Yuffie paced impatiently back and forth in front of the cooling motorbike as she unconsciously chewed on a ragged fingernail. Every time someone rounded the barrier of crates that stood between the latrines and the encampment, and that someone wasn’t Avian Wulfe, she pinned the innocent passerby with dark eyes glittering murderously with her supreme annoyance, often sending those hapless targets made of less sturdy material backpedaling in retreat. She didn’t know how long she’d been waiting as she had no watch to consult, but she knew it had been much longer than fifteen minutes.
Yet another interloper ambled by, a young soldier who offered her a playful wink. She tried her killer glare on him, but he only grinned as he walked on, completely unfazed. She could hardly fathom his cheekiness, a Shinra lackey winking and smirking at such an illustrious member of the royal family of Wutai, as though she were some scantily clad girl lounging around looking for an easy pickup. She snorted in derision at the nerve of the guy, and then she suspiciously glanced down to find that damn wayward button on her shorts undone again. Casting a stealthy look around to insure that no one watched, she promptly fastened it up as she decided then and there that she’d wait only one minute longer, and then she planned to go and track the cowardly Avian Wulfe down. She’d run him straight into the ground in retribution if he made her give chase, because that was the only reason she would entertain for his absence. That he’d chickened out and rolled over on her, afraid to shake the Turks off his tail. She, Yuffie Kisaragi, future ruler of Wutai, would not be stood up by the likes of Mr. Wulfe.
Visibly fuming, she curtly counted down the seconds as she mentally reviewed her repertoire of persuasive techniques and ignored the curious glances of passersby who no doubt wondered what event she might be counting down to. Some of them uneasily looked around and then hurried on, as though they thought she’d done something ridiculous like plant an explosive device in a latrine. An amusing idea, now that she thought about it.
Two seconds away from her appointed call to action, Soldier bounded around the wall of crates closest to the latrines and happily barked at sight of her, instantly drawing her attention in the mutt’s direction just in time to see Avian appear right behind his scraggly pet. She smiled brightly in welcome, all her irritation at him instantly vanquished by his appearance, no matter how tardy. She’d been so positive that he’d talked himself out of the whole scheme and declined to accompany her that she could hardly believe he’d come. And she probably shouldn’t have believed it for a second, as her newly optimistic attitude turned out to be premature. In the next moment, Avian Wulfe extinguished her happiness as completely as if he’d spit on her birthday candles when, to her dismay, he offered her only a half-hearted smile in return, and then his eyes skated guiltily away from her face. At that instant, she knew Avian Wulfe had completely screwed up their plans somehow, and she discovered exactly how when Cloud Strife arrived on the scene with Red XIII padding along at the warrior’s side.
Cloud didn’t need to crack open his mouth for her to know that he knew. She found all the information she needed in his speculative Mako eyes. She threw her hands out in exasperated disgust. “You told him?!” Inflamed onyx eyes flew to Avian’s face in heated condemnation. “You ratted me out to Cloud?!”
Avian’s heavily plodding feet fell motionless a few feet from her, just out of her reach, and he slowly nodded his head. “It’s okay, though…really…”
“Okay!? The hell it’s okay!”
“Yuffie…just listen…” He swallowed hard against the knot in his throat. Yuffie Kisaragi was a world renowned hothead, and she looked completely pissed. He didn’t hold out much hope of her taking the time to listen before she pounced and shaved off his eyebrows with that razor sharp pinwheel of hers.
“You’re no fun at all, Wulfe,” she hotly accused. “You’ve sucked all the fun right out of my life, that’s what you’ve done! In fact…” She pointed an accusing finger at him. “…You’re a fun vampire! That’s what you are! You’d probably suck all the fun right out of the Gold Saucer if you had the chance!”
“The Gold Saucer?” he asked with feigned interest in an attempt to distract her. “I’ve never been there. Is it fun?” He realized his mistake the moment the words left his tongue. He clapped a hand over his willful mouth, but it was much too late.
“Well, you sure the hell will never know, Farm Boy! Because the moment your sad ass sets foot in the place, all the fun will be sucked right out.” She made a loud, obnoxious slurping sound to punctuate her argument.
“Chill, Yuffie,” Cloud coolly bade as he halted at Avian’s side. “We can talk about this.”
She leveled her implacable regard on the warrior’s impassive face and planted stubborn hands on her hips. “You can’t forbid me to go, Cloud Strife,” she bit out between gritted teeth. “I go where I damn well please, when I damn well want.”
He shrugged to signify his complete indifference. “I’m not the boss of you, Yuffie,” he bluntly informed her. “And I didn’t come to stop you.”
She nodded her head approvingly. “Well, good, Cloud. That’s what I like to hear.” She purposefully turned to the waiting bike, and grabbing the handlebars, swept one leg over to sit astraddle. “You coming, Wulfe? Or am I going alone?”
She reached for the ignition key, not bothering to look Avian’s way, not really caring anymore if he came or not. But she was going, and that was that. She’d make him sorry if he refused to come. She’d have a very nice visit on the farm without him.
Cloud unfolded his arms and strode over to jerk the key out of the ignition just as Yuffie would have laid her fingertips on it. He closed his captive treasure in a gloved fist and promptly stepped back out of spitting range. “We’re not quite finished here, Yuffie.”
Yuffie planted disgusted black eyes on his dispassionate face. “You know, I thought I sensed a great big ole ‘but’ in your easy surrender, Strife.” With an exaggerated huff of disdain, she sat back on the bike and pointedly folded her arms across her chest, her stiff posture daring them to try and budge her.
Avian held out a pleading hand. “Come on, Yuffie…just listen to him…”
With cool deliberation, she ponderously swiveled her head to carry her baleful, accusing glare to Wulfe’s face, taking her sweet time to make him sweat a little before she fully pinned him down with the brunt of her keen displeasure. Behind him, she spotted Reno and Elena as they emerged from behind the wall of crates. She sharply gasped aloud in outrage at his betrayal as her black eyes rounded in hot indignation. Did Wulfe’s perfidy know no bounds?
“Traitor!” she hissed at Avian. “You ratted me out to the Turks too?!”
“Huh?!” Avian’s face crumpled in confused dismay as he floundered for an explanation to account for her incomprehensible behavior, finding himself completely at a loss until he noticed her challenging eyes tracking something behind him. He promptly turned to glance over his shoulder, and his bewildered face cleared when Reno loomed into view with Elena at his side.
“Afternoon,” Reno politely greeted with a touch of his magrod against his forehead in casual salute.
“Hey…Reno…” Avian replied uneasily. Why was the Turk here?
He got his answer when Reno walked on past them all, coming to a stop several feet away to slouch back against a handy stack of crates along the opposite boundary of the latrine area. Elena continued on to the latrines, and Reno lazily watched her go until she entered one of the fiberglass compartments and let the door fly shut behind her. The Turk then let his eyes drift sleepily closed as he tuned his ears in the direction of the confrontational looking little group, content to listen from a distance. He already had a pretty good idea of what the ongoing discussion entailed, and his apparent drowsiness provided him cover for his intense interest in the conversation.
Mollified by the fact that the Turks were only there to visit the latrines, Avian wheeled back around to address Yuffie’s unfair accusation. “Hey, I didn’t tell the Turks anything,” he vehemently protested. “Reno just guessed.” Avian again clapped his hand over his capricious mouth.
Yuffie rolled her eyes in despair at his apparent idiocy. “Yeah. Reno guessed. Sure. Whatever.” She wasn’t all that worried about it anyway. She didn’t really consider the Turks any threat to her well-being.
“Maybe he didn’t guess,” Avian suddenly decided. “Maybe he heard you running your big mouth.”
”Hey!” She pointed a condemning finger at him. “He didn’t hear nothin’ outta this big mouth!” This time it was her turn to clap her hand over her mouth in dismay.
Avian grinned triumphantly at her slip, and Reno resisted a smile.
Feeling left out of the loop somewhat, Nanaki surrendered his position behind Cloud and skirted the small group to cross the ground to where Reno stood. He dropped to his haunches beside him and, with an impish cock of his head, opened the conversation with a provocative question. “So…Reno…have you yet reached a conclusion regarding the comparative value of one kiss over another?”
Reno barely cracked his eyelashes apart to peer down at him. “You’re relentless, Cat,” the Turk replied amiably. “And the answer is nope. Conditions haven’t been ripe to continue my exploration of the matter.” He closed his eyes again. ”Now shush for a few minutes. I’m listening.”
“Okay…” Nanaki dropped to his belly and rested his nose against one paw. “…Guess I’ll listen too.” He rolled his eye toward the testy Yuffie and her calm leader, both of whom had again faced off against the other, one combatant visibly annoyed, the other infuriatingly placid.
“Give me that key, Cloud Strife.” Yuffie held out her open hand in pointed demand. “You don’t want me to come and get it.”
“Come on and get it, Yuffie.” The tiniest of smirks tipped one corner of his mouth.
“I should.” She jutted out her lower lip in a pout, her bluff flatly called.
”You won’t,” he assured her.
“What do you care what I do anyway, Cloud Strife?” she huffed. “You are not my keeper.”
Cloud decided not to give voice to the thought foremost in his mind; that Yuffie could use a keeper, but he wasn’t taking the job. Instead, he sent an appraising sidelong look over at the lazy Turk. “Yuffie, I don’t really care what you do. I know you can take care of yourself.” Then Cloud spoke his next words more quietly, for the purposes of discretion. “But as I’m sure you are now very well aware, Avian has to be careful what he does and where he goes.”
“Yeah…yeah…I know…” She also darted a look over at the drowsing Turk. He didn’t appear to be paying them any mind, but she’d rather he didn’t find out about her eavesdropping. It was the principle of the thing, after all. Besides, she didn’t feel like getting into a fight with the Turks right now. She wanted to hit the road and be gone with no more distractions to slow her down.
Cloud synced into his previously planned speech, and feeling incrementally more amenable to what he had to say, her dark eyes returned to his earnest face as she turned back to listen. “Now, Avian says he wants to go to the farm with you, Yuffie, and that’s fine with me. I’m not the boss of him either.”
“Good,” she interjected, holding out her hand again. “So give me the key.”
Cloud shook his head in pointed refusal.
She frowned in disgruntlement. “There’s another ‘but’ lurking somewhere around, isn’t there, Cloud?”
Cloud’s luminous eyes twinkled in amusement at her discerning question. “Just a little one, Yuffie. Red and I want to go too, if it’s okay. At least as far as Kalm. Then if there’s trouble, we’ll be along to help. But after that, you’re on your own, you understand.”
Yuffie narrowed her gaze on the warrior with keen suspicion. “You’re asking my permission to go along, Cloud? Is this some kind of sneaky psychological ploy?”
Cloud shook his head in firm denial. “No, Yuffie. Red and I are going to Kalm to see about getting up a search for Tifa and Vincent. We’ve already talked to Cid about it. And he thinks it’s past time we got on it. Cid’s gonna be moving people from here to Junon from now on, and he doesn’t really need our help around here. And Tifa and Vincent are still out there somewhere. So yeah, I guess I am askin’ your permission to go along with you and Avian.”
Thinking on Cloud’s request, Yuffie placed a finger against pursed lips and wrinkled her brow in a show of deep consideration. “Well…I don’t know, Cloud. It’s not like you need a babysitter. Let me think about this for a minute…”
Vendra stealthily slipped up alongside the first latrine in the row and paused there with one hand planted against the wall of the fiberglass receptacle. Cautiously, she peered around the forward corner to appraise the current situation. A sly smile came to her lovely, pink-tinted lips. The pieces were falling so easily into their proper place, just for her. She could not have planned it better if she’d tried. Her mark, Avian Wulfe, stood in full view, only a dozen steps away from her and a handful of steps from the couple who seemed locked in some sort of verbal confrontation over the handlebars of a motorcycle, He stood close enough to take part in their conversation but still remained detached. At the moment, Wulfe had his back to her, his attention keenly drawn to the ongoing discussion as he listened intently to every word. She only had to lure him away from the preoccupied couple for the space of a few short seconds. That’s all the time she needed to take him, because she didn’t plan to hang around long enough for Avian’s companions to lay hands on her.
An ever patient and meticulous woman, Vendra stood in place for a few moments longer, surveying all the angles before she moved to act, and during that time she noticed that the young man would occasionally break his attention away from the pair by the motorbike to glance off toward to his right. Warily, she took a single step out of hiding in an attempt to discover what drew his interest, but she saw nothing in that direction but a stack of crates. From her angle, she couldn’t view the forward edge of the stack, but she decided that whatever he might be looking at that far out didn’t impact her in any way. If she made her play carefully, Wulfe would be long gone before anyone could get into motion, especially anyone beyond the immediate perimeter of the latrine area, because she meant to bring him in the opposite direction. And the dog lying on the ground beside his feet gave her the means. A gratifying sight to be sure, as she’d prepared in advance for just such an opportunity. Reaching into the pocket of her skirt, she drew out the dog whistle and raised it to her lips.
The silent whistle shrilled into receptive dog ears, and Soldier’s head alertly lifted from his paws to carry curious brown eyes her way. With a bright smile of encouragement, she raised the dog biscuit out in front of her and waved it invitingly. Ever gullible and always trusting, especially when there was food to be had, Soldier promptly erupted to all fours and bounded her way with his tail wagging excitedly.
Beside the Turk, the startled red beast lifted his head to look around. “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Reno asked, not bothering to so much as crack one eyelid open. “I hear a lot of stuff right now.”
Nanaki rolled his eye upward to look into the Turk’s disinterested face, all the while pondering the meaning of ‘stuff’. “A sharp, high frequency whistle?” he queried. “Did you hear that in all the ‘stuff’?”
“No, I didn’t hear that.”
Nanaki listened intently for a moment, but the sound didn’t repeat. “Oh well, I only heard it once. It’s probably nothing.” He laid his nose on his paw again.
“I think you’re imagining things, Cat,” Reno absently chided. “I think I would have heard a sharp, high frequency whistle.” Those types of things didn’t usually escape his attention, especially when he was paying attention.
Nanaki shook his head against his paw. He knew what he’d heard. “No, I didn’t imagine it. But…” He paused to consider his idea.
“But…now that I think about it, you probably couldn’t hear it.”
“Why wouldn’t I? Nothing wrong with my hearing.”
“Well…it was too high-pitched. You know, like a dog whistle.”
Reno’s eyes popped open. “A dog whistle?” he sharply queried. “Here? Why?”
Vendra held the biscuit high, forcing the dog to leap for it. As soon as the dog lunged up on his back paws to snatch it from her hand, she let out a loud shriek in feigned injury and collapsed to the ground. Crying out in contrived distress, she let the dog biscuit slip from her fingers to fall into the folds of her skirt. The oblivious mutt dove for the discarded biscuit, rooting it out with an eagerly snuffling nose. The treat came easily to his efficient nostrils, and he snapped it up in his teeth to happily chomp it into bits. Instantly drawn by the woman’s cries, Avian looked around in alarm, and at sight of his dog standing four-footed over the shrieking woman, his face filled with horror. Without hesitation, he dashed toward her.
“Soldier!” he yelled as he ran. “Get away from her, you stupid dog!”
At the exasperation in his master’s voice, Soldier scampered away, and Avian ground to a halt beside the woman. “Gee, lady, I’m really sorry,” he apologized. “He usually doesn’t act like that. Are you hurt?” He bent and reached down a hand to help her up. “Please tell me you’re okay.”
She tremulously smiled up at him. “No…no…it’s…alright. He just scared me. Dogs scare me.” She stretched her hand up to meet his.
