ever in any danger.” Nessa tipped the iodine onto a cotton ball and lifted it to Maya’s knuckles.

With several quick swipes, she painted her fingers, surprised that the girl didn’t even flinch at the sharp sting. Silence fell between them as she gathered a handful of bandages.

Efficiently, she tore four of them open and lined them up on the counter.

“Why were you crying?” Maya suddenly asked. Startled, Nessa jerked her head up to find the girl’s questioning eyes on her face.

“When?” Nessa thought maybe Maya was talking about her nightmare, but she had thought her to be upstairs asleep then.

“Up in the mountains…where you found me…” Maya explained. “You sounded so sad it broke my heart.”

Nessa shook her head in denial as the memory closed her throat. Her mouth worked as she struggled to find the words to speak. “So you heard me?” She finally managed to ask.

Maya just nodded her head.

Nessa lifted the first of the bandage strips and wrapped it around the girl’s forefinger as her mind worked. That done, she picked up the next.

“You don’t have to tell me. It’s okay.” Maya spoke softly.

Nessa shook her head again. “No, it’s…alright. It’s just…” She noticed her fingers were trembling as she taped the ends down around the girl’s middle finger. Annoyed, she dropped her hands into her skirt pockets and lifted her shoulders.

“I just lost…someone…a long time ago.” She took a deep breath as Maya picked up the last two bandages. “I was trying to remember his face, and I couldn’t. The girl nodded wisely as she deftly applied the strips to her knuckles.

“I have experienced something like that.” She replied. “I see a face in my mind. A face that seems familiar, but I don't know who it is. But then, I don’t remember much of anything anyway.”

“I came here because of him. But it was a foolish thing to do.” She dropped her eyes to the floor. “There’s really nothing for me here. Just a place to d...” Nessa shot a look at the girl’s face. She’d almost told her why she’d come. Why? Fortunately, Maya didn’t seem interested in what she hadn’t said.

The girl smoothed the bandages around her fingers and a smile touched her lips as she lifted her eyes. “You came because you know that life moves in circles, ever spreading, always interlocking.” Nessa’s mouth fell open as she stared into the intense irises, seeing a wise old woman in the depths of the young woman’s eyes. “This place, Nibelheim, represents the closure of a circle for you.” Nessa couldn’t find her voice. The girl’s statement, not a question, spoken with authority, had rendered her speechless.

Maya slid off the stool.

“Thank you, Nessa, for fixing my hand.” She smiled brightly. “Oh, and thank you again for the loan of your dress. I’ll have to mend mine so you can have yours back.”

“No hurry…” Nessa answered absently, her mind engaged in rampant thought.

Maya nodded and started toward the door. “If it’s okay, I’d like to finish the flowers. Then I will help you with your chores.” She paused in the middle of the kitchen and turned back at Nessa’s silence. She lifted her eyebrows in question. Nessa simply nodded.

Maya gave her a little wave and continued on her way. Just as she reached the door, Nessa’s mind zeroed in on a rather pertinent question, and she found her voice.

“Maya, what is that bird?”

Maya stopped in her tracks and lifted her head. Suddenly, she glanced back over her shoulder at the older woman.

“A lost soul trapped between this world and the next, returned to the planet in this form to seek redemption. Until then, he cannot cross over.”

Maya grabbed the doorknob and turned it in her fingers.

“Is there a reason the bird is here?” Nessa asked softly, her wary eyes glued on the back of the girl’s head.

Maya sighed. “He is bound to me, his destiny to be my guide and my protector, his path no other than mine.”

“Until you die?” Nessa asked curiously, mentally comparing this new sage prophet demeanor to the lost child who didn’t know her own name.

Maya shook her head. “No, only until we redeem the planet.”

At that point, Nessa began to seriously entertain the idea that Myron was dead right about this girl. She sounded completely out of her head. Maybe that’s why she’d been lost in the desolate terrain of the Nibel Mountains. Yet, something about the girl’s words resonated in her soul. Nessa nervously drew her long braid over her shoulder and worked it through her fingers.

“Why is he bound to you? Do you know him? A loved one, perhaps?”

