Vincent unfurled his bedroll against the ground as Tifa watched uneasily, her arms wrapped tightly around her nauseous stomach. She’d lost her backpack with her cereal bars, her canteen, and her bedroll. She really didn’t know what to do. He was following his bit in their newly established routine, but she didn’t have the props for her part. Her guilt already weighed heavily on her mind, and the longer she stood there with nothing to do, the heavier the weight became.
When Vincent had finished smoothing out the bedding to his satisfaction, he stood and inclined his head toward the neatly arranged bedding. “Take the bedroll,” he told her. And then he settled to the ground, and crossing his legs, he dragged his backpack next to him.
Tifa stared down at him, making no move to do as he said, so he finally looked up with one brow arched. “You should lie down,” he remarked. “You don’t look well.”
“I’m not taking your bedroll, Vincent,” Tifa said tensely. “So you might as well keep it.”
“I don’t need it. So you may as well take it,” he replied evenly.
“Look, I know you’re trying to be nice and all, and I thank you for that, but I don’t deserve to use your bedroll. Why should you pay for my stupid mistake?”
“You couldn’t know what would happen,” he said expressionlessly. “And I won’t be using my bedroll, so you may have it tonight.”
“What about tomorrow night? And the night after that? You can’t give it to me every night. So I might as well get used to sleeping on the ground tonight.”
“Suit yourself,” Vincent replied coolly. “But I’m not using it.”
“Well, I’m not using it either,” Tifa responded just as coolly, with a lift of her chin thrown in for good measure.
Long minutes of silence passed between them while Tifa watched Vincent remove all the items from his pack and line them up in front of him, one by one. She knew he was doing an inventory, a necessary task now that she’d lost half their supplies. Guilt assailed her with a vengeance then, along with a tinge of fear at the realization of just how much she’d dropped to the river bottom. Uneasily, she let herself down on the floor to sit cross-legged across from Vincent, the empty bedroll stretched out between them.
“I’m sorry I lost the backpack, Vincent,” she said in a heavy voice.
“You should rest, Tifa.” Vincent pointedly ignored her apology. He nodded his head toward the bedroll. “The bed is yours, as I’ve said.”
“And as I’ve said, I don’t want it,” she retorted a bit too sharply. So sharply that Vincent lifted questioning eyes to her mutinous face.
Vincent reached into the pile of foil packets he’d collected in front of him and chose a package of crackers. He tossed the package onto the bedroll in front of her without a word.
“I’m not hungry, Vincent,” she said in a dull voice, her stomach churning sickly at the very thought of eating.
“The crackers will help settle your stomach. Eat them.”
“I don’t want to eat them.”
She opened her mouth to say ‘fine’ back to him, but then she realized it sounded almost like an argument between them, except that she was the one spouting off the curt replies, while his words were all spoken in that strange, inflectionless monotone he adopted, his voice conveying no emotion whatsoever. So she was the only one sounding churlish, and the only reason she was annoyed at him was because he was being stubborn about the bedroll.
“You might as well take your bedroll, Vincent, because I’m not sleeping on it.”
“Neither am I,” he blandly replied.
“Oooooh! This is ridiculous!” Tifa suddenly exclaimed in frustration.
“Yes, it is.” Vincent flatly responded.
“Look, Valentine, if you don’t sleep in your bed, I’m going to…I don’t know…kick your ass.” As soon as the impulsive words, born of her guilt and frustration, came off the end of her tongue, her fingers flew to her lips as though she might shove them back in before he noticed. The move didn’t work though, as she immediately realized when she found that her offhand threat had brought his cool crimson eyes to her face.
“Is that so?” he queried softly. “Do you think you can?”
She eyed him uneasily for a moment, until she decided that she just might make good on her threat in the end. She drew her hand away from her mouth and nodded her head firmly. “I know I can,” she proclaimed with confidence. “So you better take your bedroll.”
He studied her silently for a few seconds, and then he returned his gaze to the items in front of him. “I would appreciate it if you would wait until I’ve completed this task,” he stated coolly.
“Er…sure…I suppose I could do that,” she agreed easily enough, and then she frowned as she wondered at his intention.
She rolled her eyes at his bent head and decided to dismiss the whole ridiculous matter for one more practical and more important. Mentally, she counted the number of batteries lined up before Vincent’s crossed legs. She couldn’t help but notice that there were only six of them left, and they’d used nine to get to this point in the journey. “Ah…Vincent…do you think we have enough batteries to make it out?” she asked anxiously.
“If we conserve, we may.” He began placing the items back into his pack. He didn’t tell her that the extra bulbs for the little table lamp had broken when he threw his pack down to go after her. He had an extra battery for the lamp, but if the filament gave out in the bulb, that was the end of it. Laying his mystery novel to the side, he pointedly zipped up his bag and pushed it away.
“I am ready,” he informed her.
“What? Ready for what?” she asked with more than a little confusion.
“I believe you expressed a desire to engage in fisticuffs,” he reminded her blandly.
“What? Fisticuffs?” Tifa stared at him with brown eyes rounded in astonishment. “I was joking, Vincent. You don’t really want to, do you?” Was Vincent joking? What if he wasn’t?
“I would rather read,” he quietly conceded. Truthfully, Vincent hoped that if he began to read, she would eventually surrender and crawl into the bedroll.
“Good, I’m too tired for…ah…fisticuffs.”
“You may take the bedroll, then,” he tried again.
“I don’t want the bedroll, Vincent. I’m not taking it. Now or ever.”
He raised a finger to point. “Well, there it will be should you experience a change of mind.”
“It’s not going to happen, Vincent.” Tifa snatched the cloak around her and deliberately stretched out on her side on the hard stone floor with her back to the recalcitrant Mr. Valentine. When the chill from the stone leached into her legs, she drew herself into a tight ball inside the cloak. “Whenever you finish your reading, you just go right ahead and take that bedroll for yourself, since it’s yours anyway.”
“I plan to read for several hours.” Vincent pointedly dragged his backpack around and stretched out on the floor with his head against the pack. He made a production of opening the book and flipping the pages to the part of the story where he’d left off.
“Sssh, Vincent, I’m trying to sleep here,” Tifa admonished him.
Vincent decided to surrender then, turning to his book in earnest. Tifa decided to pretend that she was already asleep so Vincent wouldn’t bug her about the bedroll anymore even as she pondered the fact that she and Vincent had engaged in more conversation over the last few minutes than they had in their entire trip. Maybe argument was the key to conversation with him. She pondered that idea at length.
In the end, exhaustion from the stressful day overcame them, and both of them fell asleep about the same time; Tifa on her belly with her cheek propped on her crossed arms, and Vincent on his back with his head canted awkwardly against the backpack and the open book on his chest. The bedroll lay empty between them, but for one lone package of crackers.
Caitlin led Reno into the middle of the expanse between the camp and the Sector Two excavation, stopping in the dead center of the light produced by the floods so that she would know if anyone approached within hearing distance. She didn’t want anyone to hear what she had to say to Reno. If she told the Turk anything. She had decided to tell him, hadn’t she? She turned around to look up at him and stared silently at his scarred face for so long that Reno felt compelled to remind her of why they were there.
“Shall we get on with it, Caitlin?” He prompted her, a hint of impatience in his voice.
Caitlin hesitantly nodded, and her fingers twisted together as she dredged up the courage to speak. “I wanted to talk to you about…” she started, only to falter to a stop, indecision taking hold of her again. Her stomach churned sickly at what she’d almost said. She’d almost told him, and she still wasn’t sure. She decided to evade the subject until she felt more certain about him, although she didn’t know what in the world would grant her that certitude. Nervously, she looked up into his watchful green eyes as the fingers of one hand drifted into a strand of her hair. “About the Turks, Reno, I shouldn’t have said that to you. That was an unfortunate and premature statement on my part.”
He crossed his arms and lifted both shoulders in a marked shrug. “You said it to needle me about Elena,” he stated knowingly.
At his perceptive observation as well as his introduction of Elena to the conversation, Caitlin’s hands flew to her hips in consternation, and she pinned him with a narrow-eyed gaze full of challenge. “Since you’ve brought it up, Reno, I have to tell you that your little “Elena is my subordinate” remark only served to insult my intelligence. Whatever is going on between you and Elena is so far removed from any superior-subordinate relationship by any professional standard on the books that your claim lacks veracity.”
A chilly smile came to Reno’s mouth. “You’re stalling, Caitlin,” he coolly admonished.
She stared at him in dismay. “Stalling?” She asked warily. “What do you mean?
“Have you decided not to trust me, Caitlin?” he asked with marked indifference. “If so, tell me, and I’ll be on my way.”
She guiltily lowered her eyes to the ground between them even as she answered his query with a tiny shake of her head. “I’m sorry…Reno…it’s just that it’s…so…hard…”
“It’s only as hard as you make it, Caitlin.”
Caitlin again raised her eyes to his quiet face to find him staring off toward the tents, his eyes still and thoughtful. Suddenly, she realized what she needed to ask him, the exact thing she needed from him to still her uncertainties. And she suspected he wouldn’t like what she would ask.
“Reno…tell me about your mother,” she directed with feigned casualness.
The question took him by surprise, and he whipped his head around to bring his narrowed green eyes to bear on her face. “Huh? Say what?”
Caitlin smiled sweetly. “Your mother…tell me what she was like.”
“I can’t imagine why you’d want to know that,” he said tightly, his eyes glittering with irritation. She could see that she’d gotten under his skin.
“It’s pertinent to my story,” she replied steadily. “But if you have a problem talking about it…”
“I don’t have a problem talking about it, Caitlin,” Reno curtly replied. “I can’t imagine how it can be relevant. It’s hardly a sweet pretty story.” He dragged out his cigarette case, withdrew a cigarette, snapped it closed with a bit more force than required, and jammed the case back into his jeans pocket.
“Just tell me, and I’ll decide,” Caitlin quietly urged him. “I’d really like to know, Reno.”
“You would, huh?” he asked slyly. Then he abruptly took a step toward her, and she bravely withstood the urge to take a step back at his intimidating move. “Trying to get all touchy feely now, eh Caitlin?” he inquired archly as he waggled long, spidery fingers at her, the unlit cigarette clamped between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, his fiery red eyebrows rising in question.
Caitlin stared apprehensively at his glittering eyes and wondered at the wisdom of addressing the subject at all.
Reno suddenly rolled his eyes toward the sky in despair at her silence and lifted the cigarette to his lips. “You’re still stalling, Caitlin Shinra,” he proclaimed in a softly chiding voice, the cigarette bouncing between his lips as he spoke.
Her shoulders stiffened at his accusation, and she frowned deeply at the truth of it. Still, the thing she sought, she could not simply ask him. “Just humor me, Reno,” she said in what she thought to be her best cool, steady voice, but her words only came out strained.
Reno smirked down at her. He thought he had her number. “Say, ‘please’, Caitlin,” he admonished. “And maybe I’ll think about it.”
She lifted pleading azure eyes to his face. “Please…Reno…I need to know.”
Lighting his cigarette with a sharp snap of his wrist, Reno took a deep drag and let the smoke out through his nostrils before he bothered to answer her. “Sure, Caitlin. I’ll tell you,” he replied easily enough. “But there’s not much to the tale.” Then his eyelashes drifted downward to shutter his eyes. “My mother was a Wall Market prostitute with a bastard kid, until the cops found her body dumped in the sewers,” he informed her bluntly. “Then she was just fodder for potter’s field.”
“It was a long time ago, Caitlin,” he replied coolly.
“Still…it must have been…” Even though she’d lost her own mother at a young age, when her brother had been born in fact, she realized that she couldn’t even imagine how it must have been for Reno, alone on the streets, his mother dead. “…Difficult…” she finished lamely.
He shrugged indifferently, not bothering to reply. Caitlin forced herself to keep going.
“You weren’t paying attention though,” she chided him now, mocking him with his own earlier admonition, managing to hold her voice steady despite a quailing of her resolve. She well knew that delving into the psyche of one who would be a Turk involved a willingness to wade through another’s deeply buried pain. She’d been there before. With Jaz, and Tseng…and Rude. Not many stories could get more horrendous than Rude’s, and she would wager that, outside of Tseng, she was the only one he’d ever told. “I asked you what she was like…as a person…”
His hooded eyes came around to her face as he took a long drag from his cigarette. “I was only five or six, Caitlin,” he replied with seeming nonchalance. “Just a scrawny little slum brat.”
“I think you remember…” Caitlin replied very softly, her eyes unblinking on his face. “What was her name?”
“Her name changed as often as the color of her hair.”
“I think you know her name,” Caitlin chided him.
“Think whatever you like, Caitlin Shinra.”
“Reno…” Her voice reflected her hurt. “…I don’t think you trust me…”
A wry smile came to Reno’s thin lips. “Ah…I see…reciprocity…”
“What was her name, Reno,” Caitlin persisted in a soft but firm voice.
He inhaled a lungful of smoke and turned to stare off into darkness as he released it, effectively putting her behind him. For a long time, he said nothing. Just smoked, peering away at some distant horizon, motionless as a tree with the ends of his wispy ponytail drifting in the breeze. Caitlin simply watched him as she waited in silence, biding her time. Finally, he threw his cigarette butt to the ground in a trail of sparks, and he folded his arms around his chest, a gesture of protection, she imagined. His shoulders lifted as he breathed in a deep breath, and blew it nosily out through pursed lips. His surrender, she knew. Reno shot a glance at her over his shoulder, and he shook his head in wonder. Then he started talking.
“Her name was Anna, but her friends called her Annie.” His voice started out stilted, but smoothed out as he continued on. “What was she like…well…I remember her hair was this…odd shade of mousy brown…” His fingers went up to graze a strand of his own hair. “…Almost silver in the light…short and feathered…” He paused then, and Caitlin wondered if he would go on. She tried to think of the right thing to say to prompt him on, but then he went on anyway. “Her eyes were this…startling color… sunlight in emerald…exotic…like a…cat’s…” He paused again in thought.
“Like yours?” Caitlin asked tentatively.
Reno shrugged tightly. “Yeah, I guess...never thought about it much…”
“She sounds like she was a beautiful woman…” Caitlin mused aloud.
Reno bowed his head and hunched his shoulders. “Yeah…I suppose…kids who’ve lost their mother…on the street…alone…” He trailed off.
“What, Reno?” She knew very well he was talking about himself despite his general reference to ‘kids’.”
“They just don’t remember their mothers that way…it’s more smells and textures… you know…the timbre of a nearby voice…so similar but not the same…an often heard phrase…you know…words that all mothers say…a certain scent… like a familiar perfume…a texture…like satin beneath your fingers…whatever…”
She thought he was done then, with that last gruff word, but it seemed he wasn’t.
“She knew how to fight, tooth and nail, literally, and she taught me everything she knew. She taught me how to choose my battles. When to stand and when to run. She liked to read, and she taught me that too, although…she caught a lot of grief for that.” Reno turned his gaze to the stars overhead in thought.
“You must have been very smart…to learn all that…at such a young age…”
Reno turned fully around to look at her then, eyes glittering with green ice. “Yeah, I was smart…because she expected me to be. You see, Caitlin, she knew that you could be tough and ignorant, and still make it on the streets. Or you could be smart and make it. But if you were tough and smart, you could rule the streets. She knew all that, she knew how to watch her back, she knew how to stand up for herself, and she knew how to win, but unfortunately my mother had this…one…big…weakness.” He paused then, as though for a breath, but after a space of a few seconds, Caitlin wondered if he planned to speak further.
“What was her weakness, Reno?” she prompted in a cautious voice. What trait would a grown man who’d lost his mother as a little boy define as weakness?
The Turk straightened his shoulders and squared his chin as though to prepare for a battle he knew to be forthcoming. “She was a dreamer, Caitlin. She was always dreaming. She might have been clever, and she might have been tough, but her dreams killed her in the end.”
“What were her dreams, Reno?” Caitlin queried softly. She didn’t want to do or say anything that would cause Reno to stop talking now. He answered readily enough, however, shrugging indifferently as he spoke.
“She foolishly believed in a storybook fairy tale, a fantasy where her true love would come along, and he’d be handsome and rich, and he’d rescue us from our squalid life and take care of us.” Reno spoke distantly, shaking his head in awe as he slipped even deeper into his long buried memories. “She talked about it all the time…with stars in her eyes. Sometimes…when she got wind of a shindig at the Regency…she’d take me there…and she’d stand across the street fawning over all the rich people…coming and going…in their expensive tuxedos and flowing gowns…enthusing over their fancy cars and diamond rings.” Reno’s expressionless voice suddenly turned wry. “Until someone would finally notice us lurking and call the cops to come chase the riff raff away.”
Caitlin realized then, how far removed had Reno’s life been from hers. In fact, Reno and his mother might well have stood on the street corner and watched her own mother and father walk into the Regency arm in arm. Her father had definitely been the sort that would call the police on slum people lurking, even if they weren't doing anything wrong. With a little shake of her head, Caitlin returned to the question foremost in her mind. Her brow knitted in her perplexity. “I don’t understand, Reno,” she said slowly. “How could her dreams kill her?”
Absently, Reno shrugged, his mind still engaged with his thoughts. “She found her dream man, Caitlin. He was everything she’d hoped for, it seemed. Except his promises were all lies. She tried to hold him to his promises, and he killed her.” Reno’s eyes turned to ice at the rediscovered knowledge. “I know he did. I know he was the one.” He suddenly turned his head to find her, his cold eyes zeroing in on her face.
“She just didn’t get it, Caitlin,” he informed her disdainfully. “All her fanciful ideas…none of it was real.” He snorted in derision then. “Love is just a word. Love is a fantasy. A euphemism. A tool. A hook. Love doesn’t exist. Not in this world. She never did get that.” He abruptly fell silent again, his gaze inexorably sliding away to the city skyline, and then almost as an afterthought, he added in a tone so frigid it made the hair rise at the nape of her neck. “I would have killed him. If I’d ever seen him again.”
Caitlin stared at him then as she tried to formulate a response to what he’d said. In the end, she said the only thing she could think of, the one that had struck home to her, the one thing she felt she had to protest, the one thing that would steer her mind from the horrible vision of a little boy plotting to avenge his mother with murder. Slowly, she shook her head. “You’re wrong…Reno…love…it’s real…”
His head came around at her solemn proclamation. At sight of her earnest face, a cool smile came to his lips and his eyes filled with gleaming amusement. “I’m afraid I don’t find your testament to love very credible, Caitlin,” he replied silkily. “Did you tell Reeve Alexander you loved him before you staged your own death and abandoned your vows, leaving him in the dark, I presume, for a decade? I’d wager that if he hadn’t uncovered the truth somehow, you would have never let him believe otherwise, am I right? Is that your case for love?”
Reno’s taunting words stung her to the core and tears welled in her eyes. At sight of them, Reno waved a dismissive hand and reached in his jeans pocket for his cigarette case and lighter. “It’s not my intent to judge you, Caitlin,” he assured her coolly. “I’m hardly in a position to judge anyone, and I have no desire to. I’m sure you had your reasons. Maybe the wedding night sucked persimmons. I’d hardly know.”
“…You just…don’t…know…” she whispered hoarsely through her tears. “…You just don’t…understand…”
His incisive eyes narrowed on her downcast face. “Then tell me, Caitlin,” he commanded. “Let’s get right down to it. You want something of me or we wouldn’t be here. As Leader of the Turks, I’m here to serve you, Ms. Shinra. As Reno, I’m your new best friend, Caitlin. So quit stalling and spit it out.”
Swallowing hard against her tightly closed throat, Caitlin nodded in uneasy agreement as she blinked the tears from her eyes. “You’re…right, Reno,” she told him huskily. “…What you said…” Her speech ground to a halt as she worked to find the courage to continue. He waited with tightly folded arms, his cool demanding eyes pinned on her pale face. Shakily, she raised her eyes to his, and despite a desperate need to look anywhere else, forced them to stay there. Then she made her lips move. “I never would have told him…Reno…but it wasn’t because of the wedding night…which was all any bride could have wished for…” Hesitantly, she slid her hand into her back jeans pocket, and she fortified her wavering resolve with a deep breath. “…I would never have told him…”
Deliberately, she withdrew her hand from her pocket and, straight-armed, raised a photograph up to his face. “…Because of her.”
Mesmerized, Reno stared at the photograph. Then he unconsciously put his cigarette case and lighter away and reached to take the dog-eared picture into his fingers. There before him was the very evidence he’d been seeking when he’d meticulously and fruitlessly searched the duffle bag she’d left on the chopper. The exact reason behind her illogical determination to turn her back on Reeve when she obviously loved the man and fly away. She’d had it on her the entire time. The unknown factor. And one, he had to admit, he’d never considered.
Caitlin watched Reno’s suddenly still face with painfully held breath, wondering at what a terrible mistake she might have just made, what horrible events her action might set into motion, all the while hoping to catch a glimpse of his thoughts, of his intent. Knowing damn well that she should not have told him. Knowing damn well that she had no choice. She needed him. She needed Reno. If Tseng had been here, she would have told him. She would have asked him. She would have trusted him from the beginning. But Tseng wasn’t here. Tseng was gone forever. All she had was Reno. He stood in Tseng’s stead. The Leader of the Turks. And she found inside her the knowledge that she did trust him. Perhaps a bit uneasily, but she trusted him. Her daughter’s safety ever hung in the balance, and she had just wagered Heidi’s life on what seemed a whim. On her instincts. On a tenuous intuition about the nature of this Turk. But mostly, on the memory of the man who nearly died to save a little girl, and on the image of a little redheaded boy that had loved his mother and was loved in return. She prayed to the powers that be, silently and fervently, that her trust was not misplaced.
“Hey, Maya! Where’re you goin’?”
Reluctantly, Maya came to a halt beside the water tower and looked up at Myron where he stood on the wooden platform with a caulking gun in his hand. He frowned down at her, gray eyes full of concern. Myron had seemed very engrossed in repairing the leaks in the metal tank with that Fox guy from Mideel, and she had hoped she might slip past without him noticing her. She should have known that she couldn’t be that lucky. She also knew that if Myron knew what she planned, he would put a stop to it. No doubt about it.
She smiled sweetly up at him, and inclined her head toward the basket hanging from the juncture of her bent elbow. “I’m just going to gather some more Melodias,” she reassured her self-assigned guardian. “I want to put them in the rooms at the inn.” She wasn’t exactly lying. She did plan to gather Melodias. Eventually.
Myron lifted his head and squinted his eyes into the morning light to better see the scarlet flowers dancing on a slight breeze before the shadowed façade of the Shinra Mansion. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to go near the mansion, Maya,” he warned.
She gave a little shake of her head. She surely planned to give the mansion as wide a berth as possible in passing. “Oh no, I’m not getting them there. I’m going to the clearing where I found them in the first place.”
Myron peered down at her with skeptical eyes. “And where is that…exactly?”
Maya lifted a finger to point toward the peaked roof of the mansion. “On the bluff, just behind the mansion. There’s a little path, just off the main trail. It’s not far.” That wasn’t a lie either. That’s exactly where she’d found the clearing, and she did plan to go there. On the way back.
Myron took a moment to push his bent wire rim glasses back up his nose as he pondered her words. Then he pointed the caulking gun down at her. “Just don’t go up into the mountains alone,” he said firmly. “And be careful. Please.”
“I will,” she said cheerily as she gave him a little wave of farewell. “I’ll be back before you know it.” He offered her an offhand wave in return and started to return to his work, until he remembered he had something else to ask her. He looked up to see her walking away. “Maya!” he called down to her. The chestnut-haired girl turned back with a wary expression in her emerald eyes.
“Did you see Nessa? What is she doing?”
Maya’s eyes filled with sadness then. “Myron…she’s…not up…yet…”
Myron started nodding his head then, his adam’s apple bobbing as he tried to swallow past the knot in his throat. “Okay, Maya,” he croaked. “Thanks.” Maya drew her gaze from his face and hurried away. Myron could sense the new constable of Nibelheim watching him, his face no doubt rife with curiosity. Numbly, Myron bent to one knee to finish the caulking job he’d started. After that, he would excuse himself and spend the rest of the day with his wife.
Maya didn’t miss a step as she climbed the trail despite the bird’s heated accusation. She didn’t even bother to look into the sky where he circled overhead, obviously quite annoyed that she had not turned onto the thready path that wound up the high bluff to the clearing.
You knew where I was going. And I didn’t lie to him. Not even once.
…Turn…back…turn back now…
I can’t turn back, Angel. I have questions that must be answered.
You can’t stop me.
Then go back, Angel. Find a nice shady perch and wait for me.
He screeched then, in a cry of frustration, shrill and piercing. …Cannot…cannot…
Then be quiet and watch my back, Angel. Okay? Because I’m not going to change my mind.
His defeated sigh filled her mind.
Yuffie tossed the stick one last time, and with a half-smile on her face, she watched Soldier go for the gnarled piece of wood as though it were an escaping rabbit. Then she threw the flap of the sleeping tent aside and stepped through.
Nanaki lay curled just inside the doorway, and he swished his flaming tail out of her path, not willing to give her the opportunity to trounce painfully on the sensitive appendage. He shifted his muzzle against one wide paw to turn a drowsy eye up to her. “Good evening, Yuffie,” he greeted her politely. “So nice of you to join us.”
“Yeah, I know your life’s been incomplete without me,” Yuffie smirked.
Nanaki blew air through his nostrils in the semblance of a snort. “I do believe Avian has been wondering as to your whereabouts.”
“Actually, I was worried about Soldier’s whereabouts,” Avian corrected Nanaki without looking up from the cards in his hand. He raised his eyes to peer over the cards at Rachel’s intently serious face. “What do you have, Rache?” he asked her. The little girl proudly exhibited her entire hand for the young man, and Avian withdrew two cards from the five she held.
Her interest piqued by the card game in progress, Yuffie studied the pair sitting across from each other at a small folding table to the right of the tent entrance. Her obsidian eyes narrowed as she watched Avian give Rachel two more cards to replace the ones he took. “Are you cheating that little girl, Wulfe?” she inquired with a dangerous softness in her tone.
