Futility

Vincent stepped silently across the concrete floor, the hard soles of his boots making no sound in the tomblike space around him. His senses stretched to the fullest, he held his gun ready despite the sepulchral silence all around him, the only sounds he could detect an unfocused, high range hum that might well be inaudible to the normal ear and a muted rush of water way off in the distance.

Still unable to make a definitive determination about the nature of the cavernous space around him, he tentatively moved further in. His eyes completely adapted to the low level of illumination, he hardly noticed as the dim glow from the outer cave that guided his path fell away behind him. He covered almost thirty paces before he paused restlessly in place and lifted his eyes upwards into darkness. He could feel the ponderous weight of the vast emptiness overheard, the fathomless reaches so impenetrable that even his unnaturally superior vision could not distinguish any form or substance.

Finally, he surrendered his futile inspection above, and turning slowly in place, he brought his speculative gaze around to examine the lofty structures that loomed alongside of him. Despite the fact that he’d taken note of their inanimate and unthreatening presence before he walked between them, he had yet to examine them closely enough to identify them. Now his keen crimson eyes took in every detail that he could discern in the diffuse light from the open doorway several yards behind him. The darkly silhouetted structures resolved into sturdy racks of shelves that towered upwards as far as he could see and stretched away into thick darkness on either side, every available foot laden with boxes and bundles. Currently, he stood in the wide walkway at the end of two such racks, and a quick glance ahead revealed the ends of several more rows, spaced evenly throughout and all seemingly identical.

He stepped closer to the shelf nearest him and studied the stamp on the side of a large crate at eyelevel. Immediately, he recognized the distinctive diamond-shaped stamp of Shinra, Inc. as well as the meaning of the abbreviation beneath it. ORD. Resettling his grip on his gun, he stood quietly and listened as he considered the ramifications of the presence of Shinra ordnance stored here inside this mountain, and more importantly, the current location of the Sleeping Man and what level of threat he could present to them.

A loud clank reverberated in the huge room, its source lost in the vast spaces above, but Vincent knew instantly what had made the sound. He whipped his head around, his crimson eyes flying wide in alarm. His mind wiped clean of any thought of potential danger, he exploded into motion, his boots pounding hollowly against the concrete as he ran for the closing door, any attempt at stealth completely forgotten, his only goal to be on the other side of the portal before the heavy metal and stone facade barrier closed.

Although he covered the floor with inhuman speed, the aperture was diminishing just as swiftly. The thick door had already started into the frame when he slammed to a stop, falling against the smooth metal as his boots skidded on the sandy floor. He wrapped his metal digits around the outer edge of the door and braced his feet. A frantic look revealed no handle of any sort on the featureless surface, and he let his gun slip from his fingers to clatter against the concrete, flinging his right hand up to grasp the door as he tried to dig in, pulling with all his might. Despite the exertion of every bit of strength he could muster, the stubborn slab of hydraulically powered steel moved unhindered into place, dragging him along as his soles slid against the pavement. He felt the pressure against the tips of his claw as the heavy metal closed down into the frame, and he yanked both hand and claw away just before the door seated firmly and conclusively into place with the muted clunk of a heavy latch.

At the unequivocal sound of his defeat, an unreasoning rage exploded full-blown in his mind, and he fell into the door, fingers and claws digging futilely against unyielding metal as he gave voice to raw emotion, the resonant cry a hybrid cross between an anguished expression of human pain and the enraged roar of a beast. All coherent thought slipped rapidly away beneath a descending shroud of blankness as Chaos surged forward to take control of his mind, his knowledge of himself slipping away beneath the invasion like water through his fingers.

“No!” Vincent’s head shot up at the sudden realization of how very close he was to losing control. Horror repelled the last vestiges of his rapidly dissipating anger, yet Chaos pressed forward. Every muscle in his body tensed as Vincent impulsively shoved hard against the door, his action a physical manifestation of the violent force of his mental thrust against the will of Chaos. Despite his concerted effort, he could sense the dark desire for mayhem seducing his thoughts, corroding his resolve. He could not concede. He would not allow Chaos free rein with Tifa Lockheart lying alone and helpless on the other side of the door. He started shaking his head even as he pressed harder, both against the door and within his own mind.

“I…will…not…let…you…take…me…”

The ragged words of denial tumbled unnoticed from his lips, all his concentration focused on the containment of Chaos. Cool beads of sweat popped out on his brow as he fought for total command of body and mind, the strength of his will the only weapon at his disposal as the insistent beast mirrored the force of his response.

“I…said…NO!” Vincent jerked his head forward, bumping his forehead painfully against the door as he gave a last decisive thrust of his dauntless will, and Chaos vanished, the beast finally set to rout, slithering once again into his unconscious or wherever the loathsome creature resided within him when dormant.

Weakly, Vincent slumped against the door, his arms and legs trembling in the aftermath of the sustained physical and mental exertion. Slowly, he turned around and put his back to the door, letting his boots slip from under him as he sank to the gritty floor. Placing his hand and claw flat against the cool concrete, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes, gathering his scrambled thoughts to himself as he sat quietly and let the strength ebb back into his body.

What was the matter with him? He knew better than to enter unknown territory without ensuring that his return route was secure, and he hadn’t bothered to look for a light source at the outset, depending on his own vision to find his way. Then he’d permitted himself to become so provoked over his failure that he’d nearly reached the point of transformation, another indication that his reason had fled. He knew perfectly well that there would be a light switch somewhere, and it only stood to reason that there would be a means of egress into the cave from this side as well. He merely had to locate the mechanism. Normally, he wasn’t so dull witted. With a heavy sigh, he dropped his head into his hand, his thick locks sliding across his cheekbones as his thoughts sank deeper within, compulsively engaging in another of his endless exercises in self-examination.

He had to admit that this whole situation with Tifa had set him off balance. The necessity of caring for her seemed to be eroding his ability to maintain his distance, and he feared the forced interaction was opening the door to his pent up emotions. He could not let that happen. He had to pull himself together. He had to regain his objectivity and reconstruct his indifference. His emotions were better left locked away, confined to the darkest corners of his mind or heart or soul; duly condemned to that place inside him that gave rise to the rage and the pain. He could not give them release, because once free his emotions would sap his control, hold sway over his rationality, throw wide the portal to his memories and nightmares, and provide Chaos a more ready outlet.

As a Shinra Turk, he’d grown quite adept at keeping his emotions well buried, only showing his inner feelings to those he trusted. However, after Hojo had changed him, his emotions had been out of control, bursting out at any stimulus, internal or external, imagined or real, intense feelings that frequently led to violent transformation. Finally, Hojo had put him away, and for a long time after he’d awakened, his emotions had been so blunted that he often found himself vainly searching within for something other than a dimly remembered echo of an emotional response. He hadn’t really felt anything other than a deep-seated desire to see justice done, not for himself, because he knew that he deserved whatever had befallen him and more, but only to seek retribution on Lucrecia’s behalf. In due course, he had attained that which he’d sought, although the deed had brought him little satisfaction. Truthfully, there were times when he’d lamented his apparent inability to feel anything, but he had still regarded it as somewhat of a blessing, under the circumstances. Now it seemed he was moving back in the other direction, his emotions suddenly reawakening to a volatile need for expression that he’d not felt in a long time. Vincent shook his head against his hand. All this had started with his leap from the Highwind, his mind held captive to the wild terror in her brown eyes. He feared…no…he knew… that he was becoming too invested in her fate, and if that was the case, Vincent knew that he had to disengage. Before he hurt her.

…And how, pray tell, are you supposed to do that, Valentine?

Wearily, Vincent lifted his head. He’d just have to do it. That’s all. He could sit here thinking for hours on end, something of which he had a tendency to do, and nothing would change. The time was long past to get on his feet and find a way to open the door. Once again, he’d left her alone too long, helplessly unconscious in an open cave where any feral creature could venture. Or worse, a human more malicious than any animal might be. Although, that wasn’t likely in this remote valley. Unless…the Sleeping Man should return.

Vincent opened his eyes wide to a darkness so complete that even he couldn’t find ample light to see. He peered uneasily into the impenetrable wall of black space that surrounded him as he threw his claw out to the side, the metal digits scraping across the concrete floor until they bumped up against his Quicksilver. Gathering the pistol up, he climbed to his feet and tucked the gun behind his waistband at his spine. Enough time had passed for his eyes to fully adjust, and he still not detect even the slightest gradient of shadow or light. Obviously, he would have to feel his way along, and with that intention in mind, he turned about to face the door in the expectation that the switch would be close by.

He fruitlessly strained to see something of the surface before him even though he knew it was pointless. His uneasiness grew with each passing second as the total lack of light created a palpable void that suddenly pressed in around him as he stood there, a clinging shroud of dense nothingness that seemed to leach the very oxygen from the air. A wave of dizziness swam through his head as an intense feeling of claustrophobia assailed him. He reached out to touch the door, seeking reassurance that he hadn’t been swallowed in a bottomless pool of roiling ink, but when his fingers made contact with the smooth patina of cool steel, a voice tore through his mind. Her voice. Her face. The forgotten substance of a long suppressed memory.

”Jonathon, isn’t there some other way?”

“What would you have me do, ‘Crecia? I can’t take him to Midgar, and he certainly can’t be allowed to wander around. You’ve seen what he becomes. Would you have me destroy him?”

“Maybe it would be better that way…”

“Well, it’s not an option. I expended too much time and effort on this specimen to destroy him now.”

“Please don’t...”

“He thinks he deserves it anyway. I’m just fulfilling his overweening need for chastisement.”

“No one deserves this…”

“Say your goodbyes, Lucrecia. I have things to attend to. Someone has to keep an eye on those clumsy cretins. Soldiers don’t make very good packers. They are merely a horde of snotty nosed children. They don’t seem to comprehend the meaning of the word ‘fragile’. I tremble in my shoes at the very thought they any of them are allowed to carry a gun. I still have to lock up the safe as well. Hurry it up now.”

Her face floated above him, tears wetting her cheeks, her green eyes filled with sorrow. She reached in and touched warm fingers to his face.

“He’s so cold…”

“It’s the chemicals. He probably doesn’t even hear you anymore. Will you hurry up?”

A tear fell against the corner of his eye, and he couldn’t even blink.

