Vincent stared hard at the yellowed paper beneath his fingers as he firmly resisted the urge to look at Tifa Lockhart when, finally, she slipped through the door and let it fall softly closed behind her. Continually, he’d allowed himself to be distracted by her as she’d explored the confines of the small room; opening and closing cabinet doors, poking into the contents of drawers, and later, by her distraught pacing after they’d finally engaged in their inevitable discussion.

”So can we leave as soon as the floodwaters recede?”

Slowly, he shook his head. “We cannot leave that way.”

“What do you mean? We can as soon as the river goes down, right? Then we can just walk out, right? That’s what you meant, right?” The distress in her voice told him that she understood exactly what he’d meant, but didn’t wish to accept his words. He could hardly fault her.

He averted his cool gaze from her anxious stare, and shook his head again. “No, we can’t. The cave entrance collapsed.”

“So…are you saying…that we’re…trapped?”

Reluctantly, he nodded. “For the present.”


That’s all she’d said. That one strangled word. Then she’d walked across the room and out the door without another word to him.

Now she’d returned after almost an hour, all time that he’d spent in constant contemplation of her rather than on further scrutiny of the map. Worrying about where she’d gone, wondering what she was thinking, supposing that she was curled up somewhere crying her eyes out at being forced to remain here with him, but more than that, at her inability to return to Cloud Strife. Deciding, over and over, to rise from his chair to go look for her, only to immediately command himself disgustedly to stay and study the map. And so it went. On and on and around and around.

As a result, he’d not applied the level of analytical thought to the content of the map that the task demanded, and this despite the fact that earlier he’d discovered at least one serious discrepancy in the shoddy representation of the underground passages, a crucial flaw that had thrown his well reasoned, if somewhat tentative, plan into disarray, the reason he’d intentionally neglected to tell her of the tunnels. He realized that he might well be forced to reject the mountain tunnel route as an option altogether, and he had no desire to make that decision in the face of her tears. Still, even though he had nowhere to go, no one waiting for him, he did not wish to remain here any more than she. He knew that he had to conceive some means of escape, because if he did not, he might find his resolute oath to be as insubstantial as the thought with which he’d made it.

Even now, despite his scheme to disregard her, to avoid visual contact with her, to concentrate on the map to the exclusion of all else, especially her, he found himself tracking her barefooted steps against the floor as she crossed the room, again straying from his purpose. Frustrated, he dropped his forehead into his hand and dug his fingers into his thick hair as he tried to force his attention back to the problem, then he deliberately straightened in his chair and dropped a finger to the paper to reinforce the effort. If he could just focus, he might still salvage his plan.

Despite his diligence, his fickle mind betrayed him, apparently prone to more leisurely pursuits than a study of a map. His eyelids drifted lazily downward as he unconsciously resurrected the exact moment that she’d kissed his cheek; the soft brush of her lips against his skin, the sun-dried, summer grass scent of her hair as one stray chocolate strand had drifted against his nose, the light touch of her fingers that had so fleetingly rested against the back of his hand…

Vincent swallowed a gasp as his eyes flew wide in alarm at the ease with which his thoughts had so swiftly drawn him from his objective, only to find the yellowed map partially scrunched inside tightly curled fingers. He gave his head the tiniest shake of denial as he cautiously flattened out his hand to smooth the crumpled page. No. This was not what it seemed. He harbored no…romantic…notions. Labored under no pointless delusions. He’d simply become too accustomed to caring for her, that was all. Too practiced at assessing her every movement no matter how slight, too aligned to seeing to her every need. Certainly, the argument seemed familiar. He’d made this argument before, and he would again, as many times as it took to remember, because it was truth. He’d simply been too accustomed to considering her in his every action, too habituated to worrying about her. She could take care of herself now. She didn’t need him anymore. He had to stop.

The lines on the page blurred as he bowed his head low to hide his face behind the curtain of his fallen hair, as though the thick tresses would provide a barrier that would banish all trace of her from his mind as well as from his sight. He knitted his brows as he worked to redirect his attention to the sketchy illustration of the tunnels, only partly visible between his splayed fingers, even as his uncooperative ears continued to trace her barefooted progress across the concrete floor and even as his traitorous fingers drifted to his cheek.

Tifa stopped beside the narrow bed and darted a surreptitious glance over at the silent Vincent who seemed engrossed in the content on the piece of aged paper, once again. Whatever the paper contained, it must be terribly interesting to warrant so much study. Certainly so captivating that he hadn’t even noticed her entrance into the room. With a little shrug of dismissal at the unfathomable nature of the uncommunicative Mr. Valentine, Tifa proceeded to dump the items she carried inside her bundled skirt out onto the mattress.

Startled at the sudden racket in the hushed room, a painful cacophony to unprepared ears primed for the detection of subtle movement, Vincent whipped his head around to stare at the heap of tins and foil packages tumbled about in the rumpled blankets on the bed, and then shifted his attention to her slender hands as she shook the few remaining food items from her skirt, and inexorably, his eyes fell to the partially exposed length of one leg, his crimson gaze held chained there as he absently studied the manner in which the soft, satiny folds of the closely bunched skirt delineated the shapely curve of her calf, only dimly aware of her movement to toss out the last stray packet before releasing the skirt to fall to the floor. His fascinated eyes followed to intently scrutinize the way the delicate hem of the dress gently draped one slim foot. Then the foot moved when she suddenly turned, and he broke from his trance. With a start, his head flew up as he chastised himself for the speed in which he’d again succumbed to distraction. How quickly his resolution had faltered. When had he allowed his mind to grow so undisciplined? Annoyed at his lapse, he squared his jaw and sought out her face, inwardly praying that she hadn’t noticed.

Tifa had meant to greet the silent, preoccupied man - the polite thing to do after all, even if she had been putting it off - only to encounter his chilly crimson eyes, narrowed in unmistakable irritation. Her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh! I’m sorry! Did I disturb you?”

Slowly, Vincent shook his head in the negative, even though his wordless reply lacked certitude. And verity. She had disturbed him. Just not in the manner that she believed. Pointedly, he raised his chin and dismissively turned away, refocusing the whole of his attention to the problem, the solution of which became more pressing with each passing moment. Once again, he made an attempt to put Tifa Lockhart from his mind and firmly bent his mind to the task he’d set for himself, to mentally flesh out the missing lines in places where the original drawing had been drawn so poorly, perhaps even so casually, that the inexpert illustrator had left the tunnels incomplete or had used an impermanent writing medium that had faded over time.

Despite the concerted effort on his part, his ears were still wont to follow her movements. The springs on the bed squeaked and the cans chunked softly together as she settled her weight onto the mattress. A protracted silence ensued as she sat perfectly still for several moments, and he could feel the weight of her gaze on his face. Uncomfortable beneath her steady regard, he pointedly propped his elbow on the table and bowed his head so his hair would tumble forward across his hand as he rested his forehead against his fingertips.

Tifa nervously watched him, and she didn’t fail to notice the way he sought to shut her out. His body language left her with little doubt. She took a deep breath. “Look…Vincent…I’m sorry if I’m bothering you…”

“You are not,” he replied flatly.

Uncertainly, she stared at him for a moment longer, wondering what she might say to that. His words said one thing, his tone another. What could she say? In the end, her shyness won out, and she kept her replies inside her own mind. Although, the words were quite different than those she might have spoken aloud to him.

Okaaay, Valentine, whatever you say. I’ll just sit right here and find me something to eat because my stomach is very angrily telling me that I haven’t eaten in days, and I have to admit that it has a valid complaint…even if not exactly true…since I did have that oh so wonderful soup you made me…thank you very much…and those cereal bars you brought me…thank you even more…and I’ll just leave you alone and let you do your…thing…and mind my own business…and go crazy talking to you in my head. Okay? Okay.

She reached out and drew a can from the center of the small heap, causing several other cans to cascade noisily down the pile. She darted a covert glance at Vincent, from beneath her lashes, but he hadn’t moved so much as a hair. Still, he might be glaring at her out of the corner of his eye, and she wouldn’t even know. All she could see were dangling raven locks.

With seeming unconcern, she shrugged and held the can aloft, turning it to and fro in her hand as she searched for some indication of the mysterious contents inside, but other than a stamped impression of the Shinra logo in red, or a close facsimile of the one she had come to know anyway, the silver tin held no decipherable markings whatsoever. Just a scattering of random letters and numerals. She wrinkled her brow in bewilderment. How was a girl to know what was inside? Should she just open the thing and take her chances?

Instead, she shook the can in a vain attempt to identify the foodstuffs by the sound of the slosh. Then she shook it harder. She had to admit that the sound, although unique, provided no clue other than the fact that the can held quite a bit of liquid. Probably beets or carrots. She found that idea about as appealing as Vincent’s soup at the moment. She started to drop the can back into the pile, but on second thought, carefully placed it into the blankets on her opposite side. With pursed lips, she gingerly drew another can from the pile, holding her fingers to the cans around to keep them from sliding. Once assured they wouldn’t move, she pulled her hand away, and winced when a couple shifted and clunked together anyway. Another stealthy glance at Vincent found him still in the same position, still petrified, the penetrating crimson eyes still targeting the paper instead of her.

She gave this can a shake too, even as she admitted to herself that she’d never figure out what was inside that way. At the same time she decided that she wasn’t going to worry about disturbing Mr. Valentine anymore. She didn’t know why she’d worried about it to begin with. If her presence bothered him, he could just go study his paper on the steps outside. A self-deprecating smile touched her lips. Even as she told herself that, she knew she would probably still fret about it. If he actually did snatch his paper in hand and leave the room, she’d feel terrible. She was hopeless.

Deliberately, she pried up the pull-tab with one ragged fingernail and opened the second can with a sharp tug, ruefully noting the lingering stiffness in her right hand. She raptly stared at the grayish, lumpy, viscous substance inside the can, and acknowledged that she still couldn’t identify the contents. She didn’t think she was hungry enough to eat the stuff either. It looked every bit as nasty as the soup mixture Vincent had concocted, if not worse

A thought occurred to her, and she looked over at the silent man with his head still bent in concentration. Then she cleared her throat. “Um…are you hungry…Vincent?” He rewarded her polite query with the briefest shake of his head. “Are you sure?” she pressed, tentatively raising the open can in his direction.

“I’ve eaten,” he responded curtly from behind the thick curtain of his hair. She drew the can back to peer at the unidentifiable substance again. She wasn’t sure she believed him. She hadn’t seen him partake of any of the military rations. But then again, she’d been out of the picture for several days. He might be as full as a tick with the stuff by now. Although, she had to admit he didn’t look it. In fact, she would be hard pressed to find a spare ounce on him anywhere. Not that she was looking…or planned to…of course…

Deciding that she wasn’t about to play the guinea pig, and since her ulterior scheme to foist the open can of food off on Vincent hadn’t panned out, a gesture born solely from her concern for his welfare of course, she bent and set the can at her feet, and then she promptly reached for another. Again, the outside of the can offered no information, and she started to reach for the tab to open it, but stopped as she suddenly visualized herself with a dozen open cans sitting on the floor around her feet, and still with nothing to eat. She should probably just admit that military rations were designed to keep soldiers nourished during maneuvers, and not really meant to please the eye or the tongue either one. Quite frankly, she didn’t know how Shinra had kept their soldiers from deserting. If she were enlisted in the Shinra army and took one look at this stuff, she’d hightail it to the nearest town with a pub.

With a heavy sigh, she dropped the can back into the heap and reached for one of the foil packets. Maybe she would fare better there. The cereal bars had been pretty tasty. She puzzled over the letters “PS” printed on one corner of the rectangular package as she tried to recall if the packet Vincent had given her earlier carried any such letters. She finally just ripped the packet down the center to reveal what looked like a well-traveled sandwich. She lifted it from the foil and looked it over, parting the two pieces of bread with a fingertip to find a thin layer of brown goo inside. She thought it might be peanut butter, but the thing didn’t even look edible. She raised the would-be sandwich to her nose and sniffed, and curled her lip. The thing didn’t even have a smell. Another dejected sigh slipped from her lips.

Vincent turned his head to look at her, helplessly curious as to the cause of her breathy sighs. She sat with her chin in one hand and the other hand in her lap, her fingers curled around what looked like a piece of bread, an expression of discouragement on her face. His inquisitive gaze shifted momentarily to the open can at her feet and then returned to her face.

As though she sensed his interest, she turned her head to meet his cool eyes. Her own eyes narrowed at his unrelenting stare. “What?” she asked with a hint of petulance.

One wing of an eyebrow went up. “Is there a problem?”

Unable to endure the cool crimson eyes for very long, she dropped a sheepish gaze back to the sandwich in her hand. “Um…no…not really…well…yes…actually…” She held the sandwich up for him to see. “This…this…whatever it is…looks likes it’s already been used…and that…” She pointed the sandwich at the can beside her feet. “That…I don’t even know what that…is…”

“May I see the can?”

Startled at his request, Tifa looked up to find his hand outstretched toward her. Carefully, she picked up the can and reached across to pass it to him, before settling back to watch with anticipation as he examined the contents, and then, just as she had with the sandwich, raised it to his nose for a sniff. Lastly, he deftly rotated the can in long fingers, no doubt noting the lack of information, just as she had.

“Fowl,” he announced, and shifted in his chair to hand it back to her.

Skeptically, she took it back with a nod of her head, and peered down into the can again. She had to agree with him. “It certainly does look foul.”

Tifa missed the flash of amusement in his eyes. “No, it’s some sort of fowl,” he corrected her. “Probably cokatolis.”

“Cokatolis?” she asked with rising hope. She’d eaten domesticated cokatolis before, and she remembered it being pretty good. “Do you think that's what it is? Really?”

“Yes,” Vincent replied with confidence. Truthfully, he wasn’t at all certain, but he sought to assure her, because she needed to eat, protein in particular. Her body still needed to heal.

“You should eat it,” he prompted, careful to keep any hint of command out of his voice.

Tifa hesitantly nodded at his suggestion. “Well…okay…I’ll give it a try...I guess...”

Vincent watched her as she stood, the can in one hand and the sandwich in the other, and crossed to the cabinet. She laid the sandwich aside and dug into the contents of a drawer, eventually drawing out a spoon which she inspected closely before leaning a hip against the cabinet and turning her attention to the stewed cokatolis, if that’s what it was. Satisfied that she would carry through on her decision to eat, he returned to his study of the badly drawn map, seeking a solid clue that would allay his apprehensions about leaving the underground facility through the tunnels. He was beginning to accept the fact that he wouldn’t find reassurance there.

Tifa reluctantly dipped the spoon into the unsavory looking cokatolis and raised a spoonful of it to her mouth. Tentatively, she sipped the thick, clumpy substance onto her tongue, and let it rest there for a moment. A moment was all it took. Her face twisted with revulsion, and she promptly spit the mouthful back into the can, and pointedly set it aside.

At the tick of the can against the cabinet, Vincent looked up to find her inspecting the sandwich. With a wrinkle of her dainty nose, she placed the offensive looking thing on the cabinet beside the discarded can, untasted. Somehow knowing that he would be watching, she turned to confront him, and trepidation filled her at sight of his knitted brows, drawn together in a frown. The thought suddenly occurred to her that he might decide to make her eat it, just as he had the soup. She really would rather dissuade him from such an unwelcome move.

“Er…you know…Vincent…I’m not really that hungry…right now…”

“You need to eat,” he curtly informed her. “Those are emergency rations, not high cuisine.”

His admonitory comment stung her to silence, and although his voice held no accusation, she clearly understood his meaning. He thought she was just being persnickety, and maybe she was. Maybe she should try harder, but right now she just couldn’t. Especially when tears burned behind her eyes at his implied censure. She watched him speechlessly as he dismissively returned to his damnable paper.

Vincent glared down at the yellowed page and mentally cursed, several choice words that he would never speak aloud, especially in her presence. Right then, he would give anything to take back those words, to erase the hurt in her eyes, the hurt he’d put there. He should have left her alone, minded his own damn business. She was a grown woman, twenty years old, trained in martial arts. She knew how to eat properly, and his unwelcome input would not make that happen any faster. He well knew that she wouldn’t allow herself to starve to death. He also knew he should apologize, and he wanted to, but he feared that if he opened his mouth, he would only make matters worse. Instead, he easily surrendered to the impulse to return to his former posture, forehead in fingers, head bowed to hide his face behind his hair, a place of security and…cowardice.”

She took a shaky breath. “Look…I think…I’m just going to…change…right now…”

She paused to wait for his reaction, but he didn’t make the effort to do more than give her a slight nod.

“Er…does the shower…work?” she asked hesitantly.

“Somewhat,” he replied tersely.

“Okay…well…then…I’m going to just go take a shower…now…”

Again, she waited for a response, but she didn’t get one, although she thought he might have nodded his head again, a movement so slight that she couldn’t be certain. She lifted her chin. She didn’t need his approval anyway. What was the matter with her? What did she care what he thought? In fact, she should march over and dump the disgusting contents of that can over his head for his patronizing attitude. But of course, she wouldn’t. She couldn’t. She’d feel too guilty. Besides, he might get really, really angry. A vivid image of the sleekly muscled, horned, very tall, winged creature that Vincent called Chaos formed in her mind, and she clearly recalled the last time she’d seen the beast in battle, the way he sliced the air with his wings to slam the cartilaginous ridges and bony hooks into a King Behemoth, an attack that had resulted in copious blood splatter and splintered ribs. She decided making him angry would not be a good idea. Not without Barrett to back her up anyway. Well, and Nanaki. And she probably ought to have Cloud along too. Instead, she borrowed a page from Yuffie’s book, and stuck her tongue out at him, knowing full well that he wouldn’t see her. The action made her feel much better, even if a bit childish. Then she put him out of her mind and went to retrieve her borrowed clothing, dragging the pants and shirt from under the pile of cans, seemingly oblivious to the noise she created as the cans bumped against each other, even smiling inside at the racket some made as they rolled off the bed onto the floor. So sorry to disturb you, Mr. Valentine… Without another glance at the stolid man, she tossed her bound hair back over her shoulder and flounced through the bathroom door.

Vincent looked up just in time to see her disappear through the doorway with a deliberate switch of the long full skirt. He could see that she’d decided to push aside the hurt he’d inflicted on her, and be annoyed at him instead, and he was more than willing to accept that as his due. In fact, her interests would be better served if she remained annoyed at him for the duration of their time together. Truthfully, both of their interests would be served if that time were brief. Appreciatively less distracted now that she’d gone, an idea occurred to him, and he looked back down at the paper with renewed interest, and then he bent to reach for the crate that still rested under the edge of the table, dragging it toward him as he listened to the last of the ponderously rolling cans clunk to a stop against the cinderblock wall under the bed.

Vincent recalled that he’d seen a pencil in the wooden box earlier, amidst all the other odds and ends. Now, he shuffled through the junk for several seconds before he finally discovered the eraser head of the pencil, just visible in a scattering of nails, jutting out from under a rock. He froze in consternation. The rock. The rock that he had no intention of touching again. Not if he could help it. He decided he would take no chances. Turning sideways in his chair, he reached down with his metallic hand to pincer the head of the pencil between two talons and drew the writing implement out from under the innocuous looking gray stone, shifting it to his right hand as he straightened away from the crate. He purposefully set pencil to paper to bring his idea to fruition, and then he paused in the act when he suddenly realized that Tifa hadn’t made a sound since she’d entered the bathroom. At least, he didn’t think so. He’d been creating quite a bit of noise himself, rooting around in the box.

For almost a full minute, he listened and heard nothing. No rush of water, no rustling of clothing, no scuffling sound of movement. He could almost convince himself that she’d walked through the door and disappeared from existence. He centered speculative eyes on the open doorway and immediately realized the probable reason she now stood motionless in the tiny room. He laid the pencil aside and bent to the crate again.

Just as Vincent had surmised, Tifa was indeed standing motionless in the center of the approximately three square feet of space that comprised the middle of the bathroom floor. In fact, she was frozen in indecision, caught in the teeth of a quandary, not sure which way to turn.

She’d just reached down to grab the hem of the long satin dress, all with the intention of drawing the garment off over her head, only to pause there as her startled eyes explored the open room beyond, finally coming to rest on the open can she’d left on the countertop, with the flattened, soggy sandwich just beside. Slowly, she’d straightened up and turned her eyes to the rust-pitted shower stall and the tarnished water fixtures, the examination of which she’d carried out with ease, as the shower curtain, if there had ever been one, was now nowhere in sight. Like the door, it had gone missing, and she had no clue how she was going to persuade herself to step into that shower, much less change her clothes, with Vincent Valentine sitting just around the corner, just a few feet away.

She could ask him to leave the room for awhile, and he would probably oblige, if she could actually talk herself into going out there to ask him, but she envisioned her face turning all red while she stammered out her request, and him looking at her with those cool, indifferent eyes first. And after sticking her tongue out at him too. Not that he’d seen her. And really, not that he’d even pay any mind to what she was doing in the bathroom. Heaven knew, that little yellow paper of his had him completely enslaved. Truthfully, she could probably strip off all her clothes and dance through the room, singing at the top of her lungs, and he would pay her no mind, which if she really did such a ridiculous thing, would make this whole relentless and silly mental exercise pointless, which came back to the fact that she could not undress with him just outside, which of course, then brought her back to the long ago realization that Vincent Valentine had, at some point, put this dress on her to begin with, because she certainly hadn’t been wearing it on the Highwind, and she certainly didn’t remember changing, and she’d surely seen no one else about, but that was different, because she was asleep then, unconscious, and she didn’t really care then, because she didn’t know then, and if she didn’t think on the matter too much, then she wouldn’t get all embarrassed thinking about it, and her face wouldn’t turn red, like it was doing now anyway.

With a soft groan, she covered her burning face with one hand, parting two fingers to stare in dismay at the open can of stewed cokatolis, or whatever it was, as she tried to figure out what in the world she was going to do now. She could either just get on with the show, not literally, of course, and climb into the shower, or she could go out there and ask him, humbly and politely, to take a hike. For just a little while. And therein lay the quandary. She couldn’t decide which would be the lesser of two evils. Just yet. And she didn’t know how long she’d been standing there thinking about it, but it seemed like forever.

As though to confirm her fear that her modesty would be violated, Vincent suddenly appeared in the doorway, revolver in hand. Her hand left her face to fly to her throat as her heart lodged there, and she stared at him aghast, all her muddled thoughts coalescing into one reasonless certainty in her overtaxed brain.

Vincent averted his eyes with an impatient jerk of his head, and expertly flipped the revolver in his hand to bring the barrel into his palm. Then he twisted to the side to reach over and drag the topmost blanket off the bed, jerking it free of the remaining cans, some more of which tumbled to the concrete floor. Still avoiding her wide eyes, he raised one corner of the blanket to the top of the doorframe, and after sliding two metal digits into his pocket to withdraw a nail, he deliberately drove the nail into the wood with the metal backstrap at the butt of the Peacemaker. After which, he raised the blanket to effectively block her from his view but for the mythril-plated tips of his boots, still visible to her beneath the six inch gap between the end of the blanket and the floor.

Relief made her limbs weaken as stood there, motionless with a palm pressed against her still pounding heart, listening as he repeated the process at the other corner of the door, tapping in the second nail with his makeshift hammer. She felt guilty too. For thinking the worst of him, even though she knew better. Shouldn’t she have known that he would do the chivalrous thing, without the necessity of being asked? What was the matter with her? How had she managed to get herself so worked up? And why hadn’t he warned her first anyway?

Suddenly, she regained the presence of mind to find her voice. “Thank you, Vincent,” she called out, somewhat shakily. But she received no response, and a glance at the gap between blanket and floor revealed that he had gone

Vincent meticulously made his notations, discounting his discouragement at Tifa’s reaction, and instead, mentally berated himself at length for his clumsiness and for frightening her so unnecessarily, even as he unconsciously traced out the lines of each tunnel with a finger, actually making progress despite his relentless inner monologue. Then a soft hum reached his ears. His pencil halted in mid-scratch, and he lifted his head to listen. A few seconds later, she broke out into full song, voicing a bit of fragmented verse before dropping back into her lyrical hum. The pencil between his fingers began to list as he raised his eyes from the paper at the familiarity of the tune, frowning slightly as he tried to remember where he'd heard it before. And then it came to him. She’d been singing the same song while she slept, in the midst of her fevered dreams, only a couple of days ago.

Inevitably, his unruly thoughts traveled back to the events of that day, and he recalled the gambit of emotional extremes he’d experienced, even at one point sinking to such a level of unbearable pain that he’d given himself to Chaos. His mind revisited the moment he’d burst into the room, praying that Chaos had not harmed her, only to find her lying in the floor, certain for the briefest moment that his worse fear had been realized, until she’d stirred in her sleep and saved him from a lifetime of gibbering madness. And later…later…he’d combed her hair…as she lay sleeping with her head resting against his thigh…and he’d touched her face…and she’d murmured…his name he’d thought…but of course…not…but what if…

A loud squeak from the bathroom instantly dumped him back into the real world, and a slight frown deranged his unmarked brow. Again, his treacherous mind had sought to lure him down a road not meant for him to travel, a path intended for another. A clearly marked path, at that. A loud rush of water followed, and he absently propped his chin in his hand, already back on the path, listening closely as her soft hum rose and fell at her whim. He knew the moment she stepped into the shower, the previously uninterrupted sound of undulating susurration now changing, punctuated by the random splatter against the metal surfaces of the narrow stall, the falling water detoured in its course to the drain by the presence of her body.

Momentarily, she paused in her song, and a pleasured sigh barely touched his ears, almost unheard, nearly buried inside the spray. His unfocused eyes drifted to the pencil, now loosely clasped between thumb and fingers as an image of her coalesced inside his mind, of a sweet smile gracing her lips as she raised her face into the warm rain, glittering droplets, like tears, tumbling into her dark hair, clinging to her thick lashes, tracing the gentle curve of her cheek to track the elegant line of her neck and slide surreptitiously into the hollow of her throat, then to slip over her skin to explore the subtle ridge of one delicate breast bone to…

Tifa burst into song once again, her sweet voice high and lilting as she breathed heart into her words. A blissfully innocent tune about love. Love as a dream from which one does not wake…love as morning sun to rout the darkest night…love as elixir to soothe every ache…Love as enduring peace and eternal starlight…

Vincent huffed softly at the perfidy of the verse. Love is the raging fire that chars the bone to ash and steals away air…love is the bitter wind that withers the leaves sere and strips the trees bare…love is…a…thirsty man’s salty dregs…a dying man’s bitter curse…a weary man’s…nightmare…

His lips thinned into a grim line. More in keeping with the truth, even if his impromptu composition lacked finesse. He suspected Tifa would not be moved to sing his rendition however. Certainly, his lyrics did not befit her lighthearted, disgustingly catchy tune. Better set to a funereal dirge or…a dark and reflective nocturne, perhaps in the key of C minor...bittersweet…heartbreaking…or a more appropriate composition…angry…tempestuous…a stormy movement in E flat minor…

His lashes crept inexorably down as he mentally selected the notes, visualized his fingers touching the keys, more ebony than ivory, first lightly, and then, more softly…tenderly…pianissimo…and then…sorrowfully…lacrimoso…and then forcefully…powerfully…violently…appassionato…

Vincent’s eyes closed as his imaginary music wove a spell in his mind, fingers both flesh and metal unconsciously moving against the tabletop in ghostly imitation, his closed ears oblivious to the tick of the sharp tips of his claws against the slate surface. Unheard. Unnoticed. As had been the soft snick of the door latch and the stealthy footsteps crossing the wooden floor behind him…that…day…

”Do you grant requests, Mr. Valentine?” her husky voice whispered near his ear.