Avian shook his head, and the ends of his hair slid against his shoulders at the movement. It was then that Yuffie realized that he’d combed his hair and pulled the strands at the front around to the back where he’d bound them in a narrow plait that fell from the back of his head to blend into the loose tresses that hung, straight and shiny between his shoulder blades. His newly washed and combed hair had taken on a honey tint that gave off a rich shine beneath the camp lantern that dangled from a tent strut overhead. “I’m teaching her to play poker,” Avian informed the rapt ninja girl. “So where’s my dog?” Finally, Avian turned his head to look at her with the question reflected in his amber eyes.
Yuffie lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “Running an errand for me.”
“An…errand?” Avian eyed her suspiciously. Just then, Soldier bolted through the tent flap and brushed past Yuffie’s leg to drop the stick at her feet. His tail wagging madly, he peered up at her, brown eyes wide in canine expectation. The ninja girl bent and dutifully patted the dog in praise. Then she picked up the stick and brandished it for Avian to see. “Yeah. An errand. I needed a stick.”
The corners of Avian’s mouth twitched as he shifted his attention back to Rachel and the cards. “Let me see your cards, Rachel?” At the same time, he patted his knee to call his dog to him, and Soldier dutifully trotted over to snuffle at his hand.
The little girl let the cards fall awkwardly to the table, some face up and some down. Avian reached across and flipped them all up as Rachel waited with expectant blue eyes. “Well, look at that!” Avian exclaimed. “You win again!” Rachel gave a little squeal and clapped her hands in her glee.
“Play again, Abin,” she directed.
“Rachel must be a card shark,” Yuffie noted in reference to the little girl’s win, and then she addressed the issue uppermost in her mind. “I thought you were going to come play with your dog, Farm Boy.”
Avian inclined his head toward her. “I couldn’t get permission,” he replied dryly.
“Permission?” Yuffie asked in bewilderment.
“That’s right. I’m not chasing him all around the camp. And for your information, he’s letting her win. Every hand.”
At the disgruntled female voice, the ninja girl swiveled her head to her left to find Elena sitting in a folding camp chair in the dimly lit corner of the tent on the opposite side from the card game with her feet up on another camp chair, her legs crossed at the ankle and her arms folded against her stomach. Her hazel eyes radiated irritation.
Yuffie stared hard at the blonde Turk as she again tried to fathom the situation regarding Avian. She had quickly glommed on to the fact that he was with the Turks. But she couldn’t comprehend how the Farm Boy had wound up in the custody of Turks. She had started to ask Avian a few days back, but then she’d noticed Reno standing nearby bumping his magrod against his leg. Reno had attached himself to Avian like a malevolent shadow, and she’d been unable to get him away long enough to delve into the mystery. Until she’d found him alone at the showers, but that hadn’t lasted long either. Reno hadn’t left Avian to his own devices even then.
“I thought Reno was his keeper,” Yuffie snidely pointed out.
Elena lifted her fingers to examine her nails. “Reno appears to be otherwise occupied.”
Yuffie nodded then. “Uh…yeah…now that you mention it, I did see him just a few minutes ago…with that Caitlin chick.”
Elena’s hazel eyes narrowed on her manicure. “Really. What were they doing?”
“Looked like they were flapping their gums. Didn’t get that close to them.”
“Where are they?” Yuffie couldn’t help but notice the tenseness in Elena’s tone.
“Out by the Sector Two excavation.”
“I see,” Elena sniffed. She dropped her hand into her lap and leaned her head against the high back of the camp chair. She glared at the canvas ceiling for a couple of seconds before she pointedly closed her eyes.
Yuffie shrugged indifferently and stepped around the dozing Nanaki to join Avian and Rachel at the table. Stopping behind the little girl, she examined the cards she struggled to hold in her small hands. “These aren’t poker cards, Farm Boy,” she coolly informed him. “These are Go Chocobo cards.”
“I know,” he replied with a tiny lift of one shoulder. “I don’t know how to play that.”
“Well, I do,” she replied smugly. “Wanna play?” Yuffie’s appraising gaze switched from Avian’s uncertain amber eyes to the adoring brown eyes of the dog that had jumped up to sit on his haunches in the chair next to him.
“Yeah, I guess,” he conceded. “Wouldn’t have guessed you could play Go Chocobo, Wutai Girl.”
Yuffie grinned widely at the new appellation Avian had come up with for her. Not very original. Although about as original as her address for him. Happily, she snatched out a chair and dropped into it, scooting it over to sit close to Rachel who studied her with interest. “Tell ya what, Farm Boy, it’ll be me and the kid against you and the dog.”
“Sound’s good to me,” Avian agreed. “Although I gotta warn you, Soldier’s a hell of a card player.”
“Well, so’s the card shark, Rachel, here.” Yuffie gathered the cards into her hands and expertly shuffled them. “One free hand to show you how, Farm Boy, and then you and your doggy can only hope to keep up with our moves. Right, Rachel?” She gave the little girl a wink. Rachel eagerly nodded her bleached head. Yuffie started to deal out the cards. “And no letting us win, Mr. Wulfe. Be aware that we are out for blood.” She peered up at him from under her narrow brows. “Got that?”
Avian smirked across the table at her. “Go chocobo.”
“Your chocobo better do more than go,” she warned him with an answering smirk. “It better run the hell away.”
“My chocobo’s not going anywhere,” he said coolly. “Your chocobo better find a deep hole and hide.”
“You know what, Farm Boy?” Yuffie paused for emphasis, and Avian lifted a brow as he waited for what she would probably consider the ultimate chocobo threat. “You clean up real nice,” she added in a softer tone. Avian stared at her speechlessly, her remark taking him completely by surprise.
Yuffie’s smirk widened into a triumphant grin, and she slapped her hand down on the table between them with the first card of the deal under her palm. “Let’s play cards, Farm Boy!”
Reno examined the girl in the photograph at length. Feline azure eyes, pert nose, and small bow-shaped mouth. Definitely her mother’s features. Dark hair and brows. Determined chin. Most likely her father’s. He estimated her age to be between eight years and ten, but he supposed she was about nine, based on his other determinations regarding the photo, especially as concerned the probably identity of the girl’s sire. He moved the photograph from in front of his eyes to study the face of the woman who watched him uneasily.
“You haven’t told Reeve,” he flatly stated. “Why would you keep his own daughter from him?”
Caitlin lowered her wary gaze to the ground, her lashes fluttering down to cover her guilty eyes. “I want to tell him…more than anything…but…I…just…don’t…trust him…” she whispered in a strained voice.
“You’re afraid he’ll take her away from you?”
“I’m afraid he’ll…use her…”
“Use her?” Reno asked more sharply.
Caitlin looked up at him then, her gaze steady and true. “The Reeve I fell in love with was an ambitious man. Perhaps he’s prepared to channel his ambitions in a new direction. Perhaps not. I'm...waiting...to see. Besides, once he knows, he’ll want to see her. Know her. The secret will be out in a flash. When I tell him I have to be sure of him. Even if Reeve wouldn’t use her, and I’d want to believe that he wouldn’t, there are others who will. Once her existence is known, there are many who would use her.”
Reno looked back at the girl in the photograph with a more inquisitive eye. There was no doubt she was a beautiful little girl, her parentage granted her that, but still fairly unremarkable. One red eyebrow rose. “Use her for what, Caitlin?”
“Her…abilities…” she replied hesitantly. This was the part she sorely dreaded to divulge.
Reno suddenly held the photograph out to her, and she gingerly took it from his fingers. Stuffing his hands in his back pockets, he shifted his weight to one foot and scrutinized her face with pursed lips. Tension held her carefully immobile beneath his penetrating gaze, and when he finally spoke, she flinched. “Perhaps you should start at the beginning, Caitlin.”
“Where? The accident?” Her voice had gained renewed strength. The accident was much easier to discuss than Heidi’s special abilities.
“If you like, Caitlin,” Reno’s gaze turned thoughtful then. “I should inform you, though, that Tseng did not believe the hit and run was an accident. He investigated the matter of your so-called death as a homicide, at the time.”
“What?! A homicide?! Why did he think that?!” Caitlin’s wide azure eyes held shock and her voice reflected disbelief. “Who would want to do that?!”
Reno shrugged his ignorance. “I can’t say for sure. Tseng kept his notes regarding the incident under lock and key in his apartment safe. Although I can hazard a guess that he suspected someone at the top of the food chain had ordered a professional hit. Without using the Turks. Tseng would not have followed through on such an order, do you think?”
“I…no…” Her eyes abruptly narrowed on Reno’s knowing face. “You’re saying he thought my father did it,” she accused.
“Possibly,” he concurred.
Caitlin shook her head. “No, my father didn’t do it. It’s because of my father that I’m alive today. If not for his determination and willingness to play god, I wouldn’t be here.”
“Perhaps he did order the hit, and then upon its success, regretted it. You are his daughter, after all.”
“I don’t want to believe that…”
Reno’s shoulders lifted indifferently. “Then don’t, Caitlin. I’m only speculating on very few facts. As a brand new employee of Administrative Research at the time, the matter was one that didn’t concern me, especially as Tseng was working his investigation off the clock. Tseng probably knew, but he took that information with him.”
“But the safe…in his apartment…surely you…once you had his codes…”
“Yes, I looked. The safe had been emptied. I don’t know what happened to the file. Maybe Reeve has it. He and Tseng were pretty tight.”
“That’s…so…weird…” Caitlin murmured to hereself. She had heard Reno refer to Reeve and Tseng’s friendship before, but she still found it strange in light of the fact that Tseng had meant to kill Reeve in Costa del Sol. Still, knowing both men as she did, she could see how they might have become friends. Under the right circumstances.
Reno drew his hands from his pockets, along with his cigarette case and lighter. “Look, Caitlin, forget all that. We’re way off the subject here. Just tell me your story. From the top.” He raised a cigarette to his lips and clicked the lighter.
Caitlin nodded her golden head. “Sure, Reno, from the top.” She crossed her arms and a wry smile came to her lips. “It’s not that complicated of a story, actually. And I don’t know much of it myself.” She paused in thought. “Actually, Reeve may know even more than I do. I don’t really know. I don’t know how he found out about me in the first place.”
“Want me to ask him?” Reno inquired silkily. “He’ll tell me.”
“No!” Caitlin responded sharply. “I’ll ask him. We just haven’t had time…to talk…yet. I plan to…once he has a moment to think. Maybe then I’ll know…if I can…”
“You’re stalling again, Caitlin,” Reno chided.
Her eyes darted to his face. “I…okay…my death…it wasn’t phony…like you said…”
Amused skepticism came to his green eyes. “So I’m to surmise you are…what…a clone? A disowned twin? What?”
Caitlin’s eyes turned chilly, and she continued on, ignoring Reno’s sarcastic question, even though she could hardly fault him. The story was certainly unbelievable. This time she was the one to turn her back to him. She took a deep, shuddering breath and started talking. Wanting only to get through it. “My father ordered Hojo to resurrect me. They dubbed the scheme Operation Phoenix. For whatever reason drove him at the time, he publicly proclaimed me deceased and secretly committed me to Hojo’s laboratory. Whatever that insane scientist did, it worked. But I was totally screwed in the head for over a year afterward. Completely catatonic. So my father put me away on that island, with caretakers to look out for me, and no one the wiser. I was nothing. Nobody. Inside my mind, it was only…” She paused then as she struggled to find the words to describe what she could hardly remember. “…A fragmented mess of confused images…in between periods of total blankness.” She finally turned around then, to plant pained eyes on his face, seeking the strength from his quiet impassivity to go on. “I didn’t know my father, Reno. I didn’t know my brother. I couldn’t recall my own marriage or the face of my husband. I didn’t know my own name. And I certainly wasn’t aware of my pregnancy. Not on a conscious level…anyway…” Her soft voice, strained throughout her monologue, went shaky, and she paused again until the threat of her tears passed, her eyes drifting away from Reno’s face. “…I…was told…that I cried out with pain…during my daughter’s birth…the first sound I’d uttered since the car hit me…but I don’t…remember…any of it.”
She looked up to gauge the effect of her story thus far, only to find that Reno’s eyes had turned to glacial ice. “Go on,” he ordered her coldly. She might have been intimidated by his tone, but she instinctively knew that his ill-concealed anger was not directed at her, and that realization made her feel more secure about telling him. She graciously inclined her head and went on.
“I don’t know how long I might have stayed that way, if not for Mary and George. They never gave up on me. They talked to me every day. They took me outside in my wheelchair for long walks. They read to me. They would even wrap my arms around my baby and hold her there. They put her in bed with me to sleep.” Caitlin’s throat tightened then, and she paused to draw in a shaky breath. “I don’t remember any of that, of course. This is what they’ve told me.”
“Obviously, that changed at some point,” Reno pointed out tersely.
Caitlin nodded. “Yes, one day I just snapped out of it. I simply awoke one morning to an awareness of a warm ocean breeze on my face and the sweet face of my daughter grinning toothlessly up at me from where Mary held her on my lap. She was already four months old by then.” Again, she paused to catch her breath, momentarily unable to continue. Reno waited and smoked, watching her from glittering green eyes slitted against his smoky exhalations, biding his time silently until she would go on.
She gave him a disconcerted little shake of her head and shifted her eyes to his moccasins. “It wasn’t just like that…though…” She snapped her fingers. “It was revival by degrees. I was muddled. Confused. My memories came back slowly. I suffered bouts of depression. Nightmares. Anger.” She grimaced. “I still have a problem with that…er…anger business…sometimes…” She lifted sheepish eyes to Reno’s still face. “I guess you’ve…ah…probably noticed that.”
He inclined his head in agreement. “Scarlett surely noticed,” he replied dryly.
“Well…that brings us to the most pertinent matter at hand.” She lowered her gaze again. “The process of…er…resurrection…left me with certain…unusual capabilities…” She faltered to silence.
“Such as?” Reno prompted curtly.
“Better than normal vision and hearing. Greater physical strength, which is exacerbated by high emotion…”
“Like anger,” Reno noted.
“Especially anger,” Caitlin conceded.
“And that business with Avian and the dog? How much of that was you?”
Caitlin looked up uncertainly. “I…I don’t know. Maybe none of it. I’ve never experienced anything like that before.”
“What does Avian say about it?”
“Nothing. I tried to talk to him. He’s doesn’t want to talk about it. In fact, he’s almost convinced himself that it didn’t happen. That his dog wasn’t dead. Just knocked out. Whatever he did, he doesn’t want to deal with it.”
Reno jerked his chin up impatiently and raised his eyes upward to the dark, starlit vault of the night sky. “We’ll address the Avian business later. What about your daughter?”
Caitlin reluctantly nodded. Again, she had arrived at the part that she could hardly bear to think about, much less speak about. “My daughter…yes…I was no more than three or four days pregnant when Hojo began his procedure. Whatever he did…and I don’t know what the process entailed…it…altered…her entire development. By the time I remembered who her father was…remembered that he even existed…” Her chest suddenly tightened in pain at her recollection of that moment when she’d been watching the television and he’d appeared in a taped interview and all of her recollections of Reeve had come flooding back to leave her sitting in horror and disbelief. Deliberately, she shoved the memory from her mind to retrieve her thoughts and dragged in a shaky breath to quell her burgeoning pain. “…She…was…she had already begun to exhibit the consequences of that deviation. I knew I could never leave the island with her. I knew I could never go back to my life.”
“She appears normal in the photograph,” Reno commented.
Caitlin lifted her head and speared him with burning eyes. “She isn’t,” she informed him flatly. “Along with a precocious capacity for learning, she possesses some truly bizarre abilities.”
“Bizarre, Caitlin?” Reno’s tone held a hint of incredulity. He thought it a strange word for a mother to use, and the fact that she did say it made him wonder if she hadn’t invented the whole thing, based on what she’d told him about her ‘resurrection’. Still, he’d spent a great deal of time observing Caitlin Shinra, and analyzing her behavior. He didn’t believe that she was insane. Or even confused.
Distant voices touched their ears then, and they both turned to peer into the darkness. The singsong of Cait Sith rose above the indistinguishable murmur of the rest of the group. Highwind and the rest of the Sector Five excavation team were finally returning.
Caitlin hurriedly turned back to Reno. “I’m trusting you with this information for one reason, Reno.” She spoke in a whisper, her voice breathless in her haste. Reno stepped close and bent his head to better hear her. “I’m going back to the island, as you know, to stay with Heidi. To protect her. But if anything should happen to me, anything at all, I want you to take care of it. I want you to protect my daughter. I want you to see that she comes to no harm. If anyone takes her, I want you to move heaven and earth to get her back. Even if I’m dead. That’s what I’m asking of you, Reno. To never speak of this to anyone. To see that Heidi is safe, no matter what. Will you give me what I ask?” She grabbed a fistful of his shirt and dragged him even closer, an eerie flame igniting in her pleading azure eyes as she stared up into his unblinking gaze. “Will you swear to me?”
Reno slowly nodded. “I’ll do it, Caitlin,” he whispered gruffly. “Your wish is my wish.” Her blazing eyes stabbed into his as she appraised the sincerity of his seemingly easy agreement. “Do you swear?” He simply nodded. She couldn’t find a hint of derision or falsity in his steady gaze. Satisfied, she sighed her relief. Flattening her fingers against his chest. she stood on tiptoe and lifted her face to whisper near his ear. “There is one more thing you have to know…” she murmured. He bent his head low to bring his ear near her mouth. “You will never see her unless she wants you to. There is a word you must say aloud and keep saying until she hears.” Caitlin cupped her hand to her mouth and spoke one word into his ear. Footsteps sounded behind them, and Caitlin drew away from him. “Don’t forget, Reno,” she whispered.
“Do you want me to tell your fortune?” Cait Sith sang out into the night air. Startled, Caitlin swept her eyes around to find the little electronic cat standing right beside her. “Ah…no…thanks but no…” Caitlin refused. She wondered how long the cat had been there. Reno abruptly turned on heel and strode away with a terse ‘later’ voiced over his shoulder. Captain Highwind noticed Caitlin standing there as he drew close and veered from his path to the camp to talk to her. Wallace, who had been walking abreast of the Captain, spotted Reno striding away alone into the darkness. He deemed that the perfect opportunity to introduce Reno to the knuckle side of his fist, and he started after him.
Reno noticed Barrett Wallace stalking him, and another time he might have taken up the fight he knew Wallace was spoiling for, but he had a lot to think about just then. He whipped the magrod from his hip pocket and extended it with a sharp flip of his wrist as he wheeled around to face the man from a dozen feet away. Reno hit the switch and lifted it to point at Barrett Wallace. At the high whine of the rod gearing up to a full charge, Barrett stopped in his tracks.
“Just back off, Wallace,” Reno growled. “I promise you, we’ll take this up later. But not right now. I’m too damn tired.”
Barrett glared his hatred at the implacable Turk. The hulking ex-miner knew very well that he couldn’t go up against Reno’s magrod alone. The Turk could just drop a pyramid around his ass and walk away whistling a happy tune. Besides, he was exhausted too, all the way down to his big toes. Relenting, he threw his arms out to the side in surrender. “Later, Turk,” he promised in a low rumbling snarl.
Reno politely inclined his head in gratitude and powered off his magrod. Without another word, he laid the rod against his shoulder and whirled around to stride off into the darkness beyond the excavation floods with the full knowledge that Barrett Wallace’s eyes burned holes into his back the whole way. One day, Wallace would demand his measure, and Reno knew he would have a decision to make on that day. But for now, he had this new matter to contemplate. There were too many threads dangling, and instinctively he knew that some were connected. He labored under a growing sense that it was crucial that he find out just how, as soon as possible. As if that weren’t enough, he’d just made an oath that added yet another layer of complication to an increasingly complicated life. He longed for the days, not so long ago, when he lived his life in perfect simplicity, doing what he had to, but mostly doing what he wanted. At just that moment, he wished for Tseng to appear. So he could zap him until his eyes glowed for dumping all this responsibility on him. But then, his oath to Tseng was entirely another matter.
A gust of cold wind blew the ends of her ponytail against her legs, until a door slammed behind her and cut off the draft and the dim light, leaving her in a thick miasma of darkness full of the smell of mildew and damp earth. Hesitantly, she took a couple of steps forward, raising her hand out in front of her to feel her way along. “Hulloooo…” she called out weakly. “Anybody here?”
A faint sound of laughter came to her ears, followed by a shuffling sound close behind her. She turned around at the sound, so hastily that she stumbled over her own feet, and almost fell. A pair of milky white eyes glowed at her from the darkness, like two ghastly orbs floating suspended in the air. She stared hard, but she couldn’t make out the form or substance of the owner of the unblinking eyes. Lifting her fists before her, she slowly backed away as the distant laughter touched her ears again, a different timbre this time. The sound of merriment floated loose in the air, just as unfettered as the dead looking eyeballs, which were moving nearer, by the way.
A low, ghostly moan rose into the space around her, and fear finally unhinged her. Giving up any pretense of making a stand against an unseen adversary in total darkness, she turned and blindly ran with her hands out before her, only to slam up against a wooden wall after a very short distance.
Turning to confront the milky orbs, she laid her back and both hands against the flat surface and sidled away along the wall. A couple of steps to her left brought her fingers against moist stone. The change in texture from rough wood to damp rock covered in viscous slime startled her and elicited a sharp gasp from her lips. Again, amused laughter floated into the air, incrementally louder this time. She wanted to call out for them to stop. She wanted to inform them most sternly that this whole business wasn’t the least bit funny and that they needed to quit their chuckling, but she didn’t dare. The orbs, which she decided now looked somewhat decayed, floated closer still.
She pressed back against the wall only to feel a hard knob against her spine. Relief rushed through her when she suddenly realized that the knob was a doorknob, and the wooden surface was actually a door. With her back pressed against the door, she wrapped her trembling fingers around the knob and turned it. The latch didn’t immediately click open. Frantically, she rattled the knob, and then she wheeled around to face the door, taking the chance of putting her back to the rotten eyeballs as she brought both hands to bear, rattling the knob noisily as laughter echoed around her. She was totally screwed. The door was locked, and she didn’t have a key. She slowly turned around and fell back against the door again. She decided the possessors of the laughing voices had the key. Or maybe the owner of the moldy eyeballs. Carefully, she began to sidle away, gagging as her fingers slipped across the slimy wall.
A new sound came to her then. An anguished sobbing. Full of abject sorrow. Full of pain. “Monster…” a sibilant voice whispered right in her ear. She shrieked and ran along the wall into the darkness. And again the laughter echoed around her like a chorus. Who were those idiots, she wondered. She wanted them all to shut the hell up.
Suddenly, a light came on behind a door, and the bright illumination from beneath the bottom of the door almost blinded her in the darkness. She looked down at the swath of light spotlighting her feet, as well as the bluish, rotten white of the mottled toes a mere two feet from her boots. She tried to scream but nothing came out of her mouth. So she ran instead. Ran for the light behind the door as the sobbing and the laughter closed in around her. And the voice. First in a whisper. Then in a shout. First only one voice, then two, then three. “Monster…freak…killer…soulless beast…” A litany that went on and on and on, the words repeated over and over, until finally she found the doorknob and threw the door inward on squealing hinges.
Then everything went dead to silence. The laughter. The sobbing. The taunting voices. And the light behind the door. The room on the other side roiled with suffocating darkness. She darted a look over her shoulder to find the floating rotten milky eyeballs had fled, along with the owners of all the voices, which left her to wonder just what fearful thing lay behind the open door. She turned back around and her heart jumped into her throat at sight of the crimson eyes that glowed fiercely in the depths of the shrouded room. She almost bolted then, but then she realized, those eyes…they were familiar. True, Vincent’s eyes didn’t usually glow in darkness, only in the reflection of light. But then, there was light. From behind her. The golden light from a single bulb dangling from a bare electrical wire just behind her head in an arched earthen hallway. She didn’t even have to draw her gaze away from the eyes to know that. She just knew. And the golden bulb made a rectangle of light on the floor of the room in front of her.
“Vincent?” she called anxiously. “Is that you?”
No answer came from within, and the crimson eyes stared unblinking. She might as well not have spoken.
“Come on, Vincent. I know it’s you. Come out. Come out now.”
Still no response. She propped her hands on her hips. She was getting annoyed at him now. Damn stubborn man. “Are you hiding, Vincent? Was it the voices? Where they bothering you? The stupid voices were talking to me. Not you. You can come out now.”
Nothing…not even a blink.
“Vincent, are you hiding?” Her voice now rang with her exasperation. “Because if you are, it’s not working. I can see you.”
A low growl rose from within, and Tifa took a step back. “Vincent?” she called again, more weakly this time, her voice tense with newly awakened fear. “Stop hiding, Vincent! Stop trying to scare me. I’m not afraid of you!”
Then the low growl transformed into an enraged roar, and the air swirled away from her to leave her in a suffocating vacuum as a hulking shape rushed into the light from the swinging bulb behind her, literally flew towards her. Graceful despite its size. Body sleekly configured with bulging muscles and tightly drawn tendons. Elegant in the backward sweep of its horns and the spread of its wings. Majestic in its horribleness. The wanton desire for destruction burning from its blood red eyes. No. No. Not Vincent. Not Vincent lurking inside the dark room. Chaos.
She stood frozen to the floor as she helplessly watch the great wings lift up and back as the beast stalked her, and still unable to twitch so much as a muscle, she saw the wings sweep forward with blinding speed, edges flattened against the air like sword blades, bony hooks gleaming palely as they sought to rend flesh, shatter bone, splatter blood. Her flesh. Her bone. Her blood. She screamed then, on her last long breath, and the shrill resounding shriek of her own terror only made it worse as the hungry beast that was Chaos stole the very light from her eyes.
Tifa awoke with a start and gasped in a ragged breath through a throat afire with the strain of silent screaming. Then she released it in a long sigh of relief. A dream. It was just a dream. A really bad dream, but just a dream nonetheless. Chaos hadn’t ravaged her flesh or chewed up her bones after all. She was still alive and breathing. Just fine and dandy. Still, she tested each limb to make sure she still had them. Shakily, she wiped at the beads of sweat that had formed on her brow. She hadn’t had a dream that bad since she’d suffered delirious fever dreams during her recovery from the nearly fatal wound Sephiroth had dealt her over five years ago. Her dreams had been horrible then. All raging fire and death all around her. Her Papa’s broken, sword-torn body…
Damn Chaos anyway. Damn the river actually, which had probably been the source of this bad dream. But then why didn’t she just dream about the damn river? She’d rather be eaten by the river in her sleep than by Chaos. Shakily, she turned her head to seek out Vincent, just to assure herself that Mr. Valentine hadn’t transformed into Chaos during the night and now waited with bated slavering breath and folded wings to devour her for all the trouble she’d caused him.