Behind him, Cloud and Yuffie had both turned to watch in curious fascination, but neither of them considered the situation a threat, until Reno burst out from behind the crates with a startled Nanaki leaping after him in hot pursuit, his left hand already ripping the magrod from beneath his right arm where he’d tucked it. Long conditioned to react to trouble, Cloud promptly followed Reno’s lead, his hand already reaching for the hilt of his sword as he erupted into motion. Yuffie bailed off the bike and tore out after him.
With no time to reach him, Reno opened his mouth to yell out a warning, cursing his long legs for moving too slowly. He’d already raised the rapidly charging magrod to ready position even knowing that he couldn’t discharge the weapon with Avian in the way, but to his great relief, the young man suddenly stumbled backward out of range of the woman before the Turk could manage to get a single syllable off his lips.
Avian’s inexplicable retreat left Vendra’s field of vision unobstructed, clearly revealing to her startled eyes the sight of the determined redheaded Turk headed toward her in full locomotion. With a loud and vulgar curse, Vendra quickly averted her face and activated the orb beneath her fingers to instantly vanish in the resultant explosion of white light just as Reno discharged his weapon to eject a blast of electromagnetic energy that fruitlessly dissipated in empty air with a loud crack
Frowning deeply in concern, Reno skidded to a stop beside an ashen faced Avian who still had his eyes covered against the after effects of so brilliant a flash. Nanaki arrived on the Turk’s heels, and Cloud and Yuffie were only steps behind, both with weapons already in hand. When they saw that the danger, which they’d never truly identified to their satisfaction, had seemingly passed, both uneasily sheathed their weapons.
Reno took Avian by the elbow and turned him around to face him as the younger man drew his hand from his face. “You okay, Kid?”
Avian numbly nodded his head, his eyes glazed with stupefaction. “Yeah…I guess so…” His eyes suddenly sharpened on the Turk’s tense face. “What just happened here, Reno?”
“You almost got ‘napped, that’s what almost happened here,” the Turk coldly replied as he released Avian to stalk over to the spot where the woman had fallen. He walked back and forth across the whole area from the crates to the latrine, examining the ground with intent eyes.
“She had a dog whistle,” Nanaki said in wonder, looking up into his companions’ faces. “I heard it.”
“A dog whistle,” Avian repeated in surprise. “She used my dog to trick me?”
“Yeah, she did,” Reno curtly responded as he looked around at Avian. “She should’ve had you too. What made you back off?”
“Well, first it was her boots,” he tensely explained. “And then I remembered what you said, Reno.”
“What about her boots?” Cloud curtly asked.
Avian turned worried amber eyes to the warrior’s face as he addressed him in turn. “She had leather boots…with a riding heel. Just like we talked about before. And metal toe plates…with decorations on them. I guess I noticed them because they didn’t really go with her dress.”
“Good eye, kid,” Reno said approvingly. “Saved your ass this time, I guarantee it.”
“And what did he say?” Yuffie interjected with a nod towards Reno, her curiosity burning a hole in her brain.
Avian opened his mouth to answer, but Reno stepped forward and bluntly interrupted. “Look, don’t worry about what I said. We don’t have time to chat. I heard you guys talking, and I sort of know what you’re planning. I recommend you get on with it and get the hell out of here. They know he’s here now, and they’ll make another try for him. For all we know, she might not be alone. They may already have several operatives planted here in the camp somewhere. And next time, they might have better luck.”
“You’re right,” Cloud readily agreed. “They’ll be back. But we won’t be here.”
“But how’re we all gonna go?” Yuffie questioned with worry in her dark eyes, all traces of her previous bluster and contrariness long gone. “Red can’t go on a motorbike.”
“Well, it’s what I was gonna tell you.” Cloud turned to pointedly explain. “Cid suggested that we could take one of the trucks. To haul any equipment we need for the search. I’d planned to wait until later. Nightfall. But looks like we better not wait.
”Okay, so we all go in the truck,” Yuffie readily agreed.
Cloud quickly shook his head. “No, Red and I will go in the truck. And we’ll take the dog. You and Avian can each take a bike. That way, if we have to split up for some reason we have that option, and the bikes will give the two of you more mobility.”
“Good idea.” Reno nodded in judicious agreement.
“Let’s get it done then,” Yuffie said grimly. “Let’s get him out of here.” She snagged a handful of Avian’s sleeve to promptly tow him away, but he impatiently yanked his arm free and turned to confront Reno.
“What about Caitlin and Rachel?” he queried anxiously. His worried amber eyes broadcasted his deep concern even more than his strained words did. “Shouldn’t they go too?”
“Don’t worry, Kid.” The Turk laid the powered down magrod against one shoulder. “I’m loading Caitlin and Rachel in the chopper and leaving for Junon. ASAP. Things have gotten way too lively around here for me.”
With an offhand wave completely at odds with his compelling sense of urgency, Reno whirled away to make good on his words and strode swiftly across the hard-packed ground to the latrine that Elena had seemingly taken up permanent residence inside. He vigorously tapped the magrod against the door, startling a loud curse from the occupant inside.
“Come on, Elena!” he called out. “You stay in there any longer, they’re gonna charge you rent!”
“I’ve only been in here a few minutes, Reno!” Her muffled protest came through the door. “Can’t you hold it?”
“Well, hurry up. We’re leaving.” His message duly delivered, he spun on heel and departed with a single-minded plan to light a fire under Caitlin Shinra posthaste. She could protest all she wanted, but this time his word would be law.
Only seconds later, Elena emerged from within and looked all around, only to find no sign of anyone she knew. “Leaving?” She snapped aloud to herself. “Left, I’d say. Where the hell is the fire?” With a toss of her head, she let the door fly shut behind her and she hitched her bag onto her shoulder and hurried away.
“Reeve…I…don’t know what to say…” Caitlin said uneasily. She knew what she wanted to say, but it flew in the face of her decision. And she had to admit, he’d taken her completely by surprise.
“Just answer my question, Cait,” he gruffly replied. “It’s very simple.”
“No, Reeve, it’s not simple at all,” she irritably shot back as frustration at her own constant wavering overwhelmed her. She wanted to take both hands full of her own hair and tear it right out of her head. She knew her conflict rose from constantly making decisions that were always in direct opposition to what she truly wanted, but she didn’t have any choice. Her life wasn’t her own anymore. Heidi’s safety and security had to come first, even before her happiness. Even if Reeve hated her in the end. And he would hate her, she knew.
“I want you to stay, Cait,” Reeve stubbornly told her, his intent eyes darkening on her pained face. She found her own wistful gaze trapped inside his longing regard. “Please stay, Cait. We can run the business together. Just as you always dreamed we would.”
“I…can’t, Reeve,” she softly denied him, the fist of her reluctant refusal squeezing her heart unmercifully in her chest. “Not now. I have to go home…”
“Can’t? Or won’t, Caitlin?”
“Why can’t you?”
“…I have things I have to do…I have a life…there…”
“Is there someone else?” he impatiently demanded.
Her answer sounded feeble to her own ears, and he didn’t fail to notice.
His gaze narrowed on her face, his dark eyes stabbing into hers. “If there is someone else, Caitlin, just tell me,” he implored. “And I’ll shut the hell up.”
She opened her mouth to deny it more firmly, but then she realized that there was someone else. Not in the way he meant, but definitely someone very important in her life. And with that acknowledgement came the realization that she could tell Reeve about their daughter. The decision she’d made earlier when she’d tormented herself for so long, alone at that table after Reno had left her, wasn’t necessary anymore. He’d opened up his heart to her in a way that she’d never expected or predicted, and she thought that maybe, at that moment, he would understand. If ever she planned to tell him about his daughter, now was the time. In fact, she couldn’t hope for a better time to confess everything.
“Yes, Reeve…there is someone else…” she weakly started. “I should have…told you…already…”
Reno strode into the tent with determination written in every inch of his lanky body. “Caitlin,” he commanded as he came to a halt at the head of the table, demanding green eyes zeroing directly in on her startled face. “We have to go.”
She rose to her feet in alarm. “What? Right now?”
“Yes, right now. There’s been a development. It’s dangerous to stay here any longer. Get your things together.”
“What, right now?” she repeated in disbelief.
He frowned at her seeming density. “I wasn’t talking to hear myself talk, Caitlin. So get a move on.”
Reno stalked over to the cot where Rachel slept and bent to stir her to wakefulness. She sleepily opened her blue eyes to blink up at him. He knelt on one knee beside her cot, and she promptly reached both hands out for him as he gathered her into his arms. With Rachel secured in his possession, he rose and turned on heel to gauge Caitlin’s progress, only to find that she had yet to move so much as a muscle. His irritation at her lackadaisicalness erupted all over his normally impassive face and set fire to his green eyes.
Reno’s uncustomary air of urgency and impatience inevitably sank into Caitlin’s benumbed mind, and finally she did get moving as Reno had commanded, lurching into motion and rounding the table to hurry down the aisle between the cots with the intention of retrieving her packed duffle bag from beneath the cot she’d slept in last night.
Reeve slowly came to his feet as she rushed past him. “Caitlin…”
Elena dashed into the tent and halted at sight of Reno holding Rachel against his chest. Then her eyes flew across Reeve’s stricken face to land on Caitlin who was down on her knees by then, dragging her duffle bag from under the cot. “What’s going on?” she asked uneasily.
“We’re flying out, Elena,” Reno coolly replied. “Right now. So get your things and Rachel’s, and load up.”
For once, Elena didn’t argue, but headed for her favorite chair in the corner where she’d stashed the bags from her shopping spree in Kalm. “What about Avian?” she thought to ask.
“He’s traveling with Avalanche now.”
Elena merely nodded. She might not like that bunch much, but she could hardly fault their fighting skill. Avian couldn’t have chosen better company.
Caitlin came back up the aisle with her duffle bag slung over her shoulder, and Reeve stepped into her path to meet her. “Caitlin, we have to finish this.”
“I can’t, Reeve,” she said lowly with a shake of her head. “I can’t stay.” And hadn’t that always been the truth?
“So that’s it then?”
“Yes…no…oh hell…I don’t know.”
“Caitlin, come on,” Reno urged her on from the doorway as Elena walked out ahead of him. “You’ll have to do this later. It’s not safe here anymore.”
Caitlin touched soothing fingers to his sleeve. “Reeve, I’ll come back. When it’s safe. In a month, maybe. We still have legal business to wrap up. We’ll talk then. Okay?” Her azure eyes pleaded with him to agree, and finally he did, not so much because of her promise, but because Reno’s adamant message had finally soaked into his head to sway him from his steadfast objective. Caitlin’s safety had to come first, certainly well ahead of his own selfish desires. He conceded with a weary nod of his head as he folded his arms defensively across his chest. “Okay, Caitlin. Whatever you say. Just…please…be safe…”
Suddenly. Reeve remembered that he’d meant to speak to her about a few matters. His plans for the refugees of Midgar for one thing. All the notations he’d jotted down to discuss with her. But most importantly, he’d planned to speak to her about the Turks. He wanted to make sure they stayed with her when she went home. He knew very well that she wouldn’t safe there anymore. If he could find her, someone else could find her too. He landed imploring eyes on her face. “Cait, please take the Turks with you. When you go back. At least give me that much.”
Caitlin dragged in a shaky breath and regretfully shook her head, stubbornly denying him his one request, because she knew he needed the Turks more than she did. Once she returned home to the island she would be safe, but he would still be here, stuck in a very dangerous position. “The Turks already have their orders, Reeve,” she firmly informed him, her tone clearly speaking to her inflexibility regarding her position. “I won’t need them where I’m going. I don’t want them there.”
“Caitlin, let’s go,” Reno curtly commanded.
“I have to go, Reeve…”
He barely managed to nod his head, forced to concede out of the need for haste. Unable to look at her anymore, he tore his eyes away from hers to stare off into the murky depths of the tent.
Caitlin offered him a tremulous smile of apology as she searched his profile for assurance, but he kept his gaze carefully averted. Loath to leave him even though she knew she had to go, she slowly sidled around his tall unmoving frame, brushing gentle fingers against the back of his hand in a gesture of tentative reassurance as she reluctantly drew away.
Reeve didn’t turn to watch her go, and with an aching heart, she quickly gathered up all the folders and her sketchpad from the table to haphazardly tuck the whole lot beneath her arm. She leveled a last mournful gaze at her husband’s back despite Reno’s narrow-eyed glare, and then at an imperative gesture from the Turk, she finally surrendered and hurried to precede the impatient Reno out the door.
And just like that, she was gone. The tension required to keep his emotions in check abruptly seeped from his body, and Reeve limply dropped his arms to his sides to ponderously retrace his steps to the table with weighted feet. His exhaustion abruptly rushed in to zap the remainder of his dwindling energy, and feeling approximately as used up as an empty toilet paper spool, and just about as useless, he dropped wearily into the chair he’d so recently vacated. Staring blindly down at the tabletop, seeing nothing but the pleading eyes of his wife inside his mind, he sat perfectly still and listened closely until he heard the chopper rotors thump into life. For a fleeting moment, he thought he might rise from the chair and step outside to watch her leave, to wave goodbye while he stole one last glimpse of her face, but in the end he couldn’t find the will to go. In fact, he couldn’t manage to move a single one of his enervated muscles until the rhythmic whomping of the chopper blades grew faint and completely faded in the distance. Only then did he make the concerted effort to reach out with one hand and draw his handheld computer with its attached keyboard toward him.
He stared at the dead monitor in bewilderment as he reexamined their whole conversation from start to finish, with particular emphasis on the very last part, all that she’d said after he’d asked her to stay with him. In the end, he didn’t know what to think. She’d almost said yes, he thought. And she’d said no. But then she seemed to waffle with indecision as though she wrestled with some capricious demon inside. She’d given him hope, and then she’d dumped him into despair. And then she’d clearly started to tell him that there was someone else. And in the end, she’d left. Yes, she’d promised to meet with him again, but he doubted that she would. Not to talk about this. In a month or so, they would meet at an appointed time in some quiet stuffy office with cold fluorescent lighting and with her obsequious lawyer present to provide a damper on any personal discussion. They’d sign off on all the legal papers, including the one granting her a divorce from him, and that would be that. In fact, she wouldn’t even have to be there. Her lawyer could represent her. He already knew that she planned to go home. Tomorrow or the next day she would return to the remote island where she’d lived in isolation for ten years, and once there inertia would take her, and there she would stay. She thought she would be safe there, so certain of it, in fact, that she believed that her staff would provide security enough that she didn’t need the Turk’s protection there. She had clearly and stubbornly voiced her refusal to have them there. But he didn’t believe it. He knew in his guts, in his heart, that wasn’t safe there. Not anymore. Thanks to his meddling. If he could find out where she lived when he didn’t even know she was alive, any motivated person could find out. And someone that already knew she was alive had already exhibited an unhealthy interest in her. He’d hoped she would agree to stay with him, take up permanent residence with him in Junon, with the Turks close to hand to keep her safe, but his hopes had all been in vain.
Absently, he poked a finger against the power button and vacantly watched the computer boot to life. For almost five minutes, he stared blankly at the glowing screen and the arrow cursor flashing steadily in invitation, his hand lying curled alongside the device. The gears turned relentlessly in his brain as he solemnly scrutinized all his options, and finally he blew out a long noisy breath of surrender and stretched out his fingers to draw the small keyboard nearer. With both hands, he squared the keypad up on the table in front of him, and then he put his fingers to the keys and held them there, unmoving, biting his lower lip in thought. He found that he had to force his fingers into motion, but once he got them going they seemed to act on their own volition, moving with unusual clumsiness through the keystrokes that would bring up the messaging program. Once there, he tapped in the code word that would access the special message program he would need for his crazy scheme with one index finger.