His fingers stilled on the keyboard as every muscle in his body tensed at the achingly familiar voice. “My request card is full,” he informed her tightly. With an unconscious shrug, he sought to dismiss her, denying her even so much as a glance as he pointedly sent his fingers dancing along the keyboard in a playful scherzo, a vain attempt to project a nonchalance he didn’t feel. However, the lighthearted music did nothing to dispel the ache in his heart, and he lowered his head as he ruefully acknowledged a marked heavy-handedness in the execution of the piece and synced into a somewhat threatening and fatalistic march comprised mostly of improvisation on his part.

He had hoped she would comprehend his obvious disinterest in further conversation and leave, but she simply stood behind him and watched for a long moment before finally skirting the bench to stand beside the piano. He shot her a most irritated look when she set her wineglass down against the glossy ebony surface of the grand piano, along with one elbow. She propped her chin in her hand, a seemingly relaxed posture indicating that she had no intention of being dissuaded from her purpose, whatever that might be. He couldn’t even imagine why she’d decided to grace him with her presence, two months to the day that she’d left him, bleeding the whole of his heart out into the lane, with her ring clutched in his hand. He decided to pretend she was not there, a difficult proposition at best, especially as the rich golden hue of her velvet winter gown highlighted the rich honey tints in her chestnut hair as well as the verdant depths of her emerald eyes.

“I fear your audience has fled,” she pointed out as she idly glanced around the large, empty room.

“I had hoped so,” he responded coolly.

The music grew louder and more forceful as his fingers struck the keys in a manner that reflected the turmoil inside.

“Meaning that you were less than truthful, Mr. Valentine, when you described your ‘card’ as ‘full…so…I hope you will now honor…my request…”

He chose not to reply, still praying for her timely departure, but she only continued to gaze into his stiffly composed face as she awaited a concession she would not receive from him. Unfortunately, having initially failed, she decided to persist.

“…I wondered…Vincent…if you would play the…Eterne…for me…”

His fingers slammed to a stop on the keys, along with a convulsive stomp against the sustain pedal, leaving his final and jarringly discordant note resonating with ear numbing intensity. He jerked his hands from the keyboard and fisted them against his thighs as he turned to glare at her, his brown eyes dark with his pain. How could she ask him to play…that? How could she justify it? Did she consider his feelings so insignificant? Did she even hesitate for a moment to twist the knife she’d driven into his heart? Her shamelessness knew no bounds.

“Why are you here, Doctor Hodge?” His voice liberally dripped with icy disdain. “Have you grown so bored with the festivities downstairs that you would seek my dubious company?”

Lucrecia dropped a troubled gaze into the amber contents of the glass, all pretense at casualness ruined by the cold reception, or perhaps by the grievous injury he couldn’t hope to keep from his eyes. Nervously, she turned the slender stem of the glass in her fingers and apprehensively watched the liquid swirl as she sought new ground from which to answer his harshly voiced query.

“I…er…noticed you weren’t at the party…so I thought I would…see if you wanted to…join…us.”

Her soft, hesitant voice, as well as her apparent thoughtfulness, drained away his anger and left him with a bone deep weariness. He turned his head away to stare down at the piano keys. “I’d rather not.”

“But it’s Winterfest…and well…everyone is here…” She fell silent at his indifferent shrug. Then she drew in a shaky breath and tried again.

“Lewis is here. You should come down and see him.”

He nodded slowly. Lewis was supposed to be carrying official reassignment papers for the transfer he’d requested almost a month past. “I will speak to him tomorrow,” he informed her in a voice emptied of any hint of emotion, and then he purposefully shoved the piano bench back and stood up. He politely inclined his head in her direction, but pinned his eyes on a stormy seascape painting visible over her shoulder. He had no intention of engaging in any further conversation with her. “If you’ll excuse me, I believe I’ll retire for the night.” He didn’t bother to wait for acknowledgement from her before he turned on heel and strode away.

He hoped that to be the end of it then. She would return to her party and to the arms of her beloved Professor Hojo, and he would take possession of his transfer papers, and by sunset of the next day, he would be gone. He would be done with Lucrecia Hodge. He would be done with them all. Of course, he couldn’t even begin to comprehend how he might make of his life anything other than the desolate, empty wasteland he’d been left.

His hopes were in vain. Her high heels tapped smartly against the floor as she hurried after him. “Wait Vincent! Please!”

He chose not to acknowledge her plea, and would not have given her another second of his time, had she not reached out to clasp his arm in desperate fingers to drag him to a standstill.

He stood motionless as she stepped up close beside him and spoke, his rapt eyes intrigued by the sight of her perfectly manicured, highly polished, scarlet nails against the snowy white of his shirtsleeve. Whatever she’d said didn’t register in his brain. He didn’t reply nor did he move. Growing nervous at his prolonged silence and intent examination of her fingers, Lucrecia released him and moved around to stand uneasily in front of him, at which point, he wearily raised his head to regard her through shuttered eyes.

“What more do you want of me, Lucrecia?” What more could she take from him? She had his heart. She had his soul.

“I just…thought…perhaps…we could talk…for a little while…” Her faltering words fell away at the flash of anger in his eyes.

“I can’t imagine we’ve anything to discuss,” he flatly informed her. If he’d been a more determined man, he would have brushed past her then, and made his way to the door, escaped to the familiar haven of his locked room and his book, but he didn’t. He suddenly found that he couldn’t, because he’d made the grave error of peering down into her upturned face, and the sorrowful tenderness in her gaze stayed him.

Lucrecia smiled slightly at the uncertainty in his eyes, and seeing her moment of opportunity, she raised a hand to tentatively slide her fingers against his chest, and when he didn’t recoil from her, she pressed even closer. His breath caught in his lungs at her purposeful action, and all thought of departure from the room, and from Lucrecia, blew from his mind like so many curled leaves before a brisk autumnal wind. In truth, the door, the room, and the whole of the world, all but her, had ceased to exist for him.

“I miss you…so much…” she whispered as she lifted a hand to his face, released a ragged breath as she let her fingertips brush his cheek. Helplessly, he turned his face against her hand as his lashes slipped down. “…Oh…Vincent…”

She raised her other hand, slipping her fingers into his dark hair to cradle his face with both slender hands, and with a soft groan of despair, he dragged her against him, locking her tightly within the circle of his arms, long starved lips already seeking her upturned mouth, but just as he would have claimed her lips for his own, a door slammed somewhere nearby, and the harsh chill of reality washed over him. His head flew up, and he set her away from him, yet held her imprisoned at arm’s length with his hands fisted around her upper arms, loath to release her but afraid to have her near, oblivious to her pained expression at the tightness of his grip as his distrustful eyes scrutinized her face. She refused to look at him, demurred to offer him so much as a peep from beneath her eyelashes, and his temper flared.

“Why, Lucrecia,” he demanded coldly. “Why are you here? Why now?”

She shook her head in uncertainty. “I…told you…why…”

“You’ve told me nothing,” he bit out between clenched teeth. His fingers tightened, and she winced uncomfortably. “I know nothing. Except that you’ve chosen to be with Hojo.” Vincent spat the man’s name out like the filthy word he found it. “You could have told me, Lucrecia,” he accused. “You could have explained yourself.” He glared fiercely down at her, awaiting a reasonable response, but she seemed helpless to do more than stare at a button at the open collar of his shirt, her mouth working wordlessly as she struggled for words she didn’t seem to possess.

“For weeks, Lucrecia, you’ve avoided me as though I were a contagious pathogen, dissolving like a wraith into the shadows at my approach, even as you let him hold you…let him…touch you…kiss you…” His face convulsed in disgust and pain, and he abruptly released her, as though his hands had been burned, and he spun away to put his back to her as he struggled with his tortuous emotions.

Her voice came from behind him, high and wavering, as though she was on the verge of tears. “…Vincent…I’m…sorry…I was…afraid…”

“Of me?” he choked out past his closed throat. “You believe that I would hurt you?”

“No…yes…I don’t…know…”

He folded his arms protectively around his chest and speechlessly bowed his head in stunned disbelief.

Slowly, she walked around him until she stood squarely in front of him, and she lifted her fingers to tentatively touch one tightly folded arm. “I want…you….Vincent. I miss…you…so much…” She made a small sound, as though a sob had caught in her throat, and he lifted his head to see her face. Hopeful, tear-filled green eyes met stony brown ones.


“Have you left him?” he demanded.

She tried to hold his gaze, but her eyes finally fell away beneath his penetrating stare, but not before he’d seen the answer she wouldn’t voice.

“No,” he bit out. “Will you leave him?”

“It’s not…that simple…” she whispered, almost under her breath.

“Will you leave him?” Vincent pressed.

Finally, she barely shook her head.

“No,” he spoke her answer aloud. “Well…that’s that…then,” he added, his voice dead with resignation, his eyes dark with resurrected pain.

She didn’t respond nor did she move, standing forlornly there with her face averted. Vincent watched a single tear trace the contour of her face, and his resolve wavered. Heaven help him, he loved her, and he didn’t know how he would ever stop. Her pain would always be his pain, and he couldn’t bear to see her distressed like this, especially when he seemed the cause of it, but he didn’t know what to do. He was completely at sea. He couldn’t give her what she asked of him, and he didn’t know why she would ask, when she obviously wanted to be with Hojo.

Her last words suddenly replayed in his head. ‘It’s not that simple.’ She’d said that. He’d always thought that he possessed a certain intuition for the undercurrents of human affairs, but then, he hadn’t been himself of late. Maybe he’d missed something of importance. Something of relevance. Certainly, he now realized that she might have left much unspoken.

He reached out and rested gentle hands on her shoulders. At the reassuring gesture, unexpected after his censure, her head shot up, and she stared at him through teary eyes. “Lucrecia, is there something you aren’t telling me? Is something wrong?”

Emerald eyes instantly flew wide with alarm. “No!” She exclaimed. “Nothing!” He studied her anxious face with suspicion. Her answer had been too quick. Too emphatic. “There is something wrong,” he decided aloud.

Lucrecia drew in a shaky breath, and then she forced a smile to her lips and vehemently shook her head. “No, I’m fine. Really…” The smile wavered beneath his skeptical regard. “In fact, Vincent, it was wrong of me to come here. I really…shouldn’t have…it wasn’t fair…to you…after everything…” A nervous laugh escaped her throat. “I’ve had too much wine…I’m afraid…too many memories plaguing me…tonight. Especially…tonight…” Her smile, forced as it was, faltered, and she averted her eyes to the wooden floor between them. “…Just completely…silly…”

Vincent scrutinized the top of her chestnut head for a time, and then he reluctantly withdrew his fingers from her velvet-clad shoulders. He’d decided that he had no choice but to believe her. She’d given him no reason not to believe her. His suspicion had been born of false hope anyway. Hope that she might still need him. Hope that there existed another reason, any reason, other than the fact that she just didn’t love him anymore. If she ever had. He wasn’t even sure of that anymore, although there had been a time when his belief in her love for him would never have faltered. Now, he would never ask her if she’d loved him, because he simply had to believe that once she did, for his own sake. However, he did have one overriding question for her, one that he longed to ask, and one that had tormented his waking mind and kept his sleep at bay every night. Because he did love her, a basic fact of his life, and he could not envision a day when he would not.


She made no move to look at him, and he reached out one finger to lift her chin, forcing uneasy eyes up to meet his own troubled gaze.

“Lucrecia…tell me…are you happy?”

Startled at his quietly spoken question, her eyes widened as she sought any hint of accusation or sarcasm in his expression, but she only found concern in his brown eyes. Still, she was astonished by his question and decided that she’d misunderstood him. “What did you ask me?”

“I need to know, Lucrecia.” He imbued his low voice with a hint of urgency. “Are you happy? Does he make you happy?”

She gaped silently at him as he searched her eyes for the answer, but all he could find there were disbelief and…regret.

The door, having been opened soundlessly on well-oiled hinges, now slammed into the doorframe with a splintering crash. Lucrecia leapt guiltily away from Vincent, who slowly turned in place to scrutinize the intruder. He already knew who would be standing there before his narrowed eyes found the self-important professor, standing just inside the room, an insolent smile on his thin lips.

Hojo bent his head to peer over his spectacles at his errant date. “Slumming, darling? It seems I’ve neglected you for too long. How can you ever forgive me?” His cheerful tone indicated that he neither wanted nor expected forgiveness.

Without a backward glance at Vincent, Lucrecia rushed across the room to the Professor, an anxious expression on her face. She seemed to be the one seeking forgiveness, the one who imploringly gathered one of Hojo’s hands in both of hers, pressing close to him and lifting her chin to whisper into his ear. Hojo turned a bemused eye on the watchful Turk as he listened to her at length, and then he nodded and tenderly kissed her hair. “Of course, darling. I completely understand.”

His throat tight with emotion, and his stomach churning sickly at their display, Vincent turned on heel and retreated to the piano, with a feigned indifference he could not hope to truly find within. Deliberately, he closed his mind to their murmurings as he gathered the loose sheets of a musical score Dr. Gast had conveniently left behind, the pages serving as a distraction until the two of them would finally decide to leave and remove themselves from the pathway of his sole means of egress from the room. Instead, they suddenly fell silent, and he could well imagine the reason. He squeezed his eyes shut, but that only made matters worse, because then a vivid picture of that which he did not wish to imagine rose in his mind.

“Jonathon! No!” Lucrecia hissed in a loud whisper. “Please, don’t!”

Vincent’s eyes flew open, and every muscle in his body tensed.

“But darling, it would only be polite,” Hojo responded in a normal tone.

“Just leave him alone,” she pleaded in a barely audible voice.

Hojo didn’t respond to her, apparently deciding to ignore her plea, and chose to address him instead.

“Oh, Mr. Valentine,” he called out, as though Vincent were not standing a mere ten feet away. Reluctantly, Vincent laid the gathered pages back on top of the piano and half-turned to find a satisfied smirk on Hojo’s face. He suspected he would not like what would come next. Still, he raised one eyebrow in question. “Yes, Dr. Hojo?” he inquired with appropriate deference, even if he had to grit his teeth to force out the distasteful words.

Vincent noted that Lucrecia had now put her back to the room and him. Hojo lowered his head to peer superciliously over the top of his frames at him, and his smirk turned into a wolfish smile. “Lucrecia and I…”

Lucrecia hunched her shoulders at the words, a movement Vincent didn’t fail to notice. His own shoulders tightened in dread. “…We would like to invite you to our wedding nuptials…” Hojo paused momentarily when Lucrecia suddenly reached out to turn the doorknob. Without another word, she slipped hastily from the room, leaving the door standing ajar. She would not even grant him the consideration to look at him.

Numbly, Vincent listened to the frenetic tap of her high heels against the floor of the landing as she made good her escape, a sharp counterpoint to the lilting orchestra music rising from the foyer below. He could do little else but take note. In fact, he could hardly draw a breath for the stake twisting in his heart and the bloody throbbing inside his skull. Unconsciously, he raised a nerveless hand to his chest, and almost of their own volition, his fingers crept towards the gun, hanging so conveniently close to hand in his shoulder holster.

“…The eve of the new year…” Hojo had resumed his silkily voiced invitation, but Vincent could hardly hear him. “…At 7 p.m. in that quaint little chapel across the square.” Vincent’s head moved in denial. “Your attendance is most welcome, Mr. Valentine.” Hojo’s taunting laughter filled the space around his ears, and his fingers finally made connection with the butt of his gun. Convulsively, his fingers locked around the comforting grip.

Apparently having divined the probable whereabouts of Vincent’s unseen hand, Hojo abruptly stopped laughing. Still, he didn’t seem overly disturbed. “Hmm…I believe I may have overstayed my welcome, so I’ll bid you good night, Valentine.” The professor’s words were full of levity. “May your holiday be filled with joy.” Chuckling anew, Hojo gaily waved, and then stuffing his hands nonchalantly in the pockets of his black tuxedo jacket, he strolled through the open door and dismissively put the trembling Turk behind him.

Vincent finally released his grip on his gun, and all the muscles that he’d held in rigorous check to keep from whipping that pistol out and drilling the smug bastard right between the eyes suddenly refused to even support him, and Vincent fell weakly against the piano, his fingers turned into grasping claws against the glossy wood, raven bangs falling into his face as his head sank low, desperately trying to draw a single full breath into lungs crushed by the weight of his pain as he struggled for purchase on solid ground even as he drowned in a tempestuous sea of spiritual torment.

As ragged gasps tore through his strangled throat, he glared into the amber contents of the wineglass that still rested on the piano, mere inches from his right hand, resisting the compelling urge to draw his gun anyway and chase Hojo down. Kill the supercilious, pretentious, sadistic ass. He’d only be doing the scientific community and the world a great service, and he’d have the utter satisfaction of sending him straight to perdition. But no, he could not do that to her. She loved Hojo. And the gods help him, he loved her. Even though, he wanted desperately to hate her just then, he loved her. He was helpless do otherwise. He could not kill Hojo. In truth, this wasn’t about Hojo anyway…not really…but about her…Lucrecia…

He’d truly labored to get through his days until he could leave Nibelheim under the firm belief that there was nothing she could do to hurt him any further, that he’d reached the pinnacle of despair and agony, and that given time his horrific wound would heal, or at the very least, scab over with scar tissue and become bearable. But Lucrecia had once again shown him the fallacy of his feeble delusions. He knew the whole truth now. He could no longer deny it. The blinders were off. The conclusion, inescapable. He’d never been more than an idle diversion for her, an amusement to enliven the boring days until she’d won the man she really wanted, the one she truly loved. Tonight, she’d let him believe, even if for just a few moments, that there might be a chance, with the full knowledge that in less than two weeks she meant to marry Hojo. She hadn’t even left him with the comfort, meager though it was, that she had loved him once, cared for him, at the very least. Truthfully, she couldn’t care any less. He thought she’d done the worst she could do to him. He’d been wrong…so foolishly…damnably…wrong…

His face twisted in renewed anguish, and he shot out a hand to sweep her wineglass from the piano where it shattered against the shiny lacquered floor, the brittle sound of which created an echoing crescendo in his mind. Or so it seemed. Until he realized that the sound resonating in his ears came from a sustained high note rather than the breakage of a crystal goblet.

Vincent blinked dazedly as Tifa’s voice seeped back into his mind, her lighthearted and sweet song successfully disengaging him from his punitive memories to completely return him to the spartan control room. He felt as though he’d traveled a hundred exhausting miles and back in mere moments. With a sorrowful shake of his head, he drew in a long cleansing breath as he stared down at hand and claw, flexed against the tabletop as though he’d been playing in imaginary accompaniment to her song. Curiously, he raised the claw to his face and turned it to and fro, as though he’d never seen it before that day, and then, one by one, he curled the not so flexible digits into the semblance of a fist, the best the elongated tips would permit, before morosely returning the clumsy prosthetic hand to the table. He’d surely never play the piano again.

Wearily, he swept his hand across his face as the last unsettling traces of the long ago, yet seemingly not so long past, memory slipped away, the words of Tifa’s song winning the competition for his mind. He let his head fall back against the wall as he listened. She seemed to be singing a different song now, or perhaps the chorus of the one she’d been singing before, as the verse seemed devoted to the same innocently optimistic view of love, although it seemed a more modern composition than the one before, perhaps the lyrics to one of those loud songs that had been blaring from a speaker in the pub in Rockettown, a piece of music that had incited Yuffie to dance. Still, he found it hard to imagine a pulsating rhythmic beat and expressionless instrumentation designed to create volume rather than artistry as accompaniment to her melodic tune and heartfelt words.

If your love is all I have…
Then that’s just fine with me…
Your love is all I want…
Your love is all I need…
Your love is the key…
To be…
The one to set me…

Then he thought that perhaps the simplistic tune merely followed her whim, an impromptu creation invented at the spur of the moment, a song that might never be rendered again, and would never be heard by her intended recipient. But then, he could hardly know. The song might well be the best-known love ballad ever written, but if composed in the last couple of decades or so, would hardly have reached his ears in the basement crypt. Cloud Strife would surely know of it, though. Whether he would appreciate her sentiment remained to be seen.

Vincent straightened in his chair and pointedly shoved the paper and pencil aside. Listening to her sing in the shower, although captivating, tended to direct his mind into avenues he’d rather not travel. Certainly, she sorely challenged his ability to concentrate, making a continued effort to sort out the collage of tunnels and partially obliterated lines pointless at this time. He knew, without a doubt, that he’d best discover some way to occupy his mind. He had no desire to let his thoughts wander, only to revisit painful scenes from the past, events he had no wish to relive and could hardly change. If he permitted it, he could sit here and torture himself endlessly, an exercise in which he’d grown most proficient. Still…Lucrecia…her memory served to remind him, with excruciating conciseness, of the necessity of staying true to his course. The time had come to seek the alternative.

Myron surreptitiously drew the curtain aside to peer out into the town square, his brows drawing together in consternation at the complete absence of life. He couldn’t imagine where those two women had gotten off to now. Not thirty minutes past, he’d reluctantly slipped from beneath the warmth of his covers and tiptoed away from his sleeping wife, gingerly climbing the wooden stairs to cross the chilly cobblestones of the kitchen floor barefooted, at which point he’d paused long enough to start some water boiling for coffee before retreating to one of the upstairs bathrooms, noting the closed door of Maya’s room as he’d hurried past.

When he’d returned down the hall some while later, Maya’s door stood ajar, and in the kitchen, he’d encountered the welcome aroma of freshly made coffee, but no sign of the person who had made it. Filling a mug with what turned out to be a pretty stiff brew, he’d stealthily slipped back down the stairway, only to find the blankets tossed back on the bed, and his wife gone. A cursory search of the house, followed by a more meticulous one, had produced nary a soul, and now here he stood befuddled, staring into the midst of the vacant village a mere half an hour later, wondering where everyone had gone in such a hurry.

Deciding that maybe he’d better find out, in light of recent events, he crossed to the front door and cracked it open to peer, one-eyed, into the still empty village square. Nervously shoving his spectacles up his nose with one finger, he finally slipped through the doorway to pause on the stoop as he swept an anxious gaze toward the darkly looming mansion. With its smudged windows and stone facade bathed in the soft pre-dawn light, the aged structure seemed almost one of worn gentility rather than one of menacing depravity, especially with the banks of flowers lining the perimeter of the stone wall, feathery crimson petals fluttering on the light breeze off the mountains. He knew better though. As far as he was concerned, that house represented everything wicked in the world, and he intended to make sure his wife didn’t go there again. Somehow…

Folding his arms against the chilly morning air, or maybe against the chill inside, he looked the other way, toward the Nibelheim gate, and there he instantly found everyone, the remainder of the inhabitants of the silent village. His wife, to his great relief, stood near the rusted out old pickup truck, her back to him, her unbound raven hair and snowy nightgown drifting gently against her body in the breeze. She seemed to be watching Maya, who stood quite still in the calf high grass of the meadow well beyond the gate with her arms outspread to the sky, while the evil white bird looked silently on from his perch on the topmost span of the wrought iron gate. A strange tableau to say the least.

The bird swiveled his head to pin Myron with fierce eyes as the man padded across the cool stones to his wife’s side. Anxiously, Myron nodded at the avian creature, and then derided himself for the ridiculous gesture. Why had he done that? Did he think the bird would return the silent greeting? Hardly. He suddenly realized that he was locked in a stare down with the bird, and he quickly averted his eyes. He didn’t want to give him any reason to attack him again. The bird didn’t seem to like him much. He realized then, that he’d never known a bird could hold a grudge, and he wondered how long it might last. Uneasily, he put the bird from his mind and turned his attention to his wife. Nessa gave him a fleeting glance when he stopped alongside, lifting her cup to her lips as she returned her enigmatic gaze to the motionless girl in the meadow.

“What’s going on?” Myron queried lowly.

Nessa lifted a shoulder in a slight shrug, along with one quizzical wing of an eyebrow. “I’m not really sure. Actually.”

“Um…how do you feel this morning?”

“Better.” She nodded her head at the cup. “Your coffee has had quite a rejuvenative effect on me.”

He shook his head in denial even as relief flowed through him. He felt like a man given a stay of execution, as long as he didn’t contemplate its temporary nature. “I didn’t make the coffee. I thought you did, but it must have been Maya.”

He shot a careful look at the bird from beneath his lashes to find that the creature had tired of watching him and returned his attention to the girl, who seemed to have transformed to stone in the meadow. Myron shifted his own attention to his wife’s bare feet. “Nessa…do you think you should be out here without your shoes? It’s pretty chilly this morning…”

“One might ask the same of you, Myron,” Nessa responded noncommittally as she took another sip of her coffee. He looked ruefully down at his own bare toes. “Yes…but…you might catch a cold…and then you…that might…I mean…”

He looked up anxiously to find Nessa’s dark knowing eyes leveled on his face. “…What?” He finished lamely.

Her eyes narrowed, and his gaze fell. “Don’t put me in my grave before I’m ready to go, Myron,” she admonished him softly. His face crumpled at her words, and her own steady gaze faltered. Absently, she lifted the cup again, only to stare blankly into the swirling depths of the coffee, her hand frozen with the cup just short of her lips.

“I…I’m…sorry…” Myron apologized, his voice trembling with emotion.

“Don’t…Myron…” Nessa responded heavily, with a slight shake of her head, the coffee in her cup yet holding her rapt attention.

Myron’s head fell forward, and he cast his eyes to the ground, his unrestrained silver-streaked blonde hair sliding forward to hide his face from her, his crooked spectacles already starting to slide inexorably down his nose. For a long time, he could say nothing, because any words he spoke would only convey the pain she didn’t want to hear, and so he wrestled with his lonely thoughts until enough time had passed that he felt he could speak without breaking into pieces. He drew in a long quavering breath and lifted his eyes to stare off toward the horizon and the sea, knowing that if he looked at his wife’s serene face, he would simply lose all the ground he’d labored to gain.

“I heard you,” he started, and then paused as his throat closed tightly. He absently pushed his glasses back up his nose before folding one arm protectively over his chest, as though the action would stop his heart aching. Apparently, he’d not shut away his emotions as tightly as he’d thought. But then he’d never been as adept at hiding his feelings as Nessa. He glanced at her from the corner of his eye. Even now, she silently sipped her coffee, her cool gaze fixed on the distant girl, seemingly unaffected by their conversation, but the sight of her long, slender fingers twisting nervously in a thick strand of her hair showed the falsity of that illusion. Noisily, he cleared the clog from his throat, and turned sideways to look at her squarely.

