~Part 3~

Dark dreams and memories swirled through Vincent Valentine’s wide-open mind in a painful parade, one right after another, creating of his thoughts a tapestry of his life that he could not escape no matter how he wished to awaken. He could not control them. He could not flee them. Dreams they were, but they were his memories too. Pieces of familiar voices, fragments of remembered faces, cinemas of all his days, records of his crimes...from boy to man...all that he was or ever would be...

...The sound of a gunshot cracked inside his head...
"Would you look at that boy shoot, Frank?! Did you ever see anything like that?!
"Don't you think he's a little young to learn to shoot, Simon? That gun's as big as he is!"
"Learn, hell! He's teaching me. My boy's a natural!"
"Shouldn't you be teaching him to play ball, Simon? Or how to build model planes?"
"You're my attorney, Frank, not my preacher. I pay you to handle my business, not to give me advice about my son."
The .22 rifle bucked in his small hands, and the crack of the shot slammed around the inside his head...

...His mother hummed sweetly as she prepared her paints, luring him down the hallway with her siren’s song. Her smile lit up her whole face when she spied him peering through the etched glass of the half open french door...
"Come paint with me, Vincent." She turned and held the red-tipped brush out to him.
He ran to her with alacrity, and she snatched him up into her arms, uncaring that the brush made a swath of red in his ebony hair.
Settling him on her lap, she wrapped his small fingers around the brush and lifting his hand inside of hers, she made a great crimson slash across the snowy white canvas. "What a wonderful beginning," she exclaimed. She gently kissed the top of his head...

...His father's tall, wide-shouldered frame filled the entire doorway, a scowl on his handsome face.
"I don't want to go hunting today, Papa," he quietly said. "I want to read." His father walked into the room to tower over him where he sat on the bed.
"You are going today, Vincent," his father informed him sharply. "Put the book away."
He slowly shook his head, eyes apprehensive on his father's thunderous face at the audacity of his own defiance.
His father jerked the book from his hands and turned to slam it into the wastebasket beside his desk.
"Leave him be, Simon," his mother's tremulous voice came from the doorway. "He says he doesn't want to go."
"I'm his father, and I say he is going."
"Simon, he's only ten...he shouldn't be going hunting every weekend..."
"By the Gods, you have him all week, woman. Art lessons. Piano lessons. Babying him at every turn. You're turning him into a wuss. The weekends are mine, and he is going."
His father rounded on his mother. He instantly sprang to his feet.
"I'll go," he said quickly.
"Vincent, you don't have to..."
"I said I'd go, Mama," he said with fear in his eyes. "I'm going..."
She turned away with tears in her chocolate eyes, but not before his Father got in a parting shot.
"And why don't you cut his hair, woman," he sneered. "My son looks like a girl."
He surreptitiously drew the book from the trashcan and slipped it between the mattresses of his bed before his father would see, and then he hurried to get his gun…

...His mother hesitantly slipped onto the piano bench beside him, and with an enigmatic look on her face, took his hand and laid his fingers against the slight swell of her stomach.
"You won't be an only child anymore, Vincent. You will have a sister or a brother soon. I hope you don't mind."
He shook his head with wonder in his eyes, and his mother sweetly smiled and gathered his hand in her fingers.
"Will you play me Veradan's Astralia Sonata, Vincent?"
He nodded and carefully drew away to position his fingers on the keys of the grand piano, a tentative smile curving his lips as he began to play. His head bent low as he fell into the music, his hair sliding against his cheekbones as his fingers wove the poignant notes of the piece. Her hand resting protectively against her stomach, his mother's dark eyelashes drifted peacefully down...

...He peered with keen interest into wide black eyes like glassy marbles staring vacantly up at him.
"Don't tip the bassinette, Vincent," his mother warned with a smile in her voice, only a little concerned at the way her twelve-year-old son leaned against the wicker basket on both elbows to touch a finger to the tiny flailing hand.
"She looks like a doll..." he commented aloud. "...Without any thoughts..." His eyes widened in awe when the tiny starfish hand found his finger and locked down with a tight grip. Then the other miniature hand found a dangling strand of his ebony hair and yanked hard trying to bring it to a teeny bow-shaped mouth.
He tentatively tried to pull back, to no avail. "" he said weakly, turning beseeching eyes to his mother.
Laughing, his mother came to help him untangle his hair from the baby's diminutive fingers.
"Already, she has her adoring brother wrapped around her fingers," she teased...

...The heavy ornate door slammed into the frame with a splintering crash, and he jumped up from the parlor desk where he’d been writing, his stomach sinking straight to his toes.
"Where is that girl?" His father's drunken voice bellowed. "I wanna look at 'er!"
His mother's quavering voice came from just outside the door, as though she could bar him entry with just the presence of her petite body. "Simon, she's sleeping right now. You mustn't wake her."
His eyes darted to the wooden playpen where his sister sat happily shaking her rattle and peering at him through the bars.
"I wanna look at 'er," his father bellowed outside the door. "I don' b'lieve she's mine!"
"'ve been drinking..."
A wide, open-mouthed, two-toothed grin came to his sister's face when he leaned into the playpen to gather her into his arms. "Sssssh..." he told her and tried to pry the rattle from her hand, but at the look of distress that came to her face, he quickly relented, instead turning to silently cross the plush rose carpet to slip out the second set of doors into the formal dining room. The voices rose behind him, his father's angry and his mother's pleading, as he passed through the kitchen and into the pantry.
Huddled in the dark corner behind the wooden potato bin, he held her close to him and squeezed his eyes shut, trying without success to close out the distant shouting that slipped beneath the door along with a thin strip of light from the kitchen outside. And as always happened, the shouting inevitably gave way to his mother's cries of pain.
His sister bounced the rattle against his lip, and he wrapped her tiny hand in his to hold the rattle silent. "I won’t let him hurt you," he whispered to her in a broken voice as the soundless tears slipped from beneath his eyelashes. His sister obliviously batted his wet cheek with her unfettered hand...

...He tucked her back into the dark corner of the pantry and disengaged her hands from his shirt. With an encouraging little smile, he turned to go.
"I don't want to stay here ‘lone, Win," she whimpered. "Please don't go 'way..."
"You'll be safe here. Just stay here like I taught you and don't make a sound.
"Please don't go...Win..."
"Sssssh...I'll be right back. I'm going to go make it stop this time. You’ll see. I will make it stop this time. I promise you that."
He forced himself to put his back to the small, frightened face, and he shut the pantry door behind him and locked it, withdrawing the key to drop it into his pocket. The bastard would have to come through him to touch his sister.
Fisting his hands, his face twisted with rage, he raced up the wide, curving oaken stairway, and burst into his parent’s bedroom, flinging himself across the room to tackle his much larger father and knock him to the floor. He got a broken nose for his efforts, but it did stop that day, and for a long time after that...

...His mother held the box out to him.
"Your father sent this for your birthday," she said softly as she pressed the brown parcel package into his reluctant hands.
He could feel her worried eyes on his face as he stared down at the twin six-shooters, resting in their lush red velvet bed. He slapped the wooden lid shut and shoved the box violently away from him across the shiny wide dining room table. Then he snatched the discarded brown wrapping into his hand and jabbed a finger at the return address to show her.
"He goes to Wutai without you," he said bitterly. "Why don't you leave him?"
"I can't..." she whispered.
"Why do you stay?" he demanded. "Is his money so important?" Angrily, he wadded the paper in his hands and threw it from him in disgust.
Her face twisted in anguish at her son's angry words. "He will kill me if I go."
He jumped to his feet and slammed his hands onto the table. "He will kill you if you stay!"

...He sat numbly on the stairs with his hands hanging between his knees. His sister lay asleep curled on the wide step beside him, her thumb in her mouth. The hushed voices reached his ears though they hardly touched his dazed mind.
"Afternoon, Prosecutor."
"Detective Anderson."
"That the kid?"
"Gonna arrest him?"
"Nope. Clear case of self-defense. Nothing for your office here. Though you're free to review the file later."
"The blood on his he injured?"
"No, that's his mother's. He was holding her head in his lap when we got here."
"Where'd the gun come from?"
"Said it was his, before he quit talking."
"What would a seventeen-year-old be doing with an expensive antique revolver like that?
"Dunno, but the father was an avid gun collector and hunter."
"Hard to imagine, an entrepreneur and philanthropist like Simon Valentine being so screwed in the head."
" never know what goes on behind closed doors though...see it all the time...nothing surprises me anymore. In this case, it was really no surprise at all. Police have been called before. Several times in the last year. By the son usually. Once by the neighbors. Nothing was ever done, sad to say."
"Nothing? What the..."
" know how it talks and bullshit walks."
The prosecutor shook his head, a sick look slipping over his face.
"Well, the kid's in for some bad news on top of all this,” he said in a low voice.
"What now?"
"Our office got a call from Rupert Shinra's attorney. Seems Valentine suffered some recent business losses. Shinra moved in and sucked everything up. Asshole owns the whole estate. Lock, stock and barrel. He wants to make sure his client's interests are protected."
"That vulture didn't waste any time. Shinra’s gonna be the ruination of this city, mark my words." Their voices slipped unnoticed through his mind like so much water falling against a rock…

...He stared into Frank Wynn's face with stunned disbelief as his sister sat on his lap and banged the heels of her shiny black shoes against his shins in her boredom.
"Do you understand, Vincent? There's nothing left of the estate. You have twenty-four hours to vacate the Souther Street mansion."
The tall, lean, hawk-faced, golden-haired man dressed in a trim, sharply pressed slate gray suit suddenly stepped forward to drop a hip to the corner of the desk in front of him. "I'm not without sympathy in this case," he said coolly. "The boy can have a week."
"I don’t require a week," he impulsively said, his reckless pride jumping to the forefront. "My sister and I will be gone by tomorrow."
Rupert Shinra crossed his arms and studied the expressionless face. "You know, Vincent, I have an opening in the corporation for a resourceful young man like yourself.
"I'm not interested," he said coldly.
"Don't be hasty in your refusal, young man. Pay's top dollar. Apartment's provided. Health benefits. Private school and day care is offered for company dependents. I understand you've no family. I'd say you have few options right now.
"We'll manage," he bluntly said. His sister looked up at him with trusting eyes.
Shinra reached over and tucked a business card into the pocket of his black dress shirt. "If you change your mind, call the number on that card."
"Don't hold your breath, Shinra," he muttered as the President of the fastest growing corporation in Midgar sauntered across the room like the cock of the walk and left, closing the door softly behind him...

...He held up the 'Day Help Wanted' sign he'd taken from the window.
"Sure kid, you can have the job. When can you start?"
The storekeeper looked down at his sister where she stood beside his leg, holding his hand. "What about the munchkin?"
"Could she sit in the back and draw? She's really quiet."
"Uh uh, lose her or no deal."
He carefully returned the sign to its previous spot in the window on his way out…

…The manager of the club looked up from his receipts with bored eyes.
"I can play the piano," he said with confidence.
"What can you play?" the man asked without much interest.
"Anything you wish, if you have the sheet music."
The manager’s gaze sharpened on his face. "Really? How old are ya, kid?"
The man frowned in disappointment. "Ah, sorry, kid. There's laws. You're too young to work in a nightclub. Come back when you're eighteen."
Taking his sister's hand, he drew her away from the piano. The man noticed her then.
"Hey, you can't have her in here! She's a kid. Get outta here!" With an angry gesture, he waved them away...

...He told her to sit on the steps in the sunlight and wait for him. Then he took the "Help Wanted" sign from the window and walked to the counter. He pointed at the small handwritten script at the bottom.
"This says that you offer room and board in addition to remuneration," he said hopefully.
"Yeah, that's right. Need a 24-hour maintenance man for my boarding house. Can you fix plumbing and electrical problems?"
His heart sank. He wasn't mechanically inclined. "I will do my best," he said with wavering confidence.
The man eyed him with suspicion. "You got any experience? You look pretty young."
He couldn't lie. He shook his head as he darted a glance through the glass-front door to check on his sister. A shabbily dressed man had her by the hand and was leading her away.
His heart jumped into his throat, and he dropped the sign and raced outside, bursting through the door to let it fall heavily behind him with a loud clang of the doorbell. "Hey you! Stop! I insist that you stop!"
The grizzled man released his sister's hand, and he caught up to them and breathlessly snatched her into his arms. "What do you think you're doing?" he demanded in a shaky voice.
The man shrugged. "Hey, I thought she was lost."
He glared at the man in outrage. "Well, she's not lost! She's mine!"
"So keep better track of her then." The man smirked at him and walked away...

They sat on the wide step of the closed municipal building side by side, the seventeen-year-old and the five-year-old both with their chins in their hands, one the miniature mirror image of the other.
"I'm hungry, Win."
"I know."
I'm thirsty, Win."
"I know."
"I'm cold, Win."
He sighed. "I know."
"I wanna go home, Win," she said in a quavering voice.
"I know. But we can't. I'm sorry."
I'm sorry too, Win." Her lips puckered up as the first of her tears slipped down her face.
He reached into his pocket and drew out the business card and stared at the words as the street lights flashed on along the street, one by one.
"Jonas Ash. Director. Department of Administrative Research. Shinra Manufacturing Corporation."
Stretching out one leg, he reached into his pants pocket to draw out his last coin. Just enough to make a phone call.
Jonas Ash sent a shiny black car to pick them up, and his little sister bounced happily on the fine leather upholstery...

...He entered the office of the Director of Administrative Research also known as the Leader of the Turks. His superior sat at his desk making out a report, his dark brown hair pulled sleekly back from his saturnine face into a small ponytail that curled against his collar, eyes focused intently on the paper in front of him. He stood uneasily in front of the wide desk, his trepidation reflected in his golden brown eyes.
Jonas didn't look up from his writing. "What is it, Vincent?" he asked coolly.
He stared queasily down at the red folder in his hand. "This assignment I've been given..."
"I can't do this..."
"Why not?"
"It'’s…murder..." he whispered hoarsely.
Jonas looked up then, his gray eyes cold beneath drawn brows. "You will do it, Vincent. President Shinra assigned it to you specifically. It's your job."
" my job?"
Jonas laced his fingers together on the desk in front of him. "You trained for it, Vincent," he said with bewilderment in his eyes. "Why is this assignment such a surprise to you? After two years, you surely know the mission of the Turks and all the various ways this department serves President Shinra."
" just...I've been doing courier service and bodyguard duty, surveillance and intelligence gathering...I thought...that was my job...." He held up the folder. "...But this...I never thought I'd be asked to do this..."
Jonas stood and planted his hands on the desk, leaning across to pin him with serious eyes. "Vincent, I like you," he said lowly. "So I'll give you a word of advice. Do the job. When's it done, you'll be promoted and you'll be given a pay increase. If you don't do the job, you and your sister will pay. You know the drill. This is not a threat. It’s a fact of life in this department. When the President recruited you, he did so because he believed you had a skill he could utilize and because he knew he could sink a hook into you. Do you understand?"
His blood turned to ice in his veins. "I understand..." he said in a strangled voice. How could he have been so damned naive?
"Good. Report back to me when you're done." Jonas dropped back down into his chair and picked up his gold pen, but when Vincent didn't move, he looked up from beneath his brows. "Look, Vincent, this guy is scum. He's a DaxCorp hitman. He's on the list because he's capped three Shinra employees in their homes. The sooner this guy is off our backs the better. Just consider it pest control."
Vincent finally nodded then, his stomach churning sickly beneath his blue suit coat.
Jonas returned his attention to his report. "I hope I will see you at the company picnic with your sister this weekend, Vincent."
Vincent nervously cleared his throat. "Yes, we'll be there." Then he turned on heel and walked to the door.
Jonas spoke again. "Oh yes, Vincent, be sure to shred that document once you've memorized it, as per policy. We wouldn't want it to fall into the wrong hands."
He pressed his fingers against the surface of the folder so hard that his knuckles turned white as he tightly nodded his head. Then he sought out the nearest restroom…

...He paced back and forth...back and forth...back and forth...sometimes shaking his head in disbelief...sometimes chewing a fingernail...sometimes digging his fingers into his scalp in frustration...his stomach churning the entire time...the words of his superior playing over and over in his head as he tried to ignore the clock on the mantle...ticking down to the appointed hour.
He pushed the door open beneath splayed fingers and stared at the small figure hunched beneath the thick comforter, dimly visible in the muted glow of the nightlight. He crossed the floor silently, as though stalking a deer, so as not to wake her, so as not to frighten her...
For a long time, he watched her sleep, thinking of all that she feared. People...the world...locked doors…darkness...especially darkness...
He leaned down to touch his fingertips to the storybook on her bedside table...the one he'd read to her only the night his naiveté...
The slender gold chain of the locket glinted dully against the wood beside the thin book. He carried it to eye-level in careful fingers to examine the finely etched dragon on the tiny gold lid. Then he popped it open with his thumbnail to drink in the tiny, delicate image of his mother's sweet face with anguished eyes.
"I swear to you, Mama..." His lips moved in silent murmur. "I will not let this touch her..."
The clock in the living room chimed the midnight hour, and he knew it was time to go. If he was going. But he had no choice. He could do it he knew. He'd learned the defensive art of detachment long before he'd become a Turk. Do it he could, and do it he would. For her. For the life she deserved. For the life she should have had, if fate hadn’t stolen it from her. In order to keep the darkness from her, the darkness he would embrace like an embittered darkness he would be transformed...and as a wielder of darkness, he would keep her tormenting demons at bay, if not his own.
Deliberately, he closed the golden, delicately etched lid over his mother's face, her loving brown eyes turned accusing at the vow he would break.
His face deceptively serene, he deftly drew his long, thick hair into a ponytail and checked the load in his gun. Then without another look in the mirror at the young man he would forever leave behind, he holstered his firearm and walked out the door...

...He raised his troubled eyes from the desk blotter to find Lewis leaning over the desk with his hands in his trousers pocket and keen interest in his eyes. "You look like a man with a problem, Vin my friend."
He drew his fisted hand from his mouth and straightened in his office chair to slide the red folder across the desk to his partner. His best friend.
His stringy, untamed sandy hair falling into his eyes, Lewis scanned the orders. "What's the problem, buddy?" he asked indifferently as he handed the folder back.
"We’re friends…I’ve gone out with her to Shinra functions a few times..." he reminded him.
"So?" Lewis shrugged. "There're other fish in the sea."
His brows drew together at his inability to make his friend understand. "Lewis, I can't do this. It's personal."
"Nothing's personal in this job, Vincent," Lewis admonished him. "You should remember that."
"Lewis...I..." He was stuck. He knew he had to do it. His sister's life depended on it, but he didn't know how he ever could.
Lewis abruptly reached out and snatched the folder from his hand. "Fine, Vincent. I'll do it for you. Just keep your mouth shut, and Jonas won't be the wiser." He swiped a hand across his forehead to throw the unruly hair out of his face as he turned for the door.
The door closed with a soft click, and he buried his face in his hands with a tortured groan as he worked to gather his thoughts. There was only one thing he could do. He deliberately sat back and slid one hand across his desk to the phone.
"Uh uh uh..." Lewis chided.
His startled eyes shot up to find Lewis standing just inside the office door, a knowing smirk on his thin face. "No phone calls, Vincent. You just forget that little girl ever existed."
Lewis opened the door again and stepped through into the hallway, his voice drifting back as he pulled the door shut. "Gotta give the lovely Machelle credit for nerve though, seeing a Turk and the whole while she's screwing the company over..."
His nightmare, that night, brought him straight out of bed, apparently with a loud cry of anguish, because his sister rushed into the room with terror in her eyes.
"Just a nightmare," he told her in an unsteady voice, and she climbed onto his bed to give him a hug and stroke his hair with soothing fingers, just as he would sit on her bed and take her onto his lap to stroke her shiny ebony hair when she awoke screaming…

...He hurried down the hallway toward the elevators. His yearly evaluation with Jonas had dragged on much longer than he'd realized, and now he was going to be late.
"Hey, Vin! Wait!" He frowned at the familiar voice of his friend, Lewis. He decided to ignore him since the elevator door had just chimed open.
"Come on, Vin! It's important!" The voice was much closer, and a few seconds later, just as he'd almost reached the invitingly open elevator car, Lewis managed to lay a hand on his elbow and bring him to a stop.
"What is it, Lewis?" He demanded impatiently as he glared down at the fingers on his coat sleeve. "I'm late!"
"Oh...sorry..." Lewis smoothed the rumpled coat sleeve back into place. "...I just have someone I wanted you to meet..."
Vincent's expression turned pained. He was in a hurry, but he had promised. "...Oh yes...your...sister..."
"Vincent Valentine." The husky feminine voice gave the syllables of his name a soft caress. He swiveled his eyes away from Lewis to find her there, and at sight of her, his whole body went still, but for his hand, which he absently raised to take her outstretched fingers into his. "So nice to finally meet you," she added. "Lewis has told me the most amazing things about you."
She smiled up at him, and he tumbled into her bottomless green eyes. "Dr." He managed to murmur. "...I wish to congratulate you...on position with Dr. Gast...” He fell silent then, his capacity for speech deserting him, and he simply stared, not even responding to her softly voiced 'Thank you, Vincent'.
Lewis leaned toward his sister to whisper loudly. "I think you've bewitched him, Luce."
He realized then, that he was still holding her hand, and he abruptly released her. "It was very nice to meet you, Lucrecia, but you'll have to excuse me," he said curtly. "I'm late." He finally forced his eyes away from her lovely face, and moved to go. This time she was the one to stop him, with the touch of slender fingers against his cuff.
"May we accompany you, Vincent?" she inquired with a smile.
Her request startled him. "Er...I'm just going to...a play," he explained lamely.
"Oh, I'd love to see a play," she said with sparkling eyes. "Is it showing on the Canal Street Promenade?"
" school...actually..." A sheepish look came to his face. "My sister's seventh grade play. She's very nervous...she's singing a solo."
"Oh, I'd love to go," she enthused. "May we?"
"Count me out, Vin," Lewis said ruefully. "I've got more interesting things to do than listen to your sister mangle her libretto." He winked, and then he abruptly turned and walked away, leaving his friend alone with his sister.
He frowned at his friend's departing back, and then he looked down to find expectant green eyes on his face. " may go...if you wish..."
"I wish," she said firmly. Without hesitation, she took his hand in hers and led him to the elevator, seemingly oblivious to the dazed look on his face...

...He strode through the living room with his car keys in hand, and his sister cried out in distress. He halted in mid-step and swiveled his head to look at her where she sat with her legs curled under her on the couch, her art pad in her hand.
"Is something wrong?" he queried with drawn brows at sight of her stricken face.
"You cut all your hair off!" she gasped in outrage. "Why did you cut your hair, Win?!"
He lifted a shoulder in an uneasy shrug. "I was tired of caring for it," he explained smoothly. "It required too much time."
His sister's dark eyes narrowed in suspicion. "After twenty-five years, you're tired of taking care of it? It suddenly takes too much time?" A knowing look came to her face. "It's because of her, isn't it?"
"Who?" he asked with feigned innocence.
"That Lucrecia woman," she snapped. "I heard her fussing at you the other night about it."
"Were you eavesdropping, dear sister?" He asked coolly.
She tossed her art book and pencils to the coffee table and came to her feet. "Hey! It's my home too. If you don't want me to hear what you say, then go somewhere else!" Tears spilled into her angry eyes.
"Forgive me, you're right....” He sought to mollify her. "I was out of line. But I did not cut my hair because of Lucrecia. I simply wanted a change..."
"Liar," she cried, and rushed from the room on willowy legs, her long black hair flying out behind her...

...Lewis dropped his feet from Vincent's desk and sat forward in the chair when he walked through the office door with a harried look on his face. "You're late, Vin. Been waiting for you."
"Is that so?" he asked absently as he glanced through his folders, relieved as he was most days to find no red ones awaiting him.
"Yeah, I wanted to ask you about last night," Lewis said with forced casualness, propping his elbows on the desk.
"What about last night?"
" was your first time to be assigned to escort the President's new bride around town, wasn't it?"
"Yes, what of it?"
"Did anything...untoward...occur?" he asked slyly.
"Why no. It was very uneventful. And tedious."
Lewis frowned in displeasure. "So nothing happened in the limo?"
Involuntarily, his eyes shot to Lewis's face, and Lewis chortled at his victory.
"Nothing happened, Lewis," he reasserted.
"Bull...shit!!!" Lewis exclaimed with glee.
Vincent sighed and returned his troubled eyes to his folders. "I rebuffed her," he informed his friend coolly.
"You have got to be kidding me, Vin! She's gorgeous!"
"I have no interest in becoming another addition to her growing collection of vanquished males." He returned accusatory eyes to his friend's face. "Besides, I'm seeing your sister. Remember?"
"I'll never tell. Besides, haven't you heard? Variety is the spice of life."
"I'm very happy with the woman in my life," he replied smoothly. "I've no need for another. And even if I were looking, which I am not, I would not touch Dania Shinra with a ten-foot pole. And you shouldn't either. The President will have your neck."
"Ah, he doesn't care." Lewis waved a careless hand in the air. "She told me."
"She told you," he replied wryly. "What a credible source she must be." He held the folders up before his friend's eyes. "You're a fool, Lewis. I'm going to come in here one day and find a red folder with your name on it."
Lewis snorted in derision. "And you'd sit there twisting your hands and fretting over what to do about it because it would be just too personal for you to handle."
He threw the folders down onto the blotter and rounded the desk to glare down at his friend. "Get out of my chair, Lewis," he said curtly. "I've got work to do."
Lewis threw up his hands. "Okay. Okay. Sor...ree! I'm sorry I ruffled your little feathers." Lewis obediently vacated the chair and spun it around for his friend to sit down. Then he headed for the door without another word.
He watched his friend cross the office with worried eyes. "Lewis...about Dania..." he said uneasily. "Be careful..."
Lewis looked back at him and winked. "Don't worry about me, Vin ole friend. I always come out on top. And hey! If you get a red folder with my name on it, just pass it on to me. I'll be sure to take care of it for you, Valentine." He pointed his finger and clicked his tongue, and then he spun away and vanished through the door, whistling...

...His sister appeared in the kitchen doorway with her comb in her hand. "Win, will you braid my hair please?" His mouth full of his last bite of sandwich, he silently nodded, and he shoved his book aside. He drew out the kitchen chair beside him and spun it around so she could straddle the chair and sit down with her back to him.
He knew, when she asked, that she had an important matter weighing on her mind. He slipped the comb into her hair to part out a handful of thick ebony tresses.
She fidgeted in the chair while his nimble fingers worked. "What is it?" he finally queried when she didn't seem eager to broach the subject.
She hesitantly shook her head.
"Is it school?" he asked tentatively
She shook her head again.
"A boy?" he asked with a deep frown.
She shook her head yet again, but this time she blurted out what she wanted to say, all in a rush, as though if she didn't say it fast, she wouldn't. "Are you going to marry Lucrecia?"
He paused in mid-stroke, and then he shrugged uneasily. He knew his sister disliked Lucrecia. "I haven't asked her, and if I did, she'd probably refuse. She's a very busy lady."
His sister smiled coldly. "Good."
"If I do decide to ask her, Little Sister Dear, you'll be the first to know," he replied wryly.
The kitchen door swung open, and Lucrecia paused hesitantly at the threshold.
"You gave her a key?!" his sister hissed over her shoulder.
Before he could cough up the explanation that he’d been expecting her and had left the door unlocked, Lucrecia spoke. "You two look serious...I'll just wait out in ...the living room..."
He tied off the braid and let it fall. "I was just braiding her hair, but now we're finished."
A pained look came to Lucrecia's face. "Isn't she a bit old for you to be braiding her hair?"
His sister jumped to her feet, knocking the chair back against his knees. With a huff, she rushed across the room, pausing only long enough to hiss near Lucrecia's ear. "Why don't you mind your own business, you nefarious witch?!" Then she brushed past the woman, being sure to give her a bit of her elbow as she passed.
Lucrecia widened her green eyes in amazement. "Nefarious witch?! Are you going to let her talk to me like that?"
He threw his hands out in helpless despair, and pushed the chair aside to stand. They both crossed the kitchen to meet halfway where he drew her into his arms and peered down into her troubled eyes. "She hates me, you know that, right?" Lucrecia asked petulantly.
Slowly, he shook his head. "It's not you, Lucrecia. It's me. She's very protective of me. I'm all she has."
"But Vincent..." He dipped his head to kiss her, effectively silencing her argument beneath his eager lips. He'd rather kiss her than engage in another pointless argument about his sister anyway...