“Vincent…I’m so sorry it ended this way…”

Her voice had become a distant whisper in his mind. He wanted to answer her. To tell her, but his mouth would not cooperate.

Lucrecia…

A soporific haze was steadily devouring his mind. He knew there was something he wanted to say, but the words now eluded him. Her face was beginning to grow fuzzy.

Lucrecia…

“Please rest peacefully, Vincent.”

“Good grief, how trite. Here. Help me with this lid. The damn thing is heavy.”

Though her beautiful features had become little more than a blur, he watched her from somewhere within a swirling fog, until the starless night moved inexorably across the horizon to eclipse her from his view. Then the thick blackness had closed in around him to force the musty stench of mold and mildew into his nostrils and drag the breath from his lungs. Still, he had held the image of her sweet face in his mind, until the words finally came to him, though his numb lips would not form the syllables.

Lucrecia…I’ll…always…love…you…

Then skeletal fingers reached up and snatched him down into endless night.

Vincent squeezed his eyelids tightly shut against the dark, his cheek pressed against the sturdy door, the immoveable barrier holding him upright as his spinning world slowly righted. “Nooo…” His own groan of denial brought him around, and he hesitantly pushed himself away from the door, careful to keep his hand in place until he felt steady.

Had that been real? A true memory? Or a vestige of a forgotten nightmare? His hair fell into his eyes as he bowed his head in the struggle to remember. He could not recall a single instant in which he’d seen Lucrecia during that muddled time after Hojo had shot him. He didn’t even know for sure how long Hojo had kept him imprisoned below the Shinra Mansion. It could have been months or years. During that initial period of random transformation, driven by his own mental torment, the recurring events of identity loss made that time particularly foggy. The Professor had eventually learned to keep him tranquilized between his random experiments or whatever he called them. He could only remember several episodes of blinding light, a cold metal table, and excruciating pain, broken by a hazy parade of endless twilights in a dank basement cell, his drugged mind filled with terrible dreams. No, she hadn’t been there. She had died in his arms. At the inn. Rather, he thought she had died. He knew now that she had not died then. The Jenova cells had kept her alive. That’s what she’d said. And when Cloud had first awakened him in the basement crypt, he had asked Cloud if he knew her…as though she still lived…

Vincent rubbed his fingers against his forehead. He just couldn’t sort it out. All of it was so mixed up in his head. Even when he had first awakened from his chemical-induced slumber, he’d been confused. He tilted his head back and raked the hair from his face with a trembling hand. He had to stop doing this to himself. What did it all matter now anyway? All of that had happened a long time ago, even if it seemed like only yesterday to him. Hojo was dead. Sephiroth was dead. Lucrecia…gone away...maybe even dead now too.

So he remained. In a world completely changed from the one he’d known. In a body totally alien to anything he might have conceived of as a Turk. He had no choice. He had to live with it. So what? It was pointless to continue to think about it now. He still had to open the door. Even though only minutes had passed since he’d left her, he didn’t want to take the chance that she might awaken and find herself alone.

He stretched his hand out to touch the door again and shuffled to the right, surmising that a latch release or a light switch would most likely lie in that direction. He let his hand slide across the rough surface as he moved one slow step at a time, his fingers traveling back and forth, up and down. He kept his mind focused on his task, barring entrance to all morbid thought and trying to ignore the relentless darkness that crawled up his spine and set his nerves on edge.

He’d moved about twelve feet from the doorway with no success when he decided to reverse his tracks to check the other side. Trailing his fingers against the cool stone to keep himself grounded, he returned to the door and meticulously repeated the procedure to the left of the entrance. After moving about the same distance in that direction, he stopped with his hand flat to the wall. Not only had he not found a door release, he hadn’t even found so much as a wire or conduit. Apparently, whoever had set up this place had embedded the electrical wiring inside the wall or beneath the concrete floor.

The thought suddenly occurred to him that perhaps the release had been installed above the door. Quickly, he retraced his steps and stopped in front of the door, the distance now so entrenched in his mind that he no longer bothered to feel his way. He swept the wall above the doorframe with his bare palm, stretching on tiptoe to reach as high as possible. He covered the area twice before he dropped back down and stared pensively into the foot of total darkness between his face and the door. His search was taking too long. He had to conclude that the controls to the door and the lights were apparently in a remote location. He needed a light. Only a small amount of illumination would enable him to see. Even a match would suffice.

A match…

Irritated at himself, Vincent lifted his hand to his breast pocket and slipped two fingers in to draw out the small tin of matches he’d found in the cave. He shook the box and the loose rattle indicated that he only had a few left. He’d have to make each one count. Cautiously, he opened the tin and withdrew the first match, closing the lid with a quiet snap. He scraped the tip across the striker on the bottom of the tin and held the tiny flame high, blinking in the flickering light for the few seconds it took for his fully dilated pupils to contract.

Turning to his left, he could see nothing but more heavily laden shelves along the curving perimeter. He had no interest in military ordnance. He turned back to his right and immediately spied a set of steps rising upwards to disappear into a cinderblock wall, starkly symmetrical against the craggy stone wall around. He started walking in that direction, raising the match higher as he neared, but still unable to make out where the metal stairway ended.

The match burned down and seared his fingertip. With a mutter of deprecation, he stopped in his tracks and tossed it away. Retrieving the tin, he drew out and lit another. Pinching the newly lit match carefully between metal forefinger and thumb, he lifted the fitful flame above his head and briskly advanced to the foot of the metal steps while the match still illuminated his path. He paused with one boot on the bottom riser as he carefully examined the closed door now dimly revealed in the shadowy recess of the landing above.

The second match flickered out with a soft hiss and a trail of acrid smoke. He dropped it to the concrete floor at his feet. With no wasted movement, he popped up the lid to remove another. Sticking the wooden end of the match between his teeth, he dropped the small tin back into his pocket and started up the steps in the dark, silently feeling his way along with his hand and feet. He counted a dozen steps before he gained the gridded landing and laid his bare palm against the steel door.

As he stood quietly in thought, a high pitched hum swelled into his receptive ears in the close space. Certainly, some sort of electrical devices were in operation on the other side, and he had to consider that the Sleeping Man might well be behind the door as well. Bending slightly, he carefully pressed his ear against the cold surface to better detect any sound of movement within.

A handful of minutes passed as he listened intently. He could hear something that sounded like a running faucet, and he waited to see if the sound would cease, if anyone would turn it off. He could also hear a sharp ticking that sounded like one of those huge wall clocks you might find in a school classroom or in the foyer of an office building. Both sounds continued without cessation, accompanied by the constant electrical hum, and uninterrupted by any random noises at all.

Vincent stood away from the door and plucked the match from his mouth with his metal digits. He reached around and drew the pistol from his back to hold it pointed towards the floor. Planting his back against the entry wall, he lit the match against the door. Again, his eyes had to readjust, but they did so more readily this time. Quickly, before the match burned down too far, he studied the door, noting the position of the doorknob and the unbroken metal surface. He also scanned for any sign of another trap, although he didn’t think there would be one. In light of what he had now discovered, he realized that the device in the outer cave probably had only one purpose. To blow the entrance and bury access to this hidden cavern if someone stumbled across the cave before the Sleeping Man returned. Vincent knew he planned to return or the Sleeping Man would have simply destroyed the opening before he left. The whole setup was simply a backup plan. Just in case. He’d wired the only thing in the outer cave that might interest an intruder. The box with the lid nailed down. Intriguing and irresistible. All of it based on the old ‘curiosity killed the cat” principle. Might very well have worked too. If he’d been a curious man with more normal faculties.

In line with his reasoning, he had to conclude that the Sleeping Man had not rigged the outer cave to blow simply to hole up behind this door. He knew there could be other factors involved of which he had not yet become aware, important factors that might render his conclusion fatally inaccurate, but his gut instinct told him he was right. Nevertheless, in such a situation he would normally proceed with extreme caution, but he did not have time. He would have to take a chance.

Vincent let the now burned out match drop to the floor and reached for the doorknob. With a sharp turn of his wrist, the latch quietly released and the door swung away from the frame with a soft shush. Vincent lifted his gun and slowly eased around the doorframe, bowing his head to hide his softly luminous eyes from view. As he moved across the doorsill, he noticed an ambient glow that provided him enough light to see, and he swept a quick glance around from beneath his lowered brow, his crimson gaze hidden behind the thick hair that had fallen across his shoulders and into his face.

He halted a step inside the room and raised his head to sniff the air experimentally. His eyes and his nose both told him that there wasn’t anyone here. So far, he’d ignored the various sounds that he’d previously heard through the door other than to note that all of the sounds came from his left. He now turned in that direction to see the electronic console that spanned that end of the room, certainly the source of the persistent hum. Now that he stood in the room, the sound pressed against his ears. He realized that the noise that sounded like running water emanated from a large round speaker in the center of the cabinet below the electronic panel. Nothing but an undefined, sussurant static. He’d been dead right about the ticking though. A big round wall clock, oversized black hands superimposed on a phosphorescent face, glowed eerily in the shadows near the ceiling where it hung dead center on the wall above the console. 6:30 pm. He wondered if the clock displayed the correct time. Usually, he could make a fairly accurate guess of the time at any given moment, but with all that had happened and with the atypical weather, he’d lost track. Already, he felt like he’d been inside this cavern for hours instead of just minutes.

Vincent turned his gaze to the whitewashed wall beside him to find the light switch right where one would expect. Still, he arched one eyebrow in mild surprise. In light of his recent difficulties, he hadn’t expected to locate the switch so easily. He raised his hand and flipped the light on with one finger, closing his eyelids tightly against the bright flood of white illumination that instantly filled the room. Spinning on heel with his gun at ready, he squinted his eyes while his pupils quickly adjusted to the sudden change. By the time he finished his turn, his vision had completely adapted to the current level of light, and he swept a quick glance around the room, checking for any remote source of danger, noting every detail in the close space. In actuality, there wasn’t much to see. A row of cabinets lined one side of the room. A metal military-style cot spanned half the length of the far wall, the narrow bed neatly made with an army blanket and a small pillow. Just past the end of the cot, a doorway opened into what appeared to be a bathroom. A square metal table with two mismatched metal chairs stood flush to the wall on the other side of the open door, the slate top completely bare. The place certainly didn’t look lived in.

