|Author's Note: I've used some dates in this chapter as part of the plot. I tried using some arbitrarily chosen years for the dates, and they just didn't have any relevance for me. So, for better or worse, I chose 1997 as the current year in regards to the story, the year FFVII was released of course, and went from there. Seemed a good starting point. Anyway, time to get on with the tale.|
Rude quietly watched Barrett Wallace stride toward him as he assessed the sternly arranged countenance for any sign of potential threat. He noted the duffel bag slung to the man’s back as well as the wire and metal pincer-type device now attached to his right arm in place of one of his more deadly prosthetics. The experienced Turk easily concluded that Wallace had something other than confrontation on his mind, and he suspected that he knew exactly what.
Calmly, he crossed his arms and leaned back against the warm metal of the chopper’s nose. As he patiently waited, the Turk studied the scuff mark on the toe of his otherwise pristine left shoe with pursed lips, measuring the huge man’s progress by the clunk of his boots against the metal deck of the air pad. Barrett’s steps slowed as he neared, and he finally clumped to a halt a few feet away from the brawny Turk, well out of reach of his fists, the man’s weapon of choice. Although Barrett likely didn’t plan to give him a reason to use them and could probably hold his own if it came down to it. Barrett eyeballed Rude warily as the Turk raised his head to peer silently through his dark glasses into the ex-miner’s hard eyes, level with his own.
Uneasily, Barrett swept a huge hand over his beard as he wondered how best to approach the Turk. Certainly, the blank shades and expressionless face gave him no hint. Best to just jump in with both feet. He tersely nodded his head in greeting.
The Turk inclined his head in response and replied tonelessly.
“Er…you’re going to look now aren’t you?”
Rude briefly nodded again.
“Would you…er…mind if…I go along?”
Barrett waited expectantly for the Turk’s concession, but the man showed no inclination to speak and the distant sounds of voices shouting commands and the whir of the airbase machinery took precedence as a heavy silence grew between them. Barrett bit back the impatient demand that hovered on the tip of his tongue and shifted restlessly in place as he hitched the duffel bag higher on his shoulder.
“Look Rude, I know we’ve…ah…had our…ah…run-ins.”
Barrett paused as his own words prodded forth the image of Rude’s unconscious body sprawled across the metal walkway outside the outer hatch of the Shinra 26, and he compulsively winced at the memory of how he’d accidentally stepped on the man’s out flung hand and how the fingers had crunched beneath his huge boot as he’d not quite made it over him on the narrow catwalk. Hopefully the Turk wasn’t the type to hold a grudge. Taking a cautious step closer, he forced the picture from his mind and hesitantly eyed the taciturn Turk as he continued to plead his case.
“Man, you understand doncha? I wanna be there, no I gotta be there…for her…especially if we find her…ah…ya know…” He just couldn’t say the word. It was too final, and although he knew better, he was afraid if he said it then it might make it so. “…gone…I wanna be the one to…ah…take care…of her…” Barrett’s voice broke, and he clamped his mouth shut, tightening his chin against the tremble that lurked there.
Rude suddenly moved, dropping his arms and turning toward the chopper.
Barrett didn’t waste another second, bounding around the tail of the helicopter to comply with the Turk’s short directive before the man changed his mind. Tossing his duffel into the back, he stepped up into the small cabin and settled himself into the seat as he mentally formed a sufficiently heartfelt yet casual expression of gratitude, but before he could transmit the words to his lips, the deafening roar of a powerful engine tore the serene fabric of early morning asunder and drew his curious gaze to the opposite side of the airpad even as he heard a second engine explode into life.
A grin spread across his face as he scanned the beige and gray camouflage skin of the huge, awkwardly designed amphibious airplane. The remaining two engines sputtered into discordant harmony even as his gaze caught on the pale arms wildly waving from the cockpit window. He recognized Yuffie’s dark head, and he laughed aloud when she actually wiggled partway through the narrow window to get his attention. He lifted his metal prosthetic to wave back, but then he realized that she was actually pointing as well as waving, and he wrinkled his brow in puzzlement as he tried to determine where she wanted him to look, but before he could spot her target, the girl abruptly disappeared from view, and the window slammed shut. He could easily envision Cid yanking the girl back into place and personally strapping her in. He had no doubt that the pilot was going to have his hands full with Yuffie Kisaragi in the navigator’s seat, and he smirked as he wondered if Cid had remembered the bucket.
A flash of bright color flickered at the edge of his peripheral vision, and he swiveled his head around to see Red bounding across the wide platform toward the chopper, his flaming tail swishing the air behind him as he stretched out his sleek body in great leaps. Obviously, the beast must have changed his mind about going with Cid and now meant to join in the search.
Rude had already set the blades to spinning, and Barrett quickly turned to stay his take-off only to find the Turk watching the lithe beast swiftly cover the distance, his gloved hands resting idly on the controls. Clearly the Turk meant to wait, obviously giving tacit permission for Red to go too. Barrett twisted around and threw the rear door open just as the beast reached the chopper. Without a break in stride, Red agilely sprang into the back, his weight rocking the chopper slightly as he hit the floor and wriggled his large body around in the tight space to pull the door shut with his teeth, subsequently settling onto his haunches between the two rear seats. Clearing his throat, he opened his mouth to formally gain the Turk’s approval of his presence, but Rude had already turned back to the controls.
Nanaki turned his one-eyed gaze to Barrett instead. The big man tilted his head in question.
“Change yer mind?”
Nanaki nodded, his beaded locks swinging alongside his jowls. “Yes. I realized that I could put my nose to good use should there be a need to track them.” He shook his head ruefully. “I should have thought of it earlier. I’ve been a little…preoccupied…”
“Yeah, I can understand that. Good idea, too. I wouldn’t have thought it.”
Barrett swung his head around as the massive Gelnika slowly began to move across the deck. The lumbering aircraft ponderously turned onto the end of the runway as the helicopter lifted away from the ground and rose smoothly into the hazy sky. Barrett watched the plane rapidly accelerate and devour the relatively short runway too quickly, shooting off the deck to immediately drop heavily out of sight. His huge hand tightened on his knee as he waited for the clumsy craft to reappear, proof that the thing hadn’t gone cartwheeling into the waves. Unblinking, he stared, craning his neck to keep his eyes on the sky over the sea as Rude turned the nose of the chopper away from the airstrip, refusing to surrender his vigil until he knew. His stomach clinched in dread as too many seconds slipped away, and he was on the verge of asking Rude to turn the chopper when the heavy plane suddenly hove into view like a cumbersome whale scrambling for the sky. Shakily, he let out his breath in a low whistle as the Gelnika finally grabbed the air and soared into a long bank that would line it up on course for the Western Continent. Nervously, he kept his eyes on the plane until it finally vanished from his sight when Rude pointed the chopper toward the distant mountains, barely clearing the fortification as he put Junon Base behind them.
Weak with relief, Barrett fell back into his seat and shot a glance at Red only to find the beast already settled into the back with his muzzle on his paws, half asleep. Was he the only one who found it amazing every time he witnessed a successful Gelnika takeoff? He scratched his head and faced forward again, his eyes pausing on Rude’s blank face as he turned. The Turk’s eyes were focused unwaveringly on the windscreen, hooded brown irises barely visible over the earpiece of his dark glasses.
Figuring the man wouldn’t welcome idle conversation and not overly inclined to make it, Barrett brought his attention to the view through the spotless glass, and his mouth tightened in a grim frown at sight of the distant line of mountains. Soon they would fly along the face of the Junon Range to the place where the Midgar Mountains split off to dominate the rugged terrain. At some random point, no doubt chosen arbitrarily but well outside the possible area that Tifa and Vincent had gone overboard, they would commence their search. His throat tightened painfully at the realization of the monumental task before them, an impossible one even. To find her…amidst the immense crags and broken slopes of hundreds of miles of range…it would take a miracle. He could pray he supposed. He would pray, but he really didn’t know who or what to pray to. He didn’t know what he believed anymore. Was he supposed to pray to a God or Gods? Barter with fickle Fate? Send his pleas into a great cosmic recycling center of souls where a hoary bearded Cetra rode herd? What? Who? But then again, did it really matter as long as he did ask? Feigning drowsiness, Barrett crossed his arms and bowed his head, letting his chin drop to his chest. Watching Rude with one squinted eye, his lips barely moved as he silently and fervently pleaded his cause.
Okay then, you know who you are, whoever you are, whoever’s in charge of all this rigmarole, I need a favor, a miracle even, and hell I know I don’t deserve it, but she does. So…please…please…please…let me find her and when I find her…let her be…okay…when I find her…let her be smiling…
He let his breath out slowly as he raised his gaze to the sky beyond the windscreen and muttered under his breath.
That’s it then. The end. Amen.
Vincent compulsively checked the monitor for perhaps the 99th time that day. Might as well have been the first time. Or the 50th. Nothing had changed. Not yesterday. Not today. The Sleeping Man Cave still lay buried in the detritus of the explosion, the whole mess dutifully projected through the lens of the remote camera that had somehow managed to survive the blast. Tentative fingers of light stretched through a narrow crevice in the pile of crumbled rock that had once been the entrance, painting gilt striations across the shattered fragments of granite, splinters of wood, and the mangled remains of a hundred dead snakes; delineating the isolated details in a soft golden glow, the fine film of white dust that coated everything giving the whole scene the aspect of a sculptor’s artistic nightmare
Idly, he shifted his bored gaze to the exterior monitor as he raised the crumpled shirt to his mouth to bite through the thread. Nothing to see there but a glittering sea of sparkling water as far as the exterior camera could pan, deceptively pristine from this view despite the death and decay that floated just beneath the surface. At least the sun had finally erupted through the dissipating cloud cover this morning. Unfortunately, he could only imagine the warmth of daylight on his face, trapped as the two of them were inside the chilly cavern.
Drawing his eyes from the monitor, he placed the threaded needle on the top of the console and shook out the shirt. Ruefully, he eyed the clumsily mended tears, the uneven seams meandering haphazardly across the shoulder. With a shrug, he shoved the chair away from the control center and stood. He’d never professed to be a seamstress, but he supposed there wasn’t much even the most skilled tailor could do about such jagged rips anyway. As he absently turned to face the room, he paused and lifted his hand to gingerly probe his tender left shoulder, twisting his neck to examine the red welts that were all that remained of the deep slashes that had torn through muscle and tendon. Soon all evidence of his violent encounter with the wild cat would be gone.
Dismissing the minor injury, he turned to the business of donning his black shirt, slowly crossing the cool concrete floor on bare feet as he worked the sleeve up over his metal arm. By the time he’d reached her bedside, he’d dragged the shirt over his shoulders and only had the buttons left to manage. Peering down into her pallid face, he fumbled at the wayward buttons with the fingers of his right hand. His eyes narrowed as he noticed how her hair clung damply to her cheek, and with a quiet huff of frustration, he surrendered his battle with the stubborn buttons and leaned forward to touch her clammy, sweat-soaked brow with his fingertips. Her fever had broken once again. He could only hope that her condition would remain static as he’d coaxed the last of the aspirin down her only an hour ago, but he feared that the reprieve would be short.
She’d hardly stirred in the 24 hours or so prior, rousing only to gulp down a few sips of water and down the periodic dose of aspirin with Vincent’s help. She hadn’t noticed when he’d unwrapped and rebandaged her inflamed hand with the salve and gauze, despite the fact that his ministrations, though gentle, must have caused her pain. Indeed, even the explosion in the outside cave had failed to draw her from her feverish repose, despite the concussion that had shaken the very walls and brought him scrambling to his feet frantically clawing at his missing shoulder holster for his gun. Now that he thought about it though, she had reacted rather violently, albeit in her sleep, when he’d tried to feed her the soup he’d found in the cabinet, throwing up a hand with a growl of protest to upend the whole thing onto the floor between his feet, splattering his boots with the viscous substance, an event which had led to his barefooted condition now.
He shrugged and turned toward the table, raising both hand and claw to have another go at the buttons. Shinra military rations weren’t the epitome of fine cuisine, especially at room temperature. However, he’d deemed her response a result of another of her restless dreams rather than an unequivocal critique of the fare. Sliding into the corner chair, he clumsily buttoned the shirt as he inspected the various parts of the dismantled Peacemaker, meticulously arranged across the surface of a yellowed newspaper he’d retrieved from one of the drawers. He reached out and stroked the glossy wooden grip with his forefinger. Briefly, he thought that he might reassemble the gun, but the idea was met with a curious sense of apathy. Instead, he dropped his finger to the edge of the newspaper and drew the whole thing toward him.
For long minutes, he scanned the faded text around the various parts of his gun, pausing to read passages here and there. An ad for Goblin’s Bar in Midgar. Wednesday night, ladies’ night. Free beer until midnight. The corner of his mouth lifted. Lewis had always been particularly proud of the fact that Turks could get free beer anytime. Anywhere. If desired. He’d not been a drinker, but Lewis had certainly sampled the stock in many establishments around Midgar. He didn’t remember a place called Goblin’s Bar though. He moved on to an advertisement for the Mystic Park Theater’s cinema schedule. Movie titles he didn’t recognize. Actors’ names he’d never heard. And where was Mystic Park? How many movies had been made in the last 30 years? How many books penned? How many songs composed? And what had happened to Lewis? Sadness welled inside him as his eyes drifted upwards. A partial list of Shinra war casualties, the end of an article continued from another page, most lost during an ill-fated battle called the Adamantine Campaign on Wutai, the rest killed in a naval skirmish in the Windless Sea. He’d heard references to the Shinra-Wutai War here and there, but he didn’t know the history. After all, the war had played out while he slept. He sought out the dateline at the top of the page. October 13th, 1982. He blinked. His birthday. Fifteen years ago.
Suddenly, Vincent shoved the paper away, oblivious to the newly cleaned gun parts that skittered across the table as a result of his abrupt action. For good measure, he slammed his hand and claw against the table and sent it away from him with an ear-grating screech.
Agitated, he jumped to his feet, pacing across the space between table and cabinet twice before he stopped in the middle of the room and raked a hand through his hair, looking around as though he’d forgotten what he planned to do and needed a clue. His eyes froze on the open metal box he’d left on the console. Abruptly, he strode over to snatch up the threaded needle and spool of thread. Stuffing the items into the small sewing kit, he snapped the lid closed and purposefully crossed the floor to return the box to the drawer where he’d found it. That done, he forcefully slammed the drawer into place and glared at the worn countertop as though supremely annoyed that nothing else remained to be put away. He was definitely much too efficient.
He lifted his head to study the face that now peeped from beneath the edge of the blanket that she’d dragged over her head. Completely swathed in the covers, she lay on her side with her left hand curled beneath her chin, a position that she seemed to favor. With her eyes lightly closed and her respirations slow and even, she appeared to be in a sleep so deep that even her dreams couldn’t find her. He didn’t think she would awaken any time soon. Even if she did, he didn’t believe that she possessed the strength to go far.
Deliberately, he headed for the tiny bathroom and tugged his socks down from the rust pitted shower rod where he’d left them to dry. Flipping the toilet lid down, he carefully settled onto the unstable surface and pointedly directed his thoughts to the details of his plan as he drew the socks over his bare feet. Standing, he unbuckled his trousers to tuck in his shirttails. Awkwardly recinching the twin belts, he absently turned toward the sink as he mulled over the possible locations of another exit from the cavern. He knew there should be one. Nobody would be foolish enough to trust in only one means of egress. There had to be another way. He just had to find it.
Vincent reached for the faucet, but froze with his fingers on the enamel handle when his gaze caught on the image in the mirror, distaste filling his mind beneath the cool regard of the one crimson iris barely visible behind the thick locks of hair that fell across the ashen countenance, the other half of the face displaced by a wide crack that bisected the mirror diagonally.
He forced his attention away from the fractured man in the glass and turned on the tap, leaning his elbows on the rim of the sink as he cupped his hand beneath the cleansing stream of water. He should be used to his appearance by now. After all, this was hardly the first time he’d seen himself…like this. Despite the fact that he knew differently, in his mind he still appeared the same as before. In his mind, he still viewed the world through his own brown eyes, until he looked into a mirror or caught a glimpse of himself in a window or encountered his reflection in a pool of water. Then the bloody red, oddly luminous eyes always stared back, a sight that never failed to startle him, an unflinching reminder that he was indeed as alien as he felt. He couldn’t imagine a day when he’d ever find the reflection of his own face familiar, and he wasn’t sure that he wanted to.
Avoiding the mirror, Vincent splashed the water into his face, and then he bent low to drink from the tap. His thirst slaked after a moment, he straightened from the sink and turned to dry his wet face on the towel that hung draped over the shower rod. Subsequently wiping his damp palm against his shirt, he walked through the door and crossed to the table to retrieve his boots from underneath. Bending, he tugged on one boot, and then the other, gritting his teeth as he wriggled his narrow feet past the metal ankle cuffs. He stamped his feet snugly into the pointed toed boots and reached for his shoulder holster, carefully blanking his mind as his eyes skimmed across the crumpled edge of the newspaper and the disarranged pistol parts.
Vincent shrugged the leather harness into place and fastened it. Then he picked up the newly reassembled Quicksilver, and turning the pistol in fingers and claw, he inspected his handiwork. Satisfied, he retrieved the full magazine and loaded it into the gun with a decisive click. Idly, he scanned the contents of the tabletop as he slid the weapon into the holster and snapped the strap closed. His gaze paused on the handful of misshapen foil-wrapped lumps nestled amidst a scattering of shiny cartridges, and impulsively he leaned over and lifted one in his fingers. Deftly, he peeled away the foil and tossed the piece of candy into his mouth. Listening to the clock tick loudly in the room, he tilted his head back and stood quietly, his eyelashes drifting across his field of vision as the sweet chocolate melted around his teeth.
He knew quite well that he was procrastinating. The mundane process of preparing to go out had actually calmed him, and despite the need to locate a viable exit, he was no longer driven to engage in the search immediately. They couldn’t leave now anyway. Not until the floodwaters receded, and Tifa grew stronger. Still, the inactivity was leaving him too much time to think. He wanted to go, but he wanted to stay too. He didn’t relish the idea of leaving her alone even for the short time that he’d planned. With an impatient jerk of his chin, he opened his eyes fully and reached for the rock that he’d used to pin the primitively drawn map to the surface of the table, the rock that had fallen from her skirt pocket in the middle of his inept laundering efforts in the bathroom. He didn’t think her clothes would ever be the same again.
Fascinated, he cradled the strange stone in the palm of his hand and raptly watched the bright sparkles of iridescent light flash beneath the translucent ivory shell of quartz-like material, crisscrossed with bluish threads. He’d seen some unusual sights in his life, handled all sorts of materia, witnessed the strange mechanics of more than one Mako fountain, but he’d never seen anything quite like this, and he wondered how the stone had come to be deposited along the mountain path where she had found it. He rolled the stone completely over in his hand and noted that the magical dance of shifting color seemed virtually unchanged from that angle.
His curiosity sated, he moved to replace the stone, but halted when he noticed that the light had turned predominately blue and had now fallen into a steady pulse that seemed to increase in amplitude the longer he watched. At the same time, he grew aware of a creeping sensation inside his head, a warm buzz that clouded his thoughts, sapping his motivation to do anything other than stare into the azure strobe. A soft whisper touched his ears, and his mind snapped back into sync. Startled, he let the stone fall through his tingling fingers to clatter against the tabletop where it tumbled a couple of times and came to rest against the detached grip of the Peacemaker, devoid of any sign of inner illumination, looking for all the world like any other ordinary quartz rock.
Dismayed, Vincent searched his mind for any residue of the eerie phenomenon. Thankfully, he couldn’t detect anything extraordinary. Still discomfited though, he shot out his claw and swept the offensive stone into the crate that still set half under the edge of the table. What had that…thing…been doing inside his head? Or had this incident signaled the manifestation of another as yet undiscovered ability that Hojo had bestowed upon him, some sort of mental resonation that had ignited an unknown property within the stone? Then again, he could have just imagined the entire incident. At any rate, he wasn’t about to experiment any further, so the cause of the reaction would just have to remain a mystery.