…He glared at his sister with fire in his eyes, and she glared back with equal heat.
"You will go to your room," he snapped. "You are not going to the dance. You are not going anywhere for the foreseeable future. You are going to study and contemplate."
Her dark eyes widened with shock. "It's the last dance of the year," she cried out. "I can't miss it!"
"You should have thought of that before you came home on the arm of a Valencia police officer at 3 AM this morning." His eyes narrowed on the smirk his words elicited. He raised the card he held and waved it beneath her nose. “Which might well explain this ridiculous grade report I received in the post today.”
The smirk vanished from her face, and with a little shrug of denial, she pushed his hand aside and moved a step nearer to touch the sleeve of his coat with placating fingers, turning dark pleading eyes to his face. "Please, Win. I promise if you let me go, it won’t ever happen again. I’ll study hard and bring my grades up, and I won’t ever sneak out again. It was just the once…I’m sorry…”
"Oh no. I know you've been sneaking out on a regular basis, little sister," he informed her coolly. “Reports have come to me, but I chose to give you the benefit of the doubt. I could hardly believe that you would violate my trust. I thought it must surely be a case of mistaken identity. But now I know the truth. I know you’ve gone out to meet your friends at night. I heard that you were riding around with a hoodlum on the back of a motorcycle.” His face darkened dangerously at his own words. "I can assure you that I'm not amenable to negotiation at this point,” he snapped in disgust.
"Hoodlum? Motorcycle?" She rounded her eyes in contrived innocence. “I don’t know what on earth you’re talking about.”
“This discussion is finished,” he informed her curtly. Then he jabbed a finger toward the hallway. "Go to your room. Right now.
"I will not! You cannot make me," she snapped back. "You're not my father!"
"Oh, that is such an original line," he heatedly retorted. "I am your legal guardian, and you will do what I say."
"What happens if I don't? Will you shoot me?" she sneered. "Why don't you just shoot me and all of your problems will be over! Then you can be free! You can have your precious Lucrecia and you won't have to worry about me anymore!"
A hot spear of pain stabbed him straight through the heart, and his arm fell limply to his side. "I don't...what do you...mean?"
"I know what you are, Win," she said coldly. "I know you're a Turk, and I know what Turks do."
The report card slipped from suddenly boneless fingers to flutter to the floor. "You don't know anything..." he gasped out the strangled words. "…About what I do...about what I've done...for...for...” The last word was an indistinguishable murmur on his numb lips. "...You..."
He abruptly turned his back to her. And she took a hesitant step toward him, frightened at the strange reaction her angry words had produced.
"I'm sorry, Win. Please...I don't know're right. I just hear rumors, and I shouldn't pay them any mind..."
"Go to your room," he said dully. "I can' to you...right now. I have"
Then she did obey him, slipping past him with her uneasy gaze sliding across his downcast face.
He waited until her bedroom door closed, and he stirred himself into motion, tracing her route down the hall. Producing the key from his pocket for the newly installed deadbolt lock, he stuck it in the keyhole. With a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, he locked the door. At the sound of the tumblers clunking shut, his sister flew to the door and started pounding.
"Win...please don't lock me in!" she begged, her voice rising in fear. "Please, don't! Please, Win!"
He leaned his forehead against the door and waited until the pounding and pleading gave way to muffled sobs. "You've left me no choice, little sister." His voice came out wooden. Dead. Defeated. "I can't have you sneaking out again. The streets of Midgar at night are no place for a fifteen-year-old girl. No place for my sister. Mrs. Allen will let you out in awhile."
He braced for more pleading or for more copious tears, and he bade himself to just walk away rather than force himself to bear the pain he’d inflicted on her. But it wasn’t tears he heard next. Or pleading. A cold voice floated around the cracks of the door. One as icily brittle and dead as the heavy crystallized branches of a tree after an ice storm. “I hate you, Vincent." His chest tightened at her words, especially at her use of his given name, which he could not remember ever coming off her tongue before. "So be it," he whispered hoarsely. With a convulsive jerk of his body away from the door, he spun and strode down the hall, the last words he would ever hear his sister say to him replaying endlessly in his mind…

...Lucrecia knelt before him in her flowing black dress, the full skirt making a bell against the gray carpet of the chapel. Hesitantly she took his hands in hers, and he raised dead eyes to look at her. She slipped a warm palm against his frigid cheek, and he lifted his hand to her cover her fingers. "Go away with me, Lucrecia," he said brokenly. "Let's go far away from this place."
She tilted her head to the side, her eyes filling with sorrow. "I can't go, Vincent. You know that. I have important work I’m doing here. I can’t throw all that away…” She tried to offer him a reassuring smile. "You just aren't thinking straight right now, sweetheart. It will get better. The pain of your loss will fade. You don't want to make any precipitous decisions right now. Especially such a dangerous one…"
He swiveled his head to stare dully at the gleaming black casket covered in red roses. "He doesn't have a hook in me anymore," he whispered harshly.
"Who, Vincent? What are you talking about?"
"Nothing." He shook his head.
"Why don't we go for a walk together, in the Gardens?"
Haunted eyes slowly came to her face. "I can't...right now...not the Gardens..."
"Then somewhere else."
He rose to his feet then, and squeezed her hands, as though he were the one giving comfort. "I believe I'll go home, Lucrecia."
"I'll come with you, Vincent," she quickly offered.
He shook his head and drew away. "No, I want to be alone.
She started to follow as he walked away, but he held up a staying hand.
"Leave me be for a while, Lucrecia," he said dully. "I...just...want to...sleep."
But he didn’t sleep. He couldn’t sleep. Because when the nightmares came this time, she didn’t come to comfort him, and in every single one of them, he was the one to kill her…

...He sat down in the chair and watched Jonas scrawling away in a folder with his gold pen, waiting patiently for the Director to acknowledge his presence there.
"How are you, Vincent?" he finally asked without looking up.
He shrugged. "Fine."
Jonas laid his pen aside and looked up with an appraising gaze. "You don't look like you've been sleeping well," he commented.
He didn't bother to answer. What could he say? My nights are so plagued with nightmares that I can hardly bear to lie down?
"Perhaps you need a vacation."
He knew it was no idle suggestion. "What do you have in mind, Jonas?"
"Nibelheim. President Shinra has acquired the Webster Mansion. He wants to transport the specimen the excavation crew discovered on the Northern Continent and send a special project team to study the thing there.
"Why Nibelheim?" he asked with mild bewilderment. "The Shinra Laboratory would be more suited to such study, I'd think."
"It's proven too easy to infiltrate the lab. Already one nosy journalist managed to slip through by bribing a janitor. Too many people come and go. Not so in such a rural, insular village. The President wants one Turk to accompany the Jenova specimen from Midgar to Nibelheim and take up residence there to maintain the integrity of the project. If you want the position, it's yours."
"You're giving me a choice?"
"Indeed, I am. The mission will last the better part of a year. I think it wise to leave the decision in your hands, under the circumstances. There will be no repercussions from your refusal. However, I will tell you that Dr. Gast is head of the project and his assistant, Dr. Hodge, will most assuredly be accompanying him."
He really didn't have to think about it, especially if Lucrecia would be going. His beloved Lucrecia was all that mattered anymore. Lucrecia was all he had. His world. His compass. "I may as well. I've no responsibilities here," he replied in a monotone.
"Very well, Vincent. The order detail will be on your desk within the hour."
Jonas turned back to his paperwork, the usual indication that the meeting was done. Vincent rose to leave. But when his hand touched the doorknob, Jonas spoke again.
"By the way, Vincent, a salvage diver found Dania Shinra's body this morning."
He turned back to look at Jonas with surprise. "That's...unfortunate," he said slowly. "Where was she found?"
"In the rocks below the point. There wasn't much left of her after so many months. Identification was tentatively made based on the diamond pendant entangled in the ribcage. I’m certain that will be confirmed through her dental records."
"I see...” A mental picture rose in his mind of a diamond pendant sparkling against Dania Shinra’s flawless skin, the very pendant the President had given his bride on their wedding day. He stood for a long moment in silence. He could think of nothing further to say.
"Did you think she was suicidal, Vincent?" Jonas suddenly asked.
He thought for a few seconds and shook his head. "No."
"Neither did I," he agreed. Jonas looked up then, with concern in his gray eyes. "Take care of yourself, Vincent."
"I will, Jonas, thank you."
"I expect you to complete your reports as usual and stay in contact. There's no phone system there, so I'll send a courier regularly.
"Yes, Jonas."
Jonas bent his head to his business again, and he gently closed the door on the Leader of the Turks, the last time that he would ever see Jonas Ash…

…And so the memories flowed…on and on…some long forgotten…some long disallowed…some never acknowledged…unstoppable…uncontrollable…unbearable…but forced upon him in the depths of his toxin-induced stupor…

…His step faltered imperceptibly at the surprise in Lucrecia’s eyes when he first walked through the door to the first project-planning meeting…as though she’d expected someone else…as though she thought to leave him behind…
“Vincent, I was hoping you’d be assigned,” she enthused happily. “I’m so glad you’re going with us.”
He believed her…besotted fool that he was…

…Hot tears sprang into Lucrecia’s eyes, and she jerked her hand from his to run away from him, as though he’d informed her that he planned to kill her rather than voiced his gentle request that she be his wife.
“Oh, Vincent…I’m sorry…I could never marry…you…
…The gleaming gold ring burnished in sunlight…the diamond sparkling like wintry ice… disappeared beneath the gentle surf…
He fell bonelessly to his knees and clawed his fingers into the wet sand, oblivious to the wash of the tide that soaked through the legs of his trousers…

…He reluctantly turned toward the Nibelheim gate after a long walk in the meadows and came to an abrupt halt at the sight of his Lucrecia standing near the entrance to the inn, wrapped in Hojo’s embrace, her chestnut head resting on his shoulder, his fingers tangled in her hair.
His heart twisted viciously in his chest to snatch every bit of air from his lungs, and he instinctively whirled around and hurried back the way he’d come, before he saw anything else, because he believed if he saw her kiss Hojo the very sight would stop his heart dead.
For hours he roamed the meadows, until long after the sun had set. He entered the mansion in the predawn darkness long after anyone who might see him had retired for the night. Fully clothed, he fell onto his bed and stared unblinking at the ceiling until dawn when sleep finally relented to take him…

…He stared down at her, his golden brown eyes darkening beneath the weight of his impassioned plea.
…”I need to know Lucrecia…are you happy with him…
But she did not answer… She never did answer…
…The amber liquid stained the floor, the broken glass of the shattered wine goblet glistening like sharp, frozen tears at his feet…

…The snow crunched beneath his shoes as he crossed the square to the water tank.
“Wanna drink, Vin?” Lewis offered the whiskey flask to him.
He crossed his arms against the cold and shook his head. “Just give me my orders, Lewis,” he said coolly.
Lewis tossed the hair from his face with a gloved hand and then upended the whiskey bottle to down the last bitter dregs. With a grimace, he tossed the empty bottle aside where it came to rest in a gentle drift of snow.
“Sorry, my friend, your transfer request was denied. You’re here for the duration.”
With a sad shake of his head, Lewis walked away. Long after his friend left, he stood with his hands in the pockets of his long black coat, staring at the ravaged snow at his feet, oblivious to the cold that seeped deep into the marrow of his bones…

…He stepped from the landing into the doorway to confront her, throwing his hands up to grip the doorframe and block her escape. His eyes helplessly fell to the slight swell of her stomach beneath her buttoned white lab coat, and as he stared, the knuckles of his hands turned just as white as her coat at the tightening pressure of his grip on the wooden frame. Her eyes filled with apprehension at the intensity of his gaze.
“I see congratulations are in order, Lucrecia,” he said huskily.
She uneasily took a step back. “Ah…yes…thank you…Vincent…”
He forced eyes darkened nearly to black in the dim hallway to shift from her stomach to her fearful face. “Is that why, Lucrecia?” he asked in a voice rife with his pain. “Is that the reason you chose him? That he could give you what I could not?”
“Please…Vincent…I can’t talk about this…with you…”
She whirled and fled down the hallway as though all the demons of hell were nipping at her heels…

…He wandered the darkened moonlit hallways like a wraith, silent and alone. Not for the first time. Surely not for the last.
Absently, he descended the spiral steps to the empty basement laboratory to peruse the books in the library, to find a topic that would focus his racing thoughts.
His traitorous feet carried him to Gast’s desk where he deftly picked the lock on the professor’s desk drawer. He easily found the meticulous notes about the ongoing experiments surrounding the specimen the good doctor postulated to be Cetran, the eerily staring humanoid creature that Gast had named after his deceased wife. Jenova.
He read into the wee hours by the feeble light of one small desk lamp, a creeping sense of revulsion and horror devouring his mind with each subsequent page…

…He deliberately intercepted her path as she crossed the square.
“Lucrecia, I must talk to you,” he informed her urgently.
Averting her troubled eyes, she silently shook her head and pressed a protective hand to her swollen belly. Awkwardly, she tried to sidestep him, but he merely planted himself in her way.
“Lucrecia, I know what you’re doing,” he informed her lowly and earnestly. “I know about the injections. You must stop this madness.”
Speechlessly, she stared at him, her mouth drifting agape.
“…How…do…you know…” she murmured in shock.
He reached down and took her hands in his. “What you’re doing is wrong, Lucrecia. It’s dangerous. Please…Lucrecia…” he pleaded with eyes transformed to liquid gold in the bright sunlight. “I can’t bear to see you hurt. Please stop it.”
Her words choked off in a sob, and she snatched her hands away. Dropping her forehead into wildly trembling fingers, she turned and rushed away, back in the direction from whence she’d come…

…A knock came at his door, and he cracked it open to find Lewis on the other side. For a long moment, he stared at him with one wary eye through the inch wide aperture.
“Can I come in, Vin,” Lewis asked amiably.
“Why are you here, Lewis?” he inquired uneasily.
“I’ve come with a message,” he replied smoothly. “One best not discussed in the hallway.”
Vincent threw the door wide and walked away to drop to the edge of his narrow bed.
Lewis closed the door behind him and crossed the room to sit in the desk chair opposite him.
Silence reigned in the tiny room until Lewis decided to end it.
“You’ve been making waves, Vin my friend,” Lewis said coolly. “You had best cease and desist.”
He pinned disgusted eyes on his friend’s face. “She’s your sister, Lewis. Don’t you care what they are doing?”
Lewis shrugged indifferently. “The orders for this project come from the top, Vincent. If you continue to meddle in this business, you are going to regret it. Dr. Hojo has been quite vocal in his communications regarding your interference.”
He sprang to his feet as his barely contained distress overwhelmed him. “Lewis! Have you seen her? Do you see how ill she looks?! Don’t you care?! They are injecting her with the cells of that…that thing!” He frantically pointed toward the door as though it were lurking just outside.
Lewis stood too, and wrapped a gloved hand around his friend’s arm, stepping close to peer into his distraught face. “Calm down, Vin,” he said soothingly. “They’ve assured me that it’s safe. Don’t worry.”
“Safe?!” he cried out, throwing his hands up to twist his fingers in his friend’s blue coat, dragging him closer to glare into his face. “They don’t know that! They don’t know anything! They are experimenting! They’ve made guinea pigs of Lucrecia and her baby! And they just don’t know! They do not know!”
Lewis lifted his hands to his friend’s fingers and carefully unfastened them from his coat. “It’s okay, Vin. Settle down. Lucrecia just appears ill because of her pregnancy. She’s not handling it well. The Jenova cells will just make the baby stronger. That’s all. I’ve tried it myself. A couple of times. You should try it too. It’s like a huge dose of Vitamin C! It will make you feel great! I’m telling you!”
His eyes rounded in shock, and numbly he backed away, fulfilling the unconscious need to put as much distance between his friend and himself as he could, until he came up against the edge of the bed and could go no further. He started shaking his head. “Are you mad, Lewis? Has every single person around me gone insane?!” he demanded in awed disbelief.
“Come on, Vin. You’re overreacting.” He held up placating hands at the fire that suddenly flared to life in his friend’s golden brown eyes. “…And I understand. I really do. I know that you love her. I know you wanted a life with her. I know you probably hate Hojo’s guts. But Luce wanted this. She agreed to it. It will advance her career. Hojo is only peripheral anyway. He’s not even the father. She was artificially impregnated before she ever left Midgar, precisely for the purposes of this project. They just didn’t tell you because…well…you can figure out why.”
He couldn’t take his frozen eyes off his partner’s face. The urge to vomit suddenly overwhelmed him, and he threw a hand up to cover his mouth.
Lewis studied him with worried eyes. “Vin…buddy…are you okay?”
“…I…just…wanted her…to be…happy…” he murmured dully into the palm of his hand. “…That’s all I wanted…”
“I know, Vin,” Lewis said soothingly in commiseration. “I really do know.” “…I don’t…think…she is…”
“Sure she is, Vin. The project is going along swimmingly. That’s the most important thing to her.”
His head started shaking again in denial. “No…she’s sick…she’s in pain…I hear her crying…in the lab…”
Lewis threw his hands out in despair, his shallow well of patience expended. “Just stop it, Vincent! Luce is fine! The baby is fine! Stop worrying about matters that don’t concern you.”
His friend’s heated words served to bolster his dwindling resolve. He jerked his hand from his mouth and squared his shoulders. “This is human experimentation, Lewis,” he replied coldly. “It’s wrong. It’s immoral. Do you expect me to stand by and say nothing?”
His friend’s blue eyes turned as frigid as the dark depths of the ocean. “I am not going to stand here and argue semantics with you, Valentine,” he informed him icily. “That’s not my job. No, I was sent here expressly to warn you. And one warning is all you’ll receive. Do you get my drift, friend?”
He simply stared unblinking into his partner’s face, as though he’d just discovered the alien behind the sapphire eyes. But truly, he’d always known it was there.
Lewis grimaced at his expression. “Look, Vin. I don’t want to go into my office and find a red folder with your name on it, okay? Just chill out and do your job. It’ll all be over in a few short months and you’ll be back in Midgar at your desk. Savvy?”
He made his head nod. “Good man,” Lewis said approvingly and rewarded him with a friendly slap on the shoulder, after which he promptly left. When the door closed into the jamb, his legs abruptly folded to dump him heavily to the edge of the bed, his heart sinking to the toes of his shoes at the knowledge that he could not stop them…

…He sat tensely with bowed head on the wide windowsill of his room with the soft white of moonlight streaming through the pane behind him, casting his silhouette faintly against the wooden floor.
Cool beads of sweat popped out on his forehead as he mentally counted down the minutes. His muscles tightened when he knew it was time.
Her agonized scream distantly rose to his ears, sifting up through the wooden floorboards from the basement laboratory, vibrating the very molecules of the air.
His face fell into his hands. He dug his fingers into his tightly drawn brow, pressing deeply, as though he could drive the knowledge of her suffering from his mind. He could not bear it. He could not bear her pain.
Her unending wail, though distant, cresdendoed inside his narrowly focused mind, engulfing the whole of his thoughts until it nearly reached the point when he knew he would scream himself, only to suddenly waver away, abandoning him to the silence, granting him blessed surcease.
After a few seconds, he raised his face from his hands to listen, and mentally, he began to count again…

…The hidden door to the spiral staircase opened beneath his hand, and he purposefully set a shoe on the first wooden step but paused when he heard the voices drifting up the circular stairwell as the two scientists started up the steps from the bottom. Silently, he stepped back into the room and bent his head to eavesdrop with one hand against the jamb to hold the door open.
“Lucrecia is already pleading to see the baby,” Hojo said in a voice rife with disgust. “Despite her agreement.”
“So let her,” Dr. Gast replied easily. “She is his mother, after all.”
“Do you really thing that’s wise, Karl?” Hojo asked coldly. “Given the protocol. Do you think she can maintain her professional detachment to fulfill the demands of the project?”
“Er…perhaps not…” Gast responded slowly.
“Then do as I’ve suggested, Karl.” Hojo urged smoothly. “Take the baby to Midgar. Today. Don’t wait until next week. Don’t give her the opportunity to find a way to see him. It will only make matters more difficult for her.”
The two men fell silent, the echoing scuffs of their conjoined footsteps the only sound he could hear. Then Gast finally spoke again. Sorrowfully. Wearily. “You are right, Hojo. I will make arrangements to depart today.”
He deliberately stepped heavily onto the first step as the two scientists appeared around the last curve. Dr. Gast looked up at the sound of his footfall.
“Ah, Vincent, I was just about to come look for you,” he said in a friendly voice.
“What can I do for you, Dr. Gast?” he asked emotionlessly.
“I need to leave Nibelheim today, and I wondered if you could arrange transportation to Costa del Sol immediately.”
“Yes, Dr. Gast,” Vincent replied dully. He stood aside to let the two scientists pass.
Hojo turned around to look at him with baleful eyes when he didn’t follow. ”He did say ‘immediately’, Turk,” Hojo said with a frown. “Did that sink into your thick skull?”
Vincent silently nodded and pointedly released the door.
“Hojo, why don’t you go ahead?” Gast suddenly suggested. “I’ll meet you at the café.”
Hojo turned around to examine Gast’s face. A sly look came to his eyes. “You are not coming now, Karl?”
“In a few moments. I wish to discuss a few mundane maintenance details with Vincent before I take my leave of Nibelheim.”
“I will wait,” he instantly replied.
”Really, Jonathon, there is no need. Proceed to the café and place my usual order. I will be there in a few minutes.”
With a glare at Vincent, Hojo conceded and left.
Gast brought sympathetic eyes to Vincent’s still face.
“She isn’t down there, Vincent. We moved her to the inn very early this morning.”
“How is Lucrecia, Dr. Gast?” he asked with unblinking eyes pinned on the esteemed professor’s face.
Gast lifted a hand to squeeze Vincent’s shoulder. “She’s fine, Vincent,” he said heartily. “She’s a little weak after a difficult labor, but she’s going to be just fine. Don’t you worry about that.”
He clearly heard the ring of falseness in Gast’s voice, and he recognized the uncertainty in his eyes…

…He stood sentinel just beyond the Nibelheim gate, with widely planted feet and hands clasped behind his back, watching with distant detachment as the nurse carefully handed the tiny swaddled bundle up to Gast once he’d climbed up into the gaily painted chocobo cart and settled onto the wide bench. Gast offered his hand to her, and she climbed in to sit opposite him. A thin cry came from inside the blanket, and the nurse duly relieved the scientist of his small burden. Then the scientist rapped his knuckles on the wooden hull of the cart, and with a tug on his cap, the driver clucked at the bright yellow bird. Gast nodded politely at Vincent as the cart rolled away along the rutted road.
As though he’d divined through telepathy exactly what he would find, he half-turned to peer up at the westward façade of the inn. With both slender hands pressed to the glass of the second story window, Lucrecia stared after the departing cart. Her face collapsed into tears even as he watched.
Though his heart ached at the sight of her distress, he forced himself to walk away, the epitome of the cool, efficient Turk. After all, she wasn’t his concern anymore. He pointedly ignored a preoccupied Hojo standing beside a gatepost as he passed. For the rest of the day, he retired to his room and attempted to sleep, but as usual, the sorely sought comfort of sleep evaded him…

…He stood in the meadow watching the first blossoms of the season dance in the gentlest of spring breezes. Dark storm clouds billowed far out above the surface of the sea and distant lightening flashed into his vacant eyes. He didn’t hear the faraway voice calling him, until she was almost on him.
“Mr. Valentine! Please! Mr. Valentine!”
He whirled around to confront the panting innkeeper’s wife. “What is it?” he asked urgently.
“It’s Dr. Hodge. Please! You have to come quick!” She threw a trembling hand to her mouth. “Oh gods! Oh gods!” she wailed. “I think she’s dead!”
The delicate white flower drifted from his fingers to fall across one polished black shoe as he stared at the innkeeper’s wife in stunned disbelief. Then he stumbled into uncertain motion, taking a couple of wooden steps before he suddenly burst into a full run, leaving the now weeping woman behind him to race for the too distant gate, oblivious to the trail of crushed flowers he left beneath his pounding shoes and deaf to the anguished cry of denial that filled the air all around him as he ran…

…He fell drunkenly to his knees beside the crumpled form of his Lucrecia, his horrified eyes capturing every detail of the scene as though imprinted on his brain with the fleeting flash of a camera; the hem of the snowy white robe fanned out against the soft rose-printed carpet, the loosened chestnut hair flung across her face, her pale skin and blue lips, a sliver of lifeless green eyes just visible beneath lightly cracked eyelashes, the hand curled against the floor, fingers loosely wrapped around an emptied pill bottle.
Gently, he brushed the hair from her face with the fingertips of two quaking fingers. “Forgive…me…my love…” he whispered brokenly.
Behind him, the innkeeper rushed into the room, a startled gasp flying from his lips at the sight that met his eyes.
The well-trained Turk came to the forefront then, to create a convenient façade for the shivering, heartbroken man inside. He sent his fingers in search of a pulse, the tips of his fingers sliding against the cool skin, only to find that the pulse of life inside the carotid artery had fallen still. He snatched the pill bottle into his head and sprang to his feet.
“Stay with her,” he commanded hoarsely. Then he spun on heel and strode out the door, anger roiling up from a deeply buried well to fill the aching void inside his chest…

…So shocked was he that he didn’t have time to draw his own gun. He didn’t have time to move. He could only manage to throw his hand up as the scientist fired, a terrible rictus of a grin on his narrow face as he pulled the trigger.
The gunshot rang inside his head, and the bullet carved a fiery path through bone and sinew and muscle, ripping apart the tissues of his upraised arm as it tumbled about, until it finally exited near the elbow to bury its fragmented remains in his chest.
He tried to form words of protest…or maybe…apology…but his slack mouth would not cooperate. A curious weakness seeped up through his whole body, accompanied by a buzzing darkness creeping about the edges of his mind. His wide brown eyes shot to the copious rivulets of blood that streamed from the once snowy cuff of his shirtsleeve as his legs turned rubbery and melted beneath him. His gaze abruptly went out of focus and he toppled forward like a single felled tree in a dark, thick forest. Maniacal laughter overflowed his failing ears, until his jaw cracked against the stone floor and the pain imprisoned his thoughts. The darkness rushed into the center as though through a breech in a dam…

…The backs of his hands scraped across the floor, his Turk ring making a scritching sound against the stone. The motion roused him just enough to allow him to vaguely acknowledge, somewhere in the back of his dying mind, that Hojo was dragging him by the ankles. He tried to open his eyes, but they would not obey his feeble command, his eyelashes only fluttering slightly to tease him. He might have truly started to wonder about where Hojo planned to take him, if not for the fact that the scientist’s babble engaged his whole mind, and the insanity of the man’s rant wholly usurped every last ounce of his failing consciousness.
“Hah, Stupid Turk! What do you think, Lucy? He tried to convince me you were dead! Idiot! Moron! Do you want to know what I’m going to do, Lucy? Do you want to know why? Do you think you could ever comprehend in your pea sized little head? This animal...this Shinra assassin…had the audacity to skulk into MY LAB and question MY research. Yes, that is correct. With his hands stained with the blood of who knows how many humans, he has the GALL to question my burden me with his false morality. Shinra’s garbage man…taking out Shinra’s trash…utterly brain-dead…dares to question me. He destroys! But ME! I create! I am creating something great! Am I not? Something fantastic! Something miraculous! And he enters MY lab with his superior attitude, thinking he can patronize ME. Well, Lucy, I’m sorry. But he found that he’d underestimated me...indeed he did.” Hojo’s laughter rang inside his dim mind. "I can hardly imagine what you ever saw in him, Lucy. Not even smart enough to realize that I could and would kill him. Stupid Turk. Lowborn hypocritical cretin. Mindless killer. Conscienceless monster develops a parody of conscience. News at 10. How rich! How amusing! How utterly hilarious! You will absolutely love what I plan to do with him…Lucy my sweet…you will tremble in awe…"
The madness of the Professor’s rant and the satirical music of his mad laughter thankfully went blessedly silent as the darkness finally devoured him and swallowed him whole…

…The murmur of voices outside the locked door stirred his drugged mind to a light consciousness. Struggling to gain a higher level of awareness despite the sluggishness of his thoughts, he unconsciously moved a hand across the frigid stone floor, and the brittle chink of his chains roused him further.
The tumblers of the lock chocked free from the doorjamb, and the light from the outer room, though dim, fell across his prone form, and burned a path into his sensitive eyes. He clumsily threw a hand to his face to cover his eyes, only to slash forehead and cheek with the sharp tips of his metal talons. A whimpering groan came from his parched throat as he curled protectively into his corner, the chains dancing musically at his lethargic movements.
“I suggest you reconsider, Turk,” Hojo’s low voice slammed into his ears, and he threw his hands to his head to block the sound, this time driving the tip of one claw into his scalp.
“Orders, Dr. Hojo. The President sent me personally.”
His dulled senses sharpened an increment more at the sound of the familiar voice. Slowly, he drew his hand and claw from his ears as his auditory functions reflexively adapted to the novel volume of sound in his typically quiet environment.
A dark silhouette moved into the light, into the room, and then accommodatingly stepped aside to leave him revealed with slowly blinking eyes in the wash of the outside light.
Silence reigned for several moments, and then the familiar voice finally came again, high and strained.
“Gods, you crazy scientist! What had you done to him? You have him chained like a wild animal.”
Hojo chuckled. “You’ve read the reports,” he reminded the Turk. “He is a wild animal. Under the right circumstances, you would sorely appreciate those chains.”
“Yes, I’ve read the reports,” he spat in disgust. “I’ve read enough to agree with President Shinra’s assessment. You’ve completely lost control of this experiment. The President wants the project scrapped and the specimen destroyed. I completely concur.”
“Lewis…” His lips moved, but then he realized he’d only spoken the name inside his head. “The President is mistaken and you, Turk, are mistaken,” Hojo replied superciliously.
“He looks drugged,” Lewis said nervously, as though he hadn’t taken note of Hojo’s arrogant words.
“Oh, he is. Believe me. Be thankful that he is. If he were not, the very sight of me would spark a transformation. I imagine the sight of you would act as a catalyst as well. If he knew how you betrayed him.” Hojo chortled his amusement.
“He’s bleeding,” Lewis replied tightly. “Shouldn’t you care for him?”
“He cuts himself constantly when he’s tranquilized,” Hojo informed him with a smile in his voice. “And his injuries heal within moments. Strange concern from one that has come to order his destruction.”
“Lew…is…” he managed to say, in a slurred whisper. The chains slid noisily across the stone floor as he clumsily labored to rise from the corner.
”What did he say?” the Turk asked with fear in his voice.
”Your name, I believe, Turk.” Hojo replied with a snort of derision. “Lewis. Lewis. Lewis. Seems he recognizes you.”
“Vincent…” Lewis said anxiously.
The sound of his own name, a word he’d not heard expressed in a long time, spurred him to greater effort, and pulling himself up the wall with hand and claw, he managed to come to his feet, leaning his forehead into the wall as he sought the strength he required to stand and face his friend.
Lewis compulsively took a step back.
“Don’t worry, Lewis, he won’t remember you later,” Hojo said soothingly if insincerely.
Lewis suddenly whipped the pistol from his shoulder holster and leveled it at the metal-clawed creature with a snarled mess of tangled ebony hair hanging across his face. A creature that used to be his friend.
He managed to twist around to put his back against the wall without falling. With a great deal of concentration, he raised his hand toward Lewis, his fingers trembling as he reached in supplication.
Lewis tried to aim, but the gun began to shake madly in his hand.
Hojo laughed at the Turk’s obvious distress. “You can’t kill him with that, witless Turk. You will only enrage him.”
Lewis suddenly whirled away and strode from the room. “You kill him then, Hojo. Do it right now.”
Hojo grabbed the Turk’s coat sleeve to bring him to a stop. “I will not kill him. He is the product of my hard work. The offspring of my genius.”
Lewis twisted the scientist’s clawed fingers from his coat. “He is the unforeseen product of your endless tampering. You will dispose of him, and you will do it now. The President has ordered it.
“No! No! You can’t kill him! I won’t let you!” The frantic voice rang down the hall.
Both men turned in astonishment. “Shit, Lucrecia…” Lewis muttered aloud.
“Lu…cre..cia…” he murmured inside the room. The name fueled his slowly reawakening strength, and with a hand pressed flat against the wall, he shoved himself erect and turned blood red eyes to the door. Lucrecia was dead, he then remembered. A low moan slipped from his lips, the utterance a tiny fraction of his inner pain.
Hojo and Lewis both moved to block her entrance, and both desperately reached for her at the same time, but in her determination, she shoved between them and stumbled into the room, only to come to a hesitant stop at sight of the man who had never stopped loving her.
He stared at her in shock. Was she a ghost? A shade come to haunt him? To taunt him with her beauty? To fill him full of shame? “For…give…me…” he murmured hoarsely. “Lu…cre…cia…” He took a wooden step toward her, and then another, his fingers slipping against the wall as he moved with great effort.
Her green eyes widened in horror at the unfamiliar, tangle-haired, crimson-eyed, bloodied creature she beheld, and shaking her head in denial, she slowly backed away, step by step, her soles scuffling against the floor, until she came near enough that Lewis risked stepping into the room to grab her. He towed her, gape-mouthed and unresisting, through the door.
”Lucrecia!” he cried out hoarsely at her abandonment, adrenaline exploding through his bloodstream to chase the last lingering effects of the tranquilizer from his body. “Lucrecia!” he screamed. “Don’t leave me!” He lunged for the door and hit the end of his chains. He threw his weight against them as his eyes ignited into crimson flame.
”Stupid twit, you’ve done it now,” Hojo cried out into Lucrecia’s face.
“Lucrecia! Lucrecia! Don’t go!” he screamed again, except the words came out in a coarse growl.
Hojo snatched Lucrecia from her brother’s hold and shoved her down the hall. “Get the hell out of here, Lucy,” he commanded with exasperation in his voice. “Upstairs! Go! And don’t come back!”
He screamed her name again, but it came off his thick tongue in the enraged roar of a beast.
Hojo turned to peer into the room. “What do you think, Turk?” The professor asked with clinical interest. “Ever witnessed anything like that before?”
Lewis stared mesmerized in awe and trepidation. He absently shook his head.
Rage surged through his burgeoning muscles and flowed into his visual field, painting his targets an appropriate bloody red. He would tear them limb from limb for keeping his Lucrecia from him. He slammed against the end of the chains again, and he roared with delight when the chain tethering his left arm popped from the wall in reward.
Lewis jumped backward in alarm, and Hojo slammed the heavy wooden door shut and locked it.
“Will the chains hold?” Lewis yelled anxiously above the thundering roars as he watched the powerful beast slam against the chains time and again through the open bars of the eye-level window.
Hojo frowned at the question. “A legitimate question,” he yelled back. “As he’s never broken a chain before. He’s never transformed so swiftly before either. And never in a tranquilized state.” His remarks were punctuated by the snap of another chain, which rebounded from the strain to smack into the door with a shuddering thud.
Hojo’s face suddenly disappeared from the window, and the beast roared his rage.
”Hey, where’re you going?” Lewis yelled after him.
I suggest you flee, you stupid Turk!” Hojo’s fading voice echoed inside the room.
Another chain snapped, and with a startled little yelp, the Turk whirled and sprinted away.
The enraged beast roared again, in despair that his prey would get away. With a powerful thrust of his whipping tail, he broke the final chain and charged at the door. The wooden barricade shattered into splinters beneath the mighty horns, and finally freed to appease his ravening anger, he gave the last vestiges of himself completely over to the wild, mindless power of the Galian Beast…

She clunked the beer bottle down on the table in front of Barrett, and then she tensely propped her elbows on the other side of the bar and planted her chin in her hands. She drew in a great breath and released it in a loud sigh of dissatisfaction.

