~Part 1~

Vincent awoke with a start, his eyes flying wide to stare with incomprehension at the undulating, amorphous shapes of the dark creatures swimming in the gloomy depths over his head. He narrowed his eyes in scrutiny, and the unidentifiable beasts resolved to shifting shadows, trapped within the confines of the heavy drapes of the bed. Breathed to life by the wild flicker of the flame that desperately fought its demise in a wash of melted wax on the burned down wick of the candle on the floor beside the bed.

Slowly, he sat up to swing his sock clad feet to the wooden floorboards, briefly raising the open book he still clutched in his metal fingers to stare unseeing at faded words superimposed on yellowed pages. Then he laid the book aside on the rumpled velvet bedspread, and for long moments, he sat slope-shouldered and stared mesmerized into the candle flame, his mind a dark vacuum until his thoughts fully awakened, and he recalled that he surely had business to attend and could not sit mindlessly on the edge of the bed forever.

With a heavy sigh of dejection, Vincent reached for one of his discarded boots, mentally chiding himself for falling asleep. He’d only meant to read for a while. Just to fill the long hours until Tifa would awaken, and the two of them could leave. Long hours in which he knew that his treacherous mind would seek to revisit matters he'd rather not dwell upon.

He’d completed his self-assigned tasks long ago. After all, there was only so much he could pack. Only so much they could carry. Still, he feared they would not have enough to sustain them or that he’d forgotten the one crucial item they might need to survive this ill-conceived endeavor. Dragging the boot over one foot, he wriggled his heel past the ankle guard and stamped the boot against the floor to settle his foot in. Then inertia took possession of him again, and he sat motionless for several minutes more, staring blankly into space, until he reminded himself to reach for his other boot.

With a rueful shake of his head, Vincent silently conceded that his decision to return to the airship quarters in which he’d discovered her the night before, captivated by her book and oblivious to his stealthy entranced approach, had been a poor idea. He'd come to seek refuge, after deeming it unnecessarily stressful to remain in the control room while she slept mere feet away, and after he'd grown weary of aimlessly drifting about the huge cavern like a lost wraith, but he'd not made his escape so cleanly.

Throughout the long hours, he had acquired and discarded several promising books before he'd found one with a storyline scintillating enough to put from his mind the bedeviling image of Tifa Lockhart lying in provocative repose on the candlelit tapestry draped bed. Even then, the scent of her yet lingered in the rich material of the bedspread, and every time he stirred, her familiar sweet scent rose above the ambient mustiness of the stuffy room to tease his nostrils and fill him with anxiety. Yet, it was with the essence of her all around him that he’d fallen asleep, to inevitably encounter her yet again within the disjointed cinema of his dreams, the content of which he could hardly recall beyond the memory of her taunting image.

Vincent could vaguely recollect a plot lifted whole cloth from the mystery novel he’d been reading. He’d been dressed in his Turk attire even though he appeared in his dream as he did now, his hair a wild mane and his arm a prosthetic. Lewis had been in there too, somewhere, concocted by his dreaming mind to fill the role of his literary counterpart as steadfast partner. Tifa. She’d run away from him for some forgotten reason, her eyes wide and frightened, and he’d chased after her. Through the dark, rain wet streets and narrow alleyways of Midgar. Knowing he had to find her first. Knowing he was out of time. Knowing that no matter how hard he ran he was destined to never save her. But still he'd run his heart out, the splat of his shoes hitting the pavement and splashing through the rain the only sound in an otherwise silent dream.

Vincent abruptly shoved his foot into his boot and stood, giving the boot a harder stamp against the floor than he’d meant to, the sharp clap of the heel against the wood resonating loudly in the quiet room. Impatiently, he tossed his hair out of his face with an irritable jerk of his head and headed toward the door. She’d probably been up for hours waiting for him, wondering at his languor after he’d arbitrarily informed her so vehemently of their imminent departure. His words cold and cutting. He’d wounded her.

At the memory of her stricken face, Vincent came to a halt in the middle of the room and painfully closed his eyes as a keen sense of shame overcame him. He had not intended to cause her pain nor did he wish to cause her more, but he didn’t know how to keep from it and still maintain his distance. No matter what course he chose, he was damned. And why was he thinking as though he had a choice? There was only one course he could take, and he was set on it. To the end. He was bound to do whatever it took to keep her safe from what danger might come their way. Even more, he was determined to keep her safe from himself. He well knew that he could act the coldest bastard ever to walk the planet no matter what a mess he might be inside. He’d done it for years after all. Still…he could hardly bear the thought of seeing the hurt in her eyes again.

Unconsciously, he shook his head in denial. He had to find other means. By necessity, the two of them would be together, each the shadow of the other, twenty-four hours a day. They couldn’t keep walking the entire time. Well, she couldn’t. Truthfully, he knew he couldn’t either. He needed a distraction. A buffer. Another layer of distance between them.

Thoughtfully, Vincent turned to look over his shoulder at the scattered pile of books he’d left on the bed. Purposefully, he retraced his steps and bent to gather a couple of books up into one arm. He examined the titles, and then reached for the novel he’d been reading. The story seemed an action-packed and overly melodramatic tale, but he’d been caught up in the plot.

Satisfied with his choices, he started to turn away, but paused when his gaze happened across a book on the floor at the end of the bed. Distinguished by the leathery texture of its cover as well as its larger dimensions and narrower spine, he recognized the book as the one Tifa had discarded on the end of the bed. Apparently, he’d inadvertently kicked it off in his slumber. Bending, he gathered that book up as well, sparing only a cursory glance to idly note the lack of a title on the cover. Incurious, he tucked the book behind the others he carried. Perhaps the book that had caught her attention once, or another of the ones he’d collected, would pique her interest enough that she would choose to fill the spaces in their travel with reading instead of idle and potentially troublesome conversation.

With the books clutched inside the crook of his mythril arm, Vincent bent to pick up the candle from the floor. With a quiet puff, he extinguished the flame and crossed to deposit the acridly smoldering candle on the scarred surface of the small writing desk. With a slight frown that barely disturbed his serene face, he purposefully turned to face the door, determined to set the wheels in motion. But for his undisciplined lapse, the two of them would have already been on their way.

A mere span of a few minutes later, he found himself standing at the foot of the metal stairway that led to the control room. Every ounce of his determination had vanished at sight of the closed door, and he now suffered from a complete lack of motivation to follow through on his plan to climb the steps and enter the room. His reluctance was fueled, not only by the silence from behind the door which indicated she might still be sleeping, but first and foremost by the bothersome memory of how she'd appeared in slumber when last he'd been inside the room, just before he'd fled. He intently studied the gunmetal gray door with knitted brow, completely inert, frowning in consternation, laboring to make a decision as the concept of time lost all meaning for him, his thoughts drifting like flotsam in his mind, and in the end he decided against waking her. She would need her rest for the journey after all, he reasoned. Besides, he still had a few things he could do, didn’t he?

Vincent turned and went down on one knee beside the packs he’d left near the stairway. Meticulously, he rearranged the contents of his own pack so that he could add the books. When he finished, he zipped the canvas backpack closed and stood to reach for the cloak he’d left draped across the railing. Carelessly, he dragged the heavy garment over his shoulders and loosely fastened a couple of buckles to hold it in place. That done, he looked around for the next task that awaited him only to discover that he didn’t have anything left to do. He started down his mentally stored checklist only to dismiss the activity only a few items in. He knew he had packed everything that he could imagine they might need. He’d checked, double-checked and triple-checked. He was done.

Restlessly, he stuffed his hands into his trouser pockets and started to pace. Again, he thought about waking her, only to discount that idea almost immediately. He would not disturb her, but bide his time until she would choose to seek him out. His fingers worried the contents of his pocket as he pondered the inane idea that she might decide not to come out at all. Ever. A ridiculous thought, as he knew she was more than ready to get the whole ordeal over with and put it behind her. Put him behind her. Well behind. He could hardly blame her.

Curious at the soft cloth he’d found to twist between his anxious fingers, he drew it from the depths of his trousers pockets only to rediscover his long lost bandana. He stared at it in wonder for a long moment until he remembered how it had come to be there. His throat tightened at the memory. He’d stuffed the long wet strip of cloth into his pocket after washing Tifa’s blood from the material in the rain puddle in the cave entrance mere days before. Though it seemed like weeks rather than days. Months even.

Sitting down on a lower step of the metal stairs, Vincent smoothed the bandana across his knees, untwisting the rumpled material to lay it out flat. Then he took the bandana up in hand and claw, and bending his head down to let his thick hair fall down between his knees, he deftly wound the crimson strip of cloth about his head and tied it off at the back, uncaring that he’d caught up several strands in the knot. When he’d finished, he straightened to shake his hair back into place, and then he twisted around on the step to peer up at the uncooperative door above. His gaze intensified into a glare, as though he could will her through the door and onto the landing. Unfortunately, he found the strength of his will lost on Tifa Lockhart. Not for the first time either.

Surrendering to the inevitability of a wait, Vincent finally relinquished his vigil of the door and leaned out to drag his pack close to his feet. Retrieving the book that he’d been reading before he fell asleep, he gingerly leafed through the brittle pages until he found the place in the story where he’d left off. After several false starts, the tale finally engulfed his mind wholly, and he settled down with his arms propped on his bent knees to read in earnest. Soon he was lost in the action between the hero and the satisfyingly heinous villain. He had to admit the story seemed a bit cliché, but comforting in its familiarity. After awhile, he shifted the book to the custody of his metal talons, and his fingers drifted into the fathomless pocket inside his cloak. Absently, he worked the foil from a chocolate with two fingers and lifted the candy to his mouth. Then he resettled the book into both hands and read on, his eyelids drifting halfway down as the sweet chocolate melted against his tongue.

Tifa Lockhart presumably slept on behind the door, forgotten by Vincent Valentine as he read the book, except perhaps for the tendency of the beautiful young woman in the book to take on the familiar features of the one for whom he waited, a matter which hardly disturbed him as he let the prose fill the empty spaces of his protracted wait.

Will this madness ever end?

Tifa clutched her arms tighter around her body and clenched her jaw in a vain attempt to stop her teeth chattering. Standing almost knee deep in snow, she turned disheartened eyes to inspect the deep trail she’d left behind her; a trail that meandered drunkenly away, growing ever narrower and more faint until it diminished into a single, barely visible thread before vanishing completely over the distant horizon at the crest of a slope she realized that she must have been trudging down for hours. For so long she couldn’t even remember how long. For forever.

She had no idea how she’d come to be in that place. Or when. Surely her friends were looking for her. They had to be. Because that was the nature of her friends. To look out for her. To be there for her. Surely they would find her. Unless…they didn’t know where to look. She should have stayed put. Where they’d left her. And where had that been again?

A distant ululation touched her ears. A cry so forlorn and lost that an ache rose in her heart even as ice rushed through her veins. Only a bandersnatch would sound like that in these northern climes. And bandersnatches did not travel alone. She knew very well that a pack of hungry bandersnatches would not hesitate to take her down, and she knew she’d best be thinking about moving on more quickly, before they discovered her presence here. Another howl rose into the brittle silence. This time, from somewhere behind her. From a place beyond the distant rise where the pristine white blanket of sparkling snow met the dull gray of the overcast sky.

She squinted her eyes at the faraway join of sky and snow, hoping to catch a glimpse of the beast to see from what direction it might come for her, at the same time praying that the beast would not see her nor she it. She mentally bade the bandersnatch to travel in the opposite direction from where she now stood shivering in the cold. A pointless endeavor it would seem. Even as she scanned the horizon pensively, a third howl rose into the frigid air from somewhere to her right, this cry full of excitement and purpose. She whipped her head around to face a copse of dead, snow-frosted trees, her frozen hands unconsciously curling into fists and lifting into battle position even as her heart leapt into her throat at the mind-jolting chorus of answering canine yips and howls that rose from all around her.

Nearly falling in the knee-deep snow as she instinctively whirled to face the threat, her chilled breath caught painfully in her throat at sight of the black coated beasts now seemingly emboldened by their growing numbers to show themselves, virtually slipping from the shadows of the spindly trees and gentle snowdrifts to stalk her, glowing feral eyes of ruby red focused on her as they slipped easily toward her atop the snow crust on crouched legs with bellies low to the icy ground.

There were dozens of them. Too many to fight alone, she knew. Now, her tortured breath labored in ragged gasps to pass the tight constricture of her throat as she fought back the panic that pushed insistently at the edges of her mind. Surrendering to the futility of the battle and her fear, she dropped her fists and turned to run, lifting her head to frantically search the dismal skies for a sign of the Highwind, ears attuned for the first hint of the mighty roar of the great jets. Where were her friends? Why didn’t they come? Why didn’t Cloud come? How had she gotten so lost? She couldn’t even remember when she’d last seen him. Or how long it had been.

With great leaping bounds, she lunged laboriously through the drifts, struggling to gain the crest of the slope she’d spent so long descending. The slavering bandersnatches loped easily across the snow, appearing much larger and darker than she could ever remember seeing them before, yipping joyfully as they swiftly converged from every direction but for the one in which she ran. Somehow she imagined that if she could only make it to the top before they took her down, then she could make a stand. She might have a chance. About as much chance as an icicle bathed in the wash of a dragon’s fiery breath, but still a chance.

That meager shred of hope flew beyond her grasp at the mournful ululation that sounded from somewhere far up the path of footprint-savaged snow before her. How could she have forgotten about that one? The bandersnatch from beyond the horizon. The bandersnatch that had crested the rise to follow her scent. The bandersnatch that had now fallen into a lope down the track to close her in the trap. Despair sapped the breath from her lungs and the strength from her body. Her legs folded bonelessly beneath her, and she sank hopelessly to her hands and knees in the freezing snow, raising dulled eyes to meet the oncoming bringer of her death with teeth chattering wildly from cold and fear. Fully expecting to see the huge black bandersnatch standing on the track before her, fur bristling stiffly along it’s spine, gleaming hungry eyes intently focused on her quivering form with strings of ropy drool dangling from bared teeth eager to sink into her numb limbs, her mind went momentarily blank at the sight her eyes beheld instead.

He stood tall, a mere dozen feet away, his darkly clad form delineated sharply against the backdrop of frozen snow, the scarlet cloak he’d drawn tightly about his body a gash of violent color against the pureness of the white drifts. He’d shifted most of his weight to one leg so that he could rest one golden mythril-plated boot lightly against the heaving ribcage of the softly panting bandersnatch that lay on its side at his feet.

“Vincent!” she gasped in a hoarse whisper as she pushed herself to her feet to stand swaying in the snow. When had she grown so weak? She was a warrior. Not some wilting female that needed rescuing at every turn. Yet some unknown circumstance had brought her to the point that she knew she needed him now.

He stood motionless as though sculpted from ice, just another feature of the breathtakingly frigid and lifeless landscape. Obviously he’d not heard her tortured whisper. A surprise, as she well knew the man could hear words on the very breath of the wind. He certainly had heard more from her lips than she’d ever meant him to hear. Knew more than she’d ever meant him to know.

She took a step toward him, and his head instantly lifted at the movement. Tifa froze into startled immobility at sight of the crimson eyes glittering in the pale face, stabbing into her own wide, troubled eyes, the bloody irises as hot and feral as any she might find in the face of a ravenous bandersnatch.

“Vincent?” she mouthed silently as one hand drifted unconsciously to her throat. What on earth was the matter with him? She bade herself to look away even as she found herself inexorably drawn into the depths of his relentless gaze. She was incapable of breaking contact, and he seemed unwilling. Helplessly, she pressed another step forward through the snow, and the elegant wings of his ebony eyebrows flew together in a tight frown that barely deranged the smooth planes of his face. Abruptly, he removed his foot from the submissive bandersnatch and whirled in the path to stride away from her, releasing his cloak to the wind as he turned. Alarmed that he planned to leave her, she leapt after him, only to slam to a halt when the freed bandersnatch sprang to all fours in her path, curling back his lips to bare sharp fangs at her in a warning snarl.

She instantly brought her fists to bear, instinctively falling into her fighter’s stance, but the bandersnatch merely yipped once and turned to lope away across the top of the snow in the wake of the departing man who strode with purpose up the slope.

A movement in the periphery of her vision brought her head jerking around to find that a bandersnatch had crept to her side while she’d been distracted by Vincent. Her fists coming up again, she spun in place to confront this new threat, but the beast merely bolted into motion and flew past her. She might as well not have been standing there for all the interest the creature paid her. Incredulous at the sight, she slowly blinked as more bandersnatches trotted across the snow, each one falling into a run as it passed her. An anxious yip behind her brought her stumbling around in the other direction, only to find a stream of bandersnatches loping past her on that side as well.

In fact, she now found herself to be little more than a tiny island in the confluence of a black river of bandersnatches pouring around her to flow up the gentle rise. Reverently, she raised her eyes to seek out the man who led them. He ran now, racing swiftly across the surface of the snow-packed ground, his crimson cloak unfurled to fly out behind him, the ebony tresses lifted on the wind of his flight, the sea of black bandersnatches rapidly closing in on him as he bade them follow. Or were they giving chase? Exchanging one prey for another? A sacrifice for her?

“My, what a magnificent man! Is he yours?”

She almost fell into the snow again as she whirled around in astonishment to face the owner of the feminine voice, only to discover the identity of the person indiscernable beneath the white hooded cloak that covered her body from head to toe and hid her face in the shadows of the deeply cowled hood. Still, the voice seemed familiar…

“What did you say?” Tifa asked warily.

“That man. Is he yours?”

“…Mine?” A hint of bewilderment touched her voice.

The pink parasol in the cloaked woman’s hand lifted to point in the direction of the running man. “You know…is he your old man?”

Tifa stared in incomprehension. “My…old man?”

“Yeah, you know. Your hubby. Or maybe…your lover?”

Tifa’s brown eyes flew wide at the impertinence of the question. “Of course not!” she exclaimed indignantly. “Besides, that’s a pretty nosy thing to ask me!” She tried to glare into the fathomless depths of the white hood even as she inwardly cringed at the familiar sensation of her cheeks filling with hot blood at her embarrassment.

The hooded head nodded slowly. “You are right,” the melodic voice replied cheerfully. “And I’m sorry.”

Brown eyes set in a rosy face glared at the lack of any sign of regret in the light female voice. “Oh…really…” Tifa queried with more than a hint of sarcasm.

A tinkle of laughter came from inside the hood. “Well, I admit…I do have a tendency to nosiness and a weakness for romance, but I’d have to say that you are mostly to blame.”

Tifa’s dark brows flew upward as she jabbed a finger at her own chest. “Me?! I’m to blame?!” A keen sense of outrage filled her. How could she be to blame for this woman’s bad manners?

“Surely, you are.” The hooded head gave a definite nod of assertion. “This is your dream after all. If he looked at you as a lover would, then you are the one that dreamed it so.”

Her mouth opened to retort, but the breath to drive her words caught up in her choked throat.

“Sadly, that is the problem with dropping into people’s dreams…” the mysterious woman remarked ruefully. “One cannot know what is real and what is emotion, what is truth and what is desire…”

Tifa’s jaw fell ajar then, and she gasped in the breath needed to reanimate her voice. “You are crazy!” she exclaimed in awe. Her hands flew to her hips. “Who invited you anyway?! Who are you?!”

The woman lifted a slender hand and tossed back the hood to reveal the thick swirls of her loosened chestnut hair. She smiled encouragingly into the startled brown eyes. “You did invite me.” She tilted her head quizzically. “The first time, anyway. Or I don’t know if I could have found you.” Her smile turned sweet beneath the sparkling eyes. “At least you seem to be feeling better now.”

“Better?” A fine sense of unreality swept through her. It wasn’t the identity of the woman beneath the hood that had her off balance. She’d known the woman was Aeris all along, hadn’t she? But the things Aeris kept saying were…bizarre. But then, she was stuck inside a dream. She could just wake up and end all the nonsense, she supposed. If she knew how.

“Yes, you were very sick when I saw you last.” The smile faded a few degrees and the green eyes turned puzzled. “But then…that time seemed more a…vision…than a dream…”

“I don’t know what in the name of Shiva you are talking about,” Tifa replied with an edge of frustration in her voice.

“Hmm…maybe I don’t either. Never mind about that.” Aeris dismissively waved a hand. “I just want to know one thing.”

“And what would that be?” Tifa crossed her arms around her waist protectively. She wasn’t sure she’d like the question in light of the flower girl’s previous questions.

“Is he…real?”

One dark chocolate eyebrow went up. “Is who real?”

The pink parasol lifted again, its tip pointed toward the slope. “Your man. Is he real? Or did you conjure him inside your dream?”

The brown eyes widened in surprise again. “You mean Vincent? You of all people should know he’s real,” she replied in amazement. “You’re the one that pleaded with Cloud to follow the instructions on the note and take the time to free him. Don’t you remember?”

The green eyes turned thoughtful. “So that’s…Vin…cent…”

Tifa studied the intrigued face with disgruntlement. “And for the record, once again, Vincent is not my old man or…or anything else.”


“Yes, really!”

Aeris’s distant gaze sharpened on Tifa’s earnest face. “Perhaps I should seek him out.”

“What? Who?” The brown eyes turned suspicious.

“Vincent, of course.”

Tifa opened her mouth to protest, but she didn’t know quite sure why.

A smug smile curved the flower girl’s lips. “That bothers you?”

“…of course…not…” she stammered uncertainly. “I…I…j…just don't know why you’d want to…”

Aeris shrugged nonchalantly. “Curiosity I suppose. To see who he is.” Her smile took on a hint of mischief. “To see if he dreams of you the way you dream of him.”

Tifa huffed in disdain. “I don’t know where you get your crazy notions. He was obviously annoyed at me just now. He was frowning. He looked pretty pissed off to me. Didn’t you notice?”

“I suppose it’s just how you look at it,” Aeris replied carelessly.

“Besides, I think he’s annoyed at me most of the time anyway.” She wrinkled her brow in thought. “Come to think of it, he’s been pretty annoying himself…”

“I see.”

Oblivious to the smirk on the flower girl’s face, Tifa thought about her memory of the bore of a pistol pointed at her face. “I don’t think you’d find Vincent’s dreams such a pleasant place to visit…” she mused aloud.

“I don’t find your dreams so pleasant a place to visit,” Aeris chided. “Hungry bandersnatches. Snow and ice. Gray overcast sky. Dead trees. With one exception, your dream has been fairly dismal. Flowers would be so much better.” Aeris gaily waved her hand, and Tifa gaped around as blossoms of every color filled the snowy landscape around them. “Butterflies would be nice too…” Aeris idly remarked, adding colorful butterflies to the scene with an offhand flick of her fingers. “Don’t you think?”

“I…think…” Awestruck, Tifa reached out to stroke the velvety petal of a scarlet Melodia with a careful finger. “…They are beautiful…” she breathed. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen one of the delicate flowers native to the Mt. Nibel area where she’d spent her childhood.

“I lied before,” Aeris suddenly proclaimed. “There is one other thing I would like to know.”

Tifa looked up curiously from the flower. “What is that?”

“I want to know your name.” The green eyes settled intently on her face.

“You don’t know my name?” Tifa queried sharply in surprise. “How can you not know my name? Don’t you remember me?”

“Um…not really…no. My memory is a bit sketchy, in case you hadn't noticed.”

“Well…er…my name is Tifa. Tifa…Lockhart.” She frowned at the strangeness of the idea that Aeris had lost her from her memory and had to be reminded of her identity.

Aeris smiled happily. “Yes, that seems right. A lovely name for a lovely person. And your man?” The tip of the parasol lifted toward the horizon again. “What is his name?”

Tifa found herself blushing again. “He’s not my…” Her voice trailed away. She could see in the flower girl’s dancing eyes that she was wasting her breath. Aeris was not going to graciously accept her denial no matter how true. She seemed to be getting too much amusement from Tifa’s embarrassment. Aeris possessed a teasing nature anyway, as she well knew. “I told you…Vincent…”

“Vincent…what?” Aeris persisted.

“Vincent Valentine,” Tifa sighed wearily.

Aeris nodded her head once. “Yes! That seems exactly right!”

“That’s because it is exactly right,” Tifa replied with a frown.

Suddenly, the flower girl’s eyes shot upward, and the playful smile ebbed from her lips. “He watches you,” she said solemnly.

“Who?” Tifa half-turned to look where Aeris stared, only to find the ominous shadow of the Shinra Mansion looming over her, the darkness stealing the glorious color from the bank of Melodias that lined the stone wall. When had she arrived in Nibelheim? A chilly finger traced the length of her spine.

“There…” Aeris pointed with a frown of concern. “How odd…” All hint of mirth had left the flower girl’s tone.

Tifa found the third floor window that Aeris indicated, and she immediately recognized the pale face framed in the open window. The golden claw that lifted the curtain away. The unblinking crimson eyes that peered down at her dispassionately.

“It’s just…Vincent,” Tifa said slowly. She couldn’t imagine why Aeris would suddenly find his watching her ominous when she’d been razzing her all along about Vincent being her man. She would think the event of Vincent watching her would fit right in with Aeris’s ridiculous scenario.

Aeris turned her gaze inward as she settled into deep thought, her lips pursed as she worked to find the answer she sought.

Tifa found herself unable to draw her gaze from the window, her eyes captured by a new and strange intensity in Vincent’s, evident even at this distance.

“Weird…” Aeris murmured. “This doesn’t seem to be an invention of your dream…and certainly not an element of mine…”

“What do you mean?” Tifa asked absently.

“An event perhaps?” She shifted her eyes to Tifa’s face. “Something from the past? A memory?”

Tifa slowly shook her head. “Well…I’ve never seen Vincent standing in a window inside the Shinra Mansion.”

Aeris pressed a finger to her lip as she returned to her thoughts. “Did I?”

The golden claw released the curtain, and the material fell across the window to hide Vincent’s face from her view. She gaped in disappointment at the curtain billowing in the breeze from the open window. Vaguely aware that Aeris had asked her a question, she finally forced her eyes to the flower girl’s face. “What?”

“Did I ever see Vincent in the Shinra Mansion?”

“Well, yeah. But not from outside. Not in the window. You all came out together. Mostly. And then we left town. Why?”

“Is it possible…” Aeris paused in thought.

“Is what possible?”

She waved her hand dismissively. “Ah nothing. I thought for a moment that we might be viewing a…nah…not possible…” She shook her head.

Intrigued, Tifa pressed her further. “Viewing what? What?”

Aeris shook her head again, with more uncertainty this time. “I thought maybe this might be something from…the future… but I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever…done that before…although it seemed like once…I might have…but my thoughts…they are so…scrambled.” The flower girl lifted a hand to rub her troubled brow.

Tifa gaped at her for a long moment, and then she threw out her arms in despair. “Come on, it’s just a dream,” she exclaimed. “It’s part of the dream. You’re part of the dream. I’ll wake up and you’ll be gone.” She snapped her fingers. “Just like that.”

Aeris nodded slowly. “You‘re right.” Then her eyes brightened as an idea occurred to her. “Before you wake up and disappear me into oblivion though, tell me…do you know my name?”

“Well, of course I know your name. We’re friends, after all.” Despite Cloud. “Best friends, I’d like to think.”

“Will you tell me then?”

Tifa eyed her uneasily. She’d forgotten her own name too? Had she hit her head? Suddenly Tifa wanted to laugh. And cry. Aeris had done more than hit her head. Aeris was dead.

“Tell me quickly,” Aeris urged anxiously.

Tifa’s mouth worked in silence for a moment before she could get any words to pass her lips. “I…well…yes…your name…it’s…”

The ear-piercing screech tore apart the fabric of the morning air and cut off Tifa’s words. An ominous shadow swept over Tifa’s head and across the ground beyond her feet. She shot a startled glance upward just in time to see a great white bird diving toward her with talons outstretched. Reflexively, Tifa ducked away, a sharp intake of breath catching in her throat even as the bird drifted over her head to land on the flower girl’s outstretched arm. Tifa slowly rose to her full height to eye the bird with apprehension. The creature, behaving with much more tameness then his appearance would suggest, jumped to the girl’s shoulder and hunched its feathered body to bury its hooked beak in the chestnut hair. Aeris lowered her lashes and tilted her head against the bird’s beak, as though the bird spoke and she raptly listened.

“I’m not ready, Angel…” Aeris murmured sadly after long moments of silence. Despite her words, she nodded in reluctant acquiescence, and the bird took flight toward the Shinra Mansion.

Enthralled at the exchange, Tifa raised awestruck eyes to follow the bird’s path toward the foreboding structure only to find an endless vista of roiling clouds instead. A blast of icy wind tore her hair from her face and instantly froze her skin to numbness, setting her back on her heels with its force.

Bewildered, Tifa braced herself against the freezing gale and brought her eyes around to her friend’s face, only to find that she wasn’t there anymore. She wheeled around to find the flower girl standing at the very edge of a high shelf of rock, leaning out over the rim to peer beyond her feet, her cloak ripped away from her slender frame, her whole body seemingly held in place against the force of gravity only by the equally powerful drive of the wind. Alarmed, Tifa ran out onto the narrow rock to drag Aeris back from the edge, completely forgetting that her friend was already dead and most likely could not die again.

Tifa gripped the reckless girl’s elbow in frantic fingers and would have tugged her back, but Aeris pinned serious emerald eyes on her face at just that moment. “It isn’t over, Tifa,” Aeris proclaimed, her low voice ominously clear despite the tortured howl of the wind around the precipice behind her.

“What are you talking about?” Tifa shouted tensely, but the wind tore the words from her lips. Still, Aeris heard her anyway.

Aeris heaved a great sigh of weariness and lifted her arm to point a finger into the distance. “Look carefully. Out there…beyond the sea…that is where it will all end.”

Tifa stared into the distance, where a tempestuous sea smoothed to glassy stillness before slipping into the featureless gray of the heavily overcast sky at the boundary of the faraway horizon.

Tifa tightened her fingers around her friend’s elbow. “What do you mean?” she demanded anxiously. “What will end?”

Sorrow filled wide emerald eyes. “Life. The Planet. Everything.”

“Everything?” Tifa exclaimed in frustration. “Didn’t we go through this once already?”

“It isn’t over,” Aeris persisted. “There is another that seeks the power of destruction.”

“Who?” Tifa persisted. “Who is it?”

The great bird’s screech rose above the wind as he settled to the flower girl’s shoulder once again. Aeris sadly closed her eyes and turned away. Tifa refused to release Aeris, and the flower girl shook her head in despair. “I don’t know,” she admitted. Then, with a mighty tug, she jerked her arm free of Tifa’s grasp. With a lift of her chin, she leveled an imperious gaze on Tifa’s face. “Regain your strength, Tifa Lockhart. Be strong. Be ready. Your skill will be demanded. Your will tested. Hold that knowledge to your heart. The time will come.”

Tifa opened her mouth to demand more answers, particularly in regard to the identity of the entity that spoke through her friend because she knew damn well it wasn’t Aeris Gainsborough alone, not with that stilted speech, but before she could get out a single word, a blast of wind hit her with a force so strong that she was nearly thrown from her feet. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut against the airborne particulate that drove against her face on the fingers of the whirlwind that took her in its grasp. She fell to one knee and buried her face in her hands until the wind finally eased.

When she could finally look around, she found herself back where she’d started, standing knee deep in snow. Aeris was nowhere in sight. Nor a single bandersnatch. No Vincent Valentine either. Just herself and miles of endless snow and lifeless trees. Even her tracks had disappeared so that she didn’t know where she’d been. Already, the below freezing wind bit through her thin clothing, driving sharp ice-tipped fingernails into her exposed skin, raising prickly goosebumps on her arms and again setting her teeth achatter.

Inevitably, the howls rose around her, from beneath the snow, from the very air. She looked wildly around as oily shadows crept across the crisp white snow and oozed into dark menacing shapes. She’d been wrong on that score. She wasn’t alone in the farflung icy wilderness. The bandersnatches were there with her. They’d come back, and they’d come with reinforcements. She straightened her back in resolve and raised her fists before her, forcibly tamping down her fear as she watched the mass of black furred bodies pour like an ocean wave across the snow. If they wanted to eat her, they’d have to fight for her.

As though the smooth course of time stuttered, the bandersnatches were suddenly there. Right in front of her. Mere feet away. Snarling. Crimson eyes glittering with malice. She gritted her teeth to stop the chattering and raised her fists as the beasts at the leading edge of the pack leapt for her. She had only a second or two to acknowledge that the battle would be brief before they were on her, knocking her flat to the snow, slavering teeth diving toward her throat, completely undeterred by her screams…

Tifa’s eyes snapped open, and she stared wide-eyed at the dingy wall for a full minute before the remnants of the dream seeped completely away to release her to the realization of her surroundings. With a snort of disgust, she uncurled herself from the fetal position she’d locked herself into and rolled to the edge of the narrow bed to sit up and gingerly plant her bare feet on the frigid floor. The touch of the cold concrete drew a shiver from her already chilled body, and she wrapped her arms tightly around her body to stave off the cool temperature in the room as she licked her cracked lips and tried to work some saliva into her mouth, the inside of which had probably been rendered bone dry by sleeping with it wide open.