The soft murmur rose again, and now that his mind was clear he realized the sound came from the bed behind him. Slowly, he turned as the indistinguishable utterances resolved into a broken but melodic hum. Unconsciously drawn to her bedside, he numbly crossed the short distance to slide into the chair beside her.
Singing. She was singing. Wasn’t that just like her? Singing even in her pain. Singing despite all that had happened over the past few days. Her barely audible words rose and fell as the tune slipped from her lips. He almost envied her capacity to dream a dream so pleasant that she would be prompted to give her reverie voice. What quality did one need to achieve the ability to create beauty in slumber? A pure heart? A guilt-free mind? An unblemished soul? How twisted was he inside to concoct the nightmares that never failed to torment him in sleep?
Tifa fell silent and stirred beneath her blanket, drawing him from his thoughts. A soft smile flitted across her lips, and her eyelashes fluttered as she nestled her cheek deeper into the pillow. At the moment, she appeared much younger than he knew her to be, a guileless child, innocent in sleep.
October 13th, 1982
He winced as the date, faithfully displayed in faded newsprint, flashed into his mind. Obviously, he hadn’t managed to shove the matter as far from his consciousness as he would have liked. With a sigh, he leaned his elbows on his knees and laced his fingers into the hard metal talons of his claw. Then he surrendered his mind to his analytical musing, despite the knowledge that to do so placed him teetering on the bare edge of a slippery slope, but he hoped if he confronted the issue then it might fade in significance.
That date, his birthday, fifteen years ago, he’d been asleep in a crypt, surrounded by disarticulated skeletons, no doubt caught in the endless cycle of his nightmare world, the images of which he’d retained in his memory despite the fact that the years had not left their mark in his body or his mind. Although he knew intellectually that he’d awakened in the year 1997, he might as well have opened his eyes in 1967, because he had no sense of the passage of time.
That date, his birthday, fifteen years ago, he would have been 42. And fifteen years before that…27. And now…he was 57, only about three months away from 58. He tightened the metal talons around his fingers as his crimson eyes found Tifa’s unmarked face.
“How old were you fifteen years ago, Miss Lockheart?”
The impulsive question emanated from Vincent’s lips in a tightly voiced whisper, the words no less harsh for their softness.
He stared at her as a tiny frown line disarranged her smooth brow.
“A little girl skipping rope in the town square?”
Did you ever stand in the shadow of that evil mansion and shudder at the idea of what atrocity might be locked inside?
“No…no…you wouldn’t have known how to imagine such a…”
Fifteen years ago, his birthday, he’d turned 42 in a netherworld of dark visions. And fifteen years before that…
She appeared before him, her hands hidden behind her back, her loosened tresses tumbling over her shoulders, spun honey in the afternoon sunlight.
“Happy Birthday, Vincent.”
He frowned up at her. “I believe you’ve mistaken me for someone else.”
“Uh uh, don’t think so. You didn’t think you could hide it from me forever did you?”
He sighed. “Lewis told you.”
“Well, he can be had pretty cheaply.”
She leaned down to peer into his shuttered eyes. “You seem very serious for a man who’s just goofing off in the square watching children play tag.”
He met her eyes, and the corner of his mouth lifted in the tiniest of smiles. Then he beckoned her closer to reply in a conspiratorial whisper. “Actually, I’m on surveillance.”
Lucrecia narrowed her green eyes. “And who or what are you surveilling?”
Vincent swept a hand toward the center of the town square. “The aforementioned children. They’ve been behaving suspiciously. I don’t believe they are what they seem.”
Lucrecia smirked. “Sad to see the mental deterioration of a bored Turk in Nibelheim.” She produced the gaily-wrapped package from behind her back. “Maybe this will help.” He took the proffered gift from her, and she dropped to the park bench beside him as he turned it over in his hands, his mouth quirking in amusement at sight of the kittens cavorting across the paper. “…Cute…”
“Well, the local shop doesn’t carry a very wide variety of anything, especially gift wrap.” She tilted her head in contemplation. “Perhaps the pink and lime stripes…”
“No, thank you all the same. My eyesight is crucial to my job.” Vincent gave the package a tentative shake. “What is it?”
She leaned her head against his shoulder. “There is only one way that you will ever know. Open it.”
Vincent moved to set the gift aside. “Maybe later.”
Lucrecia’s eyes widened in feigned alarm, and she reached to resettle the package squarely in his hands. “Oh no you don’t. Open it now.”
“What’s in it?”
“Open it and find out.”
“But what is it?”
“Tell me what it is first.”
Lucrecia growled in frustration. “You are a most difficult man, Vincent Valentine. Open the confounded thing this instant!”
He shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly. “As you wish.”
Lucrecia leveled an exaggerated glare on the Turk’s quiet face as he meticulously worked the tape free and removed the wrapping. Carefully, he aligned the edges and folded the kitten covered gift paper over and over as the seconds ticked past, forcing his lips into a thin line against a tendency to curve at the sound of her foot tapping against the cobblestone.
Completely submerged in his past to the exclusion of all else, Vincent smiled slightly as the opening of the gift played out in his mind. She had certainly not purchased the leather bound book of World Philosophy in Nibelheim, but the paperback detective novel, with its lurid cover depicting a black-coated man with a blazing gun in one hand and the arm of a scantily clad female in the other, she most assuredly had acquired at the local general store. She well knew of his eclectic taste in books. He remembered how he’d reached to remove her glasses with the intention of expressing his gratitude in a most heartfelt manner, but she’d had something else on her mind.
Lucrecia captured his fingers in hers, and brought their clasped hands to the bench between them. She ignored the annoyed frown that had drawn two lines at the bridge of his nose, and tilted her head to look directly into his face, her inquisitive eyes steady over her frameless lenses.
“Tell me, Mister Valentine, where do you see yourself in…say…fifteen years?” Suddenly, she grinned into his dark eyes. “Besides old that is?”
Vincent raised an eyebrow in astonishment. “I’ll only be 42, Dr. Hodge. I don’t think that will qualify me for the senior citizen’s home.”
“Jonas would certainly take umbrage at your inference, as he will celebrate his 43rd birthday next month.”
“Really?” She pursed her lips in thought. “He certainly is a fine looking man...”
Vincent’s eyes darkened on her contemplative face. “Is that so?”
She smiled at the dangerous undercurrent in his tone and lowered her eyes to their interlaced fingers. Turning his hand in hers, she idly rubbed her thumb across the engraved face of the heavy Turk ring on his index finger. “Seriously though, where do you see yourself in the future?”
Vincent didn’t need to think about his answer, and he spoke without hesitation.
Her eyes darted to his solemn face, searching for the slightest hint of levity. She found none. Slowly, she shook her head. “That wasn’t what I meant.”
He lifted his right hand to lightly stroke her hair. “Lucrecia…”
“Is it really that simple for you?”
“Simple?” He let his fingers drift to her cheek.
“Is it really enough for you to just…be?”
“What else is there, Lucrecia? Yesterday defies resurrection, and tomorrow eludes capture. In truth, we may only touch a single moment.”
His eyes dark with his intention, Vincent slid his hand into her hair as he lowered his lips to hers, but she turned her face sharply away, and his kiss fell astray, landing against the soft curve of her cheek. Undeterred, Vincent drew his hand from her light grasp and caught her face between both palms. Her eyelids fluttered down as his lips moved against her mouth, but she suddenly stiffened and drew away.
“Not here, Vincent.” Her anxious whisper hissed into his ears as he blinked in confusion. “Someone will see us.”
“So?” Vincent let his hands fall to slip his arms around her, bringing her close against his body as his lips traveled the line of her jaw. “Let them.”
Impatiently, she struggled against his embrace, and he released her. One elegant eyebrow lifted in surprise at her tense expression.
“Have I done something to upset you, Lucrecia?”
His strained question went unanswered as she hurriedly rose to her feet to address the man that approached, her hands fluttering nervously as she spoke.
“Professor.” A tremulous smile flickered across her face. “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting too long.”
Hojo’s pale blue eyes narrowed on the Turk’s watchful face, and Vincent met Hojo’s disdainful appraisal with a steady gaze and a slight nod. Hojo pointedly dismissed the Turk without acknowledgement and focused his undivided attention on Lucrecia. “Not at all, Lucrecia. Take as much time as you’d like. I just wanted to inform you that the preparations for the next phase of our experiment have been completed.” His teeth flashed in a wide smile. “I’ll just be going over some notes in the lab. Come when you are ready.”
Lucrecia smiled with relief. “Thank you, Professor. I’ll be there in just a few minutes.” Hojo inclined his head in agreement and walked away, casually lacing his hands behind his back as he left. Lucrecia watched him until he disappeared around the other side of the water tank, and only then did she surrender to the weight of Vincent’s quiet stare. Her eyes softened beneath his silent regard, and she smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry, Vincent, but I really must go.”
Dismayed, Vincent stood to face her, gathering her hands in his. “Stay a few minutes more. I wanted to talk to you…to ask you…”
Lucrecia pressed a finger against his lips and he fell silent again. “I can’t, Vincent. The timing of the procedure is crucial. Professor Hojo was being generous. I really have kept him waiting too long.”
Vincent’s eyes fell to their entwined hands. “Will you join me tonight for dinner?”
Lucrecia squeezed his hands. “No, not tonight, I’m sorry. I will be working into the wee hours, I’m sure.
She smiled softly. “Yes, tomorrow.”
“At dusk. At the gate. I want to walk in the meadow. We can talk then. Alright?”
Vincent studied her earnest face with keen eyes as he thought seriously about throwing her over his shoulder and taking her away with him, everybody else be damned. But in the end he simply nodded.
“I’ll be there.”
“So will I. I promise.”
…The beginning of the end, if only he’d known...
She had promised, but what good is a promise to which your heart is not bound? Not worth the wisp of breath spoken on. She had promised. Then, for days, she had evaded the debt. He’d been so secure in his possession of her affection that he’d naively accepted her transparent excuses about the project as truth, idiotically elated when she finally agreed to meet him at the Nibelheim gate for their walk almost two weeks later. Of course, a mere stroll through the grasslands was not what he’d had on his mind. He’d been so sure of her acceptance, so certain…
”Lucrecia…I’ve something I want to give you.”
“What is it, Vincent?”
He smiled proudly down into her face, so happy that he didn’t even notice that the smile she gave him in return wasn’t quite reflected in her eyes. “Give me your hand.” He held out his right hand and quietly waited.
Although she hesitated for a moment, she finally complied, stepping closer to offer her upturned palm to him. He took her fingers in his as he reached into his jacket pocket. Then, turning her hand in both of his, he moved to slip the ring onto the end of her finger, but at sight of the sparkling diamond, she abruptly and violently snatched her hand away. Startled and confused, he sought out her beautiful face even as the smile faded from his lips and his hands, empty but for the ring he held tightly pressed between two fingers, dropped limply to his side.
“Lucrecia…I thought…I just…wanted to…”
Her eyes glittering with unshed tears, she pressed a trembling hand to her mouth and shook her head vehemently. “Oh, Vincent…I’m sorry…I could never marry…you. I’m so sorry…but I…but I…I’m sorry.” She whirled away from him and fled without a backward glance.
He didn’t remember much else that day. Only that, at some point, he’d finally managed to reel his mind in from the endless and tempestuous sea of pain and bewilderment in which his thoughts had virtually drowned, to find his black wingtips half buried in the white sand of the shore, shiny and wet from the back and forth wash of the tide. Woodenly, he’d lifted his hand and opened his fingers to stare in a fog of perplexity at the brilliant diamond and warm gold circlet of the ring he’d bought her. The ring that was the symbol of all his hopes and dreams. Everything that he’d wanted in his life. The embodiment of his love for her…
…The ring that had seared a sparkling path against the blue sky to splash with little fanfare into the glittering waves. The ring that no doubt still glimmered against the white sand of the ocean floor or perhaps even adorned the undulating tentacle of a sea anemone...
Oh yes, she had shown him the foolishness of his pathetic delusions.
That day, she’d fled and left him standing in the lane in a daze, his spirit crushed beneath the pain of her rejection, a state of mind that only worsened, if that were possible, when he’d seen her in his arms.
Hojo and Lucrecia.
She’d been the bright beacon that steered him away from the storm washed rocks of his accursed life, the lifeline that kept him from sinking beneath the weight of all that he’d lost, the only woman he’d ever loved, the only person left in the whole world that loved him…
What a fool he’d been…nothing but a dumb Turk…not good enough…for her…too stupid to stop loving her…still wanting only her happiness…even when he’d known about the baby…even when he’d found out what they’d done…Hojo and Lucrecia…he should have finished it then…but dumb Turk that he was…arrogant…so certain of his own invulnerability…bested by that mad scientist who couldn’t even shoot him where it would count…no…left him bleeding on the floor…his consciousness swiftly waning along with his life’s blood even as Hojo dragged him by his ankles across the rough stone floor…
All of the loss. All of the pain his whole life long. His punishment. Unending. Eternal. Justice for all those he’d hurt. So many choices, so many critical junctures where he’d chosen the wrong road, every single time. Taken the path of least resistance straight into the deepest midnight.
Vincent choked as her anguished face flew into his mind, unfocused brown eyes full of love and pain beneath a wide, bloody gash in her brow. He groaned in despair as his face fell into hand and claw, the agony inside so great that he hardly noticed when the metal talons gouged his skin as the scene played out in his mind, a memory that he never allowed entrance into his thoughts, but had now crashed down upon his unsuspecting head.
Mama…Mama…I’ve done something terrible…”
The gun fell from his nerveless fingers to clatter to the parquet floor as he fell to his knees beside her broken body. Shakily, she reached up a bloodied hand to touch his face, her words a whisper on dying breath as she sought to reassure him.
“No, sweetheart, you did…what you…had to do…don’t blame yourself…don’t let…his…madness…carry you down into darkness…”
He gently took her hand and very carefully gathered her small, delicate body into his arms as her gaze began to falter.
“Vincent, you’ll have to take care of her…now…don’t let this…touch her…”
“No, Mama! Stay with me! You can’t die!”
A stream of blood trickled into her mouth and made a parody of her gentle smile.
“My sweet Vincent…don’t cry…my sweet son…you were born…to journey a road of beauty and light. Please…don’t…forget…stay true…to your path…don’t …stray…please….pro…mise…me…pro…mise…m…me…
“Mama…I betrayed you...”
The tortured rasp of his own ragged voice brought him around, and he shakily drew his hand and claw away from his face to find both wet with blood and tears. Trembling, he stood and blindly whirled toward the door, oblivious to the clatter of the toppled chair against the concrete floor.
The metal door hit the cinderblock wall with a loud crash and rebounded to settle softly into the airtight doorframe with a quiet hiss, silencing the noisy clatter of Vincent’s boots on the iron risers of the stairway and the fading clap of his soles against the concrete as he ran. Within seconds, only the loud, relentless ticking of the vigilant wall clock again held sway in the hushed sanctum.
Her heart wildly pounding as though she’d been running for her life, Tifa stared wide-eyed at the white, round face of the clock high on the far wall as she held herself perfectly still and quietly waited for her muddled brain to find high center. She wasn’t sure what had awakened her so abruptly, but she had the sense that someone had slammed a door. Maybe. She’d been in the middle of a strange dream. She thought. She couldn’t quite remember now.
Restlessly, she stirred beneath the heavy blankets, wincing at the stiffness in her joints as she straightened her legs and rolled onto her back, turning her eyes up to scan the gloomy expanse of tiled ceiling over her head. She felt just as she had when she’d awakened in the Junon military base after being out for seven days, her whole body permeated by a dull ache from being idle too long, and her surroundings completely unfamiliar. But Barrett had been there to enlighten her then.
The croak that emerged from her mouth barely resembled human speech, and she doubted that her words would have been comprehensible if anyone had been around to hear. The silence in the room had already told her she was alone. Any lack of a response just confirmed what she already knew.
A feeling of vulnerability assailed her, and she erupted into motion, the need to be on her feet suddenly paramount in her mind. She managed to throw off the covers and roll onto her side before the searing pain in her right hand snatched her breath from her. More carefully, she pushed herself to a sitting position with her left hand, pausing there as the room started a slow spin around her. Determined to stand, she gave her head a little shake, which only served to awaken a dull throb inside her head and did little to alleviate the dizziness. Unsteadily, she leaned on her uninjured hand and drew her legs from beneath the covers, slowly easing around to set one foot to the floor. A shiver ran through her body at the touch of the chilly concrete against her bare sole, and she fought the urge to fall back into the warm bed and bury herself in the blankets again, like a turtle inside its safe shell.
She mentally chided herself for her lack of motivation, and gingerly shoved herself to the edge of the narrow bed, drawing her bandaged hand against her stomach as she placed her other foot against the cool floor, gritting her teeth at the subsequent shiver that coursed the length of her spine. Snarled clumps of her hair fell over her shoulders as she leaned forward and shifted her weight in preparation to stand. With her fingers splayed against the edge of the thin mattress for balance, she half pushed herself up, but her legs began to tremble at the effort, and she collapsed onto the mattress beneath her.
Blankly, Tifa stared at the length of ivory satin that had slipped down her shins when she’d tried to rise. With one finger, she hesitantly traced a delicate rose embossed in the soft material that covered her thighs. Her mouth fell open in astonishment as she examined the dress she wore, the scooped neckline and bodice that fit just a bit too tightly around her chest, the tapered waistline that fell loosely around her slim middle, and the full skirt that, now loosed from beneath her, pooled softly around her feet. Then she noticed the strips of ivory silk knotted around her injured hand.
Okay, she was not awake. She’d only thought she was awake, but obviously she still moved through one of her weird dreams. Surely, Aeris and Cloud would appear at any moment to join her, clad in their own bizarre dress clothes, probably together. Maybe if she closed her eyes for a minute, she would reopen them in Nibelheim again, where Sephiroth would be waiting to run her through with his sword or maybe dance. Even that would be better then feeling so alone.
Absently, she lifted her bandaged hand to shove her hair from her face, but her fingers caught in the hopelessly tangled tresses, and she bit down on her lip when the agony exploded beneath the wrappings, her sharp intake of breath whistling audibly through her clenched teeth. Drawing her burning hand tightly into her stomach, she stared down at the incongruous sight of her bare toes peeping from beneath the hem of the satin dress, and forced her ragged respirations into an even pattern as the pain slowly abated.
So, not a dream after all. She was, most definitely, wide awake. Things did not hurt this bad when you were asleep. Unfortunately, she had no clue where she was or how long she’d been here, and she didn’t want to even imagine how she might have wound up in the dress.
With her shoulders slumped and her head bowed low, she cradled her bandaged member securely in her uninjured hand as she tried to decide if she wanted to try to stand again or just crawl back beneath the blankets. She felt as weak as an old woman bent with age and disease, and she hated feeling so helpless. Maybe if she slept for a while longer, maybe then she’d feel better, but then again, maybe she just wouldn’t get up at all.
Impulsively, Tifa wiggled her bare toes against the concrete, and a wayward giggle escaped her lips at her ridiculous situation. Clad in a gown with her hair full of rats, her boots nowhere to be seen, although she had to admit that they wouldn’t go well with the dress, and her injuries bound in strips of silk. All dressed up and nowhere to go. Actually, she felt a bit like a discarded bride or a homeless waif playing dress-up.
Still smiling, Tifa lifted her head and straightened her back, the earlier lure of the warm bed forgotten. She knew she had to get up. Now. Not later. She just needed something to support her weight like a broomstick or…a chair. Her smile faded away as she peered curiously at the capsized chair that lay on its side a few feet from the bed, her view partially obstructed by the tangled mat of hair that had fallen across one eye again. Awkwardly, she reached across with her left hand to shove the messy locks over the opposite shoulder. She dragged her gaze away from the discarded chair and raised her eyes to the large, round clock mounted high on the wall at the far end of the room, the perpetrator of that obnoxious pronounced tick tock that almost seem to echo inside her cranium. The standard black numbers stood out starkly from the white face, proudly proclaiming the time to be 10:25. She had no clue if that was A.M. or P.M.