Several seconds passed as he sat with his finger on the enter key and senselessly pondered on how irritated the recipient of his message would be at the trite appellation he’d arbitrarily designated for him, and then with a grimace of annoyance at how trivial a factor it would play in the end, especially as he'd never know about it, he stabbed his finger down on the enter key to bring up the password prompts to enter the dedicated program. For the second time in less than a month, he meticulously and ponderously entered each sequential password one by one with hard jabs of his index finger, tapping out one key after another until he’d entered every required entry but for the last one. The one he’d purposely devised to stop him in his tracks. The one that would force him to shut the computer down because it would remind him of how close he teetered on the brink of betrayal.
He stared tensely at the final password prompt for a long time. How long he couldn’t say. And he might have stared at it forever without ever entering anything there, frozen in that space of time where he couldn’t go forward and he dared not go back, if Andy Coakley hadn’t eventually come looking for him. The young soldier tentatively poked his head in the door, his tense face relaxing only incrementally when he found the missing executive sitting there at the table, because he could clearly see that the man looked a haggard wreck.
“Mr. Alexander, are you alright?” he questioned nervously.
Reeve didn’t bother to look up, the blinking cursor hypnotically beckoning to him. “Leave me, Andy,” he curtly commanded. “For a few minutes more,” he added in a softer tone, an automatic reparation of his own harsh words.
Bothered by the entranced cast of the executive’s face as well as the dullness of his voice, Andy wanted to protest. He wanted to insist that the man rest for awhile. Or eat something. Anything that would bring color to his face and life to his speech. But it wasn’t his place. The executive expected him to obey, and he would.
“Yes, sir,” he gruffly replied.
Reeve showed no sign that he’d even heard him, so Andy dutifully withdrew from the tent. Appropriating the folding chair that the Turks had left outside the tent, he slumped down into the seat to watch the distant activity at the gate and to wait.
Vendra stood up from behind the outcropping of rock she’d ducked behind when the Shinra chopper had flown uncomfortably close before swooping out to the sea. She had no doubt that the Turks and their charges were on board. After her failed attempt to snatch the Wulfe kid from under their noses, they had no choice but to go. The camp had become overrun with people in no time, and any semblance of security would be impossible to maintain.
She also had no doubt as to their destination. They hadn’t even tried to hide it, because it was pointless to try. With the Shinra facility atop the Midgar plate trashed, the Turks had only one destination left to them that would provide a secure location. And that would be Junon Base.
Junon would be her next destination as well. She had to concede, even in the face of her bitter failure, that matters had actually gone in her favor. Without a doubt, it would be easier to fulfill the requirements of her agenda in Junon. She would definitely get another shot at the Wulfe kid there, and the city environment would offer her more options. Additionally, her plan to erase Reno from the land of the living, a matter she was doubly motivated to complete in the wake of their barely averted clash at the Midgar camp, would certainly be simpler to accomplish in Junon, because Reno would eventually find the time to hit the pubs for a long night of drinking and womanizing. The fun-loving Turk would inadvertently make himself fatally vulnerable in that venue, and she planned to take full advantage of that fact. A honeyed smile of anticipation curved her tinted lips at how pleasurable taking advantage of Reno of the Turks might turn out to be.
A distant thrumming reached her ears, and she turned sharp eyes in the direction of the camp to track down the source of the sound, eventually zeroing in on the airfield where she could see the engines of one of the Gelnikas firing to life one by one. Always amazed that the clumsy contraptions could even get off the ground, much less fly, she wandered idly out to the rim of the bluff to watch the plane taxi onto the packed earth of the primitively drawn runway.
Within the span of a few minutes, the pilot successfully herded the humongous mechanical beast onto the mark and subsequently gave it some throttle. Slowly and laboriously, the cumbersome beast gathered speed, roaring ever closer to the end of the runway and the Midgar coastline, looking for all the world as though it would plow right into the sea, but at the last minute almost surprising her by pulling enough wind beneath its broad wings to lumber up off the ground and into the air.
Gaping in fascination like the little girl she’d been in some long ago life, she watched the plane skim out across the surface of the sea with its shadow giving chase beneath it, looking almost graceful now that it was airborne, gaining altitude as it went, eventually rising way up into the deepening blue of the late afternoon sky. She raptly tracked the plane as the pilot banked the aircraft off toward Junon in the wake of the long departed chopper. All too soon, the plane grew indistinguishably small in the distance and disappeared from her sight, leaving her more than a little disappointed once it was gone. Until the distant thrum of the second Gelnika’s prop engines reached her ears, and she eagerly turned.
Again, Vendra watched the second Gelnika depart down the makeshift runway, so enthralled with the take-off that she didn’t even notice the simultaneous departure of a single lumbering truck with its dual motorcycle escort from the opposite boundary of the camp. In fact, by the time the plane had been swallowed by distance, finally relinquishing her attention to other matters, the ground vehicles had already vanished from her sight around the curve of the city wall, leaving only a wispy cloud of suspended dust in the air.
Vendra expelled a weary sigh full of boredom and took one last encompassing look around the congested encampment, noting the military presence everywhere. Then she absently raised a finger to the orb. She could conceive of no reason whatsoever to remain in that locale a second longer. In the next second, she evaporated from sight in the attendant white explosion of light.
Reeve finally stirred in his chair to peer out the door into the failing sunlight. He didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there staring at that tiny screen, but he knew it had been a long time. The oblique cast of the sun’s rays told him that. And for all his thinking, he’d managed to get no closer to inputting the required keystrokes. Stuck on high center, as it were. Pointlessly spinning his wheels and going nowhere.
How did one make the decision to violate an oath? He knew the transgression would not be taken lightly, and a damn good explanation would be expected. But he could justify it, couldn’t he? Was this not a dire emergency? Was this not the whole reason this forbidden avenue of communication had been agreed upon in the first place? And did he even truly have a choice? He couldn’t protect her, and she wouldn’t let the Turks protect her. If he had any hope in hell of ensuring her safety, this was the way. The only means available to him. His last resort. The only one who could watch over her without her knowing. The only one who could stay close without her seeing. He’d wanted to be the one to take care of her, but she wouldn’t let him. So no, she’d left him no choice. It didn’t even matter if she didn’t love him anymore. In fact, he imagined that she probably didn’t. But he loved her desperately, and he always would. Until the day he died. Caitlin’s life was worth a hundred broken promises to him, and fortunately, for his peace of mind, he only had to break one.
Reeve took a steadying breath and gently touched a finger against the ‘r’ key. Then in quick succession he tapped out the ‘a’, ‘t’,’f’,’i’,’n’, and the final ‘k’. Only one key left to initiate the forbidden contact. The password he'd concocted to make him stop and think hardly gave him pause. He'd already thought on the matter too long. With a swipe of his hand against his forehead, he dashed away a trickle of sweat that ran from his hairline. Some passerby suddenly spoke just outside and made him jump in his chair. Deliberately, he sat back and drew in several slow deep breaths in an attempt to force the tenseness from his body and his mind. Then before he could talk himself into changing his course of action, he threw his hand up to the keyboard and pressed the enter key
And he instantly regretted the act. Ached for the lost opportunity to take it back.
Madness. Complete madness. The height of foolhardiness. What had he been thinking? What could he possibly say? He could hardly imagine how he would react. Sweet Shiva…he’d forgotten again. The terms had changed. The dynamic would be irrevocably altered. Once he knew. But…the deed was done. He could invoke all the gods in the heavens as loudly as he wished, but he couldn’t undo the consequences of his rash decision.
Reeve slumped bonelessly in his chair at the fecklessness of his actions. Of course, he could just turn off his computer and disconnect the link. But the initial contact had already been made. He had to explain himself now, given that he’d activated the emergency contact. Otherwise, his friend would wonder at his game. Besides, he still needed him. An inarguable fact. And now he could only wait and see. Maybe the summons wouldn’t be answered. He could expect recriminations at the very least, if it were. He wondered then, how far a friendship would carry him when one party had nothing to gain and the other had everything to lose. He would know the answer, one way or another, all too soon. And until he knew, he couldn’t go. Letting his head fall limply against the back of the chair, he finally permitted his weary eyelids to drift closed with the intention of resting his burning eyes for only a few minutes, but within seconds he’d fallen into a slumber too long denied.
Barrett Wallace headed across the Kalm square toward the residence where Cloud had reported that his daughter was staying with Elmyra, wending his way as swiftly as he could through the crowd that congested the village center. He’d arrived a lot later than he’d planned due to the fact that the river chocobo had stepped in a hole and gone lame, forcing him to walk the bird a third of the way into town. And even after he’d arrived in Kalm, it had taken him a while to locate the bird’s owner. When he’d finally found the man in the pub, half into his cups, he’d been very elated to see his beloved ‘Matilda’, and surprisingly, he hadn’t been overly concerned about the bird’s leg, citing some miracle liniment that would ‘fix er right up’. He’d even refused the gil that Barrett had offered to pay him, stubbornly reminding him of the fact that the Avalanche hero, Cloud Strife, had already paid him. So Barret had finally thrown up his hands in surrender and gone on, leaving the man to his precious bird, not bothering to point out the fact that there existed more than one Avalanche hero because, frankly, he didn’t care to have his identity known. Of course, Cloud wouldn’t be please about it either, but apparently the word had gotten around.
Eagerly, Barrett sought out the window of the tower of the home his daughter inhabited, and to his utter astonishment, he found her straightaway. But not before she had found him. He supposed it wasn’t that hard, as he tended to stand head and shoulders above any company he might find himself in, but he still found himself in awe of her observational skills, even though he should be used to it by now.
Marlene waved wildly at him, bobbing up and down in the window in her excitement. He couldn’t help but laugh, and chuckling his delight, he grinned broadly at her and swept his arm high above his head as he waved back. At the sign that he’d finally noticed her there in the window, Marlene promptly disappeared from his sight, bringing a frown of disgruntlement to his face, until he realized that he knew exactly where she’d gone.
Picking up his pace, he shoved his way around and through the people in his way, obliviously ignoring whatever curses and protests he evoked by his actions, knowing the moment any annoyed person got a good look at him, specifically at his hulking size and ugly, scarred countenance, that would be all the complaining he’d hear.
Shortly, he arrived at the front stoop of the residence just as the wooden door flew wide in an exhibition of perfect timing. A little streak of a human being flew out and leapt from the topmost step straight into the air, secure in the knowledge that her ‘Papa’ would snag her right up into his arms. Which he promptly did, snatching her up against his barrel chest to hug her tightly to a heart bursting with joy.
“Papa, I missed you,” she bluntly informed him, and a gentle smile came to his lips as he laid his cheek against her soft hair.
“Baby…I missed you too,” he gruffly murmured.
She started wriggling against him so hard that if he hadn’t been holding her so closely he might have dropped her. “Ride me on your shoulders, Papa.” Her feet flailed wildly against him, as though she thought she could propel her way to her favorite seat on her own steam. “Please,” she remembered to add.
“You’re gettin’ too big to ride up there, baby,” he teased.
“Nuh uh,” she protested with a frown. “I’ll never be too big,” she added in bright assurance.
Conceding that she might be dead right, he swung her up onto his broad shoulder as easily as one might don a hat, grinning so widely he though his face would crack. Then he dipped his hand into his vest pocket to draw out the shiny lump of coal as she comfortably wriggled into her new seat.
“What happened to your ear, Papa?” she asked with marked concern, cautiously touching a finger to the inflamed cut in the cartilage. He grimaced at her touch as well as at her question. His daughter’s observational powers were obviously not diminished by excitement.
“Uh…a wild chocobo bit me?” he tried half-heartedly.
“Nuh uh,” she vehemently denied in blatant disbelief.
“Hmm…I got into an argument?” he honestly confessed.
She pasted a stern look on her face, and leaned her head down to look into his eyes. “You shouldn’t fight, Papa,” she lectured with a chiding shake of a tiny finger before his nose.
“What? Are you my mama now?” he queried in mock concern.
She giggled at his silliness. “I can’t be your mama,” she informed him. “You’re too big.”
At least she hadn’t said he was too old. He held up the lump of coal for her to see. “Look what I brought you, Marlene.”
Reverently, she reached out to take it from him.
”I did get your message, you see.”
Nodding happily, she beamed her delight as she turned the rock in her fingers, watching the late afternoon sunlight glint off its glossy surfaces.
“You be sure and put that up, baby,” he advised. “For the next time.”
Barrett blinked in confusion, until he recognized that the question hadn’t come from his daughter, but from the doorway behind him. He slowly turned on heel to bring Elmyra into view. “Good afternoon, Ma’am,” he politely greeted.
“Good afternoon, yourself, Mr. Wallace,” she coolly replied. “I’m happy to see that you’ve made it back in one piece.”
They studied each other for a long moment, one with a hint of censure, the other with a great deal of wariness. Then Elmyra relented with a self-deprecating little smile. “I’ll bet your're hungry, Mr. Wallace.”
“We were just getting ready to sit down to dinner. You’re welcome to join us.”
“Well, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”
“Not at all, Mr. Wallace. You can tell me all about Midgar.”
“You won’t like what you hear,” he warned .
“Then we’ll talk about the weather.”
”We can read “The Chocobo Dance” again,” Marlene chirped in as Barrett carried up onto the stoop.
“Oh boy…can’t wait,” he grumbled.
Marlene just laughed and tugged playfully at his hair. She knew when the time came, he would happily read it with her.
“It’s good to be home, Marlene,” he murmured.
“This isn’t home, Papa,” she reminded him in a discreet whisper.
“Home is wherever you are, baby,” he whispered back
She answered him with a hearty hug around his neck and a kiss atop his head.
”Duck your head, Marlene.”
She obediently dipped her head down alongside his, and he carried her through the door. A softly smiling Elmyra followed them in and drew the door gently closed behind them.
Hushed murmurs registered in his ears and seeped inexorably into his sleeping mind to stir him to a light wakefulness. He let his eyelashes drift apart only far enough to allow his alert but darkly dilated eyes to roam the boundaries of an overly bright and narrowed field of vision, the boundaries of which were limited by his diligent care to maintain the position he’d unconsciously appropriated in his slumber with his arms folded atop his open book, and his mouth and chin resting slackly against the top of one wrist. That he’d fallen asleep while reading was hardly unusual, especially after a couple of snifters of brandy. That he’d awakened to the sound of surreptitious and secretive whispers was highly problematic, as he lived alone. Even more disturbing was the fact that the interlopers into his personal domain were taking such pains not to wake him. Unfortunately for the poor hapless souls, he was a light sleeper. It came with the territory.
His uninvited visitors moved stealthily up behind him, and with lightly parted eyes now wholly adjusted to the bright rays of the sun, he watched with bored interest as their two shadows stretched long across the snowy white surface of a round tabletop scrubbed to a reflective sheen. Magnanimous of them, he thought, to so clearly mark their location for him where they stood to either side of his back, no doubt with a well conceived plan in mind to come at him from both flanks.
He quickly inventoried all potential weapons within his reach, of which there were few, briefly lamented his laxness at leaving his pistol at his bedside, and then turned the whole of his attention to parsing the nearly indiscernible conversation, difficult to hear above the soft wash of the waves. Even so, it didn’t take him long to recognize the trouble about to befall him. As the pair of them, both men, hissed back and forth about which one of them would be the one to cut his throat. Either they were both lazy and unmotivated or they were both squeamish. Whatever their problem, he could clearly see that they’d bitten off more than they could chew.
