When he came to her, it was as the all encompassing mist drifting through the night to fill the vast empty spaces around her. As the chilly evening shadows reaching long before the falling sun. As the gentle wind moving unseen across the land, hardly stirring the grasses and flowers with his passing. Cool and silent and pensive.
And when his feet fell motionless on the grassy bank above the shimmering lake mere paces away, she knew he was there. Though she dared not look. Though he made no sound. She knew. And in that instant of psychic recognition, every word of every speech she’d planned to make in all the time she’d waited for him escaped her tongue, along with her ability to think a single coherent thought, along with her capacity to breathe, along with her hard won resolve. All snatched from her like leaves caught in the teeth of an icy gust of wind off an impending thunderstorm.
With her sleek muscles tightly tensed in coiled readiness and her nerves tautened just shy of a breaking point, her body held her to a standard of physical and mental preparedness usually reserved for fight or flight, as though she alone faced an unexpectedly fierce opponent in an arena of battle, with a viable decision to be made in the diquieting face of likely defeat. Accept the risk and engage the battle. Or…run…
But forfeiture was not an option. She would not surrender the field. But she wasn’t here to do battle. She wasn’t a warrior today. Only a woman. Waiting for a man…
…And the man had finally come…and she dreaded the storm he would bring her...
Intently, she studied the flower she held motionless in her fingers as if she meant to memorize every artistic detail of the intricate design nature had granted it, though no part of it stirred the neurons in her brain. Not the sight of its richly hued petals. Not the cloying scent that teased her flaring nostrils. Not the feel of the stem between her numb fingers. Her wildly racing heart crawled into her throat and her breath turned stale in her strangled lungs as she waited.
…Waited breathlessly for him to speak the first word...
…Waited for him to make the first move…
…Waited for him to show her the road he meant them to take…waited for him to point out the direction they would travel…from that moment on…
But the silent man upon whose decision she waited could find no words at all. Indeed, that man harbored no desire to speak at all as he made a contemplative study of her where she rested cross-legged amidst the tall grasses and wildflowers in tranquil stillness with the detritus of a dozen dismembered plants strewn all around her.
Dying petals fallen like snowflakes of gold and burnt sienna to decorate the verdant grasses, drifting across the black material of her slim trouser clad legs, clinging coyly to her dark tresses in accidental adornment to taunt him with their presence there.
Though he stood so very close to her, less than half a dozen paces away, the distance seemed too great. A vast chasm stretching between them to hold him at bay. A rift he could bridge with ease, given the barest hint of a sign.
Yet she exhibited no inclination to look at him, instead keeping her head bent in prayerful attitude over a single fragile flower clasped in slender fingers, the same unmoving posture she’d stubbornly held the entire time it had taken him to descend the long gentle slope of the last hill toward her with impoverished crimson eyes imprisoned by her too distant form, the final leg of his endless journey made even more interminable by ambiguous feet with a wont to move ever more slowly the closer he came.
Now as then, the unrestrained strands of her dark hair fell down across her face in a silken veil that cruelly concealed her countenance from him, blatantly refusing him the opportunity to appraise the direction of her thoughts, denying him even the most meager of glimpses of the beauteous features that had taken possession of his mind to relentlessly torment him throughout his journey back to her.
Thwarted so, a disappointed Vincent Valentine helplessly resigned himself to a passive scrutiny of drifting chocolate tresses as he awaited her pleasure and hoped for an accommodating view of the exquisite line of a jaw or the delicate curve of a cheek, all the while pondering the cast of her hidden expression and fretting over what thoughts might plague her mind.
On cue, he dutifully conjured an image of her, a portrait incongruous with the one he would wish to paint, one in which she frowned down in keen displeasure at the silken petals of the flower resting inside her captive fingers, the mar of a single line creasing her smooth brow at her vexation, her deprecating thoughts directed not at the hapless flower, but wholly centered on the selfish…stuck up…man that had driven her straight over the edge.
Vincent’s own brow creased beneath the convenient cover of the bandana as his unruly mind again replayed for his begrudging ears the detestable sound of her sweet voice strained to breaking with the torment he alone had caused her, again carried to a loathing mind’s eye the nauseating image of the beautiful sunny face he best knew twisted in anguish, chocolate eyes dilated to black marbles in the dim spaces beneath the waterfall burning brightly with angry tears. Truly, the words between them didn’t matter anymore. Only that he’d caused her sorrow. Only that he’d given her pain.
Perhaps she wept even now, quiet tears tracing acidly over softly curving cheeks, wishing perhaps for an opportunity to travel backward in time to steer her friends away from the Shinra Mansion so that he would have remained locked in the basement to this day…so that she might never have known him..
Or perhaps she neither frowned nor sorrowed, but prayed desperately for salvation with her dark lashes shadowing her cheeks, silently but fervently pleading for deliverance from him, demanding reparation of the powers that be for the folly of fate that had stranded her with him and begging the gods to grant her wings to fly from him.
Yet…she had waited…
…And the gods help him…no matter how much she might will it…he couldn’t leave her…
His knees were suddenly seized by a curious weakness, his heart clamped in the vise of a bittersweet yearning. He fisted his hand against his thigh to still his trembling fingers as he sensed his resolute will bending to the imperative demand of his desire to go to her, to gingerly draw the dark tresses away from her face with gentle fingers so that he might see her, to turn her chin in his hand so that he might find the truth in her eyes, to softly kiss away her tears and make her see that he’d never meant to hurt her.
If, in that instant, Tifa Lockhart had risked her teetering equilibrium to chance a look at him, she might have found herself engulfed whole by the mournful longing in his captive gaze. She might have discovered in his darkening crimson eyes all the obscure answers she sought. But she didn’t hazard a look. And he didn’t surrender to his desires but for a single impetuous step toward her.
Dismayed at how breathtakingly close he’d come to irresponsibly tossing all his iron clad resolutions into the wayward wind, Vincent tore his besotted gaze from her custody and commanded obstinate limbs to turn him away from her in regretful rejection of all that he wished, only to stare blindly out across the diamond spackled waters of the cool lake with his uncooperative mind filling his thoughts full of the compelling vision of how her precious face might appear framed inside the cradle of his worshipful hands.
A tactile illusion born not of experience, but of dream. A feckless dream that could never be made real, because he knew in reality that his self-serving intentions would disgust her. And his touch would…frighten her.
…But what if she…
No. No more…what ifs…
Justifiably deeming his mind unconvinced, Vincent deliberately schooled his willful thoughts to a different perspective. One he knew to be truth in that instance. One that would dash his wishful notions into the ground.
His dark lashes drifted to half-mast in unconscious concealment of the pain buried deep inside his crimson eyes as he forced into his waking vision a dream image remade. One reluctantly drawn into that sealed envelope of convenient dream illusions he wished to hold inviolate in his mind. One that dutifully carried him beyond that moment of tentative approach and breathless possibility. That instant of mutual willingness…
He again witnessed the precious features between his fingers twist with naked revulsion, and again he distantly watched his deprived hands fall as she sharply jerked her face from his tender caress in unequivocal rejection. Produced in his own dreaming mind. The absolute truth. A truth he couldn’t deny, no matter how often he might compulsively wish otherwise.
Dutifully, Vincent commanded his punitive thoughts to the business of admonishment, for thinking it possible for even a moment, for the selfishness of dreaming it were so, the whole while standing in perfect stillness, unmoving but for the gentle stir of his hair against his face and an unconscious flexion of his metal digits, and ever so slowly he retreated behind the high wall of his shadowy fortress.
All too soon, a deceptive coolness filled his shuttered eyes, and a concealing mask of impassivity shrouded his serene features, his unruffled demeanor a blatant lie to the tenseness of his body as he directed his chastened thoughts away from secret desires and hidden dreams to the matter at hand.
Turning his concentration outward, he cast his eyes across the lake toward the distant waterfall, and he tuned his ear to the steady rhythmic wash of her respirations as he patiently awaited the harsh words from her condemning lips, stonily prepared to accept the sentence she would decree even as he dreaded the enmity in her beautiful voice when she decreed it, all the while hoping beyond hope for an undeserved pardon.
Fleeting seconds stretched into long tensile minutes as neither party dared give voice to their thoughts. The dead air of their mutual silence congealed around them in a suffocating shroud as they both waited on the other to speak first. Left to Vincent to decide, the moment might have gone on forever, but Tifa finally reached the end of her already frazzled rope, and unable to endure the strain one second more, she finally broke and surrendered the wait.
All her hopes that Vincent would reveal the state of his mind to her, by either word or action, had been proven vain. He didn't plan to make it easy for her, she could see. That she’d even crazily thought for a moment that he’d do anything else was an indication of her reluctance to speak first. A resistance born of her fearful uncertainty. But he’d left it all up to her to start the ball rolling, so she imagined she’d better get with the plan and do something about it, or else some hapless traveler would wander along in a century or two and find their bones scattered there.
Feeling very shaky inside despite her attempted side trip into humor, Tifa purposefully dragged in a calming breath that for some strange reason failed to soothe her fears or quiet her jangled nerves. She wondered if Vincent watched her then, unbeknowst to her, the intangible weight of his unblinking regard serving to keep her on the edge. She recognized that she only had to dart a single stealthy glance in his direction from behind the cover of her dangling bangs to find him, but she couldn’t manage to tear her troubled gaze from the safety of the velvet flower petals beneath her fingers. A ridiculous inclination on her part, and one that she recognized rose not only from her natural shyness, but also from an aversion to be confronted with an unpleasant truth.
It was just that she couldn’t bear to give up her fantasy, no matter how much not knowing might make her crazy, because once she looked at Vincent that would be it. All her imagining about the way he would approach her, all the words she’d given him to say to her, all of it would be lost to reality.
The Vincent she created in her mind she could still change. In fact, she’d changed him many times already. But reality would not be so obedient to her whims. The Vincent that had come to her would be the Vincent she would have, whether coldly angry, morosely regretful, or blankly emotionless. She did know one thing for sure. He wouldn’t be smiling.
She thought she might check then, just in case she was wrong about that smile business, but she knew she wouldn’t be, and she found her eyes would not obey her. So she tried to imagine instead how Vincent might look at that very moment, deciding that she’d best try for a more realistic Vincent this time, as some of the Vincents she’d dreamed up didn’t approach the realm of possibility. Like the one that laughed at some funny thing that she’d said or the one that lounged around on his back in the grass with his arms folded behind his head smiling up at the clouds. She would hardly be preparing herself adequately for her first meeting with the new post catastrophe Vincent if she continued on with such nonsensical versions of him. So to begin, she decided that she should probably place him just to her right, only a step or two beyond her elbow. She easily imagined him towering over her as he glared down on her unwitting head with crimson eyes full of icy censure, his chin and mouth hidden by the stiff cowl of the cloak he’d tightly buckled around his face, his elegant brows hidden by the bandana, daring her to say a word about that business up on the mountainside.
She thought about that intimidating portrayal of Vincent for a moment as her stomach churned, and she decided he needed some softening up. So she backed him off a few steps, and then she imagined the silky ends of his raven hair shifting on the warm summer breeze, and she added the gentle motion of the hem of his scarlet cloak ruffling against the soft leather of his boots, and lastly, she warmed up those icy eyes to an almost welcoming impassivity. At that point, she thought maybe she could have a conversation with that Vincent. She still couldn’t risk a look at him, because she might be dead wrong, but she could talk to him. Couldn’t she?
She unglued her lips then, parting them with a concerted effort as she attempted to coax a few words to her tongue. An innocuous little ‘hello’ or a ‘what up’ would work wonders she was sure, but her stubborn voice wouldn’t back her up, and the syllables dried up and withered away inside her cottony mouth.
Maybe she should forget about the inane pleasantries. He probably wouldn’t appreciate them under the circumstances, and they were probably inappropriate in light of the situation anyway. Besides, she did have something of a more pertinent nature to say to him. Didn’t she? A topic more in tune with the moment. And she should just get on with it. Right? Get it over with and behind her. Right? Right. After all, she’d compulsively practiced many versions of the apology she intended to offer him, the whole time he’d made her wait for him.
Vincent had made her wait much longer than he could have, now that she thought about it. Long past the point where the musical lap of the lake waters against the stone palisade of the cliff face gave way to whispering rushes and muddy shore, a point that she well knew by now that he could have jumped from the trail to the meadow below to shorten the journey by half if he’d wanted, if he hadn’t been so determined to follow the narrow tortuous path to its bitter end. Either he’d been enjoying the hell out of the walk…good exercise…warm sun…and all that. Or…he’d been in no hurry to talk to her.
And how long had she waited for him?
…Long enough to explore the shore of the lake where she’d pretended to be enamored by whatever smoothly eroded stone or castoff piece of driftwood crossed her wandering gaze, all the while compulsively and surreptitiously checking his ponderous progress along the mountain face…
…Long enough to amble across the meadow in a meandering route born from whimsy to eventually arrive at the bottom of the trail he would have to come down to escape the mountain terrain…long enough to aimlessly wander back to her flower petals again…
…Long enough to discover the sodden wad of the blanket she’d lost into the wind atop the mountain only that morning washed up on the sandy bank, one straggling end drifting gently in the subtle movement of the water against the rushes….
…Long enough to wash the sediment from the sodden material, wring the water out in punishing hands, and stretch the blanket out across the grass to dry, all the while trying fruitlessly not to think of those moments after that mischievous blanket had tripped her when she’d settled so comfortably into Vincent’s unwilling embrace, her face flaming anew each time the memory floated up into her thoughts...
…Long enough to compulsively replay particular parts of that infernal dream inside her head, over and over, only to find them no less intriguing for constant repetition…
...And long enough to borrow liberally from Cid Highwind’s repertoire of likely curse words to silently rain upon her own head each time she thought of a particular pair of lips, and how those lips, not too wide and not too thin but exactly perfect, might feel against her own. A confusing notion born of that stupid, ridiculous, crazy, dream. Who ever knew that chocolate was a hallucinogen…
How long had she been waiting. Too damn long, she decided with a trace of a frown. She’d been down in that valley alone, waiting for him long enough to finally throw her hands up in disgusted surrender to the inevitability of endless waiting. After which she’d returned to her nest of discarded petals and broken down grass blades to torture herself with every possible scenario of what Vincent might say and what Vincent might do when finally he came.
Now it seemed Vincent intended to say or do nothing. It seemed Mr. Valentine had decided the matter not important enough to address. It seemed Mr. Vincent Valentine found her beneath his notice.
Already unsteadily balanced on a hard won emotional edge somewhere between anger, regret, guilt and hope, Vincent’s obsinate refusal to fulfill her tenuous expectations finally upset the fragile equibrium and tipped her off. Disregarding the idea that he might possess his own unfulfilled expectations, Tifa’s temper sparked anew, infusing her mind with a rebellious contrariness that promptly expelled all the nebulous desires glittering indistinctly beneath the surface of her chaotic thoughts.
Silver minnows swimming to and fro, feathering butterfly kisses inside her mind, only to dart away before she could catch one. The minnows swam for their lives as the water temperature rose, and the wistfulness in her brown eyes steamed away beneath the fierce heat of her discontented glare. The poor bedraggled flower caught the brunt of her ire as she began to frenetically roll the stem between fretful fingers, the unconscious action a clear reflection of her vexed mind.
Her pretty mouth thinned to a stubborn line as any inclination to apologize fled, and Tifa Lockhart decided then and there that Mr. Valentine didn’t deserve an apology. Tardy hardheaded man that he was. And truth be known, he probably wouldn’t care if she made the effort or not.
In fact, Mr. Valentine should stir himself into action and apologize to her first, but she probably better not hold her breath waiting on one. She’d die a slow, excruciating death.
Several tense moments passed as Tifa tortured the ragged plant in her fingers, spinning it beneath her fierce regard as she thought hard about apologies. His. Hers. And their’s. Inevitably, her innate sense of fair play eventually floated up above her irritation at Vincent to remind her that she had behaved badly. She couldn’t deny that she owed Vincent an apology just because she didn’t want to give voice to one. But just because she had to admit that she owed him one didn’t make her feel any more inclined to give him one.
Frankly, she wasn’t in the mood anymore. But didn’t her grandma always say that one should apologize even if they didn’t feel so inclined? And why was her grandma always butting into her business?
Well…okay…maybe she would get around to apologizing. Here in a minute or two. After she gave Mr. Valentine an opportunity to offer her one first.
Then again…why should she wait? And why should she apologize? Vincent hadn’t been very forthcoming thus far. What made her think he would bother? If he couldn’t be bothered why should she bother? She saw no percentage in waiting on him to apologize. The man hadn’t been in an all-fired hurry to get his ass down off the mountain. What made her believe he’d be in a hurry to do anything else? Which only brought her back to the beginning of her circular argument with herself. She’d probably have to be the one to do something about, if she wanted anything to get done.
Do something like…maybe…apologize.
…Or maybe like…make him apologize…
She wrinkled her brow in deep thought as she considered her options. Maybe she should apologize, but probably she wouldn’t. And maybe she would decide to assist him in apologizing. Or…maybe she wouldn’t.
She wouldn’t apologize, and she wouldn’t kick his ass. And he could thank his lucky stars that she’d let him off so easily.
Her slender fingers abruptly stopped the flower in mid-spin, and she narrowed keen eyes on the frayed flower petals. Maybe she should take the whole matter under advisement. That had proven somewhat helpful in the past. Pointless, but…well…something…
Her hand traveled across from her knee to trace the edge of a single petal with the ragged nail of a one tentative finger, her appraising gaze pinned there in long study. Finally, she tensely nodded her head once in curt acknowledgement of her decision, forecasting her intention to anyone who might be watching. A total of one person the last time she’d counted. Pinching the petal between thumb and forefinger, she carelessly ripped it away and flicked it into the grass.
“I will apologize.” Her lips moved soundlessly with the words.
She tore another petal away. “I won’t apologize.”
A thin smile barely tipped her lips. She liked that particular answer. Maybe she’d stop there and leave it at that. But then that would make an already pointless process especially worthless. With a tiny shake of her head, she proceeded with her operation, and another petal went fluttering into the breeze
“I will apologize.”
She pulled the next one away more emphatically. “I will NOT apologize.”
The last one came off in her fingers, and she scrutinized it sullenly. “I will…apologize…”
Completely annoyed at the outcome, she tossed the flower away and slipped her fingers through the grass in the opposite direction from where the silent and uncooperative Vincent still stood unmoving and unspeaking on the grassy bank only paces away to pluck another gangly flower from its stem. She would apologize. But she could still kick his ass too. She couldn’t imagine what he’d make of that contradictory behavior, but...did she really care? Hell no, she didn’t care. She didn’t, did she? No she did not.
With a flick of her wrist, she ripped off the first petal.
“I’ll kick Vincent Valentine’s ass,” she said silently in her mind. And in her mind, he answered her.
“Is it to be fisticuffs after all, Tifa Lockhart?”
With a discontented wrinkle of her brow at his imagined response, she tore off the second one.
“Well…maybe I won’t kick his ass.”
”As you wish, Miss Lockhart. I shall abide by your decision.”
Tifa might then have complimented Mr. Valentine’s wisdom or thanked him politely for his politeness, but the gears of her thoughts abruptly jammed in her head. Startled brown eyes widened on fingertips frozen to stillness against soft petals as she discovered herself fighting a battle. A war between a sudden overwhelming compulsion to look at the man against an equally formidable resistance to do so. Both the urge and her unwillingness were born of her certainty that at that precise moment in time the man had pinned his cool crimson eyes on her. At that very second, Vincent Valentine was staring straight at her. She knew it as sure as her name was Tifa Lockhart, even though she had yet to risk a single look his way. He might not have been looking before, but he was watching her now. And intently too. As though he’d fathomed the direction of her thoughts and had decided he’d be well advised to keep a closer eye on her.
Tifa tightly lifted her shoulders in an irritable shrug as she carelessly decided to continue to ignore him. She didn’t feel like acknowledging his presence just yet. Nor did she want to look at him.
Well…maybe she did, but she wouldn’t. Because she already knew what she would find. Those emotionless eyes appraising her. Judging her. Sizing her up. That mouth…immobile in his refusal to speak. Denying her an apology. Or an explanation. Or even a polite ‘hello’. So let him watch. She didn’t care. Let him look all he wanted. He’d discover her purpose soon enough.
Dismissing him from her mind as best she could, she returned to the important business at hand, tearing away the next petal, silently and happily promising to thoroughly rearrange his assets with that one. No matter how admirable she might find them…
”I’ve changed my mind, Mr. Valentine. I’m kicking your ass after all.
“You are surely welcome to try, Tifa Lockhart.”
“Well, since you’ve extended an engraved invitation, Vincent Valentine…”
Her fingers paused on the next petal when she realized there were only three petals left. Her frown deepened markedly. The flowers had spoken. She would have to apologize, and she couldn’t pulp him into compliance. She supposed that would be for the best. Especially in light of the fact that the two of them still had to travel to Kalm together, and it would probably be a more pleasant journey if they weren’t walking fifty feet apart the whole way.
With a heavy sigh of resignation, she let the destroyed flower fall from her fingers to tumble end over end into the grass. Dutifully folding her empty hands together, she raised worried eyes to the silver expanse of sparkling lake in front of her and deliberately redirected her unruly thoughts to the task at hand. She swallowed hard against the inconvenient tightness of her throat as she desperately sought sufficient moisture in her arid mouth to form a greeting of sorts. When had talking become so difficult anyway?
…When she’d started hanging around with Vincent…
She recognized then, that she’d made of the flowers a handy diversion. A ready made distraction to avoid exactly this moment, when she would have to talk to him and he would have to answer. Or not. Truthfully, she feared his silence more than any response he might make.
At any rate, the unavoidable moment was upon her, and she had to do what she had to do. Right? Right. Surely she could manage to spit out just one little word for starters. .
”Hello,” she practiced in her head.
Okay…two words then.
Wait…that was three words. Sounded pretty good though. Polite and distant and to the point.
Tifa cleared her throat softly in the hopes of moving the uncomfortable rock lodged there, just a minor adjustment before she gave voice to her greeting. She took yet another deep breath that failed to calm her. She dutifully opened her mouth anyway, but before she could make her tongue form the first of three little words, Vincent stole her thunder by speaking first. The startling and unexpected act both shocked her to her toes and filled her to the brim with gratitude and relief that he’d gallantly, if unwittingly, spared her the unwelcome chore of not only forcing the word ‘good’ through her stubborn lips, but also from being forced to delve through the muddy contents of her uncooperative brain for all the right words to get a conversation up and running.
“Do you now seek your fortune in the desecration of indigenous flora, Miss Lockhart?” Vincent queried coolly.
She narrowed her brown eyes in disgruntlement at his less than affable address of her, even if she could admit Vincent’s conversational opener to be much more creative than hers would have been. And she could at least take due credit for inspiring him, but it lacked much in delivery.
So…the die was cast. He’d finally offered her the first glimpse of their future path, and she could surely see that their relationship had definitely deteriorated in the last little while. Strangely, she didn’t believe it was because he was annoyed about her tearing up flowers.
Well, she’d already known, hadn’t she? It was exactly what she’d been expecting would happen all along. Why had she been crazy enough to think for even a moment that it might be any other way? After all, she’d become very well versed in Vincent’s standard mode of operation by now. She knew damn well that he would do his level best to prevent another lapse like the one she’d witnessed. And in doing so, he would draw far away from her now, well behind the defensive perimeter of his cold aloofness. And although she knew he wouldn’t care one way or another or probably even notice, she decided she’d just play it his way. Why not? She didn’t have a damn thing to lose.
“No, Mr. Valentine,” she bluntly denied with emphasis on the ‘Mr.’ in pointed reminder of a forgotten promise. The steadiness of her own cool answer amazed her, considering all the butterflies that had suddenly erupted from their respective cocoons to take possession of her insides. “I’m not seeking fortunes. Just answers.”
Vincent tensely turned her response over in his mind, examining all the meager angles. He’d already formulated a solid theory regarding her actions and he found nothing in her answer to alter his conceptions. He had indeed been watching Tifa for several moments now, just as she had so clearly divined, drawn by the movement of her hands as she’d torn the petals from the flowers, the whole while imagining the silent words she must have been thinking in her head with each petal discarded. Knowing the exact identity of the person about whom she interrogated the flowers.
He loves me.
And what had the flowers told her? Had they offered her hope, however false? Or only further disappointment?
Vincent knitted his brow beneath the bandana as he intensified his study of her face, a protracted appraisal that he’d commenced the moment she’d let the flower drift from her fingers to lift her gaze toward the lake, finally granting him the view of her beautiful face she’d long denied him. To no avail, it seemed. As his preternaturally overly efficient eyes now failed him.
No matter how intently he scrutinized her face, he still couldn’t determine her state of mind. Not from his oblique perspective and not from the impassivity of her face in profile. However, the chill in her voice hardly overtaxed his ears to hear. That she was perturbed, he couldn’t refute. Nor did he harbor any misconceptions as to the irritant. The manner in which she’d voiced his name clearly conveyed that information. Obviously, he could not place blame on the capricious answers of uncooperative flowers. He could only blame the man who couldn’t hold to a simple vow. A man who had already retreated to the cold demeanor for which she’d berated him beneath the waterfall.
Vincent again shifted anxious crimson eyes to the wide expanse of lake as he inwardly cursed himself for yet another failure born of his weak and cowardly nature. Until he caught himself up short with a sudden recognition of his self-derogation as yet another inadequacy as well. He still evaded the main issue for pointless albeit justified deprecation.
Deliberately, Vincent rechanneled his thoughts toward improvement and his will toward change. The moments slipped fruitlessly away as he struggled to mentally climb a path to higher ground, to draw about him his self-assigned mantle of convenient pretense. But no matter how hard he searched inside himself, he could not find his way. Not when the questions that he knew she asked of the flowers would not leave his mind. In the end, he settled for a simple query, one appropriate to the conversation, and one likely to evince a response he’d prefer not to hear.
“Have you obtained the answers you seek?” he woodenly asked, the tension in his body not revealed in his calmly expressed words.
Tifa couldn’t help but notice that the hint of coolness had left his voice, giving way to a dull monotone, as though he asked the question only out of a distant politeness, not truly caring to know, although he might acknowledge her response should she tell him. Or not. She drew her knees up and wrapped her arms around them as a sudden chill came over her. No doubt the touch of a sudden breath of wind from across the lake. She forced a smile to her numb lips as she stiffly replied.
Vincent might even like the answers she’d obtained, she mused. Some of them anyway. Especially the one that forbade her tackling him down into the flowers and grass to sit on him and twist his arm behind his back until he cried ‘uncle’ and promised to be more…more…more sociable…or…friendlier or…something.
What did she want from him? Really? But then, she didn’t really have to think that hard, did she? She knew exactly what she wanted from him. She wanted him to talk to her about his feelings, all those bothersome emotions she’d come to realize he kept under lock and key. And that wouldn’t happen in her lifetime. So why not just surrender to the inevitable now? Just spit out her well practiced apology and let it all go. Less wear and tear that way…
Tifa nodded once to affirm her viable if cowardly plan and squared her shoulders to help stiffen her resolve, all despite her disgust at her continued inability to address the crux of the matter. She suspected that she would find one diversion after another before she would broach that subject. She’d have to think that over more carefully later, but for now she needed to get on with it. And first things first, she had to do the one thing that she’d been putting off for some silly indefinable reason.
Very slowly and very reluctantly, Tifa made her head turn to carry her apprehensive brown eyes away from the still waters for her first direct look at Vincent Valentine since she’d stared hard across the distance at him through her tears, her first glimpse of him since he’d arrived only a few minutes past. Though it had seemed an hour since he’d come. And a year since she’d seen him.
She mentally braced herself for the unsettling impact of his expressionless but penetrating regard, fully expecting to be snared in the spring trap of his crimson eyes, but to her great relief she found him gazing out across the lake just as she had been doing, his unfettered raven hair drifting in the breeze just as she’d first imagined, his serene face in profile revealing nothing of his mind. Nothing new there. And nothing to make her optimistic that anything had changed for the better between them.
Still, when she’d noticed from the distance that he’d donned the cloak right after that tumultuous episode at the waterfall, she’d convinced herself that he had mostly likely buckled the cowl up tightly around his face. Just as tightly as he usually managed to keep his emotions buckled in. To put up a barrier between them. To hide from her. Or maybe himself. But oddly, he hadn’t.
Vincent wore the cloak as before, with one buckle fastened and the uncinched cowl falling back against his shoulders to leave the whole of his face open to her but for the bandana he’d again wound around his head. A small thing to hang her hat on really. As he hadn’t worn the thing fully buckled in a long time. Not since she’d awakened in that strange underground facility behind the Sleeping Man Cave. But it offered her a little hope. At least that he was willing to pick up where they’d left off.
On the other hand, she had to admit that he didn’t seem interested in continuing their conversation, stilted though it might be, and that failure on his part spurred her irritation at him anew, filling her with a compelling urge to give him a substantial piece of her mind, if she could just figure out exactly what she wanted to say. She was supposed to be apologizing anyway, was she not? And she’d practiced that several times. She should be able to spout out the words without too much pain or effort. She still didn’t feel inclined, but she imagined that she’d better. As opposed to some of the other things she’d thought of to say, if she dared. But he wouldn’t welcome such nosy things from her mouth, she didn’t imagine. She’d feel absolved afterward, wouldn’t she? Therefore she would definitely for surely positively apologize this time. No more diversions. No more flowers. No more anger. No more hiding behind her hair, a tactic Vincent should be able to appreciate, actually.
Again, she uneasily shifted her eyes back to the lake, and again she forced her lips apart as she mentally schooled her tongue to her wavering will. And again, Vincent rescued her from her pained and laborious effort by speaking first. And this time he spoke in a soft murmur, still gazing into the distance, looking like a man lost in a faraway world, lonely and alone, speaking the words aloud as though he thought himself the only one around to hear.