“What’sa matter now?” Barrett asked apprehensively.

Do you think we’re doing the right thing, Barrett?” she inquired uneasily. “Whatcha mean?”

“You know what I mean.” She narrowed her eyes on his nonchalant face. “What Wedge and Biggs are getting now. The explosives.”

“Sssssh!” Barrett hissed. “Keep that to yerself.”

“No one’s here to hear us, for crying out loud.”

“Don’t be too sure, little missy. The walls might have ears.”

“Please, Barrett,” she whispered. “I’m really bothered by this whole sabotage business.”

”What about it?” he asked with an indifferent shrug.

“We might kill somebody,” she hissed at him.

“The better to drive home our point,” he remarked with a slight smile.

“I just don’t know if I can…if I want to…”

“Shinra, Tifa. It’ll only be Shinra.”

“But they won’t know. They won’t have a chance… Couldn’t we warn somebody or…something?”

He chugged a swig of the frosty beer. “Are you going soft on me, Lockhart?” he asked with irritated brown eyes. “Thought you wanted revenge. For Nibelheim.”

She shook her head. “No, not revenge. I want to stop them. I want to stop what they are doing. What they did in Nibelheim. What they are doing everywhere.”

“If you know another way to stop it, just tell me, and I’ll consider it. For a minute or two.”

Her eyes flew wide in consternation, and she instantly straightened from the bar.

“Well, okay, for five minutes. Or ten.”

“Something’s wrong…” she said fearfully, her voice strained. “Something’s very wrong…”

Barrett slowly rose to his feet, worried eyes on her face. “What?! What’s wrong?!”

“I don’t know! I don’t know!” she cried out her ignorance. “But…” A frown came to her face. “…I do know I have to go.” She suddenly moved, darting around the end of the bar to race for the door, her ponytail flying out behind her.

“Wait, girl! I’ll come too! Tifa wait!”

Deaf to his entreaty, she flung open the front door of the Seventh Heaven and ran straight through into a thick fog. Startled, she slammed to a stop at the realization that she must have gone the wrong way. She whirled around to dart back through the door, only to find that the portal had vanished, leaving only the swirling featureless mist around her.

She reached out her hands to the spot where she thought the door must be, but her fingers met only damp air. Letting her hands fall uselessly to her sides, she slowly rotated in place, staring hard into the fathomless mist to catch the slightest glimpse of a building or a person. She was still in Sector Seven, wasn’t she? Or…was she? She seemed to recall that she’d been in a lot of places, both strange and familiar, in the last little while.

“Hello!” she impulsively cried out. “Is anybody there?!”

Many voices called back to her. In the same words. All her own.

Slowly, she started walking, again raising her hands out in front of her, and stretching her fingers into the insubstantial void for the first touch of something solid.

“Barrett! Where are you? Can you hear me?”

Her voice came back to her again. Still, she continued to try.

“Cloud!? Cid!? Red!?”

The names of her friends echoed all around her, over and over. Louder and louder. She threw her hands to her ears, and her echo fell silent.

Slowly, she drew her hands down and came to a stop as a fleeting memory slipped through her mind and away. She wrinkled her brow in thought. Maybe she hadn’t been in the Seventh Heaven at all. That didn’t feel right. She’d been so many places, seen so many faces, that she couldn’t remember. Her hand drifted to her face, and she flattened her fingers against her cheek.

“Vincent…” she murmured.

Her eyes flew wide in startled realization, and she straightened with purpose to look all around. She’d been with Vincent. She remembered that now. But where was he? Had he left her? Had she been making trouble for him again? She seemed to remember that she might have been…

“Vincent!” she cried in alarm. “Vincent! Where are you?”

Only silence responded this time.

“Vincent! Please don’t leave me! Please! I’m lost!”

Fighting panic, she ran forward several steps, hoping to break through the fog. Then she veered off to her left and ran that way for a few paces. The tendrils of fog barely stirred with her frantic movements. Realizing the futility of aimlessly running to and fro, she faltered to a walk, and then to a halt.

“Vincent…” she whispered hoarsely as fingers of fear clutched at her throat. “Please…I can’t…find my way…”

A movement flickered at the corner of her eye, and she whirled that way. Magical, colorful lights danced against the backdrop of the fog, blurred by the dampness of the mist. Lights of every color imaginable. Like loops of Winterfest lights blowing in a gale. Like tiny spotlights from a harbor boat sliding across the overcast clouds. Like…fat…fireflies…

Intrigued, she took a step toward them, but they only danced away. A frown came to her face then. Despite their loveliness, regardless of their playful harmlessness, something about the mysterious lights bothered her, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on what. She took two steps back, and the flitting lights followed. With a shrug, she reached out a hand and walked toward them, dutifully following as they slowly receded.

“No…Tifa…” The quiet words soughed through her mind.

She abruptly stopped, a bright smile coming to her lips at the familiar voice. “Vincent! You’re here! You didn’t leave me!” He didn’t respond, and the smile began to fade. “Vincent?” she asked tensely. “Where are you?” She slowly turned a tight circle as she squinted her eyes to see into the fog. “Tell me where you are…” Still, he didn’t reply in any way, not by voice, or sound, or touch. Tears sprang to her eyes.

“Vincent…please…” she pleaded lowly, her frightened voice almost a moan. She wondered now if she had only imagined his voice. It had only been in her head after all.

Suddenly, she stamped her foot, her irritation at the difficult man taking hold of her. “Vincent Valentine! You better stop playing games with me this instant! Do you hear me?! Do you?!” She flung her arms about her waist and glared all around. “You don’t want me to come and find you!”

“…Fisticuffs…Miss…Lockhart…” His wry voice slipped through her thoughts.

She nodded her head. “That’s right, Mr. Valentine. Fisticuffs,” she informed him in a voice full of bravado. “Unless you tell me right this second where you are.”

His weary sigh filled her head. “As you wish…” he conceded softly.

As though his very surrender commanded it, the fog swirled away from before her, to reveal a wide avenue of gleaming gold bricks. Eagerly, she set out with a purposeful stride, positive that the road would lead her straight to him, until she remembered that saying about just where the road paved with gold was supposed to lead. Her steps only slowed for a moment before she decided it didn’t matter where the road led, as long as it eventually led to him. “Funny, Vincent,” she muttered under her breath. “Ha ha. The Road to Hell.”

Then she rounded a long curve and all hint of humor, meager though it had been, fled her mind. A barricade crossed the golden avenue. One made of weathered, rotten wood. On the other side, the road seemed built from broken fieldstone. Scraggly weeds grew between the cracks. Huge dead, blackened trees hung over the narrow path to shroud the whole area in a formidable gloom. A splintered sign depicting a sloppily painted image of a skull and crossbones hung crookedly from the flimsy looking barrier by one nail. A mournful hoot touched her ears, and she lifted wary eyes to find a crimson-eyed owl blinking down at her.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me, Valentine,” she said dryly. With a long suffering sigh, she walked forward and took the sign in both hands, bracing one foot against the wobbly structure to easily pull it off with a quick jerk. She tossed it into the dry, dead brush at the side of the road. Then she grabbed the top board of the barricade to break it down, but she found the whole thing more sturdily erected than its rickety appearance would imply. Conceding defeat when the board wouldn’t budge, she instead stuck a leg between the slats and wriggled her body through the tight space. Her hair caught in some thorny vines that wound all over the worn boards of the barrier, and she expended several minutes working her ponytail free, muttering silent imprecations on Vincent’s ebony head the entire time.

With her hair finally freed, except for a couple of strands that the thorns had claimed for their own, she wiped her hands against her skirt and straightened to examine the path ahead. The narrow, uneven, overgrown stone path wound down through the encroaching trees. She noticed several of the trees bore weathered wooden signs of the sort she’d just pulled from the barrier. These had words painted on them instead of pictures, and she carefully read each one as she strolled cautiously along.

“Go back! Go back!” urged a sign to her right.

“Beware! Beware!” warned a sign to her left.

“Enter at your own risk!” a sign to her right pessimistically read.

To her left again. “Watch your step!”

To her right. “Beware of rabid hungry flea-infested bandersnatches!” She frowned at that one.

To her left again. “Look out! Quicksand!”

And again to her right. “Go back or die!”

Then, to her left. “Forest of No Return.”

She stopped to stare at that one, propping a hand on one hip. “Puh…lease.” She rolled her eyes. “Somebody’s been watching too many cheesy spooky movies.”

She noticed there were no more signs then, and she continued on, the tall weeds brushing her bare legs as she walked. A thick spider web appeared in her path. She impatiently swept it out of her way. “I’m not afraid of spiders,” she proclaimed. A fat black snake with crimson slits for eyes slithered past her feet, parting the weeds as it traveled from one side of the path to the other. “I’m not afraid of snakes,” she added with a smirk. A tree full of hundreds of hanging bats loomed on her right. She held a hand over her mouth and tiptoed by. As long as one didn’t fall into her hair, she’d be a-okay. One popped a pair of crimson eyes open at her as she passed.

She negotiated a sharp curve of the twisty trail to travel into deeper gloom. The brush that grew beneath the tenebrous trees to either side of the weedy path suddenly rustled, as though a couple of large animals stealthily crept at each flank. She paused to stare into a large clump nearby, but when she looked the rustling stopped. She moved on, and the rustling started again. She stopped. It stopped. She started. It started. Finally, she threw her hands into the air in exasperation. “Okay, listen up now,” she said loudly. “Some girls scare easy, but I’m not one of them. Got that?”

A loud squawk startled her, and she jerked her head up to see a crimson-eyed raven perched on a blackened tree limb above her head. At her abrupt movement, the bird spread its wings and glided from the branch. She followed its flight with her eyes to see it soar up toward a high, craggy peak as slender as a spire. She realized then that she was standing between the last pair of the dead, scraggly trees. Her next step would take her out onto the beginning of a narrow switchback trail that appeared to work its way up the face of the peak, the pinnacle of which vanished into dark, roiling storm clouds.

“You know, Vincent Valentine…” she mused aloud. “I’m beginning to think you don’t want me to find you…”

Without waiting for an answer that she suspected would not come, she set out up the trail with dogged determination. The higher she climbed, the more precarious her route became. The path grew narrower and steeper, the turns mere eyebrows of rock from which pebbles tumbled into depthless space from beneath her feet when she navigated the switchbacks. She simply refused to look down, and she never once considered turning back.

About halfway up, the wind began to blow; a frigid gale that drove spicules of ice against her bare skin. She rolled her eyes and picked up her pace, throwing her arms about her body to gather her own warmth to her. Shortly after, her relatively even, if steeply, winding path ended at the foot of a narrow, cracked causeway of stairs chiseled into the face of the soaring peak. Her brows pinched together in a frown, but she held any commentary from her lips. With her arms wrapped around her shivering body, she dutifully began to climb, counting each step in a murmur to take her mind off the perilous ascent. One foot after another. Slowly but surely. A hundred steps. Then two hundred.

At step number three hundred, she abruptly halted and raised her eyes upward to gauge her progress. Her mouth flew open in outrage. The mountain peak seemed no nearer than when she’d first started, and now forks of blue-white lightening wildly flashed around the crest from the black storm clouds high above. And as if that were not enough, dozens of vultures rode the thermals across the mountain face, gliding back and forth just beneath the level of the raging storm. Somehow she suspected that the carrion birds would blink at her with crimson eyes just before they devoured her, but she suddenly decided that she wasn’t going up there to find out. She could easily picture herself marching up and down crumbling steps and tiptoeing through no returnable forests and traveling golden paved roads forever, and if she ever did find an end, there would only be Chaos. She was certain of that now. Because Vincent was hiding.

With pursed lips, Tifa studied the whirling vultures for a moment longer, and then she half-turned on the narrow step to cast an appraising look down the endless causeway that now seemed to disappear into a thick fog far below, as though the mist she’d left behind now slipped up the mountain with the intention of reclaiming her. Very gingerly, she leaned out to peer down over the side into a bottomless misty valley. Before she could get one thought wrapped tightly about what she would do, she closed her eyes and leapt off the edge of the cracked staircase to throw her body out into space.

She might have screamed as she fell, if she’d had time, but the soles of her boots abruptly slapped down on solid ground. In her surprise, she tumbled forward onto her hands and knees onto hard-packed earth. An anguished cry filled the air around her. Sorrowful. Inconsolable. So utterly and deeply soul wrenching that tears welled in her eyes. “Vincent…” she unconsciously whispered.

Jeering laughter rose all around her and startled her straight to her feet, only to instantly stop the second she darted irritated eyes around to locate the obnoxious jokesters with the idea of giving them a piece of her mind. But no one seemed to be about. Not the happy jesters. Or Vincent. Indeed, Tifa found herself quite alone, in a long empty arching hallway seemingly carved from stone, lined with wooden doors of various sizes that all stood invitingly ajar. Hesitantly, she walked toward the nearest door, but just as she would have arrived at the point where she could venture a look inside, the door abruptly slammed shut in her face as though caught in a sudden gust of wind. A heavy clunk came through the thick wood, a sound she could well imagine to be a heavy iron bolt sliding home.

She stared at the door in bemusement. “Well…alrighty…then…” she murmured. Her brown eyes narrowed in speculation, and she did an about face and headed for the door on the opposite side of the passage. She only managed to get within three feet of it before it slammed shut and locked. This time the sound of a clanking chain floated through the door, and a picture of a giant padlock hooking two fat chain links together came to her mind, along with an ornate skeleton key decidedly turning in an oversized keyhole.

Her chin lifted with a stubborn determination, and she whirled and flew down the curved wall toward the next open door. She stretched out a hand and almost got her fingers in the door before the heavy slab of wood and metal bolts fell into the doorframe with a thundering crash and attendant locking sound. She yanked her hand back against her chest in shock at how close she came to having her fingers crushed, but the disquieting thought hardly stopped her in her tracks. She instantly darted toward the next door across the hall, only to see it fly shut before she made it halfway across the wide corridor.

After that it became a game for her, to see how near she could get to each door before the unseen sentinel could secure the portal, dashing back and forth across the passageway, sometimes feinting toward one door, only to veer off toward another. But no matter how fast she might go, or how tricky she tried to be, the sentinel behind the door always won, although she almost got her foot in the door once. She almost saw the room beyond the closing door. Almost caught a view of the rude doorkeeper, she thought. Good thing she didn’t lay a hand on him though. She’d line him up with the jesters that occasionally snickered at her efforts when the mood struck them and give them all a lecture on good manners.

When all was said and done though, she found herself standing quite alone at the far end of the passage, with the echo of the last of the slamming doors ringing inside her head, staring at one last narrow portal set in the damp, mossy stone partition wall that faced her, a door that yet remained ajar. It was then that the terrible feeling of something wrong came back to her to twist punishing fingers inside her bowels. All her feelings of mischief and irritation abruptly left her to be replaced with fear. Something was sadly awry, and she didn’t know what. But she knew deep in her heart that she had to find out. She had to fix it. She was the only one around who could. And somehow, she knew that it was a life or death matter.

Tentatively, she took a step toward the open door, only to instantly freeze in place as she remembered the twin rows of locked doors behind her. She surely could not wind up locked outside this door. This door was the important one, the others merely incidental. She knew that from its placement at the end of the dimly lit hall. And if that weren’t evidence enough, another heartbreaking cry of despair suddenly slipped through the aperture to fill the air around her and draw burning tears into her eyes. Vincent…

She almost called his name then. The two syllables nearly flew from her tongue, but she clamped her lips shut just in time. If he knew she was near, he might lock the door. And she didn’t have the key. She couldn’t even imagine where the key might be. Vincent Valentine might have swallowed the key for all she knew. She’d never find it if he didn’t want her to. Therefore, she could not allow the door to close. But how? She could sprint for it. Run as hard as she could. But that technique hadn’t worked before, she was forced to acknowledge. Maybe if she went back down the corridor and got a running start, she could then launch herself into space and dive for the door. She could see her sailing into a closed door cranium first with that move. She wasn’t that hard headed. She might knock herself unconscious. Then what help would she be?

Suddenly, it came to her exactly how, and she closed her eyes in relief. She hadn’t thought of it before in the middle of her madly racing thoughts. Stealth. She would need to be very quiet and very slow. She would simply tiptoe. And tiptoe she did. Creeping forward ever so slowly. Ever so carefully. One tiptoe step after another. Until she came within a foot of the door. She would have smiled at her victory if she hadn’t been so worried as she successfully laid one hand on the half-opened door. In the next second, she found that any basking on her part would have been premature, when without any warning but the barest of tickles, she suddenly sneezed. The moldy earth and mildewed stone inside the damp passage had finally taken its toll. Keeping her wits about her, she shoved hard against the weighty door, leaping through only to trip over her own feet to fall flat on the ground even as the door flew wide beneath the force of her desperate action.

Quickly, she scrambled to her feet, only to freeze into horrified immobility at the sight that met her eyes. She had indeed found him. No doubt about that. He stood mere feet from her with his back to her, hunched in upon himself with his arms hanging limply and his head bent low. He stood on a wide ledge not unlike the one where she’d found herself after her fall from the Highwind, the same ledge upon which she now stood, only Vincent stood much closer to the edge than she. At the very brim, in fact. With the mythril-plated toes of his boots jutting into space. Even as she stared, a narrow crack zigzagged a path between his feet.

“Vincent!” she cried out in alarm. “Come away from there! Please!”

He didn’t move a muscle. Not to look at her. Not to speak to her. She might as well not exist for all the notice he gave her.

“Vincent…please...” She raised a hand toward him as she unconsciously took a step.

“Stop,” he suddenly spoke, his voice as cold and distant as the glittering snow atop the high mountain peaks all around. So he had noticed her there. He’d just been pretending she didn’t exist. And wasn’t she used to that from him? Another time, his tone might have intimidated her to compliance. But not this time. She was onto him.

“No,” she said firmly with the lift of her chin. “I won’t.” Then she took another step to prove her words true.

His head slowly came up then, but he did not turn to look at her.

“I don’t want you here,” he said in words brittle with ice.

She smiled ruefully. “Yeah, I kinda got that idea back on the…er…road.”

“Then leave me,” he commanded sharply, and maybe a tad desperately. Another jagged crack shot through the ledge to his left, and the smile instantly vanished from her face.

“Uh uh,” she tensely refused. “I won’t leave without you, Valentine. So why don’t you just come away from there now and let’s go someplace…safer…”

“If you stay, you will die,” he informed her stubbornly.

“Then I guess I’ll just die,” she said with a lightness she definitely did not feel. Deliberately, she took a big step toward him, but paused when his head came around to pin one glittering crimson eye on her face, the rest of his countenance hidden by the fall of his hair.

“This is no joking matter, Miss Lockhart,” he admonished in a strained voice.

As though to make a lie of his words, the jokesters made a comeback, their amused snickers filling the air all around.

Tifa glared into the sky. “Who are those creepy idiots?” She voiced her irritation aloud.

Vincent turned away to stare into the space beyond his toes. “An unholy trinity,” he said absently.


“The friend. The lover. The fool,” he clarified, his explanation as clear as mud to her.

“Okaaaay…” She shook her head in bewilderment. “Why don’t you just kick them out?” she asked practically. “They seem pretty obnoxious, and they probably keep you awake at night.”

Vincent restlessly shifted a foot, and another spidery crack appeared. “Please, Vincent!” Her act of casual nonchalance disappeared, and she ran as close to him as she dared, stretching out her hand to him. “Please take my hand. Come away from there!” she pleaded through a throat choked with her fear.

Pointedly, he ignore her, denying her acknowledgement by either look or word, and in the silence that ensued, a curious bubbling sound came to her ear. Her hand fell as she turned her head to look, and her jaw went slack at the sight she beheld.

Beyond the brim of the ledge lay a wide pool. Not a clear mountain lake as one would expect, but a crater full of viscous sickly green-black muck, roiling beneath rising bubbles, steaming noxious fumes into the air. A concoction more vile than any Hades could dream up. As she watched, a bleached, hollow-eyed skull rolled to the surface not far out from Vincent’s feet.

A trembling hand flew to her mouth, and she tried to avert her face, but she found that she couldn’t look away. She raised her other hand to cover her eyes. “Sweet Shiva, Vincent!” she gasped through her fingers. “What is this place?!”

“Blessed insanity,” he replied in a distant voice. “Sweet oblivion.”

“Blessed?! Sweet?!” She finally disengaged her rapt gaze from the bubbling mountain cauldron to stare at her unwilling companion’s slouched shoulders and bowed head in amazement. “Insanity, Vincent?!”

Vincent shuffled one foot further over the edge as though her very utterance of the word compelled him forward. Another crack started at the rim and meandered a lightning bolt’s path beneath his foot.

Instinctively, her hand flew out again to grab him, but he was too distant to get a grip on unless she jumped forward to snatch him from harm’s way. She feared if she did that, her added weight would make the shelf cave in. Which apparently would give him exactly what he wanted. Or did he? If he really wanted it, wouldn’t he have already jumped?

She folded her arms and frowned her puzzlement. “Why, Vincent? Why would you want to jump into…that…nasty…gross…stuff?” She freed one hand long enough to wave at the pool in disgust.

His shoulders barely moved in a semblance of a shrug. “I cannot atone for my sins. I cannot bear to remember. I wish to forget. Forever.”

He spoke the words in such a dull, zombie like drone that she wondered if he’d been hypnotized. But she couldn’t see his face from where she stood. He might have enchanted saucers for eyes for all she knew.

Shifting her weight to one foot, she gingerly tested the surface in front of her with a tentative touch of her boot. Very cautiously, she set her foot flat and shifted her weight forward. She sharply sucked in her breath when several thin, spidery fissures blossomed beneath her sole. She froze there.

Vincent’s head whipped around then, and that one visible eye narrowed suspiciously on her face. “What are you doing?” he queried in a voice tight with tension.

She tried a nonchalant shrug, but her act didn’t come off well when her shoulders scrunched defensively instead, coming almost to her ears as she ducked her head at the fierceness of his stare. “I’m coming with you,” she informed him weakly.

The one visible eye flew wide in surprise. “Why would you wish to do that?” he asked in confusion. “I am a monster. I am a killer. But you…you are…you are…not.” He ended his statement lamely, as though he meant to say something else and could not find the words to voice it.

She forced her back to straighten as she raised her chin to a haughty angle. “Maybe I have sins I can’t atone for too.”

He suddenly turned away from the edge to glare at her directly, and she nearly cried out when the piece of the ledge on which he’d just been standing broke away and fell into the bubbling goop with a disgusting spluck sound. A puff of flame and smoke flared up with a whoosh to absorb the stone into the depths. Vincent didn’t even blink. He took a step toward her.

“What sins could you possibly have committed for which you cannot atone, Tifa Lockhart?” he demanded coolly.

“You might be surprised, Vincent Valentine,” she replied just as coolly. She sucked her lip between her teeth and took another careful step toward the edge. Her breath caught in her throat as a new pattern of barely visible cracks formed, and she acknowledged to herself with more than a little fear in her heart, that she might lose her ill-conceived gamble.

Vincent folded his arms and stared intently at her feet. “Go back, Tifa Lockhart. You have nothing for which to atone, and you cannot convince me that you do.”

She lifted her head to glare at him then. “Oh yeah? Well how about my father?”

“What about your father?” he asked tensely.

“I killed him,” she flatly proclaimed.

That startled him, but he quickly recovered, the one crimson eye narrowing again, this time in skeptical contemplation. “I find that highly unlikely.” His words fell from his lips like icicles.

“You think I’m lying?” she asked in astonished outrage, and then conceded she might be overacting the part a bit when the one visible eyebrow went up.

He came another step closer. “Feel free to disabuse me of the notion,” he suggested silkily.

She shrugged tightly and looked away. “He went to the reactor looking for me the day Nibelheim burned. If I had stayed with him, he wouldn’t have gone. But I didn’t. And he went. And Sephiroth killed him.”

“You didn’t kill him. Sephiroth killed him,” he flatly stated. “Which would be Sephiroth’s sin. Not yours.”

“No, my sin!” Tifa rounded on him to argue her point. She poked an accusing finger at her own chest. “If I had been with him, he would not be dead.”

Vincent huffed softly at her words. “You might as well blame your mother,” he said with marked disbelief. “For giving birth to you so that you would even exist to worry him to the point that he would look for you when you were not with him.”

She frowned as she worked to sort out his argument. “No, I can’t blame my mother. She didn’t know what would happen.”

“And neither could you,” he retorted.

“I could have guessed that he would have guessed that I would go after Sephiroth, and in his fear for me look for me, knowing him as I did,” she replied heatedly. “And I could have guessed that Sephiroth might kill him with that great big sword he carried around, especially since Sephiroth was killing everybody in sight.”

He snorted in derision. “You cannot blame yourself for the actions of Sephiroth.” Then he frowned in thought for a moment. His sooty eyelashes drifted halfway down. “However, you can blame me. If I had stopped them, then Sephiroth would not have been at the reactor to kill your father,” he said dully. “And he could not have killed the townspeople. And he could not have burned Nibelheim.” His shoulders slumped again, and he turned back toward the brittle rim at the edge.

Tifa’s eyes flew wide at how quickly he’d turned the tables on her. True, she had blamed herself for her father’s death for a time. Those emotions had been so painfully real that it was difficult to think on even now. But she had eventually realized the culpability was not hers to claim. But Sephiroth’s. And Shinra’s. She had thought to impress on him the flaws in her argument, so that he might realize the pointlessness of his own guilt-ridden thoughts, and she had for a time, if somewhat clumsily, but then he had embraced her ‘sin’ for his own, and somehow she didn’t think he would give it back. Still, there was a sin she had truly committed. A crime against humanity. One that still ate at her soul. One wholly hers. Born from her own actions. Even he might have difficulty stealing it.

“Well, okay. How about blowing people up?” she asked defiantly. “Huh? What about that? Is that a sin or what?”

His head came around again. “What do you mean?” he asked warily.

Her pained gaze fell to the cracks beneath her feet. “You know what we did, don’t you?”

“What did you do, Tifa Lockhart?” he asked softly.

”I stood by and watched when my friends set the bombs. I helped wire the timers. I helped make the plans. And while I was doing it, I knew people would die.”

Silence grew between them, and she finally risked a glance at his face, her brown eyes dark with abject sorrow. He stood perfectly still, the half of his mouth that she could see partly open as though he’d meant to argue but could not find the words. Or the grounds. He simply stared in stunned incomprehension, as though caught beneath the bore of one of his own guns.

She lifted her hands toward him in question. “So what will you say now, Valentine? That your sins are worse?”

He guiltily averted his face from her plaintive stare.

“Do we compare tally sheets now? Does blowing up people count as one sin for each explosion? Or one sin for each person injured? Each person killed? Each person left without a loved one. Who decides? You? Me? Some self-important god? Yours? Or mine? Or somebody else’s?”

She paused to take a breath and await his answer, but after several long moments in which he stubbornly folded his arms and peered down into the boiling well of his insanity, she knew he did not intend to reply.