“What a stupid dream…” she murmured to herself.

With a rueful grimace, she had to admit that the whole thing was her own fault. She’d been restless after her strange encounter with Vincent in the captain’s quarters of the broken airship, unable to sleep and unwilling to leave the control room to seek the cranky man’s company. So she had paced and piddled. Fussed with the radio. Played with the surveillance system, during which time she dedicated several minutes to making faces at the monitor screen that depicted Mr. Valentine working hard to pack before his arbitrarily imposed deadline.

The whole while, she’d eaten entirely too many cereal bars, after which she’d forced herself to move through a routine of her long neglected exercises, finding herself woefully out of condition as she’d worked herself into such a sweat that she’d sought out the room thermostat and set the temperature way too low. On top of that, she’d stripped down to the overlong black t-shirt and stretched out on the thin mattress to contemplate the ceiling with the full intention of turning the thermostat back up and taking a shower before she fell asleep. But of course, she hadn’t. She’d fallen asleep on top of the blankets in the thin t-shirt and froze her butt off all night.

Her fault all right. Too many cereal bars weighing on her stomach transformed to ravenous black bandersnatches and too much cold air converted to the snowy climes of the Northern Continent. And the thing with Vincent…bandersnatches with Vincent eyes. Vincent with bandersnatch eyes. Well…that was easy. She was still unsettled by his behavior the night before. Worried about how he’d be when she awoke. And Aeris, she simply could not explain. That had been weird indeed. Except that she sorely missed her company. Especially now, when she really wished for someone who would carry on a simple conversation with her. She and Aeris had spent many a night talking into the wee hours, and she missed that. Maybe that’s why her dreaming mind had invoked her. Still, the dream had been weird in some fashion that she could not quite put a finger on. That last part had been…disquieting…

With a befuddled shake of her head, she shrugged her mind out of its dull reverie and rose to her feet. Dragging a blanket from the rumpled bed, she wrapped herself in the warm material and dashed across the room to the control panel to readjust the climate control. Despite her deep desire to turn the thermostat to heat, she resisted and set it back to its previous level. Then she turned to scan the room with lips pursed as she tried to decide if she wanted to devour more cereal bars first or take a shower first. Until the decision process was rendered moot when her eyes fell on the spotless and completely bare slate tabletop.

The blanket slipped forgotten from boneless fingers as she slowly walked to the table and stared at the unencumbered tabletop for a several seconds before she inanely peered beneath it at the bare concrete floor below. Catching her lower lip between her teeth in concern, she strode to the bathroom door to brace herself in the doorway with hands wrapped tightly around the wooden frame as she studied the empty bathroom, now bereft of any sign of her belongings. At that point, she could reach only one inescapable conclusion. Vincent had come while she was sleeping and cleaned out the place.

A sudden burst of panic filled her mind at her instant and unreasoned conclusion that Vincent must have left without her. The man had just turned tail and blew on out of there without her bothersome person to encumber him. The panic lit a bonfire beneath her, and she dashed to open the door, wildly yanking on the knob before she had completely turned it to disengage the tumblers. Finally, she managed to fling the door wide, and she darted through only to stumble to a startled halt at the head of the metal staircase when she spotted Vincent at the foot of the stairs. Breathlessly, Tifa watched as he slowly rose from his seat on the third riser from the bottom and turned on heel to face her, his reluctance evident in his ponderous movements, though she hardly noticed.

Her mouth hanging ajar, she gaped at him speechlessly, her utter relief nakedly displayed on her face as she drank in every detail of his appearance, her gratitude at his presence there springing from a bottomless well. She absently noted, in her eager perusal, that Vincent had bound his hair once again in the crimson strip of cloth that he customarily tied about his head, and that he had donned the heavy cloak that he’d previously left draped on the back of the chair in the control room. Although he hadn’t fastened the straps that held the high cowl in place over his lower face, opting instead to buckle only the first two straps across his chest to leave the cowl folded against his shoulders and back like a wide collar.

So busy was she on studying his altered attire that she completely missed the moment he finally raised his crimson eyes to look at her directly, and the next moment when those eyes slid helplessly downward to widen almost imperceptibly on the long length of her bare legs exposed below the hem of the hip length t-shirt, and the next moment when he discreetly averted his eyes, so that when her eager gaze finally stilled on his face, she found him peering steadily at the featureless wall to the right of the stairs. As though he sensed the weight of her rapt stare, he tightly crossed his arms over his chest and spoke in a chilly monotone. “When you are ready, we will go.”

It was the sound of the coolly clipped syllables of his statement that finally knocked her from her trance. At the same time, she remembered her scanty attire, completely forgotten in her panic fueled dash for the door, and inevitably the blood rushed hotly into her face. “Uh…yeah…I’ll be…r…ready in just a minute…okay…I’ll just be a minute…Vincent…seconds…really…right away…in fact…” she stammered out her scrambling thoughts as she rapidly backpedaled until she’d managed to put herself behind the door and shut it into the frame with a solid whoosh of air. In the next second, she’d dragged it back open far enough to peer one-eyed around the edge, only to find him standing in exactly the same position. “Um…you’ll wait for me…right?” she asked anxiously. He tightly nodded his head, not drawing his eyes from the intriguing wall on which he’d focused the whole of his attention.

After she closed the door the second time, he allowed a couple of minutes to tick past before he finally let his arms fall limply to his sides. Surrendering to the weakness that had taken his limbs, he again dropped to his previous seat, resettling his weight on the third riser from the bottom to patiently await the return of a fully clothed Tifa Lockhart, his mind wholly occupied with the detailed picture of the memory of her standing there in the black military t-shirt at the top of the stairs with her loosened chocolate tresses falling haphazardly over her shoulders and down her back to drift against her bare thighs. Convulsively, he buried his face in his hand with a soft groan and shook his head in despair. How much could one man withstand?

His mouth twitched as the tiniest smile niggled at the very corners of his mouth in wry amusement at the whole situation. But in the next instant, when he suddenly recalled how far down that forbidden road his thoughts had traveled just the night before, he mentally brought himself up short and forced his face into a stern mask as he silently berated himself for his lapse. He would withstand as much as was required of him, and he would not relax his resolve. He could not let down his guard for a moment, no matter how disarming she managed to be. He would stick to his self-defined program. He would deliver her to Kalm forthwith, and then he would head for the hills and points beyond to disappear into a self-imposed isolation. And he would not concede that such a move would be driven by cowardice, but merely by self-preservation. He would be a fool to believe he could ever possess that which she only wished to offer Cloud Strife. Therefore he would not allow himself to entertain any like idea. Nor would he remain in Kalm long enough to witness what would no doubt be a joyful reunion. Unless Cloud Strife turned out to be a bigger fool than he could prove himself to be. If he wasn’t vigilant...

Tifa let her head fall back against the door she’d just closed with a muted thump. What was the matter with her? She knew Vincent wouldn’t leave her. He might ignore her, but he wouldn’t leave her behind. He might be annoyed at her, but he still wouldn’t leave her. She knew that by now didn’t she? He’d never left anyone behind if he could help it. Not in all the time she’d known him. So why would he start with her? He wouldn’t. She knew that. Why then did she go running out there like a little lost girl who’d found herself deserted in a long empty store aisle certain that her parents had abandoned her for asking for a candy bar one too many times? The idea of Vincent leaving her had been just as unreasonable and terrifying. But that sort of thinking belonged to six-year-old girls, not to a grown woman with years of martial arts training and discipline. Bemoaning the departure of her good sense where Vincent was concerned, she dug both hands into her hair in despair, and then she flung herself across the room and snatched the black military trousers from where she’d tossed them across the end of the bed.

Dragging the trousers on one leg at a time, she silently chided herself for allowing herself to lapse into such a state of stammering embarrassment at the condition of dress in which she’d presented herself to him. It wasn’t like she usually wore much more than that most times anyway. Well, her skirt was a few inches longer but still…it wasn’t like he hadn’t been rambling around the room gathering up stuff while she slept on top of the covers in the blasted t-shirt, her mouth probably agape like a goldfish. She’d probably been snoring on top of that. It was truly a wonder that he hadn’t stopped to neatly fold her trousers and socks and perfectly align her shoes beneath the bed. She hadn’t failed to notice the facet of meticulousness in his personality that he’d evidenced by his neatnik behavior the previous day. And it wasn’t like he hadn’t seen even more of her anyway. Then she reminded herself that she wasn’t going to think about that again. She didn’t know for sure anyway. She had only conjecture really, and she wasn’t about to ask him for clarification. Why did she suddenly come over all suddenly modest over a t-shirt that covered more than her normal attire? Because the damn man was messing with her mind, that’s why. Damn it all anyway.

Tifa drew her suspenders over her shoulders and fastened each one at her waist, unconsciously giving them a tug to settle them in place. What had that been on the airship last night anyway? It almost seemed like he’d been stalking her. Not saying a word. Not announcing his arrival with so much as a ‘boo’. Just slipping silently across the room. What had he planned to do if he hadn’t inadvertently alerted her to his presence? He didn’t seem the sort to play pranks, so what had that all been about? The answer yet eluded her despite a long contemplation on the question the night before. The answer was probably quite simple. He’d probably meant to strangle her for making him look for her. That’s probably what that had all been about. She smiled widely at that thought as she snatched her crumpled socks up from the floor and dropped to the edge of the bed to tug them on. Of course, she didn’t believe any such thing. Although Vincent could appear pretty damned intimidating at times, she wasn’t afraid of him.

She decided then and there that whatever the source of his problem, Vincent Valentine would just have to get over himself. That’s all. She was in no frame of mind to humor his foul moods, and she did not intend to waste another moment of her time doing so.

Her socks on, Tifa bent to retrieve a boot, dragging it on and stamping the sole firmly against the floor to settle her foot inside. Deftly, she tightened the laces and tied a neat double bow. Then she reached for her other boot, but it was nowhere to be seen. Vaguely, she remembered kicking the loosened boots off in the general direction of the bed, so she supposed the other was under the bed. Dropping to her knees, she peered into the shadowy depths of the space beneath and easily spied the dark lump of her boot, but as she reached for it, her eyes were captured by a brief flash of light in the corner of her eye. Gone just as quickly as it had erupted. Curious, she shifted her gaze and her breath stilled when her eyes settled on the rock. She studied it in consternation as the seconds ticked past. She remembered how Vincent had kicked the rock beneath the bed only yesterday, and how it had ricocheted against the cinderblock wall, apparently to rebound to the spot where she now found it, within easy reach of her hand, closer to her fingertips than her discarded boot.

Tentatively, she reached for the rock, pausing with her fingertips just short of touching it. Then, very carefully, she pressed the very tip of her index finger against the cool surface of the stone. A ripple of light spread out from the point of contact. Pensively, Tifa drew her hand away, only to compulsively touch two fingers to the stone. A delighted smile touched her lips as two circles of light formed around her fingers, one blue and one pink, converging and rippling beneath the surface of the stone. Finally, she surrendered to its thrall and gathered the stone into the palm of her hand. Sitting back on her heels, she let it rest there as she waited to see what would happen. Distantly, she recognized that she was making of herself a guinea pig, but in one part of her mind she had made the argument, and won, that the rock had not harmed her until Vincent had touched it. In fact, it hadn’t harmed either of them until they both had touched it. Obviously he’d been the catalyst to whatever had happened. Even he had acknowledged that. So if she didn’t let him touch it, she could keep it. And she wanted to keep it. She wanted to show it to Red, if she found Red again. She knew she would find Red again though. And Cloud. She would find them all. Because they all had made it through the storm. She could entertain no other possibility. She simply would not consider the alternative. So they were fine and dandy. And Red might even know what the stone could be.

Her mind made up, she shoved the stone into her pocket and reached beneath the bed to drag out the second boot. Yet, as she worked the boot onto her foot, she found herself troubled by her conscience. The stone had hurt Vincent badly, and she could not let that happen again. She’d thought at the time that stone might kill him, and under a repeat of the same circumstances, it very well might succeed. She couldn’t bear it if she were responsible for such an event. Just the thought of witnessing Vincent in that kind of agony again made her stomach queasy. She held no doubt in her mind that if Vincent knew she’d kept the stone, he would be very disturbed over the matter. He might even become quite angry. So it was settled. She couldn’t risk Vincent’s life over mere fascination on her part. She would leave it.

Acting on her decision to do the right thing, she stood up and withdrew the rock from her pocket. With a determined stride, she crossed the room to the cabinet and jerked open a drawer. With a little sigh, she reluctantly deposited the rock in the bottom of the drawer and started to slide it shut, but a soft glow emanated from the rock and bathed the interior of the drawer in a soft blue color. Tifa paused with the drawer a mere two inches from settling it flush against the cabinet and stared as the blue deepened to purple and then shifted to a pale lemon, and then to a verdant green. She swallowed hard and dragged the drawer open again. The rock rolled with the movement of the drawer as it changed to a deep turquoise. In one compulsive move, Tifa snatched the rock into her hand and jammed it deep into her hip pocket.

Lifting her chin in determination, she headed for the bathroom and the ponytail strings that Vincent had fashioned for her hair. Swiftly, she restrained her long hair at the top and the bottom, foregoing a good combing to earn back some of the time she’d wasted messing with the rock. Then she purposefully headed for the door. She simply would not tell Vincent she had the thing. She would not show it to him. She would not let him near it. She would keep him safe from it, and upon arrival in Kalm, she would secure the stone in a tight container of some sort until she could find someone who could identify the nature of the rock. It might well be in Vincent’s interest to find out what the rock had done to him anyway. What if it exerted some lasting effect over him? He should know if that were the case. Her actions adequately justified in her own mind, she put the rock from her thoughts and opened the door.

Vincent looked up at her from where he stood just beyond the foot of the stairs. His brows drew together slightly at sight of her, and she could well imagine that he’d been pacing as he waited, and that he would most likely have been checking his watch if he’d had one. Of course, she would have been wrong. Vincent had been standing motionless in that one spot for the last five minutes, waiting patiently with his crimson eyes fixed stolidly on the pavement before him as he talked himself out of going to check on her more than a few times. She had seemed rather discombobulated when she’d left and that recognition had filled him with increasing concern. He carefully examined the carefree smile on her face. He had to admit that she seemed to have recovered admirably.

Tifa held the forced smile on her lips and bounced gaily down the steps to dive on the nearest backpack of the two sitting at the foot of the stairs. “I’m ready,” she announced exuberantly as she hefted the pack with attached bedroll and canteen from the floor, only to let it fall back with a heavy thud and a surprised yelp. “Gods, that thing is heavy,” she said with awe.

Vincent pointed at the backpack and bedroll near his feet. “This one is yours to carry,” he informed her. “I’ll take that one.”

With one hand, Tifa dragged her bound hair over one shoulder, and then she looked up at him skeptically as she grabbed up the indicated backpack, heavy in its own right, but still a weight that she could manage. “That thing is pretty heavy, Vincent.” She inclined her head toward the pack he meant to carry. “You could shift some of the stuff to mine,” she suggested practically.

“I did not pack more than I can handle,” he stated coolly.

Tifa shrugged her pack onto her shoulders. “Well…okay…” she conceded hesitantly. “What do you have in there anyway? A dismantled helicopter?”

She missed the eyebrow that quirked at her question. Vincent easily picked up the pack as he replied curtly. “Foodstuffs. Batteries. Headlamps. Medical supplies. Water purification tablets. Elixirs. Potions. Materia. Extra clothing. Ammunition. An extra…”

Tifa held up a hand. “Okay, I get the picture, Vincent. I don’t need an entire rundown of your inventory.” With a shake of her head at his very literal response to her rhetorical question, she wriggled her shoulders to settle the pack and purposefully set out with long strides, putting her back to him as she sought to show him just how eager she was to get the show on the road.

Vincent shrugged into his own pack and picked up the rifle he’d left leaning against the side of the metal staircase, setting out to follow her as he looped the rifle strap over one shoulder. With several long strides of his own he caught up to her and fell into a matched pace just behind her. “I’ll be leading the way,” he curtly stated. He wasn’t about to let her go first, or even alongside him. Not in the beginning. If booby traps had been installed in the passages near the installation, he did not want her to be the one to encounter them.

“Why do you get to lead the way?” Tifa asked with a frown. Not that she really cared, but the fact that he was acting all bossy irritated her.

He came abreast of her and settled chilly eyes on her stubbornly set face. “Do you know the tunnel layout, Miss Lockhart?”

Her frown deepened. “Ah…we…ell…no…not really…no…” But then she hadn’t studied The Map for hours upon end. Anyone who had studied The Map as long as Mr. Meticulous had should be able to navigate the tunnels through the mountains blindfolded and walking backwards.

“Then I presume there will be no argument on your part?” he inquired coolly.

“No, Mr. Meti…er…Valentine.” She gulped down the giggle that threatened to erupt from her throat. “You win.” …For now…

Vincent studied the sweet smile that curved her lips with more than a little suspicion before he reluctantly surrendered his perusal of her face to bring his attention to the treacherous path behind the falls looming just ahead, only the first in a long series of dangerous obstacles he could easily speculate would lie in their path. He silently promised himself that Tifa Lockhart would negotiate this one without incident.

Ozzie tossed his head back to suck down the very last bitter dregs of his sixth beer, and then he slammed the glass bottle against the scarred wooden tabletop with a great deal of relish. Jabbing a finger in the air, he counted the six empty bottles around him and decided that he could definitely use another. With that thought foremost in his mind, he lifted his head to seek out the lovely and accomodating barmaid only to find his view blocked by the large man that had come to a halt on the other side of the table to plant himself between Ozzie and the bar. Baron ominously stood with arms crossed over his broad chest, his onyx-flecked golden eyes burning down into Ozzie’s face with ill-concealed anger.

A disgruntled frown creased the blonde man’s brow. He’d known that Baron would be duly annoyed that he’d left the doctor’s house instead of waiting for him to return, but the pub had been too great a lure, particularly after the fiasco in Kalm. Especially in light of his knowledge that he would have to answer for his mistakes, a coming confrontation that he suspected he might not survive. So when the doctor had finished cleaning and bandaging his wounds, he’d made a beeline for the bar, and he figured that if and when Baron bothered to look for him, he would never enter the pub during the late afternoon when the establishment would be filling with patrons. The exotic looking man tended to draw more attention than he liked, even in this tourist trap where all sorts of strange people came and went on a regular basis. He had assumed that Baron would wait outside. Wait and fume. Obviously Ozzie had misjudged his companion’s patience and determination.

“Bari…’magine seein’ you here…” he said thickly.

Baron leaned close and planted his big hands on the table. “What do you think you’re doing, Ozwan?” he demanded, his tone vehement despite his care to keep his voice beneath the level of the music. “You were supposed to wait for me.”

Ozzie shrugged carelessly and leaned sideways in his chair to see around his muscular, oversized friend. He caught a glimpse of the barmaid and hailed her loudly. “How ‘bout a beer over here, sugar!” The svelte, dusky-skinned woman gave him a little wave of acknowledgement, and Ozzie sat back with a happy grin that remained undiminished beneath Baron’s withering eye. The blonde man waved Baron into a chair. “Si’down, Bari,” he urged cheerfully. “People are starin’ at you.”

Baron’s scowl deepened, but he did as Ozzie suggested and gracefully folded his tall frame into a wooden chair. Strands of shiny blue-black hair fell over his shoulders to coil against the tabletop as he leaned in on his elbows to bring his face nearer his wayward partner. “We have to go,” he hissed across the table.

“An’ we’ll go…we’ll go…” Ozzie wagged his head in agreement. He rolled his eyes around as the barmaid stopped beside him and deposited the beer on the table. “…In a li’l while…” he added.

Averting his face from the woman, Baron promptly sat back in his chair. Tentatively, she turned wary almond eyes on the handsome but strangely garbed man. “What would you like to order, sir?” she asked solicitously. Baron started to shake his head, but Ozzie answered for him. “Same as I’m havin’, honey.” He well knew that Baron didn’t drink alcohol, but he would happily help him out.

As soon as the woman had left the table, Baron leaned forward again. “You are only making matters worse, Ozwan.”

Ozzie’s smile faded slowly from his face. “It wasn’t my fault, you know…” he bemoaned.

“You weren’t supposed to talk to anyone,” Baron replied curtly. “You were supposed to stay out of sight. Who else is there to blame?”

A sheepish smile curved Ozzie’s lips. “It was her, Bari. You shoulda seen her. She was soooo beautiful…standin’ there on the stairs in the lamplight…such a sweet face…the face of an angel…I was just bein’ a gentleman…ya know…how was I to know…”

“You should have known, you fool,” Baron snarled. “You would have known if your brains weren’t residing in your nether regions.”

“Hey! That’s not fair!” Ozzie protested loudly, his voice rising well above the lively acoustical guitar music playing on the radio. “She didn’t look like a Turk this time!”

“Shut the hell up, Ozwan!” Baron whispered harshly as he forcibly resisted the urge to snatch the man up out of his chair and rip his lips right off his face.

Ozzie gaped wordlessly at Baron as the warrior shot a glance around the room to discover several pairs of curious eyes turned to their table. Everyone quickly looked away when the golden eyes swept the room, but for a man seated one table over. His deep brown eyes met Baron’s directly through the lenses of a pair of heavy dark-framed glasses. The warrior’s eyes narrowed as the man shifted his interested gaze from the golden eyes to Ozzie’s slack face where they lingered for a long moment before coming back to Baron’s. Then the man deliberately returned his attention to the oversized leather-bound book that lay open on the table in front of him and nonchalantly lifted a squat drink glass half-full of amber liquid to his lips, apparently dismissing the both of them from his mind. Just then, a young man walked past Baron to stop at the man’s table. Bending down near his elbow, the new arrival spoke a few words in a voice too low to hear. The man nodded his head in acknowledgment and held out several gil notes that the younger man gladly took before turning on heel to leave the room. The man then turned a leaf in the book and lifted the glass to his lips again.

The man with the glasses made Baron uneasy for some reason that he couldn’t fathom, and he studied him intently as he tried to understand why. The man seemed a mere tourist in his brightly colored, floral print button-down shirt and khaki shorts. A pair of sunglasses jutted from his left shirt pocket, and he wore simple canvas deck shoes on his feet. He had no jewelry but for a watch on his wrist and one small golden hoop that gleamed in his left ear. His long black hair was braided into a thick plait that fell over his right shoulder and hung to a point just below his breast pocket. Baron could see that the man had something tucked into his right pocket, a red card or flat box of some sort, but the wispy tufts of hair at the end of the braid hid it from his view and made identification impossible. He seemed harmless enough, but something about him led Baron to believe him to be a potentially dangerous man, one salty dog. Maybe it was the directness of his gaze during their visual exchange or maybe it was the studied indifference of his posture now as though he could care less who might approach or what might come his way because he deemed himself capable of adequately dealing with any situation, or maybe it was the wideness of his shoulders and the well-defined muscles of his arms and legs that indicated he could easily hold his own in a barroom brawl. Or maybe it was his own imagination running away with itself. He just needed to get Ozwan out of this place and out of town. The sooner the better. His partner was starting to lose it.

Suddenly, the man looked up from his casual study of the page as though he’d sensed Baron’s careful perusal. Quickly, the warrior looked away, turning his gaze back to his drunken companion, only to find Ozzie staring at the man one table over, apparently drawn by Baron’s own interest in him. Abruptly, Ozzie sprang to his feet, jarring the table in the process. Several of the long necked beer bottles toppled over, chinking against each other as they fell. One near the edge rolled off the table and clunked hollowly against the wooden floor at his feet and rolled a few inches to come up against a chair leg.

“Ozwan…” Baron warned lowly. Unfortunately, the outraged and inebriated man didn’t seem inclined to listen. Baron rose tensely from his chair as Ozzie stalked the few steps to the tourist’s table with an obvious limp. “What the hell are you lookin’ at, buddy?” Ozzie demanded in a drunken growl. He punctuated his question with a slap of his hand against the table.

Unblinking, the man raised one dark eyebrow from behind the wide rim of the glasses frame. “Nothing,” the man replied quietly.

“Well, why doncha mind your own damn business,” Ozzie snarled.

“I’m not standing at your table am I?” the stranger asked reasonably, his tone bland, his gaze friendly.

Ozzie gaped at the untroubled face for a few seconds before shifting his attention to the open book, an incongruous item to find in a pub. He scanned the map that was spread across two pages with bleary-eyed bewilderment. “What the hell is that?”

The black-haired man reached out a hand and deliberately closed the book. “I don’t recall inviting you into my business,” he admonished coolly.

“Well, what the hell you doin’ in here readin’?”

Slowly, the man rose from his chair and took a step back. “Reading,” he easily responded. Baron moved in behind Ozzie, reluctant to intervene, but ready to do so if need be. His fingers found the hilt of the knife tucked into his sash. Now that the man was standing, he noticed that he was actually a couple of inches taller than Ozwan.

“You some kind of smartass?” Ozzie demanded with a hint of awe. He wasn’t getting quite the fearful reaction he’d expected from this pansy-assed looking guy. Ozzie thought about giving his braid a good hard yank just to see if he would cry. At some level in his foggy brain, he knew that would be an extremely bad idea.

The man drew a few gil notes from his pocket and tossed them onto the table, and then he picked up the wide flat book and tucked it beneath his left arm. “Something like that,” he said with a slight smile, and he turned to go, rounding the table opposite the position where Ozzie stood. The blonde gunman’s mouth fell open in astonishment that the man planned to leave his esteemed company.

“Hey!” Ozzie stumbled around the table to plant himself in the man’s path. “I’m not through talkin’ to you!” He poked a finger hard into the man’s chest.

“That’s unfortunate, as I’m through talking to you,” the man replied coldly. Something hard poked against Ozzie’s belly, and the blonde man slowly turned his eyes downward to confirm what he already suspected. It was not a mere finger that pressed into his stomach, but the barrel of one ugly looking pistol. He didn’t know from where the man had conjured the gun, but it looked like it might make one hell of a hole in his guts. His own guns were wrapped up in his coat and hidden away beneath a rock outcropping down the beach a mile. Even if he had them, he couldn’t have gotten one in hand before the man could blow his intestines through his spine. Ozzie looked up into the man’s cold, hollow eyes, and he instantly realized that he was looking directly into the eyes of man who would not balk at pulling the trigger. A killer. Just like himself. His bowels loosened in his belly and his alcoholic haze rapidly dissipated.

“Let’s not make more of a scene than we already have,” the man suggested silkily. “Why don’t you and your friend walk on out of here, and we’ll all go on our own merry way.”

The man darted a glance at Baron who stood frozen in place to the side, the gun visible to him even though no one else in the large room could see it. He offered the man a slight nod to indicate his agreement to the plan.

“I have to pay my tab,” Ozzie replied steadily despite the trembling of his knees.

“It’s on me, friend,” the man replied with an affable smile. “All you have to do is turn around and walk out the door.”

Ozzie nodded his agreement and took one step back from the gun. “Can I just…er…get my hat?”

“Or course,” the man easily agreed.

Baron saved Ozwan the trouble, stepping to the table to snatch up the wide-brimmed black hat. “I’ve got your hat,” he informed Ozzie tersely. “Now let’s go.”

Again Ozzie nodded, and holding his hands away from his body in a conciliatory gesture, he slowly turned and walked away, his spine crawling as he put his back to the armed stranger. Baron chanced a last look at the man before he turned to follow. The gun had already vanished from sight, and the man again appeared to be nothing more than a tourist with a bookish inclination. The man pushed his heavy glasses up his nose and inclined his head politely in Baron’s direction. Baron didn’t doubt for a moment that the gun would reappear in an instant if need be.

The man reached across the table for his drink, and he tossed down the contents as he watched the two men walk down the stairway that would take them out the door and onto the street. Not until they had disappeared onto the sidewalk outside did he stroll nonchalantly over to the bar. He slid a 100-gil note across the glossy surface to the bartender. “Is that enough to cover my friend’s tab?”

The bartender smiled agreeably. “More than enough, sir.”

Without another word, the black-haired man left the bar and exited onto the street. He paused in the shadow of the wide eave and carefully scanned the street to right and left. Fortunately, the two had apparently taken him at his word and gone merrily on their way. Not that he was afraid of them. He just preferred to go unnoticed as much as possible. He only came to town every few weeks for supplies, and he’d managed to maintain his anonymity thus far.

Switching his heavy glasses for the lighter sunshades, he hitched the oversized book up under his arm and stepped out into the bright blaze of the Costa del Sol sunlight. He strolled toward the beach as though he had nowhere to go and nothing better to do than sightsee. For ten minutes or so, he stood on the seawall above the beach and alternated between watching the antics of the inhabitants of the beach and staring out at the distant horizon where blue sea met blue sky. Every now and then, he glanced around him to ensure his newfound friends did not seek to join him.

Finally, he spun away and strode with purpose toward the walkway that would take him down to the dock, a slight hitch barely visible in his gait as he hurried. He wasted no time once he’d made it down to the dock, jumping across the narrow span of water between the dock and the bow of his boat. Depositing his book on a cushioned bench, he hurried aft where he verified that his supplies had been delivered on board just as the storeowner’s son had informed him in the pub, and then he trotted forward again and jumped back to the concrete dock with a slight wince as he landed awkwardly on the wrong foot. After a long careful look around, he deftly untied his mooring rope and tossed it over the bow railing. He turned and walked quickly down the pier and untied the second mooring rope. Quickly coiling the rope in his hand, he jumped from the wooden pier to the boat ladder with care to lead with the right foot this time. Once aboard, he dropped the rope and made his way to the cabin where he started the engine and expertly took the wheel.

As the boat slowly moved clear of the boat slip on reverse jets, he glanced up through the window to see the two men from the bar standing on the seawall above the dock watching him. Although he didn’t think they could see him, he waved anyway. If they had seen him, they weren’t inclined to respond in kind, but merely appeared to be content just to stare.

Once the boat cleared the dock, his lips curved in a satisfied smile as he sent the boat forward, throwing the throttle wide open as he swung the wheel hard to steer her away from the dock and out to sea. The big boat lifted up on her bow as the craft took a great bite of the ocean, spewing wings of water high up behind her as she took flight. The deck thrumming under his soles, the man turned his head to watch the Costa del Sol coastline slip away behind him. He decided then that he’d be wise to steer clear of Costa del Sol for while. Maybe he’d make for Wutai next time. Or even Mideel. It would mean some overland travel, but it might be nice for a change. On the other hand, he had his connections all lined out in Costa del Sol, and he thought it unlikely that those two would return. He would just keep an eye out for them next time, and take steps to avoid contact.

His brows drew together in a deep frown as his thoughts drifted back to the familiar face of the man at the bar. It had been years since he’d seen him, but he had no doubt of the man’s identity. So Ozwan Parmady was alive. He could not imagine how Parmady had managed that feat. And that man with him, a strange character indeed. A shadow passed momentarily across his face. That headpiece in the man’s hair. He’d seen something like that before, but he couldn’t remember where. In one of his books maybe? Perhaps he would do some research and see if he could find out. On the other hand...why bother?

Pointedly, he tossed his braid back over his shoulder and lifted his chin. No matter to concern him. It was none of his business anyway. He had better things to do with his time. So what if Ozwan Parmady was alive? He would bet his life the hired assassin was up to no good, but he didn’t care. As long as Parmady, his foreign friend with the exotic hairpiece, and the whole damned world left him the hell alone, he was as happy as the proverbial clam. On a whim, he sent the boat in a wide sweeping arc to point her bow toward the Southern Sea. He smiled as the wind slipped across his face. He was free again, and free he would remain. No one could find him. No one could touch him. The entire ocean was his playground.

Baron and Ozwan stared out to sea as the huge cabin cruiser swept back toward the south and flew away toward the horizon. “Did you see the name on that boat?” Ozzie asked anxiously.

“Yes, but…” Baron paused in thought. “…I don’t know what it means. I only speak your language, Ozwan, and Gnalish.”

“Well, what did you see?”

“Umi Borei,” he replied flatly.

Ozzie shrugged his ignorance. “Let’s go ask around about him. Someone must know who he is.”

Baron shifted chilly eyes to Ozzie’s face. “Why do you care? Did he humiliate you so thoroughly?”