His lazy gaze sharpened as he watched the shadow on his left raise a shadowy arm with an elongated object jutting from the end, moving in closer while the second shadow cowardly stepped back. He’d have to remember to thank the more squeamish one later, for proving so helpful to his cause. At that point, he decided to forego informing them of their foolish course of action, opting instead to show them. After all, hands on lessons were always more effective.
With a berserker cry to jumpstart their tickers for some real action and startle them into granting him a couple of extra seconds, which he truthfully didn’t need in order to deal effectively with such unprepared morons, he erupted from his chair and knocked it out of his way with a backhand swipe of one hand, at the same time snatching the heavily weighted ashtray into the other hand as he pivoted toward them in fluid and graceful motion worthy of any dancer. Without a hitch of hesitation or an ounce of mercy, he slammed the thick glass object full force into the side of his armed attacker’s cranium with a solid crack, taking him completely out of the blue and preempting his planned knife assault. In somewhat of a delayed reaction, the man squealed in surprise and pain, and unconsciously let the knife fall to the deck in order to press a trembling hand against the gash in his scalp. Already, bright, warm blood oozed out to trickle down his cheek.
Seemingly in shock at the unexpected attack, the man drunkenly staggered away from the sympathetically drawn face of the ashtray wielder, whose feigned expression of empathy was clearly belied by the cold gleam of pleasure in the murderous black eyes. The injured man whimpered in fear as he stumbled away, darting anxious glances behind him. His attacker smiled coolly at his target’s dismay as he silently shadowed the clumsy miscreant’s retreat to the railing where he imagined the man planned to escape down the ladder into a waiting boat.
As he followed the would-be stabber across the deck, he kept one eye on the second assailant, having already noted that the man still stood there like a lifeless store mannequin watching with his mouth agape in shock. The man seemed too stunned at their ill turn of fortune to move a muscle, and apparently he lacked even an iota of survival instinct. He shook his head in awe at their lack of skill as he backed the injured man up against the rail. The man cowered there, and he stiffly lifted his right leg and kicked out hard to strike the dizzied man at hip level, effectively knocking him off balance and over the side. A satisfying splash marked his departure from the premises.
…One down and one to go...a hot summer day…and a second show…
The black-eyed man didn’t make the mistake of taking the second one for granted despite his apparent stupidity, instantly wheeling back around to see that the gangly man had developed ambitions after all. He caught him bent double at the waist going for the knife, and as he could see no percentage in loitering around when the man clearly wished to do battle, he promptly headed his way with purposeful steps.
The second uninvited visitor rolled his wild eyes toward the stalking man as he fumbled clumsily at the weapon in his haste and desperation. The stalker almost smiled his amusement that the idiots had come for him with only one blade between them, and he generously allowed the man to finally get a grip on the knife and jump to his feet, watching in bemusement as the man almost tripped over his own feet before managing to fall into a relatively efficient looking fighting stance.
With narrowed eyes keenly focused on the waving knife, the dark-eyed man carefully sidled around the would-be attacker with cautious sideways steps, staying just out of range of the sweep of the blade, grimacing a little at the catch in a step that once had been smooth and easy. He rearranged his face into a fair approximation of the expression he imagined a five-year-old girl might display at sight of a vaccination needle, and the inept pirate smirked in satisfaction at the sight.
…A fool so easily fooled…
Emboldened by the boat owner’s rather belated exhibition of wimpiness, the attacker lunged toward him and rashly struck out, too brazenly and too sloppily, sweeping the knife around in a wide arc that the alert man easily dodged in a ducking sideways move that brought him up against the table’s edge. Right where he wanted to be. Sliding his hand across the table behind him, he wrapped his fingers around the stem of the blue glass brandy snifter.
The would be pirate slashed again, at his throat this time, and he instantly brought the ashtray up to catch the edge of the blade, at the same time smashing the glass snifter against the edge of the table as he agilely ducked beneath the man’s upraised arm to spin away into the open. When he came back up, he discovered himself in possession of a more than adequate weapon comprised of a blue spiral glass stem with a single curved triangle of sharp glass at the end. He couldn’t have designed it better if he’d tried.
His unfriendly guest swung the blade again, in the same tried and true fashion, a move so damnably predictable by now. Stepping in closer, he jerked his left arm outward and up to connect solidly with the man’s wrist, efficiently deflecting the parry even as he slashed upward across the man’s ribcage with his makeshift but ornate and aesthetically lovely glass dagger. The sharp tip of the blue glass shard sliced through shirt and skin like butter, making a shallow but bloody gash nearly eight inches long. Unfortunately, the wounding broke the business end off his fragile weapon, leaving him only the stem. Fortunately, he didn’t need it any longer. Proving his earlier assessment that the wandering pirates were squeamish, his opponent folded at the first sight of his own blood. Squealing like a live pig roasting over a spit, he dropped the knife to the deck just as his partner had and cradled his arms around the minor injury as though he imagined his guts might spill out.
With the goblet stem in hand, the black-eyed man took a threatening step toward him, and his injured guest stumbled fearfully away across the deck to helpfully pitch himself over the rail into the sea. Now left to his own devices and again shaking his head in disbelieving wonder, he sailed both the bloodied ashtray and the glass stem into the sea with a flip of his hand. Then he bent to pick up the discarded knife from the deck and walked to the rail, favoring his right leg with the slightest of hitches in his gait. Propping his right foot on the rail for support, he bent his head to search the water and swiftly found the struggling swimmer by virtue of the widening crimson trail of blood that seeped out behind him all the way back to the boat, marking his position as though he had an arrow attached to him.
“Hey, forgot your knife!” he called out. With a lazy throw he sent the knife spinning end over end toward the escapee. The weapon barely cleared the man’s bobbing head before slicing into the water just past his nose. The swimmer frantically laid his head into the sea to turn frightened eyes upward. He found the smirking man standing on the deck with one foot planted on the railing and his hands propped on his hips, the long ponytail pulled high up on the back of his head fluttering like a conqueror’s pennant in the stiff breeze. With his black eyes and his black hair, the boatman looked like a triumphant ancient warrior of old or a salty pirate with a thousand men’s souls in his possession, despite his canvas deck shoes, tan shorts and red t-shirt.
“Better swim faster, friend,” the warrior warned loudly. “I think I see a shark.” He shaded his eyes to peer towards the stern of the boat, his concern for the swimmer written all over his worried face. The man did try to swim faster, though he didn’t dare look, because he knew if he saw a shark’s fin he would die of a heart attack anyway. Right there in the water.
Unmoving, he patiently watched both of the men swim the stretch of water between the two boats until they’d managed to clamber aboard their own rundown craft, and then he bade them farewell with a wave. “Hey guys! I had a good time,” he yelled across the water. “Come back when you can stay longer.”
They both rudely declined to return his polite sentiments, which hardly hurt his feelings at all. In fact, neither one chanced another look at him, instead disappearing into the cabin to finally get their engine sputtering to life. At the sound of the clattering motor, he knew that they must have drifted into range of his boat to board, because that sickly engine would have awakened him from a distance of several miles. He didn’t have to wonder what the idiots had been after now. They’d been salivating over his boat.
He stayed there and watched until the derelict craft finally chugged away over the horizon, after which he planted both feet on the deck and walked along the railing until he found the ill-kempt dinghy tethered toward the bow of his craft. No doubt the would-be boat thieves had rightfly deemed it an easier task to sneak up on him from that position. With a rueful shake of his head, he untied the rope, and with a slight grimace, he threw the rope away over the side to let the boat drift free. Then he retraced his steps to return to his table and his book, pausing on the way to frown down in displeasure at the splatters of blood on his pristine deck. Looked like he’d be swabbing the deck tonight.
At the table, he gingerly closed his book and gathered up the broken shards of his favorite brandy snifter. He knew he would miss peering at his surroundings through the thin blue glass. It always gave him a new perspective. But he thought maybe he could purchase another one in Costa del Sol, when he got around to sailing back that way. Carrying the shards to the side, he leaned down against the rail and let the pieces of glass drop from his fingers one by one to plink beneath the surface of the sea. His thoughts went adrift as his vacant eyes followed the blue shards down into the depths until each one sank completely from his sight.
It occurred to him that he hadn’t been lying when he told them he’d had a good time in their company, despite the sarcastic nature of his comment. His life had become fairly uneventful of late. But then, it had been what he’d wanted, hadn’t it? The freedom to go wherever the whim took him. All the time in the world to track down and explore the places he marked in his book of maps at his leisure. To drift for days at anchor and read, as he’d been doing the last few days. To answer to no one ever again. The encounter had been nice for a change though. Making his adrenaline pump through his veins. It almost made him feel like he could do it again full time, but he knew better. Though he kept in prime condition with his daily exercise routine, the damage from his near fatal and long healed injury would sorely handicap him in the wrong situation, and not all his battles would be so disgustingly easy. Besides, that life had nearly devoured him. He’d become someone he couldn’t bear to see in the mirror.
He frowned at where his thoughts had traveled. Why dwell on it anymore? He was done with all that. He’d died a just death and was living his afterlife. And a very nice afterlife it was. A much better one than he deserved. And he’d probably better quit woolgathering and relocate his boat elsewhere. Though he had so cheerfully invited his new friends to visit again, he really didn’t want them coming with a passel of other friends. He thought he should make them hunt for him. At least a little.
A sharp rhythmic chime came to his ear, and the smile on his lips fell away as his face soured. Slowly he rotated his head to glare toward the open hatch to the living quarters below. The boat was so chock full of state of the art electronic equipment that the craft periodically taunted him with some mysterious alert that he’d spend hours tracking down to its source, only to find it was something silly like seaweed in the screws or gull poop on the sat dish. He thought he’d learned them all by now, but this sound was a new one. And a remarkably annoying one at that.
Resigning himself to another frustrating search through the onboard computers, he headed for the stairway leading down into the spaces below decks, making a wide arc in his route to retrieve his book and reading glasses from the table before descending. Ducking his head through the low doorway, he stepped down and deposited both the book and the spectacles on the table next to his bunk. Momentarily considering the fully loaded pistol he’d left there, he decided he probably wouldn’t need it to dispatch a mere alarm, and he reached past the weapon to pick up his cigarillos and lighter.
Searching through the cupboards, he happily discovered a new ashtray, and deeming himself satisfactorily equipped for a prolonged and tedious electronic search, he carried all the items to the combination cabinet desk at the rear of the quarters that held the bulk of the electronic gadgets. Admittedly, electronics weren’t really his forte, but the previous owner of the boat loved the stuff. In fact, this boat had so many electronic bells and whistles, he could probably expire in his sleep and the craft would continue to putt around the world’s oceans for all eternity.
As he sat heavily down into the chair, his eyes traveled straight to the two computer terminals set flush into their perfectly fit shelves to find a fine script spidering across the monitor on the right. He read it once, and then read it again, perhaps hoping that the content would change upon second inspection. But it didn’t. The words remained as unwelcome the second time as the first.
External communication link activated.
He deliberately plunked his ashtray down just a little too hard against the surface of the narrow shelf that formed the desktop, and he leaned back in his chair as he drew a single slender cigarillo from its case. His disgruntled eyes narrowed in thought as he slowly raised the lighter. He well knew the identity of the individual who had initiated the linkup. Only a handful of people knew he was alive. Only two knew roughly where to find him. And only one could communicate with him. And that one had sworn never to contact him, except in the direst of emergencies. But what sort of emergency could possibly require his services, he could hardly imagine. Still, he knew him to be a man of his word, and he trusted his judgment.
On the other hand, completing that link would tie him back to a world he despised, even if the original reason for the secrecy and the prohibition of contact no longer existed. The ports were full of the news. The Shinras were dead, and the corporate future of the Shinra empire in question. Most of the people he’d overheard speak about it hoped Shinra would fall. But he knew that if and when that happened, chaos would follow. When structure collapses, anarchy ensues. And President Shinra had restructured most of the world to his own design.
The sea granted him a hard earned freedom, and the sea would insulate him from the implosion. He knew of places that Shinra had never touched. Places that no one could ever find him. Places where he could live out his life in peace. If his good friend meant to summon him back to help him stave off what could only be an inevitable and just end, he wanted nothing to do with it. If he had to, he could toss off the last remaining shackles to civilization and vanish forever. He possessed the intoxicating power of choice, for the first time in his life.
He could just say no. And that’s probably what he should do. On the other hand, he could find no valid reason to ignore the message. He could choose to see what the man had to say just as easily as he could choose not to. A mere message couldn’t trap him, because he could still refuse any and all entanglements and fly away. He had nothing to lose. Yet.
His well-reasoned choice comfortably made, he leaned forward in the chair and rested the lit cigarillo in the ashtray. With both hands, he drew the sliding keyboard shelf out of its slot. Poising his expert fingers over the keyboard, he set to work tapping out the one word that would initiate communication. The keystrokes were simple. The password one that he would remember no matter how much time had passed. That the word still had the power to make his heart ache after all these years annoyed him no end.
His handheld computer commenced a slow steady beep and startled him awake. For the space of a moment, he didn’t know where he was, but then his eyes fell to the words flashing on the screen, and he remembered. A strange sense of elation filled him. He’d almost convinced himself that his message would be ignored, but he should have known better. His friend was a man without fear. A mere message would hardly faze him. And though he knew him to be a man with a stubborn nature, he didn’t believe he could refuse his request. Despite the unmitigated gall in his asking such a selfish thing of him.
As a man of conscience, he experienced a sharp pang of guilt at the thought, but it didn’t stop him bending to his task. He had a higher mission to fulfill. He scooted forward in his chair, and putting his fingers to the keys, he wrinkled his brow in intense concentration. If he forgot a single question or answer in their predetermined security exchange, one consigned only to memory and written down nowhere, the recipient would promptly sever the link. He could not make a mistake. With a hint of a smile, he typed the first prompt.
Make your call.
He stared nonplussed at the words through the curl of aromatic smoke trailing from the end of the cigarillo. Then a cool smile came to his lips. He again set the cigarillo in the ashtray and started typing.
Cue ball in the corner pocket.
Then he typed his own prompt.
He raised the cigarillo to his lips and waited, his dark eyes shining with amusement.
The answer and another prompt came scrolling across screen.
Three of a kind – Jokers
He bit down on the slender cigarillo to hold it in place and tapped away at the keys with a crooked smile on his lips.
Dump the chessboard.
The reply promptly came back.
He smirked at the comment. A common one between them. Voiced on many an occasion. Time to get down to business though. His fingers went to work.
What’s your pleasure, friend?
No pleasure here.
Shit hit the fan, I hear.
Sure did. More work with no raise.
You can’t have the boat back.
No vacation time left anyway. Sorry you missed the party.
His smile slipped from his lips and his face turned grim as he typed the next words. The written exchange had provided some much needed entertainment, he had to admit. Perhaps he’d been lonelier than he’d realized. But it was time to get to the point. That there was a point to this, he well knew. And he had an idea he wouldn’t like it.
This I know. And you aren’t invited to my next party. Troublemaker that you are.
His brows drew together as he read the words. He stared at them for several long seconds with his fingers resting on the keys. Then he shook his head in perplexity and typed the all important question.
Then what the hell do you want?
He tensely waited for the answer with his fingers at rest on the keys, but the answer didn’t come. The seconds literally ticked past with a quiet snicking as the hand swept the face of the nautical clock on the wall. The lulling wash of the waves against the gently rocking hull did little to soothe him. The seconds turned into minutes. And one minute into two. Finally, he sat back in his chair and retrieved the cigarillo from the ashtray, knocking the ashes off against the rim before lifting it to his lips. He drew the smoke into his mouth and slowly blew it back out, and then he shot a glance at the satellite status light to see if the link had been terminated, but the unblinking green indicator met his narrowed eyes.