Careful not to move her head too quickly, she let her eyes fall to the electronic console that stood against the far wall beneath the clock. She stared with interest at the bank of monitors flickering above a panel covered with buttons and knobs, but although she could see that the screens contained images, she couldn’t make them out from where she sat. Nervously, she drew her attention away from the electronic devices, and scanned the rest of the room, taking in the mostly whitewashed, mostly unadorned cinderblock walls, and the uncluttered cabinets along the wall to her right. She stiffly turned her head to note the open doorway at the foot of the bed, the edge of a porcelain sink and a mirror just barely visible beyond the doorframe. Owlishly, she rotated her head the other way to find the table to her left, the edge almost within reach, but not quite. Not close enough.
She studied the items on the table; a dismantled gun, a torn and crumpled newspaper, a scattering of tiny screws and various unidentifiable things, a creased and yellowed sheet of paper, an empty bowl, a leather glove, a pile of bullets, some other things that she didn’t really recognize and was too tired to even try.
A swatch of bright red in the periphery of her vision dragged her eyes around to halt on the blood red cloak that hung from the chair in the corner to pool across the concrete floor around the metal legs.
Where was he? Had something happened? She seemed to remember…
…A curtain of ebony hair straggling against his cheekbones, trailing down his arms, falling into his face, his shoulders quaking with grief, his face buried in his hand and the golden claw, silently weeping, his chin wet with tears…
No. No, that had been a dream. Part of her nightmare. Not real, certainly. Hadn’t it? Of course, it had. Mr. Valentine lacked the capacity for tears. Or for laughter.
Her eyes drifted back to the overturned chair. He’d been sitting beside her at some point. Vague fragments of memories floated through her mind. He had given her some really bitter tablets and spilled water on her. Random threads of reality were so intertwined with the tapestry of her feverish dreams that she couldn’t be certain, but she didn’t think that had been a product of fantasy. He had been here, probably sitting in that chair, but where had he gone? Had something happened while she slept? Another shiver shook her body as she turned speculative eyes toward the only other door in the room. Maybe the time had come to get a handle on just where she’d ended up, and see if she could find the absent Mr. Valentine at the same time. She just had to reach that chair. She drew in a long breath, and with all her weight on her one good hand, she let herself slip to the floor.
Maya opened her eyes wide as the vision faded from her mind. A strange mixture of familiarity and confusion dominated her senses in the wake of the latest image. Absently, she rolled the blue cotton of her borrowed skirt between two fingers as she tried to pin down the recognition that lay just out of reach. She knew the face of the brown haired girl sitting on a cot in a wrinkled gown, but no matter how hard she searched her memory she couldn’t recall her name. Nothing else she’d seen in the fleeting image struck a chord of familiarity. Certainly, not like that dark mansion did.
Unconsciously, Maya rose from the shaded bench just outside the deserted cottage at the edge of the square, the last before the wide clearing that spanned the distance from the town proper to the decrepit behemoth of a house that stood behind a crumbling stone wall and a wrought iron gate.
Her sandals kicking up the warm sand between her toes as she walked, she crossed the dirt lane with measured steps, her unflinching stare zeroed in on the shadowy entrance door, the great mansion beckoning her onward despite the unwelcoming exterior. She’d been here before. She was sure of it, but she couldn’t remember when or why. Perhaps if she went inside, she would recall something tangible, anything that might spark a memory that would set her feet on a pathway that would lead her to the truth of her past.
So many faces flitted through her mind, most familiar in some way, many not. Places too, fantastical places she didn’t think she’d ever been, and other places that she knew she must have gone because she could almost, just almost put a finger on where they might be. All the elusive images first came to her when she slept and stayed with her when awake, and over the past two days they had come to dominate her mind more and more frequently. She had tried so hard to claim them for her own, but then her mind would grow weary, and she would let them go for a while. But they always came back to taunt her with vague promise.
An ear-piercing screech rang from overhead, echoing between the silent buildings of the cloistered village. She paused just short of the gate to raise her eyes into the sunlight to see the dark silhouette of the winged creature circling over her head. The great bird shrieked again, the shrill cry full of imperious command, and shading her eyes with one hand, she followed his descent as he glided from the sky with wings outspread to settle on the gatepost in front of her. He cocked his sleek head to the side and planted one solemn round eye on her face.
Maya smiled sadly. “I guess you don’t want me to go in there, right?”
The young woman listened for the bird’s answer in her mind, but no response came, so she took the final three steps that would bring her to the half open gate. Ignoring the bird’s unwavering regard, she gripped the iron panel just above the intricate triangular design and purposefully pushed it inward on creaky hinges.
No…do not…do not…
Maya turned to the bird and silently queried in her mind. Why don’t you want me to go?
She had learned that the bird, although he could communicate in her mind and seemed able to understand her words, both mental or spoken, seemed to have some difficulty articulating his own message, and he sometimes became frustrated by the handicap, as though he had much to say that his avian brain would not bring to fruition.
“Why? Are you afraid?”
“Angry?” Maya knitted her brow in bewilderment. “Do you mean the house? The house is angry?”
The bird suddenly flapped his wings in agitation, and although startled, Maya stood her ground.
“Not the house then?”
No him me. No him me. Bad…bad…things…bad…down…down…well…
Maya studied the white bird for a long moment as she worked through his fragmented thoughts. Obviously, he believed the house to be dangerous, and he didn’t want her to go. She sensed that the house was not a good place to go. She knew it in her bones. Because she’d been there, but she couldn’t recall a single shard of a memory about the place. She wondered if he did.
“Have you been there?”
Yes. There. Down…down…well…
“Do you remember what happened to you there?”
The bird perched in unblinking stillness, and then he swiveled his head toward the house and screeched. Maya questioned him again, this time with her mind.
Do you remember?
Yes no. Know much…angry…anger…hurt…pain…heart…pain…
Maya’s mind suddenly filled with his inner anguish, and she cried out, startling the bird into a flutter of flight. Stunned, she pressed her hand to her mouth and watched him climb into the bright sky as she fought to hold her tears at bay, his pain resonating within her at some unconscious level, so caught up in his distress that she didn’t notice the woman’s approach.
“What’s the matter, child?”
Maya turned tear-filled eyes on Nessa’s worried face.
“Are you hurt?”
Quickly, Maya shook her head and wiped the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand, a smile coming easily to her lips at the older woman’s concern.
Nessa examined the young woman’s face closely, her doubt written in lines across her brow. “Did you remember something? Something that upset you?”
Maya turned her face skyward where the great white bird now rode the thermals high above. “I felt his…pain.” Her voice broke on the last word.
Nessa peered into the sky to find the object of Maya’s reference gliding on widespread wings toward the steep shoulder of the mountainside, a bright slash of silver against darker slate. Carefully, she schooled her face into a blank, open mask despite the skepticism that met her comprehension of the girl’s words. Of course, she meant the bird.
“The bird’s pain?”
Nessa waited in silence for a moment for Maya to expand on her simple answer, but the young woman seemed to have said all she planned to.
“The bird is hurt?”
“Yes, his heart is broken.”
Nessa pursed her lips in thought as she wondered what calamity had befallen the creature that would break his heart. But then, Maya had indicated that he hadn’t always been a bird. “Does your bird have a name?”
Maya brought her eyes around to meet Nessa’s wary gaze. A rueful smile touched her lips.
“He doesn’t remember his name. Just as I don’t remember mine.” Maya gave a tiny shrug of her shoulder. “I call him Angel since he is determined to watch over me. He doesn’t seem to mind. He doesn’t belong to me though. We are simply bound together. We were sent back together.”
“Sent back? From where?”
“I don’t remember.”
“I see.” Truthfully, Nessa didn’t know what else to say. The girl seemed to believe herself to be in communication with the strange bird, and she wasn’t about to discount her story out of hand just because she thought such a relationship improbable. At least, she had thought that the first day. Now, on the third day, after standing frozen in amazement on the back porch of the inn this morning, even closing her eyes for a full ten seconds only to reopen them on the same unchanged sight, a sea of bright flowers bobbing jauntily in the breeze, the same flowers that Maya had transplanted from an unkempt flowerbed, the same flowers that had hung limply on withered stems, their petals brown and curled. This morning they were beautiful and healthy and…taller. And there seemed to be a lot more of them. Yes, she was ready to believe almost anything about this girl.
Inevitably, Nessa’s eyes were drawn to the mansion that stood in shadow despite the bright golden light of early morning. Her troubled gaze traveled from one dirty window to the next, pausing on the curtain that fluttered through one broken pane. Had he stood in that window and looked down into the square? Might his spirit even be watching her now? A chill crept over her, a goose dancing on her grave, and she drew her shawl tightly around her shoulders and lifted her chin. No, his spirit would not stay in this dreadful place. He would have walked away into the green meadows to the sea, or maybe to the mountain peaks, perhaps to let himself be taken by the wind to vanish into one of the beautiful sunsets he had so loved.
Maya watched the older woman’s face grow still as she stared up at the old mansion, listening to the wind off the mountains sigh through the ancient pines in the quietude of the unoccupied village. Nessa’s unbraided hair moved in the breeze, the ebony tresses a silken curtain swirling darkly against her snowy white blouse and calf-length scarlet skirt, the silvered hair at her temple momentarily obliterated as the dark mane swept across one high cheekbone. A strong feeling of déjà vu crept through Maya’s mind, and she knitted her brow as she stared hard at the woman’s sad profile, her throat tightening in frustration at her inability to pin down the tauntingly elusive memory.
Sensing the younger woman’s regard, Nessa suddenly turned her head to encounter the intense green-eyed gaze, and she smiled, the laugh lines crinkling at the corners of her brown eyes.
The shadowy memory dove into the unreachable recesses of her mind, and Maya’s face fell at her failure. Nessa raised an eyebrow at the girl’s disappointed expression, her smile faltering as she noted Maya’s knotted fists.
“What? What is it?”
Maya raised her head as Nessa stepped closer, the tone of her words sharp with her concern. The honey-haired girl smiled tremulously. “Nothing.” Quickly, she turned her face toward the mountains, knowing that Nessa could see the lie in her eyes.
“Nonsense.” Nessa wasn’t going to let the issue slide. “Did my questions upset you?”
Maya shrugged with forced nonchalance. “No, they didn’t. It’s just…I don’t know…something about the way you looked…just then…seemed familiar, but I couldn’t…remember…”
“Seemed familiar in what way?”
Maya smiled brightly. “It doesn’t matter now.”
“Yes, it does matter, if it will help you remember.”
Maya looked over her shoulder toward the inn. “Was there something you wanted me to do?”
Nessa started to press the girl further, but then decided to concede to Maya’s pointed change of conversation, and she glanced back to see Myron busily sweeping the cobblestones in front of their newly acquired establishment. She had no doubt that he’d been sweeping the same spot for several minutes now, at least the length of time she’d been standing in front of the Shinra Mansion with Maya.
“Actually, Myron noticed you out here, and he was concerned that you might be planning to go inside the mansion by yourself.”
Maya giggled. “He probably saw me talking to Angel too, didn’t he?”
Nessa tactfully remained silent, giving Myron a reassuring wave when she noticed him looking their way.
“I know he thinks I’m nuts.” Maya’s smile suddenly faded away, and she looked down at her sandals. “You probably think so too.”
Nessa sighed and folded her arms across her bosom as she studied the top of the girl’s bent head. “No, I don’t. I don’t know what to think, but I don’t think you are crazy.”
“You know what? I don’t know what to think either. It’s so strange…” Maya lifted her head, her eyes full of earnestness and a plea for understanding. “I keep seeing things…people…places…in my sleep, and more and more…when I’m awake too. But none of the things I see have any meaning for me. I see them, I feel like I should know them, but I can’t remember them. I don’t even know who I am. Where I came from. And yet, I sense all these…I don’t know how to describe it…all this knowledge inside me that I can tap into when I need it, but that I can’t touch any other time. I don’t know…” She dropped her eyes to the ground again. “I feel like a newborn baby, and at the same time, I feel so old.” Maya folded her arms protectively across her waist. “I do sound nuts. I probably am nuts. I don’t even know what I’m talking about really.”
Nessa laid a hand on Maya’s shoulder. “No, I think I understand what you mean. Maybe what you are seeing are fragments of your past, your memories, things you already knew before you lost your memory. Surely, as time passes you will remember, these visions will come to have meaning for you, your buried knowledge…”
Maya continued as though she hadn’t heard Nessa speak. “I feel things too. Feel things deep inside, feelings that belong to others.” Suddenly, she met Nessa’s eyes, the emerald irises awash in unshed tears. “I feel your pain. Every night, I feel you cry, and I feel the gnawing emptiness of your loss…and I know Myron’s fear..and his uncertainty when he isn’t occupied…and he looks at you…”
Nessa jerked her hand from the girl’s shoulder as though burned and took a step back as Maya stumbled on, her distress growing with each compulsive word.
“…And I see a…darkness inside you…and I don’t know what it means…a void…a…yawning pit…I don’t even know what to call it…but it frightens me…because it…because it…consumes…you…”
Maya tore her frantic eyes away from the shock in Nessa’s face, and she whirled away and ran, the thick coils of hair bouncing against her back as she fairly flew across the clearing. Making no attempt to stop her, Nessa numbly listened to the slap of the girl’s sandals against the cobblestones when she turned onto the pavement leading out of town toward the mountain trail, her ears deaf to the sound as her stunned mind scrambled for solid ground, only to finally coalesce around one inescapable realization. The young woman had somehow sensed her awareness of her own impending death.
Poor child…to have to bear my burden as well as your own…
“What’s happened? What’s the matter?”
Nessa lifted her head at Myron’s excited voice behind her. Forcing a smile to her face, she spun to face him, her wide skirt whirling around her slim calves as she turned. Her smile widened at the sight of his still bent glasses now askew from his race across the square, his ponytail already straggling loose from the rubber band, and the broom still in one hand. “Not a thing, Myron.”
Myron stepped past her to point in the direction of the fleeing girl. “But…but she’s run away. We should go after her, Nessie. It’s dangerous out there.”
Nessa looked up to find the silver and white bird wheeling on spread wings to follow Maya’s flight from above.
“Don’t worry about her, Myron. She is in the company of an angel.” Nessa purposefully turned toward the inn, her faltering smile waning beneath the weight of her sadness now that he couldn’t see her face. “In fact, I believe she may well be an angel. Let her go.”
Myron scratched his head in bewilderment as he worriedly watched the girl disappear around a distant curve in the trail. “But…but…Nessa…” He looked over his shoulder to find his wife gone. “Nessa?” Hurriedly, he whirled around just in time to see her cross the threshold into the inn. She’d managed to escape before he could ask any questions of her.
He stood quietly as he wondered what had happened here; what had passed between the two women to cause Maya to run off alone and to bring that heaviness to Nessa’s voice, that tone of utter sorrow that she sought to hide from him with her feigned gaiety, but he knew her too well. Something had happened here that had distressed both women, and he suspected that Nessa wouldn’t tell him of it. He wouldn’t know, just as he still didn’t know what was bothering his wife, what compelled her to stealthily slip from their bed in the wee hours and walk through the unlit village at night. His hand tightened around the handle of the broom. Maybe it was time he confronted her and just asked her straight out. She could try to evade the issue, but despite her adeptness at evasion, he just wouldn’t let her. He had reached the point where knowing could not be worse than not knowing. Could it?
The gate squeaked behind him, and he suddenly remembered where he was standing. In front of the Shinra Mansion. Alone. Slowly, he turned in place, brandishing the broom before him in both hands as he came around. His breath caught in his throat at the sight of the wrought iron gate moving slightly in the breeze, and then his shoulders slumped weakly as he realized that the wind had been solely responsible for the gate’s movement. Relieved that nothing lurked behind him, he chuckled nervously. What had he expected anyway? That some skeletal specter had decided to go for a stroll in broad daylight?
Pointedly, he turned his back on the inimical house and forced himself to stroll away, whistling thinly in what he hoped would emphasize his nonchalance, but only served to highlight his anxiety. Behind him, the gate squeaked again, more loudly this time, or so it seemed in his oversensitive mind. Surrendering all pretense at indifference, he exploded into a sprint, stumbling a couple of times over his own feet as he raced across the square. He didn’t breathe again until he’d slammed the front door of the inn behind him. His hand still latched around the doorknob, he leaned back against the sturdy wood and waited for his heart to settle down. Then he jabbed the broom, handle side down, into the umbrella stand and went in search of his wife.
The distant noise, at first only audible as an intermittent, but persistent, buzz in his ears, like a swarm of pesky gnats along a creek bank on a warm summer evening or the low murmur of a shifting crowd inside a richly decorated ballroom, skimmed around the outer perimeter of his vacant mind, not penetrating into the guarded interior, not marring the placid pool of non-thought, not worthy of his attention.
Minutes passed as the sound receded and ebbed. Receded and ebbed. The wash of the tide against the Nibelheim shore. Hushed footsteps moving back and forth outside a half open doorway. The rise and fall of the distant laughter of children playing hide and seek in the rain. Perhaps only mere seconds had ticked past, or maybe even hours. Days. Weeks. Time telescoped or elongated. He really didn’t know. Couldn’t know, huddled as he was in the most distant corner of his consciousness, balanced perfectly on that margin between blank oblivion and subtle awareness. Perfect peace. Restful. Undemanding. Finite.
Inevitably, the unwelcome intruder, the source of the bothersome, but thus far easily dismissed sound, drew nearer, and the sound began to swell, first into the soft hum of a fan, and then into the rhythmic churn of a ship’s screws muted through an iron hull, growing steadily until, finally, the sound became obtrusive to the point that the insensate man, who sat with his arms wrapped tightly about his legs and his cold cheek turned against one knee, could no longer ignore it. Languidly, he lifted his head a couple of inches to listen, his thought processes barely active until the sound resolved into the familiar thrum of a helicopter. His identification of the machine, as well as the immediately subsequent realization that the machine seemed headed his way, dumped his mind squarely back into the conscious world.
Instinctively, he sprang to his feet, his eyes darting wildly around him into the almost impenetrable darkness as the volume of the rotating chopper blades increased exponentially with each passing second. Mentally, he scrambled to orient himself to the direction from which the threat would come even as he numbly realized that he didn’t have the slightest idea where he was, and he had no desire to cogitate further on the matter. The roar of the chopper had increased to the point that he couldn’t even think straight, the throbbing beat of the blades crowding the space all around him, resonating inside his head, rattling the teeth in his mouth, and stealing his capacity for reason.
For the second time that day, Vincent Valentine slashed the skin beneath his thick hair as he slammed his hand and claw against his ears, a reflexive reaction to the undifferentiated, bone-rattling din. Fortunately, the resultant pain served to focus his mind on the need for escape, and he exploded into motion, his boots clanging against the metallic surface as he ran, the clamor buried within the tumultuous whirlwind of catastrophic sound.
Unable to see anything in the deep gloom, Vincent would have crashed dead on into the unyielding wall, but his preternatural senses, still intact despite his disorientation, detected the presence of the barrier just in time, and he came to an abrupt halt, whirling wildly back the other way, but standing rooted to the spot at his inability to determine any direction to go. He’d be a fool to race blindly through the darkness. His heart pounding in his chest, he fell back against the barrier and brought his hand and claw to his head again, a futile attempt to block the din from his sensitive ears as best he could while he prayed for the madness to stop.
“What’s that over there? Would ya hit the lights?”
Barrett peered into the back of the cave as Rude activated the brilliant spotlight and sent it skating across the rock walls, easily holding the chopper steady in hover inside the small cavern.
“Over there. Shine it down in toward the far left.”
Rude complied, and Barrett sighed wearily as the shadowy, human-shaped form turned out to be nothing but a smooth, elongated boulder and a pile of scattered stones. He slumped into his seat. “Okay, that’s enough. Ain’t nothin’ here.”