“I did hear you,” he continued. “I know what you said…about wanting everything to be the same…that you want me to be the same…but…but…I don’t know if I can…do it…because I can’t stop…thinking…” His voice finally faltered to a stop. As usual, he wasn’t saying quite what he’d intended, certainly not exactly what he’d started to say. “I mean…I’ll try…I’ll keep trying...”

“That’s all I ask, Myron,” Nessa replied dully. “Soon enough, the time will come when things won’t be normal, but I don’t want to have to think about that now. I just want to…live in the moment…so to speak.” She drew her dark eyes away from the entranced girl standing perfectly still in the meadow, and turned her head to gaze at him. He tried to smile, to reassure her, but the expression didn’t fit his frame of mind and quickly faded away. She reached out and took his fingers in hers, her own lips curving in a sad smile.

“How many times over the years have you cursed the day you met me, Myron?”

“What?” He gaped at her in surprise, wide eyes closely examining her calm face as he wondered at her intent. Was she serious or teasing? Her inscrutable face told him nothing. His gray eyes turned stormy. “Never.”

Her eyes filled with amusement. “Your nose will surely grow, Myron.”

He tilted his head in thought. “Well…okay…there was that one time.”

“Just one?” She raised her eyebrows in feigned astonishment. He knew she was teasing him now, no doubt seeking to escape the depressing direction their conversation had taken before. “I can’t imagine what one time would stand above all else.”

“Well, I don’t suppose the moment would have as much impact for you as it did for me, but I can assure you that I cursed long and hard the day a rather concerned schoolmate informed me of the identity of…brother.”

He held his breath as he awaited the effect of his introduction of her brother to the conversation. Especially considering her emotional state the previous night. But her expression turned merely thoughtful.

“Hmmm…I would guess that moment would have been somewhat stressful.” Then she raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “Still, you came back. A brave man.”

A chortle escaped Myron’s lips. “No, a foolish kid. And completely bewitched to boot.”

“Oh, really?” She smirked at him.

“Yes, really.” He reached out to catch a strand of her hair in his free hand. “I just haven’t found a way to break the spell. But then…” He rubbed the silky hair between his fingers. “…I haven’t tried very hard…”

She didn’t respond to his lightly spoken remark, and she remained silent for so long that he looked up curiously, only to find that all hint of amusement had vanished from her face. He let the strand slip from his fingers. “What is it, Nessa?”

She solemnly examined the contours of his face; his deeply scored brow, the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, the gray bristle of the chin he had yet to shave this morning, the silvery weave in his hair, the glasses that had slid halfway down his nose again. Her gaze finally landed on his worried gray eyes. “Thank you, Myron,” she finally spoke.

He frowned. “For what?”

“For staying with me.”

“You don’t need to thank me. I wanted to stay.”

“I meant back then. When it all started.”

“Neither of us really had a choice then, did we?” If so, you would have been gone long ago, Nessa…

“You had a choice, Myron. He didn’t know who you were. You could have gone your way, and he would never have known.”

“You don’t think he could have easily found out? Even if he didn’t feel the need to bother, he surely would have killed you if you’d stayed. Obviously, your brother didn’t give a…”


Myron clamped his mouth shut, his lips thinning as he stared at her mutinously. She drew her hand from his clasp and turned her back to him.

“I deserved his disdain,” she murmured.

“The hell you did,” Myron snapped. Irritably, he shoved his glasses back up his nose.

Nessa shrugged and lifted her chin to peer toward the twisted peaks of Mt. Nibel. “I’m not going to argue with you, Myron. We’ll simply never agree where he’s concerned.”

“I just wish you would stop tearing yourself up inside about it.”

She nodded, mostly to herself. “You’re right, of course. And…I’ve decided to…let him go.”

Startled at her unexpected admission, Myron didn’t reply.

“Win…and I…maybe we were doomed from the very beginning…maybe it was…our birthright…”

Myron couldn’t let that assessment slip by unprotested. “That’s ridiculous, Nessa. No one is doomed at birth.”

“You would deny that fate possesses the power to turn one’s life into complete irony? You, most of all, should know better than that.”

“…I…don’t feel…like that…about my life…our life…I…don’t know…I don’t understand…what…you’re saying…”

She shook her head slowly. “Nothing. Really. Just…all the struggle seems to be…for nothing…in the end…”

“I don’t believe that…”

“I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” Nessa suddenly interrupted him. “I don’t want to talk about my brother anymore. He’s dead and nothing can change that. I just hope…” She fell silent, her gaze idly tracing the line of the mountainside as her thoughts turned in her head, eventually dropping her distant eyes to the hulking Shinra mansion to seek out the middle dormer window.

“What do you hope, Nessa?”

“…I hope…he found happiness…before he died. I hope he found something to hold to his heart but pain and betrayal. I only pray that he found someone to give him the love and joy you’ve given me, Myron.”

Struck speechless, Myron couldn’t think of any one thing to say. Too many unspoken words tumbled around in his mind, and she’d stolen his desire to press his point. In the end, he simply responded to her spoken wish, despite the fact that he’d detested her brother, not so much for what he’d been, though there was that, but more so for what he’d done, or rather, not done for her. He offered her a reassuring smile. “I hope he did too, Nessa. I really do.” And he found that, at that moment, he really did mean what he said. He meant it for her.

Suddenly, she half-turned to look at him and lifted the cup to swallow down the rest of her coffee. “Why don’t we go in Myron? You can braid my hair.”

His smile, tenuous as it was, faded completely as he recalled the revelation she’d made the last time he’d braided her hair, and the prospect didn’t appeal to him as much as usual. But then, how many more times would he be able to do simple things like that for her? His time with her grew ever more precious.

Finding that he’d developed a rather large knot in his throat, he simply nodded his tacit acceptance.

“After that, we have a lot of work to do.”

“Work?” He coughed on the word.

“Well, there is the rest of the list.”

“The list? I thought I hid that…”

She smiled at his attempt at humor. “Not well enough.”

“But you’re making breakfast first, right?”

“Breakfast is already made.”

“Really? What is it?”


His face collapsed in feigned dismay.

“And if your illustrious friend doesn’t return with our supplies soon, coffee is what you’ll be having for lunch and dinner as well, unless your fishing and hunting skills have improved appreciably.”

“He’ll be here.”

“I pray you’re right.”

Myron cocked his head toward the entrance gate. “What about her?”

Nessa turned speculative eyes on the still motionless girl. “We’ll leave her be.”

“But…what’s she doing?”

“Hmmm…probably just watching the sunrise.”

“Oh…probably so…”

“Or maybe she’s in communication.”

“Er…with nature you mean?”

“Or something else.”

Myron started to asked what she meant by that, exactly, but decided that he most certainly wouldn’t care for the answer and would most likely rather remain in blissful ignorance, so he put the girl out of his mind, and after one troubled glance over his shoulder in her direction, hurried after his departing wife.

Maya let her arms flop to her sides in frustration. “It’s not working.”

…try too…much…”

She turned her head at the admonishing voice in her head. Though she couldn’t quite see him from her vantage point, she knew he preened his feathers on the gate behind her. Her chest heaved in a huge sigh. “Maybe so,” she agreed wearily. She probably shouldn’t try so hard. The visions seemed to come without rhyme or reason. Certainly, wishing for them didn’t work. Or searching for them. The concentrated strain of so much effort just made her head ache. The fleeting connections with those other people, out there somewhere, seemed at the whim of some outside power. Certainly, she had no influence. She let her legs fold beneath her, dropping down into the lush grass, her full skirt belling out around her. With a huff of disgust, she threw herself backwards and peered up into the pink sky where the last of the brightest stars barely maintained a hold against the advancing sunlight.

With a challenging screech, the white bird flung himself into flight, his wings laboring to carry him into the air, and soon he rode high on the currents with outspread wings, so high that Maya could barely distinguish the tiny speck of silver against the lightening sky.

Her eyes sleepily drifted closed as she deeply inhaled the sweet scent of the meadow grass and idly pondered the sudden departure of the seemingly disgruntled bird. She knew quite well that he wouldn’t go far as he seemed bound to keep her within the view of his keen sight, but he had been unusually quiet since she’d emerged from the house, not expressing any thought or word in her mind until now. He was annoyed with her. Of that she was sure. The mental connection between them grew stronger with each interaction, and his emotions, undoubtedly human despite his avian nature, resonated within her mind with ease. She wondered if, like the mutual sharing of their thoughts, the emotional exchange went both ways. The idea disconcerted her a bit. Still, she shared her thoughts only as she willed, with a directed effort required of her to speak in his mind. Maybe their emotions were shared the same way, meaning that Angel wanted her to know his displeasure. She just didn’t know why he was annoyed with her. Probably, she should just ask him.

She cracked her eyelids apart to find that the bird had vanished completely from her view, either soaring so high now that she couldn’t hope to see him or flying away toward the mountains behind her. Too unmotivated to rise and seek him out, she again let her eyes droop lazily as she called out to him in her mind.

…Come back Angel…come talk to me…

Blades of soft grass stirred against her cheeks, set in motion by the morning breeze, subtly tickling her skin. A contented smile touched her face as she waited expectantly for his reply. The quiet moments passed as she rested in complete solitude, no sound touching her ears but for the muted swish of the swaying grass and her hushed respirations. Idly, she twirled one long blade around a finger as she wondered if he’d even heard her.


Still, he didn’t respond, and her smile slowly ebbed as she wondered if he’d chosen to ignore her or maybe punish her for some unknown wrong. She really didn’t think either to be likely, but then again, she couldn’t be sure. She didn’t know him well enough to be familiar with his nature.

Maya’s smile abruptly returned as a vibrant image formed in her mind, a tiny picture of herself, lying spread-eagle like a starfish in the midst of the verdant field, her borrowed magenta skirt spread out and the lustrous tresses of her brown hair haphazardly strewn around; brilliantly colored threads woven into a lush green tapestry. As the seconds slipped past, the whimsical image spun around and around, dizzying, growing larger in her mind, nearer, as Angel circled down to the ground above her, his bird's eye view of her transmitted to her thoughts for her to see. She realized that he wanted her to see. She laughed with delight.

Then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, the picture vanished, and she opened her eyes, eagerly searching the sky above her only to find no sign of the bird. Perplexed, she sat up and looked around to find that Angel had reestablished his possession of the entrance to Nibelheim, and now, head turned to the side, silently watched her with an obsidian eye.

Seizing her opportunity, Maya gathered her skirt in hand, and springing lightly to her feet, promptly made her way over to stand purposefully before the gate and the impassive ruler thereof. Cautiously, she studied him as she worked out what she wanted to say. He cocked his sleek head inquisitively at her serious regard.

…You…wished me…come…

She nodded succinctly. “Yes, I want to talk,” she informed him aloud.

He returned her unwavering stare, and although he presented a fierce countenance by virtue of his predatory appearance, she caught a hint of his disquiet. Perhaps he sensed her intent.

…What…talk… He finally asked, abruptly flapping his wings as though to ward her off. But she wasn’t to be so easily dissuaded.

“Well…I’d like to talk about…” Her bright emerald eyes narrowed on his feathered form. “…You.”

Again, he examined her with the one unblinking eye, in prolonged silence, as she offered him an encouraging smile and wondered at what thoughts worried his mind. Finally, he rewarded her with a very unbirdlike nod of his head.

…Ask then…what you will.

Tifa stared at her reflection in the cracked mirror as she tugged the comb through the ends of a handful of hair. She noticed, gratefully, that the blue tinge around her lips, most unbecoming to her complexion, had finally disappeared. She shouldn’t have stayed in the shower for so long after the tepid water had turned so frigidly cold, but she just hadn’t been able to convince herself to come out, not until the temperature became unbearable and her fingertips were hopelessly wrinkled. The shower had been such a refreshingly welcome experience after her ordeal, so cleansing, as though she could rinse the memory of days of illness and anxiety out of her mind and straight down the drain. Too, a curious reluctance had filled her at the thought of returning to the control room where she could almost bet that Vincent still sat at the table poring over that same old piece of paper, especially since she realized that she’d probably been driving the man around the bend for quite some time, lost in her singing as she’d been. She’d simply forgotten about him and the whole world for a little while. Well…okay…a long while.

She laid the comb down on the back of the porcelain sink and examined her image at length, frowning slightly at her reflection with displeasure. Then she tugged irritably at the seat of the pants. She wasn’t terribly enamored with the ill-fitting clothes. The black trousers, obviously designed for the male figure, were loose at the waist, long at the ankle, and snug in the seat. The matching black t-shirt, the largest she’d been able to find in the pile of scattered garments outside, still fit too tightly across her shoulders and chest and bagged loosely around her slender waist. She’d rather have her own clothes, but both the white shirt, now a murky gray, and the black skirt had been sliced in several places, most likely by the glass on the deck of the Highwind that had also left her body scored with many superficial cuts, now completely healed by Vincent’s curative ministrations. She wriggled her toes inside her boots. At least the black socks were warm, if a bit capacious.

She really couldn’t invent any more excuses to tarry inside the tiny bathroom. She’d been dressed all the way down to her boots for half an hour or more. She’d even added her own belt to cinch up the loose waist of the pants and hooked up her suspenders for good measure. And after that, she’d combed her hair for so long that the strands were nearly dry.

Reaching around to gather the ends of her long hair, she bent to retie her ponytail with the piece of string Vincent had previously used, and she double knotted it, just as he had. At least she could be thankful that she wouldn’t have to impose on him to take care of her hair anymore. Just the memory of him sitting behind her on the bed, not so long ago, combing her hair brought a warm blush to her cheeks.

With her impending presentation to Vincent firmly in mind, Tifa straightened to again scrutinize the now rosy-cheeked woman in the mirror. Then she parted her lips to check out her teeth, and after that, she tried a smile. That one seemed too ingratiating. She tried another. Too…friendly. She lifted her chin, and attempted a third. Casually nonchalant. That one fit the bill perfectly. Holding her face frozen just that way, she turned to gaze at the worn material of the blanket as she paused to listen. Not a sound came from the room on the other side. But she well knew that the silence meant nothing. Mr. Valentine was no doubt still ensconced in his metal chair and still obsessed with his piece of paper, and quite frankly, would not pay her entrance an iota of attention whatsoever. Which was just fine with her. Even better. But just in case...she checked her prepared smile in the mirror once more and then she grabbed a handful of the blanket and flung it aside to step through.

Unfortunately, the blanket, which had apparently not been nailed up so thoroughly after all, came down on her head to obliterate her view, and the tail end fell into the floor just in time to trip up her inopportune step. Stumbling over the trailing material, she tried to throw the blanket off her head only to pull the whole thing down from the doorway with one flailing arm. She stumbled to a standstill and stood quietly for a moment as she considered the idea of staying right where she was with the blanket draped over her face and one shoulder, at least until the bright flush faded from her cheeks. However, she knew that Vincent could not have missed such a spectacular entrance. In fact, he was probably staring at her right now, crimson eyes rife with curiosity as he wondered at her strange behavior. She had to admit that standing in the middle of the floor, hiding under the blanket would not improve her position. With a heavy sigh of resignation, she threw the blanket off her head in one quick move, and turned red-faced to meet his scrutiny head on.

Except…he wasn’t there. The chair stood empty. She darted a quick look around the room to confirm that he wasn’t lurking about elsewhere, as though there were many places he could lurk, the console maybe, but really not much else. Obviously, he’d stepped out. Probably to flee her singing voice, long on enthusiasm and short on quality.

Still…he’d apparently been busy before he’d fled. He’d made the bed after all. And so perfectly too, that if she had a half-gil coin, she could probably bounce it right off the tautly stretched blanket. Her eyes drifted to the floor. He’d picked up all the cans too. She had the good grace to feel a bit guilty about that. A thought occurred to her then, and she swept questioning eyes toward the cabinets. He’d also disposed of her uneaten food. Somehow, she hadn’t quite expected that. Her thinking had been more along the lines that he would leave it there to taunt her until she damn well ate it. Apparently, she’d falsely impugned him, if only in her mind. Another, more measured, look around the room revealed that he’d even reordered the contents of his tabletop into a more aesthetically pleasing arrangement. In fact, the man had not left a single thing out of place. Well…except for a trio of foil packets that, for some odd reason, he’d left in the center of the pillow, each one perfectly aligned with the others. On second thought, not so strange. By virtue of the fact that he had left them just there, she could harbor no doubt that he’d meant them for her.

She hesitantly moved toward the bed, her eyes intently focused on the inanimate packets as though she thought they might get up and accost her, a ridiculous idea certainly, but after that ghastly cokatolis gunk, which had committed attempted murder on her taste buds, she would be smart to exercise caution. Gingerly, she sat on the very edge of the narrow bed and reached for the first of them, a foil package more long and elongated than any she’d carried in.

She spent a few seconds subjecting the package to a feel test, pressing the contents between two fingers to try to divine what she might find inside. Finally, she conceded that the process was a complete waste of time. Raising the packet to her mouth, she ripped the foil open with her teeth and peered inside. She sniffed experimentally, and smiled at the aromatic spiciness that filled her nostrils. Anything that smelled that good just could not taste too bad. She reached in two fingers and drew out what looked to be some sort of processed meat stick. One tentative bite told her all she needed to know. Within a minute, she’d devoured all four sticks inside and reached for the second package. She was vaguely disappointed to find only a couple of breadsticks inside. She’d hoped for more meat sticks. But she did find the breadsticks delightfully crunchy and slightly buttery, and the last package, which held a handful of dried fruit and various sorts off nuts finished of her repast nicely.

As she gathered up the remains of her meal, she glanced occasionally at the closed door, idly wondering where Valentine had gone. She thought he might have some sort of plan in mind. Either that, or he was a compulsive packrat. She’d seen the collection of items he’d gathered in the middle of the concrete floor the first time she’d ventured out, but she really hadn’t thought much about it then. Not until he’d so indifferently informed her of the fact that they were trapped here, a revelation that had completely thrown her into near panic for the space of a few minutes, until she acknowledged the pointlessness of fretting about it, and turned to a more practical pursuit, the procurement of food. She could only hope he did have a scheme up his sleeve. Otherwise, there was no telling how long the two of them might be here. Certainly until someone decided to look for them.

…But what if no one ever looks…
What if there’s no one…left…to look…

Almost as soon as she thought that, Tifa was chiding herself for her pessimistic thoughts. Deliberately, she rose to deposit the emptied foil packets on the table. She’d already decided that the rest of Avalanche had made it through the turbulence to land safely. They were all just fine. And they would look for them. Barrett would certainly not rest until he found her. Of that she could be sure. Still, maybe she should go find Vincent and see what he planned to do. She really didn’t believe that he would kick back and enjoy this captivity. He’d always seemed a solution-oriented man. Maybe he’d already found a way. Besides, she wanted to thank him for the food he’d left her. A mischievous smile touched her lips. And she wanted to make him confess his secret stash. Mr. Valentine was obviously a more competent judge of food containers than she. She would make him tell her, even if she had to tickle it out of him. She smirked at that picture. Apparently her brain cells had become waterlogged in the shower. She had definitely lost her mind if she could even contemplate the stolid Vincent and such an inane assault in the same thought. Besides, she couldn’t imagine that Vincent possessed a ticklish spot anywhere on his whole body. The man didn’t even know how to smile. The smile fell from her own face. Maybe she’d better just stay put and wait for him to come back.

“So…why are you mad at me?”

Angel turned his head to pin one eye on the faraway horizon. “…Why…”

“Yes, why,” she reasserted.


Maya propped a hand on her hip. “Why? Because you seem to have your feathers all ruffled about something, that’s why.”

The bird tilted his head to fix her with a dark eye. “…A…mus…ing…”

Angel interjected a strong edge of sarcasm into his thought that belied the meaning of the word. She could not misread his intent. He wasn’t amused in the least.

She lifted her hand to scratch her nose and hide her smile as she fought for control of her twitching lips. “Um…I’m…a…” A giggle unexpectedly escaped, and she clamped her hand over her mouth. Angel squawked a protest and suddenly dove off the gate, spreading his wings out to float on the air for several feet before flapping his way into the village square, disappearing around the front of the closest house.

“Wait!” She called out, running through the gate after him. “Don’t go! I’m sorry!”

She halted just outside the inn and looked up toward the water tower, thinking to find him there on the rim of the wooden tank, one of his preferred roosts, but he wasn't there. A careful look across the slanted roofs and steep peaks of all the vacant buildings failed to find him.

“Angel! Come back! Where are you?!”


Angel’s thought manifested in her mind as a strained whisper, and Maya slowly turned in place, searching more carefully for the whereabouts of the silvery bird.

What is it, then? she thought back to him. If it’s what I said…I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to…laugh…at you…


All hint of levity vanished from her mind at the sorrow conveyed in the thought, and she hesitantly moved toward the center of the square as she continued to search all the rooftops around for a glimpse of the bird.

What is it then? You’ve been so…quiet…this morning. Does it have to do with what happened last night?

He didn’t immediately respond, not in thought or movement, but eventually his mental voice sighed into her mind.


She slowly skirted the perimeter of the water tower.

Trapped? You mean…here? In Nibelheim?”


Suddenly Maya knew where he was. Perhaps she had heard the faintest of sounds to mark his presence or perhaps he’d given her the knowledge. She spun around and lifted her head to find him perched in the open dormer window of the house behind her. He met her worried gaze with one expressionless button of an eye.

You mean…you feel trapped…as a bird.

…More…and more…re…mem…ber…

You remember your life before? Maya struggled to keep her thoughts calm as she held her excitement at bay. If he could remember his past, he might be able to tell her about her own. Or even about what they were supposed to do. So far, he hadn’t been able to offer much more information on the whole business than what she already knew. Which was not much either.

…No…not past…what…was…I…

She lowered her head to hide the disappointment from him as well as the sadness that filled her heart at the realization of what he was trying to tell her.

“You mean…you remember…being human…”

…No…what…was…to be…man…

Maya gaped up at the sleek silver and white bird. She wasn’t sure why he’d made the differentiation, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to pursue the reason. Yet she thought she understood. Because sometimes she felt trapped too. Imprisoned in the body of a woman most likely dead, a mere ghost, with no past and only a few unfathomable fragments of memory, elusive wisps of a recollection about a love she couldn’t pry from her mind no matter how hard she made her head pound. And with each passing day, she became more convinced that neither of them had a future; that once the two of them had successfully finished the task the planet had set for them, then it would all be over. She and Angel would be returned to the planet. Together. Maybe she should not try so hard to remember, maybe she shouldn’t wish so hard to know.

She just didn’t know what to say to him. What was there to say that would really matter? “I know it must be…so…difficult,” she murmured sadly.

Angel didn’t respond to her sorrowful remark, and she looked up toward the roof again, only to find that he’d turned his emotionless gaze out toward the mountain range.


“Go where?”

Away…those that seek…to harm…us…come…back…we..go…find…Za…fal…lah…

Maya started shaking her head. “No. It’s not time.”


“No,” she said more vehemently. “I can’t go yet. I have to be here.”


“I don’t know. It’s just something that I…know.”


She sighed and folded her hands before her. “I know it doesn’t make sense. I just can’t explain it, but I truly believe that I’ll know when it’s time. The planet will tell me. I think...”


Once again, he imbued his words with sarcasm, and the thought occurred to her that maybe Angel, or whatever he’d been called in his human life, might not have been so easy to get along with. She propped her hands on her hips.

“Do you really think the Planet would just dump us here to be left to our own devices? Why, we could blow all of this off and spend our days at the Gold Saucer.”


“Yeah, the Gold Saucer.” Maya’s face collapsed in confusion. “Wait! What am I talking about? Where did that come from?”


She thought hard for a minute, sifting through predictably elusive shards of memory, of which there were not many to start. She slowly shook her head. “No, I have no idea what the Gold Saucer could be.” Except that…a pair of glowing, azure eyes blinked with perplexity, in her mind. She tried to see more, but the image instantly vanished. “Er…do you know?” she asked absently, still futilely sifting through her stubborn brain for the owner of the brilliant blue irises. But then, she did know who owned eyes like those. The man in her dream last night. Cloud Strife.

Suddenly, she didn’t want to think about this mysterious Gold Saucer or the blue-eyed man anymore. Just trying to remember was making her feel…unsettled. She turned a green-eyed glare on the bird, as though he were responsible for the way she felt just then.

“Do you know where Zafallah is anyway?" She demanded of him. “Do you know where to go?”

…Not know…not…safe…here…he looks for…some…thing…

“He? You mean…the thing in the mansion…last night?”

…Yes…he seeks…he finds not…he…will…re…turn…

“Well, we have to know more. We can’t just go wandering hither and thither, without a clue of what we’re doing. We could get into all kinds of trouble that way. At least here we have Nessa and Myron. What are you looking at anyway?”


Alarmed, especially after his reference to the dark presence in the mansion the night before, she whirled around to find no sign of anyone behind her, and no one on the trail leading out of town.

“Where do you see someone?” She demanded anxiously, her frantic eyes tracing the high mountain trails and picking apart the twisted landscape of the mountainside. “I don’t see anyone.”


“The thing…the guy or whatever…from last night?”


Maya felt a marked sense of relief. “Well…that should be okay…then…”

Angel turned his head to look at her. …Perhaps…

“Myron? What are you doing?”

Nessa slipped her arms around her husband’s waist and rested her chin on his shoulder, reaching up to draw the curtain further aside so she could see what had so thoroughly captured his attention. She smiled slightly at the sight of Maya standing on the cobblestones with her face tipped up toward the bird perched in a window across the way. She turned her head and whispered against his ear. “I thought you were coming downstairs.”

Absently, he raised his hand to touch her cheek. “I was…I am…”

She tightened her arms around him and turned her cheek into his hair. “Hmm…when?”

“Nessa, do you think she’s really talking to that bird?”

She narrowed her dark eyes as she peered through the window. “She certainly is talking.”

“But, that’s not what I meant. Do you think she is talking to that bird?”

Yes, Myron, I most assuredly do. Nessa did not speak her thoughts aloud though.

“What do you think, Myron?”

He tilted his head against hers. “Well…you know…she’s just talking, and he’s just…you know…sitting there…really looking like he rather be hunting field mice…but sometimes the…way…he looks at her…it almost seems as though…he…does…” Myron snorted. “What am I saying!? Of course he doesn’t understand her. He’s a damn bird.”

“So…you think she’s conversing with him like one speaks to an imaginary friend…or to any fence post that will listen…like you are prone to…or…”

He drew away from her embrace and turned to meet her eyes. “Yeah, like talking to a houseplant when you’re just thinking out loud.”

“Do you think that houseplants talk back when one speaks to them, Myron?”

“Well, of course not! Why would you ask such a thing?”

“Because, sometimes, I think the flowers talk back to her.”

“Flowers don’t have mouths,” he scoffed.

“Well, maybe they mentally converse with her then?”

“Flowers don’t really have brains either…do they?”

“Well, you must admit, they certainly appreciate her conversation.”