He could almost see Reeve bent over his keyboard with pursed lips, trying to make his fingers move on the keys. The weighty significance of Reeve’s long hesitation was hardly lost on him, and an overwhelming urge to sever the link himself almost made him raise his fingers to the off switch. If the equipment wasn’t operational, then he would never see what the man had to say. If he ever said anything. But he was making unfounded assumptions, he knew. The man might simply have been interrupted by someone at the other end. Forcing him to conceal his activities momentarily, until he could send the unwelcome interloper on their way. He’d almost convinced himself of that fact, to the point that he relaxed to some degree, but that all ended when the next words finally unrolled across the screen, nearly a full five minutes after his question had been so rudely posed.
It’s about Caitlin.
Woodenly, he sat forward and absently stubbed the cigarillo out before returning both hands to the keys. With his dark eyes narrowly focused on the monitor, his fingers moved as though under their own steam.
Did you uncover new information regarding the case?
Once again, he considered severing the communication. For good and ever. He’d put all that behind him long ago, and any new information about the case would only draw him back. He didn’t want to go back there. He’d been trapped in a very bad place, and his release had been too hard won. As before, he turned his eyes to the off switch, with a bit more longing this time, but he didn’t make a move to touch it. In the end, it was rampant curiosity that kept him in play. He tapped out his next question just a bit too vehemently.
Well, what is it?
Again the seconds slipped past, and he shifted impatiently in his chair. That Caitlin’s murder remained unsolved after all these years and after all his effort still overworked his mind throughout long hours of tossing and turning in his bunk on those nights when a glass of brandy wouldn’t let him sleep. And that her murderer had gotten clean away often tormented him in his dreams. He stabbed his fingers down against the keys as he typed a prompt.
What information do you have? Tell me now.
The answer came immediately this time.
Caitlin is alive.
He could only stare at the words in disbelief. Shaking his head in denial, he squeezed his eyes tightly shut and opened them again, only to find that the words hadn’t changed. An unreasoning anger abruptly took him, and the keys clacked beneath the force of his fingers.
What kind of sick game are you playing, friend?
Again a space of time passed before the reply came, long enough for him to dig up a bottle of brandy. He didn’t bother with the glass.
I’m not playing. I’ve seen her. I’ve talked to her. I know it’s her.
He took a long swig from the bottle, and then he set it aside with a hard clunk against the desktop to put his fingers to the keys.
You are playing a dangerous game, my friend. I suggest you rethink.
The message sent with a haphazard jab at the ‘enter’ key, he sprang up from his chair like a hungry cuahl released from a cage. Back and forth, he restlessly paced in the cramped space with his hand over his mouth as though to keep his howl of anguish inside. What could the man’s motivation be? Was he that big of a fool? Why would he play such a cruel game? Maybe he’d become delusional in his stress. Or maybe it was a trick. His eyes widened in recognition. That had to be it. Reeve had to be playing some kind of backhanded trick to get him to come back, knowing he would refuse if he asked him outright. Counting on their friendship to buffer him from retribution when he revealed his scheme. Because what he said could not be true. He’d attended her funeral. He’d seen her lifeless and bloodied body with his own damning eyes. Hell, he’d been there the moment the doctor signed her death certificate. He knew better than Reeve how goddamn dead she’d been. Reeve hadn’t been there. But he’d never left her. Until the hearse had taken her from him. And friend or no friend, he would kill him for his lie.
At the other end of the connection, Reeve swallowed hard. He knew it now. He’d made a mistake. An irretrievable one. How could he have been so stupid and insensitive as to believe the emotions would have diminished over time? His own feelings had hardly dimmed after all. True, he’d buried them so deeply and he’d been so busy he hadn’t recognized it right away. But how could he have forgotten how raw his wound had been, how bitter the betrayal, when he’d found out. And now he’d raked his friend across a razor’s sharp blade and dropped him into a bow of rubbing alcohol. Tossed him into the deep end of a drowning pool of anguish when he’d been afforded the opportunity to creep in one inch at a time. And he knew the water was cold. So goddamned icy and dark. He should never have told him, but he couldn’t take the words back. And he couldn’t deny the truth. He had nowhere to go but forward now. And he still needed him. For Caitlin. And whatever the consequences against him might be from his poorly thought out action, he knew he would never hurt Caitlin. On the contrary. He would move heaven and earth to protect her.
Reeve put his fingers to the diminutive keys and typed.
Forgive me, my friend, for giving you the news like this. Instead of face to face. But it’s true. She’s alive, and I need your help. Rather…she needs your help. Her life is at risk, and she won’t let anyone help her. I know I’m asking you to believe the impossible. But after you read what I’ve read, you’ll be sick to death, but you’ll know the truth. So I’ll send you the pertinent files that first led me to her. If you wish.
This time it was Reeve’s turn to wait for interminable minutes, checking constantly to see if the line of communication remained open. Because he knew if it closed, that would be the end of it. And he wouldn’t blame him one bit if he hit the off switch. In fact, in his shoes he’d probably just rip the equipment out of the wall and toss it into the ocean. But as long as that light remained green, he had a chance. And finally, that chance was extended with three terse words.
Send the files.
He already had them selected and ready to go. He only had to hit the send command, and he did so without another thought. The time for hesitation had long slipped past. It didn’t take long for them to go. A few hundred kilobytes of information with a few lifetimes worth of transgression and pain. After the transfer registered as complete, he typed his final message.
Please contact me when you’re finished.
And the response came straight back.
Be assured you’ll be hearing from me, friend, one way or another.
The status light went red then, leaving him only with the ominous words standing stark against the electronic page. Not for the first time he questioned the wisdom of his friendship with such a dangerous man, and he might have been more worried, but he knew the files would speak volumes in his defense. Now he just had to wait. It wouldn’t take him long to read the content, but it would take him awhile to digest it. Until then, he could find plenty to do to distract him. With a few quick, economical movements, Reeve shut down the handheld and folded the small keyboard, sliding them both into his jacket pockets as he rose stiffly from his chair.
“Let’s go, Cait Sith. We’ve work to do.”
The robotic cat instantly came to life, throwing off his self-imposed disguise of being on standby. He ran the length of the table and leapt into Reeve’s waiting arms. As the executive exited the tent into the diminished early evening sunlight, he unconsciously stroked the cat’s face.
Instead of the purr he would have gotten from Maynard at such a move, Cait Sith rolled his glowing eyes to his maker’s face. “Can I tell your fortune now, boss?”
Reeve turned his head to look down at a feline face that seemed almost hopeful despite the unchanging features. A wry smile curved his lips.
“No, Cait Sith, not today.”
“But why not?” the robotic cat whined.
“I don’t want to know my fortune, Cait Sith. Right now I’d rather hope for the best.”
Tifa finished washing her hands in the brook and impulsively flipped a handful of water up into her face. Savoring the coolness of the chilled water droplets against her skin, she gingerly dipped both hands into the gently trickling stream to carefully lift a bowl of water in the joined cup of her palms. Tipping her head back, she held her hands high to let the chilled liquid spill out against her face and neck, the whole while imagining how absolutely wondrous it would feel to immerse her whole body in the stream. She sorely needed a bath. But she supposed she’d look pretty ridiculous trying to bathe in less than a foot of water. And what’s more, she wasn’t alone.
She rose to her feet then, and turned around to peer up the incline to find that he hadn’t moved a single inch since she’d left him there. From where she stood in shadow, she couldn’t make out much more than his tall silhouette against the golden sunlight of the glade behind him and the gentle motion of his hair and cloak drifting in the light breeze, but she knew that he watched her. She supposed someone else might find such a dark looking and ominously silent sentinel rather disturbing. Downright intimidating, in fact. But she knew it was only Vincent. And his presence there made her feel…important.
”Do you think you are so important?”
“Yes, Vincent, right now I really do…” she murmured to herself.
Her lips curved gently in a self-deprecating smile at her own silly thoughts, and she started up the hill to join him, but when she had reached a point just past halfway, he turned on heel and walked away into the sunlight. She wondered again why he’d felt the need to watch over her. It wasn’t like she was sick anymore. And she’d been a big girl for quite a long while. She’d grown up pretty fast after Sephiroth had killed her father and nearly killed her too, and after Zangan had left her in Midgar, she’d been completely on her own. Maybe it was just that…the woods seemed strange to him too.
Those shadowy woods seemed to close in around her then, right on cue, now that he’d gone, now that she’d remembered how creepy the woods really seemed. A strange prickling started at the nape of her neck, the sensation one experiences when someone is watching unseen from behind, and she suddenly became convinced that someone was secretly watching her then, from hiding. Normally, she might have commanded any suspected hiders out into the open so she could pulp them or give them a piece of her mind, but that was presupposing the hiders were human. And she didn’t truly believe there were any other humans here except for her and her stalwart companion. Which left any potential hiders probably being non-human. Like…ghosts. Lost spirits. Spectral entities that she couldn’t punch, kick or bite.
Tifa promptly chided herself for giving credence to such nonsense. She had certainly developed a knack for fantasy lately. She didn’t truly believe there were malevolent wraiths sifting through the murky spaces between the trees, watching her with ill intent. What a ridiculous thing to think. She picked up her pace anyway. No point in lurking in the trees when she could be sitting in bright sunshine with the chatty Mr. Valentine. Hiding rocks and dreaming dreams and searching for a bug to have a serious and prolonged discussion with.
She’d nearly made it to the top of the slope, only paces from reaching the safety of the glade and the reassuring company of her own personal ex-Turk, when she inexplicably began walking faster. The creepy woods were creeping steadily up on her. From behind. As creepy woods had a tendency to do. She tried to command her feet to a slower pace, but they just wouldn’t obey. Clearly, she’d been away from civilization too damn long. And woods were definitely not her favorite thing. And in the movies, bad things always happened in the dark woods, didn’t they? Except these woods weren’t dark. Just regular woods full of sunlight and shadow. And the only wraiths lurking about would be the one that waited in the glade for her. No worries on that score. Still, her feet weren’t convinced. Her imagination had gotten entirely out of hand, and she sure couldn’t blame it on spooky movies. She couldn’t remember the last movie she’d seen. Except that it had been on the television in the “Seventh Heaven”.
Helpless to stop herself, Tifa increased her pace even more, to the point that she burst into the serenity and sunny warmth of the secluded glade at a speed roughly equivalent to a dogtrot. She instantly ground to a jarring halt at first glimpse of her erstwhile sentinel, and the raven-haired man looked up curiously from the book he held clasped in hand and claw. She’d arrived on the scene feeling a tad breathless and not from exertion either. She drew in a slow breath in an attempt to settle her overly ambitious respirations and dispel the unsettling sensation, before her peculiar and unaccountable state became obvious to Vincent. A pointless effort on her part, as the too observant man had already noticed. Damn his keen crimson eyes.
“Are you alright, Tifa?” he politely queried.
She could almost see that one elegant eyebrow quirking beneath the concealment of his bandana. She quickly waved a nonchalant hand in an attempt to assuage his concern so he’d return to his reading and forget about her. Because she discovered her faltering gaze drawn inexorably into his unblinking regard like steel to a magnet, and she truly didn’t wish to embarrass herself any more than she’d already managed to do by staring dumbly at the man. Because at that moment, he was the most welcome sight she’d ever laid eyes on.
“Er…sure, I’m fine.” She added a tentative smile of reassurance to reinforce her verbal testimony, but she suspected it came off a bit tight-lipped. “Why wouldn’t I be?” she asked him with a slight frown. He was probably asking himself that very thing right this second, wondering in complete bewilderment how she could have managed to work herself up into such a nervous state in the few seconds since he’d taken his eyes off her. He might be surprised at the things she could get up to, if left to her own devices.
Vincent studied her for a moment longer with narrowed eyes, and then he dismissively returned to his book, apparently unwilling or unable to answer her mostly rhetorical question. She could see that he’d decided to take up reading “The Broken Clock” again, in lieu of traveling or talking or resting or stumbling across rocks. She should probably be overjoyed that he occupied himself so thoroughly, but for some reason that fact vaguely annoyed her.
Deliberately, Tifa put her back to Mr. Valentine and strolled over to the blanket that she’d thrown out across the ground while Vincent busily dressed out the rabbit earlier, being careful to ensure that the material covered up that damn mischievous flickering rock. She hadn’t been able to retrieve it as yet, because Vincent hadn’t left her in the clearing alone for a second. He’d even requested that she accompany him down to the stream earlier, for some reason that defied any explanation she could come up with, until he’d revealed his purpose to her. As she’d watched with keen interest, he’d expertly quartered the skinned rabbit and meticulously washed the dissected pieces, and then he’d handed each cut of meat up to her as he finished, clearly expecting that she would be the one to cook it. That rabbit had been cooked and eaten some time ago, and she suspected she wouldn’t be rid of him anytime soon. In fact, he looked like he’d settled comfortably in for the duration.
Tifa folded up her legs and dropped down to the blanket cross-legged. For several moments, she watched the completely immobile Vincent skim the lines of his book from behind sooty lashes, and then she restlessly flopped onto her back and folded her arms beneath her head to stare up at the sky. She knew she should probably rest, but she wasn’t at all sleepy. As before, she thought about suggesting to Vincent that they just go ahead and travel on to Kalm, but she couldn’t find the motivation inside her to go to all that effort. Maybe tomorrow. Even though that idea didn’t appeal to her at the moment.
An urge to yawn suddenly came over her, and she covered her mouth with a concealing hand as a jaw cracking yawn stretched her mouth impossibly wide. Knowing how contagious yawns could be, she darted a glance over at Vincent to see if he would yawn next, but he exhibited no sign of even thinking of yawning. Maybe hearing her yawn wasn’t enough. Maybe he had to see her yawn for him to be infected by her yawn. Come to think of it though, she couldn’t remember if she’d ever seen Vincent Valentine yawn. But he must have at some point. Everybody yawned. Just like everybody dreamed. And how had she allowed herself to be reduced to the point where she found yawning entertaining?
Unfortunately, her single idle thought about dreaming in the midst of all that yawning made her think about the stupid rock again, and she decided she didn’t want to. Not with Vincent around watching her. As if he could read her guilty thoughts or see through her thinly veiled attempt to hide the thing from him. The man probably already knew all about it and was waiting to see how far she’d go with the scam. Maybe she should just whip it out from under the blanket now and wave it under his thin nose. Maybe then he would put his book aside and come up with something to say.
Tifa dimly recognized that she was feeling a tad contrary, and she concluded that she needed to sleep. But she didn’t want to do that either. She was tired, but not drowsy. Even her body was being perverse. She thought about dragging out the “History of Midgar” book and reading some of the content instead of just looking at pictures, thinking a dry historical account would drive her straight into sleep, but she wasn’t really in the mood for that either. She’d rather read “The Broken Clock”, but she wasn’t about to ask Vincent to hand it over. Especially since he seemed to be displaying more interest in the thing than she imagined she could possibly conjure up at the moment. She just didn’t feel like doing anything. She was pretty pitiful actually. Lying around in a quiet, peaceful forest, staring up at the scudding clouds, feeling completely bored to the bone. Of course, there was actually one thing she wanted to do, but she didn’t think Vincent would want to do it. Not when he’d clearly been sucked into that book and all. But maybe she’d just try it. What could he do but tell her to shut up? The man seemed much too polite to say something so rude. She supposed he might stick one of those gun cleaning rags in her mouth, but he’d have to catch her first. She thought about that a bit more closely and decided that catching her probably wouldn’t overtax him too much. She could clearly see those endlessly long legs stretched out in front of him. And she’d seen the man run. She’d need a head start. And a chase might be fun. Though she had to wonder what he would do with her if he caught her. Whatever he would do, it had to be better than this…
Yeah, she’d decided to try it and see how far she got.