Nanaki absently cocked his head in contemplation. “You know, this cavern is rather odd.”
Barrett shot a glance over his shoulder at the beast who was currently absorbed in his appraisal of the concave rock wall through the side window behind Rude’s seat.
“Ain’t nothin’ strange ‘cept the fact that’s it’s empty.”
“Well, that’s one of the aspects about it that I find strange.”
“The cavern seems almost too empty, too devoid of typical cave features.
“Well, you know, Barrett. You were a miner. Doesn’t this cavern seem manufactured to you?”
Barrett scratched his head as he took another look, this time with a different perspective.
“Well, yeah. It does look manmade. It’s too…ya know…symmetrical…but so what? Most likely an abandoned mythril mine site.”
“I don’t know. It wouldn’t be very accessible this high up the cliff face…”
“Well, ya made my point. That’s prob’ly why it was abandoned. That and the fact that the mythril veins are richer down south.”
Rude abruptly switched off the spotlight. “Are we done here?”
“Yeah, we are. Let’s get the show on the road. Time’s awastin’.”
Nanaki dropped onto his haunches and stretched his front paws out across the seat as Rude swung the chopper out of the wide cave entrance. Despite his relaxed position, his golden eye continuously scanned the terrain through the window as the Turk slowly moved the chopper along the steep mountain face, so engrossed in the details of the landscape that only his ears moved when the Turk spoke.
“We’ve exhausted our search of this area.” Rude inclined his head slightly toward the windscreen. “We can move our search east of here or we can cross the ridge to the valley beyond.”
Barrett pursed his lips in thought. “You know, I really don’t think the explosion carried the ship this far west. I think we oughta head on to the east and search the mountains closer in to Midgar.”
Nanaki shook his head at Barrett’s evaluation. “No, we should search the valley. We really don’t know how far the ship was carried, and we are already here.”
“Yeah, you’re right, Red. I’m just gettin’ anxious.”
Rude lifted the chopper up out of the narrow canyon and sent the sleek craft soaring out over the sere mountainside, turning the nose into a gentle climb toward the crest of the high mountain ridge. Nanaki watched the thin cleft of the canyon fade away into the fractured terrain as they gained altitude, still pondering the presence of the obviously manmade cavern in such an isolated location, especially in a canyon so well hidden that they would have never caught sight of it if they hadn’t been skimming low to follow the contour of the land. Still, it was merely a curiosity, one that he didn’t have time to puzzle over right now. With that mental reminder, he shifted his gaze to the craggy, barren rock of the mountain’s crest, again committing his mind fully to the search for Tifa and Vincent as the chopper floated slowly over the broken, fissured ground. Nanaki prayed they wouldn’t find a sign of them here, because he didn’t think they would be alive if they found them up here, but he looked carefully anyway.
The ground abruptly fell away as Rude sent the chopper swooping in over the valley on the far side of the ridge, and Nanaki’s heart shot into his throat, but it wasn’t from the increase in speed or the precipitate drop in altitude, but rather the alien sea of sparkling water that had obliterated the grasslands for as far as he could see.
“Do I see what I think I do?” Nanaki couldn’t tear his disbelieving eyes from the window.
Barrett answered grimly. “Oh yeah, you see it all right. Damn valley’s gone.”
Forgoing any commentary of his own, Rude brought the chopper down to glide along the surface of the water, slowing the forward velocity to a veritable crawl as he peered down through his window. Nanaki wasn’t sure which hit him first, the odious stench of decay or the sight of the sickly white, bloated bodies of dead fish, now rolling lazily beneath the downward thrust of the rotating blades. Either one would be more than sufficient to drive the gorge into his throat, the acid burning a path all the way up.
Barrett clapped his hand over his mouth as he gagged. He dragged in a noisy breath and struggled to quell the nausea in his stomach, frantically turning his burning eyes to the pilot of the chopper. Despite his physical discomfort, he frowned in irritation that the Turk seemed unaffected by the morbid scene below or the putrid aroma.
Barrett opened his mouth to speak, but instead choked on the thick air that had permeated the interior of the cabin. Instead, he jabbed the air with his metal prosthetic in a speechless, but emphatic gesture to Rude to take the chopper back up. However, the Turk didn’t see him, and wouldn’t have responded accordingly if he had. Rude had turned away from Barrett, his attention focused on the view of the surface through his side window.
From behind his hand, Barrett managed to get his voice past the clog at his Adam’s apple, his words spoken in a tight growl. “What…are…you…doing?! Take us up!”
Rude shook his head at the suggestion, responding to Barrett’s question tonelessly. “There’s a body here.”
Barrett huffed impatiently. “There’s lots of bodies here, and they all stink!”
Nanaki moved closer to the glass to see what Rude saw. He swallowed hard and averted his eyes, unable to look any longer.
“He means a body, Barrett.” Nanaki turned to catch the big man’s eyes. “A human body.”
Barrett turned to see the dejection in the red beast’s face, his own eyes filling with dread as his mouth moved wordlessly for a moment before he could spit his question out.
“Is it? Is it…her…is it Tifa…?”
Nanaki’s head drooped as the depression that had apparently not retreated as far as he’d thought now returned to fill him with sorrow. At the beast’s expression of abject misery, Barrett’s heart filled with fear, and his sharp voice communicated that.
“Well! Is it?! Talk to me!”
Nanaki shook his head, setting his braids to swaying. “I don’t know.”
Rude unlatched the door and shoved it open, lowering the chopper until the skids slipped beneath the water. Leaning out against his harness, he examined the floating corpse for any identifying clues, but there wasn’t much to see since the body lay facedown in the water. However, he could see from the length of the body, as well as the plaid shirt and blue overalls that the deceased was probably male, and the wispy white hair that thinly covered the man’s pate indicated that the man had been elderly, all of which effectively eliminated Tifa and Valentine.
He shot a glance over his shoulder to find Barrett anxiously watching him. “No, it’s not her. Not Valentine either.”
Barrett’s head fell bonelessly back against the headrest at the Turk’s words. “Thank you,” he mumbled beneath his breath.
Also very relieved, Nanaki returned to the window to peer at the distant range, careful to direct his attention away from the surface of the water where he knew that body, and maybe others, floated. However, a subtle movement in the periphery of his vision compelled him to look anyway. He immediately spotted a sliver of shiny silver and green lazily sliding through the murky water, and for a second or two he followed the bright glint of iridescent color with wonder as he tried to identify what species of submarine life might look like that, until the seemingly innocuous water creature abruptly veered toward the open chopper door, lifting several feet of its scaly, serpentine length from the water as it picked up speed and raised its head for the strike. Nanaki sprang to all fours in alarm.
“Get back, Rude! There’s a snake!”
Rude had returned to his appraisal of the body, pondering whether he should attempt to search the unfortunate victim for some form of identification, but at Nanaki’s shout he immediately reacted, snatching the door inward just as the snake reared into his view, impossibly wide maw open for the attack, the four inch fangs, dripping with venom in hungry anticipation. The Turk whipped around in his seat and slammed the door shut just as the snake struck out in blinding motion and thudded solidly against the metal skin of the chopper door.
Seemingly unruffled despite his near miss, Rude straightened his shades and peered out the window to watch the stunned snake writhe wildly in the water. His thin lips tightened in a slight grimace as he suppressed the urge to shudder.
Barrett had unbuckled his safety harness and half lifted himself from his seat to see the snake that Nanaki and Rude were watching, but the Turk’s broad shoulders obstructed his view. He did, however, notice an undulating movement in the water’s surface roughly fifty feet out.
“Shit! Damn snakes everywhere.” Barrett fell back into his seat and hurriedly buckled himself in. “Let’s get the hell outta here.”
In complete, although tacit agreement, Rude shifted around in his seat and took the chopper controls firmly in hand, purposefully sending the chopper skyward as Nanaki pressed his nose to the window and watched in horrified awe, unable to pull his disbelieving eyes from the multitude of reptiles now converging from all directions on their previous position. As they rose higher and the serpents shrank away beneath them, he could see them tumbling and twining in a great confused mass of scaly bodies, occasionally striking out, uncaring that they might sink their fangs into one of their brethren.
Eventually, the snakes and the dead fish and the body of the unfortunate man fell out of sight as the helicopter moved away, and Nanaki finally drew back and settled again to the floor to lay his muzzle across one paw, his throat tightening at the thought that Tifa and Vincent could be somewhere out there, beneath all that water, in that sea of poisonous snakes. Nanaki shifted his head against his front paw and rolled his eye upward to study Barrett’s dejected face. He imagined that the big man’s thoughts followed along the same track.
Barrett sat huddled in his seat with his hand wrapped around the pincer attachment of the prosthetic in his lap, breathing with his mouth open to circumvent the nauseating smell that had grown much worse since the chopper door had been ajar.
Nanaki sighed. “There’ll be more.”
Barrett knew that Red wasn’t talking about snakes, and he didn’t have to ask the red beast what he meant. “I’m afraid so.”
“I just hadn’t realized before…” Nanaki’s heavy voice trailed away.
“I know. I didn’t think about it either. I guess there are a lot of people gone…in Midgar…” Barrett’s words faltered to a stop, and he turned his unfocused gaze on the windscreen as the Turk sent the chopper high across the water toward the distant ridge to the east.
Woodenly, Barrett swiveled his head toward the Turk. “I guess I didn’t ask before. Maybe I didn’t wanna…” He paused in his speech and swallowed once, wondering if he would get an answer from the reticent man. “Were there a lot of people…killed…?”
His eyes on the swiftly approaching line of mountains in front of him, Rude nodded his head once. “Yes. Many were killed during the destruction of the top plate. More were killed when the Sector 4 plate fell, taking one side of the Sector 5 plate down with it.”
Barrett's stomach did a flip at the Turk’s words. “I saw the plate…go…I guess…I…didn’t wanna believe my own eyes…” Yes, he’d seen it collapse inward from the bridge of the Highwind, had even heard the horrendous crash despite their distance from the city, but his mind had denied the fact, conveniently shut the picture out, because it made him think of Sector 7 and his lost companions. Jesse...Biggs…Wedge…and all the people of Sector 7. The television news had said there’d been no civilian casualties, but then Shinra owned the news stations, and he just didn’t believe what the corporate news vomited onto the airwaves. The news announcers said what suited Shinra. And Shinra did what suited them.
“The casualties could have been much worse.”
Barrett turned to glare at Rude’s quiet words. Even though he recognized at some level that the Turk meant to reassure him, the seemingly offhand statement instead poured fuel on the banked anger inside him that his memories had already stirred up. He fisted his hand around one pincer in refusal to give in to a compulsion to yank the man’s face around by one of his shiny hoop earrings and punch him in the nose a few times, at least until he felt better, until he thought he’d transferred enough of his pain at the destruction of Sector 7 to Mr. Rude the Turk. But then Rude hadn’t been there that day. He hadn’t been the one to set the charge. That had been that redheaded weasel, Reno. One of these days, he would meet that man alone in a dark alley and…
Nanaki’s worried voice drew him from his pleasant reverie of the destruction he planned to do to Reno’s face, among other things, only to find Rude watching him from behind his shades, no doubt wondering at the heated glare and tightlipped smile Barrett had leveled in his direction.
Rude raised an eyebrow. “Problem?”
Barrett dragged his angry eyes to the distant mountains in front of him before he replied to Rude’s query. “Yeah, I gotta problem! Find a place to land this damn thing! Now!”
The Turk didn’t waste any breath in question, responding with immediate action at the tone of emergency in the man’s voice. He sent the helicopter sweeping back to the north, and within a few moments he spotted a fairly level shelf of ground high up the mountain slope. He cautiously lowered the chopper to set down in the middle of a thin game trail with only a few feet to spare on either side. The skids had hardly settled before Barrett flung the door wide and jumped out. His boots pounding hard against the stony ground, he raced away as his two companions watched, one in bemusement, and the other with great concern. Momentarily, the huge man vanished around a bend in the trail.
Apparently unconcerned, Rude leaned his head back against the headrest to wait, and Nanaki settled to the floor again, safe in his assumption that Barrett would return after he finished his business. Only the subtle hum of the electronics and the intermittent buzz of a grasshopper disturbed the still afternoon quiet, and the great cat’s eye drooped sleepily.
Time passed, and Rude shifted tensely in his seat. Although the Turk normally demonstrated the undemanding patience of an old, weathered tree, the view of the flooded, snake-infested valley below made him uneasy, and he didn’t want to stay in that place for very long. The longer Wallace remained gone the more edgy he became, repeatedly glancing at his wristwatch with a higher degree of irritation evident in his movement each time. Ten minutes had passed when he started tapping one shoe against the floor.
Nanaki cracked his eye open at the new sound introduced into his surroundings. Lifting his head, he peered up between the front seats to see Rude staring pointedly up the trail. As though he sensed Nanaki’s interest, he turned his head slightly to look down at him through the opaque shades.
Nervously, the red beast raised to his haunches. “Er…maybe I should go look for him?”
Rude shrugged and actually opened his mouth to refuse the tentative offer, but a loud yell tore through the warm afternoon and reverberated around the craggy bluffs. In synchronous motion, Rude drew his pistol from beneath his coat and threw the door open to jump to the ground as Nanaki erupted from the floor and completely leapt Barrett’s empty seat to land soundlessly on the ground outside the chopper.
Seconds later, they rounded the curve in the trail to find no sign of Barrett Wallace.
Vincent let his hand and claw fall from his head as he listened intently to the fading beat of the helicopter. He listened until the sound had diminished to the volume of a soft hum, and even after the sound had been swallowed completely by echoing silence, he stood quite still and continued to listen for another quarter hour. Even though he exhibited a curious lack of interest in the circumstances surrounding the presence of the machine in the first place, he reasoned in his mind that he must stay until he had ensured that the helicopter would not return, but the truth of the matter was that he found it much easier to huddle in the seductive embrace of the comforting darkness rather than confront reality.
Oh yes, he knew that he’d transformed. His anguish had been more than he could bear, and he’d not only allowed Chaos to take him, but he had welcomed the obliteration of his own mind, the blessed release from his relentless memories that only Chaos could grant him. With no regard for what might happen, he had selfishly and cowardly freed the beast and relinquished all control to his wantonness. Now he would have to face the consequences of his own weakness.
Despite the fact that he had raced far back into the deepest recesses of the cavern before he’d surrendered to the transformation, a horrible knowledge held him firmly in place; that Chaos could have entered the small control room and harmed Tifa Lockheart, and he could not bring himself to take that first step that would take him back to her. He well knew the carnage in which the beast reveled. He’d seen the demonic beast’s handiwork first hand after battle was done, and he’d rather stand here forever in the innocent darkness than discover her the subject of his violent art. However, he didn’t have that luxury, because he could not leave her alone. He had to return no matter what he might find. He didn’t want her to awaken in the unfamiliar room alone. The very image of her pale, frightened face held his mind captive and her voice filled his mind. He could hear her, calling for help, weak and feverish. He could almost feel her shivering beneath her covers, and guilt assailed him. He had abandoned her, and he didn’t even know how long ago that had been.
His face twisted in anger at his failure and his cowardice, and with a snarl, he shoved himself away from the wall and stalked across the metal-plated floor for several feet before he suddenly froze in mid-step. Based on the presence of the chopper, he had deduced some minutes past that Chaos had obviously flown to the highest reaches of the cavern and came to light just inside Vincent’s hypothetical access door before the transformation reversed. Of course, he knew now that the door did exist as he’d theorized, and that meant that he probably now stood at the top of some sort of chute or shaft that would be large enough to enable a Shinra Skylifter to enter and descend, with or without cargo, all of which meant that at some point the shaft would either take an acute downward angle or simply open into space. He would be well advised to proceed with a bit more caution.
Irritated at the need for careful exploration in this instance, he forced himself to take one step, waiting to shift his weight forward until he felt a solid surface beneath his boot. Then he slid his foot against the metal floor a few inches before he repeated the step with his other foot. For several yards, he moved in this fashion until he became aware that the darkness seemed less dense against his eyes. At that point, he halted in place and stared down at his feet as his pupils quickly adjusted to the minute addition of light into his environment. Only then did he raise his head to see the edge just ahead, barely visible against the dark metal bulkhead of the other side, so dim in the gloom that he couldn’t really discern the measure of distance that the opening spanned. However, only one more step carried him to the drop off, and he leaned out to see a tiny rectangle of white light far below.
His heart sank as he stared down the interminable length of a shaft that he recognized must descend hundreds of feet before opening into the well-lit cavern below. Whether from the stale atmosphere at the top of the deep shaft or whether from the aftereffects of his transformation, for the first time he could ever recall it happening, an attack of vertigo suddenly hit him, setting his world into a spin and jolting his heart into high gear. Automatically, he sprang back from the edge, his agile reflexes kicking in on cue, even if his mind still seemed a bit sluggish. He gave his head a hard shake, and dropped to one knee. Placing a hand flat to the floor, he leaned out to peer down the shaft again. Definitely, a long way down…hundreds and hundreds of feet…a very protracted fall if he tumbled off the edge. He could never jump that far and survive. Of course, Chaos would certainly reassert his presence if he were to try. His stomach clinched at the thought. He did not want to transform again.
His earlier vertigo already forgotten, Vincent slowly rose to his feet as he scanned the vertical wall that fell away just past his feet. He realized that the door behind must operate mechanically. The most well designed mechanical devices had to be serviced, even if a malfunction never occurred, even one located in such an apparently inaccessible location. There should be a lift here. Or a ladder of some sort.
Inevitably, Vincent found the means of descent he sought, although the tiny column of rungs had not been easy to spot, even for his acutely efficient vision. Keeping his goal firmly in sight, he walked the lip of the drop-off until he reached a position directly above the first iron rung. Looking down at the seemingly endless ladder, he could see that the climb down would be very time consuming. However, unless he surrendered to Chaos, he had little other choice. His decision made, he lowered himself to the floor, swung one leg over the edge and cautiously slid the toe of his boot against the wall as he felt for a rung. The mythril plate on his boot clanked into the metal bar, and he set his foot firmly in place. Then, with one downward glance to satisfy himself as to the stability of his position, he lowered his hand and claw to the top rung and started down.
Myron paused in the bedroom doorway when he caught sight of her sitting before the mirror. He knew that she must have heard him walking across the stone floors of the basement apartment. He’d made no effort to quiet his steps. Yet, she continued to work the comb through a handful of long ebony hair, her head bent to the task, making no acknowledgement of his presence. He raised a hand to lean into the frame, content just to watch her for the moment. Then she raised her head to meet his rapt gaze in the mirror, his gray eyes drawn into the depths of her dark irises, although she remained silent. Suddenly, she smiled, and the breath caught in his throat at the sight. Even after all these years, she still had the ability to steal the very air from his body.
The ghost of a smile wavered on his lips as her usual rejoinder sang in his mind. ”Does the word “Toad” mean anything to you, Myron?” She could never turn him into a toad though. Not because she simply couldn’t, since she wasn’t really a witch, of course. But because he was a toad already. A toad basking in the favor of a beautiful swan. All evidence of the smile vanished as his head bowed beneath the burden of his acknowledgment, sadly true. He’d always been a toad, and she’d always been a swan. He had never deserved her. Did he really want to press her into a confession that she might be leaving him to finally pursue the life she had been born to?
“What is it, Myron? You look entirely too serious.”
At her words, Myron looked up to find that she’d drawn the remainder of her long tresses over her shoulder, and had returned her attention to her grooming. Slowly, he crossed the room and halted behind her, watching her image in the mirror until she finally lifted her head again, her eyes steady on his reflection, one eyebrow quirking at his continued silence.
“If you are worried about Maya, don’t be. She will return in one piece. She just needed to be alone for a while. That’s all.”
Myron absently nodded and lifting his hands to rest on Nessa’s slim shoulders, he bent to gently kiss the crown of her head. Her hand stilled in half-stroke as he turned his cheek into her hair. “What is it, Myron?”