“…Answers hidden in flowers…wishes ferried in stars…love…sustained in dreams…”
At the softly voiced comment, Tifa’s mouth drifted ajar in helpless wonder as she gazed long into Vincent’s expressionless profile. His poetic observation replayed lyrically and pleasantly in her mind, eventually bringing a tentative smile to her lips, until a few lingering contrary thoughts stirred to parse the hidden meaning behind the words, steering her unerringly to an annoying conclusion.
Vincent could only have spoken those particular words at this particular time for one particular purpose. To mock her. To scoff at her. To have his fun with her. She should hardly be surprised that a man like Vincent would find her fanciful and…silly.
Tifa’s lips thinned in her pique, her silent admonition to herself already forgotten. Any other time, Tifa would never have said a word, instead fuming in a hurt silence. But that persistent vexation still bubbled beneath the surface, a cauldron continuously stirred by her yet unfulfilled expectations and conflicted emotions concerning Mr. Vincent Valentine, lending her a careless impulsiveness that brought a bold question springing right off the tip of her willful tongue.
“Did you ever make your wish, Vincent?” she peevishly demanded.
In the next instant, her mouth went slack in dismay as her own churlish words rang too loudly and too querulously in her disbelieving ears. Her eyes rounded widely as her anger evaporated into thin air. Had she really asked Vincent that question in that way? The question that she’d longed for the courage to ask him as they’d traveled the mountain trail side by side? The question that she’d despaired of ever speaking aloud?
How many times had she pondered what sort of wish Vincent would make if he were ever to make a wish? She had come up with several possible wishes he might make of the fates, but right now she'd have to guess that whatever wishes he might wish to make, most likely he'd used his wish to wish Tifa Lockhart far away. Like a hundred miles away. Or a thousand miles away. Or a million kajillion miles. Of course, had he made such a wish, he’d obviously not been granted it. Because here he was. And here she was. And now she was the one wishing herself away.
She was the one that somehow had to get out of the fix her big mouth had gotten her into. What was the matter with her tongue anyway? Damn thing wouldn’t work when she wanted it to, but it operated mighty fine when she just wanted to keep her thoughts to herself. Oh well, she couldn’t take in a huge gulp of breath and suck her words back into her mouth, and she couldn’t snatch them out of the air and stuff them back down her throat. The words had been spoken. And she knew they’d been heard. No doubt about Vincent hearing them when the sneaky man could hear her murmurs. The question was out there. A question she knew he wouldn’t bother himself to answer because he’d find it too nonsensical.
Since he’d probably pretend he didn’t hear it, she could pretend she didn’t say it. Right?
“Er…I…I…just thought…I’d ask…since you brought up this business of fortunes…and…wishes…that is…” she stammered lamely, cringing inside at how feeble an attempt her explanation sounded to her ears. She could already feel her cheeks filling with heat, and she resisted the urge to hide her face in her hands, instead simply bending her head low to let her long bangs hide her flushed face from his inquisitive eyes should he look..
Gods, why had she asked him that question about wishes? She was getting nuttier by the minute. But then, he’d been the one to talk about it first, hadn’t he? She nodded her head to herself. He could lay the fault for that question at his own metal-plated feet if he didn’t like it. Talking about wishes and love in dreams and…stuff. Sneering at her falling stars and her…flower petals…and…
What did he mean by that love in dreams stuff anyway? Like…kisses in dreams? But no…he couldn’t know about that…
She gave her head a single hard shake in disgusted denial. She wasn’t even being honest with herself. Yes, she wanted to know about his wish, nosy parker that she was. But she had to admit to a second ulterior motivation for asking.
Plainly put, she’d found yet another diversion, big weenie mold that she was. The truth of the matter was that the subject of wishes didn’t involve the matter of her overly dramatic and rather childish departure from his company before.
The subject of wishes excused her from thinking about the apology she knew she had to make for the mean things she’d said to him.
And most importantly, and probably most telling, the subject of wishes distracted her from her vow to get to the bottom of why Vincent had lost control of his emotions so suddenly and irrevocably.
She had to admit that she wasn’t ready to discuss that business, even though she thought that they should talk about it. Still, she imagined that whatever had sparked that strange and unusual spell of raw emotion she was probably better off not knowing.
Except that a slimy, malodorous Marlboro had made itself to home in the room, and she wanted nothing more at that moment than to happily clean around it so as not to disturb the beast. She knew it wouldn’t work. Not for long. The Marlboro would make a hell of a mess, befuddle everybody and poison everything, in the end.
She glared down at her clasped hands, angry at herself now. Angry for allowing her bruised feelings to ask him that particular question that particular way. Angry for cowardly sidestepping all the things she should be saying. Angry for even getting mad at him. A contrived distraction, because she didn’t believe for a moment that Vincent would mock her like that. It wasn’t in his nature. He’d most likely just spouted off another of those cryptic and rhetorical comments he made on occasion. She’d puzzled over a few of those more than once. Maybe he’d even been caught up in fanciful thoughts himself.
But no…that hardly seemed likely from the man that turned his nose up at wishes. The man that needed no one...
And why didn’t she just ask him what he meant? Wasn’t that easier than the ornery question she had asked?
“Why did you say that, Vincent?”
Wasn’t that a lot easier than saying, “Did you ever make YOUR wish, Vincent?”
How about, “Why don’t you draw your gun and shoot me, Vincent?”
Then he wouldn’t have to worry about answering. And she could stop driving herself around in circles. She felt like she was racing a wildly twisting road on a one-legged chocobo. Round and round and round she goes. Until that silly girl’s so dizzy she can’t stand up, and she sure the hell can’t think straight. If she went on like this much longer, that chocobo would get tired and dump her into the lake. And then she’d just sink to the bottom and drown in her embarrassment.
Caught up in her thoughts, Tifa hadn’t yet dared to look his way again to see if her question or her explanation had drawn any reaction from him. She fidgeted nervously as the silence again grew long between them, proving her right. She’d known he wouldn’t answer, hadn’t she?
A keen sense of disappointment filled her. She might question her motives for asking it now, and she might admit that under any other circumstance she would never have asked it, but she still wanted so badly to know. She suspected that she’d never know. And was there anything to know anyway?
Did she really believe for a moment that he’d made a wish? Not Mr. Vincent Valentine. The man’s feet were firmly planted on the ground. Even if he did seem to float sometimes.
In fact, he didn’t seem to want to talk about anything. Not wishes. Not the incident on the mountain. Not the weather. Any minute now he’d say, “Shall we go, Miss Lockhart?” And that would be the end of it all. They’d go on as before.
Except that she was pretty sure that he’d be more aloof than before. More cold and disengaged. Keeping himself to himself and keeping her far beyond the rim of his personal perimeter. If she allowed it. And why not? Three cheers for the easy way out. She unconsciously sighed in disgust at her lily livered surrender.
At her breathy and clearly audible exhalation, Vincent reluctantly dragged his gaze from the safe calming waters of the lake only to encounter her crestfallen face. Pensive crimson eyes traveled on to discover her slender fingers twisting restlessly in her lap, a marked indication of her inner turmoil. His dark lashes drifted down to conceal the regret in his eyes as a sharply delivered stab of accusation from his guilt ridden conscience shamed him.
Not only had he pointedly avoided answering her question, instead impulsively opening his hand to stare down at his empty palm as he thought of the wish he would never tell her, he’d already reneged on the vow he’d made to himself. An unspoken promise to her really. Made in absentia. And oft repeated throughout the duration of his lonely trek down the mountain trail as though repetition would ingrain in him an inclination he could never hope to possess.
His mantra had utterly failed him. The moment he’d returned to her, his own undisciplined longings had sent him fleeing to the shadows inside to wrap himself in the safety of cool distance. He’d even diverged so far from his silent oath as to violate the promise she’d extracted from him all those miles back in the tunnel regarding his address of her. Why couldn’t he manage to conform to even one simple resolution?
Vincent knew very well that he was capable of social engagement with others if he chose, as he’d reasoned with himself more than once during his descent down the mountain. Though he’d never been the most garrulous of men, and though he’d tended to spurn social activities for more solitary endeavors, he’d managed to carry on interactions with a variety of people in a wide range of situations when he’d been a Turk. As a matter of fact, his erstwhile career had often required him to play one role or another to complete this mission or that. Admittedly, he could not find much of that man inside him anymore, a blessing in many respects and a curse in many others, but he knew he could manage.
Even during his travels with Avalanche, he’d often found himself in idle conversation with Aeris, if a bit one-sided, when she initiated it. And he and Cloud discussed strategy and logistics on occasion, gingerly sidestepping the minefield of personal topics. And he and Nanaki conversed on many subjects of interest to them both during their long stints on the deck of the airship. He could clearly argue precedent.
So when he’d knelt on one knee at the edge of the cliff to see her safely across the lake, he’d silently vowed to try harder with her. To offer her the companionship he intuitively knew she desired. To pretend. He’d meant to pretend a normalcy with her he didn’t feel. To pretend that they could be…friends. And upon rejoining her, he’d meant to begin a dialogue and permit their conversation to run a natural course. But the moment he’d opened his mouth, before he could even enunciate the words, he’d reverted to his usual self-serving and defensive stance, despite all his good intentions. Stuck-up and selfish, as she’d rightfully accused.
He didn’t even have to ask himself why. He’d already admitted the reason to himself long before he’d planted his boots amongst the grasses and flowers of this meadow. Tifa wasn’t Aeris with her innocuous conversation, mostly safe but for an occasional insightful and subtly worded comment aimed at sparking a reaction on his part, rhetorical observations he always found easy to ignore. Tifa wasn’t Cloud, who in many ways was as emotionally guarded as he himself, and who found comfort in talking about superficial day to day matters. She wasn’t Nanaki, who possessed an astounding knowledge of the history and workings of the planet and enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of discussing his knowledge and speculations with him.
Tifa Lockhart was a shy but inquisitive woman, interested in all the people around her, possessing the ability to care deeply about people, especially those she claimed as her own. She was generous to a fault, giving all she could to whoever might need her, probably more than she should. And she was beautiful, inside and out. Pure of soul, light of spirit, full of heart, with a core of inner strength that many tough men would envy.
Plainly put, Tifa was a threat to him. To his sense of equilibrium. To his relentless control over his overwhelming emotions. And although she didn’t often give voice to her own emotions, they always surfaced in her face and in her actions.
Intuitively, he knew that she wanted more from him than anyone else he’d ever known. Even more than Lucrecia had ever wanted from him. Tifa wanted to understand him. She wanted to ‘fix’ him. She wanted to poke at the painful memories locked away inside. She wanted too much from him.
And likewise, he wanted too much from her, more than she would ever wish to give him. If she knew how much he wanted, she would run and never look behind her. But Sweet Shiva, he only had to pretend for a couple of days, and then they should be in Kalm, and after that she would have no need of him anymore. Cloud Strife would take center stage in her life, and Vincent Valentine would fade into the background.
For two short days, he could manage not to hurt her again, couldn’t he? For two short days he could keep his desire for her hidden. Then she would be back with Cloud. Maybe Cloud Strife wouldn’t offer her the happiness she deserved, but she would be near the man she loved. A consolation prize. But better than…nothing. And perhaps someday Cloud would wake up and see all that he could have with her.
As for him, his pretense would be done, and he could return to the life for which he’d been destined from the moment Hojo had conceived the idea to forever change him. He’d subvert his capricious will in reconciliation to the incarnation he’d been given. A monster in the guise of a man. A dead man…walking…
A strong feeling of déjà vu took him, and he didn’t have to explore his thoughts deeply to discover why. He’d made this same argument innumerable times since he’d been with her. He recognized that the same script kept replaying in his head because he kept falling behind in the debate. He had to admit it a difficult task to win an argument where the win is a loss. The most bitter of prizes.
Vincent slowly shook his head in unconscious denial. Perhaps he couldn’t do it. Perhaps he wasn’t strong enough. But he should at least be able to say that he’d tried to fulfill his vow. That he’d attempted to make the effort. He would simply have to attain a fine balance on that razor thin line dividing friendship from intimacy and never step across. Yet, the very thought of venturing even that far tightened his throat with dread. Still, he had to try. For her sake. For his unspoken promise to her. And if he meant to do it, he had to start somewhere. What better time than now?
Vincent recognized the primary step toward his goal to be a simple one. He simply had to answer her questions. Not just the necessary ones or the mundane ones that he never found to be a problem, but all of them. All of the questions that would lead to dialogue. All those questions that if answered would inevitably snowball into conversations fraught with pitfalls. But he couldn’t examine that unavoidable eventuality closely. If he did, he simply would not begin. He had made an oath, and he would honor it. Even though she knew nothing of it. At the very least, he would gift her that one small concession. He would answer her questions. And he would start with this one.
Vincent softly cleared his throat, mentally composing his words in the manner that he meant to achieve before actually speaking them. “I…cannot say…Tifa,” he finally said stiffly, his delivery not all that he’d planned. He hid the apprehension in his eyes behind lowered lashes.
Tifa looked around in surprise. Not so much at the fact that he’d unexpectedly answered her, a rather delayed response even for him, but at the unusual quality of his voice. One she didn’t think she’d ever quite heard from his mouth before. Not quite monotone and not quite cool. Not the smooth, richly toned voice he unconsciously fell into when he spoke at length and forgot himself. A tone not exactly casual, but almost approachable, in a…wooden…sort of way. She didn’t know quite what to make of it.
“What can you not say?” she asked cautiously. Could it be that he was actually answering her question about his wish? High up on the miracle scale for sure. More probably he was talking about something else entirely.
Vincent stared narrow-eyed into the distance as though he’d just noticed some strange and never-before-seen species of sea serpent rearing its sleek head from the lake to bare its voracious teeth at him. “I…cannot say…if…I’ve made a wish.”
Her eyes rounded in astonishment, and she knew she was staring, but she couldn’t seem to stop. Until she realized that he really hadn’t answered her question at all. He seemed to be operating under the influence of his own diversion, but then he was the expert at that she’d discovered early on. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“Well…why not?” Her voice held no demand, only a bewildered curiosity.
He shrugged inside the straps of his backpack. “Is not secrecy obligatory to the wish process?”
She studied his impassive profile with a frown of perplexity. “What do you mean?”
“Does not divulging the details of one’s wish invalidate the fulfillment thereof?”
She opened her mouth to answer, but only managed to gaze at him in silence for a long moment, temporarily at a loss for words. It seemed Mr. Valentine knew something about wishing after all.
“Well…yeah…” she finally managed to say. “But I don’t think that applies to whether you actually made a wish or not.” She turned her own thoughtful gaze out to the water as she contemplated the issue.
Vincent pondered her hesitant words for a few seconds and then decided to exploit the uncertainty implicit in her statement. He brought inscrutable crimson eyes around to examine her pensive features. “Are you certain?”
“Yes…well…no…I’m not sure…” she replied vaguely, her unfocused eyes peering off into space as she wondered at the strange course of their discussion. Did anyone truly know about wishes? And was she really talking about wishes with Vincent Valentine? A man who she could hardly imagine had even made one?
“Then I cannot say,” he responded stubbornly.
Abruptly, he turned on heel and silently walked away through the tall grass.
“Wait a minute…” Tifa murmured as her eyes widened in recognition. If Vincent refused to talk about his wish for fear that it wouldn’t come true, that must mean that he had made one. That meant he’d accepted her gift to him of a falling star and made her wish for him real. A bright smile came to her lips, along with a sudden buoyancy of spirit. Eagerly, she sought him out with sparkling brown eyes to pursue this matter of wishes and stars, but her smile ebbed away as she stared in confusion at the empty spot on the bank where he’d been standing only seconds before.
“Vincent?” she queried in a small, anxious voice.
Had she just dreamed him? Gone crazy from waiting and constructed him whole-cloth in her head? Her irrepressible smile made a tentative return, and she again chided herself for her tendency to formulate such silly notions as she promptly twisted around to search over her shoulder, recognizing that he’d simply surrendered his scenic locale at the lake’s edge to retreat from her. Most likely to put paid to her questions about wishes after all.
Her heart sank to her toes when she found him, and her newly released spirit thudded heavily to earth. Vincent sat cross-legged in the grass with his back deliberately turned to her, his backpack settled into the grass at his side, and his rifle laid across his bent knees. He was close to her. So close that only a few feet of tall grass and wildflowers separated them. So close that she could gather a handful of the dark material of the cloak pooled in the grass around him, if she dared. So close, yet so distant. He might as well be a star in the night sky.
…An easy task to raise a hand to the heavens and pin a tiny star beneath a fingertip…
…Impossible to ever hope to touch any part of it…
…So lonely to be a star…
As though in mournful concession to her melancholy thoughts, Vincent bent his head, so low that his thick raven tresses tumbled down over his shoulders to fall against his face. Tifa couldn’t help but sense the weary acceptance in his weighted shoulders and curved spine. Clearly, Vincent was ready and waiting. And she recognized that he was leaving it up to her yet again. Most likely, he expected her to demand an explanation of him, and she wondered if he would tell her if she asked. Maybe she should ask, and probably she wouldn’t. She wanted to, but she couldn’t. Not now anyway. It was too hard to contemplate asking when he looked like he expected to be struck.
Her brown eyes overflowed with sorrow for his plight. Her heart ached chidingly inside her chest. Vincent thought he’d done something wrong when she’d been the one to wrong him. She hesitantly raised a hand with the idea of reaching out to him, to comfort him, but decided he wouldn’t welcome her touch and let her hand fall, uneasily settling for miserly words instead.
Vincent slowly nodded his head in response to her gently voiced query, and then he remembered that he’d meant to be more forthcoming. “Yes.” He replied dully. And then almost as an afterthought, he added, “I’m fine.” He swiveled his head to glance over one shoulder at her, but then thought twice about it and stopped short. He knew his face would reveal too much to her then, more than he wanted her to see.
“And you, Tifa?” he asked somberly. “Are you well?”
“Sure, Vincent. I’m…fine.” As fine as she could be, under the circumstances.
Unable to look at him anymore, when he looked and sounded so defeated, Tifa turned away with a painfully tight throat to gaze blindly across the lake at the roiling waters beneath the distant waterfall, a scene that reflected the turbulence of her thoughts as she struggled with all the things she wanted to say against all the things she should say and the few things she probably might manage to say. She had to tell him though. At the very least. She had to convince him that she was the one at fault. She was the one that had deserted him in his time of need. Even if he hadn’t wanted her there at the time, she should have stayed close by. Been a friend and given him his space as he’d asked. But she hadn’t. She’d yelled at him in her frustration and anger. Unthinkingly flung hurtful words at him. And worse, she’d left him alone with his misery. She’d heatedly accused him of selfishness when she’d been the selfish one. It was long past time to make good that apology she’d long been planning. To try to regain the ground she’d lost with him.
Stubbornly slamming the door on the nameless fears that continuously clawed at the threshold of her mind, Tifa quickly dragged in a short but reinforcing breath to speak before her courage fled out the door, with the full knowledge that if she didn’t spit out the words fast, she wouldn’t spit them out at all.
“Vincent, I’m really sorry.” The rapidly expelled words sounded cold and staccato to her ears, words sharply tapped out beneath swift fingers on a keyboard or shot out like automatic gunfire. Her speech faltered at the sound of them. “…For…how…I…acted and…for what…I said…”
Her voice turned quivery then, and her words trailed away to nothingness as she stared blindly into space and apprehensively awaited his response, her nervous hands finding each other in her lap to fret over her badly delivered apology together. That had been a lot more stressful than she would have predicted, considering all her practice. Thankfully his reply came sooner than she might have expected, sparing her a prolonged and highly stressful wait.
“There is no need to apologize to me, Tifa,” he replied in a despondent voice. “You have done nothing. I am the one wholly to blame. And I…pray you will forgive me.”
“No…Vincent…you didn’t do anything…”
“You think me selfish,” he dully reminded her.
Her breath hitched in her throat. “No, Vincent,” she hurried to deny. “I don’t think you’re selfish. I know that better than anybody…after all you’ve…done for…me…” She couldn’t begin to give words to all that he’d done for her, so she didn’t try. “I should…never…have said that…”
His fingers and metal digits tightened around his rifle. “You think me…stuck up…”
Her guilty eyes fell to her hands. She didn’t know how to explain that indictment away. It wasn’t that she thought he was he was a snob or something, even if she’d given that impression. It was just that he was so…self-contained…so…alone…
She waved a dismissive hand. “I was just upset, Vincent. I didn’t understand…”
…And I still don’t…
”I…shouldn’t have…said…all those things…I said… I didn’t…mean it… I don’t have any excuse…really…I just…I wanted…I don’t know…” She finally ended her torturous explanation with a helpless shake of her head.
Vincent turned to gaze over his shoulder at her bowed head and hunched shoulders in critical appraisal. He hadn’t failed to note her disinclination to withdraw the second charge as she had the first one. He could hardly blame her as her accusation had been well-founded. If only he could be the man she wanted him to be, but he never would be, and so he would always hurt her.
“Vincent…no…I’m the one that…”
In a flash of revelation, Tifa suddenly recognized the futility of yet another protestation of his attempts to apologize. This whole situation called for a different response on her part because Vincent would never find her at fault, and she would never surrender her guilt. The two of them could easily go back and forth over this apology business until the sun went down. She opened her mouth and tried again.
“You know…Vincent…maybe we just…need to…forgive each other. So…how about we make a deal? I’ll forgive you…if you’ll…forgive me.”
“Tifa, you have done nothing to…
Her head shot up at his anticipated reply, and she boldly interrupted him. “Just say yes, Vincent,” she sternly said. “Say yes, I forgive you.”
She waited for a long moment in silence, the whole time wondering breathlessly if he would comply. A tremulous smile touched her lips when finally he bent to her will. “I forgive you…Tifa…” he replied in emotionless monotone.
“I forgive you too, Vincent,” she answered him in kind, the whole of her regretful heart reflected in her soft voice, a heavy burden lifting to free her spirit onto fluttering wings.
She hopefully looked over her shoulder at him then, just in time to see him silently nod his bent head in acceptance. But he still looked so…glum. From behind anyway. A wet blanket on the return of her good mood. But what did she expect? He looked pretty gloomy most of the time anyway. For all she knew, their mutual exoneration might have put the man in a really good mood too. A good mood for him….anyway…
A sudden crazy impulse came over her, and with a brilliant smile so dazzling and beautiful that all Vincent’s resolve would have instantly fled him had he seen it, Tifa gathered up two handfuls of colorful flower petals from the ample supply around her and jumping agilely to her feet, ran forward a couple of steps and threw them gleefully out into the breeze. She beamed in delight as she happily watched the tangerine and saffron petals flutter down upon his raven head like the feathers of a molting Phoenix.
When the first of the petals slipped into his line of sight and came gently to light atop the hand wrapped around the butt of the rifle, he stared at the errant petal with bemused interest. Another fluttered to a tentative rest against his mythril plated forearm. Then many more followed, drifting down in a gentle fall to land all around him like the snowflakes he’d mentally likened them to earlier, softly touching down to splash bright color across his folded legs and the front of his shirt. Suddenly realizing where they must have come from, Vincent helplessly looked around at her with such astonishment in his crimson eyes that Tifa laughed out loud in her joy.
“Gotcha, Mr. Valentine,” she thought happily to herself. She danced past him then, executing a little spin just before bending down to snatch the almost dry blanket up from the grass. She carelessly wadded it into a bundle in her arms, the whole while silently gloating over her unexpected success at finally managing to take the ever alert ex-Turk completely by surprise with her silent bombardment of flower petals.
“Come on, Vincent,” she called gaily over her shoulder. “Let’s go find a grocery store. I’m starving.”
Obediently, Vincent numbly rose to his feet and almost dazedly shook the flower petals from his rifle. Then he brushed away the ones still clinging to his shirt and cloak, and with a vehement shaking of his head, shed the petals hanging in his hair.
Woodenly, he bent to retrieve the backpack, leaning the rifle against one leg long enough to shrug the pack onto his shoulders. Then he slung the rifle to his back and set out after the woman that had deemed the woods the most likely place to find edible fare.
Already she’d raced far ahead of him, running in great bounding leaps up the low hill as she made a beeline for a nearby copse of verdant trees, her ponytail flying out behind her as she went. His dark brows came together in an intense frown of concentration as he watched her run, and absently he shook his head in awe.
Two days. If they traveled straight through. He only had to make it two short days. In all the days that he’d been with her, days in which he’d managed, for the most part, to keep his true feelings hidden, two more days seemed mere hours. Truthfully, he’d almost managed to convince himself nothing could happen in those two short days to tax his restraint overmuch. But now, as he helplessly followed her with a wondering gaze, he clearly detected inside himself a lack of commitment to his goal, along with an attendant loss of confidence in his ability to fulfill his objective.
He promptly went dredging inside for the lumber to prop up his wavering resolutions, resigning himself to yet another debate with his own ambiguous mind, instead discovering his shakiness surrounding the events beneath the waterfall. Critically, he forced himself to examine the shallowly buried memories. Uneasiness touched his serene features as he again considered the moment of his abrupt and complete abandonment of his taut control. For the most part, he’d always managed to keep his emotions reined in tightly. And if they did threaten to escape his stern tutelage, he had never failed to promptly return them to their place. But in that instant beneath the waterfall, as he watched her dancing through the shimmering streamers of water and the caressing rays of sunlight, he had failed miserably. Irresponsibly and irrevocably.
A faltering commitment and a stunning failure to boot. Therein lay the source of his dwindling confidence…
…And that troublesome lack of commitment…
…So many reasons for that he could hardly enumerate them. He imagined them all so intricately interwoven that he couldn’t begin to separate the threads to count…
The haunting memory of her words contributed much in fueling his dilemna. Those words seared into his brain. Branded on his heart. Words so witheringly and tearfully projected into ears that would not go deaf no matter how much he'd willed. Words that even now echoed repeatedly in his head until he thought they might drive him insane.
She’d asked him a question. One that demanded an answer. An answer he couldn’t give her then, or even now were she to ask again, because he had no viable answer to offer her.
What was the point indeed?
What was the point in living if he chose not to live?
…No point to live a pointless existence…
What was the point in continuing one more day with his feelings unspoken?
…He thought there’d been a point…but it seemed to elude his grasp now. What that then be a moot point?
Then…what if…he told her? And…what if she…reciprocated?
Vincent hardly considered the possibility before he reached his conclusion, and he huffed in derision at how easily his thoughts had slipped their tether and turned down the forbidden path. He’d been searching for wood to nail up his wobbling will, and instead he’d found a can of gasoline. He had to stop this endless waffling. Before he went so far as to flick the match. He had to stop wishing impossible wishes. Dreaming improbable dreams…
…And thinking on improbable dreams…
That damnable dream hadn’t helped his case in the least, and in truth, had probably been part and parcel of his lapse beneath the waterfall. That too vivid dream that had returned again and again to his mind to taunt him the whole time he’d walked beside her along the trail.
The dream that he’d been dwelling upon at the moment she’d abruptly deserted him for the lure of the waterfall.
The dream in which he had so easily relinquished Lucrecia for her. The one in which he had cradled her soft face in his two hands. The one in which he’d acted on his desire to kiss her. And in his dream, she had been willing.
…Only because in a dream one could have that which one most desired…
He absently shook his head in denial. In reality, she would not be so amenable.
What madness to think that he could ever tell her. If he were ever foolish enough to give voice to his true feelings, he well knew that she would reject him. If he acted on his desires, she would rebuff him. And justifiably so.
Had his dream not reverted to nightmare? Had he not returned to his true form? And he had…hurt her. He’d hurt her badly. In his dream…
No question but that he must keep to the path he’d chosen. He’d been offered no choice really, no matter how much he might imagine it so. Both paths led to unremitting pain for him, but only the other path led to harm for her. Better he should be the injured one than she. She didn’t deserve to suffer, and his spirit already wore so many layers of pain, what could one more matter? His heart wounded so many times, what was one more scar?
A distant hail from across the meadow pulled him from his morose reverie, and he realized with a start that Tifa had nearly reached the wood. He’d been so consumed by his compulsive thoughts that his first tentative steps had faltered to immobility, leaving him standing dumbly in the field between lake and wood. Not doubt puzzling over his lackadaisical behavior, she'd halted to wave back at him, to urge him to action.
With their own will, his feet moved to obey her, to carry him to her, even as he mechanically lifted his own hand in assurance. Apparently satisfied that he’d finally exhibited an intention to join her, she simply wheeled around and darted into the woods to disappear from view.
His heart slammed hard against his breastbone at the sudden loss, and he broke into a ground eating lope, his long legs carrying him swiftly up the slope to find her. His reason completely deserted him, leaving him only his fear for her. He could hardly bear the idea of her being both out of his reach and out of his sight, and he fervently prayed that she would turn back and wait for him, that she would not go deeper into the woods without him, even though he knew she could take care of her herself, even though he could accept that she didn’t need him.
Gods, he had to admit it. He couldn’t deny it anymore. Despite all his adamant vows and all his well-reasoned arguments and all his firmly spoken denials, he was in trouble. Trouble from which his native intelligence and his repertoire of skills could not save him. And he found himself…at least at that moment…at a total loss as to what he might possibly do to stave off what could only turn into catastrophe…
Myron paused uneasily at the threshold of the somber room, an intimidating chamber full of shadows and ghostly shapes lit only by the ambient light that seeped in through the window, a diffuse illumination composed of a subtle blend of pale starlight and the distant glow of the streetlamps on the square in front of the inn, so ineffectual as to barely delineate the form of his wife where she sat slumped in the chair beside the bed. He resisted the urge to flick on the light switch and instead took a tentative step into the room.
“Nessa…” he whispered nervously into the sepulchral silence. “…Are you…awake?”