Myron surely did agree with that. “She does have a green thumb.”

“She most certainly does, and so much more.” Nessa abruptly drew away from him and headed across the lobby. “Are you going to braid my hair, Myron?” she called back over her shoulder.

He took one last peep out the window at the girl, who still seemed engaged in earnest monologue, the strange, exotic bird her rapt audience. He shook his head in bewilderment and let the curtain fall. Then he dashed after his wife who had just disappeared into the kitchen.

“Oh…Nessa…” he called after her. Then he stopped in his tracks when she suddenly reappeared, peering one-eyed at him around the frame of the door, her endlessly long hair falling straight down. He stared at her in silent awe for a moment, his mouth working as he tried to get out the words he’d thought to ask her.

She raised her one visible eyebrow. “Spit it out, Myron.”

“Um…I was thinking…”

“Should I be worried, Myron?”


“That you are thinking…”

He leveled his gray-eyed glare on her, a playful twinkle stealing any ferocity from the expression. “Ha ha. No.” Then his gaze turned speculative. “Well…maybe…”

The one visible eye narrowed momentarily, and then she sighed in her despair.

“Myron, why don’t you come help me…”

Suspiciously, he studied the dark eye that gleamed with suppressed mischief.

“Um…help you do what?”

The one dark eye he could see rolled at her exasperation with him. “Make the bed, Myron.”

Before he could get his mouth open to speak, she’d vanished from the doorway.

“Witch,” he muttered.

How did she always manage to know his mind?

Tifa’s brow wrinkled in consternation as she carefully scrutinized every visible part of the vast interior of the cavern from her advantageous position at the top of the metal stairway just outside the control room door, a door that had just shushed into the frame behind her, an event that mildly disturbed her.

Mentally, she berated herself for not blocking the door open even as she resisted the urge to reach around and check to make sure the lock hadn’t engaged. Then she chided herself even more, for her silliness. She knew perfectly well that the door hadn’t locked. It was just that she had stepped out onto the landing with certain expectations.

She had expected to find Vincent lurking nearby, expected to find him busily investigating the contents of the shelves, or gathering more things to add to his collection, or maybe checking out the dismantled fighter planes or some other time consuming activity, expected him, at the very least, to be within calling range. Her expectations had certainly not been fulfilled. The man was nowhere to be seen, and the vastness of the uninhabited space that stretched out all around her, and high above her, and way out in front of her, made her feel so small and insignificant. Plus, all the dismantled, skeletized machinery everywhere gave her the creeps. Especially that odd wooden hulled airship with the armored prow and gaily painted decorative trim and long section of blank porthole windows. She'd noted the airship before, with much interest, but she hadn’t been alone then.

She swallowed hard, and a sudden chill sent a shiver up her spine as she carefully studied each and every window of the airship, somehow expecting to catch a fleeting glimpse of a ghostly face, even though she knew that if she did, the sight would scare at least ten years off her life.

With a snort of derision at her nonsensical thoughts, Tifa deliberately forced her eyes away from the slumberous airship and sent another searching gaze around the brightly lit interior, holding her breath to listen for any hint of movement even though she knew it to be a colossal waste of time. Vincent Valentine rarely made a sound when he moved. In fact, she sometimes entertained the possibility that his feet never actually touched the ground when he walked. Still, she could hope for an uncharacteristic moment of clumsiness on his part. Maybe he would even knock some heavy metallic object off a shelf and clearly pinpoint his location for her. A trembling ghost of a smile touched her lips at that unlikelihood.

Girl…you sure do know how to dream.

Unconsciously, she laid her hand on the railing and took a step down, pausing there as she contemplated the advisability of seeking him out. Maybe he didn’t want her to find him. Certainly, he’d seemed even more distant and cool since her recovery, ignoring her for the most part, burying himself constantly in a study of the mysterious yellow paper, his tone curt more often than not, when he deigned to speak to her. Still, he’d left her the food packets, a thoughtful gesture on his part. Or an apology of sorts? No, he’d probably just acted from practicality. If she starved herself into a relapse, he’d be forced to take care of her again. Now that she thought about it, she could see that was the more likely reason for his gesture.

…Where did you go, Vincent…

Impulsively, Tifa called out his name as she dropped another rung down the stairway, but the one word seemed so feeble, absorbed into the fathomless spaces of the cavern. Of course, he still might hear her. Certainly, she’d discovered, to her utter embarrassment, how well Vincent could hear, when he wanted. Still, she couldn’t detect the slightest hint of a sound in response to her hail, only the incessant rush of the distant waterfall.

She propped her hands on her hips, and took a deep breath, releasing the air in a loud yell, wincing as his name exploded from her lips to bounce from wall to wall and reverberated in the endless spaces above her to finally drown into nothingness in the deep vacuum of silence. Frowning slightly, she again listened for a response, her troubled gaze traveling across the manmade landscape of shelves and machinery for the slightest movement, and after many long moments, she couldn’t even say how long, but long enough that he could have appeared, if he wanted, she threw her hands up in disgust.

What was the matter with her? Why did she even care where Valentine had gone? He would surely come back, eventually. He didn’t have anywhere else to go. He’d succinctly informed her of that himself. It was just that…just that…she wanted to talk…to him…

A wayward chortle sputtered over her lips. Talk? Valentine? What was she thinking? She suspected that the taciturn man had most likely disappeared into the cavern precisely to avoid that particular activity. She’d probably driven him away with her restlessness and her pickiness and her contrariness and her singing and…and…and…

…She probably shouldn’t have…kissed him.

Tifa cringed as the memory revisited her mind full blown. Her action had been without thought, and in her excitement and relief, she hadn’t pondered the matter at all since, but now that she thought about it…maybe she shouldn’t have…maybe she’d made him mad. He’d certainly been aloof since then. Well, more aloof than usual. Or was that just her imagination? Because he was pretty damned aloof all the time anyway.

For the first time, the memory of the unexpected warmth of his skin against her lips leapt unbidden to her mind, and she unconsciously pressed the back of hand against her mouth, her face flushing hotly in embarrassment. Why had she kissed him? What had she been thinking?

Abruptly, she dropped her hand and whirled around to climb back up the two stairs to the landing. She’d been thinking nothing. Her gesture had no meaning, other than immense gratitude. She’d simply acted on joyous impulse, as she would have with anyone else, and if the man had a problem with it, he could just get over it. She’d just kissed his cheek for crying out loud.

Unaccountably irritated at the missing ex-Turk, Tifa sent an annoyed glare around the confines of the cavern, just in case he could see her from some shadowy hiding place, and then she shoved her way through the door, throwing it closed behind her, an action which did her little good as the airtight door settled softly into the frame anyway, denying her a satisfying slam.

Faced with the empty room again though, Tifa’s anger vanished almost as quickly as it had flared, leaving her with a hollow ache inside. She didn’t like being alone. Especially in this place, a place that had been the control center for this secret underground facility, a place that had undoubtedly been constructed by Shinra.

As though to underscore her nervousness, a loud beep abruptly emanated from the electronic console and startled her, the alien sound in the hushed room sending her heart banging against her breastbone, as thought it were a frightened bird seeking desperately to slip the confines of its cage. Hesitantly, she brought her eyes around as she pressed a hand to her chest, only to find that the computer monitor, completely lifeless up to this point, had inexplicably turned itself on. She studied the screen warily.

Jesse had been the electronics expert of the Avalanche team, with an intuitive knowledge of the inner workings of computers in general, but Tifa was not without skills in that regard. With Jesse’s patient instruction, she had easily learned her way around the inner workings of the computer in the basement of the Seventh Heaven, had actually become quite proficient with the machine, and she knew enough to know that this computer had turned on for a reason. She also knew that she’d best find out exactly what that reason was. Good or bad, it could very well affect her. So with that intent in mind, she took a step towards the console until a thought struck her, and she stopped. She was alone in this room with no idea where Vincent might be or when he might return, a position that left her somewhat vulnerable, especially as her strength hadn’t completely returned. Although she felt much better, she wasn’t sure she could fight her way out of a paper bag right now, and there wasn’t really much she could do about it, except…

Tifa turned back and locked the door, and then she hurried to respond to the insistent demand of the electronic intruder. Her thoughts taken by an ambiguous blend of curiosity and nervousness, she gingerly settled into the metal chair and leaned in to examine the single word that flashed insistently, a blaze of glowing white letters across the black background of the monochromatic screen. She stared, first in incomprehension, then in bemusement.


Transport? Was the computer making her an offer? Where did she sign up? An amused smile curved her lips. But then, where did it plan to transport her? Home? Probably not. She didn’t have a home anyway. Not anymore. The smile faded from her lips as she knitted her brow in concentration. She wondered what would happen if…

Impulsively, Tifa tapped the enter key and watched apprehensively as the ‘Transport’ immediately vanished, only to be replaced by a long list of words and digits, with several of them flashing just as insistently, demanding her immediate attention. A quick scan of the list only managed to confuse her, so she decided to start from the top. The first words were a simple declaration, followed by a query.

Manual Transport Terminal Main
Status: Activated
Deactivate? Y/N

The ‘deactivate’ flashed persistently as though pleading with her to say ‘yes’. Her finger hovered over the ‘Y’ key as she chewed her lip. Should she or not? Yes or no? How could she answer when she had no clue what the question was? Finally, she let her hand fall into her lap. She couldn’t answer. Either way. Under the circumstances, she’d best leave it alone. She had no idea what the consequences of either response might be. Besides, maybe the missing Vincent was messing around with something out there. Wherever he’d gotten off to. A main transport terminal did sound promising, now that she thought about it. Maybe the resourceful man had discovered a way out of this stultifying place, and she certainly didn’t want to take any action that might interfere.

But then again…what if it wasn’t Vincent? What if the Sleeping Man had come home? But then how would he get in with the cave entrance collapsed? Through the transport thingy, of course. The water must not have drained completely from her brain cells yet. Really, it had to be Vincent. Maybe he’d found the way out. But then…what if Vincent had found a way out and now planned to leave? Without her...

Startled at the possibility her wayward mind had coughed to the surface, she twisted around in her chair to stare at the door, wondering if she should go look for him. Unconsciously, she chewed her lip, turning over the disturbing idea in her head, frantically tumbling back and forth between panicky certainty and disdainful self-deprecation, only to finally end the whole exercise with a sharp shake of her head. Vincent wouldn’t leave her. It wouldn’t make sense. Not after all he’d put up with for her. Her singing hadn’t been that bad, surely. Besides, he wasn’t that sort of man. Was he? No, he wasn’t. She was letting her imagination run away with itself. The loneliness was getting to her. She forced her eyes away from the taciturn door and back to the monitor with the intention of seeking out further clues, but the words slid out of focus as she stared blankly at the screen.

…Did she really know though? He was so quiet…reclusive…cold even… How could she really know what motivated Vincent Valentine? After all, he’d been a Turk. Didn’t they usually do the most expedient thing? Certainly, the Turks seemed capable of unconscionable acts. After all, it had been a Turk that had set the explosive that dropped the Sector 7 plate. He’d given the deaths of those below…Wedge…Biggs…Jesse…any of the Sector 7 residents, her neighbors…he’d given them less thought than he might in choosing a drink at the local watering hole. But that had been Reno. Vincent was not Reno. Vincent could not possibly be as conscienceless as Reno. Was he? Vincent would not have carried out Shinra’s orders if he’d still been a Turk. Would he? Of course not. No way. If Vincent were like that, then…he would have just let her fall. No regrets on his part.

Then again, it wasn’t like he planned to leave her to die. He’d left her food after all. Maybe he intended to go for help, knowing she was well enough to take of herself. A silly idea. He could just take her with him. But what if he considered his obligation to her finished and figured she could handle it on her own from here? What if he couldn’t stand being with her? What if he had gone? Maybe the food had been a gift…to salve his guilt. Did he mean to leave her? Would he leave her? She just didn’t…know. Fearfully, she stood and walked to the door.

The last digit inputted, Vincent unslung the military issue rifle from his back, and holding the weapon easily in hand and claw, he stood back and waited as the heavy slab of iron door rumbled ponderously aside, huge steel casters screeching occasionally in the wide track, probable evidence of the door’s long period of disuse.

For the space of a couple of minutes, he waited in patient immobility, his thoughts carefully guarded from restless contemplation, until the door eventually came to a stop with a resonating clank. Only then did Vincent finally move. And he did so cautiously, first barely leaning past the edge of the bulkhead to peer at the cavernous space beyond, and then slowly walking parallel to the track until he’d reached the center of the vast opening.

Turning on heel, he stood just inside the threshold and scanned the exterior cave, from the deepest shadows closer in to the sunlit surfaces toward the very rim of the outer edge. And he waited. For long minutes, he waited and watched until finally satisfied. Then he bent to place the rifle down into the track before stepping across to set foot on the stone floor of the cave. He held no illusions that the weapon would halt the massive iron door for long, but it would surely buy him time. He’d already been separated from Tifa once because of the automatic mechanism on a door. He wouldn’t permit a reoccurrence.

Just beyond the threshold, he paused again, scanning the walls with his genetically enhanced vision, searching for any type of security device that might cause him harm. In his day, Shinra rarely left the entrances to any structure unsecured, and he held little doubt that this portal would be an exception. Especially one designed to be hidden. He had no clue what deadly devices the corporation might have conceived by now, and he realized that there could well be a defense system in operation that required preauthorization before safe entrance would be permitted.

His crimson eyes slid over the first of several unlit floodlights to freeze on a slender metal tube jutting from the granite wall to his far left, painted a dull slate and textured to match the color and consistency of the stone, impossible to see in the dim environs of the interior. Impossible for the normal eye anyway. He noted that the hollow end of the tube appeared to be aimed directly at him or, possibly, simply aimed at the entrance just behind him. Slowly, he swiveled his head to find an identical device embedded in the wall to his right, and yet another beyond that. Further examination discovered their counterparts high on the opposite wall.

With a barely perceptible shrug, he opted to disregard them. Intuition told him that the tubes were probably simple surveillance devices, and he decided to trust his instincts. Still, he stepped forward with every muscle tensed for defensive action. Just in case. Several measured paces later, when nothing untoward occurred, he relaxed and turned inquistive eyes toward the outer opening, a cavernous aperture large enough to sail a freighter through, certainly capacious enough to receive any helicopter ever built by Shinra as well as an airship the size of the Highwind, although he didn’t believe the Highwind could descend the vertical shaft.

As he walked through the cool shadows of the smoothly contoured cave, his boots crunching with each step in the thin layer of pulverized rock that covered the stone floor, he shifted his gaze to the view outside, a not so distant cliff face of granite, rising steeply out of his sight, washed in golden daylight, sere vegetation clinging desperately to the myriad shelves and crevasses. From what he could see, he had to concede the fact that if this side of the mountain consisted of the same sort of terrain, a descent would be difficult at best. He could only hope the slope beneath the manmade cave would prove more amenable. A quick descent would allow him to deliver Tifa to wherever she might wish to go - Kalm if he had anything to say about it - much more quickly than the route through the meandering mountain tunnels would permit.

Haste had become his primary imperative. The urgent need to escape this situation, his driving force, and he suspected that she felt the same way. Perhaps more so. Of all the members of Avalanche, he would be her last choice of persons to accompany. And Cloud, her first. Why would she wish to spend time with him? He’d hurt her with his cold words, and frightened her with his awkward gesture of assistance. The fear he’d seen in her eyes…the way she’d looked at him…then. Did she believe he would hurt her?

Vincent’s gaze faltered, his troubled eyes slipping to the ground that passed beneath his boot soles as he walked, his head bowing beneath the weight of pained recollection. Why did he care that she feared him? A Turk for ten years, he should be accustomed to that reaction after all. In the past, he’d expected to see fear. In fact, he’d commanded it. And now, after Hojo’s manipulations, any sane person would do well to fear him. Certainly, her opinion of him should not matter in the least. Still, he’d thought that he would have gained her trust by now…

With an irritated jerk of his shoulders, Vincent shrugged his bothersome thoughts away and again raised his gaze to the unpromising landscape beyond, crimson eyes filling with new resolve. Stubbornly, he planted the accomplishment of his plan firmly into the forefront of his mind, certain that this would be the means to finish his self-imposed obligation to her. He would take her from this place and return her to the security of her friends; to those more deserving of her companionship, and he would give her into the safe-keeping of the man she loved. To Cloud Strife. The man she meant her songs for. Then he would leave. He would leave and never look back. And he would feel nothing. Just as he now felt…nothing. With a curt nod of assertion, he lifted his chin high in determination and strode from the shadows into the warm curtain of slanting rays of sunlight to stand at the edge of the world and face yet one more moment of truth.

Tifa paced around the room, shifting an increasingly impatient glare from the immutable door to the taunting clock and back to the door again, anxiety alternating with irritation, depending on which thoughts were uppermost in her mind at any given moment. Hardly any time had passed since she’d decided to disregard the deactivation command, since she’d given up trying to convince herself to open the door. Only minutes really, ten or so, though it seemed an hour.

Frustrated, she dropped into the closest chair and reached across the table for the yellowed piece of paper that had so captivated Mr. Valentine. Since she had time on her hands, she might as well discover the magical properties of the page that seemed to hold Vincent in thrall. There must be something. Vincent had looked it so much by now he should have the thing completely committed to memory, down to every spot and tear and crinkle.

Propping her chin in one hand, she examined the sketchy, faded lines that seemed to weave in and out and around, as though a couple of drunken octopi had become hopelessly entangled in each other’s tentacles. She rotated the paper first one way, and then another, unable to make heads or tails of it, until she finally noticed a crudely rendered mileage scale, nearly unrecognizable as such, drawn in one corner of the page. She realized then, that she was looking at a map. A map of what she could hardly begin to imagine.

Heaven help her, Tifa couldn’t figure out what he saw in the primitive illustration to interest him. Still, she examined the paper at length, and she noticed that Vincent had apparently found a pencil to make occasional notations during his prolonged scrutiny. She lifted the paper closer to better examine the neatly written numerals penciled in at various locations, and suddenly she realized that Vincent’s efforts had been aimed at an identification of the path of each meandering line. Or set of lines maybe. She also noted a few question marks in places where the lines were somewhat obliterated. Her brow knitted in concentration as she puzzled over the potential sites the map might represent, but in the end she couldn’t reach a conclusion. Maybe Vincent had figured it out, but if so, he hadn’t seen fit to write the information on the paper. She’d just have to ask him when he came back, and he would come back. However, she wouldn’t wager a single gil on the probability of getting a satisfactory answer.

Already bored with the unrevealing map, she tossed it toward the approximate spot she’d found it, and turned annoyed eyes toward the door, not noticing that the fluttering paper caught briefly on the edge of the table, and then floated to the floor. Where was that man anyway? She couldn’t ask him anything if he didn’t come back. Momentarily, she entertained the idea of looking for him again, but really, she had no clue where to look. Still, the thought of finding him and dragging him back by his hair to answer her growing list of questions grew more appealing with each passing second. As though she would ever do such a thing. There was that Chaos thing to consider after all. Still, she found imagining the act most satisfying. A smile teased her lips.

Suddenly, she erupted from her chair and took a running leap to fling herself onto the narrow bed. Snatching the flat pillow into her arms, she pummeled it into a somewhat fluffy state, and hugging it to her chest, she curled on her side and stared at the mortar lines in the cinderblock wall. What a depressing place this was. Not even a window to let in fresh air. Just a boring, dingy old wall. Her eyes narrowed as a vision of Vincent Valentine lounging beneath a beach umbrella floated through her mind. Where had that come from? A dream? Maybe. Certainly, not a true memory. She was pretty sure that Vincent wouldn’t be caught dead under a beach umbrella.

With an annoyed huff, she flopped over on her back to gaze up at the equally dingy tiles of the ceiling. Another dismal sight. Someone needed to paint. Soon. Pointedly, she closed her eyes. A nap would certainly while away the time. If she was asleep, she couldn’t think about being left…alone…forever...

…Valentine does Costa del Sol...

Her lips tilted in a smile as she tried to paint that picture in her mind. Where would one find Mr. Valentine in Costa del Sol. At the pub dancing? Possibly, but probably not. At the beach tanning? She giggled at the image her mind created, of Vincent stretched out on a beach towel fully clothed down to his cloak and bandana. Nope. Snorkeling? Doubtful. Flirting with the girls at the bar? Huh, if they tried he’d turn them to stone with his cold stare. No, she knew right where he’d be found. The quietest, most shadowy corner of the whole village, probably with a book in hand. In fact, they could all have quite the scavenger hunt searching for Mr. Valentine. First one to find him wins the prize. She hadn’t thought the game through enough to decide what the prize might be. Probably no one would win. She suspected that he wouldn’t be found until he wanted to be found.

Another picture formed in her mind, of Vincent walking up the stone steps of the beachfront wall, undeterred by her pleas. Her amused smile faltered at the vague memory of…abandonment. Another fragment of her dream memories sneaking into her vacuous mind. The entirety of the dream abruptly coalesced into whole fabric, at which point the rest of her smile flattened out completely beneath the weight of her disgruntlement. He’d left her alone then too. In fact, everyone had left her alone. On the empty beach. What a horrible dream that had been…

She tossed the pillow toward the foot of the bed and sat up to swing her boots to the floor. Turning a pensive gaze on the door, she once again tried to talk herself into wandering out into the huge cavern to look for him, but she had to admit that she probably wouldn’t make it beyond the steps. It was a sad but true fact that she would readily travel to the ends of the planet, and beyond, if she had someone by her side, but she was disinclined to venture off into uncharted waters alone. Ridiculous, really. She could easily take down two or three grown men with just her fists, but she was fearful of the unknown. And afraid of change. Afraid to stir things up. Easier to go with the flow. Don’t make waves. End up in a deep rut. Like now.

Irritated anew, she sprang to her feet and made her way to the cabinets, restlessly opening one door after another, her eyes roving over the contents inside although her mind took no notice of anything she saw. Until she came to the silver packages of food and tins that she’d carried inside earlier, bundled up in the long skirt of the gown, now neatly stacked and perfectly arranged by Mr. Valentine. Despite the food she’d eaten earlier, her stomach still felt pretty hollow. But then, she hadn’t eaten for days before that. She examined the contents of a couple of foil packets, mostly by feel, actually seeking more of the meat sticks, but she eventually discovered a package that had to be the cereal bars Vincent had given her earlier to distract her from the needle. Sneaky man. But he couldn’t fool her. Her lips curved in a satisfied smile. So, she was sticking with the known, again. She didn’t care, though. The cereal bars were quite tasty.

Absently tearing the package open with her teeth, she turned sideways to plant a hip against the countertop, her gaze once again sweeping the tiny room, seeking something to spark her interest. Her eyes fell on the now glittering sweep of water still displayed on the video monitor she’d noticed before. Speculatively, she switched her attention to the two screens that had been turned off. Taking a bite of a cereal bar, she strode over to the console and quickly located the switches to the monitors. She punched them both, her chewing slowing as she watched each one blink on, one a bit later than the other.

When she realized the second monitor revealed the interior of the storage cavern just outside, she sank into the chair, scooting forward to study the tiny details of the glowing picture, hoping to catch a glimpse of Vincent. After several minutes of viewing, and after she’d swallowed down the last bite of cereal bar, she had to admit, with some disappointment, that he wasn’t loitering anywhere in the area covered by that security camera. Unless he’d climbed into one of the tanks or sacked out in the giant dismantled cargo chopper. The reclusive man could be anywhere. Probably she should just revert to her original plan to take a nap.

Her eyes slid to the third monitor, the end of the line, and her eyes widened at the chaotic scene within the frame. Beams of bright sunlight penetrated through jagged crevasses and fractured into golden spray against the surfaces of shattered rock, bathing the fine layer of pulverized dust into a soft blanket that did little to hide the utter destruction. This then was the Sleeping Man Cave. Or rather, what was left of it. No wonder Vincent had so brusquely informed her of their mutual entrapment. She could not fault his assessment. From what she could see, someone with some major excavating equipment would have to come to their rescue. Until then, the two of them were prisoners here.

…Unless he’d already found a way out…and had gone…

“No,” she said aloud, as though her own voice would convince her. “He wouldn’t do that.” Yet, that annoying, niggling little creature inside her head, the one that sounded like her but couldn’t be her because that voice was entirely too pessimistic, especially about Valentine, continued to taint her thoughts with doubt.

Tifa mentally admonished the voice into silence and drew out a second cereal bar, turning her troubled gaze back to the computer monitor, where several words still insistently flashed, obviously options the computer worked hard to bring to her attention. She decided to humor the electronic device as she could sorely use the distraction. She ran her eyes down the entire text on the screen once, and then again, as her lips drifted apart in disbelief that she hadn’t paid more attention earlier. How could she have missed it?

Now that she’d read it, she knew, without a doubt, that the menu displayed on the screen referred to camera sequence options, and the computer, with its blinking queries, simply urged that the video monitors be immediately switched to the affected cameras, those that accessed the activated transport terminal in question. She could have answered her own rampant questions much earlier. She certainly wouldn’t waste another moment now. With pent breath, she arrowed down and hit the prescribed key that would switch Video Display 1 to Transport Terminal V-Cam 1

She slowly let her breath go as she listened to the processor, hidden somewhere inside the console, labor to obey her command. The thing sounded terrible, now that she thought about it. She hoped the circuits didn’t fry before she found out what she wanted to know.

The video monitor finally blinked off, and after a few seconds, blinked back on, and the sunlit water scene of the flooded valley outside had been dutifully replaced with an image of an electric lantern, standing on a flat surface, glowing whitely in a sea of darkness. Whatever else she might have seen had been completely blacked out in the otherwise unlighted space, because the lantern completely dominated the camera lens with its illumination. Frustrated, Tifa returned to the computer screen to examine the other options.

She found the V-Cam series labeled Tranport Gate, Transport Shaft, and Transport Access all equally promising, and swiftly switched all three screens over, choosing the third camera from each section. After all, three was her lucky number. She leaned forward and planted her elbows on the console as she waited for the computer to change the displays to the new settings even as she pondered the fact that if someone’s life depended on seeing a particular camera view in a hurry, they’d best spend the time writing their will.

The computer finally kicked up the scene taken in by Transport Gate 3 V-Cam, and Tifa huffed in annoyance. This view, like the one before, suffered from poor lighting. However, she could make out a wide, rectangular opening in what appeared to be a rock wall, but she couldn’t tell anything else from the picture on the screen, including the dimensions of the open portal.

Expectantly, she shifted her gaze to the second video monitor only to encounter a view of complete blackness. Either the camera in the Transport Shaft was not working or there was absolutely no lighting in that area at all.

Eyes now narrowed in irritation, she turned her head slightly to glare at the third monitor which seemed to be caught in a power struggle between one camera and another, presenting only a fluctuating whiteness for her viewing pleasure. Her lucky number just didn’t seem to be coming across for her today.