Reluctantly, he straightened and forced himself to meet her gaze squarely in the glass. “You are the one I’m worried about, Nessa. I want you to tell me what’s wrong.”
Nessa stared at his reflection as her thoughts churned in her head. She had known he would ask again, and she was inclined to dismiss his question. She did not want to tell him yet. But then, she couldn’t conceive of a moment that she would ever want to tell him. Should she just keep him in the dark until her illness had progressed to the point that he couldn’t help but know the truth, stumbling through the days in denial even as she weakened, until that day when her body had become so devoured by the cancer that she did not awaken? Was that right? No. Was it fair? Not hardly. Would it be difficult to tell him? Most certainly. Probably the hardest thing she had ever faced, other than the day she had turned her back on Midgar and pressed her face to Myron’s back as they sped away on that old motorcycle. So hard, in fact, that she didn’t even know if she could put voice to the words. Truthfully, she was afraid to speak the words, because the moment she told him, and he knew, then she would see her death in his eyes every time he looked at her.
Myron shifted his feet nervously at her blank expression and lengthy silence, but he still wanted an adequate response from her despite a growing inclination to let his question remain unanswered. In fact, he couldn’t stand not knowing any longer, even if he heard the worst. He had to know if she was going to leave him, so he decided to get to the point of his concern.
“Are you…unhappy…with me?”
Still caught in the tangle of her contradictory thoughts, she lifted her shoulder in a tiny shrug. “No, Myron.”
Hardly reassured by her unblinking gaze in the mirror or her monotone voice, he moved to her side and knelt on one knee. He drew in a shaky breath as he peered up at the delicate lines of her still profile. Carefully, as though her fingers might break, he gathered her hand in both of his. She didn’t seem to notice him there at all.
“Nessa, please tell me. Whatever it is that’s bothering you, I’m here for you. Surely you know that?”
She inclined her head in a barely perceptible nod. “I know.
“Then what is it? You seem so sad and restless sometimes, I just don’t know what to think...”
Nessa frowned slightly. “I know.”
“Is it this place? That mansion? Coming here?”
Unaccountably annoyed, Myron unconsciously tightened his fingers around hers as the words leapt off his tongue before he could stop them.
“Are you going to grieve for him forever, Nessa?”
At his sharp words, she finally broke free of her prolonged gaze into the reflection of her own unfocused eyes, and she bowed her head, her eyelashes fluttering closed to hide her pain.
Shame instantly filled him that he’d hurt her, and his eyes fell to their clasped hands as he futilely wished that he could set time back just a few seconds and leave his petulant question unasked.
His head shot up at her strained whisper.
“Just until I die…” …which won’t be long, merciful heaven…
“I’m…sorry…I asked that…I shouldn’t have…said that…”
“Don’t fret, Myron.”
“Don’t apologize.” She opened her eyes to the mirror again, the dark irises vacant of any emotion. “You may ask whatever you wish.”
Myron shook his head, now unwilling to continue the conversation in this vein, but before he could tell her so, she spoke, her tone now steady and matter-of-fact.
“You want to know why I walk the streets of Nibelheim at night.”
Slowly he nodded, not even surprised that she’d read his mind. It wasn’t the first time.
Dully, she replied. “Because I can’t sleep.”
He nodded in easy acceptance of her reason. He’d already figured that. The question still remained. “Why can’t you?”
Sighing, she laid the comb on the dresser and turned sideways on the bench to look down into his worried, careworn face. She might convince herself that she did not want to tell him because she didn’t want to burden him further. Then she would feel justified. But she could not escape from the truth; that her reasons had nothing to do with him and everything to do with her. She was a cowardly woman, holding her fear inside, afraid to step through the door and confront the reality of her fate. And selfish. So selfish. She longed to hold the terrible knowledge all to herself, to keep her own little world unblemished by unpleasantness as long as possible, unwilling to share her pain, reluctant to feel his grief. Unable to let him prepare. She could not do that to him. She could not live out her last days with regret that she’d cheated him. She must tell him.
She shook her head absently in denial even as she forced herself to answer him. “I…it’s…the... pain…”
Myron’s eyes jumped to her face, his throat tightening with fear. He recognized immediately that this would not be trivial. “What…pain?”
Nessa gazed at him silently as she sought the words to say, but nothing came leaping to her mind. Perhaps because she still did not want to say it. Best just to state the facts and leave out the tragic and the poetic. A bitter smile came to her lips.
Suddenly, she reached around and retrieved the discarded comb and the bright red ribbon coiled alongside. “Myron? Would you braid my hair for me please?”
He opened his mouth to protest as she pressed the comb and ribbon into his hand. Not because he didn’t know how. He’d braided her hair many times before. Not because he didn’t want to. He enjoyed touching her long silky hair, combing the tresses and plaiting them in the long braid that she customarily wore. He wanted to refuse because he suspected her request to be a diversionary ploy, but one look into her cool eyes told him that she would not accept his refusal lightly. So, he simply nodded, and without a word, rose to his feet.
Numbly, he drew her hair back over her shoulders and let her long, ebony locks fall to the floor to curl at his feet. Then he slid the ivory handled comb into her hair, and as he expertly parted out the first strands into his hand, she began to speak. And as she spoke, her words fell like coins plinking into a still pool, cool and incisive, easily distinquished, readily comprehended, fiercely denied. His ears closed, and her voice faded into a distant drone that he sought to ignore. With great diligence and care, he bent to his task, as her words slipped stealthily past his deafened ears anyway, and though he didn’t hear them, the meaning sank firmly into his mind with the tenacity of a treble-pronged hook, repulsing any attempt to expel the unwanted knowledge duly conveyed. Mechanically, he combed and braided as her voice broke and stumbled into silence. He hardly noticed. He didn’t know when his fingers began to tremble or when his breath began to hitch in his throat. Nor did he recognize the salty taste of his tears at the corners of his mouth or the inexorable slide of his glasses down his nose as he bent his head low to tie the pretty red ribbon in a perfect bow. Then the braid slipped from his nerveless fingers, and the comb clattered noiselessly against the cobblestones.
It was the alien sound of his own tortured voice that undid him, and a sob tore viciously from his throat, and his legs grew rubbery beneath him. He didn’t see her move. He just knew that suddenly she was there, wrapping her arms tightly around him, drawing him into the safe harbor of her embrace, gently stroking his hair as he pressed his face into her neck and wept. He felt so weak and helpless. He should be the one comforting her, but he could not find the strength. If he hadn’t already known before, the truth was brought home to him now. She had always been the strong one, and he would be lost…so utterly lost…without her…
Vincent didn’t know how long he’d been descending, endlessly, metal rung by metal rung, certainly not nearly as much time as he imagined. With all his concentration focused on moving as swiftly as possible while carefully placing his hands and feet so as not to complicate the situation by falling, he’d hardly noticed as the gloom had gradually receded behind the onslaught of fluorescent light from beneath. However, he did notice when he suddenly ran out of rungs, and his boot met nothing but air. Pulling himself back up to set both feet on the same rung, he shot a glance around to discover that he’d reached the point where the shaft opened into the immense chamber below. Unfortunately, it was also the point where the ladder ended.
Leaning out, he looked down past his legs to find a rail embedded in the rock wall, obviously the track for a lift. A cursory search on either side of him revealed the absence of any controls that might bring the lift to him. Naturally, most people who would use the ladder would ride the lift up. Most people did not fly up the shaft. He would have to jump, and he wasn’t at all comfortable with the idea. As far as he could tell, he still had approximately 100 feet or so to go.
Why had he allowed himself to become so emotional that he’d wound up in this fix anyway? Irritated, Vincent shifted all his weight to one side and leaned out again to assess his surroundings with a more critical eye.
Far below, he spotted a giant red “X” painted on the concrete floor, obviously the landing pad that would be the destination of the rotary winged craft that typically would descend the shaft. Off to the side, a helicopter, smaller than the Skylifter he’d seen before, rested crookedly on one skid, the main rotor blades missing. Several more sat in a haphazard line against the far wall, all in various stages of dismantlement, none fit to fly.
So far he hadn’t looked to the deepest end of the cavern, though the roar of the rushing water filled his ears and piqued his curiosity. Now, he raised his eyes to the cascading waterfall that spewed forcibly through a wide fissure high up and tumbled down over a series of craggy ledges to crash noisily into a wide circular pool, one that had obviously been constructed. The thunderous sound of the waterfall had been the distant rush he’d heard when he’d first ventured into this unusual place, which meant that he’d emerged from the shaft on the opposite end of the vast cavern from where Tifa Lockheart slept in the control room.
Reluctantly, he looked back the other way, seeking out the shelved area that he had barely explored before the closing door had urgently drawn him away. His eyes first skimmed over an interminable sea of tarp-shrouded stacks and more dismantled machinery to finally locate the first of the tall shelves. His mouth drifted ajar as he stared. If he’d needed any evidence that Chaos had been loosed, he now had it. No other entity inside the cavern could have caused such destruction. Several rows of the heavy metal racks had been knocked over in what must have been a spectacular domino effect, and the crates that had neatly lined the shelves had been dumped to the floor inside the fallen racks. Many of the wooden boxes had been shattered and the contents wildly strewn into the aisles between. Chaos had redirected Vincent’s emotional turmoil and violently vented the man’s rage and pain on the contents of the crates. He could only hope that the beast had been satisfied to stop there. He could only pray that he had started there.
Certainly, Vincent needed no other impetus to firmly set his will against allowing himself to transform again. He would jump because he had to. He had no choice. He would not let Chaos take him no matter the outcome. Tifa Lockheart’s interests would be better served if he were dead than if he were to free Chaos again. He looked down again, reassessing the situation in light of his lack of options. Perhaps he could survive that distance. After all, he’d never tried before.
Frozen in place, his anxious eyes roved over the red-slashed concrete floor below. He wanted to get back to her, but fear held him in place. Not the fear of what he might find, as earlier, not the fear of the fall, not even the fear of death, but the fear of failure. Of failing her. A ridiculous thing to hold him in place. He would never realize his failure if he did not succeed.
Impatient with his compulsive musing, he closed his eyes and threw himself backward into space, his lithe body describing a graceful back flip through the air that would carry him away from the lift equipment directly below. As he completed his somersault and arrowed down, feet first, he opened his eyes and tucked his chin to see the floor rushing upwards and utter horror jolted his whole body. He instantly knew that he would not make it. He was falling too fast.
Futilely, he threw out his hands, despite the fact that he could not claw his way back to the ladder through thin air, even knowing that there would be absolutely nothing to grasp that would stay his fall. He was going to hit the concrete hard, and despite his unusually resilient physical traits, he believed that the impact would be fatal. He squeezed his eyes closed to block out the sight of the rapidly expanding mark on the floor. A bitter laugh caught in his throat. So, he’d been wrong. He would become intimately acquainted with his failure after all.
Resigned to his fate, he waited for his fall to end, marveling at the complete absence of Chaos in his mind. Had the beast acquiesced to his wish not to transform? Oddly, his fear seemed to be gone as well, and a curious serenity flowed through him as time stretched interminably. A whisper of movement touched his cheek, and his eyelids slid languidly upwards to watch the tendrils of his own hair dance around his face. He turned his gaze downward in bemusement, and the corners of his mouth lifted in a gratified smile as the floor slowly floated up to meet him. His knees slightly bent, he lightly touched down on one wide, red leg of the expansive “X”. A bit dazed, he stood still for a moment as he stared at the red paint beneath his boots in awe. Then he whirled around and craned his neck to peer up at the distant ladder high above. He gave his head a little shake to clear his beleaguered mind.
Somehow, he had actually slowed his own fall, whether through an exercise in telekinesis or a random quirk of magic. Or perhaps Chaos had internally exerted a more benevolent aspect of his great power, the force of which he typically displayed in a spell of catastrophic destructiveness. With little knowledge of the procedures Hojo had undertaken to induce the changes in his body, and even less understanding of the bifurcated nature of his existence, that of human melded with monster, he couldn’t know for sure how he’d managed such a feat, and he didn’t know if he could ever repeat it. Vincent brought his stunned gaze back to the floor. The only thing he did know was that he was alive and well, and he still had a lot of cavern to traverse before he could get back to her.
He lifted his eyes toward the far end where he knew the control room to be though he couldn’t see the entrance from here. Impatiently, he broke into a run, diving into the narrow passageway between a pair of the draped stacks, only briefly wondering what might lie beneath the tarps as he raced past one mountainous pile after another. For several minutes, he wended his way through to the other side, the meandering aisles a veritable maze from his current perspective at ground level. He began to suspect that he’d lost his way in his haste, and he had almost decided to climb to the top of one stack to determine his location when he finally emerged into the area that Chaos had turned into his demon’s playground.
Thankfully, the tall metal racks had all fallen forward, one on top of the next, so only the contents of the scattered boxes stood in his way. He simply plowed through, nimbly sidestepping the overturned crates and easily vaulting any obstacle that completely blocked his path. As he moved through the wreckage, he noticed several garments strewn about that looked like military uniforms and a half a dozen or so rifle barrels sticking out of the end of one of the overturned boxes, the shiny blackened metal gleaming in the brilliant light of the overhead fluorescent lamps. He made a mental note to return at the first opportunity to examine the contents of the crates more closely. He could certainly use something more effective than the small Quicksilver for defense.
Vincent finally cleared the shelf area and fairly flew across the floor toward the stairs. He was very relieved to find the door to the small room closed. He didn’t think Chaos would have left the portal intact if he’d been this way. He sprang up the stairs and threw the door wide, and the very first thing he saw was the body of Tifa Lockheart curled on the concrete floor next to his overturned chair.
Numbly, he walked toward her, his boots not making a sound, his heart pounding at what he might find, but he froze in place when she suddenly moved, turning her head toward him as she drew her hand up under her chin. Her lips moved as she mumbled incoherently. He didn’t know how tightly he’d been holding himself, until his body went limp with relief. She was merely sleeping, although she had found a rather uncomfortable place to do so. Drawing in a long breath to calm his nerves, he stepped toward her.
Tifa shivered violently in the frigid air of the icy wasteland as she turned in a slow circle, her eyes darting from one snow-shrouded boulder to another. She knew the bandersnatch was tracking her, his yellowed fangs slavering as he sniffed out her trail, keen nose to the snowy ground.
A low growl reached her ears, and her eyes froze on the feral amber eyes that glowed from the darkness, as though the very thought of the beast had conjured him just for her. When did the sun go down anyway? Hadn’t it been daytime just a second ago? And what did that matter? Day or night, the damn critter was about to eat her. She turned to run, but her legs got tangled in the stupid gown, and she fell slowly to the ground, like a feather from a down pillow, or maybe a fluffy piece of lint.
She closed her eyes and tried to play possum as the growl came again, much closer, very much more threatening. Her feeble act ended when she felt the fetid breath puff warmly against her face, and she drew in on herself, making her body small, resigning herself to becoming a bandersnatch buffet. Where did all her fight go anyway? How could she give up so easily. She was too damn cold to fight, that’s what. Too hungry too. And thirsty. What’s more, she really needed to find the nearest bathroom facilities. But then, how could one expect a totally inhospitable, icy wasteland to offer such amenities anyway. Hungry bandersnatches and frostbite, yes. Maybe even a Jumping or two. Bathrooms. No. Not even so much as a portable comfort station on the snowy horizon.
“How did you manage to get here?”
Huh? Bandersnatches could talk? They made idle conversation before they chowed down?
She cracked open her eyes and stared dreamily at the gold plated boot just inches from her nose. A slight movement of her head discovered the mate close by. She swallowed hard to clear her dry throat.
She really couldn’t remember, actually. But icy wasteland and snowboard seemed to go together. Didn’t they?
Slowly, she rolled her head back to increase her visual range as her eyes traveled up the long length of dark leather boot and black clad thigh to the silver belt buckles to the double row of buttons on the black shirt to pause, impossibly high up there, on the cool crimson eyes and pale face, darkly shadowed by the thick fall of ebony hair as he peered down at her.
“Uh…I was just looking for you…” She blinked once to clear the fuzziness from her eyes, but it didn’t work. Seemed maybe the fuzziness was in her head. “Did you crash too?” She idly wondered if he could even understand her words, spoken in the gravelly voice of a 65-year-old miner who’d been smoking unfiltered cigarettes for 55 years.
“Perhaps I did.”
Tiredly, she closed her eyes for a moment, and when she opened them again, she was mildly surprised to find his face much nearer.
“You shrank.” She felt she needed to point out that fact, although she figured he probably knew it already. After all, he was the one who had shrunk. “Frog Song.” She giggled. Then she wrinkled her brow in thought. “No no, you’re not a frog. Mini. That’s right. Mini-Valentine.” She rolled her head back the other way. “I’m all confused. My head is…so…so...fat.”
Vincent’s lips twitched at her nonsensical comments, his previous concern at finding her crumpled on the floor more than mollified by her somewhat coherent, if not quite lucid, efforts at conversation.
Sitting back on one heel, he stretched out his hand to touch her forehead. Just as he feared, her fever had returned. He must have been gone for quite some time. He had dropped his guard, and he could not let that happen again. Gingerly, he gathered her up into his arms, again careful to close his claws so as not to cut her. He lifted her from the floor and stood, turning toward the bed with the intention of tucking her back into her covers to still her shivers. He didn’t notice her head loll sideways or her eyes widen in alarm at sight of the rumpled bunk. Tifa suddenly kicked out with her bare feet, struggling weakly against him. Not prepared for resistance, she almost tumbled from his hold, but he instinctively tightened his arms around her. Undeterred, he shifted her higher against his body and took another step toward the bed, but then he faltered when he caught sight of her bright-eyed glare.
“Put me down!” She pressed her left hand against his chest to emphasize her hoarse command. “I don’t want to go!”
“You wish to remain on the floor?”
“No, I want to walk myself.”
Vincent raised a skeptical eyebrow. Perhaps she was not as delirious as he’d first thought.
“I don’t know.”
“Did you fall before?”
She shook her head against his arm. “No. I couldn’t get up.”
Vincent started to ask her to elaborate, but then he decided that gaining a clear understanding of her meaning was probably not that important. However, he wasn’t about to comply despite her insistence. Instead, he carried her to the table and hooked his toe around a chair leg to drag it around. Then, he carefully deposited her in the chair, watching her closely as he withdrew his arms from beneath her, absently shaking several strands of dark hair from his metal talons as he hesitantly straightened away, ready to react if she should topple from her seat.
She moaned softly as she slumped in the chair and raised a trembling hand to her forehead. “Gods, I feel so…weak…”
Vincent wanted to scoop her up and put her back to bed, where he knew she’d be safe. And manageable, and undemanding, where he could just take care of her, with little interaction on his part required, but he quelled the urge, knowing quite well that the action would no doubt elicit further protest. So he simply waited to see what she would do.
Tifa dragged her head up despite the pervasive dizziness. She had to force herself to get up and around. Vincent still stood beside her, his arms crossed over his chest, the metal talons curved against his bare forearm, all of his attention focused on her. A shiver ran up her spine as her eyes met his unwavering gaze, a shiver that he couldn’t fail to notice.
“Would you like a blanket?”
Breaking eye contact with him, she shook her head and immediately regretted the movement.
“No…actually I need to…” Her hoarse voice stuttered to a stop, and she could feel the heat rise in her cheeks. She stared at the bandaged hand in her lap, wishing she were still in the middle of a strange dream, but she knew that she wasn’t. She didn’t know where she was or how long she’d been here, but she knew that Vincent had been the one taking care of her. The scrambled puzzle pieces of her fragmented memories told her that. And he was the only one that she had. Nothing was going to change that anytime soon. She darted a glance up at him through her eyelashes. He noticed that too, one eyebrow rising in question as he silently waited for her to finish what she’d been going to say.