He didn’t really expect an answer to so hushed a summons, imagining that she must be asleep after sitting so many hours in darkness, but she surprised him as she so often did, promptly straightening in her chair at the sound of his voice. Her head came around to find him standing in the doorway, silhouetted in the dim light of the electric wall sconces spaced intermittently along the hallway behind him. His face filled with his dismay at her obvious wakefulness, though fortunately she couldn’t see his features in the darkness.
“Myron? Why aren’t you in bed?” Her low voice, as softly reverent as though she spoke from within the nave of a church, carried a reassuring hint of censure as bracing as a crisp autumn breeze.
He almost retorted with a question in kind, but then deemed it inappropriate under the circumstances, as well as completely fruitless. Instead, he lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “I…couldn’t sleep, Nessa…” In fact, he hadn’t even tried. There was no way in hell he could go to bed and sleep knowing she was sitting up here in a straight backed chair watching over a virtual death bed.
“You should sleep, Myron,” she replied matter-of-factly. “You’ve had a long day. And tomorrow may well be…even longer…” She abruptly turned her head away then, and Myron intuitively knew that the coolness that had seeped into her voice with her last words represented an unconscious cover for another emotion. He recognized that her hope was faltering, and that she wasn’t ready to confront what the next few hours might bring, much less tomorrow.
“Nessa…let me sit with her for awhile…” he gently suggested. “You’ve been here all day.” …And most of this night…and the night before…
The plaintive undertone of his words, clearing expressing his deep concern for her, stole her props from her, and she slumped in her chair as her weariness overcame her, unable to continue the pretense any further. Still, she denied him with a slow shake of her head. “…I…can’t…Myron,” she whispered brokenly. “…If...I go…she might…” Nessa fell silent then, leaving the last word unspoken but clearly understood. Her head bent beneath the burden of her pain.
Myron went to her, crossing the darkened room on bare feet, to kneel down in front of her on one knee, as though he might now offer her the proper proposal he never had. He gingerly gathered one limp hand from her lap while his other hand drifted unerringly to her face. At the brush of his warm fingers against her cheek, she gratefully nestled her face inside the cradle of his cupped palm.
“Myron, I can’t go…” Nessa preempted his argument, a thread of hard resolve inside her weary voice. “I won’t leave her.” Her slender fingers came up to smooth aside the loosened strands of silver threaded blond hair that had fallen against his lean cheeks, after which she tenderly touched his troubled face now clearly revealed to her in the muted light leaking in from the hallway, her soothing gesture an unconscious mitigation of her refusal.
“Nessa…you are a strong woman,” he softly acknowledged. “But you don’t have the power to change…this outcome…one way or another…” He stared up pleadingly into her shadowed face. “Let me stay. You’ve worn yourself thin, and you need to rest. You need to recover.”
“I’m not leaving, Myron,” she coldly replied, interjecting a strength into her voice that she could hardly find inside. “So dispel yourself of that notion.”
Myron let out a heavy sigh of resignation. His wife was also a stubborn woman, but he could be pretty hardheaded too, when he dared. He had allowed his expulsion from the room many times throughout the day, partly in deference to the growing number of official demands related to the office his wife had arbitrarily conferred upon him, but not this time. He knew he’d better get his bluff in early though.
Abruptly, he released her hand and rose to his feet. He could feel her intent gaze on him, struggling to make him out in the dark room. He pointedly shoved his sliding glasses back up his nose, and then he defiantly folded his arms and raised his chin in anticipation of the protest he knew would come.
“Fine, Nessa. Then stay. But I’m staying too.”
To his pleasant surprise, she simply nodded her acceptance. “Thank you, Myron,” she softly replied. Her expression of gratitude carried a wealth of meaning left unexpressed. The fact that her vigil had grown more desperately lonely the longer it went on, as more and more her hopelessness overcame her, and her acknowledgement, if only to herself, that she needed him badly at that moment, although she would never admit it out loud. But she didn’t need to. He knew.
Without another word or second of hesitation, he crossed the room to draw the chair from beneath the little writing desk near the door and returned to set it down beside hers. Then he simply sat down and slipped an arm about her willing shoulders to draw her down into his embrace. With a breathy sigh of surrender, she laid her head against his sturdy, reliable shoulder and gratefully closed her weary eyes.
Determined to carry on the vigil with due diligence in the hope that his wife would sleep, Myron laid his cheek against his wife’s dark hair and planted resolute eyes on the pale face that he could barely make out in the deep gloom of the unlit room. The angelic face of a young woman of uncommon beauty and mystery transformed by darkness to a slack ghostly mask with charcoal smudges for eyes. The young woman that had sacrificed probably much more than she’d intended to gift Nessa her life. That Nessa loved her, he well knew. She’d adopted the girl as her own the morning she’d given her the name of her long dead mother, the same name he knew she’d silently given a tiny infant that had never had a chance at life. That the girl she’d named Maya loved Nessa in return, she’d undeniably proven. That the three of them were connected in some unfathomable way, he could no longer refute.
Myron turned his lips into Nessa’s hair as his thoughts shifted to a higher gear. What if that connection was real and not born of his fancy? What if that strange little connection that bound them would permit him to reach her? Hadn’t Maya herself said that all living things are bound together in interlocking circles, some more tightly and some less so, but still firmly linked? Not so long ago he would have scoffed at such a whimsical notion, before this magical creature had entered their lives and crafted possibility out of impossibility and joy from despair. What if he could reach her? What if he now silently spoke all the words that he might have said if he would have been allowed to tuck his wife into their bed and take over the watch in her stead? All the words he wouldn’t want his wife to hear for fear she’d deem him hopelessly maudlin? What if his thoughts would reach her and coax her back to them? A silly idea, he had to confess, but one that would hurt nothing to try, and one his wife would never know of.
With a new sense of determination and hope, Myron narrowed his gaze and his thoughts to a keen focus as he deliberately directed the whole of his concentration toward that lifeless and hollow countenance and fervently willed her to awaken, his lips speechlessly moving in sync with the words he gave voice only inside his head.
Suddenly Myron’s throat tightened and tears sprang unexpectedly out of nowhere to burn fiercely behind his eyes. He swallowed hard past the knot in his throat and squeezed his eyes tightly shut against an overwhelming need to cry. He couldn’t cry, and he wouldn’t. He’d come to lend his wife his support, his strength, meager though it was. He couldn’t fold up on her now. He couldn’t fail her. But he discovered yet again that he couldn’t hide from her. Whether it was because of a new tenseness in his body or just because of her strange intuitive ways, she seemed to know even though she couldn’t hope to see his face in the murky darkness, and she stretched out her fingers to capture his hand into hers.
“We’ll both be here for her, Myron,” Nessa whispered huskily into the darkness. “And she’ll hear us. She will know.”
A sad smile came to his lips, as his eyes slipped closed in his ease. No matter how much he might tease her, and no matter how much she might deny it, his wife possessed resources he couldn’t hope to understand, and he knew that in this case she drew her conviction from that dark murky well. It was so easy and comforting to believe she truly knew. Because his wife was always right. But then…wasn’t that the way of wives?
“Yes, Nessa,” he softly murmured. “I think she will know.”
“I…I can’t do it…anymore.” Her thoughts felt weak, hardly capable of coherence, much less projection, but he heard nonetheless. The suffocating darkness and silence around her virtually radiated with his disdain for her, an attitude markedly conveyed in the thought he finally directed her way.
“So you choose to fail.”
The challenging comment startled a protest from her. “No! No, I don’t! I don’t choose to…to fail…I’m just…just…tired…” Her thoughts trailed away as her defeat reached up grasping fingers to drag her down into the murky depths of the yawning abyss of self-pity and indifference that Angel had accused her of wallowing in earlier. He might have rescued her from the shallows then, with his chiding thoughts, but now she found herself tiptoeing along the narrow brim at the deep end. How long had they been here? How long did they have? It seemed like hours that she’d been trying, but also only just minutes. Time held no power here, in this place of formlessness and darkness.
His heavy sigh filled her thoughts with his abject misery, weighting her spirit further with the burden of his own despair at her surrender. “Then rest, Cetra. Indeed, we have time. All of eternity, in fact.”
His sarcastic tone struck a discordant note within her and sparked a quarrelsome response.
“How do you know?” she demanded petulantly.
“How do I know, Cetra?”
“How do you know that we are stuck here for that long,” she demanded grumpily. “Maybe we aren’t. Maybe we are just in between…for awhile.” She pondered her own theory and reached her own conclusion, based on hope more than reason. “I don’t think you do know,” she accused. “I think you are just trying to…scare me…to...to lord it over me...to…to…” Her anxiety consumed her again, stealing the strength from her mentally projected words and weakening the imperativeness of her next thought. “Just tell me…how you know…”
Only silence met her demand, a mocking silence that abruptly struck fear in her heart that maybe he’d simply decided to leave her. Found her to be too weak and cowardly to tolerate and simply willed himself to vanish, leaving her all alone in the darkness. An inane idea, to be sure, since he had professed more than once that he was trapped here, that he was bound to her. Whether he wished it or not. She suspected that if he could have left her, he already would have. So maybe he’d decided to just ignore her now. Pretend she no longer existed. Which would be the same as leaving her. All she had to sustain her were her thoughts and his. He was all that fate had left her. She reached anxiously into the void.
“I do not possess special knowledge, Cetra,” the wry voice sifted into her disembodied mind. “You know as well.”
A sharp sense of relief flooded through her, even as she considered his claim. “No, I don’t. I don’t know anything.”
“Stretch your spirit into the abyss, and you will have your answer,” he flatly responded.
“I…I think I’d rather…not…” What if she dove into the abyss and never came up? What if her spirit came apart and never reformed?
“I have been here before, Cetra.” He explained dully. “And I had wished to avoid being here again. But it seems you are determined to stay.”
“I don’t want to stay here,” she suddenly cried out in defiance. “I do want to leave.”
“Then…permit us to go…”
“Your mission has not been completed, Cetra.” His projected thoughts took on an offhand tone out of line with the somber subject of his thoughts. “Do you desire the destruction of the planet? All that lives within its sphere?”
“Do you relish the death of the woman you sacrificed your corporeal body to save? Of this…Cloud…that you continually seek in your dreams? Do you plan to remain here and let all you know die?”
Silence fell around them like a death shroud, her turn this time to find herself hopelessly floundering in darkness seeking an answer for him. Unlike her, he remained still and serene, patient to await her response. And when she finally spoke, her thoughts came to him with a yearning softness.
“Yes, Cetra. I dream.”
“What do you see in your dreams?”
“Things I would rather not ponder.”
“Your dreams…do you think they are…real?”
“I pray not.”
She didn’t respond, so he filled the lapse with his own question.
“Do you hear them, Cetra?”
“I can hear them, Cetra. Those that weep for your loss. Those that wait for you. Those that love you. You hold carelessly in your hands riches I could never hope to know. Take your treasure up into your heart and use the strength they offer you.”
“Slip the chains of fear and do as I’ve bade. Stretch your spirit into the darkness. Find that pinpoint of light. Only then can you find them. Only then can we go.”
“I…I can’t. I’m…too afraid…”
“Then you fail.”
Her thoughts turned petulant in the face of her weakness. “If you know what to do, then why don’t you do it?”
“Because, Cetra, I have no one to wish for me. No threads to draw me through the darkness to the other side. No one beyond to offer me strength or give me purpose. I only have you. To whom I am bound. For whom I have struck a hopeful bargain. Therefore you, Cetra, possess the power to sentence us both to either salvation or damnation. I await your decision.”
A deep silence fell between them then, for a time both brief and interminable. During that fathomless period, he restively waited, and she tentatively tested the edges of her space as she labored to steel her resolve to the unthinkable and terrifying prospect of flinging the whole of her will and her spirit, all she had left to her, into the uncharted vacuum of oblivion with all her efforts pinned to the one futile hope that she could find a single obscure light. Still, she didn’t have any choice, did she? She found the alternative equally unthinkable.
Her voice finally came to him again, more confident and resolute then he would ever have thought possible under the circumstances.
“I’m ready to try again, Angel.”
“I await your pleasure, Cetra.” If he harbored any doubt, he did not express it.
“Third time’s the charm, right, Angel?”
“I pray you are right.”
Angel’s thought reverberated around her with unsettling gravity, the tone frighteningly ominous. She hardly had to question why. What Angel didn’t say, she already knew, and she wanted to do nothing more than crumble in upon herself and weep at the futility of it all. But she had no tear ducts to produce tears. No lungs to fuel her cries of fear and pain. Angel left unspoken the fact that if she didn’t return them this time she never would. She would never again know the feel of hot tears tracking down her cheeks, never again hear the sound of her own voice laughing out loud, and never draw in a cleansing breath of air again. Even worse, the planet would die, and she would be the reason. How could she spend an eternity in darkness knowing?
But was she truly the one? Was she so very important? Did it truly all hinge on her? She could hardly believe it was so.
A pair of luminous eyes opened in the darkness before her. Eyes that twanged a discordant note within her. Eyes alert and intense, with a hint of accusation in them. As though he watched her and waited. As though he dared her to fail. Eyes as vibrantly blue as the vault of the sky above the Gaea Glacier. They were not the eyes of Angel. But the eyes of the man in her dreams.
“…Cloud…are you there…” she whispered into the suffocating darkness.
She listened for a response from him. One she knew would not come, because she knew very well that Cloud was not with her. The blue eyes of her illusory Cloud rose from the disembodied swirl of her disconnected memories. She couldn’t even say that he’d ever existed. He might be only a fabrication of her faulty mind, created inside her own thoughts to give her an anchor to a world that might never have been hers at all.
She half expected Angel to chide her with some derisive remark or other then, but even he remained silent. He’d probably deemed it wasteful to expend the energy. And truthfully, she herself could no longer find any point in thinking or feeling, not when her thoughts filled her with such pain and sapped so much of her own dwindling life force. She could almost see the remainder of her weakening power bleeding away into the nether. She could not afford her emotions. She could not afford her fear. Nor her grief. She had to let it all go. Even her thoughts…
“…I…will not fail…this time…Angel…”
He sensed the finality underlying her faltering words, and he knew that if she failed this time, this would be the last thought he would ever know of her.
“Find the doorway, Cetra,” he coolly thought in reply. “The ones that love you wait for you. He waits for you. They all wait for you. To save them.”
And with that final exchange, she erased her being of all emotion and reason as she gathered her forces to her to fling herself into the yawning void. She might have faltered when the darkness rushed in to fill the breech in a drowning tide, but her resolve had been tempered to hardest steel by the one thing left to her. A treasure that once created could not be dispelled. The luminous blue eyes glowed steadily from deepest night. Watching and waiting. He expected her to succeed, and he would accept nothing less of her. Nor could she.
Elena sat stiffly in a folding chair near the entrance, just inside the makeshift waiting area of the medical tent. With arms defiantly folded and her legs defensively crossed in a posture that dared anyone to foolishly address her and suffer dire consequences, she’d expended many long minutes staring straight forward at a single point on the canvas wall that partitioned the waiting area from the examining area, because the view to her left offered the unsavory sight of beds full of the victims from Sector Five, many critically injured and some dying. And the view to her right offered only the sight of Reno and his little groupie sitting side by side, his arm laid along the back of her chair as they faced each other in conspiratorial conversation. She didn’t want to look one way, and she refused to look the other. Even if the two of them whispering was starting to really get on her nerves. She resisted the urge to shoot a nasty look their way. They were probably whispering about her, but she wouldn’t give them the pleasure of letting them think it bothered her.
“Do you have it now, Rachel?” Reno asked lowly.
The child adamantly nodded her head, making her bleached curls bounce wildly.
“Let’s review then.” He held up one finger and raised an eyebrow in question. Rachel cupped her hand around her mouth and lifted her face toward him. The Turk obligingly bent his head so she could whisper her answer into his ear. She sat back expectantly, and he nodded in assent. She smiled her triumph, making a dimple appear in her cheek. Reno held up two fingers, and she lifted her face to whisper again.
Elena finally surrendered. She couldn’t take it anymore. Not the waiting, and definitely not the whispering. She turned hazel eyes full of choler their way, just in time to see Reno hold three fingers up before Rachel’s rapt gaze, after which the little girl raised her eager face to his bowed head to whisper into his ear again.
“How much longer is this going to take?” Elena asked churlishly.
At the first words that had issued from Elena’s lips in well over an hour, both Rachel and Reno looked around with remarkably similar wide-eyed expressions of astonishment, almost identical except for the sincerity of the child’s worried reaction opposed to the phoniness of Reno’s, clearly defined by the glint of amusement sparkling in his eyes.
“Are you actually speaking to me now, Elena?” he asked slyly. He could hardly count the number of times he’d baited her with one pointed remark or another to rouse a single word from her pouty lips, all to no avail.
With a sniff of disdain, she pointedly redirected her eyes away from his too incisive gaze to study the less annoying view of the blank canvas drop cloth of the partition, the details of which she had wholly committed to memory by now.
“I would just like to know how long we’re expected to wait here,” she replied haughtily. “This is boring.”
Reno offered her a one-shouldered shrug of indifference that she didn’t see. “Ask the boss, if you want to know,” he casually replied to the first part of her statement. Then he answered to the latter in a sterner voice. “But you’d better learn patience, Elena, if you plan to remain in the organization.” He dismissively returned his attention to Rachel and held up four fingers for her to see.
Stiffly, Elena rotated her head completely away from Reno to seek out Caitlin where she stood toward the back of the tent close to the bedside of the little girl from Sector Five. The Shinra heir had come to see the critically ill child who even now barely clung to life. During the course of her visit, Caitlin had become engaged in protracted conversation with the child’s parents and a handful of other people from Sector Five that were there with injured family members, and if their serious faces and expressive hand movements were any indication, the discussion could hardly be described as casual, though all parties involved kept their voices low in deference to the patients around them, indicating a civility about the proceeding that didn’t rouse the blonde Turk’s concern. Besides, she didn’t expect them to cause much trouble with Rude standing protectively close behind her.
Elena knitted her brow as Reno’s last words replayed in her head. Had his admonishment carried a subtle threat? Or could she view it as a concession on his part. An acceptance of her outrageous act of insubordination as well as a decision to simply let it go this time. Truthfully, she didn’t think he could let it go. If she were Leader of the Turks in his shoes she knew she wouldn’t. So she had a pretty good idea the two of them would be revisiting the issue if an opportune moment ever arrived. But she saw no point in borrowing trouble. She’d worry about it when it happened.
“Do you know what they’re talking about?” Elena asked curiously as she stared hard at the back of Caitlin’s blonde head, willing her to bid the lot of them goodbye and leave so she could get out of that damned depressing place.
Reno held up his outspread hand to Rachel and again bent his head for her answer as he inspected Elena’s averted face. “Are you asking me a question, Elena? Or talking to yourself?”
The disgruntled hazel eyes came around to inspect his amiable expression. “I thought you might know, Reno,” she replied irritably. “…Since you trotted straight over there to talk to her when you first got here.”
“They are looking for deliverance,” he readily replied. “And they see her as the angel that will give it to them.” The redheaded Turk closed his fist but for his thumb and pinkie finger, and Rachel wrinkled her brow in confusion.
Elena watched closely as Reno lowered his face to whisper in her ear, and she smiled broadly at his words. Then he told her something else, and the little girl giggled as she chanced a look over at Elena. At sight of the sour look on the blonde Turk’s face, Rachel clapped a hand over her mouth to hide her smile.
“What did you say to her about me, Reno?” Elena abruptly demanded.
Reno leaned back in his chair and laid an ankle across one knee as he regarded Elena with a lazy gaze. “What makes you think we were talking about you?”
“I think it’s pretty obvious that you were, Reno.”
“I think you’re getting paranoid, Elena. Maybe you should find something to occupy your mind.”
“And I think you must have lowered your age requirements, Reno. Are you getting that desperate for female companionship?”
A smirk came to Reno’s lips at Elena’s snide comment. “She’ll grow,” he flatly informed her, and then he turned his head to offer Rachel an exaggerated wink, setting the girl to giggling again. “I think she’s jealous, Rach,” Reno confided aloud. “Don’t you?”
“In your dreams, Reno,” she curtly retorted, her heated words underpinned by Reno’s playful voice as he anticipated her trademark response and chanted it along with her. Her mouth fell open in indignation, and she jerked her eyes away from his roguish grin to silently fume.
Reno happily watched the one cheek he could still view slowly fill with a pale blush not accounted for by makeup, granting him a reward not easily gained. Elena was not an easy woman to embarrass. And she’d probably be madder than a swatted tarantula when she got over her embarrassment, so he thought he’d best redirect the conversation elsewhere. With that in mind, he returned his attention to Rachel, only to find her watching Elena with keen interest.
“So…what do you want to do now, Rachel?”
She swiveled her big blue eyes back to him, whatever thoughts had been going through her mind about Elena vanquished by Reno’s query. “Twenty questions,” she promptly announced.
Elena rolled her eyes. “Not that silly game again,” she scoffed disdainfully.
“You seemed to enjoy it the last time we played,” he silkily reminded her.
She wanted to remind him that the last time they’d played, half his body had been covered with his own dried, caked blood, and he’d been so weak he’d had to lean against her for support. And she wanted to tell him that the last time they’d played, she’d been so ecstatic that he wasn’t dead that she probably would have enjoyed walking barefoot across broken glass. And she wanted to tell him that she’d hardly noticed the game anyway, because she’d been completely distracted by his unaffected and genuine expressions of joy at still being alive as evidenced by the bright glow in his green eyes and the irrepressible laughter that periodically overcame him, so engaging and contagious that she couldn’t help but join in. But she wasn’t about to say all that.
“It was okay,” she reluctantly muttered.
“Hmm…well…I’ve got a question for you.” A new coolness in his tone signaled a change in his attitude, from playful to serious, and her recognition of that fact forced her attention back to his face. She studied his unrevealing face in silent expectation, prompting him to continue.
“Do you still miss him, Elena?”
Her face went blank with incomprehension. His question hadn’t been remotely close to anything she might have expected to come off his tongue just then. Her mouth drifted open as she thought to ask him who he meant, but before she could speak a word, Yuffie Kisaragi burst through the entrance of the tent with a yapping dog chasing on her heels. Avian followed right behind her, a mock expression of menace on his face as he brandished Soldier’s fetching stick in one hand. Derry came in behind him and snatched it from his hand, promptly eliciting a protest.
“Hey! You saw what she did to me, right?”
“Shoulda ducked, pal,” Derry unhelpfully replied, his crooked smile not exuding an ounce of sympathy. “Besides, I’m saving your ass here.”
Cloud came in on their heels, and immediately took note of all the eyes that had turned their way at the uproar, more than noticeable in the quiet atmosphere of the tent. “Chill, guys,” he said uneasily. “Before we get in trouble.”
A slender hand jerked the canvas drape aside, and the doctor appeared in the breech to scan them with highly irritated green eyes.
“Too late,” Derry happily announced.
Sharply feeling the burn of the doctor's scathing regard, Yuffie and Avian both dove for the nearest available chairs and sat down with amazing swiftness even as the doctor transferred her keen focus to Cloud, deeming him responsible for the furor. The rueful warrior held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Sorry, Doc. We’ll behave. I swear.”
“The dog has to go,” she coolly replied. “Now.”
“But...I can’t…” Avian looked helplessly at Cloud, and then glanced over at Reno who offered no help as he seemed to be caught in a stare-down with Elena across the waiting area. Desperately, he shifted his pleading amber eyes to Yuffie, and the Wutaiian girl stuck her tongue out at him.
“I’ll take him,” Derry offered. “He can help me check the plane.” That said, he shot the captured stick out the door, and the eager dog bounded out after it.
“Thanks, man,” Avian replied sheepishly.
“No prob.” He flipped his hand in an offhand wave and sauntered out after the dog.
Nanaki cautiously poked his head through the door. “Should I stay out here?” he hissed at Cloud, having clearly overhead the doctor’s icy directive about the dog.
Cloud appraised the annoyed frown on the doctor’s face. “Maybe you’d better.”
Nanaki eyed the doctor’s face in tentative consideration and immediately withdrew his exposed face from her line of sight.
Satisfied that the miscreants would comply with her wishes, Dr. Glass started to retreat, until Cloud hastily stepped forward. “I’d like a word with you, Doc,” he quickly said. “When you get a minute.”
She inclined her head in an agreeable nod. “Okay, Cloud. Just give me a few.”
The warrior silently nodded his acknowledgement, and she vanished behind the canvas drape. Crossing the small waiting area, Cloud took up a position in the vacant space between the chairs that led to the doctor’s partitioned treatment room. Folding his arms across his chest, he shifted his weight to one leg and settled in to patiently wait.
Yuffie stretched out across several empty chairs to recline on her side, propping her head in one hand to regard Cloud’s blank face with a speculative eye. “So…Cloud. Whatcha want with the good doctor?” she coyly asked. “Gotta an ingrown toenail?”
The Avalanche warrior shrugged uneasily at Yuffie’s nosy question. “Just checking on Penny’s progress.”
And it was the truth. Mostly. Instead of leaving Avian in the care of the Turks and going on to hunt down Cid as he’d first planned, he had impulsively decided to accompany the young man into the medical tent with the nebulous idea of checking on the little girl from Sector Five himself, to see how she was doing after her emergency surgery. Of course, he didn’t have to talk to the doctor to do that. And if he were being completely honest with himself, he’d have to admit that he wanted to drop in on Dr. Glass too. To see if she needed anything. To ask if he could help her in any way. And no, it wasn’t because she reminded him of Aeris with her long thick brown tresses tinged with red and her vivid green eyes. Not really. Because Dr. Megan Glass only had to face him to banish the resemblance altogether.
The Doc’s eyes were incisive and purposeful, never lighting anywhere for long, always darting off to the place she next wanted to go. The next patient. The next surgery. The latrines. The mess tent. Wherever Dr. Glass headed she did so as though she thought her next destination the most important one yet. And her features were more cleanly elegant than pert and more intensely serious, although she occasionally exhibited a rare smile for one who had earned it, a feat he’d not yet truly managed.
Her lips had constantly worn the barest hint of a smile, and her curious green eyes would periodically seek him out and zero in to gaze straight into his own, eyes so gentle that they’d drawn him in and so farseeing that he always knew she saw too much. If anyone else had looked into his eyes so directly and so inquisitively, he would have shut them out, but Aeris radiated such benevolent interest, and her explorations always seemed so passive and unthreatening that he’d never really minded.
“Oh yeah…guess she’s had a rough time of it, poor kid. Hope she pulls through.”
Yuffie’s sympathetic comment drew him from his thoughts, and he wrinkled his brow in fleeting bewilderment, until he remembered what they’d been talking about. He turned a measured gaze toward the back of the medical tent where he could see the couple from Sector Five, Albert and Liesl, sitting beside the cot where their gravely ill daughter slept. The woman noticed him looking and offered him a tiny smile and a wave of her hand in pleased recognition.
“Why don’t you go over and say hello, Yuffie,” Cloud absently suggested.
The ninja girl noted the direction of Cloud’s gaze, and a look of horror transformed her bored features. “Uh uh. That woman tries to hug me every time I get close to her,” she hissed in a loud whisper. “Besides…it smells in here…” She pinched her fingers to her nose in illustration. “Peeeeeyew.”
“Lots of fresh air outside,” he coolly baited, a hint of a smile curving his lips. He’d actually been a little surprised that she had opted to remain inside the medical tent rather than making a mad dash to accompany Derry and the dog to the makeshift airstrip. She preferred to stay near Avian at that moment, he supposed. Although he’d gathered the distinct impression that she liked the kid’s dog more. Still, she’d become a little protective of Avian lately, watching the Turks and Caitlin as though she believed the lot of them had diabolical plans in the works for him. Apparently she’d decided that she could be the only one to abuse him, as evidenced most recently by her act of bouncing the stick off the back of his head.
“I’m all fresh aired out, Cloud,” Yuffie retorted with a hint of challenge in her eyes, daring him to say one thing more.
Cloud shrugged his indifference and pointedly redirected his gaze elsewhere in a clear signal that the conversation had run its course in his opinion. His curious eyes shifted with momentary interest from Elena to Reno and back again as he appraised their silent, unblinking exchange. Then he decided that he probably didn’t want to know what was going on there and absently turned his attention to the ground.
Largely oblivious to all else around her, Elena had stubbornly managed to hold Reno’s heavy-lidded gaze with questioning eyes throughout the noisy entrance of the newcomers and the subsequent conversations, but now she finally offered the redheaded Turk a small shake of her head, frowning her bewilderment as she ceded to her discomfort, her own gaze slipping from his inscrutable features. Reno indifferently shrugged off her failure to answer and purposefully turned his attention back to Rachel only to find her seat empty as she’d deserted him during his neglect of her to pile up in the chair next to Avian. Smoothly, he rose to his feet, and drawing his cigarette case from his shirt pocket, he crossed the small waiting area and stepped outside.
Elena briefly thought of following as she watched him go from the corner of her eye, but decided she wasn’t ready for the discussion that might ensue. Besides, Reno had confused her with his question. Not that she hadn’t realized who he meant. It had taken some concerted thought, but she’d figured it out. And she wasn’t about to answer that question until she knew his reason for asking. Why would he ask? Why would he care? She couldn’t imagine he’d been prompted by concern or empathy, not out of the blue like that. No, he hadn’t asked out of concern for her state of mind or the condition of her heart. No way. And she really couldn’t fathom some ulterior motive rambling around in his head. He’d just been trying to needle her. Testing out a new method of getting under her skin. One that hadn’t worked. She should be used to his games by now. Dismissively, she leaned her head back against the canvas wall behind her and closed her eyes.