Maya shook her head again. “No, I don’t know him.”

Nessa almost asked one more thing, how the befuddled girl knew about the bird, but she thought she knew what the girl would say. She didn’t feel up to hearing the answer. She didn’t want to hear that the bird had told her all that, and out of any other questions, Nessa fell silent as she tried to spin whole cloth from Maya’s mysterious answers.

She paid no mind when the girl pulled the door open and stepped through, quietly closing it behind her. Nessa slumped weakly against the counter as the latch clicked shut. That whole discussion had been unnerving. How had the girl known why she’d come to Nibelheim? What else did she know?

Nessa’s eyes flew up when the door suddenly opened again. Maya poked her head through the door and gave her a bright smile.

“I just remembered. He killed me in another life.” With that said, she withdrew her head and closed the door. Turned to stone, Nessa nodded woodenly when the girl gave her a little wave through the window as she bounced past.

Nessa was by no means close-minded to the mystical world. In fact, Myron was convinced that she was somewhat connected to it. Sometimes, she did too. But in this case, she felt as though her world had tilted precipitously under her feet. Not because she thought the girl was crazy, but because she thought the girl was not. Nessa suddenly had no doubt that the young woman she’d named Maya was tuned to a wavelength she couldn’t see or feel or touch.

Nessa rubbed her arms as a chill touched her skin, setting the back of her neck tingling. Abruptly, she shoved away from the counter and marched across the kitchen, her full skirt swishing around her calves. The urgent need to plant her feet on solid ground drove her until she was almost running when she hit the pantry door.

Myron jumped out of his skin and dropped the can he was examining when she exploded through the door. Before he could catch his breath, much less open his mouth, she had flung herself against him and wrapped him in a tight embrace.

He laid his cheek against hers and opened his mouth to ask her what had her upset, but she vehemently shook her head.

“Ssssssssh.” She hissed. “Just be quiet and hold me.”

He raised an eyebrow as he drew her close in the circle of his arms.

“Hold me until I tell you to let me go.” She let her head fall to his shoulder and closed her eyes and waited for her world to right.

Somehow, she didn’t think it would ever be right again.




Vincent stumbled into the rain and collapsed onto his knees in the four-inch accumulation of water at the cave entrance. His head fell limply forward and the items he carried slipped unnoticed from his numb fingers to tumble into the puddle with a soft splash. Oblivious to the icy wetness that spread through the material of his trousers and the hard pellets of rain that fell relentlessly from the sky to patter against the back of his head, he sat on his heels with his hair hanging in his face. His hand and claw rested loosely against his knees, half in the water and half out.

For a long time, he sat there and blindly watched the rivulets of blood trail away from the tips of his fingers into the water to break apart beneath the force of the downpour. Her mindless scream still rang inside his head, ricocheting from corner to corner, endlessly. He found himself helpless to shut out the details of the last half-hour as they replayed in his unwilling mind.

Mechanically, he caught the tail end of his bandana as it drifted against his nerveless fingers, and he gathered it into his hand. He lifted the strip of cloth from the puddle and held it up to watch the red-tinged water dribble from the end, as though the red dye in the cloth had been leached away. But he knew better.

His still face twisted with anger and pain, and he choked back the scream of pure rage that almost erupted from his throat. Convulsively, he plunged his hand and claw into the cleansing puddle and feverishly scrubbed the blood from the articulated metal digits with the wadded bandana. Without a pause, he shifted the cloth into his metal talons and rubbed at the stains on his hand. As he worked, he focused his thoughts on the execution of his task, forcing his recalcitrant mind back to the present. His movements slowed as the anger and emotional torment, all self-inflicted, seeped back into the malodorous well from which it came, and he released his stale, pent-up breath in a heavy sigh.

Calmer now, he dropped the wadded bandana into the pink rainwater and reached for his open knife, dark against the light stone in the bottom of the puddle. The instrument of his torture. The blade had been washed clean by the gentle movement of the small pool, and the sharp edge gleamed in the diluted, cloud-choked light of late afternoon. Automatically, he squeezed the side of his finger against the switch and the blade clicked home. In a paroxysm of motion, Vincent jerked his head up and twisted his body sharply around to violently fling the offensive thing into the cave. The bone handle of the knife ricocheted off the back cave wall with a satisfying crack and embedded itself in the sand.