She gaped at him as she tried to cough up the words she had to say. But then, why should she say anything. She didn’t really need his help, did she? She still had herself, didn’t she? She still had her own two legs. Her chin came up, and she lifted her heavy hand from her lap and weakly waved Vincent away. He merely shifted his weight to his other foot, showing no intention to step aside, acting as though he hadn’t even seen her gesture, but she knew better. He had yet to take his eyes off her, as though he thought she might fall over and break apart.
She sighed at his stubbornness. She thought about telling him to get out of her way, to move his butt, to quit hovering like an old mother hen. She almost smiled at that image. Valentine the mother hen. Not likely. She decided to ignore him instead.
Pressing her hand flat against the tabletop, she leaned into the table and half rose from her chair, freezing in place as her legs began to quake, but she gritted her teeth and made them obey her. She locked her knees and stood in that position for a moment, waiting to see if her legs would rebel and fold beneath her, with the table as her only support and the chair her safety net, although she had no doubt Vincent would swoop in like a hawk to catch her if she should fall. But her legs didn’t let her down. A mild protest maybe. But no surrender. She wasn’t going to fall. No way in hell.
Slowly, she lifted her hand from the table and straightened, and though her legs felt a bit rubbery holding all her weight, they still held her. Drawing her injured hand against her stomach, she rotated in place to find Vincent still watching her, his position virtually unchanged. Valentine in statue mode again. She peered up into his face. A rather tall statue at that. And standing directly in the middle of her planned route.
“Excuse me,” she croaked politely.
Skeptically, Vincent studied her upturned face. Certainly, she seemed to be doing better than he would have imagined, especially after finding her shivering on the cold floor. He still hadn’t quite sorted out how she had managed to get there, but he had an inkling of an idea. One thing he did know in regard to her previous reaction, if she was determined to get around on her own, then he would be well advised to refrain from interfering. Besides, in terms of her recovery, being ambulatory could only help her. He’d counted on her inner strength to pull her through, and he was seeing the evidence of her strong will now. He would just stay out of her way and make sure that she didn’t hurt herself if she exceeded her limits.
Vincent gave her a terse nod and took one long step to the side. Tifa smiled nervously and opened her mouth to thank him, but her gaze caught on the copious streak of dark red plastered in his thick hair. The smile fell from her face, and Vincent’s eyes narrowed at her sudden change in expression.
“You’re bleeding.” Unconsciously, she lifted her bandaged hand to point. “Your head.”
Vincent shifted to his other foot and hooded his eyes. He’d forgotten about that.
“It’s an old injury.”
Tifa shook her head in negation. “That doesn’t look…”
He abruptly interrupted her. “I’m fine.”
Tifa looked at his blood-streaked hair a moment longer, and then she turned away, taking her first wobbly step across the floor as she wondered how he’d injured his head. Suddenly, she remembered the terrible wound he’d sustained to his shoulder on the mountain when the cat had attacked him, the one that had so horrified her every time she got a glimpse of it, and that he’d completely disregarded as though it weren’t even there. Impulsively, she paused and turned back to look, but there was nothing to see. He’d sewn his shirt, although the crooked seams probably reflected the tracks of the cat’s claws through his skin. She wasn’t about to ask Mr. Touchy about it, that’s for sure.
Dismissing Vincent and his nonexistent injuries and his penetrating stare, she turned her back on him and started moving. Let him watch her all he wanted. She was not going to fall. Okay, maybe her legs were a bit shaky, but now that she had gained her feet, they weren’t too bad. They weren’t broken, after all. Still, just in case, she shambled along the side of the bed so that if she fell, she would be sure to fall just that way so her landing wouldn’t be too hard. She didn’t have so far to go really, just a few more feet. She knew he was still watching. His eyes were burning a hole in her back. Come to think of it, he moved so silently, he could be shadowing her, but she was not going to look.
Monkeys always look. She bit back a giggle. Been a long time since she’d heard that…
Triumphantly, she gained the open doorway, grabbing the enamel painted frame with her good hand. She turned back to see how Vincent would react to her success, but he wasn’t even watching her anymore. He’d sat down at the table and seemed totally engrossed in the gun parts scattered across the wooden surface. Perplexed, she shook her head. What a strange man he was.
Vincent turned his head slightly to watch her slip into the bathroom before returning to his task of retrieving all the tiny parts that he’d carelessly strewn across the table when he’d shoved the paper away. Carefully, he smoothed out the crumpled edge of the newpaper and began to rearrange the pieces, meticulously laying them out for reassembly. He picked up the bent hammer and turned it over in his fingers. He couldn’t fix the piece without the proper tools. He’d just have to take the pistol to a gunsmith later. He set the hammer aside and reached for the wooden grips and the metal backstrap. As he fitted the pieces together, he became aware that Tifa Lockheart was watching him, and he swiveled his head to find her peering around the doorframe, only one brown eye and a fall of tangled hair visible.
He returned his gaze to the parts in his hand before he spoke. “Is there a problem?”
“Ah no…I was just sort of wondering…you know…where the door went…”
Vincent bent his head as he fitted the pieces together, his hair falling forward to hide his face. The corner of his mouth lifted in amusement.
“I do not know.”
Her soft sigh floated to his ears. “Okay.”
Laying the gun pieces aside, he gathered the backstrap screws together in front of him before he lifted his head to look again. The doorway was empty. Retrieving a small screwdriver from his gun kit, he pointedly diverted all his attention to the meticulous reassembly of the Peacemaker.
Nanaki ranged back and forth across the ground, sniffing for sign of Barrett’s trail. Rude opted for the more direct method. Gun in hand he walked the edge of the cliff, scanning the rocks and crevices below for any sign of Barrett’s body. He was of the opinion that the man might have slipped. Nanaki wasn’t ready to concede that possibility, although the fact that the path ended in the solid, slate-gray face of craggy wall, and the huge man would be difficult to miss if he were around, the likelihood of a fall slowly crept into his reluctant mind.
Nanaki raised his head as Rude walked up beside him. He recognized the silent question in the tilt of the Turk’s head, and he sadly swung his muzzle from side to side. “He was all over here. I can’t tell where he went.”
In the absence of any immediate threat, Rude holstered his gun and faced back the way they’d come. “We can search for him with the chopper.”
Nanaki wanted to refuse, to say he wasn’t leaving until he figured out what had happened, but they didn’t have much daylight left. At this point, flying over the area with the chopper was probably the only means of finding him.
His depression from earlier swooped in to land solidly on his heart. How many more of his friends…and family…must he lose? He just didn’t think he could bear much more. Knowing he had little choice, Nanaki fell into step behind Rude as the Turk moved briskly over the faint trail. Lacking the man’s energy and motivation, the distance rapidly grew between them.
“HEY! Where you guys goin?’!”
Nanaki threw his head up at Barrett’s irritated shout from above. Energized, he sprang sideways to peer up the side of the mountain, but he didn’t immediately spot his missing friend.
“Over here!” Barrett waved his hand, and Nanaki finally spied him kneeling behind a line of scruffy brush at a place that appeared to be a fissure in the rock but actually must be the rim of a ledge.
“What are you doing?! I thought you fell off!”
“Huh? Oh, yeah. Sorry about that. Wait there. I’m comin’ down.” Barrett’s dark face disappeared from view.
“What’s going on?”
Nanaki looked around at Rude’s quietly voiced query, and he shook his head in bewilderment. “I don’t know. He didn’t say.” The red beast wondered if Barrett had just been stretching his legs after the long ride in the chopper and had gone exploring. He felt like cuffing him one for giving him such a scare.
Rude and Nanaki both watched Barrett clamber down the face of the mountain, one rather indifferently with several glances at his watch, the other with one amber eye rife with great concern and lungs full of pent air, petrified yet completely awestruck at the agility and speed with which the huge man descended the sheer face.
Barrett peered down at the two upturned faces below and suddenly let go, his massive boots landing hard into the thin layer of soil that barely covered the granite ledge. Rude hardly blinked, but Nanaki was ready to take the man to task for his risky behavior.
“Will you be more careful!? What were you doing messing around up there? Didn’t you notice us down here looking for you?”
“Uh…sorry about that, Red…” Barrett held his cupped hand down so Nanaki could see. “I climbed up there cuz of this.”
Unconsciously, Nanaki padded closer as his ears swept forward, his gaze fixated on the object Barrett held reverently in his hand.
“The sunlight was shinin’ on it…” Barrett shot a glance upwards. “It was caught in the brush up there…just like it was waitin’ for me to come along…”
Nanaki raised his bright gaze to meet the hope in Barrett’s eyes, his heart leaping with excitement even though he knew it was too soon to reach a conclusion.
Arms crossed, Rude leaned close to see what the man held. He tilted his head inquisitively.
Barrett slowly nodded, his gaze switching to the opaque glasses that hid the big Turk’s interest. Then he looked down again as he closed the small green orb in his huge fist.
“Yeah. It’s a mastered restore.”
Compulsively, he opened his hand again, as though he thought the materia orb might have vanished into thin air while he wasn’t looking. But the tiny sphere remained, softly luminous in the late afternoon sunlight. He swallowed hard as he rolled it gently in his hand. His first reaction at finding the materia had been one of joy. The presence of the orb on the ledge could only mean one thing, that she’d lost it there, that she lived. But the longer he thought about it, he realized that it only meant that the orb had landed there. He couldn’t give his find any more meaning than that. She could be lying somewhere above or even below. He’d searched the small ledge for any other indication that she’d been there, a hair or a thread, footprints maybe. But he’d found nothing, and the rain had pretty much wrecked his chances of spotting tracks. He shook his head in denial of where his thoughts drew him.
“Tifa…she had one slotted…in her glove…”
Abruptly, he raised his hand and dropped the orb in his vest pocket.
“This is where we look.”
His chin set in determination, he first captured Nanaki’s uncertain gaze. Then he moved his resolute regard to the silent Turk. Rude merely inclined his head in agreement, his steady appraisal hidden behind the shades, as always.
Without another word, Barrett spun away from his two companions and strode up the trail in the direction of the chopper. Nanaki leapt onto the trail behind him, again sniffing the ground as he slowly followed, hoping beyond hope that he might pick up a faint scent even though he knew the days of torrential rain had wiped the ground clean of any sign of their passing. Still, he had nothing to lose by trying.
Rude dropped his arms limply to his sides and watched them go, standing motionless in the path until both man and beast had disappeared around the curve at the far end of the ledge. Once satisfied they’d gone, he drew his shades from his face and dangled them by one earpiece in his hand as he rotated in place. Turning a slow circle, he carefully scanned the mountainside above, looking for anything that might be out of place; a spot of color, a deviation in line, even some stray object that Wallace might have missed.
After several minutes, when his visual search produced nothing but rocks, brush, sand, natural striations, fissures, an unmarred alluvial fan, more rocks and more brush, he finally dragged his eyes away. His face expressionless, he shot a glance at his watch. He didn’t notice that the digitally displayed time didn’t even register in his mind. Making another half-turn, he focused his attention on the edge of the shelf several feet beyond the tips of his shoes. Hesitantly, he took a step toward the precipitous drop, but the memory of the jagged rocks far below froze him in place. He dropped his head to stare down at his feet. A bitter laugh escaped his throat. Maybe he was a Turk, and maybe he’d seen many a horrendous sight, but the very idea that he might be the one to find her body lying shattered on the jagged terrain below made his blood run cold. He couldn’t look over the edge of that cliff, even though he’d already searched the rocks for Wallace, he feared that if he looked again…she might be there…
Rude lifted his head and stared absently at the peaks of the distant mountains. Then, like an automaton, he raised his hand and shoved his sunglasses back on his face. He would not accept it. She was not down there. Smartly, he about-faced and fell into the huge tracks of Barrett Wallace’s boots, only one thought uppermost in his mind. She was still alive, and he would find her.
Yuffie pressed her face against the window and watched the meandering shoreline of the Western Continent rapidly approach. She smiled mischievously.
“So…are we there yet?”
Cid scowled at the windscreen. “Answer’s same as the last thousand times ya asked me. NO!”
Yuffie blew out a long breath and fogged the glass. She drew back to inspect her handiwork, and totally dissatisfied, she moved over a few inches and breathed more warm air on the glass.
“So…we gonna be there soon?” Her voice full of sweet innocence, she idly drew a smiley face on the fogged window.
Cid’s scowl deepened. “Like I said before, when we get there, that’s when we’ll be there.”
Yuffie carefully added bunny ears to the smiling face. “So…we gonna be there before dark?”
“Maybe. Long as this tailwind holds up.”
The girl tilted her head as she appraised her artwork. Then she exhaled another warm breath onto the chilled glass, almost obliterating the happy bunny. “So…we gonna be there this year?”
“Why doncha go back to sleep.” Cid drew a cigarette from behind his goggles as he voiced his suggestion with little hope of compliance.
“Uh uh, been asleep for hours.” Yuffie chewed her lip as she tried to reach a decision about the subject of her next masterpiece. Smirking, she drew a stick figure, added a nice round head, a pair of goggles and an oversized cigarette. A little spiky hair and a lance finished off the piece nicely.
“That’s why it was so peaceful.”
“Uh huh…” She answered him absently as she drew another stick figure close beside the first, this one shorter with a long ponytail and glasses. Next to the stick couple, she drew a plump heart and, smiling happily, she scribed a line of flowery text in the middle of the lopsided valentine. Her smile widened as she admired the beautifully rendered message.
Cid Loves Shera
“Will you quit messin’ up the windows?”
Yuffie shot a quick glance over her shoulder to gauge the pilot’s reaction to her depiction of him as one half of a lovelorn couple. Relaxed in his seat, he gazed absently through the glass. Disappointed, Yuffie fell back in her seat. Cid hadn’t even paid any attention to her artwork, particularly the content thereof. Annoyed, she rearranged her face to pin the grizzled pilot with a pair of rounded eyes brimming over with sadness. “You know, if it weren’t so cold in here I couldn’t mess up your precious windows. It’s too blinking cold to sleep too. Wouldn’t wanna lend me your jacket would ya?”
“Nope.” He didn’t even look her way, so her woefully pleading look was wasted too. With a huff, she slumped in her seat. “Whatever happened to chivalry?”
“It’s dead. Didn’t ya hear?” Cid raked a match against the control panel. “Besides, like I told ya already, there’s a jacket in the back. Use it.” He cupped his hand around the cigarette and lit up, exhaling a cloud of smoke into the cockpit.
Yuffie frantically waved her hand to sweep the toxic fog away. Then she grabbed her throat and stuck her tongue out as she gagged in a most noisome and exaggerated manner. “Aghhh! Hack! Cough! Choke!”
Cid rolled his eyes and knocked the small wing window beside him ajar with a bump of his fist. The cigarette smoke seeped out, but cool air poured in.
Yuffie dropped her hands from her throat and turned to glare at the indifferent pilot. “Oh great! I can either die of smoke inhalation or frostbite. Either way I’ll end up blue.”
Clinching the bent cigarette between his teeth, Cid purposefully placed both hands on the controls and sent the massive plane into a sudden dive.
As the world swooped out from under her, Yuffie dug her nails into either side of her seat and frantically worked to make herself smaller, her eyes locked on the mountain peaks that had been hidden beneath the wide belly of the plane but were now exquisitely framed, in all their gorgeous splendor, in the bug spackled windshield. Her face locked into a wide-mouthed scream that went unnoticed beneath the deafening scream of the four straining engines and the groan of tortured metal as they dove. Just when she thought her brain might explode out of her ears from the rapid change in pressure, Cid bit down on the cigarette and released a long smoke-filled breath through his nose as he slowly but surely brought the cumbersome plane level.
Once the sunny, cotton ball choked sky finally reappeared before her again, Yuffie collapsed weakly into her safety harness, her agitated inhalations rattling noisily through her gaping mouth and closed throat. Cid scanned her pale face and chuckled softly, reaching up to drag the cigarette from his teeth.
At the sound of his laughter, Yuffie slammed her mouth shut and rotated her head to pin him with the best “death” glare in her repertoire. “Why did you do that?”
Completely unaffected by her deadly eyes or her menacing growl, the pilot grinned at her.
“Thought ya wanted it warmer.”
“Well, ya coulda warned me.”
“Yeah, guess I coulda.” He chuckled again.
“Now I’m totally stressed to the max. Can I have a smoke?”
The smile faded from Cid’s face, and he turned to glare at her this time. “Hell no! I ain’t contributing to your delinquency. You’re delinquent enough already.”
Yuffie’s eyes grew into a limpid pool of soul wrenching sorrow. “How can you say that about a sweet, innocent little thing like me?”
Cid snorted smoke from his nose, and an apt retort sprang to his tongue, but his eyes narrowed on her face, and the words slipped away as his mind latched onto the drone of the four propellers. Yuffie mistook his silence for a loss of words and proceeded to prod him further.
“Did too many brain cells die from lack of…”
“Okay, I’ll just let you think about…”
Yuffie’s eyes widened at his rude command, and she would have snapped back, but when he turned his head back the other way, obviously listening to some unknown something, she remained mute and watched him curiously as she attempted to hear whatever had captivated his feeble mind.
She started when Cid abruptly yanked his cigarette out of his mouth and shot it through the window to reach for the controls with both gloved hands. She could see from the serious intent on his face that something wasn’t right, though she had no clue what it could be. Impulsively, she reached out to grab his jacket sleeve.
“What?! What’s the matter?!”
He shook off her hand with one jerk of his arm. “Sit back. Buckle up. Get yer bucket. An’ keep yer mouth pasted shut or I’m gonna gag you with my scarf and throw you into the cargo hold.”
“Just tell me!”
Cid shook his head, but he answered her anyway. “You hear that sputter?”
Yuffie listened, but the Five Gods help her, she could detect nothing but the monotonous drone of the big engines.
“Well, I’ll tell ya what it means. We got an engine that sounds like it’s about to go, and if it does go, then things are gonna get serious around here.”
Yuffie clutched her pail in white knuckled hands and shrank back into her seat as she felt the blood drain to her feet. “How’s come? We got extra engines don’t we?”
At the sound of her small, frightened voice, Cid turned troubled blue eyes on her ashen face. “I’ll tell ya how’s come. Cuz getting this ill-conceived hunk o’ junk over the mountains on three engines is gonna be like trying to keep an elephant airborn, an elephant wearing concrete boots with nothin’ but two ears to hold her in the sky and a skinny ole tail to steer her by.”
“Oh…” Yuffie’s stomach churned acidly at his words, and as the veteran pilot sent the giant plane into a wide bank, she lifted the pail and hugged it to her chest. “Can you just let me off now?”
Maya stood in the open doorway to the kitchen and surreptitiously watched Nessa as she sat on the stone floor and diligently worked to clean the old wood stove with a heavily soiled rag in her hand and a dented pail of sudsy water beside her. Her scarlet skirt fanned across her folded legs, covering all but the soles of her bare feet, and her long braid coiled against the bright fabric that trailed behind her. Maya looked around for any sign of Myron, but she knew the man wasn’t there. That inner sense that seemed to be growing stronger with each passing day told her he wasn’t anywhere around.
Hesitantly, Maya left the doorway to walk toward the industrious woman, letting the soles of her sandals scrape across the cobblestone to make her presence known. Nessa didn’t look up from her work when the younger woman stopped beside her. She simply applied more effort to her self-imposed task, if that were possible. Maya finally tossed the thick coils of her hair over her shoulder and lowered herself to the floor next to the older woman. Distracted by the girl’s nearness, Nessa paused in her scrubbing and turned her head briefly to look at the girl, though she wouldn’t meet her searching eyes, and she immediately returned to her chore.
Maya chewed her lower lip as she sought the appropriate words for what she wanted to say. After some thought, she finally opted for the most obvious topic that she could think of to open a dialogue, although she had more important matters to address.
“Nessa…I’m sorry about earlier…I shouldn’t have run away…”
Nessa shrugged. “You are an adult. You may do as you wish.”
Maya nervously twined her hands in her lap. The woman fairly radiated with anger, but she knew that Nessa wasn’t angry with her. She’d turned all that negative energy in upon herself.
“I meant that I shouldn’t have left you there…after what I said…”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, it does matter. It matters because I wasn’t honest with you.”