Tears sprang to her eyes then. “You know, Vincent,” she said huskily. “I really need to know your answer.” She folded her own arms and stared fiercely at the hanging strands of hair that hid his face from her in profile. “I really do. Because…you know…I really thought that I could balance the slate if I tried to do everything right after that. In fact, I thought maybe working so hard to save the planet might win me a huge mark on the other side. But I must be wrong. Because I can see that you don’t think so. And you were there beside me, fighting and sacrificing to make things right. And if you don’t believe that’s atonement, then there’s no hope for you. And there’s no hope for me.”

Her throat painfully closed as she realized the truth of her own proclamation, and duly noting his continued silence and absence of denial, she deliberately took another step forward to the accompaniment of crackling.

“No, Tifa! Don’t!”

She froze and turned her head to find he’d spun completely around to face her, the one crimson eye that she could see full of distress.

”Do you have an answer for me, Vincent?” she asked tensely.

His hand drifted to his temple, and his smooth brow collapsed into frowning lines. “I must…think on this matter…further…” he slowly replied.

“Which means what?” she cautiously asked.

He raised his head and tossed back his hair with an impatient hand to reveal his whole face. “Which means we will go,” he firmly announced in a voice full of purpose. He began to walk toward her, and the rock started crackling in earnest. Her frightened eyes flew to the ledge beneath his feet, but to her utter surprise, she found that the fractures were sealing with each one of his steps, and when she looked down at her own feet, she found the spider webs of thin fissures gone as though they’d never been.

“Shall we go?” he asked politely, and she looked up to find him standing beside her, with a hand lifted toward the door.

“After you,” she uneasily replied.

A pained expression came to his face. “That would be most impolite,” he chided. “You may go first.”

“How about with me?” she asked with a tentative smile. She held out her hand to him, and he spent some moments examining her hand as though it would bite him. Then he raised wary eyes to her face.

“It’s the only way I’m going first,” she stubbornly informed. She wiggled her fingers for emphasis.

With a small sigh of surrender, he reluctantly lifted his hand partway. Before he could change his mind, she promptly reached out and snatched his fingers into hers, turning to lead him through the open door. He followed easily enough, and once they crossed the threshold, she released him to pull shut the door he’d left open behind him. She pointedly turned the lock on the opposite side of the door and settled the door into the tight frame with a hard jerk. Then she gave the doorknob a shake to make certain the portal would not give. Satisfied, she turned around only to find that he’d put his back to her and now walked away down the corridor toward a formless mist. Startled, she hurried after him and latched a hand onto his cloak, intent on preventing his escape from her. She wasn’t about to let him out of her sight. She knew very well that he’d only repaired the cracks of the ledge. And she knew very well that he had the power to disappear the bubbling, noxious muck as well. Yet, the vile lake on the other side of the door remained. His blessed well of insanity. His sweet oblivion. He’d left it because he was only thinking over his answer to the heartfelt question she’d asked him. Who knew what he might decide. Or when. Stubborn, difficult, sneaky man. He’d forced her to vigilance on his behalf. And vigilant she would be. For his sake. For hers. It occurred to her then, as she walked by his side with her hand fisted tightly in the material of his cloak, warily watching the mist close in around them, that she didn’t need to dive into a boiling pit of insanity to drive her mad. Mr. Valentine was doing that job admirably all on his own.

Vincent Valentine came back to himself with a startled little gasp of air, his eyes flying wide to darkness so dense and oppressive that it seemed to stab vicious fingers into his eyes to press into the very core of him. Panicked, he struggled to rise against a weight that pinned him down, but his rubbery, trembling arms would not grant him the leverage to escape his imprisonment. Completely disoriented between the suffocating darkness, the cumbersome pressure against his chest and stomach, and the swirling circus of fractured images that yet lingered in his mind, he unthinkingly fell limply back, only to crack his head against the stone floor. He lay still staring into a darkness lit with a multitude of stars as he waited for the radiating pain to wash through his mind and dissipate, and in its cleansing wake he bade himself to quiet contemplation of his circumstances.

He found every limb weak and quaking, and his mind fuzzy. His clothes were wet and cloying, and he felt cold and stiff throughout his whole body, except for his torso where the still body lay against him exuding a meager heat. With the spastic, untrained movement of an infant, he managed to raise his unpinned lower arm and bring his trembling fingers up to lay flat against damp warmth, and in doing so, found his center. Tifa. He labored to move his fingers higher, to her ribcage, where he discovered the gentle rise and fall of her respirations. His pent breath sighed from his lips, and his eyelashes drifted closed in sweet peace. At that moment he knew all in the world that he needed to know. Tifa Lockhart lived and nothing else mattered.

After a few moments more though, he recalled that he’d been going somewhere, and hadn’t quite made it. The desire to reach the esuna materia drifted into his fickle mind and right back out. Still, he gathered his strength to make the effort to rise again, actually succeeding in drawing an uncooperative left leg partway up before he used up his minute store of energy, and his straining muscles suddenly failed him. He let himself relax against the stone floor and turned his chin against the head that rested against his shoulder. Drowsily, he moved his head so that the damp silky hair slipped against the cool skin of his cheek before finding the most comfortable spot on which to settle. Ever so slowly, he tightened his arm about her as his eyelashes floated down. Within moments, he helplessly surrendered himself to a restless but natural sleep.

Tifa’s eyelashes fluttered, barely cracking sleepily ajar to blearily encounter nothing but darkness. Mildly and unaccountably irritated, she pointedly closed her eyes again to rediscover her interrupted slumber and revisit her strange dreams. Fretfully, she turned her head, drawn to the comforting rhythmic warmth of the gentle breath that bathed her chilled face.

Her brow finally settled securely in the hollow beneath one high cheekbone, she drowsily uncurled her hand from her breast and sent her fingers in quest of a blanket, only to find instead a handful of sodden cloak. With a little murmur, she buried her fingers in the material and drew her fist toward her chin. A tiny frown deranged her brow at the coolness of the damp cloth against her lips, but the matter didn’t disturb her enough to break her free of her light sleep.

All too soon, she retreated from that nebulous space between waking and sleep to sink back into the dark depths of true slumber, and eventually into dreams more familiar to her than those that had come before, and her strange dreams of Vincent Valentine became tangled in the mundane visions of Avalanche, Nibelheim, and Chocobo races, only to vanish completely from her memory by morning, but for one bare remnant that stayed in her mind even in sleep. Her vow to never let Vincent go. Unconsciously, she tightened her fist around her handful of Vincent Valentine’s cloak.

The sun neared the western horizon before the camp finally returned to a semblance of normality, most of the milling people had wearily planted themselves in one of the tents somewhere. Some in the medical tent with injured family members. Many in the mess tent where they lingered over a hot meal and excited conversation. And most crashed on cots in the various sleeping tents that had been erected, rescuers and survivors alike.

Reno sat round-shouldered on the tailboard of the empty truck that had carried the last of the casualties to the medical tent with his arms hanging limply across his knees. From his vantage point, he could keep an eye on every person he needed to without moving one weary bone from its place. Elena and Rachel in the sleeping tent. Both probably sleeping. Caitlin in the first medical tent helping the medical staff with whatever they might need of her, and Avian with his dog and two companions several yards away. Avian and the Kisaragi girl were taking turns throwing a stick for the entirely too energetic dog, and Heidegger stood nearby idly stroking the feathers of the ground-tethered blue river chocobo as he watched them. The three of them were carrying on conversation, but they were too far away to be clearly audible, and he didn’t wish to expend the effort to hear them.

For his part, Reno prayed that nothing would alter the relative peace of the camp and force him to action. Two long, hot days and one sleepless, action-packed night had taken a toll on him. He desperately needed to sleep, and he would. Just as soon as he dredged up the energy to roust Elena from her cot and commandeer it. Until then, he planned to continue to sit there on the back of the truck completely motionless while he let his motivation slowly build, dutifully shifting his watchful eyes between his three primary targets from behind his dark shades.

The Captain crossed his field of vision then, puffing away on a cigarette, and it suddenly occurred to him that he hadn’t smoked a cigarette in many hours. He’d used all of his up, mostly when he’d chain smoked his way through his marathon discussion with Caitlin. He stirred himself to lift a finger when Highwind drew near. “Excuse me, esteemed Captain,” he called out, his own voice echoing distantly inside his exhausted mind.

Cid duly turned a pair of intensely curious blue eyes his way, his brows rising at the overly solicitous address. At sight of the lifeless looking Turk with his finger in the air, he knew exactly what he wanted. “Smoke, Turk?” he asked affably as he delved a hand into the pocket of his flight jacket. Reno didn’t rouse himself to speech, but simply nodded. Cid tossed him an unopened pack as he passed by. The pack hit the center of his chest, and he barely got his lackadaisical hand up in time to catch them. “There’s some real smokes for you, Turk. Hope you can handle ‘em.”

Reno frowned down at the cheap brand of cigarettes. “Just for the record, Highwind…” he muttered to no one in particular as the Captain had already moved out of his mumbling range. “…I didn’t care for those silly looking smokes either…” He raised his fingers to tear the cellophane off the package, but paused when he suddenly decided he was too tired to smoke one right then. He deposited the pack unopened into his t-shirt pocket and returned to his vigil.

The dog yipped with excitement, and Reno moved his eyes to the bouncing canine to watch Yuffie tease him with the stick. Way too energetic. Especially for a dead dog. His brows drew together in consternation, and he retracted his decision not to smoke. He dragged the cigarette pack out of his pocket and lazily opened the pack to remove a cigarette. He stuck the cigarette in his mouth, and then absently shoved the pack back into his pocket, and that’s as far as he got. His eyes on Avian then, he pondered what he’d seen that night in the boy’s room. Caitlin and Avian’s linked hands. The sparkling golden light that enveloped the dog and stirred him back to life. The two participants dazed into near insensibility during the process. Then his thoughts turned to Rachel and the cure spell she’d cast to save his life. A spell more powerful than he’d seen any magic user wield in his day. And though he preferred gadgets to magic himself, he’d seen quite a few experienced users in action, the members of Avalanche included. Both Avian and Rachel had exhibited an amazing power. Only once. Under pressing circumstances. A common link. But the only one, it would seem. What else did a five or six-year-old girl from the slums and a shop clerk from a farm outside of Kalm have in common other than a singular ability to suddenly and surprisingly wield magic? Except that Avian Wulfe had come from Midgar originally, he suddenly remembered. That’s why the kid had recognized him in Kalm. Since the two of them had become rather chatty during their mutual labor on Highwind’s behalf, Reno had simply asked him where they’d crossed paths before, and the kid had sheepishly admitted that he’d seen him once pestering the flower girl in the promenade, and he’d yelled something derogatory at him to distract him long enough for the Gainsborough girl to slip away. Gutsy kid. Rachel and Avian both came from Midgar. And both had lived in the slums. One was the son of a Soldier 1st Class, and the other…who knew…

“Are you going to smoke that cigarette, Reno?” an amused female voice inquired. “Or just chew it up?”

Startled that she’d sneaked up on him in his deep reverie, his head whipped around to pin the petite blonde with narrowed eyes hidden behind his dark shades.

“Haven’t decided yet,” he said around the cigarette in his lips in a voice rife with world-weary indifference.

“You should get some sleep, Reno,” she suggested helpfully. “You look like death warmed over.”

“That good, huh?” he muttered, turning his eyes back to the distant Avian.

“Do you want me to wake Elena for you?”

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you…” he replied absently. “She’s been in a foul mood of late.”

Caitlin frowned at his words. “She was rather cool to me earlier…” she mused aloud.

Reno smirked. “She thinks we’ve violated our professional relationship,” he murmured.

“What did you say?” Caitlin asked with brows quizzically raised.

Reno suddenly drew the cigarette from his mouth. “Nothing. Forget it. I wanted to ask you Caitlin…” He paused in thought.

After awhile, she decided to prompt him. “Ask me what?” she queried tensely.

He started at her question. “What?” he asked in bewilderment.

“You wanted to ask me about something…”

“Oh yeah…” He narrowed his eyes in thought. “About Rachel. Did Elmyra tell you who her father was?” He realized then that he’d forgotten just why he found that important. He raised a hand as a wide yawn captured his mouth.

Caitlin shook her head uncertainly. “No, she didn’t really know. There were some potential candidates as I recall, but it was all just gossip. I don’t really remember. Elena might.”

“Elena might what?” Reno asked in a dazed murmur.

Caitlin rolled her eyes in despair. “For crying out loud, Reno. Go get some sleep. And come back when you’ve got your wits about you.”

He numbly nodded his head, but made no move to do as she suggested.

She reached up and gave one bony wrist a hard tug, nearly unseating him from the tailboard and startling him somewhat awake. “Go to bed, Reno,” she commanded sternly. “Consider that an executive order.”

He nodded again and dutifully slid from the tailboard. Sticking his unlit cigarette back in his mouth, he walked past her with a swaying step worthy of his best inebriated act. Caitlin reached out and grabbed an elbow to swing him in the opposite direction. “That way, Reno. Remember?” She watched him until he actually entered the sleeping tent, first forgetting to duck and nearly taking off the top of his head, before he tried again and stooped under the flap to disappear. She decided that beyond that point he was Elena’s problem, and she returned to her original route to the HQ tent to talk to the Captain about Sector Two and his estimated projection of when she might expect the rescue of Reeve Alexander from that hellhole of a city, and after that, she planned to sit with the critically ill child, Penny. The child had barely survived a long emergency surgery, and her parents hadn’t left her side for a moment. She held hopes that she could get them to rest for a little while as well.

Reno shambled into the dimly lit tent, the illumination greatly diminished through the filter of his dark lenses, and promptly ran nose first into a metal support pole. He stumbled backward a step in reaction, and then merely navigated around it to tumble gratefully onto the nearest cot.

A bit concerned at his behavior, Elena laid down her cards and rose from the table where she’d been attempting to play solitaire with Rachel and Avian’s dog-eared deck. “Reno?” she asked uneasily.

He cracked open an eyelid. He remembered then that he had something to say to her. “You’re on watch, Elena,” he mumbled. “Don’t kick over… my…bed...” His voice trailed off and his eye slipped closed. “…Or else…” He added in a barely audible murmur.

Elena silently crossed the center aisle of the tent to pause at the foot of the cot to study his still form with a hint of dismay. “Reno?” She called a bit loudly. But the redheaded Turk didn’t move a muscle. With a little huff of deprecation at the ease of her own surrender, she bent down to tug off one dusty boot with a distasteful wrinkle of her nose. Setting it beneath the cot, she checked his face for any sign of wakefulness before she dragged off the other.

Cautiously rounding the cot to come to his side, she bent down close to inspect his relaxed dirt-smudged face. She gingerly reached down and plucked the broken cigarette from his slack lips with a wondering shake of her head. Then she confiscated his sunglasses, drawing them from his face very slowly to inspect the lightly closed eyes beneath. Reno?” she whispered experimentally. Ever so carefully, she stretched a gentle finger to flick a wayward strand of fiery hair from one scarred cheekbone. “You’re a real pain in the ass, Reno,” she informed him softly. “Do you know that?” When he didn’t answer, she folded the glasses and put them in her jacket pocket before moving to the next cot in the row to retrieve a folded blanket. Almost carelessly, she shook out the folds and unfurled it into the air to let it fall across his body to settle wherever it came to rest. Annoyed at herself now, she turned and strode away, oblivious to the flutter of eyelashes and sliver of one sleepily calculating green eye that watched her depart.

The tiniest of smiles slightly moved Reno’s thin lips as his heavy eyelid slid closed. He theorized then that perhaps Elena wasn’t quite as pissed off by his kiss as she would have him believe. He made himself a dreamy promise to test his theory. Later…

Tifa tossed the army blanket off her head and pushed herself up to look around blearily. She blinked the sleep from her eyes, but there still wasn’t much to see when she could finally see. She lay on the folded pallet at the very edge of a rather dim circle of light projected from a headlamp seemingly discarded on the floor. Vincent’s empty boots laid askew at the foot of the pallet, and his socks were haphazardly draped across them. Her own boots and socks were tossed down next to his, as though hastily discarded. And his red cloak straggled across the bare stone floor. Suddenly, the events of the previous day flooded back into her sluggish mind, and alarm sent her heart jumping into her throat. The last thing she could clearly remember was watching Vincent walk away up the side passage alone in search of the strange sound in his head, and she thought there had been something really bad down there, waiting for him.

The overwhelming need to find him spurred her to instant action, and she clumsily struggled to gain her feet, her limbs heavy and uncooperative. “Vincent!” she cried out in her fear, and suddenly he was there as though the spoken word had been an invocation to summon him from the darkness beyond the circle of light. He came close and slipped an arm about her waist to help her stand. Once she stood on her own two feet, he released her, but stayed close beside her, folding his arms to watch her with wary intensity as she swayed weakly in place. When she buried her aching, dizzy head into her hands with a groan, his brows drew together in a tight frown.

“You should rest awhile longer,” he flatly suggested. “You are still suffering the effects of the toxin.”

“What toxin?” she moaned with her face in her hands. “What in the world happened to me? I feel like I have the hangover from hell.”

“You do not remember?” he asked carefully. “The creature in the pool?”

She brought her face from her hand with a gasp to stare at him wide-eyed as an image of milky wormlike tentacles filled her mind. “Oh gods, I do remember that thing.” A shudder suddenly worked its way through her body, so violently that Vincent couldn’t help but notice. With his eyes on her, he lowered himself to the pallet and reached up to wrap warm fingers around her wrist. “Why don’t you sit down,” he suggested softly, giving her arm a gentle but persistent tug. She gratefully surrendered to his pressure, mostly because her legs were feeling quite watery, and she slowly and shakily sank to her knees beside him. His fingers slipped away from her wrist, and he folded his long legs and reached into his pocket to draw out a foil packet.

“That thing bit me,” she remarked with a hint of awe.

“Yes,” he readily agreed. “The toxin appears to be paralytic in nature,” he added in explanation. “Quite likely for the purpose of silencing its victim's struggles for easier digestion. A most unpleasant sensation.”

Another shudder shook her body as her face screwed up in disgust at the thought of being digested in the slimy thing’s innards. Then his last words sank into her thick skull. “It bit you too?” she asked with distress.

He simply nodded as he peeled the foil back from a cereal bar.

“Well, you don’t seem any the worse for wear…” she said uneasily as she looked him over in careful inspection.

“I’ve a rather vicious headache,” he offered. “If that’s any consolation.”

“Well…it’s hardly a…consolation…” she said slowly, frowning in marked displeasure at the idea of him suffering from anything.

He stretched out his hand to give her the opened cereal bar, but she slowly shook her head. “I’m really not hungry, Vincent,” she told him absently. Her frown deepened as a disquieting image of him standing at the rim of a cracking ledge flittered through her mind.

“You need to eat,” he told her sternly, his crimson gaze uncompromising. “As soon as you feel better, we will leave. And then we must travel swiftly. You will need to keep up your strength.” He leaned forward and pressed the cereal bar against her fingers, and she obediently opened her hand to take it as the tantalizing fragment of memory zipped from her grasp to escape into the nebulous and untouchable region of her foggy mind. It was replaced, instead, but the return of the squirmy tentacled creature.

“What was that thing anyway, Vincent?” she asked tensely.

He sat back and rested his hands against his knees to watch her as she raised the cereal bar to her lips. “I don’t know,” he finally said. “I’ve not seen or read of anything like it before. It appears to be a sessile aquatic species. Its habitat seems to be composed of a mixture of stagnant water and a biochemical exudate. Perhaps a naturally adapted filtering system of sorts.”

Tifa paused just short of taking a bite, the whole of her attention captivated by the return of the rich, melodic voice she’d heard at the ruin. She hadn’t dreamed it then. Apparently Vincent forgot himself when talking at length, losing the dull, expressionless monotone that was obviously an affectation. Or maybe it was just that he found this topic more interesting than most. She decided she wanted more than anything to keep him talking that way. “Ses…sile? What is that?” Her question asked, she finally bit off a piece of the bar.

“The creature is rooted to its place. It cannot move about.”

Tifa found her spirits lightened considerably by that fact. “Where is that thing now anyway?” she suddenly thought to ask. She darted a nervous look around.

”The chamber is several yards down that passage.” Vincent nodded toward the darkness behind her.

She frowned as she labored to remember leaving the chamber. “I must have really been out of it,” she commented tensely.

Vincent didn’t bother to respond, so she opted to return to the previous topic of the creature, mostly to stave off the prolonged silence she sensed would be coming soon. He must have used up a week’s worth of words by now. “The chemical…stuff. Is that what made the lights?”

“The lights?” he asked cautiously. “Of what lights do you speak?”

“I think I remember that there were some pretty lights. In the air. And in the water,” she replied uncertainly. They’d seemed so alluring. Drawing her straight into the pool. “Almost…like a…lure…” she tentatively added.

He shrugged uneasily. “I saw no lights. I could only speculate.

“How about the bees then? Inside your head?”

“What bees?” he asked coolly.

“The buzzing sound you said you heard,” she reminded him with more than a little concern. “The sound you were tracking when you went off into the side passage. Did that thing do that too?”

Vincent realized then that he did remember hearing a sound, but he couldn’t quite recall how it sounded. Contemplating the possibilities, he slowly nodded his head. “Perhaps the creature exerts a psychic effect, one which manifests to its potential victims differentially. Following that logic, I suppose one could postulate that the chemical might be a neurotransmitter, of sorts. But as I’ve said, I could only speculate. I’m no biologist.”

She softly smiled. “Sometimes you sound like one,” she pointed out.

He hooded his eyes behind his thick ebony lashes. “Forgive me.”

“No! Don’t apologize,” she quickly protested. “I really…sort of…enjoy it…” She certainly enjoyed hearing him talk anyway. “Did you go to University, Vincent?” she asked curiously.

“No,” he said tersely.

“You just read a lot then, I guess…” she speculated aloud.

“It is the curse of the photographic mind,” he said coolly, now in his customary monotone. Disappointment stole the pleasure from her last bite of cereal bar at its unwanted return.

“What is?” she dutifully asked with a hint of disgruntlement.

“Trivial and completely useless details, dust motes in a forgotten attic.” He abruptly rose and vanished into the darkness beyond the pale circle of golden light, only to return seconds later on silent bare feet with the canteen in his hand. He unscrewed the metal lid and held the container down to her. Gratefully, she took it from him and drank a couple of economical sips before handing it back up to him. He took a drink himself, and then recapped it, noticing as he did so that Tifa had turned a captivated stare to the headlamp. He suspected what would come next, and he was not mistaken.

“Vincent…what happened to the lantern?”

“I broke it,” he tensely admitted. The lantern’s plastic shade had been crushed and the bulb shattered to smithereens from the impact of his pack against the floor when he’d violently thrown it off his back in his panicky race toward the pool. Broken beyond repair. Leaving them with exactly two headlamps and two unused batteries.

“Oh,” she said. The same ‘oh’ he’d heard her say when he’d told her the Sleeping Man Cave had collapsed and they couldn’t leave. He wasn’t entirely certain what the word meant to her, but it managed to convey much to him.

“Why don’t you lie down for awhile,” he quietly urged. The sooner she recovered, the sooner they could leave, and as hasty a departure as possible would better serve their interests. She instantly protested his suggestion as though she’d read his mind and wholly concurred, vehemently shaking her head so that her long bangs slid against her face.

“Why don’t we leave now, Vincent?” she asked tightly. “While we still have light.”

“How do you feel?” he instantly questioned.

Smoothly, she came to her feet and offered him a hesitant smile of reassurance, only to lose it a second later when his concerned face spun away from her and her legs turned to jelly. She might have crumpled at his feet, but he stepped close to slip his arm about her waist and ease her to the pallet. “I think we will wait,” he coolly informed her as he stepped away.

Dejected, she flopped onto her back to stare into darkness. “What about the esuna materia?” she suddenly asked.

“I’ve already cast the spell,” he curtly replied. “Twice. The spell has no effect on this toxin.” He walked away into darkness again, and she stared hard at the spot where he’d vanished until he eventually returned within a moment or two, with a headlamp in his hand. He leaned down to offer it to her. Hesitantly, she took it.

“What is this for?” She suddenly sat up as a terrible thought occurred to her, an action that caused her head to swim, but she hardly noticed. “You aren’t leaving me, are you?”

Surprise flickered through his crimson eyes. “No, I will not leave you,” he flatly stated. “The lamp is for you, should the other one burn out. Keep it close so you can flip the switch if you awaken to darkness.”

“But…what about you?”

“I’m going to rest.”

He promptly made good his words by stepping over her to stretch out on the pallet beside her, but rather than putting his back to her as she figured he would, he turned to his side to face her. Uneasily, she clutched the headlamp in both hands as she settled onto her back again. For several long moments, she helplessly examined his quiet face as he, in turn, studied her unblinkingly, dispassionately. She found the crimson eyes so very close to her own rather disconcerting. Pointedly, she swiveled her head back to stare up into the darkness not so far above her head, another disturbing vista. Deliberately, she closed her eyes and for a long time, she tried to will herself to sleep, but the elusive sandman evaded her. Finally, the question burning in her mind suddenly slipped from her lips before she could button it down.

“Do you think…we’ll get out of here…Vincent?” Her voice came out quavery and weak, and she grimaced at the sound of it.

She waited for a few seconds for his answer, and when he showed no sign of responding, she gave in to her compulsion to look at him, only to find his inky lashes shadowing his cheeks and his lips relaxed in slumber. With an annoyed little huff, she turned over and put her back to him. The sneaky man had escaped into sleep when she wasn’t looking.

Some while later, in the cloud world between sleep and wakefulness, she restlessly rolled to her other side and her hand slipped in incremental degrees across the blanket, unconsciously seeking and eventually finding the feathery ends of a stray strand of silky hair. Inexorably, she drew her hand back to curl against her lips, her prize clasped between her fingers.

Reno’s eyes popped wide open, and he erupted from the cot, his startle reflex in full operation before his sluggish mind could catch up to what had awakened him, until the distant thumping of the chopper blades resolved in his mind, and he knew. Rude had finally come home. He swept a weary hand across his face and went in search of his boots. At least they wound up in more predictable places when he wasn’t the one to remove them.

Sitting down on the end of the narrow cot, he absently dragged on his boots as he sought out Elena, but she wasn’t in either of her usual places, at the table or sitting in the corner with her feet propped up. In fact, upon looking around, he discovered no one inside the darkened tent besides him. Bright sunlight streamed in from outside, and he realized that he must have slept for over twelve hours. He felt like he could sleep for twelve more.

He promptly stood up from the cot and checked his hip pocket for his collapsed mag rod. Then he drew the handgun from beneath his shirt where he still had it stuffed in his waistband at the spine. He’d been so exhausted, he hadn’t even noticed that he’d slept on it. He probably had a permanent imprint of the pistol on his back. Deftly, he popped out the clip to check the load as was his habit and slapped it back in with a loud click to return it to his waistband. Then he whipped the magrod out of his pocket and extended it. Laying it across his right shoulder, he ducked through the tent entrance and headed out to meet the chopper with the intention of intimidating Cornelius Wildman right from the start. He had Caitlin’s interests to protect after all.

The camp was buzzing with activity. People went to and fro everywhere. The dozer and crane were in full operation at the Sector Two gate, the rumble of the machinery a busy drone in the background. He could see that Highwind had put a bunch of people to work on the excavation, their distant figures clearly visible around the edges of the debris. A glance at the position of the sun told him it was around 10:00 am. Walking out a few paces, he swiveled his head to pick out the black silhouette of the chopper against the blue sky, still high up but almost directly overhead.

Reno quickly looked around for a sign of Elena and her charges, and he immediately noticed Avian pushing a motorbike toward the empty flats out beyond the two parked trucks with Elena nowhere in sight. His brows flew together in an irritated frown. He couldn’t even take a nap without the security operation falling completely apart. He headed out across the intervening space, taking great, long-legged strides to intercept the kid before he got away.

“Hey, kid!” He yelled, picking up his pace to a trot as he passed through the narrow gap between the trucks. The chopper was about to land, and he hadn’t counted on this distraction. “Hey, Wulfe!”

Avian heard Reno calling, and he came to a stop and turned wary amber eyes toward him as the Turk came up to him. “Hey, she said I could go,” Avian informed him preemptively.

“Who and where?” Reno asked succinctly.

“Elena and with Cloud,” Avian replied just as economically.

“Cloud Strife?” he asked curtly.

“Yeah, we’re going to Sector Five before they seal it off. Look around. Do a final sweep. You know.”

Reno studied his face with appraising eyes. “Cloud know what’s going down?”

”Yeah, he knows,” Avian said with a hint of disgruntlement.

“You told him?”

“Caitlin told him,” he said petulantly.

Reno tapped the magrod against his shoulder as he pondered the situation. Finally, he inclined his head in approval. “Well, I’m not your momma, kid. Do what you want. Long as Strife has your back.” Reno figured Avian Wulfe couldn’t do much better than Cloud Strife for a bodyguard.

Just then the warrior in question rode slowly past them on another small motorbike, standing on the pegs, his sword strapped across his back. Cloud hailed Avian with a loud shout to rival the racket of the pinging engine, and gestured with an impatient tilt of his head for him to follow.

“See ya, Reno. Gotta go.” Without waiting for a response from the Turk, Avian threw a leg over the bike, turned the key, tapped it into gear with his toe, gave it some throttle, and he was off, gearing up swiftly to overtake Cloud who promptly poured on the speed himself, settling down onto the seat to bend low over the handlebars, the conjoined strain of the demands made on the small engines drowning out the noise of the excavation and the constant chattering of passersby.

Reno heard another motorbike coming up on his right, and he looked that way just in time to see Heidegger fly by with his silver ponytail flying out behind him, followed by the obnoxious Kisaragi girl on her blue river chocobo, racing all out to follow. He shook his head in awe. “Regular three ring circus around here…” he muttered to himself.

The chopper settled to the ground thirty feet or so out in front of him, and he stuffed a hand in his jeans pocket and sauntered that way, idly bouncing the magrod against his shoulder as he walked.

Caitlin hailed him from behind, and he halted in mid-step, turning in place to wait for her as she hurried to catch up. His green eyes widened as he scanned her from the toes of her navy flats up her bare legs to her dark blue knee-length skirt and sleeveless red top. Her golden blonde hair had been pulled sleekly to the back of her head into a long, waving ponytail, and he thought he could see Elena’s touch in the delicately applied makeup that adorned her face. “Well…” he drawled. “I guess presentation really is everything.”