Ozzie frowned at his partner’s words. “No! I just think I might know him from somewhere.”

“Well, I would think that if you knew him, you’d have known that he might shoot you before you decided to accost him,” Baron pointed out sarcastically.

“I don’t know him,” Ozzie replied with exasperation. “There’s just something…familiar…about him.” The blonde man rubbed his fingers against his knitted brow. “I don’t know what…his voice maybe…his eyes…”

“We do not have time for this, Ozwan,” Baron reminded him coldly.

Ozzie turned beseeching eyes to his friend’s hard face. “I think knowing who that guy is might just be important, Bari. I really do.”

“Fine. Then ask your questions,” Baron curtly replied. “I’ll wait for you on the beach for one hour. No more.” His piece said, Baron spun away and stalked up the stone stairs. Ozzie hurried after him with a marked limp. “Wait! What then?” he asked anxiously. “We aren’t going back are we?”

“I don’t know,” Baron snapped over his shoulder as he made a left turn onto the pavement.

“I don’t want to go back there,” Ozzie whined as he trotted along to keep up with Baron’s wide strides. “He hasn’t summoned us. Why should we go back?”

Baron stopped in mid-stride and turned to face Ozwan, a thoughtful expression on his face. “Perhaps you are right. If he wanted us to come back, he would bring us back. We need to develop a new plan however.”

“Yeah, now that the Turks know…”

“I wonder whose fault that might be,” Baron interjected dryly.

Ozzie rolled his eyes but decided to let the comment slide. “I think we should talk to Vendra,” he suggested instead.

Baron slowly nodded his head. “I believe you’re right.”

Ozzie’s face brightened. “So we’ll go see her next?”

Baron inclined his head in agreement. “Yes.” He waved an impatient hand at Ozwan. “Now, go ask your questions. I will wait.”


Maya stirred restlessly against the comforter and opened her eyes to level an annoyed glare on the bird perched on the flowerbox outside the bedroom window preening his feathers.

“I’m not asleep,” she informed him tartly before she pointedly closed her eyes again.

The bird raised his sleek head and pinned her languorous form with one stolid onyx eye. Sleep…all…day… he chided in her mind.

“I knew I shouldn’t have opened the window…” she remarked irritably. Deliberately, she rolled to her other side and put her back to the intrusive bird and his disapproval.

The bird made no response in either avian voice or in thought, and several long moments elapsed in relative silence during which Maya listened to the distant sound of children laughing accompanied by the sporadic staccato tap of a hammer. Another time she might have smiled at the comforting evidence of revival in the previously dead village of Nibelheim or she might even have risen from her bed to go to the window to watch the children play, but her keen sense of frustration preoccupied her mind and made the faraway noise seem an intrusion, invading her struggling thoughts just as Angel had.

She wondered, then, if Angel had flown, and she rolled to her back again and raised her head to find him still watching her with one unblinking eye through the screen. “Shoo,” she snapped impatiently, waving a dismissive hand in his direction. “Go away. Go eat some field mice or some more of those bugs you like so much.”

Angel tipped his beak at an imperious angle. …We…go…

Maya let her head fall back against her pillow. “Not again…” she lamented. The bird’s obsession with leaving had become a litany in her mind off and on. He’d grown more insistent since the settlers had come to town. Angel particularly did not like the redheaded woman, Margret Day.


“Go without me,” she suggested churlishly.

…Can…not… He conveyed the thought to her with a hint of sadness.

Recalling Angel’s sentiments about being trapped, Maya closed her eyes in commiseration. …I’m…sorry… She felt somehow at fault even though she had not been the one to consign him to servitude.

Disregarding her sorrowful mental apology, Angel duly returned to the matter uppermost in his avian brain. …We go…we go now.

Maya’s eyes jolted open, and she abruptly sat up and swung her bare feet to the floor. “No! I said no!” she exclaimed with exasperation. Impulsively, she snatched the pillow from the bed and sent it sailing across the room to thump against the wall next to the window, several inches off her intended target. The watchful bird didn’t twitch so much as a feather in response.

We go, Angel persisted.

“Where!?” Maya threw her hands in the air and sprang to her feet. “Where do we go?!”

Angel didn’t answer her question, and she pointed a finger at him. “See! You don’t know!” Frustrated, she whirled away from the silent bird and flinging her arms defensively about her waist, she started to pace, the hem of the rumpled teal skirt swishing against her bare calves as she stalked back and forth across the small room.

“I don’t know where to go,” she complained. “…Or how we are supposed to get there.”

Expressionlessly, the bird relentlessly tracked her movements as she paced, listening to her voice as she continued her monologue.

“…I don’t have any clothes of my own. I don’t have any gil.” She paused in the middle of her route to face him again. “What am I supposed to live on? I can’t eat bugs and mice like you do.”

…Tasty…bugs…good for…you…

Ignoring the chiding thought from Angel, she started pacing again, her slender hands flying as she talked. “…I don’t know what they want from me…and I don’t know what to do…and I don’t know…who I am…” Her voice broke on the last word, and she suddenly dropped to the edge of the bed to slump with bowed head in dejection.

Uneasily, the bird hopped a few inches along the rim of the wooden window box.


Bemused at the bird’s apparent attempt to comfort her, Maya raised her head and studied him wordlessly, until a thought occurred to her. Her curious gaze sharpened as she arranged her thoughts. He cocked his head at her in keen interest.

Angel…do you see my dreams?


But you are in them…don’t you see them?

…Do not…we go…

Maya’s thoughts turned inward. “Maybe…I’m just inventing them…I don’t know them…but then I do know them…I don’t know who they are…”

…Who…are…who… He cocked his head inquisitively.

“Tifa…Lockhart.” She spoke the name aloud to see how it sounded on her tongue. “Red Thirteen. Vincent Valentine. Cloud…Strife…” She pinned worried eyes on the attentive bird. “Are they real, Angel? Or…” Her eyes fell to the floor. “…Did I invent them to fill the emptiness inside my mind?”


Maya suddenly screeched her frustration and threw her hands up to dig her fingers into her thick hair at either side of her head. Taken by surprise, Angel flapped his wings in alarm. Maya jumped to her feet and threw her hands into the air. “I want to go home, Angel!” she exclaimed in distress. “I want to go home, but I don’t know where that is!”

A tentative knock sounded at the door, and both ruffled bird and distressed woman jerked their heads around to watch with startled eyes as the doorknob turned and the wooden panel slowly swung inward on creaky hinges.

Nessa’s tense face appeared in the widening crack. “Are you alright, child?” she asked with concern as she scanned Maya’s stiff form from head to toe. Maya realized then that Nessa must have heard her shriek and guilt assailed her as she took in the older woman’s worried face.

”Ah…yes…I’m fine…Nessa…” she assured her in a halting voice.

Unconvinced, Nessa narrowed her dark eyes on the younger woman’s anxious face. “I heard you cry out, and I thought something was wrong.”

Maya forced a tremulous smile to her lips. “I’m sorry to worry you, Nessa. It was just…a dream.” Her emerald eyes shifted away from Nessa’s incisive gaze. “My dreams…they torment me…” They did torment her, with tantalizing scraps of memory and promise. “I…I can’t seem to…escape them…” Nor did she really want to. In fact, she wanted nothing more than to climb back into her bed, wrap herself in the heavy comforter and dream more about the people who seemed to know her.

Nessa’s tight expression eased at the simple explanation, and her eyes turned woeful. “Yes…dreams can be…troublesome.”

For the first time since she’d appeared in the doorway, Maya noticed the haggard lines of the older woman’s face. “Are you alright, Nessa?” she queried anxiously.

A wry smile came to Nessa’s lips. “Dinner is on the table, if you’re hungry,” Nessa said, evading Maya’s question.

Maya nodded her acceptance, her eyes filling with sadness as Nessa left the doorway, softly drawing the door shut as she went.

“She’s…worse…” Maya whispered hoarsely to herself. She forgot Angel was still listening. But then, Angel was always listening.


Maya’s eyes turned stormy, and she whipped her head around to glare at the implacable bird. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she informed him sharply, distress evident in her voice. “She does not want to die!”


Maya shook her head vehemently, lifting a trembling finger to point at him. “No! You’re wrong! You are so damn wrong!”


Tears burned her eyes. The words of protest were on her lips, but she did not speak them. Her anger faded to grief as the first hot tear slipped down her cheek. “No…” she finally whispered in denial. But her heart was not behind it. She knew deep inside that Angel was right. The knowledge resonated in her soul. Nessa had made an uneasy peace with her dead brother, and she’d told Myron she must leave him, an act that had broken her heart. She had no reason to fight the futile battle anymore. She was surrendering to her fate.


Her heart ached inside her chest. There had to be something she could do.

We go! Angel urged more insistently.

Her anger returned at the bird’s stubborn persistence, and her tear-wet eyes flamed into green fire. “No, Angel,” she snapped hoarsely. “We stay.”

We go! We go now! Angel persisted with an alien edge of fear that Maya hardly noticed.

“I will not leave her!” Maya cried out. Then she pointed an adamant finger at the floor beneath her feet. “We stay!”

She and Angel stood locked in frozen tableau for several seconds, motionless, each imprisoned by the other’s unrelenting glare. Finally, Maya broke away, eyelids falling shut in a pained face. “I…can’t…leave her,” she hesitantly tried to explain. “Not after…not after she…saved my life.” Besides, Nessa and Myron, they were all she had, outside her dreams. “I have no choice, Angel. I have to stay.”

Angel’s protracted sigh of defeat soughed through her mind. We…stay…

Tifa Lockhart spared one thought, despite the numbing sting of the frigid water that pounded against her head and body and despite the fact that her fingers were beginning to cramp from her tight hold on the wet slippery rail, to ponder the fact that her grand adventure with Vincent Valentine was not starting out so well. Her next thought revolved around the issue of whether Mr. Valentine would yell at her for her disobedience or not. Of course, if she drowned first, she wouldn’t have to worry about it.

At that disquieting thought, she bowed her head against the downpour and frantically kicked her feet against the wall in an attempt to find purchase from which to pull herself back up and over the side, but her waterlogged boots just slipped uselessly against the wet concrete. Her heart pounding painfully in her chest, Tifa tried desperately to lift her weight with just her hands, even if just far enough to peep over the edge to see where Vincent had gone, but the force of the waterfall sapped her strength from her limbs. Increasingly, she was finding it a challenge to just maintain her hold. As though to taunt her, the broken rail she clutched with a death grip, the same one that held her in the bone chilling rush of the falling cascade where she dangled precariously with her flailing feet nearly dipping into the madly churning water, suddenly lurched beneath her weight and bent several inches downward with a protracted groan of stressed metal.

Truly frightened now, Tifa threw back her head to scream Vincent’s name, to hurry him along before it was too late. A mistake. The driving water filled her open mouth and snatched her impassioned plea for help from her tongue in a wash of metallic tasting water. Choking for breath now, Tifa again ducked her chin against her chest, putting the back of her head to the brunt of the cascade. The pipe railing bent even more, and her aching hands slipped a couple of inches further down the pipe. Panic began to creep around the perimeter of her mind as she tried fruitlessly to tighten her grip. Instead, the weakened fingers of her newly healed hand gave out on her, leaving the whole of her weight dangling on her other hand. It wasn’t enough to hold her. Even as she vainly threw up her right arm to try for a grip on the slimy edge of the concrete ledge, her left hand started to slip in earnest. She realized the inevitable then. There was no hope for it. She would fall into the pool churned up by the torrent of the waterfall and be carried down to the bottom by the lethal undertow where she would be pinned in the rush of water through the grate. She would drown. Tifa did cry out then, a strangled exhalation of despair.

In the next instant, her fingers broke free of the pipe and her cry turned into a pained yelp when Vincent’s metal talons closed tightly around her arm above her wrist just when she would have fallen, staying her plunge with an excruciating jerk against her shoulder joint. Her body swung away from the pipe and into the slimy concrete wall with a solid, bone-numbing jolt. Out of the relentless drag of the powerful force of the cascading water, she struggled to draw breath into her lungs as she tilted her head back and blinked the water droplets from her lashes to find Vincent on both knees at the edge of the walkway with his unencumbered arm wrapped around the upright post that had once supported the railing she’d fallen through. Instinctively, she threw her right hand up to latch onto his metal wrist as he steadily lifted her to the point where she could throw one leg onto the ledge. Then she let go of his wrist to latch desperate fingers around his upper arm, her cheek brushing against his shoulder as she weakly levered herself into a sitting position on the edge of the walkway.

Vincent abruptly released her arm and moved away from her, climbing to his feet to stand with crossed arms beside her. Panting for breath and shivering wet all the way to the bone, she chanced a glance up the length of his towering frame to examine his expression, only to discover his crimson eyes burning hotly down into her raised face. Unable to withstand the intensity of his gaze, she averted her eyes to stare blindly at the tumultuous water beneath her dangling feet as she waited for his accusation. His censure. He’d told her to wait for him while he carried the backpacks into the tunnels. He hadn’t wanted her to traverse the narrow ledge alone. She knew that. But she had negotiated ledges just as narrow in the Nibel Mountains with ease. So she had made the decision to defy him and set out on her own.

She’d almost made it too. All the way to the point where the walkway widened slightly to join the metal catwalk. The point where she’d fallen against the rail and gone over the edge when the pipe had separated from the post beneath her weight. Only her quick reflexes had stayed her plummet then. She deserved a butt chewing, and she fully expected it. In fact, she expected his first words to her to be ”What did you think you were doing, you brainless idiot?” or maybe ”Why in the name of Odin can’t you do what you’re told?” She expected at the very least an ”I told you so.” So he surprised her when he did speak.

“What happened?” he asked tightly.

Tifa tightened her jaw muscles to still the chattering of her teeth so she could answer. “I…I…f…fell…” She looked up to gauge his reaction to her response only to find that he’d now put his back to her.


“I…I…slipped…” She ducked her head to hide her warm face at the lie in case he should turn back around and look at her. She hadn’t slipped. She’d had a dizzy spell and lost her balance, but she wasn’t about to tell him that because then he’d probably rethink his decision to leave early, for whatever reason he’d made it, and make her go back to the control room to rest. She did not want to go back now.

“We will go back,” he coolly informed her.

“No!” she instantly protested. Had the man seen through her lie? With that hidden eye in the back of his head? She grabbed the post and scrambled to her feet, wrapping her arms around her body in an attempt to still her shivering. “I don’t want to go back, Vincent,” she informed his stiff back. She gritted her teeth to keep them from chattering.

He half-turned then, and brought his chilly eyes back to her pale face before letting his gaze slide the length of her dripping wet body and back to the bluish tinge of her lips. “You are wet and cold,” he informed her unnecessarily. “The tunnels will be cool. You should change your clothing.”

Stubbornly, she shook her head as she lifted her chin; ready to argue her case until she dried where she stood. “I’ll dry on the way. Besides, I might…fall again…if we go back.” Tifa only mentioned the latter in the hope that Vincent would deem her much too clumsy to risk taking her back along the ledge and would relent.

Considering her words, Vincent stared at her expressionlessly for long moments before he finally inclined his head in silent acceptance and reached for the buckles of his cloak.

She realized his intention as he deftly unbuckled the cloak with his hand and dragged the garment over one shoulder. “No, Vincent,” she took a step away from him. “I don’t want it. Keep it. You’re wet too,” she pointed out. True, he was partly wet with glittering droplets of water in his dark eyelashes and his hair clinging to his cheeks and flattened to his head in thick clumps from the fine misty spray off the waterfall, but he wasn’t waterlogged like she was because he hadn’t been hanging from a length of pipe and bathing in the downpour. His clothing was mostly dry. Still she just could not take his cloak. He shouldn’t pay for her mistake.

“Take it,” he curtly commanded, holding the cloak out to her in his gloved right hand. She shook her head again. “No, I don’t want it.”

Not inclined to argue, Vincent took a long step forward and threw the cloak around her, lifting his metal talons to drag the warm garment over her shoulders with both hand and claw. Leaving the cloak unbuckled, he abruptly turned on heel and walked away. “Let’s go,” he spoke over his shoulder, his tone hard and uncompromising.

She decided then that if she didn’t get her rear in gear he might just leave her. She held no doubt in her mind that he was mad at her, despite the chivalrous gesture of forcing his cloak upon her. She sprang into motion to hurry after him, grimacing at the squish of her socks inside her water soaked boots. The cloak, still warm from his body, stilled her shivering greatly, and she gratefully dragged the garment close around her, reaching up with trembling hands to fasten the buckles.

Vincent disappeared around a jutting curve in the rock, and she quickly followed to find that he’d paused to wait for her, standing in a cleft in the wall that had been hidden from her view on the other side. As soon as she appeared, he silently turned away from her to enter the lighted passage beyond, leaving her to follow behind.

Tifa stepped through the cleft and paused to stare into the vault of darkness above her head, a ponderous expanse virtually untouched by the illumination from the light fixtures set into the jagged wall on either side. She briefly entertained the idea that some great creature could live up in the dark above her head and she might never know, unless she disturbed it. Vincent’s boots clunked softly against the metal steps below her, and she decided she’d best hurry on.

Despite the fact that she recognized that Vincent was descending a length of stairs, she still missed the first step and fell hard against the angle iron railing. She gasped when a rib met the sharp edge of the iron, and Vincent halted at the sound, turning on the stairs to look up at her.

She shoved herself away from the rail and gave him a little wave to indicate her continued good health. “Watch your step,” he warned in his inflectionless monotone, and she nodded her understanding, quickly climbing down the stairs between them with graceful agility. He watched her the whole way, not moving until she reached a point on the long stairway just above him. Apparently satisfied, then, that she wouldn’t tumble head over heels and knock him down the stairs, he put his back to her again and continued on his way. Dutifully, she followed him down the stairs, through another narrow crevice in the rock, to a level walkway.

Within a span of twenty feet or so, the two of them reached a spiral staircase that wound down into a deep well. It was at that point that she truly appreciated the fortuitousness of their discovery of the lighting system on the control panel. She would not have enjoyed a descent down the spiral steps with only a flashlight to light her way. Even with light, the descent down the steep, narrow metal staircase close behind Vincent left her feeling a bit nauseous even though she normally did not suffer from a fear of heights.

To her great relief, the two of them eventually set foot on solid ground where Tifa scanned the smooth curving walls with wonder. “This was manmade,” she commented aloud.

“Yes,” Vincent readily agreed. “This way.”

At his direction, she looked around to see him step through an oval opening set in the curved wall opposite the spiral staircase. With a last appreciative look around, she followed him through to find him on one knee beside his backpack. She noted that her backpack rested alongside his. With interest, she glanced around the small circular room, staring at the dark openings on the far side before bringing her appraising gaze back to the kneeling man. So he’d carried them in this far. No wonder he’d taken his sweet time returning when she’d been taking her impromptu shower in the waterfall. She wondered what he would have done if she’d turned to him after he rescued her and said, “What kept you?” Maybe he would have cursed. Had she ever heard Mr. Valentine curse? She didn’t think so. She ran several potential Valentine responses through her mind as she watched him unzip his pack and withdraw a miner's headlamp from inside.

Her thoughts traveled along while she idly admired his efficient technique as he slipped the elastic headband around his head and settled the round lamp into place at the center of his forehead. He withdrew another and turned on knee to hold it up to her, his eyes freezing in stillness on the smile that curved her lips. Still smiling, she walked over to him and took it. Drawing his gaze away, he turned back to rezip his bag, and then he stood to lift it in one hand as she awkwardly positioned the band snugly round her own head. Unseen by her, Vincent watched her fiddle with the light as he easily shrugged the pack onto his shoulders. When she finally had the apparatus situated to her satisfaction, she turned to look at him expectantly, and he lifted her pack and held it out to her.

When she took the backpack in both hands, he moved away from her and flipped on his headlamp as she fought with the cloak and her long length of heavy, wet ponytail to get the pack settled in place. When she finally got the confounded thing situated somewhat to her satisfaction, she again looked up to find Vincent standing just outside the middle of three openings in the circular wall opposite. She could see the tunnels stretching into darkness beyond.

He half-turned as she walked to his side. “From here, we travel in darkness,” he flatly informed her.

Apprehensively, she peered into the tunnel he apparently meant to take. “Are you sure this is the one?” she asked tensely as a shiver that had nothing to do with being cold worked its way up her spine.

“Yes, I’m sure,” he replied coolly. “This tunnel is clearly marked on the map.”

She couldn’t argue with him on that score. Plainly, The Map had spoken. Still, she found herself reluctant to set foot into the dark tunnel. From this point on, they would travel in darkness, just as Vincent had said. Darkness for days maybe. Or longer. Maybe forever. Icy fingers clutched her throat, and she turned fearful brown eyes to Vincent’s face, seeking reassurance. “Do we have extra batteries?” she asked tensely. Vincent nodded. “Do we have enough?” she pressed. “I hope so,” Vincent blandly replied. She wanted to take him aside then, and instruct him as to the proper answer for such questions, which was “Yes. We have enough. We have more than enough to travel to the moon and back.” Not “I hope so.”

Tifa jumped in place when Vincent suddenly reached up his hand to flip her headlamp on. “Are you ready?” he asked her.

She shook her head. “No.”

Disregarding her answer, he turned away from her and stepped into the tunnel. “Stay close,” he told her.

She had no choice but to follow. Wherever Vincent Valentine might lead her, she was bound to follow. He was her polestar.

Clumps of dirt showered down to the ground from above, and Baron uncrossed his legs to stand up, his fingers instinctively traveling to the hilt of the knife hidden in his sash. A second later, Ozzie slid down the bank to land ignominiously on his butt in the sand with a sharp grunt of astonishment. Baron refrained from laughing, turning instead to retrieve the bundle from the ground beside him.

Ozzie stiffly climbed to his feet, obviously favoring his dog-mauled leg, and he turned to find Baron holding out the bundle to him. The blonde man took the bundle and walked over to a nearby clump of beach grass to sit down. “Thanks for waiting for me, Bari,” he said as he unwrapped the two handguns from the long black coat. “I wasn’t sure you would.”

Baron crossed his arms over his broad chest and studied Ozzie’s bent head with interest. “I wasn’t sure I would either,” he informed him. “Curiosity overcame me however.”

Standing, Ozzie threw one gun belt around his hips and buckled it into place. “Well, I’m glad you didn’t leave.”

Baron watched as Ozzie reached for the second gun belt. “Did you find out what you wished to know, Ozwan,” he inquired silkily.

“Not really, no,” Ozzie responded wearily as he snugged down the second buckle. He deftly tied the holster ties around each leg and then bent to lift his guns from the cradle of his folded coat, jamming one into each holster. He raised a rueful gaze to Baron’s hooded eyes as he picked up his coat with one hand and shook it out.

“Did you find out enough to warrant such a colossal waste of time, Ozwan?” Baron’s voice had now taken on an edge of sarcasm.

“Probably not,” he admitted honestly.

“Did you find out anything, Ozwan?”

Ozzie shrugged into the coat and dragged the garment around to cover the tied-down guns. “Well…yes…I did find out something.” He returned to his seat on the clump of beach grass and looked up at his tall friend. “The bartender told me that the guy comes into the pub once every couple of months and nurses one drink until the owner of the general store sends his son for him. He always brings a book to read. He meets no one. He chats with no one.” He grimaced ruefully. “Hell, it cost me 25 gil for that paltry bit of information.”

“What else?” Baron prompted.

“Well…the storeowner told me that he comes in for supplies every couple of months and pays to have his son load them on his boat. They refer to him as Smith, but that’s not his name.” A heavy frown creased his brow. “Cost me 50 gil for that...”

“Well, what is his name?”

“No one knows,” Ozzie replied mournfully.

“The storeowner does not know?”

“No, he always pays in gil so the storeowner claims he’s never had a need to know his name. The general consensus seems to be that he’s an explorer of some sort, a treasure hunter maybe, a man who lives on his boat and travels wherever his whim might take him.”

“And his whim carries him south today,” Baron idly remarked.

“Yes…south. But who knows where he might wind up…”

“I doubt he’s of any concern to us,” Baron mused aloud.

“Yeah…probably not…”

“You don’t remember how you know him?”

Ozzie hesitantly shook his head. “Maybe I don’t know him. Maybe he just reminds me of someone.”

“So you are satisfied with your investigation.”

Ozzie shrugged. “I guess so. Guess I’ll have to be…”

“Shall we go then?”

“To see Vendra?” Ozzie’s dejected face brightened considerably.

“Unfortunately, we’d best,” Baron replied with marked disdain in his tone.

“What did Vendra ever do to you?”

“She is an opportunist, Ozwan. You’d do best to remember that.”

“Then why bother going to see her?”

“Because she is diabolically clever and an expert in damage control. Besides, she has the master’s ear. Perhaps she will mediate for you, Ozwan.”

“For me? What did I do?” Ozzie asked with a hurt tone.

“What didn’t you do? You approached a Turk. You failed to shoot her. And, worst of all, you revealed our intentions regarding young Avian Wulfe. Now he is in Turk hands, making him doubly difficult to acquire. And he is at the top of the list, just beneath Valentine. The master will not be happy.”

“Well, you were hardly at the top of your form, Bari,” Ozzie sniffed in derision. “You had a tail and didn’t even know it.”

“Well, if I hadn’t been struck dumb by your imbecilic behavior, I would have known.”

“You didn’t even get a good look at him,” Ozzie chided.

“Probably another Turk,” Baron speculated aloud. “He was too proficient at stalking for an amateur. He must be a Turk. Maybe even your dead Turk, Ozwan?”

“Uh uh. No way. That guy’s in the morgue.”

“You seem so sure, Ozwan.”

“Hell yes, I’m sure. That guy was as bloodless and pale as the underbelly of a rotting trout floating in a gut bucket.”

Baron’s eyes narrowed in distaste at the picture that formed in his mind. “I see…I shall have to trust your assessment then,” Baron conceded. “Shall we go?”

“Yeah, but can we stop somewhere along the way? I want to get Vendra a flower.”

Baron rolled his golden eyes. “You are incorrigible, Ozwan.” He reached a finger to touch the small silver orb tied beneath his sash.

Ozzie smirked. “Yeah, I am.” He reached up to touch the silver orb dangling on a leather thong around his neck.

“Follow my marker, Ozwan,” Baron instructed coolly.

“See ya on the other side, Bari,” Ozzie replied cheerily.

The two orbs flashed almost simultaneously and bathed the whole area in white light bright enough to rival the warm golden rays of the afternoon sun, and when the pristine light faded into oblivion, the two men were gone.

Maya paused with her spoon halfway to her mouth and watched Nessa stir her uneaten soup in slow, lazy circles, her chin propped in one hand. “Aren’t you going to eat, Nessa?” Maya asked her with forced lightness.

Nessa shifted her fathomless brown eyes from the contents of her bowl to Maya’s worried face. A tiny deprecating smile lifted the corners of her mouth. She straightened in her chair and laid her spoon against the rim of the bowl. “I’m not really very hungry, I guess,” she said softly.

“It’s really very good.” Maya slurped the soup from her spoon. “Mmmm….mmm…”

Nessa’s smile expanded at Maya’s ill-concealed attempt to persuade her to eat. “Myron does make very good soup,” she agreed. She dragged in a long breath and slid from her chair. Lifting the bowl in both hands, she carried the uneaten soup to the sink.

Maya slowly laid her own spoon aside. “Where is Myron anyway?” She’d expected him to join them for dinner, but he had yet to put in an appearance.

“He’s helping Mr. Maines repair the roof of the General Store. They wanted to finish before dark.” Suddenly, a searing pain twisted through her midsection, and the bowl slipped from boneless fingers and cracked into two pieces in the bottom of the porcelain sink, spilling the contents out across the white basin. Nessa forcibly bit off the low moan that welled up her throat and pressed a hand against her stomach even as the pain intensified, stabbing into her innards like the molten point of a firebrand.

Alarmed, Maya let the spoon fall from her fingers into the soup with a messy splash. She jumped to her feet, knocking the wooden chair back, and she rushed across the cobblestone floor to Nessa’s side, but before she could touch her, Nessa threw up a hand to stop her.

“What is it, Nessa!?” Maya cried out from a few feet away. “Let me help you! Please!”

Shakily, Nessa drew away from the sink and opened her mouth to speak, but her words caught behind her gritted teeth. Maya turned away. “I’m going to get Myron,” she announced.

“No!” Nessa blurted out in alarm. “Leave Myron be!”

“But I have to do something!” Maya protested.

Nessa forced her spine to straighten, and she let her hand fall away from her stomach into the folds of her skirt. “Maya…child…there is nothing you can do. There is nothing anyone can do. It’s just pain. It comes and it goes. And now…it goes…” Of course, Nessa did not tell Maya that the pain came more and more often now or that the pain grew worse each time.

Maya eyed her skeptically. “It’s gone now?”

Nessa slowly nodded. It wasn’t a lie. It was mostly gone. Diminished to a dull, gnawing ache. She deliberately turned back to the sink and reached for the broken pieces of the soup bowl. She rested her fingers on the rim of one of the pieces for a moment, and then she gave her head a tiny shake and drew her hand away. “I’ll do this after while. I believe…I’m going to lie down for a little bit.” Without waiting for a response from Maya she put her back to the younger woman and started across the kitchen to the basement door, the soles of her sandals scuffling against the stone floor.

“Don’t worry, Nessa.” Maya said with a strained voice. “I’ll do it for you.”

Nessa nodded, her long black braid bobbing with her silent reply. She set a foot on the first step and turned her head to gaze at Maya with sad, world-weary eyes. “Thank you, Maya.” Then she vanished down the stairwell.

“You’re welcome, Nessa,” Maya whispered. “I just wish…I could do…more…”

Unexpectedly, a sob hiccupped from her throat, and she simply whirled away and fled out the kitchen door, the roiling darkness of death she’d sensed inside Nessa welling up to engulf her mind whole.

Her senses fled, and her feet took wing as she flew through the town square, her feet hardly touching the ground. Angel noticed her departure from his perch on the water tower, and with a challenging cry, he took to the air. Myron also spotted her, and he stood up on the slanting roof with hammer in hand, eyes full of concern at her headlong flight. He yelled after her, but she didn’t give any indication that she’d heard him, instead racing past the Shinra Mansion onto the trail leading out of town.

Frederick T. Maines noted his concern, and he drew his eyes from the winding trail to the clearly worried Myron. “Should we go after her?” he asked with equal concern in his deep voice. Myron stared at the rapidly shrinking figure of the departing girl for a moment in thought, and then he finally shook his head. “She’ll be okay, as long as she doesn’t go into the mountains. She won’t go far…I’m pretty sure…” Maines nodded in agreement, and the two men returned to their work.

Another pair of eyes, cornflower blue narrowed in a predatory glint, watched the girl flee past the mansion gate with unconcealed interest. After a space of five minutes or so, the woman drew the gate closed behind her with a protracted squeak and idly sauntered away.

Oooo…kay, Mr. Valentine…I really am sorry…you know…I really wish you could find your way to forgiving me…for not staying put when you told me to…for making you get your hair all wet…for generally being a nuisance…a big fat ole inconvenience…

Twenty more feet of smooth stone floor, give or take a few inches, passed beneath her feet.

So…now that I’ve apologized properly, Mr. Valentine, do you think you could see your way to stop being mad and just…talk to me? Please?

She counted the next hundred steps she took beneath her breath.

So…Valentine…guess you haven’t forgiven me yet…since you aren’t talking yet…

Tifa heaved a great sigh of boredom, just another of many that she had produced over the long, endless hours of walking and walking and more walking. She didn’t even know how long they’d been walking. In almost complete silence too, the only sounds to mar the long endless silent trek an occasional distant trickle of dripping water and the scuffling sound of her own boots. She couldn’t seem to detect any sound from Vincent’s feet. He seemed to have returned to his ‘walking on air’ mode. Oh, and there were her unending and varied sighs too. And once she’d thought she’d heard someone walking behind her, and that had made the skin on the back of her neck crawl, until she’d realized that they were passing through a part of the tunnel where the ceiling had traveled upward into deep darkness and the acoustics had changed, making her footsteps echo behind her.

She’d lost track of how many times the tunnel had branched off in various directions. Each time Vincent had chosen a fork without hesitation and led the way into the new passage. At times, she’d almost found the nerve to ask him if he knew where he was going for sure, but then she reassured herself with the knowledge that he had studied The Map for hours upon end and must surely know every nook and cranny and crevice in the unending tunnels. She’d found it very easy to refrain from asking him.