To her surprise, she found Vincent much closer than she expected, lying sprawled on his stomach with a cheek against the soft material of the bedroll and his wild mane of ebony hair tumbling down to hide all but one closed eye and the curve of a high cheekbone. One long leg stretched out across the floor. The other he’d drawn partway up. She realized, then, that she lay half on and half off the bedroll herself, on her back in an unladylike sprawl, with her cheek pressed into the soft material. It seemed they both had migrated to the softer surface during the night. And after all that arguing too.
Inevitably, her eyes traveled down to the point where her hand lay atop his, a matter that already dimly teased her mind but one that she hadn’t been in a big hurry to address. For long moments, she studied this strange and interesting new phenomenon, a bit intrigued at the radiating warmth of his hand beneath hers and the way her splayed fingers looked next to his. She expended several seconds bemoaning the fact that his fingers appeared more elegant in their long suppleness than did her much shorter and stubbier looking fingers. Then she pondered the event of retrieving her hand and how she might accomplish this feat without him waking up and noticing. Then her decision became a moot point when Vincent’s fingers stirred beneath hers.
Instinctively, she snatched her hand from his and frantically rolled away from the bedroll, only to bang an elbow against the stone floor with a sharp yelp in her clumsy haste. Vincent’s one visible eye popped wide open then, alerted to full wakefulness either by her rush of movement or the sound of her pain. Perhaps a bit startled at the position he found himself in, he instantly shoved himself up on hand and claw and erupted from the floor to a full stand in his own paroxysm of movement.
Tifa climbed to her feet more slowly, rubbing her elbow with a hand as she straightened. Then she and Vincent stared speechlessly at each for long seconds, as though they were two complete strangers that had never seen each other before that moment. Then just as suddenly as the two of them had fallen into this odd little stare down, they both turned away at the same time, as if in a choreographed action previously agreed upon.
Tifa could feel her face flooding with heat and bright color then, and she put her back to Mr. Valentine and went on the offensive. “If you’ll get a move on, Vincent,” she said a little too loudly. “We could get the show on the road.”
Vincent wasted a moment to study her stiff back in silence, feeling too off balance by the strange exchange to point out that he’d been on his feet before her. In the end, he simply clamped his mouth shut, his lips forming a thin line of compression as he bent to gather the crushed package of crackers, the discarded book, the electric lantern, and finally the bedroll. Within moments, he had his headlamp on his head and his pack restored to traveling condition. Shrugging his shoulders into the straps, he bent at the waist and snatched the rifle into his hand. He slung the nylon strap over one shoulder as he strode past her.
“Let’s go…” Vincent caught the last two words on the tip of his tongue. He had promised after all. And he was bound to his promise. “…Tifa.”
A slight smile curved her lips as she flipped on her own headlamp and fell into step behind him. She knew what he’d wanted to say. He wanted in the worst way to say ‘Miss Lockhart’. But he had promised. Apparently, he meant to keep his promise, even if he didn’t want to.
The strange dream came back to her then, and she glared at his back as though the whole thing was his fault somehow. Damn stubborn man. Damn Chaos too. With a mental ‘hmph’ she grabbed the edges of the cloak that she’d neglected to give back to him in her embarrassment and snatched it tightly around her.
Just want you to know, Valentine. I’m not afraid of you. And I’m especially not afraid of Chaos, wherever he might be hiding. Got that?
Vincent suddenly halted and turned halfway around to look back at her. Startled, she stopped in her tracks. Please Gods, she had not said that aloud, had she? Her face started to flood with color again, and then Vincent deliberately pointed one of those elegant fingers she’d been admiring at the stone floor beside him.
Relief made her knees weak. She hadn’t said anything out loud. He’d just now remembered that he wanted her in his sight, that’s all. Troublemaker that she was. She lifted her chin at a haughty angle and with a theatrical little flourish, she threw the cloak behind her and strode forward to stand beside him. He was stuck with her now. She wasn’t about to get more than three feet away from him the whole day long. In fact, trouble would have to find her on its own, because she wasn’t going to go looking.
Reno didn’t know how long he’d been lounging in the camp chair outside the sleeping tent, smoking and thinking, when he became aware of a presence behind him. He knew it had been a long time. Most of the camp had been asleep for hours, as he would have been, if his thoughts hadn’t been madly churning through all the incredible new information he worked to digest. He’d just burned down his last cigarette, and the thought of making an attempt to sleep teased his mind. He well knew tomorrow would be a long, hard slog. Especially if that plane finally showed.
Apparently, there was another as restless as he. And he didn’t have to look to know whom. He could smell her expensive new perfume in the air. He took a deep breath to draw the pleasant aroma through his nostrils. Then he decided to break the silence, as she didn’t seem inclined to speak.
“How’re the kiddies?” he asked her in a bored tone.
“Fine,” she replied coolly. “They wore themselves out playing cards.”
“Reeve’s situation static?”
“His messages are coming in on the hour like clockwork,” she replied. “Nothing to report.”
“How about you, Elena?”
“Bored stiff.” Her voice took on an added chill. “How about you, Reno? What have you been doing all evening?”
He didn’t answer for a few seconds as his mind turned back to the matter that had consumed a large part of his evening. When he finally responded, his tone had turned cold and distant. “This and that, Elena.”
“I see,” she replied icily.
Reno shook off his malaise and rose from the chair. “Will you take the watch now, Elena? I believe I’m going to study the backs of my eyelids for awhile.” He punctuated his request with a mighty, jaw-cracking yawn as he reached above his head and curved his back in an elongated stretch to knock the kinks out of his spine. Elena hadn’t answered by the time he’d settled back to his feet, so he turned around to address her face to face for the first time since she’d come outside, finally surrendering to a bothersome and pressing need to look at her. But she was gone. Elena had left him just as silently as she’d arrived.
At some hour of the mid-afternoon, Maya finally emerged into the odd clearing in the middle of the mountain where Nessa had found her, the place where she knew the mako fountain to be, the location of her strange rebirth by Lifestream, the depository of all the answers to her questions. She hoped.
Angel soared well overhead, his agitation rampant inside her mind despite his distance from her. He didn’t want her to come here. He thought it to be a mistake. But he’d long ago given up his angry arguments as pointless. He simply could not stop her. He couldn’t even intimidate her anymore with his predatory screeches and swooping attacks at her head. She knew he would never actually harm her, because he wasn’t allowed. She also knew his inability to persuade her to be a great source of frustration for him.
I’m sorry, Angel. She sent the thought not even knowing if she could project to him at that distance. I won’t be long, I don’t think.
…Make…haste… The impatient thought came back to her. She smiled ruefully. Her avian guardian had been relegated to spurring her along. She hoped she knew he would have little more success in that than he had with his repeated exhortations to turn back.
I will…try… She soothed in the hopes of clearing the bird’s turmoil from her mind. He didn’t respond, and she turned her attention to the mako fountain.
Crossing the clearing swiftly, she dropped to her knees beside the empty basin in the stone and a keen sense of disappointment filled her. The day Nessa had found her, the fountain basin had been filled to the brim with the misty, luminous green effluvium of Lifestream. Now that same basin was bone dry, with no trace of green in sight. Angel flew to the ground beside her and folded his wings. Apparently, he’d noticed, and he meant to point out the fact.
…Nothing here…we go…
“You’re getting boring, Angel,” she remarked aloud.
…Cannot speak to Planet through Lifestream if no Lifestream here…
“Sadly, you have a point…”
“I want to try something first…” An idea had just occurred to her.
“Don’t worry about it, Angel. I want you to go away.”
…Will not go…Cannot go…Would go if could… The last part he added with a marked petulance, and Maya looked around at him with surprise.
“Just fly away, Angel.” Maya raised her eyes to the sky. “Just into the sky. You don’t have to let me out of your blessed sight. I wouldn’t ask you to.”
…Stubborn female… Angel growled inside her mind. Then he threw out his wings and lifted himself into the sky.
Maya watched him go with bemusement. Then she bent down to slip her fingers against the cool stone of the empty basin. Her eyebrows slowly rose. Stubborn female? she asked him with a hint of astonishment. Me? Stubborn? Angel didn’t bother to respond so she turned the whole of her attention to the basin and the point where her fingertips rested against the stone. She had this insane idea that she could call the Lifestream to her, and she meant to test it.
Angel watched her from on high, in colors more vivid than he’d ever been able to see as a human. His frantic thoughts had finally stilled in his mind. He’d come to a weary acceptance. He knew what she planned, knew well what she would ask, and he would stop her, if he could. But he didn't possess the means. He only had prayer left to him now. A plea that the Lifestream would elude her quest and deny her the answer. But in the next moment he saw that prayer to be futile as he watched the first brilliant green tendrils seep from the fissures in the smooth stone to twine around her seeking fingers.
Maya’s senses inexorably flowed away from her as her thoughts traveled into the Lifestream. All the questions she’d meant to ask vanished from her mind but for one. The one she wanted the answer to above all. This one she held in the forefront of her mind despite the maddening onslaught of thousands of voices speaking at once.
Her consciousness sinking deep in the Lifestream now, she projected her question into the swirling green ether with every hope that it would be answered. Instead, the voices fell instantly silent as though recoiling in shock at the audacity of her request. Time held no power here, so she didn’t know how long she waited before she resorted to pleading. And finally, just as she accepted the fact that not one of the spiritual entities here meant to speak to her, a lone female voice did reply, with appropriate gravity.
“It can be done, Daughter of the Cetra, but you will not survive. Your mission is greater than any one life. Your mission is greater than every life.”
“What is the point then?” she demanded. “If life does not matter?”
“Life does matter, Cetra. The viability of the cycle of life remains imperative. More imperative than any one incarnation on the surface of this planet.”
“I see in my dreams that this life is important to the success of my mission.”
“You see in your dreams your own desires.”
“No! No you’re wrong! You don’t know what I see in my dreams! You can’t see my dreams, can you?! I know it! I know it’s true! This life is important!”
“All life is equally important and equally unimportant, Daughter of the Cetra.”
“This life is a key! I’ve seen the threads of connection!”
“All living entities possess threads of connection to other living entities. The only life you need concern yourself with is that of The Other.”
“Who is The Other? I don’t even know!”
“The Other is not yet known.”
“Then maybe this life is The Other!”
“The Other is not yet known.”
Another voice now intervened, low and resonating. “Perhaps this Cetra sees that which we cannot.”
“She is acting on selfish desire,” the first voice declared. “She seeks to abrogate her responsibility.”
At the exchange between the two, a clear revelation abruptly flashed into the mind of the young woman of half-human, half-Cetra descent. “You don’t know, do you?” She asked in awed disbelief. “You do not know.”
A third voice entered her mind, quiet and firm, and very familiar to her. “Daughter, do as you will.”
She remembered that voice. She would never forget it. “Mother?”
“And if she dies?” the first feminine voice interjected.
“She chose the correct path before. She chooses again,” the Mother voice replied.
“And if she dies?” the resonate male voice asked.
“So be it,” the Mother voice bluntly said. “The Other remains.”
“The Other lacks the power,” said the first voice.
The voice she thought her mother’s spoke again. “Discussion is pointless. She will do as she chooses. She possesses free will.”
Myriad voices swelled into her mind then, as though every being within the Lifestream sought to enjoin the argument, but apparently the matter had simply been dismissed and all had returned to their normal chatter.
“…But…but what do I do?” she asked into the chaos.
A voice whispered softly in her mind, as though in her very ear. “Where my daughter wishes, her will be done.”
“Mother? Is that you? What do you mean?”
“Go now…one comes…”
Before she could formulate the question attendant to her thought, her connection to the Lifestream abruptly severed, as though it had never been, and her consciousness scrambled in a terrifying vacuum for an unknowable time, until she snapped back into herself, her consciousness a taut rubber band suddenly released upon itself. Her eyes flew wide, and Angel’s distress filled her mind with noise, but before she could sort out the gibberish of his frantic thoughts, a wholly human voice reached her ears.
“So…Flower Girl…you’ve picked a rather desolate place to commune with nature.”
Maya knew that voice, without a doubt. The Widow Day. She should be frightened, she knew, but she found herself wrapped in a strange calm. Deliberately, she drew her fingers away from the empty stone basin and slowly stood to face the beautiful woman with the prideful eyes and twisted smirk. An easy smile came to Maya’s face. “I love this place,” she replied happily. “Isn’t it lovely? So very…peaceful…”
The victorious smile fell from Margret Day’s face at the girl’s lack of fear. “Do you not worry that you will be eaten by a dragon?”
“Dragon’s like to stay deep in the tunnels during the heat of the day,” she replied with her vacuous smile in place. “Lucky for little ole me.”
“Oh really?” Margret suddenly whipped the menacing barrel of a shotgun from where she’d hidden the weapon in the folds of her skirt. She leveled the sight on Maya’s chest. Maya knew she’d seen the damage a shotgun could do, although she couldn’t quite remember where. She could clearly remember the very messy hole the weapon had left in the very humanlike body of a Jemnezmy, a creature that she couldn’t quite remember where she might have encountered, although she could recall that it was a very inhuman and chameleon type creature that took the form of the species it attacked, in this case, a very seductive female. Not unlike the one she now faced. Though this one planned to use a shotgun on her rather than a spell. Still, she could find no fear inside herself.
“Are you trying to spoil my whole day?” Maya asked her dryly, completely relinquishing any pretense of simpleminded amiability.
“If you don’t admit the truth, I will shoot you right where you stand,” Margret replied coldly.
“I’ll admit whatever truth you like, if you won’t shoot me.”
“I don’t want a lie, I want the truth,” Margret snapped.
Maya shrugged her slim shoulders nonchalantly. “Enlighten me, what is the truth?”
“The truth is that you are Aeris Gainsborough from the Sector Five slums of Midgar. Your adopted mother is Elmyra. And you are the half-Cetra daughter of the late Professor Gast and his equally late Cetra lover.”
Butterflies rose in Maya’s stomach at the widow’s words, but she refused to let the woman see her awakening distress. Instead, Maya kept her emerald eyes steady on the woman’s face, careful not to peer into the hollow-eyed bore of the shotgun, and she slapped a hand playfully against her forehead. “You know…you could be right,” she gamely acknowledged. “I could have sworn that I’m Maya Elizabeth Blackwood, born to Myron and Nessa Blackwood. But you know, that birth certificate they have could be a fake I suppose…” Maya then propped her hands on her hips. “If I were this…Arliss…Grainsborn…did you say? Why do you want to know so badly that you would kill me to find out? Does this girl owe you money or something? Did she steal your boyfriend? Or are you just nuts? What’s the deal?”
Margret Day suddenly smiled with cold malice. “You know, I don’t think you are Aeris Gainsborough. She is dead, after all.” The woman lifted the gun to eyelevel. “However, you annoy me, you stupid twit. And they won’t find your body here for awhile.”
Stunned at the sudden loss of her somewhat illusory control of the situation as well as a clear grasp of the knowledge that Margret Day would do just as she threatened without turning a hair, Maya instinctively threw up her hands, the spell of ‘Stop’ leaping to the forefront of her mind without a single thought to spur it, but before she could cast it, Angel’s voice shouted inside her head. “Do not show her!” And then the white bird dove screeching at the Widow Day’s face.
Startled at the unexpected attack, Margret Day swept the shotgun barrel up to swipe at the bird and convulsively fired. Maya ducked into a crouch and scrambled across the clearing to throw herself headlong behind one of the dead, twisted plant roots that crisscrossed the entire area. Instantly, she rolled to her side and cautiously peered over the root to see Angel fly clear unscathed, already circling for another run at the inimical widow.
Angel! Don’t! You can’t go up against a shotgun!
He didn’t answer. But merely dove again, his talons fully extended. Frantically, Margret jacked another shell into the chamber and tried to bring the gun up in time to blow the bird to smithereens, but he swooped in before she could cleanly target the swiftly moving creature, and again she convulsively fired and missed as Angel dug his sharp talons into her scalp, only to come away with her red wig.
At sight of the predatory bird flying away with the Widow Day’s hair, laughter bubbled up from Maya’s throat. Margret heard her and leveled the shotgun on the tree root where Maya hid. She shrieked her outrage as she fired the shell, and the resultant spray of high velocity shot splintered the thick root deeply. With a grunt, Margret jacked another shell in and expertly fired again. That shot shredded much deeper into the root. “I’ll kill you, you little bitch!” Margret screamed across the clearing. All thought of laughter fled from Maya’s mind as she pressed her body into the ground. The widow stalked several steps toward Maya’s hiding place and leveled the gun again. Maya knew the next shot would blow the root completely apart.
Angel swooped down again, this time digging his talons deep into the woman’s hairnet covered scalp. Margret screamed in pain, and duly distracted, only managed to discharge the shotgun into the ground at her feet. Beating his wings noisily, Angel held on and snipped repeatedly at the woman’s head with his hooked beak. Dancing around the clearing in mad circles, Margret screamed over and over as she tried to chamber another shell, but discovered the gun empty. Barely holding on to her wits, she took the barrel in hand and wildly swept the wooden stock over her head in an attempt to knock the bird off her head. Still insanely spinning as she swung, she managed to hit herself in the side of the head once before she struck Angel a glancing blow that spurred him to flight.
Momentarily reprieved from the bird’s harassing attacks, Margret came to a standstill and twisting her head this way and that, she searched the sky for the bird as she fumbled for the silver orb at the narrow waistband of her skirt. Her fumbling fingers kept missing the damn thing as her darting eyes worked hard to mark the bird’s location. But when he came for her again, he flew straight from the direction of the sun where she could not see him, directly at her face. Angel’s battle cry rang in Maya’s mind as she pressed her face into her folded arm. Angel’s ravening desire to rip the woman’s cornflower blue eyes from their sockets reached her too. Maya thought Angel had succeeded too, when Margret’s scream attained novel characteristics as to range and volume. But it was only her reaction to the close proximity of the bird when she finally saw him. Fortunately, for Margret and her beautiful face and her lovely cornflower blue eyes, her questing finger finally found the orb, and she reflexively pressed it, leaving behind a brilliant flash to blind Maya and Angel, and nothing but air for the bird to shred, to his utter disappointment.
Greatly relieved at her escape, Maya slowly rose, blinking away the aftereffects of the flash, and almost immediately a bright splotch of color against the slate gray of the stone drew her. A smile quirking her mouth, she strolled over and snatched the wildly curly red wig into her hand. She examined it curiously, turning the hairpiece over to check out the inside. “Hmm…guess Nessa had her pegged…” she mused aloud. Angel cried out his disgust at the widow’s escape, filling the small clearing with his challenging screech. Maya turned and brandished the wig at the bird where he had come to rest at the top of the wall above the tunnel opening. “Do you want your trophy, Angel,” she asked teasingly.
His protracted sigh loudly filled her mind, a measure of his annoyance with her. We go now? he silently asked her in his frustration.
Maya gave the wig a mighty heave and tossed it onto the top of the wall to Angel’s right, her thoughts turning to the words of her mother as the humor of the situation ebbed from her mind. “Yes, please,” she answered him softy. “Take me home, Angel. I have to think.”
With a disquieted mind, he watched her gather her basket and parasol from the ground, and when she turned, he fell from the wall and flew into the tunnel ahead of her. If Angel could have frowned, he would have. The matter about which she wished to think, was a matter he would soon be required to handle. And he couldn’t imagine how, with his bird’s body, but he vowed he would find a way.
A dark figure crept stealthily into the tent, tiptoeing very carefully so as not to make the slightest sound that might wake any of the sleeping inhabitants. Oblivious to the great catlike creature that slept just inside the tent entrance, the intruder stepped soundlessly to the first cot in the row, a mere six feet inside the tent proper, and very easy prey as the two adjacent cots stood empty. Of course, that was not the reason this particular cot and sleeper had been chosen. The selection was by no means random. No, this particular cot had been chosen because of the redheaded Turk that silently snoozed there, flat on his back with both hands clasped around his collapsed magrod, his wispy ponytail draped across his right shoulder to curl against his chest, his face peaceful and unlined as though it were the face of an innocent child. The stalker knew better. This man was far from innocent, and this man would pay for his sins.
Unbeknownst to the stalker, the easily roused beast lifted his head to examine the silent figure that hovered over Reno’s bed, but at his instant recognition, he lowered his head to his leg and closed his eye again.
Even as the would-be assailant plotted mayhem on the Turk’s head, the wispy ends of his ponytail drew the vengeful eyes away from his face. With a softening demeanor, the intruder helplessly surrendered to impulse and lowered one finger to lightly graze a silky strand of fiery hair with the tip of a nail. Then the memory that had spurred the premeditated act of revenge in the first place leapt to the forefront, and the finger was jerked back as though the very color of the hair had flamed into heat and seared flesh. A grimace twisted the crimson stained lips and the barely constrained temper reignited into full roar.
“You libidinous asinine pig!” she hissed down into the serene face. Then she planted a lustrous new ankle boot with a three-inch heel squarely against the wooden frame of the cot and gave a mighty heave. With a huff of disgust, she whirled away to stalk outside, viciously flinging the tent flap aside to pass. She held little interest in the result of her capricious act, the clatter of the collapsing cot and the sharp yelp of surprise enough to bring a richly deserved smile of satisfaction to the colored lips.
Nanaki watched the blonde-haired Turk stomp past, switching his tail out of harm’s way just in the nick of time. Intrigued, he swiveled his head to study the wreckage she’d left in her wake. The beast expected to hear a tent shaking string of curses or the eruption of an enraged redheaded Turk flinging aside the cart to emerge into full battle mode to chase down his assailant, but to his great interest, the victim lay still and silent beneath the completely overturned cot. Nanaki wondered fleetingly if a capsized cot during sleep could kill a healthy human specimen like Reno, but then he dismissed the nonsensical idea out of hand. Still, he was giving serious consideration to an investigation of any potential injuries, and he’d almost persuaded himself to actually rise to his paws to do just that when the edge of the cot suddenly lifted six inches beneath splayed fingers, and a pair of wary green eyes peered out from underneath.
The drowsy Turk swept his heavy lidded eyes around the dimly lit floor until he eventually noticed the watchful Nanaki. Sitting up, Reno shoved the cot away from him and looked around again from his new vantage point. Except for Nanaki, nobody stirred inside the tent. Caitlin, Avian, Rachel and the Kisaragi girl all appeared to be in their cots sound asleep. Again, Reno’s eyes came back to the red beast. He took his magrod up in hand and lithely jumped to his bare feet, taking the few short paces that would bring him to where Nanaki lay stretched out on the ground. Stooping down, he sat back on his heels and studied the beast’s quiet face.
“Did you happen to see how I wound up with my face in the dirt?” he reluctantly inquired in a low voice. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. After all, he could have somehow tipped the cot himself, but he wasn’t usually that restless of a sleeper. Still, he’d had a lot on his mind when he’d fallen asleep.
Nanaki nodded his head with equal reluctance, setting his beaded locks swaying against his jowls.
“Well, what happened?” Reno urged the silent creature to answer.
“The cot went over,” Nanaki carefully replied truthfully even as he ruefully acknowledged that half the truth might be construed as a lie. Maybe Reno would be satisfied with his response though.
Unfortunately for Nanaki, Reno meant to persist. “It just fell over? By itself?”
Slowly, Nanaki shook his head, setting his beads swinging in a new direction, but he didn’t hasten to elaborate.
“Well?” Reno asked with a hint of exasperation. “What happened? Cat got your tongue?”
“No,” Nanaki growled in his throat. “Someone pushed your cot over. With a foot.”
“Aha,” Reno hissed triumphantly. “I knew it wasn’t me. Did you see who it was?”
Again, Nanaki reluctantly nodded his head, but declined to immediately identify the midnight hit and run attacker.
Reno threw up a pleading hand. “Well, who was it?” he demanded in a harsh whisper.
“I believe I should keep my own counsel for the sake of peace in this encampment,” Nanaki judiciously informed him.
“Aha,” he hissed again. “It was Wallace, wasn’t it?”
“No,” Nanaki instantly responded in surprise, his voice a little too loud. He modulated his next response to a much lower volume. “It was not Wallace.”
“Then who?” Reno was beginning to lose his patience, a virtue he didn’t possess a very deep reservoir of in the first place and especially after so little sleep.
Nanaki sighed in surrender. “Elena. It was Elena.”
“Elena?!” Reno exclaimed aloud in his surprise. “Ssssssssh!” Nanaki hissed at him.
Reno’s fiery brows drew together in a tight frown. “Elena?” he asked in a whisper. “Are you sure?”
Nanaki recognized then that he should have lied and said he didn’t see a thing. He wished now he’d had the foresight to pretend to be asleep. Maybe he should start lying right about now. “She passed within a foot of me and almost stomped on my tail with those sharp heels of hers,” Nanaki replied instead. Now he really knew he was going to start trouble.
Reno’s frown deepened. “Well, did she say anything? About taking watch or something?” He thought perhaps she’d tried to wake him so she could sleep, and she was cranky due to lack of sleep, and annoyed that he didn’t wake up. A plausible reason for her aberrant behavior.
Nanaki nodded his head, and then shook it, sending the beads swinging in circles now.
“Well, which is it?” Reno prodded. “Yes or no?”
“Both,” Nanaki replied uncooperatively.
Reno abruptly flipped the tip of the magrod against Nanaki’s nose. “You are starting to annoy me, cat.”
Nanaki was starting to grow irritated too. He growled a warning deep in his throat, and Reno hastily drew his rod back. Satisfied at the quick response, Nanaki decided to spill it all. He had already stuck his nose deep into a matter that was none of his business, so he might as well pounce all the way in. Besides, he would be dishonest if he didn’t admit that he found himself compelled by the potential consequences. He sadly admitted that his actions smacked of immaturity. But he was still just a kid, really. So he had a good excuse. Didn’t he?