Nessa paused in her vigorous scrubbing, her hand tightening around the balled rag. “What about?”
Maya’s vision blurred as her emerald eyes filled with tears. “I…knew…what…I saw…I knew…I…I didn’t want to…accept…I mean…” The young woman lifted her tearful eyes to Nessa’s frozen profile. “I haven’t known you long, but I really care about you…and I don’t want to…don’t want…”
Nessa swiveled her head when Maya fell silent. Tears tracked down the younger woman’s face, and Nessa felt that she should comfort her or perhaps speak words that would reassure her, but she simply felt incapable of doing either. Mechanically, she returned to her scrubbing, her hand moving slowly at first, and then more vigorously as she purposefully shut out the sight of the tears as well as the sympathetic gaze of the young woman and concentrated all her attention on that one stubborn blemish, the one that just wouldn’t shine out, the one she’d been laboring to obliterate since the girl had entered the room.
Maya could sense the woman’s inner turmoil, the flood of grief that threatened to overwhelm her that she held firmly dammed in the back of her mind with a formidable will, and Maya recognized that if Nessa relented now, her emotions might well take her under. She was not a woman that displayed her feelings to others. Just as she’d wept her heart out in the Nibel Mountains when she’d thought she was all alone, Maya had no doubt that Nessa would eventually release her pain, as soon as she was ready and was certain no one would be watching.
Quickly, Maya dashed the tears from her eyes with the hem of her skirt, and she pasted a bright smile on her face and climbed to her feet. “Are you going to slave over that old stove all day?”
Uncertainly, Nessa turned her head to peer up at the girl, suspicious of the sudden change in her demeanor. “Only until I’m finished.”
Maya shook her head decidedly. “Nope, you can finish later. I want to show you something.”
Intrigued, Nessa bunched the rag in her fingers and drew her hand away. “What is it?”
Maya clasped her hands behind her back and leaned down to grin into the woman’s skeptical face. “I can’t tell you. It’s a surprise.”
Nessa hesitantly shook her head in refusal. “No, I really can’t…”
Nessa stared up into the pleading green eyes, and she reluctantly surrendered.
“Alright. I don’t suppose I have anything all that pressing to do.” She tossed the rag into the bucket and stiffly stood, stretching her back as she turned to find that the mercurial girl already waited in the doorway to the lobby. Her curiosity piqued, Nessa slipped her feet into her sandals and crossed the room as Maya dashed out of sight.
Her curiosity growing by leaps and bounds, Nessa followed, stepping into the lobby area to find Maya smiling at her from around the edge of the outer door. As she started across the carpet, Maya gestured at her to hurry and vanished again, leaving the door ajar for Nessa to pass. She was starting to feel a bit like an awestruck waif mindlessly trailing the piper. A smile crept across the woman’s lips even as she worked to maintain her impassive expression.
Swiftly, she walked across the small room and slipped around the door, absently pulling it shut behind her as she scanned the area for the elusive girl. Her eyes traveled over the wrought iron gate and the old pickup truck that sat on blocks and the vacant, hollow windowed buildings across the way to the old water tank on its weathered frame of wood with the mysterious silver bird perched on the rim. Nessa’s gaze encountered the obsidian eyes and her breath caught in her throat. The bird was looking at her, watching her, not with apprehension or curiosity, but with intelligent purpose. She had heard the girl say the bird could communicate with her, and she hadn’t disbelieved her, really, but now she knew that this bird did not think typical bird thoughts. She could see it. She could sense it. And the realization frightened her. Unconsciously, she lifted her hand protectively to her throat as her feet took her down the steps and out into the street. As she walked, she apprehensively watched the bird’s head swivel to keep one predatory eye on her as she chose a random route that carried her past the tank.
“Hey! Over here, Nessa!”
The girl’s shout startled her, and she whirled around, almost falling over her own feet in her surprise. Maya lifted her hands out and spun around once, the full skirt belling out around her, a brilliant azure against a wash of crimson.
“Well? Do you like my surprise?”
Captivated, Nessa crossed the square, the vigilant bird completely forgotten. As she walked, the softly swaying flowers held her gaze and filled her with wonder. She couldn’t begin to imagine where the girl might have found the beautiful flowers that she’d planted all along the stone wall that divided the mansion property from the simple village outside. Had she really been absorbed in her housework that long?
She came to a halt beside the gatepost and bent to reverently touch one of the star-shaped blossoms. Gently, she brushed a finger against the feathery tip of one slender petal. “Where in the world did you find these…?” she breathed.
“There’s a trail that goes up…” Maya turned to point into the sky behind the Shinra Mansion. “…Onto the bluff there.” She smiled beatifically. “There’s the most peaceful little canyon with a great big old tree and a patch of soft green grass and hundreds of these flowers.”
“I can’t imagine such a place in these barren mountains,” Nessa mused aloud. Her eyes swam out of focus as she stared up at the top of the cliff behind the dismal house. “All the trees…the plants…killed off by that monstrous reactor…it’s certainly a miracle…that you found these…”
Or did you create this miracle?
She brought her gaze to the young woman’s happy face. “Do you know what these are?”
Maya silently shook her head. “Just some of the most beautiful flowers I’ve ever seen.”
Nessa returned her attention to the delicate, feathery blossoms, lifting her hand to touch another one. “These are Nibel Melodias. I’ve always loved these flowers. Myron used to buy them for me when he’d see them in a flower shop.” Her eyes grew misty at the memory of how Myron would suddenly appear behind her with a bundle of the crimson blooms, his eyes overflowing with love and happiness even as he tried to appear nonchalant when he presented them to her. “I haven’t seen these in years...”
At the mention of Myron, Maya looked toward the inn. “Where is Myron? I want to show him too.”
Nessa’s hand fell to her side and her dark lashes fell to shadow her cheek as she closed her eyes. “Gone.”
Maya’s smile waned as she sensed the woman’s inner struggle with her emotions, though the concerted effort was not reflected in her serene face. Understanding, Maya stretched out a hand to touch Nessa’s arm.
“You told him, didn’t you?”
She barely inclined her head as she reached to touch the flowers again. “Yes.”
Maya wrinkled her brow in bewilderment. She had not thought that Myron would ever leave Nessa. “He left…because of that?”
Nessa smiled sadly. “No. He wouldn’t have. I…persuaded…him to go. To Rockettown. We didn’t expect Nibelheim to be deserted, so we need supplies. And he needed some time to think.” …Some time alone…to come to terms…I couldn’t stand to see the tragedy in his eyes…
Again nodding in understanding, Maya turned away and let her eyes travel across the dingy windows and mossy stone façade of the old house. “I thought if I planted them here, the mansion might seem less…dreary…”
Nessa absently raised her eyes to the house, thinking that the brightly colored blooms did little to dispel the evil that the mansion exuded into the air. Just standing in the shadow of the dilapidated mansion made the warmth and gentle light of late afternoon seem a distant world. As she stared, the tiny hairs rose on the back of her neck as the soulless windows seemed to draw her in, and the fingers of the past tentatively prodded the deeper recesses of her mind.
She looked just as Maya had seen her earlier in the day, her chin slightly lifted as she intently watched the great old house as though it might creep closer if she turned her eyes away, and her serene profile chiseled in stone, just as she appeared when Maya had seen her last night too, a statue poised before the gate, her nightgown fluttering in the breeze and her loosened hair flowing darkly against the white fabric.
“You want to go in there, don’t you?”
Unconsciously, Nessa nodded. “Yes.”
“So, why don’t we?”
The question brought Nessa around with a start. “What?”
“You want to go in there. I want to go in there. Why don’t we?”
Shaking off her trance, Nessa looked around. “There are only a few hours of daylight left. I don’t think it’s a good idea...”
Maya shrugged. “How long can we be?”
Nessa pursed her lips in thought. “True.”
The iron gate protested with a prolonged squeal as Maya pushed it open. “If we are going to go in, we better get going.”
A wry smile touched Nessa’s lips. “My sentiments exactly.” Without further hesitation, the older woman stepped through the gate, and Maya fell in behind, following closely on Nessa’s heels.
The great silver bird threw his head back and screeched, spreading his wings to fall into the air. Maya stopped in her tracks at the bird’s protest.
Nessa halted and turned sideways on the stone walkway to watch as the young woman lifted her arm out to the swooping bird. She wasn’t even surprised really.
The bird dropped gently onto Maya’s wrist, and she lifted her hand to let him settle onto her shoulder where he promptly turned his beak into her hair as though he were whispering in her ear. She turned to smile at Nessa’s silent and careful appraisal. “I’m sorry. I forgot that I promised him I wouldn’t go in there without him.”
Nessa stiffly inclined her head. “Of course.” Then, she reluctantly drew her attention from the sentient black eyes of the bird to confront the ornate, if somewhat age worn, front door. To some it might seem like any other ordinary old mansion door with a long curved handle of tarnished brass, a doorknocker comprised of a massive ring threaded through the serrated mouth of an angry dragon, and a small window of diamond-shaped sections of stained leaded glass, but to her, that door was the portal to a sepulcher. Without a backward glance at Maya or the bird, she set her sandaled foot on the first step and reached for the brass handle with trembling fingers.
“Past time to go…”
Tifa grasped the edge of the chipped porcelain sink, the basin cool against her fingertips. What little bit of energy she’d dredged up to make it to this point had almost gone. Her knees trembled weakly, and she leaned in, tightening her hand around the curved rim to hold herself upright. Her eyes moved blurrily over her broken, blood rimmed fingernails as she labored to find the strength to move one more step to the doorframe or even to lift her head.
Carefully, so as not to shift all her weight to her overtaxed legs, she lowered herself down to prop herself on both forearms so she could examine her hands more closely. She had already noticed the fine lacework of mostly healed cuts that crisscrossed her palm and the undersides of her fingers. Stiffly, she closed her hand in a tight fist and reopened it, stretching her fingers wide like the arms of a starfish. Gratified to find that her left hand still functioned for the most part, she reluctantly moved her eyes to her right, needing desperately to see what damage had been done, but at the same time wanting to avoid the inevitable for as long as possible. She could see that the fingers jutting stiffly from the end of the bulky bandage seemed a bit swollen. Experimentally, she curled her fingertips and flinched at the fiery brand that seared her hand beneath the bandage. A whimper floated up from somewhere inside, but she clenched her jaw against the expression. She didn’t want Valentine to hear her.
As the pain ebbed away to lie in coiled abeyance, she examined the bandage on her right hand. Now that she really looked, she could see that the strips of silk, knotted on top of her hand, actually covered a thick padding of gauze and held the whole thing together. Half-heartedly, she tugged at one end of a tie, and when it didn’t give, she tried to work the end of a finger into the center of the knot, but Valentine had tied them too tightly, at least too tightly for her meager efforts. She didn’t really want to look anyway. Not right now. She just wanted to summon up the strength to make it through the doorway and crawl back beneath the blankets and shut out the whole world.
She pushed herself up with the intention of making a grab for the doorframe, but as she straightened her eyes collided with those of the strange face in the mirror, and she almost cried out in alarm, but choked the sound down inside when, in the next second, she realized that the face, of course, was her own. As she looked in utter horror, she lifted her hand to the tangled hanks of hair that dangled heavily on either side of her head, starkly highlighting her pale skin as well as the dark bruise that adorned one side of her face from her forehead to her cheekbone. She tried to rake her fingers through her hair, but didn’t manage more a couple of inches before she hit the first impenetrable snarl. She had never seen her hair so full of rats before in her life.
Rats?! More like bats. Or maybe…cats. That was it. Cats all rolled in fat, scrambled, messy balls of her hair.
Her eyes fell on a small plastic comb thrown up on the back of the sink. She picked it up in her hand and started to drag all her matted locks over her shoulder, but she decided she would rather work on the mess sitting down. Besides, the image of her battered face in the mirror, cracked in half to boot, the epitome of parody above the delicate lace edging of the scooped neckline of the satin ball gown, created a picture in her mind that made her feel like laughing and crying at the same time.
She pointedly turned her attention to the sink and bumped the faucet with her knuckles to start a stream of water into the basin. The comb still clutched in her hand, she bent low to try to catch some water in her arid mouth, but mostly managed to shower her face in icy wetness, sending a shiver through her whole body. Still determined to quench her thirst, she looked for a place to tuck the comb, but the gown offered no pockets. She had noticed her own clothing thrown across the shower rod, but she didn’t have the will or the hands to mess with changing her clothes right now. She hadn’t even been motivated enough to see if the garments were dry. The gown would have to do for now, however she had come by it, though she pretty much knew and just decided not to think about it in too much detail, even though she could feel the heat rising in her face already. She’d already thought about it too much.
Purposefully, Tifa slid the comb into her hair and left it buried in one of the many convenient snarls. Then she cupped her hand and carried some of the cold water to her mouth. She managed to get a couple of sips between her lips before her hand started trembling, and she lost most of it between her fingers. She repeated the procedure once more, with pretty much the same result. Too weary to try anymore, she turned the faucet off, and grasping the edge of the sink again, she shuffled around in place to face the door. In one spasmodic movement, she threw her hand up to grab the doorframe, and then slowly eased through the doorway, one small step at a time.
Hesitant to relinquish her support just yet, she stood there with her hand around the frame and gathered her strength. Although she stood at the end of the bed, and the blankets certainly beckoned to her, she was not about to fall clumsily onto the end of the narrow mattress just to drag herself up into the bed. She wanted to comb out her hair anyway, and that would require sitting.
She looked around to see Vincent bent over his work, his face completely hidden behind the fall of thick hair, apparently absorbed to the exclusion of all else as he manipulated the small screwdriver in his fingers, tightening a tiny screw down into the partially assembled gun he held in his claw. Thankfully, he wasn’t paying any attention to her.
Cautiously, she drew her hand away from the door and shambled forward one step. Immediately, her legs started to tremble beneath her, but she was determined not to collapse on the floor. Before her limbs could betray her, she took another stumbling step and twisted to fall onto the mattress just as her knees buckled, landing her gracelessly and noisily across the bed.
Shakily, she rolled to her side and pushed herself up to sit on the edge, darting an embarrassed glance at Vincent. He still labored over the pistol, seemingly unconcerned with what she was doing, although she knew that he could not have missed her clumsy return. Shifting uneasily in place, she pulled the comb from her hair and dragged a length of tangled mat over her knee. As soon as she tried to slide the comb through the snarled ends, she knew that it wasn’t going to work, not with only one hand, but she refused to surrender so easily. Bending low, she raked the comb over the outer layer of mat, biting her lip as her head began to spin. Come hell or high water, she was going to comb out this mess. Even if it took her a year, and it well might.
Vincent turned the assembled gun over in his claw, carefully inspecting the weapon to insure that he’d replaced every part. Then he gave the cylinder a tap and watched it spin freely in place with a soft whir. Satisfied, he laid the newly oiled revolver on the newspaper and turned his head slightly to look at her through the veil of his hair. He was more than a little surprised to see her struggling to comb her hair. Certainly, she had managed to accomplish much more than he’d thought possible, but she had set herself an impossible task given her condition. With a slight shake of his head, he brought his attention back to the array of articles on the table. He knew she needed to eat something. Her lack of nourishment of any sort over the last few days contributed to her weakness more than a little. He darted another glance at her as he began to gather his tools and cleaning supplies, precisely returning each to its proper place in the tool kit.
“You need to eat.”
Tifa looked up at Vincent’s quiet suggestion only to find him engrossed in his toolbox. He had just reminded her of the hollow ache in her stomach though. She lifted her hand to her knee and looked around the spartan room.
“Is there something? To eat I mean?” She was pleasantly surprised to find her voice had almost returned to normal. Her drink of water, although minute, must have lubricated her scratchy throat.
Vincent snapped the box shut and shoved it aside to reach for his pistol.
He twisted in place to slide the revolver into the holster that hung from the chair amidst the folds of his cloak. Then he shoved the chair back with a loud grate and stood away from the table.
“I’ll prepare some soup if you wish.”
Tifa looked up into his chilly eyes and mutely nodded. She was very relieved when he moved to the cabinets and threw open a door to examine the contents within, his eyes and attention focused on something else besides her. Resting from her concerted grooming efforts for a few moments longer, she let her gaze slide around the room again. There wasn’t really anything she hadn’t noticed before, especially when she’d been looking at the room from upside down while lying on her back against the cold concrete floor beside the overturned chair she couldn’t manage to pull herself up with. However, she examined the contents of the room with a bit more interest this time. She idly noticed that Vincent had replaced the chair beneath the table at some point.
“Where are we anyway?”
Vincent drew out a carton and softly closed the door.
“Behind the Sleeping Man Cave.”
Tifa stared at his tall form in disbelief. “What? The Sleeping Man Cave?”
He simply nodded as he tilted the carton to dump a stream of yellow powder into an oversized coffee mug.
“Behind the Sleeping Man Cave,” he reiterated in his monotone voice. “Inside an underground storage facility.” He uncapped the canteen and poured a little water into the mug.
She watched him in silence as he set the canteen aside and stirred the concoction with a spoon. “Behind the Sleeping Man Cave…” She still couldn’t reconcile the idea of a place like this with the primitive conditions of the cave where the Sleeping Man…well…slept.
Vincent lifted the cup in his hand and turned to walk the short distance to where she sat. She followed him with round eyes, her head tilting slowly backwards to watch his face as she tracked his progress to the point where he halted before her. “Where are we again?” Her brow wrinkled in confusion.
He offered her the cup of soup as he readily responded to her query. “The Sleeping Man Cave was apparently a cleverly devised front.”
Numbly, Tifa dropped the comb to the covers and reached for the cup as Vincent continued.
“I believe this room is where the Sleeping Man actually lived, and he no doubt oversaw the entire facility from here.” Vincent gestured toward the door with a nod of his head. “Beyond that door is a cavern in which all manner of military supplies are stored. War machines, armament, supplies, what have you.”
Tifa gripped the cup in her hand as she wondered if she was actually still dreaming. She couldn’t believe that a place like Vincent described could actually exist somewhere inside the mountains. However, one look at the viscous substance inside the cup set her straight. She could not have dreamed up something so vile looking. Vincent released the cup to her shaky hold.
“What is this stuff?”
“Yes, you said that before.”
One look at his stony face stilled her refusal on the tip of her tongue. She brought the cup up to her mouth, but her hand began to shake, threatening to slosh the contents all over her. Instantly, Vincent wrapped his hand around hers, holding the cup to her lips. The soup emitted a strange odor, and she would probably have set the cup away untouched if she’d been left to her own devices, but Vincent didn’t give her the chance. He purposefully tipped the cup up, and she had no choice but to drink.
The tepid soup hit her tongue, and she almost gagged at the taste. She wanted to spew the whole mouthful back into the cup, but she had a feeling Vincent would just make her drink it again. She didn’t want to taste that stuff twice. Audibly, she forced herself to swallow and tried to push the cup away, but he held it firmly in place.
“You need to drink it all.”
She glared up at him from behind her tangled bangs. “Don’t you have a cheeseburger or something?”
“Can’t you heat it or something?”
“Maybe some seasoning would help?”
Vincent’s eyes narrowed on her face. “Drink it.”
“What if I said I’m full?”
“I would not believe you.”
“My stomach shrank.”
A man of action rather than word, Vincent simply tipped the cup up again, and her feeble muscles didn’t have the power to stop him. She either swallowed or the nasty mixture would be dumped into her lap. Her face twisted in a grimace as she quickly gulped as much as she could handle. He drew the cup back, and she glared at him some more.
“Are you trying to poison me?”
“Are you sure this is actually meant for human consumption?”
“I drank it.”
“Regardless, you need to drink it. You haven’t taken in any food for several days. You will not recover if you don’t drink it.”