She was getting quite tired too. Vincent had set a punishing pace, one that she’d had no problem with in the beginning, but then her calves had started to ache, and now her feet had gone numb. Still, she wasn’t about to hail him and ask him to stop. Not on her life. She would just keep going. She would keep going until she found the sunshine. Surely, it couldn’t be that far away. Besides, there was always the bright side. She was dry now. She’d dried a long long long time ago. Well, except for her toes. Her socks were still a bit damp inside there. She could still feel that anyway. At least they weren’t squishy anymore.

I’m dry now, Mr. Valentine. Just thought I’d let you know. I told you I would dry eventually. But you didn’t believe me… She wrinkled her brow in thought. Or…maybe you did…who knows…

And how many such conversations had she had with him throughout the endless hours? So many. She wondered what he would do if she suddenly yelled, “Talk to me!” at the top of her lungs. It might be fun, but she would never do it. Not in a million years. Fun to think about though. Would she startle him? Make him jump three feet in the air? Scare ten years off his life? He probably wouldn’t even blink. He’d just keep walking without missing a single blessed step.

Hey Valentine! You ready to talk yet? We could talk about…the weather…yeah…it’s dark and slightly damp…probably not much chance of rain tonight…do you think? Or is that today? Or…yesterday…or the day after yesterday, which would be…ah…today…

Tifa narrowed her eyes at the figure of Vincent walking in the spotlight created by the headlamp on her head. He seemed to be fading somewhat. He was either getting farther away or…

She reached up and tapped a finger against the round glass covering the light. The beam brightened momentarily before settling back to approximately the same level of illumination as before. She shrugged and decided to ignore it for now. Her battery was obviously getting low, but she wouldn’t worry about it unless it grew dimmer.

She returned to her examination of Vincent’s tall, lean frame for the thousandth time. The only view that she had available to her, but for the ground beneath her feet. She’d been staring at Vincent’s back for so long that she had every aspect of him memorized by now. Every strand of his thick black hair. The way his unruly mane fell over the red bandana wrapped around his head. The way his hair moved against his shoulders as he walked. Every square inch of his backpack. The red and black diamond logo of the Shinra Military that adorned the pack on the lower right corner. The dull metal of the canteen tied to one corner. The configuration of the knot that tied the pocket flap closed. The measured and efficient steps that ate up ground with deceptive ease. The relaxed swing of his prosthetic arm. The tendency to rest his gloved hand lightly on the holstered gun on his right hip. The smooth wooden grain of the stock and the lethal blue-black tone of the long barrel of the rifle he’d taken from the cavern. The way the stock barely grazed his left hip. The effect of the light from her headlamp as the beam glinted off his mythril ankle bands and the sharp points of his flexed mythril fingers. And…well… She might as well admit it. She’d only be fooling herself if she didn’t. Truthfully…she’d spent a great deal of time appraising a certain part of his anatomy that she’d never paid that much attention to before. But how could she help it? It was right there. In front of her. And now that she’d been forced to notice, she had to admit that particular asset to be a fine example of such assets. A pleasure to scrutinize. One of the bright spots in the long endless hours. Certainly way more interesting than the stony ground in front of her boots. She wondered what he would think if he knew how much time she’d expended admiring his behind. Good thing he didn’t know, though, because she’d turn fifty shades of red if he did. But if he did know, what would he say? ”I’m glad you’ve been enjoying the view, Miss Lockhart. And then he’d promptly take back his cloak and cover it up. Just to steal the only bit of fun that remained in her life at the moment. Well, other than the one-sided conversations she’d been having with him.

And that cloak. Dammit. It was annoying her. All twisted as it was in the straps of the backpack. She’d managed to pull the tails up to wrap around her arms when she’d been so chilled. But eventually she’d grown weary of fighting the garment and had let the cloak fall away to brush against the back of her calves as she walked, wrapping her arms around her body instead.

Tifa knitted her brows in a tight frown. Well, Mr. Valentine…since you still show entirely zero desire to talk to me…I’ll have to find a better use for you. Purposefully, Tifa lifted her arm and rearranged her hand into a reasonable facsimile of a gun. Target practice, Mr. Valentine. That’s what I’ll use you for…

With pursed lips, Tifa made tiny little shooting sounds as she targeted first the back of his head at the center of his red bandana, and then she shifted her pointing finger to the diamond shaped logo, and then to the canteen that dangled from the frame of his pack, followed by one heel of his boot and then the other. Triumphantly, she blew the smoke from her finger and put her finger gun away, unhappily noting the lingering stiffness in her right palm.

Hmm..lucky for you, Mr. Valentine, that my finger isn’t loaded.

Lucky for herself, actually, as she’d never find her way out of the tunnels without Vincent.

Ah…you know I’d never shoot you Valentine. However…I might punch out your runnin’ lights though…if you don’t start talking to me…because if you don’t…I’m going to go crazy and punch everything in sight…including you…most of all you…maybe I’ll kick you too…

Tifa decided she must be exceedingly bored to be plotting mayhem on Vincent’s person, and another long, weary sigh slipped from her lips. She had to admit that Vincent wasn’t talking to her, not because he was mad at her, but simply because he just never really talked to anybody. Unless he had to. She knew he never engaged in idle conversation. Never started them, and only occasionally interjected a random remark here or there, sometimes a spoken thought so cryptic that everyone would look at each other as they tried to fathom what his words might mean. And he always stayed outside the circle when they were in a group. Close enough to listen, but still…alone.

Cloud would join him sometimes. To talk to him about strategy and mission stuff. Vincent would talk then. Low and quiet. Offering Cloud his opinion when asked. And Aeris…she used to just plop down beside Vincent, out of the blue, and start talking to him. About anything. Vincent usually didn’t respond, but he didn’t tell her to go away either, now that she thought about it. And sometimes…he’d even nodded to something she said, a polite indication that he was listening. Why couldn’t she be like Aeris? Just talk to anybody without a care if they wanted to talk or not. She could talk to Cloud. Maybe not about her feelings, not about the one thing she’d wanted to tell him, but about most anything else. She’d always felt comfortable around Cloud. But Vincent…he was different…

Red…Vincent and Red talked a lot. A lot for Vincent anyway. On the airship. She never really knew what about…since they spoke quietly and they would stop talking if anyone else joined them. When she saw Red again, maybe she’d ask him what he and Vincent found to talk about.

And Yuffie used to make jokes about him, in a low voice so he wouldn’t hear. Tifa’s eyes widened then, as it occurred to her that he must have heard them. He had to have heard the jokes. Every one of them. And he’d never given so much as a sign that he’d heard. But he must have. He’d heard her whispers after all. He’d surely heard what any of them had said. All Yuffie’s silly jokes about him being a vampire. "Vamp Man", she always called him behind his back. She’d make up little stories about what Vincent did all those years inside the coffin. Sometimes, she’d chide Yuffie for her more outrageous remarks, but sometimes she’d laughed too, usually at Yuffie’s comical expressions. Now, Tifa could feel her face flaming at the realization that he must have thought she’d laughed at him.

Gods, Vincent! I’m really sorry…if I had known…well…I’d have told Yuffie to shut up…I would never want to hurt your feelings…

Did he even care? Did Vincent get hurt feelings like everybody else? Or was it like he’d told Cid? That he really didn’t feel anything since he’d been in the coffin. Was it possible he didn’t really feel anything? Maybe she should just ask him. Open her mouth and…

Without warning, Tifa’s right leg buckled beneath her, and she went down on one knee with a sharp little yelp of surprise. She threw her hands out to catch her fall and stop herself from plummeting face first into the rock, and then she immediately scrambled back to her feet, hoping beyond hope that Vincent hadn’t noticed a thing, a vain hope she knew. She looked up as she brushed at her stinging knee with one hand and saw that he’d stopped and now stood half-turned in the passage to look back at her.

“Are you well?” Vincent inquired in his quiet inflectionless voice.

Vincent spoke. A giggle almost escaped her lips at the thought. “Yeah, I just stumbled over a rock…” She scanned the smooth floor around her feet for the troublesome pebble, but it was nowhere to be found. “…And fell…” her voice trailed away.

Vincent retraced his steps and stopped a few feet from her. Silently, he studied her for a long moment, during which time she shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another beneath his intent scrutiny, squinting her eyes into the bright beam of his headlamp. He could see that her shoulders slumped beneath the weight of the pack, and she’d let her head fall back against the pack as though she couldn’t hold it up any longer. He could easily conclude that she’d reached the limits of her endurance, and guilt stabbed sharply through him that he’d driven her so hard. He didn’t even know how long they’d been walking, he’d been so lost in some faraway place in his mind. He couldn’t even remember where. He’d never lost track of her though. Despite his mental meanderings. Keeping tabs on her with his ears. He’d heard every one of her footsteps. Each and every sigh. The occasional murmur that escaped her lips. The tapping of her finger on the headlamp. The funny little shushing sounds she’d made. And he’d certainly heard her cry out when she’d fallen. The sound had wrapped icy fingers around his heart, especially as his heart had not yet recovered from the abuse that beleaguered organ had sustained when he’d stepped out of the cavern to find her nowhere in sight and the railing broken. He thought he’d lost her to the undertow then. Thank the Gods, he’d found her in time. Only to nearly kill her with exhaustion. What the hell was he thinking? He wasn’t thinking. He was running. From his emotions. From her…

Vincent looked around the wide passage, the light bouncing off the smooth surfaces of the tunnel walls as he appraised the location. With a slight nod to himself, he made a decision. “We’ll stop here.”

Tifa raised her head with a start. “What? No! I’m fine, Vincent! Really! I can keep going!”

Vincent shifted his gaze back to her face. He well knew that she would walk until she dropped dead in her path. He wasn’t going to argue the point. “I’m tired,” he flatly informed her. “…And I’m hungry. We stop here.”

Tifa eyed him skeptically, particularly the way he stood in front of her with most of his weight on one foot, his stance relaxed, looking, quite frankly, as fresh as a daisy. But as long as he knew she could keep going…she didn’t care. “Well, okay, I don’t want you to get all…worn out,” she agreed hesitantly.

Vincent responded by divesting himself of his rifle, which he bent to lay carefully on the ground at his feet, and then by shrugging out of his pack and setting it easily to the ground. Somewhat at a loss, Tifa watched him as she wriggled her shoulders out of her own pack and let it drop a little too heavily to the floor of the passage. Vincent looked up at the sound of it hitting the rock with a solid thunk, and she gave him a rueful look. Then she deliberately put her back to him and started working at the buckles of his cloak. When she finally got the straps loose, she slipped the cloak off and gathering it in her hands, she turned around to offer the garment to him, only to find him smoothing his bedroll out against the stone floor.

“Are we…sleeping here?” she asked with trepidation.

“Why not?” he asked her without looking up as he sat down on the bedroll and dragged his backpack closer.

“Well…I guess I didn’t know we were…staying that…long…”

Vincent didn’t bother to respond to her comment, instead bending his head to look into the pack. Reaching in, he drew out a small table lantern and set it beside him. He flipped the light on to greatly expand the circle of light around them and chase the encroaching shadows away up the walls into the vault above them and down the passage. Removing the headlamp from his head, he switched it off and put it inside his pack. When he withdrew his hand, he’d replaced the headlamp with a couple of foil packets. Crossing his long legs, he rested one foil packet on his knee and ripped the other open with his teeth. He shook one processed meat stick out of the package, and taking it in his fingers, he rested that packet on his knee with the other one. Then he took a bite and stuck two of his sharp-tipped metal fingers into his shirt pocket to draw out a folded piece of paper. Leaving the meat stick stuck between his teeth, he unfolded the paper and spread it out in front of him. Then he took the meat stick into his fingers again and looked up at her where she still stood frozen in place watching him with the red cloak clutched in one hand at her side, the bulk of the red material puddled on the floor like a pool of blood at her feet.

When he raised curious crimson eyes from the trailing cloak to her face he found her staring blankly down at him. “Miss Lockhart?” he prompted softly.

Tifa started and her eyes snapped up to collide with his cool gaze. As though someone had hit a switch, her arm flew up with the cloak in hand. “Here’s your cloak, Vincent,” she said a bit too loudly. Her voice echoed in the space around them. “Thank you for…er…letting me use it,” she added more quietly.

Reaching up, he took it in his fingers, and she instantly released it to his possession and whirled away before he could see the bright flush of her cheeks. She busied herself with untying her own bedroll from the pack. She couldn’t even imagine what he thought, seeing her standing there in front of him like a brain-dead idiot while he’d made himself completely to home in the middle of the chilly passage. He probably thought she was waiting for an engraved invitation. ‘Miss Lockhart’ indeed. And why did he keep calling her that anyway? She felt like an old maid schoolteacher like the one she’d had in school that always wrapped her two silvered braids around her mostly bald head and always threatened to cut off the boys hands when she caught them with their hands stuffed in their pockets. He didn’t used to call her that, did he? She couldn’t remember. Maybe he had just never bothered to address her before.

”I’m so glad you’re alright, Tifa.”

Her mouth drifted ajar as the memory exploded full-blown in her mind, just as crisp and startling as the moment he’d spoken those words to her. She’d completely forgotten about that. He’d startled her then too. It was after her harrowing escape from the gas chamber in Junon and her mind-boggling leap into space from the end of the long cannon barrel to grab the rope Barrett had thrown from the Highwind. She’d been so sure that she would die then, the surface of the sea hitting her body like a slab of concrete after a several hundred foot fall, but the rope had miraculously blown into her hands just when she thought she’d missed her opportunity completely. And after that she’d found herself in charge of the Avalanche Team and in command of the Highwind. She’d felt completely off kilter, worried about Cloud and afraid that she would never see him again. And then she had come face to face with Vincent on the deck. Their eyes had met and he’d said, “I’m so glad you’re alright, Tifa.” He’d spoken softly, so that no one else could hear him, and his eyes held an odd expression that had stolen her senses, and his voice had taken on a timbre that she was unaccustomed to hearing from his mouth, one that conveyed sincerity and yes…even warmth. She hadn’t even been able to find any words to respond to him at the time. She’d just vaguely nodded her head and darted away. He’d thoroughly taken her by surprise.

Tifa gathered her bedroll under her arm and carried it over to the wall, hazarding a glance at Vincent as she dropped the bundle at her feet. His head was bent over the paper and he had one finger on the map as he lifted the meat stick to his mouth with his metal talons. She shook her head in dismissal. There was no way she’d seen in Vincent’s face or heard in his voice what she thought she had that day. It had been her imagination. Remnants of the deadly gas she’d breathed into her lungs. An invention of her tortured mind. Still, he had called her ‘Tifa’, she was pretty sure of that, even if her overactive imagination had concocted the rest, and she wished that he would again. She saw no point in standing on formality under the circumstances. Maybe she’d tell him so. Someday. Easing to her unbruised knee, she unfurled the bedroll against the cool rock wall and smoothed the wrinkles out with both hands.

“Don’t put your bedroll against the wall,” Vincent suddenly said. His voice echoed in the soundless passage and made her jump. She looked around to find him still studying the map.

“Why not?”

“There may be rock spiders,” he responded without looking up.

“Rock…spiders?” she asked uncertainly.

“Eight-legged arthropods that are…”

“I know what spiders are…” she interjected.

Vincent continued as though she hadn’t spoken. “…Indigenous to the Mythril Mountains and might well inhabit the Midgar Mountains as well.”

“Well…I’m not afraid of spiders…” she assured him.

“Commendable. However, you should be aware that Striped-Back Rock Spiders do convey a seriously painful bite, injecting a necrotizing venom that will result in the decomposition of all tissue adjacent to the bite. As Rock Spiders live in tiny pits in exposed rock faces and are drawn to warmth, your body heat might well draw them out, should you sleep near the wall.”

Tifa promptly stood up and dragged her bedroll to the middle of the passage, dropping it to the ground a few feet from where he sat. Feeling mildly annoyed, she dropped to the bedroll and stretched her legs out in front of her. Then she followed Vincent’s example, dragging her backpack over to unzip it and explore the contents that he’d packed for her. As she let her fingers travel over spare batteries and a couple of extra headlamps, a couple of folded garments that looked like extra shirts, and a copious supply of foil packets, she pondered the fact that Vincent had finally decided to talk, but he wasn’t exactly being a barrel of laughs. Rock Spiders. She’d never heard of such a thing. She wondered briefly if he’d made them up to tease her. She darted a quick look at his bowed head. Nah, he wouldn’t bother. She should probably thank him for saving her from the giant ravenous Striped-Back Rock Spiders. A smile came to her lips. At least she could figure he wasn’t mad at her anymore if he took the time to warn her. Or maybe he just didn’t want to deal with somebody covered with rotting rock spider bites…rock spiders…

Tifa discarded her almost spent headlamp into the bag and drew out a handful of foil packets, discovering to her delight that Vincent had packed the cereal bars she loved so much. She knew he couldn’t have missed noticing how many of the things she’d devoured, as evidenced by the number of crumpled empty packets he’d thrown away. She let several packets slip through her fingers to tumble to the soft bedroll. Then she shoved her backpack away and picked one up. As she tore the packet open, she glanced over at the map that lay on the floor between the two of them. Leaning in, she examined the squiggly weave of lines as she lifted the bar to her mouth.

“Can you tell how far we’ve gone?” she asked hopefully. She couldn’t tell a single thing from the map herself.

Vincent planted a finger on the map. “We are between here and…” He moved a finger a few inches along a pair of lines. “…Here.”

“And where is the exit again?”

Vincent lifted his hand and replanted his finger on the far side of the map.

Tifa well knew where it started. At the damn waterfall. “That’s all?!” she asked with dismay.

“We’ve traveled much further than I had estimated we would,” Vincent coolly informed her.

“I…I guess…I just didn’t realize it was so…far…” she replied in a small voice. The enormity of the distance they had left to travel suddenly hit home. “We have so far yet…to go…”

Vincent nodded curtly in agreement and reached out to fold up the map. Tucking the neatly creased square of paper back into his shirt pocket, he gathered the discarded cloak up, and after shaking it out, threw the cloak loosely around his body and stretched out on the bedding, rolling to his side to present his back to Tifa.

She stopped chewing and stared at Vincent’s motionless form for several seconds as she waited to see if he would say or do anything else, but she eventually had to admit that he was done for the time being. Well…good night to you too, Mr. Valentine. She frowned at his unresponsive back. Abruptly, she decided that she was done too. Scooping up the rest of the unopened cereal bars, she dumped them in the unzipped backpack and shoved the pack away from her with unnecessary force.

Several minutes later, after she’d kicked off her boots and peeled off her still damp socks, and after she’d wrestled the army blanket from beneath her, she rolled herself up tightly into a warm cocoon, just incase the rock spiders came calling. She pointedly put her back to her traveling companion who’d apparently already fallen asleep, and ducked her head beneath the edge of the blanket. She closed her eyes, and everything went dark. Too dark, in fact.

Tifa opened her eyes to find herself staring into darkness unlike any she’d ever experienced. The longer she stared into it, the blacker it got. She wasn’t afraid of the dark. But this was more than dark. This was a black hole of lightlessness that sucked every ounce of breath from her lungs and took the air for its own. Suffocating and alive. Pulsing and predatory. She worked a breath past her tight throat.

“Vincent,” she whispered hoarsely. “Did you…turn off...the light?”

Several heartbeats throbbed at her temple as she waited for an answer, and as often happened when waiting for him to speak, she’d almost decided that he would not when he finally did.

“Yes,” he replied softly

“Um…why?” she whispered back.

“To conserve the battery.”

“But…something…er…really hungry…might sneak up in the dark…while we’re sleeping.”

“I will hear,” he assured her.

“But…but…” Tifa’s voice lowered to a barely audible murmur in her anxiety, hardly more than a wordless movement of her lips. “…What if it’s very…very…quiet?” Like something walking on tiny rock spider legs.

The light suddenly exploded into her staring eyes, and startled, she fell onto her back and turned her head in Vincent’s direction, blinking for a few seconds before she could actually see him. Propped up on his prosthetic arm with his right hand still on the lamp switch, he watched her with one crimson eye, the other covered by the fall of his ebony hair across his face. She gaped at him with pent breath.

“I will still hear,” he bluntly informed her. “However, you may have your light.” That said, he removed his hand from the lamp and resettled himself on the bedroll, again shifting to put his back to her.

“Thank you…Vincent…” she breathed her relief.

“Sleep well,” he replied quietly. She waited for a moment to see if he would follow with a ‘Miss Lockhart”, but he didn’t make another peep. Apparently, he’d said all he meant to. “You too…” she managed to say just before a huge, jaw-stretching yawn captured her mouth. Only minutes later, she passed from wakefulness to slumber completely unaware.

Attuned to her every breath, Vincent knew when Tifa finally surrendered to her dreams, and against his better judgment, he carefully rolled back to his left side so that he could see her. His lashes drifted downward in his amusement at how little she’d left him to view. Only the very crown of her head peeping from the top of her blanket cocoon and the slender sole of one bare foot that had escaped its confinement.

Vincent lost track of time as he gazed lazily at her exposed foot, mentally tracing the line of her arch with a gentle finger in his imagination, until she stirred and his mind snapped back to reality. With a quiet huff of despair at the easy relinquishment of his vow, he fell onto his back and stared into the dark veil of the spaces beyond the protective dome of lamplight.

He had to admit, he’d truly extinguished the lamp for this very reason. He knew he’d be tempted to study her while she slept, his silent appraisal unbeknownst to her. Extending the life of the battery was indeed a valid reason, but still just an excuse. Yet, he didn’t mind leaving the light on for her, despite his weakness. He’d been fighting the urge to turn it on anyway. The darkness had pressed cruel fingers into his wide eyes, driven a thick miasma of mold and dirt into his lungs, increasingly squeezed his heart in vengeful fingers… Too much like the inside of a coffin…too much like the grave… And so her argument had been easily won. He could not have denied her…anyway.

Impulsively, he turned his cheek against the blanket beneath him to shift his gaze from the darkness high above him back to the tightly cocooned form of Tifa Lockhart. With a weary sigh, he swept his hand across his face to cover his eyes, purposefully blocking her from his sight. He couldn’t hide from the truth any longer. He knew very well that sleep would elude him. He wasn’t even tired, and he did not relish lying on the bedroll for long hours, tossing and turning, going through whatever mental contortions he could manage to keep from thinking of her. At this point, there was only one course of action available to him. He cracked two fingers apart to find her foot in approximately the same position he’d last seen it, and then he deliberately uncovered his face and shoved himself up from his bed to reach for his backpack. He would just have to find distraction in his book.

Ozzie gazed with interest at the structures in the distance, the outline of the small village barely distinguishable in the shadowed cradle of the mountain range, the waning light of early evening hardly encroaching into the deep gloom of the mountain valley. “What d’ya think, Bari?”

The tall warrior tilted his head in thought as he listened to the barely audible hammering in the distant, and even as he scrutinized the confines of the faraway village, a street lamp flared into life, and shortly after that, another one. His decision made, he clasped his hands at the small of his back and squared his shoulders. “We wait, Ozwan,” he bluntly replied. “Until the town has gone to sleep.”

Ozzie turned displeased eyes up to his companion’s stolid face. “But…that could be hours, Bari,” he whined.

“Then we will wait hours.” Baron abruptly sank to the soft meadow grass, folding his legs beneath him.

“But…I’m hungry…”

Baron turned golden eyes striated with onyx up to his friend’s sullen face. “Would you like me to procure a rabbit for you, Ozwan?”

Ozzie’s face took on a green tint at the suggestion. “Er…no thank you…Bari. I’ll pass. If I eat rabbit, I want it to be cooked.”

Baron easily shrugged his indifference. “If you must.”

Ozzie began to pace back and forth with a marked limp, the tall meadow grass swishing against his trousers as he walked. Baron crossed his arms and settled down to contemplate their upcoming entrance into the secluded village, but he found himself incapable of coherent thought with Ozzie sighing loudly each time he passed him. Finally, the warrior straightened in place and waved a hand around them. “These meadows are renowned for a wide variety of flowering flora, Ozwan. Why don’t you examine the plants in the area,” he blithely suggested. “You did wish to collect one for Vendra, as I recall.”

Ozzie visibly brightened at Baron’s words. “I did, didn’t I? Do you think there would still be flowers around this close to autumn?”

“I’ve heard that flowers grow in these meadows until the first freeze, Ozwan. In the fall, Astras and Nygarias abound. Perhaps you might find some of those about.”

“Well…aren’t you an encyclopedia of knowledge…” Ozzie remarked with an edge of sarcasm.

“What is the point of maintaining a static level of ignorance?” Baron queried coolly. “Knowledge is power, after all.”

Ozzie rolled his eyes at his friend. “You are wrong, Bari. Money is power. If you have money, you can be as ignorant as you want and still run the show.”

A smug smile came to Baron’s thin lips. “Truly, Ozwan. You are correct. I’ve seen your premise borne out many times. Usually with predictable consequences.”

Ozzie grinned obliviously at his friend’s backhanded agreement. “You see? I do know something.”

“Why don’t you go find your flower, Ozwan,” Baron urged with the quirk of one dark eyebrow. “…Before the light grows too dim to see.”

Ozzie snapped his fingers. “I will do just that. Right now.” The blonde man pulled the brim of his hat low and strode away as Baron deliberately closed his eyes in preparation for deep thought. Then the blonde gunman cried out with triumph, and Baron’s eyes popped wide as he heard the swish of the grass against Ozzie’s trousers as the man hastily returned.

“Lookie, Bari! I found one already.” He stopped in front of Baron and waved a roughly harvested plant beneath the warrior’s nose. Baron scrutinized the wide serrated leaves and the black speckled dingy gray bristly petals. He curled his nose at the stench emanating from the flower.

“That is a weed, Ozwan,” Baron chided the man. “A suitable gift for Vendra, perhaps, but not one she would overly appreciate. I doubt that you would wish to ignite her volatile temper.”

Ozzie lifted the flowering weed to his own nose and grimaced at the pungent aroma. “Er…no.” Dismissively, he threw the weed aside. “What do these…Astergias and Nystras look like anyway? I’ll go look for some of those.”

“Astras are white with red streaks and Nygarias are purple with yellow centers,” Baron replied with careful patience as he wondered what had possessed him to suggest flower hunting in the first place.

“Thanks, friend,” Ozzie sang exuberantly as he turned and trotted away, only slightly favoring his injured leg now. “I bet I can find them right away.”

“Don’t go far, Ozwan,” Baron thought to call after him at the last moment. “There are wolves about.”

Ozzie patted the guns beneath his coat. “Got it covered, Bari. Those stupid wolves better look out for me.”

Baron watched his partner hurry away as he silently prayed that the Astras and Nygarias lay far afield. Then he closed his eyes to meditate and ponder his ill fortune of late.

Maya had only made it around the second bend in the trail before Angel decided to take control of matters. He didn’t think it wise to allow her to climb into the mountains at so late an hour. The Nibel Mountains were not a place for a woman alone at any time, but the denizens of the mountain terrain were particularly active at dusk. And he’d been telling her as much, but none of his vehement protests seemed to reach her. He possessed only one course of action if he wished to make his point.

Folding his wings, he fell toward the ground like an arrow with hooked beak guiding him to his target. Spreading his wings wide at the last possible second, he settled lightly to the worn earthen path a mere yard in front of her running feet. Holding his wings wide, he screeched a command for her to stop, but she simply darted around him. He squawked in annoyance and took flight again, this time swooping close over her head to pluck at her hair with a claw as he passed. She brushed an impatient hand at her hair, but she kept running.

Frustration overcoming his good senses, he pulled his avian body into the air on flapping wings only to fall directly at her face, screaming ‘stop’ in his mind the whole way. He caught sight of her startled wide eyes just as he swooped away mere inches from collision with her forehead. Wheeling on wing to come back around, Angel noted, with a hint of pride, that his last maneuver had met with success. Maya had come to a complete and somewhat dazed halt in the trail. Feeling somewhat smug, Angel settled to a perch on a nearby outcropping in preparation for mental conversation only to find his gloating short-lived when Maya stooped to the ground and came up with a rock clutched in her fingers.

Whirling around, she spotted him almost instantly and let the rock fly. “Get away from me you stupid bird!” she screamed. “Leave me alone!”

Cannot! Cannot! Angel cried back in his thoughts as he hopped with widespread wings to the side, the rock passing harmlessly just beneath one wing.

Maya bent again, and this time came up with a rock in each hand. “Go away!” she screeched. Drawing back her arm, she fired one missile at him with a shriek, her loosened hair flying around her as she moved. At the wild look in her green eyes, Angel deemed it wise to do as she wished. Wings flapping noisily, he took to the air.

Maya watched him go, and then she lifted her arm and lowered her eyes to study the one remaining rock in her hand. As she stared, her anger ebbed away and her reason returned in the wake. Guiltily, she opened her fingers and let the rock fall to the ground at her feet. What was the matter with her? Throwing rocks at the poor bird…

A tiny cry of distress at her aberrant behavior escaped her lips, and she dashed to the edge of the trail where she collapsed onto a flat-topped boulder and buried her face in her hands. For long moments, she sat like that, until the bird spoke in her mind.

…Talk now…

Maya lifted her head to find Angel perched on another narrow outcropping just across the way, frozen into stillness as though he were a decoration adorning the corner ledge of a grand government building. Shamefaced, she redirected her sorrowful gaze to the ground at her feet. I’m…sorry….

…No matter…where go you?

“I could have hurt you…” she murmured aloud.

…Aim too…poor…

Maya sensed Angel’s amusement, and she raised her eyes to the still figure of the regal bird again. “Maybe I missed on purpose,” she retorted.

…Maybe…no matter…where go you?

“I…I don’t know…” she replied, her voice taking on a hint of unsteadiness as she recalled the mindlessness of her headlong flight. “…I was just…going…”

Why run? What seek?

She shook her head uncertainly. “I don’t know…escape…I guess…”

No escape here. Danger only. Maya merely shrugged. Dragons did not scare her. Wolves did not…scare her. No…it was…nothing…like…that…it was…

Go back…sunset soon…

Frowning at the interruption of the idea that was trying to form in her mind, Maya absently nodded even as she tried to regain her focus on the path her thoughts had been traveling. She sensed herself on the verge of an important discovery.

Angel appraised the immobile figure of the preoccupied woman as he tried to decide whether to urge her more passionately to return to the village or whether to deem it fortunate to have halted her flight into the mountains and leave her be to think while he simply maintained his vigil. He had almost concluded the latter to be the best course of action when a subtle movement down the trail drew his immediate attention. His head came up to pin one unblinking onyx eye on the spot where the trail meandered past a sharp stone abutment. Within a minute, he was rewarded with a glimpse of red curling tresses, the curve of a delicate cheekbone and one narrowed blue eye.

She’s here.

Angel’s troubled announcement filled her mind and chased away all other thought. Maya lifted her head. She opened her mouth to voice her question, but realized just in time that she should not. She focused her emerald eyes on his tensely poised head. Who’s here, Angel?

The bad one…evil one…she follows…she hides…

Maya’s stomach did a flip flop at Angel’s identification. The Widow Day. The woman Nessa had told her to avoid. She knew that would not be possible if she lurked on the trail back to town. Still, she could limit their contact. Forcing her thoughts to calmness, she came gracefully to her feet. “Time to go home, Angel,” she said aloud. She offered her arm to him, and he flew from his perch to her upheld wrist, instantly hopping from there to her shoulder as Maya turned into the lane to retrace her steps to the village.

As she expected, the Widow Day stepped into her path when she drew near the natural stone abutment. After all, the woman had nowhere to go really, and she knew that Maya would find her out when she passed her hiding place. Maya ignored the butterflies dancing in her stomach as she nodded to the Widow Day, stepping off the path to walk around her. “Good evening, Mrs. Day.” Maya passed her and moved on. She planned to give her little opportunity to converse. However, Margret Day did not plan to accommodate her.

“How is your mother, Flower Girl?”

Maya froze in mid-step. “My mother is…”

No! Angel shouted in her mind.

Maya caught a breath. She had almost said “dead”, and Angel had known what she meant to say.

Maya turned her head to offer Margret Day a little smile. “…Resting at the Inn. She’s had a busy day.”

A chilly smile rose to Mrs. Day’s painted lips. “Oh really? Are you sure your mother is not in Sector Five? Weeping for the daughter who has forsaken her?”

Maya’s throat closed, and the smile faded away. “What…”

Speak not! Angel commanded. She seeks to trick you!

Maya turned her face away and directed her feet back to the trail. “You seem to have me mistaken for someone else, Mrs. Day. I know who my mother is, even if you do not.”

“I don’t believe the Blackwoods are your parents,” Margret Day proclaimed to Maya’s departing back.

“Believe what you like, Mrs. Day.” Maya replied with forced indifference. “Good evening to you.”

Maya managed to put several feet between herself and the Widow Day before the woman spoke again, this time her voice several degrees colder.