With a toss of his head, Vincent threw the hair from his face and strode across the room to the open doorway. A rusted shower stall, a dingy washbasin, and a stained toilet with cracked seat askew crowded the tiny room. He could see directly into the uncurtained shower stall. As he expected, nobody lurked inside. The closet-sized bathroom didn’t provide much space for someone to stand, much less hide.

Vincent turned his attention back to the electronic console. Any control to the outer door would most likely be located there. He tucked his gun away and purposefully crossed the room, his eyes already picking apart the electronic panels as he came to a stop beside another metal chair. His heart sank as he studied all the unlabeled buttons and switches. Although the instrumentation didn’t look as complicated as most of the Shinra technology he’d come across lately, it all looked more advanced than anything he’d used in his Shinra days. Many things had changed in the three decades that he'd slept. Still, he wasn’t afraid to experiment, especially when there were no other options.

He had to assume that all the controls for the Sleeping Man’s Cave as well as those for the inner cavern could be found somewhere on this console. He made note of the bank of three small monitors, all turned off or not operable, and a larger monitor with a computer keyboard attached, also shut down. He would expect to find controls for all those devices somewhere here. The continuous oscillating static flowing from the speaker below the panel indicated the probable presence of radio controls.

He found the radio controls easily. The huge frequency and volume dials, aligned next to a radiophone headset, were characteristic of most radios. He pushed the off switch beneath the volume control, and the annoying static ceased. Then he scanned the panel until his eyes came to rest on three rows of switches and buttons. As he didn’t have any idea what any of them would do, he decided to start at the top. He punched the first button on the right and listened to the resultant whine of something on the console powering up. Before he could pinpoint where the sound originated, the question became moot when the three monitors flashed on, one by one, all of the screens displaying the visual equivalent of the static from the radio.

Not the least interested in expending a moment more on that dead end, he depressed the next button. A sharp clank to his left brought him spinning around to see an entire section of wall trundle into the ceiling overhead with a noisy rattling sound. Vincent stared at the black panel of glass that remained, and a feeling of vulnerability crept over him at the realization that the floor to ceiling window overlooked the lightless cavern on the other side. If someone were out there, he now presented a fine target from where he stood beneath the fluorescent lighting.

Despite his uneasiness, he lifted his shoulders in a tight shrug and turned back to the console. His senses had not detected the presence of anyone inside the cavern earlier, and he would trust his instincts. He didn’t have time to worry about it. If he were wrong, then so be it. He had wasted enough time. With his lips pressed in a tight line, he punched another button with a bit more force than was necessary, a manifestation of his rising level of frustration. He waited for a moment, but when nothing happened, he immediately moved on, depressing the next button with another vehement jab of his forefinger, only to achieve the same result.

His dark brows drawn together in his irritation, he stepped sideways as he reached for the last button on that row and bumped up against the chair. With a snarl, he threw out his hand to shove the obtrusive thing aside, but the chair tumbled over and hit the concrete floor with a metallic clatter. For a moment he stared at it, and then he bent to set it upright. With a small shake of his head, he drew in a long, calming breath to soothe his temper and once again turned to the control panel. He swept his hair from his face and stretched his hand out again, but froze when his eyes fell on the bank of monitors. Two of them now displayed images.

Placing his hand and claw flat against the console, he leaned in to look closer. The first monitor on his left showed a view of the dreary scene just outside the Sleeping Man Cave. He could see the topmost rim of one of the retaining walls at the entrance. The daylight had waned behind the heavy cloud cover and the dreary curtain of relentless rainfall. He suspected that the camera mounted somewhere above the opening took in a wide-angle panorama of the valley on a typical day. That solved the mystery of why the man always slept. The man simply watched from inside until someone appeared. Then he raced into the outer cave, dived onto his cot and feigned sleep, probably with a fully loaded automatic rifle hidden beneath his blankets. A cumbersome mode of operation to be sure, but certainly effective if one’s goal was to insure that the interior never be discovered.

His gaze moved on to the second screen, and his eyes widened at what he saw. He jerked his head to the left and straightened away from the console to slowly cross the few feet to the window as he took in the expansive vista of the now completely illuminated cavern below, every trace of darkness chased away before the radiance of twenty or so rows of fluorescent tubes. Based on the little he’d seen before his brief foray had been cut short, he had reached a preliminary conclusion that the cavern had been converted into a warehouse to store stolen military hardware. Now he could see that, although his assessment had been partially accurate, this cavern represented a great deal more.

To one side of the immense room, twelve-foot tall parallel rows of heavy shelves stood from the front of the cavern to the back, as far as his eye could see. Just like the shelf he’d examined earlier, all seemed to be loaded with crates and metal containers, many of them covered with loosely tied tarps. The route he’d followed cut right through the middle. On the left side of the room, a fleet of dismantled machines covered the huge expanse of concrete floor, many of them hardly recognizable anymore. However, he could not mistake the immense, broken hull of a partially cannibalized airship and the body of an old Shinra Skylifter, a clumsy looking cargo chopper that had been in service during his time with the company. He also recognized the parts of several heavy armor tanks and small fighter planes.

Vincent suspected that if he could see into the dark recesses above the fluorescent lighting, he would probably find a large hatch of some sort. There would be no other way to bring the heavy machinery inside, dismantled or not, much less the airship or the chopper. Any means of egress through the face of the mountain would eventually be discovered no matter how well hidden it might be. All of it would have been airlifted in and brought down through an overhead shaft with a well disguised entrance set in an area unreachable by any other means. The whole setup smelled like Shinra.

Vincent whirled and strode back to the console. Purposefully, he pushed the last button and leaned down to watch the picture expand across the screen. As he’d hoped, the third monitor was connected to a camera in the outer cave. He could see her, just barely, in the remaining glow of the dying fire and the fading evening light, her huddled body on the cot just a dark shape beneath the blankets. For long moments, he watched her, straining to see more, but the camera lens was less efficient at drawing in light than his own eyes, and the resultant picture lacked a great deal in clarity. Unconsciously, he touched his fingers to the glass as he waited, willing her to stir, hoping to see some sign that would assure him that she only slept.

Finally, he surrendered to the knowledge that she wasn’t going to cooperate anytime soon, and he straightened away from the console. He reluctantly dragged his gaze away from her still image and turned his attention back to the controls. There were only a couple of buttons, one dial, and a few switches left untried. Methodically, he worked his way through them, his eyes constantly moving back and forth between the panel and the third monitor. Quickly, he discovered that the buttons activated the computer and some sort of print device, which started to spew out a stream of paper. He turned both off. When he flipped the switches, a row of numbered red indicator lights turned green, but he couldn’t determine what device or devices had just been turned on. He decided to leave them and see if he could figure it out later. Moving on, he twisted the dial at the far edge of the panel, and the lights in the room dimmed. Preferring the illumination low, he drew his hand away and lifted his head to stare at the monitor again. The image slowly swam out of focus as his thoughts grew busy.

The release to the door was not here, but he knew that it would have to be in a place easily accessible. He knew that because of the scheme. The Sleeping Man lived inside this room and went to the outer cave when he needed to act out his cover. Although the camera outside surveyed a wide area of the grassy field beyond the cave entrance, the man would still be hard pressed to make it to the outer cave, hide his weapon, and get himself calmly settled on the cot before an intruder might enter. Not when he had to run down the stairs, wait for the door to open, all with enough time left to allow the door to completely reseat once on the other side. The barrier door obviously operated on a timer of some sort, probably designed in such a manner to prevent someone from inadvertently leaving the door ajar, thus making the inner cavern open to discovery. So, the probable location of the door control would be in one of three likely places, and he already knew the switch was not near either doorway. Which left….

An ear-piercing klaxon pealed from the console, and Vincent’s whole body tensed at the sound, sending his heartbeat into high gear. Quickly, he scanned the controls looking for the source, briefly entertaining the thought that he might have activated a self-destruct command, an idea which he immediately dismissed. He knew better than that. Such an act would require a more complicated sequence of actions than anything he’d done. His eyes froze on a single flashing digit, the number ‘6’ located above the last switch he’d flipped. All six of them were numbered. Vincent tore his attention away long enough to shoot a swift glance around the room as he tried to think despite the bang of the alarm inside his head.

Impulsively, he threw his hand up and flipped the switch off. The painfully loud noise ceased, but Vincent hardly noticed as his mind raced to find an answer. Obviously, the alarm signified something of importance. But what...?

The alert blared from the panel again, but this time Vincent almost expected it. The number ‘5’ flashed now, and he just watched and waited. Nearly a full minute later, the ‘4’ began to blink as well, accompanied by an equally shrill sound, but of a different pitch. His brows drew together as he concentrated on the problem. Could it be a countdown to something? Suddenly, the next alarm activated and the ‘3’ began to flash, less than 20 seconds later. The din in the room nearly unbearable, he flipped the three alarm switches off and stared at the now silent board. He raised one eyebrow in puzzlement. No, not a countdown. The time intervals weren’t consistent. More like a progression or a…regression…

The realization suddenly slammed into him with the force of a sledgehammer, and he spun away from the console and exploded across the room. He didn’t have time to think; only act. He would have to test his theory on the fly, and pray that he was right. He didn’t know what distance the numbers signified, but he knew, without a doubt, that each one represented a proximity sensor somewhere outside. Something was moving toward the cave.

He snatched the door open and sprang across the landing to slam to a stop at the first stair. Spinning to the right, he threw his hand out even before he saw it. The round, silver plate, almost the color of the cinderblock surface and set flush in the wall, would be almost unnoticeable to the casual glance. With gritted teeth, he pushed hard to fully seat the metal button into the sleeve, working against the ponderous nature of the mechanism’s design. Finally, he heard the dull thud inside the wall, and he jerked his hand away to grab the railing, levering his body over to jump to the concrete floor below.

He hit the ground running, and his long legs carried him the distance to the barrier door in mere seconds, the sudden eruption of alarm ‘2’ from behind setting his feet to flight. The outer edge of the foot thick door had just barely cleared the frame when he reached it. Vincent skidded to a stop and snatched his gun from behind his belt. Although only a moment had passed, he felt like time had slowed down, like everything sought to thwart his progress. The fear in his heart not reflected in his serene countenance, he stood with his back pressed against the wall and watched the glowing embers of the dying fire emerge into view as the aperture widened.