“Look, Reno of the Turks, it’s ‘yes’ and it’s ‘no’. Yes, she said something. And no, it wasn’t anything to do with going on watch. Since I know you’re going to poke and prod me until I tell you what she said, instead of going out there and asking her what she said, I will tell you that her remarks included the words ‘pig’, ‘asinine’, and ‘libidinous’. Not necessarily in that specific order. I would guess that the woman is perturbed with you for some reason that only you might know.”
Reno’s fiery brows shot up into his hairline, and then settled back down to their normal position as a chilly smile came to his lips. “Libidinous, eh? That’s an interesting word to be coming from such a pretty mouth. Maybe I should ask her what it means.” He swiveled his eyes to the exit.
“It means to be driven by…” Nanaki started to explain.
Reno landed his glittering eyes back on the cat’s face, and the cat held his tongue. “I know what it means, cat. I’m just going to go see if she knows.” Reno rose to his feet and silently slipped outside on soundless bare feet.
Nanaki laid his nose against his paw and lamented the grief he might have just brought down on Elena’s unsuspecting head. He was starting to feel very guilty about the whole matter. He examined all the possible results of his interference, and he decided that some of them might include death and dismemberment. At that point, he decided that he’d best keep an eye and two ears on the pair, just in case he had to intervene. Rising to his paws, he slid stealthily through the tent opening and along the front of the tent until the shadows beyond the hanging lantern outside the tent swallowed him in comforting darkness. There he dropped to his belly and brought his intrigued gaze around just in time to see Reno sneaking up behind Elena where she sat slumped down into the wooden and canvas camp chair. Nanaki suspected the fur was about to fly, and he wasn’t sure if either Turk would be left standing when all was said and done.
A distant womping sound dragged Ozzie from his sleep, and he rolled over on his back to listen as he rubbed the last dregs of slumber from his eyes. After a moment, he realized he was hearing the rotor blades of a helicopter. Excited that something of interest might actually be occurring in this boring and provincial high mountain burg, he threw his covers back and bolted from his bed to race to the sunlit window.
The early morning sunlight set the snowfield glittering like a layer of tiny cut diamonds strewn thickly across a soft white jeweler’s cloth, and he gaped in awed appreciation of the pristine landscape and the comforting thought of the expensive jewels inspired by the same until the chopper settled to the snow covered ground in front of the inn, pointedly reminding him of the reason he’d run to the window to stand there shivering in his drawers.
He couldn’t make out a single marking on the chopper from where he stood, so he wrapped his arms around his body in a futile attempt to warm himself and waited for the occupants of the machine to disembark. Maybe some Costa del Sol billionaire had decided to vacation in the snowboard capitol of the world with his spoiled family, presenting him an opportunity to utilize any one of a variety of successful scams that he counted in his repertoire of criminal talents.
Then the lone occupant of the chopper shoved the pilot’s door open and carefully set his polished black shoes into the snow. Ozzie felt the blood drain from his face at sight of the distinctive blue suit, the dark shades, the shaven head, and the glinting gold earrings that lined the man’s ears. He’s knees went rubbery when the Turk headed straight for the inn, his fingers slipping inside his suit coat for the gun Ozzie near he had there.
Ozzie ducked away from the window when the man raised his head slightly as though to look straight at him. His eyes wide with dismay, the blonde gunman crept around the perimeter of the room until he stood near the head of Baron’s bed.
“Psssst!” Ozzie hissed loudly. “Bari! Bari! Wake up! We got trouble!”
Baron’s eyes popped open instantly, and he turned his head to look at Ozzie with golden eyes completely alert and clear of sleep. “What is it now, Ozwan?” he inquired coolly. Ozwan had become a bit histrionic of late.
Ozzie jabbed a finger at the window. “Did you hear the chopper, Bari?”
“Yes, I did,” he smoothly admitted.
“It’s a Turk, Bari,” he said fearfully. “You said there wouldn’t be any Turks here.”
“So?” Baron didn’t understand what had Ozwan so uncharacteristically upset. After all, Ozwan was a killer, and he would normally face down a Turk without turning a hair. Surely, a bite from a dog had not stolen all his nerve. “I said the Turks were unlikely to come here. I do not control their movements, Ozwan.”
“He’s coming to the inn,” Ozzie whispered hoarsely.
Baron finally sat up, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed to shove his feet into his sandals. Then he studied Ozwan’s worried face at length. “Are you in good health, Ozwan? Did you eat something that did not agree with you?”
“He knows me.” Ozzie tried desperately to explain. “He knows my name. He knows what I look like. It’s him. He’s the one”
“The one that what?” Baron’s golden eyes reflected his bewilderment.
“The one that shot me,” Ozzie choked. “The one that killed me.”
Baron snorted. “You didn’t die, Ozwan. Remember? Your death was contrived.”
“But I almost did,” he replied huffily. “If Arlene hadn’t got the boys to drag me off the street before he came to finish me off…”
“Are you telling me you’re afraid of this Turk, Ozwan?” Baron narrowed his eyes on the gunman’s face.
Ozzie frowned at Baron, and then he glared at him. “No! I’m not afraid of him. I’m not afraid of anybody!”
Baron shrugged. “Then quit cowering against the wall like a whipped puppy.”
Ozzie jerked away from the wall and stalked across the floor to confront his unperturbed partner. “Aren’t you the least bit concerned that he might be here looking for us?” he demanded.
“How would he know we are here?” Baron asked practically. “We don’t exactly leave a paper trail wherever we go. If you think the Turk will recognize you, then we will remain in the room until he leaves. It’s not as though you’ve signed your true name in the register.”
A pained look came to Ozzie’s face, and Baron’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Tell me you did not sign your true name, Ozwan,” the warrior growled ominously.
“I…didn’t think it would matter up here…”
Baron sprang to his feet, anger turning his golden eyes to flame. “It always matters, Ozwan. You know that.” He pointed a finger in the shorter man’s face. “For a so-called professional, you have been making a few too many unforgivable mistakes of late.”
Ozzie’s eyes fell beneath Baron’s heated glare. “I’m sorry…Bari…I won’t make that mistake again…I don’t know what’s the matter with me lately…”
Baron’s fingers itched to rip the blade from his tunic and stab the stupid fool straight through the heart, but before he could surrender to the impulse, the chopper engine fired up outside and the blades whumped into motion.
Ozzie rushed to the window and cautiously peered around the edge of the open drape. Baron followed more slowly and stood squarely in the window to watch the helicopter lift off and swoop off in a southerly direction. He noted the single pristine line of foot imprints that curved around and vanished just on the far side of the deep impression the helicopter skid had left in the snow. Baron crossed his arms and turned a cool gaze on Ozzie. “He picked up a passenger. It has nothing to do with us. So stop trembling, Ozwan, and get dressed. It’s time to move on. There’s no one here of interest to the master.”
Baron crossed the room and stretched out on his bed to wait for Ozzie to do as he bade.
Hesitantly, Ozzie crossed the room to gather the articles of his clothing from the floor. “Where will we go next, Bari?” he asked tentatively. He knew the warrior was mad at him. He wasn’t sure he would answer.
“I believe I will surprise you, Ozwan,” Baron replied coldly. “You do like surprises, don’t you?”
“Not really,” Ozzie muttered beneath his breath, examining the hungry manner in which the golden eyes glowered at the ceiling. Then he took four backwards steps and sidled into the bathroom. He wasn’t about to put his back to Baron today.
Reno didn’t hesitate for a moment nor did he rethink his plan of action in the slightest. Retribution should be both swift and commensurate to the crime. Bending down, he grabbed the legs of the wooden chair in both hands, and with decisive force, dumped Elena forward onto the hardpacked ground where she landed on her hands and knees with a startled cry. Unlike Elena, though, he did not leave the scene of the crime, but merely waited for her to regain her feet with crossed arms and a knowing smirk. He knew when she came up off the ground she’d be madder than an entire hive full of tormented honeybees, and he wasn’t disappointed. He’d never seen her hazel eyes blaze so fiercely. Obviously she could dish out the dirt, but she couldn’t take it. He snatched up the collapsed chair and unfolded it to park it between them.
Fuming in speechless rage, she pointed a finger at him as she futilely brushed at the knees of her slacks with one hand. Then she looked up to pin him with deadly eyes and instantly noticed that the nail on the finger she pointed at him was broken. She stared at the ragged nail in shock.
“Oh, did you break a nail, Elena?” he asked with false sympathy. “Poor…poor baby.”
Elena found her voice then, with a vengeance. “You stupid, dimwitted, moronic son of a bitching bastard!” she snarled at him. “Why the hell did you do such a…a…heinous mean and nasty thing to me?!”
“Tsk…tsk…Elena.” He wagged a finger at her playfully. “You should watch your language…ah…as well as your redundancies. And as for why I did it…did you think you could dump me out of my bed without retaliation?”
Elena lifted her chin then, and her eyelashes fluttered ever so slightly. He knew then that she would try to lie. “What are you talking about, Reno?” she asked, her voice full of smooth innocence. “I didn’t dump you out of your bed. Perhaps you had a bad dream and tumbled out.”
Reno chortled and pointed a finger at her. “You are lying through your teeth, Elena Yvonne Taylor-Martin.”
Elena gasped in outrage. “What did you call me?”
Reno quirked an eyebrow. “What? Yvonne?”
Elena cringed. “Don’t call me that! I hate that name! Why do you know that name?!”
Reno grinned broadly. “I’ve read your personnel file…Yvonne.”
She pointed the broken nailed finger at him again, a lethal threat in her narrowed hazel eyes. “Don’t you dare call me that again, Reno!”
“Yvonne…Yvonne…Yvonne Yvonne…” he sang softly with a challenging glint in his eye. “Yvonne…Yvonne…Yvonne Yvonne Yvonne…”
Even though Elena had to privately admit that Reno had a rather nice singing voice, his lyrics left much to be desired. And of course there was the principle of the thing and all that. She closed her hands into fists. “I’m going to kill you,” she snarled between gritted teeth.
Elena lunged for him, and he promptly brought up the chair to stave off her attack. She tried to dart around his flimsy barricade, first one direction, and then in the other, but he merely mirrored her flanking movements to keep the chair between them. Finally, she grew so frustrated at him and his chuckling that she threw herself against the chair with an enraged shriek and let fly a fist. She took him by surprise, and she would have demolished his nose if her blow had landed, but his well-honed instincts duly served him, and he reflexively jerked his face out of harm’s way. Thank his lucky stars, because he knew if Elena’s fist connected, she would knock him flat on his ass, and she would not give him an opportunity to recover before she dove in for the kill.
Elena threw two more rather wild punches, mostly for the purpose of intimidation rather than from any hope that she could strike him. Abruptly, she stepped back and propped her hands on her hips, settling feral eyes on his face. “Coward…” she sneered. “Hiding behind a chair…”
“Just optimally utilizing my immediate environment for purposes of defense,” he replied in his best patronizing voice.
Elena snapped her fingers, and smiled at him with malicious brightness. “Hey yeah, a tactical concept that can be applied to offense as well.”
She whirled and dashed away into the darkness beyond the circle of light, and Reno uneasily lowered the chair as he squinted his eyes in the direction she’d fled. A mistake on his part, he was forced to admit, when an unidentifiable object came flying out of the gloom, tumbling end over end, straight for him.
She’d caught him off guard, and he barely had time to get the chair up to catch the object with the flimsy piece of furniture instead of with his face. The object thudded into the canvas seat and fell harmlessly to the ground. He chanced a quick glance downward through the wooden frame of the chair to identify Elena’s choice of weapon. A wrench. At sight of it, he remembered seeing the handyman’s tray full of tools that one of the mechanics had left on an overturned crate just outside the adjacent tent. Before the full implication of that knowledge hit home, another wrench, considerably larger than the first, thwacked into the chair frame and nearly knocked the chair from his hands. At that point he deemed it advisable to take cover. He well knew what an excellent throwing arm Elena possessed. Nine times out of ten, she could sink a knife into a target exactly where she wanted it. Holding the chair up as a shield, he sprinted toward the murky alleyway between the two tents even as a handful of screws pelted against his flimsy barrier and rained down on his head.
Within a few steps he gained the dubious safety provided by the tent, and he came to a halt just inside the alleyway and flattened his back and one cheek against the canvas wall to peep around the edge. A prolonged examination of the area around the tents revealed only a deceptive stillness. He knew Elena would not lie in wait for him to show his face again. She had most certainly gone on the stalk, since she knew right where he’d run. He decided it was past time he went on the offensive.
With that plan in mind, he whipped the magrod from his back pocket and tossed the chair aside with little regard where it landed. A surprised yelp came from ground level as the chair clattered to the hard earth. Reno whirled around with his magrod pointed out in front of him, his thumb touching the charge switch without a thought.
“Don’t shoot, Turk,” a sheepish voice whispered from the shadows. “It’s just me.”
Reno relaxed his stance and switched off the rod. “Eavesdropping, Cat?” he asked dryly.
Nanaki rose to all four paws to face Reno in the gloom. He could see Reno clearly, but luckily Reno couldn’t see him. Or the guilty look on his face. “Er…yes…I was worried about Elena, you understand. I see now my concern was misplaced.” He snuffled softly in laughter
Reno’s eyes narrowed on the animal whose silhouette he could clearly see now that his eyes had adjusted fully to the darkness. “Don’t worry about me, Cat,” he replied coolly. “I’m more than capable of handling this little matter of insubordination.”
“Mutiny, I’d call it,” Nanaki replied with mirth in his voice.
“Yeah, well…maybe…” He chanced another quick look around the corner of the tent. He found the surrounding area entirely too quiet. “I really don’t have time to contemplate the nuances. I gotta go.” Reno brought his eyes back to the cat’s shadowed face. “Feel free to trip her if she comes this way.” Then he walked off to vanish into the deeper shadow at the back of the tents.
“I don’t think she’s going to come this way, Turk,” Nanaki idly remarked into the darkness, and then he pondered a decision of whether to follow Reno or go back into the tent and to sleep. Despite the aching of the knot on his head from the hastily discarded chair, Nanaki decided Reno might well need assistance in the end. Besides, he wasn’t sleepy. With his sharp teeth bared in an anticipatory grin, he trailed the Turk’s footsteps into the night.
Vincent stood a few paces ahead of her in perfect stillness before the two entrances that had suddenly opened in their path after they’d come to the end of a rather acute curve in the passage. She could clearly see that he was caught in the teeth of indecision, and that realization troubled her. In fact, it made her chest tight with tension and her stomach hollow with fear.
Finally, she decided to speak because she thought if she had to stand there another second watching him trying to figure out what to do she would just fly apart. “What do you think, Vincent?” she asked in a strained whisper.
Although he turned his head at her question, he didn’t answer. Instead, he reached into his pocket and drew the map out. Shaking it open one-handed, he lifted the rumpled paper up in hand and claw and bent his head to study the crude drawing. Casting away a deep reluctance to intrude in his space, she forced her feet to move forward. For once, she wanted to see the map for herself. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust him. She just wanted to help him sort it out if she could.
Vincent hardly noticed when Tifa crowded up to his elbow and leaned in to examine the map from the side. The options available to him were few, but his decision filled him with concern. He already knew that the map would offer him no new information. The roughly drawn tunnels were already imprinted deeply into his memory, and the section of the map pertinent to his dilemma happened to be one of the areas where the lines had been rubbed away. Still, he had made a logical extrapolation from the direction the lines traveled across the paper beyond the illegible part. He’d been sure of the passage to take, until he’d actually arrived at the junction of tunnels, and then he’d balked. The one he knew he should take, the one he’d marked on the map before they’d ever left the cavern, did not feel like the right one now. And he wasn’t sure why.
Tifa looked up from the map to search his face, but she couldn’t tell anything more from Vincent’s face then from the paper in his hands. The one was too confusing, and the other too blank. “Are we lost, Vincent?” she asked him, her voice fraught with apprehension.
He looked at her then, a flicker of surprise in his eyes as though he’d just discovered her there. “No,” he said coolly. Then taking a sideways step away from her, he deliberately folded the map and put it away in his shirt pocket.
“Wait here,” he said, and then without lingering for a response from her, he turned away.
Alarm singing through her whole body, she reached out and snatched his sleeve into desperate fingers to stall his escape.
“Vincent?! I don’t want to wait here!” Her startled voice rang sharply in the heavy air around them. "Where are you going?! I want to go with you!”
Vincent stared down into her pleading eyes, and he could feel himself wavering in his decision. He didn’t want to leave her. That was a fact. Not even for a moment. But he had no choice. He had to find a sign. Possibly one so subtle as to be undetectable. By a normal man, anyway. He could not afford the distraction. Even if she stood perfectly still beside him, the scent of her, the sound of her breath through her nostrils, her very nearness would unerringly draw his senses to her. He had to leave her.
“Just for a moment,” he assured her. “I wish to check the passages. I will not leave your sight.” And she would not leave his. Of that, she could be certain. If he were another man, he might have laid his hand across hers then, where she tightly grasped his right sleeve, to reinforce his verbal reassurance and to gently unlatch her fingers so he could go. But he could not. He was a man with sharp metal talons for fingers, and he knew she would not be eased by his touch. Thus, he found himself relegated to asking.
“Wait?” he requested softly. “Please?” Pointedly, he shifted his crimson eyes from her face to the fingers wrapped in the black material of his sleeve.
Tifa stared at his averted eyes and serene face for a moment longer before resignation filled her, and she reluctantly released her hold, her shoulders slumping in dejection when he immediately moved away to head for the tunnel on the left. She felt like crying even though she knew she was being silly. Intuitively, she knew he wouldn’t go far. Just as he’d said. She knew he only planned to examine the passages, for footprints or big yellow arrows maybe. She wasn’t sure why he didn’t think she could help him, but she supposed he had his reasons. In any event, she had a backup plan. If he showed any sign of leaving her troublemaking self behind, and she mentally reminded him at that point that she hadn’t made trouble for him in several hours, she would just race down the passage and tackle him. Right to the ground. Wouldn’t Mr. Valentine be surprised? He only thought he could get away from her. She’d show him. A smile came to her lips then, at the image in her mind of how Vincent’s face might look when she took him down. Would his face even change? Would the man even blink? Or would he look up at her with those cool eyes and expressionless face even if she had him in a headlock? She almost giggled then, and would have but for the fingers she pressed against her lips to stifle the impulse, and just like that, her impending tears fled.
She was here. Not more than a few feet away. Though she didn’t make the slightest sound that would give away her position, he could smell her perfume in the darkness. Reno idly made a note to talk to her about that. She needed a refresher course in the fundamentals of stalking. Perfumes and colognes could get a Turk killed. Of course, he’d worry about reprimanding her after he had her in hand.
A subtle sound behind him brought his head around in the blink of an eye, and he instantly swept the magrod in a wide arc at sight of the eerie glow suspended in space a foot or so above the ground. His mind stumbled in incomprehension, until he remembered the strange muted flame at the end of the red beast’s tail. Apparently the animal had been hiding it beneath his body before but now had forgotten as he’d stealthily tracked the Turk to the back of the tents. As though the cat realized that his presence had been noted, he tucked the tail away out of sight, and the bioflame glow vanished as though it had never been.
Reno shrugged indifferently to himself. He didn’t care if the nosy cat followed. No matter to him. As long as the beast didn’t give his position away. He had one goal and one goal only, and he would bend the entirety of his senses to accomplishing that goal. To get Elena before she got him.
Completely motionless now but for his shifting eyes, he studied the terrain beyond the back of the sleeping tents from where he crouched in his hiding place in the deeply shadowed niche at the junction of canvas tent wall and the rickety chest high partition of the hastily built outdoor shower stalls. His eyes fully adjusted to the dark, he sent his appraising gaze over the random stacks of crates of various height and width, a scattered pile of haphazardly discarded shovels and picks, a coil of cable with attached winch, and a heap of neatly folded canvas drop cloths and rope that no doubt had held the cargo in place inside the plane during flight. He recognized nearly all of the articles shrouded in darkness because of his familiarity of the area behind the tents more than from any ability to see them. Unfortunately, Elena had many choices of places in which to lie in wait for him. She could be lurking anywhere. Still, he knew she was close. The perfume aroma hadn’t faded in the slightest. Any subsequent moves on his part would require utmost care.
Reno pondered his options, of which there were basically two. Go on the stalk until he found her or wait until she grew bored and came in search of him. He knew she would grow bored quickly, but he decided he wasn’t in the mood for waiting. Very cautiously, he stepped from the safety of the deepest shadows and promptly set the sensitive arch of his foot down on a sharp-edged stone. A tiny sound came from his throat, an impulsive but swiftly stifled gasp. Silently cursing himself for his ineptitude, he listened for any sign that the barely audible sound had been heard. He hadn’t planned to go on the hunt on bare feet.
He waited for a full five minutes, give or take a few, part of the time he spent trying to fathom her movements and part of the time he spent considering the probability that she had retired to the tent for the night to lie in her cot snickering at him wandering around out in the dark. Still, he well knew she was near.
Again, he stepped out, more careful this time to test the ground before shifting his weight. A few tediously executed paces later, he found himself in front of the shower where he noted the open door. He peered intently into the shrouded depths of the stall, acknowledging that she might be crouched in the darkest corner. Tentatively, he moved in that direction, but froze at the tiny squeak that came from inside. He knew what would happen then, and he darted into the stall with the intention of taking her in hand before she could make good her plan. Unfortunately, he quickly discovered his error when he found the stall empty. Alarmed, he turned to face the wall of the second stall, and Elena chose that moment to unkink the flexible water hose that served as a showerhead. Icy water sprayed directly into his face.
“You are so dead, Reno,” Elena proclaimed triumphantly.
Reno sputtered and blindly shot a hand over the wall for her weapon. His fingers found the end of the hose, and he snatched it from her, his ease at doing so facilitated by the fact that she released it to run. He threw himself against the partition to grab at her over the wall, but his fingers only managed to graze the denim sleeve of her jacket. He instantly turned as she fled.
“Wrong, Elena,” he called after her into the darkness as he cut a wide swath across the entire area with the detached hose. “You cannot kill me with water. I do not melt.” A sharp and rather harsh curse came from a nearby stack of crates, and he smiled evilly at the knowledge that he’d hit his target. Swiftly, he reached over the partition and tightened down the clamp screw to cut the water flow, and then he carelessly tossed the hose back over the stall and padded out the open door to find her. He didn’t bother with stealth this time, as he knew she’d gone to ground in the narrow gap between twin stacks of crates, and he well knew that she pretty much had his whereabouts clearly marked. He could only hope that she didn’t decide to shoot him. He smirked then. He knew she would never do that.
“So…Elena…” he called lowly as he stopped just short of the gap between the stacks. “Why’d you kick over my bed?”
“I didn’t, Reno,” she called back in a soft, sweet voice. “Must have been somebody else.”
He flattened his back against the crates and tried to peer into the dark space. “Don’t think so, Elena. You called me a ‘pig’, didn’t you? ‘Asinine’ and ‘libidinous’. What about that?”
An outraged gasp came from between the stacks. “You were awake?!”
Reno slid around the corner and sidled toward her. “What if I was, Elena? What then?”
She didn’t say anything for a moment, as though she were thinking over the implications, and when she did speak, she was clearly moving away. “Hey, Reno…if the shoe fits…”
He darted down the length of the gap after her only to emerge at the other side without encountering her. “Is this about that rain check business, Elena?” He swiveled his head one way and then the other in an attempt to catch a sign of her.
“What rain check business, Reno?” Her voice, sweetly innocent, came from the other side of the stack to his left. He headed that way.
“You’ve forgotten already,” he accused sulkily.
“Hmm…hard to remember, since this is the first I’ve heard of it…” She started moving again, down the far side of the crates. “…In days and days…since you left with Caitlin…in fact…”
“You haven’t mentioned it either…” Reno chided as he rapidly padded to the far corner and paused just short of stepping into the open. “…And you did say you weren’t interested…” He laid his cheek against the corner of the stack to peer one-eyed down the side. “…In claiming it.”
“I’m sure you’ve given it away by now…” Elena mused aloud, her voice drifting to his ears from a stack of crates further away.
“To whom?” He knitted his brows in bewilderment as he stepped away from the stack, staring hard at the shadowy figure he thought he could see leaning against another stack of crates several feet away.
“Why…Caitlin, who else?” Elena responded coolly. “Have you forgotten her already? You’re really a very fickle man, aren’t you?”
“Caitlin?” he asked carefully. He was sure now that the shadowy shape was Elena, and she showed no sign of moving. Slowly, he walked toward her.
“You know, Reno. That white shirt stands out very well. I could shoot you right now. Right through the heart. Assuming you have one…that is…” Her voice dripped icicles now, and Reno came to a stop a dozen feet away. “Perhaps I should aim lower…”
“Maybe I should remind you, Elena, that it’s not wise to threaten me,” Reno said with equal coldness.
“I saw you, Reno,” Elena remarked with feigned indifference. “You and Caitlin. By the plane. Looked a little more than ‘this and that’ to me.”
Her words instantly brought back the moment that he’d heard the footstep, the interruption that had led Caitlin to suggest they go further afield to talk. “So what?” He asked nonchalantly. “What’s your point?”
“You know, Reno, I asked you what you’d been doing, and you gave me some bullshit answer,” Elena’s voice had turned husky now. “I thought as Turks we were partners.”
Reno realized that Elena’s voice had moved although the shrouded and motionless shape had not. He turned to his left to scrutinize the shadows there, but he couldn’t see a sign of her. Slowly, he started walking in that direction. “I don’t think this is about Turk business, Elena,” he informed her coolly. “I think you’re jealous.” He frowned at his own words. He hadn’t really recognized it until then. He surely didn’t need any more complications in his life right now.
Her laughter rang around the entire area, reverberating off the stacks of crates so that he wasn’t sure where it originated. “Jealous?! Of what? You? Caitlin?” She laughed again, this time in a tone that seemed hollow and forced. “Real funny, Reno,” she added bitterly. “Caitlin can have your scrawny ass as far as I’m concerned. Why she’d want it is beyond me though…”
Reno wheeled all the way around to stare intently in the direction of the first twin stacks of crates. She’d gotten around him somehow. The game of cat and mouse was starting to wear thin. He decided it was time to end it. Especially since the night was nearly over. The first light of day had leached into the black velvet of the night to tinge the astral fabric with midnight blue at the eastern horizon. Deliberately, he made a beeline for the crates and walked all the way around both stacks and down the gap in between without speaking a word. The damn elusive woman had already slipped away.