“That’s an interesting bird you have, Flower Girl. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen his like. Where did you acquire him?”

Maya’s feet faltered to a stop. “I don’t think that’s any of your business,” she replied a bit weakly.

“I was only curious,” Margret replied offhandedly. “Do you have a need to hide his origin?”

Maya pasted an insincere smile on her face and turned back to study the widow with steady green eyes. “If you must know, my father purchased him from a man in Mideel for my sixteenth birthday. The man claimed to have captured him in the Ancient Jungle.”

Margret lowered her eyes demurely. “I see. Well then. You should keep a close eye on him. It would be a pity to lose such a valuable gift.” Maya eyed her warily. Despite the falsely innocent face and overly sweet voice, she could easily detect the thinly veiled threat in the woman’s warning, and the idea that the widow would deliberately harm Angel made her sick to her stomach.

…Woman best watch herself…

Angel’s menacing growl in her mind made her smile. She inclined her head at the widow. “Well…we watch out for each other,” she replied lightly. Then she purposefully put her back to the Widow Day, lifted her chin and strolled away.

The widow didn’t take her eyes from the girl’s back nor did the sleek white and silver bird remove his cold onyx eye from the redheaded woman’s face, until Maya rounded the bend in the trail, and she and the bird disappeared from the widow’s view.

Tifa stirred beneath her blanket, and Vincent raised his eyes from the book for the hundred and first time. He had to admit that he wasn’t making much progress in the story despite the hours spent reading the words. Tifa had slept restlessly and every move she made, every twitch and every murmur, had instantly drawn him from the tale.

Now he watched with interest as she worked a hand from inside her blanket cocoon to rub a fist at one eye. Vincent promptly closed the book and leaned across to return the book to his pack. By the time he brought his attention back to her face, she was blinking sleepily in his direction.

Uneasy at her drowsy regard, Vincent folded his arms and redirected his gaze to the wrinkled material of the bedroll just beyond his crossed legs. He followed her movements only with his ears as she freed herself from her blankets and rose to her feet. He heard her yawn, and he chanced a sideways look at her through the veil of his dangling bangs to see her reaching her arms well above her head as she balanced on the tips of her bare toes, her back arched into the stretch. Instantly, he looked away and chided himself bitterly for even looking as the image teased his mind.

Tifa settled back to her heels and rested curious eyes on Vincent’s bent head. The thought came to her then, that Vincent almost seemed to be purposely ignoring her, and she decided she wasn’t going to let him get away with it. She was rested and ready for battle, even if her enemy was Vincent’s silence. She purposefully cleared her throat.

“So…Vincent…how long have you been awake?" At her casual question, he bent his head lower and the bulk of his hair fell against his cheeks. She tilted her head inquisitively as she tried to see the profile of his face through his hanging tresses.

“A while,” he replied tightly. She detected the hint of strain in his voice and rethought her decision to force conversation on him. She probably should just leave him alone. He’d apparently got up on the wrong side of the bedroll. She unconsciously shrugged away a vague sense of hurt and lowered herself to the rumpled bed to reach for her socks. Happily, she discovered that they’d completely dried during her nap, and she leaned over to stretch one sock over a foot.

“You should rest longer.”

At Vincent’s quiet words, she looked up from beneath her brows to find equally quiet eyes on her face. Slowly, she shook her head. “I don’t need to,” she flatly informed him. “I’m ready to go.” She watched Vincent’s lips compress into a thin line, and she nervously returned her attention to her sock.

Vincent watched her wriggle the sock onto her slender foot, the same foot he’d made a prolonged study of during her slumber, in fact. He’d almost opened his mouth to argue with her, specifically to inform her that she’d only slept for a few hours at best, and that she had slept restlessly the entire time, but he’d clamped his mouth closed on the words when he realized that the information would reveal too much.

He drew his intent regard from her foot to her busy fingers, and then to her determined face. With a slight nod to himself, he rose to his feet. Stepping around to the head of his blankets, he knelt on one knee and reached hand and claw to roll up the bedding. Feeling her gaze on his face, he looked up to meet the question in her brown eyes. He hooded his own eyes and inclined his head. “You are right, Miss Lockhart. We’ve no reason to tarry longer.” As a matter of fact, Miss Lockhart, idle tarrying with you about is an especially pointless endeavor, he added silently. Then he broke his gaze with her completely and set to work meticulously repacking his barely disturbed bedroll.

Tifa stared at him for a long moment, her fingers stilled at the cuff of her sock. For some reason, she seemed caught by the way his thick dark lashes shadowed his pale cheekbones in the soft white glow of the battery powered lamp as he bent to his task. At some point, she realized that she would get nothing done for all her staring, and with a deprecating shake of her head, she reached for her other sock. If she didn’t hurry, he’d be standing over her waiting while she tied her shoelaces, and that idea really made her nervous.

“I’m surprised you would leave ole Reevers all alone in the city,” Reno idly remarked as he sent the chopper shooting straight up into the soft pastel pink and blue of the dawn sky.

For the last half hour, the whole of his attention had been bent to the business of successfully completing yet another harrowing flight through the web of twisted catwalks and fallen conduits and dangling electrical cables, all waiting to entangle his rotor blades. But now that he had once again escaped the city of Midgar with the chopper intact, he had slumped in boneless relief into the pilot’s seat and turned part of his mind to chatting, an activity that came to him naturally, unless he had ample reason to keep quiet, such as when he was asleep or when he was eating. During surveillance…while silently intimidating others…eavesdropping…kissing…etc…

Caitlin didn’t respond to his teasing comment, so he turned to inspect her stiff face through his shades. She slowly turned her head to meet his hidden gaze with one of her own. She’d cloaked her azure eyes behind the shades he’d given her earlier to facilitate her disguise as a Turk. If it weren’t for the slightly blotchy appearance of her lily complexion that indicated she’d been crying, her cool demeanor could pass for that of any Turk.

“Why do you say that, Reno?” she inquired with a chilliness that suggested he might better watch where his conversation took him. Unfortunately for her, he didn’t find her implied warning particularly unsettling at the moment.

“Well…hey…you obviously still have the hots for the guy,” he pondered aloud, absently turning his attention back to the windscreen as he sent the chopper forward. “Any blind fool could see that.” He glanced at her face to see that her brows had drawn together and the corners of her mouth had turned down. He shrugged playfully. “I mean…there’s really no reason for you to leave, is there?” he asked rhetorically. “So…as I said…I’m surprised that you would.”

Caitlin refrained from replying as Reno flew the chopper out over the Midgar Plains and brought the machine to a hover several yards out from the headquarters tent. Deftly, he manipulated the controls to send the chopper floating slowly downward. He darted another look at her to find that she’d turned her head away to peer down out of the passenger side window. He smiled impishly at the back of her head. “In fact, Caitlin, one would think that some…” He paused for emphasis. “Unknown factor…drives your decision to go.”

Caitlin turned her head back to study his smirk through the dark shades. She knew he wasn’t just talking about her decision to leave Reeve behind in Midgar, but her intention of leaving him behind to return to her isolated home on the island. However, she decided to deliberately misunderstand Reno’s question for the purposes of evasion.

“You saw to his security yourself, Reno. Did you not?” She raised an imperious golden eyebrow from behind the dark shades.

“Why yes…I surely did,” Reno readily agreed. He had ordered the Shinra Building cleared of all civilians and surrounded the executive with General Sand’s handpicked guards. Scarlet and Gellner were locked up in adjacent cells where they could torment each other for hours upon end. He had plans to question the ex-head of the weapons program more closely later, especially in regard to the blonde gunman and the Katana man, who had apparently given up his katana for some rather decorative but equally lethal knives. He could hardly imagine that Scarlet would be behind the two would-be kidnapper/murderers, but on the other hand, he could hardly imagine two separate plots of such breadth converging without some connection. Only further exploration of the matter would reveal the truth, and he would definitively find out one way or another. Of that he was confident.

The engineer, Cornell, had been restored to Reeve’s command at Reeve’s request. It had taken awhile to find him, as Scarlett had refused to say where she’d imprisoned him, but Gellner had given up the information readily enough, once Reno himself joined the interrogation. So the engineer had been freed from the room she’d locked him in and given medical treatment for the huge lump on his skull. Reno shuddered to think what Scarlett had planned to do with him. He could well imagine. At any rate, the engineer had set to work despite his pervasive dizziness and had restored the lights to Sector Three and overseen the repair of most of the damage done by Scarlett’s temporary possession of the military and Midgar. In addition, Reeve’s televised remarks had gone far to soothe the population’s insecurity and distress, especially when he’d ordered the military to let everybody move about as they wished. As for communication, Reeve had restored his commpad to full operation and contacted Rude. The Turk had subsequently reached a sleeping Coakley through Cait Sith and the VR equipment. Reeve’s trusty assistant had duly rejoined the executive, thus providing two means of keeping in touch with Mr. Alexander and vice versa. If anything untoward occurred, he would have aid at his disposal within half an hour. Caitlin could definitely be assured that all would be well. As long as the city didn’t collapse. He could hardly prevent that. Despite his repertoire of talents.

“Barring natural disasters, your sweetie is sitting high and dry,” Reno added smugly.

“Good,” Caitlin replied approvingly. “You’ve done your job well, Reno.”

Reno frowned at her as he set the chopper skids gently on the hard packed ground. She sounded too much like a Shinra President just then. Caitlin drew the glasses from her face and met his hidden gaze head on. “There is no reason for me to stay, Reno, and I’ve business matters to attend to.”

His frown deepened. “Such as?” he asked silkily.

“First, I want to speak to Cornelius. Do you know where he might be?”

Reno studied her serene face as he wondered at her desire to meet with Rufus Shinra’s personal attorney. “He’s probably in Junon or in Costa del Sol chasing babes on the beach.”

Caitlin absently nodded as she chewed her lip in thought. “Well, I’ll have to send Rude for him, then.”

“I could go,” he suggested. The idea of wasting some time seeking out Cornelius appealed to him.

Caitlin’s eyes sharpened on Reno’s face. “Ah no. I think the time has come for us to have a serious chat, Reno. Just you and me.”

The corner of Reno’s mouth went up in amusement. “That so? What about? Are you ready to express your undying love for me?”

A cool smile came to Caitlin’s lips, and Reno pondered the evidence that Caitlin Shinra had overcome her earlier uncertainty and definitely seemed to be comporting herself more in the manner one would expect of a Shinra. “Reno, I have no doubt that you know exactly what we will discuss.” The one eyebrow went up again. “Don’t you?”

Reno’s smile turned just as cool as hers. “Oh, I suspect that I do.”

“Good. Then Rude will go for Cornelius, and we’ll have our discussion.”

“Your wish is my wish, Ms. Shinra.”

Strangely, Reno felt an odd sense of relief when Caitlin frowned. “Don’t call me that, Reno,” she admonished. “How many times do I have to tell you?” The Caitlin he had retrieved from the island had not completely disappeared.

“My apologies. I’ve a slippery memory.”

“Somehow, I doubt that…” Caitlin replied, raising her eyes to the two people approaching the chopper. “Speaking of sweeties, Reno…” Caitlin said teasingly. “…Here comes yours.”

Reno turned his gaze to the Captain and the blonde Turk drawing near. “Hmm…despite whatever rumors you might have heard, Caitlin, I can assure you that there is absolutely nothing between Captain Highwind and myself other than a cigarette or two.”

Caitlin swung the chopper door open and set one foot on the outer step, a smile on her lips at Reno’s inane and purposely evasive comment. “Perhaps…but the same would not be true of you and…Elena.”

Caitlin jumped down to the ground and turned back to watch Reno as he silently studied Elena through the windscreen with tight-lipped regard. “Don’ t get any ideas about Elena and me,” he said bluntly. “Won’t ever happen.”

Caitlin’s gaze turned curious. “Why is that?”

“I’m not her type.”

The azure eyes narrowed with a newfound knowledge. “Ah…I see…you’re afraid of her…” Caitlin mused aloud.

Reno snorted derisively and drew his shades down to pin her with glittering green eyes. “Afraid? Of Elena? You’re a laugh a minute, Caitlin.”

Caitlin met his gaze with smiling eyes. “I don’t think so, Reno. I think you’re afraid a relationship with Elena would be more than you can handle.”

The smirk vanished from Reno’s lips and the laughter from his eyes. “She is my subordinate,” he curtly explained. “I’d be a fool to become involved with her.”

Caitlin shifted a thoughtful gaze to the blonde woman who had halted just a few feet beyond the nose of the chopper and now waited with crossed arms, her uneasy hazel eyes focused on the windscreen of the helicopter. “Well…Reno…I’ve been contemplating a decision to disband the Turks. Do you think that would solve the problem for you?” Without another word or look at him, she walked away and rounded the chopper to meet the Captain.

Reno let his head fall back against the headrest. He’d expected just such an eventuality, but to hear her actually voice the possibility left him feeling hollow. He closed his eyes wearily behind the dark shades. Rude would be lost without the Turks. He couldn’t even imagine what Rude would do then. And Elena…she would be very upset. In fact, she’d probably pick up her toys and go home. To Costa del Sol. The thought made him feel emptier still.

Baron stealthily closed the front door of the Shinra Mansion behind him and blindly took a couple of steps away from the entrance only to promptly bump into Ozzie in the darkness.

“What are you doing, Ozwan?” Baron hissed beneath his breath.

“I can’t see a goddamn thing, Bari,” Ozzie snapped loudly in the silent room. His voice echoed above and around them. “Are you sure this is the right place?”

“What does Vendra’s marker say, Ozwan?” Baron inquired coldly. He was growing weary of Ozwan’s company. He needed to get away from the man, take a long run through the woods, and relinquish his humanness for the wild.

“All right, already,” Ozzie sniffed. “I know what the marker says.” He drew a small flashlight from his coat pocket and switched it on. He lifted the light to shine the beam in front of him. An orange orb with squinty eyes appeared in the light. Ozzie screamed shrilly and dropped the flashlight. It hit the floor at his feet and went out. “What the hell was that, Bari?” he asked in a high, tight voice.

“I don’t know,” Baron replied tiredly as he stepped around Ozwan to view the figure floating several feet in front of his partner. With his superior vision, he could just barely make it out in the ambient light from the streetlamps on the lane outside, now that his eyes had adjusted. The thing, whatever it was, seemed to be asleep. Baron bent to retrieve the flashlight that had rolled up against his toes. He turned on the light and illuminated the object again. In the flash of an eye, Ozzie drew his gun and fired it several times, the reports crashing in the silent foyer as he aerated the creature until it finally fell to the floor with a heavy thump.

Impulsively, Baron cuffed Ozzie hard in the back of the head and knocked off his hat. “Ow!” Ozzie cried out. Bending, he snatched up his hat and whirled around to glare at Baron. “What the hell’d you do that for?” he growled.

“Be happy that’s all I did, Ozwan.” Baron snarled back between gritted teeth. “I should just kill you and be done with it. A rock possesses more intelligence than you. At least a rock has the good sense to be quiet.”

Ozzie sniffed his disdain. “Well…a rock doesn’t really have any choice, now does it, Bari?”

Baron whipped the knife from his sash and lifted it menacingly in front of him. “Do not tempt me further, Ozwan.”

Ozzie waved a gloved hand dismissively. “Oh, quit already, Bari.” He put his back to the incensed warrior and walked away.

Baron took a step with the thought of grabbing the tall, scrawny gunman around the neck and slitting his throat when a voice rang out in the great hall and foiled his plot. “Who’s there?”

“Vendra?” Ozzie called out in his excitement when his eyes found the womanly silhouette starkly visible against the glazed windows along the upper landing.

“Gods…I should have known…” the woman voiced her despair. “Come upstairs, boys. Away from the front windows.” The wraith of a woman slipped away and shortly after a wall lamp flickered on at the base of the stairs and another at the top of the landing.

“Let’s go, Bari,” Ozzie waved him on as he strode toward the stairs. “The lovely lady beckons.”

With a keen sense of reluctance, Baron carefully returned the knife to his sash as he watched Ozwan take the stairs two at a time. With the blade secreted, he forced himself to cross the great hall. Muttering beneath his breath, he ascended the wide stairs with a great deal more decorum than his irritating partner. He noticed that Ozwan had already vanished into the dark recesses of the hallway at the end of the upper landing. He was probably offering Vendra his small bundle of meadow flowers at that very moment, the petals broken and crushed from riding in his coat pocket. He imagined that Vendra would probably make Ozwan eat them, and the thought of Ozwan’s face as he chewed them up one by one made him smile. Nygarias were particularly bitter he knew. And Astras acted as a natural laxative. Sadly, neither was toxic.

By the time Caitlin stopped in front of Captain Highwind, the entire contingent had gathered around him. The tall mountain of a man with mocha skin and beetled brow seemingly locked in a permanent frown stood just behind the Captain. Caitlin noted that his angry gaze seemed fixed on the windscreen of the chopper where Reno still sat. Elena had scrutinized the windscreen of the chopper for a long while herself, and then with an imperious lift of her chin, she had walked away. Caitlin made note of the slip of a girl with penetrating black eyes and petulant expression that stood to the Captain’s left elbow and the platinum haired man with the torn jeans and sneakers who stood on her other side. She recognized both from the previous night, although she didn't quite remember their names. As she reached to take Highwind’s offered hand, she sought out and found Rude standing just outside the tent flap watching her from behind his fathomless shades. Even as she gave him a tentative smile, Elena walked past him and threw the tent flap back, disappearing inside.

“Good to see you back, Caitlin,” the Captain said as he shook her hand with marked exuberance. “Glad to be back, Captain Highwind,” she replied in kind before gently tugging her hand free from the Captain’s painfully tight grip. “I hear you have the Cat Man all lined out now,” Cid remarked with a mild question in his blue eyes. Caitlin smiled and lowered her lashes as her eyes threatened to tear up again. “Yes, Captain, we’ve done our part.” She shifted her eyes to the distant excavation of the Sector Two gate, uneasily noting the general lack of activity around the site. A crane operator worked to drag a heavy slab of concrete away while a bulldozer driver on the other side of the excavation ponderously moved a pile of loose debris with his blade. The rest of the crew had apparently left, except for a couple of mechanics donned in thick gloves who stood to the side waiting for the crane to move the concrete impediment. She frowned slightly. Obviously the Captain had not been able to follow through on his vow to open the gate by morning. “I’m afraid the rest is up to you, Captain Highwind,” she said grimly.

Cid noticed her frown, and he knew the reason for it. “Reeve asked me to make Sector Five the first priority. He believes that they probably don’t have a lot of time left.” Caitlin nodded her understanding. She had left Reeve in charge, so she couldn’t argue with his instructions. Besides, he knew the city, and she didn’t.

“I don’t have all the equipment I need,” Cid further explained. “…So I’m sending young Heidegger here…” He nodded his head toward the attentive young man. “…To Junon for more equipment and manpower. More medical supplies and personnel too. We’ll need more hands to excavate both sites.”

Again, she nodded. “When will he leave?” she asked with interest. She shifted her eyes to the young man’s startling blue eyes. He respectfully inclined his head.

“Within the hour. We just got the plane winched out of the hole she was in and got her turned in the right direction,” the Captain explained.

“Good,” Caitlin said with approval. “Rude can escort the plane to Junon.”

“Rude?” The Captain raised his eyebrows. “A Turk escort? Why?” Highwind glanced over at Rude who had heard the mention of his name and was now walking over to join the discussion.

Caitlin held her tongue for the few seconds it took for Rude to come to a stop at her elbow. “Rude is going to Junon for me anyway. I have a pressing matter for him to handle.” She looked up to see Rude impassively peering down at her through his shades, patiently waiting for what she would say.

Cid’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “What matter?”

“Yeah, what matter?” Barrett echoed in a low growl.

Caitlin’s eyes widened at the barely concealed animosity in the big man’s voice and the distrust clearly written on the Captain’s face. She tilted her head in bemusement at her naivetée. She would do well to remember that not so long ago Avalanche had drawn a line in the dirt and challenged Shinra to step on over. A wry smile came to her lips. “I’m sending him for my attorney,” she explained evenly. “I need him to arrange disbursement of Shinra funds to provide aid for the Midgar refugees.”

The suspicion left the Captain’s eyes, but Barrett’s eyes narrowed in disbelief. “Why would ya do that?” he demanded.

“Cool yer jets, Barrett,” Cid admonished. “Let’s give the lady a chance before we shoot her.”

At the word ‘shoot’, Rude instantly shifted his eyes to Cid’s face. The Captain held up a placating hand. “Just a joke, Rude,” he informed the Turk. “A figure of speech. Don’t shoot me now…”

“Nobody’s going to shoot anybody,” Caitlin said flatly with a reprimanding look from Cid to Rude and back again. “Rude will only give chopper escort if you wish. If you don’t want him to, he will go his own way. I just thought he might facilitate matters with the Shinra military in Junon if he accompanied Mr. Heidegger.”

“I think it’s a great idea,” Derry interjected. “The base commander would probably be more helpful with Rude, here…” Derry nodded his head toward the silent Turk. “…Along to grease the skids.”

“Kid’s the boss,” Cid informed him. “His decision.”

“I say he goes then,” Derry said firmly.

Cid curtly nodded his head. “Then he goes.” The Captain rubbed a weary hand over his grizzled chin. “Well, I got work to do. You got the list?” he asked the young pilot.

Derry patted his jeans pocket. “You know it.”

“Good, get yer flight checks done and get that bird in the air,” he ordered gruffly. “And then get the hell back ASAP.” He nodded to Caitlin and turned to walk away, taking Barrett firmly by the elbow to tow him along. The big man jerked his elbow out of the Captain’s gloved hand, and then trailed him off anyway, grumbling beneath his breath as he left.

Caitlin lifted her eyes to Rude’s passive face. “Where’s Rachel and Avian?” she asked with more than a little concern in her voice. Rude inclined his head toward the HQ tent. “With Elena,” he answered succinctly. “Any sign of trouble at all?” she queried further. Rude shook his head. “None.”

She then turned her attention back to the chopper where she could just barely make out Reno slumped in the pilot’s seat. He looked like he had fallen asleep. Which was probably the case, as she knew he had to be exhausted. Reno had accomplished a lot in an amazingly short period of time, and he’d been running on fumes before that. She owed Reno a huge debt of gratitude for all he’d done for her. Still, he irritated her at the moment, for some unfathomable reason. Caitlin smiled sweetly in his direction before turning serious azure eyes on the steadfast Rude.

“Rude, I want you to go remove Reno from that chopper and escort that young pilot to Junon,” Caitlin directed firmly. “Do whatever you can to ensure that he gets every item on his list and all the personnel he needs to make this evacuation a success. Do you understand?”

“Of course,” Rude replied coolly.

“After that, I want you to find Cornelius Wildman, wherever he might be and bring him to me.”

One of Rude’s eyebrows went up. “He will refuse to come,” Rude informed her. “He prefers an environment of comfort.”

“Refusal is not an option, Rude. Do you understand?”

The corner of Rude’s lip just barely twitched, and he silently nodded his head in concession.

“Good. Now go wake up Reno. He has work to do.”

Rude’s lips curved in a rare semblance of a smile. “With pleasure,” he replied dryly. He squared his shoulders and strode past Caitlin to carry out the first of her directions. For her part, Caitlin turned on heel and headed for the tent. She decided that there had to be plenty of work waiting to be done in the salvage camp, and it was time she got her hands dirty. Besides, she wanted to check on Rachel and talk to Avian. The incident with Soldier still bothered her greatly, and she wanted to discuss the matter with him, especially as he’d seemed distraught the last time she’d seen him.

A sharp yelp of surprise came from behind her, followed immediately by a string of imaginative curses. Caitlin smiled broadly. Today would be a very good day, she thought. Then the smile faded a few degrees in brilliance. As long as she put off her talk with Reno until another day

Baron stepped into the room to see the bouquet of flowers scattered across the coverlet of the bed. Disappointment filled him that Vendra had not forced Ozzie to eat them or crammed the lot of them up his nose. However, he could take some solace from the hurt expression on Ozzie’s face. That is…he could if the knowledge of Ozzie’s rejection by Vendra did not suddenly stab him through with a red-hot blade of anger. Baron shoved away the image of a familiar and despised female face that rose to his mind and turned blazing eyes on the object of Ozzie’s misplaced affection.

Vendra stood before them with arms crossed over her voluptuous bosom and irritation written all over her fine-featured face. Beautiful silvery locks fell in waves to her hips, her hair the color of moonlight beams, the texture of the strands of a spider web. Though she had taken time to don a robe, the garment hung open and her diaphanous gown hid little from his view. Baron looked her over from head to toe, and when Vendra noted the angry disdain in his golden eyes, she pointedly drew the robe closed and tied the belt tightly around her tiny waist. Cornflower blue eyes narrowed in equal degrees of disdain.

He could never argue that she was not one of the most beautiful creatures he’d ever seen. She could be a royal princess. An enchantress. A siren that drew sailors to their death on the jagged rocks. He’d seen her act the sweet and innocent elementary schoolteacher and a thinly clothed and foul-mouthed prostitute. Her intelligence-gathering work for their mutual employer had forced her into many roles, all of which she managed to carry off with perfection. She could make the most intelligent man dumb with her beauty if she chose, but her charms did not work on him. He was no simple man, and he was not so easily attracted by human attributes of beauty. In Vendra’s case, he knew pure evil when he encountered it, even contained within such a stunning package.

“Why are you clumsy morons here?” Vendra hissed in a loud whisper. “You are going to blow my cover.”

Baron noticed that Ozzie had now put his back to Vendra. He stared at the floor with shuttered eyes and appeared unwilling to talk. It seemed to be left to him to explain their problem.

“The Turks are onto us,” Baron explained. “We had a run-in with them last night in Kalm. Ozwan let it slip that…”

“Don’t put this off on me…” Ozzie interrupted in injured admonishment.

Baron decided not to waste his time in argument. “Bottom line. The Turks know us by sight, and they know we are after Avian Wulfe. And they have him in their custody.” Baron glanced obliquely at Ozzie. “We thought you might have an idea about how we should proceed. I thought perhaps we should watch them. Maybe pick the Turks off one at a time, as we catch each one alone.”

Vendra promptly began shaking her head, and her long waves of hair swayed softly against the gentle swell of her hips. “You will never get close to a Turk now. If what you say is true, they will be on their guard, as will their companions. Avian Wulfe, too. They will all be watching every nuance of a shadow for a sign of you. Wulfe is not a person to underestimate. If the boss is accurate in his speculation, Avian Wulfe might well have the capacity to dispatch you with a thought.”

“He wasn’t so tough last night,” Ozzie sniffed. “I’d have him locked up in the lab now if his stupid dog hadn’t attacked me.”

“Maybe we should add his dog to the list,” Vendra replied in a saccharine voice.

“I’m not talking to you anymore,” Ozzie replied petulantly. “And why do you get to call him ‘boss’?”

Vendra turned incredulous eyes on Baron. “What is he babbling about?”

“The boss,” Baron explained icily. “He’s making us call him ‘master’ now.”

Vendra waved a dismissive hand in the air. “Oh that. He makes me do that sometimes too. He’s always been an egomaniac. His addictions have only made him worse.”

Ozzie spun around with surprise in his eyes. “So you know him,” he accused her. He raised a finger to point at her face. “You know who he is. What’s his name? Who is he?”

Vendra narrowed her eyes. “You do not need to know who he is. Just call him ‘master’ when he wants, and ‘boss’ when he’s not listening and quench any desire you have to know. And do exactly what he tells you. You will live a lot longer if you do, Ozzie.”

Ozzie glared at her despite her warning. “How do you know him?”

Vendra sighed in exasperation. “My mother worked for him for years. Now I work for him. I’ve forgotten who he is, by choice, and I will not tell you his identity if and when I bother to remember it. Now…let’s get back to the matter at hand, so you incompetent fools can be on your way.”

Baron eyed her with interest at the new information while pointedly ignoring her offhand insult. He simply nodded his head in agreement. “What do you suggest our course of action be?” he prompted her.

“You have to do what the boss ordered,” Vendra wearily instructed. “He knows exactly what must be done, especially regarding the Turks. You will have to throw them off guard. Make them think the threat is over. Then they will relax, and they will get sloppy. It’s only human nature. Even for Turks. They will tire of being watchful. They will grow bored. But it will take time. Just keep tabs of their location and go everywhere else. Gather the intelligence the boss told you to, particularly regarding the latter names on the list. We still do not know where to find some of them. That’s especially important now as the boss has pulled me off that and dedicated me solely to the search for Valentine.”

“How is that going?” Ozzie suddenly asked with interest, his pique at Vendra momentarily forgotten.

“What? Valentine? Not so well.”

Ozzie smirked. “Well, when you do find him, you can just romance him, seduce him, and he’ll be all yours, until you…” Ozzie’s eyes turned stormy. “…Stab him in the back.” His voice climbed in volume on the last words. Vendra smirked back at him, deciding not to address his ill-concealed jab at her. “Not Valentine,” she coolly informed him. “The boss claims that tactic won’t work on him, although I’m not sure I believe him. Valentine is still just a man, after all.”

“How do you plan to take him then,” Baron asked curiously, declining to pursue the seduction angle at all. He well knew, for his part, that Vendra would not be able to seduce him, no matter how hard she might try, evil wench that he knew her to be. So he had no problem believing that this Valentine might be the sort of discerning man who required more than simple physical beauty to attract him. Additionally, he clearly recalled what the boss had told him and his partner about Valentine. The boss said the elusive man could never be bested by any of them head on. Valentine supposedly possessed otherworldly powers. For that matter, the man had escaped from a coffin. If he believed in vampires, he might be worried, but he did not.

“The boss has told me of his weaknesses,” Vendra curtly explained. “I will simply use them.”

“So he does have physical weaknesses,” Baron remarked quietly.

“Oh no, not physical weaknesses. Psychological weaknesses. The trap will, by necessity, be subtle.”

“But the search is not going well…” Ozzie pointed out, bringing the conversation back to the original question.

Vendra shook her silver head ruefully. “Truthfully, I’m wasting my time here. I’ve been all over this mansion. There is nothing to indicate where he might have gone. The coffin is abandoned. The safe is empty. All I’ve discovered upstairs are some moldy books and some undecipherable scientific papers. I’ve completely upended the basement library and lab, and I’ve found nothing about Valentine down there either. I did find some of his belongings in a wooden crate in the crypt, but they would hardly help me find him now.” Vendra paused in thought as she briefly pondered telling them about the note she’d found, but then she decided it wasn’t important for them to know. She would show it to the boss and see what he said about it. The note only represented a possible reason for Valentine’s escape. Not where he’d gone.

“His belongings?” Ozzie asked with interest. “What belongings?”

“His Turk belongings,” Vendra informed them with a dismissive shrug.

“His Turk belongings?!” Ozzie exclaimed in his shock. “The guy is a Turk?!”

Baron just stared at Vendra as her face filled with bewilderment. He felt as though he’d been hit by a speeding Midgar train at the moment.

“He was a Turk,” Vendra replied slowly. “Didn’t the boss tell you?”

Baron and Ozzie shook their heads in unison, both stunned to speechlessness.

“I wonder why…” she mused aloud. Then she shrugged indifferently. “Oh well, just don’t tell him I told you. Now you boys need to get the hell out of here.

“So are you leaving too, Vendra?” Ozzie curtly asked.

She pursed her lips in thought, and then she shook her head. “No, I’m going to stay for a few days.”

“Why?” Baron asked with renewed interest. “Do you expect Valentine to drop by?”

“No, but I suppose that is a possibility… I highly doubt it though.”

“Then why stay?” Ozzie persisted.

“There’s a girl…she looks like a mark that the boss scratched off his list. I’m not sure, but I think it could be her, although she seems sincere…if a bit dimwitted…”

“Well, if the boss scratched her, why pursue it?” Baron argued.

“The boss scratched her because he thought she was dead.”

“I see…” Baron replied. “Do you believe that it’s her?”

“I don’t know…I just want to check it out further. She was once at the top of the list. She would be quite a catch.”

“Why was she at the top?”

“Well…she was the last natural born offspring of a Cetra known on the planet.”

“Whoa…you’re kiddin’!” Ozzie exclaimed in awe. “A Cetra? The last one?!”

Baron wasn’t quite as impressed by the information. “You said she seems ‘dimwitted’,” he reminded her. “What does that mean to you, precisely? She is mentally deficient?”

“No, not that…she has this bird…I’ve watched them extensively without her knowledge…she talks to it just like I’m talking to you.”

“So you’ve heard the bird talk back?” Ozzie queried snidely. “Does it sing opera too?”

“No!” Vendra snapped. “It does not talk back! But she talks to it like she’s responding to something it said.”