The corner of his mouth lifted in a wry smile as he turned back to retrieve the bandana. He swished the cloth back and forth through the puddle, and then wrapped it through his fingers and talons to forcibly wring the water from it. He wadded the wet bandana in his hand and stuffed it into his pocket as he rose to his feet and splashed through the puddle to walk clear of the retaining walls of the cave entrance.

He shoved the heavy clumps of hair out of his face and stared into the distance. What he could see if it anyway. The grasslands, the vibrant green of the grass muted to a dull gray, were visible for maybe a quarter of a mile before the fog of the constant torrent gobbled them up. He slowly rotated in place and raised his hand to shield his eyes as he peered up at the dark shoulder of the rain-shrouded mountain behind him. Then he brought his eyes down to stare intently in the direction of the river, though he knew that he wouldn’t be able to see it from this distance. He didn’t have to see it to know he couldn’t cross. The river would be swollen with water and debris, rushing madly to tumble over the series of high falls on its course, and eventually plunging into the Great Crater Lake southwest of Junon. The low water crossing above the Bottomless Falls would be long gone, submerged beneath many perilous feet of churning river.

Trapped between the raging river and the endless mountain range, he knew only one way to leave this valley right now, and his mind violently rebelled at the thought of relinquishing control to that loathsome beast. No, he would outwait the weather, bide his time until the river slowed in its course. Then he would go. Unless worse came to worse. Then he would rope his mind to the truth, and he would invoke Chaos, if he could. He just didn’t know. The creature rode the crest of his anger and his pain and his fear.

A low thrum slipped through Vincent’s mind and darted away, the alien sound effectively dragging his thoughts away from his demonic alter ego. He lifted his head and listened intently into the rain. Again, the sound came and faded, like a flickering lantern in a high wind. What was making that noise? He stretched his senses into the rain, turning slowly in place as he sought the origin of the sound. Abruptly, the thrum resolved into an oscillating throb, and he knew. A chopper. The realization brought him spinning around to stare up the mountain face. He raised his hand to his eyes again and searched intently for a sign of the helicopter even though he knew it was still far away, above the front range.

The sound faded away and didn’t return. Disappointed, Vincent dropped his hand and stood silently in the rain. What fool would be flying a chopper in this weather anyway? He wouldn’t be surprised if the machine didn’t wind up shattered against a high, rocky cliff.

The whole incident was just another piece of evidence to prove that the powers that be despised him, sought to remind him every single day that he was insignificant, that no matter how much he might believe that his blood and pain might effect a change, everything remained the same. He should be used to it by now. Just like he should be used to his hellish dreams. Just like he should be used to his anguish. He knew himself to be an intelligent man. He knew quite well that it wasn't reasonable to feel this way. Why then did this aching sense of guilt continually dog his heels, always demanding retribution, ever seeking surcease.

A bright flash of lightning erupted around him. On an impulse he threw his arms out and turned his face into the downpour as a low rumble of thunder rolled through the clouds overhead. He closed his eyes against the rain and turned all his senses to the sound of it in his ears, the sweet smell of it in his nostrils, and the caress of it against his skin. He slowly circled in place as he opened his hand and claw to catch the crystalline droplets, his spirit offered up in supplication.

“Just take me…” His lips moved imperceptibly as he pleaded under his breath. “I don’t want this life…take it…give it to her…give me peace…please take me…”

He fell silent and waited for his answer, though he knew it wouldn’t come. No one was listening. Not the Gods. Not Fate. Not the damn rain.

Vincent dropped his arms to his side and glared at the ground, blinking raindrops and tears from his dark lashes.

“Then as least let me matter…” He muttered to the toes of his sopping wet boots.

With a snort of disgust at his own foolishness, he turned on his heel and stalked through the downpour.