Impatiently, he shoved his boot and shoulder into the opening, pressing his face into the narrow gap until the door moved a few inches more. Then he squeezed through and slid into the darkly shadowed cave, a black wraith only slightly visible in the feeble light that seeped through the entrance from the last rain choked rays of the setting sun.

He paused to look around, his gun held ready as he scanned the interior of the cave. The splintered pile of broken slats remained where he’d left them beside the fire pit. The three intact crates hadn’t been moved from their places. The Peacemaker still pinned the fluttering map to the crate he’d been using for a table, his glove and holsters alongside. Except for the burned out fire, everything looked the same. Of course, he’d only been gone for maybe twenty minutes, despite the fact that it felt like hours.

Vincent brought his gaze to rest on the motionless form beneath the blankets. Three long strides brought him to her side. He rounded the head of the cot to drop to one knee on the other side, turning his head to bring his intense eyes and the gun barrel up to focus on the pouring rain outside the opening. He watched unblinkingly for long moments, straining to make out any form or shadow moving in the dense curtain of rain. In the back of his mind, he noted the muted sound of the door mechanism reactivating, but he only blinked when the heavy door reseated with the now familiar and conclusive clunk of the latch. Distantly, he could still hear the high pitch squeal of the number ‘2’ alarm. Thus far, the last one remained silent.

Slowly, he lowered the pistol and finally dragged his gaze around to the dark hair that barely peeped from beneath the bundled blankets. At some point, she had drawn the covers completely over her face, leaving only the crown of her head exposed. Vincent shifted the gun to his metal hand and twisted around, reaching out to hesitantly pull the heavy material from her face. A tiny grimace of displeasure touched her lips at the intrusion of chilly air. With a deep sense of relief, he released the breath he’d unconsciously held in his lungs and let the blanket fall back against her pale cheek. With light fingers, he smoothed the material out against her jaw and over her chin, careful to leave her face uncovered. Lifting his hand from the blanket, he laid his fingers against her forehead, letting them rest there as he turned his head to look over his shoulder, uneasy despite the fact that the last alarm had not yet sounded. Nothing moved outside. Nothing appeared to disturb the uniformly dreary and ever darkening vista of cloud and rain and soggy ground beyond the threshold. Perhaps whatever had set off the proximity alarms had meandered off in another direction. Or maybe somebody stood out in the rain, just out of eyesight, waiting…planning…

“Paaa…pa…aaah…”

At the sound of her barely audible verbalization, Vincent sharply returned his gaze to her face. Her eyelashes fluttered as her mouth silently moved again, though no words slipped from her lips this time. He drew his hand away from her hot brow. He had to admit to himself that the fever hadn’t abated at all. He had to do something more. Find something more to help her. Perhaps inside the control room…in the cabinets…

“Claaa…aaa…uuuu…”

Vincent turned away from her and sat back on his heel, returning the gun to his right hand. He raised his eyes to the entrance once again, half of his mind focused on the task at hand, geared to alert watchfulness, even bent to the particulars of a potential offensive attack. However, the other half of his mind idly pondered the meaning of the nearly imperceptible whispers that floated into his ears.

“Claaa…uuu…dddd….”

Vincent had no doubt that she was calling for Cloud in her sleep, in her dreams. He knew how she felt about the blonde soldier. How she hoped for a sign that he felt the same way. Tifa Lockheart tended to wear her heart on the outside; her feelings wide open to anyone who cared to look. He absently shook his head as he watched the rain. Cloud seemed oblivious though…or perhaps just…uninterested. No, not uninterested. Otherwise attached. At some point, he’d lost his heart to Aeris, to sink along with her lifeless body into the depthless pool beneath the Forgotten City. He wondered if Cloud had ever realized his true feelings for the Cetra girl. He didn’t believe so.

Which is worse? To shamble through an entire life feeling miserable without ever knowing why? Or to know the fullness of the love you hold for someone who loves another, your heart always aching for something you can never have? The corner of his mouth lifted in a wry smile at where his thoughts had taken him. He didn’t know the answer to his question, but he did know one thing. The whole human concept of ‘love’ left much to be desired. All his life, love had brought him nothing but pain.

A soft brush against his sleeve startled him, and he jerked his head around to find Tifa Lockheart’s eyes wide open, her unsteady hand outstretched toward his arm. As before, he sat immoveable, petrified to stone beneath her gaze. Her dilated and unfocused pupils roamed his face, and her lips moved silently as she worked her mouth to speak. She eventually managed to grasp the material of his sleeve in her fingers, and she weakly tugged him toward her. He finally shook himself from his trance and shifted his body around to lean over her, dropping to both knees beside her cot.

“What is it?” He asked her in a hushed tone. If someone lurked outside, he didn’t want to be heard. She still maintained a death grip on his shirtsleeve, and she pulled at his arm again, trying to draw him closer.

“D…d…don’t…g…go…” She implored him with her eyes as well as her unrecognizable croak.

“I won’t go.” His reassurance came easier than before. He laid his gun in the blankets beside her leg and reached for her hand. Gently, he disengaged her fingers from his sleeve and placed her curled hand against her stomach. As soon as he released her, she lifted her fingers toward his face.

“Clo…ud…”

Tifa fought to lift her arm through the sickly green miasma, the substance so thick around her that she could hardly move. She had to get his attention…before…he left…he couldn’t see her…

“No!” He was turning away. “Can’t you see me here! Cloud! Don’t leave me here!”

He couldn’t hear her. He couldn’t see her. Already, he walked away.

“Please!” Her panicky voice echoed shrilly around her, picked up and carried around on a thousand mocking tongues. She struggled to lift her feet, but she couldn’t move at all, the green slimy fingers oozing around her bare toes and ankles, the transparent bonds holding her firmly in place.

“Please, Cloud!” She screamed at him as he ran from her, his rapidly diminishing figure barely visible in the swirling mist. “Don’t leave me in this place!”

A wispy tendril curled across her face, and she tried to jerk away, so she could still see him, but she could only manage a laboriously slow turn of her jaw. The luminous thread of mist swirled apart, but Cloud was gone. Disappeared. Run away.

“Cloud?” She choked on her tears, her throat aching to give her sorrow release, but somehow she couldn’t. “Cloud!”

She fell to her knees as the voices closed in around her, hisses and gibes, demands and judgments, all condemning and harassing. She pressed her hands against her ears, but the voices crowded inside her head. “Shut up! Shut up!” She cried out into a sea of angry faces, but her accusers would not be silenced. Defeated, she slumped to the ground and curled her body into a tight ball, her only defense, however hopeless, against the torment.

“Papa? Are you here…somewhere…?” She whispered into the mist, desperately hoping for an answer. She’d seen him hadn’t she? When was that?

“Mama…?”

Of course they wouldn’t be here. What could two such decent people ever have done to be condemned to this suffocating hell?

“Cloud, I don’t want anything. I won’t ask anything. Just…please…come back.”

“Cloud? Why can’t you hear me…?”

Maybe he couldn’t hear her because she wasn’t…real…anymore. Maybe because she was…dead….

“No! Not that!” She tried to rise, but her limbs trembled with weakness and collapsed beneath her. She rolled to her back and hugged her arms to her, hot tears streaming down her cheeks as she stared blindly into the clinging mist and tried to ignore the voices in her head, dreading the possibility that she might be listening to them for all of eternity.

A dark shadow fell across her face, and she blinked. She turned her head to see the shape of someone standing over her, but she couldn’t make out a face.

“Who’s there?” She whispered softly, afraid to speak out loud. Afraid she might be heard and afraid that she would not. The figured turned away.

“No!” She reached out, but she could touch nothing but green tainted air. “No! Don’t go!”

“Papa? Is that you?” Tifa pushed herself up and climbed shakily to her feet, swaying in place as she reached again.

“Cloud?”

“Cloud, take me with you this time. Please!”

Her hand outstretched, she stumbled after the unknown person, pulling hard against the imprisoning tendrils, and fighting mightily for every bit of ground she gained, until finally her fingers found purchase. She realized the person had turned; had noticed her here. She wanted to weep with relief. She did have substance. She was real. This person would help her. Help her find the way out. She stared up into a shadowed face, the head darkly silhouetted against the luminous whirl of Lifestream.

“Please don’t leave me here. Don’t go without me. Please.”

“I won’t go.” The firm voice spoke inside her head, and at the sound, all the other voices fell silent. The voice seemed familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it.

“Cloud?” She reached up to touch the obscured face, to find some clue to tell her who stood there. A hand enveloped hers, and she curled her fingers into the vibrant warmth, her lifeline out of this terrible place of talking dead people.

Suddenly, the dark head reared up, and blood-red eyes glowed fiercely in the dark countenance. Tifa screamed. “Gods no!” Not Cloud. Not a rescuer. They had come for her. The slithering shades of the underworld that came to take the souls of those who had been bad. Grandma told her didn’t she? She told her. She warned her.

Tifa ripped her hand away and tried to run, but it was too late. Too late. She could go nowhere. The green whirl around her picked up speed, spinning faster and faster, drawing her up into the ebony eye. Up…? She fell still as the luminous green mist gave way to a deep velvety gray.

The shrill chirp of the distant alarm changed, and Vincent’s head shot up, his crimson eyes widening in consternation. The last sensor had been activated. Before he could move, Tifa gasped aloud, and he looked down into her terrified face. She pulled weakly against his grasp, and he instantly released her hand. He couldn’t know what had upset her, but he didn’t have time to soothe her fears. Her protection had to be his priority. He snatched his gun from the blankets and jumped to his feet, spinning on heel to face the open portal.

Completely bewildered, Tifa watched the tall form move away from her as the last remnants of her nightmare slipped away. The chilly air and the ache in her bones brought her to the realization that she had just awakened from a terrible dream. At least, she thought she was awake, but she didn’t have the foggiest idea where she’d ended up. A shudder worked through her body as the figure stopped to stand framed in a fuzzy oval of dim light. She drew the warm blanket closer around her body to stave off the chill that touched her bare arms. Idly, she recognized that the object held pointed up beside the starkly outlined head could only be a gun.

A gun…

Vincent.