Vincent stared straight down past the golden tips of his boots to a clump of lifeless, wind-twisted trees, barely clinging by virtue of a few straggly roots to a steep slope, the first diverse feature of the cliff below the manmade cave. The trees appeared to be little more than twigs from his vantage point approximately 500 feet or so above them. He didn’t even bother to look up. He wouldn’t take the risk of leaning out only to discover more of the same lack of terrain. He didn’t even have to speculate. He knew that Shinra, Inc. had blasted away the mountainside. Wind and water erosion did not form a cliff so conveniently featureless and sheer. The Corporation intended this site to be both hidden and inaccessible, except to aircraft capable of vertical flight. His lips twitched in the semblance of a wry smile.

Report, Valentine.
Mr. President, I’ve inspected the site per your request.
Your assessment, Valentine?
The new installation is completely unbreachable from the canyon side, sir. An unequivocal engineering success.
Excellent. Dismissed Valentine.

“You have completely foiled my scheme, President Shinra,” Vincent murmured ruefully. Without a doubt, he would not be taking Tifa out this way. At some level, he recognized that the realization should disturb him, frustrate him, and perhaps even anger him, especially in light of his reaffirmed vow only moments before. Why then, did he feel nothing but a curious sense of…relief? He decided he’d rather not explore the reason too closely.

Purposefully clearing his mind, he took a step back from the edge and lifted his head to gaze across the gap of the narrow canyon. Not such a great distance really. As a bird would fly. Much too far to create any sort of span, however. So that was that, then. He had only one option left to him. The maze of tunnels. A dangerous proposition at best. A trek that would require careful preparation on his part. He’d have to plan for every possible eventuality. He could not strand her in the bowels of a mountain range with no light and no water, doomed to wander in darkness until such time as they might find their way to the sunlight, if dehydration or a crevasse didn’t claim them first.

Vincent turned all the possibilities over in his mind, an introspective exercise he’d engaged in before, and one he would surely involve himself in again before the journey ever began. As his thoughts drifted through the details, he impulsively raised his face into the direct warmth of the sunlight. He’d been inside the chilly cavern so long now, with the cool illumination of the artificial lighting, that he’d almost forgotten how good the sun felt. At peace, he basked in the radiant light that slipped like a shower of summer rain beneath his skin and warmed him all the way to his bones.

For a long time, he stood there, his thoughts wandering without guidance, stones skipping across the surface of a still pond, leaves skittering along an empty sidewalk, not pausing long enough to allow reflection on any one thing, his eyelashes falling over unfocused crimson irises as a contented drowsiness claimed him.

A memory came to him then, a pleasant one actually, one he hadn’t thought of in a long while. One evoked by the high mountain perch, the soft breeze and the warm sunlight. Of a late summer day when he and Lucrecia had stood together in the early morning light, somewhere on a wide ledge up the side of Mount Nibel after the two of them had slipped away from the mansion just before dawn with a basket of food purloined from the kitchen. She hadn’t been so enamored of the bright sunlight, but she’d brought a ridiculously huge hat with a floppy brim that tended to get in the way of his amorous objectives, which had set her laughing endlessly at his frustrations, until he'd sailed the silly hat off the side of the mountain and resolved the matter. Then she'd laughed even more. That had been before Hojo. When Lucrecia still pretended. When she still knew how to laugh. He tried to bring a clear picture of her to his mind, but her face eluded his capture. Perhaps because green eyes were difficult to envision when brown ones kept floating into his mind, and honeyed chestnut hair could not compete with chocolate tresses. He found himself surprisingly untroubled by the problem.

A great yawn took his face and sent a shudder through his whole body, leaving him enervated in its wake. He had to admit, he’d nearly reached his limit. He hadn’t been so exhausted in a very long time. But then he hadn’t gone for so long with so little sleep, and what sleep he’d managed had been unduly interrupted every single time. One would think that a man who’d slept for almost three decades wouldn’t ever need to sleep again. Unfortunately, he’d found that he needed sleep more than he ever had, probably because his body seemed to run in high gear. Yet, he could go a long time without sleep, and tended to fight sleep to avoid his incessant nightmares. Which inevitably led to this level of bone weary exhaustion.

He should bring her up here, he mused. She had not experienced the warmth of the sunlight in a long time. Not since they’d gone into the Northern Crater. Even that day, the snowy climes had leached the heat from the bright sun. He’d watched her before, seen the way she reveled in sunlight. She was…sunlight. She should be the one standing here instead of him, but he knew that she could not climb the hundreds of ladder rungs to get here, not until she recovered all of her strength. Sadly, she would spend much time in darkness before she would ever see the sunlight again.

He admitted, then, that they probably should not go. The two of them could remain here for now. He’d always recognized that staying was the best option. Someone would come eventually. There had been a chopper here after all. He thought he remembered that, even though he’d not been quite in his right mind. Eventually, someone would come, and until then, she’d be safe here, with an abundant supply of food and water, with most of the comforts of civilized habitation and none of the risks of a protracted journey through the passages, some of which may have even collapsed. A myriad of catastrophes might await them. Events he could not even hope to imagine because he’d never traveled the terrain. He might well get her killed taking her out through the tunnels, an event he could hardly bear contemplating. The two of them should stay here. He wouldn’t tell her of the route beneath the mountain. And she would be safe. And one day, someone would come. Even if those who came were not friendly, he could easily handle that situation as well.

Again, the memory of her kiss filled his mind, and that place on his cheek where her lips had touched so fleetingly burned as though his sensory nerve endings had permanently stored the sensation to forever plague him. Unconsciously, he raised his metal hand to his cheek, one sharp tip of a finger just barely grazing that place where her kiss still lingered. Why shouldn't he stay here with her? Why could he not be with her?

His eyes startled wide at the sudden realization of the manner in which his own tricky thoughts sought to seduce him. That he would even entertain such an impossible idea, even for a second, reeked of lunacy. “Fool!” His snarl broke through clenched teeth as he deliberately dug the keen tip of one talon into the skin that stretched smoothly over the crest of one high cheekbone and unflinchingly scored a line of vibrant ruby against the pale ivory of his flawless face, a harsh breath catching in his throat even as he welcomed the searing pain that would finally and completely obliterate the taunting impression of her kiss from his cheek. He had no desire to recall her touch…no need to remember…the silky feel of her hair across his palm…her musical laughter…her tears…

His own tortured gasp snatched him back from the brink of darkness, and he stood frozen in stunned disbelief in the aftermath of his insane act. Cautiously, he drew the claw away from his face and stared curiously at the bloodstained tip, at a single droplet of his own ruby blood that held but for a moment, and then broke loose to splatter into the pebbles between his boots. Numbly, he let his arm fall limply to his side and threw his head back as a bitter laugh erupted from a seared throat.

Once again, he dangled by a single hair above that dark well of madness that always resided somewhere deep within his mind, a swirling abyss of blackness that waited to welcome him to an oblivion that both lured him and repelled him. He was, on the one hand, irresistibly drawn by the temptation to simply release himself to the depths of that unknown unreality, to create a limbo world of his own making and cocoon himself securely within, and on the other hand, repulsed that he could even contemplate such a cowardly act, the unequivocal surrender of his own mental control. As though he could. He would never relinquish the tangible world to one created from inventive madness, no matter how much he might seek release. Besides, he often found control of his rational mind a daunting task. What made him think he would retain any command of an irrational one? He could very well land inside a never-ending, miserable nightmare.

In fact, what made him think he had command of any damn thing?

…You can’t order the world to your will, and you can’t control me, so just stop it, Vincent Valentine…

The shrill angry female voice rang in his mind, a voice from a long ago past, a voice barely remembered, until now. He unconsciously shook his head as his unfocused eyes roved across the wide expanse of azure sky above the adjacent mountain ridge. “No,” he murmured softly. “I don’t want…you here...go away...”

Abject sorrow welled inside him at the plaintiveness in his own voice, and he buried his face in his hand. Accursed man. No, not a man…a monster. Of those who had loved him, was there a single one whose life he had not condemned to pain and despair? Sentenced to death? No. Not one. He’d poisoned their hope. Tainted their dreams. Stolen their breath. Every last one of them. Dead. Gone. And he was alone. He deserved it. Every endless second of it. Doomed to be alone. Duly sentenced…for his transgressions…he would always…be…alone…

Tifa widely smiled, triumphant and relieved. She’d found him. Now that the dysfunctional camera had finally kicked on. She touched one broken fingernail to the relatively diminutive figure in the middle of the screen. “You couldn’t hide forever, Mr. Valentine,” she informed him with glee. “I have you now.” Her smile widened. She sounded just like one of those wily detectives on a late night B movie, one who’d just fingered the evil criminal mastermind of the piece. She had to admit, though, that unlike a TV detective, she didn’t really have her man. Even though she had her finger firmly planted on the elusive Valentine, and she could quite clearly see him, she had no idea in hell where he could be. She could, however, most certainly keep an eye on him.

She leaned in close to the screen and planted her chin in her hands, the better to watch him, and then she frowned slightly as the barest twinge of guilt touched her mind. But she immediately shook it off. With startling ease. This wasn’t like watching him while he slept. While he dreamt. Was it? No, this was like…well…like watching television. Wasn’t it? Sure, it was. Besides, the man wasn’t doing anything. Standing in place, motionless, hair hanging in his face. True to form.

She couldn’t even imagine where he might be. He seemed petrified in amber, illuminated in a wash of golden light that did little to soften the starkness of his raven hair and dark clothing, though the metal of his artificial arm and the plating on his boots glinted brightly. The route he might have taken to reach that point lay concealed in total darkness behind him, and the scene before him had been washed into a formless haze, at least in the eye of the lens, apparently overloaded by the intensely brilliant light beyond. At the moment, he seemed captivated by his boots. Certainly, they were interesting boots, not exactly the height of Midgar fashion, but certainly different with the weird toe plates. Wasn’t he used to them by now…though…? Maybe the molten glow of the metal had drawn his eye. Or maybe he was just thinking. Now that she thought about it, she found her own toes pretty fascinating when she was thinking, especially about things that bothered her. Things like…Cloud Strife.

Of course, invoking Cloud’s name in her mind instantly brought his face to the forefront. Azure eyes, a pair of gas flames fueled by Mako, dancing with mischief though he kept his expression overly still. Deadpan. Spiky yellow hair poking every which way, a strand or two falling over one eye. She smiled as she remembered that day, on the dock at Costa del Sol, just before he’d blandly compared Barrett to a giant marshmallow. They had all laughed, but for Barrett, who had growled his frustration at the lot of them, and at the hot, sticky sailor uniform. Of course, that had been just after Aeris had walked right up to him and subjected him to an interrogation about how he liked a woman’s skin, whether tanned or lily white or something like that. Flirting had always come naturally to Aeris. She could do it as easily as breathing. Tifa Lockhart had never been quite able to pull it off. And now she was referring to herself in the third person. What on earth could that mean? That she’d rather be someone else? Nah, she just wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else but in this weird room alone.

She wished that Cloud were here with her now. At least he would talk to her, maybe not about the same things at the same time, but at least she’d know that he was safe. If only she could snap her fingers and bring him to her side. But she didn’t have a materia orb that would perform such a function, and she didn’t know of any magic that could grant her wish. Only Aeris had ever had the power to bring Cloud to her side. With only a look. That look she reserved just for him. She wondered if Cloud had ever realized what everyone else had clearly seen. But then, did it matter? When he could see no one but Aeris?

A movement on the screen brought Tifa from her reverie, and she refocused her attention on the televised figure of Vincent Valentine. Well, she still had him. Almost. In pixels, anyway. Something had changed, but she wasn’t sure what. Except that he’d lifted his head and tossed his dark hair back over his shoulder, unwittingly revealing his face to the camera lens, even if only in profile. The veil of light lent his face color as well as a semblance of warmth. Maybe his crimson eyes, infused with the same light, might reflect that same warmth in his gaze, a characteristic she’d never seen him exhibit in reality. She suspected his eyes would remain as chilly as ever though.

Again he stood motionless in this new position, his stare seemingly fixed on the pallet of gold in front of him. Strands of his raven hair stirred against his face, and the ends lifted to dance gently in a playful draft, a movement of air that momentarily passed on to leave his hair slightly disarranged. She realized then, an unconsciously acknowledged fact that floated about in her psyche already, drifting unanchored as she’d focused her attention on the enigmatic man himself. Vincent had indeed found a way out. The breeze that moved his hair could only have come from outside, as did the bright morning sunlight that brought radiance to his face. She studied his surroundings with new eyes, and her heart lightened at the thought that they would be able to leave soon to rejoin their companions. All her ridiculous worries about Vincent leaving had been without merit. He wouldn’t leave. She was certain of it. She’d always been certain. Hadn’t she really? He would come back for her first. Why wouldn’t he?

She sought out his distant face again, perhaps for assurance to strengthen her shaky convictions, though she knew she wouldn’t discover any certainty there. Instead, she found that he’d raised his claw to his face. She narrowed her eyes on the screen as she tried to see him better, but her attempt was unsuccessful. The camera lens was simply too far away from him to show her any detail. She chewed her lip as she watched him, again standing still in this new pose, as immobile as a lone tree in a plain. What was going through the man’s mind? Absently, she raised her fingers to her own face as she tried to fathom his thoughts.

Suddenly, an idea struck her, and she turned back to the surveillance menu on the computer monitor. She quickly scanned down the text once, and then again, feeling a tinge of frustration the second time. She nearly groaned aloud when she finally discovered what she wanted. The Zoom option proved disgustingly easy to find as the four letters that comprised the word flashed insistently. In fact, it jumped right out at her. Now that she was looking in the right place. Without hesitation, she hurriedly jabbed a fingertip against the required key and turned her head to see the result of her action.

Her thoughts came to a screeching halt when she saw that Vincent had dropped his face into his hand. Or she thought he had. His hair had tumbled down to hide his face again. Before she could even begin to wonder at his behavior, the camera zoom abruptly activated and dutifully zeroed in on the man’s bowed head. Except…his head wasn’t bowed anymore. His face. Not hidden. The whirring of the remote camera had seen to that.

By the time the camera reached the final extent of its zoom capacity, Vincent Valentine had whirled around to face the lens, his gun already in his hand, his eyes narrowed on her in a fierce glare. Startled, she sucked in a sharp breath, not really at the deadly intent in his eyes that seemed to drill straight through the camera lens to clearly mark her frightened face, although any other time that would surely have given her pause, but mostly at the angry looking gash that ran from the crest of one cheekbone almost halfway to his jaw line, and at the bright blood that still welled from the angry wound to slip down his face, leaving the pale skin darkly stained.

While her mind still reeled from the shock of her recognition that Vincent Valentine had, for whatever reason, slashed his own face, her senses were dealt another blow when Vincent abruptly spun away with blinding speed and raced toward the darkness, his hair flying out behind him, as though hell bent on finding and punishing the one that watched him.

Which would be…yours truly…

Tifa’s stomach churned queasily as she slumped bonelessly into the chair. Should she be scared? She didn’t know if she should be, but she surely was. Not really for herself though. For…Vincent. Why would he do such a crazy thing? But no, he wouldn’t. She was jumping to silly conclusions. It had to be an accident. Yes, that was it. An accident. He’d touched his face with one sharp claw, for whatever unfathomable reason and then…something…some noise…maybe a bird swooping in from outside…had startled him. Tifa tried to smile at her reasonable explanation, but her mouth would not cooperate. A chill wind blew through her bones, sending a shudder through her whole body.

Hesitantly, she forced herself up from the chair and turned to face the door, wrapping her arms tightly around her stomach in an attempt to stave off the persistent nausea. All she could do now was wait for his return, and she didn’t even know how long that might be, as she still didn’t know where he’d been. For several minutes, she stared at the inert doorknob, until she realized the futility of it. Watched doorknobs never turned. Everyone knew that. She forced her feet to move and turned toward the cabinet, pushing cereal bars and the acquisition of the same to the forefront of her mind. Maybe more calories would stave off the sick ache in her stomach. Besides, eating always took her mind off things. Well, most things. Really, she should look on the bright side anyway. Focus on the silver lining. Because really, she had one less thing to worry about now. One consolation at least. Vincent didn’t seem to be leaving. For the moment, anyway.

Maya peered through the glass of the backdoor, her brows drawing in deep concern at sight of Myron sitting at the kitchen table with one large hand wrapped around an oversized mug. He appeared the epitome of depression, slumped in his chair with his head bent low as he stared down at the wooden top, his tangled hair unbound and hanging against his thin cheeks. His misery filled her mind, and her heart ached. Because she knew this was about Nessa. For Myron, everything was about Nessa. Her throat closed as she considered the unthinkable. Surely, it wouldn’t happen so soon. She had thought there would still be time, but after last night, the disease that devoured her had been visible for all to see. Maya unconsciously shook her head in denial. No. No, if Nessa had passed away, she suspected that Myron would have broken into a million lifeless pieces. She also thought that she would know. In fact, her connection with Nessa had grown so strong that she would have already known.

Initially, she’d come back to the inn to tell Nessa and Myron of the people who had just crossed the crest of the Nibel range, at least according to Angel, but from Myron’s demeanor, she could see she had a more pressing matter to attend. Quietly, Maya turned the doorknob and pushed the door ajar. Angel, still perched on her right shoulder, hopped down to the wooden railing beside the stoop.

She turned worried green eyes in his direction. Why don’t you come too?

The bird cocked his sleek head in contemplation. Why?

Well…I thought perhaps you might be lonely…out here…

Angel cocked his head back the other way, as though he were actually considering her suggestion. Then he turned his head down to idly worry the feathers of one wing. …He…is…there…

Myron? He won’t hurt you. I’ll protect you.

He raised his head to pin her with an obsidian eye. Hmph…do not…need…protect…

So, you’re coming then?

He returned to his preening. House…not place…for bird…

Maya lifted her slender shoulders in an indifferent shrug. Okay…suit yourself…

She slipped through the door, and just as she would have pulled it closed, Angel dropped heavily to the wooden step and strutted across the threshold past her sandaled feet.

Change your mind?


Smart Aleck.

…Ask ob…vi…ous…hear...ob…vi…ous…


…Tasty…in…sects…in kitchen… He hopped away along the cabinets, poking his beak into the cracks between the fieldstone floor and the wooden base of the cabinet, obviously already on the hunt for said bugs. Maya scrunched her face up in disgust. She should have left well enough alone. If she didn’t know better, she’d think he was just trying to bug her. She smiled at the unintended pun, and turned to find Myron still sitting just as he’d been. Apparently, he hadn’t even taken note of her less than discreet entrance or of the antics of the bird, which was just as well because he’d probably make her put Angel outside. At least, she thought he would any other time. Her smile faded away. Right now, the depth of his sorrow left him unaware.

She lightly crossed the stone floor to stand on the opposite side of the table from him, and when he still made no move to acknowledge her presence, she pulled a chair out, careful not to scrape the legs too loudly against the fieldstone. Once seated, she studied his bowed head wordlessly for a time before she finally leaned forward to drop folded arms onto the table.

Maya softly cleared her throat, and he barely raised his head to look at her. “…Maya…” he said dully. She knew he meant it to be a greeting of sorts, rather than mere identification. “…Myron…” she replied in kind. She tried a tentative smile on him, but he’d already refocused his eyes on the mug in his hand. She propped her chin in one hand and decided to be more direct.

“What’s wrong, Myron?”

He shrugged one shoulder.

“Where’s Nessa?”

He shrugged again, as if he didn’t really know. “Sleeping.”

Maya’s spirits sank at that. She had come to know that Nessa Blackwood did not sleep after the sun came up. She had entirely too much to do before it set again. She wasn’t sure what to say to that, and guilt at having taken Nessa into the mansion the night before came to revisit her, even though she knew that Nessa would have gone anyway. She raised her eyes to watch Angel hop down into the old porcelain kitchen sink behind Myron’s back.

The man himself drew in a ragged breath. “I told her she should rest.”

“She was…still tired…then?” Maya asked hesitantly.

“She didn’t argue.” Myron answered in a voice full of finality.

And that’s all he needed to say. That’s all he could say. He couldn’t tell Maya anything else of his wife just then. He couldn’t say aloud how her translucent skin seemed stretched too thin, as though barely capable of holding her bones inside anymore, how her ribs had met his fingers too readily when he touched her, how she’d seemed fragile and pale like a faded photograph from another day. He couldn’t tell Maya either, of how he’d drawn away from her, involuntarily, not from repulsion, no never, but from fear. Fear that he would hurt her worse than life had already hurt her. Fear that she’d break apart beneath his hands. And in doing so, he’d hurt her worse. The gods help him, he couldn’t act like everything was normal. He couldn’t act like he didn’t know. He couldn’t even give her that one thing that she’d asked of him. He could not pretend.

Myron’s face convulsed in his grief, and he raised one hand to cover his stricken eyes. Maya’s own face fell, and she dropped guilty green eyes to her hands that were now tightly clasped on the table. “…Myron…I know you…blame me…and…”

“I don’t blame you,” he said roughly. “You had nothing to do with this.”

“But…last night…the mansion…”

“This didn’t start last night, Maya,” Myron shook his head against his palm. “I’ve known…for a long time…I’ve known. But I chose not to see. Because I didn’t want to see. I knew…not exactly…but I knew…and I didn’t want to know...easier to just stay…ignorant…but now…now that I know…now that she knows I know…I can’t pretend…I just…can’t…” His ponderous voice faltered to silence as though he’d finally exhausted every bit of energy and will he’d dredged up to speak the words.

“I wish there was something…I could…do,” Maya spoke mournfully to her hands.

“I wish…you could too…” he responded slowly. Then he raised red-rimmed gray eyes to study her face. “Like you do…with flowers…”

Startled at his words, Maya brought up her head to lock gazes with him. “What do you mean, Myron?” She chewed her lip as she pondered Myron’s words. Surely, he knew that flowers were not…well…people…

A sad smile touched his lips. “Nothing…just that if Nessa could be a …flower…for just a little while…”

Maya had come to tell Myron that everything would be okay, that someday he and Nessa would meet again, in another life, perhaps even in another form, that all of life moved in cycles, in great circles that linked and broke, only to relink. She’d thought to tell him not to waste this time in grief, but to embrace his time with her in this life. And the thought even occurred to her now, that she could even have told him that Nessa might well come back as a flower some day, if her spirit energy were channeled that way, but she realized that he wouldn’t be able to comprehend. He wouldn’t want to understand. He wasn’t ready to hear. But her thoughts brought comfort to herself.

Nessa could be returned to life as a flower, one like the vibrantly colored, fragile looking yet hardy Melodias that once grew wild along the lower slopes of the Nibel Mountain Range, before the reactor sucked all the life out of them. Or she might come back as a tender sapling that would grow tall and strong to grace the landscape or she might even be reborn human, a new person in a new time…


Surprised at the unexpected thought spoken in her mind, Maya looked around for the forgotten Angel, and finally found him picking at the cracks in the fieldstone beneath the table. What did you say?

…Per…haps…woman…return…as bird…

Unaccountably disturbed by the mental exchange, Maya carefully scrutinized Angel, even though he remained indifferent to the concern in her eyes as he busily hunted. Had she left her thoughts so unguarded? Angel suddenly raised his head to stare back at her. Then he strutted clear of the table and threw himself into flight with a noisy flutter of his wings.

Myron jumped to his feet at the startling sound, knocking his chair to the floor, and Maya stood with him, reaching a hand across the table to touch his arm, to preempt any untoward action on Myron’s part. “No, it’s okay. It’s just Angel.”

“Angel…” He warily studied the large bird that had come to light on one arm of a coat rack near the door, where he’d instantly transformed to stone, his head turned with one eye fixed on him.

Maya hurried across the room and pushed the door open to let the bird free. Angel didn’t hesitate for a second, diving to the floor to make a regal exit across the threshold. Maya quickly closed the door behind him and turned to apologize to Myron, her hands a dance of motion as she sought to explain.

“I’m really sorry, Myron. I shouldn’t have let him in without asking, I know, it was wrong of me, rude really, but…”

Myron, who had switched his wary gaze from the bird to Maya’s apprehensive face, and then to her frenetic hands, suddenly held up his own hand to interrupt her speech. “No. Don’t worry about it, Maya. It’s such a little thing. A tiny thing, you know. Not worth getting upset over, especially when there are so many…other…things...”

Unable to continue what he’d started to say, he instead bent to retrieve his fallen chair.

“Um…Myron…speaking of other things…”

He set the chair upright against the stone floor and shoved it squarely beneath the table before he raised questioning eyes to her face.

“What is it?”

“I just wanted to tell you and…Nessa…there are people coming. Down the mountain.”

“People? How many?”

“I…don’t know. They just passed over the crest.”

“Then…how do you know?” Myron asked in puzzlement. Did she have some power to view things she could not possibly see? Along with the power to zap dragons with lightning bolts, throw up impenetrable shields of light, and revive dying flowers.

“Um…Angel…he told me…”

“Angel? You mean the bird, don’t you?” he asked incredulously. “The bird told you. Is that what you’re telling me?”

She cautiously nodded, careful eyes on his face, waiting for ridicule to be heaped upon her head.

“We’d best prepare then.”

Myron and Maya both looked around at the sound of the firm voice from the stairway door.

“I thought you were resting,” Myron cautiously admonished her.

“I’ve finished,” she replied flatly.

He knew from her tone that he shouldn’t say another word, but he couldn’t help himself. She looked too drawn and pale despite the vibrant red flowers embroidered on her white blouse. A pained look crossed his face at sight of the long ponytail draped over her shoulder. He’d never gotten around to braiding her hair.

“Nessa, you really should…”

Slender raven brows flew together in her irritation, and he clamped his mouth shut.

“I’ve plenty of time to rest later, Myron,” she informed him tightly. “Right now, we must prepare.”

“For what?” Maya interjected curiously.

“There are people coming here. I did hear you say that?” One dark eyebrow went up in question as she turned her implacable gaze on Maya.

“Well…yes…Angel said it,” Maya replied slowly. “But even so…”

“We’ve an inn to run, have we not?” Nessa curtly interrupted.

“Of course, you’re right.” Maya eagerly agreed. “We should get the rooms ready then? I can get some flowers to brighten them.” Myron reluctantly nodded in agreement, even though he wanted to protest. He knew better than to argue with Nessa when she used that tone. Even ill, she was a force not to be reckoned with.

“Yes, there is that. We should freshen the rooms. And I’m sure that flowers would be appreciated. And then there is this. We maintain a rather tenuous position here,” Nessa added coolly. “We must operate from a position of strength.”

Myron folded his arms and planted skeptical eyes on her determined face. “And how do we plan to gain this position?”

“We’ll start by getting our story straight.”

Maya switched a curious gaze from one to the other.

Myron shrugged. “So? What’s new?”

A chilly smile touched Nessa’s face. “Not a single thing.”

Vincent stood silently at the end of one leg of the giant red X, staring off toward the far end of the cavern, his eyes a rapt study, as though he could readily see the door to the room where he’d left her even though too many obstacles stood in the way of his view. Restlessly, he shifted from one foot to the other. Then he took several purposeful steps, only to stop again to stare. After a few moments, he wheeled in place and restlessly paced back to halt approximately in the spot he’d just vacated. He shook his head woefully at his own indecision. He found himself in a quandary, admittedly one of his own making.