In the ensuing silence, Yuffie sat up and drew her legs up into her chair as she studied the quiet faces of the people around her. Obviously, Elena was planning a nap behind her closed eyelids. Cloud seemed distracted by the scintillating view of the dirt in front of his feet, and Avian had turned his attention from her to talk lowly to Rachel about fluffy clouds of all ridiculous things. A projection of the substance of his brain, no doubt. She loudly huffed her boredom.
“Well...this is soooo exciting...”
Nobody bothered to answer.
Reno walked a few steps away from the tent and raised his lighter to his cigarette, protectively cupping one hand around the flame to block it from the breeze.
Nanaki lifted his muzzle from his paw to study the Turk’s tense face as he put his lighter away and took a deep drag off his cigarette. “Hey, Reno,” he greeted. “What’s up?”
Reno stuffed one hand in his jeans pocket and narrowed his eyes on the distant Sector Two Gate through the curling smoke, not bothering to glance at the spot where the beast rested on his side next to a stack of stretchers. “Not much, Cat. Just watching and waiting.”
After a long, sinuous stretch, Nanaki rose to his four paws and silently padded to Reno’s side to peer off toward the gate with interest. “Will the gate be open soon?”
“About an hour, according to what Alexander said.”
“I thought it would be sooner.”
“It should have been. They’ve hit some snags.”
“I guess the details are important too.”
“Attention to detail is crucial. It’s always some seemingly insignificant and overlooked detail that leads to disaster.”
Nanaki tilted his head to turn his one viable eye upwards. “So…how’s it going with you and Elena?”
Reno barely tipped his head to look down at the keenly interested face of the beast through his lowered lashes. A wry smile came to his lips. “Now…how’d we get from details to Elena?”
“I was bored with the details,” Nanaki pointedly replied.
“Everybody’s bored today.”
“So what about it, Reno?” Nanaki stubbornly persisted on a direct return to the avoided topic. “Did you decide one kiss was worth another?”
“Aren’t you being just a teeny bit nosy, Cat?”
“Well, you know, after the other night, I’m naturally curious.”
“Naturally,” Reno replied uncooperatively.”
“So…did you?” Nanaki persisted.
Reno absently shifted his gaze back to the closed gate, narrowing his eyes in thought as he languidly drew a long inhalation of smoke into his lungs and let it back out just as slowly. Only then did he make the effort to answer. “Kisses are too easy to come by to work so hard for them,” he mused aloud.
“I guess so. If you say so…”.
Reno noted the disappointment in Nanaki’s tone. “Well, you know what they say, Cat. Lots of fishies in the sea. If you get one that snaps, throw it away and catch another.”
“Speak for yourself,” Nanaki answered sorrowfully.
The beast’s mournful words as well as his abrupt descent into despondency brought Reno’s curious gaze to his dejected face. “Ah…I guess you’d really have to shake the bushes to find your type of girl, wouldn’t you?”
Nanaki slowly bobbed his head. “Kind of hard, when you’re the last of your kind.”
Reno drew on his cigarette as he silently considered the problem. Then he released the smoke through his nostrils and offered the beast a solution. “Go to the source,” he coolly advised.
Nanaki looked up, his golden eye rife with bewilderment. “The…source?”
“Yeah, the source. Your kind came from somewhere. If you’ve any hope of finding others of your species, it would likely be there. I admit the idea’s pretty thin, but what else do you have?”
“But…I don’t know where that is…the source…”
“Surely you do. Didn’t you learn all that at Cosmo Canyon? The Eyes of the Others, as I recall.”
Nanaki blinked in surprise. “You know about that? The Eyes of the Others?”
“Sure, I read it in some arcane text. Assigned reading. Don’t remember much about it.”
“It’s just ancient mythology,” Nanaki scoffed half-heartedly.
“Stories have to start somewhere.”
“But that’s the question, isn’t it. Where? I’ve no idea where to find it. If it even exists.”
“Beyond the Marble Sea lies the land protected by the Eyes of the Others, ancestral sentinels of the kingdom scorned by the sun.”
The intrigued beast narrowed one golden eye on the Turk’s impassive face. “You remember more than I do,” Nanaki remarked wryly. “Do you know where I might find this ‘Marble Sea”?”
“Somewhere close to the kingdom scorned by the sun?” Reno suggested with a smirk.
“That’s very helpful.”
Nanaki’s sarcasm wasn’t lost on the Turk. “Hey, Cat. I don’t know that much about it. Like I said, it was assigned reading. And it was a long time ago. During my training. Tseng was always pulling some old decrepit book off his shelf and demanding I ‘familiarize’ myself with the contents. Read up on it. And figure it out. I know you’re a lot smarter than you look.”
“Welcome, Cat.” Reno shot the expended cigarette to the ground and extinguished it with a twist of his boot heel, and then he turned away with the intention of returning to the tent to await Caitlin’s whim and make kissy faces at Elena. “Later.”
“So…do you really think one kiss is as good as another?” Nanaki artfully inquired, stopping Reno in his tracks.
The Turk rolled his eyes at the beast’s persistence, but he did take the time to ponder the answer. “…Usually…” he slowly replied.
“And…in this case?”
“Hmm…I’ll have to get back to you on that, Cat. Investigation’s not concluded.” His judgment duly rendered, the Turk simply walked away, leaving Nanaki staring after him in bemusement. Reno disappeared inside, and the red beast shook his head in wonder.
…A kingdom scorned by the sun…
He’d forgotten that part, if he’d ever known it. Like Reno, it had been a long time ago that he’d been introduced to the origin tales, most of which his Grandfather verbally related to him. Reno had offered him sound advice. He would read up on the topic. In fact, the Turk had unwittingly ignited a thirst inside him to reread all the ancient texts, to learn all that he could. And in order to do so, he would have to make plans to return to Cosmo Canyon as soon as feasibly possible. Not only to bury himself in research about The Eyes of the Others, but also to make inquiries about the six Protectors that had gone there. Admittedly, he could not go before he learned of Tifa and Vincent’s fate, but as soon as he knew what had happened to them, he would go. And he prayed he would go with joy in his heart and not sorrow.
He stubbornly shook his head in denial, making his beaded and feathered braids swing wildly. They would find Tifa and Vincent alive and well, because that’s the only eventuality he would consider. And when they did find them, perhaps he might coax Vincent to aid him in his endeavor. The ex-Turk always seemed a font of information. Come to think of it, those Turks seemed smarter than they looked too. In fact, he should probably just enroll in Turk school and save himself the journey. Nanaki grinned toothily at the silly thought, and then the levity vanished from his face just as quickly when Reno’s words about the books suddenly revisited his mind.
‘Old and decrepit’ books from Tseng’s shelf. He wondered what books the Turk might have possessed. What forgotten content those books might have contained. But the books from Tseng’s shelf were probably now destroyed or long gone, along with the man who had owned them. The loss of any book, especially old and perhaps irreplaceable ones, made his heart sad, but he supposed he shouldn’t fret about them. Wherever those books had gone, they were out of his reach. He knew one thing for sure though. His Grandfather Bugenhagen had been right. One did often find inspiration in the most unexpected of places.
Vincent halted in the cool shade beneath the natural vault of the overarching trees to carefully scan the entire area with a slow analytical look, searching for the minutest sign that would reveal Tifa’s whereabouts to him, the whole while struggling to draw breath into a chest tight with unreasoning dread. Already, he’d ventured several paces into the wood and had yet to catch sight of her. Clearly, his silent prayers that she would wait for him had all been in vain as she’d obviously kept right on going, no doubt expecting that he would follow, but he’d moved too slowly despite his mad race to the woods, and now she’d disappeared from view.
Deliberately heightening his senses, Vincent experimentally lifted his thin nose to sniff the air, taking full advantage of his preternatural olfactory ability in an attempt to track her even as he directed his intently focused eyes into the surrounding foliage. He fully expected the more concentrated effort to detect at least a subtle hint of her passing as he’d certainly seen her enter the woods here, but he discovered that her familiar scent filled the spaces all around him, as though she lurked somewhere close, a conclusion on his part that puzzled him.
Closing his eyes, he channeled his attention to his keen ears, and after a few seconds of intent listening, he thought he could hear a barely audible and undifferentiated tidal wash of soft sound that might be respiration, but he couldn’t tease the sound apart from the rustling of the leaves, and he found it so tenuous a sign that he deemed it wishful thinking. Even so, he could almost sense her watching him, but he didn’t want to believe that was so, because that would mean that she felt the need to conceal herself from him for some unfathomable reason.
He took a tentative step forward, the syllables of her name forming soundlessly on his lips, a word he could not bring himself to speak aloud for fear that she couldn’t answer. Swinging his gaze from right to left, he mechanically moved half a dozen paces deeper into the woods to move up alongside the thick gnarled trunk of an old tree. He paused there to passively listen to the forest sounds as he unconsciously tightened his fingers around the strap of his rifle, hoping she would step on a twig or make some other inadvertent sound that would mark her position.
Basking in the deeper shadows beneath the sheltering branches of the ancient tree, a welcome relief after hours of walking in the sweltering afternoon sun, he tried to force his tense muscles to relax and his thoughts to calm, silently chiding himself for overreacting so when he knew that Tifa had only gone on to explore ahead, reminding himself that it was unlikely that she would meet with trouble in the quiet wood.
Eventually, Vincent achieved a modicum of success in settling his mind, and his muscles relaxed to the point that he could stand with relative ease beneath the heavily leafed limbs in the cool shade. Wrapping his hand around his rifle strap, he meticulously scanned a visually deceptive terrain of dark tree trunks, fallen dead wood, thorny bramble, murky forest chambers and fractured shafts of golden sunlight that struggled to penetrate the verdant canopy overhead. He found no hint of her in any part of it, sunlight or shadow, and he’d already decided to move on when a soft, barely audible whisper not of the forest touched his ears, a subtle expression of air that sounded suspiciously like a suppressed sneeze. Strangely, it sounded as though it had come from somewhere above him. Distrustful of his own senses, Vincent skeptically tipped his head back to peer into the canopy overhead just as Tifa opened her fingers to let her handful of leaves free to rain down upon him.
The moment he glimpsed her playful face through the foliage, his pent breath sighed from his lungs and his eyelids drifted down as the cool green leaves slipped against his face and clothes to flutter to the ground around him. And when all the leaves had fallen, he parted his eyes only far enough to view her through the sooty fringe of his thick eyelashes. She leaned out to wave an empty hand in greeting, and deeming her currently unarmed he opened his crimson eyes fully to study her with impassive regard as she smiled down at him from her comfortable perch in the juncture of two thick branches.
“The trees will weep at their deflowering,” he quietly remarked, and then he drew away from the trunk and strolled away, his relief at finding her visible nowhere in his serene face or in his stiff posture, his amusement at her successful ambush glinting deep inside his crimson eyes.
The smile ebbed from her face as she watched him go. Perhaps her pranks were getting on his nerves, but even if she’d unduly annoyed him, it had been worth it to be able to look down into his upturned face, to see his dark lashes shadowing his pale cheeks as he’d endured the unexpected shower of leaves with such tranquil acceptance, offering a rare picture of him that she didn’t think she would soon forget. What had made her do such a crazy thing anyway? It had started with a sudden wild urge to climb a tree. And then she’d seen him coming from her lofty perch and…well…it had seemed like it would be great fun at the time, but maybe not such a good idea in retrospect. She carelessly shrugged. If Mr. Valentine got his drawers in a twist over her innocent little joke, that was his problem. Not hers.
Deciding that maybe she’d better disembark from her tree before Vincent left her for parts unknown, Tifa cautiously leaned out of the relative security of her roost to stretch her body out along the heavy branch. Wrapping her arms tightly around the limb, she rolled off the branch to swing out into space supported only by the fulcrum of her joined hands. With a little kick of her feet, she propelled herself away from the tree trunk and at the farthest limit of her arc, let go to drop lightly to the loamy, leaf covered ground.
Wiping her hands off against her trousers, she looked up to seek out Vincent, only to find him watching her expressionlessly from a few feet away, half of his face and body hidden behind the trunk of a tall willowy elm, as though he’d transformed into a wild and bashful forest creature that falsely believed himself hidden from danger by virtue of his perfect stillness, one tensed to flee at the first hint of a suspicious move toward him. Of course, Vincent had to know he wasn’t hidden from her, so she decided that he'd probably just sought out the closest safe haven in case she should throw sticks at him next.
“Vincent…” She winced when his name overflowed the sanctified spaces around her, resonating too loudly in her own ears, though he didn’t twitch a muscle or flicker an eyelash. Either the woods were quieter than she’d thought or she’d spoken more forcefully in her nervousness than she’d intended. He didn’t respond even though she knew he must have heard. But then, she hadn’t asked a question. She’d only invoked his name. She’d meant to ask him something, but now she’d forgotten.
“Um…” She turned her head to peer off toward her left, squinting as her eyes sharpened on the brush and brambles beneath the shadowy trees in the distance. She raised a hand to tentatively point in the same direction. “…You know...I thought I saw…a berry bush…over that way…from up in the tree…” She swiveled her head back to look at him, searching for some spark of animation or interest on his part, only to encounter the same unblinking one-eyed gaze. “…Just before I…” Dumped a couple handfuls of leaves on your head… “Er…so…anyway…I thought…I’d…check it out…” Unable to endure his silent scrutiny any longer, Tifa suddenly turned and trotted off in the indicated direction, her suddenly desperate need to escape providing more motivation than her ravening hunger.
Without a word, the statue behind the tree came to life and stepped around the trunk to gingerly pick his way over the roots of the elm. He trailed her through the close growing trees and straggling brush at a more leisurely pace, the whispers of his almost soundless footfalls unnoticed beneath her noisier passage over dry deadfall and fallen leaves. When needed, he increased the speed and length of his gait to keep her always in his sight. Had she checked over her shoulder she would have seen him shadowing her, but she had already spotted the sparsely leafed bush covered in fat bluish white globules that she’d seen from high in the tree. She carved a direct route down through the brambles toward it, hardly noticing as the ground became mushier beneath her feet, her hollow stomach usurping her thoughts to drive her onward.
Looking alertly around him for any sign of wildlife as he walked, Vincent glimpsed a splash of red from the corner of an eye. Turning his head that way to look, he noticed a low growing clump of shrubs lining the edge of a sunlit clearing visible through a gap in the thick stand of trees. He easily recognized the familiar black and red fruit pending from the spiky branches as edible fare, because he’d eaten handfuls of the knobby skinned berries as a child.
With a quick sidelong glance to check Tifa’s progress, he diverted from his path to walk the few yards to the nearest bushes. Taking only enough time to pluck a half dozen of the berries, he cupped them in the palm of his hand and returned to his original route, hurrying to catch up to Tifa at a fast walk as he peered narrow-eyed through the gaps between the close standing tree trunks to search for her.
When he finally spotted her, he realized that she had come to a stop several yards ahead. He couldn’t see her well enough through the narrow interstices between the trees to determine what she was doing, but he assumed that she’d finally arrived at the bush to which she’d made reference. He assumed that she’d probably located more of the same berries he’d picked for her, but when he eventually reached a point that offered him a direct line of sight, he could clearly see that the bushes in front of her were taller and scragglier. And they were covered in white berries.
Unthinking, he sprang into motion, the berries slipping forgotten through slack fingers as he ran straight into the brush. As agilely as a deer, he leapt over a large rotted log and pressed through the prickly branches of two close growing scrub evergreens to forge a shortcut route to her location. Wildly, he sprinted down the gentle slope of the long incline and splashed through a trough of groundwater at the bottom, unconsciously lifting his hand toward her long before he’d reached her. He tried to call out to her, but his strangled voice failed him, leaving only his lips to fruitlessly form the two syllables of her name. From afar, he silently begged her not to touch them. Then he tried to convince himself he was wrong. But he knew he was right. He could hardly believe he’d forgotten about them, when his education of them had been so traumatic. Still, it had been decades ago, and he’d been only a small boy.
Tifa reached out a fingertip to test one of the juicy looking berries with a hesitant touch. She decided that except for their pale color, the fruit seemed very like a grape in size and texture, and she wondered if it would taste the same. She had no idea what the plant was called, but she thought the berries looked like the snow berries she’d eaten once, when they’d camped out in the woods outside Junon. That’s what Red had called them anyway, and she’d eaten quite a few of them. Those had tasted pretty good as she recalled. Sort of like peaches. Her empty stomach chose that moment to growl viciously in dissatisfaction at her lackadaisical attitude about filling it, and she decided that she would just taste one of the berries, and if it tasted bad she would spit it right out, but if it tasted like peaches she intended to strip the bush bare. Without further delay, she pulled the round grape-sized berry from the limb with a concerted tug and raised it to her mouth between two fingers.
Vincent suddenly loomed up beside her, seemingly out of nowhere, and clamped strong fingers around her wrist to stay the berry just short of her lips, eliciting an involuntary squeak of surprise from her throat.
“Don’t eat that,” he curtly commanded, his voice fully cooperative now that he personally had the situation in hand.
At sight of the tense scowl on his face, she instantly opened her fingers to let the berry fall to the ground at her toes. “Why? Are they poisonous?” she asked with alarm. “Aren’t they snow berries?”
Her heart thumping hard inside her chest, not only at the idea of almost devouring toxic fruit, but also at the fright he’d given her, she tipped worried brown eyes upward only to encounter the snare trap of his inscrutable crimson gaze. She knitted her brow in frowning question of his unblinking regard, and then she realized with a mental start just how unnervingly close he stood to her. So close, in fact, that only a few inches of air separated their bodies. So close that if he bent his head, and she took a single small step, she could easily finish here what had been left unfinished in her dream. Suddenly disturbed at how compelling she found that idea to be, she sharply tugged against the warm fingers still securely wrapped about her wrist.
Though loath to leave her to her own devices, Vincent forced himself to release her from his grasp then, reluctantly opening his hand to let her go. Curling the fingers of her freed hand protectively against her sternum, she eyed him warily, although she forgot to move away from him. And she wasn’t sure why, because she knew that she’d meant to. Wasn’t that the whole point of gaining her freedom? Instead, Vincent deliberately took a step back to put some space between them, partly because of the antsy expression on her face and partly because of his own rising discomfort at recognition of their close proximity. His abrupt withdrawal left her feeling vaguely disappointed and out of sorts. Satisfied that he’d attained a polite distance from her, Vincent finally offered her a slight shake of his head in belated reply to her startled question about the berries.
“No, Tifa, they aren’t snow berries.”
“They look like snow berries,” she protested with a skeptical frown. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m certain. They are similar, but they can be differentiated by the pale blue striations,” he patiently explained. “And snow berries do not grow in marshy lowlands.”
Tifa had to admit to herself that she had noticed the pale tinge of blue in their color, and clearly her boots had sunk a couple of inches into the muddy ground. “So these...uhm…moon looking berries are poisonous…” She pulled a boot free from the mud with an audible spluck and uneasily backed away from the bush one step.
“Very,” he succinctly replied. “The juice from a half dozen of these berries will kill a large…dog.”
Tifa unconsciously pressed a hand against a suddenly queasy stomach. “So…how do you know?” How would Vincent know anyway? She sure wouldn’t know about the plant life around Kalm. The Nibel Mountains had been her stomping ground. But hadn’t Vincent been a city boy? In his past life? Born and raised in Midgar? Maybe he’d learned it in Turk class. Undetectable Lethal Poisons 101.
At her question, Vincent turned away to present his back to her. “My…father taught me,” he replied dully.
“Your father?” She perked up with interest. She’d never heard him mention his father before. Of course, she’d never asked about his family. She hadn’t dared. She studied the back of his head with curious eyes, only to find her helpless gaze caught by the way one raven strand of hair fell out between a gap in his bandana. A swatch of ebony against a palette of red. Silk against velvet. She blinked at the poetic direction her thoughts had taken. Vincent must be rubbing off on her. “Was your father…one of those…botany type…people?” she remembered to ask.
“No, he was a hunter,” he bluntly responded.
He barely swiveled his head to catch a glimpse of her pensive face through his unruly tresses. “I’ve found something that you can eat,” he coolly directed in intentional diversion.
Tifa wrinkled her brow in bewilderment at the sudden chill in Vincent’s voice. Another touchy subject for Vincent apparently, but one that he’d introduced. She caught the glimmer of one watchful eye through the curtain of his bangs, and she pasted a bright smile on her face. “What? A giant pepperoni pizza with onions and olives?” she quipped. She tucked that other business into her mind with the idea of maybe pursuing it later.
He mutely shook his head, a very fleeting crease appearing beside his nose as though he’d pondered her teasing words and found them too silly for comment. “No, come with me.” He shifted his gaze toward the top of the wooded hill. “I’ll show you.” Then he simply walked away, obviously expecting her to hop to and obey. Vincent Valentine Rule of the Road number three wasn’t it?
“Obey me without question,” she muttered in her best Vincent voice. If he heard her, he made no sign. And she was too hungry and in way too good of a mood to lodge a protest, so she started after him, almost falling forward when the mud failed to immediately relinquish her foot.
With a hard jerk, she pulled her foot free from the muck with a viscous sucking sound and trotted up the hill after him. By the time she caught up with his long-legged strides, he’d already reached the stand of trees that rimmed the clearing where the berry bushes grew.
“Through here,” he said with a gesture of his hand, but she’d already spotted the bushes for herself. With quick steps, she rushed past him and leaned down to pluck the berries from the delicate limbs.
Vincent followed her with tentative steps and halted a couple of paces behind her to watch. She whirled around with a handful of berries, and smiled softly as she held her cupped hand up to show him.
“You meant these, right?” She thought she’d better double check before she inhaled the lot of them.
“Yes, I did.”
A three word answer where a nod of his head would work seemed rather talkative for him, Tifa thought. She picked a berry from the supply in her hand and raised it to her mouth. Her gaze came back to his face in time to see him incline his head as his crimson eyes sharpened on the berry she held in her fingers.
“Eat the black ones,” he admonished her.
She halted the berry just short of her mouth. “Why? Didn’t you say these were okay?” She pulled her hand back to study the red knobby looking berry with a jaundiced eye. “Is it poison too?” she queried uneasily.
“No. You can eat it. But the black ones have ripened. The red ones are unseasoned.”
“And that means…what?”
“The black ones are sweeter.”
“Okay…” She shrugged her indifference as she traded the red berry for one of the black ones in her hand. Vincent tracked the berry to her lips with keen interest, and he watched with hidden satisfaction as she savored the sweet taste.
“Very good…” she said approvingly.
Tifa promptly devoured several more in quick succession, and then she inadvertently popped one of the unripe berries into her mouth. Her face screwed up in sharp disgust at the sour tang that overflowed her palate. “Agh!”
She promptly spit the fleshy red berry out of her mouth and replaced it with a half-dozen black ones. She rapidly chewed them up, seeking to erase the unpleasant bitter taste from her mouth, oblivious to the purple juices that stained her lips and to the crimson gaze that settled there. She finally swallowed them with a wondering shake of her head. “Gods, those red ones taste awful!”
“The bitter fruit bites more acidly after tasting of the sweet…” Vincent murmured distantly.
Tifa looked up at him with questioning eyes. Vincent waxing poetic again. Was that his version of “I told you so”? Her eyes narrowed on his still face. His crimson gaze seemed directed at her, but the unfocused, faraway look in his eyes told her his mind had gone somewhere else. The thought suddenly occurred to her that Vincent hadn’t been talking about berries at all.
At the soft expression of his name, Vincent’s absent-minded gaze sharpened on her face. He realized then that he’d been vacantly staring at her berry tinted lips. Deliberately, he turned away from her and walked to a clump of berry bushes a few feet away, pointedly turning his back to her as he picked a couple of berries and ate them, more to busy himself than out of any true sensation of hunger. Still, he knew that he needed to eat. Like Tifa, he’d been without food for too long. The meager amount of chocolate they’d shared hadn’t provided them much nourishment or fuel for energy.
“What’s the plan now, Vincent?” Tifa asked as she bent down to pick more berries. “Do we just start walking?”
Vincent closely studied the berries he’d deposited in the palm of his hand. Absently, he picked a black one out and slipped it between his lips as he thought how best to answer her query. Truthfully, he didn’t want to start walking now. Part of him wanted to run. Just take off toward Kalm as fast as he could travel and not slacken his pace until he arrived there. Just leave her behind him and go. A compelling thought, even though he knew he could never do it. Unfortunately, he wished even more to stay here with her. He wanted to flatly inform her that they should rest, and that he would tolerate no argument on the matter. The two of them could rest right there in that very clearing, in fact. Stay there and never leave. He wanted to trail his fingers through her dark hair, and he wanted to kiss the sweet berry juice off her lips. He longed for the opportunity to lie down beside her and hold her in his arms all night. To savor the feel of her body against his just as he had so briefly allowed himself to do high on the mountainside that morning. To claim her for his own and never let her go.
And why shouldn’t he? Why not? What if he could? What if he found her willing? He would have his memories, would he not? The sweetest of recollections that he could hold to his heart. When she left him. But what if she didn’t want to leave him? What if he made her forget about Cloud Strife? He wanted to laugh bitterly at that foolish idea, and he probably would have but for the fact that she’d think him mad. Indeed, what a fool he’d become, to think of such ludicrous impossibilities. She would never want him, first of all. He was a mess. A freak of a man. Cold and reclusive and tainted with the blood of his many crimes. She would never choose him over Cloud. He had nothing to offer her that she would want. And what’s more, he’d do well to remember just how bitter his life would be after she was gone. And exponentially so after the smallest taste of her. Why put himself through the torment? She might shower him with flower petals or leaves, kindness or laughter, but she would never shower him with her favor. And he had already accepted that, had he not? Had he not already settled this exact argument with himself before? Yes, he most surely had. And not so long ago. So why didn’t he stop…thinking?”
“You decide, Tifa,” he idly responded.
Tifa looked around from the bushes to gaze at Vincent’s back with a frown of confusion. Not at his delayed response, because she was used to that, but at his casually spoken words.
“If you wish to leave for Kalm now, we will leave for Kalm,” Vincent smoothly clarified. “If you wish to rest here for awhile, we will rest here. You decide, Tifa.”
Tifa studied Vincent’s back in bemusement. Seemed she was getting to know his back pretty well lately. In fact, she’d seen more of his back than his face since he’d come down off the mountain. And since he was allowing her to decide for a change…
“Uhm…why don’t we hang out around here and start out fresh in the morning? Maybe find some food to pack…some nuts….or maybe an apple tree…or something…and…just rest…and soak up the sunshine…” What difference would a few hours make? Especially after all this time? How long had it been? Weeks she knew.
Vincent accepted her decision with a mixture of resignation and relief. He recognized that his conflict did not rise from a schism in the mind, but from a battle between heart and brain, emotion and reason. The contradiction inherent in what he wished to do and what he knew he should do.
“I can search for game,” he coolly suggested as he deliberately placed a red berry between his lips and slowly chewed it up, a slight narrowing of his eyes his only reaction to the bitterness against his tongue. Tifa’s face brightened at the idea. She liked his offer a lot. A vision of flame roasted pheasant came to her mind. Or maybe a wild duck.
“I’ll gather the wood for a cooking fire,” she offered in turn. Cooking was her forte, after all. Well…right after fighting…
Without looking directly at her, Vincent half-turned toward her in wordless agreement with her suggestion. He shrugged the rifle strap off his shoulder, and then he slipped out of the pack and walked over to set it down at the base of the tree just behind her. She turned on heel to watch him as he knelt and hooked the rifle inside the crook of his arm to untie the canteen from the pack.
“I’ll look for a spring to refill the canteen,” he said as he rose to face her, the canteen dangling from his metal digits and the rifle held in his right hand with the barrel pointed at the ground. He kept his gaze carefully averted from her face, his eyes pointed at a safe target just like his gun. “Would you like a drink before I go?”
“No, I’m okay, but…”
At the pregnant pause in her answer, Vincent directed his attention to her face only to find her gazing into the woods behind him with thoughtful eyes.
“But what?” he pointedly prompted.
Her gaze snapped back to his face only to become mired in the depths of his inquisitive crimson eyes. Vacantly, she raised a hand in the general direction from which they’d come. “Uh…I forgot my blanket…over by the tree…”
Vincent lowered his gaze to the ground at her words, but not before Tifa caught a glimpse of the strange glint in his eyes, no doubt a hint of irritation at the reminder of her leaf assault. “I’ll retrieve it for you,” he readily replied.
“Well…I could go get it…myself…”
“You may walk with me,” Vincent abruptly suggested, a coolness slipping into his voice with his words. “If you wish.”
Tifa studied his downcast eyes for a long moment, wondering at the strange mixture of invitation and reluctance in his tone. Finally, she shook her head in refusal. “That’s okay, Vincent. I’ll just hang around here until you get back, if you don’t mind. I’m not so great at navigating in the woods.” She could easily envision going with him to retrieve the blanket only to get lost on the way back. Of course she knew that she’d only have to call, and he would come, but why cause him all the trouble.
Vincent merely inclined his head in silent concession. “I’ll return shortly,” he informed her in his uninflected monotone. “Keep your eyes open.”
“I will, Vincent,” she promised with a hesitant smile. “Be careful. And…don’t get lost.”
He didn’t reply to her half-joking admonition, but simply turned and strolled through the encircling stand of trees to disappear into the cool shadows of the forest. And when he disappeared, a sudden chill touched her, sending a shiver up the length of her spine, as though he’d taken the sunlight with him and left her in a cold lifeless vacuum. Uneasily, she tipped her head back to look up at the sky, only to find that a huge behemoth shaped cloud had drifted overhead to cast the clearing in deep shade.
Within moments, the behemoth inexorably lumbered away and the sunlight dutifully returned, but the chill didn’t leave. Nor did the strange emptiness inside her. Silently, she bade Vincent to hurry up and come back to her, and then she pointedly chided herself for feeling lonely already. It wasn’t that she missed him, she reasoned. Not really. It was just that she was…hungry. With that thought planted firmly at the forefront of her mind, she went to gather the materials for her fire in anticipation of his imminent return.