“I thought she was married…anyway…” The lightly spoken words came from directly above his head, and Reno tipped his head back to clearly see Elena’s blonde coif outlined against the lightening sky where she hung over the top of the crates. “I guess prior entanglements don’t really matter to you…though…” Then her hand moved and a fistful of soil and pebbles showered down into his face and hair.
With a heartfelt oath, Reno threw both hands up to his face to swipe the dirt from his eyes and clear his vision. Then, ignoring the stinging of his eyes, he jumped onto the side of the stack as a low growl rose from his throat. “You’re going to pay for that, little girl,” he promised coldly.
Elena immediately backed away as she wondered if she’d gone too far this time. She scrambled across the top of the crates to the other side. Why in the hell was she worrying about it now anyway? She’d been over the line since she’d dumped him out of his cot. If he killed her…would it be worth it? A cool smile curved her lips as she watched him lift himself to the top of the stack on the opposite side. She had to admit that maybe it would. But she wasn’t about to make it easy for him. Swinging off her side of the stack, she dropped to the ground and broke into an all out run.
Reno hit the ground not far behind her and raced after her, his long legs easily catching her up to the point where he could almost lay a hand on her, until he ran his big toe into a jutting rock that sent a firebrand of pain all the way to his hip. Muttering imprecations on her blonde head, he hopped a few steps after her with his injured foot in his hand. Her laughter floated back as she disappeared around the far side of the sleeping tent that housed all of the mechanics as well Highwind and Wallace. The evidence of her amusement at his expense spurred his temper upward a few degrees, and he instantly forgot the pain, releasing his foot to the ground to take out after her again.
His stubbed toe had allowed her to lengthen her lead on him to the point that she’d made it to the front of their tent when he finally caught up to her. Just before he could lay a finger on her, however, she slammed to a stop and whirled to meet him, her gun held firmly in her hand. He skidded to a stop just in front of her, and she straightened her arm to press the end of the barrel against his chest. “Are you planning to kill me, Reno?” she asked softly.
He carefully lifted his hands away from his sides in seeming surrender. “Thinking about it,” he acknowledged with equal softness. One red wing of an eyebrow went up then, and he smirked at her. “Gonna shoot me, Elena?” he inquired with interest.
A wry smile came to her tinted lips. “Thinking about it, Reno…”
“Why would you want to do that, Elena?”
Her meticulously sculptured brows came together in a tight frown. “Because you’re driving me mad, that’s why!” she snapped.
“That so?” Reno shifted his weight to one foot.
“Yes, that’s so,” she said with exasperation. “Just…what is it about you, Reno?”
He shrugged carelessly, rapt green eyes glued on her troubled face. “Hell if I know,” he replied unhelpfully.
Elena threw her free hand out in despair. “I mean, you’re nothing but a slob, Reno. You have no goals in life. Breathing… What the hell is that about? You have the relationship requirements of an alley cat, and you’re not really…all that much…to look at…not like…” Her voice trailed away, and she gave her head a little shake.
An exaggerated expression of hurt came to Reno’s face. “Getting a little personal, aren’t you, Elena?” In a surge of blinding motion, Reno snatched the gun from her hand and grabbed a handful of her denim jacket with the other hand to drag her to him. Her hazel eyes flew wide at the sudden change in fortune, but she didn’t bother to put up a resistance.
With her gun clasped loosely in his fingers, he wrapped his arm around her waist to prevent her escape and raised his other hand to slide his fingers around the slim column of her throat. He applied enough pressure to bring the steady, elevated throb of her pulse to his fingertips.
She glared defiantly into his glittering green eyes. “Are you going to strangle me, Reno?”
He tilted his head in thought. “I should,” he mused aloud.
Elena leaned her head back to give him better access. “Then get on with it, Reno. Your face is getting boring.”
Several seconds ticked past as Reno scrutinized the deceptively innocent details of her features and committed them to memory; the delicate wings of her brows, the narrow bridge of her nose, the softly curved cheeks, the determined chin, the clouded hazel eyes, the feathery blonde eyelashes even now drifting down to hide her darkly dilated pupils, the lightly tinted lips, relaxing from a tightly compressed line of disgruntlement to part slightly in invitation. He committed a space of time to an awestruck study of her mouth. His arm tightened around her waist, and he unconsciously moved his thumb against the silky skin of her throat.
“How can I strangle you…after all those flattering things…you said…about me…Elena…” he asked her, his voice low and husky. A tiny sound slipped from her throat, the catch of her breath at his intimate tone, and he threw the rest of his meager resistance to the wind to accept her unspoken invitation even as he managed to dredge up the forethought to admit the fecklessness of his mistake. With a little groan of denial, he captured her mouth beneath his, and he felt her pulse leap wildly against his fingers. She melted against him, her lips moving against his in eager acceptance, her warm palms sliding beneath his shirt at his back, her nails scraping against his skin. He decided somewhere in the back of his mind that the mistake was irrelevant. Then her lips parted beneath his, and she moved against him, and all thought washed away as his blood turned to liquid fire. His fingers roamed along her throat to the delicate shell of her ear, and then absently sought the silkiness of her hair as he desperately deepened the kiss, his hand sliding through the soft tresses to cup the nape of her neck with gentle fingers.
Elena suddenly stiffened in his arms, and Reno knew instantly there would be trouble. With a jerk of her chin she abruptly disengaged from the kiss and ducked away under his arm to escape him. Trembling fingers unconsciously floated to her lips, and she paused only long enough to pin him with a hot glare and lay him low with one hoarsely spoken word. “Prick.” Then she put her back to him and stalked away.
He stared after her in astonishment, his arms held out to the side in question, her gun still in his left hand. “What’d I do?” he asked no one in particular as she’d already disappeared into the tent.
“All that for a kiss?” A voice asked in amusement. Reno looked around to see the beast stretched out across the ground not far from the spot where Elena had originally been sitting in her chair at the beginning of this battle, his flaming tail swishing against the ground.
“Enjoy the show, Cat?” Reno inquired in a dry voice.
Nanaki lifted his muzzle from his paw. “It was rather entertaining,” he admitted. “I am curious though…”
“About?” Reno raised an eyebrow.
“Was it worth it, Turk?”
Reno tucked the gun into the waistband of his jeans and crossed his arms. “Hmm…good question…” he murmured as his thoughts turned inward for the answer. An absent finger lifted to his face to stroke the scar on his right cheek as he lifted his eyes to the sky as though he might find the answer there. “…A mistake…most likely…” he idly commented. “An unnecessary complication…” A subtle movement in the periphery of his vision drew his gaze to the western sky where he picked out one rapidly moving star cutting across the midnight blue field. “…But definitely worth it,” he finally added, tracking the light with narrowed eyes. The distant and muted hum of propeller engines touched his ears. He lifted a finger to point. “There’s the plane, Cat. Better tell Highwind.”
Nanaki eagerly jumped to his feet to look for himself, and he could clearly hear the engine sound now that Reno had pointed out the craft. Without another word, he loped off to the mechanic’s tent to rouse the Captain.
Within moments, the camp erupted into mad activity, and soon people were running everywhere. Reno stood motionless in the eye of the storm, still stroking his scar in thought as he idly watched the great cargo plane make a wide bank to line up with the makeshift runway.
Highwind ran by him then, shouting at his mechanics. “Get on it people! Fire up those oil pots! We gotta get that airstrip lit up pronto!” Wallace ran by too, his dark glare sweeping across Reno’s preoccupied face as he passed. “Wow, wicked cool!” Yuffie exclaimed in an excited, high-pitched voice from close by. Reno swiveled his head to find the ninja girl standing with Avian and the dog watching the big plane come down through the darkness with all navigational and landing lights blazing in colorful illumination, an impressive sight to be sure. “Come on, Farm Boy!” Yuffie urged. “Let’s go paint him a dotted line!” Reno vaguely took note as Yuffie grabbed Avian by the sleeve and towed him away. He spared a few thoughts then to chastise himself for not paying very close attention to his job of guarding Caitlin, Avian and Rachel. He and Elena had both fallen down on the job over the last hour, an unforgivable lapse…really… He commanded himself to follow them then, but his feet didn’t obey. Instead, he turned toward the tent. Elena had failed to appear, that he had clearly noticed, and he meant to find out why.
He found her easily enough, wrapped up in a blanket on a cot. She lay on her stomach with her face turned against a mostly flat pillow. He knelt on one knee to lean over her. Elena knew he was there. She had known from the moment he entered the tent. She pretended to be asleep, and Reno suspected that she wasn’t. He reached for a lock of her hair and gently twined the strand around his finger. “We’ll be addressing this matter later, Elena Yvonne,” he assured her in a murmur. With great effort, she held herself carefully still. He bent closer to bring his mouth near her ear. “Bet your life on it,” he whispered. He was rewarded with the slight twitch of her eyelashes.
A tug came at the back of his shirt, and he shifted around to find Rachel peering at him with worried eyes. “Everything okay, Reno to the Third?” she asked with great concern. He rose to his feet and solemnly nodded. “Everything’s A-okay, Rachel to the First,” he replied with appropriate gravity. She giggled at him then, and he impulsively snatched her up into his arms. “Wanna go watch the big bird land?” he asked her with a wiggle of his brows. She giggled again and nodded. “We better hurry or we’ll miss the whole da…er…darn thing,” he told her.
Elena lifted her head to watch as the tall Turk carried an adoring Rachel away, smiling slightly to herself when he wrapped a hand around the little girl’s head to duck through the tent opening. Unconsciously, her fingers drifted to her lips, and she asked herself again, as she had a hundred times since she’d thrown herself down onto the cot with a little snort of derision and embarrassment at the stupidity of her own behavior just what the hell she was supposed to do now, because she knew she had to do something. She had no choice now. The whole ridiculous situation had reached a point where she had to decide what in the world she should do about Reno, and she suspected that what she wanted to do and what she should do were not two very compatible courses of action. With a groan of despair, she whipped the blanket over her head and squeezed her eyes shut in a futile attempt to wipe the smirking face of the Leader of the Turks from her mind.
Vincent finally exited the entrance to the second passage to Tifa’s great relief, only to return up the first passage without a single glance her way. For the third time. Her short-lived joy instantly left her, and her shoulders slumped in dejection. Whatever the man was looking for, he seemed to be having trouble finding it, and again she considered offering her help, but she was pretty sure that he wouldn’t welcome her intrusion at the moment. Tifa fought back an ever-growing urge to tell him to hurry up. She had a sneaking suspicion that Vincent was one of those types of people that only got slower the more anyone tried to rush them. She didn’t want him to get one second slower.
Her headlamp flickered then, and she anxiously tapped the glass with a finger, letting out a long breath when the light steadied back to its previous bright level. She knew if the light went out she’d probably run like a madwoman up the passage to latch onto Vincent and his light. It was bad enough that he’d left her here with the intrusive blackness creeping in behind her. If her light went out, she thought that the oily, suffocating void, barely held at bay by her occasionally glitchy light, might actually swallow her whole.
Nervously, she jammed her hands into her trouser pockets, and her fingers found the mysterious rock that she’d completely forgotten since she stuffed it there. With a surreptitious look at Vincent’s distant, motionless figure to make sure he wasn’t peering her way, she gingerly drew the rock from her pocket and let it roll into the palm of her hand. Expectantly, she waited for it to start one of its colorful little light shows, but the rock remained quiescent; dull and gray like any other old rock. Tifa tentatively poked a finger at it, but no pastel rings of color appeared. No flashes. No shifting iridescent light. Wrinkling her brow in bewilderment, she rolled the rock into her other hand and turned it over. Still, the uncooperative rock would not perform. She wondered if the thing might be like a living creature and had to sleep some of the time. With an uneasy shrug, she thought to put the thing away, but then she noticed a mark on the rock that she was sure hadn’t been there before. Curious, she raised the rock to eyelevel.
The mark almost seemed an injury; a straight thin line of red, as though it were a minor scratch made by the keen edge of a knife. Nervously, she touched a fingertip to the mark and almost gasped when a soft blue glow fleetingly flashed through the rock. The mark remained dark as though it were a discarded thread lying across the translucent surface of an illuminated light bulb. Suddenly, Tifa realized what must have caused the mark. Her fall into the river. The rock must have been damaged then. When the water had tumbled her along its course. That was it. She went limp with relief and then wondered at how tense her discovery of the strange mark had made her. She wished now that she’d left the rock in the control room, beneath the bed, right where Vincent had kicked it. She decided right then to throw it away. Get rid of it. Put the thing behind her. So she wouldn’t have to worry about it harming her or Vincent ever again. Especially Vincent.
Her throat went tight at the memory of his ivory face twisted in agony, his quaking body curled stiffly against the concrete, and how she’d been relegated to the role of watching, positive that he would die. Her fingers snapped convulsively closed around the stone to do just that, get rid of it, but instead of flinging it away from her into the dark passage behind her, she let her hand fall to her side, and then she unconsciously slid the rock back into her pocket as she admitted to herself that she didn’t want to throw it away. She couldn’t throw it away. Because she had to find out what it was, and only someone with knowledge of such matters could tell her. Besides, it had been riding around in her pocket for days now, completely forgotten. Whatever its effects, she appeared to be safe from them. And she wasn’t about to let Vincent see the thing, much less touch it.
“Shall we go?” Vincent coolly inquired.
Tifa’s eyes flew to his face, and a sharp cry involuntarily escaped her lips in her surprise. The sneaky man stood right in front of her. He’d silently returned from his prolonged examination of the tunnels while she’d been caught up in her thoughts. Had he seen anything? Speechlessly, she stared into his face, but the still features revealed nothing of his mind. She wanted to tell him about the rock. She didn’t like lying to him. But she knew, as sure as she’d been born, that he would make her get rid of it. And she probably should…she really should…
One dark wing of an eyebrow slowly rose at her protracted examination of his face. “Tifa?”
Tifa started at the one quietly voiced word, the same effect that Barrett would have gained from snapping his fingers in front of her face or Yuffie, from softly knocking on her head and peering into her vacant eyes. “Hulloooo…Planetary Defense to Tifa…anybody home inside?”
“Uh…Vincent…are you…did you…figure out…where to go?” she stammered nervously.
Vincent peered curiously into her face as her eyes skated away. He inclined his head in one curt nod. “Yes. We will take the right passage.” He hoped that his senses had steered him in the correct choice, as the other passage was the one he’d marked on the map. At the same time, he wondered why she was behaving so suspiciously. She was definitely concealing something from him. His instincts told him that. But he couldn’t fathom what Tifa Lockhart might possibly have to conceal. Then he recognized that it could well be something completely mundane and innocent, and he dismissed the whole matter from his mind.
Tifa leaned around him to skeptically eyeball the entrance to the right passage. “Are you sure, Vincent? That’s the one?”
“Yes, I’m certain,” he replied with cool confidence. “Shall we go?”
“But…but… how can you be sure?”
Her eyes shot back to Vincent when he suddenly turned away, as though perturbed that she would question his conclusions. Still, he offered her a reason. “Cigarette smoke,” he succinctly informed her.
“What? Cigarette smoke?” Her voice full of disbelief, she trailed him into the tunnel, sniffing the air for herself as they walked. “I don’t smell anything.”
“True, the scent is faint,” he explained cooperatively. “Many days old.” And that was the matter that had bothered him. No so much that he could smell the distinctive if extremely diminished odor, but more the fact that somehow he had known. He’d sensed that a person had passed that way before, almost as though their passage had left a physical mark in the very air. And he had known. He found that rather disquieting. Another facet of himself unrealized and just discovered, as had been the strange floating phenomenon that had automatically taken him when he’d jumped from the chute. He found a strange reluctance to think on the matter further, so he channeled his thoughts into clarifying his position on his choice of route to Tifa. “A person has recently traveled this passage, and so shall we.”
Experimentally, she tested the air again with a wrinkle of her nose. Could it be that Vincent could smell smells that nobody else could smell? Like he could hear words that nobody else could hear? She surely hoped that he could not hear her thoughts. If she really believed that, she would just…run away…she’d be so embarrassed. But no, she didn’t think he could do that. Not really. Because even Vincent Valentine could not let some of the things she’d asked him in her thoughts pass by without comment.
Vincent stopped in his tracks to look back at her, and she realized that she hadn’t fallen into his proscribed walking formation. With a rueful little grimace, she came to his side and matched her pace to his when he started out again. She resisted the urge to examine his profile for any hint of uncertainty on his part, because she knew she wouldn’t find it, and instead she studied the twisted and jagged surface of the walls as well as the uneven grade of the stone floor. The other passage had certainly looked more inviting. Wider and smoother. As though tunneled by man. This passage looked like the tunnel to a Red Dragon’s den. Maybe it wasn’t cigarette smoke he smelled, but dragon’s breath. But of course, she knew Red Dragons didn’t live on this continent. Or at least…they didn’t used to. But dragons did have wings…
As they walked, the passage narrowed, forcing Tifa to sidle closer to Vincent so that their arms ocassionally brushed. She turned a jaundiced eye on the wall, only mere inches away, studying the pits and fissures in the stone. She wondered if rock spiders were big enough to spot before they pounced. She might have asked Vincent then, if she had not stumbled because the rough-hewn passage floor had taken an abrupt upward angle beneath her feet. Vincent automatically brought an arm around her back to steady her. Her surprised eyes darted to his face to collide with crimson eyes that might have held a hint of concern in their cold depths. She decided in the next instant that she’d been mistaken, when he jerked his arm away from her and snapped his head forward. “Be careful,” he commanded her curtly, and then he picked up the pace, forcing her to pay more attention to her feet and where they landed.
She decided to ignore him then. She wouldn’t talk to him either. Not out loud anyway. …Sure…Valentine…I’ll be careful…I’ll try anyway…it’s hard when you have troublemaking in your bones…and speaking of bones…I hope we don’t find this guy…that passed through here before with his nasty smoking habit…according to your keen sense of smell…I hope we don’t find him lying crumpled at the end of this passage, his bones stripped bare because of…hungry rock spiders…”
She shuddered then, and Vincent’s searching gaze instantly came to her face, his eyes full of quizzical concern, and he almost spoke then, to ask her what she feared, but she wasn’t looking at him anyway, which was for the best. Because if she had been, he would have spoken. Unnecessarily. He didn’t have to ask her what she feared. He knew. She feared that they would never leave these passages alive, and that she would be forced to die with him. Only…he would last much longer…he didn’t know how long…maybe forever…with her death on his hands…if he should fail her…a short and steep slide into unending madness…an abstract eventuality he refused to envision any further. He could not falter. He could not fail her. He would not lose her.
Derrick Heidegger strolled up to Yuffie and stopped in front of her to examine the petulant frown on her face with an easy smile. Impulsively, he reached out and vigorously ruffled her hair. Yuffie instantly slapped his hand away. “Watch it, Fly Boy, if you wanna keep your hand,” she snapped in warning. He lifted his shoulders in a nonchalant shrug as he watched her smooth her hair. “I’m not worried.” He shifted his eyes to Avian then, where he stood just beside Yuffie with the dog sitting between them. Both Avian and the dog watched him with quiet eyes. He inclined his head in greeting to Avian Wulfe and bent to pet the dog as Avian silently responded with a nod of his own.
“That was a lousy landing, Heidegger,” Yuffie chided him with a sniff of disdain.
He straightened to look at her in mild surprise. “Well, I thought it was pretty good. Especially with the load I had on.”
“It was boring, Fly Boy.”
He grinned at her assessment. “Sorry ‘bout that. Next time I’ll almost mow down the camp and scare everybody before I bring that oversized bird to a screeching stop. That satisfy you?”
Yuffie thought his words over and graciously nodded. “Maybe…”
“Just be glad you didn’t go, Princess. The flight was bumpy. Flew straight into a thunderstorm.”
Yuffie stuffed her hands in her shorts pockets and lifted her chin. “I could have handled it, Fly Boy.”
“Uh huh,” he replied dryly. He drew the duffle bag from his shoulder, wisely deciding not to bring up their last flight together. “Here’s the stuff you wanted.” He held the bag out to her. “Hope I got everything.”
She took the bag, but before she could answer, Highwind strode up. He heartily slapped Derry on the back. “Perfect landing, Heidegger. And perfect timing,” Cid enthused. “I was beginnin’ to worry ‘bout you, boy. Any problems?”
“A few,” Derry ruefully admitted. “Base commander gave me some trouble. Wouldn’t let me take off. Plane sat on the runway loaded all day yesterday. ‘Til Rude came back from Costa del Sol and had a word with the guy. Smooth sailing after that.”
“Where is Rude now?”
At the chilly words, Derry looked around at the Turk who had unobtrusively joined the small group to stand at Avian’s elbow. The little girl, Rachel, peered up at him with interest even as she drew closer to the Turk’s leg. Derry smiled at her, and she slipped behind Reno to peep at him with suspicion. He winked at her and turned his attention to the narrow-eyed Turk. “Hey, Reno,” he easily greeted him. “Rude said he had to go to the Northern Continent, to find that Wildman dude. That’s the last I talked to him.”
Reno gave Derry a frowning nod of acknowledgment and folded his arms, an indication that the brief conversation was over.
“Did ya get everything, Heidegger?” Cid asked curtly, a little disgruntled at the Turk’s intrusion.
“Yeah, Captain.” Derry smiled proudly and stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Had to bribe some guards to leave the trucks so we could sneak ‘em on, but I got ‘em. And the bikes you wanted too.” Then Derry’s smile faded, and he inclined his head over his shoulder. “Couldn’t get all the people you wanted though. A few soldiers and a couple of military doctors…and…” He turned to wave at a rather ragtag and insolent looking group of a half-dozen youths standing around with their hands in their pockets, one of which Cid recognized from his search for Heidegger in Junon. “…A few friends…” Derry shifted his gaze back to the hardbitten Captain’s grizzled face to gauge his reaction. “They needed work…and I told ‘em…they’d get paid…”
The Captain frowned at Derry’s last words. “We can use the help, Heidegger, but about the pay…I don’t know…”
Caitlin spoke from behind Cid’s elbow where she’d been content to watch and listen up to that point. “If they work, I’ll pay them, Derry,” she assured him. “Don’t worry about that.”
Cid respectfully inclined his head toward the diminutive Shinra heir. “There you have it.” He straightened from his relaxed slouch and lifted the point of the Venus Gospel blade toward the plane. “Time to quit talking and get that plane unloaded. We got a long day ahead of us, an’ since the sun’s ‘bout to come up, we might as well get started.”
Avian and Derry moved forward together to follow him. Reno unlatched small fingers from the denim of his ragged jeans, fingers that seemed to be attached with super glue, and taking Rachel’s hand in his despite her little mewl of protest, he handed her off to the waiting Caitlin. Reno ignored Rachel’s pleading blue eyes and turned away to shadow Avian to the plane, a grim cast to his face. He knew today would be long and hot. He suspected the lot of them wouldn’t see the camp again until well after dark. If then. And maybe he needed that right now. The physical, mindless work of hard labor and quiet contemplation. He wanted to think, without certain distractions.
Yuffie followed more slowly, opening the duffle bag and shuffling her hand around inside to draw out a bone-shaped doggie snack. With a low whistle, she called Soldier to her. Surreptitiously, she held the snack down by her leg, and Soldier snuffled at her hand and licked her fingers without noticing her offering. “Silly dog,” she whispered. “Take it.” She let it drop to the end of her fingers and turned it against his snout. He took the doggie bone then, happily and loudly crunching it in his teeth, his tail wagging wildly in circles. “Ssssh, mutt.” With a stealthy look around to see who was watching, she zipped the duffle, and throwing it onto her shoulder, quickly trotted away, making a wide berth around the sour-looking Reno to catch up to Avian and Derry.
Cid turned back and drew Derry away from the others. “Oh yeah…you get those smokes, kid?” he whispered anxiously.
Derry nodded once. “Sure did, Captain. Hundreds of them. Enough to dismantle the whole city on,” he whispered back.
Cid happily slapped him on the back, almost knocking him off his feet. “You’re a good man, Heidegger. Don’t care what anybody says. Glad to have you on my team.” He spun away, falling back onto his previous path.
“Thanks…I think…” he said to himself as he followed.
Cid suddenly turn back to hiss lowly at him. “Just don’t tell Barrett, kid. About the smokes.” Inquisitive puzzlement filled Derry’s eyes, and Cid waved a dismissive hand. “Never mind, kid. Let’s just…get to work.”
Tifa forced her aching feet to keep plodding and kept her mouth zipped shut. There was nothing she wanted more than to ask Vincent to stop. Nothing but for one thing. The end. She wanted to get to the end. She wanted to see sunlight and moonlight and clouds and stars. She wanted to feel the breeze on her face and smell the warm, sweet scent of the sun baked grasses of the plains she knew waited for them. She wanted this endless, silent journey to be over, and the only way for it to be over was to get to the end. And if she asked him to stop, she would never get to the end.
Vincent hadn’t spoken in hours upon hours, not since that stilted ‘be careful’, and she’d long run out of things to discuss with him in her imaginary conversations. She was weary of coming up with interesting responses for him. She was just plain weary. In fact, she was so weary and so intent on ensuring the secure placement of her heavy, cloddish feet that she hadn’t noticed the lightening of the space around her, despite the dimness of her spent light, hadn’t noticed the widening of the passage or leveling of the tunnel floor. She didn’t notice that Vincent had halted in his tracks either, moving past him for several steps until she had to lift her foot to climb a wide translucent step that emitted a soft green glow.
“What the…” she murmured in awe. She lifted her head and her mouth drifted open as she stared up in shock, her wide, wondrous eyes taking in the long expanse of curving stairs and tall chiseled stone pillars, all radiating that jewel-green light. She realized then that she must have fallen asleep and now walked within her dreams.