He halted just inside the arch and brought his unwilling gaze to rest on the cot. She lay motionless, her huddled form completely swathed in the heavy Shinra Army blankets. The back of her dark head was the only part of her he could see.

His steps heavy, he reluctantly moved across the sand and faltered to a stop beside her bed. He stared down into her peaceful face, her pale features shadowed only by a stray lock of her hair and the chocolate lashes that feathered her cheeks.

His breath caught in his throat, and he instinctively took a step back. His boot clattered against the discarded canteen, and he tore his eyes away from her to look down. He noticed the dried blood splatters in the sand at his feet. A spark of bright anger flared in his mind, and he viciously kicked sand over the dark beads, obliterating them from his sight and his thoughts. He bent down and jerked the canteen up by the canvas strap. Swinging the container in his fingers, he rounded the cot and dropped to one knee on the other side. He uncapped the canteen with a sharp twist of his fingers, and then, very carefully, he leaned in and slipped his hand beneath Tifa’s boneless neck. Lifting her head, he dribbled a tiny bit of water into her slack mouth. As he expected, she didn’t respond.

Still, he dribbled a bit more over her lips, and she convulsively swallowed, to his utter astonishment. He turned the canteen up and poured in a little more, and his heart lightened as he watched her throat work to down the liquid. He fed her a few more swallows before he gently eased her head down into the blanket. He shook his hand free of her hair and climbed to his feet to look down at her.

He harbored no illusions that she was on the mend, but he chose to see this as a good omen. She had a rough road ahead even if she did pull through. The damage to her hand might prevent her from ever having full use of it again, and he hadn’t helped matters. He realized that the infection of her hand alone hadn’t made her this ill. He didn’t know what organism or poison had entered her body through the open wound, but she was held hostage to its course, and so was he. There was no more he could do without medicines or materia but keep the injury clean. Still, he was gratified to see her resting quietly now, despite all he’d put her through, more than most people could bear. Yet, she slept. He wanted to believe that her strength and will could bring her through. He knew the power of a strong will could rival that of the most potent medicine, but he couldn’t let himself believe yet.

He just wouldn’t let himself care. Whenever he cared, he always lost. And the one he cared about always lost. He shook his head and slipped away from her side to turn his face to the fire.

He saw that the fire had died down to a few obstinate sparks, and he glanced around the cave for fuel. He didn’t know where the Sleeping Man had acquired his wood, but no more remained here. Setting his mind to the task of restoking the dying fire and closing his thoughts to all else, he moved away from the cot and retrieved the empty crate he’d kicked over against the wall. He closed his eyes and turned his head to slam it solidly against the rock face. It splintered apart in his hands with a sharp crack that reverberated around the close space as well as inside his head.

He gathered up all the pieces of the now defunct crate and dropped down in front of the fire pit. He tossed the smaller splinters into the ashes and stirred the fire with a broken slat. The flames surged into new life, and he drew his knee to his chest and fed it, one piece at a time. Soon, the fire burned to his satisfaction, and he shoved the remaining slats aside for later. Wearily, he dropped his arm to rest on his knee and watched the wood curl and blacken in the playful fingers of the blaze. His thoughts began to drift, and he snapped his head up at where they almost went. No. He wasn’t letting the darkness in. He didn’t want to sleep. He didn’t want to think. He needed something to occupy his idle mind.

He shot a glance around, briefly resting his gaze on Tifa’s serene face before he moved on. He could bust up the rest of the crates. That would expend a few minutes of his time. He rested his eyes on the crate that held his crumpled glove and shoulder holster, the Quicksilver still snapped in place. He'd also unbuckled his side holster, and after removing the Peacemaker and setting it aside, he'd dropped the tooled leather belt and holster on top of the wooden crate as well. Both weapons still needed to be cleaned and the revolver repaired if possible. Working on his guns always drew his thoughts safely away from the dark threshold in his mind.

He sprang to his feet and retrieved his cloak from the sandy floor where he’d left it. With a hard snap, he shook off the clinging particles of sand and shifted it to his claw so he could reach his hand into the capacious inside pocket to retrieve his gun kit. He draped the cloak over the end of the cot to dry and dragged another crate over beside the first. He set the metal box down beside the pistol and sat down. As he reached for the Peacemaker, his eyes fell on the folded sheet of paper he'd placed under the grip. He’d forgotten about that. Curious, he drew it from beneath the gun and carefully unfolded the crumbly paper.