She’d been with Vincent. On the mountain. No, they’d jumped and…she had been laughing up into his face…and then…then…they walked in the pouring rain…and…and…she could still hear the rain…

Shivering, Tifa brought her hand to her face. She couldn’t remember after that, but obviously he’d found shelter for them. She held her hand against her hot face, letting the heat warm her cold palm. After a moment, she tried to lift her head, but the movement set off a wicked pounding that nearly took her breath away. She moved onto her side instead, carefully drawing her wrapped hand against her stomach as she shifted. Pressing her cheek into the soft material beneath her, she turned her gaze to the man who’d brought her here.

She could see that Vincent’s silhouette had now merged into the shadows alongside the opening. She could just barely make out the shape of his uplifted arm with gun in hand and the curve of his face as he peered around the edge into the rain. Another convulsive shudder shook her whole body, and anxiety welled into her mind. She was sick. She knew it. Her brain swam feverishly in her skull. Her whole body shook with chills. Her left arm burned all the way from the tips of her fingers to her shoulder, and she was weak. Trembly and weak, and she had to think hard to keep her thoughts focused. She felt that if she let go for just a second, her mind would spiral down into a foggy oblivion. Maybe down into that green hell again. Suddenly, she needed to hear his voice, to hear him say that she would be all right. She shakily raised herself on her right elbow, and lifted her head, bound and determined to get his attention despite the pain that exploded into her injured right hand and the hammering in her temples.

“V….V…” Her voice emerged from her throat in a strangled croak. She swallowed hard and drew in a deep breath to try again. “V…Vin…ssss…ent…” The effort just to get his whole name out past her raw throat had been too much. Even though he couldn’t have heard the inaudible summons, she couldn’t find the energy to try again. Her meager resources exhausted, she sank back into the blankets.

At the sound of his name, Vincent turned from his surveillance to look at her. She’d turned onto her side to watch him, her anxious brown eyes filled with a feverish alertness he hadn’t expected to see so soon. The seconds ticked past as he stared silently into her face, waiting to see if she would speak again, all the while knowing that he should turn away from her. Tension coiled tightly in his chest as he could almost sense a stealthy predator slipping up in the rain.

Tifa peered into the shadows that had completely enveloped Vincent when he’d drawn away from the opening. All she could see of him were his crimson eyes, suspended unblinking in space as though unattached, windows to the empty soul of an entity without substance. She shouldn’t have been surprised that he’d heard her, not after the things he’d caught her saying on the mountain. Her face flamed at the memory, and she suddenly didn’t want to see his strange eyes, cold and expressionless despite the fiery internal glow. Another shudder traveled through her, and she didn’t believe her fever was the sole cause. She let her eyes droop closed for a moment, and when she opened them again, Vincent had returned to his watchful stance at the oval doorway, his gun held ready just as before. It was then that it finally sank into her befuddled brain. Something was outside. Something that Vincent thought could be a threat.

Vincent stared into the fading light, listening to her stir restlessly behind him as he strained to catch a glimpse of movement through the ever-shifting fall of rain, movement that he could sense. The cot creaked loudly beneath her, and he shot a quick glance at her only to confirm his suspicions. She had thrown her blankets partway off and had pushed herself halfway up, actually managing to set one bare foot on the ground.

“Stay there.” His hard tone left no room for argument.

At the sound of his firm command, Tifa looked up and paused in her valiant effort to rise, struggling mightily to keep from collapsing back into the cot as she held herself up on one shaky arm.

“What’s out there?” She spoke in a loud whisper, knowing her voice wasn’t up to the effort, and he would hear her anyway. She stared at his shadow-cloaked form and waited for an answer. Even though she had already become familiar with his tendency to delayed responses, his silence stretched on so long that she decided that he hadn’t heard her after all, and she could hold herself up no longer. Her arm folded beneath her weight, and she fell back into the wobbly cot, the wooden legs creaking noisily against the rope lashings.

Vincent heard her, of course, but all his senses were tuned to the subtle motion he could see at the far edge of his visual field, a disseminated movement low to the ground, almost like the slow swell of seawater that rolled onto the beach with the tide. Except that this didn’t recede. Had the river climbed so far over its banks?

“I don’t know.” He finally answered her, almost as an afterthought, his mind uneasily focused on his analysis of the situation. Although he could feel her watchful eyes on the back of his head, Tifa didn’t answer him. Impulsively, he turned to look at her. She’d fallen back onto her side where she now huddled with one leg drawn up and the other still dangling over the edge of the cot. She had tossed her blankets off when she’d tried she rise, and now her whole body shivered constantly in the chilly cave air.

Swiftly, he crossed the distance between them, her feverish eyes following his progress the whole way. Avoiding her silent stare, he dropped to one knee beside her, and lightly grasping her ankle in his hand, he lifted her leg back onto the cot. Without hesitation, he reached across and untangled the blankets, drawing them up over her shoulders before he finally turned his head to meet her glassy, but alert, gaze. Nervously, he shuttered his eyes and dropped his head to let his hair slide across his jaw, even though she could hardly see his face in the dark cave with the struggling light of late evening at his back.

“Thank you.”

He looked up again at her raspy whisper. With a curt nod of his head, he stood and switched his gun back to his right hand.

“I’m going out there.” This time he pinned her with frosty crimson eyes. “You will stay right here.”

Tifa thought Mr. Valentine sounded pretty bossy and thought about telling him so, but she was too tired to lodge a protest. Keeping her eyes open had become a struggle already, and she felt as though her whole body had suddenly turned to lead. She couldn’t go anywhere if she wanted to, and she had no desire to move so much as a finger. Still, he seemed to be waiting for a response to his commandment, so she nodded her head against the blanket.

His anxiety only slightly relieved, Vincent turned and strode toward the entrance. He knew that she didn’t have the strength to go far, but he also knew that if she wanted to get up badly enough, she would try. She might get far enough to get her in trouble anyway, and he couldn’t look out for her just now. Nor did he have the time to worry about it anymore. He paused at the threshold and watched the dark substance seep inexorably across the meadow toward the cave. It had to be floodwater. Something must have clogged the river channel downstream, preventing the excess water from tumbling over the falls into the Crater Lake. He shook his head. Not just that though. There was something else too. He could see a strange undulating motion at the forward edge of the oncoming fluid mass that set his nerves on edge.

With a monumental effort, Tifa managed to drag her eyelids apart enough to see Vincent standing motionless in the dimly lit portal. She watched him as he took a hesitant step forward, only to pause again. A bad feeling suddenly crept over her, twisting her stomach into a knot and sending her heart rate up a few notches. Whatever Valentine thought he saw out there, she prayed that he could handle it, because she wasn’t going to be any help to him at all. In fact, if that something out there managed to take him down, then it would probably come for her next, and in her condition there wouldn’t be a damn thing she could do about it right now except maybe spit in its eye just before it ate her.

She tried again to lift her head as she watched him take another tentative step into the rain, but the exertion set off the murderous pounding inside her skull. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut against the pain and let her head fall back. After a moment or two, the hammering eased off a bit, and she cracked her eyes open again only to find the portal empty. He’d gone.

“Be careful, Vincent.” Her whisper sounded weak to her own ears, and she knew he hadn’t heard her. But she felt better for having said it. Maybe her words would resonate in his mind, and he would pay heed. A tiny smile touched her lips at her own silliness. Still, what could it hurt?

Be careful, Valentine. Don’t think I can manage to get up and kick another great big viciously mean kitty in the head for you…so…you have to be careful…okay? Watch your back. Be careful…careful…very very careful…very careful…you better be careful…or else…I’ll…get up and kick your scrawny butt…and I can’t do that…because…because…I…can’t…get…up…so…be careful…

The words of her mantra streamed endlessly through her head, her whimsical thoughts holding her loneliness and fear at bay, as she watched for his return. A sudden gust of chilly, rain-scented wind touched her face and set her to shivering again. She clenched her jaw to stop her teeth from chattering and drew the blankets up over her nose. Snuggling down into her soft cocoon of warmth, she peered over the tattered hem and waited. As the seconds dragged slowly past, her eyelids began to droop, and a comforting drowsiness crept heavily through her body, numbing her aching limbs and seducing her mind with the idea of a timely escape into the comfortable cradle of sleep. No. She couldn’t sleep. Not until Vincent came back. Impatiently, she forced her eyes open and glared blurrily at the vacant opening. The feeble gray haze had finally ebbed away into the gloom of night, and the sight of the darkness outside lent her trepidation a new toehold in her mind.

Okay now…it’s time for you to come back, Valentine. You’ve been out there way…way too long. So get a move on…come on back now…come on…come on…light a fire under it…it’s dark out…guess that won’t bother you…but it bothers the hell out of me…so…do you think you could hurry it up? Please…come back…don’t even hurry…just…come back…

Her mental conversation with the absent Vincent Valentine spun through her mind, behind her weighted eyelids, until her exhaustion and illness finally overcame her will, and despite the cloistering gloom and the hollow silence and violent shivers and her aching loneliness, she slipped into a restless doze.

Vincent froze in his tracks as every faculty that he possessed rang silent but persistent alarms in his mind. He’d stopped several feet short of the creeping expanse of muddy water that had devoured the rain-wet meadow grass in every direction, but he still couldn’t quite determine what moved beneath the surface at the leading edge. He stood his ground as he waited, his mind still laboring to sort out the odd whispery sound that floated all around him inside the sibilant fall of the rain. And the smell… He didn’t have to exercise his preternatural sense of smell to detect the pervasive scent of dead fish. Maybe that’s what he was seeing now, the bodies of dead fish from the river that had been suspended in the water and now tumbled along with the movement of the flood.

He lowered his gun to hang by his side and walked a few steps closer, suddenly stopping again as his brain sorted out another scent, a subtle odor barely detectable above the repulsive smell of decaying fish, an odor that seemed…familiar, an odor that made him think of…

Reptiles?

Vincent threw his arm up and fired into the water, wincing at the sharp report of the gun. Instantly, a sleek head shot from the muddy surface, beady eyes flashing a fiery pink as three-inch fangs struck at the air, and then a glistening elongated body flipped over with a loud splash to disappear into the water again. Unconsciously backing away, Vincent pointed his gun a few feet to the left of his first target and fired again. This time, at least four fanged maws exploded from the surface to snap poisonous fangs at the sky, one managing to find purchase in another’s body, before all dove out of sight. Still falling back, Vincent swept stunned eyes across the whole roiling mess and recognized the muted glints of pink light that flashed just beneath the sludge coated effluvium, now that he knew what was there, hundreds of eyes belonging to annoyed creatures that were definitely not deceased. His gun could not save them.