She grimaced at him. “Just a little something I threw on. With Elena’s help. I didn’t have much time.”

“Where is Elena?” Reno inquired silkily.

”Why…right behind you,” Caitlin said with a knowing little smile.

Reno whirled around then to find Elena standing several feet back, holding Rachel’s hand and wearing his sunglasses, effectively hiding her hazel eyes from his inspection. Her stony, expressionless face was worthy of the most experienced Turk. With an exaggerated frown, he pointed at his eyes and then at her, followed by a slashing gesture across his throat. The only response he got from his silent threat was a cool smile along with a toss of her blonde head. She calmly bent to speak to Rachel, and then the two of them put their backs to him and walked away. He stared after them in consternation. Why did he feel like he was losing his grip on things other than just his sunglasses?

“Are you with me, Reno?” Caitlin asked a bit nervously.

He jerked his head back around to bring his glittering green eyes to bear on her face. “Of course, Caitlin. Let’s do it.” Back to business.

Falling into step side by side, they headed for the helicopter as the whirring blades slowed to inaction. Reno shortened his stride to accommodate her, and he peered down at her when he realized she was bent slightly forward and staring at his face. “What?” he asked coolly. “You’ve got dirt on your face, Reno,” she informed him. He rolled his eyes and with a lick of his finger swiped at his face. “Other side,” she directed him. “Right cheekbone.” After a couple of swipes, he presented his face to her. “Better?” he asked, his voice a bit sulky at her criticism. “Much better.” She smiled up at him. “I just got out of bed you know,” he dryly informed her by way of an excuse. “I didn’t have time to shower.” She nodded sagely. “Yes, I figured that when I saw your bed hair.” Reno sighed heavily and got out his comb.

The passenger door of the chopper opened as they drew near, and a slender woman lithely jumped down out of the cockpit and dragged a duffle bag and rolled up sleeping bag out behind her. She was dressed in faded blue jeans and a white t-shirt topped by an oversized flight jacket. A pair of worn lace-up work boots adorned her feet. She had her long, sun-bleached sandy hair pulled into a ponytail and a black airman’s cap pulled low over her brow. Reno stared hard at the woman as she strode toward them. “Well, that‘s not Wildman,” he muttered. Something about her struck a familiar chord with him, but the oval shades she wore over her eyes made it difficult to determine her identity. Her step faltered as she came abreast of them, but then she merely nodded a polite greeting and hurried on her way. Caitlin looked up at him with inquisitive eyes, but he just shrugged his ignorance, instead coming to a halt as Rude rounded the nose of the chopper to meet them.

“You got Wildman?” Reno got straight to the point.

Rude silently inclined his head toward the chopper and deliberately folded his arms, his clear communication that it was Reno’s turn to deal with the smarmy lawyer.

Reno attempted to see the man through the tinted windows. “He still alive?”

”For now,” Rude replied ominously.

”Who was your other passenger?” Reno asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.

Rude lifted his wide shoulders in a shrug. “Shinra engineer,” he replied tersely. “Missed the plane.”


”I.D says Drake.”

He knitted his brow in concentration but came up empty in the end. “Oh well, don’t know her I guess. Time to get this business meeting started.” He strode over to the chopper and opened the rear door. Reno took a moment to admire Cornelius Wildman’s tailored gray suit, his expensive loafers and gold watch before shifting his icy green gaze to the man’s face to ponder on the copious amount of hair gel the man must have expended to slick his collar length blonde hair back from a widow’s peak. Wildman’s blue eyes burned fiercely from the sharp planes of his suntanned face. He appeared quite angry, and that probably had something to do with that fact that he was bound hand and foot in the floorboard of the chopper. The lawyer mumbled and growled angrily from behind his cloth gag.

“I understand you’ve been giving my Turk some trouble, Wildman,” Reno said coolly.

Reno’s remark set off another spate of muffled complaints. The Turk climbed up into the seat, careful not to step on the lawyer’s trussed up legs, and he twisted around to reach into the back. “You know…I heard a joke the other day…one you might appreciate…” Reno idly remarked. “Now where did I put that…” He came up with a crossbow bolt and shook his head. “No, that’s not it…” He casually discarded it to delve deeper into the compartment he was searching. “Anyway…the joke…” He examined a screwdriver and rejected that, tossing it back into the box with a clatter. “…Goes something like this.” He pulled out a diver’s harpoon. “Heh, getting warm…” He set it aside with a thoughtful frown and dove into the metal box again. “What do they call three hundred dead lawyers at the bottom of the ocean, Wildman?” The lawyer didn’t answer, and Reno looked around to find him watching him with still eyes. He smirked down at him. “A good start.” Reno grinned at the punchline. Wildman’s eyelashes flickered, and Reno’s face fell in a frown of disappointment. “You’ve heard that one already, eh?” He returned to his search. “I guess it is an old one. Everybody you see probably tells it. Aha, here it is.” Reno came out with a wicked looking dive knife with a serrated tip and settled back into the seat to smile amiably down at the lawyer whose eyes had gone as round as saucers at the sight of it. “How about this joke? What would I call one dead lawyer at the bottom of the ocean?” The lawyer started shaking his head. “You don’t know?” Reno asked archly. “Well, I’ll give you a hint.” He flipped the knife over in his hand and bent toward Wildman. “His initials are C.W.”

The lawyer’s face went pale beneath his tan, and Reno wondered if the man might stroke out. “Now I’m just going to cut off this gag,” Reno explained congenially. “And we’ll just have a little chitchat. What do you say to that, C.W.?”

The lawyer barely managed to move his head in a nod of acknowledgement, and his eyes rolled wildly downward as Reno slipped the cold steel blade between the gag and one pale cheekbone. With a quick slice of the keen edge of the blade, the cloth gag fell away, and Reno sat back and crossed his arms with the knife clasped in one fist and the magrod in the other. Reno suddenly closed his eyes and dragged in a great noisy breath, letting it out very slowly. “You know, Wildman, I just love breathing. What about you?” His glittering eyes traveled back to the lawyer’s face, and the man starting nodding his head empathetically. “Yes…yes…I love…b…b…breathing…very…m…much…” he stammered.

“Good. Good. You seem an agreeable man. I can’t imagine why you’ve made Rude’s job so difficult.”

“I…I…just…look…I’m sorry…I just…didn’t know…what b…business the T..Turks would have with me.”

“The Turks have no business with you, other than to carry out our employer’s wishes. It is our employer who has business with you. The Turks only seek your cooperation.”

The lawyer relaxed a little at Reno’s announcement. “Look Reno…I’m not taking on any new clients right now…I’m sort of semi-retired…”

Reno’s eyes narrowed on the lawyer’s face. “Are you not the attorney of record for the Shinra family?”


“I don’t see your problem then. I trust I can expect your full cooperation on behalf of my employer?”

“Okay sure, Reno,” Wildman said uneasily. “I just don’t know why you people couldn’t come to my office.”

Reno leaned down with the knife. “Oh, I suspect we’ll be coming to your office next time,” he smoothly replied. The lawyer’s face blanched again as Reno swiftly flicked the knife though the ropes that bound his ankles and wrists. Reno jumped down out of the chopper. “Don’t forget your briefcase,” he shot over his shoulder as he stepped aside to wait.

Wildman stiffly pushed himself up from the floor to slide out of the chopper, retrieving his leather briefcase from beneath the seat on the way. He walked quickly past Reno who watched him intently as he slowly stroked the flat blade of the knife against one scarred cheek.

Caitlin stepped forward to greet him with an extended hand as Rude shadowed her closely, her diminutive size next to his towering form lending the big Turk an added air of menace to his already intimidating presence. “Cornelius, it’s good to see you again,” she said warmly as the man dutifully shook her hand, and then noting the man’s sickly looking face, she frowned and shifted suspicious eyes to Reno. “Reno, you haven’t been causing Mr. Wildman any trouble have you?”

He rounded his eyes innocently. “Why no, Ms. Shinra,” he assured her. “It did take a while to cut him free however. Rude did bind him a bit tightly.” A satisfied smirk came to the redheaded Turk’s face then, and Caitlin resisted the urge to smile, instead shooting a convincingly pained look up over her shoulder at Rude’s stiff face.

“Ms. Shinra,” Wildman said in awe, Reno’s address spurring his sudden recognition of her. “Caitlin.” His face relaxed, and he developed some color to revive his tan. He presented her with a full view of his dazzling white teeth as his mouth split in a wide obsequious smile. “Why didn’t your Turk just tell me you wanted me? I’d have come right away.”

She offered him a cool smile. “Secrecy is of the utmost importance to me, Cornelius. I’m sure you understand.”

“Why…yes, Caitlin,” he purred lowly at her as his hooded eyes slid down to her legs. “I surely do.”

Caitlin rolled her eyes and tugged against his hold to retrieve the hand he’d clasped inside both of hers. She well knew of Cornelius Wildman’s proclivities. They were world-reknowned.

Reno loudly cleared his throat from his new position just beside the lawyer’s elbow, and Wildman instantly released Caitlin’s hand and jerked his startled eyes around to find the redheaded Turk regarding him with amused and vaguely threatening eyes from beneath lowered brows, duly reminding him of the full implications inherent in the identity of the beautiful woman he addressed. Most significant of which was the fact that she carried a lot of baggage. Turks.

Wildman abruptly took one big step that would carry him away from both Reno and Caitlin. He noisily cleared his own throat. “Er…yes…what can I do for you, Ms. Shinra?” he asked in his most solicitous and professional attorney’s voice.

“If you will be so kind as to accompany me, Cornelius,” Caitlin replied with an easy smile. “I will tell you.” She graciously lifted a hand toward the HQ tent. He forced his tasseled loafers forward, and she fell into step behind him.

Cornelius avoided looking at Caitlin Shinra as though she were plagued, and he mightily resisted the desperate urge to look over his shoulder to see if the Turks were walking just behind him. He didn’t have to look to know they were there, despite their completely silent footsteps. He could feel their cold eyes drilling into his back. With one finger, he loosened his red silk necktie slightly as he swallowed hard past the knot in his throat.

Tifa held perfectly still, her breath pent in her lungs, as Vincent stepped close and settled the headlamp on her head. Nervously, she looked up through the circle of his arms to examine his still face and hooded eyes as he adjusted the band to center the light. She opened her mouth then, to protest. To insist that she could put on her own headlamp, as she’d been doing every day for many days, but when he suddenly flipped the light on to brighten up the area noticeably, she deemed it too late.

Vincent flipped the light off again and withdrew a step. Crossing his arms over his chest, he shifted his weight to one foot and commenced a focused examination of her face. At first, she narrowed her own gaze on his face in puzzled question, wondering what on earth was the matter with him. She’d awakened to discover him standing at the end of the pallet, towering over her, lurking, his tall frame casting a huge shadow in the light of the dim headlamp on the floor. A gigantic shadow that cloaked her in gloom and traveled up the far wall and into darkness. Already clad in his cloak and boots, and presumably his socks, he’d stared down at her from a shrouded face, his arms crossed just the way he had them crossed now, and probably with just that same strange glint in his eye.

At the time, she’d immediately scrambled to her feet, positive that he’d been waiting forever for her to wake up and get with the program, and she’d darted around him to drop to the floor next to her socks and shoes, quickly donning them, only to look up when she was finished to find that he’d executed a complete circle, without moving a hair somehow, to continue his wordless study from his new vantage point. Contrary to her apparently false impression of an impatient need for haste, he’d seemed rather lackadaisical after that, pressing the canteen on her, and then a package of crackers, his eyes never drifting far from her face at any time. So disconcerted had she been by his odd behavior, that she hadn’t made a peep of protest, but had obediently taken a drink from the canteen and gingerly snatched the crackers from his gloved palm as though the package rested on the tongue of a sharp-toothed behemoth, after which she stood to the side and quickly ate them in pensive silence as he meticulously rolled up the bedding and tied the roll to his pack.

Now, Tifa found herself growing very nervous when Vincent did not relinquish his intense scrutiny of her after several long seconds, showing no indication that he intended to do so any time soon. She shifted uneasily from foot to foot. And then she pointedly crossed her arms. And then uncrossed them, only to cross them again. Finally, unable to bear his unrelenting gaze any longer, her troubled eyes skated away to peer off into darkness. It was at that point that Valentine finally moved, and she was somewhat surprised not to hear stone crumbling or ice crackling he’d stood stonily frozen to complete stillness for so long.

Vincent weirded her out even further by commencing a ponderous pacing in front of her, precisely four steps one way and four steps back. Forward and back. She eventually chanced a surreptitious look at him from the corner of an eye to find him with his metal arm folded across his chest, thoughtfully tapping his lips with the forefinger of his flesh and blood hand. He looked for all the world like Zangan would just before he was about to chastise her for lax discipline or clumsily executed kicks. She soon discovered that the comparison was not far wrong when he suddenly started talking as he paced.

“I wish to apprise you now, Tifa,” he said in his unaffected, mellifluous voice. “Of the rules of the road.”

At the impromptu return of what she now suspected to be his natural speaking voice, her startled eyes flew forward, and her mouth drifted agape. But when his actual words sank into her dazed mind, she abruptly closed her mouth, and her eyes turned wary.

”There are rules now?” she asked suspiciously, studying his serene profile as he strolled by.

“Indeed there are.” He confirmed his statement with a slight nod as he passed by going the other way, seemingly oblivious to the narrow brown eyes that tracked him.

“Might I ask who made those rules?” she inquired wryly. She suspected that she already knew.

“I devised them, of course,” he duly replied. She imagined for the barest blink of an eyelash that the corner of his mouth twitched in the tiniest of smirks, but she knew it was merely a sleight of hand vision caused by his relentless traveling back and forth through the dim circle of light cast from the floor.

“Why do you get to make the rules?” Her slender brows drew together in mild irritation, and she glared at him as he passed.

He paused then to look at her as though surprised at her question, as though he didn’t really have an answer to that one, but then he blinked and apparently got one. “I’m older,” he said coolly. He fell into his deliberate pacing again.

Gods, no joke he was older. He had her on that one. She threw a hand up. “What are these rules then?” she huffed in defeat.

He held up a finger as he passed back the other way. “I would first like to preface these rules with some preliminary commentary.”

Tifa nodded a bit dazedly as her mind was inexorably drawn to the last two words he’d spoken. Almost musically. “Preliminary…commentary…” Her lips silently moved as the words repeated over and over in her mind.

When he again retraced his route past her, he commenced his lecture or speech or whatever it was he thought he was doing. “As you are aware, Tifa, haste is of the essence…”

At that early juncture, she almost raised her hand to point out that he was wasting a lot of time and energy walking back and forth and talking when they could be walking down a passage and talking, but his next words somewhat explained his reasoning. “From the moment we embark on the rest of our journey today, we will move swiftly. We will commit the whole of our energies to covering ground, and we will not stay our course for any reason until we reach a level of exhaustion that would force cessation. Do you understand?”

He brought narrowed crimson eyes to her face then, and she realized that he expected a response.

“Sure, okay, Vincent,” she replied with a quavery little smile.

He nodded sagely and continued his monologue. “We will stagger the use of the headlamps. We will travel by the light of your headlamp first. I will not turn mine on until yours is completely spent.

He glanced at her again as he walked past, and she dutifully nodded.

”I don’t believe that we are far from the end of our journey, no more than two days surely. My hope is that we can make it before we lose our light.” He stopped talking then, and after one more pass, sharply turned to face her, folding both arms across his chest as he had before and pinning her with unblinking crimson eyes.

Feeling a little intimidated by his prolonged silence, she offered him an encouraging lift of her eyebrows to spur him along.

His dark brows knitted in concentration. “Rule Number 1. You will not leave my sight.”

Her own brows flew together in an imitation of his serious expression. “Likewise, Vincent,” she replied smartly.

He inclined his head. “Duly noted. Rule Number 1 Revised. We will not leave each other’s sight.”

Tifa smiled with satisfaction.

“Number Two. We will both immediately stop when the headlamp expires.”

She nodded in full agreement. That was a given act on her part. But then again, maybe not. She might impulsively dive for him when the light went out, if not for the rule.

“Number Three. If I command you to an action, you will obey without question,” he stated in a voice several degrees cooler than his previous tone. She noticed that Vincent’s eyes had developed that same glittering quality again.

Her frown came back with a vengeance. He was reaching unprecedented levels of bossiness with that one.

He took a deliberate step toward her now, and his crimson eyes had reached an even newer degree of intensity. “And Number Four. You, Tifa Lockhart, will not runaway from me. Not for any reason. No matter what may compel you.”

Her temper flared at what she imagined, based on her suddenly heightened level of defensiveness, to be a veiled accusation from his lips, and she took an impulsive step toward him and glared up into his face as her brown eyes caught fire. “I wouldn’t runaway from you, Vincent Valentine,” she informed him heatedly. “Why would you think that?”

”Prior pattern of behavior,” he said silkily, bending his head to stare straight down into her hot eyes, his hair falling forward to shadow his features. Her mouth flew open to protest even though she knew he was right, but he forestalled her argument with his own tightly voiced words.

“You, Tifa Lockhart, will refrain from contact with any source of water in the absence of my presence.” Her mouth slammed closed, and she propped her hands on her hips in her consternation. He began to circle her then, a shark around a stranded swimmer. Warily, she turned on heel to keep track of him, her eyes mesmerized on his face as his crimson eyes burned into hers. He lifted a finger to point at her. “You will not go near a waterfall,” he said curtly. “You will not go near a river.” One ebony eyebrow went up. “You will not go near a pool.” He shook his finger in her face. “In fact, you will not go near so much as a puddle without me. Not even a single raindrop. Without my express permission.” He came to a stop and openly glared down at her then as he pointedly folded his arms. “Do you understand these rules, Tifa?” She knew her mouth was gaping in disbelief, but she truly didn’t care.

So they’d come to the crux of the matter. All those other rules, and his ‘preliminary commentary’, although certainly valid, had only been mere window dressing. Admittedly, he’d used a month’s worth of words to do it, but the truth was that Vincent Valentine was bound and determined to bring her troublemaking to an end. Right here and now. She could hardly blame him, especially after that last mishap, but the fact that he was being so autocratic about it didn’t sit well with her one little bit.

She smiled up at him sweetly. “What about the canteen? Do I have to be standing in your shadow to take a drink?”

”Yes,” he replied shortly. “You do.”

She raised a finger to point at him. “You know, Vincent, that last thing wasn’t my fault,” she protested plaintively. “There were lights. Like I told you.”

“Then you will refrain from all contact with extraneous lights,” he amended. “Imaginary or otherwise. In rivers. In passages. Or elsewhere. Do you understand?”

“Those lights were not imaginary,” she retorted.

“I did not claim that they were,” he smoothly replied.

”You implied it,” she accused.

Her muscles jerked when he suddenly reached up and flipped on her light. “Shall we go?” He whirled away from her so quickly his cloak belled out around him.

”What?!” she exclaimed in astonishment. “That’s it?!”

”The discussion is over,” he replied bluntly as he bent to retrieve the almost spent headlamp from the floor. “I merely expect your compliance.” He flipped the light off and drew the band over his head.

”But what if I have something to say?”

He silently shrugged into his pack and bent to retrieve the rifle. She was just about to let him have it for ignoring her, when he straightened and abruptly turned to face her. “What do you wish to say?” he queried accommodatingly, his eyes mildly curious, as though he hadn’t just been glaring at her and popping off arrogant proclamations.

Confused at the sudden shift, she lifted a hand to her deeply lined forehead as she wondered if she might have imagined the whole interchange. Maybe she was still asleep. Or maybe this was some sort of ex-Turk head game to keep her off balance.

“If you’ve a point to address, Tifa, now is the time.” Vincent urged quietly.

She labored hard to come up with something to say. She couldn’t even remember what she was going to say, and nothing of intelligence came to mind. “No, Vincent. I…it’ll keep.” She gave her head a hard shake to hopefully ignite a spark in her benumbed mind, and she slowly started off down the passage.

”This way, Tifa,” Vincent said a bit coolly. And no wonder. She was headed back toward the pool, it seemed. A definite violation of his rules of the road.

She reversed her course, and he came up to walk alongside her. Pointedly, she avoided looking at his face, but for some reason, she found herself fighting an irresistible urge to reach out and grab hold of his cloak. She could only imagine the response she might get if she did. Not so long ago, she would have figured that he would simply look at her with those expressionless eyes. But now, after what had just passed between them, she wasn’t so sure what sort of reaction she might get.

As though to reinforce her uncertain expectations about him, Vincent suddenly reached out and took her elbow in his fingers. Holding her in a light grip, he moved steadily faster and faster, his strides growing longer and longer, steering her close alongside until she had reached a point just short of trotting to keep up with him.

He looked up from her feet to intently search her face. “Is this too fast a pace for you?” he asked carefully.

She briefly met his questioning eyes and shook her head in denial. “No, Vincent,” she said gruffly. “Whatever it takes to get this ordeal over with.” After that, she shut her mind to all else and concentrated solely on covering as much ground as she could manage. No imaginary conversations. No puzzle parsing. No thought. Just mindless counting. Her mind turned pedometer. One footstep after another. Until daylight.

Reno took one last look at Caitlin and Rachel where he’d left them eating side by side at the end of one long table. Satisfied that his charges would be occupied for the next few minutes, he ducked under the tied up tent flap of the mess tent to step outside. Drawing his cigarette case and lighter from his pocket, he squinted his eyes to peer out across the empty flats where the sun neared the distant thin sliver of ocean on the western horizon, close to bringing down the curtains on yet another long day.

He and Rude had spent most of the day lurking while Caitlin and Cornelius put their heads together and made a list of all the legal matters she needed to address and all the papers she wanted drawn up. If he’d had his shades, he would have been sleeping behind them. Listening to all that ‘whyfore’ and ‘whereas’ and ‘whathaveyou’ was enough to make a guy’s brain cells implode. Lawyers were not his favorite people to be around, and of all the ones he knew, Wildman was his least favorite. He supposed they were a necessary evil. If one wished to do things legally. Waste of time, as far as he was concerned. Too much paperwork.

Reno stuck a cigarette between his lips and lifted his lighter, but just as he was about to light it, he noticed Rude walking toward him. Surprised, he took the cigarette out of his mouth to speak. “Thought you were taking a nap, Rude.’

“Did,” Rude replied tersely.

“That was quick.”

“Long enough.” Rude lifted his broad shoulders in a shrug.

Reno shook his head in wonder. It never ceased to amaze him how little sleep Rude could get by with. The man was an automaton. “You wanna hang with Caitlin and Rachel in the mess tent for awhile?” Reno asked hopefully. “Grab a bite to eat?” He thought he might just go retrieve his sunglasses if he could break free.

Rude silently nodded in the affirmative, turning on heel to head for the tent entrance.

”If you need me,” Reno said over his shoulder. “I’ll be having a word with Elena, if she’s awake now.”

Rude paused just short of ducking into the tent. “She’s not there,” he said coolly.

Reno whirled around to examine the big Turk’s face. “What do you mean she’s not there? She’s supposed to be sleeping. She has watch tonight.”

Rude shrugged his ignorance, and disappeared into the tent.

“Son of a…” Reno shot his unsmoked cigarette to the ground and stalked off toward the sleeping tent. Elena had better be there too, or he was going to let her have it. She knew better than to go off without keeping him apprised of her whereabouts. Especially under the circumstances they were operating at the time. Especially after that blonde bastard in Kalm had almost put a hole through her. Not to mention the fact that he’d filled her bulletproof vest full of lead in the subterranean tunnels beneath the Midgar Slums. Both events he had witnessed, and both times she had nearly given him a major coronary. His heart couldn’t take too many more such incidents.

Reno ducked into the tent and right back out. The sleeping tent was unlit and completely vacant. Walking quickly, he started searching, checking one tent after another. Most of the tents were empty for the most part, except for the tents where the Sector Five refugees had taken up residence, and the medical tents that were quite busy with personnel and family members at any given time. He expended several long moments in each of those looking intently for Elena’s blonde coif, without any luck.

Reno headed toward the area back of the tents where all the equipment and extra supplies had been stacked. None of the showers were in use back there, and no one seemed to be about. After that, he headed for the nearest Gelnika and the plane’s open ramp. He found the red beast lounging on the ramp, and he came to an instant halt.

”Hey, Cat,” he said a bit breathlessly. “You seen Elena?”

Nanaki raised his head from his paw to inspect the Turk’s flushed face. “No, I haven’t seen her all day. Is she missing?”

Reno wanted to pop off with an emphatic, “No”, but he wasn’t confident anymore that she wasn’t. “Maybe,” he said uneasily.

”Want me to track her?” Nanaki asked helpfully.

“You can do that?” Reno asked with surprise.

“Well, yes.”

Reno pointed a finger at him as he thought about it. “I’ll get back to you on that.”

“Let me know if I can help,” Nanaki said as he laid his head back down on a broad paw.

Reno nodded in acknowledgement and walked up into the belly of the plane just to be thorough. The huge cargo bay had been completely cleared out, probably because Highwind planned to start airlifting casualties and any refugees that wanted to go on to Junon as soon as he had the Sector Two gate open. Reno wheeled around and ran back down the ramp. Nanaki merely opened his eye as the Turk’s boots pounded past him, setting the ramp vibrating beneath his paws.

The Turk sprinted across the wide expanse of empty ground toward the other Gelnika parked just off the makeshift runway, out away from the rest of the camp. He ran up the lowered ramp to find the cargo bay empty but for a few scattered stacks of crates. He trotted forward, swiftly checking behind each stack. When he came to the last one, he discovered a duffle bag and an unrolled sleeping bag. His green eyes livened with interest. Looked like someone had taken up residence on the big plane. Just then, he heard a clicking sound beyond the open cockpit door. Silently, he crept up on the hatchway, dragging his magrod out and extending it as he went.

He paused in the doorway and relaxed a tad when he recognized the woman that had come in on the chopper with Rude. She’d taken off her shades and flight jacket, and she had the front panel off the radio. She held a ratchet wrench loosely in her slender fingers, her head bent low as she peered into the guts of the exposed radio. At that point, he became a little suspicious.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

The woman cried out in alarm and whipped her head around to look at him, pressing a hand against her chest to still her pounding heart.

”Damn, you scared me.”

“Do I know you?” Reno asked curtly.

“Probably not,” she easily admitted. “But I know you.”

”Well, I’m pretty popular.”

“Notorious, I’d say,” she smiled disarmingly up at him.

“Yeah, that too.” He grinned at the idea of being notorious, and then his humor vanished when he remembered why he was there. “Have you seen a blonde woman with a fancy denim jacket around anywhere?”

“Elena, you mean?”

“You know her?”

The woman shrugged. “I’ve seen her around here and there.”


“Nah, not lately.”

Reno turned to go then, until he remembered that the woman hadn’t really answered any of his questions. “What did you say you were doing?” he reiterated his query.

She offered him a wry smile. “I didn’t say. But I’m repairing a short in the radio.”

“And your name is?”

“Mud, around here.” Her smile turned deprecating.

“In trouble with Highwind?” he asked curiously.

“Not yet. Working on it, though.”

Reno realized he was wasting precious time that he should be expending on looking for his missing Turk. He’d verify this woman engineer with Highwind when he saw him. He figured she was pretty harmless, though. Exactly what she said she was.

“Later,” Reno said with a lift of his magrod. She gave him a little wave and turned back to her work. He quickly made his way off the Gelnica and headed back toward the encampment. He decided he would go ask Caitlin if she knew where Elena had gone. He should have thought of that in the beginning instead of running off half-cocked.

Reno ducked into the mess tent and walked over to the table to find Caitlin teasingly trying to get Rude to try his hand at jacks. He knew Rude would be terrible at it. Worse than he was when he’d tried. His hands were too damn big. And Rude’s were even bigger. Caitlin looked up and lost her smile when she saw Reno’s grim face.

”Do you know where Elena went?” he asked her tensely.

“I thought…she was taking a nap,” Caitlin replied slowly. “Isn’t she?”

“Apparently not,” he said with a grimace.

”Do you want us to help look for her?” Caitlin started to rise from her chair, apprehension filling her eyes, but Reno held up a hand. “Nah, I’ll find her,” he replied in an ominous voice. “Don’t you worry about that.” He turned on heel and strode away.

Reno headed back to the sleeping tent to check it once more, on the possibility that she had finally arrived there. He had reached the point where his irritation had given way completely to worry, and he was thinking about going to get the cat, when he heard musical female laughter from somewhere near by, accompanied seconds later by a low male chuckle. Reno’s green eyes narrowed suspiciously and he stealthily crept down the side of one of the big trucks.

He leaned back against the side panel of the truck and peeped around the back. And that’s right where he found her. Engaging, pretty smile on her lips. Sparkling hazel eyes glued to the man’s face. Hands flying about as she talked. His sunglasses pushed into her hair. He should have known. Spoiled rich girl like Elena. Wildman was just her type. Well-heeled lawyer. Sharp dresser. Expensive duds. Smooth act. Sleazy bastard. Was sleazy a step above or below libidinous? He should go out there right now and scare the shit out of him and get his sunglasses back. But he didn’t. He walked away. And he kept walking. Out away from the encampment across the flats. He walked for a long time. Hours it seemed. He walked until he lost himself in starlight.

”Vincent…” Tifa squinted intently into the gloom in front of her as she walked. “Shouldn’t we switch lights now?”

“No. Not until the light expires.”

“But…I can barely see…”

”Stay close to me,” he told her, his eyes focused forward.

She tried to see his face, but her lamp hardly illuminated his features. Compulsively, she reached out to her side and snatched his cloak into her hand. He looked at her then. Although she couldn’t make out the details, she could see that he’d turned his head, rather sharply too, and she wondered what expression she would see in his eyes just then. “Do you mind?” she asked nervously. “If I just…hold on to your cloak…for a little while?”

“No, Tifa, I do not mind.” He spoke softly, and in the melodic voice she’d come to think of as his normal voice. She couldn’t help but smile. Maybe he’d grown too weary to work at putting all that dull monotone into his words.

”How do you feel?” he asked her. She could sense his eyes on her face.

“I’m fine,” she said with more conviction than she felt. “I’m a little tired, but I can keep going.”

”We can slow our pace for awhile.”

“No way,” she said with an emphatic shake of her head. “I don’t want to slow down.”