Vincent stepped onto the first step beside her, and she jerked her head around in surprise. “This is a dream right?” she asked in bewilderment. “I fell asleep, and now I’m dreaming, right?”
Vincent swiveled his head to look down at her, an echo of the awe she felt reflected in his crimson eyes. Impulsively, he stamped his foot against the stone, as though to assure himself of its substance. “No dream, Tifa,” he informed her in a soft voice. “What you see is quite real.” His eyes shifted back to the stairway, and he reached up to flip off his light. She forced her eyes away from his serene profile and copied his action, flipping off her own nearly dead light.
“Watch your step,” he warned her as she moved away from him to climb the next stone riser. She heard his tense admonition somewhere in the back of her mind as her gaze sought out the top of the stairs, vaguely noticed that he climbed beside her. Reenergized by this amazing discovery deep in the dark passages, and eager to see what miraculous thing awaited her at the top, her feet picked up speed, and she climbed faster and faster up the stairs until she was almost running up them, bounding lightly from one wide step to the next, leaving Vincent well behind with his more deliberate and dignified steps. She heard him call after her once. To stop. To wait for him. But she couldn’t seem to make her feet obey as she followed the gentle curve of the stairs, until she finally came out on a perfectly flat, expansive landing and came face to face with a pillar covered in engravings, images that vaguely reminded her of the Gi cave. Softly panting at her physical exertions, she stared at the eerily familiar ornamentation in trepidation, and she might have turned then and run back to Vincent and the comfortable security of his nearness, but she heard his rapid footfalls coming up the stairs behind her. Guiltily, she turned to face him and the hint of censure in his crimson eyes.
“I’m…ah…sorry, Vincent,” she hastened to apologize for ignoring his exhortations to wait. Then she nervously pointed at the pillar. “Don’t these markings remind you of the Gi?” He halted beside her to silently examine the intricate designs, and Tifa, watching his unexpressive face, suddenly remembered that Vincent had not been with them in the Gi Caves. “Oh…I forgot…you weren’t with us then…” she said haltingly.
“I have seen the Gi Caves,” he informed her icily. Tifa swallowed hard at his tone. He was mad at her. And she couldn’t really blame him. “You have?” She forced the words past a tight throat.
He curtly nodded. “Many years ago,” he clarified. “The markings are similar…” he took a step forward and raised his hand to point at a series of engravings depicting a battle between two groups of feathered spear wielders that surrounded a herd of loping creatures composed completely of flame. “…The emphasis on fire…the adornment of feathers…” He fell silent for a moment and finally shook his head. “They are similar, but not the same. The Gi paintings are more crudely drawn.” He lifted his finger to point again. “…And there are elements not included in Gi illustrations. The concept of fire as an enemy to be battled…and these cloud images…the circling flocks of birds…arranged in spirals…” His finger moved to direct her gaze to each image he addressed. Tifa stared raptly at his face as he spoke, intrigued by his voice, which had lose its odd monotone as he talked at length, his words taking on a vibrant, melodic quality she had never heard come from his lips before. “…These planetary images…the Gi did not concern themselves with astral matters…beyond honorary depictions of the sun…as sire to the fire they worshipped…”
Vincent suddenly stopped talking and turned to look at her. His brows lifted behind the red bandana at her slackly parted lips and wide brown eyes. He decided that he’d talked enough, especially as she seemed preoccupied. “Shall we move on?” he asked her then, his voice back to its lifeless, inflectionless tone.
She shook off her stupor and nodded. Obviously, she’d grown so weary that her mind had become unusually inventive. Giving Vincent a voice he did not have. She was becoming delusional. She had to admit though, the man certainly knew his stuff about the Gi. Tifa nodded in response. “Stay with me,” he commanded coolly, and she absently nodded again as she followed him around the pillar. She wondered what else he knew. She wondered what he would say if she asked. But then, she didn’t know how she could ever bring herself to be so nosy.
For several feet the passage continued on, rows of tall pillars similar to the first, but slimmer, standing sentinel to each side, marching along to a distant wall with an archway set in the center. The pair walked silently side by side, their footsteps echoing in the curving vault high above their heads, both unwilling to speak. A distant trickle of water came from somewhere ahead, and the sound reawakened Tifa’s thirst. Suddenly, she longed to have the canteen on Vincent’s pack in her hand. She idly thought about asking him, but the various etchings on the pillars held her fascinated attention and kept her moving forward from one to the next. Eventually, they neared the arch, and she turned her eyes forward, only to cry out in dismay at the scene that met her eyes when they walked through.
A long rectangular chamber lay before them, the walls and floor as smooth as glass, the green illumination much brighter than that of the passage that lay behind them. Wide curving stone walls, approximately three feet high, formed a circular area in the center of this space, and inside that area lay a platform featuring a high crystalline fan, a site both beautifully pristine and amazing, and Tifa would have been completely enthralled but for the jumbled pile of broken rock and crumbled stairs that rose into darkness on the far side. It seemed she and Vincent had come up against the proverbial wall. She wondered if the person who had passed this way lay buried beneath the several tons of rock with his pack of cigarettes clutched in his skeletal hand.
Her distressed eyes shot to Vincent’s face then, looking for reassurance or maybe a solution, but she only found his eerie green-tinged features frozen in grim contemplation. She wondered if his stomach felt as heavy as hers at that moment.
“What do we do now, Vincent?” she asked him in a high, strained voice. She knew exactly what they would have to do. He didn’t have to tell her. They would have to retrace their steps, for miles, for hours, to the junction of tunnels where he’d labored so hard to make a decision. A wrong decision. Sadness filled her at how Vincent must feel, and she wanted to say something comforting, but she didn’t know what it would be, and truthfully, she didn’t think she would sound convincing.
Vincent suddenly turned to examine her troubled face with quiet eyes. “We rest,” he said bluntly. “And then…” He shifted his eyes back to the wall of broken rock and tracked the debris to the top with narrowed eyes. “…We climb.”
Tifa’s startled eyes shot up to the point where the heap of rock vanished into the darkness high above, and then she lowered her gaze to stare at Vincent’s back. “Climb?” she asked weakly. Are you pulling my leg, Mr. Vincent Valentine? But of course she knew he wasn’t. Vincent Valentine did not kid around. In fact, the man was as serious as a heart attack. In every single one of his waking moments. And probably his sleeping ones too.
Tifa shifted uncomfortably against the stone bench and wriggled around in an attempt to get comfortable. She’d been trying to sleep with her back to her traveling companion, but the rock in her pocket made reclining on that side almost impossible. She wanted to draw it out, but she didn’t dare. Disgusted at her failure to sleep despite her bone weary exhaustion, she fell over on her back and stared into the darkness above her head. After a while, she started to imagine a thousand bats hanging around up there somewhere. She could almost hear the little winged rodents squeaking as they plotted amongst themselves to swoop down and check her out, up close and personal. But of course, she didn’t really hear them, and there weren’t really any bats up there conspiring against her. Bats didn’t really bother her anyway, unless they flew into her hair and got tangled. Eventually, she huffed in irritation at her wildly imaginative thoughts, and she rolled over to her other side to glare at Vincent who seemed comfortably stretched out on the opposite stone bench with his head propped on his backpack and his boots crossed at the ankle, his eyes intent on the book he held propped against his chest in hand and claw, reading by the light that emanated from every surface around them.
As though he sensed her displeasured regard, he released the book to point one sharp metal talon at the bedroll that he’d thrown out across the edge of the foot high platform hours past. “Take the bedroll,” he blandly suggested without looking up from his book. It wasn’t the first time he’d suggested it, and she suspected it would not be the last. She decided to ignore his suggestion and introduce another topic entirely. She obviously wasn’t going to sleep anytime soon, and he didn’t seem inclined to engage in a protracted argument about the bedroll tonight.
She cleared her throat. “So…Vincent…is the book good?”
He simply nodded his head against the backpack.
“Well…that’s nice…very nice…” she muttered in reply and cast about for something else to talk about. “Uh…this place here…is pretty fantastic isn’t it…here in the middle of a mountain and all…”
Vincent didn’t respond in any way this time, and she realized that it was because she hadn’t thought, silly her, to pose her words in the form of a question. “Isn’t it?” she asked rather pointedly.
He silently nodded again and turned a page of his book.
Her brows came together in an irritated frown. “Do you think there are thousands of bats above our heads?” she inquired with deliberate enunciation of her syllables.
He moved his shoulders in the semblance of a shrug.
Okay, Valentine, I didn’t want to talk to you anyway, and I hope the bats swoop down and get you instead of me…
Tifa impulsively swung her legs off the wall and stood up to walk over to the stone basin at the base of the crystalline fan. Kneeling down on both knees and bowing her head like a supplicant before an altar, she dipped her hands into the trickling stream that poured from the top of the basin to swirl in a circular fashion to a small outlet at the bottom. She toyed with the stream for several minutes, letting the water trickle through her fingers, moving her fingers to alter the stream in several interesting ways. Eventually, she cupped her hands to catch the water, and she splashed her face. Then she gathered a handful of water to drink. She had Vincent’s assurance that it was safe after all. He’d risked himself to taste it before he would allow her to go near it. And he was obviously still semi-alive, lounging over there with his book. And she knew the water hadn’t rotted off his tongue. He could still rouse himself to spoken word where the bedroll was concerned. She sighed and went back to playing with the trickle, her eyes traveling the length of the fan to it’s serrated edge high above. It occurred to her that the fan and the circular platform on which she knelt seemed reminiscent of the cave behind the waterfall where Vincent had found his ex-whatever she was.
What do you think, Vincent? Is this like ‘L’s fan? Like in ‘L’s cave? Do you think she’ll pop out and say howdy do?
A mischievous smile came to Tifa’s lips then.
So which is it, Vincent?
Boxers or briefs?
A sputter of laughter came off her lips then, that she would have such an irreverent thought. Gods, she was losing her mind. Valentine was driving her to distraction. Purposefully, she splashed several handfuls of water into her face, just as fast as she could fill her cupped hands. Then she sat back on her heels and let her dripping fingers fall into her lap. Where in the world had she come up with that? It was a joke, she thought. A joke she’d heard before, but she couldn’t quite remember where. Then she did remember, and she almost groaned aloud at the memory. Aeris and Yuffie discussing the underwear choices of their male traveling companions one night in giggling whispers over a campfire, and later extending the joke to any male they encountered on the road the next day. A running joke between them for a while. Until they’d finally tired of it and moved on to something else. Boxers or briefs. Good grief. Thank the stars Vincent could not hear her thoughts. She’d never be able to look at him again her whole life long. And she didn’t dare look at him then, because her unruly, completely undisciplined mind would try to imagine just…which…
Her hands flew to her face, to cover her eyes, as though she could hide from her mental images that way. What was the matter with her? Hours and hours of spending time only with her own thoughts. Thinking herself nuts. Making up imaginary conversations and concocting fantastical scenarios. That’s what. She’d never in her life been so deprived of conversation for so long. Valentine would be the death of her. Could someone die from thinking too much and talking so little? Now she knew why solitary confinement was such torture. At least it would be for someone like her. Vincent would probably thrive in such an environment.
She drew her hands away from her face and leaned against the basin to dangle her fingers in the trickle. A small purple beetle, not much bigger than the head of a hatpin, emerged from a fissure at the top of the basin and started a long trek to the bottom.
Well…hello there…Mr. Bug…how’s it going?
She watched the bug valiantly travel several inches more, a journey for his tiny size. Another unconscious sigh escaped her lips.
Sooo….are you going to talk to me? Or not?
Vincent raised his eyes from his book to scrutinize Tifa’s kneeling form, silhouetted against the soft glow of the crystalline fan. Deliberately, he laid his book down and rolled to his side, drawing up a leg and raising up on one elbow. He studied her for a long moment, noting the melancholy cast of her face as she stared down into the basin with her fingers dangling limply in the trickling stream. Softly, he cleared his throat and forced his lips to move.
“What do you wish to discuss?” he carefully asked.
Tifa’s eyes flew up to meet his, her face registering alarm. “What? What did you say?” She stared at him agape. She knew she hadn’t spoken out loud. Had she?
“Did you wish to talk?” Vincent tried again.
“Ah…no!” Unconsciously, she climbed to her feet, horrified eyes focused on his face. She must have spoken her question aloud, or he would not be asking. “Did I say that?” she impulsively asked. “Did I say I wanted to talk?”
Vincent grew concerned at her agitation, and he slowly sat up and swung his boots to the floor. “I do believe that you…”
“Well, I didn’t!” She interrupted sharply. “I didn’t say anything!” She couldn’t have said anything. She hadn’t opened her mouth.
Vincent shrugged uneasily. “Perhaps I was mistaken,” he conceded and twisted around to retrieve his book.
Tifa came forward a few hesitant paces, pausing at the edge of the platform to watch him as he shuffled through the pages to find his place.
“What if I do?” she suddenly asked.
Vincent raised his eyes from the book. “Do?”
“Want to talk?” she clarified in a weak voice. “Will you talk to me?”
“Do you?” he asked with marked disinterest.
“I…don’t…I…” His lack of true interest had sucked the wind right out of her sails, not that there was that much wind in them to begin with.
One elegant ebony eyebrow went up in question as he waited for her to finish. Tifa dredged up a modicum of courage. Her chin came up and her back went ramrod straight. She recognized an opportunity when she saw it, however tenuous it might be. “Yes, as I matter of fact, I do want to talk,” she replied bravely.
Vincent promptly shut the cover of his book and set it aside. He crossed his legs at the knee and folded his arms, his posture as pointedly closed as the book. “What do you wish to discuss?” he coolly inquired.
“I…well…how about…” She scrambled around for something to ask him, almost choking as that boxers or briefs thing made a sudden comeback in her thoughts. “The weather!” she said triumphantly. “What do you think? About the weather…I mean…” she finished lamely. She knew an utterly stupid question when she heard one. Apparently so did he, if both brows disappearing completely beneath the red headband were any indication.
“The weather?” He sought clarification. “Outside?”
Tifa looked wildly around, as though she might find the answer somewhere. She threw out a hand. “Ah…yes…of course outside. There’s not really any weather inside, is there?” She raised her own brows at him. “Just dark and dank, right.” Both hands flew into the air to indicate their surroundings. “Well…except for here…right…green…everywhere…right…” She fell silent then, knowing how ridiculous she sounded, her face inexorably filling with blood at her embarrassment, right on cue.
Vincent examined her distraught and reddening face with careful eyes. “I could only speculate,” he finally commented.
Tifa’s shoulders slumped then, all of her will to pursue a conversation vanquished. She’d dragged up enough fortitude to face an execution, but Vincent Valentine had drained it all away. “Just forget it, Vincent. I’m just going to…go to bed.” Her eyes fell to the floor.
He nodded toward the bedding arranged meticulously on the floor. “You may have the bedroll,” he suggested without inflection, as though he hadn’t already made the suggestion a hundred and fifteen times.
Her head came up and her eyes radiated her determination. “Nope, Vincent. That bedroll is yours. I lost mine. Remember?” She pointed a finger at the neglected bed. “So you sleep on it.”
“I do not plan to sleep.”
“Yeah, I know…you said that before…” She eyed him balefully. He had said that before, and then she’d awoken to find him asleep, his face mere inches from hers, his hand beneath hers. She directed her finger at him now. “But you did go to sleep, so there.”
Vincent pointedly turned away to pick up his book. “Are we finished then?” he inquired in his monotone.
He opened his book. “Are we finished with our discussion?”
She stared at him in open astonishment. Why was he even asking? Clearly he’d deemed them finished. He was already reading his book. She decided she wouldn’t answer him. Just to see how he liked it. A taste of his own medicine. She had to admit, after a few moments and a thrice of page turns, that he didn’t seem overly disturbed.
Tifa stalked across the platform then, to return to her self-assigned sleeping spot, her eyes focused on her singular goal. Not paying close attention, she caught her foot in the edge of the bedroll and stumbled, saving her balance only by wildly flailing her arms. Once she’d regained her equilibrium, she reluctantly looked around to see if Vincent had noticed. He sat frozen in place with the book closed over his hand, his cool crimson eyes on the now mangled bedroll.
“Er…sorry, Vincent…I’ll just fix that for you…” she stammered.
He shrugged indifferently. “It is there for you,” he curtly reminded her.
She thought it wise not to involve herself in a bedroll discussion with Mr. Valentine again. Instead, she bent to gather the bedding up and straighten it as she entertained herself with the idea that the reason he had looked a bit disturbed by the incident was not that she’d invalidated all the efforts he’d made in artistically arranging the bed, but because he had hoped she would fall into the bedroll and get knocked unconscious so he wouldn’t have to worry about her and the bedroll anymore, only to have his hopes dashed when it didn’t happen.
As she gathered up the folded blankets that comprised the bedroll, an idea occurred to her. She couldn’t imagine why she hadn’t thought of it before. The bedroll was made up of two full-sized army blankets, one folded over to make the bed, the other left to use for cover. There was no reason why she couldn’t spread the thing out so they could both sleep on the thing. After all, they had both wound up partially sleeping on the thing the night before, and neither of them had suffered any ill effects. She would simply agree to sleep on the bedroll if he would agree to it too. Then she wouldn’t feel guilty anymore about losing her sleeping bag, and they would both sleep in relative comfort.
She quickly spread out the blankets on the wide circular platform, and then she looked up to find Vincent still watching her. He hadn’t moved so much as a single ebony hair. She straightened and propped her hands on her hips. “Okay, Vincent, I have a solution to this bedroll problem,” she informed him in a steady voice despite the butterflies in her stomach. “We can both sleep on the blessed thing.”
Vincent stared at her, his mind staggering in amazement at her suggestion. He barely managed to keep his reaction from his face. He had never expected her to come up with such a plan simply because he couldn’t imagine she would want him sleeping so near to her. But he should have known. Tifa was a practical young woman. As was her suggestion. Practical and completely unacceptable. He could not…do it. Her nearness would sorely test his will. There would be too many temptations to resist. Too many instances when he would be drawn to stroke her hair, too many times he would wish to touch her cheek. He would only lie awake next to her and wonder how she would feel in his arms. Unconsciously, Vincent shook his head.
“What’s the problem, Vincent? It’s big enough.”
He continued to stare at her, unblinking, his head now vehemently shaking, as though she had suggested they embark on some horrible endeavor rather than a mundane matter regarding their sleeping arrangements. Her brow wrinkled in displeasure. He had that same look in his eyes that he had after they’d slaughtered the snakes.
“I don’t bite, Vincent,” she remarked, her voice filled with pique.
At the hurt undertone of her words, Vincent got a grip on himself, and fell still. He hooded his eyes behind lowered lashes. “I do not think that you bite, Tifa.” He sought to assure her, to erase the hurt from her eyes that he’d put there with his undisciplined overreaction, but his cool, stilted words didn’t lend much to achieving his aim.
“I don’t see why it wouldn’t work, Vincent. You can sleep on one side. I’ll sleep on the other. You can even plant your backpack between us if you want. I promise I won’t touch you. I won’t even breathe on you. In fact, I’ll put my back to you so you won’t even have to look at my face. How about that? ”
Vincent closed his eyes then. He was obviously handling this matter the wrong way. He had clearly hurt her more than he’d thought. He drew in a long, silent breath and forced his mind to shift gears. He was not only handling this issue in a wrongheaded manner, he was viewing her suggestion from the wrong perspective. An opportunity had presented itself to ensure that Tifa would use the bedroll instead of trying to sleep on cold rock. He merely had to agree to share it with her. That didn’t mean he had to stay there once she was asleep, and he had his book to occupy him until that event. He lifted his head and turned his steady crimson eyes to her frowning face.
“You will sleep there if I agree to sleep there?” He queried in a careful voice. He wanted confirmation of this arrangement.
She nodded her head. “That’s right, Vincent. That’s the deal.”
“I agree,” he tersely said. He promptly made good his words. Gathering his backpack and his book with alacrity, he stood and crossed to the bedroll. Before Tifa could reconcile her mind to Vincent’s sudden capitulation, the man was stretched out on one side of the bedding with his head against the backpack, his boots crossed at the ankle, and his book propped on his chest in hand and claw, looking like he’d been comfortably ensconced there for hours. Now she only had to make good on her end of the deal, and looking down at him lying there with an empty space beside him waiting for her, one that in retrospect wasn’t quite as expansive as she’d imagined, she hesitated. And he noticed. His brows drew together, and he turned mildly accusing eyes upward. “You would renege on our arrangement, Tifa Lockhart?” he inquired silkily.
Her eyes flew to his face. “Of course not,” she said quickly, before she lost her nerve completely. Forcing her feet into motion, she walked to the low stone wall to retrieve the cloak she’d discarded when he’d refused to take it from her. Walking slowly back to the pallet, she drew the cloak around her and surreptitiously shifted the rock from her pants pocket to the buttoned pocket of the black military shirt she wore, a necessary move if she planned to sleep comfortably with her back to him as promised. True, the thing made a small lump in her breast pocket, but maybe he wouldn’t ask.
Vincent had already returned to his book when she gingerly let herself down on the pallet and tensely positioned herself right on the edge with her back to him. She reconciled herself to the fact that she might never go to sleep with Mr. Valentine lying so near to her, despite his complete silence, but to her surprise, she found herself relaxing against the blanket after a few minutes. Shortly after that, a yawn captured her mouth, and her eyes drifted shut. She’d been fighting sleep for hours, and now that she’d settled into the comforting warmth of the army blanket, she found herself incapable of further battle. In fact, after several minutes more, her tired mind easily permitted her to forget that the silent Vincent lay only inches behind her reading his book. Not long after, she finally sank into the comforting embrace of sleep, the detritus of the day’s stresses finally overwhelming her.
Vincent put the book aside and quietly rose from his place. Turning the pack over, he unzipped it and withdrew the coil of rope, a handful of pitons, and a small rock hammer. He didn’t have time to sleep, and he’d never planned to do so. He would spend the hours that Tifa lay dreaming insuring her a safe climb to the high ledge atop the broken wall. He did expend a moment or two to study her sweetly innocent and serene face with rapt appreciation, and then he deliberately turned on heel and walked away.
From his perch on the rim of the water tank, Angel tilted his sleekly feathered head to pin the slouched figure of the woman with an unrelenting stare. She sat on the wooden and wrought iron bench in front of the General Store with her elbows on her knees and her chin in a hand, looking the picture of abject sorrow. She didn’t acknowledge his remark, so he tried again.
…Cannot do it…stubborn…Cetra…die…
She heaved a great sigh, but didn’t look at him or respond in any way.
…Cetra die…planet die…bird die…cannot…cannot…do this…
“…I know…” she murmured.
…You’re right, Angel. I have to forget about it…
…Too much life…in the balance…
…I know…I’ll forget about it…I don’t know how to do it anyway…
…Yes! Yes! I’ll forget about it. I won’t do anything!
Myron abruptly stopped as he strolled past Maya on the bench, his idle gaze caught by the tears burning in her eyes and the pained frown on her face. He turned and bent with his work roughened hands on his knees to peer into her face. “Maya? Are you okay?”
At his words, Angel abruptly severed the mental connection and flew away, and Maya sat up with a start. “What, Myron?” she asked warily, her voice gruff with unshed tears.
“I asked you if you’re okay? Is something wrong?”
Maya shook her head and deliberately scrubbed her hands against her eyes. “I’m just really sleepy, Myron,” she explained. “I haven’t been sleeping well.”
A sad smile came to Myron’s lips at her lie. “It’s Nessa, isn’t it?”
Maya opened her mouth to lie again, but then she only nodded her head, and her eyes fell. “Yes, Myron…I don’t want her…to go…”
Myron dropped a comforting hand to her shoulder. “I know…” he said huskily. “Believe me…I know how you feel…but…she’s ready…I guess…”
Maya looked up into Myron’s gray eyes. At sight of the tears welling in his eyes, along with a weary acceptance of the inevitable, she raised a hand to pat his as she fought back her own sorrow. He would lose so much more than she. Footsteps sounded on the boardwalk, and Myron straightened away from Maya and nervously pushed his sliding glasses up his nose. “Will you go see her, Maya?” he asked in a low voice that no one else would hear. “She hasn’t left her bed all morning, and she made me leave. She says I’m slacking on my responsibilities and said I couldn’t come back until this evening. I don’t really want her to…be alone…for long…”
Maya simply nodded because the two men walking abreast on the sidewalk stopped at Myron’s side. “Been looking for you Blackwood,” Frederick T. Maines said gravely. “Think there might be a problem.”
Myron shuttered his eyes and turned to face Maines and his companion, Gerald Staton. “What is it?” he asked uneasily. He knew it must be serious for every shred of humor to disappear from Frederick’s ruddy face. Gerald shifted anxiously from foot to foot beside him.
“The Widow Day,” Maines replied lowly, inclining his head toward the Shinra Mansion. “No one has seen her about for a couple of days.”
Myron swiveled his silvery blonde head to look at the creepy structure. “Maybe she’s been busy cleaning,” he suggested reasonably. “Heaven knows, that place needs it. It could use a bright paint job too.” Somehow Myron didn’t think that would help much.
“Well, Emily knocked on the door this morning, but the widow didn’t answer.” Maines leaned closer then. “We might have been the last ones to see her alive,” he whispered ominously.
Myron’s eyes narrowed at the implication. “Well, Fox has taken the job of constable,” he said slowly in thought. “I suppose we could pass the problem to him so he can check it out.”
“Good idea,” Maines said heartily. “Where is he?” He looked around the square for the man, and Staton mirrored his action.
“He took that small house across from Staton’s,” Myron informed Maines. “I suppose he’s there, still making his repairs.”
Maya decided to interject at that point. Smoothly, she stood, and the men, gentlemen that they were, parted to let her pass, but she didn’t move. “Are you talking about the Widow Day,” Maya asked curiously, as though she hadn’t been listening all along.
All three men nodded.
“Well, I wouldn’t worry about her. She left town. Yesterday.”
“She did?” Myron asked in surprise. “How do you know?”
“Well…I saw her go…” Maya replied slowly.
“Do you know why she left?” Myron pursued.
“Um…bad hair day?” Her mouth curved in a big smile, and she ducked her head and slipped past the men to head for the inn.