When he’d first heard the camera zoom, he knew that the situation had changed, and he’d instantly assumed the worst. He’d raced to protect her from some unknown threat, acting on instinct rather than reason. But the trip down the endless rungs had taken many long minutes despite his swiftness, and he’d had time to think, and he’d realized how unlikely a scenario he’d imagined in his fear for her. A more reasoned examination of the facts within his purview led him to a more mundane possibility.

First of all, he knew the camera didn’t function automatically. If so, the camera would have reacted to his presence sooner. In fact, all of the cameras would have adjusted focal point to the target as he passed. Secondly, he knew that the surveillance cameras were connected to the console in the control room. Certainly, he’d only viewed three different video feeds through the three available monitors, but that didn’t mean there would not be a means to alternate between feeds, and he could surmise that the computer provided the means to control them. He just hadn’t investigated that far. He hadn’t bothered to delve into the workings of the computer. He knew nothing of the operation of such a seemingly complicated device, and in the absence of necessity, he’d ignored it.

The computer had been invented long after his time, just as had been the wireless PHS, another newfangled device he tended to avoid using unless necessary, despite his familiarity with remote radio communication and telephones. The PHS was a phone, but one with too many extra buttons, with obscure functions, and no wires, and although he’d learned to use it, he didn’t care for it. Maybe because the PHS made his head ache slightly. At any rate, he knew very well that Tifa Lockhart did not suffer from his aversion to such devices. She no doubt knew about computers, thought them commonplace, and for all he knew, could disassemble and reassemble one in the time it took him to do the same with his pistol. He could certainly assume that she had inspected the one on the console at the first opportunity, especially as he’d left her to her own ends.

Once he’d finally set his boots securely on the concrete below, with his new theory at the forefront of his mind, he’d quickly subjected the area leading to the only means of entrance into the cavern to his preternatural senses. He knew, from personal experience, that no one could traverse the narrow ledge behind the falls without getting their feet and clothing wet, and no one could pass through without tainting the air with their odor. Even his second, more careful, sensory inspection of the area had not revealed the barest hint of an intruder, hostile or otherwise. No recent scent of any living creature. Not one drying footprint left on the floor. No distant sound of distress or altercation. A pertinent clue as he knew Tifa was more than capable of handling her own fights and would not be one to quietly surrender.

Therefore, he’d been forced to concede to the inescapable conclusion that she had been the one operating the camera. She had been the one to watch him. That knowledge had left him uncomfortably…ashamed. This then was the root of his indecision. Simply put, he didn’t know how much she’d seen, and if she’d seen what he thought she had, he just didn’t think he could face her. He feared what he might see in her eyes. Disgust or disdain or even…dread. On the other hand, he wanted desperately to see her, to ensure that his conclusion had been correct, to erase the last inkling of a doubt, even though…he knew.

Restlessly, Vincent paced back the other way, and stopped to peer off toward the control room again. Tentatively, he touched a finger to his face. As he’d expected, the relatively superficial and clean-cut gash had nearly healed, leaving little more than a raised welt. At least, he wouldn’t have to face her with the blatant evidence of his insane act right in front of her, if he could ever convince himself to walk the distance across the floor and open the door to the room. He folded his arms and absently walked back toward the pool, his brows knitting in a tight frown as he pondered her potential reaction. Surely, a nonexistent injury might not become an issue, especially as she wasn’t given to assertiveness. For that matter, he knew the human mind to be most prone to a suspension of disbelief. Even if she had seen, he might easily persuade her of the falsity of her own witness.

Energized with hope, he walked right to the edge of the pool and peered down into the water. As always, his unrestrained hair fell into his face and hid the remains of the wound he’d inflicted. He stared at the remainder of his pale features through the strands of his hair, only the trailing edge of the dried stain visible to the eye. Could it be so simple then? Of course it could. He possessed a facility for hiding. Too facile perhaps, but certainly convenient. He could convince her that she hadn’t seen anything. There had been nothing to see, because nothing had happened. In fact, given time, he might even convince himself. His lips quirked wryly at his own intended duplicity, and he unslung the rifle and the battery operated lantern from his back to deposit both at his feet. Then, he carefully lowered himself to the floor and stretched his body out across the cool concrete to again stare at his solemn reflection.

Deliberately, he raised his metal hand to flip the bulk of his hair over the opposite shoulder, and then he bent his head toward the water as though to drink, but instead he reached down to dip his fingers into the water, pausing again to watch as the reflection of his face broke into a formless mass beneath the resultant ripples. One corner of his mouth lifted again. Really, when all was said and done, little could be deemed in certainty to be real. If a man’s life could be so easily erased from the human record, then what of such a small wound as this? A scratch now, really. And what of truth? Simply a matter of one’s perspective.

Tifa stood in the center of the room chewing on one ragged nail, worried brown eyes on the door. Again. She’d lost track of how many times she stood just so, waiting for Mr. Valentine to finally walk through the door, or burst through maybe. But no, she didn’t really believe that. She knew intuitively that he would never hurt her. Not when he’d expended so much time and effort taking care of her all these days, although she could only wonder what might be going through the man’s mind. Why had he slashed his face? But no, she’d already convinced herself that had been an accident hadn’t she? Of course, she had. An accident. Nothing more.

For that matter, she didn’t know how the man got through an entire day, doing all the simple things that humans do, without cutting himself with those wickedly sharp claws. And how had he managed to tend to her without cutting her? Although, she’d had so many cuts on her after sliding across the glass littered bridge deck that she probably wouldn’t have noticed a few more. Maybe the man had an oven mitt stashed in his pocket. She smiled at the picture of Valentine working a flowered oven mitt, remarkably like the one from the kitchen of the Seventh Heaven, over his claw. Somehow she thought an oven mitt would cause him more trouble than the sharp tips of his metallic fingers. In fact, now that she really thought about it, the idea wasn’t even that funny. Especially now that she’d suddenly remembered the blood in his hair. Had he cut himself then? How did one learn to live with such an unwieldy limb? And why had he put the damn claw to his face anyway? Her fading smile completely disappeared, and she glared at the blasted door.

Stubbornly, she forced her eyes away from the door and scanned the room for something to take her mind off the whereabouts of the stubborn man. After all, he’d been running. How long could it take to get back? Unless…he’d run somewhere else. She realized that she was still chewing on an already much mangled fingernail and she pulled her hand away from her mouth to inspect the damage. With a slight wrinkle of her nose at the hopeless state of the nail, as well as all of her other nails, she dropped her hand to her side and strolled to the table. Her eyes fell to the crate that rested under the edge. She’d noticed it before, but she’d been too preoccupied to do little more than glance into the box. Now she bent to lift the wooden crate to the table, hoping desperately to find anything to take her mind away from Mr. Vincent Valentine.

A bottle of Gongaga Gold caught her eye, and she reached in to examine the label, duly confirming her instant identification. Then she shook the bottle. Empty. Not that she would drink the nasty stuff anyway. Maybe clean the sink drain with it. But drink it? No. She had better taste than that. Pointedly, she set the bottle aside.

A lidless pocket watch roused her interest next. She drew the timepiece from a scattering of odds and ends by the end of the attached chain. Two ornate hands rested motionless against an ivory face, edged all the way around with a gold engraved vine pattern of some kind. She turned the watch over in her hand to find the engraved lotus on the back. The piece was quite lovely, but the watch couldn’t be wound because the stem had gone missing. Disappointed, she set it alongside the empty bottle.

She shot another irritated glance at the uncooperative door, and then she returned to the wooden box and looked at a few other things; a fascinating gold and black marble that looked like the slitted eye of a cat, a slender gold band that looked like a wedding ring, an empty cartridge shell, a decorative metal button that could have come from a military dress coat, and a rubber band, which she promptly wound around her fingers and pointed in the direction of the door that wouldn’t open. However, the aged rubber of the band broke beneath the pressure before she could fire it. She smiled deprecatingly and dropped the band to the table, again digging into the treasures inside the box.

Her eyes fell on the dull looking rock in the center of the box. She’d noticed it before, but it hadn’t caught her interest then. It seemed ordinary, and she could little imagine why someone would keep it. But now, as she focused her attention it, she noticed a brief flicker of light slide across its surface. Her breath caught in her throat. This was her rock. The one she’d found on the trail that day. The one that she’d hidden from Vincent for some crazy reason. Probably because she’d been feverish and her mind had been half gone then.

Fascinated anew, she lifted the rock in her fingers and watched in wonder as the bland surface fairly lit up with dancing flickers of iridescent color. Hesitantly, she raised the vibrant rock to eye level and held it close, squinting an eye to see the intricate mélange of shimmering stroboscopic light inside, the colors seeming to change at whim, occasionally shifting into various hues of one shade only to return to a display that seemed to use every color imaginable. For several minutes, she studied the shifts in color and light, in flicker and flash, to see if the phenomenon ever repeated in a set cycle or pattern, but the mechanism, whatever it could possibly be, seemed to be completely random.

Frankly, she could have looked at the rock all day, and probably would have, but her roaming thoughts inevitably traveled around to Vincent again and what he might have thought of the rock when he’d seen it, and that thought reminded her that he hadn’t yet returned. Purposefully, she set the rock down on the table, and turned her attention to the door again. At that point, she decided that she should go look for him. She’d find him, and she’d be the one to drag out the medical kit this time, and she would make sure that she dressed that cut. Maybe she’d even threaten him with the needle. The idea of that made her shudder, and she knew she couldn’t even touch it. Like it would really bother him anyway. Besides, that cure materia was around somewhere. Maybe she’d just sneak up behind him and cast a cure spell. That would take care of it. If she could sneak up behind him. Doubtful.

As she pondered all the ways she might approach this issue of treating his injury, she moved toward the door, and then another thought occurred to her. From out of nowhere. Straight out of the blue like a single lightning bolt from a sunlit sky. Vincent had cut the cheek that she had kissed. She stopped dead in her tracks and worriedly studied the door. If he had cut himself on purpose, had that been the reason? The possibility made her stomach churn. Maybe she really…really…shouldn’t have…kissed him…

The doorknob turned beneath her blank gaze, and she started, taking an involuntary step back, and then another, only to pause, and wait. The seconds stretched as she stood there, her hand involuntarily moving to her chest where her heart had developed a curious flutter. Nearly half a minute elapsed on the noisy tick tock clock before the doorknob turned again. Silently and almost tentatively. Then she realized, like a light bulb exploding in her head. She’d locked the door. She’d locked him out, however unintentionally.

With a slap of her hand against her forehead, she leapt for the door, all concerns about Vincent superceded by the overriding fear that he might think she’d locked the door against him. She really didn’t want to hurt his feelings, if that were possible, that is.

With a flick of her wrist, she turned the lock and yanked the door open, only to find that Vincent had turned his back and taken a couple of steps toward the stairs.

“Where are you going?” she impulsively demanded. She’d been alone, waiting for him to come back for too long to let him get away now.

Disheartened, Vincent half-turned to look at her through his raven hair, studying her face at length before he finally responded.

“The door was locked,” he informed her quietly, his voice lacking any tone, much less any recrimination.

“You could have knocked,” she pointed out. She felt like adding that most people do that, but it seemed unnecessarily rude. Why was she irritated with him anyway? Probably, because he was planning to leave her alone again.

“I didn’t want to disturb you,” he replied tonelessly.

“Disturb me?” Her voice reflected her exasperation at him. “Good grief! Will you get in here?!”

Exhibiting no inclination to act on her demand, he eyed her warily, seemingly a bit taken aback at the uncustomary vehemence in her tone. Impatiently, she leaned out and clamped a hand around his right wrist, turning to tow him behind her into the room without a backward glance. He gave her no resistance, so like a determined tugboat, she towed him all the way across the room to the electronic console before she let him go. Only then, did she turn to look at him, and at that point, her face slowly flushed beneath his unblinking regard. Although she only had to endure the unwavering stare from one eye, as his hair had fallen over his other eye, and half his face. The pertinent half, as a matter of fact. One might think that he had pulled the hair down over his face on purpose. If one were a suspicious person. Well, so be it. If he wanted to hide it, she wouldn’t talk about it. She suspected he wouldn’t admit its existence anyway. Besides, she had other questions she could address. For now.

She jabbed a finger at the monitor. “What is this place?” She focused the whole of her attention on the screen, incapable of looking at him at that moment, not when her face still burned so hotly.

Vincent studied her prettily flushed face in profile for a long moment as she patiently stared at the screen and awaited his answer. Finally, he folded his arms as he redirected his attention to the same screen, shifting his weight to one foot in preparation for what he suspected would be a rather involved conversation in the end, but he didn’t mind, as he preferred this discussion to one concerning his injured face.

“An artificially constructed cave, designed to disguise the entrance bay for rotary wing craft,” he duly informed her.

“Rotary…wing…” She finally looked up at him and spun a finger near an ear. “You mean…choppers…”

He gave her one curt nod of acknowledgement. “And aircraft with hover capability.”

“Like the Highwind.” She smiled encouragingly.

“Yes, but the descent shaft will not accommodate a ship the size of the Highwind.”

She peered at the screen again as she pondered his words. “A shaft…a transport shaft…so…you found a way out…then…we can leave…we can go find everybody…” She smiled at the monitor.

“No,” he responded flatly.

She looked up in surprise. “No? Why not?”

He lifted one shoulder in a slight shrug. “The mountainside is sheer for hundreds of feet. Shinra intended that the entrance be inaccessible.”

“Well…then…” Her eyes narrowed as she leaned her head ever so slightly back to peer at the space behind the hanging strands of hair, but she couldn’t see a thing. His long nose blocked her view. He suddenly shifted his steady gaze from the monitor to her face, and she instantly lowered her eyelids demurely. “Could we fly out then?”

“No,” he replied tensely.

“Why not?”

“I will not.”

His voice held a hint of strain, and she immediately remembered that they had engaged in this conversation before, and she realized that he misunderstood her suggestion now. “Ah…I didn’t mean…er…you know…the Chaos…thing…” She released a shaky breath of dismay. “I meant one of those choppers…” Still unable to look at him, she inclined her head toward the door. “…Out there…”

“You can repair helicopters then?” He inquired coolly.

“Well, no. Can’t you?”

Ex-Turks could handle situations involving broken choppers, couldn’t they? She hazarded a glance at him only to find that he’d turned his attention to the monitor. Stealthily, she dipped her head lower and strained the limits of her vision to see his cheek from the new angle, with no success. She frowned slightly in mild frustration.

He stared silently at the screen for a while, seemingly assessing his level of expertise, before he responded expressionlessly. “Perhaps.”

Her face brightened. “Really? Do you think you could?”

“Do you require a written guarantee that the blades will not depart the craft in midair?”

She closely eyed his still profile in speculation. Had that been an example of sarcastic wit? An attempt at humor? If Barrett or Cid had said it, she would have known it was a joke. Cid would have said it in a voice rife with wry sarcasm. Barrett would have glowered, but his eyes would have been twinkling. She would have rolled her eyes at Cid in feigned despair, and she would have playfully punched Barrett in the arm, and he would have laughed at her. But Vincent had spoken tonelessly, and his stony face didn’t exhibit a trace of humor whatsoever.

“I…um…take it…that means…no?”

“An accurate assumption. The fuel tanks are dry anyway.”

Crestfallen, she stared down at her boots. “So…you’ve already checked. I suppose you’ve already thought of everything…”

“No one person can possibly imagine everything,” he pointed out blandly. He stood silently, deep in thought, even as he noted, with some bemusement, Tifa’s continued attempts to view his face. If he’d harbored any doubt that she’d seen him in the monitor, he did so no longer. As he’d hoped, she would not directly confront the matter.

Reluctantly, he considered the idea of telling her of the passages through the mountain, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to do so, because once she did know, the decision of whether to go or not would no longer be solely within his control. Still, another alternative might be found inside the database of the computer. He nodded his head toward the monitor. “I would like to view all available surveillance feeds. Will you switch them please?”

“Sure.” She darted another glance at him as she slid into the chair, but his eyes were focused on the monitors, apparently patiently waiting for her to change them over. She happily realized that from this position, his nose no longer blocked her view at all, and she spent a few leisurely seconds in an attempt to view his injured cheek from this more advantageous angle, but that part of his face lay in deep shadow behind the dangling strands of hair. He shifted his weight to the other foot, and she hurriedly set her fingers to the keyboard, nervously starting a running commentary as she worked. “I don’t know how many of these cameras there are…a lot I know…a long list of them…I just…noticed them because you made the computer come on…I guess…when you opened that door…wherever that place is…

“The door is located at the top exent of a vertical shaft hundreds of feet high and is currently accessible only by ladder.”

Swiftly, she highlighted the first three cameras at the top of the list and entered her choices, turning to peer up at Vincent as he waited for the screens to change. “So…out there is a great big room full of military junk with a shaft that goes up hundreds of feet and opens on a cliff that drops for hundreds of feet?”

He nodded silently as his eyes narrowed on the dark screens. “With an artificially constructed pool and a cataract to the rear,” he added absently. He lifted a finger to point at the first screen. “Where are these cameras located?”

“Transport shaft. There are a lot of cameras in there. So…there’s like a swimming pool?” Maybe all wasn’t lost if they were stuck here. She loved to swim. Sure, she’d forgotten her swimsuit when she'd taken her dive off the Highwind, but she could improvise. Her lips twitched at her silliness. She hadn’t owned a swimsuit in years.

“No, a reservoir. The entire length of the transport shaft is unlit. What other options are listed?”

She sighed heavily. “A lot.”

Vincent abruptly moved from the console to a location directly behind her, a position that unnerved her a bit as she couldn’t see what he was up to, even though she knew he was only reading the menu.

“Please enter A-Space Cam 1, 50, and 100,” he requested quietly.

It took her a moment or two to find and enter his required options, and a few more moments for the screens to change, during which time Vincent didn’t move an inch or make a sound. She felt the urge to fill the empty silence with sound, even if it was her nervous chatter. “There are a ton of these A-Space cameras. Must be a really big place.”

Vincent absently nodded behind her. The sheer number of cameras in this A-Space had been the factor that sparked his interest. If the tunnels were wired for surveillance, a great number of cameras would be needed. However, he suspected A-Space denoted airspace, and his conjecture proved true when the monitors finally displayed pictures, all bright scenes of blue sky and fluffy white clouds, one with a glimpse of sere rocky ground at bottom left.

“Oh…that’s outside!” Tifa informed him excitedly. “Isn’t the sky just so…beautiful? I wish we could go out there.”

Vincent tacitly agreed. “These are merely line cameras to survey all possible exterior angles,” he commented aloud. “Try the first three Trap Cams.”

Reluctantly, Tifa sought out the Trap Cams and entered them. Shortly, the both of them stared in mutual incomprehension at three different angles of an unidentifiable grid pattern in a dimly lit, hazy environment. “What is that?” Tifa asked the question aloud. Vincent had no response, so he didn’t speak.

“It looks like…” Tifa leaned sideways in her chair. “Could it be…a grate?”

Vincent looked at the pattern from that perspective and realized that it was indeed a grate. And at the same time he realized the reason for the odd texture of the projection. A strong downward current. The grate was underwater.”

“Yes, a grate at the bottom of the pool.”

Tifa tilted her head back against the chair to look straight up at him. She noted that she couldn’t see his hidden cheek from this angle either, but she could clearly view the line of his jaw. Nothing out of the ordinary there. No bloodstains. No ruby rivulets. Just flawless, ivory skin. “Hmm…do you think we could get out of here that way?”

He shook his head. “No. The grid most likely protects access to a water purification system.”

“Oh… She frowned her disappointment, and sat up in her chair. Vincent watched her as she drew her newly healed hand into a fist a couple of times before setting her fingers to the keyboard again. He quelled the urge to ask her if the hand pained her and began to read down the list again.

“What next? The Vault Cams or…the Lift Cams?” What exactly are you looking for, Mr. Valentine? And why don’t I just ask you? In fact, while I’m in the mood to ask questions, why don’t I just ask you about the little matter of your face?

Several minutes passed in silence, except for a couple of instances of involuntary humming from Tifa that she abruptly stopped after a few notes both times. Vincent read the menu all the way from the top to bottom and back again. Then he started over as he tentatively identified the probable location of all the cams. He could accept that no cameras had been installed in the tunnels, but he could hardly entertain the possibility that the designers of such a heavily monitored facility would opt to leave their back entrance blind. On the other hand, the cameras would not be clearly labeled due to the possibility of a security breach. His eyes narrowed in concentration as he worked his way down the screen again.

Tifa had nearly despaired of Vincent ever making a decision on his next choice, and she was seriously contemplating the idea of asking him if he wanted to sit in the chair and do it all for himself while she slipped off to get that cure materia to fix the injury that they weren’t talking about. Instead, she decided to ask him if he’d found a likely option yet, and had even opened her mouth to voice the words, but she nearly bit off her tongue when Vincent suddenly stepped close behind her to plant one fingertip against the monitor. “Select this…” He moved his finger halfway down the screen. “…And this…” Then he leaned down to indicate a space near the bottom. “…And this one.” She shifted uneasily in her chair and stared at the menu as she vaguely noted his equally abrupt relocation to her side where he again stared expectantly down at the monitors.

“…But…I don’t understand…Vincent…there’s nothing…there…” She squinted her eyes as though she might see some cryptic thing that she’d missed.


“What?” She looked over at him in surprise. “Pretend?”

“Pretend you see something there,” he responded tonelessly.

She shrugged and arrowed up to highlight the first blank space even though she wondered if he had decided to have some fun at her expense, an eventuality she could hardly imagine. Her imagination was not that good. Certainly not as good as his. Who knew an Ex-Turk could be so imaginative?

Okay, here goes Vincent Valentine Imaginary Cam 1. Enter. And Vincent Valentine Imaginary Cam 2. Enter. And Vincent Valentine Imaginary Cam 3. And enter.

To her surprise, the computer drive began to labor as though acknowledging that she had made three legitimate entries, and she turned to watch the screens flicker, eyes wide in eager expectation. A giggle almost worked its way up her throat when the three monitors each resolved to black. But she swallowed the urge when she caught sight of the serious intensity on his face. Perhaps the monitors did have pictures, in his imaginative mind anyway. The giggle almost broke through then.

“Does the computer control the lighting system?” Vincent curtly asked her.

She wrinkled her brow. “Well…I don’t know…”

He suddenly refocused his strangely intense regard to her face, and her throat tightened as every last trace of a humorous thought fled her mind. “Can you find out?” he queried further.

With a slow blink, she broke from her frozen state and again repositioned her fingers on the keyboard. “Sure…okay…I just have to find the main menu…” She hit the escape key and the computer dutifully loaded up the menu she hoped to see as Vincent moved behind her to study the screen again. She didn’t need any prompting from him to choose the Physical Systems Management option, and from there the lighting system was almost too easy to find. In fact, the whole system seemed pretty user friendly, probably due to its specialized programming.

Content to let him examine the lighting menu over her shoulder, she leaned back in the chair and rubbed the palm of her stiff right hand with the other, wincing as her fingers kneaded the hard knot beneath the skin. She really didn’t think her hand would ever be the same again. The long infected wound had left too much scar tissue behind, but she was most grateful for what she had. She knew that her hand could have been much worse, if not for Vincent’s resourcefulness. She didn’t know how she could ever repay him for everything he’d done for her.

“Select the same options again,” he prompted.

She looked up at the screen. “The ‘Pretend’ options you mean?” Those Vincent Valentine Imaginary options rather.

“Yes. All of them.”

Dutifully, she proceeded down the screen, hitting the enter key every time the highlighted bar landed on one of the empty spaces between categories, until she reached the bottom of the screen. Then she turned to see the end result of all those empty choices. Slowly, her mouth fell ajar, and she vowed at that moment to never doubt Vincent Valentine again. She stood and shoved the chair back as her stunned gaze traveled from one screen to the next, and after she drank in her fill of that one, the next. From the narrow metal stairway that ran steeply down between chiseled, silver-veined, dark slate cave walls to disappear into a crevice in the first monitor, to the long level catwalk suspended over a dark cleft in the floor in the second monitor, to an endless spiral staircase that seemed to descend into the depths of a circular cistern in the third.

“How did you know?” she reverently queried.

“I was there.”

“But…what is that place? Where do the stairs go?”

“To a labyrinth of tunnels, I suspect.”

She suddenly turned to look up at him. “The map. That’s what you’ve been looking at, isn’t it?” Silently, he nodded.

“Is it a way out, then? Can we leave that way?” Her voice overflowed with excitement. More excitement than was warranted at the prospect of such an arduous venture. He wordlessly studied her hopeful face as he struggled with the question of how much information to give her. Perhaps he shouldn’t tell her all of it just yet. He’d waffled on his own decision on this issue so much now, constantly balancing the probable foolhardiness of traveling the tunnels to an unknown destination against the certain wisdom of maintaining the status quo, not to mention his own personal tug of war between his desire to remain and his seemingly equivalent need to escape, that he’d reached the point where he might as well just flip a coin. He could lie to her, but he wouldn’t. He simply didn’t want to lie to her. She deserved the truth. Besides, he knew that she wanted to leave. He’d expected no less. Unlike him, she didn’t labor under any desire to stay. The decision would probably be better left to her anyway, as she would be the one more likely to suffer the hardships of the long and dangerous journey.

Vincent was taking so long to answer that Tifa finally threw up her hands in exasperation. “Well?” She pointedly raised her eyebrows. On this matter, she didn’t hesitate to assert herself. She couldn’t wait to get out of this place.

“You have seen the map.”

She sensed the question in the flat statement. “Well yes…I looked at it, but I didn’t know what I was looking at.”

Vincent suddenly turned on heel and strode to the table. Hesitantly, she followed, and her hand drifted guiltily to her mouth when he paused in mid-stride at sight of the littered table. She hadn’t quite gotten around to restoring the table to the pristine state in which he’d left it.

“Um…sorry about that…I’ll pick it up…”

Vincent shook his head dismissively as he continued around the table to retrieve the paper, but on his failure to find the map where he’d left it, he raised his cool gaze to meet her uncertain eyes. “Do you have it?”

“No, I put it back, right there.” Tifa pointed across the table to the exact spot Vincent had expected to find it. He leaned back to peer under the table and spotted the paper on the concrete floor. Tifa had wrapped her hand around the empty bottle of Gongaga Gold with the intention of replacing it into the wooden crate, but when she saw Vincent bending to retrieve the errant map, she seized the opportunity.

Ducking down, she peered under the table at him, her eyes focused unerringly on his face as his fingers touched the paper. Unfortunately, a good portion of his thick hair fell down his shoulders and obscured his face even more. Until he suddenly swung his head to look at her, curious crimson eyes meeting vaguely disappointed brown ones just beneath the edge of the table. Then the raven hair fell away to reveal his cheek, which appeared just as pale and uninjured and unstained with blood as ever. Impulsively, she wiggled her fingers at him in little gesture of greeting, and in response, he nodded politely. Abruptly, she straightened and pinned her puzzled gaze on the tarnished military button she’d left on the tabletop. She could only imagine the lovely shade of red that her embarrassment at the ridiculous exchange beneath the table had brought to her face.