“I think that old hag was yanking my chain, Bari,” Ozzie loudly complained as he irritably slapped yet another thickly leafed frond branch from his path. “She’s probably still cackling maniacally at the trick she played on us.”
“We will discover the answer soon, Ozwan,” Baron replied reassuringly. Content to allow Ozzie to forge the route, he followed far enough behind his companion to avoid being whacked in the face by rebounding branches. “And if she lied to you, we will return to Mideel and kill her. Will that satisfy you?”
“She had to be lying.” Ozzie flapped a hand at a large purple and green bug whizzing annoyingly around his head. “Look at this godforsaken trail.” The ridiculously large insect tauntingly buzzed past his ear, and he slapped at it, almost knocking his hat askew in the process. The insect deftly evaded injury to zip away into the dense plant growth crowding the the narrow trail. Ozzie pointedly shifted a murderous glare from the claustrophobic vista of swaying fronds and dangling vines at either flank to the swaying fronds and dangling vines that blocked the pathway in front of him. He found himself wishing for Bari’s katana. The sharp weapon would have sliced through the foliage with ease. But to get the katana, they would have to return to base. And if they returned to base, they would be required to report. Ozzie wanted a few bracing shots of whiskey in his guts and at least one success under his belt before he did that again.
“You’ve no evidence as yet that the old woman lied, Ozwan,” Baron reminded him in a low voice. “Bide your time.
“But we’re just going deeper and deeper into the jungle, Bari.” His lips twisted in a disgusted grimace as he reached up with both hands to right his hat on his head. “I think the last thing that came down this path was a snake.”
As though to confirm his words, a fat orange and lime green striped snake emerged from beneath a rotted log to slither sinuously across the thready pathway only inches from the toes of his boots. Ozzie leapt backwards with a startled yelp and promptly drew his gun in a lightning move that clearly demonstrated his native skill. Before he could take aim at the unwitting reptile and pull the trigger, Baron reached over Ozzie’s shoulder and snatched the pistol from his unsuspecting hand.
“Hey! That’s mine!” Ozzie exclaimed in outraged protest. “Give it back!”
Baron smoothly tucked the barrel of the gun into the woven sash tied about his waist. “I will not,” the warrior adamantly refused. “If you do not possess the intelligence to keep your weapon silenced, then I will keep your weapon.
“Well, I have another one,” Ozzie sniffed in childish disgruntlement. At the glint of calculation that came into Baron’s black eyes, he wished the words would jump back down his throat unvoiced. He wouldn’t hesitate to fight the warrior over his second pistol, but he knew he wouldn’t win, and he could well imagine that his death would be excruciatingly painful. Especially if…Baron happened to be…hungry. He stiffened his back against the shudder that tried to take him at the picture that rose in his mind, even as he wondered exactly when Baron had eaten last. Now that he thought about it, he couldn’t remember…
“Draw your second pistol, Ozwan,” Baron coolly threatened. “And see what transpires.”
Ozzie managed a careless shrug despite the tenseness in his shoulders, and he forced himself with great mental effort to put his back to Baron to return to the path. “Don’t need to, Bari, ole buddy,” he replied tightly. “Snake’s gone on his way. And so shall we.”
Baron silently fell into motion behind Ozzie, feeling no pressing need to respond, and the two men traveled for several minutes without speaking. Around them the lush, verdant forest overflowed with sound; the incessant buzzing of winged insects, the chattering of the tiny multi-colored birds flitting through the heavy canopy overhead, and the occasional call of a lonesome macaw, all undisturbed by human speech. Until Ozzie felt unaccountably compelled to open his mouth again, a puzzle in light of where his thoughts had traveled only moments before. The man seemed perversely bent on prodding the quiescent beast to anger.
“Has it been three miles yet, Bari?” the gunman whined in query. “Cuz it feels like it’s been twenty-three.”
Baron held his groan of despair behind clenched teeth. “Almost, Ozwan. We should proceed quietly. As we are most likely drawing very close.”
Ozzie completely disregarded the not so subtle hint. “And what did that toothless bag mean by ‘compound’ anyway?”
“The word ‘compound’ denotes a settlement of some sort, I would think,” Baron wearily replied.
“Yeah, it’s the question of what sort of settlement that bothers me…”
An unnatural sound alien to the forest slipped past Baron’s keen ears, and he abruptly came to a halt and turned his head into the lazy stir of the heavy, humid breeze to listen. Ozzie moved obliviously on, his mouth still running as he forcefully shoved the encroaching branches out of his way.
“I mean, the word ‘compound’ sounds pretty creepy, doesn’t it? Compound. Brings to mind an armed fortification full of dangerous people,” the gunman idly expounded. “That’s what it usually means in the movies anyway, right? And sometimes they aren’t even people. Like in that movie about those really ugly half-rotted, half-human, half-skeleton looking things…with their curvy knives. Remember how they’d tie people down on a stone altar and cut out their beating hearts while they’re still alive? Did you ever see that, Bari? They lived in a ‘compound’, if I remember correctly. And then there was that movie about those wanna be soldiers that were armed to the teeth and caught anybody wandering past to use for target practice. They lived in a ‘compound’ too. Did you ever see that one, Bari? Then there was the one about those shipwrecked sailors turned cannibal – ulp!”
Baron cut Ozzie’s soliloquy off with a hand across his mouth and a sharp knife at his throat. “I do not watch movies, Ozwan,” he hissed into the gunman’s ear. Ozzie’s knees went a little weak, and it wasn’t from the warmth of the warrior’s breath in his ear.
“What do you plan to do…with that knife…Bari?” he whispered in a strained voice, his stomach flipping at the memory of what Baron could and would do with a knife.
“I’m going to cut out your tongue if you don’t shut up your incessant blathering and start listening,” Baron coldly whispered. “Now listen...” He abruptly released the gunman and removed the blade, sliding the weapon back into his tunic as he slipped away on ghostly feet.
Ozzie touched questing fingers to his throat to check for damage as he sheepishly turned around in the trail to face his annoyed companion, his mouth already opening to offer his obviously annoyed partner a profuse apology. At the last second, he thought better of it and promptly swallowed his words, even before he discovered that his companion had vanished from the trail.
“Bari…where’d you go?” he called softly into the overhanging fronds, and as he listened intently for a reply that didn’t come the sound that Baron had already heard finally drifted to his ears. A strange formless drone that he puzzled over for long moments until the disquieting hum resolved into clearly recognizable syllables of human speech. Voices murmuring, actually, in an eerie, chilling monotone chant that grew decidedly louder as he stood there like a dummy trying to divine the source. His survival instincts abruptly kicked in, and Ozzie faded away into the dense foliage without the conscious intention of doing so.
The minutes dragged inexorably on as he waited in hiding for the chanting travelers to draw close, beads of sweat drawn from his pores by the heat and humidity sliding from beneath his hat to paint a tickling and distracting path down his forehead. The eerie chanting grew ever louder, and the soft footfalls of several people came ever nearer until the drone of their mantra filled the still air all around him, and the rustle of displaced fronds marked the chanters' nerve jangling nearness.
When he decided they were too close for comfort, Ozzie quietly sucked in a deep breath and held it captive in achingly tight lungs. Staring hard through the gaps between the waving fronds, the gunman almost accidentally managed to catch a glimpse of the first one that passed as he…she…or it…came abreast of him, seemingly unaware of the watcher concealed in the heavy foliage only inches off the path. Ozzie cautiously twisted his head from side to side in an attempt to see more as he slipped a stealthy hand to the holster on his hip, and he finally met with success when, through the heavy curtain of fronds, he finally spied a darkly hooded and formlessly stooped shadow gliding along the verdant path.
The oversized green and purple bug, or its ugly cousin, deemed that an opportune moment to torment him, dive bombing in from above to zip past the end of his nose, but Ozzie dutifully kept his body perfectly still, resisting the urge to slap the winged six-legged beastie into the dirt, even when it finally came to a taunting landing on the forward edge of his hat brim. Gritting his teeth in resistance, he focused his eyes forward to study what he could of the indistinct shapes as they passed, tracking their position and attempting to count their number more from the sound of their progress than from scarce visual cues.
Eventually, all the travelers passed along the pathway and out of sight. The chanting faded to silence, and the bug flew on. Imperative fingers touched his elbow, and he almost yelped aloud in surprise, so silently had Baron moved through the foliage to find him.
“Let’s move on,” the somber-faced warrior firmly bade.
Ozzie nodded in ready acknowledgement, dogging Baron’s steps as he slapped aside the wide leaves to forge an oblique route back to the pathway. “Did you get a good look at them, Bari?” He directed his hoarsely whispered question at the warrior’s broad back. “Did you see how many there were?”
Baron held his answer until he’d set foot again on the foot worn trail. At that point, he gazed through the foliage with keen eyes as Ozzie came to an uneasy halt behind him.
“Bari?” he persisted softly, also staring intently down the greenery shrouded trail for any clue left by their passing. “What did you see?”
“There were thirteen of them,” Baron finally deigned to answer. “All wearing brown robes.”
“Robes?” Ozzie squeaked in alarm. “Those nasty rotted things in that movie wore robes too…” He’d be the first to brag that he feared no human on the planet. It was those things not human he had a problem with…
Baron turned a scathing look on Ozzie to watch the color bleed from his face. “Do you fear for your beating heart, Ozwan?” he inquired ominously.
The gunman swiveled his fearful gaze around to encounter the cold ebony eyes, at which point he imagined his beating heart in more danger from that quarter than from any threat the robed creatures could offer. With exaggerated movements, Ozzie threw back his shoulders and stiffened his spine to reacquire every single millimeter of his better than average height, at the same time putting paid to the sniveling cowardly mess of a man he must have appeared to Baron. “Don’t be ridiculous, Bari,” he brazenly chided. “I was just joking about that silly movie. Just playing around…”
Ozzie almost bit off his own tongue when Baron suddenly drew the pistol from his sash and flipped the weapon around in his hand to offer the gun to him butt first. “Do you think you can manage to stave them off with two automatic pistols at your disposal, Ozwan?” he queried slyly.
With a mouth gone suddenly as dry as the well in the desert prison beneath the Gold Saucer, a well he’d been chained inside once, Ozzie retrieved his pistol from Baron’s hand with only the slightest hitch of hesitation and promptly holstered the weapon at his hip. “Well, if one’s good, two’s better. Right, Bari?” The strained whisper betrayed his tension despite his offhand tone.
A nearly imperceptible curve of a smile came to Baron’s tautly compressed lips as he slowly drew out a curved blade from his sash and raised it before Ozzie’s nervous eyes. Then in a blinding flash of movement, he ripped a second one from his leggings. With dead eyes narrowed on Ozzie’s stiff face, he brandished both ornately decorated blades beneath Ozzie’s nose. “You are correct, Ozwan,” he silkily agreed. “Two are better.” He quirked a narrow eyebrow at him. “Shall we go?”
“You first, Bari,” the gunman carefully suggested.
With a single curt nod of his ebony head, the warrior crossed his arms and deftly slid both curved blades into the front of his sash where they’d be ready to hand. “Follow me,” he coolly commanded. “And be silent.” The warrior turned away and slipped into the foliage to follow in the footsteps of the robed chanters.
“Well, you don’t have to tell me twice,” Ozzie murmured to himself. Then he clamped his lips tightly shut to stave off any further urge to babble and set off after Baron, uneasily hanging a hand over one holstered gun as he went. If any rotted human skeleton things in robes jumped out at him, he’d plug them full of holes before they could think about whipping out any curved knives. That his contemptuous companion already possessed similar curved knives, he chose not to ponder.
Vendra’s footsteps reverberated endlessly along the lengthy palatial corridor with its high gilt arches, intricately decorated soaring buttresses, and marble inlaid floors. The ghostly echoing footfalls that accompanied her compelled her to check over her shoulder to ensure that she hadn’t picked up any spectral escorts, though she resisted the impulse, just as she did every time she came, always aware that the cameras followed her, always knowing that he watched her. Still, she never got used to the shadow steps, no matter how many times she walked this dark corridor, and she never got past the image of herself as a captive bride walking a murky path to a bloodthirsty prince, or a woman condemned treading the final passageway to the execution chamber. The latter scenario came easily to mind, as she’d committed many crimes that would probably earn her a death sentence, in the unlikely event of her capture.
With a frown at her own weakness, she fleetingly pressed a hand against the sickening churn of acid in her stomach as she approached the wide ornate double doors that waited for her at the end of the hall. Doors twelve feet high and twelve feet wide, lined with shards of crystal, enamel tiles of azure and vermillion, and accented with gold leaf. Doors that might have once guarded the entrance to a king’s throne room, but now opened on the master’s audience chamber. The air of confidence and superiority in her sinuous swagger masked the dread she always experienced at what she might encounter on the other side.
That he had summoned her so peremptorily, yanking her back to him by activating the homing feature of her orb, completely without warning, tended to indicate that she’d displeased him in some way. And despite her bluster to Ozzie about her special status with their mutual employer, she feared him every bit as much as Ozzie and Baron did. Perhaps even more, as she personally knew of his murderous background and his sociopathic proclivities. She’d also learned throughout their long association that keeping him calm and focused provided the surest means of staying alive.
She didn’t doubt for a moment that he recognized his need for her. Without question, she represented an integral cog in the wheels of his subversive operation, and he wouldn’t normally jeopardize that. But when he lost his temper, he lost track of his goals, and he committed irrevocable deeds, for which he often regretted later, when it was too late. So she’d learned early on and adjusted her behavior accordingly. She simply had to keep him from losing his volatile temper. Whatever it took. Whatever it cost her. A simple point of fact that she’d accepted long ago with an uneasy resignation to her role. Still, the uncertainty of what she might find always set her on edge. Put her feet on a pathway of eggshells that she could not so much as fracture on pain of death.
Her heart pounding madly, she paused with a barely trembling palm pressed to the door and struggled to slow her racing thoughts. Drawing in a long, deep breath, she centered her mind and took a moment to again review the events of the few hours that had elapsed since she’d last spoken to him. For the life of her, she couldn’t find a single action she’d taken that would warrant the recall. Not anything he’d know about. Maybe he’d merely thought of a new task he wanted her to undertake immediately. He tended to act impulsively when in the throes of creative planning, even if his mercurial goals were difficult to keep up with. That possibility seemed more reasonable than that she’d angered him in some way, a tentative conclusion that offered her a modicum of reassurance. Enough to find the courage to push on through the door. Not that she had any choice really. If she didn’t appear when he summoned, there was no place on the planet that she could hide from his wrath.
Her boot heels clicked too loudly against the slate floor of the audience chamber as she strode with a self-assured stride into the middle of the circular, high vaulted room. The blank screen dominated the opposite wall, and she focused her wary eyes there as she came to a precision halt in the approximate center of the chamber, propping a hand on one hip to strike a casually provocative pose.
Several tense moments labored past in a thick visceral silence as she willed the screen to activate, eager to hear the disguised voice booming through the loud speakers at bone rattling volume, more than willing to endure whatever intimidating visage he chose to appropriate this time. She’d take all of his creepy voices, every one of his digitally generated masks, over the alternative.
She didn’t speak, though she knew he could hear her every breath. And she didn’t move a muscle. She knew he watched her where she stood, and she would not permit him to see her fidget. He would see nothing but the confident and capable woman who awaited his bidding with bored patience, not the frightened, trembling little girl inside.
When his voice finally washed from the many speakers spaced around the upper reaches of the room, her heart sank into her toes. She would not hear the chilling electronic voice today, but something worse. A lazy drawl with a husky timber and a hint of laughter. As though he knew how she dreaded to hear it and could barely contain his amusement. His own natural speaking voice, undisguised and unaltered. If the recognition of his voice sent a chill up her spine, the resounding clunk of an unlocking door turned her blood to ice. Reluctantly, she swiveled her eyes to the right of the screen where a section of wall now stood ajar.
“Come to me, Vendra,” the husky voice bade.
As she’d dreaded, he wanted a personal meeting this time. She didn’t dare refuse him.
Elena stealthily parted her lashes only far enough to take in the sight of Reno slouched down in his chair with his arms folded across his chest and his long legs stretched way out in front of him. With a mixture of relief and disappointment, she risked opening her eyes further to appraise his relaxed features with a keen focus on the way his dark eyelashes shadowed his cheekbones in apparent slumber. However, she didn’t for a second make the mistake of assuming that he was asleep. She’d learned that lesson long ago. Reno often used a pretense of sleep as a cover for his busy mind, and more than once he’d caught her staring, the lashes suddenly flying up to reveal lazily alert eyes. But at least for now he’d given up on his attempts to annoy her, juvenile ploys that she’d easily been able to ignore for the most part. Although she’d had trouble keeping her wits about her at sight of those comical faces he’d tried out for awhile. With his beseeching green eyes widely rounded and his thin lips puckered in an exaggerated parody of kissing. Looking the caricature of a skinny goldfish kissing his own reflection in the glass, he’d presented an image that even from the corner of her eye had nearly unhinged her. And when he’d added those obnoxious kissing sounds to boot, she’d been forced to turn her face away or risk total collapse into laughter. And finally he’d ceased his efforts, as he’d gained no satisfaction from her end, although he’d amused Rachel and Avian for awhile. Even Yuffie had seemed helplessly intrigued.
Elena shifted her appraising gaze to the other occupants of the waiting area. Cloud Strife still stood patiently waiting for the doctor to return, his luminous eyes frozen in a vacant study of the floor. Yuffie still lay stretched out across several chairs, but on her stomach now. With her chin propped in her hands and knees bent, she lazily drew circles in the air with her sneakered feet, her dark eyes radiating her extreme boredom as she watched Avian and Rachel whispering back and forth. Apparently Rachel had transferred whatever game Reno had been playing with her to the young man from Kalm, holding up her fingers and telling him the secret answers. Elena couldn’t even conjecture what that was about.
Elena turned her head to check the status of the hospital ward discussion just in time to see Caitlin lift a hand in farewell. With a protracted sigh of grateful relief, Elena straightened in her chair to present the picture of the ever alert Turk. Some one should appear to be on top of things around here, especially as the Leader of the Turks looked like a drunk that had fallen loosely into his chair. She decided he had to be asleep.
At the increased level of chatter at the far side of the medical ward, indicating a change in the status quo, Reno cracked one eye open to the welcome sight of Caitlin and Rude approaching along the main aisle of the makeshift hospital ward. Obviously, the impromptu and endless discussion with her newfound friends had come to an end, and if her direct and far reaching gaze in his direction were any indication, she now planned to address the ‘important’ matter to which she had so vaguely and mysteriously referred when he’d first checked in, after which she’d dismissively returned to her conversation with an absently voiced bid to wait.
Reno languidly unfolded his lanky body from his chair and dutifully crossed the floor to meet her in the approximate center of the waiting area where she stopped her forward motion a mere step from him to study his passive features with an unusually intent gaze. Bending his head to peer down into her intrigued face, he narrowed his eyes in unspoken question of her prolonged scrutiny, a nonverbal cue that she promptly answered.
“I’ve just heard that you’ve been involved in a fist fight, Reno,” she finally said with a hint of amusement underlying her words. “Is this true?”
“Your information is inaccurate, Caitlin,” Reno smoothly replied. “I’ve simply been resolving a situation that threatened to interfere with the day to day operations of the Turks.”
“And did you clear it up to your satisfaction, Reno?”
“Indeed I did, Caitlin,” Reno smirked.
“I’m glad to hear it, Reno,” she responded dryly, obviously not fooled by the self-serving spin the Turk had put on the event. “Perhaps you might resolve these outstanding matters somewhat less publicly in future.”
He inclined his head in polite acknowledgement. “I shall take your suggestion under advisement.”
“You’ve blood on your face, Reno. Are you hurt?”
“Not in the least, Caitlin.” He resisted the urge to touch his hand to his face. Apparently he’d missed a spot in his haphazard clean-up job.
Caitlin abruptly turned away from him, and Reno watched with perplexed interest as she sidestepped Rude who stood protectively close behind her with folded arms to head back toward the medical ward. He closely tracked her movements as she purposefully walked over to the medics’ worktable and momentarily surveyed the contents of the various sized containers. Reaching into an open box, she withdrew a small foil packet and deftly tore a strip off the top, opening it to remove a pre-moistened disposable towel. She shook the folds out with a snapping motion of her hand as she returned to him with azure eyes glinting with determination. Reno’s own eyes turned mutinous when she raised the towel toward his face with the clear intention of cleaning the dried blood stain from his face.
Divining her purpose, he pointedly moved his face out of range and raised a hand to take the towel from her to foil her scheme. He could certainly handle the task without her intervention. He didn’t need Caitlin Shinra washing his face like he was some messy little boy, especially with all the curious onlookers about. His eyes darted warily about and inadvertently fell on Elena’s stiffly frozen features and icily glaring eyes. Taking due note of her acrimonious attention to the proceedings, Reno promptly surrendered, cooperatively bending at the waist to present his face for Caitlin to scrub. A move so transparent that Rude rolled his eyes behind his dark shades at the ploy.
Caitlin hardly noticed as she had a secondary reason for her actions, and she’d already directed her thoughts onto that avenue. “Avian thinks his aunt has some information that might help us figure out what’s going on,” she informed him lowly as she meticulously daubed away the residual trace of a stain that marked one lean cheek just below his scar.
“Really, Caitlin?” the Turk coolly inquired as he shot an appraising glance around the tent, his eyes pausing when they collided with Cloud’s passively watchful gaze. The Turk smiled a bit ruefully at the Avalanche warrior before letting his eyes slide across Avian’s guarded face to Yuffie’s rampantly curious onyx eyes. He didn’t doubt for a moment that Caitlin’s hushed words had been overheard.
Reno suddenly pulled back from her to straighten to his full height, nonchalantly brushing Caitlin off with a cavalier wave of his hand. “If we’re through here,” the Turk silkily added. “We’ll go somewhere more comfortable and talk about it.”
At Reno’s thinly veiled admonition, Caitlin sheepishly nodded in agreement and switched her gaze to Avian. “Are you ready, Avian?” Her troubled eyes revealed the nervousness she attempted to hide beneath her polite tone. She didn’t feel confident of her readiness for the impending battle, but her willingness to engage in the conflict on Avian’s behalf remained unabated.
Looking more like a man going to his execution than a willing participant in a discussion that his own words had brought about, Avian reluctantly rose to his feet. He found himself wishing that he’d never broached the subject with Caitlin at all, especially when Reno’s glittering green eyes landed on his face in keen speculation. As though sensing his anxiety, Rachel slid out of her chair and came to his side to take his hand in a clear gesture of comfort. He offered her a small self-deprecating smile in return.
Reno directed a pointed gaze to ever watchful brown eyes hidden behind dark shades and inclined his head toward the door. Rude obediently turned on heel to depart the medical tent ahead of them, obeying the redheaded Turk’s unspoken command to secure the route ahead of them, pausing at the entrance only long enough to step aside to let Derrick Heidegger enter. Reno idly noted the arrival of the pilot before swiveling his head to find Elena already standing expectantly in place close by. His eyes sparked with amusement at sight of her highly annoyed frown and icy gaze, but he withheld any sign of humor from his lips, instead moving straight to the matter at hand.
“Elena, please accompany Mr. Wulfe to the HQ,” he formally commanded.
She unhesitatingly moved to obey, and confident that she wouldn’t fail in her duties despite her bad attitude, he turned his back to her and swept a hand toward the exit in a gallant gesture to Caitlin to precede him. She readily complied, despite a vague air of reluctance, and he fell into step behind her.
“How long do we have until the gate is opened?” she asked tensely over her shoulder.
“Approximately half an hour,” Reno coolly replied. “I trust we’ll be finished with our business before then.”
“We’ll have to be,” she firmly replied. She had no intention of being anywhere else on earth when Reeve Alexander emerged from the gate. Even if she dreaded their upcoming meeting, and even though she knew that nothing could ever come of it, she longed to see him. Uneasily, she pressed a hand against a stomach suddenly queasy with nervous anticipation at the impending and long waited event.
“Then we will be,” Reno smoothly promised. Caitlin absently nodded and walked into the afternoon sunlight.
“Later, gang,” Reno called out cheerfully with an offhand wave as he strode out of the tent in Caitlin’s wake.
“Later,” Cloud automatically responded in turn as he vacantly watched them go.
Megan Glass silently slipped through the gap in the canvas to walk up behind him. She smartly tapped a fingernail against his shoulder guard, startling him from his wandering thoughts. Wide luminous eyes flew around to land on her face, startling her in turn, although she displayed her surprise only through a blink of her lashes.
“Megan,” Cloud said unnecessarily, turning in place to face her.
“Cloud,” she responded cautiously. “Did I…startle you?”
“A little,” he confessed with a hint of a smile. “I’ll recover.”
Only the barest trace of amusement curved her lips. “Then you don’t need my professional services. So what else can I do for you?”
“Well…I…wanted to ask you…”
A loud and obnoxious sound of gagging rose from behind him, and Cloud’s tentative words stuck in his throat. He wheeled around to find Yuffie with one hand wrapped around her neck and the other glued over her mouth. With a deep frown of concern, Cloud hastily started to walk toward her, hardly noticing as Megan shot past his elbow to go to her. Derry went for her too, springing straight up out of the chair that he’d only seconds before fallen into, and he would have beat both of them to Yuffie by virtue of his incrementally closer proximity, but the ninja girl abruptly exploded into motion.
“Aggggggh! I can’t…stand…this…awful smell…anymore…” she cried brokenly through her fingers as she dashed toward the door, eluding the doctor’s hands, with a deft sidestep and giving Derry a sharp jab with her elbow in the stomach as she brushed by him. She raced out of the tent, and the three of them stared at the empty sunlit entryway in amazement as they all listened to the fading sound of her retching for long seconds after she’d fled.
Cloud and Derry finally turned to stare at each other in their mutual astonishment, until the warrior finally got his dazed brain into gear. “Ah…I should probably go…check on her,” he muttered uneasily, pointing vaguely toward the door as though commanding his slumberous feet to go there.
Derry waved a dismissive hand at him. “Don’t go, Cloud. Finish your business. I’ll go check on her. It’s just her weak stomach, right?”
Cloud nodded his head in hesitant agreement with the pilot’s unconcerned suggestion. “Yeah…her weak stomach…right…”
“Will she be alright,” Dr. Glass asked pointedly of him.
He turned uncertain eyes to her blatantly skeptical face. “Uh yeah,” he quickly replied, hoping to reassure her. “Yuffie does have a weak stomach. Happens all the time. Guess the atmosphere got to her.”
“I guess so,” she sternly replied, her eyes already directed off toward the medical ward, drawn by some problem that escaped his untrained appraisal. “Please excuse me, Cloud,” she added with cool politeness. “I have to see to this.” Then she strode away without waiting for his answer.
Cloud watched briefly as the busy doctor went straight to the bedside of a woman who he could now see by the distress in her face needed Dr. Glass more than he did. He shrugged off the abrupt dismissal and slowly walked over to the door to gaze out across the encampment. He could see no sign of Derry or Yuffie among the people milling about, but he supposed he had no reason to be concerned. Something inside the tent had obviously unsettled Yuffie’s stomach. Simple as that. Still…now that he was thinking on the matter, he realized that he’d never noticed Yuffie being particularly disturbed by the sight of injuries or illness before. After all, she’d inflicted a few nasty looking wounds with her sharp bladed weapon herself. Of course, she’d said it was the smell. There was a pervasive medicinal odor inside the tent, and that vague scent one always associated with sick rooms, but she’d encountered much worse smells in their travels than any he noticed here. Like the Marlboro. That noxious creature’s reeking stench had never given her pause. In fact, she always seemed pretty gleeful when slicing off the thing’s tentacles. And after some of the food concoctions he’d seen her ingest – a baked bean and chocolate cake dish came to mind – he’d always imagined her stomach to be constructed of cast iron, except for her single digestive issue with motion sickness.
Whatever her problem, Derry had made it his problem, and obviously her sudden illness hadn’t slowed her down at all, as she’d already vanished from sight. So he imagined he’d better get into gear and do something productive. Like track down the Captain. He hadn’t laid eyes on Cid since he’d gone to the chocobo pen to see Barrett off on his brief journey to Kalm, and he imagined the Captain could probably use some help with his preparations, although muscle was really all he had to offer. He recognized that his usefulness around the camp had about reached its end. And that was fine with him. Because he was ready to go. Follow Barrett to Kalm and get busy with a search.
She almost took hold of his mind then, the sweet smile and warm brown eyes slipping stealthily into his mind, and he wanted to welcome her in, but he couldn’t. It hurt too damn much. Like alcohol in an open wound. So he closed the door to her and forced his thoughts to the matter of locating Cid Highwind. For now, it was time to move on. He would face the room on the other side of that door when he had to, either because he’d flung the door wide or because the thing had crashed down on his head. And he didn’t want to think too hard on that moment either. Shifting his train of thought wholly onto the new track, Cloud left the tent to stride out across the flat toward the gate with purpose, with the fate of Tifa Lockhart locked down inside, and the vague notion rambling around his subconscious that Yuffie might be up to no good failing to take firm hold in his mind
“I do not agree,” Reno bluntly informed Caitlin Shinra. “And I will not implement your reckless scheme.”
The redheaded Turk challenged her with his unflinching snake-eyed stare, and Caitlin’s azure eyes frosted with glacial ice. She’d known Reno would be a hard sell on the plan, but she hadn’t expected this level of intractability. Admittedly, she’d been nervous going into this business, and he might have sensed that in the beginning, leading him to imagine she would accept refusal on his part, but from the outset she’d remained adamant in her stance. And now he was making her angry, because she harbored a firm suspicion that his refusal stemmed from personal reasons rather than professional concerns, and she didn’t plan to allow such invalid reservations on his part to prevail.