Myron stared after her suspiciously, but Maines and Staton seemed satisfied. “Well, there you have it. She’s left town,” Maines commented with barely contained joy. “And not a moment too soon, as far as I’m concerned.” Staton vigorously nodded his agreement.
Myron shifted his gaze from Maya’s departing figure to the hulking mansion. “Yes, that seems reasonable…” he said slowly. “…Still…maybe we should get Fox to check it out…just as a matter of routine…”
“Sure, great idea!” Maines slapped Myron on the back with approval. As far as he was concerned, the matter was clearly settled. “You see to it, Blackwood.”
Angel came to a landing on the front stoop railing just as Maya set her sandaled foot on the first step. She paused to look at him, the smile still lingering on her lips.
Really? Am I funny looking?
“Well, she did leave without her hair,” Maya said aloud. barely restrained laughter in her voice.
The sarcastic bent of the bird’s thoughts indicated to Maya that he wasn’t that amused. “Oh well, I have to go see Nessa now,” she informed the bird. She walked past him and opened the door.
Maya paused and turned her head to look silently at Angel with thoughtful eyes.
Cetra swear! he demanded.
Deliberately, Maya stepped through the door without answering and closed it behind her, shutting the insistent bird from her view.
…Cetra…swear… he thought again to the closed door, more quietly this time, but no answering thought came to his mind. His heart heavy with fear, he threw himself into the air with noisy wings and flew away, high into the clouds where he hoped he might lose himself.
Tifa sat hunched on the edge of the spread bedroll, her arms hugging her drawn up knees to her. Vincent sat crosslegged a few feet away at the opposite edge of the bedroll, again lining up the items from his pack in front of him. He’d completely emptied his pack this time, of a handful of food packets, rope, tools, medical kit, books, potion bottles, raw materia orbs, his gun cleaning kit, odds and ends, and batteries. He even brought out the spent batteries that he kept in a separate compartment. She dropped her chin to her knees and studied the two unused batteries that were left.
“We’re almost out,” she said tensely.
“Yes,” he agreed without looking up.
Her stomach roiling sickly, she laid back against the bedroll to stare up at the striations in the ceiling. The small circular cave Vincent had found on the other side of a narrow fissure in the wall of the passage they’d been traveling felt cozy and safe, and the lamp completely illuminated every surface so that no dark shadows lurked overhead to taunt her.
She estimated that a couple of days had passed since the precarious climb up the broken wall, an ascent that went without incident. She was an experienced rock climber after all, and so, apparently, was Vincent, judging by his expertise with climbing tools and agility at scaling the wall. So they had made the ledge with relative ease, and Vincent had discovered a discarded cigarette butt not far into the twisting passage on the other side. He had offered it as evidence to assure her that they still traveled the correct route. Personally, she didn’t think the evidence so convincing. That cigarette smoking fool probably didn’t know where he was going either. But of course she didn’t pass her opinions along.
The passages beyond the collapsed cliff wall had been narrow, so that she and Vincent were forced to walk in tandem again. She had finally convinced him to don his cloak, mainly because she’d left it pooled on the floor at his refusal to take it and walked away. A fortuitous act on her part as she’d discovered that the floor of the passage they’d traveled turned upward so suddenly and steeply that she found it very convenient, and even necessary, to hold the tail of Vincent’s cloak to keep from sliding backward. Oddly, he never seemed to mind despite the fact that the first time he hadn’t been expecting her instinctive grab at his cloak, and she had almost caused him to fall. He hadn’t said a word though. In fact, he’d hardly said anything. So she had been relegated, as usual, to the world inside her head.
She’d managed to expend a great deal of time pondering on the possible origin of the strange ruin inside the mountain. She had made mention of it to Vincent at one point, but he had only replied in his dull monotone, rather pessimistically, “The great philosophies of civilized man…devoured by time and intolerance…scattered by the indifferent hand of providence in an uncaring oblivion…forever gone…forever unknown…as in the future…so go we.” Or something like that. Valentine was such a comfort to have around. Not.
Inevitably, her thoughts had returned to Vincent and his mystery-shrouded life. She found herself helplessly pondering the question of what had happened between Vincent and his ‘L’, as though his ex-whatever had popped out in some invisible form to join then at the crystalline fan at the ruin and surreptitiously traveled along with them. She had run through many scenarios as they walked, and she had concocted many compelling scenes in her fertile mind. In one, Hojo stole ‘L’ away from Vincent, based on her knowledge of Hojo’s pronouncement that he had fathered Sephiroth indicating there had been a relationship of some sort between the professor and ‘L’. But she had trouble buying that one, because she couldn’t begin to imagine how any woman would choose that disgusting Hojo over Vincent Valentine. Then she entertained the possibility that Hojo might have been hotter in his younger days, though she could hardly conjure such a version of him. Even if he had been, she still couldn’t imagine that he could hold a candle to Vincent even then. On the other hand, Vincent had been a Turk then. Maybe ‘L’ couldn’t deal with that fact. She could imagine that it might be hard to be in a relationship with a Turk. Maybe ‘L’ rejected him out of hand because of his career choice. In yet another scenario, Tifa decided that ‘L’ was married to Hojo, and she and Vincent were having an illicit affair, and he had gallantly offered to throw his career away for her, if she would leave with him, and she had agreed, but coward that she was, didn’t go through with it at the last minute, leaving the Turk heartbroken. So her stories had built and unraveled, some terribly melodramatic and some completely ludicrous, and in the end, she decided that the antisocial Vincent had fallen in love with his ‘L’ from afar, and never put together enough words to tell her. Maybe ‘L’ was already with Hojo, and wasn’t interested in the besotted Vincent. And so he silently watched her. And just as silently longed for her. Maybe he conveniently showed up everywhere she went, and suddenly too, and she grew annoyed with him. That would explain her attitude in the waterfall cave when Vincent had found her again. Of course, she could come up with many other explanations for that too.
Eventually, she had tired of thinking about Vincent and his ‘L’, mainly because she ran out of plots, and she couldn’t verify any of them anyway, and so her thoughts had turned to Cloud. For hours, her mind traveled over the details of her life and Cloud’s, as well as the otherworldly replay of their memories in the Lifestream, and she had found herself reviewing certain key events and wondering where she might have made a different decision, said another word, made another move, and possibly changed the whole course of his life. And hers. And in the end, she conceded that it didn’t matter because she couldn’t change a damn thing now, and Cloud loved a girl whose body he had reluctantly consigned to a bottomless pool in an ancient forgotten city.
Two men who both loved a woman they could not have…
“We will have to conserve,” Vincent suddenly said, drawing Tifa from her thoughts.
She shoved herself up to find him looking at the unfolded map. “Conserve? The batteries, you mean?”
“Batteries, food, and water,” he clarified grimly.
“Surely, we’ll find more water…” she said uneasily. She had to admit though, the last water they’d seen had been in the basin pool at the ruin. Vincent had refilled the canteen to the rim there.
“That will grow more unlikely, if we continue to climb.”
“Rain runoff…maybe?” she tentatively suggested.
“It is August,” he reminded her.
She knew he was right. Rain showers were unlikely in the area during late summer. Tifa lowered her eyes to the map. “How much further do we have to go anyway?” she asked anxiously. She was almost afraid she didn’t want to hear the answer, and when she did hear it, she wished she’d never asked.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Tifa’s voice rang with alarm. “You have the map!” If Vincent Valentine with The Map didn’t know, who did? Forgetting herself in her fear, she scrambled over on her hands and knees to look at the map for herself. Leaning over him from the side on bent knees, she unconsciously rested a hand on his knee as she frantically scanned the map for their location. “Where are we now, Vincent?”
He touched a finger to the map and traced two faint lines. “Along this passage somewhere,” he bluntly indicated.
“Here? Somewhere?” She touched a finger to the same place on the map as he drew his hand away. “Where? Here?”
“I don’t know, precisely,” he replied quietly.
His voice was too calm for the turmoil she felt inside, and it irritated the hell out of her. She snatched the map from his lap and sat back with it. For the first time, she examined the map with careful eyes, struggling to make sense of it, her brow deeply furrowed as she worked. After a bit, she realized his problem. “This map is useless!” she heatedly proclaimed. “These tunnels aren’t clearly marked! That ruin we found! It’s not even on here!”
“The map is lacking in detail and crudely drawn,” Vincent readily agreed.
Tifa looked up at him to find shuttered crimson eyes on her face. “We didn’t take the tunnel you marked. Why not?”
He shrugged uneasily. “I didn’t feel that it was the correct choice to make.”
“Because of the smoke smell?” Her voice was curious now. He expected censure from her, but he could find none in her tone or in her face.
He nodded slightly. “Partly.”
“Was there another reason?”
He stared at her in silence for a moment, trying to decide what he should say. Inevitably, he knew he had to speak the truth. He could not lie to her. “I acted upon a feeling.”
“A…feeling…” she repeated slowly. “…Like…intuition?”
Turning his head away from her, he nodded and tightly folded his arms. A protective posture, Tifa suddenly recognized. He expected her to rain wrath and fire down upon his head, but she had no intention of doing that. She offered him the map, and with a hint of surprise in his eyes, he hesitantly unfolded his arms to take it from her.
“Do you still feel the same? Is this still the right way?”
Slowly, he nodded.
Tifa shrugged with forced nonchalance. “I’m sure you’re right, Vincent. I trust you.”
He stared at her with unblinking eyes. He didn’t know what to say. She trusted him, but he didn’t trust himself. For the first time since they’d started this trip, he found himself completely unsure of his decision. Still, he hadn’t lied. He still felt he’d chosen the correct path. He just didn’t know if he could trust that feeling.
Growing uneasy beneath his unrelenting regard, she cast around for something to do, and she desperately fell upon Vincent’s neatly squared stack of books. Inadvertently knocking the books askew, she snatched the larger book on the bottom into her hands and turned it to stare in awe at the script of the title imprinted into the spine. “Birth of a City: The History of Midgar.”
The book was exactly the one she’d meant to give Vincent that night, in the captain’s quarters. The book she’d discarded on the bed after his strange and disquieting behavior. He’d obviously gone back to the captain’s quarters of the airship later and discovered the book, and as she’d hoped he would, Vincent had found it of interest. She’d wanted to talk to him about the book then, before he’d startled her with his stealthy approach and then stunned her with his coldly voiced proclamation regarding their departure, and she wanted to ask him about the book now. She wanted to hear his perspective of the city of his birth, the Midgar before Shinra and the plates, a Midgar that didn’t exist anymore, and since they’d already warmed up to a conversation of sorts during the discussion of the map, she found it an opportune time to introduce the topic of the book.
“What is it, Tifa?”
She looked up to find him slipping the folded map into his pocket. She held up the book. “Have you read this book?”
He looked over and shook his head. He hadn’t paid much attention to the book. The spy thriller was the only book he’d read, and he’d progressed very little into the story due to…distractions. “I noticed you were reading that book,” he uneasily admitted. “I packed it for you.” And then he’d stupidly forgotten to give it to her. But then, she hadn’t brought up the matter of reading since the night she’d asked to read “The Broken Clock” sometime.
An odd little smile came to her lips. “Really? That’s…funny…” She upended the book to look at the title again.
“Why?” he asked curiously.
She shook her head. “No reason…” With one finger, she gingerly opened the cover. “Do you know what this book is, Vincent?”
His eyes narrowed at the importance her tone seemed to impart to the question. “Should I?”
She turned a few pages to the “Page of Contents”. “It’s a history book about Midgar. Written twenty-five or so years ago. When I found it, I thought you might want to look at it.”
Vincent’s whole body went still at her words. “Is that so?” His voice had abruptly dropped several degrees lower in temperature than the last words he’d spoken, a marked change in tone. Taken aback, Tifa lifted a wary, inquisitive gaze to find his crimson eyes frosted with ice, and her thoughts scrambled to discover how she’d managed to make him mad so quickly. Then his eyes slid away beneath her wondering stare, and in that instant, she knew. Her eyes rounded in sudden revelation. Why hadn’t she recognized it before? Even as she asked herself, she realized she knew the answer. Because she’d bought into the notion that Vincent Valentine was just that way. A cold, unfeeling man. And she’d clung to that notion, even though she’d seen more than ample evidence to the contrary. Maybe not so much in his words or his demeanor, but certainly in his actions. For whatever reason the truth had eluded her, she saw it clearly now. She knew exactly what he was doing. Vincent was wielding his coldness as a barricade, and he’d thrown up that barricade now because he felt vulnerable. Projecting a high wall of intimidating coldness, just as the hedgehog spreads the sharp points of its quills. She realized, then, that without the book, she might never have figured it out. The book about Midgar had instantly and profoundly activated his defense system, making him appear suddenly angry with her for no reason. But he did have a reason. Intimidation. She was supposed to see anger, but what she was really seeing was fear. Fear of the book she held in her hands. He felt threatened by the unknown contents of a harmless book he hadn’t even opened. The question was why? She could speculate endlessly, but what it boiled down to was that he didn’t want to be reminded of his past. The reason probably wasn’t important at the moment. The truly important thing was that she knew.
“Is there a problem, Miss Lockhart,” Vincent inquired coldly.
Uh oh, the ‘Miss Lockhart’ had made a comeback. Then she realized that she was still staring at him with wide eyes. Quickly, she looked away. He’d forgotten his promise to her, and that was unlike him. She had to make a decision now. Whether to back off and leave him alone or whether to push him into a discussion he clearly wouldn’t welcome. She had to admit that her discovery wholly intrigued her. Did she have the courage to push on? Of course, she did. She wasn’t afraid of Vincent. Nearly every move he made was designed to guarantee her comfort and safety, even above his own. But there was Chaos to consider. Was Chaos another line of defense? A last resort? If so, she would be foolhardy to push him. Still, she wasn’t afraid of Chaos either. Not really. Chaos had been the one to catch her when she fell. The one to save her life. Which most likely meant that Vincent controlled Chaos, at the very least. Maybe it was even more than that. Maybe Vincent and Chaos were of one mind. If so, she had nothing to fear from either. She decided it couldn’t hurt just to test the waters. A teeny little bit.
“You promised not to call me that, Vincent,” she chided him without looking up. “Are you reneging on our agreement?” She idly thumbed through the pages of the book.
Silence met her ears, and she finally glanced up to find him with folded arms and bowed head, the lower part of his face hidden from her by the thick fall of his hair, his lashes at half mast as he stared down at his folded legs.
“I guess so…” she casually remarked.
“I…forgive me…I forgot…but…” Vincent gave his head a shake, and when he continued, his voice was stronger. “I won’t forget again.”
“I guess you do have a lot on your mind,” she graciously granted him pardon. Then she dove in. “Vincent…when I was looking at this book…I wondered about…this part where it talks about how Midgar used to be a bunch of separate towns…and I was curious about which part of Midgar you grew up in.”
Vincent made no indication whatsoever that he’d heard her or that he intended to answer. Then she remembered that she hadn’t directly asked him.
“Where did you grow up in Midgar, Vincent?” She lifted inquisitive brown eyes to his averted face.
He filled the room with uncomfortable silence for several seconds before he finally answered. “Valencia,” he replied dully.
“That’s where Sector Two is now, right?”
“I don’t know,” he said coolly. The temperature was falling again.
”That was the ritzy part of Midgar in your day, wasn’t it?” She thought she remembered that from her reading.
“I suppose.” His voice turned colder still.
She almost closed the book then. She was starting to feel like a foolish kid poking a stick at a rattlesnake. Her interest in pursing the conversation was waning quickly. She should just stop. And she would. No more questions about him or about his life in Midgar. There was one picture she wanted to ask him about though. One of the few color photographs in the book. The picture that had held her wondering eyes for so long on the airship. An image so fanciful that it had sparked her imagination. Surely one picture of a mere work of art wouldn’t disturb him too much. She would ask him, and then she would leave him alone.
Vincent moved then, turning his attention back to the items he had emptied from his bag. He bent the whole of his concentration to the task of returning them neatly to their original places. Tifa slowly leafed through the book until she found the page she wanted, and then she held the book fully open with both hands. Turning the book about, she presented the full-page color photograph for Vincent to see.
“Vincent, I wanted to ask you about this picture. It’s so lovely, and I was curious about it. Do you know what this picture is?”
Vincent froze with his hand wrapped around his gun cleaning kit, and with great reluctance, he slowly raised his eyes.
Tifa realized her mistake when Vincent’s face went slack with shock, and pain unmistakably flashed through his crimson eyes. She had found no innocent picture. His instant recognition of the image stripped him bare of his defenses before her, and in that naked moment he spoke.
“She…is…the…Rain Dancer…” he replied in a strangled voice. “…The Angel of…Tears…”
Shaken by the raw emotion in Vincent’s imprisoned eyes, Tifa slowly drew the book down and laid it in her lap to stare down at the seemingly harmless photograph of the cobalt blue crystal fountain because she could not bear to look at him just then. She flattened both hands across the photograph as though to hide the image from him. “Ah…Rain Dancer…she’s beautiful…” She stumbled through her words, completely adrift in an alien sea. “…I wish…I could see it…the fountain…but I guess…it’s gone forever…” Her fingers trembling, she closed the book and returned it to Vincent’s stack, thinking then that she wouldn’t be surprised if that would be the last time she ever saw the book. She stared unseeing at the cover for a moment as she wondered if she should apologize. She truly had not intended to cause him pain. She’d only wanted to find out about the compelling design of the fountain. Maybe hear the story behind it. She risked a look then, lifting her head only far enough to glance at him from beneath her brows. Vincent sat frozen in place with his gun kit halfway inside the pack, as though he’d bent to his packing and transformed to stone there.
“Vincent…” She instantly faltered in her speech. She felt she should say something, but she didn’t know what to say to him. However, her tentative expression of his name snapped him out of his trance, and he pointedly shoved the metal box into the pack and reached for the foil packets of food. “You should sleep,” he told her in his customary monotone. “We must travel as far as we can manage tomorrow.”
And just like that, the odd, painful little episode was over. The dislodged puzzle piece of her known world had slipped back into place, and the one that didn’t quite fit had been discarded, although she permanently added it to the puzzle box lid in her mind, added it to the meager but growing pile of puzzle pieces that comprised the multi-dimensional puzzle called Vincent Valentine.
Tifa let her shoulders slump. “I am tired,” she said quietly. “I believe I will go to sleep now.” She feigned a huge yawn, and avoiding his eyes, she moved away from him to lie down on her side of the pallet, wriggling around until she found a relatively comfortable position, and then she deliberately forced her eyelids down and prayed that she could silence her noisy mind. “Good night, Vincent,” she murmured.
“Sleep well, Tifa,” he replied expressionlessly.
Vincent went to work then, with a vengeance, packing all the items back into the bag but for the batteries, checking the low batteries on the headlamp to see which ones still had charge, and organizing all the batteries into various pockets in the pack. At that point, he withdrew the gun cleaning kit and completely broke down the Quicksilver, vigorously cleaning the gun to a high shine, and then he meticulously reassembled it and checked all the mechanisms to assure their working order. Then he counted his ammunition, reloaded the gun magazine, and softly clicked it in place. Satisfied, he holstered the weapon and returned the cleaning tools to the metal box. As he closed the box and put it away, he allowed his gaze to finally travel to Tifa’s sleeping form, the first time he’d dared to look directly at her since she’d first broached the subject of the book.
She slept now. He knew from the rhythm of her respirations, but almost two hours had elapsed before she’d fallen asleep. The whole time, she’d held herself carefully still, trying to breathe as though she slept, her limbs not truly relaxing until slumber had finally taken her. Feigning sleep. Hiding from him. Did she seek to escape his coldness? Or the demon behind his eyes?
What had she seen in his face? In his eyes? He’d gone blank in that moment, when he’d recognized the picture. He vaguely remembered speaking, but he couldn’t clearly recall what he’d said. And when he’d come back to himself, she seemed shaken. She'd sought to escape him, but she had nowhere to go but to her dreams, and even they had evaded her for a long time.
Vincent shifted his attention to the books then, the last items left to repack, and his troubled eyes duly discovered the leather-bound book that Tifa had returned to the stack with a pretended and unconvincing casualness. He stared at the unrevealing leather cover for a long time in thought, and finally he reached out and carefully drew the book to him across the blanket. Unconsciously, he touched his fingers to the cover to trace the delicate fleur-de-lis embossed there as his thoughts inevitably drew him inward, his eyes growing haunted as he went straight to the heart of the matter.
She had caught him unawares, The Rain Dancer. The sight of her familiar, evocative image had shocked him to the core, a fact that hardly surprised him. After all, her existence had become woven into the fabric of his life, and in the end, she had come to symbolize all that he’d lost. To the point that she had drawn him to her before he'd left. The last time he’d seen her had been the very day he'd left Midgar for his assignment in Nibelheim. Even then, he’d known. Down in his bones, deep in his heart, in the darkest corners of his unconscious where intuition resides he’d known. That he wouldn’t be back. And he’d gone to see her. To seek an uneasy peace. To say his goodbyes. To the Rain Dancer. To the life that he’d known. To...his sister.
Lucrecia had accompanied him that early morning even though he’d tried to dissuade her, holding his hand firmly in hers as though she thought he would run away and vanish into the long shadows that shrouded the park. They'd walked side by side through damp grass wet from a predawn shower. He’d chosen to enter the park from the side gate to follow the white gravel path of the Azalea Trail to the small arched span of the Auroran bridge.
At the bridge, he’d insisted then. He wanted solitude for a time. Lucrecia had protested at first, arguing that she should be with him, that he shouldn’t be alone. And when he’d still sought to deny her, she’d laughed, citing their impending departure time to Junon and joking that she had to come to make sure he didn’t sink into his dark thoughts and forget about her. Forget they had to leave. And when he'd stood unrelentingly firm, she’d become angry that he still refused to include her, and in her anger she conceded his wish, throwing his hand from hers and spinning away to glare over the curved railing of the bridge as though she might murder the feathery pandragora fish in the shaded stream beneath.
Another time, he would have tried to soothe away the pain his reluctant rejection had caused her, but he'd needed those moments to stand alone in the shadow of the Rain Dancer as much as he needed to draw breath, and she hadn’t wanted him to come. She didn’t see the point. She was jealous, he'd known, and hurt that he would desert her. Just to see a fountain. But he wasn’t there just to see a fountain. He was there to find her. His sister. Because the Rain Dancer was hers. The tree-encircled realm of the Rain Dancer from Rose Arch to Angel Gate, hers. The blue crystalline rim where she'd sat for endless hours through all the years in rapt obeisance to the Rain Dancer, hers. And even during that troubled year before her death, when she'd grown rebellious and their days seemed full of argument and anger, he could still seek her out and find her paying homage to the Rain Dancer, and in her presence could form a heartfelt if temporary truce. So that day he'd turned his back to Lucrecia and passed through the Rose Arch into the audience of the Rain Dancer. The Angel of Tears. To beg for her mercy. To ask her forgiveness. When all was said and done, he only managed to cruelly drive home the fact that she wasn't there and never would be again. His sister…
Vincent’s fingers traveled to the edge of the book, and he just barely cracked open the top cover. Even now he couldn’t say her name. Couldn’t make his lips move to speak it. Could hardly even bear to think it. With a tiny movement of his head in denial, he lifted the cover higher, curling his fingers around the edge, peering at the space of blank page beneath.
He should look at the book, he reasoned. If he looked at the book, he would steal its power to harm him. He should read every page. Examine every picture. Confront the past he’d never know again. The one he’d left far behind in body, if not in spirit. But reluctance held him. He knew that somewhere in the history of the Midgar of twenty-five odd years past, he would find woven the slender threads of his miserable life. Pictures of familiar places. A line of text here. A paragraph there. He knew for certain that he would surely stumble across the sordid tale, the gourmet cuisine of journalists and gossipmongers. His father had been too important. His death…too…her death…too…horrific.”
The smooth planes of Vincent’s face suddenly contorted in pain and disgust. With a sharp intake of breath, he threw the book away from him, sending it tumbling end over end to land open near his backpack, the cover tented over the pages as though to protect them from further abuse.
Startled from his dark reverie by his own violent rejection of the book, Vincent tensed and risked a glance at Tifa through the protective curtain of his thick ebony locks. His tight shoulders slumped with relief. She still slept on her side with her back turned to him. She hadn’t seen him, thank the stars. He had no desire to distress her further with his undisciplined behavior.
Hesitantly, he reached out again and gathered the history book into his hands to smooth the bent pages before he purposefully closed the cover and slid the book into his pack. He had no need to review the history of Midgar, and no wish to do so. Swiftly, he gathered the other books up too, and stowed them as well, but for the novel he’d been attempting to read each night as he watched Tifa sleep. And just as he’d done the previous two nights after she'd fallen asleep, he drew away from the pallet to leave her alone.
Standing with the novel in hand, he walked the few paces that would bring him to the wall and lowered himself to the floor. Crossing his legs, he planted his back firmly against the chilly stone and opened the book. Purposely ignoring the pull of his mind to look at her, he found the page where he’d left off and bent his mind to his reading, his brow wrinkling in forced concentration as he tried to isolate all of his senses from the fact of her presence. His efforts were rewarded with a modicum of success, for the time being, and he inexorably slid into the tale.
If Tifa Lockhart had awakened at any moment during the night, and if she had turned over to find him there, reading, with his back to the wall, she might have reminded him of the hazards of Striped-Back Rock Spiders, but she never did, wrapped in her restless dreams as she was. And when she did awaken, many hours later, she found him sitting cross-legged on the edge of the pallet with his red cloak already donned to pool around him, with his pack close beside him and his rifle cradled in his arms. He didn't have to say a single word for her to know that he was ready to go. And silently they departed. And silently they traveled. One unwilling to speak, the other deeply buried in thought as she attempted to parse the man that was Vincent Valentine, examining each and every puzzle piece in her box lid and working diligently to fit them together, largely to no avail. She finally conceded that far too many puzzle pieces were missing. She lacked vital information that she could only obtain by asking the puzzle in question, and she was working up the courage to risk his cold rejection to do just that when they came to the fork in the road.