“Maybe she’s just…lonely,” Ozzie suggested churlishly. “I know how that is…”

A distant knock sounded down below. “Dammit, someone is out there,” Vendra hissed irritably. “They must have heard your gun, you idiot.” She rounded on Ozzie and gave him a shove. “Get the hell out of here. Go to the office and use the orb.” She snagged a handful of Baron’s tunic and gave him a hard tug that barely moved him. “You too. Hurry,”she implored.

“Where is the office?” Baron queried practically. “Across the hall.” She gave Ozzie another shove. “They won’t see the flash from there.” Finally, Ozzie realized the need for haste and dashed through the doorway and across the hall. Baron followed more slowly. In the doorway, he turned back to see Vendra frantically stuffing her long tresses into a hairnet. “We’ll be in touch.”

“Of course,” Vendra hurriedly agreed. “Contact me in one week.” Baron turned away and crossed the hall to join Ozzie in the dark office. Vendra snatched up the red wig as she watched him go. She ran to the mirror and slammed it onto her head.

Ozzie saw Baron’s silhouette in the doorway of the office. “Over here,” he whispered loudly. “Hurry up, Bari.”

Baron pushed the office door closed behind him and walked over to stop just in front of Ozzie as he sent his fingers in search of the orb hidden inside his sash. He could hear the distant knocking, much more insistent now. “A Turk with supernatural powers…” he idly remarked. “Just what you need in your life, Ozwan.”

“Oh…shut up!” Ozzie hissed. “I don’t want to think about it right now! Besides, he’s Vendra’s problem. Remember?”

“Let’s hope he doesn’t become ours…” Baron prayed aloud.

“Yeah, let’s hope…” Ozzie agreed. Then they both touched their respective orbs and vanished in the brilliant flash of light.

The white wash of illumination leaked around the edges of the closed door and bathed Vendra momentarily in pristine light as she hurried out onto the landing with her shotgun cradled in both hands. The knocking abruptly stopped just as she reached for the switch to the chandelier in the great hall. Then the unlocked front door swung open, and she hit the switch to illuminate the entire hall in feeble yellow light. Most of the bulbs were out, after all.

Margret leaned against the balustrade with her gun at the ready and stared down at the three men blinking up at her in surprise. Maines, Staton and Blackwood. Maines gave Blackwood a little poke in the back, and Myron nervously stepped forward, his hands coming up at sight of the shotgun in her hands. His gray-streaked blonde hair was loose about his shoulders, his bent glasses sat on his nose slightly askew, and he wore a long light blue nightshirt that came almost to his knees. He’d obviously been roused from his bed.

“Sorry to intrude, M…Mrs. Day,” Myron apologized with a shaky voice. “…But we…er…heard gunfire, and we…we…were…w…worried about your safety.”

The widow smiled down sweetly at the three staring males. “Why, I thank you gentlemen for being worried about little ole me, but as you can see, I’m just fine. I’ve just been dispatching some vermin that decided to disturb my beauty sleep.” She swept the gun around in their direction, and all three men took a startled step back. But the barrel swung past them to stop to their right. “As you can see for yourselves,” Mrs. Day added.

As one, the three men turned their heads to examine the odd pumpkin headed thing crumpled on the dusty floor a few feet from them, looking strangely deflated. Feeling nauseous, Myron was the first to return his regard to the Widow Day. “Well…since you are apparently…fine…we’ll just be going now…” He gave the last word an inquisitive inflection.

Margret upended the gun to prop the stock against the railing. “I’m quite fine, gentlemen. Thank you for asking. Now…if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just be going back to bed. Just let yourselves out the way you came in.” The widow turned on heel and walked back into the shadowy hallway beyond the end of the landing, smirking derisively the entire way. Such dimwitted morons were easy to fool.

Completely embarrassed, Myron abruptly executed an about face and glared at Maines from a reddened countenance. “I cannot believe you got me out of bed for this,” he complained. He stalked past Maines and opened the door to let himself out just as Margret Day had so coolly suggested.

Frederick Maines darted after him with Gerald Staton hot on his heels. The chocobo owner left the door standing open. Both Maines and Staton trotted past Myron who had stopped to wait for them and noticed the open door. He strode back to close it while the other two men turned in bewilderment to see why he’d gone back. When Myron rejoined them at the gate, he gave them both a look of complete disgust.

Maines reached out a hand to touch Myron’s elbow in a placating gesture. “Look, Blackwood. I’m really sorry, but the gunshots brought me right up out of bed. I thought there was cold-blooded murder afoot, my man. You are the mayor, after all.” Staton nodded in agreement. “Me too, Blackwood. Sounded like it was in my own living room. Natalie made me check it out. She was trembling all over she was so scared…”

“Yeah…Emily told me if I didn’t check it out, she’d kick my cowardly as…”

Myron held up both hands. “Okay. Okay. You did the right thing, guys. I’m just…not cut out for this….”

“Maybe we should appoint a constable, Blackwood,” Maines suggested. “…To handle such delicate matters.”

Myron nodded his head. “Maybe we should…” He thought the idea an excellent one. “How about you Maines?”

“What?! Me?!” Frederick pointed at his t-shirt clad chest. “I’m not constable material, old boy.”

Myron turned to Staton. “What about you, Gerry?”

Staton silently shook his head. “I can’t even use a gun,” he said uneasily.

Myron snorted and walked away. “Well, I’m not doing it. I’m the mayor. I can’t do everything around here.” Maines and Staton looked at each other and followed him as one.

The three men walked a few feet silently, until Staton felt the need to break the silence. “Well, the Widow Day sure knows how to use a gun. She sure blew that orange…er…thingy away. Maybe you should ask her.”

“Yeah…maybe I should…” Myron started to agree, and then a thought occurred to him, and he suddenly came to a halt and whirled around, startling his companions backward a couple of steps. Myron raised a finger and pointed at Maines, and then at Staton. He started shaking his finger at Staton. “Except…she didn’t shoot the…er…orange thingy,” Mryon informed then in a low voice.

“What?” Maines raised both his eyebrows. “Do you doubt what the Widow Day said? You saw the evidence.”

Myron started nodding his head, first slowly and then more vehemently. “Damn straight, I do. I did see the evidence. The widow had a shotgun, did she not?”

“I…think so…” Maines said. Staton just shrugged. He didn’t know one gun from another. “What about it?” Maines lifted his shoulders in question.

“That orange thingy was plugged several times with a high caliber slug. It had four or five gaping holes in it. Not a shot pattern from a shotgun.”

Frederick’s face brightened in illumination. “Ah…you are right, Blackwood. What do you think it means?”

Myron raised both eyebrows at Maines in astonishment. “Why…Maines…it means the Widow Day was lying. She was lying like a skunk skin throw rug.”

“We’d better not ask her to be the constable then,” Staton suddenly interjected.

Myron frowned at Staton in irritation and threw up his hands. “I’m going home to my wife. Good night…gentlemen...”

Maines and Staton looked at each other, and then down at each other’s boxers, and then they shifted their gazes back to watch Blackwood stride into the town square, the tails of his nightshirt blowing in the breeze. When the newly appointed mayor disappeared through the front door of the inn, both men shrugged in unison and walked speechlessly away, each veering off to their own recently acquired homes.

Whatever had happened in the Shinra Mansion that night, not one of them meant to pursue the matter.

So…what do we talk about now…Mister Valentine…I’ve run out of things to say…well…except all the personal topics of course…but you probably don’t want to talk about those kinds of things…

Tifa frowned again at the hem of the red cloak swishing against his calves as he steadily walked. She should have kept the thing. It hid almost everything interesting to look at, except for the pack he’d thrown over the top of it…and the rifle that hung over his shoulder. Once again they’d been walking for hours, even longer than the earlier leg of their journey she suspected, but Vincent had set a more leisurely pace so she wasn’t feeling too tired yet. At this rate, she could go on forever.

So…Vincent…what do you think Cloud is doing right this minute? What? Cleaning his sword, you say? That’s kind of a boring answer…but…you’re pretty boring right now…I guess…or maybe it’s me that’s boring…

Yes, the advantage to having these sorts of conversations with Vincent was that she could create his answers, when she wanted him to answer. Her Vincent answers were much better then his Vincent answers would be. He’d just say “I don’t know”, and that would be that.

…So Vincent…how’s your love life? Does it suck as bad as mine? It’s really really hard to compete with a memory…ya know… Do you think he’ll ever get over her, Vincent? Do you think he’ll ever look at me? Of course, Miss Lockhart…er…make that Tifa… Of course, Tifa. How could Cloud Strife resist a woman as beautiful as you? Why Vincent…that’s very kind of you to say, but…I think you’re full of smelly krakka nuts.

Vincent suddenly stopped and turned to look back at her. Tifa halted in mid-step as her hand flew to her mouth. She did not say that ‘smelly’ part out loud, did she? She swallowed hard and cleared her throat. “Is…ah…something wrong?” she asked weakly. Her voice was almost creaky from disuse. Neither she nor Vincent had spoken a word for hours.

“Are you ready to stop for awhile?” he asked in that strange way he had of asking a question without inflection at the end.

“Ah…no!” She shook her head emphatically. “Not yet. I can walk for a little while longer.” Vincent simply nodded and led out again.

Tifa’s knees went weak with relief as she directed her feet to move. She hadn’t said that out loud. Thank the Gods. She would surely not want to say something like that to Vincent aloud. Tifa Lockhart…you better not ever speak one of your thoughts aloud…well…ever again…yes…you know you did before…like that time you asked Vincent if he was married…how embarrassing… Anyway, Tifa Lockhart, if you ever speak one of your thoughts aloud again, I’m gonna kick yer butt all over the place… A smile instantly came to her face at the mental picture that thought produced in her mind. Vincent would definitely think she’d gone mad if she tried to kick her own butt. Maybe she had gone mad…

Tifa gave her head a little shake and focused her eyes on the back of Vincent’s head. So…Mister Valentine…just where were we in our conversation? Oh yes…I’d decided to get personal. Do you object? No? Okay then…back to love lives. Mine’s total crap. So why don’t we talk about yours? Now…this Letitia…no…that’s not right… Lucilla? Um…no…but I know it starts with an ‘L’…so okay…we’ll just call her ‘L’…Code Name ‘L’. You Turk types are into code names, right? So…now that you’ve found ‘L’ again, do you think there’s any future for the two of you…at all?

The memory of the day that Vincent had found her again, his ‘L’, duly replayed in her mind. She’d gone with Vincent and Cloud into the beautiful cave behind the waterfalls, and she’d seen the strange reunion that had played out. Her heart had ached for Vincent, even though he hadn’t appeared all that troubled himself. But she knew what Aeris had told her. What Vincent had said about his ‘beloved’ in the crypt. Her heart had ached for him then, in the waterfall cave, and her heart ached for him now, at the memory of it. The smile that had been lingering on her lips completely fell away.

Yeah…well…I guess she didn’t seem all that interested…that day…did she, Vincent? She was really kind of mean, wasn’t she? Telling you to stay away from her. And you were really kind of excited to see her too…well…excited for you…well actually…more surprised maybe… It wasn’t you…you know…I don’t think it was…she just didn’t want you to see her…old and wrinkled. Well okay, she didn’t really look old and wrinkled. In fact…yeah…I hate to say it but…she really looked pretty good. But it wasn’t you, Vincent. I mean…you’re pretty easy on the eyes after all…actually, you’re very easy on the eyes… Well, okay…the claw thing might be a little intimidating and that red eye business you’ve got going on…I’m kinda used to it now…but maybe that’s why she wouldn’t let you near her… Or…or…maybe there’s some bad stuff in your past…between you…like really big fights…or angry words…those don’t go away so easy… And that day you went back, and she wasn’t there…you were really quiet when you came back…well…quiet for you…which is extremely…ultimately quiet…and after that…after that…well…there was…Chaos.

Tifa abruptly stopped in her tracks. She realized that she had just worked her way around to a potentially huge discovery about Vincent. She squinted her eyes as she tried hard to remember. The creature he called Chaos…when had it first appeared? Was it after he went back to the cave and found ‘L’ gone? And if so…where did Chaos come from? Was he just another creature in Vincent’s repertoire of transformations? Or...was he created that day? And if so…did Vincent create him? And if he had created him…somehow…was it out of his…pain? Her mouth drifted ajar at the implication.

“Are you hurt, Miss Lockhart?”

Tifa’s eyes shot to Vincent’s face to find him studying her intently with narrowed crimson eyes. She remembered that her mouth was hanging open then, and she instantly slammed her jaw closed. She knew how she must have looked to him just then. Eyes wide in stunned realization, jaw hanging open, her whole body frozen in place. She probably looked like she’d been bitten. By rock spiders…

A giggle worked its way up her throat, and she pressed two fingers to her lips to hold it back. Then she shifted her weight to her right foot and gave her left foot a little shake. “Just my foot, Vincent. It just had a…got…a tickle…you know…a funny little cramp…I mean…” She stamped her foot hard on the ground. “But it’s gone now! Really! So just turn around, and…” She spun a finger at him to illustrate her words. “…We’ll just be on our way…”

With pent breath, she endured his scrutiny as he looked her over from head to toe, his crimson eyes rife with skepticism. Obviously he didn’t believe her lie. How dare he doubt her? She decided then that she didn’t need his permission to go. She started toward him, and she lifted her chin in determination just as she would have walked around him, but he shot out his right hand to grab her elbow, stopping her forward movement right there. She gave her arm a half-hearted little jerk, just to test him, but he showed no intention of releasing her just yet. His eyes burned down into hers like hot embers.

“Where are you going?” he asked with dangerous softness.

Tifa lifted her unfettered shoulder in a nonchalant shrug. “To the exit. Remember? Aren’t you coming too?”

“I believe we should stop for awhile,” he curtly informed her.

Tifa started shaking her head. “I’m not the least bit tired, Vincent. Really.” She lifted her free hand and awkwardly patted the gloved hand that clasped her arm. “Let’s go for at least another hour or so, okay? You can even lead the way…” Vincent’s eyes shifted to the hand that rested atop his, and he instantly jerked his hand from beneath hers to release her arm. Turning abruptly on heel, he walked away.

“I guess that’s an ‘okay, Miss Lockhart’…” she murmured beneath her breath. She knew quite well that he heard her, but she simply didn’t care. She happily fell into step behind him, giving a little skip to match her footsteps to his, and to display her complete joy at his unconditional surrender; she began to hum along with the silent lyrics in her mind. I win…I win…I win I win I win…

Tifa’s song had ended a long time past, and all her one-sided conversations had ceased, mostly because she couldn’t get her thoughts in gear anymore, and she was weary of thinking of things to say to him. She’d spent a little time pondering the Chaos angle her brain had burped up, but she’d finally deemed the idea untestable and probably a load of hooey anyway.

Vincent had turned her plea for another hour or so into so many more than that. She was beginning to wonder if she’d been the winner after all. Vincent…sneaky man…he’d stolen her victory from her. She’d grown so drowsy that her eyelashes kept slipping down, and she had to fight tooth and nail to force them back up again. And her legs were aching from exhaustion, and the soles of her feet were numb from thousands upon thousands of footfalls against rock, and her stomach was growling so ferociously that she imagined a bandersnatch with Vincent eyes prowling around inside her belly, and her mouth felt as dry as that time they’d been dumped in that desert prison for crimes against Dio and the Gold Saucer. Her bedroll was calling to her more loudly with each passing minute, and she was really starting to think that she should swallow her pride and tell Vincent she was beyond ready to stop, that he’d clearly made his point, that he was the winner after all, when he did abruptly stop as though he’d read her mind. She found that wasn’t the case, though, when she walked up to stand beside him. He’d stopped because the passage they currently traveled had ended at a rough-hewn wall with three narrow openings in the face. She could see that the right fork seemed to travel from that point at an upward angle and the middle one seemed to slant downward. The left passage seemed to curve sharply away from the opening.

Vincent drew the map from his pocket and unfolded it. He tilted his head down to shine the headlamp on the page, and she yawned hugely as she leaned over to see the map for herself. She was so exhausted that it seemed the most natural thing in the world to rest her head against his shoulder. She noticed that Vincent’s headlamp had dimmed considerably, and she wondered if she should point that out to him. The battery she’d installed in her own seemed to be holding up a lot better than she was. In fact, if it wasn’t for the sturdy support of Vincent’s shoulder, she’d probably just topple on over.

Before she could get her bleary eyes focused on the map, Vincent abruptly folded it up and tucked it away. He shifted thoughtful eyes to the dark head resting against his arm, making no move to dislodge her. Tifa lifted doe eyes up to look into his. She might have drawn away from him then, if she could have found the energy.

“You’re exhausted,” Vincent informed her.

She nodded her head against his shoulder.

“Can you go a little further? This is not a good place to stop.”

Her eyelids drifted downward wearily, but she again nodded her head against the soft material of his cloak. Then she forced herself to straighten up, reluctantly surrendering her warm and comforting pillow.

“We will stop at the first opportunity,” he assured her as he watched her sway in place with troubled eyes. He wanted nothing more than to stop right where they stood, but the location would leave them vulnerable with four directions for something to come at them. True, they’d encountered no animal or human in their travels, dangerous or otherwise, but he well knew that could easily change. Surely, there would be a more likely place just a little way down the passage.

Tifa couldn’t help but notice his prolonged scrutiny of her, as though he thought she might collapse to the floor at his feet. Pointedly, she squared her shoulders to prove her willingness. “Which way, Vincent?” She stared into each one of the three openings, one after the other. Personally, she preferred the one that curved away to the left. She didn’t really want to go up. Too much work. And down seemed…all wrong…

Vincent lifted his finger to point at the middle entrance. “That one,” he said curtly.

“Are you sure?” she asked with dismay.

He nodded his head. “Yes,” he said without hesitation. Still, something about him made her think that he wasn’t sure. At first, she couldn’t put her finger on why she thought that, other than the fact that she just didn’t want to enter that passage, but after a moment, an instant of clarity came to her dull brain. Vincent Valentine wasn’t sure. She was sure he wasn’t sure. It was the way he stood looking into the tunnel. His stance tense. His eyes staring unblinking into the entrance. A man waiting. Waiting for an answer to echo back from inside. An answer to his unspoken question. Is this the one…

She shrugged away her unease. “Let’s go then.” At the moment, she didn’t care where he led her, as long as her bedroll was involved in there somewhere. She might think differently after some sleep, but for now he was off the hook, no matter how badly he planned to screw up.

For a man unsure of where he was going, Vincent stepped into the passage confidently enough. She made her feet move despite their protest, and she gave Vincent a half-hearted little smile of encouragement when she noticed him looking back over his shoulder to make sure that she followed.

Tifa almost stumbled at the sudden downward angle of the passage even though she expected it, but she managed to catch herself, bending her trembling knees to successfully negotiate the steep incline down to the bottom where the grade thankfully leveled out. The passage was very narrow here, and the ceiling low. Although she’d never suffered from claustrophobia before, she started to imagine just how much rock actually hung over her head. Her heart rate picked up, and she had to force herself to breathe evenly.

As though in answer to a silent prayer, the passage widened out after fifty feet more of her weary shuffling steps. The walls curved away from them, as though the two of them had walked into some sort of circular room. A keen sense of relief filled her, not only because the claustrophobic sensation had left her, but also because she knew Vincent would stop now. The area was a perfect place to rest. Her relief instantly vanished at the subtle sound that touched her ears.

“Vincent…” She knew what the sound was. She’d heard it more than once before.

“Ssssh…listen…” he whispered.

The dry rattle came again, from somewhere to her right. And then an answering one came from her left. And another from right behind her. Tifa spun around, her fists coming up even as she fell into her customary battle stance. The snake reared into the beam of light from her headlamp, and she intently focused her eyes on the reptile, waiting for the strike. All hint of exhaustion had left her for the moment, drowned beneath the adrenaline that pumped through her veins. She was ready for the fight. When the snake made his strike, then she would strike.

Vincent drew the Quicksilver from its holster and leveled his gun at a snake as it slithered across the floor in his direction, a sidewinder flowing like a winding stream toward him. Unconsciously, he took a step backward as revulsion filled him. Snakes again. Why did it have to be snakes again? A subtle movement from the very edge of his weakened beam caught his attention, and he jerked his eyes off the oncoming snake to find two more slithering into the light. He took another unconscious step back. A movement from his right brought his staring eyes that way to find yet another damn snake. This time he took a step backwards and came up hard against Tifa Lockhart.

Tifa yelped in surprise and stumbled forward at the impact against her backpack. Her sudden movement gave the snake swaying before her reason to strike. She didn’t regain her balance quickly enough to kick the thing, so she shot out her hand and grabbed the snake by the neck before it could sink its dripping fangs into her hand. She stamped a foot on the snake’s body and slammed his head down to the ground, stomping its head viciously into the rock with her other boot.

Her heart leapt into her throat when a gunshot crashed nearby, reverberating inside the passage and inside her skull. Then Vincent fired again. And again. Tifa shut the gunshots from her mind as at least four more snakes slithered into her view. Vincent was firing steadily now. Methodically. Each shot rang in her head. Echoed in her bones. But they did not register in her mind as the blood of battle sang in her ears. She didn’t bother waiting for the next snake to set up for its strike. She waded into the fray, kicking and stomping. She lost track of time as she battled, taking them on one and two at a time. Several times the snakes struck at her, and only her quick reflexes and instincts saved her. Tifa had just finished off one snake in mid-strike when another one managed to snag its curved fangs in the material of her trousers. He’d struck at her unseen from the side and fortunately had not so much as scratched her leg. Panting for breath now, she wrapped her hand around the reptile just behind its head and ripped its fangs from her pant leg. With an angry little shriek, she flung it hard into the rock wall. The snake hit with a hard thunk, fell limply to the ground, and slithered away; all taste for battle apparently gone. Tifa looked around for another snake to destroy, but all she could see were crushed and broken snake bodies all around her. She’d obviously been fighting for longer than she’d realized.

She noticed that Vincent’s gun had fallen silent then, and she whirled around, hoping beyond hope that the snakes hadn’t gotten him. She breathed a sigh of relief to see him standing motionless just four or five feet away with dead snakes all around him, his arm hanging loosely at his side, the pistol grip clutched in his fist. His gun had fallen silent because all his targets were dead.

She opened her mouth to remark on the unexpected snake attack, but almost bit her tongue when Vincent suddenly lunged forward and kicked a snake from his path. Then he turned and kicked another. She watched with her mouth hanging open as he madly kicked each dead snake away, one after the other, spinning and kicking until he’d cleared the entire area around him. Only then, did he finally step back and holster his gun.

“V…Vincent…” Tifa spoke hesitantly. “Are you…okay?”

He whipped his head around to look at her, and she visibly jumped. He gave her a curt nod and stared at her, his crimson eyes burning with some emotion she could not name. “Are you hurt?” he asked in clipped syllables.

Slowly, she shook her head. Then she looked around her feet. “The only ones hurt around here are these stupid snakes,” she commented with a smile. She took a step and snatched one limp reptile up into her hand. Turning around, she triumphantly held the dangling snake up for his inspection. “What do you think, Vincent? Do you think it’s edible?”

Vincent’s eyes grew still on the gaping mouth and exposed fangs. “No,” he snapped, and he spun away so quickly that his cloak flew out around him. “Get rid of it.”

Her eyes troubled, Tifa watched him stride swiftly away through the path he’d cleared. As he’d so bossily commanded, she tossed the snake away and wiped her hand against her pants leg as she trotted after him. She made a mental note as she worked hard to keep up with his long hurried steps to never joke with Vincent Valentine about snakes ever again. And then she wondered if he planned to slow down anytime soon.

Tifa was almost stumbling at every step, the renewed energy she’d acquired from the heat of battle long gone, when a soft mesmerizing shush of a sound touched her ears. The sound was like the one her mother used to make to soothe her when she was upset. Ssssh, baby. It’s going to be all right. Sssssh…now…Sssssh. Except that this shushing sound kept on going as though it rode on the back of one long unending exhalation of breath.

She didn’t notice that Vincent had stopped until she ran straight into him from behind. She would have simply sagged to her knees then, if he hadn’t whirled around and caught her by the arm. She tried to see his face, but her eyelashes drifted down to block her view. She tried to say ‘thank you, Vincent’, but only a series of mumbles barely disturbed her uncooperative lips.

A heavy sigh reached her ears, and she wasn’t sure if it came from her or from Vincent.

“Forgive me…” she heard him say, but then she thought it might have come from her. But no. She would never say that. She would say ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘Sorry, man’ or ‘Sorry, Charlie’ or something like that. She would never think of saying ‘Forgive me’. Only someone who would call her Miss Lockhart would say that. Right? A hand touched her cheek, and she leaned gratefully into its warmth with a soft sigh of contentment.

Vincent’s breath caught in his throat, and with great reluctance, he forced himself to draw his palm away from her soft cheek, silently berating himself for giving into the temptation to touch her in the first place. Carefully, he took her by the arms and turned her about. He set to work maneuvering boneless and uncooperative arms out of her backpack straps, and then holding her in place by one arm, he bent to set the pack aside. Then he gently drew the band of the headlamp from her hair.

“Why don’t you sit down, Tifa,” he suggested in a soft voice near her ear.

“Huh…” she said in response. “…kay…” She made no move to do as he bade.

Tifa’s eyes flew wide when her legs suddenly went out from under her. A flailing hand found a fistful of fabric, but before she could ponder on the matter much, the arms that had lifted her up and then carried her downward released her to the hard ground. Her eyelashes already fluttering down again, she managed a giggle at the sudden giddy ride.

Quickly, Vincent shrugged out of his own pack and unslung the gun from his shoulder to set them both aside. Kneeling on one knee, he dragged Tifa’s pack over and started unstringing her bedroll. A glance over at her, found her listing to the side. He threw out a quick hand to pull her upright again before she toppled completely over. Another giggle slipped from her lips.

Vincent unfurled the bedroll and tossed the blanket aside, taking only a few seconds to smooth out the worst of the wrinkles before he turned back to her. She now sat slumped forward with her arms hanging limply between out flung legs and her head sagging forward on a boneless neck.

Vincent stood and stared down at her for a long moment as he tried to decide whether to expend time coaxing her to her feet or whether he should just carry her over to her bed. In the end, he bent and slipped his wrists beneath her armpits and lifted her partway from the floor. He awkwardly shambled in a half crouch, with her feet dragging between his boots the entire five shortened steps it took him to get her to her bed. Very gingerly, he eased her down on the folded blankets that made up the bedroll, and then he knelt and reached across her to drag her blanket over her. She murmured some indistinguishable words, and he looked down at her to find her peering up at him through her lashes. Then her eyelids slipped downward to hide the twin slivers of chocolate iris from his view, and she rolled onto her side, drawing her hand up beneath her chin. He knew she would wind up cocooned inside the blanket with the edge pulled over her head at some point during her slumber.

Shaking his head, he reached out to remove her boots, one at a time, slowly untying the laces and drawing them off her foot so as not to disturb her, although he thought she might sleep through an earthquake just then. He started to remove her socks, and he actually touched his fingers to the cuff of one sock to follow through on his plan, but then the vision of her bare foot rose in his mind, and he drew his hand away. She could just sleep in her socks this time. That way her feet would stay warm.

Vincent meant to leave her then, but he found himself unable to draw his gaze away from her face. He made a study of the way her stray bangs shadowed the gentle curve of her cheek and how her fingers curled against her neck and the way her lips looked in slumber, just slightly parted, as though she lifted her face for her lover’s kiss…

With a groan of despair, he dropped his face into his gloved hand. Gods, he had to admit it. At least to himself. He would never get out of this ordeal with his sanity intact. He might as well just accept that he would be a total nutcase when she’d finished with him. As though he wasn’t already…

Smoothly, he rose to his feet and busied himself with all the mundane things that he could find to occupy his mind, to keep him focused on anything but her; unpacking the small battery operated lamp and turning it on, switching the headlamp off and putting it away, unrolling his own bedroll, unbuckling his cloak and throwing it off his shoulders onto his blankets, tugging the fingerless glove off his right hand and dropping it next to his bedroll, dragging his boots off his weary feet, and then his socks, devouring three or four meat sticks while contemplating his toes, wondering what high mountain sanctuary he might find to scream out his frustration with he’d finally left her, wondering if he should bother to get out his book or if would be a complete waste of time, and finally, thinking that the musical susurration of the small waterfall cascading into the pool that filled half the wide passage seemed soothing…compelling even…

Vincent gathered his empty packages and returned them to his backpack, and then he stood up and walked the short distance to the edge of the pool, enjoying the cool feel of the rock against the soles of his feet. For a long time he watched the ripples from the cascade drift across the pool to wash up against the dark gray stone of the natural basin, as his thoughts slipped into blankness.

Eventually, he came back to the present with a little flicker of his lashes, and at the same time, the idea of taking a swim teased his mind. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d gone swimming…well…he could, but he didn’t want to think on it overmuch, as it involved Lucrecia and a secluded little stream in the Nibel Mountains…

He frowned at where his thoughts were taking him. He didn’t want to think about that. He didn’t want to think about Lucrecia. And he shouldn’t go for a swim either. Tifa might wake up for some reason… Still, the water might relax him enough so that he could finally sleep. He was bone tired, but not in the slightest definition of the word sleepy. Vincent partly turned away from the pool to inspect the slumbering Tifa. Just as he’d predicted, she’d rolled up in the blanket and drawn the cover over her head. He knew she was exhausted. She would sleep for hours. He figured that he could fire his gun in the cavern right now, and she wouldn’t even stir.

He shifted his gaze back to the beckoning ripples of water. He knew the water would be cool against his skin, comforting to his troubled spirit. His spirit could use some comfort right about now. Especially after that…snake business. A shudder shook him at the thought. He glanced one more time at the unmoving Tifa over his shoulder, and then, his mind finally made up, he reached for the buckle of his gun belt.

Tifa hovered near the threshold of wakefulness, caught in the brief cycle of a dream, when a sound of splashing teased her ears. Her mind incorporated the watery splash into her dream along with the soft rush of water that had been sifting through her subconscious all along, soothing and mysterious.

She sat cross-legged beside a clear pool, her hair drifting loosely around her body, the bright colors of tropical flowers reflected in the serene silver surface of the water. The heavy foliage of the trees surrounding the lush grassy banks draped the area where she sat in cool shadow while the bright sunlight sent sparkles of gold across the center of the warm pool.

She lifted her head at the sound of a splash to see a golden head break the surface way out in the center. Cloud gained his feet and stood up, water rolling off his limp spiky hair and tracing his warrior’s muscles to cascade back to where it came from. He flipped his hand in a wave when he discovered her there and then dove into the water to swiftly swim toward her, making great splashing sounds with his rapid breaststrokes. Somehow he crossed the entire pool within seconds and climbed out of the water beside her to stand over her. With a great shake of his head, he shed droplets of water all around him, laughing at her when she shook a fist at him for getting her all wet…

Tifa drowsily cracked open her eyes and touched a finger to the wet droplet of water on her nose. She held the tip of her finger close to one eye and inspected the wetness of her finger in confusion. Her dreams seemed to be growing a little too real…

Movement drew her sleepy gaze away from her finger to the formless figure that seemed to lurk nearby. She blinked her bleary eyes, and the figure came into sharp focus. What she saw made her blink again, this time in awed surprise.

Vincent Valentine stood several feet to her right with his head bowed low, part of his wet hair hanging in his face, the rest plastered to his bare shoulders and the curve of his bent neck. He was barefooted, his weight shifted mostly to one foot as he shook water droplets from his hair. Several more droplets splattered against her cheek and forehead. One droplet came to rest on the end of an eyelash, and she blinked it away, mostly because it interfered with her view of this strange vision that had arisen in her dull mind. Her eyelashes at half-mast, glazed brown eyes traveled from his dripping tresses to the well-defined muscles of his bare chest, down across a flat abdomen to the waistband of the trousers that rode low on his hips, mostly due to the fact that his belt buckles dangled unfastened. Her sleepy gaze drifted from there to his arm where his bicep rippled beneath his skin as he smoothed his wet hair away from his face. Just then, he threw his head back and shook the inky wet locks down his back, his thick eyelashes slipping down as he tilted his head even further.

Tifa gave her head a tiny little shake of denial as the warm buzz of sleep again overtook her mind. Inexorably, her eyelashes slid down and slumber reclaimed her. The very last thought that crossed her consciousness just before this amazing vision disappeared completely from her mind was that her dream had certainly taken a most interesting turn.