“Perhaps you aren’t understanding me, Reno. I’m not posing a suggestion here,” she flatly responded in kind, her own tone hard and uncompromising. “Nor am I making a request. I’m giving you an executive directive.”
Reno swung his feet off the table to drop them heavily to the ground and uncoiled his body from the chair to come to a dogged stand. Obstinate green eyes slid from Caitlin’s implacable face, once again cast in striking similarity to that of her brother’s imperious features, to Avian Wulfe’s tense countenance, probing at his hidden thoughts in silent and pointed inquisition. The young man’s eyes skated guiltily away from Reno’s penetrating stare, and the Turk pointedly turned his attention to Elena who leaned in with folded arms atop the table, glowering right back at him with hot hazel eyes. Clearly he wasn’t winning any popularity contest here.
Even before this meeting had commenced, Reno had clearly recognized that Elena was put out with him. She’d made that fact known to him during the long walk from the medical tent to the HQ, broadcasting her displeasure through her fleeting disdainful glances in his direction and her pointed refusal to speak to him beyond the most professional of responses. Apparently, he’d really gotten her riled this time. Without a doubt, she’d been annoyed with him most of the day, to lesser or greater degrees, but when he’d allowed Caitlin to clean up his face, he’d really put the flame to her fuse. More then he would have suspected. He supposed he should have anticipated the depth of her reaction to his impromptu scheme, in light of the fact that she’d dumped his innocently sleeping body into the dirt just because she’d erroneously concluded that he and Caitlin had been making out. At any rate, he didn’t hold out much hope that he’d be back in her good graces anytime soon as he’d doubly annoyed her with his position on this matter. Frankly, he didn’t care. She could hate his guts if she wanted. He had no intention of backing down.
He narrowed his eyes to a tight focus on her petulant face and stared hard at her, but she stubbornly refused to look away. Finally, Reno gave up his efforts to intimidate her and purposefully brought his attention back to Caitlin. In an unexpected move, he leaned forward and planted his hands on the table top with a loud slap that rattled the metal surface and made all parties flinch in startled reaction. Then he leaned even closer, bringing his face to within inches of her upturned face, his glittering eyes stabbing straight into hers. She shifted uneasily in her chair, but she unwaveringly held his gaze.
“Do you know what you are asking?” he asked icily, no sign of his usual good natured aplomb anywhere in sight.
“Yes, I think I do,” she coolly stated.
Reno’s atypical demeanor, both cold and gravely serious, was starting to make her extremely nervous, but she refused to show it, struggling mightily to maintain her unflinching façade in the face of his steadfast refusal. She knew very well that the Turk would zero in on her at his first glimpse of the slightest chink in her armor and crack her resolve apart. She had to stand her ground. She had to do it for Avian. The young man from Kalm wanted to do this. He needed to do it, in fact. Needed to know the truth for his peace of mind as well as his safety. And Elena had already agreed to the plan, the moment she’d heard the details, in fact. But Reno stood firmly against it. And she understood why. She really did. Reno didn’t want to put Elena in harm’s way, but he had to put his personal feelings aside and remember that Elena had trained for the job.
Without warning, Reno suddenly relinquished his end of their unrelenting stare down contest and abruptly straightened away from the table, throwing his hands in the air with an exaggerated gesture of helpless surrender that didn’t for an instant deceive Caitlin.
“Well, hey. Let’s review. Just to be sure everybody’s on the same page.” The playful cadence and lazy drawl of his normal speech had made good its return, but he heavily laced his words with caustic sarcasm.
Reno wrinkled his brow in a picture of intense concentration as he deliberately paced back and forth at the head of the table, his hands loosely clasped behind his back. Whether by accident or design, at that moment the redheaded Turk bore a striking resemblance to his past leader, Tseng, and Caitlin’s chest tightened in sorrow at the stark memory he evoked. Taking her by surprise, Reno suddenly halted and spun on heel to point a condemning finger at her, instantly chasing the image of Tseng from her mind.
“You,” he said in voice rife with accusation. “Are ordering me to dispatch a hot target to a compromised location accompanied only by a single operative with no access to backup and no viable channel of communication.” He shook the finger beneath her nose. “And a green operative at that.”
“I’m not a green…” Elena’s outraged protest choked off when Reno’s frosty eyes landed squarely on her face. “…Operative…” she finished weakly.
She visibly winced when he abruptly aimed his finger at her instead. “You, Elena, have been a Turk for less than a year. How else would you categorize yourself?” She had no answer for him, so she resorted to glaring at him in obstinate silence.
With an impatient wave of his hand, he dismissively freed her from his reproachful regard to resume his pacing. “Let’s continue,” he silkily suggested. “We have an unknown number of enemy operatives with an incomprehensible mode of transportation that permits them to arrive at any location in the blink of an eye and depart the same way. Every single one of them, without exception, has shown a marked willingness to use lethal force as a first option.”
Reno again directed demanding eyes at Caitlin to press his point and gauge her reaction, only to find that she’d averted her face. A smirk of satisfaction came to his lips. He clearly recognized her faltering resolve, and he moved in for the kill. Coming to the table, he casually propped one hip on the edge next to her. Folding his arms across his chest, he commenced a study of her bent head, his slouched shoulders and idly swinging foot conveying a deceptive air of nonchalance belied by his chilly regard.
Caitlin cautiously lifted her head, only to find herself pinned down by his reproving gaze. Reno accurately identified the uncertainty rife in her azure eyes, and his thin lips curved in a mirthless smile. “What do you think will happen, Ms. Shinra, if the Katana Man materializes in the middle of that homey farmhouse kitchen and finds only Elena to stand in the way?”
Elena answered before Caitlin could manage to form a single word from an unexpectedly uncooperative tongue. “I’ll take him out first, Reno,” she haughtily informed him.
That icy smile bereft of amusement widened as he switched his inscrutable gaze to her, almost making her wish she’d kept her mouth shut. Almost, but not quite.
“Take him out, Elena?” Reno coolly asked. “Did you mean, like on a date? Or like you did in Sector Three?” He tapped a finger againt his lips, frowning deeply in a display of concentrated thought. “I don’t quite remember, Elena. So you’ll probably have to remind me. Was that before or after Cloud Strife saved your ass?”
Elena glared her displeasure at him for bringing up that unfortunate incident yet again, but her troubled thoughts were revealed when her fingers helplessly floated to her throat as she compulsively ran the sequence of events through her mind in vivid replay. She heard again the clatter of her service pistol against the floor at her feet, saw again the hypnotic slide of light along the edge of the slender and lethally sharp katana blade as it swept toward her neck. She recalled too the blinding blur of Cloud’s blade in front of her disbelieving eyes, simultaneous with the almost musical clang of the swords as they clashed at the beginning of a desperate and short-lived battle that had ended, not with a victory by Cloud Strife, but with the return of the soldiers. Strife himself had not been confident that he would have won that particular conflict had it played out to a final outcome. As Reno had so pointedly reminded her, she’d seen for herself how the Katana Man moved, with an unearthly speed and agility that Strife could barely match. Hell, she’d emptied her pistol firing at him, and she hadn’t so much as grazed him.
“He was like a ghost,” she muttered irritably.
“Now, why would you say that, Elena?” Reno queried with false casualness, one narrow eyebrow quirking inquisitively.
“I couldn’t hit him.” She guiltily averted her eyes with her reluctant admission.
“Exactly, Elena.” Reno rose from his seat in triumph at the confession she granted him, turning to face her across the table. “You could not hit him. You’re a pretty bad shot, I’d say.”
Her eyes snapped back to land hotly on his smirking face. “I am not!” she snapped churlishly. “I shoot better than you!”
Wisely declining to respond to the argumentative accusation, Reno looked down to find Caitlin appraising him with skeptical eyes, awaiting a protest from his quarter most likely. He shrugged his indifference. “It’s true,” he said matter-of-factly. “Elena scores higher than I do on the shooting range. She performs faster and more accurately in tactical firearm exercises. And be assured, Caitlin, I’m not too shabby myself. Are you getting my drift yet?”
Caitlin’s eyes fell away from his incisive scrutiny, her confidence completely deserting her beneath the clear rationale of Reno’s well orchestrated flank attack. She surely did get his drift, and she couldn’t fault his argument. After all, she’d been witness to the events that day. Elena had almost lost her head doing her job, and she had been the one the Turk had almost given her life to protect. She had to admit she’d been wrong about Reno’s motives too. She had no doubt that Reno had let matters get personal between Elena and him, but that wasn’t driving his decision now. Clearly, he was doing his job, and quite admirably too.
“Okay, Reno. I know you’re right,” she tensely conceded. “But we need to get to the bottom of this. We need to find out what Avian’s aunt knows. See if she can shed some light on why these people want him.”
Elena interceded yet again, not ready to so easily surrender to Reno in defeat and not yet willing to let the opportunity for some action slip from her grasp. The lack of civilized amenities at the boring camp and the prolonged inactivity had worn her nerves thin. And so had Reno. His stupid face was pissing her off, and she felt in desperate need of being on her own for awhile. Besides, she craved an opportunity to display her capabilities. The tentative plan to visit Avian’s farm with him in tow, wrapped in some covert persona to provide cover, and in the same guise utilizing her skills and native intelligence to extract information from some matronly aunt of his wholly appealed to her at that moment.
“I’m willing to take the risk, Reno,” she coolly argued. “I can pull this off. We’ll get in and out quickly. No one will know we are there, and if by some wild coincidence one of them shows, I’ll be alert and ready to…”
“No, Elena,” Reno curtly interrupted, his narrow brows drawing together in a clear indication of his displeasure at her persistence, daring to undermine his argument when he had Caitlin right where he wanted her. In full retreat from her so called executive directive.
“But…I know I can…”
“Elena…” he said warningly, swinging his head around to regard her sour face with his deceptively lazy regard. “…I’d be a pretty incompetent leader if I let one of my Turks get killed on a recklessly conceived mission. Now, wouldn’t I?”
“If we plan carefully, that won’t happen.”
Reno shook his head sadly. “Elena...baby…don’t waste your breath. It’s not happening.”
Elena abruptly straightened in her chair, stunned at his cavalier and patronizing dismissal of her, as though any argument she might possibly make would be beneath his notice. Don’t call me ‘baby’, Reno,” she huffed in bristling indignation. “I am not your baby. I’m a Turk. Fully trained and certified!”
The thin veneer of humor vanished from Reno’s face as he stood up from the table to face her directly, eyes glittering like ice chips in his unsmiling face. “And I’m the Leader of the Turks, Ms. Taylor-Martin,” he informed her silkily. “Your participation in this discussion is over. Resume your surveillance duties. Outside.”
Elena stubbornly and foolishly opened her mouth to protest her expulsion even as a sharp warning alarm chimed inside her head, but before her angry words could make it to the off the tip of her tongue, Reno snapped his hand up and jabbed one bony finger toward the tied back tent flap that comprised the exit. She clamped her mouth shut and stiffly rose from her chair. Averting her face so that she would not encounter the curious gaze of either Caitlin or Avian, and pointedly avoiding even an accidental glimpse of Reno’s annoying face even though she could definitely sense the suffocating weight of his close inspection, she walked the length of the table with deliberate steps. Making a wide pass around his back, she flipped out her middle finger when she’d reached a point that he couldn’t see her even as she privately deemed it a cowardly act as she should be waving it under his pointy nose. Then she lifted her chin and headed for the exit with all the regal dignity she could muster, despite the fact that she felt like a disruptive schoolchild dismissed from the classroom and sent to the hall. So okay, maybe she had been subordinate. But he’d been inappropriate, and she welcomed the opportunity to tell him so, even if the memory of the cast of his face at the moment of her dismissal tightened her throat with apprehension. But truly…what would he do but chew on her ass? Terminate her? She welcomed him to try. She tossed her head defiantly for his benefit just before vanishing into the sunlight outside.
Reno stared at the empty opening for several seconds with eyes narrowed in thought, until Avian abruptly stood and pushed aside his own chair, in so haphazard a manner that he inadvertently tipped it over to clatter against the chair next to it, promptly drawing the Turk’s unwelcome attention.
“I’ve…changed my mind,” Avian uneasily stated, addressing the unspoken query in Reno’s cool gaze. “It was just…a stupid idea…and I don’t think Aunt Jae knows anything…anyway.” Fidgeting beneath the Turk’s intent scrutiny, he reached over to right the chair, a ready diversion to avoid meeting the man’s too incisive eyes.
Of course, he hadn’t changed his mind, and he did think that Aunt Jae knew something. He had no clue what she knew or if it even mattered in the scheme of things, but he intended to find out. He hadn’t wanted to take any Turks along with him anyway, and now he wouldn’t have to, thanks to Reno’s refusal. He’d just go on his own, as he’d first planned. Tie up with Captain Highwind and the Avalanche team, just as he’d discussed with Caitlin. He just didn’t want Reno to know his plan, because he wasn’t at all confident that the Turk would allow it. He’d just bide his time and keep his mouth shut. And when Avalanche left, so would he.
Avian pasted an unconvincing expression of feigned innocence on his face as he straightened from the task of restoring the chair to the table. Squaring his shoulders to gain every square inch of his full six feet of height, he finally risked a wary look at Reno, only to discover the Turk still watching him. The narrowed unblinking green eyes deeply worried him, as he could almost sense some hidden threat there, but he tried to shrug it off as his imagination. More likely, the redheaded Turk only meant to send a nonverbal signal that he could see straight through his masquerade.
Unable to hold the Turk’s gaze any longer, Avian anxiously sought Caitlin’s reassurance, only to discover her face stricken with distress. He could clearly see that she wasn’t buying his change of mind for a second. She'd obviously realized that he wasn’t blowing off his plan, and he knew she didn't want him to go alone. And maybe he wouldn’t go. Maybe he didn’t really want to know. On the other hand, he didn’t plan to stay under the Turk’s thumb after Caitlin had gone either. And there was no way anyone would convince him to go with her. Out to some isolated island in the middle of the godforsaken ocean. He had a life to live for crying out loud. That island sounded like...retirement. Besides, she had already given tentative approval to the idea of staying with Cid Highwind. So it wasn’t really an issue of protection, but more the matter of gathering information, and he couldn’t imagine that his aunt knew anything that earthshaking anyway.
“I’m sorry, Caitlin,” he apologized with a tight throat. “I know you wanted to help, and I know you think it’s important, but I think maybe I’m wrong about Aunt Jae. It was just a feeling anyway. Probably just my busy imagination. And it’s not worth all the fuss. It’s not worth anyone getting hurt…”
Avian's troubled amber eyes drifted back to Reno then, in a silent expression of his apology to him. He wanted the Turk to see that he understood his position. That he knew that Reno, as Leader of the Turks, could not send Elena on such a dangerous mission. In fact, he should never have suggested it. Because whatever they wanted with him, he knew they didn't want to kill him because they'd had their chance. But they wouldn’t hesitate to kill her. He’d already lived through the horror of seeing her shot once because of him, in those horrible seconds before she came up off the ground with her gun in her hand, having completely feigned her demise after miraculously dodging the bullet.
Avian didn’t wait around to hear a response from Caitlin, which he expected to be a protest or an argument, but he simply turned away from the table and moved to leave, forcing his feet to a normal pace as he resisted an overwhelming urge to run. Reno stroked the scar on his right cheek with one finger as he tracked Avian’s progress toward him with thin lips pursed in thought. When the young man from Kalm reached the head of the table, the redheaded Turk deliberately stepped in front of him, blocking his path to the door in a move more intimidating than effective, as Avian proved by simply diverting around the obstacle Reno posed, his throat tightening with fear.
The determined Turk shot out a hand and grabbed Avian by the upper arm to drag to an abrupt halt in midstep. “I’m not through talking to you, Avian,” Reno coolly informed him. “I’ve got a couple of questions. About your Aunt Jae.”
Avian could detect no hint of the friendly good-natured man that he’d worked beside on the Sector Five excavation anywhere in Reno’s demeanor, and the idea of this man he saw now, this cold faced Turk, asking him anything set Avian’s nerves instantly on edge, sending his creative imagination into high gear to conjure up images of himself on the receiving end of some merciless Turk interrogation procedure. He’d heard about their tactics before, and he thought it an experience he could live without. Feeling cornered and on the verge of panic, Avian gave a desperate jerk of his arm in an attempt to escape Reno’s grasp, but the Turk reflexively tightened his hold to a painful degree, a counterproductive action on Reno’s part that instantly overrode Avian’s niggling fear with distemper, spurred not only by the fact that the Turk thought he could detain him and deny him his freedom, but also at this arrogant attitude that these Shinra people could do as they damn well pleased regardless of what anyone thought about it. Well, he wasn’t going for it. He didn’t have to. They had no right to tell him what to do.
“I’m sure the hell through talking to you, Turk,” Avian retorted smartly. “So you better let me go.”
“Don’t think so, kid,” Reno adamantly refused, narrowing an appraising gaze on the resentful challenge in Avian’s amber eyes. “Not until you tell me what you think your Aunt Jae knows.”
“She doesn’t know anything!” Avian suddenly cried out in desperation, his bravado vanishing beneath his fear, even as his irritation exploded into full-blown anger. At the same time, his eyes truly did burst into hot flame, violently igniting into a luminous and ethereal conflagration that froze Reno’s face in a comical expression of surprise and momentarily sapped the strength from his muscles. Reno’s fingers loosened around Avian’s arm even as he ripped free and fled without a backwards look.
The redheaded Turk stared into empty space as his expression slowly shifted from blank incomprehension to intense contemplation. He finally swiveled his head to bring Caitlin’s frozen face into view.
“Did you see that, Caitlin?” he coolly asked.
At the question, she woodenly rose to her feet and numbly nodded.
“Your eyes looked just that way,” he pointedly reminded her. “When you went after Scarlet for roughing up your old man.”
“Did…they?” She’d seemed a bit discomfited by the idea.
“You don’t know that your eyes do that?”
“I’ve…never been looking in the mirror…when I’ve…been…upset…like that…” But yes sir, she did know, didn’t she? She just hadn’t realized that it looked…like that…
He studied her apprehensive features at length as the gears turned in his head. “How do you feel, Caitlin? When you’re like that?”
The very act of his asking made her feel trapped. Her throat closed painfully with a choking sensation of dread, and she felt the urge to flee. Just as Avian had. Was this how Reno’s questions made him feel too? Like he might be forced to confront a part of himself that he’d rather ignore? A part that he didn’t want to think about because if he didn’t think about it then he could still feel normal, for just a little while longer? She forced her anxious eyes up to find Reno watching her in frowning scrutiny, waiting tensely for her answer. “I…I…just…feel…I feel…” Her words failed her, and her eyes fell to the scarred surface of the folding table.
“Well?” Reno prompted with a hint of impatience.
“Powerful,” she whispered huskily. “I feel powerful.”
Reno carefully studied her downcast face. “That must be a very…intoxicating experience,” he blandly remarked, a cover for the queasiness stirring in his guts.
“No.” She shook her head. “No, it’s not, Reno. It’s very frightening.” She raised her troubled eyes to meet his head on in her denial. “To be at the edge of my control and to feel the power surging inside me…straining for release. Like a caged beast just waiting for the door to crack open so it can get free to rampage…”
Her voice cracked apart then, and with a little hiccup of a sob, she buried her face in one hand, as though she thought she could hide from him. Or from the truth. Just as she’d been hiding all those years in her tiny island world. She longed to command him then and there to take her home. Back to her island. Back to the safety of her isolation. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t leave without seeing him. Reeve. She had promised herself to tell him about Heidi. And after she did, he’d probably hate her. But at least he’d know. And she could say goodbye. And it would be done. After all these years, it would be done. Finally…
Reno’s soft, empathetic expression of her name distantly echoed inside her ravaged thoughts to remind her of his presence. To draw her gratefully outward again, back into the realm of the real world where she didn’t have to think about Reeve or Heidi or what she’d become or what she’d been or about what she’d lost and what she’d never have again.
“Caitlin,” Reno spoke more imperatively. “You have to decide what you want to do about Avian.”
With an anguished shake of her head, Caitlin mentally struggled to shovel aside the conflicting emotions that threatened to overwhelm her, and with a visible effort, she forced her head up to bring bewildered azure eyes to the Turk’s impassive face. “What…do you mean?”
“Avian Wulfe will no longer accept the protection of the Turks, I can guarantee you that,” Reno explained dispassionately. “But he will remain a target.”
“We can’t let them take him, Reno,” she replied plaintively. “We can’t let them hurt him.”
“Then we make him a prisoner.”
“No! Not a prisoner, Reno. We…we can’t do that.”
“Sure we can, Caitlin. Your father has imprisoned many people over the years, some for no more reason than that they dared to speak out against him. We can and we will take Avian Wulfe prisoner and call it protective custody, and then you won’t have to worry about him. He’ll be safe.”
Caitlin’s breath caught in her throat. What Reno suggested, she found unexpectedly compelling. Tempting beyond belief. Avian would be safe. They wouldn’t be able to touch him. And she would be…responsible. Yes, she sure the hell would be responsible. Not just for his safety. But for his imprisonment. His unwilling captivity. The loss of his freedom. He would be safe, but he would hate her. It was wrong. So damnably wrong. She couldn’t justify stealing his liberty from him even to protect him.
Unconsciously, she started shaking her head, first slowly, than with a vehemence driven by a visceral rejection of the plan. Her chin came up as her determined eyes collided with his expectant regard. She had the sense then, that he had just subjected her to some private test. She wasn’t sure if she’d passed, but truthfully she didn’t care.
“No, Reno. Avian Wulfe is free to come and go as he wishes. Shinra will not imprison anyone without due process of the law, ever again. Not even for protection.”
Reno inclined his head in silent acceptance, his green eyes glinting with some underlying emotion that might be calculation but looked suspiciously like humor.
“I will talk to Cloud Strife about him.” Reno offset his coolly voiced announcement with the quizzical life of one eyebrow. “Perhaps between us, we can arrive at a solution to the problem.”
She nodded slowly. “That’s a very good idea, Reno. Maybe he can talk to him about allowing us to protect him. They seem to have a close rapport.”
Reno inclined his head in agreement. He would certainly talk to Cloud Strife, as he’d suggested, but he harbored no illusions that Avian Wulfe would allow the Turks to have any say so over his life. And if he were in Wulfe’s shoes, he wouldn’t either. He’d kill a lot of people before he’d let that happen.
“It will be done, Caitlin,” Reno airily replied. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve an administrative matter to address.”
Caitlin narrowed her eyes in consternation. “Don’t be too hard on her, Reno. It’s my fault I think. I didn’t think the idea through very well, as you so clearly impressed upon me, and I should have broached the subject with you first. Outside of her presence.”
“Yes, you should have,” he replied impassively, no hint of accusation anywhere in his silky voice.
She tilted her head in thought. “But then…you should have told me about the problem with Reeve. Instead of actively working to keep it from me.”
A look of studied innocence fell over Reno’s features. “What problem with Reeve? Is there a problem?”
“Well…no…not now…but you didn’t know it…then…”
“Had I obtained factual confirmation of a problem regarding Alexander, I would have informed you, Caitlin.”
“There’s that word ‘factual’ again…” Caitlin muttered ruefully.
“The Turks operate on facts, Caitlin, not supposition. And be assured, I will make a move in regard to Avian’s Aunt Jae just as soon as I’ve acquired some facts.”
“How will you do that if you don’t talk to her, Reno?”
“I do plan to talk to her, Caitlin. After I thoroughly explore the mainframe database computer in Junon before going off half-cocked. Knowledge is power. Haven’t you heard?”
“I would imagine that you are a pretty powerful person then, Reno.” Caitlin eyed him carefully. “I can only imagine the number of dossiers on key people inside and outside the corporation that the Turks must possess by now.”
A cool smile came to his lips. “They number in the thousands, Caitlin. But I don’t have them on me.” He patted his empty jeans pocket to illustrate his point. “And I don’t know enough to frame an effective interview or to explain what’s behind these events with any certitude.”
The wry smile left Caitlin’s face, replaced by an air of pensive sadness. “What do you think is going on, Reno?”
“I don’t know, Caitlin.”
“Just speculate, please. Just give voice to the thoughts I know must be going on inside your head.”
His green eyes filled with mischief, and Caitlin glared at him sternly. “I don’t want to know your thoughts about Elena.”
“Who said I was thinking about her?”
“It’s easy to speculate about this matter, Caitlin,” Reno replied smoothly in a clear divergence from a discussion about Elena that he preferred to avoid to the subject at hand. “But my speculations have little basis in fact. Just as you have, I would guess that Avian Wulfe has at some point in the past come into contact with Shinra’s illustrious science department.”
“But…wouldn’t he remember?”
“He might. Or he might not. He might have repressed it. Or his memory of the events might have been wiped. Shinra has developed pharmaceuticals and neuro-processes that can not only erase one’s memories, but can replace them with false memories. In line with that possibility, I think a discussion with Avian’s Aunt Jae might well be illuminating, but I will only take that action from a position of strength. Once I’ve acquired the proper intelligence, and once I’ve reestablished an acceptable level of communication for independent operations, the Turks will move.”
“The same I suspect. I can only pose fictional scenarios here, Caitlin. But you, Rachel, and Avian all possess an extraordinary power, to what degree or similarity we don’t yet know. Someone wants to acquire that power. Someone who has gained access to privileged Shinra information. If someone out there can have that access, so can I.”
“Maybe Reeve knows…” What if Reeve did know? What if Reeve had access to that privileged information? Could he be the one behind it? But no…she couldn’t believe that… Still…
“…He knows…about me…”
“I will ask him, Caitlin. Of that you can be sure.”
“…But he doesn’t know about…” She didn’t finish her thought aloud, but Reno divined her meaning anyway.
“I have to tell you now, Caitlin,” he said lowly, a warning implicit in his tone. “If you go back now, you might endanger her.”
“I…have to go back…Reno,” she whispered hoarsely. “I can’t abandon her…” A startling recognition sharpened her thoughts, and accusatory azure eyes landed squarely on his face. “If you think he’s behind it, why would you suggest that I tell him about her?”
“I didn’t suggest it, you did,” Reno replied matter-of-factly.
“But didn’t you mean it? All that stuff…you said…all that…about…” She lowered her voice to a barely perceptible whisper. “…A father knowing…”
“I did,” he readily admitted in a low voice. “My gut instinct tells me that he has nothing to do with it. But I don’t have to trust my instincts. I’ll be watching him so closely he’ll think he’s living in a fishbowl. And as I said before, I can’t tell you to trust him, Caitlin. You’ll have to decide that for yourself. Telling Reeve is a risk. The public divulgence of your continued existence is a risk, but already a done deal. Returning to the island is a risk. If an unknown individual is involved, and that person doesn’t know about her or does have information about her existence but doesn’t know her whereabouts, you might endanger her when you return. I advise you now to seriously reconsider your plans. If we bring her to Junon I can protect both of you.”
Caitlin buried her face in both hands with a protracted groan of despair. “Gods…I should never have come here… I don’t know what do to. I don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong anymore...”
“Do what you have to do, Caitlin. And I’ll take it from there. Tell Reeve if you wish. I’ll be watching his movements. If you have to return, I’ll do everything in my power to see that no can track your route. But you have to be aware that it’s a risk.”
“…All this just…makes me…sick…”
“Well, get used to being sickened, Caitlin,” Reno replied softly. “Because I think we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg here.”
She couldn’t begin to find the words to answer him, and he turned away to go, his plan to settle matters with Elena once and for all uppermost in his mind.
At the entrance, he paused to watch Caitlin lay her head down against her folded arms. “Caitlin, Rude will escort you to the gate,” he reminded her.
She numbly nodded her head against her arm.
”The gate will be opened at any time, so if you plan to be there, you’d better go now.”
“I’ve decided to wait here,” she dully responded.
He opened his mouth to argue, but then thought better of it. With a small shake of his head, he simply left her there, huddled in her chair in silent despondency.
Tifa simply opened her arms and let her burden of dead and withered sticks and twigs fall to the ground at her feet, and then she followed them down, dropping to both knees to diligently set to work arranging them in the roughly circular patch of ground that she’d cleared toward the middle of the glade. Only a few minutes had passed since Vincent had taken up his rifle and left her there, off to find them some dinner on her eager offer that she would build a fire to cook it.
At the thought of eating hot food for the first time in weeks, Tifa’s stomach growled in complaint, apparently as impatient for Vincent to return as she found herself. She tried to imagine then what the man might bring back. What if he couldn’t find anything? She supposed he could always dig up some big old bullfrogs or ground squirrels, but she hoped that he found more palatable game then that. At any rate, she knew he wouldn’t fail her. She’d seen him hunt game before, when the Avalanche team had been on the road too long, too far away from civilization to purchase supplies. In fact, she’d once watched him snap up his rifle one-handed and fire a single shot to bring a wild goose tumbling from the sky.
As she meticulously laid the last crisscross layer of sticks, she thought about that. She’d always known he was a hunter. An ex-Turk. Not a hunter of game, but a hunter of men. But Vincent had said his father had been a hunter, presumably of game and not men, and that he’d taught him about wild berries. Had he also taught him to hunt? She didn’t know, and she doubted she’d ever ask, but she was very happy that Vincent knew all about berries. He’d saved her life again, she supposed, if those white berries were as poisonous as he’d said. But when he’d jumped out of nowhere and grabbed her wrist, he’d scared another ten years off her life. He was making her old fast. If he scared too many more years off, she would probably just expire across his feet. If she didn’t starve to death first.