Vincent straightened more slowly and momentarily directed his amused gaze to the content of the map in his hand. Then he held it across the table to her. “Give me your opinion.”

Reluctantly, she surrendered her fascinating study of the ornate military button, and with averted eyes, she cautiously reached out to draw the map from his fingers even as she wondered what she could possibly add to his assessment after only a cursory study. Obviously, he’d spent a lot of time on the thing. She couldn’t imagine what she might contribute.

Standing in place, she held the map and tried to look at it from her revised perspective, but her mind kept superimposing the televised image of Vincent’s slashed face over the confusing tangle of lines, an intimidating mess almost as perplexing as the tangled thoughts in her head. The slash was not there. Yet it should have been. Why wasn’t it there? Obviously, because she didn’t see what she’d thought. Impossible for his face to have been cut then, and not cut now. Well, not unless he’d used materia, but she knew for a fact that he’d left the materia, along with all the little colored bottles of medicines, right there on the table, all neatly arranged with his other belongings. What then, had she seen? A shadow on his face? But there would not be shadows in direct sunlight. A flaw in the camera lens? A distinct possibility. Or more likely, some unknown substance had…er…leaked from the ceiling over his head and splattered against his face, and he’d simply wiped off? And that just happened to look exactly like blood? How possible was that? More possible than a cut that disappears. But then again, who could say how much materia might be stored out there. He could just as easily have found another cure materia.

Perplexed, she pressed the fingers of one hand against her forehead. Her mind was hurting from all the thinking. With a shake of her head, she looked up from the crinkled paper, the contents of which had yet to travel to her brain, only to see Vincent disposing of her empty foil packages into a paper sack in the bottom of the cabinet, packages that he’d apparently gathered from around the room, having simply followed her trail. Guilt assailed her even though she knew that he was probably just occupying his time while waiting for her to read the map, but when he walked over to pick up the pillow from the floor in front of the bathroom door, the pillow that must have tumbled off the end of the cot earlier, she tossed the paper down and hurried over to get it herself.

“Wait, I’ll just put that back, Vincent…”

She arrived just as he turned with the pillow clasped in his claw, and she anxiously reached out to take the pillow from him, meaning to replace it on the rumpled bed, which she’d probably better straighten a little too, since she’d been the one to mess it up. Her guilty conscience pricking her sorely, she took the pillow from him with a bit too much fervor, and apparently before he’d thought to release it, and a tearing sound accompanied her action. Wide-eyed, she hugged the pillow to her as she watched several delicate white feathers flutter softly to the floor around his feet.

“Um…I’m sorry…about that…” she apologized. She hesitantly raised her eyes to his face to gauge his reaction, only to find the crimson eyes unwaveringly focused on the tip of one claw where a single feather lingered. She wanted to laugh, but she thought perhaps she better not. Still, she could barely keep the smile off her twitching lips. Gingerly, she reached out and plucked the feather from the tip of his claw and freed it to let it flutter to the floor. At her move, he shifted an unreadable gaze to her dancing eyes, and studied them at length, before he turned his attention to the feathers still escaping from the rent pillow she held too tightly. She covered her traitorous mouth with her free hand. “Um…really…I’m sorry…” But she knew she didn’t really look sorry, and she hardly sounded sorry with suppressed laughter lurking inside her voice. He brought his eyes back to her face.

“Read the map.” He enunciated the words slowly and concisely, emphasizing each word with singular equality. She nodded her head silently and whirled away from him to return to the table, the pillow still clasped to her stomach, the feathers leaving a trail behind her as she walked, still fighting giggles as her wayward mind pondered the sort of reaction she would get from Mr. Valentine if she yelled, “Pillow fight”. Probably no reaction at all, she admitted to herself. In fact, she could probably pummel him with feathers flying all around, and the man would just stand there immobile, taking all the fun out of it. She was not about to try it though. Vincent did seem a bit irritated. Which, for some reason, hardly bothered her at all.

Tifa slid into the chair and dutifully drew the map toward her, risking a quick glance through her lashes, only to find that Vincent had apparently vanished into the bathroom, and she could only imagine what he was doing in there, because he didn’t make the slightest sound. At least he wasn’t flushing his own head in despair. More likely, he was glaring into the mirror, silently cursing the day he’d ever met her, and trying to talk himself out of strangling her slowly and with great pleasure. She decided, at that thought, that maybe she’d better get to the business of reading the map. She definitely wanted to have something to say about the subject when he came out again. If he came out again.

Maya sat with her sandaled feet folded beneath her, staring at the cut stem of the flower she held in her fingers, her green eyes distant, her mind lost in her thoughts.

Angel had been patiently watching her work from his perch on the gatepost, but even a bird had only so much patience, especially when that bird had not been the most patient of men in his past life. She’d been sitting motionless in deep contemplation of the same flower for a long time. At least it seemed so. Measured increments of time held little meaning for him anymore. Besides, he knew where her thoughts had traveled.

…Woman…not…flower… He sent his vehement thought directly to her mind.

Maya sighed sorrowfully and let her hand fall to rest the flower in her lap. “I know that.”

She did know that, but Myron’s words plagued her mind, his reference to the almost magical way that she could heal diseased and dying flowers in particular, but as Angel had sought to remind her, humans were not flowers. The principle was not the same. Still, the idea that they should be intrigued her even as the certainty that they were not filled her heart with sorrow.

“Why aren’t they the same? Spirit energy is spirit energy? Right?” She lifted hopeful green eyes to Angel, as though she thought he could resolve all her questions when he could not even resolve his own.


“But why not?” she queried softly, mostly to herself.

…Not…same… Angel persisted.

“I know…I know…I just wish…”

What did she wish? What was she thinking? That she might simply touch Nessa and make her well? She didn’t even know how she made the flowers thrive…why they responded so remarkably quickly to her care. She just seemed to have a way with them, a love for them. She bowed her head sorrowfully.

“I know when she…dies…that she will go to Lifestream…and one day she’ll be reborn. She’ll live again. And someday, we’ll meet again. Death is not forever. Death is rebirth. I know all this, but it just makes me…so…sad…”


Maya blinked away burning tears and pinned hurt green eyes on the petulant bird. “You just say that because you can remember. Nessa won’t remember her old life. She’ll be reborn, and she’ll be happy.”

Completely motionless, Angel stared at her for so long that Maya finally decided he was done with talking to her, and with an uneasy shrug, she reached to gather the flowers together. Time was passing fast, and she still had to find some vases for her impromptu floral arrangements. Besides, replaying Myron’s words over and over in her head was only making her depressed. She carefully cradled the flowers in her arms and climbed to her feet. She hurried to the back stoop and had a foot planted on the step when Angel deigned to communicate again, and his mentally transmitted thought stunned her to immobility.

…Cetraaaaa…make me…for…get…

She shook her head in denial. …I…can’t…

…Make me…for..get…Cetraaaa…

She shook her head more vehemently. I can’t make you forget. I can’t make me remember. I can’t save Nessa, and I don’t want to save the world. I just want to be…left alone…I just want to be… Angel received her distress along with her thoughts, and he understood.


Maya could not respond. She stood there with one foot on the step, hot tears welling from her eyes. Then the door opened, and Nessa stepped out onto the top step with her walking stick in hand, her concern for the girl written all over her frowning face.

“What’s the matter, child?” She reached out a reassuring hand to touch her, but Maya suddenly exploded into motion, darting past the older woman with a strangled “Nothing” to disappear inside. Nessa turned to follow, but her dark eyes were suddenly drawn to the bird on the gatepost. The bird seemed to have its sleekly feathered head bowed, as though in prayer, but he raised his head to meet Nessa’s gaze.


The alien voice resonated in her mind with firm command, and Nessa stumbled back against the wooden railing of the porch stoop, shaken to her very core at the irrefutable knowledge that the bird had just communicated to her. Her eyes wide with astonishment, she stared as the bird took flight, unconsciously tracking the creature as he soared high into the sky, and as she watched him, she realized how little she had truly believed until that moment. She thought she had convinced herself that the bird could communicate with Maya, but now she recognized that she’d never really convinced herself at all, because now she harbored absolutely no doubt whatsoever, and she knew from this moment, she never would again.

Vincent finally deemed his composure sufficiently intact that he could return to her unsettling presence, and he unfolded his tall frame from the toilet lid where he’d been sitting with his chin in hand for some time. Sitting and thinking. And trying not to think. He’d tried to focus his mind on the gravity of the issue at hand, her almost certain decision to embark on a potentially perilous journey through the miles upon miles of tunnels, a task he could hardly discipline his mind to as his thoughts persisted in revisiting the look of stunned horror on Tifa’s face when the pillow had ripped, and on the laughter dancing in her eyes at sight of the feathers raining down, and on the trail of feathers she’d obliviously left across the floor as she’d retreated to the table with the prize she’d wrested from him, the latter being the thing that had nearly undone him and fueled his own hasty retreat.

Proceeding with great caution, he paused to watch her from the doorway to first determine what she’d been doing in his absence. She seemed engrossed in the map, although the pillow on the bed had been decorated with a long piece of silver duct tape, indicating that she’d taken time out of her study to repair the pillow from the contents of the first aid kit. He shook his head in bemusement at the inventive repair, and opened his mouth to inquire as to her opinion on the ill-drawn map when his eyes fell on the object she held in her hand, and his throat closed, denying him a voice.

The stone in her hand shimmered and flashed with iridescent color, occasionally shifting to a single random shade and back again. He wanted to yell at her to drop it, to get rid of it, but the urge seemed unreasonable as she seemed completely undisturbed by the strange stone, cradling it easily in one hand as she studied the map with her chin in the other. Uneasily, he decided to ignore the stone, opting instead to broach the subject of the map as he’d planned. Tentatively, he took a step toward her, and she looked up with curious eyes at his movement, only to shyly shift her eyes away.

Silently, he crossed the floor to stand beside her chair at the table, a position that would more closely allow him to view the map from her perspective. “What do you think?” he asked tonelessly.

“Well…I think that someone doesn’t know how to draw a map…”

He couldn’t fault her appraisal, but he chose to remain silent and wait for more.

She straightened up and planted a finger on the eastern ‘X’. “So you think this is an exit…”

“I believe so.”

“And this tunnel that you’ve labeled as ‘1’, you think that’s the one that leads out.”

“Yes, if indeed that is an exit.”

She rolled the rock around in her hand as she tilted her head in thought. “Well, it obviously goes somewhere…or did whenever this map…was…drawn…pretty iffy…really…”

“The scale does suggest a distance consistent with the location of the opposite face of this mountain range.”

She stared down at it a moment longer, and then she slapped a hand down on the map. “Well, that’s good enough for me. Let’s do it.” She could take on anything, as long as she didn’t have to do it alone. And now she knew that Vincent would be by her side the whole way.

He had certainly expected that decision from her. After all, Cloud Strife was out there somewhere, and he knew that given the option of rejoining Cloud and the rest of Avalanche or remaining here with him, she would choose to go. However, he hadn’t expected her to decide so quickly. He didn’t want her to take the matter lightly.

“The terrain will be unfamiliar, probably hazardous in some areas, the cavern fauna unknown.”

She tipped her chin up and smiled at him. “We’ve certainly been there before, right?”

Reluctantly, he nodded. He could hardly argue. The Northern Crater was a case in point.

“Just as long as there aren’t any of those Scissor things like in the Crater…” She involuntarily hunched her shoulders as a shudder ran through her. “Creepy things…”

“The terrain should be similar to the area of the Mythril Mines,” Vincent offered helpfully, even though he could hardly be certain. He had to admit that her optimism had infected him, but only to a point.

Tifa now rolled the rock from hand to hand, and Vincent found himself watching the shift of colors and light with fascination.

“So, can we leave now?”

Startled, his crimson eyes shot to her face. “Now? Hardly,” he replied curtly.

The slight smile faded as she looked up at him again. “Why not? Why can’t we?”

“We must prepare with great diligence. The tunnels will most likely be unlit, and we cannot be assured of a consistent water supply. Any of the passages could be collapsed in places, and…”

She waved a hand of dismissal. “I know all that. I really meant to ask if we could start getting ready to leave. Now.”

“Yes, but regardless, we should wait a few days to depart. The trip will be arduous, and you should be well rested.”

She gave him a little smile. “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine now. Thanks to you.”

“I have no desire to carry you half the way,” he informed her with a cool tone born of his desperate need to convince her. He knew very well that she needed to recover a few more days before they embarked on an exhausting journey that could well last two weeks, barring any major complications. Still when her smile transformed to a frown of displeasure, he wished the words back into his mouth. He’d lied when he said he would not wish to carry her anyway, because he would do so gladly. He also held no doubt that she would crawl on her hands and knees out of the tunnels before she would let him carry her. In fact, she would probably have to be unconscious. Just as before.

“I can pull my own weight, Vincent,” she informed him, her tone emulating the coolness in his own. Then she relented, unable to hold her face so sternly. “But if you think we should wait a few days, I’m okay with that.”

Relieved at her easy capitulation, he nodded and started to turn away, the thought of preparations uppermost in his mind, but she suddenly held the rock out to him. “Check this out, Vincent. Have you seen it?”

He eyed the stone warily, as though she were offering him her pet scorpion. “I’ve seen it,” he said expressionlessly.

“What do you think it is?” She held it up to eye level again, and he resisted the urge to knock it away from her face.

“I don’t know.”

“Did it do this when you held it?”

Vincent watched the beautiful lights dance and slide for a moment before he answered. “Yes…something…similar.”

She looked up with interest. “Did it do something different for you?”

Slowly, he nodded, his rapt eyes still glued to the magical display.

She offered him the rock again. “Here, show me.”

He didn’t immediately reach for it, and she gave him an encouraging smile. “It won’t bite you.”

“You’ve suffered no…ill…effects from touching the stone?”

Tifa thought she detected a hint of uneasiness in his tone. Her eyes narrowed in concern. “No, did you?”

“I…no…” She looked at him suspiciously, and he felt foolish. Thinking back on the incident, he could almost be certain that the effects he’d experienced must have been his imagination. He’d been exhausted. In fact, he was still exhausted. Even the whisper of a voice he thought he’d heard had turned out to be Tifa singing in her sleep. And there’d been no lasting effects of any kind. If anything, he had affected the stone, and not the other way around. He sought to reassure her, especially as he had to admit a certain amount of fascination with the strange phenomenon. “No, I did not,” he said firmly. He held out his hand. “May I see it?”

Vincent let his hand fall to his side as she gave a tiny shake of her head in denial and closed her fingers protectively around the stone, suspiciously examining his face for any hint of duplicity on his part. His initial unease bothered her, but she couldn’t imagine what he’d be hiding from her. In the end, his easy acceptance of her refusal mollified her fears. Besides, the stone had not harmed her in any way. She really didn’t have any reason to deny him, so finally she opened her hand out and offered the stone to him.

Hesitantly, Vincent raised his hand and stretched his fingers toward the stone, pausing for a heartbeat before actually touching it as a warning knell echoed distantly in the back of his mind. Finally, he touched the tip of a finger to the stone, and then he cautiously gathered it into his fingers, drawing his hand back to let the fantastical object roll into his palm. The mystical properties of the stone continued to react in exactly the same manner as when Tifa held it, the colors and light shifting from multicolored iridescence through a range of shades and back again, but randomly, with no pattern repeated that he could detect. For almost a full minute, he and Tifa watched the light show together as he easily held it. Although he found himself raptly captivated, just as before, he didn’t experience the strange possession he’d obviously imagined before, and he was greatly relieved that his seemingly accurate assessment that the previous effects had been derived from his creative imagination had been borne out. Eventually, he raised his intrigued gaze to meet Tifa’s face where he saw his strange mixture of fascination and relief reflected in her expression. Sensing his regard, she lifted her eyes to his.

“Pretty cool, isn’t it?”

He silently nodded, and then he extended his hand to offer the stone back to her. Watching the stone could become addictive, but he had a lot of preparation to do, and he’d best get started. “Thank you,” he said quietly.

She raised wide eyes to his face, apparently surprised at his uncustomary expression of gratitude. He was grateful, though, that she wanted to share her find with him, especially as she had chosen to hide the stone from him before.

She smiled shyly “You’re welcome.”

Hesitantly, she reached for the stone, and he watched the movement of her slender fingers as she slid her fingertips over the shimmering surface, flattening his hand out for her to more easily gather it into her hand. She closed her fingers around the stone, and he held himself carefully still, shuttering his eyes as the tips of her fingers brushed the palm of his hand.

Without any warning, not in the state of the stone’s reaction or in premonition, the stone emitted a brilliant explosion of white light, as fleeting as a camera flash and as eye searing in intensity as a solar flare. Tifa yelped in surprise and pain, her breath catching in her throat as a vise of great pressure suddenly seemed to clamp down around her cranium, at the same that she instinctively threw her hands up to press against her burning eyes.

Vincent hardly knew what had happened. Reflexively, he’d dropped the stone, but not so much from the hot brand of light, though his eyes burned so badly he could hardly stop himself crying out, but more from the catastrophic concussion inside his mind at the instant of the flash, leaving in its wake a torturous racket that reverberated painfully and endlessly inside his head. Right behind the first assault, all five of his senses became overwhelmed by sensory input. His muscles lost tone, and he fell helplessly to his knees as undulating waves of sensory insult flowed through every part of him. His whole body quaked and his teeth clacked as every motor nerve seemed to fire, over and over, in agonizing response to the stone’s violent reaction.

At some point, he tumbled to the concrete floor to lie immovable in the same position he’d landed, with one hand flat to the cool floor, a minor chill that met his skin like glacial ice, magnified exponentially. He could neither reason nor move. His capacity for both had been totally obliterated by the endless fulminating assault.

Tifa cautiously drew her hands away her eyes, only to press them against her pounding head. She nosily sucked in breath after breath between clenched teeth as she tried to hold her skull together against the jackhammer assault inside. She wanted to curse or cry or scream her head hurt so badly, but she resisted mightily, all her muscles taut in the taxing effort. She had almost reached the breaking point, where she thought she would go mad if she had to suffer for one more moment, when the pain finally subsided, and with amazing swiftness when it decided to go, eventually mutating into a dull throb that she could finally bear.

Her mind still staggering at the shock, she lowered her hands from her temples and immediately sought out Vincent. She leapt to her feet at the same instant that her heart slammed into her throat. Her first sight of him lying stiffly against the floor with his eyes squeezed shut, trembling like a street sign in a high gale, from both agony and restraint, nearly unhinged her.

Choking on her horror, she flung herself to her knees beside him and wrapped a hand around his stiffly flexed arm, but at her touch, he reacted violently, tearing his arm from her fingers with a spastic jerk.

“Don’t touch me,” he snarled, and then he cringed as his own voice slammed against the inside of his skull, a novel pain that blended with the intense agony of the fire lit beneath his skin from the pressure of her fingers.

Her own skull still pounding, she started to reach for him again, compelled to do something to help him, but she paused when she finally realized that her touch had hurt him. Helplessly, she sat back on her heels and threaded her fingers tightly together to stop them trembling, even as she struggled against the panicky unreality that worked to take her mind. She could not just sit here watching him suffer. She had to do something or she’d go mad. “Vincent…what can I do?” she pleaded.

He cringed again as her words exploded into his ears. “Don’t speak,” he hissed in a harsh whisper. “Don’t do anything.”

Consumed with anxiety, she rose to her feet, only to pace back and forth beside him, a caged animal chained there by his pain. Back and forth, she walked, wrapping her arms tightly around her stomach in an attempt to hold herself together, oblivious to the tears that trickled down her face, and she couldn’t say how long she paced, her eyes on him the entire time as he lay at her feet shaking, but finally, his stiffened body seemed to relax against the concrete, at which point she walked around him and sank weakly to the mattress, only to wring her hands in frustration as she continued to wait and pray that the effects would swiftly pass for him, just as had happened for her.

And eventually, his trembling appeared to abate, and his teeth ceased to chatter, and after several more nerve-wracking minutes, he rolled onto his back to stare at the ceiling through squinted eyes, as though he found the overhead light too bright. Still, she waited, afraid to say or do anything that might cause him pain, and finally he sat up and weakly dropped his head into his hand, his hair tumbling forward to hide his face.

“Vincent…” she whispered in an unsteady voice. “Are you okay?”

“Wait…” he whispered, his voice calmer this time.

Anxiously, she looked down at her hands, consumed by guilt, unable to look at him anymore, and after another couple of minutes, he decided to make an attempt to stand. Instantly, she jumped up to help him, but he held up his hand in denial. Although she didn’t touch him, she stood her ground. He would not get rid of her so easily. She hovered close beside him, ready to support him if need be, whether he liked it or not, guarding him with pent breath as he made it to one knee and a foot, and then, after a brief rest, eventually to a full stand, albeit a wobbly one.

“Why don’t…you…sit down, Vincent,” she suggested nervously. She really thought he might fall down, standing there in front of her as he was with his head bent low, swaying slightly in place.

He didn’t answer her, mainly because he’d spied the insidious rock, the source of his persistent weakness and the monstrous pounding that still ravaged the inside of his head, admittedly much better than the relentless agony he’d endured for a timeless eternity.

Tifa tensed in alarm when Vincent suddenly moved, taking a step forward with one foot, and swinging his other foot in a vicious kick, all in one fluid movement that sent her rock flying on a trajectory that carried it beneath the narrow bed where it cracked against the cinder block wall.

Guilt stabbed her through the middle. “I’m really…sorry… Vincent…”

He shook his head in rejection of her strained apology and raised his hand to press against his forehead. “It wasn’t you…it was…me…I knew…I didn’t…listen…”

Tifa had no clue what he was talking about, and she didn’t feel it was a good time to stand in the middle of the floor chatting about it. She decided that any discussion of what had just happened should wait. Tentatively, she reached out to touch his arm, and when he didn’t recoil, she took him in hand and gently steered him toward the bed.

“Come on, Vincent, you really should lie down,” she urged more firmly. He didn’t physically resist her, even surrendering to her nonverbal direction to sit, dropping wearily to the edge of the bed at her gentle downward tug, where he sat tensely with his head in his hand. “I have too much to do,” he finally said.

“You can do it later. We have all the time in the world,” she reassured. “You need to rest for awhile.”

He shook his head. “No.”

Tifa propped her hands on her hips in determination even as she wondered what it would take to gain his compliance. “Come on, Valentine, humor me. You’re making me feel guilty here. I’ll bet you’ve hardly slept a wink while you were taking care of me. Now I’m fine, and you need to get some rest. You really look pretty bad now that you mention it…” She paused to check the effectiveness of her argument. “So what do you say?”

“I don’t have time to sleep.”

She shrugged with feigned indifference. “Suit yourself, would you like a drink of water? You look a little parched.” He immediately started shaking his head.

“Well, okay, how about a nice cool rag for your headache?” She raised her brows in expectation, but he didn’t bother to respond. She decided to take it upon herself to agree for him, especially as she really thought it would make him feel better, and he didn’t say no, so she could clearly assume that he meant yes.

She whirled smartly around in an about face and headed for the bathroom, the inside of her head spinning to keep up. She decided that a mild giddiness must be one of the aftereffects of whatever the rock had done to them. Or maybe it was her utter relief at Vincent’s swift recovery that had her feeling so lighthearted all of a sudden. What did that rock do to them? She couldn’t even begin to comprehend what it was, much less what it had done. Suddenly, she smiled. Stoned them, that’s what. She almost giggled at her silly pun. That clinched it. She felt almost a little inebriated, as though the stone had given her brain cells a strong blast of Mideelian Brandy. Probably the reason she’d been babbling on to Vincent in her futile attempt to get him to lie down. She might as well not waste her breath on the argument any further. Apparently it was against his personal code of behavior to sleep with other people around to catch him sleeping. Maybe it was a habit left over from his Turk days. She knew if she were a Turk, she would not go to sleep where anyone might find her. He’d probably refuse a wet rag too. Turks probably didn’t do something so practical and potentially embarrassing as putting wet rags on their respective foreheads, so an ex-Turk probably wouldn’t either, but at least she could say she’d offered.

Once in the bathroom, Tifa remembered that there weren’t any washrags. Apparently, the Sleeping Man had packed them all when he left, along with his set of china. However, there were socks. Her socks to be sure. A bit travel worn, but clean. Vincent had hand laundered all her clothes while she’d been under the weather.

She retrieved one of the socks from the rust spackled towel rack and turned to the sink to twist on the faucet. She let the water run until the temperature had turned cold, and then she soaked the sock down and gave it several twists in her hands to squeeze away all the excess moisture, the whole while practicing several different pleas in her head to get Vincent to rest, at least for a little while, even though she knew it was probably a hopeless cause. Shutting off the water, she took the one step that would carry her back into the room and stopped in her tracks just the other side of the threshold. Vincent had stretched out on the narrow cot and thrown his arm across his forehead, and not only that, but shockingly enough, his eyes were closed.

She stared at him as she tried to work out in her mind whether she should risk placing the cold rag…er…rather…sock on his forehead or just ask him. She decided she wasn’t brave enough to apply the sock compress without his permission.

“Um…Vincent…would you like a cold rag for your head?”

His head barely moved against the pillow. She had no choice now. It was official. He said no. Still, her head still ached a bit. Maybe she’d put it on her own forehead. In the end, she just turned and threw the wet sock into the sink, reminding herself to do something else with it later, so that Vincent wouldn’t. In fact, she had a few things she had better attend to before Vincent did. The feathers that still littered the floor, for one thing. Then there was that blanket she’d kicked over in the corner earlier, after she’d inadvertently yanked it down off the bathroom door. She turned an appraising gaze on Vincent’s still form. The man could definitely use a blanket.

She walked over and gathered the blanket up in her hands. She noticed a couple of feathers clinging to the soft material, so she gave it a good shaking before she walked to the side of the bed and studied him very quietly for a while in an attempt to determine if he was asleep yet or not. “Vincent…would you like a blanket?” she whispered. After all, she didn’t want to wake him, now that she’d finally managed to get him to sleep. He didn’t answer, not with a shake of his head or a cool ‘no’. In fact, he didn’t even twitch. Encouraged, she carefully spread the blanket out over his still body, slowly drawing the tattered hem to his chest. Then, she smiled at her success and went to retrieve the broom from the corner.

She swept up all the feathers she could find and, in lieu of the dustpan the Sleeping Man had also apparently packed, she used the crinkled map from the table, which took her a few tries as the confounded thing proved most uncooperative. Finally, she dumped the last of the feathers in the bag inside the cabinet with a muttered ‘good riddance’ and turned to set her mind on her next project, only to discover that Vincent had rolled to his side and now watched her through half-closed eyelids. She gave him a hesitant smile, a bit uncomfortable that she hadn’t known he was still awake, especially as she’d been mumbling to herself. She couldn’t even remember all the nutty things she might have said under her breath that nobody could normally hear that she knew he could, and she wondered how long he’d been watching. He didn’t respond to her smile or her uncertain gaze. In fact, he hadn’t so much as blinked an eyelash, and now she was wondering if he was even awake. Maybe ex-Turks slept with their eyes open.