He didn’t say another word in response, but merely directed his eyes forward again. They walked another few steps in silence, and then her light blinked out completely. The resulting darkness was so dense that she thought she’d just smacked her face into a wall of solid pitch, so startling that she immediately stopped. She didn’t need Vincent’s Rule, whatever number it was, to do so. Only a few pounds of her heart later, Vincent flipped his headlamp on, but truthfully, it wasn’t much brighter than hers had been just before it burned out. Apparently, he didn’t think so either, because he knelt down and shook off his pack. He quickly found the unused battery in the outside pocket where he’d placed it for easy retrieval. She handed down her headlamp without prompting and looked around at the dim wash of striated sandstone of the wall nearest them. She tried to remember what the outer face of the mountain seemed made of. What the rock looked like. If it would present a clue as to whether they were getting close, but she couldn’t bring a picture of the mountain range to her mind. A few moments later, Vincent handed the headlamp back to her, and she pulled the band down over her hair. She denied the suddenly overwhelming need to turn it on and wash the whole area with bright light. She knew he didn’t want her to turn it on until his burned out completely. She also knew it wouldn’t be long.

He stood and hefted the pack onto his back again. He’d forgotten to check the battery before he gave her back the headlamp, and he did so now, inadvertently giving her what she had desired by reaching up to flip on the light. When the light flooded the passageway, Tifa saw a man standing against the wall several yards down the tunnel, in the murky shadows just beyond the reach of the light, and the sight was so unexpected she cried out in alarm. Vincent’s eyes shot to her stricken face, and then he instantly whirled in the direction in which she stared in shock, his hand instinctively flying to his Quicksilver in its holster. But then he narrowed his eyes in appraisal at the figure that had startled her, and he released the grip. “It’s a wall painting,” he told her tensely. The eerie figure had sent his adrenaline pumping as well.

“Are you sure?” she asked anxiously. Even now that he’d identified it, she still imagined that it might just walk right up and speak. Vincent abruptly gathered her wrist into his hand and led her straight up to the thing. He laid his metal fingers against the black figure, the tips of his talons clicking softly against the stone wall as he touched it. The wall painting depicted a black silhouette of a man and looked exactly like a shadow cast against the stone. Tifa gave in to the compulsion to look behind her, just in case someone, like maybe the elusive smoker, should be standing there. “Gods, that’s creepy…” she murmured.

“Shadow man,” Vincent said sharply, as though he’d just realized what the thing resembled.

“A pretty convincing shadow man too…” Tifa replied shakily.

Vincent abruptly released her wrist and reached into his pocket to drag out the map. He knelt on one knee and unfurled the map against the floor. Tifa leaned to look down over his shoulder, her lamp brightly illuminating the yellowed paper. Vincent planted a fingertip on the paper and began to track the tunnels toward the exit, pausing when he found the faded scrawl he thought he remembered. Two letters. “S.M.” Not far beyond the notation, the tunnel split into two directions. One went to the end. The other curved back on itself and faded out. A straight line had been scored in between the notation and the fork. He almost felt a sense of exhilaration. If the notation referred to the shadow man painting on the wall, they should come upon the fork within a mile or so by his estimate. Positive proof that they were on the right path. And if that were the case, they were within a day’s walk of making it out of the mountain, provided that the ‘X’ at the end did indeed denote an exit. The straight line in between troubled him though. He knew it meant something. It could be a stream, but he found that unlikely as he had the sense that they had generally been traveling upward. He feared it might be a wall of some sort. A barrier. Perhaps an iron door like the one at the top of the shaft in the facility far behind them. He prayed not. If so, it might have a combination lock similar to the one on the shaft door. Without the code in hand, they would die before he could ever get it open. The potential number combinations would be endless.

“What is it, Vincent?” Tifa asked hopefully. “Did you find something?”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not,” he replied noncommittally. He didn’t want to get her hopes up, only to dash them if his speculations should prove inaccurate. “The path shall be revealed,” he added cryptically.

Tifa rolled her eyes in exasperation. Sometimes the man sounded like a fortuneteller instead of an ex-Turk. Maybe she should ask him if he could read her palm. If she had a short lifeline, then she might take that as a bad omen.

Vincent folded up the map and rose to his feet. He stuffed it back into his pocket and reached over to flip off Tifa’s light, greatly diminishing their world to a much smaller and dimmer golden circle. He opened his mouth with the intention of asking her if she wanted a drink before they moved on, but he froze with his mouth hanging ajar.

Tifa studied Vincent’s strange expression with interest. “Did something bite you, Vincent?” Rock spiders maybe? He was standing pretty close to the wall.

With a start, he closed his mouth then. “I hear a rather strange sound,” he replied uneasily.

Tifa didn’t like it when Vincent heard strange sounds. Not after the last time. She also didn’t like it when he sounded uneasy. “Not bees, I hope...”

“No. A…scratching…” He swiveled his head to look back down the passage. “It’s growing louder.” He listened silently for several seconds more as Tifa tensely watched his face. “It’s coming closer,” he added ominously.

”Closer?” she squeaked in dismay.

Vincent suddenly erupted into motion, throwing up a hand to unerringly hit her headlamp switch, instantly flooding the passage with brilliant light. “Run,” he commanded. She started to protest, but then she remembered that rule, she couldn’t recall the number, the one about obeying him without question, and right after that, she heard the sound he’d been hearing. A crazy skittering sound. Faint in the distance, but definitely growing louder rapidly. She didn’t need any more impetus to set her feet to flight.

She looked over her shoulder as she raced away, noticing with alarm that he hadn’t moved. “Vincent! Come on!”

”I’ll be close behind you,” he called out. She would have stopped then, because she’d be damned if she was going to leave him, but he suddenly whirled and exploded into a sprint, his cloak unfurling to fly out behind him. “Run!” he yelled, his urgent voice echoing up the passage. “Don’t look back!” If nothing else could have made her run faster, the edge of fear in Vincent’s voice would definitely have done it for her. Whatever he had seen, whatever could put fear into the heart of a man like Vincent Valentine so that he would rather turn tail and run than stand and fight, she did not want to see.

The skittering filled the passage behind her now, swelling inside her head. Her breathing had turned ragged. More from fear than exertion. She could hear from the exponential expansion of the sound that whatever followed them up the passage seemed to be moving faster than she was. She would have picked up speed, but she was already running all out. She wanted to look back to make sure Vincent was behind her, but she didn’t dare. Because if she looked back and he wasn’t there, she thought she would just collapse right at that point and be swallowed whole by whatever hideous voracious thing chased then. She would just pretend she knew he was there and concentrate on moving her feet.

To her utter relief, she suddenly heard his footsteps pounding up behind her, gaining on her fast, even faster than that horrible sound, and as he raced up beside her, he threw his arm about her waist and swept her right off her feet as he jumped. They went airborne, and she could just barely hear a screaming sound even above the deafening skittering, and she suddenly realized the sound was coming from her mouth. But before she could ponder on it much, her scream was abruptly cut off when they hit the ground again. Hard. Vincent couldn’t handle the impact with both their weights combined, and his legs buckled under him, sending them both tumbling forward on to the rocky ground.

Vincent was up on his hands and knees in an instant, and he scrambled over to Tifa as she struggled to sit up. The skittering sound filled the air around them, all-encompassing, so deafeningly loud that when Vincent shouted at her, she couldn’t hear what he said. He sprang to his feet and bent to take her hand, pulling her up beside him. Miraculously, neither of them had broken the glass lenses of their headlamps, and neither of them had suffered any debilitating injuries, although Tifa knew her side would be a patchwork of bruises before long.

Helplessly compelled, they turned as one to face the source of the bone-chilling sound, and Tifa finally saw what Vincent had seen. A solid moving carpet of shiny purple, roiling and glimmering in the light of her lamp, pouring up the passage, covering every inch of floor from wall to wall, flowing over the lip into the wide crevasse that Vincent had just leaped across, a jagged crack maybe eight foot wide in the floor that she hadn’t even noticed in her fulminating panic, tumbling into the dark depths like an oily waterfall. A fast moving river made up of thousands…no…millions…or kabillions…of hard purple carapaces.

As she watched in queasy fascination, her hand drifted to Vincent’s upper arm and lighted there, and then she unconsciously laid her head against his shoulder, leaning into him as though she might fall down if he were not there. Then a shudder shook her, at the thought that if not for the crevasse that she would have fallen into but for Vincent’s intervention, they both would have been overtaken and buried beneath the carpet of beetles. He felt her whole body shake with her revulsion, and he might have wrapped his arm about her waist to comfort her, even to steady his own shaky nerves, but she stood to his left, and that arm was metal and the fingers sharp talons, not the materials for solace. She would not be soothed by his touch. Instead, he deliberately drew away from her with a tight shrug of his shoulder to dislodge her.

“We’d better go,” he said tensely. “The insects may be fleeing. It would be a good idea to follow suit.” He suddenly stepped away from her, reluctantly reaching over to flip off her light as he moved.

“Fleeing? Fleeing what?” Tifa asked apprehensively as he turned and started up the passage. She darted after him and grabbed a handful of his cloak, falling into step beside him.

“I cannot say,” he replied uneasily. “I don’t know.”

“You mean like a flood or a fire? Or earthquakes? Or cave-ins?” She was starting to scare herself but good.

He nodded in agreement. “Or a predator.”

That startled her. “A predator? What eats bugs?”

”Birds. Frogs. Larger insects. Spiders. Many creatures feed on insects.”

Tifa wondered how many rock spiders it would take to move so many bugs. It sounded like one of those mind-mangling story problems she always hated in school. If you have x number of spiders going this way and y number of beetles going that way, at what value do the beetles decide to runaway? “Why don’t we walk a little faster, Vincent,” Tifa nervously suggested. “I don’t want to find out what can frighten that many bugs.” She shuddered again at the memory of the living, crickling carpet and all those scritchy little legs, and her fist compulsively tightened around her handful of cloak.

Vincent shot her a troubled look. “Agreed,” he flatly replied.

As one they picked up their pace and neither of them dared to look back.

“So you’ve returned.”

Maya paused on the bottom step at the strained and slightly irritated voice coming from the huddled form beneath the covers of the bed. She knew that Nessa was caught in the grip of a great spasm of pain. She could hear it in her gritty voice. She could see it in the tight curl of her body. She could sense it inside her own mind. And she steeled herself against the sorrow welling inside her. She had come to know, over the last couple of days, as she’d spent more and more time in the basement bedroom, when Nessa would allow it, that the proud woman had grown distasteful of tears, and the sight of one would guarantee expulsion from the room.

Maya pasted a smile on her face. “Yes I have,” she said with false gaiety.

”Haven’t you anything better to do?”

Maya purposefully crossed the small room and plopped raggedly into the chair beside the bed. “Well, I really wanted to dust the inside of the Shinra Mansion or maybe help the Staton boys muck out the chocobo pens, but I decided to sacrifice all that fun to come visit with you.

“I’m honored,” she said dryly.

“I knew you would be,” Maya replied happily.

Nessa relaxed then, the agony suddenly uncoiling from her body to leave her with a dull ache, still painful but bearable, and Maya relaxed with her as Nessa’s silent distress ebbed from her mind. She blew out a silent breath of relief.

Nessa loosened the covers about her and rolled over onto her back, turning her thin cheek against the pillow. To Maya it seemed that her flawless skin seemed too tautly stretched over her high cheekbones, white onionskin paper barely containing the blue veins beneath. Nessa’s eyes bore into Maya’s, the dark eyes as intent and alive in the pale face as glowing embers of coal. Maya knew she would ask about Myron then. And not because she sensed it, but because Nessa always did.

“What has Myron been doing all afternoon?”

Maya tilted her head against the chair back to peer at the ceiling as she gathered her thoughts. “Let’s see…he made up the rooms…another family came into town today and he did the innkeeper thing…he…helped Staton erect his corrals and a lean-to for his birds…and…um…he…held his first town meeting as mayor…and…now he’s doing ledgers…”

“Town meeting?” Nessa asked with keen interest. “Do you know what the meeting entailed? Did you go?” Maya knew that Nessa would have been right in the middle of that business if she’d felt up to it.

“Hmm…just what I heard…”

”Well?” Nessa asked sharply.

”Myron said they drew up a town charter…and…formally named the town officials…and Natalie Staton brought some pies…and… “ She knitted her brow in thought.

“And?” Nessa persisted with a hint of impatience.

“…And a motion was made to level the Shinra Mansion and put in a park.”

Nessa's eyebrows flew up at that. “A well-conceived idea…” she murmured.

Maya held up her hand. “…And another motion was made to…er…fix the place up instead.”

“Which motion prevailed?”

“Neither,” Maya said ruefully. “There was a big argument, so the issue was set aside for another time.”

Nessa lowered her lashes as her thoughts turned inward. “It would probably not be advisable to destroy Shinra property at this point in time,” she mused aloud. “No matter how much one might wish it.”

“Myron really misses you,” Maya suddenly said in a careful voice, averting her eyes to hide her sadness. “He worries about you. Why won’t you let him stay with you?”

Nessa closed her eyes then and turned her head away to face the wall. For long moments, she was silent, and when she did speak, her voice came out strained and defensive. “There is a method to my madness.”

Maya shook her head in bewilderment. “I don’t see it.”

Nessa’s head came around then with a plea in her dark eyes for understanding. “For thirty-one years, Myron’s entire existence has been centered around me. He’s expended every waking moment to protecting me, sacrificing for me, loving me, repaying me…”

“Repaying?” Maya wrinkled her brow at that one.

Nessa narrowed her eyes, but went on as though Maya hadn’t interrupted. “Now I want him to fill his days with everything else but me, friends to support him…duties to occupy him…a life to embrace…once I am…gone…” Her words faltered, but for only a moment. “Otherwise, I fear that he will simply…go with me…”

As though her very words pained her, another spasm took her by surprise, and she cried out, twisting her body up in the covers as her lips drew back from her teeth in a rictus. Maya’s instinct was to jump to her feet, to touch her face with soothing fingers, or take her hand to comfort her, but she knew Nessa would violently reject her efforts. So she slumped down into her chair and pinned her eyes on the floor, crossing her arms tightly about her churning stomach to wait it out.

Inside her mind, she made an effort to detach herself from the room, from Nessa’s agony, a mental stepping away from reality to seek the realm of her visions, and in so doing, she suddenly detected Angel. She’d thought him sleeping or disengaged while he hunted, but he was right there with her. In the back of her mind. Silent and watchful.

Angel? She called tentatively.

The bird didn’t respond. And it came to her then that he was watching her. Hiding from her. Hiding…and watching. And biding his time.

Vincent’s dim light finally gave up the ghost, and Tifa instantly halted in mid-step as a vision of billions of spiders with beady ruby bodies like globules of dark blood flowing up the passage behind her suddenly blossomed to fill her whole mind. She wondered if jillions of spider legs zipping along made any sound at all.

“Tifa?” Vincent asked uneasily right next to her ear, startling a tiny little cry from her lips. Then she remembered, silly her, that she was supposed to turn on her light. She threw a hand up to fumble at her headlamp. Then her fingers became frantic when she couldn’t find the switch, and she had this crazy thought that the thing had broken off in her fall. And then Vincent’s warm fingers touched her hand as he reached for the light himself. Her breath stilled in her throat, and so did her fingers. On the switch.

The passage exploded with brilliant light, sweet life-giving breath in a pair of starved lungs, and left them blinking at the brightness as they both drew their hands away from her headlamp.

“I’m sorry… Vincent…” Tifa gasped in a trembling voice. “I…went a little…crazy there…”

“Understandable,” he replied carefully, his face filling with concern at sight of the huge dark eyes in a face gone ghostly white. “I believe we will stop for awhile.”

”No, Vincent! I don’t want to stop!” The dark eyes landed squarely on his face, but her staring gaze seemed to look through him, as though she didn’t even see him. She spoke too quickly, too frantically. Gently, he laid his fingers around the white-knuckled fist buried in a fold of his cloak. “Only for a few minutes, Tifa,” he reassured her. “Just a respite. To catch our breath.”

Her thoughts abruptly came into focus on the crimson eyes, immeasurably cool and wonderfully steady, and her fingers unfolded beneath his, to release the cloak, to draw away. Numbly, she nodded her consent. He was right of course. He usually was. Her brain had grown fanciful from fatigue, her legs rubbery and aching from overuse. A break was exactly the thing that she needed.

She turned her head to shine the light down the passage behind them, peering hard into the darkness beyond. Not a single thing moved. Not a shadow, not a stone. Not even the dead air. Only silence resonated in the depths of the tunnel. Finally, she surrendered and lowered herself to the floor. Vincent followed suit, unloading the pack and rifle from his back to sit down beside her. He crossed his long legs and dragged the pack around in front of him, unzipping it to delve around in the contents. She drew the headlamp off her head and laid it face up on the floor to shine toward the ceiling, and then she drew her knees to her chest and hugged her legs tightly to her as she anxiously watched him.

Vincent’s fingers finally found the last foil packet, another single cereal bar he could see by the stamp. He offered it to Tifa, and she released a leg to take it from him. Stretching both legs flat to the floor, she began to flex her feet, in and out, as she absently ripped open the packet to discover, to her great delight, a cereal bar. She took a bite, and shifted her eyes to her boots as she idly continued to flex, toe in and heel out, toe out and heel in, stretching the calf muscles, working the soreness out. Vaguely, she noted that Vincent had drawn out the discarded batteries from earlier in their trip and appeared to be in the process of checking them in his headlamp. He also didn’t appear to be eating anything, and that fact concerned her.

“You should eat too, Vincent,” she chided softly, her eyes still focused on her toes. She absently took another bite.

“I’m…not hungry,” he replied slowly.

She stopped chewing, and her eyes came around to find his face hidden behind the curtain of his hair as he worked. She didn’t know what it was. Whether it was his tone or maybe that slight hesitation, but she knew he was lying.

“You’d better eat now, Vincent,” she persisted uneasily. “It might be awhile before we can stop again.” As though they had all the time in the world to meander around inside the mountain, she thought wryly. They either got out soon or…they probably wouldn’t.

“I’m fine, Tifa,” he replied with a bit more conviction this time.

Tifa’s eyes fell to the partially eaten cereal bar, and she examined it for a moment. “This is the last of the food, isn’t it?”

Tense moments elapsed before he answered. “Yes.”

She instantly held the cereal bar out to him. “You eat the rest then.”

He shook his head without speaking.

“Come on, Vincent. I ate half. You eat half. It’s only fair.”

He finally looked up. “I can go longer than you can without eating, Tifa,” he replied coolly. “It’s better if you eat it.”

She looked his thin frame over skeptically. “Don’t give me that malarkey, Vincent,” she stubbornly persisted. “You need to eat as much as I do.”

“My metabolism is not…it’s different than yours,” he tried to explain.

Tifa leaned sideways to wave the cereal bar beneath his nose. “Do you remember our discussion about fisticuffs, Vincent?” she asked slyly.

His eyes almost crossed as he focused in on the dancing cereal bar. “Yes, I do,” he replied coolly. “What of it?”

“You do not want me to make you eat this, Vincent,” she threatened softly.

He shifted cool eyes from the bar to her mischievous smile. “And how do you propose to do that, Tifa Lockhart?” His tone was chilly. Challenging.

”Well, first I’m going to knock you flat, and then I’ll probably sit on you, and then I’ll probably have to hold your nose…and well…there you have it…” She grinned at the idea. Fun to imagine, but impossible to do, she suspected. She must be giddy to even threaten him to begin with. Anything that would focus her mind on the moment though.

Vincent raptly stared at her like a hypnotized cobra as the image her words painted formed vibrantly in his mind. His nerves could hardly handle the thought of her sitting on him, much less the reality. He knew she was teasing him, but the possibility left him feeling unhinged. He blinked and abruptly snatched the bar from beneath his nose.

”Thank you, Tifa. I appreciate your generosity,” he replied politely, as though he’d never refused her in the first place. He deliberately took a bite of the bar and returned to his testing.

With a vague sense of disappointment, Tifa drew back her hand and wiggled her fingers to see if they were all still there. She’d won this round. But the sneaky man had stolen her victory by giving in so easily. He was generally much more difficult. Maybe he was tired. She knew damn well he didn’t seriously believe she could make him eat the cereal bar if he didn’t want to or even that she would really try.

His share of the cereal bar soon gone, Vincent began to repack the dead batteries. He’d only found two that had any charge left at all, and those he dropped into his cloak pocket. Once the light went out in Tifa’s headlamp that was the end of it. He decided they’d better go. He unhooked the canteen from his pack and gave it a shake. The slosh of the water told him it was just under half full. He brought the canteen to his lips and tilted his head back to swallow a couple of mouthfuls, and then he turned to offer it to her, only to find her glazed doe eyes frozen on his face again.

Alarm flashed through him. “Tifa, are you all right?” he asked tensely.

She started then and slowly blinked. “Huh?” Her brown eyes turned puzzled. Where had her mind gone then? She took the canteen from him with a bemused shake of her head. Tossing her bangs from her face, she tipped the canteen up and took a long drink. Recapping it, she returned the canteen to Vincent’s waiting hand.

Vincent hooked the canteen to his pack, and rising to his feet, shrugged it onto his back. Tifa leaned across and lifted the rifle in one hand, and finding the weapon heavier than she expected, raised it barrel first to meet his outstretched hand as he bent. “I guess this means its time to go,” she said dejectedly as she picked up the headlamp and pulled the band down over her head. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to go. It was just that she knew this was it. The last leg of their journey. They would walk now until the light burned out. And then what? She could hardly bear to think of what would happen if the light quit on them before they reached the exit. Would they huddle together in the darkness until the lights truly went out for both of them? Would the darkness come to life and devour them? Would the spiders catch up to them?

A shiver twisted through her body, and Vincent stepped close and looked down to capture her worried eyes as she raised them. “Don’t think on it,” he said coolly. As though he knew just what was racing through her mind. But then, he did know. Because he had to be thinking it too.

She reached out and grabbed a handful of his cloak. “All right, Vincent. Let’s go find some sunlight. My tan needs some work.”

Elena walked into the sleeping tent to find Caitlin, Rude and Rachel playing cards by the light of the lantern. Caitlin looked at her askance and turned her attention right back to her hand. Oblivious to the waves of silent disapproval directed her way, Elena set her shoulder bag down and flopped into her usual chair in the corner. She promptly put up her feet. “Where is everybody?” she asked with little interest.

”You’ll have to be more specific,” Caitlin replied expressionlessly.

”Well, the kid. Avian. For one. But I suppose he’s with Reno.”

”No, he isn’t. He went with Cloud,” she coolly reminded her. “Remember?”

“Oh yeah,” she frowned and checked her watch. “So where’s Reno?”

“Where did you leave him?” Caitlin asked with a lift of one slim shoulder.

Elena dropped her feet to the ground and sat up. “What do you mean by that?”

“The last I knew, he was looking for you.”

“Well, I haven’t seen him, and I’ve just been outside talking to Cornelius,” she protested.

Caitlin looked up with keen interest. “Cornelius Wildman?”

”Yes, I’ve known him for years. He’s from Costa del Sol.”

“Well, you must have been talking to him for a long while. It’s been two or three hours ago that Reno was looking for you. Apparently, you weren’t where he expected.”

“Two or three hours?” Elena wrinkled her brow. “I guess I did lose track of time. So where is Reno now?”

Caitlin turned her head to look at the blonde Turk with amazement, her long ponytail switching against her back as she moved. “Did you miss the part where I said the last time I saw him he was looking for you? Two or three hours ago? Maybe he’s still looking.”

At Caitlin’s cool words, tension abruptly uncoiled inside her, and Elena sprang to her feet to dart to the table. “How about you, Rude?” she asked anxiously. “Do you know where Reno is?”

Rude’s wide shoulders lifted in a shrug. “Out looking for you,” he said flatly. “You better pray he doesn’t find you, Elena,” he added in more words than he was usually given to speaking. “You know better than to break procedure.”

”I didn’t break procedure…I was just on my way to take a nap…and I ran into Cornelius…and we were just talking.” Her hands wildly danced in punctuation of her words, and she whirled to jab a frantic finger toward the tent entrance. “Right outside.”

Rachel finally picked up on the tension as well as the reason for it, and she turned worried blue eyes up to Caitlin’s face. “Where is Reno to the Third?” she asked with fear in her small voice.

Caitlin soothingly patted Rachel’s little hand. “He’s working, Rachel,” she assured the child. “He’ll be back soon.”

“Working on what?” Elena asked sharply.

“Looking for you,” Rude blandly replied.

”But that was two or three hours ago! He could have found me by now! For crying out loud, he could have walked out the door of this tent and called my name, and I would have heard him!”

“Is Reno to the Third lost?” Rachel persisted.

“No, Rachel,” Caitlin whispered to her. “He knows right where he’s at, I’m sure.” She turned and shot Elena a warning look, one that was largely ignored.

Elena rounded on Rude. “Shouldn’t we go look for him?”

“Reno can take care of himself,” Rude replied coolly.

“Why don’t you flash him,” Caitlin suddenly suggested.

Elena’s eyebrows shot up. “Why don’t I do what?!”

Caitlin nodded at her wrist. “You know, your bracelet.”

“Oh yeah…” Elena twisted the sleeve of her jacket back from her wrist and spun the bracelet around until she found the active button. She jabbed the button with her tattered nail and waited. Nothing happened, so she pressed it again. And waited. And then again. Nothing. Then she angrily punched it six or seven times in rapid succession, and she accompanied each punch with a sharply enunciated word. “Damn. Assinine. Egotistical. Son. Of. A.”

“Elena!” Caitlin cried out.

She looked up then, her finger poised over the button, only to find three pairs of eyes looking at her. Two in varied shades of blue, and one dispassionate brown. It occurred to her then, that Caitlin had called her name a few times. She let her wrist fall. “Er…he’s not answering.”

“Yeah, we sort of figured that out,” Caitlin replied in a voice as dry as the lifeless ground outside.

A fine flush rose to Elena’s cheeks. “I’m going to go look for him,” she informed then as she drew her gun from the back of her pants and checked the load. She replaced it in her waistband and whirled around to leave.

Caitlin suddenly stood. “Elena! Wait!”

“What is it, Caitlin?” she asked impatiently.

”The compad. Do you have it?”

“Yes, it’s in my shoulder bag, by the chair,” she imparted with a flash of irritation in her eyes, and then she was gone.

Caitlin retrieved the bag and brought it back to the table, slipping the compad out of the side pocket to set it before her. She stared at the device for a long moment, and then she suddenly shoved it over to Rude.

Rude laid down his cards and opened the compad. “Do you want to contact Alexander?” he asked her.

She quickly shook her head. “No, not right now. I just want you to check that he’s okay.”

“There is no alarm to suggest otherwise,” he duly pointed out.

She waved a hand toward the small black computer. “I know. Just ask him…ah…if he’s okay…”

“He sends a standard message on the hour.”

“I know…I just…okay…check those for me…”

“You may contact him directly, if you wish,” Rude reminded her.

“No, I don’t need to do that right now,” she said with forced casualness. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to. She wanted to very much. But she needed this time, away from him, to get her business lined out, unemotionally, and she didn’t think she could manage if she didn’t keep her distance. “No. Just check the standard messages. Please.”

As she waited for Rude to run through his codes, she turned to offer a watchful and quiet Rachel a drink from her bottle of water. Then she thought of Elena and Reno, and a hint of a smile drifted across her lips. She lifted her eyes to watch him clumsily tap at the small keyboard with his oversized fingers. “Do you think Elena will find him, Rude?”

Rude looked at Caitlin from beneath his brows, a glint of amusement fleetingly transforming his serious brown eyes. “Not if he doesn’t want her to.”

“Shouldn’t we get out of here?” Derry asked with a glance at the luminous face of his watch. “It’s getting late.”

“Afraid of the dark, Fly Boy?” Yuffie popped off as she danced away down the path between the huge piles of debris.

“Nah, Princess. Just don’t want folks to get worried.”

“Who’s gonna worry about you, Heidegger?” She danced back to smirk up into his face.

“Wasn’t thinking about me. I was thinking about Wulfe. Turks are gonna come looking for him soon.”

”Man, don’t remind me…” Avian groaned. “I was having a good time.”

“So how’s come the Turks have you on a short chain?” Derry inquired with interest.

”It’s a long story,” Avian replied evasively.

”Hey, we have loads of time!” Yuffie exclaimed, jumping over to hook her arm around Avian’s elbow. She smiled encouragingly into his face. “Come on, you can tell us!”

Avian looked down into her face with wary amber eyes. “I don’t really know…”

“Come on, guys. Chill out,” Cloud suddenly spoke. The first words that had come from his lips since they’d left the pretty house next to the flower garden. All of them looked up with startled eyes to see that he’d stopped in the path and turned back to look at them. Every one of them had almost forgotten that Cloud was even with them, especially since he’d moved several paces up the path ahead of them. “Avian doesn’t want to talk about it right now, so zip it.”

Avian shot Cloud a grateful look before the warrior turned away, one that Yuffie didn’t miss. “I have ways of making you talk, Farm Boy.” Her black eyes twinkled up at him. “And some of them are mighty unpleasant.

”You heard the man, Princess. Leave him alone,” Derry chided her. “Everybody has to have a secret or two.”

She jumped away from Avian then, executing a half-spin in midair to land on her feet in front of Derry. She brought her hand to her chin to examine his face with speculative eyes as she walked backwards in front of him. “You have secrets, Heidegger?”

“Tons of them.” He grinned down at her.

”So spill.”

“Uh uh. I’m saving them all for my autobiography. You can buy the book.”

“Oh yeah, I’ll rush right out and snap that book right up,” she replied sarcastically. “Not.”

“You should. More secrets than you can imagine. It’ll be worth every gil you spend. Plus some.”

The black eyes narrowed on his face. “I don’t believe you, Fly Boy. You’re too happy all the time to have a bunch of dark secrets.”

Derry shrugged. “Who said my secrets were dark?”

Yuffie looked over to find Avian watching them, looking rather dejected, and when their eyes met, a flicker of golden light flashed through his amber irises. Her feet abruptly fell still, leaving her motionless in Derry’s path. He simply picked the petite girl up and set her to the side.

“Hey, Fly Boy,” she yelled in outrage. “Just cuz your bigger, doesn’t mean you can manhandle me.”

“Sorry, Princess,” he easily apologized.