Several hours later, Tifa’s eyes popped open wide to scrutinize the dark field of army green before her eyes. Impatiently, she threw the blanket off her face to blink at the white light that flooded her pupils. Blinking as her eyes adjusted, she tracked down the source of the light. The small camping lamp. And just beyond the light, she discovered a bare foot. Her eyes narrowed as she examined the foot. She didn’t think she’d ever seen that foot before, had she?

She shifted her eyes to take in the owner of the foot. Wrapped in his cloak, Vincent lay sleeping on his side with one leg drawn up, facing her this time. She found her gaze captured momentarily by the dark lashes that shadowed his cheekbones, before she focused on the book that lay open beneath the long fingers of his right hand. The gold ring on his little finger glinted in the wash of white light.

Well…she and Vincent had apparently made camp…sometime…obviously. She wrinkled her brow. She couldn’t quite remember when though. The last thing she could remember was walking…although…there seemed to be a shred of a dream lurking in her head somewhere. She couldn’t quite get a thought wrapped around it though. She must have been pretty much out of things by the time they’d stopped to rest. She didn’t remember unpacking her bedroll, much less falling into it. Her stomach growled loudly just then. She didn’t remember eating either.

Very quietly, so as not to disturb the sleeping Valentine, she drew her covers back and sat up. She looked around and found her pack all the way over by Vincent’s. Cautiously, she stood up and tiptoed over to the pack. With extreme slowness, Tifa unzipped the pack, wondering even as she did if it wouldn’t be better to just unzip it real fast and hope it wasn’t loud enough to wake him. When she had it halfway unzipped, she reached in for some of the foil packs. She figured she’d eat whatever came to her fingers rather than digging around nosily through all the contents. As she explored the pack by touch, she looked around to find the source of the rush of water that teased her ears. Just beyond the circle of light, she could make out the glimmering surface of a dark pool. Apparently, Vincent had discovered a small cavern of sorts.

Foil packets finally in hand, Tifa unhooked her canteen from her pack and returned to her bedroll to quench her thirst and tame her hunger. She was well on her way to doing just that when her attention was again drawn to the book beneath Vincent’s hand. Munching on a cracker, she examined the fact that he even possessed a book. Really, she knew Vincent liked to read, and she should have known that he would pack some of the books from the airship. In fact, that’s probably why his pack was so ridiculously heavy. It was probably full of heavy tomes. Curiosity overcame her as to just what sort of reading material might draw Vincent’s interest. Probably some dry poetry collection or a book about the life and times of Striped-Back Rock Spiders.

Unable to resist any longer, Tifa set her half-eaten package of crackers aside, and shifting to hands and knees, she inched across the floor toward Vincent, her eyes locked on his face the entire time. When she finally reached a point where she could read the title of the book at the top of the page, she shifted her eyes downward and worked out the upside down letters in her mind. The Broken Clock.

Huh…what kind of book is that, Valentine? A clock repair manual?

Crabbing around so that she could see the words on the page if she bent her neck at an acute angle, she started to read, her long bangs hanging just short of brushing Vincent’s splayed hand. She started from the top of the page and shortly found herself sucked into a passage about a dark-haired, trench-coated secret agent in the middle of stalking a killer through a deserted warehouse. The killer seemed to have a beautiful and frightened woman in his possession, and apparently planned to kill her most messily. Just as the handsome spy finally came upon them, mostly because the killer had decided to lie in wait behind a stack of crates, the killer laughed maniacally while holding a switchblade knife to the trembling woman’s throat. The handsome secret agent spy guy lifted his gun with narrowed eyes, and at that point the line of text disappeared beneath Mr. Valentine’s hand.

She glared at the serene face of the sleeping Vincent. Move your hand, Vincent. I want to see what happens next. How can you go to sleep in the middle of this anyway? Tifa examined his hand closely and wondered if she could manage to pull the book from beneath his fingers if she did it with excruciating slowness. Then she decided that probably wouldn’t work, and she tried to see what she could find out in the text between his fingers, which wasn’t much. She was pondering what would happen if she just pried up one finger to see what was underneath, when Vincent stirred.

Tifa shot backwards so fast that she almost fell completely over when she tried to regain her sitting position on her bedroll. As it was, she only had time to freeze in place with her legs stretched out and her hands propped behind her where she’d planted them to keep herself from falling back. She pasted what she thought to be a reasonable facsimile of an innocent expression on her face just as the dark eyelashes fluttered up to reveal blank crimson eyes.

Apparently, the innocent expression wasn’t all it should be, because the crimson eyes sharpened on her face in the next instant. He erupted from his bed, shoving himself up on hand and claw to rest his weight on one hip. “Did something happen?” he asked her tensely.

“Uh…no…” She snatched up the opened package of crackers. “I was just eating breakfast.” She reached in for another cracker, bending her head to direct her eyes to the package with intense interest for the sole purpose of hiding her face from his incisive stare. “Er…the only thing that’s happened ‘round here in awhile is…ah…that you woke up.” She sharply shrugged her shoulders. “I thought I’d let you sleep. Although you’ve been a bit of a slug-a-bed…”

Tifa’s eyes involuntarily widened at that last remark. Why did she say that? She was letting her mouth get away from her in her enthusiasm to hide the fact that she’d just been hovering over him like a vulture while he slept, as though the man could divine that fact from her guilty behavior. Quickly, she stuffed the cracker in her mouth to forestall any more unfortunate comments.

Vincent narrowed his eyes suspiciously on her downcast face. He knew very well she looked guilty for some reason, but he couldn’t imagine what it might be. His eyes fell to the book that he’d knocked askew at his sudden awakening. He instantly snatched the book into his hand as he swung his legs around to fully sit up on the bedroll. Gently, he closed the cover and stood to return the book to his backpack. It was at that point that he realized he was barefooted. Although he’d completely redressed the night before after his swim, he left his socks and boots off, enjoying the unstrictured freedom of his toes, thinking he would certainly wake before her if he did fall asleep. Obviously, the swim had relaxed him entirely too much if she’d been rambling around for a long time, getting into her backpack and tearing open foil packets without rousing him. He would have to be more careful in future. Some wild animal could have sneaked up on the both of them, although he’d like to think he would have awakened in that event anyway.

Vincent bent to pick up his neatly folded socks and the pair of boots he’d lined up toe to heel at the end of his bedroll. As he returned to his bedroll to put them on, he glanced over at Tifa to see her gathering her foil packets into her hand. “Are you finished?” he asked coolly.

She gave him a little nod, keeping her gaze averted to the business at hand. “If you will put on your boots and gather your things, we will go,” he told her as he tugged a sock on over one foot.

Still unwilling to look at him, Tifa just nodded her head again. She was more than ready to be on the road again. The sooner Vincent’s entirely too perceptive eyes were on his route and off her, the better. Without further prompting, she leaned across her bedroll on one hand and reached for her boots.

“Couldn’t we have come out closer?” Ozzie whined as he hugged his arms around his body and trudged through the knee-deep snow. “Why do you always complain about walking, Ozwan?” Baron inquired coldly. “When you know that we cannot jeopardize our means of travel.”

“It’s cold, Bari!” Ozzie almost wailed the complaint. “And my leg hurts!”

“You have a coat,” Baron patiently pointed out. “And your injured leg will be better for the exercise.”

“Why did we pick Icicle Inn again?”

“The Turks are not likely to go there.”

“Why don’t you ever get cold, Bari?”

“Perhaps I am cold, Ozwan…” Baron turned chilly golden eyes on his shivering friend. “…But I simply choose not to whine about it.”

“You don’t look cold…” Ozzie accused with narrowed eyes on the easy and relaxed manner in which his partner strode through the snow with his arms swinging loosely at his sides. He was wearing himself to the bone trying to keep up and freezing to death despite the effort. “I think you’re lying.”

“Are you prepared to defend your accusation, Ozwan?” Baron inquired silkily. “Where I come from, you would retract that statement or fight to the death to validate your words.”

“It was just a joke,” Ozzie replied sulkily. “Don’t get all serious on me, Bari. Besides, you’d kill me too easily, so why bother?”

“I’m pleased that you recognize that fact.” A sardonic smile touched Baron’s lips, and he nodded toward the roofs of Icicle Inn that had finally appeared at the crest of the hill. “There is your salvation, Ozwan. You may cease your whining now.”

“Hallelujah!” Ozzie punched a triumphant fist into the frosty air. “Time to make tracks to the pub.”

Baron shot his elated partner a warning look. “No chatting up pretty girls, Ozwan, and you will not accost anyone in the pub. We are here to observe, and more importantly, we are here to listen. I want no trouble out of you.”

“No worries on that score, my friend,” Ozzie blithely reassured his partner. With a wide grin, the blonde gunman broke into a run, breaking through the snowdrifts in great bounds despite his injured leg, until he emerged on a well-traveled snowmobile track. He turned to wave the katana warrior on faster. “C’mon, Bari. It’s easy goin’ from here!”

“I pray you speak the truth, Ozwan,” Baron murmured as he watched his partner trot away down the track, only slightly favoring his dog-bitten leg. Then he realized that he should, under no circumstances, allow Ozwan to enter the village of Icicle Inn ahead of him, and he broke into an easy lope. He would keep Ozwan out of trouble this time, even if he had to tie him up in the inn for the duration of their stay. A cool smile came to his mouth. Maybe he would do it anyway, just for general purposes.

Myron finally found his wife, after a fruitless search in all the places he would expect her to be. She hadn’t been cooking in the kitchen or scrubbing the stove. And she hadn’t been cleaning the guest rooms upstairs, a required task now that the inn actually had some business. Several more potential settlers had come to town since the first group, and although some brought tents, more than a few of them started out at the inn.

Upstairs, he had found Maya making a bed with the eerie bird called Angel sitting in the open window watching her, and the young woman’s emerald eyes had turned worried when he asked her if she knew where Nessa had gone, but she didn’t know. Uneasily, she asked him if he’d checked the basement bedroom, and the question had sent a chill through his blood. Maya had noticed Nessa’s increasing propensity to sleep during the day, just as he had. He hadn’t found her in their bed, much to his great relief.

No, he’d finally opened the kitchen door to the backyard flower garden and discovered her sitting on the wooden stoop with her chin resting on her knees and her loosened ebony hair pooled around her. She made no sign that she’d heard the door open behind her.

“What are you doing, Nessa?” Myron queried carefully. He wanted to ask if she was all right, but he’d learned quickly in the last few days not to do that. She never answered with anything but a deprecating little smile. He well knew she wasn’t all right. They both knew it. She’d never be all right again. Myron’s throat closed as his grief threatened to well inside him. Forcibly, he cleared his throat and walked out on the stoop to halt right behind her. Although she’d yet to respond to him in any way, she straightened from her slump and let her head fall back to rest against his leg.

“Ah…do you want me to braid your hair for you, Nessa?”

Silently, she shook her head.

“Are you hungry? Would you like some soup?” His soup seemed to be all she wanted of late.

Again, she shook her head against his leg.

“Ah…another guest just arrived…I hope I did everything right…”

Nessa smiled softly. “Did you get the name and the appropriate amount of gil, Myron?”

Myron nodded his head before he remembered that she couldn’t see the gesture. “Yes, I did.”

“I’m sure you did fine…” Her voice trailed away as her thoughts seemed to travel back to whatever place he’d drawn them from.

“Er…it seems word of the new Nibelheim settlement is getting around….” He paused for her reply, but one didn’t seem to be forthcoming. “The couple that just checked in…they came from Gongaga. And that man yesterday…he came from Rockettown, but he’s originally from Mideel.” She only nodded against his leg again in response.

“…The man from Mideel…his name is Arthur Fox…he seems interested in the constable job…he wants to think about it…”


“He says he doesn’t really have any experience…but he seems to have a good head on his shoulders…I wondered if you would talk to him, Nessa…see what you think…”

He held his breath for her answer, which came after a long moment. “You should handle the matter, Myron,” she replied quietly.

His sorrow, only barely held at bay at any time, surged to the forefront at her words. Only a week ago, Nessa would have agreed to talk to a potential constable with alacrity. In fact, she was of a nature that one would not be hired without her input. Now, she was telling him it was his job. He couldn’t deny it any longer. She had given up. She was detaching herself from her life. From him.

“Nessa…” He choked her name past numb lips. “Please…don’t leave me…”

“The flowers are beautiful, aren’t they, Myron?” Nessa murmured.

“Nessa…please…” He forced himself to nod. “…Yes…yes…they are…”

“Maya has a magical touch…”

“Yes…she does…” he answered her hoarsely. “Flower girl…maybe what the widow said…”

For the first time, Nessa exhibited a spark of life when she snapped sharply. “No, Myron. Don’t ever say that aloud. That woman…she watches Maya all the time that Maya is out in the village…she is always lurking about…”

“I’m sorry…you’re right…”

“I want you to watch out for Maya when I’m gone.”

“Nessa, I don’t want to talk about…that…”

For the first time since he’d arrived on the back stoop, his wife tipped her head back to look up at him with dark eyes, soft and shining with unshed tears. “We must talk about this, Myron. What point is there in leaving matters hanging, in not voicing what should be said?”


With a wry little smile, Nessa gingerly scooted over on the porch and inclined her head toward the vacant space beside her. “Then just listen, Myron.”

Anxiety filled him as he lowered himself to the wooden surface beside her. He grimaced as both of his knees popped. Any other time, Nessa would have teased him unmercifully about it, but her face seemed deadly serious now.

“Are you ready?” she asked him with the arch of one brow.

He shook his head. “I’ll never be ready…”

“I want you to mark my words, Myron. Are you listening?”

“Why do we have to do this now, Nessa?”

“I fear I may not be able to…soon…”

Very slowly, he nodded his head as tears burned behind his eyes. “I’ll listen, Nessa…” He tensed in preparation, and his muscles were so tightly coiled, he jumped when she reached over and took his hand.

Nessa leaned her head against his shoulder and lowered her voice. “I want you to treat Maya as our daughter and protect her with your life if need be.” Nessa leaned closer and lowered her voice. “She is special, as you well know, and is meant for a higher purpose. Do not let anyone hurt her. Do not let anyone know.” Myron didn’t answer so Nessa gave his hand a little squeeze. “Do you understand?”

Myron reluctantly nodded his head, and Nessa continued. “When she wishes to go, and that day will come, let her go. You may give her whatever of my clothing and jewelry you wish to. Do what you want with everything else, except my mother’s locket…I hope that you will keep it...”

Myron’s pained eyes shot to her face. “I could never…I would never…how could you think…”

“I know you will keep it for me,” Nessa replied softly. “I never doubted you, Myron.”

“I thought…that…you…would want to be…b…b…b…buried with it,” Myron choked out brokenly.

Nessa shook her head. “I want to be cremated, Myron. I want you to scatter my ashes in the tide.”

Myron averted his face from her as the tears slipped down his cheeks.

“Will you do that for me, Myron?” Nessa quietly pressed.

He tried to nod, but he could barely make his head move. Nessa turned and drew him into her arms, slipping her fingers into his hair at the back of his head as she laid her cheek against his. “I know you’ve never believed me, Myron,” Nessa spoke gruffly. “But I’m going to tell you again, I’ve never regretted a single day with you. I know very well that there is no other man who could ever have loved me more than you have, and I hope you know how much….” Nessa paused to catch her breath as grief squeezed her heart. “…I love you, Myron. More than you can know…”

Nessa fell silent as tears welled into her eyes and her capacity to speak vanished. In a move born of desperation, Myron wrapped her in his arms in a tight embrace, his tears giving way to open sobs. Nessa turned her head against his shoulder and let her tears fall into the soft cotton of his blue shirt as she tightened her own arms around him. She knew she didn’t have many days left to her and this might well be the last time she would ever hold him like this.

Her hand pressed tightly to her trembling mouth and hot tears streaking her cheeks, Maya watched the grieving couple through the open door from where she stood in relative darkness inside the kitchen. Slowly, she backed away. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she wished nothing more than to run away again, to race through the lobby and out the front, to run and run until she could run no more. But an inkling of an idea teased her mind, and only the effort required to get a firm grip on that elusive thought stayed her in her place. She backed up against the table and stopped. Her wet eyes widened as she suddenly recognized what she wanted to do. The same thing she had been hell-bent to do only days ago. She just hadn’t realized it then.

…Cannot…cannot… Angel implored her from his perch on the coat rack by the kitchen door. …Too…perilous…

“Get out of my head, you interfering bird,” Maya whispered harshly, angry in her grief. Roughly, she swiped the tips of her fingers at the tears still running freely down her face.

…Not…inter…fering…not go…you…danger…danger… Angel’s weak grasp of human syntax began to fail him in his distress.

Maya pinned hot, tear-filled eyes on the bird. I’m going, Angel. You can’t stop me. You can either come with me or you can stay behind. Your choice. But I’m going. First thing in the morning. You can bet your pretty tail feathers on that.

Without another thought or word of argument, she whirled away from the table and ran out of the room. At that moment, all she wanted to do was sleep. Hide and sleep. And dream. She hoped to find the comfort she sought in her dreams. The anxious bird watched her flee from his roost beside the kitchen door. He knew he should do something, but he was at a loss as to what he could do. If he were still in possession of his man’s body, he would surely stop her, but what power could a mere bird exert? Absolutely none. And so he would go and utilize all his avian skills, meager though they were, so keep her safe. To do anything less would be his damnation.

Tifa had no idea anymore how long the two of them had been walking. She had no idea how long it had been since they’d left the waterfall pool, or how many days had passed since they had put the strange underground facility behind them. She had lost track of time from almost the beginning. Her days were measured by the rare words she shared with Vincent, words almost always directed to mundane matters, whether she was ready to stop or whether she was ready to go, and by their occasional stops to rest, something Vincent did not seem inclined to do until she had grown noticeably exhausted, at which point he’d learned to merely unload his pack from his back if she said she wanted to go on. He didn’t even bother to expend words to argue with her anymore.

They had settled into a definite routine. She could almost close her eyes and know what he was doing at any given moment. First, he would set aside his backpack and rifle. Then he would get out the lamp and take off his headlamp. If the battery needed replaced, he would do it then. Then he would unfurl his bedroll. Get out his foil packets. Eat while staring at the map. Then he would put away the map, gather up his packets, stash them in his backpack, zip the thing up, and that done, he would roll up in his cloak and put his back to her.

If she were to mark the days by the number of times they had stopped since leaving the little waterfall pool behind, they had been traveling four days. But truthfully, she suspected it had been longer. Other than her compulsive imaginary conversations with him, which now bordered on the nonsensical, she had spoken to him once. She had asked him if she could read his book when he was finished with it. And he had replied that she could read his book whenever she wished. After that, she had lapsed back into silence. She had not seen him read his book again, and when they stopped she had been too tired to ask him if she could read it.

Now the passage began to narrow considerably, the ceiling traveling down to a point where the headlamp picked out the sparkling minerals embedded in the rock hanging just above her head. On top of that, the ground began to slant downward beneath her boots. Claustrophobia began to take her almost immediately, followed by a creeping sense of panic at the periphery of her mind. Her keen sense of discomfort compelled her to speak to Vincent Valentine’s cloaked back.

“Do you know where we are?” she asked tightly, her strangled words reverberating loudly in the small passage. Vincent suddenly stopped, as though startled at her question. Or maybe he was just astonished that she’d spoken. She stopped too, as he turned halfway around to look back at her. She noticed that his headlamp had grown dim again. He never seemed to care until it had almost burned completely out.

He studied her face expressionlessly for a moment. “Yes,” he replied succinctly. He turned away then, and returned to his leisurely pace.

She fell into step behind him. She clearly remembered her recognition of his uncertainty several stops back, at the entrance to the tunnel that led through the snake nest. “Are you sure, Vincent?” she pressed.

“Yes,” he answered again without looking around.

Well…thank you for that lie, Mr. Valentine. At least you are doing your part to keep my hysteria at bay…for a change… She wasn’t so easily satisfied, however. She knew what she knew.

“How can you be so sure?” she persisted.

“I checked the map, Miss Lockhart.”

Oh oh, the ‘Miss Lockhart’ had returned. He’d left it off for a while. Did this mean he was getting annoyed with her? His bland tone surely didn’t reflect any irritation.

“I see…” she whispered. “You checked The Map.”

“If my estimations are correct, we should encounter an underground river shortly,” he patiently informed her.

“A…river?” That was exciting news. Maybe she could wash her face and hands, at least. She’d been without a bath in days, and she could tell it. He’d given her something to look forward to. On the other hand, if the river didn’t appear, she would be faced with the fact that Vincent Valentine had miscalculated, and then what would they do? But she couldn’t think about that. The river would be there, just like Vincent said it would. Vincent had the uncanny capacity for being right, a disgusting trait in some circumstances, but not in this one. Tifa tuned her ears forward, fighting a tendency to hold her breath as she listened for the unmistakable sound of running water that would prove Vincent’s statement true. At least he’d be safe from her imaginary conversations with him for the foreseeable future. She couldn’t possibly think up impressive things to say when she had a river to find.

Caitlin wearily stood up with the empty box that had once held bandages and turned to carry it outside the medical tent to stack it on top of the rest of the empty boxes she’d already taken out. She had finally made it to the bottom of the last one. For almost four days, she’d been unpacking and arranging the medical supplies in the medical tent in makeshift shelves that she’d constructed from boxes. That was in between her hours in the mess tent, cooking and serving, so that the mechanical crew wouldn’t be bogged down with the task when they were needed elsewhere. In between, she spent a few restless hours on a narrow cot trying to sleep. At least she kept herself busy enough to avoid her discussion with Reno and to block out her troubling thoughts about Reeve. But now she’d run out of things to occupy her time, and lo and behold, there stood Reno in the doorway of the medical tent, as though he’d known it was time. Of course, he’d inquired about their discussion every night for the last three nights. And she’d told him each time that she didn’t have time. She decided to suck the hot air from his sails.

“Are you ready for our discussion, Reno?” She arched a golden eyebrow at him.

“Not really, no,” he surprised her by saying. He wrapped a hand around the rim of the box she was holding and pulled it from her hands.

Her brows drew together in a frown. She hadn’t expected that response. “Well, why not?” She folded her arms in feigned consternation to hide the relief she felt at the reprieve and followed him through the tent entrance and around the side where he tossed the box on top of the other empties. He turned back to her with a smirk and ran his fingers through his dust-covered hair, shedding concrete particles all around him. “Thought I’d take a shower and eat a bite,” he replied dismissively. “Then I’m all yours, baby,” he added in a playfully suggestive tone.

Caitlin looked him up and down with an appraising eye. He was covered from head to toe with concrete dust. In fact, he was so dusty she hadn’t even noticed that he was walking around bare-chested with his once black t-shirt tied around his thin waist. Even his fiery red hair had been turned to a dull gray. If he stood very still, he could pass as a sculpture, as long as he closed the vibrant green of his eyes away behind his eyelids. And kept his mouth shut of course.

“Where’s Avian? Is he with you?”

“Well, of course. He’s gone to shower.” Reno narrowed his eyes on her face. “Do you think I’d be out there at Sector Five working if I didn’t have to shadow his entirely too industrious ass?”

Caitlin smirked this time. “Highwind can use every hand he can get,” she reminded him. Then her expression turned sober, her mind turning to the reason the Captain needed help to begin with. “How’s it going out there?”

Reno shrugged carelessly. “I’ve had to stay at least fifteen feet away from Wallace. I believe he’d drop broken pipes and chunks of concrete on me otherwise.”

She waved a dismissive hand. “I meant…the progress…are they getting close?”

“Highwind says we’ve gone as far as we can, without the equipment on the plane. According to him, we need the iron culverts and steel beams to dig any deeper in.”

Caitlin unconsciously turned her eyes to the sky at mention of the giant cargo plane, something she’d done countless times. The overdue plane had grown to be a matter of great concern. Rude had yet to return too. Apparently, locating Cornelius had become a difficult matter. Or maybe it was transporting him that was the problem, although she couldn’t imagine Rude having a problem in that regard for long.

“I hope they come soon,” Caitlin said softly, mostly to herself.

“The plane will come soon,” Reno reassured her as he knocked more dust from his hair with a brush of his hand. “Probably taking a while to get the extra personnel. And Rude…” Reno lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “…Sometimes Cornelius can be hard to track down. He could be in Junon…in Costa del Sol…or even in Icicle Village. The man's keen on snowboarding.”

“Icicle Village?” Caitlin asked with dismay. “Surely he won’t have to go that far away.”

Reno shrugged again, but before he could answer, another voice came from behind him. “Are you still trying to fool people into thinking you’re actually engaging in manual labor, Reno?” Elena inquired cattily.

A sardonic smile curved Reno’s lips, and he slowly turned around to face her. He checked out her snide smile and piquant face with appreciation. He lifted his arms out away from his sides. “Would I look like this if I hadn’t been?”

Elena let her eyes travel from the top of his dusty head to the tips of his dusty boots, pausing for a space of time on his bare chest. “Hmph, you probably rolled around in the dirt and then found a nice shady place to take a nap.”

Reno turned his head and looked at Caitlin beseechingly as though to say, “See what I have to put up with?” But he didn’t say it. Instead, he turned back to Elena, all business this time. “How’s Rachel, Elena? And where is she?”

Elena jerked a finger in the direction of the sleeping tents. “She’s taking another nap. That’s all she does, between eating and wanting to play jacks, which she’s very poor at, by the way.”

“How about you, Elena, are you any good at jacks?” Reno inquired silkily. He thought he might get a rise out of her in asking about the child’s game, but to his surprise, she gave him a cool smile. “Yes, Reno, I’m very good at jacks. My hand and eye coordination is excellent, thank you. However, I think you should try your hand at jacks. Since you are so worried about Rachel, you can stay with her for awhile, and I’ll go pretend to work beside Avian.”

Reno took a step closer to her and beckoned her near. When she stepped up to him he bent his head and whispered loudly. “You would only break your perfectly manicured nails, Elena, and destroy your delicately applied makeup job, and trash your lovely new clothes.” Then he smirked and swiped a line of concrete dust down her nose with one long finger. “And for your information, there are no shady places on the Midgar Flats.”

Elena’s calm cool demeanor instantly fled. “How dare you?!” she snapped as she swiped at her nose with her fingers. She gave him a scathing hazel-eyed glare that should have sizzled him to ash where he stood, but he didn’t even turn a hair or relinquish a fraction of his satisfied smirk. With a little unladylike curse, she wheeled around and stalked away.

“I see you and Elena are getting on well,” Caitlin casually observed. “As well as you ever do…anyway…”

“Ah well, she’s mad at me, I guess,” Reno airily explained. “She hasn’t had a nice thing to say to me since we came back from Midgar. Fortunately, she hasn’t seen much of me, so she’s had plenty of free time to work on her glares and practice her insults.”

“Why is she mad at you?” Caitlin asked curiously. She’d thought they’d just been playing their usual cut and parry game.

Reno swiveled his head around to plant speculative green eyes on her face. “It’s the rain check thing, I suppose,” Reno mused aloud. “Elena is afraid I will bring it up, and then she’ll have to deal with it. Just like someone else I know who has avoided partaking in a certain discussion she herself called.”

Caitlin could not fault Reno’s keen perception. She offered him a cool smile, even if it was a bit forced. “Don’t worry about me, Reno. I’ve just been busy. But I’m ready to have our little discussion now.” She curled her dainty nose in a very convincing imitation of Elena. “Just as soon as you’ve showered.”

“Then I won’t let you keep me. I will shower with alacrity and inhale some canned cuisine before you change your mind.” He gave her a little wave of his hand and walked away.

“Meet me by the plane in an hour, Reno,” Caitlin called after him. He nodded his head and called back over his shoulder. “It’s a date, sweetheart.”

Caitlin watched him turn toward the sleeping tents to head for the makeshift showers behind. When he disappeared, she let out a long breath. She still wasn’t sure where she was going with this business, and she had to ask herself, once again, if she really knew what she was doing. She suspected not. She had to find out though. She knew that she needed a backup plan. She needed help from someone capable, and Reno was the capable someone she’d tentatively decided upon. The only problem was that she still didn’t know if she could trust him. Not with her daughter. Not with Heidi’s life. But she had to find out. Some way. She had to know. She needed the Leader of the Turks. No one else would do.

Avian sighed with pleasure as he turned his sweaty and dust-caked face into the steady stream of lukewarm water, the moderate temperature a blended product of two water hoses lashed together. The water abruptly turned icy cold, and Avian gasped in shock. He blinked away the water droplets from his eyes and glared over the top of the chest-high scrap-wood framed shower stall. “Hey! What happened to my hot water?!”

“Must be a malfunction, Farm Boy.”

With a groan of despair, Avian turned all the way around in the shower to glare over the other side at the dark-eyed girl who had the hot water hose kinked in her hand. “Come on, Yuffie!” he pleaded. “Let go of the hose. I’m shriveling in here.”

“Pay me, and I will,” she smirked.

“I can’t. I don’t have my pants,” he pointed out reasonably as his teeth began to chatter.

“Aw hell, you look so pathetic I can’t stand it.” She dropped the hose to the ground and bowed her head in Wutaian homage. “I am at your service, most honorable Avian Wulfe.”

Avian’s eyes closed with pleasure as the warm water returned to run down his shoulders and back. “If that’s true, which I doubt,” he idly remarked. “Then go away. You aren’t supposed to be in this area. The girl’s area is on the other side. It’s pretty bad when I guy can’t take a shower in peace.”

“Do you ever comb your hair?” Yuffie asked churlishly from just the other side of the stall. Avian choked at the very close proximity of her voice. He looked over at her upturned face just the other side of the shoulder high wall with alarm in his amber eyes. “What are you doing?” he demanded anxiously. “You better not be peeking through the cracks.”

“Eeeeyeeeeeew! Gross! What kind of a pervert do you think I am?”

“Do you really want me to answer that?” Avian irritably asked. “Go away!”

“Fine, I’m going! I just came to get Soldier anyway. He wants to play. I don’t know what your problem is anyway…I mean, you have a whole raggedy wooden shed around your naked butt…that’s more than you usually wear…”

Avian peeped over the side to find her still there. “You haven’t left yet,” he pointed out irritably.

“You should comb your hair,” Yuffie remarked again. “You still have straw in it from the other day in the barn.”

Avian’s fingers flew to his tangled sandy mane to pluck out the offensive straw, but found nothing but hair. “Hah! Made you look! I’m going now.” Yuffie turned on heel and walked away. “Enjoy your shower!” she sang out over her shoulder.

“Hey, don’t take Soldier off too far…okay?” he called after her anxiously.

“Don’t worry about your precious dog, Wulfe, ‘kay? I have passed the test of the Five Gods of the Pagoda. No one is going to hurt your puppy. Why don’t you hurry up and come play with us?” she added offhandedly. “Soldier would like that.”

The door to the makeshift shower stall on the other side of him creaked open, and he turned his head to see Reno hang his dusty shirt over the edge. “That girl still tormenting you?” Reno asked him without looking around.

“Yeah…it seems to be her new hobby…” That was true too. She’d been popping out of the most unusual places, scaring the beejeebers out of him, and she had devised more pranks to play on him than anyone he’d ever known.

“She likes you,” Reno replied nonchalantly.

Avian shook his head in denial. “Nah…I think…it may sound crazy…but…I think…she’s just…trying to cheer me up…” He was pretty sure that’s what it was. Ever since the night he’d almost cracked apart in front of her, to his great chagrin, she’d been his constant tormentor, but she hadn’t called him a single name, other than ‘Farm Boy’. “Besides, she likes Heidegger.” Avian added with a shrug. “She wanted to go with him on the plane…but he said he wouldn’t have time to hold her bucket…”

Reno tossed his dirt caked jeans over the top of the shower stall and laid his magrod across the corner. Then he turned the clamp screw that held the hoses closed. “Well, she didn’t go,” Reno pointed out. “And Heidegger isn’t here, now is he? You should make your play, kid.”

“…I don’t have any…plays…” Avian commented slowly. “Who’d wanna risk their neck with a hellion like her anyway?”

“Yeah, you might have a point…” Reno agreed easily enough. “Still…hellions can be a lot of fun…” Reno ducked his head under the water, and the concrete dust ran out of his red hair in a curtain of gray paint.

“Hey, Reno…”

“Can’t hear ya, kid,” Reno turned his face into the stream, and the dust runneled away in copious rivulets. “What’d ya say?”

“I just wondered. Do you have a comb I can borrow?”

Reno chuckled at the request. He hadn’t missed Yuffie’s comment. “Sure, kid. I’ve got a comb around here somewhere.”

“Vincent!” Tifa cried out with excitement. “I can hear it! The river!” She ran up to walk beside him. “You were right! Can you hear it?”