“Vincent?” she queried softly. “Are you okay?” Then he did blink, just the barest flutter of his lashes. He stirred beneath the blanket, and at the knowledge that he had been awake the whole time, her face began to flush, a damned annoying trait.

“How do you feel?” he asked her lowly.

“Me? I’m fine.” A little giddy around the edges maybe, but mighty fine otherwise.

“The stone…it didn’t hurt you?”

“Well, it gave me one wicked headache, but it’s gone now.” Mostly.

His eyelids slid closed then, as though he’d resurfaced just to assure himself of her continued good health, and maybe he had, especially since he seemed to blame himself for the whole incident. But he was wrong. She was to blame. She couldn’t imagine how he could think himself at fault. She’d been the one to find the blasted rock. She’d been the one to offer it to him, and she’d been convinced, for those few seconds when she first saw him on the floor, that her rock had killed him.

Tifa decided she didn’t want to think about the stupid rock anymore, and she went to work replacing the junk in the wooden crate, careful to keep all subsequent mutterings inside her head and periodically checking on Mr. Valentine to make sure the sneaky man hadn’t reawakened to watch her again. Once she’d returned the box to the floor beneath the table, she looked around for something else to keep her occupied for a while, and decided to spend some time on the computer. Maybe there were some schematics for the tunnels inside the electronic memory of the aged machine, or an official map more reliable than the one they now possessed.

Thirty minutes later, after running into numerous deleted files that the Sleeping Man had obviously also packed, she slumped in her chair in boredom and frustration. She wouldn’t find anything here. The man had been careful to delete anything that might provide any information beyond the actual operation of the facility.

She turned sideways in the chair to look over at Vincent again. He’d now rolled over to face the wall. At least, she could be sure he wasn’t watching her when she wasn’t watching him. Unless he really did have eyes hidden in the long raven hair fanned out across the pillow.

She simply had to find something to do or she was going to wind up puttering around and waking him up. He needed to get his rest, especially before the two of them headed into the dark and unfriendly bowels of the mountain range.

A smile suddenly lit her face. That’s what she could do. Vincent had been worried about all the work he had yet to do. He undoubtedly meant the collection of the items they would need to take with them. She had a pretty good idea of the equipment they would need, and she knew he’d already gathered a lot of it. She would get to work on the task herself and advance their mutual cause. That way, the man could sleep in total peace.

Not even a minute later, she opened the door, carefully checking the lock to make sure she wouldn’t lock herself out. She gave the sleeping Valentine one last lingering look, and then she gave him a little wave before she pulled the door closed behind her.

Descending the steps, she pinned her expert eyes on the nearby pile of camping paraphernalia that Vincent had already gathered, and was in the middle of running down a mental list of additional things they would need, like maybe one of those folding shovels to dig their way out of a cave-in, heaven forbid, when another, more appealing idea struck her.

She paused at the bottom of the steps and turned inquisitive eyes toward the colorfully appointed airship. Earlier, when she hadn’t know where Vincent had gone, the old airship had spooked her, even repelled her, but now the airship seemed to beckon like a long lost friend, like a grand adventure. It wasn’t so far away really, and the landing bay stood invitingly open. What trouble could she get into there?

Then again, the more she helped accumulate the articles for the trip through the mountain range, the sooner they could leave, except that Vincent had dictated a tentative departure date still several days away. So did it really matter? Sure, it did matter. The man could use some help with his self-assigned responsibilities. Still, she hoped that he might sleep for a long while. She could check out the airship in just a few minutes, and still have hours to work on her shopping list. Still, she wouldn’t be able to see the door from the airship, not all the time anyway. She chewed her lip in thought, caught motionless in her indecision. A decorative, colorfully painted airship with an open door up against a shovel? Truthfully, there was no real competition here. And in the end, the airship won. Hands down.

Myron stepped off the front stoop of the hotel and waited there to meet the surprisingly large party of riders just entering the village of Nibelheim from the mountain trail. Nessa stayed behind on the top step, leaning more heavily against her tall, hand carved walking stick then she would ever reveal. He turned his head to give her a quick thumbs up, even as he marveled at how beautiful she looked in her high necked red blouse and ankle length black skirt with her long raven ponytail draped down the front of her body.

She had worked him over too, pulling his silvery-blonde hair into such a tight ponytail that he knew his eyes had developed an exotic tilt to them and dressing him in the royal blue shirt that she normally would not let him wear. Then she’d added a string tie, which she’d meticulously arranged, and after a careful inspection with her discriminating dark eyes, she’d confiscated his hopelessly bent glasses. In her book, presentation was the key, and they were supposedly business entrepreneurs now.

The riders trotted their mountain chocobos through the square, and Myron squinted his eyes in an attempt to make out the lead rider, to no avail. But in a few more seconds, the identification no longer remained in question when the rider pulled the animal to a stop and leapt out of the saddle to land at Myron’s feet, boisterously pumping his hand almost before his boots hit the ground.

“Blackwood! Good to see ya again!” the blonde, ruddy-faced man cried out heartily.

“You made good time,” Myron said with some amazement, even as he wondered how he would retrieve his hand. “I didn’t expect you for several days.”

“Well hell, we figured we’d better strike while the iron was hot. And we were able to get a party together pretty fast, thanks to Gerald and his chocobos. And there was that fire-breathing dragon too. Lit a fire under the birds.” His newfound friend finally let go of his hand and tipped his hat to Nessa. “Is that the wife?” he inquired with some appreciation.

“Yes,” Myron turned and held out a hand in her direction. She gracefully descended the steps to slip her hand into his, standing close beside him. She politely nodded. “This is my wife, Nessa.” The man lifted his hat again. “Frederick T. Maines, ma’am.”

“I’m very pleased to meet you, Mr. Maines. Our establishment is at your disposal if anyone requires accommodations for a few nights.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Blackwood, we’ll certainly accept your kind offer, as long as you’ll agree to accept remuneration in kind.”

Nessa favored him with her most gracious smile. “I’ve no argument with your proposal, Mr. Maines.”

“I’ve got all your merchandise too, Mrs. Blackwood, and I’ll deliver it straight to your kitchen as soon as we get these chocobos unloaded. I hope I didn’t leave you in dire straits too long.”

“Not at all, Mr. Maines. Thank you very much for your efforts on our behalf.”

Myron released Nessa’s hand to step closer. “Did you inform them of the situation here,” he asked Maines anxiously as he swept a cursory glance over the remaining members of the group, currently engaged in various stages of dismounting their rides and stretching stiff limbs.

“Sure, they all know. I told them the deal. Abandoned Shinra land, and all that. Some opted not to come. Saw it as a waste of resources, but the rest of us, we all figured, why let the resources go to waste? We’ll cross that Shinra bridge later if we have to. I’m thinking with the corporation in shambles, they won’t be too worried about Nibelheim.”

Myron smiled with relief. “Good. As long as no one misunderstands.”

Frederick waved a reassuring hand. “Nah, they all know.” Then he leaned in to whisper conspiratorially. “I hope ya don’t mind, but I told them you were the Mayor and that you were running the records office too. So you can keep track of everything for a legal claim against Shinra down the road.”

“Mayor?” Myron said dazedly. “Records?”

Maines turned toward his road weary companions and waved them all closer. “Come on, ever’body. I wanna introduce ya to Mayor Blackwood and his lovely wife.”

Nessa leaned close and brushed her lips against his ear. “Just smile and shake their hands, Myron.”

Myron offered her a strained smile. “Where’s your daughter?”

“I’m sure I don’t know.” Nessa replied under her breath.

Just then, the missing family member appeared, bursting through the front door of the inn as though she’d been waiting in the wings for her cue. Her thick coils of hair tumbled unbound down her back, and she had donned a borrowed teal dress with lacy raglan sleeves and a full skirt that fell to her calves. She clutched a furled pink parasol that she rested against one shoulder, while the white bird rode the other.

Your daughter possesses a theatrical flair,” Nessa dryly informed Myron.

“She comes by it honestly,” Myron murmured under his breath.

Maines turned back just then and spied the new addition to the party. “Ah, another lovely young lady. Who have we here?”

“Our daughter, Maya.” The girl gave them all a beautiful smile and waved. Then she turned her head slightly and spoke an inaudible word to the bird. Angel launched himself into the air and flew away.

A small towheaded boy of about seven years of age or so enthusiastically tugged on his mother’s denim trousers as he pointed into the sky. “Wow! Do you see that bird, Mama?!”

She slowly nodded in awe as she watched the bird climb in the sky. “I sure do, son. And I have to say, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bird like that one before.”

Maines gestured the brown haired woman and the little boy forward. “This is my wife, Emily, and my boy, Fred Jr.” Myron dutifully shook their hands, and Nessa smiled as Maya walked up behind her twirling her open parasol.

Then Maines introduced them to the owner of the chocobos, a man hailing from Corel, Gerald Staton, and his Natalie, as well as three strapping teenage boys, and he moved on from there.

Nessa continued to smile graciously, noting every name down for future reference in the back of her mind, but most of her attention had been diverted at the sight of a woman with a spectacular curly mop of flaming red hair, standing with her back to everyone else. In fact, she seemed separate from the other members of the group, all of whom seemed married with children or at the very least, paired. She seemed to be the odd one out. And she seemed most intrigued with the Shinra Mansion.

“Well, that seems to be everyone,” Maines said jovially.

Nessa inclined her head in the woman’s direction. “What about the young redheaded woman?” she asked politely. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”

She didn’t miss the look of pained recognition on the merchant’s face. “Ah, that would be the Widow Day. She has expressed an interest in taking up residence in this fine village. She’s come to assess the available property.” Nessa decided the level of stress in the man’s voice indicated that he would rather the Widow Day deemed all the property unsuitable and moved on down the road.

Though reluctant, Maines pasted his affable smile back onto his face and hailed the redheaded woman, who took her time sauntering over to join them. Finally, she halted in front of Nessa and held out a slender hand. “Good afternoon, I’m Margret Day.” She smiled prettily, but Nessa noted that the smile did not erase the calculation in the woman’s cold blue eyes. “Nessa Blackwood,” she said smoothly as she took the woman’s hand in a brief handshake.

The woman’s falsely friendly smile developed a hint of a smirk. “I understand you claim to own the inn,” she said slyly.

“My husband and I do own the inn,” Nessa informed her coolly.

“By what right do you claim to own it?” she asked with an astonished lift of her sculpted eyebrows.

Nessa’s lips curved in a chilly smile. “By right of possession.” Her voice developed a hint of glacial ice.

“Hmm…I see. Well, Mrs. Blackwood, that seems a fairly tenuous claim. What if…someone…were to dispossess you and invalidate your unlawful claim?”

“I would say that feckless individual would depart this town as though a Nibel dragon were on her tail, and she would never dare to return.” Nessa deliberately planted her walking stick against the cobblestones directly in front of her with both hands fisted around it, the threat in her dark eyes clearly exhibited as she locked her unblinking stare on the woman’s insolent face. Margret Day tried to stare Nessa down, but within moments her gaze faltered, and she might have been forced to completely capitulate had not Maines chosen to interject himself into the battle of feminine wills.

“Mrs. Day, I told you the situation before we ever left Rockettown. I would pray that you would honor the agreement you made when you were included in this party.”

The redheaded woman turned a disarming smile on the frowning merchant. “Oh, don’t worry, Mr. Maines. I’m not the least interested in that silly little inn. It’s the Shinra Mansion I want.”

Nessa allowed the return of her polite, if a bit chilly, smile. “I don’t believe you’ll find the Shinra Mansion very hospitable, Mrs. Day, but you are most welcome to it. You might consider hiring an exterminator before you take up residence however.” That said, Nessa turned to her husband and took his arm. “Shall we register our guests, Myron.”

“Don’t I know you?”

Startled, Nessa turned back to find the Widow Day’s attention turned to Maya. The girl merely smiled sweetly. “I don’t believe so,” she mused aloud.

“Yes, I think I do know you.” The woman lifted a finger to point a wickedly sharp nail at her. “You’re that flower seller from Midgar. The girl from the gingerbread house in Sector 5.”

Maya’s smile faltered. “I’m not from Midgar,” she said slowly. “I don’t know Sector 5.”

Nessa walked up to drop a protective arm around Maya’s waist. “You are sadly mistaken, Mrs. Day. My daughter has never resided in the slums of Midgar so you could not have met her there. She was born and raised in Gongaga, and we most recently resided in Cosmo Canyon before traveling here from Rockettown. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’ve guests to attend.”

Nessa steered Maya away from the redheaded vixen, frowning as the girl darted uncertain glances at the woman's vigilant face. Mrs. Day watched them take a few steps toward the inn before she called. “Well, she’s certainly the spitting image of that girl from Sector 5. I can hardly believe that’s not her. I mean, everyone knew who she was, because the Turks were always watching her.”

Nessa stiffened at the mention of the Turks, and she tightened her arm around Maya’s waist at her faltering step. “Stop looking back at her, Maya,” she hissed.

“But what if she knows who I am?” Maya pleaded.

“You are better off never knowing who you are if that woman is the only one who can tell you,” Nessa informed her in a low voice. She suddenly stopped at the foot of the steps. “Do not ever let that woman believe that you are any person other than Maya Blackwood. Do you understand me?”

Maya hesitantly nodded, apprehensive green eyes inexorably sliding in the redheaded woman’s direction. Nessa didn’t fail to notice. “Do not look at her.”

Myron finally slipped away from his discussion about the General Store with Maines and walked up to take Nessa’s elbow. “Darling, I’d forgotten how dangerous you can be,” he whispered in the vicinity of her ear. “I’m almost afraid to ask for the apology you owe me.”

“What apology?” Nessa demanded harshly, her fear at the redheaded woman’s apparent recognition of Maya at the forefront of her mind.

Myron’s smile faded. “Er…about Maines.”

Nessa grimaced in a parody of a smile. “Of course, Myron, I do apologize. I unfairly maligned Mr. Maines.” Then she lifted a finger, and he winced when she shook it alarmingly close to his nose. “You stay away from that woman, Myron. Do not even talk to her.”

He frowned in bewilderment. “What woman, Nessa? You know you don’t have to worry about me and…other…women…”

“You too,” she admonished Maya. “Stay far away from her. Don’t talk to her. Both of you better mark my words. That woman is bad news. She’s not a widow. She’s not a redhead. And her name is not Margret.”

Angel suddenly landed on the railing with a noisy flutter of feathers, startling all three of them. He appeared to be very agitated, frenetically hopping sideways and back on the railing.

…Woman…bad…woman…evil…bad…stay away…evil…beware…woman…evil…

Nessa pointed at the bird. “See! Angel knows.” Then she lifted her walking stick in her hand and stalked up the steps and into the inn as Maya traced her progress with stunned green eyes.

Myron looked from the bird to the empty doorway to Maya, completely lost at sea.

“What? What does Angel know?”

Maya took a deep breath. “He says that the redheaded woman is evil.”

“What? Nessa talks to the bird now too?”

Maya studied the bird uncertainly. “I guess so.”

Myron didn’t like the idea of that at all, and he chased up the steps after Nessa. He had to know what was going on in his wife’s mind.

Maya looked over her shoulder at the redheaded widow who stood chatting amiably with Natalie Staton. As though she sensed Maya’s interest, she turned her head and gave her a little nod accompanied by a smirk of a smile.

Maya forced her apprehension and rampant curiosity aside and gave her a dainty wave. Then, with a dramatic flourish, she folded her umbrella and offered her arm to the bird. Angel hopped aboard with alacrity, and Maya smiled hugely when she glimpsed the Widow Day’s uncertain frown just before she pointedly closed the door.

Vincent rolled over onto his back and peered in confusion at the dim ceiling overhead. Then with a start, he sat up to plant his boots on the floor, carelessly tossing the blanket aside as he looked around the barely lit room for Tifa. For some reason, he thought he’d heard her calling him, but he could clearly see that she was not in the room. She’d obviously turned the lights down and left to ensure that she didn’t disturb his rest.

Slightly annoyed at himself, he tossed his hair out of his face and stood. He had not intended to surrender to Tifa’s insistence that he sleep, mostly because he wanted to monitor the after effects of the stone’s alien behavior, but somehow, she’d persuaded him. Apparently. He couldn’t quite remember making a decision to go to sleep, but then, he’d been so drained of energy and dull minded after the incident, he wasn’t surprised he couldn’t remember. However, he did clearly remember the course of the effects.

Carefully, he checked out each limb, and then liberally explored the inside of his mind for any sign of lingering trauma. Everything seemed in the same working order as before, and he could detect no unusual ideation within his thoughts. He’d even slept off the last vestiges of the pounding headache. Apparently, just like before, the effects of the stone were transitory, despite the severity of the reaction.

Surprisingly, he felt completely refreshed from his nap, and he realized that, for the first time in a long time, he’d slept dreamlessly, his slumber totally undisturbed by nightmares or emotional reenactments of his past. He could easily attribute the absence of his dreams to his bone weary exhaustion. Even his brain had been enervated, certainly too weary to be inventive. He had no doubt in his mind that his torturous dreams would revisit him when next he slept.

Lithely, he stretched his limbs as a protracted yawn took possession of his mouth, and then his niggling concern about Tifa’s whereabouts took precedence over all else, and he purposefully strode to the door and pulled it open. He frowned when he didn’t immediately see her. He’d thought that she would most likely stay close.

Feeling unsettled at her absence, he descended the stairs and walked a few feet out across the concrete floor, slowly swinging his head to and fro to carefully scan the room. Still, he could find no sign of her anywhere. She wasn’t exploring or gathering equipment for their trip. She wasn’t singing, and she certainly wasn’t dancing. She was simply nowhere. But he well knew she had to be somewhere. He prayed that she hadn’t decided to climb the rungs to the top or venture into the tunnels alone. Although, he thought such action on her part unlikely. She was not of a nature to go alone. But if not there, then where?

Then suddenly, he did know where, whether by detection of the smallest of sounds, or by divination, he wasn’t sure. Just that he knew. He turned on heel and scrutinized the colorful trim and railings of the abandoned airship, as well as the porthole windows and open deck. He didn’t see a sign of her there either, but he could easily assume that she’d gone inside. He lowered his gaze to the wooden ramp that led into the open cargo bay as he pondered the idea of just leaving her alone, even though he knew that he couldn’t. He had to see for himself that she had, indeed, entered the airship and had not decided to investigate the tunnels on her own. Besides, he wanted to see her. Just to assure himself that she didn’t still suffer from the stone’s effects. So, without further hesitation, he unconsciously checked that his gun remained seated in his holster, out of habit, and he purposefully set out for the grounded ship.

Comfortably curled up on the worn velvet comforter of the oversized bed, Tifa studied the picture in the open book with fascination, much as she had every other photograph and illustration she’d come across. A History of Midgar, the title proclaimed. That alone had been enough to focus her interest on that particular book amidst all the other books stuffed into the dusty bookcase and scattered across the floor of the Captain’s Quarters, and when she’d cracked the cover, she’d discovered that the book had been published nearly five years before she’d been born, a fact that made the content doubly intriguing. So she’d taken the book and her lit candle to pile up on the bed, where she’d been since, lost inside a Midgar that bore no resemblance whatsoever to the one she’d known. Lost to the world. Lost to time.

The Midgar presented in the book consisted of several towns grown together, all with different names like Valencia and Saragoza and Haventown. This Midgar had tree-lined streets and flower gardens and beautiful parks, fancy mansions as well as cozy little houses. Businesses. Playgrounds. And most fascinating of all, this Midgar had no heavy iron plates hanging ponderously overhead, and no polluted slums, and no unending piles of mangled debris.

Softly, she hummed as she alternatively read text and examined pictures, and the further she progressed in the book, the more her thoughts turned to Vincent, and she convinced herself at some point that she should show him the book, that he would like to see it. After all, this Midgar had most certainly been his Midgar, and the more she learned of his Midgar, the more excited she grew at the thought of giving him the book, although she had to admit some uneasiness about how he might react when he saw it. Would he take pleasure in revisiting what would basically be his past or would it only painfully remind him of the life that had been snatched from him three decades ago?

She had no way to know, and the only way to find out was to just give him the book and let the chips fall where they may, but somehow, she thought he would be pleased. She really didn’t know why she thought that. After all, he never seemed pleased or really displeased about anything, not to any discernable degree anyway. But after all he’d done for her, giving him the book was just one teensy little thing she could do for him. She knew very well that she owed him so much more.

Absently, she turned another page, her mouth drifting ajar in awe at the stunning beauty of the garden that had earned it a chapter all its own. The Rain Gardens. Unconsciously, she nodded her head. Yes, she would definitely take him the book. At the very least, just to ask him about this beautiful place. To see what he would say. Maybe he would only wind up throwing it back at her, but she didn’t think he would. She’d go soon and give it to him. Just as soon as he woke up. Just as soon as she reached the very last page. Just a few minutes more…

Vincent stood immobile outside the threshold of the open quarters, in the relative gloom of the unlit passageway, staring captivated at her as the flickering candle painted the room in dancing swathes of golden light and set the shadows waltzing around the scarlet tapestry draped bed where she lay curled around a book with her back to him. If she happened to turn and look then, she would see only a pair of softly glowing crimson eyes in the dark space beyond the door, beyond the illumination cast by the guttering flame.

He didn’t know how long he’d been there, watching her turn pages, listening to her hum her sweet song, helpless to move forward, but not content to stay so far away, but he well knew it had been a long while, and he deemed himself ungentlemanly not to at least announce his presence, which he’d found impossible to bring himself to do. Vaguely, the thought came to him to depart then, to leave her alone so she might enjoy her time here without the taint of his presence to ruin it for her, and with that idea roaming somewhere inside his mind, he forced his feet to move. Unfortunately, his boots did not go in the direction he’d intended.

Silently, he stepped across the long narrow room; careful to set his feet where the floorboards would not creak, determined not to make a sound that would alert her and cause her to move, making full use of the stalking skills he’d perfected as a Turk as well as the agility of his genetically enhanced muscles. As he steadily moved toward her, he meticulously skirted a scattering of discarded books in his path, dimly aware of a tall bookcase and a heavily stuff chair with faded and tattered upholstery, close to each side of him. Another time, he would have examined the books in the room with great interest, but at this time, his interests were wholly engaged elsewhere, his mind seemingly untethered from his intelligent control. Simply put, he could not draw his gaze away from her; not from the lustrous sheen of her hair in the candlelight, darkly coiled against the red velvet spread and not from her sinuous form or the curve of her hip as she lay with one leg drawn. Distantly, he recognized that he would be wise to turn and walk away, but he could not find the will to do so.

As he crept closer to the bed, his thoughts slipped completely into another world. One in which he lived as a normal man; a man without eyes the color of blood, a man without a bloodstained past, a man without a monster loosed inside, a man without a dead heart, a man with two hands to touch her, a man that she could possibly come to consider as her lover. If he were that man, would she turn her head with a welcoming smile when he drew near? If he were that man, would she reach out and take his hand tenderly in hers? If he were that man, would she draw him down beside her and hold him close in her arms and whisper lover’s words to him? If he were that man? Could she then…love him?

The man who was Vincent Valentine, and yet was not, halted two paces from the edge of the bed as his crimson eyes made a study of the beauty of her slender fingers splayed against the page of the open book, and of the delicate feathering of her dark lashes as she read with her eyes lowered to the text, and of the unconscious movement of her lips as she silently mouthed the words. If he were that man would she turn her lips against his in a lingering kiss and would she…

The mythril toeplate of his boot chinked against a jutting nail and he froze. At the sharp sound, Tifa jerked her head up and instantly reacted at sight of the dark silhouette looming behind her, whirling from the bed to confront the threat, her left hook already in play before she even thought about it, every move born of instinct and training, every coiled muscle geared to self-preservation.

Vincent instinctively threw up his hand to catch her flying fist before she could connect and do him painful damage, and at the instant his fingers stayed her, she recognized her would be assailant, and the fear and fierce intent in her determined eyes gave to embarassment and relief. “Gods Vincent, you scared me to death,” she chided him. “I guess I thought you were a stray ghost.”

He gazed wordlessly down at her as she stood close, and she suddenly realized that he still held her fist closed inside his hand at just about the same time she noticed the strange, unidentifiable expression in his crimson eyes. Uneasily, she tugged against his hold and he immediately opened his hand to release her. She nervously sidled away from him along the side of the bed, and he abruptly turned and walked away from her.

“Wait Vincent! Don’t go!” She bent to lift the book from the bed. “I want to show you…”

“We’re leaving,” he snapped coldly.

She stared at his departing back in astonishment, not only at his unexpected words, but also at the glacial ice inside his tone. “Now? But I thought you said…”

Again, he didn’t let her finish. “Tomorrow,” he bit out. “I suggest you get some rest.”


He strode through the doorway into darkness and disappeared.

“But…I don’t understand…” she informed no one. She stared at the door for a long time, still completely bewildered by his behavior. At no time had he ever spoken to her in a voice so cold, not in all the time she’d known him. And why did he so suddenly change his mind about when they would leave? He almost seemed angry with her, and she couldn’t even begin to imagine what she might have done to him. Unless he’d decided to blame her for what happened with the stone. She supposed that he might have changed his mind about that too.

Normally, she might have made some joke to herself about the man getting up on the wrong side of the bed or something like that, but she couldn’t find any humor anywhere inside her. In fact, her stomach churned sickly beneath her belt buckle. Unconsciously, she shook her head, and then she sorrowfully dropped her eyes to the book in her hand. She couldn’t give it to him now. She didn’t dare. Her heart aching with regret, she tossed the book onto the threadbare red comforter and bent to snuff out the candle. Then she headed to the door in near darkness to follow him off the ship, hoping the entire way that his mood would change before she found herself face to face with him again. Somehow, she didn’t think it would.

He was gathering lantern batteries from a nearby shelf when she emerged from the airship. He didn’t look at her or acknowledge her presence in any way. At that point, she decided to do just as he’d so coldly suggested. She would simply crawl into her bed, pull the blankets over her head, and go to sleep, and she would forget Mr. Valentine and everything else until he dragged her out of bed to leave. Tomorrow. With a sniff, she lifted her chin as she walked past him to the steps.

Vincent waited until she’d gone by him before he turned to watch her climb the stairs, sapped by a strange, debilitating weakness in every limb as he stood in place with a battery in his hand. As before, he regretted the manner in which he’d spoken to her, yet he knew there was nothing else to do. Before, his tone had been unintentional. This time not. For him, it would be simple. For her, it would not. If only he didn’t…care. Unable to draw away until he couldn’t see her anymore, he waited in frozen stillness until she pulled the door shut behind her, without a single backward glance in his direction, and then he sadly lowered his eyes to the battery in his hand.

He was not that man. And he never would be.

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