Yuffie ran to catch up, falling into step beside Avian. “What’s the matter, Wulfe? Somebody steal your lollipop?” She leaned forward to peer into his face with narrowed eyes, very interested in catching sight of that strange phenomenon again. She’d seen it the first night he’d been in camp, the night he’d been so upset, and she had dismissed it as her imagination. But she could have sworn she’d just seen it again

Avian shook his head as his amber eyes turned puzzled. “What’s up, Wutai? Do I have a big zit on my nose?”

She noted the shortening of his nickname for her with appreciation. She rather liked that. Wutai. “No, Farm Boy,” she firmly shook her head. “You just looked sad there for a minute. You were depressing me.”

He shrugged uneasily. “I’m just worried about Soldier. I wish I hadn’t left him.”

“He’s all right in the mess tent with Bethy,” Derry assured him. “Eatin’ all the scraps and suckin’ up a all the ear scratches he can get.”

“Yeah, you wouldn’t want to bring him in here anyway…” Yuffie said with some concern as she looked around. “He’d probably get hurt.”

”I know,” Avian conceded. “But I can still worry, can’t I?”

The three of them came to the entrance of the makeshift culvert tunnel then, to find Cloud leaning against a support beam with his arms crossed and one boot on a stray cinder block as though he’d been waiting all day instead of just a minute or two.

Yuffie halted in front of him and slumped with feigned exhaustion. “Thank the Five Mighty Gods, we can finally go.”

“Actually, I have one more stop to make,” Cloud informed them. “You kids can wait here if you want. I won’t be long.”

“Hell, no, we’re not waiting here,” Yuffie informed him. “We all stay together. Remember?” She pointed a finger at him. “Your words, Strife.”

He shrugged in easy acceptance and unfolded his arms. “Let’s go then. Stay close.”

Cloud turned into a narrow, crowded path that ran down one side of the culvert along the wall of debris. The giant floodlights set up by Highwind's team barely reached there, leaving the pathway shrouded in gloom. Avian and Derry shot each other an inquiring look, and both shrugged their ignorance, but Yuffie danced away up the shadowed trail behind Cloud and beckoned with a wave and a smile. “Come on, guys,” she hissed back at them. “We’re goin’ to church.”

Nessa finally relaxed back against her pillow, gasping lightly for breath in the wake of her attack. Her face had grown very pale, especially against the bed of her long, loosened hair. Her skin had turned nearly as white as the wispy snowy streaks at her temples. It almost seemed as if her face had sprouted wings, a disquieting illusion. Maya nervously shifted in her chair.

“Almost seems like labor…” Nessa whispered hoarsely. “Comes and goes. But with no rhyme or reason.”

Maya’s head came up at Nessa’s words, interest sparking in her eyes. She realized that Myron and Nessa might very well have grown children. She’d never really thought about it before. “Did you have children, Nessa?” she carefully asked. She didn’t want to offend her either. “I just wondered…with your mention of labor…”

Nessa pressed her face into her pillow to bring her dark eyes to Maya’s lively green gaze. She studied her for so long that the younger woman grew uneasy, but she didn’t avert her eyes from Nessa’s search of her face. She guessed that Nessa was trying to decide whether to tell her as the woman wasn’t one to divulge personal details of her life or of her problems. Finally, Nessa moved her head against the pillow in a nod. “I gave birth to a little girl twenty-three years ago,” she murmured softly. “But she died after three weeks.”

“I’m…really…sorry…Nessa…” Maya offered her condolences in a halting voice. She felt a little remorseful for asking now.

“Thank you,” Nessa replied graciously. “But it was a very long time ago. I had a few… miscarriages…both before and after. Myron always thought it was due to the stresses of our life, and he always blamed himself for that, but he was wrong.”

Maya wrinkled her brow in question. “What was it then?” She thought Nessa would say that there was something wrong with her physically, that she couldn’t carry children, but she said nothing of the kind. And she completely surprised her with her answer.


“What? Judgment?” Maya stared at her in bewilderment. “What do you mean…judgment?”

Nessa’s dark lashes drifted down as though to shut Maya from her sight. “It doesn’t matter, child.”

“It does to you, Nessa. You can tell me.”

“The judgment of fate, child. The powers that be. Judgment for my father’s transgressions. The end of his bloodline. It dies with me.”

“But…your father had no brothers? No sisters?” The question slipped unexpectedly from her mouth, mainly because Maya didn’t know what to say to her even though she felt compelled to say something. Nessa’s odd statement had been voiced so calmly, so matter-of-factly, that she wasn’t even sure how Nessa felt about her proclaimed 'judgment'. Whether it pained her or comforted her.

“My father’s only brother was killed by a wild beast on a hunting trip before I was ever born,” she explained indifferently.

“But…your brother…”

“Is dead,” Nessa finished for her, her words coolly blunt.

”But before…he died…maybe…”

“No. He could not. Due to a childhood illness he suffered the year I was born…that’s what my brother told me…” She drew a slender hand to her chest. “As I’ve said, child. A judgment.”

“Sometimes things like that just happen in life, Nessa,” Maya said carefully. “That doesn’t mean it’s a judgment.”

She shrugged against her pillow. “Perhaps so. The end is the same. The Valentine name died with my brother, and the Valentine bloodline dies with me. So be it.”

The name sent a shockwave of recognition through Maya’s whole body, and she abruptly erupted from her chair. Her emerald eyes radiated a wondrous astonishment as she stared down at Nessa. “Valentine!” she exclaimed in reverent awe.

Nessa struggled to rise from her bed in alarm. “What is it, child? What’s the matter?”

“Valentine!” she exclaimed again, lifting her open palms to the side as though making an invocation.

Now truly worried, Nessa managed to swing one leg off the bed and shove herself up on one arm. “Maya…what…is it…” she asked again in a bit of a daze at the girl’s strange reaction.

”Vincent Valentine!” Maya cried out in awestruck revelation.

Nessa’s eyes darkened with shock, and she collapsed limply onto the bed as all her strength left her. Her turn to be struck by astonishment. And sudden fear. “How do you know my brother’s name?!” she gasped the words out past a tightly clenched throat. “I never told you my brother’s name!”

Maya turned her wondering eyes on Nessa’s face, oblivious to the trepidation in her eyes as she inwardly examined the knowledge in her mind. She’d known it. All along, she’d known it. She had seen the lines of connection. Recognized the importance of this woman. Not just to her, but to the planet. She didn’t understand what it all meant, but she knew the most basic thing. Without the sister, the brother would die. And without the brother, the planet was done. She didn’t know why it was so. She didn’t know the crucial moment. She just knew it as truth. And in the midst of her revelation, she knew just what to do.

Maya suddenly dove toward Nessa where she was lying, stunned into immobility, frozen in place halfway off the bed, eyes turned nearly black in her shock. At Maya’s seeming attack, one made without explanation, and at the maniacal gleam in the younger woman’s emerald eyes, she tried to scramble away from her, but found herself held fast in the covers that were tangled around her. “Give me your hand, Nessa!” Maya demanded with a strange disengaged smile.

Nessa shook her head in fear. “No! Get away!” She batted at Maya’s outstretched hand.

Maya planted a knee on the bed to move closer as Nessa finally escaped the prison of her blankets to roll away from the wild-eyed girl to put her back against the wall.

Maya shook her hand at her in desperation. “Please, Nessa! Give me your hand!”

Nessa silently and vehemently shook her head in denial, drawing her hands against her chest. Incapable of being denied, Maya simply reached out across the mattress and grabbed Nessa’s hand into her own. With glazed emerald eyes and a beatific smile, she soothingly patted the older woman’s captured hand between both of hers. “It’s all right, Nessa,” she comforted in vague detachment. “Everything will be all right.”

At Maya’s words, the vigilant Angel suddenly realized her intent, the moment he’d been watching for all along, a moment he’d nearly missed, a moment he’d meant to stop. But he had no way to stop her, but for his thoughts. Angel screamed inside Maya’s mind, his unspoken words almost gibberish in his anguish. No! Cetra! No! Die don’t! Planet not! Bird Cetra not!

Despite the tempestuous and chaotic storm of his thoughts inside her mind, Maya did not hear him. Her entire existence and every thought had now turned to one overriding goal. With Angel expelled from her mind by a higher purpose, Maya's sparkling eyes drifted shut as she drew the power into the core of her, letting it build inside her, and then with a triumphant cry she released the power to explode into the space around the two women and out through their conjoined hands.

Nessa could hear the frantic, hysterical bird in her head, a fact that only served to fuel her fear. She tried to scream out a protest, struggled desperately to break her hand free, but no sound would come out of her gaping mouth, and the strength to escape Maya’s tenacious grip eluded her. Then in the next moment, all desire to gain her freedom completely left her, along with the capacity for thought, as ethereal white light danced all around her, the agony uncoiling like a poisonous snake inside her, angrily striking at every part of her, every cell, every nerve. Distantly, she could hear herself screaming. And she could hear Maya screaming. And Angel was screaming. But it was all in her mind. All in her thoughts. Then her consciousness failed her, and the world blinked out into the darkness she so feared.

“What’s he doing?” Derry whispered from where he slouched on the dusty old pew with his feet propped up on the back of the pew in front of him.

“Ssssssh!” Yuffie hissed up into his serene face from where she hung upside down with her shoulder blades resting on the seat and her legs folded over the back, staring up into the rafters overhead. “He’s communing.”

“How do you know?” Avian whispered down at her face, which was quite close because he was sitting with his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped together. “You can’t even see him.”

“Ssssssh!” She glared up at him. “I know because I know why he’s here.”

“Why’s he here?” Derry whispered.

“Ssssssh!” Avian hissed across to Derry. “Can’t you see the guy’s meditating…or something?” He waved a hand toward the motionless warrior standing at the front of the church with his back to them. He squinted his eyes in the dim light to better see him. As far as he could tell, Cloud was just standing there with his arms crossed staring straight ahead. Of course, he couldn’t know for sure what he was looking at because he could only see the back of his head.

“Sssssssssssh! Wulfe!” Yuffie punched his leg. “Did anybody ask you?”

“So why is he here again?” Derry reiterated lowly. “Communing?”

“Sssssssssh! Heidegger! Keep it down!” She gave his leg a punch for good measure. “He’s communing with Aeris. So be quiet.”

“Aeris?” Avian whispered with great interest. “You mean the Flower Girl from Sector Five?”

“Sssssssssh! Wulfe!” Derry hissed over Yuffie’s legs at Avian. “You’re gonna disturb the guy. The Flower Girl?”

“Yeah, the girl that used to sell flowers on the corner in the promenade,” Avian lowly explained.

“Hey! I know who you’re talkin’ about!” Derry said in a hushed voice. “I’ve seen her before. But…” He squinted his eyes to the front. “I don’t see her now.”

“Sssssssssssh! You guys!” She punched a leg on each side of her at the same time. “You don’t see her cuz she’s passed to the spiritual realm, Fly Boy.”

”Oh…poor…guy…” Derry murmured. “Lost his girl…”

“Sssssssssssh! She wasn’t his girl!” Yuffie glared at him.

“She must have been,” Derry whispered back. “Look at him.” The pilot waved a hand forward. “He’s been just staring. For ten minutes now.”

“I can’t see him, Heidegger,” Yuffie whispered irritably. “I don’t have a periscope.”

“Sssssssssh!” Avian hissed at her. “Do you always act like this in a church?”

“I don’t go to church, Farm Boy,” she hissed back at him. “The Five Mighty Gods would not be caught dead in a church, much less a dump like this. They hang out in a pagoda.”

“Ssssssssh! That’s enough now!” Avian hissed. “Let’s have some respect for the poor guy.”

“Ssssssssssh! Farm Boy! Don’t you be shushing me! You show some respect!”

“I’m not the one hanging upside down from a church pew!” Avian hissed back at her.

“Everybody! Ssssssssssssh! Ssssssssssssh!” Derry hissed like a leaking tire. “Let the guy do his thing in peace.”

Yuffie took a breath to speak, and Derry clapped a hand over her mouth. He silently shook his head. Carefully, he removed his hand.

“Don’t you dare…” she started to say.

“Ssssssssssssssh!” Avian and Derry hissed in unison.

Yuffie clamped her mouth shut and folded her arms, glaring up at each of them in turn.

Cloud finally opened his eyes, smiling slightly at all the shushing going on in the back of the church. He could almost imagine himself in a pit full of snakes. His eyelashes slipped down as he lowered his gaze to the bed of flowers at his feet. He wasn’t sure why he’d come. Perhaps because of the dreams. Or perhaps because he’d heard her voice screaming in his head on the Highwind. Or maybe it was because it would be his last chance to do so for the foreseeable future.

Certainly, his dreams were just dreams. What else could they be? And the scream he’d heard in his head, the result of his head injury. What else could it be? He closed his eyes against the colorful flowers. Maybe he’d hoped to discover a sense of her here. In this her special place. But he hadn’t. The church that used to be full of her spirit now seemed dead and empty and broken.

No, his dreams…they’d been…so real…so alive…so full of her…but still…they were just dreams. Just longings. Nothing more….Because Aeris was gone. Gone to the promised land. And maybe he would find her there. Someday. She was gone, and maybe that’s why he’d come. To tell her goodbye. Maybe he should just try.

He wrinkled his brow in concentration. Goodbye, Aeris.

He drew in a great cleansing breath and released it slowly through his nostrils. He searched his mind for a moment. Examined his heart. He found he didn’t feel one whit different, but still, maybe it was the right thing to do. The thing he should do. Tell her goodbye.

Rest In Peace, Aeris. He tried again. And then as an afterthought. I’ll see you on the other side.

He opened his eyes again and sent his eyes skating around, but he saw no sign of her. He detected no essence of her. Perhaps because this was not truly the place that he’d known her. But rather in every day that he’d been blessed to spend with her. His memories were his temple to her. He could mouth the words here. He could say goodbye to the person that was Aeris here. And it felt right, he supposed. Or maybe it just felt the same. No matter what he did or didn’t do while standing in this place, listening to three teenagers shushing behind him, her spirit would live on his mind. In his heart. He shrugged then, as he realized that it had been pointless to come, but at least he knew that now.

Cloud suddenly spun on heel and headed back down the middle aisle of the church. Derry dropped his boots from the pew and stood up to stretch. Avian slowly rose and sidled down along the pew toward the middle to meet him, and Yuffie tried to flip herself upright, but instead wound up sliding onto the floor with a solid thump. Derry reached down and hefted her to her feet.

Cloud walked past them with a wave of his hand. “Let’s go gang,” he said over his shoulder. “Before they close the mess tent for the night.”

The mention of food got Yuffie in gear. She vaulted the back of the pew and beat him out the door. Derry and Avian fell into step behind him, and he opened the door with one hand to let them pass through. Derry went on out with his hands stuffed in his back pockets, and Avian paused just before crossing the threshold to study Cloud’s expressionless face. “Did you find what you were looking for, Cloud?” he asked with a hint of sadness in his eyes.

A small smile lifted the corners of Cloud’s mouth. “No, Avian. I didn’t,” he said flatly. “But I’m done.”

Reno sat crosslegged on the hard ground with his eyes lightly closed and his hands lying palm up on his bent knees, perfectly still, completely relaxed. Sitting out under the stars always did that for him. Calmed him. Washed away all those urges to mayhem from his mind. He had to admit that he was feeling pretty mellow. He’d completely fallen out of the mood to murder Cornelius Wildman. Of course, he’d already murdered him in a dozen very messy and satisfactory ways during his meditations. So maybe he had it out of his system for now. At least until he saw him again. That reminded him. He’d better make a note to himself to have Rude fly Wildman back to Junon. Because if he had to do it, the attorney would surely show up in Junon the next day. Or…his name rather. In the newspaper. And not in the litigation section either.

The distant but rapidly approaching sound of motorcycles finally drew Reno’s attention from his thoughts, and he cracked his eyelids open to see three headlights headed straight for him. Lithely, he jumped to his feet and stuffed his hands into his pockets, standing completely motionless to wait as the riders drew near, flying across the flats directly to him, as though he were a magnet, until the beams of their motorcycles converged to spotlight his position. Reno didn’t fail to notice that the motorbikes had slowed in speed long before he could have been seen in the darkness, especially dressed all in black as he was, making him suspect that they’d known he was there. All three riders came to a stop, Cloud Strife swinging his bike in a half-circle skid to plant a boot on the ground just in front of him. He studied Reno’s stalwart frame with wary eyes as he wondered how the Turk had come to be out in the middle of the flats. Reno examined the warrior with inquisitive eyes.

”Need a lift, Reno?” Cloud asked.

“How’d you know where to find me?” Reno inquired suspiciously.

“We saw your signal,” Cloud replied smoothly. “Been seeing it for awhile.”

“Signal?” Reno asked blandly, hiding his bewilderment.

Cloud’s luminous mako eyes narrowed on the Turk’s face. “Intermittent flashes,” he explained. “Blink. Blink. Blink.” Cloud suddenly pointed at Reno’s pocket. “See. There it is again.”

Reno drew his hand from his pocket just in time to see the light flash on his leather wristband. He smirked when he remembered his signal arrangement with Elena. “Hmm…guess she’s through with Wildman…” he muttered to himself. Then his smirk suddenly vanished as the corners of his lips turned downward with a frown. He’d been out of contact for over two hours, a major breech in procedure, the exact same transgression he had planned to chew on Elena’s pretty rear for committing. Something might have gone down. It would probably behoove him to get back to the encampment with all due haste.

“What’d you say, Reno?” Cloud asked with an interested eye on the Turk’s troubled face. "Didn’t hear what you said.”

”I just said that I would definitely appreciate a ride, Strife,” Reno readily responded as he punched a metal stud on his wristband and watched for a return signal. “Who am I ponying up with?” He received no answering reply. So he held the stud down, and then followed it with two short jabs, the code for a status request. His frown deepened when no immediate response appeared to be forthcoming. His mind suddenly coughed up an image of Elena smirking down at her bracelet because she’d decided not to answer.

“Take your pick,” Cloud waved a hand around. “Got three bikes and a chocobo.”

”Chocobo?” Reno squinted his eyes against the light, and he could just make out the bird’s saucer eye glinting in the gloom beyond the bikes.

“He’s not riding with me,” Yuffie proclaimed from the darkness. “So don’t even think about it.”

“Don’t worry your head,” Reno replied with a bit of pique. “No feathers are touching my butt.”

“You can ride with me, Reno,” Avian offered charitably. “I don’t mind.”

Giving up on a return signal and deciding he’d better just get on a bike and get back to camp, Reno let his arm fall to his side and walked over to the bike as Avian scooted forward to make room. The Turk swept a leg around the back of the small motorbike and sat down from behind. He tried to find a place to plant his feet, but couldn’t seem to find just the right place. Avian was scrunched almost to the handlebars to make room for him, and the redheaded Turk was having to do some major leg folding himself just to sit on the thing. Reno abruptly decided that the motorbike was not designed to accommodate two males over six feet tall. “Maybe I’ll walk,” he finally said. “I walked out here. I can walk back.” Actually, he’d probably run.

Derry suddenly dismounted his bike. “Here, Reno. Take mine. I’ll ride with Yuffie.”

“Thanks, Heidegger,” he said as he stepped off Avian’s bike.

Derry just nodded and handed the bike off to Reno. Then he disappeared into the darkness and moments later, as Reno was settling himself onto the bike, the chocobo raced by with Derry holding the reins and Yuffie riding behind him. “Later, suckers,” she yelled back at them.

Avian kicked his bike into gear and threw open the throttle to take off after them, unable to resist the unspoken challenge. Cloud did the same, streaking off after Avian and soon catching up to him. Reno knew how to ride a motorcycle, just as he knew how to operate all types of machinery. After all, a Turk had to be able to appropriate any mode of transportation at any time. Still, it had been awhile, and in his haste to get back to camp, he opened the throttle too wide and almost popped the bike out from under him, throwing the bike into a spectacular wheelie as he took off, a stunt that had probably looked rather cool, if anyone had been there to see it. As long as they hadn’t seen the startled look on his face. With a grin, he leaned into the wind and roared off across the flats to catch up with the pack, his wispy ponytail streaming in the wind behind him. He had an employee of the Department of Administrative Research to reprimand.

“Vincent?” Tifa queried into the blackness with a distinct hint of strain in her voice. The intimidating density of the darkness inside the passage had that effect on her, making her imagine that Vincent wasn’t attached to the fold of cloak she had clutched in her hand even when she knew he was standing right beside her.

A very dim light popped on, and Vincent turned to her, his features shadowed behind the pale glow of the nearly spent bulb. He withdrew his hand from his pocket and held a battery out to her. “Insert this battery into your headlamp case as we walk,” he tensely directed her. She took the battery from him as she followed his lead and started walking, and rather quickly too. A hard burning ember formed in the pit of her stomach, an artifact of her fear. Now that her light had gone out, she knew they only had a couple of batteries with very little charge left, and those batteries would not last long. They would buy them maybe an hour at best.

Vincent suddenly reached out and snagged the headlamp off of her head without missing a step. She remembered then that she hadn’t done what he’d asked, and the fact that he’d decided to take the matter into his own hands rather than simply remind her clearly spoke to the fact that he didn’t think the light would burn long at all.

“I’m sorry, Vincent…” she murmured unhappily.

He didn’t reply, and she wondered, when she swiveled her head to see him removing the battery with those elegant fingers, if he had even heard her. He twisted slightly at the waist to slip the battery into the depths of his cloak on the opposite side. Most likely because she held the cloak pulled out away from his body on this side. A twinge of guilt flickered through her. She just couldn’t make herself let go of it. She held this unreasoning fear that the moment she did, the light would blink out, and she would lose him. Which was silly, because he would easily be able to find her just from her panicked screaming.

“Give me the battery please.” He spoke softly, as though to mitigate any pain his unresponsiveness to her apology might have caused. He held his hand out in front of her, and she pressed the battery directly into his palm, persuading her reluctant fingers to release it. She knew it was the last one, and she didn’t want to drop it and have it roll away into a fissure in the floor. That would just be her luck. She’d been so accident-prone lately. Such a troublemaker. She was glad Vincent was the one installing the battery, because the headband would probably just slip from her fumble fingers and break. Besides, the dim glow had already diminished just in a few minutes. She could hardly see more than a few inches in front of her face. She could hardly see Vincent anymore. And she didn’t see his hand when he held the headlamp out in front of her, until he softly bumped it against her stomach to get her attention.

Startled by the unexpected touch, her hand flew up, and her fingers brushed the back of his hand. Compulsively, she closed her fingers around his instead of the elastic band of the miner’s lamp. Seemingly startled, he reacted with a sharp tug against her light clasp, and she released him as though burned, her cheeks instantly flaming with color. She prayed the light had grown too dim for even him to see her rosy cheeks, but whether he could see her or not she couldn’t say, because his entire face had become darkened by shadow beneath the dying glow of the lamp on his brow.

“Take the headlamp, Tifa,” he said tightly.

She quickly nodded and gingerly took it from him, slipping her fingers around the elastic band that dangled from between his knuckles. He opened his hand to let it go, and she drew the headlamp away. Then, just as though her earlier thoughts had cursed her, the bulb in Vincent’s lamp blinked out, and her headlamp tumbled from her loose fingers to bounce off one boot and shatter against the stone floor. She instantly stopped to the crunch of glass under a foot.

“Don’t move, Tifa,” Vincent commanded sharply. “Not a muscle.”

Her throat tightened as hot tears sprang to her eyes. “I’m…so…sorry…” she choked. She felt the material of the cloak switch in her hand, but she didn’t realize that Vincent had stooped down until his shoulder brushed her leg and his fingers drifted across her boot as he searched for the headlamp. As he had ordered, she held her muscles tensely frozen, even as a hot tear followed the curve of a cheek.

On one knee, Vincent gingerly patted the floor. Despite his care, a wickedly sharp sliver of glass sliced into a finger as smoothly as the fins of a koi through water. Ignoring the small injury as well as the jutting shard, he continued to seek the lamp even as he worried that it had rolled away on the round metal lens ring. But no, he would have heard it. He shifted position then, the crown of his head glancing against Tifa’s stiff leg as he swung back to feel the floor behind her. Fortunately, he found the headlamp just past her boot and picked it up. Holding his injured finger at an awkward angle, he carefully removed the battery lens case and laid the lamp aside, reaching to draw his own from his head. Within moments, he switched out the batteries and flipped the switch to produce a feeble light. He heard Tifa release a long, shaky breath, as though she’d been holding the air in her lungs to sustain her through the tense moments.

Standing up beside her, he clumsily dragged the lamp onto his head, favoring the injured finger, and then lowering his head to directly shine the beam onto his hand, he drew the glass from the oozing wound and impatiently discarded it.

Embarrassed at her own emotional lapse, she quickly swiped the back of her hand across her wet cheeks, hoping to dispel the evidence while Vincent had his attention turned elsewhere. Tifa finally managed to make herself look at him, and her eyes were instantly drawn to the dark trickle of blood trailing down his forefinger toward the gloved palm of his open hand by the direction of his eyes as he gave the injury one last cursory examination.

“You’re hurt!” Tifa suddenly exclaimed. She unconsciously released the cloak to reach for his wounded hand with both of hers, but he realized her intention and laid his fingers against his stomach to forestall her. With nothing to do then, her hands fell limply away. Her troubled eyes drifted to his unrevealing face.

“It is nothing,” he told her coolly, bringing his head around to shine the headlamp directly into her face. The streaks of her tears glistened in the pale light, and his breath caught in his throat. Uneasy at the evidence of her distress, he swallowed hard to clear the sudden blockage from behind his adam’s apple and struggled against an urge to wipe the tears from her face with his own fingers as he tried to compose words that would soothe her. “This…” He waved his hand toward the broken glass at her feet. “…Is of no consequence…no reason to…cry…” His words came to his own ears as rather chiding and stilted, and so he allowed them to falter into silence as his resolve to comfort her abruptly left him.

Tifa drew in a ragged breath and looked away from the hollows of his shadowed eyes. “I…know…Vincent…” She suddenly folded her arms protectively around her waist as though she didn’t know where to put them. “I…I’m…just tired…”

Tensely, he nodded his understanding even though she wasn’t looking at him. He sensed that her own tears shamed her, and he wanted to tell her that he understood. He wanted to tell her that he knew she was strong enough to handle whatever might face them and that he did not think her tears a sign of weakness. But he feared that if he opened his mouth to tell her, he would instead reveal to her that he could not bear her tears. That her sorrow was his own. That her pain was his pain. Her teardrops transformed to acid in his heart. But he couldn’t say that. Because she could never know. So he spoke on a matter more crucial and too long avoided.

“We should prepare.”

She looked up to seek his meaning in crimson eyes that she couldn’t see for the gloom. “Prepare?”

“We haven’t much time.” He suddenly put his back to her. “Take the canteen.”

She stared at the dented metal container hanging from his pack, and she wanted to ask him why, but then she realized why. He wanted her to have it in case they were separated. If she lost him in the darkness. She wanted to protest, but she knew it would be pointless, and she just was wasting time by standing there. She wasn’t about to let him get away from her anyway. Reaching out with both hands, she lifted the canteen from his back and put her head through the strap to hang it around her neck so that the metal container rested against her chest. When she looked up again, she found him peering down at her, the light shining in her eyes, his face shrouded.

“Turn around and walk to the wall,” he directed in his inflectionless monotone.

Again, she resisted the need to protest, instead doing as he asked and walking the six steps that would bring her to the craggy wall. Fortunately, she turned around to find him right there, apparently having trailed her on silent feet. She planted her back against the wall and blinked owlishly in the light when he suddenly reached over her shoulder to place his palm flat to the wall and his eyes on hers. “When the light burns out, Tifa, place your right hand on this wall,” he instructed. “Just as I have. And do not remove your hand from this wall for any reason. Do you understand?” Slowly, she nodded her acknowledgment. He pulled his hand down and moved away one step, but he kept his eyes pinned on her face, and she could now actually see the intensity in his glittering crimson eyes due to the reflection from the wall behind her. She found his penetrating stare rather intimidating, just as he intended. “Not for any reason,” he suddenly added in a tone several degrees cooler. “Not even if we become separated. Do you understand?” She rewarded him with a blank stare. The idea of being separated from him was one that her mind completely rejected. She refused to contemplate the possibility.

He sighed with a hint of exasperation. “If we become disoriented in the darkness, we may wind up traveling the wrong way, back into the mountain. You must keep your hand on this wall even if we become separated. Do you understand, Tifa?”

“Yes, Vincent,” she replied dully. “I understand.”

“Good,” he replied approvingly. “Be ready. The light will go soon. As soon as it does…hand on the wall.”

“I’ve got it, Vincent,” she said a bit sharply, mostly because her tears were threatening to return at the thought of the ordeal they would soon face, at her knowledge of the possibility that they might never make it out of the passages, and more than anything, at her fear that she would get separated from him, just as he said. But she would not cry in front of him again. She didn’t want him to see what a wiener she was turning out to be.

He gathered the edge of his cloak in his hand and offered it to her. “Shall we go?”

With a grateful if tremulous smile, she tightly wrapped her fingers in the heavy cloth, and together they turned and started walking. She kept close to the wall, and he stayed close to her. Vincent set a slower pace this time, knowing haste to be pointless. The light would not last but a few minutes more, and fifty paces or so down the passage, his prediction came to fruition when the bulb blinked out.

Tifa instantly stopped, and her fingers clamped down on the cloak so tightly that her hand began to ache.

“Is your hand on the wall, Tifa?” Vincent’s stilted voice made her tensely clenched muscles jerk. She promptly turned her hand away from her side to lay her palm flat against the cool stone. “…Yes…yes…it…is…” she replied in a very shaky voice. He couldn’t fail to hear that she seemed about to come unglued. And he could hardly blame her. He felt somewhat jittery himself. Already, the darkness pressed into him and roiled around him. Living. Vile. Hungry. He felt almost as though he were in the gullet of a great malodorous beast, awaiting a slow digestion with no hope of escape. No prayer for relief. This was not the darkness of shadow in which he found comfort. This seemed a darkness that sucked all life into its core. In fact, he could easily imagine that the interior of a black hole would contain an unrelenting darkness such as this.

“We can do this, Tifa,” he told her bluntly, his voice conveying much more confidence than he felt at the moment.

“…We…can…do…this…Vincent…” she repeated unsteadily

“I will be with you.”

“…I will…be with…you…”

”Now walk.”

Reno turned off the ignition and swept a leg over the bike to dismount. Kicking the stand down, he turned away from the bike just as Elena burst through the tent entrance and stalked across the space between them with the look of a charging bull in her narrowed eyes.