Vincent spun and jumped away, breaking out into a full run, his boots barely touching the waterlogged ground as he raced for the cave entrance. The drilling rain showed no sign of slacking, and if the river continued to rise from its banks, he wouldn’t have much time. Their situation had just become very precarious. As if things weren’t bad enough already, Fate just had to toss in a flood where there shouldn’t be one. No, not just a flood. Things were never that simple for him.

Vincent reached the twin retaining walls at the entrance and slid to a stop, throwing his claw out to grab the edge when one boot nearly slipped from under him in the rainwater that had collected there. Instantly, he regained his footing and shot a glance over his shoulder for another look. He immediately regretted that decision. Not only had the floodwaters climbed the gently sloping ground faster than he had thought, but at the sight of the twisting, slithering motion that deformed the surface of the water, a shudder tore through the length of his body. He hated snakes, with a passion. Why did it have to be snakes? Why’d it have to be so damn many snakes? Vincent shook off the horrified daze that threatened to engulf his reason. He didn’t have time to think anymore. He had to move. Swallowing hard past the knot in his throat, he whirled away from the wall, and in one fluid move, he sprang over the wide puddle and dove into the dark cave.

The sharp crack of gunshots had shaken Tifa from her light doze, and she’d forced her heavy eyelids halfway open to watch for him to return. She wasn’t sure, but she thought he’d only fired twice. That had to be a good sign. That it only took two bullets.

Maybe he ran out of bullets…

Maybe whatever had been out there had gotten him before he could get any more shots off…

Maybe she was alone now…

No, she wouldn’t believe that. Valentine wouldn’t let anything get him. She’d seen him in action enough. He moved too quickly to get caught. Like a lightning bolt. Like a firefly. Like a…like…a…

Where in the hell did he go?

A loud clatter just behind brought her eyes wide open and her heart against her breastbone. Normally, she would have bolted upright, but her enervated muscles couldn’t manage more than a convulsive jerk. Her heart pounding in earnest, she carefully grasped the edge of the cot with her hand and eased onto her back. Slowly, she turned her head to stare into the darkness. The bleak daylight had faded completely, and she couldn’t see a thing.

“Vin…cent…?” She hardly recognized the raspy voice as her own.

Vincent didn’t pause as he bent to grab her boots from beneath the cot. He turned to toss them into the crate where they clunked against the items he’d already thrown in.

“Yes?”

His low voice at her feet startled her, and she drew in a sharp breath. Vincent dragged his cloak from the foot of the cot and swiftly rolled it into a tight bundle. Two strides carried him to the wooden box that the Sleeping Man had rigged. He tossed his wadded cloak in, and lifting the crate in hand and claw, he strode back to the first crate and upended everything into it.

The noisy clamor marked his location again, and Tifa turned her head in that direction.

“Vincent? What’s the matter?” She spoke again in a breathy whisper to keep her voice from cracking into incoherence.

Vincent tossed the empty box aside and straightened to his full height. His eyes skimmed across her anxious face as he swept an appraising glance around the cave. He didn’t want to leave anything behind that he could use. Satisfied that he hadn’t missed anything, he lifted the crate and carried it across the cave to drop it into the sand beside the hydraulic door. Deliberately avoiding her question, he quickly walked over to the release mechanism and lifted his fingers to the circular plate embedded in the craggy wall. Again, the metal gave reluctantly beneath the pressure, and he clenched his jaw as he pushed harder.

Tifa couldn’t see him anymore, and since he hadn’t bothered to answer her, she didn’t know where he’d gone. She wanted to be irritated at him, but she was too scared and too tired. She would just have to ask him again. Maybe he hadn’t heard her.

“Please…what’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

Yet.

His quiet response didn’t reflect the fact that he spoke through gritted teeth, and his dispassionate tone set her mind at ease. She let her eyelids slip closed over her feverish eyes as she thought about whether she wanted to ask him what he was doing or not, but she decided she didn’t really care anymore.

The metal plate finally seated with its typical resonating clunk and the familiar hiss of the hydraulic mechanism kicking into operation. Familiar to him anyway, but not to Tifa Lockheart.

Despite her weariness, her eyes flew open at the sound, and she listened suspiciously to the dull rumbling of the door mechanism.

“Where are…we?!” She’d forgotten to whisper in her surprise, and she hardly recognized the broken croak that emerged from her throat as human speech. She opened her mouth to ask her question again, but a gasp emerged instead as a brilliant flood of white light suddenly sliced through the darkness and washed over face. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to turn her head away, finally managing to fumble her blanket up to shield her face.

Blinking in the bright radiance from the inner cavern, Vincent swiftly crossed the sandy floor and bent to shove the box through the widening gap. Then he moved to her side. His eyes had already adapted in the few paces it took to reach her, and he gazed down at her covered face in bemusement. With a shake of his head, he raised his eyes to the cave entrance. His pupils contracted to pinpoints, he couldn’t see a thing beyond the glittering curtain of rain just beyond the threshold. Still, he knew what was out there, and he’d best not waste another minute. He lowered his eyes to her again and found that she’d drawn the blanket down far enough to peer up at him over the hem. Under different circumstances and in another place, he might have smiled at the mixture of irritation and apprehension in her questioning brown eyes. He knelt as he finally answered her question.

“The Sleeping Man Cave.”

He held her gaze as he watched her eyes fill with surprise, then disbelief. “This…isn’t…” Her stunned whisper turned into a strangled croak of surprise when Vincent abruptly leaned in and slipped his arms beneath her. Her breath held captive in her lungs, she slowly blinked in astonishment as he carefully gathered her to him, blankets and all. The cot creaked beneath her as he effortlessly lifted her against his chest and straightened. He shuttered his eyes and looked away from her as he turned toward the door.

“However, we are relocating.”

His matter of fact statement filled her with confusion. Her eyes wide, she stared up into his serene face, her gaze roving across his flawless skin, painted a fine ivory in the white light. His thick black hair, wetly plastered against his cheekbones, starkly delineated his paleness. His crimson irises burned brightly, and despite his calm voice, his eyes contained a fierce light that seemed to indicate that something had Valentine riled up, but it was hard to tell with him. She could just ask him, but she was so very tired, and he probably wouldn’t tell her anyway. Her head buzzed as though a swarm of bees had taken up residence in her gray matter and were now duly annoyed at the movement. Her heavy eyelids were finally winning the war too. The effort of keeping them open had become more than she could manage, and so she let them slip closed as her mind sank slowly into a warm haze. Already half gone, she turned her cheek into Vincent’s soaked shirt.

“You’re…wet…” She murmured beneath her breath.

Vincent darted a glance into her face as he turned sideways to carry her through the door. Her eyes were now lightly closed, and her lower lip trembled with the slight shivers that still coursed through her body. Her brief period of lucidity had lightened his heart, but she already seemed to be fading away again.

“Please accept my apology.” He murmured in response, even though he suspected her comment had been elicited more from concern than complaint. He simply felt compelled to say anything that might keep her talking; keep her with him.

She sighed. “…S’ooo…kaaaay…”

Vincent shot another glance at the darkened cave entrance just before he cleared the wide frame. He couldn’t see them, but he could sense them, just outside. He could smell them, and he could almost hear them move through the water and across the ground. With a sharp kick, he knocked the box out of his path and whirled toward the stairs. Fighting the compulsion to break into a full run, he stalked across the concrete floor, turning sideways to clamber up the metal steps.

Thankfully, the door into the control room still stood ajar from his previous hasty departure, and he carried Tifa over the threshold, kicking the door shut behind him. He didn’t have any influence over the outer door, but this one he could immediately secure.

Swiftly, he moved to the narrow bed and gently lowered her to the mattress, the persistent alarms from the console clanging inside his head. He cautiously drew his arms from beneath her and tried to straighten, but found that she’d clutched a fistful of his wet shirt in her hand. His gaze traveled to her face to discover that her eyes were closed, apparently oblivious to his actions. Slowly, so as not to disturb her, he gently removed her fingers from his shirt and stood. She didn’t even stir.

A dull thud, more felt than heard over the deafening clamor from the console, signaled the activation of the outer door, and he finally turned away from his intent appraisal of her still countenance.

Without another moment of hesitation, Vincent strode to the electronic panel and flipped the two switches to the off position, silencing the strident, high-pitched alert. That done, he headed for the doorway, pausing to dart a quick look at the motionless form on the bed before he opened the door and slipped through, silently closing it behind him.

Tifa stood just outside the door and shivered in the cool morning air, the autumn chill raising goosebumps on her bare arms. A hint of sadness touched her heart. Winter would come soon, and she wasn’t ready. Already an early snowfall draped the highest mountain horns. She bent to pick up the paper at her feet, turning back to climb the porch steps as she drew off the rubber band and shook the paper open to the headlines. Her eyes widened at sight of the blank page. Quickly, she tore through the rest of the newspaper, perplexed as to where all the words and the photographs had gone.

“Teeeeeeeeeeefaaaaaaaaa……….”

The paper fluttered to her feet as she turned to look at the open second-story window. “Papa? That you?”

“Go on now, girl. You don’t belong here no more. So, go on.”

“What?!” She took a couple of backwards steps to see who spoke from her window. “Papa? What are you talking about? I live here.”

The faceless voice from the window remained silent. In fact, now that she really thought about it, everything around her was…silent.

Slowly, she rotated in place until the empty town square came into sight, the rickety water tower structure dominating the view. A chilly gust of wind blew down through the narrow mountain gap and set her loosened hair astir. Curled, brown leaves from the Shinra Mansion grove skittered along the cobblestones as she wildly looked around at the vacant doorways, the unlit windows.

“Where is everybody?”

“When did it get so dark?”

She raised her head to stare in amazement at the thousands of sparkling diamonds in the night sky. So beautiful…

“Hey you!”

Tifa whirled back to the window to see a pair of glowing blue eyes beneath a head of spiky blonde hair. She propped her fists on her hips in annoyance.

“Cloud Strife, what are you doing in my room?”