He nodded. “Yes, I can hear it.” He’d been hearing it for several minutes in fact, but he wasn’t entirely sure that it was the river on the map. Still, he could conjecture that it probably was, and though he’d been sure of their position after finding the waterfall pool on the map, he still felt a great sense of relief at the confirmation.

“I want to see it!” Tifa exclaimed, and she suddenly darted past him. He threw out an arm to stop her, but she’d taken him completely by surprise, and he’d reacted too slowly. “Wait! Tifa!” he yelled after her, but she had already rounded the next bend. Cursing beneath his breath, he broke into a run to chase her down. Excitement had apparently gifted her feet with wings, because he didn’t catch up to her despite his longer legs and superior speed, until he came out of the narrow passageway into a high wide cavern to find her standing at the very edge of a fast flowing river, the whole surface of which sparkled with seemingly thousands of flickering green lights as it raced over the rocks.

Tifa had heard his boots as he’d run out of the passage, and she called over her shoulder to him. “Come look, Vincent! It sparkles! Like Winterfest lights!”

He might have gone to look then, drawn by her infectious excitement, but she suddenly danced several feet along the bank to walk out onto a small outcropping that hung over the river, and that was when he noticed the strange crystalline structures that glimmered at the rim of the rock around her boots. He stared at them with a creeping sense of unease, wondering at what it was that disturbed him, until he suddenly realized what he was seeing, and the puzzle piece snapped into place. He remembered reading about this once, the luminous freshwater creatures that had been documented in another underground river in the Mythril mines. Kanabria, he thought they were called. They lived inside crystalline structures of their own creation, and they built up whole riverbanks with walls made of these tiny crystal palaces, just like coral reefs in the ocean. And every bit as fragile.

Vincent walked quickly toward her. “Tifa! Come away from there!”

Startled at the uncharacteristic volume and urgency in his voice, she whipped her head around to look at him, but she didn’t immediately move. “What’s the matter, Vincent?” she asked in confusion. He gestured for her to come away from the water. “Just step away from the edge, Tifa.”

She looked quickly around her and didn’t see what had his brow furrowed so deeply and his eyes burning so fiercely. Obviously, Vincent thought something was wrong, and she’d learned the hard way that Vincent usually knew.

She carefully picked up her foot and took a step, but when she set her foot down again, the shelf began to crack from underneath her with a loud popping sound.

Vincent instantly lunged for her, his hand outstretched. “Jump, Tifa!” he cried to her. “Jump now!” And she did try to jump, but she’d been taken by surprise and the shelf was already sliding away into the river. She attempted to leap across the widening gap, but the shelf of crystal and rock suddenly broke completely away and threw off her balance. She completely missed Vincent’s hand and tried to grab the edge with desperate fingers as she dropped. Unfortunately, the brittle crystalline matter embedded in the broken rock slashed her fingers, and with a sharp cry of pain, she released the edge, and the river took her.

Vincent cursed aloud this time, and threw off his pack to let it crash to the floor, oblivious to the cracking sound inside. Then he ripped the rifle sling off his shoulder and carelessly tossed the weapon in the general direction of the pack, uncaring when it rebounded off to clatter against the stone floor of the passage. Already breaking into a full run, he ripped the cloak over his head and tossed it off behind him as he raced as close to the edge of the bank as he dared.

He could see her against the sparkling water, just barely keeping her head above the roiling surface. The heavy pack on her back was dragging her down into the undercurrent, and she was being swept along almost as swiftly as he could run. Loath to take his eyes off of her because he feared she would be sucked under the second he looked away, he forced himself to glance downstream where he could make out several dark rocks against the shining water and what he thought to be a long outcropping that seemed to slant down into the river. If he could make that outcropping before she could get there, he could intercept her easily. He brought the whole of his attention back to her just in time to see that she’d managed to get her arms around a slender rock jutting from the water like a small mountain peak. He hoped she might be able to cling there for a few minutes until he could get out into the water, but the pressure of the water against her pack was too great, and the current ripped her away. He knew what she had to do then. Truly, he’d already known, but he’d hoped it wouldn’t be necessary.

Still running, he cupped hand and claw around his mouth, his pace slowing only incrementally as he concentrated on getting her attention. “Tifa! Get rid of the pack!” he yelled at the top of his lungs. “Drop the pack!”

At first, he didn’t think she had heard him above the roar of the water as she was dragged along, but then she managed to turn her head his way. “What?!” She yelled back before her mouth filled with water and choked off her voice.

“Drop the pack! Your backpack! Drop it now!”

Tifa stared up at the dark silhouette of Vincent racing alongside her as the water bore her away as easily as a leaf on the wind. She could clearly mark his position from the dim beam of his headlamp bouncing along as he ran. She had heard him the second time. He wanted her to drop the backpack, and she knew she should, but she didn’t want to. Her pack had a lot of the extra batteries in it, and she didn’t think they’d have enough batteries to make it out if she let the pack go. She tried to shake her head at him as she valiantly fought to swim toward another rock she’d just spotted in her path. If she could just make the rock, then maybe he could use the rope she knew he’d packed to retrieve both her and the backpack intact.

Vincent wanted to cry out his despair when he saw her shake her head stubbornly, but when he saw her valiantly trying to breaststroke toward the oncoming rock, he realized what she was trying to do. Still, he knew she wouldn’t be able to maintain her hold on the slippery surface any longer than she had on the first rock. He darted a glance at the long promontory again to find that he’d come up on it much sooner than he’d thought. He was almost out of room. And so was she.

So compelled was he to immediately mark her position again that he almost missed a feature of the river that carried a dire import, but the froth of green, more brightly luminescent than the river itself, caught his attention just as he would have swept his imploring gaze back around to her. A bubbling boundary of green at the end of the river, where the water fell away beneath the wall into a dark and fathomless crevice. His mind filled with horror. If he didn’t get her out at the promontory, Tifa would be towed beneath the wall.

Vincent might have cursed again, long and hard, if the knowledge that he might lose her forever had not snatched his breath away and set his heart pounding hard in his chest. Frantically, he tore his gaze from the cleft in the wall to Tifa again, just as the river wrested her away from her slippery hold in the rock and towed her toward the center. If she wound up much further out, he wouldn’t be able to reach her even if he did manage to make the promontory in time.

“Tifa! Drop the pack! Drop it right now!” he yelled at the top of his lungs, an edge of panic in his voice. If she refused to let the backpack go, all would be lost.

Tifa had her head turned in such a way that she heard him clearly then, and the strain was clearly evident in his yell. Hadn’t she learned to do what he said by now? Besides, she knew she had to do it now or she would drown. Her arms and legs were weakening from the struggle, and the temptation to just let the river have her was becoming too great. With a mighty shrug of her shoulders, she yanked her arms out of the pack and released it to the churning river.

He might have been relieved then, that she had finally obeyed him, but he didn’t have time to be relieved, and it would be premature. He glanced at the promontory again, and he knew at that moment, there would only be one way to make it there before she would pass. He turned his head to yell at her again. “Swim for the bank, Tifa! Swim hard!” And then he jumped, not even knowing if she had heard him. Not even sure if he had judged his jump correctly. He’d simply run out of time.

Tifa did hear him, and she’d already set out for the bank, stroking hard across the current with little progress despite the loss of the pack, but when he jumped, she saw him go airborne almost over her head, flying across the water. She forgot to swim then, turning her head to watch him land in a light crouch on a long outcropping of rock far in front of her. “Gods, Vincent…” she murmured in awe. She knew the man could jump, but she’d never seen him make such an astounding leap before.

Vincent raced out to the end of the promontory and dropped to one knee to wait for her, and then she remembered that she was supposed to be swimming. She knew she was still too far to the center of the river for him to catch her. Stroking and kicking hard despite her enervated muscles, she made Vincent her goal in life at the moment, to reach him, to grab so tight to his hand he thought his fingers would break, and maybe even to kiss him all over his face in her relief. She closed every thing else from her mind but the image of him waiting for her on bent knee with his hand outstretched, his crimson eyes fraught with intense purpose. He meant to drag her from the river, and she meant to make sure he did.

She swam her heart out, inexorably forcing her struggling body toward the tip of the promontory as the river worked hard to sweep her past. Vincent drew ever closer until she reached the point where she knew she would make it, and she stretched up her fingers for his hand, but after all that focus on her goal, her fingertips simply brushed his fingers and slipped away. Wasn’t that just oh so familiar. Only last time, she’d fallen from the sky.

Vincent did not mean to surrender so easily. With his sharp talons embedded in the rock, he leaned way out on his knee and latched his hand around her flailing wrist. Throwing his body backward, he literally yanked her from the water like a fisherman hauling in a fish, ending up flat on his back with her lying on top of him, her boots still drowning in the rushing water.

They stayed like that for several minutes , Vincent on his back with his eyes closed and knees drawn up, panting for air from his strenuous exertions and his madly pounding heart, his mind completely blank with disbelief, oblivious to the fact that Tifa’s cold, waterlogged clothes were soaking through his own clothing. Tifa gasped like the proverbial fish out of water as she lay stretched out between Vincent’s bent knees, her cheek turned against his heaving chest, arms flopped lifelessly out to either side of her rescuer, one wrist still loosely grasped in his gloved hand, the frenetic beat of his heart the only sensation registering in her brain, a vital connection to life that inexorably drove the panic from her mind to lend her comfort.

Minutes elapsed as Tifa listened to Vincent’s heart rate slow, her own pulse slowing beneath his fingers as her breath grew more even. She was the first to stir, forcing open reluctant eyes and struggling to center her scrambled thoughts as she blinked glimmering green beads of water from her eyelashes. She might have realized her position then, and probably would have leapt to her feet in embarrassment, if she hadn’t first spotted the reason she’d seen Vincent exhibit such an unusual level of anxiety. She instantly recognized the ominous implications of the brilliant, eye-catching green froth brightly churning against the cleft in the wall. Her already nauseous stomach did a complete flip, and a groan slipped from her lips. “Ah…I think I’m going to be…sick…” she informed Vincent’s damp shirt.

Vincent stirred then, the whole of his runaway thoughts diving back into his emptied mind at her words. Swiftly, he disengaged his talons from the porous rock, and releasing her wrist to wrap his arm tightly around her chilled body, he rolled to the side to gently deposit her on the rock beside him. Then he got up on one knee and helped her sit up. Immediately, she clapped a hand over her mouth. She said something into her hand that only came out in mumbles, but Vincent thought she said, “I am going to be sick.” Whether he’d interpreted correctly or not, he didn’t know, but she proved the words true anyway, when she suddenly lunged for the water’s edge and started gagging. He kept his metal talons latched down on one of her shoulders to provide her support as he reached around to hold her sopping bangs out of her face while she held herself up on hands and knees and upchucked what appeared to be several gallons of river water back into the river. She threw up until she was throwing up nothing; just dry heaving, her whole body wrenching as she retched up her guts. Vincent patiently waited.

Eventually, Tifa lifted her head and pressed a trembling hand to her mouth as she waited to see if she was done, and after a few moments more, she made a move to draw away from the edge. Only then did Vincent release her hair from his fingers to lean away from her. She tried to rise then, but only managed to sit back on her heels, letting her head fall weakly against Vincent’s bent leg.

“Gods, I’m such a screw-up…” she informed his knee.

“Can you stand?” he asked her then. “We should move away from the river.”

She noticed he didn’t bother to argue with her about that ‘screw-up’ business, and she could hardly blame him. She nodded her head against his leg, but she made no effort to rise. In the end, Vincent simply wrapped an arm around her waist and climbed heavily to his feet, bringing her along with him.

Holding her tightly against his side so that she half-walked and half-stumbled up the slant of the long promontory beside him, they managed to make it to solid ground where he deposited her well away from the bank. He lifted a finger to point at her. “Stay right here. I’m going back to retrieve my pack.” She just stared up at him with wide brown eyes full of incomprehension. He noticed that she’d started to shiver, and her lips looked blue. “Do you understand, Tifa?” he persisted. “Do not move.”

“You called me…Tifa…” she informed him. He peered at her quizzically. “Don’t call me…Miss…Lockhart…anymore…” she stuttered as her teeth started to chatter in earnest.

He blinked at her admonition. His address of her as ‘Miss Lockhart’ was one conscious means he employed to put a wall of formality between them, and he had to force himself to do it, because when he thought of her, an increasing activity on his part, he thought of her as ‘Tifa’ anyway. So it was no surprise that he forgot during situations of stress. He didn’t realize that it bothered her that much. He tilted his head to the side to study her face. “I will not call you that anymore if you promise you won’t move until I come back,” he bargained.

“Okay, but you better not forget…” she murmured

“I won’t forget.” He rose to his feet and looked down at her. “Don’t forget to stay here.”

“I won’t forget, Vincent.” She grimaced at him. “Just hurry up, will you?”

When Vincent finally walked away, he took the light with him, and it was at that point that she remembered that she’d lost her headlamp in the river. She had another one, but it was at the bottom of the river by now, and she wasn’t going in after it. The only thing that kept her from jumping to her feet and bolting after him was her promise to him that she wouldn’t move, and as long as she could see his headlamp, dim though it was, bobbing around in the distance as he bent to gather up his things, she was just fine. Her eyelashes drifted downward as she watched the round circle of his headlamp returning, and she had almost drifted into a light sleep when he stopped in front of her.

“Here, take this,” he commanded firmly, his attempt to forestall her expected refusal.

She cracked open her eyes to see him holding out the cloak to her. “Uh uh,” she told him with a weary shake of her head. She knew he wouldn’t bother to argue, and he didn’t, bending down to wrap the cloak around her. Except this time he tried to buckle it up as though he suspected she might try to lose it somewhere. Unfortunately, his metal fingers weren’t cooperating just then, so she weakly brushed his hand and claw away and buckled it herself. “You win,” she told his boots as she tried to hold up her head without success. “You usually do.”

“Can you stand? We have to go.”

“Why can’t we stay here?” she pleaded with his ankle cuffs. His ankle cuffs didn’t answer, but he did. “I don’t want to stay near the river,” he informed her coolly.

“What you mean is you don’t trust me…near the river…so why don’t you just say it…” She finally managed to lift her head to look up at him. Way up. He peered down at her from a shadowed face. Without her own headlamp to illuminate his face, she couldn’t see anything but the beam from his lamp.

“We won’t go far,” he reassured her.

“Chicken…” she murmured. He bent down again and wrapped his hand around her elbow to lift her up from the floor. She found, to her surprise, that most of her strength had returned during her brief rest, and she was able to climb to her feet on her own, mostly.

Vincent released her and shrugged his hastily donned pack higher on his back, and then he lifted his prosthetic hand to hold a headlamp out to her. Tifa eyed it suspiciously. “What is that?”

“Your headlamp,” he replied blandly.

“I know that,” Tifa replied a little sharply.

“You asked,” he pointed out.

“Well, what I meant is where did it come from? Didn’t I lose it in the river?”

“It fell off your head when I pulled you from the water,” he replied evenly. He didn’t tell her that it had landed next to his head and clipped his ear with the lens, and really he’d hardly noticed at the time.

“Oh…okay…thanks…” She held out her hand and took the headlamp from him.

“Your hand is injured,” he remarked softly. He hadn’t noticed before, and that fact disturbed him.

Tifa looked at her hand and shrugged. She placed the headlamp on her head and expertly flipped on the switch. “Oh…that…well…actually…both of my hands are cut up a little bit…on the glassy stuff…you know…but they are just tiny cuts…and…”

She stopped talking when he slipped the Quicksilver from his shoulder holster. “What are you doing…” she asked with some concern.

He pressed a finger to the green orb in the grip and mentally cast and directed the low-level cure spell. Seconds later, a soothing wash of light formed around her, and the superficial cuts vanished completely, along with some of her weariness.

“Er…thanks, Vincent…” she said shyly as she watched him reholster his handgun.

“Shall we go?” he asked in response.

“Sure, I’m ready.”

Vincent turned and walked away, and she fell into step behind him, as was their routine, but before they had taken more than four steps, he suddenly stopped and turned back to look at her. Then he pointed a finger at the floor beside him. “Walk right here,” he said curtly.

Tifa pointed at the same spot he was pointing at. “Right there? Beside you?” she asked with more than a little surprise. And then she realized why. “Ah…you want to keep an eye on me, don’t you?” She walked the few steps that would bring her to his side. “Sure, okay. No problem. I probably need you to keep an eye on me, since I seem so prone to trouble lately. I should expect it, right?”

Tifa could not see the glint of amusement in Vincent’s eyes just then, and his voice was deadly serious when he readily agreed. “Correct,” he replied coolly. And he wasn’t lying. Not exactly. It wasn’t really about line of sight. It was more about the length of his reach. At the first sign that she might run off again, he planned to see that she didn’t get far.

A heavy sigh came from his right. “I should have taken a bar of soap in with me…”

Reno heard her light step behind him and exhaled a stream of smoke as he turned away from the plane to watch her come to a stop in front of him, noting with appreciation that she had let her long waves of golden hair free. “You’re late, Caitlin. The sun’s almost down. I was beginning to think I’d been stood up.”

She rubbed her hands nervously against her jeans. “Yes…I’m sorry. Rachel had a nightmare, and Elena was at a bit of a loss as how to deal with it.”

“Yeah, well, Turks don’t make great babysitters,” he replied coolly. “The job requires a level of nurturing not included in our training.”

“Well, Rachel seems to like you.”

“That’s because Rachel knows a big kid when she sees one.”

“Ah…I see…” Caitlin eyed Reno’s white tank top and faded blue jeans with both knees torn out, and then she lowered her azure eyes to the hand sewn moccasins on his feet. “Interesting attire you’ve acquired, Reno. For a Turk.”

“Hey, I had to borrow something. My clothes are still drying.”

“And your boots…”

“Yeah, them too.” He took a slow drag on his cigarette and just as slowly let it out. Then he shot it down to the ground where it smoldered until Caitlin obligingly stamped it out with her sneaker. Reno nodded his gratitude, and folding his arms, he leaned back against the hull of the plane. “So, Caitlin, why are we here?”

Caitlin folded her arms too and leaned a hip into an oversized crate. “Funny, Reno, I was just going to ask you the same thing.”

“You’re the one that called this little meeting,” he pointed out in his silky voice.

“Well…that’s because I…sensed that you had something you wanted to talk to me about,” she replied tentatively. She hoped to discover what he’d divined about her.

“That so?” Reno asked with a raised brow, but he didn’t offer her any help as to where to go with their discussion. At least, not where he wanted to go. So she decided to delve into a few peripheral areas that interested her, but she let a few moments pass before she spoke, thinking he might say something first, but he merely waited, his green eyes planted steadily on her face.

“Why are you a Turk, Reno?”

“Why do you ask, Caitlin?” he asked smoothly.

“I was just…curious…as to why you wanted to be a Turk.”

“Trying to psychoanalyze me, eh?” He smirked at her. “Think you can get a handle on me like you did Tseng and Rude? Don’t waste your time.”

“Let me…rephrase…my question then. How did you become a Turk?”

Reno shrugged nonchalantly. “Tseng pulled me off the street. Made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

“Why did he choose you?”

“You’d have to ask Tseng now, wouldn’t you?”

“I’m sure you have some idea.”

“Sure, I have an idea.”

“Well, why did he choose you?”

“He recognized that I had certain skills that the Turks could utilize.”

“So he knew you…beforehand, I mean…”

“Nah. But he kept tabs on what went on in the slums. Any Leader of the Turks worth his salt is going to stay on top of what the gangs are up to. Make sure they aren’t stepping on Shinra’s toes.”

“So you were in a gang…”

Reno drew out his cigarette case and flipped it open. “Are you going to make me spew all the details, Caitlin? If so, we are going to be here for quite awhile.” He withdrew a cigarette and lifted it to his lips.

“No, you don’t have to spew the details, Reno. You don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to.”

Reno watched Caitlin twist her fingers up in her hair. Their discussion was certainly making her nervous, even though it hardly bothered him. He could talk about himself all day, if he felt like it. He put away his cigarette case and flicked his lighter at the end of his cigarette.

Reno took the cigarette from his mouth and studied the glowing ember with pursed lips, and then he made a decision. He took a breath and spoke on a exhalation of smoke. “Look, I grew up mostly in the Dead Zone. Before it was called that. Before it became the asshole of Shinra’s magnificent City in the Sky.” Reno’s tone turned sarcastic. “You’ve seen the place, Caitlin. It was better before Shinra put up the plates, but not by much. You either hit the ground running at an early age or you die. Sure, I was in a gang. Almost all my life. When I was 13, I broke away from the gutless, party boy gang I belonged to and started my own organization. Within a year, we were really stepping on Shinra’s toes, with a great deal of perverse pleasure, mind you. We were doing a booming black market business in Shinra goods. Everything from military rifles to office stationary. Of course, it was the interception of the President’s personal wine shipment that really brought our operation to the President’s attention. And once the President is interested in you…well…the Turks are interested in you. So Tseng tried to find out who was behind it, and he couldn’t, because my people didn’t talk. So, he arranged a little party so we could all become acquainted. Threw down the bait and waited to spring the trap.”

“So he caught your gang in the act?”

“Nah, he just caught me, but only because I wanted him to catch me. I knew damn well it was a set up. I knew the Turks had been nosing around. Nothing in the slums flew under my radar.”

“Why would you want him to catch you?” Caitlin asked with puzzlement in her azure eyes.

Reno smirked at the question. “Because I knew the Turk organization had just experienced a loss, and there was a vacancy to be filled.”

Caitlin’s throat tightened. “You mean…Jaz…don’t you?”

“Yeah, Jaz,” the redheaded Turk casually replied.

Caitlin cleared her throat and continued on, her interest piqued at the direction Reno’s tale had taken. “Why in the world would you think that Tseng would recruit you for the Turks instead of just shooting you on sight?”

“Turks don’t shoot at unconfirmed targets,” Reno coolly informed her. He took another drag off his cigarette, and then he suddenly sprang across the space between them, jumping up to land his rear on the big wooden crate she’d chosen for her support. Startled, Caitlin drew away and stood awkwardly beside him. He swiveled playful green eyes to her face and conspiratorially gestured for her to come closer as he released the smoke through his nostrils. Uneasily, she bent her head in his direction. Reno ground out the cigarette against the side of the crate and dropped it to the ground before he leaned back on his hands and studied the wide blue eyes filled with equal parts uneasiness and curiosity.

“So…Caitlin…you really want to know?”

Silently, she nodded her golden head. “Are you really going to tell me? Or are you just being a big tease?”

Reno’s lips curved with smug satisfaction. “Well, Caitlin, it’s like this. Ole Tseng had a reputation for his refined sense of humor. I figured I’d take advantage of that. It was a big gamble, I’ll admit. I probably wouldn’t try to pull off something like that now. I’m older and wiser now, after all. But I was 17 then, and one cocky son of a bitch.”

“Er…I’m almost afraid to ask…how did you play to Tseng’s sense of humor?” Knowing how cocky he was now, she could only imagine how he’d been at 17.

“The Turks, they set their scheme in motion with their bogus shipment of innovative new computer components, taking up residence inside the door of the warehouse in the wee hours, hiding and waiting. Not smoking. Not talking. Not even a whisper. They were very stealthy. Unfortunately for them, I was already inside, lounging around on the empty bait crates, smoking one cigarette after another. I’d already confirmed the crates were full of the President’s hot air, and I was getting drowsy from all the inactivity. So I finally got tired of waiting for them to discover me, and I decided to sneak up behind Tseng. It was winter, and the warehouse was unheated, a poor choice of location on their part. Anyway, Tseng was wearing this long black coat, expensive. A Martin’s Exclusive, obviously tailor made. So I decided to check out his coat more closely, and I took the time to relieve him of his wallet. I checked out his credit cards and his cash and his photo ids, and I thought about leaving then, but I knew I couldn’t give up my long-term goals for the lure of a simple spending spree. So I tapped him on the shoulder and offered his wallet back to him.” Reno’s green eyes danced with levity. “You should have seen his face, Caitlin. Astonished disbelief. He got a little green around the edges too. Damn Turk knew I had him dead to rights.”

Caitlin eyed him skeptically. “Do you really expect me to believe this contrived tale?” she asked with more than a little sarcasm in her voice.

“I don’t care if you believe it or not.” He shrugged indifferently. “Ask Rude if you like. He was there. He would have killed me too, if Tseng hadn’t told him to back off.”

She pointed a finger at him. “You expect me to believe that you sneaked up behind Tseng, lifted his wallet out of his coat, and then gave it back to him? And he thought it was funny?”

“Hey, I didn’t say he thought it was funny. He wasn’t really amused at all. That was a miscalculation on my part. But he was impressed that I had acquired the intelligence about the setup, got into the warehouse without them noticing, expended the considerable time and stealth required to silently scale the stack of boxes to get behind him, and had the audacity and skill to explore his pockets with another Turk and four MPs close by. He decided, rightly enough, that he’d better have me on his side. Otherwise he’d be wasting a lot of time chasing me around. So he pointed his gun at me and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

“So…you’re claiming that you manipulated Tseng.”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“And if he hadn’t fallen for your game?”

“Oh, I had an out. Lucky for them, I didn’t have to use it.”

“What was your out?”

“I’ll never tell.”

“Why not?”

“Because I never give away a secret if it might come in handy someday.”

“Oh…I see…”

Reno narrowed his green eyes on her face. “Okay, Caitlin. I’ve told my tale. Now it’s your turn. Spill.”

Startled, she looked up at him with a tinge of fear in her azure eyes. “What do you mean, Reno?”

“What’s your story? Why did you pretend to be dead for ten years? And how long did you intend to pretend you were dead?”

Caitlin lifted her chin. She decided to go straight to the heart of her problem. “Why should I tell you anything, Reno? Why should I trust you?”

“That’s a question you’ll have to answer, Caitlin.”

“I don’t know how to answer that question, Reno,” Caitlin replied tensely.

“Have I ever given you reason not to trust me?”

“I…don’t…know…” She thought about all the matters Reno had handled for her thus far, not necessarily without question, but certainly without fail. He had almost died carrying out her order to find Rachel. And Scarlett’s abduction of Reeve…he’d handled that matter without turning a hair, despite his warnings of potential difficulty. He was perceptive, skilled, willing, and innovative. The reason she’d decided on Reno instead of Rude. She trusted Rude with her life, and she had no doubt she could trust him with Heidi, but he lacked imagination. She knew the day would come when people would come for Heidi. She’d dreamed it. Over and over. She needed someone who could outwit them and get her daughter back for her. Reno had shown her the qualities she sought. Just as he’d shown them to Tseng. But how did she bring herself to trust him?

She noticed Reno’s glittering gaze on her face, and she realized she hadn’t really answered him, and he’d been content to silently wait. “Not yet…I guess,” she finally conceded.

“You trusted Tseng didn’t you?” he immediately asked.

“With my life.”


“Because I knew he would do anything for me. He would die for me.”

“Because he was paid to.”

Caitlin shook her head, his words sparking anger inside her. “No! It wasn’t about money.” Her azure eyes turned into hard glittering sapphires as she glared at him. “Is that how to buy your loyalty, Reno? With money? Is it all about the gil for you?”

“Uh uh, Caitlin.” Reno shook his head slowly. “It’s not that easy. I don’t care about the money. Never did.”

“Then why did you want to be a Turk if not for the money? What was in it for you?”


“What? Breathing?”

“Yeah, Caitlin, truth be told, I wouldn’t have lasted forever on the streets. I’d grown too successful. Too many punks gunning for me. Too many of my own people salivating to slit my throat while I slept, just to take my turf. I got tired of watching my back and sleeping with one eye open. I wanted to survive, and I saw my opportunity to get out of the Dead Zone and out of the gang life, so I took it. It’s hard to have fun when you’re covering your own ass all the time.”

“Don’t you have to watch your back as a Turk?”

“Hell no. Fear factor comes into play.”


“Sure…the Turks aren’t all that. You know that, Caitlin. I’m not divulging any secrets here. Yes, we’re skilled and well-trained, but we’re hardly superhuman. Yet people think that to go up against a Turk is a road to sure death. It’s the legend, carefully cultivated for decades, designed to strike fear into the hearts of Shinra’s enemies. You see?”

Slowly, Caitlin nodded her head. “That still doesn’t help me with the question of why I should trust you… In fact, if it’s all about survival for you, then you’d betray me just to stay alive.”

Reno narrowed his eyes with disgust. “Caitlin, girl, you’re not paying attention. You asked me why I wanted to be a Turk. I told you it was about breathing. That is not the answer to your question about why you should trust me.”

“I’m confused.” Caitlin pressed a hand to her wrinkled brow. “You’re making me dizzy.”

“Let me ask you a question, Caitlin. Do you think your father trusted me? Or your brother?”

Caitlin examined Reno’s face closely for an answer. “I…I…don’t know…”

“Hell no, they didn’t. They didn’t trust any Turk. That’s why it was a death warrant to betray the President or leave the Turks. Get it?”

Caitlin nodded her head uncertainly.

“On the other hand, do you think I trusted your father or your brother? Do you think I gave them my loyalty?”

“I…don’t know…didn’t you?”

“Not on your life. Compliance, sure. Loyalty. No. Your father or your brother would have betrayed me in the blink of an eye, if they wanted. Your father had a history of throwing his Turks to the wolves. What do you think happened to Jonas Ash?”

“Where are you going with this, Reno?”

“My point is that a relationship based on money or command or fear will never breed trust.”

“Wasn’t that my point awhile ago? Sort of?”

Reno started shaking his head. “Maybe I’m making this too complicated. Bottom line, Caitlin. How do you know if you can trust someone? Anyone?”

“They show you…”

“And how do you gain someone’s loyalty?”

“I…don’t know…”

“If a person’s loyalty can’t truly be purchased or demanded, how do you gain that person’s loyalty?”

“You…ask…for it?”

“Close, you’re getting there. You can ask for it, but that doesn’t guarantee I’ll give it to you.”

“Then…what? How?” Then Caitlin’s face cleared as she realized that she did know. “It’s like respect, Reno, it has to be earned.”

“Bingo!” Reno said triumphantly. “The girl gets it!”

Her eyes clouded with confusion again. “No I don’t. I still don’t understand why I should trust you, Reno.”

Reno impatiently shifted around on the crate and reached out with both hands to draw Caitlin close between his dangling legs. Virtually at eye-level, Caitlin stiffened in his hold and uneasily stared into green eyes now bereft of any hint of mirth or mischief. Reno abruptly relinquished his hold on her upper arms only to raise his hands onto her shoulders. Uneasily, she lifted a defensive hand and planted a palm against his chest. She opened her mouth to ask him what he thought he was doing, but he spoke first, in a voice both soft and low, and her words instantly froze on the end of her tongue.

“Don’t you think you can trust me, Caitlin?” he asked with solemn earnestness.

Her breath held in tight lungs, Caitlin searched hard, but she could find no hint of duplicity in his face or in his eyes.

“In trusting you, will I earn your loyalty, Reno?” She asked with forced lightness. “Can I depend on you to keep my secrets safe?”

“Have I earned your loyalty, Caitlin?” he asked with one quirked brow. “Or will you throw me to the wolves?”

“What wolves, Reno?” she asked in bewilderment.

“The twin wolves of disenfranchisement and starvation.”

She stared at him, azure eyes rife with incomprehension. “What do you mean?” And then she remembered. “Oh, I see,” she said wryly with a knowing look. “Do you wish to strike a bargain, then, Reno? The Turks for your loyalty?”

A wry smile curved his thin mouth. “You’ve already earned my loyalty, Caitlin,” he replied ruefully. “I’m afraid I will be forced to take your secrets to my grave. If you ever tell them to me.”

Unconsciously, Caitlin dug her fingers into Reno’s shirt, her eyes narrowing in suspicious disbelief. “I’d like…to believe that…Reno…but how…”

The sound of a shoe scuffing against the ground came from somewhere beyond the dim work lamps that barely held the twilight at bay. The Turk withdrew his hands from her shoulders, and she instinctively stepped back.

Reno slid sideways off the crate and smirked down into her wary face. “Well, guess we better break this up,” he suggested silkily. “Wouldn’t want anyone getting the wrong idea.”

Caitlin stared past him into the gloom beyond the lamps. “If we’re to continue this discussion, I suppose we’d better take a walk.”

Reno’s green eyes glittered with intent, and she held herself still against the shiver that slipped down her spine. Suddenly, his easy smile returned. “Sure, Caitlin. I’m up for an evening stroll before bedtime,” he readily agreed. He solicitously lifted a hand to indicate that she should precede him.

Wordlessly, Caitlin turned away from the plane and walked off across the flat ground to head toward the distant excavation of the Sector Two gate, and Reno dutifully followed a few steps behind. Soon, the two were swallowed in the encroaching darkness.

Go To Night and Day: Part 2

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