“Do these woods seem creepy to you?”
Vincent raised his eyes from the page to peer warily over the top of the book at her, only to find her stretched out on her blanket, lying on her back and gazing up at the sky, just as he suspected he’d find her. His own eyes betrayed him as they eagerly and willfully drank in all they could of her, before he cruelly commanded them away. Back to words on a page. A vicarious life. A life he could afford.
“Creepy?” He needed additional clarification for such a subjective word.
“Yeah, you know…weird.”
“Weird? How so?”
She shrugged her shoulders against the blanket. “I dunno. Just…you know…odd.” She was starting to be sorry that she’d broached this topic, but at least he was talking to her. Sort of…
Vincent didn’t bother to respond to her last qualification, so she turned her head against her bent arm to look over at him. She figured that she’d already dried up his shallow conversational well for the time being, but to her bemusement she found him engaged in a protracted scan of the woods around him, apparently in hot visual pursuit of this mysterious oddness she’d mentioned.
“Don’t worry about it, Vincent.” She sighed wearily at her fancifulness. “I’m sure it’s just me.”
“No,” he flatly replied.
Now she was the one asking for clarification.
“No, it’s not just you.”
Tifa sat up to study his pensive features with interest. ”So…you think the woods are weird too?” His admission really bothered her. She preferred to believe it was her wild imagination. The idea that a man as practical as Vincent Valentine sensed the same pervasive weirdness truly unsettled her, but maybe he would figure out a reasonable explanation that would vanquish the gnawing anxiety in her stomach that his admission had put there.
“The woods are…” He knitted his brows beneath the bandana in pained contemplation as he sifted through his brain for that one word that wouldn’t come to him, staring hard into the cool shadows beyond the boundaries of the warm glade in search of a definitive clue.
She uneasily rose to her feet, tracking the trajectory of his gaze with troubled eyes in an attempt to see what he was seeing, to help him pinpoint that thing she sensed but couldn’t define. Something that he’d clearly sensed too. Unless he was just humoring her. Maybe even secretly making fun of her foolishness. If that happened to be the case, she had to admit that Mr. Valentine was one fine actor. Because he looked pretty tense now. An unwelcome recognition that promptly increased her own level of stress, along with the speed of her pulse.
With slow steps, she crossed the ground toward him, still peering into the trees as she held her spine tensed against an urge to shudder, unconsciously seeking to share a common vantage point, hoping to soothe her strained nerves with the comfort of close proximity. Even though it was his fault that she felt truly creeped out now. Because he was supposed to be predictably and reassuringly rational and coolly dismiss her silly imaginings, not blatantly reinforce them.
Tifa’s worried feet carried her around the end of the fallen branch on which he sat still holding the open book she'd presumptuously drawn him away from. At a point just behind him, she came to a hesitant stop to gaze over his head into the woods, squinting her eyes in concentration as she tried to stumble across a hint of anything so strange that it might explain their mutual uneasiness, but no matter how hard she searched her eyes found only trees and bushes, vines and shadows, leaves and more leaves.
Again she wondered if Vincent might be pranking her, using her own rampant tendency toward fancifulness as a tool to avenge her tricks. It didn’t seem likely. There had been that fire business, of course, but he’d just been being his ever helpful self then. Hadn’t she already decided that?
Tifa lowered suspicious brown eyes to the top of his head, only to discover a wayward strand of raven hair that for some reason completely captivated her. She forgot all about questioning his motivations and about assessing the spooky woods, instead turning her fickle attention to hair care. Stretching out tentative fingers, she moved one purposeful step closer to gain better access, all with the intention of smoothing that troublesome inky strand right back into place, but just shy of her goal, she froze like a startled animal with her fingers suspended in air, her fingertips a mere inch from his unwitting head.
Tifa frowned in troubled bewilderment at recognition of her own impulsive behavior, even as she found herself caught in a curious place, arrested by a reluctance to complete her task, yet still wholly compelled to smooth that strand of hair beneath her fingers and make it behave. It hadn’t even occurred to her that Vincent might have something to say about her messing with his hair. She just hadn’t thought that far ahead. No further than granting satisfaction to that irritating itch in her fingers to…what? Fix his hair? Why? The man possessed a thick unruly mop of hair. And it had looked just the same to her for months upon months. Why worry about it now? Besides, if she got started she’d find herself fixing willful tresses all day, endlessly fussing with her fingers, since she didn’t have a comb at her disposal.
Vincent suddenly twisted about to look up at her over his shoulder, and she instantly drew her guilty hand back, but not before she’d been caught. The man was too damn quick, and his crimson eyes overflowed with his suspicious inquiry. She could hardly blame him. She could only imagine what he thought. Yeah, that she was just about to yank the tar out of his hair in a new and improved prank, having distracted him with her ploy about the creepy woods so she could move stealthily into place. And come to think of it, that’s exactly what she should have done. Given that irritating strand a really good pull, duly fulfilling her strange compulsion to touch it, and putting paid to that fleeting and ridiculous idea that one touch would not be enough. A startling image blossomed into her mind, of both her hands buried deep into his thick tresses, of her lips only inches away…
Tifa snapped up her hand and stabbed a finger toward the area of the woods where he’d just been looking, before his sensitive radar had dutifully detected her lurking behind his back plotting mayhem. “The woods are…green, right?”
Vincent’s eyes went blank, his sharp inquisitiveness washed away by complete incomprehension. She’d really flummoxed him with that inane observation.
“…And…and…and…they’re…um…shady…and…leafy…and…whispery.” She ended with a lame little smile of encouragement that he might, by some crazy stretch of the imagination, take all the obvious clues that she’d reported and make something of them. The gods bless her, she was losing her mind.
“Whispery?” he repeated expressionlessly, swinging his head back around to gaze off into the woods again.
“…Um…pretty silly…huh…” she sheepishly admitted. And dammit. There was that same annoying strand again. She couldn’t help but stare. Tifa chewed her lip as she valiantly resisted the urge to bat it out of view or flatten it down against his head with an admonishing palm. Trusting man, to turn his back her on just now.
“No,” Vincent murmured in denial.
Tifa blinked in surprise. “No? But why would you when…” Wait. He was answering to her words. Not her thoughts. She decided that she’d better get a grip on her silly self and move the hell away, to a new location, where his hair would be far out of range.
Vincent answered her as she came out from behind him and widely skirted the end of the limb to come around to a hesitant stop in front of him. His crimson eyes came back to linger on her face as he spoke. “The woods do whisper,” he told her. “The forest speaks in many voices.”
“Really?” His words granted her a pleasant surprise this time that he didn’t find her nebulous observation completely nonsensical. “So you hear the woods whisper too?”
He simply nodded his head. “You have struck to the heart of the matter.”
“…I…have…” The heart of what matter?
“Discordance torments the ear when the orchestra plays off-key, and disconsolation taunts the soul when the symphony lacks full instrumentation.”
“Um…could you explain that just a…teeny bit more…”
“The woods are vacant,” he bluntly replied.
“Vacant? As in…”
”No…people?” Her tone clearly displayed to him her utter confusion. “Do woods need…people?”
“No wildlife, Tifa,” he told her, and then he continued, speaking more to himself. “Wildlife is sparse in these woods. I should have recognized that…earlier…”
Her eyes widened in sudden comprehension. She had recognized it earlier, when she’d imagined the woods too quiet. She just hadn’t realized the reason. “But…why?”
He shrugged indifferently, his offhand manner invalidating her concerns. “Hunted out, most likely.”
“By hunters, you mean?”
“Yes. This valley is isolated, and most likely privately owned. The landowner may have opened his property up for sport, and they’ve decimated the wildlife population or…” Speculative eyes slid back to the encroaching forest, and a tiny crease formed beside his nose as he frowned in concentration.
“…Or…” she prompted uneasily. That one little word of his seemed pretty ominous, the way he’d just left it hanging out there to dry.
“A carnivorous predator population may be responsible.”
Oddly, she’d imagined that he would say something exactly like that. She might have worded it bit differently herself. Like maybe…hungry critters with sharp teeth that eat everything in sight. By hey, hungry taloned beasties with drooling fangs would be no problem. Unless…there were a bunch of them. But if that were the case, surely they would have noticed one or two snoofing around by now. She decided to press that point.
“We’d have seen them by now, wouldn’t we?” she remarked with a careless shrug, designed more to convince herself than from any display of indifference.
“Yes,” he thankfully agreed. “I’ve detected no sign of a predator.”
“So...then...it’s probably not that.” If Vincent Valentine hadn’t discovered any stray slavering beasts, that settled it for her. “No hungry critters around here.”
Those cool crimson eyes shifted to her face in speculation. She gazed back at him, curiously noting his pensive expression and his parted lips. He looked exactly like he was holding a denial of her confident words poised on the tip of his tongue, only allowing a few seconds to tick past in silence to build up the suspense. Just like in some cheesy horror movie scene. And if this were a movie, a distant wolf would howl at this point, just to prove her words a lie. Or an ugly creature made of hair and teeth would leap from the woods in a blurred streak of movement and bite off Vincent’s head and chomp it down. Of course, they weren’t living inside some campy B movie so nothing like that would happen. But she did still have Vincent, who turned out to have a penchant for dramatic effect after all.
“Unless the predator species is nocturnal,” he blandly commented. “Or winged.”
Tifa frowned in disgruntlement. “Gee…why didn’t I think of that?” she dryly queried. Trust Vincent to think of it. But then…she was busy thinking about cheesy movies. A winged nocturnal predator? Vampires?
Vincent declined to reply to her rhetorical question, most likely because it didn’t lend itself to polite response. In fact, he didn’t really seem to have heard her. Instead, he’d tipped his head back to peer up into the trees, apparently roused to a heightened level of concern by his own analytical observations, making those silky raven tresses fall away from his face, except for one unruly strand right in the front that had to be different and slip down across one alert eye. She found herself so mesmerized by that single strand and the intriguing effect it made against his pale face that he startled her when he suddenly moved.
Laying his open book aside, he purposefully rose to his feet, and with a sharp, economical jerk of his hand, he unfastened the single buckle that held his cloak in place. Drawing the garment from his shoulders, he gave it a couple of hastily executed but neat folds, and draped it across the end of the branch. Without a word of comment or explanation, he walked out a few steps into the middle of the clearing and slowly rotated in place, again peering upward into the treetops overhead as though wholly absorbed by the fluttering dance of the leaves.
Watching him closely with her hands propped on her hips, Tifa puzzled over his behavior for only a moment before she finally glommed onto the significance of his actions and realized that she knew exactly what the man planned to do. After all, she’d seen him do it before, throughout their travels with Avalanche. Vincent simply wanted to acquire more information from a different perspective, and she could hardly fault him. In fact, she’d do it herself, if she could scale vertical structures to their apex as easily as he.
Vincent wasted little time in choosing the tree that he believed would grant him an optimum view, simply finding the tallest one at the highest elevation of ground. Completely ignoring his audience of one, he strode over to pause directly beneath the tree, resting his palm against the trunk as he stared intently upward into the dense canopy, mentally laying out the best route to the top.
“Don’t fall, Vincent,” Tifa warned with a teasing little smile, acting on a perverse impulse to remind him of her presence there. Sometimes she was convinced that the man possessed a tendency to forget that he wasn’t alone.
As for falling, no worries there, she knew. She was the one that had developed gravity disability of late. But Vincent…the laws of gravity didn’t seem to apply. In fact, the man had an affinity for high places, as she recalled. Tall trees and pinnacles of rock. Lofty ledges and high narrow walls. During their pursuit of Sephiroth, Vincent had often wound up in those sorts of places when he’d scouted ahead. And many times he chose them at his leisure, when the team had stopped for the night to camp. Always apart from them, but never far out of sight, and as she now knew, always in hearing range of even the most lowly voiced of spoken conversation. Either the man loved high places, as Aeris had once contended or he wasn’t afraid as Yuffie had claimed. The Wutaian girl had playfully argued that vampires didn’t fear heights, as a vampire could just turn into a bat and fly away. Just as she’d pondered before, she recognized that Vincent had undoubtedly overheard those random discussions about him when nobody knew he could. She wondered what thoughts had gone through his mind, hearing them speculate and make jokes about him. She wondered if he’d heard the discussion about underwear…
Vincent shot her an inscrutable look then, and she almost imagined that he’d read her mind and knew exactly what she’d been thinking about, until she realized that he was only reacting to her playful comment, although he made no effort to verbally respond. Instead, he simply bent his knees and launched himself up from the ground to catch the lowest branch of the tree. With an agile flip, he swung his body up onto the limb and immediately commenced his climb, wasting no time and expending little effort. Within seconds he vanished into the thick leafy foliage of the tree, with nary a rustle of a leaf or a creak of a limb. Ascending into the sky up the ladder provided by nature just as silently as he walked.
She absently smiled in soft wonder at the enigma that was Vincent Valentine as she deliberately walked over to reach for his discarded book. Since he’d been so gracious as to leave it for her, she’d take advantage of the gift until he came back. After all, she didn’t really have to expend any energy worrying about him. She knew he wouldn’t fall, and she knew right where he was. In hailing range should she need him. Though she wasn't really all that stressed about the possibility of some wild predator wandering into the glade, as she well knew that feral creatures feared the sight and smell of humans, unless they were hopped up on Mako, of course. She simply didn’t expect to see whatever might have eradicated the forest of wildlife sniffing around them any time soon. Any mutated creatures would have already made an appearance. She supposed she might be forced to start worrying come nightfall, when Vincent’s theoretical nocturnal winged creatures might appear, but she wouldn’t be able to read when the sun went down, would she? No point in worrying until then. Besides, she didn’t truly imagine they’d want to eat the two of them. They’d be hunting for a creature more familiar and tasty looking. As for Vincent’s first idea, that the woods had been cleaned out by hunters, then clearly all those hunters were long gone. The only hunter she’d seen around these parts had supplied her with dinner, and he posed no threat to her. In fact, he might find himself in more danger from her, if he didn’t keep his hair neatly combed.
Tifa frowned slightly in pensive self-examination of her sudden intrigue with Vincent’s hair as she gingerly took a seat on the fallen limb in the exact spot that he’d vacated, but when she raised the open book to eye level, she stopped worrying about her curious fixation with raven tresses and started reading where he’d left off, curious to see how far he’d gone in the story. Her brow creased in perplexity after scouring the first few lines. Before she’d distracted him with her questions, Vincent had apparently been reading the exact same passage that he’d been reading the last time she’d looked at his place in the book. Hadn’t she seen him reading this book a few times since then? Either the man read like a snail or he’d decided to reread the story. Either way, it didn’t bode well for her plan to gain full custody of the book any time soon. Which meant that she’d better read while she could.
Quickly, she flipped the pages to the front of the book and dove straight into the tale. Right at the outset, she developed a particular fascination for the dark-eyed, dark-haired secret agent with his handy gun, and she eagerly read of his amazing exploits, marveling at the busy and exciting life the man led, to become embroiled in so much action in the first three pages. Then she arrived at a romantic love scene on page four, where the handsome spy picked the lock to his dark-eyed, dark-haired girlfriend’s apartment and surprised her with a single rose and…um…a lot of kisses. But he didn’t get far before an enemy spy knocked him in the head while he was otherwise preoccupied and took his girl. After which he armed himself to the teeth and went after her. She suspected he would kill a lot of people to get her back, before all was said and done. Especially as he’d planned to do more than kiss her before he’d been so rudely interrupted. And he would get her back, she’d wager. A man so determined could not fail. Okay, so the book had a cheesy plotline, but she found it strangely satisfying and definitely action-packed, providing her just the distraction she needed to take her wayward mind off other things. Like hair. Within moments, the story had wholly absorbed her.