A wide grin spread across his face. “Just bein’ a nosy parker. Readin’ your mail. Checkin’ out your drawers. Stuff like that. Wanna come up and play some tunes with me?”

Tifa shrugged. “Sure.” Leaping up the steps, she threw the front door wide and sprang over the threshold into the…

Living room…?

Tifa stood in the center of a narrow hallway, a threadbare carpet beneath her bare feet. Candlelit sconces provided the only light, and malevolent shadows capered across the walls. She shivered at the eerie sound of laughter from below.

From below? Downstairs? All of her friends were down there. In the hotel lobby. Without her.

She broke into a fast walk, and then a trot, but the corridor went on and on. She knew the landing to the wide stairway should be just ahead. Finally she broke into a sprint, the laughing shadows racing alongside and dogging her heels. Faster and faster, she ran, until the flaming wall sconces and recessed doorways flew past in a blur. She ran until her ragged breath burned her throat raw. The corridor stretched endlessly ahead. Abruptly, she skidded to a stop and whirled around to look behind. The dim hallway extended for miles behind her too. She’d never reach the end. Her mind numb with fear, she fell to her knees.

Where did everybody go?

“Hey you.”

Tifa lifted her eyes. Cloud stood over her, his feet widely planted to the floor and his arms folded over his chest.

“You’re like…in the road.”

“Oh, sorry.” She climbed to her feet, brushing her knees as she stood.

“Nah, it’s okay.”

Tifa shyly looked into his glowing irises and clasped her hands behind her back. Her eyes brightened as an idea came to her.

“Hey, Cloud…would you like to…er…go with me…to check out the rides? Or maybe the chocobo races?”

Her tentative smile fell from her face as he started to shake his head. “Gonna have to take a rain check on that.”

Suddenly, Aeris peeked at her from around Cloud’s broad shoulder, her slim arms wrapped around his waist from behind.

“Hi, Tifa.” She beamed happily at her.

Tifa sighed. “Hi, Aeris.” She looked down at her toes to hide the disappointment in her eyes.

“Now you know how I felt.” Tifa looked up to find Jesse at her elbow.

“What do you mean?”

The copper-haired girl smiled sadly and tilted her head to the side.

“I wanted Wedge, but he couldn’t see anybody but you.”

“Ah, no…” Tifa vehemently shook her head. “Wedge and I never …ah…I didn’t know…

“You know…you never gave me the time of day…”

Startled, Tifa looked down at the little blonde haired boy, and her heart quailed at the accusation in his blue eyes.

“I know…I’m sorry…”

“It’s okay, I knew I wasn’t good enough…for you…”

“No! That wasn’t it at all…”

“Hey, Tifa!” She turned her head to see Cloud waving at her from the edge of the water, Aeris smiling sweetly at her from beside him. She waved at her. “Come on in! The water’s warm!”

Tifa shivered in the cold wind. “No way! It’s freezing!” She wriggled her toes in the sand. When she looked up, they were gone.

“Cloud?”

“Aeris?”

She slowly turned in a circle. The whole beach was deserted.

Where did everybody go?

Barrett brushed past her.

“Hey, where are you going? Barrett?” He didn’t answer her. He wouldn’t even look at her. Bewildered, she watched him until Yuffie cartwheeled past.

“Yuffie! Wait up!” Tifa tried to lift her feet, to follow after her two friends, but her feet were good and stuck.

“What the…”

She almost fell forward in surprise when a hand slapped her on the back. “Hey, girl. Quit bein’ such a stick in the mud. Let’s go.” She gaped up into Cid Highwind’s grinning face. He shrugged. “Oh well, see ya there.” He turned and walked away.

Tifa frowned. “Where?”

“Hey, Tifa…” Cait Sith and his mog bounced into view. “Want me to tell your fortune?”

“Sure…okay…” She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear her fortune.

She watched Cait Sith perform his fortune telling gyrations in silence until he finally produced his prognostication. He bowed his crowned head in dejection.

“Poor Tifa…” He turned and shuffled away.

“Wait! What did it say? Come back!” Wildly, she looked around. Cait had vanished. Along with everyone else.

“Please, don’t leave me!” She struggled to free her feet again, but the clinging sand would not let go.

“Come back! Don’t leave me here!”

“They’re not coming.” She whipped her head to the side at the flatly spoken words. Vincent Valentine leaned back in his chair with his arms folded and his gold-plated boots, crossed at the ankle, propped on the round table. The gaily-colored beach umbrella shaded his pale face, the parts that weren’t hidden by his high collar and the red bandana anyway.

“You seem surprised.” Although his inflectionless tone revealed no anger, she shuddered at the sight of his cool crimson eyes.

“Well…ah…this doesn’t seem like your kind of place…exactly…” She wrapped her arms around her shivering body.

“Is that so?”

Deliberately, Vincent dropped his feet to the ground and stood. Without another word to her, he turned and walked away.

“No! Wait! I didn’t mean…” Tears sprang to her eyes as she watched him leave. There would be no one else. Everyone else had gone.

“Vincent! Please, don’t go!” Stolidly, he climbed the stone steps and disappeared. She might as well have been invisible for all the attention he paid to her pleas.

“Vincent…” She clamped her mouth shut and angrily dashed the tears from her eyes. She would not humiliate herself by begging.

“Well, well. If it isn’t Miss Lockheart.” Tifa froze. She knew that derisive voice. Slowly, she turned in place. Her small hands clenched into tight fists at the smirk on the red-headed Turk’s scarred face.

“Just passing by?” She remarked with forced casualness.

“Actually…no.” Reno’s lips stretched in a thin smile. “I’ve been ordered to apprehend you. Seems you skipped out on your own execution. One must pay for one’s crimes you know.”

“What?! But all that’s over with…Shinra’s gone…”

“Whatever.” Reno shrugged. “Orders are orders.”

“But…that isn’t what you said…in the train tunnel…

“Train tunnel?” Reno took a menacing step toward her.

Tifa stepped back at the glint of determination in the Turk’s green eyes. A blast of cold wind tore her hair from her face and propelled her back another few steps.

“That’s right.” Reno’s cold smile broadened. “Just a couple more…”

She jerked her head around to look, and her heart slammed into her throat at the beautiful vista of the ocean from atop the sheer drop just a few inches behind her. She could hear the crash of the waves spuming over the jagged rocks a hundred feet down. How had she ended up on the Wind Cliffs?

Instinctively, she sprang forward, veering away to avoid the tall Turk, but her flight came to an abrupt end when the other two Turks appeared in her path. Rude shoved her around to face the cliff and each one grabbed her by an elbow. She kicked and twisted as the stony faced Turks lifted her off her feet, but the two seemed impervious to her efforts to break free. Within seconds, she teetered on the edge of the cliff, the hands on her arms the only thing keeping her in place. Her breath tearing through her throat, she stared wildly at the tide washed rocks far, far below.

“Please don’t do this!” Her raw throat convulsed as the words burst from her mouth. “It’s over! It’s all over!”

Elena smirked. “Yep, it’s over all right. See ya.”

A hard shove at her back launched her into space. Caught in the wind, she tumbled end over end.

“Nooooooooooooooooo!”

Reno yelled after her. “Hey! Don’t take it personally! It’s my job!”

“But I thought…it was all over…” She whispered.

“No, it’s not.”

“What?” Tifa turned to find Aeris at the sink. “Hey, what are you doing here in my kitchen?”

Aeris smiled beatifically. “Oh, just tidying up a bit.”

Tifa wrinkled her brow. “Why am I here? I thought I…” She pointed towards the ceiling in confusion and fell silent.

Aeris pursed her lips and opened a cabinet door. “Well, I don’t know...except…that life often brings us back to where we started.”

Tifa propped her hand on her hip. “Well, I don’t want to come to back. I think I’ll just…go.”

Aeris smiled as she continued to examine the contents of the cabinets. “Yes, if only it were so simple.”

“What are you looking for, anyway?” Tifa walked over to stand beside her.

“Hmmm….just something I lost…I think…I can’t remember…really…now that you ask…” She paused in thought. With a shake of her head, she returned to her search, opening one cabinet door after another.

“Well…okay…” Tifa nervously swept a hand through her hair and turned toward the door. “I’m going now. Hope you find what you’re looking for.”

Aeris shut the cabinet door with a loud bang, and Tifa spun around in surprise. A violent shiver ripped through her at the startling sight of the large white bird perched on the girl’s slim shoulder, a strange light in its predatory black eyes. The bird lifted its hooked beak to her delicate ear, and the Cetra girl nodded.

“Just remember what I said Tifa, it’s not over.”

Unconsciously, Tifa backed away, her eyes held unwillingly captive to the terrible knowledge in the other girl’s face.

“It’s not over until it’s over you know.”

Tifa’s back bumped up against the door, and she wrapped numb fingers around the knob.

“In fact, it’s only just begun.” Aeris lifted her staff and gestured toward the door. “Go now. But don’t forget. You must be ready.” The bird swiveled its head to fix her with a feral gaze.

With a short nod, Tifa yanked the door open and dove through, only to freeze in her tracks at the top of the steps.

Nibelheim burned.

“No…not…again…” Her low moan of denial caught the attention of the man beside her.

“Yes again.”

She slowly turned her head, and her thoughts slammed to a standstill. Sephiroth smiled benevolently at her. “As many times as it takes to get it right.”

He jerked the tip of his masamune from the porch and, with one gloved hand, swept the blade up over his shoulder.

Rooted to the wood, she couldn’t move when the sword came down. Terror rushed through her veins as she watched the wicked glint of light slide along the length of keen steel. She screamed.

Vincent looked sharply away from the cabinet. She hadn’t moved at all since he’d straightened her blankets and left her to sleep, still curled on her side with her face to the wall, but he’d clearly heard her gasp, as though in pain. Her studied her for a few moments, and then he reached into the back of the cabinet and drew out a small metal box. With one finger, he flipped up the latches and tossed back the lid. He stared at the contents of the first aid kit in disappointment. He’d expected more of a man who lived inside a mountain full of military armament. The corner of his mouth lifted in wry amusement. After weeks of using materia and magical potions to cure all the battle wounds and road injuries in the blink of an eye, he found himself with nothing but a bottle of aspirin, a half-used roll of gauze, a lidless tube of salve, a packet of smelling salts, and a handful of stray bandage strips. With a sigh, he gathered the salve, the aspirin, and the gauze in his fingers. Just because these household medical supplies were mundane didn’t mean they wouldn’t be effective, eventually.