She knew he had a point, but she was irritated now. She wasn’t a child. Okay, maybe she sounded like a petulant child right now, but he didn’t have to treat her like one. He certainly had a streak of bossiness he must have kept carefully hidden during their previous travels. But then, she hadn’t been around him much. She would even venture to say that maybe she had…avoided…him as much as she could…
Annoyed at where her thoughts had led her, she willfully pushed against his hold. “I can take it now.” He immediately released the cup to her sole possession, but he didn’t move away. He merely folded his arms and waited, watching her with those implacable red eyes, looming over her like a...vulture.
Her hand trembling, she gauged the amount of soup left. She thought maybe she could toss the rest down her throat in one swallow and be done with it. Then maybe he would go away and leave her alone. Although, she didn’t really want to be…alone…
If she had another hand, she’d hold her nose. Taking a deep breath, she dumped the rest of the vile broth into her mouth and quickly swallowed, fighting her gag reflex as the clumpy stuff oozed down her throat. She dragged in another breath to keep the soup down. Then she warily peered into the mug, and mentally sighed with relief that it was empty. Holding the cup out for Vincent to take, she smiled up at him. Blandly, he returned her gaze and took it from her.
“Would you like some more?”
The smile fell from her face. “You have got to be kidding!”
Unresponsive, he accepted her impulsive exclamation as refusal, and moved back to the table to sit down, placing the mug beside him as he scooted his chair in. Mystified, she watched him pick up the folded piece of paper she’d seen earlier. He had been joking hadn’t he? Or maybe he harbored a sadistic streak alongside the bossy one. At any rate, he seemed to have dismissed her entirely. Fine by her. She wasn’t about to admit to him that she actually felt a bit better either. Not in this lifetime. Why did he annoy her so much anyway? Deep in thought, Tifa shook her head absently. It was probably because she just did not feel good. Anyone would be irritable under the circumstances.
Shutting Mr. Valentine from her thoughts, Tifa plucked the comb from the blankets. Resigned to the formidable task ahead, she wearily worked the comb into her hair in roughly the same place she’d started before. She hadn’t made much of a dent in the mess.
Silence grew heavy in the room as time passed. Over and over, she tried to yank the comb through her hair, growing more weary by the minute, her determination flagging at the lack of progress she’d made, becoming more frustrated the longer she worked. Maybe if she had someone to talk to or something to listen to, the job would be easier to bear. She knew Valentine wouldn’t make idle chitchat with her.
“Isn’t there a radio or something?”
Vincent looked up from the map at her irritable request, not quite sure why she was asking.
“Yes, there’s a radio, but there isn’t much to hear.”
Tifa met his indifferent gaze with interest. “Really? What does it play?”
He studied her for a long moment in silence, and then pointedly returned his attention to the map before he answered.
Tifa gaped at him in astonishment. Did he think he was being funny? He didn’t look it. But then who could tell? His hair had fallen across his face again as he ran one finger over the paper in front of him. Suddenly, all her frustration at her stubborn hair, and her aching, bone deep weariness, and the pervasive fear regarding the condition of her hand, and her irritation at his inability to carry on a conversation like a normal person, to reassure her, to take her mind off of everything else that was eating at her, all of it, everything welled up inside her, and she flung the comb away from her and threw herself sideways to bury her face in the blankets as a sob caught painfully in her throat.
Vincent jerked when an object smacked into the wall just past his nose. Slowly, he raised his eyes to see Tifa curled tightly into a ball on the bed with her face turned from him, her uninjured hand fisted in the blanket, and although she didn’t make a sound, her quaking shoulders told him that she was crying. His thoughts stilled as he swiveled his head the other way to peer down at the comb that had come to rest near his boot. Woodenly, he leaned down to pick it up between two metal digits. He studied the comb as though he’d never seen one before, although he’d used this exact comb earlier to untangle his own hair.
He brought his quiet gaze back to her. He couldn’t remember ever seeing her cry before, and he had to admit that her distress disturbed him. He realized from the very fact that she had expended her meager supply of energy on her hair that her tangled locks bothered her, but he also knew that she could never work the snarls out with her dominant hand out of commission. He had briefly considered an offer to comb her hair for her, only to dismiss it out of hand. He did not want to comb her hair. He did not want to touch her hair. Such a course would be fraught with so many pitfalls. Too many unwanted reminders.
Uncertainly, he rose to his feet and silently moved to her bedside. He shifted uneasily from one foot to the other as he wondered how to proceed. Perhaps he could reassure her, tell her that the condition of her hair wasn't important, that she could worry about such trivial matters when her hand had improved to the point that she could use it. But what could he say really? Obviously, her hair did matter to her. What should he say? ”You are beautiful no matter how your hair looks.” No, he couldn’t say that, even if he would only be speaking the truth. She would not welcome that sentiment from him. There wasn’t anything he could say. Vincent’s tumultuous train of thought suddenly derailed when he realized that she had turned her head to look up at him from the corner of her eye, her face reddened with her tears.
“What do you want?”
He didn’t detect any hint of anger or irritation in her quivery voice. He took a step closer.
“I’ve brought your comb.” He mentally smiled at the inanity of his response. He’d ‘brought her comb’ as though he’d carried it miles to bestow the gift upon her.
“I don’t want it.” She turned her face to the wall.
Vincent switched the comb to his right hand, turning it in his fingers as he returned to his thoughts. He knew what he should do, but his mind rebelled at actually doing it or even saying it. Finally, he closed the comb in his fist.
“I’ll comb your hair for you.”
As soon as he spoke, he wanted to snatch the words back. Especially when Tifa actually rolled over on her back to look up at him in stunned surprise. She searched his expressionless face with wide eyes, not sure she had heard what she thought she had heard. She couldn’t imagine that she’d heard right.
“What did you say?” She needed clarification.
“I’ll comb your hair…if you wish…”
She shook her head against the blanket. “No! I…I don’t want you to!”
Vincent nodded and bent to deposit the comb beside her. Without another word, he moved away, relief flooding his whole body at her rejection of his offer. His self-imposed obligation had been duly discharged, and he could do no more.
Tifa watched him walk silently across the room toward the electronic console. Shame filled her that she had snapped at him. He had offered to help her, and she had returned his generosity with a verbal slap in the face. Had she hurt his feelings? Maybe that’s why he had turned his back to her. Weakly, she rolled over and pushed herself up. Retrieving the small comb, she dropped her bare feet to the floor and sat up.
He half-turned from where he stood in front of the monitors, all but the end of his thin nose hidden behind the curtain of his ebony locks. “Yes?”
He inclined his head in silent acknowledgment of her mixture of apology and gratitude, and he returned to his appraisal of the watery scene transmitted to the screen via the outer camera.
Tifa chewed her lip as she turned the comb in her fingers.
This time he didn’t turn. “Yes?”
“I…I’ve…changed my mind.”
If she had been looking, she might have seen him tense, but the comb held her in fascinated thrall.
“About?” Oh, he knew, but he wouldn’t address the issue until she said the words.
“I need my hair combed out, and since I can’t seem to do it…” She finally raised her eyes. “Would you? Please?”
The seconds ticked by loudly in the quiet room as he stood unmoving, building his resolve to the favor she asked of him, the one he had already offered. He could not refuse. His eyes hooded, he turned to face her and again inclined his head, this time in agreement. He retraced his steps and halted beside the bed, holding his hand out for the comb.
Nervously, she placed it in the palm of his hand and shifted sideways on the bed. With her one operable hand, she shoved the tangled hanks of hair over her shoulder and looked up at him. Valentine had reverted to statue mode again. Except his crimson eyes had taken on a distant aspect this time.
Avoiding her gaze, Vincent reluctantly lowered himself to the bed behind her and stiffly gathered the first of many snarled clumps of hair. Purposefully cleansing his mind of all extraneous thought, he turned his focus solely to the mechanics of teasing the strands of hair apart, just as he might turn his entire mind to the dismantlement and care of his guns, or to the meticulous cleaning and oiling of the many articulated joints of his bizarre prosthetic.
His mouth frozen shut, he silently worked as the minute hand swept the huge clock on the wall, the air in the stuffy room thick and undisturbed by any sound other than the relentless tick and the occasional rush of air through the overhead vent as the climate control system cycled and blended with the soft susurration of their own respirations.
So determined was he to finish as quickly as possible and with as little contact as he could manage in such an intimate endeavor that he hadn’t noticed that for several minutes Tifa had been struggling to stay awake, fighting to keep her head upright for him as the repetitive snick of the second hand had lulled her closer and closer to sleep. She had hoped they might talk as he combed out her hair, but he didn’t say a single word, and she could not overcome her shyness to start a conversation herself. Finally, her eyes closed for the last time, and her head sagged back against his chest as she sank bonelessly into his arms.
Vincent blinked down at the top of head, and then he carefully shifted away from her to lay her head across his knee to give him access to the last section of hair left to go. A glance at the clock told him that he’d already been combing for well over an hour, and the formidable task was almost finished. Now that she slept, his tension eased, and he watched her face as he worked, noticing the subtle movement of her lips in mute dream speech and the intermittent flutter of her dark lashes against the soft curve of her cheek. At some point, he did finish, yet he absently continued, his thoughts drifting aimlessly as he gently pulled the comb through her soft, chocolate-colored hair, unknowingly slipping into the past as the tresses beneath his fingers darkened and the young woman’s face became superimposed beneath the softly formed features of a small girl’s.
A distant girlish giggle reverberated in his mind. Hey, Win! Over there! No! Over here! Oh, Wi…in! You’ll never catch me. Not in a billion kajillion years…” Then the young woman stirred against his leg, his name slipping from her lips as she drew her fist beneath her chin, and with a start his mind snapped back into the present, like the rebound of a tightly stretched rubber band. He softly stroked her forehead with the tip of one finger, but she didn’t move. He thought she’d said his name, but she still slept.
Dismayed at his lapse, he let the handful of hair fall to drift across her cheek, and he numbly shifted her head to the mattress to slide away from her, unconsciously bending to lift her legs into the bed and drag the blankets over her before rising to stand lost in troubled thought beside her. He hadn’t been strong enough to keep the memories away, and now he feared the nightmares would revisit him again, not the ones from the crypt, but the ones from before, from those memories long denied.
He had not been vigilant enough, and his wayward mind had opened the door. But then, why could he not embrace the pleasant memories to his heart? Why couldn’t he hold them close and ignore the others? Why did one always have to lead to the other? Because he was weak, and he knew it.
Now annoyed at himself, Vincent spun away and returned to his place at the table, snatching the discarded map to him. Blindly, his eyes roved across the sketchy lines and childish scribbles, his mind stumbling around in the dark as he tried fruitlessly to reconstruct the idea he’d considered earlier, but all analytical capacity had been stolen from him. Finally, he tossed the map aside and laid his head down on his arm in dejection. He didn’t want to recall that small, happy face. Although his reverie would no doubt lead to pain, he found it easier to revisit Lucrecia’s beloved face, and he sought her in his mind, tried to remember how her honeyed locks had floated across his fingers and how her lips had tasted and how her brown eyes would light up…not brown…Lucrecia’s eyes were a deep shade of green that sparkled like emeralds when she laughed…and when she slept in his arms, her dark lashes feathered her cheek and…no, not dark. Lucrecia’s lashes were a blend of blonde and russet and…her soft dark hair and her warm brown eyes and her dark lashes expanded to fill his mind, and there her image stayed as he tumbled away into the yawning pit full of traps that comprised his slumber.
A few feet away, across the room, a chopper floated into the center of the monitor. The motion sensor instantly detected the intruder, and the exterior camera dutifully zoomed in to fill the small screen with the angry face of Barrett Wallace.
Barrett glared at the tumbled pile of rocks from the window of the hovering chopper. “Well, I hope they weren’t in there.”
Nanaki could only concur. “I pray not.”
Barrett had been the one to remember the close proximity of the Sleeping Man Cave to the location of the recovered materia orb. The idea had been a revelation, a miraculous proposition. Surely, there was no other place to take shelter in this valley. Even the unflappable Rude had seemed somewhat energized by the prospect of finding Tifa and Vincent there.
So, they had flown here, all to no avail. If the pair had been inside that cave when it collapsed, they were most certainly trapped if they had survived. However, Nanaki didn’t think they could have lived through the cave-in. There would have been nowhere for them to go.
Rude shrugged his shoulders indifferently, projecting a casualness that he did not feel. “Well, there is nothing we can do here. Not until the floodwaters recede. We are about to lose the light anyway. We may as well return to Junon.”
The speech had been unusually long for Rude, but Nanaki suspected that the Turk was attempting to preempt Barrett’s protest, but the big man just slumped in his seat with a heavy sigh. He swept a hand through his scruffy beard and sadly nodded.
“I hate to say it, but you’re right.” Nanaki moved forward to touch Barrett’s arm with his nose. Barrett reached across his chest to rub his hand between the beast’s ears in a gesture of gratitude. “We might as well go help those that we can. But we will come back.”
Nanaki simply bowed his head in sorrow.
“It’s okay, Red. I have a feeling, maybe it’s just a wish, but I think they’ll be okay. Wherever they are…”
Even Rude inclined his head at Barrett’s words.
“Let’s get outta here then.” Barrett pointed toward the sky. “Let’s get movin’.”
Rude complied, sending the chopper skyward to point the nose in the direction of Junon. Barrett and Nanaki both watched the flooded valley sink away beneath them, the sludge-filled water full of carcasses dissolving into an unflawed mirror of pink-hued glass as the sun barely hovered on the horizon to cast the last dying rays of the day.
Finally, the chopper crossed the divide, and the valley disappeared from view. Barrett fell wearily into his harness. “Well, that’s that then.”
All Nanaki could do was nod.
Cid threw the front door wide and burst into the kitchen ready to demand his cup of tea, but she wasn’t there. Quickly, he stomped from room to room, sure that he would find her, first in the shop, then in the bedroom, or in the bathroom, but she wasn’t there. Finally, he trotted down the hall to exit into the backyard. She had to be there. But the backdoor was locked.
Annoyed, he reached beneath his collar to drag the chain into the open. Bending low, he inserted the key into the lock and turned it. The tumblers clicked over without a hitch. Hesitantly, he pushed the door open with the flat of his hand. He already knew that she wasn’t out there, but he stepped out to look anyway.
Jimmy noticed him standing on the stoop, and pulled a hand out of his overalls to wave. “Hey Cap! If you’re lookin’ for Shera, she ain’t there.”
Cid coolly dragged a cigarette from the pack in his goggles. “Yeah, I noticed.” His calm remark didn’t begin to reflect the turmoil inside. Slowly, the pilot stepped off the stoop and crossed the yard to talk to Jimmy face to face. “Do you know where she is? We got work to do.”
Jimmy eyed the Captain closely, suspicious of his quiet demeanor. “Ah no, she just up and left about a week ago. Said her job was done here.”
Cid’s eyes narrowed on the mechanic’s face as he sucked hard on his cigarette. “Well then, Jimbo. Guess that means you’re the head mechanic now.”
Jimmy started to smile at his unexpected promotion, but then he paused in thought. “The head mechanic? Are we gonna fire up the rocket program again then?”
"Nope. Gotta open up a new exit at Midgar, let some trapped people out.” Cid blew a cloud of smoke around the skeptical new head mechanic. “Get everyone together at the inn. We gotta get the team up an' runnin', and we gotta do it fast."
Jimmy just stood there in bewilderment. Cid waved his cigarette in the air as he bellowed his impatience and his pain. “Well, get going! Didn’t ya hear me say ‘fast’? That means hurry! Want me to pour rocket fuel under yer ass and light it?!”
“Uh no!” Jimmy grinned and hurried away. That sounded more like the Captain. He turned back to holler as he ran. “I’ll have everyone together in two shakes!”
“Make it one!”
Cid stood numbly in place and watched the mechanic bang on the window of the house next door. He heard the door slam behind him, and he turned to see Yuffie bounce down the steps.
“Hey, Old Man, you gonna get that engine fixed?”
Cid threw his cigarette into the grass and stomped it out before he answered on his last exhalation of smoke. “It’s not broken.”
“Huh?” Yuffie eyed the Captain in confusion. “What’s the matter with you, ‘member that sputter?”
“That sputter was all in your mind.”
“My mind!? I never heard the damn sputter!"
“Watch yer mouth!”
“You tellin’ me to watch my mouth?!”
Cid didn’t feel up to the banter, and he brushed past her as he headed for the house. She trailed close behind, like a flea stalking a dog.
“What about the engine?”
“Forget the engine. It’s okay, okay?”
“Oh, you were mistaken?”
“Yeah, I was mistaken.”
“Yeah, I’m sure. I made it up to keep you quiet. Worked like a charm too.”
Yuffie skidded to a stop. “You did what?!”
Cid tromped loudly up the wooden steps and slammed the door. The ninja girl dashed after him just as the lock chocked into the jamb. The Captain glared through the window at her as she frantically rattled the knob. “Get lost!”
“Cid! Let me in! What did Shera say?! Is she coming too?!”
Cid yanked the curtains closed over the window. “Leave me be!”
Turning his back on the door and a deaf ear to the pounding, he woodenly shuffled through the house with the intention of exiting the front door to go to the inn, but his eyes caught on the neatly folded piece of paper pinned beneath the sugar bowl. He moved to the table and glared at it for a moment before he ripped it from beneath the wide base, nearly upsetting the sugar all over the table.
He opened it up to read the first two words, Dear Cid, and then he deliberately crumpled the paper in his fingers and fired the wadded note toward the trashcan in the corner. He missed of course. With a snort of disdain, he angrily stomped across the kitchen and threw open the door to find his whole crew standing in a huddle in front of his house. They all looked up as one when the door slammed back against the wall with a bang.
“Well, what are you all standing there for!? We got people to save in Midgar! If you’re gonna go, get yer shit and get on that damn plane and let’s go!”
Several pairs of eyes stared at him in shock. Cid threw his arms in the air. “Well? What’s it gonna be?”
Jimmy stepped forward. “We’re all goin’, Cap.”
Cid jerked his head in a semblance of a nod. “Then get on it, Jim. You’re the whip. I’ll be at the plane doin’ preflight.”
“Yes sir!” Jimmy threw his hand up in a haphazard salute and turned away to instruct the team.
Unable to watch, Cid stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets and moved off toward the inn to head out into the wide field where he’d parked the Gelnika.
“What about Shera?”
The pilot turned his angry eyes on the slight girl that trotted beside him, her eyes snapping with curiosity. He set his jaw and veered away. “Shera who?”
Yuffie instantly adjusted her course to follow. “What do you mean, ‘Shera who’?”
Cid rounded on the girl and dug deep into his trousers pocket. He pulled out a handful of gil and crammed it into her hand. “Here. Go buy us some food to take. We won’t have time to stop an’ eat. An’ don’t spend it all on candy bars either.” His piece said, he put his back to her again and stalked away.
Then he yelled back over his shoulder. “An’ hurry up and get to the plane. We’re leavin’ in one hour.”
Puzzled at his behavior, Yuffie narrowed her eyes in consternation as she watched him walk away. Then she looked down at the wad of gil in her hand. “Wow! I getta shop!” Making a beeline to the store, she didn’t waste another thought on Cid or Shera.
The pilot had almost reached the inn when he abruptly altered his course, making a wide u-turn to walk down the other side of the town square. Halfway to the rocket pad, he veered off and strode back to the house. He slipped through the door and crossed the kitchen to the trashcan. It took him a moment to find it as the wad of paper had pinged off the edge of the metal can and lodged behind the stove. But he did find it. Carefully so as not to tear the stressed paper, he smoothed the crinkles out between his fingers, and then he folded it twice and tucked the missive into his pocket unread.
He returned to the front door and opened it, pausing to take one last look around before he closed it firmly behind him. He bent to slip the key into the keyhole, and for the first time that he could ever remember doing so, simply because he’d never needed to before, he locked the door to his house, and as he listened to the solid chunk of the tumblers settling home, he thought it unlikely that he would ever return. A bitter smile touched his lips.
“Ain’t nothin’ for me here anymore.”
He stepped off the stoop and strode away, not even looking back as he silently added his final words.
Goodbye Shera, wherever you are. Guess ya finally got smart.
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