Nessa came awake gently from a very nice dream, unlike any she’d dreamed in a very long time. A dream set in a too brief space of time when she’d been truly happy. Long before she’d grown up. Long before the nefarious witch came to rule over their lives. Long before she’d fled Midgar with the devil at her back. A dream set in the time just before the incident she often had nightmares about. When the two of them had gotten separated in the park and hadn’t found each other until long after dark. When she’d clung to his neck with a fierce desperation and rained hot tears down his collar. When all his efforts to soothe her hysteria had been in vain. Because that night she thought she’d lost him forever.
She and Win had been in the park that time too. The time she’d dreamed in her dream. Long past nightfall in the late summer. She remembered it had been a Friday night, because he’d taken her to the Rain Gardens in celebration of a whole weekend off. And he’d let her stay up late, an unusual treat indeed. With her small hand clasped securely inside his curled fingers, they’d walked the quiet residential street to the nearby park, passing through the milky pools of light cast by the moon globe street lamps all along the way, to slip stealthily through their own secret gate known to no one but them into the magical kingdom closed to all others at that hour. To walk through the shadowy stage sets of whispering fountains and fantastical creatures, and to look at the stars. And as they always did, they looked at the stars from ground level. Lying side by side in the grass with the warm summer breeze slipping across their faces and stirring their raven tresses. She’d tried to imitate his relaxed posture as he reclined there, with one long leg drawn up and the other endlessly long leg bent to prop his ankle across his knee, his arms folded to pillow his head as he peered passively into the depths of the night sky. But she never could get quite the same supremely cool look. Her limbs were too chubby and short. Her body too diminutive and compact. When she bemoaned that fact, as she always did, he never failed to promise her that she would grow. But that event seemed to be an eternity away at the time. And in retrospect, knowing what she knew now, she would have chosen to remain in the body of that happy little girl. She would have dwelt forever in that month…that day…
In the dream, as in reality, she’d pestered him to tell her the story. And just as any other time she asked him to tell her the story, he resisted. Just as he always resisted, pretending that he didn’t remember the tale despite a hundred times of telling it, and then making a big show of relenting, only to tell the story wrong and change all the character’s names so that she had to stage an outraged protest and pummel him into compliance while his warm laughter filled the nighttime spaces around her. And as always, he would finally truly surrender and settle into the tale, spinning the details in his melodic voice while she would efficiently point out the constellations he’d taught her at the appropriate point in his richly textured narrative.
That time in her life had been the happiest. The most perfect. When her tiny insular world orbited around the steady and unfailing sun that was her brother. Looking back now, she marveled at just how young he’d been. Nineteen years old that summer. Already he lived a life that she didn’t even know, because he shielded her from it. And because when he was with her, he always put her first. He saw to her needs, and he exiled her constant fears by his presence. If not for him, she would never have known that nighttime Rain Garden world. Because Win was the only one she trusted to guide her into the fearful darkness. Win was the only one the darkness viewed as friend. Win was the one who could transform darkness into sunlight just for her. Until the darkness devoured him and stole his power over it.
And just like that, the warm cocoon of her sweet dream left her. Just as that fleeting space of happiness in her past had done so long ago. She knew the only reason she could recall that particular night so clearly was because it had been the last one like it. Only weeks later, he’d changed. He’d grown gradually more distant. Grown ever more hardened and cold. He’d forgotten how to laugh. And the smiles had grown more and more dim and more and more infrequent, until she never saw them any more, until that one day when she’d suddenly realized that she couldn’t even remember what one of Win’s glorious smiles looked like, and she’d cried in her grief.
Those quiet tears paled next to the heart wrenching sobs that her quaking body had produced the day she discovered what had changed him, and in her newfound knowledge had recognized that all that he’d done and all that he’d become, had been because of her.
Nessa expelled a weighty sigh and raised her head from her husband’s warm lap to carefully sit up. She saw that he slept with his head tipped against the high wooden back of the chair, whistling snores emanating from his gaping mouth. She smiled softly at the sight. Gods, how she loved him. If only Win could have known him. If only he could have met Win. Not the man he despised. The killer. The Turk. But the man Win had been at nineteen. The young man who pretended he hated telling the tale of the Rain Dancer, when he truly loved it, as evidenced in the manner of his telling. The man who knew how to laugh.
She’d tried to tell Myron the story of the Rain Dancer once, but she hadn’t been able to finish. Because Win had never told her the ending. He’d shielded her from that just as he did everything else. She’d learned the true ending years later. Discovered that the happy romantic saga he’d always spun for her in verbal threads of shiniest gold had truly been an ironic tragedy. Full of darkness and bitterness. Just like her life and Win’s.
…At least she had Myron. And she probably would not be with him had her life gone any other way…
Except that all life moves in circles…always connected…ever spinning…coming apart…and coming together…forever…
The words that sifted through her head were Maya’s, and Nessa realized the time had come to acknowledge what she already suspected. She’d been resisting to this point because she feared what she would find. No, she knew what she would find. Because an ominous silence came from the bed. She’d been comforted during the long hours of her vigil by the soft and audible huff of Maya’s exhalations, and now that familiar, reassuring sound was absent from the room.
Her chest impossibly tight with apprehension, she deliberately forced her unwilling gaze around to seek out the slack face on the pillow, a lifeless visage she didn’t know if she could bear to see. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut for a moment as she steeled her nerves for the heart-wrenching sight she would undoubtedly encounter and unconsciously recited on silent lips some long ago mantra her brother had taught her to silence her fears. Finally, she forced her eyes apart and fearfully peered into the bed. The girl’s face eluded her in the shadow shrouded bier, and she stared harder, her eyes narrowing in the effort. Her sluggish brain finally registered the bare expanse of down-turned bed covers and the empty rumpled sheet dimly revealed in the inadequate illumination of the hallway light, and Nessa could only gaze for long seconds in utter incomprehension, her stunned mind scrambling to align the scene she’d expected to find to the one she confronted in reality. With a little cry caught somewhere between denial and joy, she sprang from her chair and rushed over to lay a hand against the expanse of uninhabited sheet as though to prove to herself the lie of her mind. A lingering warmth radiated up from the bed linens into the palm of her hand, and she instantly realized that wherever Maya had gone, she hadn’t been gone long.
Leaving her husband snoring in the wooden ladder back chair, she raced from the room and down the long hallway, blinking owlishly in the brighter light outside the dark bedroom as she scanned the wide windowsills and open doorways for a glimpse of the missing girl. Her flat soled sandals skidded against the wooden floor as she dashed around the corner full tilt, and her feet would have flown out from under her if she hadn’t managed to catch herself with a hand against the wall. Her balance barely salvaged, she flew down the stairs two at a time, her heart pounding at the adrenaline rushing through her body at her near fall. The fleeting thought occurred to her that only yesterday she couldn’t have climbed from her bed much less managed to descend a precipitous stairway on the fly. She could only thank Maya for that, and she hoped to have the opportunity. Because instinctively she knew that Maya meant to go. Maybe she knew it because of their strange mental connection. Or maybe because Maya had spirited away from the room with her bird in the wee morning hours, careful not to awaken Myron or herself even though the girl had to know of their care and concern, introducing an element of stealth to her leave-taking. Whatever the reason, she knew, and in that knowledge, she headed straight for the front door, ignoring the basement and the backdoor to the garden. Maya would be headed out of town, either on the trail through the Nibel Mountains or through the village’s main gate and into the wild expanse of meadows beyond.
Nessa flung wide the front door of the inn and left it standing ajar because she couldn’t be bothered to take the few seconds required to pull the door closed behind her, an atypical act on her part that most likely would have left Myron gaping in disbelief and probably a bit piqued as she would certainly have chided him for such behavior. Running out onto the front stoop, she hesitantly paused there to swiftly scan the environs of the sleeping nighttime village for any sign of Maya and her avian guardian.
The softly glowing streetlights cast long eerie shadows across the Nibelheim square, and the dark hulk of the old wooden water tank seemed an intimidating alien presence in the crisp darkness of the pre-dawn morning. A deep gloom completely devoid of light and life clearly marked the locale of the great unlit mansion beyond the far perimeter of the small village, an ominous miasma of roiling shadow untouched by the ambient starlight and unrelieved by the dimly glowing lamps about town, a gape-mawed beast that engulfed both structure and pathway whole. As though held captive by some malevolent but hypnotic entity, Nessa looked too long that way, and an icy shiver trilled along the length of her spine.
Quickly, she forced her too wide eyes away lest the creeping shadows should be prompted by her tense regard to come for her, bravely putting her back to them to peer off in the other directon, toward the Nibelheim gate. Nessa silently prayed that Maya had chosen to travel that way if she’d left Nibelheim at all, because she didn’t think she could scrounge up the nerve to pursue her through the vile soulless pit of murky darkness that held reign over that horrid place. Nor did she wish to consider how stressful would be the subsequent trek up a narrow, winding mountain trail with its passes girded by high encroaching walls and chock full of chill night air and smothering gloom. How far could her feet carry her before her claustrophobia and panic overcame her?
A dog barked somewhere behind the Staten’s house, and then a door slammed distantly inside the residence next door. A dim light spilled out from an upper story window, indicating at least one other early riser this morn. A welcome feeling of relief came over her in the recognition that she wasn’t alone. She had not been deserted in the middle of a an empty ghost town no matter how real the stage setting, and truthfully, she was starting to doubt her own impulsive assessment that Maya had even left the house. For all she knew Maya might have been in the bathroom washing her face when she'd raced obliviously past. Or maybe she'd been in the pantry, scouring the shelves for something to eat. What if Maya had gone to the basement, and in her weakened state, had fallen down the narrow stairs? What if even now she laid crumpled in a broken heap at the bottom of the stairwell, injured and unable to rise, calling out ineffectually for someone to help her.
Nessa’s breath hitched in her throat at the startling idea as her own guilt sharply stabbed her through the heart. Why had she acted purely on some nebulous feeling with no evidence to support it and run out into the night without first checking? Such an impulsive and impractical act hardly seemed in her nature. But then...events had hardly been normal of late.
Almost before she formed the thought to do so, her feet turned her about to carry her back up the steps and through the wide open door into the house, but the distant and hollow cry of a predatory night bird from somewhere high overhead touched her ears and froze her to a standstill with a foot on the topmost step.
Any other time, on any other night, Nessa would not have taken note of some random night bird going about its own business. The call would most likely not have registered in her mind, and she most certainly would not have paused on such an imperative mission as she’d set for herself. But birds had ceased to be simply birds to her. She didn’t think that any bird would ever seem just a bird to her, ever again.
Nessa impulsively turned on the steps to face the town square as she tipped her head far back to peer intently up into the vault of the star spackled night sky in an admittedly vain attempt to find a single bird on wing in the vast ocean above her, and after several long moments of staring so hard that her eyes burned from the strain, she inevitably surrendered the hopeless search, ruefully acknowledging that she’d never spot Angel or any other bird in flight, not unless it accommodatingly flew right past her nose. The bird, Angel, didn’t appear to possess a generous nature.
Nessa worried the long raven braid that dangled over her chest to her waist in fretful fingers as she wavered painfully over her decision to seek out the unidentified bird, the one that might well be the same bird that never left Maya’s side of his own volition, against the pressing need to check the interior of the inn for the girl herself. In the end, her already discounted belief, so vague and groundless, that Maya had already fled the inn and might even now by halfway up the Nibel Mountain trail persuaded her.
On hesitant feet, Nessa ventured away from the relative security of her front door and into the street only to halt yet again, suddenly unable to move an inch further into a town square full of ominous silence and haunted by a host of formless shadows that seemed to slide shiftily across the cobblestones and coil sinuously in the spaces between substance and illusion. Too easily, she could imagine them stretching long tenebrous fingers stealthily across the ground toward her to gather her into their smothering embrace, to suck the life from her body and strike her mad with the barest of touches.
Nessa scoffed aloud in derision at her baseless fears in a blatant attempt to prop up her faltering courage, but even her own scorn couldn’t make her disobedient feet move. Fortunately, the marauding night bird cried out his hawkish and lonesome call again, as though impatient with her lassitude and seeking to urge her to action. This time his call marked his position to be much closer, almost right overhead, in fact.
Nessa instantly reacted, spinning about to lift her questing gaze toward the high peaked roof of the inn, and this time she had no trouble zeroing in on the source of the cry as the pale shape of the large bird flew from the sharply inclined eaves on outspread wings to float against the night sky not so far above her. Turning uneasily in place, she tracked the bird’s graceful glide all the way to the point where it came to an imperious perch almost in the precise center of the decorative headpiece of the Nibelheim gate.
Forgetting that it was dark and that she was afraid, she headed straight for the gate with purposeful steps. Seeming a natural part of the ornamentation, the bird remained in place even in the face of her hasty advance, showing no inclination to fly away as a wild bird would do, and when she came to a tentative halt a few feet out from the gate, she couldn’t fail to recognize the bird to be Angel. She hardly found the identification overtaxing to make, as she’d never seen another bird like him in her forty-five years of life.
“Angel?” she softly queried, afraid that if she spoke too loudly she would startle him away. “Where is she? Where is Maya?”
The bird merely cocked his head at her with interest, but declined to respond otherwise.
Nessa took one firm step closer despite her certainty that if she pressed the willful creature too much, he would simply take wing and leave her.
“Angel, tell me where she is,” she persisted with a hint of demand, the tremulousness of her anxiety and impatience hidden beneath the tautness of her strained voice.
The bird cocked his head the other way, as though he found her to be an object of curiosity and little else.
Nessa suddenly realized that she was expecting Angel to answer her as if he were a person and not a mystical bird with the power of telepathy. The bird might well be babbling away inside her head, but she couldn’t hear him because she wasn’t listening. With a self-deprecating shake of her head, Nessa narrowed her gaze on the bird’s obsidian button of an eye and concentrated hard as she carefully inventoried the contents of her own mind in search of any thought that seemed not her own. However, after several effortful moments in which she could discern no stray alien ideation similar to that which she’d experienced when the bird had communicated with her before, no matter how hard she strained to hear what could not be heard, she had to concede that he wasn’t going to answer her that way. Or any other way, for that matter. Truthfully, she hadn’t really held out much hope that he would. It wasn’t as though he’d made a habit of communicating with her in the past. In fact, the rare instances of thought transference between them had seemed almost incidental, related in part to the bird’s agitation more than from any desire on his part to converse with her. Angel didn’t appear overly stressed at the moment. An auspicious sign, now that she recognized that fact. Surely the bird would not be calmly perched atop the gate if Maya were missing or in trouble.
Her tentative conclusion offered her a measure of reassurance, a safe anchorage in an uneasy sea, bringing her level of anxiety down a few notches, but in the easing of her tension about Maya's well-being, a disquieting thought suddenly occurred to her. Could it be that she’d lost that odd connection that so tenuously bound the three of them? What if that fragile bond had only been an artifact of her dying and now the link had been broken, vengefully severed by the cheated purveyor of death as he angrily stalked away without his spoils.