Wearily, he crossed the concrete floor toward the bed, making a detour to the table to grab up one of the metal chairs. Quietly, he set the chair down beside her and sank gracelessly onto the vinyl seat. Exhaustion had finally settled in. Permanently, it seemed. He rested his arms against his knees, and his thick hair tumbled into his face as he let his head fall limply forward. Except for his brief doze in the cave, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept. It seemed like days. Probably had been days. He tended to put off sleeping as long as he could. His waking dreams never descended to the level of his nightmares. Now, he didn’t care. He just wanted to sleep.

With a hard shake of his head, he roused himself from his drowsy fog. With great effort, he dragged his eyelids open and straightened in the chair. Leaning in, Vincent looked down into her face, and his heart lurched. Empty of any sign of life, her wide, unblinking eyes were fixed on the whitewashed wall.

“Tifa…?”

Tifa stared muzzily at the wide crack where the paint had chipped away to reveal the rough cinderblock wall beneath. Her thoughts roamed sluggishly through her head as she tried to sort out where her dreams had dumped her now. Certainly, this place didn’t seem all that familiar. But then, how much could you tell from a wall?

“Tifa!”

Another familiar voice, although with a note of sharpness not often heard there. With excruciating slowness, Tifa turned her head until her blurry gaze collided with the anxious eyes of Vincent Valentine. Slowly, she blinked, and when his face finally slid into focus, his crimson eyes were filled with cool indifference. Well, she should have known. If she had seen any concern in his face or heard it in his voice, she had to know it was part of the dream, a transient quirk of her imagination. She let her gaze travel over the rest of him. This time, he’d given up the comfortable seat on the beach for a battered metal chair. With a soft exhalation of pent up air, she dropped her face into the pillow and closed her eyes, her scant supply of energy nearly spent. “I’m sorry I ran you off before…” Tifa swallowed and winced at the painful dryness in her throat. Even her breathy whisper had become a strain. “You won’t leave again will you?”

Vincent studied her pale face as he turned her words over in his mind. “I have no plans to do so.” His flat tone didn’t reflect his unspoken question. He opted for a different line of inquiry.

“How do you feel?”

She thought about his question for a moment and decided that she felt like the Highwind had landed on top of her. In the desert. With an icy breeze blowing through. The inside of her mouth felt like she’d been standing on Cactuar Island with her mouth wide open to catch the blowing sand, and her body ached so with chill that she might as well have been camping on Mt. Nibel on an autumn night.

“Fine…thirsty…how are you…”

Vincent raised an eyebrow as he bent to retrieve the canteen from beneath the bed. “I’m…well.” When he straightened up, he found her watching him sleepily from behind droopy eyelids. Suddenly reluctant to meet her gaze, he shifted his eyes away. Placing the items he carried in a fold of blanket, he diligently twisted the cap off the canteen. Now he had to look at her again, and he was somewhat relieved to find her eyes almost closed. However, he still had to get some water down her as well as the aspirin.

“Can you drink?”

Her eyes cracked open at his question, but the vagueness in her gaze indicated that this current period of awareness had nearly reached an end. Of course, he’d already known that he’d have to help her, and he was wasting precious time hoping for the situation to change. Abruptly, he jerked his chair closer with a loud scrape and leaned down to slide his arm beneath her pillow. Half expecting his actions to elicit a protest, he lifted her head and brought the canteen to her mouth.

At the touch of the cool metal against her cracked lips, Tifa opened her eyes in confusion. Her heavy eyelids flew wide at the sight of Vincent’s face so close to her own.

“Wha…?”

“Would you like a drink?” Tentatively, he tipped the canteen to trickle a bit of water over her lips. Both his calm words and the tantalizing taste of the tepid water brought her mind into sharp focus. Unconsciously, she tried to raise her right hand to grasp the metal container herself, but the slight movement beneath the blanket set her nerve endings afire and abruptly reminded her that her hand was pretty much out of commission. Her stomach churning at the memory, she drew her left hand from beneath the covers. Her round eyes frozen on his pale face, she weakly grasped the metal container as he tilted it slightly so she could drink. After a moment, she let her hand fall heavily to the blankets, and he pulled the canteen away.

“More?”

Tifa shook her head and closed her eyes in pain as the dull throb reawakened inside her cranium. She turned her cheek into the pillow and sleepily watched Vincent bend to deposit the canteen on the floor beside the bed.

“You’re…not my…dream…are you…?”

Vincent lifted thoughtful eyes to her troubled face as he straightened. He shook his head as he reached for the aspirin bottle. “No. I’m not a dream.”

More like a nightmare really…

Her short supply of words virtually used up, Tifa huddled quietly beneath the blankets and fought to keep her stubbornly weighty eyelids ajar to track his movements as he twisted the lid off the small plastic bottle and tipped several white tablets into his palm. Somehow, she wasn’t surprised when he returned his attention to her face.

Vincent held the pills out to her. “I found these aspirin in the cabinets. Will you take them?” She moved her left hand against the blanket in response to his question, and he placed four of the tablets into her open palm. With excruciating slowness, she closed them inside her fist and dragged her hand towards her mouth. Vincent retrieved the canteen from the floor again and removed the cap to hold the container ready in his claw as he patiently watched her struggle to lift her trembling hand to her mouth. Finding her futile efforts unbearable to watch, but not quite willing to actually feed the aspirin to her, he reached out to guide her hand to her mouth. Opening her palm, she managed to press the pills between her teeth, and Vincent removed his light grip to let her hand fall limply to the pillow. Quickly, he slipped his arm beneath her pillow and lifted her head as he tipped a copious amount of water over her lips and down her chin. Gulping the warm water, her face twisted in a tight grimace as the aspirins scraped a pathway down her raw, swollen throat.

“Aggghhh…” Her eyes scrunched tightly closed as her face and shoulders twisted in a convulsive shudder at the bitter aftertaste. She never did take medications well, and this time had been no exception. At the touch at her throat, she reopened her eyes to find Vincent studying her from just inches away, his crimson eyes sliding coolly over her face as he daubed the spilt water away with the blanket’s hem. Dismay filled her, and she shyly averted her gaze. Hooding his own eyes, Vincent carefully let her head down and withdrew his hand from beneath the pillow. Recapping the canteen, he twisted the strap between his metal digits and studiously gathered up all the items he’d carried over. Only then, did he look at her again. He discovered that she’d turned her head away from him and seemed to be transfixed on the barren wall once more. He’d planned to redress her wound properly with the antibiotic salve and sterile gauze bandages, but he’d decided that she’d endured enough. Rest was more important now, for both of them.

Silently, he stood and pushed the chair back. He peered down at her face to find that her eyes had already fallen shut. A sudden urge to shake her came over him; a consuming need to ask her if she was okay, to hear her say it, but he didn’t act on it. He knew now that she would be all right. She just needed time to recover, and as long as the rain continued to fall, all they had was time.

Vincent forced himself to turn his back to her and walk to the table. He carelessly dumped the articles he carried onto the scratched surface and dropped his weary gaze to the crate at his feet. He thought briefly about unpacking the crate, but decided it could wait until later. His mouth stretched widely in a sudden unrestrained yawn. He hadn’t been so tired in awhile. Everything could wait until later. The cabinets could wait. The guns could wait. The snakes could wait. In fact, he couldn’t think of a single thing that couldn’t wait.

Vincent dragged the table away from the wall, and shoved the remaining chair into the corner with the toe of his boot. He shot a glance at the door to confirm that he had indeed secured the inside latch, and he couldn’t resist one last look to make sure that Tifa Lockheart still slept. Satisfied that the situation would remain static for a while anyway, he finally sank tiredly into the chair. Crossing his arms across his chest, he threw his feet onto the tabletop and crossed his ankles. His eyelids had already sagged halfway shut by the time he settled into the most comfortable position he could find. He let his head fall back into the corner and rested his cheek against the cool wall. Let the nightmares come, the worst and the most painful in his repertoire. He was too tired to remember them. Hopefully.

The ticking of the big clock seemed to grow in volume in the silent room until the metronomic sound completely filled his head, a hypnotic rhythm that scrubbed his thoughts of all meaningful content. Almost asleep, a stray memory skipped across the still pool of his mind and disappeared. His eyelashes fluttered as a troubled frown disturbed the smooth lines of his serene face. It occurred to him that he’d forgotten something, but he just couldn’t quite remember what. His mind teetered on the sheer edge between worry and blessed oblivion, and in the end, he gave up the effort and fell away into a dreamless sleep, unbroken by any thought of guilt, betrayal or desire. And so he slept as night drew long toward morning.

In the cave below, hours after the floodwater had ebbed fully into the small space, the restless snakes still tumbled one over another. Washed from a comfortable nest by the torrential runoff that raged through the winding passages inside the mountain, they’d been dumped into the river below to wend their way into shallow water as the river rose from her banks, swimming feverishly to reach high ground. Highly irritated by their turn of misfortune, the snakes slithered their way along the walls, rising on their tails to slide across the rough surface, drawn by the warmth that still radiated from the stone. Hissing and striking at each other, they struggled in vain to find a crack or ledge that would allow them to climb from the water. Already, clots of tangled snakes covered the rickety cot and the abandoned boxes.

One rainbow colored snake, a bit smaller than most, wriggled his slim body across the craggy stone as he pushed himself up from the swamped floor. Inch by inch, he nosed his way along, basking in the relative warmth as he searched higher. For some time, he moved along, rising on his tail against the wall and sliding along until he fell back into the writhing mass of reptilian coils, somehow lucky enough to escape the snapping fangs to try again. Finally, his persistence paid off. Perhaps on the hundredth, or the hundred and first attempt, the little snake discovered the hole, just slighter rounder than his head with a promising pocket of warm air inside. Not one to pass up an opportunity, he pushed his way in. Unfortunately, he bumped up against a dead end only a few inches in. Instinctively, he coiled his tail for another push and partially withdrew his head. If his little reptilian mind had been capable of such thought, he would most surely have regretted his action. Because in the next twitch of an eyelash, all his worries ended in a fiery surge of heat, along with every transient reptilian dream, with the flip of a hair trigger switch.




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