The exhaustion she’d been holding at bay only by sheer will suddenly overwhelmed her, and she wearily let herself down next to the pile of sticks to lean back on her hands and stretch her stiff legs out in front of her. It had been such a long day. So long it seemed like several days folded into one. She almost felt like she’d lived a lifetime in that one little day. With all the heart pounding moments and the physical demands. The high drama and the stress. And it wasn’t even over yet. She still had the rest of the afternoon to get through and the whole evening.
In fact, there was still plenty of sunlight left in the day. They could put a lot of ground under their feet before dark. And although she didn’t know exactly where this mountain valley lay on a map, she could roughly guess the distance to Kalm. If they walked through the night, they could probably be there by sunset tomorrow. Vincent had left the decision to her, a clear departure from his usual bossy, take charge attitude. Maybe she should have told him she wanted to travel on after she got something in her stomach. After she rested awhile. Maybe she still would. She imagined he’d rather get on the road and have the whole ordeal done. But a lot had already happened that day. She needed to rest longer than a little while. For that matter, Mr. Valentine’s day had been too long too. He should rest too. So that settled it. She would force the man to rest by virtue of her decision, whether he liked it or not. But whether he actually would rest or not, that was another story.
An impossibly wide yawn stretched her mouth, one she didn’t bother to cover as no one watched her anyway. Afterwards, her eyes felt heavier than before, to the point that she hardly felt like making the effort to hold them open anymore. Maybe she should take an afternoon nap right now. Just roll herself up in the blanket and vanish into the nether. Escape into sleep. Because Vincent had been gone too long, and these woods were creeping her out.
That thought gave her pause because she hadn’t realized it before. Probably because she’d been too busy gathering firewood and kindling and hadn’t had time to think about it. Mostly she’d been too preoccupied listening to her stomach growl and eating more black berries to try to soothe it into silence. Too busy chiding herself for not actively pursuing a discussion with Vincent regarding what had happened up on the mountain. Mostly because she knew he wouldn’t view her introduction of that subject kindly. Now mind you, that didn't mean she didn't intend to do it, because she did. Eventually. Just not now. She was too tired to think. And...he'd seemed…different…since then. Almost…friendly. No not friendly. Just less…aloof…sort of…
Whatever he was being, she didn’t want to mess it up. She couldn’t even put her finger on how he was different. Just like she couldn’t figure out why the woods seemed so creepy to her. She couldn’t even fathom why she’d think that, because the glade overflowed with cool shade, verdant shadow, soft showers of late afternoon sunlight, and a quiet peacefulness. But something was…odd. She just couldn’t place what it might be. Probably it was her imagination. Vincent wasn’t really different, and the woods were just fine. Vincent seemed different because…she saw him differently now. That was it. And the woods were creepy because she’d never liked the woods that much anyway. She preferred wide open spaces high in the sky or busy city streets with lots of people around. The woods were just being woods. Full of murky shadow and constant whispers. Still something seemed weird. Like something was…missing…
Nervously, she tipped her head back to gaze longingly into the patch of sunlit blue sky visible overhead, hoping to assuage the mild claustrophobia at being completely surrounded by the dozens of gnarled old trees that girded the boundaries of the clearing. The trees murmured to each other as the leaves high up near the uppermost reaches of their interlaced branches danced and rustled on a brisk breeze, though the air hardly stirred near the ground where she sat.
Down slope fifty feet or so a narrow pristine stream made a soporific shushing sound as the waters trickled down to the river at the bottom of the gently canted hill, a soft lullaby that contributed to her drowsiness.
Sheltering trees. Cheerful sunlight and soothing shadow. Trickling streams. Sweet berries. Firewood. And fallen leaves to lay her pallet later. What could be missing?
Maybe it was just that simple. He’d left her, and she was lonely. He sure had been gone long enough too. How long she couldn’t guess. But the gloom of the forest had deepened, and the encroaching trees seemed to have crowded closer, and she wished he would hurry up and come back to chase the shadows way.
…Yet the shadows never left him. It was only that he commanded them to his bidding…
With a sad shake of her head at her hopeless tendency to fanciful thought, Tifa purposefully sat up and reached over for the backpack Vincent had left on the ground. When Vincent did return, he expected a fire, as per her promise, and she imagined she’d better get started. She still had to locate a means of starting one. Like a box of matches. That would be the easiest way. And she knew Vincent had once carried a box of matches. Or had the matches been in the pack she’d lost to the underground river? Along with the changes of clothing he’d packed for her. What she wouldn’t give for a change of clothes now. She’d run down to the lake, strip off her clothes and dive in. As it was she might as well bathe in her clothes and clean everything at the same time and then drip dry. But then it wasn’t like it would be the first time. What she wouldn’t give for a room at a genteel inn with a soft bed and a hot shower right about then.
As she imagined the pleasure of washing her hair under a stinging spray and bathing with scented soap, Tifa removed every single item from the backpack and placed the articles around her in a haphazard array. When she reached the bottom, she upended the bag to dump out a shower of tiny colorful glass splinters that represented all that remained of the potion bottles that had gotten broken at some point in their journey, and a few stray empty food packets that she spent some time gazing at with longing. She wondered if it would be worthwhile to shake them out for crumbs.
In the end, Tifa replaced everything in the pack and set it aside. She and Vincent possessed pitifully few items. Some books. Some rope. His gun cleaning kit. His ammunition. Some dead batteries. Some empty food wrappers. Some broken glass. A couple of blankets. A canteen.
The thought of the canteen brought her mental inventory to a halt. She was pretty thirsty, now that she thought about it. Caught up in a sudden overwhelming craving for a drink of cool water, Tifa climbed to her feet to search for it, even checking around the edges of the clearing and among the trailing roots of the trees when she didn’t immediately find it, until she remembered that Vincent had taken the canteen with him in the hope of finding a fresh spring from which to fill it. And naturally, now that she knew the damn thing was gone her mouth had turned as arid as a Nibel canyon arroyo during a long drought.
Impulsively, she stamped her foot against the ground with a huff of impatience. A twig snapped somewhere behind her, and Tifa whirled around in alarm, her two fists automatically coming up in front of her, ready to take on whatever intruder dared to venture there. Tifa cautiously scanned the woods encircling her, slowing turning on heel as she watched for any sign of unnatural movement, all the while listening for the telltale sounds of human passage. The valley had seemed bereft of habitation, but that didn’t mean it was so. A whole village could be hidden behind a fold in the rolling terrain, unseen even from high on the mountainside. Even now, someone might be stalking her from the concealment of the trees. Still, she had to admit it wasn’t likely. And after several moments without any further sign of intrusion, during which the only sounds she could hear were the rustle of the leaves and the soft susurration of the hidden stream, she decided that her imagination was definitely getting out of hand. She’d been fretting about the creepy woods, hadn’t she? To the point that she was hearing things that weren’t there. Or maybe she’d been wishing too hard for Vincent to come back, and her mind had produced the sound to give her false hope.
Not that Vincent would alert anyone by treading on a twig. He moved through his environment like a disembodied specter and therefore didn’t create any sound to mark his passing. In fact, she knew that when he came back he would just suddenly appear and scare ten more years off of her rapidly dwindling life.
The impulse suddenly came over her to call out his name, but she resisted, knowing he was probably too far away to hear her. Even for him. Besides, she hadn’t even started the fire yet like she’d promised. And she’d better get to it. A crackling fire would make her feel better too. But it looked like she’d have to use the ole friction method, and she suspected that would take awhile because truthfully she’d never really had to try it before. Unless maybe, by some crazy offhand chance, she had something useful in her pockets. Vincent’s capacious pockets would probably be more productive, but since he wasn’t here she’d have to make do.
Tifa delved down into her trouser pockets even as she wondered what Mr. Valentine would say if she initiated an unannounced search of his pockets. What treasures might she find stashed inside? No more chocolates she supposed, but she didn't care about that because she wasn't going anywhere near his chocolates again. And who ever would have guessed Vincent harbored a secret appetite for chocolates? Maybe he had a taste for cherry lollipops too. Or marshmallow bonbons. Just where have you been keeping those bonbons, Mr. Valentine? Are you sure you don’t have any stuffed in some…hidden…pocket?” Would he look as shocked as he did when she rained flower petals down on his unsuspecting head? Would he passively endure her actions as he had when she’d showered him with leaves? Offering little reaction but for his comment that might have been an attempt at humor on his part, now that she thought about it. Trees weeping at being deflowered. Vincent was starting to get with the program. She wondered what it would take to make the man smile. But hadn’t she decided that event to be a cosmic impossibility?
After fruitlessly mining out a couple of empty cereal bar wrappers and little else, Tifa’s fingers encountered a hard object in her front pants pocket, bringing her aimless thoughts about Vincent to a standstill. With a perplexed wrinkle of her brow, she wrapped her hand around it and drew it into the open where she stared at it, first with a frown of confusion, then with an unconscious nod of recognition, followed immediately by a widening of her brown eyes in astonishment. Completely enthralled, she absently folded her legs and sank to the ground right where she’d been standing, so taken by the thing that she could have sat on a cactus plant without noticing right away. Fortunately for her, cacti didn’t grow in the woods, and only a scattering of fallen leaves and soft ground awaited her.
Her mouth drifted slackly ajar as she closely scrutinized the stone cradled in the cup of both her hands. How could she have forgotten about her stone? She remembered shifting it from one pocket to another a couple of times, but she hadn’t really looked at the thing then. Because she was usually trying to be sneaky to hide it from Vincent. She couldn’t even remember when she’d seen it last, but it hardly looked like the same stone at all. The last time she’d seen it, a single line had been scored across its surface, and she had thought she’d damaged it. In her fall into the river. That was it. The last time she’d looked at it had been just after that. And now, the stone’s surface had been scored with so many more lines. Of course, the same explanation might still hold true. Perhaps the stone possessed such a fragile nature that the slightest bump or jar might damage it, and she had been through a few bumps and jars during their long journey. In fact, that leap over the crevasse when they’d been racing ahead of those purple beetles had been mighty jarring indeed. But did she truly believe the lines were from that? When they were each and every one perfectly straight? When one narrow line bisected another at such precise angles?
She’d thought about it before, and dismissed it out of hand, but now she thought that it must be true. The stone could not be a stone at all, but some sort of living creature, changing and growing, not in size or shape, but in appearance and behavior. And again, she pondered the idea that maybe the time the stone had hurt Vincent so badly, and herself to a lesser degree, that it could have been a defensive action for an imagined threat. Although, why the thing would perpetrate a more painful assault on Vincent she couldn’t begin to understand. And if the thing had been alive, she’d have to guess that it was dead now, as it offered her no sign of the magical animation of light and color that had so captivated her before.
Or maybe it was just a rock. Not any ordinary rock by any stretch of the imagination. But some sort of rock with materia type properties. Or…considering the odd place that she’d found it…what if the thing had been cast off in the explosion of...Meteor…
The sharp crack of a rifle shot split apart the peace of the glade in alien intrusion, and startled at the unexpectedness of it, Tifa unconsciously jerked her head around with a little catch of her breath, not noticing when her hands came apart and the scored stone tumbled into the leaves in front of her folded legs. Peering off into the shadows beneath the trees, Tifa keenly listened, stretching her senses into the eerie forest silence to see if Vincent would fire again. But long minutes elapsed, and eventually she surrendered her vigil, deciding that the perverse man would wait until she wasn’t expecting him to pull the trigger, for the sole pleasure of scaring the beejeebers out of her again. Or maybe he’d bagged supper with that single shot and was headed back. And she still hadn’t started that blasted fire.
Nestled down in the scattered leaves, the stone came to life with a kaleidoscopic shift of iridescent light that slid beneath the bisecting lines in a concurrent and repetitious pattern, a dance of illumination that caught the corner of Tifa’s eye. With a start, she whipped her head around to stare down at the busy stone in alarm, but slowly her apprehension gave way to wonder, and a soft smile came to her lips.
“So…you’re still alive after all…” she murmured reverently.
Very gently, she reached out to gather the translucent stone into her hand, but the moment her fingers touched the thing, the lights blinked out. She drew her hand back and frowned down at the recalcitrant rock. It looked like nothing more than a heavily scarred chunk of gray granite again.
“You’re as contrary as Mr. Valentine,” she grumpily informed the lifeless rock. “And almost as stony.” The rock had nothing to say in response.
A tiny smile came to her lips then. “I wonder if he comes to life when no one’s looking too?” She tried to imagine Vincent all alone, dancing through the glade and singing at the top of his lungs. Talking aloud to himself like she tended to do. Conversing with…rocks. “Not likely,” she ruefully admitted to the quiescent stone.
Suddenly Tifa recalled when she’d noticed the very first mark on the stone. When there’d only been one. She’d hesitantly touched a finger to that line, and the stone had reacted with a bright flash of light. Then she’d tucked the thing away in her trousers pocket just as Vincent had sneakily materialized right in front of her to scare a couple of years off, almost catching her red-handed. Maybe the lines were the key to understanding the thing.
Tifa gingerly picked up the stone in gentle fingers and lifted it to eyelevel to closely study the placement and nature of the lines. She’d idly considered it earlier, but now she knew it was true. The lines were all the same length, and all perfectly straight, as though someone had taken a sharp-tipped knife and scored exacting lines across the surface of the stone, except that the lines were set at haphazard angles. All of them were red in color, but they varied in shade and density; some redder than others, some darker than others. In fact, the line that she thought might be the one she’d discovered in the tunnels while Vincent had been trying to decide which passage to take seemed lighter than before, as though it might have faded over time. But she couldn’t swear that it was even the same one. There were so many of the odd red lines now...
Her emotions caught somewhere between anticipation and trepidation, Tifa unconsciously held her breath in her lungs, and tentatively touched the line she imagined to be the first one. The instant her finger made direct contact with the faint line, the rock began to glow, first softly and then more vibrantly as she kept her finger in place. Her mouth drifted ajar in wonder as the light began to undulate through a spectrum of colors, a feat she’d seen the rock perform before, but no less amazing for having seen it.
She wondered if touching another line would cause the stone to do something different. She was on the verge of shifting her finger to another line to check it out when the light stop changing from one color to another, and instead began to strobe in a dazzlilng shade of white. Slowly at first, and then faster and faster until it reached a point of steady shine, and it was at that precise instant that every voluntary thought and every conscious sensation vanished from her mind as though whisked away in a violent floodtide of muddy river water that washed back into its banks to leave the familiar landscape twisted and unrecognizable.
Into the changed terrain of her mind, a dense choking darkness swelled to displace the sight of the rock in her hand and the vista of peaceful glade. A hateful voice replaced the soft whispers of the breeze rustling the trees and the lulling hush of the stream. A cool dankness chased away the warm touch of the summer air to leave her skin chilled and prickling with goose bumps. And an unpleasant odor of mold and damp earth crawled into her nostrils, overriding the crisp smell of the outdoor air and the robust aroma of rampant vegetation.
A heart wrenching sound of sobbing welled into her mind, an expression of such sorrow that tears burned behind her widely staring eyes, a reflexive emotional reaction that she could neither know of or feel, as her waking senses were now submerged beneath a newly created layer of alien stimuli inside her mind.
“…Monster…” a disembodied voice hissed tauntingly.
Inside her mind, Tifa ran blindly into the darkness as raucous laughter rang all around her, coming from everywhere…and nowhere. And at that point the dark vision engulfed her whole…
…A light snapped on behind a door, and the wash of bright illumination across the threshold nearly blinded her. She fearfully looked down at the swath of light spotlighting her feet, as well as the bluish, rotten white of the mottled toes a mere two feet from her boots. Her mouth flew open in a silent scream, and she snatched for the light behind the door as the sobbing and the laughter closed in around her. And the voice too. First only in a whisper. Then in an accusing shout. First only one voice, then two, then three.
A litany that went on and on and on, the words repeated over and over, until finally the doorknob turned in her hand, and she stumbled into the room as the door flew inward on squealing hinges.
Everything went dead to silence. The laughter. The sobbing. The taunting voices. And the light she’d so hungered for. The room in front of her roiled with suffocating darkness. She darted a look over her shoulder to find the floating rotten milky eyeballs had fled, along with the owners of all the voices, which left her to wonder what fearful thing waited inside the room.
Trepidation choking her throat, she reluctantly turned her head back and her heart jumped straight into her throat at the crimson eyes that glowed fiercely in the depths of the boundless room.
She nearly bolted then, to run for her life, but then…but then…she realized…those eyes…they were familiar…
“Vincent?” she anxiously called out. “Is that you?”
The crimson eyes stared unblinking, and no answer came from within.
“Come on, Vincent. I know it’s you. Come out. Please come out now…”
He refused to answer, and her hands flew to her hips in her irritation at his stubbornness.
“Are you hiding, Vincent? Is that it? Was it the voices? Where they bothering you? The stupid voices…they were talking to me. Not you. So…you can come out now. I hope you don’t think you’re hiding, Vincent,” she chided. “Because if you are it’s not working. I can still see you.”
A low threatening growl rose from within, and she fearfully stepped back. “Vincent?” She choked out his name past a throat tight with fear. “Stop hiding, Vincent! Stop trying to scare me! I’m not afraid of you!”
The rumbling growl exploded into an enraged roar. The very air around her rushed away to dump her into a suffocating vacuum as the hulking shape rushed into the wash of light cast from the swinging bulb at her back. Literally flew toward her. Graceful despite its size. Sleek body formed of bulging muscles and tightly drawn tendons. Elegantly terrible in the sweep of its curving horns and the spread of its leathery wings. Majestic in its horribleness. A nameless and ravenous hunger burning in its blood red eyes. And she knew his name.
He came for, and she screamed in terror…
The stone tumbled from Tifa’s slack hand, and the nightmare in her mind instantly vanished, leaving her momentarily lost in a frightening void of sensation, her scrambling thoughts unable to find purchase, a fulminating panic threatening to take her unclaimed mind from her. Then just as abruptly as it had left, the real world snapped back into sync, a puzzle piece duly popped into its rightful place. The shady green vista of trees and bushes and filtered sunlight again seeped into staring eyes to travel along the optic nerve to fire the neurons in her brain, along with the welcome warmth of the afternoon sunlight against her skin and the fresh smell of the woods in her nostrils. Along with the the hoarse rasps of her strangled respirations in her ears.
Wholly disoriented and frightened by the unexpected and horrible hallucination, Tifa mindlessly jumped to her feet and stumbled away from the offensive rock, her wide brown eyes locked on the alien object as though she feared the thing would leap from the ground and come for her, just as the destructive creature in her mind had done. But the rock didn’t budge. Dead and lightless again, the rock merely sat there unmoving, as any self-respecting rock would do. Still in the exact place she’d dropped it. Shaking her head in unconscious denial, she continued to stare. Mainly because she feared to take her eyes off the thing.
She dared the rock to flash or to blink as she helplessly stood in place, incapable of movement due to her nerveless rubbery legs. But the rock just sat in the leaves as lifeless as before, and the minutes passed. More than she might have realized. Her senses righted and her reason returned as her respiration and heartrate inexorably slowed to normal rhythm. And with her return to normalcy, her fear and distrust gave way to intrigue and wonder. Still, she didn’t dare to approach the rock again, but studied it from afar.
Finally, she shook her head in denial. Whatever she’d expected the thing to do or to be, she hadn’t remotely expected…that…whatever that had been. It had been…like a nightmare. A horrible waking nightmare…
A sudden thought occurred to her, and she narrowed her eyes in thoughtful appraisal. It had been like a nightmare. And a familiar one too. It had been like a nightmare because it had been a nightmare. So terrible of a nightmare that she not only could recall most of the details, now that she thought about it, but exactly when she’d dreamed it. Even now, she could remember actually checking her limbs to ensure them still intact. At the time, she’d thought that particular nightmare the most horrible dream she’d dreamed since the fevered dreams about her father’s death and the destruction of Nibelheim. But that was before she’d been forced to endure the suffocating lightlessness of the underground tunnels and before she’d fallen asleep on the mountain and dreamed that nightmarish dream she’d dreamed only this morning. The one where the touch of her fingers shattered Vincent into a million pieces and the rain came and washed all trace of him from her world. That dream had been so terrible that it couldn't help but supersede any she’d experienced before. A dream that she’d again likened to those horrible delirious dreams she’d suffered during her long recovery from the near fatal injury Sephiroth had so carelessly dealt her. Because this one…replayed in vivid detail for her just now…had slipped from her mind.
Her steps heavy with reluctance, Tifa cautiously approached the rock to restively hover there with the thing bracketed beneath her spread boots. Careful not to let her foot so much as brush it, she peered straight down at it and silently challenged it to try anything funny. The dead rock still sat there unmoving, obviously trying not to look suspicious or threatening in the least. It didn’t even offer up so much as a peep to give her an excuse to borrow a page from Vincent’s book and kick the thing to kingdom come. In fact, looking at the lifeless thing now, she didn’t feel confident that the rock had anything to do with what had just happened. Maybe it had been a coincidence.
She almost laughed at her ridiculous attempt to refute the unsettling phenomenon. Next she'd be trying to convince herself that nothing had ever happened. A coincidence? Who was it that she’d heard say that true coincidences were rare? That if two things appeared to be connected, they most likely were connected. Probably Vincent. It seemed like something he would say. An ex-Turk type of saying for sure. Still, she could hardly entertain the implausible idea that a random object that she’d collected along a mountain path possessed the power to control her dreams in any way. Even if that’s how it seemed…
A strong desire suddenly overcame her to race from the clearing through the woods and into the meadows to track down Vincent, drag him straight back to that deceptively harmless rock, tearfully confess her crime in hiding it from him, tell him all about her crazy dream, and make him explain that rock to her. Make him tell her how a rock that she found in the grass beside a high mountain trail could sneak her own nightmares right back into her mind through just a touch.
She couldn’t do that though. Oh, she had no doubt that she could find him, and she knew he would come back with her, without being dragged. And she probably would shed tears when she confessed her crime. It might distract him from lecturing her. She could hear it now. Vincent Valentine Rule of the Road Number…what number were they up to now anyway…six or something…yeah…six then. Rule Number Six. You, Tifa Lockhart, will not look at a rock, you will not pick up a rock, you will not touch a rock, you will not so much as think of a rock....
No, she was cool with all that. The first sticky problem would be telling him about her dream. How in the world could she tell him about her dream? Oh Vincent…I had this dream…where Chaos eats me. Yeah right. The man was already as touchy as a baited mousetrap on the subject of Chaos. She could never tell him that dream.
And the other sticky problem… The unpredictability of what he might do with the rock, if he knew about it.
Okay, so she couldn’t ask him. But she could try to imagine what he might say if she did. What would Vincent say about that rock? He would say…what? That the rock was sessile. Okay, maybe not. He would say that the rock possessed some toxin that caused one to see strange fireflies and hear weird noises and replay nightmares. Like the tentacle creature in the pool. Only that thing had injected its toxin by stinging her. The rock had no teeth and no tentacles, so it couldn't have stung her.
Tifa nearly choked on her own breath at the realization sparked by her own thoughts. The rock hadn’t stung her in the way that the creature in the pool had stung her. But it had certainly hurt her in a way that might be construed as a bite. Not a physical bite but a…mental one? And if that were true, if the rock had bitten her in some manner, she had to closely consider the implications of such an event. Because if true, the thing had bitten Vincent too, and it had buried its invisible teeth into him deeper.
Feeling numb with dread and disbelief, Tifa lowered herself to the ground to study the rock from a closer perspective. In light of this new idea, she thought perhaps it behooved her to find out as much about the rock as she could, recognizing that she didn’t know enough to begin to explain what the thing was and what it might have done to Vincent or to her. She realized that only further testing of the object would provide her any more information. But was she crazy enough to try it? Was she brave enough? Would she only discover another forgotten dream? She could handle a simple dream, couldn’t she? Maybe it wasn’t even about dreams. Maybe it influenced memory. She just didn’t know. And there was only one way to find out.
What if she did touch the rock again? And this time chose another line? What if the thing filled her head with something too terrible to handle, and Vincent came back to find her curled on the ground, gibbering nonsense and drooling into the grass? Would he bitch at her for not starting the fire? She suspected he’d bitch plenty if he spotted that rock. And she couldn't even imagine what he'd do or say if he knew what she was planning.
…And speaking of Vincent…
Tifa raised her head to scan the woods around her, peering intently into the narrow spaces between the trees, twisting around to take in the whole perimeter of the cloistered glade, looking for the slightest hint that Vincent lurked anywhere around. She couldn’t detect any sound suggesting that Vincent might be close by. But then, she wouldn’t expect to. More importantly, she caught no hint of movement beyond that of the leaves barely stirring on a breathless breeze. Since she didn’t think Vincent had any reason to conceal himself, she had to conclude that he was still rambling around somewhere, looking for game or water. So if she found the nerve to try it, she could probably get away with it, if she did it quickly.
Compelled by the allure of the mysterious object and driven by the pressing need for haste, Tifa abruptly surrendered to her rampant curiosity and returned the whole of her attention to a rapt examination of the thing, the enigmatic Mr. Valentine gradually relinquishing her thoughts to step quietly to the back of her mind. Finally, she reached out for the lifeless stone and hesitated with her hand suspended over the thing as she anxiously chewed her lower lip. Then she pounced on the thing like a cat on a mouse and snatched it up into her fingers.
Over and over, Tifa flipped the rock in her palm, memorizing one facet, and then another, wanting more than anything to touch just one more of the scored lines to see what it would reveal. To see if it would show another dream. Or the same one. Or something not a dream at all. Like a memory. What if it showed her mother? Before she was sick? Or her father? Before Sephiroth killed him. Or what if it showed a memory more recent? Sharing chocolates with Vincent? Or listening to him expound on the Cetran alphabet. The more she wondered about it, the more she wanted to try it, but the thought of doing it turned her insides to liquid.
The minutes slipped by, and the rock stayed a rock. A plain old rock marked by plain old lines. She could almost convince herself it was so. Except she knew better. The rock had invisible teeth, and the lines looked like scars.
Her hand fell motionless, and the rock settled to one side, showing her the facet that displayed the darkest line of them all. That dark red line teased her with promise. If the faintest line made her relive a nightmare weeks old, what would the darkest line do to her? She knew she wouldn’t be satisfied until she found out. She had to know the answer to that question. Admittedly, she was insane to do it, but…she was still going to do it…
With a last stealthy look around, the whole time feeling like a petty thief huddling over someone’s underwear drawer searching for hidden valuables while the owner snored only steps away, Tifa assured herself as well as she could that Vincent was nowhere around. And then she promptly returned to the matter at hand, and before she could rethink her mad scheme, she touched a fingertip against one end of the darkest line on the stone.
Just as before, the stone moved through its flashy little parlor trick routine in pretty much the same way, as far as she could tell. Except when the light began to strobe, the color wasn’t white this time, but blue. She tensely watched the light flicker faster and faster, and when it reached the point where she thought it would go steady, she found herself gritting her teeth to keep her finger in place because she wanted so badly to yank it away, suddenly afraid of the unknown place the rock might take her. Then like before, the familiar environs of the real world vanished beneath a vista of illusion, stealing her mind from her just as completely and unexpectedly as before, despite the fact that she’d prepared herself for it. And this time the dream that took her was one she had despaired of ever forgetting...
She came out of the store into the warm afternoon sunlight and paused on the sidewalk to watch the children at play, drawn by their high pitched giggles and their playful taunts. The butcher's daughter, Ramona, apparently the currently designated 'It', saw her standing there and stopped in the middle of hot pursuit to frantically wave. Then the schoolmaster's son, Theodore, ran past her unsuspecting back and teasingly yanked a strand of Ramona's straw-colored hair. With a cry of outrage, she was off again, racing full tilt after the cheeky boy. She almost got a hand on him too, a fistful of his cotton shirt, but sensing his imminent capture, he darted off in another direction and escaped by a hair.
She made a move to step off the sidewalk but found her path blocked by the pastor’s son, Merlin, who screeched to a skidding halt in front of her to stick out his tongue. She promptly responded in kind, and he chortled and ran away. She shook her head wonderingly at his infamous orneriness. If there was trouble to be found that child would find it. In fact, he was usually making it.
A hail from a distance carried her name, and she obediently turned to see her father standing on the front porch with the ravaged pages of the Nibelheim Weekly Clipper clutched in one hand. At least she wouldn't have to put it back together to read it, because today she'd beat him out of bed for a change and managed to retrieve the paper from the sidewalk out front before he'd risen for the day.
He waved her over now, his imperative gesture signaling an impatience on his part, mostly likely due to annoyance at her untimely escape. Stepping down off the sidewalk, she obediently headed his way, reaching one hand over a shoulder to draw her hat onto her head as a shield against the bright summer sunlight burning down on the village from between the topmost peaks of the twisted spires of Mt. Nibel.
She ambled toward her house on reluctant feet, in no hurry to arrive there only to be assigned whatever mundane task her father had lined up her. Cleaning the attic she suspected, as he'd pointedly mentioned the day before. She'd rather be outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine rambling around the town and visiting with neighbors than trapped for the day in a stuffy old attic.
The sharp staccato tap of a hammer sounded from across the town square, and she idly glanced that way, mildly curious as to the identity of the wielder, supposing that she might see Johnny on the roof of Mrs. Wren's house. He'd been helping her repair some broken shingles on her roof.
Her absent brown eyes never finished the journey to Mrs. Wren's house to find Johnny or anyone else, because they discovered the man sitting on the bench beneath the water tower instead, and her feet came to a startled halt in the middle of the square at the sight of him.
Her eyes narrowed in intrigue at the unusual presence of a stranger in a suit in the middle of Nibelheim. An uncommon sight for sure, as she would be hard paid to dig up any man in a suit in this rustic town outside of the confines of a wedding or a funeral. If someone had passed away, she would have heard, and no one ever had a wedding mid-week. And she would have known about that too. On top of that, strangers were rare, again usually seen only during weddings and funerals. Out of town visitors and the like. Besides, this man seemed...uncommon...in general.