Quickly, Reno stepped around the bike to put a barrier between them. Just in case she decided to throw one of her killer punches. She slammed to a stop on the other side and slapped her hands to her hips. He knew any moment that flames would shoot from her nostrils, so he went on the offensive.

“Report, Elena,” he commanded in his coolest, most businesslike Leader of the Turk’s voice.

The familiar order startled her and stopped whatever had been about to come out of her mouth on the end of her tongue. “Well…I…everything’s just fine…” she stammered.

One fiery eyebrow rose in disapproval. “What kind of report is that, Elena? I’m not your daddy,” he admonished her, folding his arms over his chest.

She lifted her chin, and folded her arms to mirror his stance. “Nothing to report,” she replied coldly. “Status unchanged. All marks secured except for…Wulfe.”

Reno’s eyes found and followed Avian as he walked by behind Elena’s back with his too happy pet trotting beside him. Heidegger and the Kisaragi girl followed a couple of paces behind, and all three of them shot the two Turks only a passing glance before they entered the tent.

His green eyes flickered back to her flushed face. “Covered,” he informed her curtly.

Elena’s eyes burned with unconcealed animosity, but her lips were clamped shut as though glued. If he walked away right at that moment, the battle would be averted. She might huff and puff, but she wouldn’t say a thing. He knew that’s what he should do. While he held her to his professional expectations. While she still knew who was boss. While he still knew he was boss.

He unfolded his arms to hold out one demanding hand. “Give me my shades, Elena.”

She slowly shook her head. “These are my shades, Reno,” she informed him coolly.

”How so?” he asked even more coolly than she.

She haughtily tossed her head. “Finder’s keeper’s, Reno,” she clarified

“You found them on my face, Elena,” he accused, his brows drawing together at her audacity. “I call that illegitimate appropriation of my property.”

”Call it what you like, Reno.” She shrugged indifferently.

He shot his hand up and snatched the sunglasses out of her hair, taking a couple of blonde strands with them.

”Ouch!” She slapped at his hand as he drew back his captured prize. “Bully!”

He lifted a finger and opened his mouth then. He was going to nail her for not responding to his signal out on the flats. Then he was going to let her have an earful for making him work his ass off to look for her when she should have told him where she’d be. He was going to jump on her with both feet for consorting with the likes of Cornelius Wildman. He was certainly going to find out if she preferred sleazy to libidinous. And then, after all that, he thought he might just kiss her again, just to really piss her off, but before he could begin to get any of that out, a movement caught his eye, and he looked up to see Rude standing just outside the tent watching the proceedings with folded arms. Just behind him, Caitlin stood in the tent entrance, her stance one of rapt attentiveness. And just behind her, Rachel peeped a pair of worried eyes from around one of the petite woman’s legs.

“Don’t break procedure again, Elena,” he said coldly instead. “Or there will be consequences.”

Her hazel eyes flashed. “You’re one to talk,” she snapped.

”Do I report to you, Elena? Or do you report to me?” He raised an eyebrow in question.

”I report to you,” she replied petulantly.

”Bingo. The girl gets it.” He whirled away from her then and strode around the motorcycle to head for the chair by the door. “I’ll take watch,” he shot over his shoulder. “Go get some sleep.”

She started after him. “But, Reno…”

He slammed to a stop in mid-step to spin and pin her with glittering eyes. ”Not another word, Elena,” he said icily. “Or you’ll do your own watch.”

Reno snatched up the chair and carried it several feet away from the tent. A bit too forcefully, he unfolded it and planted it on the ground. Then he dropped down into the seat and slouched way down to lean his head against the back of the chair. He could almost sense Elena’s eyes on him, could easily picture her with her mouth hanging open as she struggled with her need to retort against her better judgment. He pointedly stuck his sunglasses over his eyes. Then he folded his arms across his chest and stretched his long legs way out in front of him, letting his body language make the point that he had nothing further to say on the subject, therefore argument would be pointless. After a few moments of silence, he swiveled his head to find that everybody had gone into the tent and left him alone with the lantern and the stars. And wasn’t that the way he preferred it? Damn straight it was. With a huff of derision, directed mostly at himself, he retrieved his cigarettes and lighter. He suspected it would be a long, long night.

Myron drew the rubber band from his hair to loose his ponytail as he entered the kitchen from the front foyer and turned toward the basement steps. Wearily, he rubbed his fingers against his forehead as he wondered if Nessa would consider his daily duties fulfilled to the point that she would allow him to stay. But it was late, he knew. Nearly bedtime anyway. He knew she would be satisfied. She would finally allow him to hold her. Another man might have been upset with her standoffish behavior, her seeming coldness at times. But he knew her, and he loved her. He knew what she was trying to do for him, even though she would never tell him, and he accepted that. Myron was grateful for every moment that she granted him.

A breeze stirred his hair against his cheek as he set foot on the first step, and he paused as the out of place phenomenon sank into his exhausted mind. Slowly, he turned his eyes toward the kitchen door, the most likely source of a current of air in the windowless kitchen. His muscles tensed, and his mouth fell ajar at sight of the fractured glass in the window. The glass, though spider webbed through and through with cracks, still stood in the frame, bulging in slightly where one triangular piece had fallen out onto the floor, causing a jagged hole that allowed the entrance of the breeze.

Although Myron might have conjectured an innocent cause for the damage, such as a misthrown ball or a rock, something deep inside him said otherwise. Call it a feeling or intuition. Or call it distant recognition. Based on the dark smear on the glass or on the single white feather caught at the edge of the hole, fluttering gently with the movement of evening air through the window.

Uneasily, Myron crossed toward the door with ponderous steps, veering in his path along the way to drag a large kitchen knife into his numb fingers. Growing tenser with each passing second, his heart rate steadily increasing with each deliberate step, Myron neared the door, his ears keenly attuned to the silence on the other side as he listened for the slightest sound that might indicate a threat.

Unconsciously, he raised the knife, brandishing his makeshift weapon next to his ear as he slowly turned the doorknob and eased the door open. A gasp flew from his lips, and the knife clattered to the fieldstone floor. Without thinking, he fumbled at the buttons on his shirt, and then finally ripped the shirt open in one convulsive move born of his distress, sending buttons flying everywhere. He hardly noticed, so focused was all of his mind on the body resting limply on the stoop, looking like nothing more than a carelessly discarded toy.

Gently, Myron gathered the battered bird into his shirt, staring with dismay at the broken wing and bloodied silvery feathers, at the claws curled in defensively upon the plump breast and at the implacable and lifeless onyx eyes. He swallowed hard at his reluctant acknowledgement that Maya’s bird, Angel, most certainly looked dead. But if he wasn’t, he was so close that Myron instinctively knew that only she could save him. She had the power to bring Angel back, just as she revived the dying flowers. Quickly, he turned and hurried toward the basement steps. She had told him that she would be spending the evening with Nessa. He hoped she was still there.

Myron leapt down the stairs three at a time, unbelievably agile despite his uncooperative knees and his exhaustion. “Maya!” he called out halfway down, hoping to roust her from her seat to meet him. He jumped over the last two steps to almost stumble on the rug at the bottom of the stairs. Hugging the shirt-wrapped bundle to him, he managed to just barely keep his balance, and immediately turned toward the bed.

Myron froze in place, his blood instantly turned to liquid ice. The bundle tumbled from his boneless fingers, dumping the lifeless body of the white and silver bird out onto the floor, leaving his shirt to float down over his shoes. The girl he sought lay half off the bed, her splayed legs trailing out from beneath her skirt, her body limp against the mattress, her colorless face turned against the mattress, eyes wide and staring.

His wife reclined on her side with her back to the wall, one silver streaked strand of ebony hair fallen over half her slack face, her eyes dilated to obsidian orbs, round and unblinking on his face, vacant of any sign of life or thought whatsoever, one arm outflung, her slender hand clasped loosely in Maya’s relaxed grasp.

“Nessa!” Myron suddenly shouted out in anguish, all the pain and horror and grief that had been spiraling tightly in upon itself the whole time he stood there staring in mindless shock abruptly released into his voice in a strangled expulsion of emotion. Finally, he moved, his gait broken, his steps ponderously heavy, his stunned eyes locked on her face.

Nessa blinked then, as though his shout had echoed inside her mind to waken her or perhaps his stumbling, marionette steps had drawn her from her trance. Her dark eyes sharpened with intelligence and instantly zeroed in on his grief-stricken face. “Myron…what…”

She meant to ask him what had happened, what had made him look as though the very life had been stolen from his eyes, even as his face transformed before her bewildered gaze in his joy at finding her still alive, but then her uncomprehending eyes fell to the cool hand that lay across hers and inexorably moved on to the wide, vacuous emerald eyes. And then she remembered, and she reared up on the mattress, reaching a trembling hand to gently touch Maya’s still face, her beloved husband and all else in the room spinning away from her mental grasp.

“Gods, child!” she gasped in awe and horror. “What in the name of Odin have you done?!”

One white wing barely fluttered against the stone floor.

“Vincent…” Tifa whispered into the darkness. “…I…can’t…go on…anymore…” As though to definitively prove the truth of her reluctant words, her trembling legs went out from under her and she sank to the ground, notifying him of that fact as his cloak tightened against his shoulder beneath her unrelenting grasp on the garment when she went down.

“Tifa…” He murmured her name as he knelt to find her crumpled at his feet on the cold stone floor. Already, she struggled to sit up, and he slipped his arm about her waist, giving her support and subtly resisting her attempts to stand. “Just rest,” he quietly said. “Sit for awhile…”

She wearily nodded in agreement, remembering in the next instant that he couldn’t see her, even surprising herself by dredging up a tiny ounce of humor to entertain the thought that he should be able to hear her head rattle with all the loose screws rattling around inside. “Okay…Vincent…” She managed to push the words past her uncooperative lips, the sound of her voice resonating in the darkness. Vincent drew away from her then, and she planted her back against the wall, stretching her legs out in front of her as she listened to the subtle sound of his movements as he set aside the pack and rifle, and then when he settled to the ground beside her, the mythril ankle cuffs and plates on his boots making a chinking sound against the rock as he crossed his legs. To her surprise, he laid his gloved hand across her shin, and his fingers radiated comforting warmth through the material of her trousers into her spent and benumbed leg.

She suspected that under other circumstances, Vincent would never do such a thing, but she knew that now he wanted to provide her a connection to him in this frightening, suffocating black world devoid of any hint of light, a world where they could not see each other’s faces, where their eyes could not meet, leaving them only the sound of their own voices and the security of a touch to communicate. Vincent had discouraged talking because he wanted to listen as they walked, hoping to detect any threat before it would find them. So touch seemed all that was left to them. A reassurance. Evidence that one still had substance. A measure to keep from getting separated. Not that she was ever going to release the fold of material in her hand. Not as long as he was wearing that cloak. She would not let him get away from her.

The silence grew between them then, partly because he showed no inclination to speak and mostly because there was this unspoken question on her lips, and she was afraid that if she opened her mouth to say anything else, that question would come out. And then the unspoken answer that lurked in his brain that she didn’t want to hear would be returned to her.

”Vincent…we aren’t going to make it are we?”
“No Tifa, we are not.”

Or worse, he’d probably just say, “I don’t know.” Which would be a lie to save her feelings, to prevent her from racing mindlessly away into the darkness with her mad scream echoing behind her, because he did know. And somehow, she thought that she would hear the lie on his tongue, and that would be worse than if he just told her the truth. She surely didn’t expect him to say a word on the matter, much less any other word at all. But he’d been surprising her lately with unexpected behavior, and he did so now.

“Forgive me…Tifa…” he whispered hoarsely in the darkness, his voice tinged with sadness. “I thought…we…were…near the end…but…” His words trailed to silence. Tifa discovered, then, that hearing the defeat in his voice turned out to be worse than any word he could have uttered.

Acting on a sudden impulse, on an overwhelming need to see him, Tifa leaned away from the wall, reaching a hand out to find his fingers where they lay warmly against her leg. Her unexpected touch startled him, and his fingers convulsively twitched beneath her palm. She thought he might pull away from her then, but he didn’t. He didn’t relax either though, his muscles growing ever more tense as she trailed her hand along his forearm to the juncture of his elbow and then up toward his shoulder where her fingers paused when she encountered the first silky strands of his hair.

Bewildered, Vincent stared into the void where he thought he would find her face, struggling to see her even as he fought the urge to pull away from her, his muscles so tense his arm began to tremble beneath her fingers. In the sensory deprivation of the darkness, her touch was almost more than he could bear, her silently traveling fingers setting his nerve endings afire. An act on her part that filled him with intense longing and weakened his resolve. Even as he mentally labored to discipline his thoughts, her fingers went on the move again, slipping through his hair to reach his shirt collar where her fingernails scraped against his neck. At that point, her touch and his tenseness and his swiftly burgeoning emotions, all combined, became more than he could endure for one second more. Like a compressed spring suddenly released, he sprang away from her, jerking his hand from her leg, leaning his upper body sideways out of the range of her reach.

Tifa expected just such a move on his part. In fact, she was surprised he hadn’t reacted much sooner. Still, disappointment filled her as she fell back against the wall. Now he wouldn’t even offer her the solace of his hand against her leg, she was sure. She’d taken a chance, and she’d lost. She probably just should have asked. Told him that she needed to touch his face, to let her fingertips illuminate his familiar features in her mind, just as a blind person might visualize a new acquaintance through touch. She just wanted more than anything to bring to her fingertips the comfort of his face, imagine the steadiness of his gaze, maybe track one ebony eyebrow as it flew up beneath his headband in consternation. She just wanted to see him. And she knew if she had asked, he would refuse her. She knew him well enough by now to know. He would have turned all cold and forbidding, and that would have been the end of it. He probably would now anyway.

“I’m…sorry…Vincent…” she murmured unhappily. “I shouldn’t…have…I just wanted to…see…you…so…silly…”

“You should sleep, Tifa,” he replied coolly, interrupting her tentative apology. “Rest for a time. Then we will go on.”

Cool and distant. Just as she’d expected. At least she had the consolation that her actions had apparently driven any thought of surrender from his mind. She heard no hint of defeat in his monotone voice now. She nodded her head at his suggestion even though he couldn’t see her. Even though she didn’t agree. She had something she wanted to get off her chest first, and she decided he would just have to listen whether he liked it or not. It wasn’t like he would leave her. She knew that would never happen no matter how much trouble she could manage to make for him. Whatever happened now, they would be together until the end.

“You know…Vincent…” she said hesitantly. “You don’t have any… ask for my…forgiveness…” She paused for a moment and held her breath as she waited for a response. But of course, she hadn’t asked him a question that required a reply, and now she could only detect a tense silence that seemed to vibrate the thick air in the fathomless blackness.

“If not for you…I’d be dead now…” she elaborated gruffly. “I could never repay you…for all you’ve done…for me…” Her voice wavered into the deep silence once more. After a few moments, she began to wonder if he was still there, and she unconsciously gave his cloak a little tug. “Vincent?” she asked anxiously.

“You have nothing for which to repay me,” he suddenly said into the darkness in his inflectionless voice.

She nodded her head vehemently. “Yes. Yes, I do,” she insisted, her voice rising in volume. “I don’t know how, Vincent, but I will find a way to repay you.”

“There is no need,” he curtly replied.

”Yes, there is, Vincent!” Her voice had taken on an edge of desperation, as though she had to convince him of the debt she owed him, make him see the sacrifices he’d made for her. “There is! You saved my life! You took care of me when I was so sick…when I didn’t even know where I was. You…you…gave me cereal bars…and…and…you…were…there…for me…” Her capacity for words abruptly left her as tears slipped from her eyes and her throat tightened painfully. Bowing her head, she lifted the fold of cloak to dash at the wetness on her face as she mentally chastised herself for slipping into wiener mode again. Vincent didn’t answer, and she didn’t expect that he would. In fact, she imagined that he would like nothing better than to drop her into a deep crevasse right about now. She dragged in a great shuddering breath to still her rampant emotions, and then she started talking again, feeling compelled to fill the silence he left her, needing to spit out the words she had left to say.

“I’ve been nothing but trouble to you…and I’m…sorry…”

“You’ve been no trouble, Tifa,” Vincent replied quietly.

“I’ve been such a big imposition,” she added as though she hadn’t heard him.

“You have not,” he softly replied.

“I’m sorry you got stuck with me, Vincent,” she said hoarsely as the tears threatened to return.

In the darkness, Vincent unconsciously lifted his hand toward her, as though he might touch her face, but he caught himself and let his hand fall limply to his knee. “Likewise,” he finally replied.

Tifa lifted her head and glared at the place in the carpet of pitch in front of her where she thought his face might be. “I don’t mind being with you, Vincent Valentine. So don’t you ever think that,” she reprimanded him huskily, her voice rife with unshed tears.

“…Like…wise…” he replied more softly. “…Tifa…Lockhart…”

Her tears fell then, the gentleness in his voice as he spoke her name her undoing. She pressed the material of the cloak to her face to muffle the tiny hitches of breath that slipped past her closed throat. She didn’t want him to hear. But she knew he could anyway. She didn’t know what in the devil had come over her. Hours and hours in total darkness maybe. Exhaustion from all the walking and the unrelenting vigilance required to keep her hand to the wall probably. Or maybe it was just…grief. For the sunshine she might never see. For Vincent, who she intuitively knew would be left in the darkness alone when she…when she…went…first. And now she was the one full of defeat. A sob escaped her throat before she could swallow it.

Vincent’s heart ached as he helplessly listened to her weep, knowing that he was the cause of her pain. Acknowledging that there was nothing to do for her but grant her comfort, and he could not bring himself to do it. He ached to hold her in his arms. Longed to cradle her and let her tears fall into his shirt until she slept. But he knew she would not find solace in the embrace of a man with a metal arm. An accidental touch of his metal talons to her skin might well slash her and would surely send a shiver of revulsion through her whole body.

“Tifa…don’t cry…” he whispered in a tight voice.

“I…I’m sorry…V…Vincent…” she apologized tearfully, again rubbing her eyes in the material of his cloak. “I’m…just…so…tired…”

“Rest then,” he said quietly, reprising his earlier suggestion. “Sleep, Tifa. And when you awaken, we will go.”

”O…kaaaay…” she replied on a shaky breath.

Acting on a sudden impulse, Vincent unfolded his legs and shuffled around to plant his back to the wall next to her. Perhaps he could not hold her, but he could provide her a comfortable place for her to lay her head, and he didn’t even have to find the words to urge her to take advantage of his offering. As soon as she felt the length of his leg next to hers, sensed the warmth of his body near her, she slumped against him as though she had used every last ounce of strength awaiting him. With a contented little sigh that managed to wrench his heart inside his chest, she wriggled her cheek against his shoulder and laid the fist that still clutched a fold of his cloak atop his leg. Every muscle in her body lost tension as she surrendered to her exhaustion.

Vincent leaned his head back against the hard rock and listened to her breathing. Neither of them spoke again, and several minutes elapsed before she slipped into the shallow, even respirations of sleep. Only then did Vincent give in to the impulse to lay his cheek against her hair. She stirred against his side, but he didn’t move. It came to him that he didn’t care if she awoke and discovered him so. So what if she did?

Vincent stared into the darkness, and he wondered, not for the first time, if his eyes were opened or closed. He could detect no differentiation in blackness that would provide him an answer. Only the knowledge of the way his eyes felt when open, a physical sense that the total lightlessness confused. And he was only thinking about such an irrelevant matter to avoid the problem that teased his mind. His recognition of a shift in his thought.

So what if she did? So what? What if? A dangerous change in his attitude indeed. From impossibility to potentiality. From a complete denial that it might ever be to asking himself what if it could. What if she could love him as he was? What if they could be together? What if she could be his? What if? When had it happened, this change in his mental paradigm? When he had awakened from his tortuous, toxin-fueled dreams to find her cradled in his arms? When his drowsy eyes opened to the evocative sight of a strand of his hair against her lips? When his mind reeled toward madness at the certainty that he’d lost her? He couldn’t even say. But he knew that he had to restructure his thinking. Somehow. What his mind yearned to imagine could never be.

He deliberately brought Lucrecia to his mind then. Gods, how he’d loved her. To no avail. She’d loved Hojo. For whatever her reasons. And Tifa loved Cloud Strife. He would do well to guard his heart carefully. He had no desire to suffer such anguish again. But what if they never left this place? Would it matter then? If she died with him, would she be his in death? In Lifestream? Or whatever they found on the other side? Vincent slipped his cheek against Tifa’s hair and mentally chided himself for his fanciful and morbid thoughts. She could never be his, and he would not allow her to die. As long as he held breath in his body, he would bend every skill he possessed to free her. He would dig her out with his bare hands if so required. They had worked too hard and come too far to surrender now. And they were close. He knew it. So close that he could almost imagine that the scent of a summer rain teased his nostrils. A wisp of night breeze stirred his hair against his jaw. A distant pulse of blue light, fleeting as a camera strobe, touched deep into his fathomless eyes to reflect in his preoccupied mind.

His hair stirred again, and Vincent blinked as another flicker of faint light touched his eyes. He realized, then, that he’d been seeing the odd light for several moments, he couldn’t even say how long really, but the reality of the wholly physical phenomenon had not reached into his thoughts until now. He reluctantly raised his head and turned his questing eyes in the direction he knew the exit should be, just in time to spy a thin sliver of a flash of pristine light. Just after, an almost imperceptible movement of air brought the clean scent of rain to his nose, along with a low rumble that he sensed more than he heard. A thunderstorm.

Numb with disbelief, Vincent unconsciously rose to his feet to stare in fascination at the flickering lightning. Disturbed from her comfortable spot by his desertion, Tifa drowsily lifted her slumped head to blink in bewilderment at the sporadic explosions of dim light that teased her eyes in the darkness, like the illumination against the tram window on the way to the Gold Saucer, the spotlights swinging back and forth, painting the glass with fleeting gold, distantly taunting the eye, shadow to light.

”Vincent?” she whispered fearfully. “What is it?”

”A tempest in the night,” he murmured in awe.

Tifa wrinkled her brow at his cryptic remark. “What again?”

He looked down at her then, just as a flash of lightning briefly illuminated her wide, inquisitive eyes. “A storm, Tifa,” he informed her softly. “You are seeing the lightning.”

Tifa sat staring up at him for long moments. He could feel her gaze on his face as he watched the arrhythmic strobing of light. Captivated by the amazing sight, he told himself that in a moment or two he would take her hand and lead her into the rain. But a moment was too long for her. Tifa abruptly sprang to her feet and darted away, her joy at Vincent’s revelation chasing away her fatigue and fueling her flight.

He should have expected it by now, he supposed, but she still caught him by surprise. He didn’t have his wits about him, his mind wholly engaged in assimilation of the stunning and difficult to grasp fact that their ordeal was over.

He sprinted after her, every ounce of his being focused on catching her, not bothering to waste a single breath on calling after her, a fruitless endeavor, he’d sorely learned. The lightning flashes silhouetted her running figure in brief pulses, revealing her position only steps away. He shot out his hand to grab her, lengthened his stride as he reached for her, marveling at how fast she could run when she wanted, with the speed and grace of a gazelle.

She darted into the jagged fissure that defaced the left wall of the passage, so narrow and so low that he found his shoulders would not fit through, forcing him to slow his pace to turn sideways and duck his head. On the other side, he ran full out after her, his fear lighting a fire under him, granting him speed he didn’t know he had. He knew in his heart that he had to stop her. The lightning flashes filled the air all around him now, revealing the drawings on the flat walls of the long stretch of the wide chiseled tunnel down which he ran. But he hardly noticed, all his attention riveted on Tifa. And he didn’t need lightning flashes to see her now. The ambient nighttime illumination flooded the passage with ample light for his hypersensitive eyes.

Tifa could hear the pounding of his footsteps behind her. She knew she should stop, but the sweet scent of the rain on the cool gusts of wind drew her inexorably onward. The desperate need to fill her lungs with fresh mountain air to drive the stale, musty breath from her lungs. Even the exhilaration of her own race to freedom drove her. But mostly, it was the light.

She ran through the doorway at the end of the passage, a curving spire of an arch, a sharp delineation between darkness and night. Her flying feet carried her out onto a perfectly flat expanse of ground, and Vincent caught up to her there, throwing the hard band of his arm around her waist to yank her back against him as he slammed to a halt, only two feet from the rim of a ledge, below which the entire wonderful world stretched far below, revealed to their light-deprived eyes as though illuminated in bright moonlight.

The two of them stood high on a wide shelf of rock in a curving declivity in the mountain range. A silvery waterfall fell with a muted roar from an adjacent face, and Tifa leaned out against Vincent’s hold, absently moving a foot forward as she tried to see over the rim to a glimmering pool far below, the glassy surface transformed to a mirror of light with each lightning flash.

Suddenly, she threw out her arms with a cry of pure joy, falling into his imprisoning arm as though she might take off and fly away. Vincent’s already pounding heart jolted hard in his chest, and he simply decided to alleviate his growing physical distress by relocating her. He lifted her off of her feet, spurring a startled yelp from his captive, and whirled away from the edge to stride across the expanse to a spot nearer to the archway, where he deposited her to her feet and stepped away.

He raised a finger then, his face drawn into a tight frown, looking like he meant to give her a whopping big piece of his mind, but he suddenly froze solid in that position as though he couldn’t find the words to say. Truthfully, her beautifully joyous smile stole the words right off his tongue.

She laughed then. Because she remembered. She’d broken at least two of his rules of the road. She’d run away from him, and she’d almost tumbled into a lake far below. She was certain that she’d probably violated more, but she didn’t care. Because they’d made it out alive, and he was with her.

Vincent’s frown slowly vanished at the wondrous sound of her musical laughter dancing in the air around him, something he’d not heard in a long while, a facet of her that he’d been sorely missing, but he hadn’t realized how much until that moment. Tifa threw herself at him then, lost in the exuberance of her happiness, and wound her arms around to hug him to her. “You did it, Vincent!” she cried out her excitement. “You really, really did it!” She stepped back a moment to peer up into his shadowed face, and then she hugged him again, closing her eyes tightly as she pressed her cheek against his chest.

His arms floated up then, as though he thought he could hold her. For a moment as fleeting as the lightning, he allowed himself to imagine it possible. But he knew he could not. It would never be possible. But what if he could? No. He could not. He held himself stiffly against her, hand and claw upheld to the air to either side of her, unable to complete the embrace, unable to shove her away. Claw and hand closed into fists. And then the rain came. Sweeping in a silvery sheet of moisture across the face of the night-shrouded mountain to envelope them in warm raindrops.

She released him then, to step away so she could see his face, unconsciously reaching for a fold of his cloak, her wide smile softening as she watched the rain fall into his ebony hair. “Do I have your permission, Vincent?” she asked teasingly. “To stand in the rain?”

Transfixed into stillness by the enigmatic light in her widely dilated dark eyes, he slowly nodded his head. “I am…with you…” he reminded her gruffly, staring raptly into her upturned face, helplessly wondering what she would do if he bent his head then, to claim her soft lips for his own.

Before he could act on such an insane thought, she suddenly laughed again and whirled away, lifting her hands to capture the raindrops, raising her face to drink the rain, leaving him standing alone. A man turned to stone by her lyrical laugher and her joyous dance. A man oblivious to the rainfall as he was soaked through to the bone, hopelessly caught in her spell, powerless to do naught else but study every detail of her until such time as she might grant him release. He prayed that time would never come.

Much later, after the brief summer storm had moved on, and after Vincent had taken the gamble of leaving Tifa on the rim of the world to swiftly retrace his steps into the passage to retrieve his pack and rifle as well as her discarded canteen, he leaned against the stone wall at the back of the ledge with folded arms, one ankle crossed over the other, deceptively relaxed, watching her tensely as she stood close to the edge, her figure silhouetted against a backdrop of velvet night and diamond-bright stars. He’d laid out the pallet for her and bade her rest, knowing she would need her strength to descend from this high place in the morning, but she’d blatantly denied him.

“Look, Vincent!” she cried out excitedly. “A shooting star!”

Tifa suddenly jumped into the air, sweeping a hand across the sky. His breath caught sharply in his throat as her feet came down close to the rim. “Come away from there, Tifa,” he curtly commanded. “Before you fall.”

She half-turned to look at him then, her eyes sparkling with mischief. Then she danced over to where he stood and held out her closed hand to him. “Here, Vincent,” she offered with a smile. “It’s yours.”

“What do you have?” he asked warily, making no move to unfold his arms to take it.

“A falling star,” she explained in a softer tone. “I caught it for you. So you can make a wish.”

His eyelashes drifted down to shutter his eyes. “I’ve no wishes to make,” he said coolly.

A gentle smile curved her lips. She knew what that oh so much cooler voice meant now. It meant she risked traveling to a place he did not mean her to go, and she would not be deterred.

“Not even one little wish hiding deep in your heart, Mr. Valentine?” she queried softly.

“I doubt the content of my fortune lies in the revelations of sidereal movements,” he scoffed, his words brittle icicles breaking from his lips.

Her brow creased in bewilderment as she attempted to parse his remark, and then she shrugged her indifference and reached up to draw his hand away from his chest. He gave her only minimal resistance as she flipped his palm up to plant her gift right in the center, her fingers lightly brushing his skin to send an involuntary shiver up his spine. With her hand, she closed his fingers against his palm and gave his closed fist a little squeeze of encouragement. “Make a wish, Vincent,” she directed in a voice made of steel incased in velvet. “Don’t let your falling star go to waste.” Before he could find time to protest, she skipped away, back to the brim of the world and her field of astral diamonds, no doubt standing vigilant to capture yet another falling star. Perhaps one that would wish her straight into the arms of Cloud Strife.

Bemused at his own actions, he opened his hand to inspect his bare palm where her touch still lingered against his skin. In his mind’s eye, he could truly see the twinkling star she’d gifted him. A corner of his mouth barely lifted in deprecation. If she knew the wish he would make, she would never have given it to him. What if he did make his wish, and what if it would come true? She could almost make him believe. Still, he well knew it could never be. The concept of wishing on a fallen star…the most ridiculous of superstitions.

“Oh, look, Vincent! Another one!” He raised his eyes to watch as she stood on tiptoe and caught the star in her fingers to gingerly cup both hands around her treasure, turning to show him with a smile more bright than any star in the heavens. He gave her a curt nod of acknowledgment as he deliberately slipped his hand into his pocket to deposit his star for safekeeping.

Where was the harm in making a wish?

What if...

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