The man stood ramrod straight beside the lamppost. With arms folded across his chest and lips compressed in a thin line, he cut an intimidating figure. Passersby examined him only from the corners of their eyes and gave him a wide berth as they passed him, not so much because of his demeanor, but mostly because of his size and the distinctive blue suit that he wore. Rude was accustomed to such treatment from the denizens of the mainstream of society, and he preferred it. Commanded it. So it was with some surprise, which he easily hid behind the protection of his shades and the mask of his still face, that he discovered a female with a blonde ponytail and blue eyes smiling hesitantly up at him from where she stood by the curb. He decided not to acknowledge her in the hope that she would be on her way.
"Excuse me, sir," she said as she tentatively stepped up onto the curb to face him.
Rude lowered his eyes to glare down at her through his shades, his irritation clearly evidenced in the knitting of his brows. Despite his less than welcoming expression and the fact that he didn't bother to respond, she continued undeterred.
"You are the gentleman who helped me?" She softly inquired. "With my husband?"
Rude relinquished his frown to send one eyebrow up in silent inquisition.
"You're the one who took me to the police station, aren't you?"
Rude scrutinized her more closely then, and he realized that she was indeed the distraught woman who'd lost her son. He coolly nodded an affirmative. "Porsha Stone," he marked her identity aloud.
"Yes, that's right!" Her smile widened at his recognition. "I just saw you standing here, and I thought I would stop to thank you for your help."
Rude curtly nodded. Still, she seemed unmotivated to leave despite his response. He’d thought the encounter over. Apparently, she did not.
Porsha held out her hand. "So...I thank you."
"There is no need to thank me," he replied gruffly as he ignored the proffered hand for several seconds, until he deemed it likely she would hold it there until he responded in kind. Reluctantly, he unfolded his arms and reached down to shake her hand, his huge hand swallowing her small one completely. The act made him uncomfortable, and he spoke to cover his unease. "I trust you found your son, madam," he said with a questioning inflection on the end.
Her eyelashes fluttered down at his words. "No...no...I'm afraid...not...” Her eyes filled with tears then, and Rude realized he was still holding her hand. Promptly, he released her and folded his arms again, shifting his gaze to the street behind her. "Please accept my regrets," he said stiffly.
Nodding, she looked up at him again with blue eyes full of tears. "They've arrested Richard," she informed him steadily despite the pain in her voice. "They think he...did something...to...my baby..." Her voice cracked then, and she pressed a trembling hand to her mouth.
Rude thought that 'they', a probable reference to the authorities, had excellent deductive skills. However, he decided not to comment on that fact. He chose not to respond at all, surrounding her in a silence that she unfortunately decided to fill.
"I should never have married him," she expressed her thoughts aloud. "I knew better, but I was...lonely...after Steven's death..."
If Rude were inclined to talk, he would tell her that no woman, no matter how lonely, especially one as beautiful and gracious as she, should ever settle for an abusive jerk, but he wasn't inclined, so he didn't. She looked up at him then, and she smiled through her tears.
"How can I repay you, sir?" she asked in a gentle voice.
Surprised, his eyes widened behind his shades. "There is no need to repay me, madam," he responded coolly.
"Oh, but I must!" she insisted. "You helped me see my way!"
Rude stubbornly shook his head, and then he froze when she laid a slender hand on his sleeve. "Perhaps you might come to dinner sometime. I will cook for you."
Rude stared in astonishment then. He couldn't remember the last time any woman had invited him anywhere, much less to dinner. He thought perhaps someone should tell this silly woman that she should be careful whom she invited to her home, but of course, he would not be the one. Her offer left him off balance though, and he found himself stammering. "No...no...I don't believe..."
"May I at least know the name of my savior, sir?" she interrupted his refusal.
Rude discovered then, that his astonishment had no bounds. No one had asked him his name in years. In fact, he couldn't recall the last time he'd been asked his name. He was a Turk, after all. No person would dare ask a Turk for a name. Except this amazing person. So flummoxed was he by her request, that he actually answered her. "James Rude," he replied in a bit of a daze.
She coquettishly tilted her head. "James...a very strong name. Glad to make your acquaintance, James Rude," she softly replied. "I thank you again. Perhaps you will..."
Rude didn't find out what she might have said, although he suspected it would be a reprisal of her dinner invitation, because the military police officer he'd assigned to watch the back of the office building chose that moment to arrive breathlessly on the scene.
"Mr. Rude, sir," he gasped out. "Mr. Wildman has left the building. I think he's headed for the boat dock."
Rude instantly reached a hand inside his coat, but paused with his fingers around the butt of his pistol when he remembered the woman still stood there. He looked down into blue eyes now filled with keen interest, and he inclined his head politely. "Excuse me Mrs. Stone," he said solicitously. "A pressing matter demands my attention, and I must be on my way." Then he spun on heel and rushed away down the sidewalk, first in a fast walk, and then in a run, drawing his gun into his hand as he sprinted.
Undisturbed by his abrupt departure, she called after him. "Another day, Mr. James Rude..."
A sense of celebration hung in the air as people gathered to listen to the unmistakable sound of muted voices and the resounding clang of tools just the other side of the wall of debris. The trapped inhabitants of Sector Five could no longer doubt the truth of their salvation. Still, the excitement was dampened by somberness too. By the possibility of catastrophe at the last moment. By the reality of their heartbreaking loss. Of those poor souls who had slipped away while they'd waited and waited as the hours had elapsed. And those with grievous injury that yet remained.
The blonde warrior stood with ears attuned to the industrious sound of their imminent rescue with feet planted wide and arms folded across his chest. He’d been in exactly that spot, listening and watching for some time. Without a doubt, he knew that Cid's team would break through at any time, and the idea suddenly came to him that the sooner they could get the injured out, the better chance they would have to be saved. With that thought uppermost in his mind, he quickly looked around for Fred Amos, the diffident man who held the unofficial and unenviable position of being in charge of managing the traumatized population, but he was nowhere in sight. A hand closed gently around his elbow, and he brought his glowing Mako eyes around to narrow on the anxious face of Dr. Glass.
"Will they make it through, Cloud?" she asked tensely. "Will they make it soon?"
Cloud nodded tightly, his face set in grim lines. He knew the nature of her impatience. She'd watched too many of her patients die. "Yes, Dr. Glass," he assured her in a cool voice. "Cid Highwind will make it through. Within the hour, I imagine."
She tightened her fingers around his elbow in response to his words, and leaned around him to examine his face for verification of his statement. He smiled slightly at the skepticism he saw in her emerald eyes. Her underlying distrust of him, which she unconsciously held based on her erroneous belief that he belonged to the Shinra military, had not completely left her despite the uneasy friendship that had formed between them over the trying days. "Is this true, Cloud?" she asked hopefully.
He drew away from her then, breaking her tenuous hold. He unfolded his arms as he turned to face her and bent his head close to speak. "You should start preparing your patients to be moved, Megan," he suggested lowly. "So we can get them out right away."
At his direction, her eyes filled with a purpose that swept the haunted look from her face. Cloud had finally given her something to do that might actually make a difference. She’d done all she could medically with the meager supplies she had at hand, long ago. She curtly nodded in acknowledgement, and turned away.
"Wait, Megan," Cloud said. "How's Penny?"
Megan Glass shook her head sadly. "I think she's out of time, Cloud."
"I'll come with you," he told her. Megan searched his eyes expecting to find dismay or sorrow, but she found only a determination to match her own. She silently nodded her acceptance, and they both hurried away down the dim torch lit path that would take them to the gingerbread house full of injured and dying patients, walking side by side.
Vincent stopped abruptly in his tracks as though struck, and Tifa's concerned eyes shot to his face, but she found no clue in his tensely flexed jaw or widened crimson eyes to inform her as to his problem, and certainly nothing to assure her that there wasn’t one. "What's the matter, Vincent," she asked hoarsely, the first words she'd voiced since they'd embarked on their journey that day.
"A sound," he whispered tightly into the echoing silence. "I hear a sound. Can you hear it?" The hum vibrated inside his skull so loudly, he was sure she must hear it.
Tifa listened intently for a few seconds, but she couldn't detect any unusual sounds. In fact, she couldn’t detect any sound at all. "I can't hear anything, Vincent. What does it sound like?"
Unconsciously, he raised his hand to dig his fingers into his temple. "A...hum..." he said slowly. "Like...bees...inside my head...” His words faltered as the sound suddenly swelled threefold.
Worried, Tifa lifted a hand to pause just short of touching his arm. "I don't hear it, Vincent. It must be a sound only you can hear." She had no doubt by now that Vincent could hear much that the normal human ear couldn't.
With his fingers pressed to his head, Vincent slowly rotated in place, seeking the source of the strange sound that seemed to come from all around him and from nowhere, at the same time. Unconsciously lifting a hand to her throat, Tifa watched him helplessly, wishing to help him but clueless as to how. Eventually, he fell motionless, his intent gaze drilling into the passage of the fork on his left. "Wait here," he commanded as he reached up to flip on his headlamp for the first time since they’d left the small circular cave. That whole day, he’d left his light off to conserve the battery, using her light to see by, but now he meant to leave her.
"Vincent, I don't want to wait here," she informed him uneasily. "I'll be quiet. I promise."
"Just for a moment, Tifa," he said a bit loudly due to the increasing level of the din in his head. "I must discover...the source of this sound..."
Slowly, he walked away up the passage, his eyelashes drifting down as his limbs moved more woodenly with each step.
"Vincent..." She took a tentative step after him, the fear in her heart rising to fill her voice with trepidation at his unusually ponderous movements. "Please...don't go..."
She meant to follow him, to stay with him, to protect him, to find out why he was acting so strangely, despite his directive to stay, and would have stepped out to do so, but just then she became aware of a subtle movement from the corner of her eye. Startled, she whirled around to face the right hand passage, the one they would have entered if Vincent hadn't wandered off the other way to find his elusive sound. She stared in gape-mouthed astonishment at the sight that met her eyes.
"Vincent! Come look at this!" She absently called out. "Maybe this is what's...making your...sound..."
Intrigued, she wandered into the passage on the right in entranced pursuit of the magically colored fireflies that danced around the walls and floor of the tunnel in front of her. Fireflies of every color imaginable. Greens and reds. Blues and golds. Magentas and violets. Vermillions and chartreuses. And every color in between. And some hues she thought she never had seen before. The swarm of swirling fireflies inexorably receded with each step she took, eluding her outstretched fingers, staying only inches from her grasp, drawing her ever onward. A musical tinkling filled her ears, a wind chime lightly chinking inside her cranium, the lulling sound taking firm possession of the whole of her mind to chase all thoughts of fear and Mr. Valentine away.
Totally mesmerized, Tifa walked deeper into the passage, all sense of time or distance lost to her as she trailed the fireflies along, aware of nothing else but the fantastical sparkling insects until she came to an expansive chamber, the walls and ceiling smoothly rounded as if constructed from a stone bowl hollowed out with a chisel and overturned. A shimmering pool filled the center of the room, the surface alive with bubbles and sparkling colored lights, looking for all the world as though the fireflies all swam there.
Completely oblivious to her environment and wholly unaware of anything but the compelling pool before her, Tifa slowly walked to the edge and stared down in entranced wonder, her brown irises sparking with the reflection of the lights. Mindlessly, she sat down at the edge of the pool and began to untie her boots.
The noise in Vincent's head abruptly stopped, and he blinked in bewilderment, momentarily lost in the equally deafening absence of sound. A sharp, aborted yelp echoed from somewhere down the passage, and his mind snapped back into place. In that instant, he remembered leaving Tifa behind to seek out the strange hum. It almost seemed that the humming sound had stolen his senses.
"Tifa," he involuntarily cried as he whirled to face the point at the juncture of the tunnel where he'd told her to stay. His heart lurched painfully in his chest at sight of the empty passage. She was gone. Instantly, he exploded into motion, racing full-speed down the tunnel to skid around the sharp turn into the other one, grabbing at the stone wall with sharp talons to keep from falling in his haste. The beam of his light bounced around the dark walls as he turned his head to and fro while he ran. He could see no sign of her headlamp, no glimpse of her, but he knew she'd passed this way. Her scent filled his nostrils with each one of his tortured respirations.
The sound of that strange cut-off cry echoing over and over inside his mind, he exploded at full sprint into the round chamber as he struggled to drag breath into lungs crushed beneath his heart pounding fear. Instantly, his frantic crimson eyes found the discarded boots setting at the edge of the odd circular pool, one tumbled over against the other, and inevitably leapt to the dark, churning surface of the water beyond just as a sporadic scattering of bubbles erupted at the top.
"Tifa! Noooooo!" His strangled, horrified voice filled the confines of the chamber as he raced for the pool, mindlessly throwing off his pack and rifle as he ran in leaping bounds. He barely managed to dredge up the forethought from his narrowly focused brain to drag in one long, ragged breath of air to sustain him before he flung himself into the air to jump feet first into the pool. The instant his boots broke the water, his gibbering mind, a chaotic and savaging mess of terror and guilt and heart wrenching loss, suddenly crystallized around the exact moment that he'd mindlessly leapt from the Highwind, a moment captured forever in still frame inside his mind, a moment that reflected the exact emotion that held him in its bone breaking fist now. Hopeless despair.
Tifa had come back to her senses the instant the tentacle whipped painfully around her bare ankle, and she'd managed to gasp in a lungful of air just before the thing finally succeeded in dragging her into the water, her fingernails digging futilely at the rock the whole way. Now she fought tooth and nail for her survival, trying to break free of the glowing, sucker-tipped tentacles and the wormy ever-weaving whips, all the while feverishly twisting away from a shorter tentacle with a triangular chip of cartilage at the tip that the open-mawed, milkily luminescent creature targeted at her. She didn't have a moment to ponder on what the spear-like appendage might be, but she instinctively knew that it couldn't be good.
The more valiantly she fought, the more numerous the tentacles the creature whipped around her limbs, impeding her movements ever more with each passing second. She sputtered out another tiny burst of air as she managed to rip yet another tentacle free from her arm with desperate fingers, a small victory, but a hollow one. She was fighting a losing battle, and she knew it. Her air was nearly gone, and though she wasn't deep, only a few feet beneath the surface, she was too far down to lift her face and gulp in a breath of lifesaving air. But she would not surrender. She would not quit. She held on to the last shreds of her oxygen and her will. Because she knew, just as sure as her name was Tifa Lockhart that Vincent would come. He would know. And he would come.
Then Vincent did come, as though he’d heard his name screamed over and over silently in Tifa’s mind. He speared into the water, almost on top of her, his headlamp beam igniting the pristinely clear water all around them with golden light. The force of his entry into the pool dislodged the water and impelled her straight toward the ravenous creature. Vincent instantly lunged for her, grabbing her upper arms in hand and claw to jerk her back toward him, his ebony hair and crimson cloak swirling around him as he struggled to maneuver in the cumbersome water. Turning her away from the hungry creature, he threw an arm around her to drag her hard against his body even as he flailed out wildly with his claw, ripping and tearing the tentacles and whips away from her, the torn tissue darkly filling the water around them with the repulsive ink of the creature's blood. She worked hard to hold to the last tiny iota of air in her lungs, lying quiescent in the protective circle of his arm with her cheek pressed against his comforting chest, her mind strangely focused on the movement of muscle and tendon as he frantically labored to free her, her eyes squeezed shut as she let him do the work while she conserved precious air.
Her lungs ached from oxygen deprivation now. Urgently compelling her to open her mouth and gulp in a breath. Just one little breath. Just one. With her lips tightly sealed, she managed to hold onto her will, refusing to give in to her desperately growing need for air, until the fiery sting came at the back of her leg, and her mouth flew open in a cry of pain. She choked on the water in a great starved gasp for air, and frantically tried to cough it back out just as Vincent shoved off from the bottom and shot to the surface, his frenetic battle to free her finally won.
With an inhuman display of strength born of his panic, Vincent bodily lifted Tifa up onto the rock ledge surrounding the pool to lie on her stomach with her legs dangling, and holding her there with one hand, he hefted himself out of the pool to land a hip on the edge, water shedding off his body as he moved. Wasting not a second of time, he scrambled up onto his knees and madly struggling against the entangling weight of his waterlogged cloak, he grabbed Tifa by a suspender and the seat of her pants to lift her completely from the pool. Gasping for air himself, he dragged her a few feet away from the rim where he released her to lay choking and sputtering on the cold floor, her body drawing into a fetal position as she coughed out the acrid water and struggled to catch her breath. The rush of adrenaline abruptly left him, and his limbs went boneless with relief. Vincent heavily dropped down beside her and, and with a wondrous gaze, sought out her partially shuttered, glazed brown eyes. Impulsively, he reached out a trembling hand to touch one clammy cheek. Her fingers drifted to his hand and came to light there.
"Are you alright?" he asked unsteadily as he unconsciously let his thumb slip down to barely brush the corner of one quivering lip as he reveled in the touch of her fingers against the back of his hand. Reaction started to set in, along with the cold, and she began to shiver in earnest. "Tifa?" he queried again, his voice more steady this time. "Can you hear me?"
Finally, she nodded against his hand and offered him a tremulous smile. He might have drawn away from her then, but when he made a tentative move to do so, she pressed her fingers against his hand to stay him, and he found himself unwilling to deny her unspoken request, unconsciously turning the back of his hand against her soft cheek to bring her fingers into his.
A flicker of motion caught his attention then, and his crimson eyes darted back to the pool to see a tentacle slithering up over the edge, sliding back and forth, most assuredly seeking the prey that had escaped. Alarmed, he drew back from her in an instant. Wrapping his arm around Tifa's waist, he climbed awkwardly to his feet, lifting her bodily from the ground to set her up on wobbly legs beside him. "Can you walk?" he asked tensely. "We need to move."
She nodded her head against his wet sleeve, and she did try to walk, and would have done so, if Vincent hadn't simply lifted her up against his side in his haste to leave her bare feet pedaling against the floor in an illusion of walking as he carried her several more feet further from the pool and the exploring tentacle.
Tifa started giggling then, and he turned bemused eyes down to her face as he let her down on her own two feet and hesitantly stepped away from her to stand close by, his muscles vigilantly tensed, coiled to grab her in case she should fall. Far from collapsing though, she suddenly threw herself at him, giving a little hop up to plant her bare feet atop his boots as she wound her arms tightly around his waist. "Wanna dance, Vincent?" she asked through her rampant giggles. "You dance...I'll ride..."
His brows shot up at her strange behavior, along with his lackadaisical, long absent defenses, and he automatically shook his head. "No, Tifa!" he said sharply as he reached around to unlatch her arms from his waist. "Stop...please..."
Still giggling, she tightened her arms even tighter and pressed her cheek against his chest. "I feel...weird...Vin...cent..." she sputtered out laughingly in an attempt at explanation, and then her embrace abruptly loosened, and she would have crumpled to the floor at his feet if he hadn't already had his hands latched around her forearms.
Staggered by the implication of this sudden turn of events, Vincent stared in disbelief into Tifa’s slack face as he slipped his arms beneath hers to lift her against him. Thinking furiously, he swept Tifa up into his arms then. He realized immediately that she must be poisoned and suffering the effects of some toxin produced by the creature in the pool. Narrowing his mind to a singular goal to stave off his panicky thoughts, he swiftly turned toward the entrance of the odd bowl-shaped chamber where he thought he’d find his hastily discarded backpack, his sole intention to acquire the esuna materia. Recognizing that he had to act with extreme haste in case the toxin should turn out to be lethal, he broke into a run, but he’d only managed to cross the space of a dozen feet when his vision suddenly zoomed out of focus and a tingling sensation overtook his muscles and sapped the strength in his limbs. He clumsily ran two more steps and then stumbled sideways beneath Tifa’s weight as his head commenced a dizzy spin.
It was at that point, when he could still ponder on the matter, that he suddenly remembered the sting he’d felt in the back of his thigh as he’d given a mighty push off the bottom of the pool. So intent had he been to get Tifa away from the pool and the tentacled creature that meant to make of her a meal, and so utterly lost in wondrous relief he’d been to still have her, that fact had simply not registered in his preoccupied mind.
Stubbornly, Vincent successfully negotiated another laborious step, his mind still bent on obtaining the esuna materia, but as he struggled to take yet another step, his left leg went out from under him as though his bones had mysteriously dissolved. Falling to one knee, he helplessly tumbled over onto his side and landed with his back against the cold stone floor, the very last shred of his swiftly failing strength expended to insure that Tifa did not fall painfully to the hard surface.
And there the two of them came to rest on the cold stone floor, shivering and sopping wet from head to toe, halfway between the pool and the backpack containing the precious materia orb. All muscle tone lost, Vincent’s arms limply slid away from her body to flop to the floor, his eyelids inexorably drifting slackly to half-mast as he stared unseeing at the expanse of ceiling revealed in the dim circular light of his headlamp. Tifa lay across Vincent's limp body, her head rolled back against his upper arm, one hand curled loosely against her breast, the other sliding off to fall against his chest in the vicinity of his collarbone.
Vincent labored fruitlessly to move, but not a single muscle would obey him. His nerve endings began to fail him too, and all too soon he could no longer feel the weight of Tifa’s body against his own or the wetness of his clothing or the cold floor beneath his back. The sensation of his limbs left him next, as though he’d lost them, and then the sense of his own breath, and the content of his own vision. The last faculty remaining within the grasp of his control was the possession of his own thoughts, and even that ability inevitably deserted him as his formidable will over his own mind began to elude him.
His last conscious thoughts were of Tifa, and whether they would ever waken again. Or if this now was the end. And if it was the end, and they would never awaken...if he would never see her alive again, never see her laugh again, never see her smile…again, never touch her cheek…again…how he feverishly wished he could feel her against his body, how he wished he could hold her comfortingly in his arms. So she would know that she wasn’t alone. So she’d know he was there.
...Forgive me... sweet...Tifa...I've failed...you...
And with that last agonized, grief-filled thought, his consciousness faded completely away, diminishing to a tiny dot to wink out into the blackness of the grave. Then the headlamp burned out and the darkness inside the strange hemispherical chamber swooped in to press down into his blinded pupils and engulf him whole, along with all the demons that had been locked away, lurking at the corners his mind for just such a rich opportunity. Chortling gleefully, they rushed out to play.
People crowded around, silent and tense, some holding another's hand, some just holding their breath, all watching the white-hot path of the laser torch wielded by some unknown hand on the other side of the last slab of fallen iron that stood between them and freedom. "Stand clear, everyone!" Frederick Amos called out, and the people near the front collectively moved back to melt into the crowd behind. "Remember what I said!" he called out again. "Nobody moves 'til I say!" Then the torch fell silent, and a mighty clanging commenced on the other side, the commanding voice of a big sledgehammer swung in the fist of a capable hand. Frederick Amos stepped forward one anticipatory step and raised a hand to the silent group behind him, and then the slab of iron abruptly fell forward a few inches to hang ajar, and then shortly was let down gently by the mechanics via the attached winch cables on the other side.
Finally, the slab of iron settled to the ground with a solid thud, and Cid Highwind hesitantly stepped through into a darkness alleviated only by the flickering flame of a couple of makeshift torches, his eyes narrowing in the effort to make out the faces of the people he knew must be there, his own tall frame silhouetted by the distant sunlight shining up the long tunnel constructed of iron culverts and steel beams behind him. He threw up a hand and hit a switch to illuminate the bright beam of the flashlight he held.
A hundred or so pairs of eyes blinked owlishly in the light, and Cid Highwind uneasily grinned. "Who's ready to get outta this dump?" he asked. Then, as though it took the sound of his voice to awaken them, everyone began to talk at once, and some whistled shrilly in celebration, and some began to weep in their joy.
"Just let us get this bracing up," Cid yelled over the noise. "...An' we'll getcha all outta here. So hang onto yer chocobos fer just a few minutes more!" He motioned with a hand, and the mechanics came out of the tunnel to set up the bracing. Wallace followed them out with the sledgehammer still clutched in his hand to come to a stop just behind Cid.
Fred Amos moved forward and held out his hand. "Highwind, good to see ya! Yer a sight I'll long remember."
Cid took the man's hand in an exuberant handshake. "I know you!" Cid yelled over the excited crowd and the sound of the impact drivers operated by the mechanics behind him. "Amos, ain't it! From the air academy! You in charge?!"
Fred simply nodded his head and turned to watch as another pair of mechanics came out of the tunnel with a big floodlight on a tripod that they promptly set up and turned on. The introduction of the brilliant wash of light set off another round of noise.
Cid looked around at all the chattering people. "Medical team's just outside, waitin' to move your injured, Amos. We'll bring 'em in, and then these people here can line up and head out."
Barrett stepped forward and looked around. "Where's Cloud?" he asked gruffly.
A look of bewilderment came across Fred's face. "Cloud?"
"Cloud Strife," Barrett raised his voice to facilitate the man's understanding, and a look of clarity did cross Fred's face, but before he could respond, a voice came from the side. "Over here, guys!"
Barrett and Cid both looked around to see Cloud Strife striding toward them carrying a blanket-wrapped bundle in his arms with an anxious looking middle-aged couple trailing behind him. Barrett's face split in a grin at sight of him, and Highwind yelled a greeting. "Glad to see yer still around, Spike!"
Cloud came to a halt in front of them, a grimace of a smile coming to his face. Cid and Barrett looked down into the bloodless face of the girl that he carried. "Any chance I can take this little girl out of here now?" Cloud asked, getting straight to the point.
"Get gone, Cloud," Cid promptly answered. "Straight down the tunnel and to the left. Got a couple of doctors and a bunch of medics just outside."
"Need some stretchers, Cid." Cloud told him as he turned away. "Gotta a lot more where she came from."
"We got 'em, Cloud." Cid called after him. "Tell 'em to come on when you get there."
Cid watched Cloud give a cursory nod of his head, and then he turned back to Amos. "Tell your people to gather up their stuff," he commanded. "I want everybody out of this hellhole within the next two hours." Then he gestured Amos to come closer. "Cuz frankly, I don't know how long that tunnel's gonna hold."
Fred's eyes narrowed in consternation, and then he nodded a curt acknowledgement of the need for haste and hurried away.
Cid looked up into Barrett's suspicious brown eyes. "What?" he asked.
"You know that tunnel will hold for quite awhile," Barrett accused.
"Yeah, probably," Cid easily agreed. "As long as the plate doesn't fall."
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