Uncommonly tall as evidenced by the endless length of the legs he'd stretched out in front of him. And uncommonly handsome from what she could see, although she would have to withhold her final judgement until she got a better look. Because the strands of his hair, gleaming like raven's wings in the sunlight, had fallen across his face to deny her more than a glimpse of his features.
She perked up with interest and openly stared at him as she turned her feet in his direction, unconsciously seeking a better view. Easy to do as it turned out, because he wasn’t looking her way and didn’t appear to have any intention of doing so. The whole of his attention seemed drawn by the open hand resting against his thigh, as evidenced by his intent gaze into his own palm, looking like a palm reader at a fair caught up in a reading of his own fortune. Measuring his lifeline maybe, she mused. Or checking his heartline. And ruefully so, she would have to say. With his head bowed low and his wide shoulders curved, he looked the portrait of dejection. The poor man must have found his lifeline to be disturblingly short. Or his heartline distressingly sketchy and broken.
She was being silly, of course. Her fanciful imagination taking over as it had a tendency to do. Viewed from a practical perspective, she would guess that the mystery man held some unseen item in his hand. Probably not a bug, or a coin, but maybe a key. Obviously something of importance, to make him so sad. Or maybe he'd written the address to some special destination there. Maybe he'd already gone there and hadn't found what he'd expected. Maybe he'd come for a job only to be turned away, leaving him disappointed and out of sorts. Or maybe he hadn't found the adress at all. Finding addresses in Nibelheim was tricky sometimes, as the streets and house numbers were not all that well marked. After all, everybody knew where everybody lived. So maybe he was just lost and needed some directions, and probably he was too embarassed to ask. Lucky for him, she happened to be a guide. Or rather, lucky for her, as she now had a valid excuse to go closer and settle her rampant curiosity about what the man held hidden in his hand, and what she might find behind the fall of his hair.
Throwing caution to the wind, she promptly turned eagerly compliant feet onto a new route that would carry her straight to the bench where he sat in the latticed shade of the water tower frame. The man would judge her insufferably nosy, she imagined. He’d probably yell at her and tell her to get lost. And if her father caught her hanging around a guy like that, especially when she was supposed to be going home to do chores, she’d get a lecture for sure. The long version. She sternly told herself that she should immediately turn on heel and walk straight away before the man noticed her, before her father saw her, but instead she came to a stop beside the wrought-iron arm rest where the man had propped his blue-suited elbow, and she helplessly lowered her disgustedly snoopy gaze to his open hand to steal a good look before she got caught.
Her lips curved in a delighted smile at sight of the ring nestled in the protective cup of his palm. The soft gold band gleamed in the sunlight and the teardrop diamond threw sparks. A tiny tear of happiness. A warm circle of love and protection. It couldn’t be this beautiful ring that made him sad, could it? Unless he’d wanted to buy his girlfriend a bigger ring, but didn’t have the gil. Surely his girl would think the delicate ring the most beautiful ring in the world when he slipped it on her finger. Surely he knew that it wasn't the size of the ring that mattered, but the wealth of love in the heart of the giver.
”What a beautiful ring!” she brightly enthused, a valiant and sincere attempt to reassure him and brighten his day. “I bet your girl will love it!”
"What are you doing here?" a cool voice demanded in response, obviously not interested in her opinion of his ring.
Dismayed at his unwelcoming tone, though she might have expected it, she shot a worried look his face, only to find herself snapped up in the waiting snare of irritable brown eyes so pale they seemed the color of gold.
…Eyes the golden hue of autumn…
...And eyes so strangely familiar...
...She thought she might drown there...
Until the man came smoothy to his feet, and those whiskey eyes glittered down. Then...she thought she should run...
On bent knee, Ozzie tipped back his hat with one finger and then leaned forward to spread the leaf fronds apart with both hands, nervously tilting his head to peer cautiously through the gap into the shady glade beyond. At first glance, he didn’t see a soul who might account for the disembodied voices that had sent Baron and him diving into the bushes. He knew they must be there somewhere. Most likely, their conversation had run its course, leaving them walking in silence.
In an attempt to enhance his view, Ozzie parted the wide fronds even further and found that the roughly circular clearing, completely walled in by heavy plant growth but for the single path that ended on one side and picked up again on the other, wasn’t as expansive as he’d first thought. In fact, he found that he could scan the entire perimeter, until his eyes came up against an obstruction, a puzzling tabular structure at the southern edge constructed of variegated stone with a semi-circle row of unlit torches behind it. Ozzie suddenly recognized the structure’s function, and both pale blue eyes rounded with horror.
“Goddammit! I knew it!”
“Hush, Ozwan,” Baron hissed near his ear. “You will alert them.”
“There’s no one…out there…Bari…” Ozzie vacantly muttered, letting the fronds slip from nerveless fingers as he weakly sank back onto his heel.
Frowning deeply in displeasure at his irrepressibly stupid companion, Baron unfolded his long body from his cramped position between two overgrown plants and rose onto one knee. Reaching over Ozzie’s shoulder, he smoothly knifed his hand down into the fronds, cleanly creating a narrow gap to see for himself what had produced this sudden lackluster state in his companion.
“It’s a stone altar, Bari,” Ozzie tensely whispered. “We’re finished.” Unconsciously, he pressed a hand to his heavily beating heart as though he feared it might explode through his chest wall and leap onto the altar on its own volition, without benefit of being sliced out first.
Baron studied the area with a critical eye, and in the end he had to admit the gunman’s assessment to be accurate. A crudely constructed stone altar made of symmetrically stacked slabs of limestone and granite did indeed dominate the shady clearing, and the desiccated remains of several offerings littered the ground around the altar. But none of the discarded offal could remotely be construed as human, or even animal. With a hint of a cruel smile twisting his lips, he turned impassive black eyes to the ashen faced Ozzie.
“You are correct, Ozwan.” He smoothly concurred. “But you are in no danger of becoming a holy sacrifice. Unless you transform into a flower.” He suddenly grinned at the gunman with a fleeting flash of white teeth, a rare exhibition of humor on his part. “Their deities do not appear to be carnivorous.”
Ozzie stared over at him in wide-eyed wonder. He could hardly believe his good fortune. “A…flower?”
Baron might have expounded on the topic then, but the murmur of voices reached the warrior’s keen ears, drawing his attention in the direction of the sound. He raised his palm toward Ozzie in a warning gesture as he keenly watched the fronds sway along the opposite path, the gentle rustling motion marking the location of those approaching, and after a few tense moments, a mismatched pair of robed figures emerged into the clearing at the far side, one much taller than the other. The warrior keenly tracked their movements as they approached the altar, each carrying an armful of colorful tropical flowers. Clearly the pair intended to replenish their sacred offering of appeasement to gods that Baron conjectured were never satisfied for long. Without even a fleeting flicker of his intention, Baron's predatory gaze slipped away from the prey as he reached out to gather a fold of Ozzie’s sleeve into his fingers.
“Now is the time to strike, Ozwan,” he murmured softly. With a sharp tug at the gunman’s sleeve to silently command him to follow, Baron rose to a slope-shouldered stoop and stealthily slipped away into the heavy foliage without a sound.
Ozzie awkwardly climbed to his feet on legs numbed from inactivity. He dove after Baron into the smothering green ocean of the lush forest with a stumbling crouch, but he swiftly discovered that he’d already lost him beneath the cover of swaying fronds. “Bari?” he whispered as loudly as he dared. “Where’d ya go, Bari?”
A sharp cry of alarm violated the sacrosanct tranquility of the verdant forest, sending a bevy of birds fleeing noisily from the high canopy over his head and setting a couple of tiny sorrel monkeys chattering in raucous alert.
Acting instinctively, Ozzie dropped to his hands and knees into the soft sticky clay of the forest floor. With a grimace of disgust, he scrabbled off across the ground, crawling beneath the waving fronds and climbing over fallen and rotting vegetation with the scurrying movements of a panicked crab, an unreasoning fear taking over his thoughts as he drove deeper into the verdant maze with no sense of his direction or location, essentially lost beneath the cloying vegetation. Looking wildly around, he could not see a single familiar landmark to guide him, and he had no idea which direction to head in to get back to the trail. In fact, if he kept going now, the could well find himself lost deep in a forest that covered hundreds of square miles of uninhabited land. The idea made him freeze in place on all fours froze on the verge of full-blown panic, until Baron’s low summons, repeated several times, finally reached through his ears to register in his brain.
Like a jack-in-the-box, Ozzie shot to his feet to find only a single layer of feathery ferns standing between him and the clearing. The gunman stared in awestruck wonder at the scene that met his eyes. The raven-haired warrior knelt on one knee before the altar with his head reverently bowed. The sleekly straight tresses of his hair cascaded from his headdress of feather and bone to dangle over his shoulder and curtain his bronze face. A passerby might have mistaken Baron for a devout worshipper belonging to whatever religious faction worshipped in this sacred place, if not for the two robed bodies crumpled at his feet. No prayers going on here. Just a victor with his spoils, crouched amidst a scattered carpet of bright flowers, assessing the potential of his ill-gotten gains.
Sensing Ozzie’s rapt perusal, Baron lifted his eyes directly to the place where Ozzie stood mostly hidden in greenery and narrowed his gaze in marked irritation. “Cease your gawking, Ozwan,” he coldly commanded with frosted eyes. “You are wasting precious time. Come out of there and help me.”
Ozzie woodenly nodded his acquiescence even as he obediently sprang into action. Attempting to leap straight through the chest high barrier of swaying ferns to the bare ground of the glade beyond, he inadvertently caught the toe of one boot in the bracket of two branches and fell headlong into the dirt with his foot still hopelessly entangled in the clutches of the captor fern.
Baron looked up from his search of the body nearest him only long enough to shoot a glance from beneath elegantly drawn brows to take in the sight of the prostrate gunman stretched out motionless across the ground with his nose in the dirt. He barely shook his head in weary despair as he wondered yet again how this man had managed to be recruited for this operation. Admittedly, Ozwan possessed a deadly efficiency with firearms as well as a conspicuous eagerness to use them, but the man seemed a dangerous screw-up more than anything. Not for the first time, Baron pondered the eventual necessity of killing him, because he well knew that would be the way their relationship would end before all was said and done. Baron actually found himself relishing the idea of dispatching the man when his usefulness had expired.
Ozzie bit back a moan as he climbed to his feet. Bending creakily at the waist, he snatched up his fallen hat and plunked it down on his head, and then he cautiously approached Baron to appraise the results of the warrior’s bloodless and deadly assault with a wary eye. The fact that Baron had obviously killed the robed supplicants hardly gave him pause, but in this case it seemed unnecessary. Not that he was in any position to judge. He was no saint himself. But the blatant evidence that Baron could kill so ruthlessly and easily, using his bare hands, always made him extremely nervous.
“Quickly, Ozwan, don the robe,” Baron commanded impatiently as he stood and carelessly dumped the taller of the two bodies out of its homespun robe. Ozzie found his eyes helplessly drawn to the lifeless form of a young man hardly out of his teens, as lanky and slender as a cornstalk, with fine delicately formed features that seemed almost too feminine. The pale eyelashes that veiled his dead gray eyes matched the cornsilk spray of his blonde hair around his head.
“Do you plan to take root there, Ozwan?” Baron icily demanded.
At the sharply and impatiently rendered prompt, Ozzie immediately dropped down onto one knee beside the second body and went to work with fumbling fingers on the lacings of the robe. Eventually, the garment fell away to reveal the sharply chiseled and elegant face of a middle aged man, the dark irises of his lifeless black eyes barely revealed through slack eyelids. Ozzie noticed the oddly configured pendant resting against the man’s chest, and he reached down to lift it in his fingers, assessing the value of the metal even as he marveled at the intricate depiction of what appeared to be interwoven vines of flowers laced through and around the outspread wings of a griffin. A stylized star, moon and sun were spaced at precise intervals around the griffin’s feathered head. The metal looked like some sort of cheap pewter though, of little worth, unless it held collectible value.
“Pretty, but worthless…most likely…” he commented aloud to himself.
“It is the mark of an Amahdia priest,” Baron coolly remarked.
Ozzie looked up in surprise just in time to see Baron carefully drape the hood of the robe over his feathered headdress, letting the dark material fall down around his expressionless face to shadow his features in the murky depths.
“Amahdia…priest?” he queried carefully. He’d heard of them before. “What the hell are those weirdos doing out here? I thought they had a temple somewhere out in the jungle between Cosmo and Gongaga.”
“The Amahdia worship the griffin, Ozwan,” Baron sneered contemptuously. “Perhaps they received word of the presence of the obnoxious creatures in the forests here as well and were transported in a fit of religious fervor to worship them also.”
Ozzie knitted his brow in thought. “The Amahdias...aren’t they pacifists, Bari?”
Baron narrowed appraising eyes on Ozzie’s face, and the gunman tensed at the silent scrutiny.
“Are you worried about their immortal souls, Ozwan?” Baron finally asked. “I’m sure their spirits will be borne to their just reward on the wings of their sacred beast.”
The warrior laughed at his own jest, and his chuckles took on a hint of maliciousness that sent a shiver up the length of Ozzie’s spine. He gently replaced the pendant against the man’s linen shirt and carefully dragged the robe from beneath the unresisting body.
Drawing his own purloined robe close around him, Baron strode away across the clearing toward the path that presumably led to the compound. “Let us go, Ozwan. Let us capture this Arisara creature and be on our way.”
Ozzie hurried after him, lacing up the ties of the robe as he went. “I think you were wrong about using my charms to catch her, Bari,” he called after the taller warrior, a clear shift to a lighter topic in the hopes of changing the mood. “How do you expect me to attract an Amahdia woman?”
“You could turn into a griffin, I suppose,” Baron shot back over his shoulder, his words muffled inside the cowl. “If you’ve so little confidence in your skills.”
“Hardy har har, Bari. Don’t think I can do that.”
“Then be silent, Ozwan,” Baron responded with icy coldness. “And lose the hat. It does not accessorize well with the robe.”
With a worried frown, Ozzie doffed his hat and gingerly tucked it beneath the robe. At a loss as to what to do with it, he finally hooked the string over his holster to let the hat dangle beneath the heavy drape of the cloth. Noting ruefully that the garment stopped short almost a foot from the ground to clearly reveal his black boots to any casual observer, he dutifully turned into the path and fell into solemn step behind Baron. Folding his hands together, he reverently bowed his head in a fair approximation of how he imagined the robed worshippers must have appeared in their piety.
Trailing close behind the taller Baron, he kept his lowered eyes focused on the warrior’s sandaled feet that were clearly revealed beneath the hem of the too short robe as he again pondered the ease with which Baron had murdered the unarmed Amahdia. An act of excessiveness just like his slaughter in Midgar when he’d killed several unarmed people in a frenzy of blood letting with the katana to take the little girl. Ozzie could not discount the increasing tension between the two of them, and his throat tightened with dread at the realization that Baron could kill him without turning a hair and leave his body for the carrion birds. He knew, in anticipation of that likely event, that he’d better have an battle plan already in place. As soon as he managed to concoct one that held any hope of success against a warrior unlike any the civilized world had ever known. Until then, he would keep his guns well cleaned and fully loaded, leave the weapons riding loose in his holsters at all times, and never take his eyes off his illustrious companion. For that matter, he should probably install mirrors at his temples so that he could constantly watch his back. The impulsive thought that had risen from Ozzie’s irrepressible humor did nothing to lessen his anxiety or to quell the acidic churning in the pit of his stomach.
It was said that there was no honor among thieves. And he would venture to say even less among killers. And Baron was a killer among killers. Born and bred for it. In fact, Ozzie knew that he had yet to see the fullest extent of Baron’s capability, innate skills only related to him in report. Tales that smacked of mythology. He had to admit to himself then, that if all he’d heard was truth, then he could plan all he wanted and pray all he could, but in the end, he was doomed. He could not trust him. Baron would kill him. And he didn’t have a hope in hell of stopping him.
The gilt door to the private chambers swung open invitingly, as though beneath an invisible hand. Vendra found nothing inviting about it, and she knew the door operated at the command of an electronic gadget. The boss, for all his love of things ancient, found the technologically latest devices especially fascinating. And in some cases, both of his obsessions dovetailed nicely.
Annoyed that he’d made her wait for almost an hour after peremptorily summoning her to his personal quarters, most likely so she could stew in her own juices, she took her sweet time rising from the plushly upholstered sateen and brocade sofa. Lazily, she uncrossed her long, slender legs and gracefully rose, only to expend several precious seconds in a sinuous feline stretch to unkink her stiff muscles. Then finally, she deemed herself as prepared to meet him as she ever would be, and carelessly tossing her long blonde braid over one shoulder with the flip of a slender hand, she entered the open door and crossed the threshold into the adjoining room with a purposeful stride, looking the confident, lethal woman that most people that knew her or had ever encountered her would readily describe her, no hint of the trembling rabbit that longed to spring for the nearest hole evident in her bored face, her steady gaze, or her relaxed posture.
She halted in the middle of the expansive, richly-appointed room with a simple cessation of motion to study him warily, a luxury afforded her as he sat with his back to her gazing out the elongated oval window that overlooked the slate grey surface of a clouded sea that stretched all the way to a featureless horizon. The sun rarely managed to break through the heavy cloud cover in this place, lending the seascape a permanently dismal atmosphere that seemed to suit him. If it weren’t for the fact that he had to provide artificial lighting to sustain his precious herb garden, he’d probably never complain about the overcast sky at all.
Vendra knew better than to greet him first, so she simply waited, propping one hand on a hip and shifting her weight to one foot in her customary if contrived pose, and eventually he spun his plush office chair around with the idle push of a foot against the window sill to bring her into view. His blue eyes filled with appreciation as he studied her at length, an expression easy for her to detect in the dim room as the light inside his eyes had turned his irises to sparking sapphires. Obviously he’d injected himself again. And not too long ago either.
“Vendra…” he greeted merrily. “You’re looking especially lovely today.”
“If you say so…” She paused for the space of a second or two to decide how to address him. She knew his true name, but she wasn’t allowed to speak it. In fact, except for one other person in the facility, she was probably the only one that knew his identity, and that other person…well…she was locked in a glass cubicle with perfect climate control, beautiful green plants of plastic, and every comfort he could provide her, but still a prisoner, despite all her amenities.
She supposed the boss didn’t have any other choice. The woman swung wildly between peaks of madness and plateaus of lucidity. When she managed to maintain her sanity for a period of time, Vendra found her to be a highly intelligent and interesting person with which to converse. When she descended into her bouts of madness, she was very scary.
In the end, Vendra opted for an innocuous, noncommittal address, as the idea of saying “Master” made her stomach roil. And he would let her know promptly enough if that’s what he wanted. “…Sir.”
He beamed up at her and folded his hands on the desk in front of him. She breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe he didn’t want of her what she thought he did. In the past, she hadn’t minded so much. He was a handsome man, when he thought to comb his hair and dress in the smart attire he generally appropriated, unlike today when his strange striated hair of silver, sable, and straw dangled in tangles every which way and his ratty old terry bathrobe hung loosely on his lean frame. But in the past, he’d been more of a man. Now the very idea of what he was increasingly becoming turned her stomach with revulsion. Why the man would wish to do that to himself she could hardly fathom. Thankfully, he seemed to be holding himself together well today. So maybe she could pretend she didn’t know what she knew.
“How is the search for Valentine coming along?” He tilted his head with polite interest, as though the answer did not represent the most important matter on the man’s agenda at the moment.
“I’ve been unable to find out anything about him, sir,” she replied carefully. “Unless he voluntarily surfaces, I don’t think I will. I’ve made inquiries everywhere I’ve gone, and his name sparks no recognition anywhere.” She’d already told him all this, only a few hours ago, just before meeting her compatriots in the pub in Junon. And before that as well. But his memory seemed to be getting increasingly slippery.
“Well now…he has been out of action for awhile, I suppose,” he mused aloud. “But he cannot resist his true nature. He will surface eventually, in a most spectacular way I suspect.”
And he’d said that before too. But he refused to define what aspect of the man’s true nature might present itself in such a way as to be described as ‘spectacular’. She had the uneasy feeling that the lapse might well be a crucial one.
“Yes, sir. I was just working on the surveillance of the camp outside Midgar, as per your request,” she tentatively reminded him. “In fact, I was just about to slip into the camp with the Midgar refugees to make a grab for Avian Wulfe, when you pulled me back.” She carefully kept any hint of recrimination from her tone. He did not tolerate criticism well.
“Hmm…yes. I do apologize for that, Vendra. But I wanted to tell you of a decision I’ve made.” His face took on a sly cast that made her nervous.
“What would that be, sir?” She forced her tone to a careless blandness, despite the increase in her heart rate. “She could only imagine what strange ideas had grabbed a toehold in his cranium now.
“I’ve decided to put Julian back to work,” he informed her coolly.
“Julian? But why?"
His luminous eyes flicked with the strange lidless effect of a reptilian blink, and she promptly closed her mouth. She still had to try though. “Forgive me, sir. But do you think that’s wise? Julian has not been well since the resurrection procedure. Did the doctor clear him?” Gods, the man had been locked down in a cubicle in the infirmary raving at the top of his lungs only yesterday.
The boss smiled beatifically. “He’s much better, Vendra. And I’ve decided to use him to collect for me on the Northern Continent. Since I’ve had to sideline Ozwan and Baron to Mideel. And you are going to acquire Terrin Wulfe’s offspring for me, aren’t you?”
“I’m going to try, sir. He is surrounded by Turks 24-7, but I will do my best.”
“Turks. Bah.” He waved a dismissive hand in the air, a hand that she made tense note of when the appendage took on a rubbery consistency, elongating and stretching with his movement. “They are only well-trained lapdogs. Shinra’s pit bull, Tseng, is dead. And the imaginative troublemaker, Reno. Is he not dead as well?”
Vendra drew in a bracing breath. She knew her very next words might well condemn Ozzie to a slow painful death. It wasn’t that she was all that fond of him, despite their history. It was just that they needed him. They were shorthanded as it was. The main reason the boss would do such a crazy thing as to put a marginally sane man back to work, she suspected. She was starting to sense the whole operation slipping into tragic comedy. However, she decided her interests better served for Ozzie to take the heat instead of her. Which she would if the boss found out that she’d neglected to inform him of so serious a matter.
“No he is not,” she flatly responded.
The boss slowly rose from his chair to plant his hands on the desk as the cheerful smile faded from his wide mouth. She surreptitiously watched his hand flatten weirdly as he leaned his weight against the desktop to pin glowing eyes full of disgruntlement on her stiff face.
“He is not?” he inquired ominously.
Vendra fought the urge to run, shaking her head as she held his gaze. “No, he’s not. I saw him, sir. During my surveillance. Reno is alive and well.” A lascivious smile came to her painted lips and transformed her face into a captivating mask of pure evil. “For the moment.”
“You have a plan to rid the world of this bothersome gnat?” he queried with intrigue, his attention helplessly glued to her cruelly beautiful visage.
“Indeed I do,” she replied happily. And she would have so much fun doing it too. It had been too long since she’d had her way with Reno. And revenge was a dish best served up cold. Two birds with one stone. And all that. Trite adages indeed, but they fit her purposes.
The boss suddenly frowned, and Vendra’s warm fuzzy feeling vanished instantly. Had she annoyed him inadvertently?
“Did Ozwan lie to me, Vendra?” His voice carried a hint of pique.
His query sparked the memory of the words she’d thrown at Ozzie earlier in Junon. “One word from me…” She hadn’t been bragging. It would only take one word. A single word spoken in that instant. But truthfully, she couldn’t do that to him. Because he hadn’t lied to the boss. And she wouldn’t lie to the boss either.
“No, sir, Ozzie didn’t lie to you. He believes he killed Reno. He does even now, as I haven’t seen him again to inform him differently.”
“If you say so, Vendra.” He sounded highly skeptical of her testimony on Ozzie’s behalf.
Vendra scrambled for a plausible explanation that he would swallow. “The Turks do carry mastered materia with them. Perhaps they got to him before he died and simply healed him. And you do recall, sir, that Devon Lafferty’s daughter is with them,” she smoothly reminded him. “I believe you have obtained some intelligence about her ability to heal. And the child did escape Ozzie at the moment he transported, leaving her with Reno whom Ozzie assessed to be fatally wounded. Perhaps she intervened.”
“Hmm…well…” The boss drew away from the desk and strolled around the corner to approach her, trailing a finger along the desktop as he moved, a finger that stretched out against the surface like putty before snapping back into place. “I suppose I can accept your assessment…Vendra…”
Vendra’s guts tightened at the clear intention she read in his narrowed eyes. She fought the urge to take a step back as he came to a halt in front of her, much too close for comfort. He wove his fingers together behind his back and stared intently into her upturned face. A pleasured smile came to his lips.
“You will see that Reno of the Turks is not revived the next time, won’t you, Vendra? I would sorely like to be rid of him. He’s an annoying little bastard. And he’s too damn smart.”
“Yes…sir…” she vacantly replied as she kept her keen eyes pinned to his vacuous face. “I will…see to it.” She nodded almost as though to assure herself. Then she risked taking a step back, a move that she normally would not have dared, but her need to escape overwhelmed her good senses.
“Er...if we are finished here…sir…with our discussion…I should get back to the business of acquiring the…Wulfe…kid…before my window of…opportunity…closes…”
As if he weren’t too close already, the boss came one step nearer, unclasping his hands from behind his back with a little jerk. Vendra could easily imagine the sight of his fingers momentarily welded together before he’d exerted the effort needed to separate them. The man towered over six feet tall in his original human form, and despite her own willowy height, she now had to tilt her head far back to keep his strangely shifting face in sight. Obviously, her earlier assessment had been wrong. The man’s control over his own form left a bit to be desired today. Unconsciously, she took another step back despite her resolve to stay put. To her credit, she did manage to keep her revulsion from her tense face.
“I’m sure we have a few moments more to spend together, don’t we Vendra?” he queried in a smoky voice. He didn’t have to guess at her answer. He wouldn’t tolerate any but the correct one, despite his game playing. She simply nodded her acceptance because she didn’t think she could reply with any semblance of normality at that moment.
He wrapped a hand around her slender wrist, and at the tingling sensation against her skin, her worried eyes traveled there to find the man’s fingers oozing into trails of some green viscous substance that looked like octopus tentacles or…fat worms…only not as…substantial.
“Boss, don’t take this the wrong way…” she whispered huskily, a hint of reluctant awe in her voice. “…But I think maybe you should consider laying off the stuff for awhile. You’re starting to come…a little…unglued…”
She regretted her words the moment they came off her lips. Now she would most likely be forced to endure one of his temper tantrums. And his episodes of rage often ended up in disaster.
His luminous eyes followed her gaze down to the alien tentacles wrapped around her wrist, and he opened his mouth to speak, but she would never know what he would have said. Alarm claxon number '1' activated, identifiable by its high pitch and short, rapid bursts of sound, signifying a security breach in the northeast corridor. This particular alert had become such a regular occurrence around the place that Vendra instantly recognized the source. She had managed to escape again. Sometimes that crazy woman was too creative for her own good.
The boss jerked away from Vendra to glare in the direction of the flashing alarm light set into a panel atop his desk even as he slammed his hands to his ears to shut out the sharp sound. Vendra almost gagged as she quickly averted her eyes from the way his hands melted into his head at the force of the impact. Widely circumventing him, she swiftly crossed the room to shut off the alarm. Then she reluctantly swiveled on heel to face him as he drew his hands from his head with a disgusting slurp at the detachment.
“Do you want me to go retrieve her, sir?” she inquired hopefully. Anything to get her the hell out of that room.
“I should incinerate her and get it over with,” he growled irritably. But Vendra knew that he never would. He loved her, and he would give her anything she wanted. Except for her freedom.
“I will go find her for you, sir.” Vendra thought a more assertive suggestion might gain his concession.
“No,” he retorted sharply. “I’ll go retrieve her this time. She’s most likely gone to the central portal again. No one will see me there.”
Vendra tensely nodded. The central portal did seem to be her favorite destination, although she most likely didn’t know of the other portals. The boss kept her out of the loop. “Yes, sir. Do you want me to accompany you?”
“No, Vendra.” He narrowed his fiercely glowing eyes on her carefully impassive face. “I want you to get me that Wulfe boy. I’ll take care of her. You take care of him. Understand?”
She offered him a curt nod of assent and promptly headed for the door, but when she yanked sideways on the curving gilt door handle, she found the door wouldn’t open. Apprehensively, she turned back around to find him smiling at her with that creepy twisty smile of his.
“Was there something else, sir?” she queried obsequiously.
“I just wanted to remind you, Vendra, of how satisfied I will be to hear of Reno’s demise.”
The idea of the Turk’s impending death brought a genuine smile to her lips as well. “I will see to it personally, boss. It will be my pleasure.”
The door latch clicked beneath her fingers and swung ajar. She wasted no time, slipping through before the door had opened all the way to stride hastily across the anteroom to the wide corridor leading out. Behind her, he started laughing. Normally at first, but then his laughter grew overloud and out of control, the embodiment of madness.
Unconsciously, Vendra picked up her pace as the maniacal laughter echoed down the corridor behind her until she realized that she was running. Fully aware that he might be watching her via the facility’s surveillance system, she deliberately ground to a halt in the center of the hallway and forced herself to a fast purposeful walk even as she admitted to herself for the very first time that she might not get out of this deal alive. She decided then and there that she’d better start working out a viable contingency plan. But for now, she’d best satisfy her immediate objectives her employer had set out for her or she might find herself without the time to plan.
Avian Wulf. And then Reno of the Turks. After that, she'd get back to her search for Valentine. The first two tasks should be a cinch. The last had become a frustration. But in the end, she would win, and Vincent Valentine would be hers.
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