With no preconceived expectations, he smoothed the paper out with his hand and studied the lines and squiggles that covered the whole sheet. With great interest, he turned the paper sideways once, then again. The compass legend in the corner told him that he now viewed the map correctly. He shoved his hair behind his ears and leaned forward on his elbows. He peered through his long bangs and tried to determine the location represented in the map.

Obviously, this was not a road map. The lines honeycombed in and out across the page. Like tunnels. The Mythril Mines then? He’d been inside the Mythril Mines though, and he didn’t see the tunnel configuration he remembered. Could be tunnels long closed. An X had been scrawled in at the top of the page and another at the bottom. The map depicted the layout of tunnels between point A and point B, but nothing on the map indicated where either of those sites might lie. Without a point of reference, the drawing meant nothing. The map was worthless. Actually, it looked like the kind of map a child would draw. A treasure map to engage his companions in pirate play or to foist off on an unsuspecting classmate for a few gil.

Losing interest in the amateurish map, he tossed it aside and reached for his gun. He would see what he could do with it and wait for the rain to slow. Eventually, he would have to take the Quicksilver and make an attempt to hunt down something edible. He could go without food for awhile, but Tifa would need something to eat to keep her strength up when she awakened. If she awakened… He shook his head at that thought. Don’t go there.

He focused his mind on the familiar lines of the Peacemaker and took the pistol into his fingers. He settled the weapon into his hand and slipped his finger inside the trigger guard. The Peacemaker certainly was not the most powerful gun in his collection, by any means, but it was extremely accurate and well balanced, a natural extension of his arm, and his favorite gun. He hoped that he could repair it.

He laid the pistol down in front of him and reached for the kit. Suddenly, the paper skittered off the crate, and a breath of warm air touched his face and stirred his hair. Startled, he shot a glance around the cave as he bent to retrieve the paper. He returned it to the crate and firmly planted his pistol in the center of the page despite the fact that the sudden breeze had already disappeared. Vincent knew it had to come from somewhere though. In fact, he could already feel a subtle change in the temperature. The air had definitely grown warmer despite the fact that the fire was already dying down again.

Vincent removed the Quicksilver from the holster on the crate and stood. He stepped past the fire and approached the cave wall. Spying the bone handle of his knife protruding from the sand, he bent to snag it into his talons as he passed. He slid it into his pocket and brought his eyes up again to scan the surface of the stone. The timber girded face of the wall was scored through with fissures and striations, a few indecipherable scrawls that once might have been words, and a row of pegs that had once held equipment or clothing, something of that sort. Nothing out of the ordinary that he could see. He shifted his pistol to his prosthetic hand and flattened his right hand against the rough surface of the wall. He sidled along the perimeter, dragging his palm across the stone with each slow step.

Halfway around, he encountered a pocket of warmer air, and he froze. Meticulously, he scrutinized the burred edges of the weathered timbers and the cracks in the stone, of which there were many, and his eyes finally locked in on a long, jagged crack in the rock, one that meandered diagonally from the floor, and then took a divergent path at eye-level to join a confluence of fissures a few feet over his head. He laid his ear against the crevice and sharply tapped the rock with his metal forefinger. The sound resonated hollowly into his ear. Still, he just wasn’t sure.

He leaned his shoulder into the wall and pushed, digging his boots into the sand as he put his weight into it. He didn’t detect any perceptible movement, but another slight breath of air stirred against his face. Convinced now, he tucked his gun into his pants and fell to his knees. Plunging his fingers into the sand, he dug along the base of the wall. He found it immediately, the edge buried only four inches down. Unlike the jagged fissure that ran up the wall, this crevice felt smooth and straight as he worked his fingers underneath.

After he’d traced the bottom edge of the door to each end, Vincent sat back and pondered the situation. Inadvertently, he’d discovered a well-concealed door that would not budge. All his suspicions come to fruition. He’d known. Not about the door. But about the Sleeping Man. If there was one constancy in his life, other than his inability to deal with his own emotions, it was his ability to accurately analyze situations. He should have expected something like this.

Who was this guy, and what was he up to? What was on the other side of that door? And where was the switch? Because he had no doubt there was one somewhere. What had caused the breeze? If one were to assume the door had already been stuck slightly out of its frame, he would have felt the warm air before. Perhaps he’d been too preoccupied. He shook his head. No. Maybe some machinery or system on the other side had kicked on and caused the current of air. He absently shook his head again. No. Something had changed. This was new. What had changed?

Vincent stood away from the wall as he reviewed his movements over the last hour, and his eyes widened slightly when he remembered the crate. He sprang across the space to the opposite wall and ran his fingers over the surface. This had to be it. He had triggered something, maybe at an oblique angle that didn’t apply enough pressure to completely open the door. Several minutes of meticulous examination turned up nothing out of the ordinary. Either the device was too well hidden for even his discerning eyesight or…there was something else. He let his eyes slide around the perimeter of the cave. He froze when his searching gaze encountered the entrance, all his attention brought to bear on the gloomy portal. A vision of himself exploded into his mind, and he cringed at the memory of those dark moments in the rain, at his pathetic display of uncontrolled emotion as he’d teetered on the edge of his personal well of insanity. No one had seen him, and he prayed no one ever would.

Vincent suddenly drew in a sharp breath. He’d thrown his knife. He whirled around to face the back of the cave. In three long steps, he stood in front of the rear wall, the one with the pegs and the scribbling. Now that he knew what he was looking for, he spied it right away. He had noticed the crooked peg before, but didn’t think anything of it then. He reached up and plucked the wooden peg from the wall. He pressed his fingers against the metal plate that filled the circular hole and smiled as the surface gave beneath the pressure. A loud clunk on the other side of the wall introduced a muted hydraulic hiss, and the door slowly fell in. When the button had fully seated in the tubular sleeve of the peg hole, he released it and pulled the gun from his waistband. Lifting his gun to hold it barrel up alongside his cheek, he crept silently toward the opening, all of his senses attuned to what might lie on the other side.

He paused just outside the portal and peered inside. The wall had opened only about two feet, and he could see nothing but a sliver of dimly lit concrete floor from that angle. For several minutes, he listened and waited. He sniffed the air, but he couldn’t sort out any overriding scent from inside, a mixture of odors assailing his nostrils. He could hear the muted hum of electronics or machines, but that was all. Nobody appeared. Nothing moved.

Making the decision to proceed with his investigation, he moved to Tifa’s side and looked down at her. She had hardly moved other than to curl her left hand under her chin.

“Tifa?” She didn’t respond.

He shifted his pistol to his metal hand again and leaned to touch his fingers to her forehead. Perhaps it might be wishful thinking on his part, but he thought she felt a bit cooler. He didn’t want to leave her, but he had to find out what lay beyond the door. There could be food or medical supplies. More wood and a source of water for sure. He would just have to make his incursion short and be very cautious in the process.

“I’ll be right back.” He assured her, even though he knew she didn’t hear. He drew his fingertips from her brow and straightened to his full height. He didn’t hesitate a second longer. He returned the Quicksilver to his right hand and moved to the door.

He paused briefly, only to listen for a few moments more. Impulsively, he shot a glance over his shoulder for a last look at Tifa Lockheart. Satisfied that she still slept peacefully, he lifted the gun and disappeared inside.

Several moments passed, the silence broken only by the crackle of the dying fire and the patter of the ceaseless rain outside. Then a metallic clank reverberated from wall to wall, rendering the hushed sounds insignificant. The hydraulic system reactivated, and the thick door swung in to the accompaniment of a loud hiss. Within five seconds, the wall section had fully reseated in its frame, any sign that an opening there had ever existed now completely gone.

Inside the shadowed cave, the soft sounds of the fire and rain held full sway once more, and the attendant fire shadows reigned, dancing tirelessly around the bed of Tifa Lockheart as she slept, unaware.




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