In the wake of that idea came another. One even more troubling to contemplate. What if the mysterious injury the bird and the young woman had shared, an undefinable condition that seemed more than a coma but less then death, had left Angel an ordinary bird upon waking? And if that were the case, what had Maya become? An ordinary young woman without the power to wield magic? A commonplace girl no longer capable of thinking mystical thoughts? One disowned by the planet with which she claimed to converse? A ghost of a defunct life granted substance at the whim of the fates, only to be cruelly repossessed?
One thought led to the next, and Nessa’s breath caught harshly in her throat at yet another and much more worrisome question. Why was the girl not with the bird? Why was the bird not with the girl? The two of them had been virtually inseparable before. If the bird and the woman had lost their ability to communicate, Maya might be anywhere. And if Angel had become just a bird like any other, he wouldn’t know or care. What if Maya had wandered off alone? What if she wasn’t in her right mind? What if she had collapsed somewhere, confused and almost catatonic, just as she’d been when Nessa had first found her?
“Angel…please…” Nessa begged with imploring hands for an answer, the uncustomary plaintiveness in her voice crafted from her rising fear. “Speak to me…tell me where she is. I have to know that she’s alright. Please…”
Angel’s simplistic and silent communication came instantly and echoed resoundingly in her mind. For the barest instant, Nessa could only stare at the immobile bird in disbelief that he’d actually answered her, wondering fleetingly if she’d concocted the thought in her own mind out of her desperate desire, the whole while wanting nothing more than to cry out her relief that finally he’d deigned to grant her an audience. However, Nessa Blackwood remained a woman that rarely demonstrated her emotions openly, and this time would be no exception, especially as she suddenly recognized the implication inherent in the bird’s words that Maya had left the bird behind and gone away on her own.
”Angel,” she said more sternly, as though speaking to a wayward and obstinate child. “I have to know where she’s gone. Just tell me please, and I’ll leave you be.”
"…We…go…" the bird amended.
Nessa’s face soured at Angel’s convenient revision. “She’s still here then?” she sharply demanded. “She’s here with you?”
Spurred by her own query, Nessa promptly looked around, and seeing no sign of the girl or anyone else, she faced the gate again to gaze out into the night-darkened meadow beyond. In about an hour, the sun would slip toward the horizon and lighten the sky, but at the moment the pre-dawn night looked like a vat of pitch with a handful of glitter thrown into the mix. If Maya had left the village that way, Nessa would be hard pressed to see her without first venturing into the darkness in direct search of her, an idea that would require a degree of reconciliation on her part.
Angel’s repetitive parrotlike addition to the discourse echoed loudly inside her head in taunting singsong, and Nessa propped her slender hands on her hips as she returned her dark eyes to the irritating bird to silently regard him with keen disfavor. Angel stared right back at her with that one unblinking obsidian eye, not looking at all like the mentally challenged creature he sounded, but appearing just as hardheaded and disenchanted as she.
Distantly, Nessa recognized how silly she would look to anyone who might venture out at this early morning hour to catch her engaged in a glacial stare down with a bird, and if any one of the Nibelheim residents actually saw her talking aloud to him as she’d been doing, they would no doubt cart her away, bound and gagged, to the nearest madhouse. She suspected that Myron would be pretty disturbed at the sight as well, and she deemed it a pure act of providence that he still slept.
”Are you being purposely obtuse, Angel?” she asked sarcastically, not really expecting an answer. He unexpectedly surprised her with one, an admission of sorts.
His concise and rueful answer wiped her face blank with surprise. “But…why…” she asked ineloquently.
"…Cetra must go…cannot stay…"
He emphasized his contention with a sudden flapping of his wings, as though he meant to intimidate her and scare her away. Angel should know by now that she was made of stronger stuff.
Nessa held her contentious thoughts from her tongue as she took a long moment to consider his pronouncement. Then she nodded her head judiciously. “I don’t mean to make her stay if she wants to go, Angel. If that’s what you’re worried about. I’m not her mother.” Though Maya seemed like a daughter.
Nessa tensed in place as she found herself vainly awaiting yet another unforthcoming reply. After many seconds went by with no concession or protest on his part, she was forced to accept his silence as refusal. Operating under the uncertainty of whether the bird had accepted her words but didn’t agree anyway or if he simply disbelieved her, she tried again to convince him.
“If you have to go, Angel, I will understand. I don’t plan to stop you.” Unless Maya appeared ill or injured. Then there was no way on earth she would let her leave. As soon as the adamant thought formed in her head, she thought that Angel had to have heard it. But if he had, he made no sign of it. Not by thought or movement.
“I…only want to see for myself that she’s alright,” she added uneasily. “Before you go…wherever you’re going.”
A more practical and concrete argument came to her then, and she quickly tried it out, her words certain and matter-of-fact. “She’ll need food, Angel. You do realize that don’t you? And proper clothing. And gil. I can give her some gil for your travels.”
Angel answered her promptly this time, his thought ringing inside her head in acerbic warning. "…Cetra cannot…give you…the answer…you seek…"
“I don’t…know what…you mean…” she murmured uncertainly. What did he mean? Had the bird divined the one question she meant to ask and disapproved of her asking. Or…did he mean that Maya couldn’t give her the answer because she didn’t know the answer?
…Or did he mean she couldn’t supply her an answer because she wasn’t able to speak? Or perhaps even to think? She had stupidly allowed the bird to distract her. The fact that the bird Maya had proclaimed to be bound to her until death was not with the girl starkly begged the question of why they weren't together now. What had happened to Maya that Angel would be here alone?
Nessa’s heart lurched in her chest at the obvious conclusion. “What do you mean, Angel?!” The words burst from her mouth, her throat so strangled by her fear she could hardly give voice to them. “What’s happened to Maya?!”
The bird abruptly threw itself into the air with a great flapping of wings, startling her with his sudden departure and setting her pulse racing beneath the adrenaline rush of her surprise and her despair that he would fly away forever and leave her standing there without allaying or confirming her dire suspicions.
Erupting into desperate motion, Nessa sprinted after him in the direction he’d flown, her sandaled feet pounding the stones of the town square as she craned her neck and wildly scanned the unrevealing sky to find him. Already, Angel’s pale avian form had vanished from her sight, swallowed up by the hungry darkness. She wanted to call out to him, to plead with him to wait, to bribe him and bargain for his concession. Bid for forgiveness for however she may have wronged him. Make a compromise. She’d throw herself on his mercy and beg at his taloned feet if he asked it. She would do whatever he wanted if he would just come back and tell her what had happened to Maya. The truth, however terrible, would be better than not knowing. She wanted to shout her question into the night and demand of the stubborn and callous bird an answer, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t speak the words to beg his favor. She couldn’t threaten or cajole. She couldn’t ask her question, because the door would be opened to all the other questions left painfully unanswered, and for some insane and illogical reason she knew if she demanded of him the one answer to the fate of the girl that seemed like the daughter she’d lost, she’d also demand the answer to the fate of the brother she’d lost. That question she couldn’t ask of him because only Maya could possibly answer. Maya was lost to her, because Angel had stolen her from her. Lost to her forever, and she’d never know how or why. And after all these years of not knowing, her brother was lost to her again.
She brokenly cried out her pain and her despair into the solitude of the night, invoked the name of the winged creature that would so cruelly abandon her so, with the weight of her yearning heart carried on her voice, conveyed into the wind.
The bird a mystical young woman had so dubiously christened Angel declined to answer. The bird called Angel possessed not an ounce of mercy within him.
On page ten, her favorite spy guy received a mysterious package by delivery. Apparently Mr. Baddie thought the agent too lackadaisical about getting on his trail and had grown bored with waiting, so he decided to taunt him with a cryptic clue. An iridescent stone of great value, with an exotic spider frozen inside. She had no idea how they managed to get the spider inside the rock, but she decided then and there that she’d best get the rock out from under the blanket and into hiding before Vincent came down from his tree. Although, she was beginning to suspect he’d fallen asleep somewhere up there.
Quickly, she looked around and found a stray leaf to mark her place, after which she pointedly closed the book and carefully set it aside atop Vincent’s folded cloak. Retrieving the rock and returning it to concealment inside her pocket would require only a few seconds of her time, and she had every intention of taking up the story again immediately after. Unless Vincent returned in the interim to take back his book.
That idea brought her springing to her feet in breathless haste. She virtually leapt across the clearing toward the outspread blanket, but then a sudden thought brought her feet to an uneasy pause. Retracing her steps at a more sedate pace, she purposely backtracked, traveling a circuitous route that would carry her beneath the tree Vincent had climbed. With bated breath, she paused between the tree’s straggling roots only long enough to peer tensely up into the greenery for any sign of him, searching for any hint that she might expect an untimely return on his part. Thankfully, she could see no sign of him, finding not so much as a glimpse of him all the way up into the canopy as far as she could see. Nothing but leaves and bark. Resisting a sudden urge to call up to him, she clamped her mouth shut and hastily trotted over to her rumpled pallet and snatched the worn blanket up at the corner to throw it aside.
To her complete frustration, the rock didn’t leap immediately to her eyes. Probably because the blanket had shuffled the leaves around it. Plus the stupid rock didn’t produce the tiniest emanation of light to mark its position, a fact that annoyed her immensely. The stubborn thing would perversely perform the most magical dance of light when Vincent lurked around and she wanted it to play dead, but when she wanted desperately to see the light show, the damn thing wouldn’t so much as flicker. There just didn’t seem to be any pattern to its behavior other than contrariness.
Tifa frantically started kicking the leaves back and forth, the whole while darting quick glances over her shoulder in an attempt to predict Vincent’s impending return. Because she knew that if he planned to come back at all, he’d do it right now. At the worse possible time. Actually…no. The worse possible time would be when she had the rock in her fingers, just at the point where she had the thing halfway to her pocket, and he caught her in the undeniable act. Red-handed and red-faced. Already, the whole humiliating scene played in her head.
“What do you have, Tifa?”
…And then she’d probably just swallow the thing…
Nervously, she glanced over her shoulder again, positive that the man had silently descended the tree and was at that very instant breathing straight down her neck, and when she didn’t find him lurking in the sun-dappled shadows of the secluded glade behind her, she twisted around the other way to glare over her other shoulder with a perverse frown of irritation.
Vincent seemed to be taking a ridiculously long time to check out the landscape from above. How much could he possibly find to look at from one place? She might have reasoned then that he’d spotted something or someone that bore further watching, a realization that would probably have caused her concern, had she not reached another unshakable conclusion first. One accompanied by a vision of Mr. Valentine stretched out comfortably along a limb with his back to the trunk, one ankle crossed over the other, and his head thrown back in peaceful relaxation, out of her sight and out of her reach. Hiding from her. Because he knew she had designs on his hair. Or more likely to strategically prevent any attempts on her part to ask him about the event beneath the waterfall, an idea she’d considered and discarded several times over the last few hours, leaving her the book to distract her from the fact that he’d made himself scarce. A ploy that had worked only too well, now that she thought about it. She ought to just climb right up that tree after him, corner him in his lofty perch and fire her questions at him at will. She could foresee one problem with that idea though. Vincent could just jump down to the ground and leave her there to laboriously climb all the way down while he read his action-packed book. And why worry about his absence anyway? When she was supposed to be looking for her rock. She wanted him to take his sweet time. Damn it all, how had she managed to let him distract her from her mission when he wasn’t even there?
Chiding herself for her muddled thoughts and lack of focus, she promptly returned to her task and on the very next sweep of her foot across the leaves, the toe plate of her boot chinked up against the stone where it had become partially embedded in the soft loam. A tidal wash of rose colored light roiled beneath the surface of the stone and ebbed away, as though the tiny bump had finally prompted the thing to make its presence known before she stupidly missed it and moved on to leave it abandoned there forever. Bending at the hip, she snatched the rock up into her fingers and moved to stuff it into her trousers pocket, but then she impulsively lifted it to eye level to look at it first, curious to see if it had changed since she’d last examined the demarcations scoring the surface.
With a start of surprise, she instantly realized that the faintest of the lines, the one that had evoked the dream about Chaos when she’d touched it, had now vanished completely, leaving no mark or linear discoloration in the stone to show it had ever been there. Despite that fact, the darkest line, the one that had replayed part of her dream about Vincent as a Shinra Turk in Nibelheim – of which the last little bit she’d seen didn’t bear thinking on at the moment – just before the man had personally yanked her back to reality with his alarmed hail, remained right where she’d last seen it. Yet some of the other lines had grown faint, she thought, clearly indicating to her that the lines weren’t permanent. There were so many lines left, and although none of them had grown as faint as the ‘Chaos’ line had, many of them had lost clarity, and the recognition of the probability that all the lines would eventally be lost to her made her feel anxious. She’d earlier argued with herself that she shouldn’t touch anymore of the lines, but she had to admit to a rabid curiosity to see what they would show her. She wanted it badly. But she didn’t know how she would manage it with Vincent around.
She actually peered around then, with the crazy idea of actually trying out another line before he returned, but immediately she realized the craziness of such a risky scheme, and in the end, she resigned herself to the inevitability of probably never knowing what the other marks represented. Deliberately, she shoved the rock down into her pocket, even as she acknowledged that she was better off not knowing anyway. No telling what crazy dreams she’d dreamed up during that stressful journey through the tunnels. She could well imagine some images that she’d never want to see.
Tifa went down on one knee to smooth the blanket out across the ground again, all the while fighting a keen disappointment at the loss even as she reconsidered telling Vincent about the rock, to tell him of her concerns and gain his input. Just as before, she dismissed the idea out of hand. She couldn’t tell him. Nothing had changed. She still couldn’t let him touch it, and she sure the hell wasn’t about to examine her unknown dreams under his watchful eyes. Not if there were any more like that Mr. Vincent the Turk dream waiting to ambush her.
She rose to her feet and turned on heel with the intention of retrieving the addictive mystery novel and bringing the book back to the blanket to stretch out and read of the dark-headed spy’s rescue efforts in relative comfort, only to come face to face with one raven-haired, narrow-eyed ex-Turk. Or chest to face…rather…
Her heart rocketed straight into her throat, choking off her airway to thankfully mute her startled yelp of surprise to a mere hiccup of a breath. Dumbly, Tifa tipped her head to stare up into Vincent’s impassive face with dazed brown eyes rounded in dismay, knowing very well that she looked exactly the picture of that sneak thief she’d envisioned earlier, caught dead to rights with her hand in the underwear drawer and her fingerprints all over the jewelry, but helpless to force her stiff features into any other configuration to disabuse the man of his suspicions. She couldn’t manage a charming smile to disarm him or a display of irritation to dissuade him. The knowing man gazed down at a criminal. Filled from the tips of her toes to the ends of her hair with guilt. And feeling like a target beneath the scope of his incisive crimson eyes. She could commiserate with that poor hapless rabbit now, trembling in the crosshairs of his gun sight, and she almost felt bad for eating the pitiful thing.
Vincent knew. He had to know. She had no idea how long he’d been standing there, but it must have been long enough. And now she had to cough up her confession. Throw herself on his mercy. Beg his forgiveness. And then pepper him with questions about that damn rock while sitting on it to keep him from getting it. Not the best plan, she had to admit, but a marginally adequate one under the circumstances. She forced her mouth open to get started and get it over with before she caved to the urge to flee for the distant hills. Except her stubborn lips could only move wordlessly and ineffectually as she tried to enunciate a single word in her defense while locked inside the prison of his unrelenting regard. The gods help her, she didn’t know what to say to him, not while staring up into those emotionless eyes. To her consternation, those eyes narrowed even further.
“What is the matter, Tifa?” His uninflected tone carried no hint of suspicion or accusation, and perhaps even sounded a tad bit concerned.
She slowly blinked her incomprehension. “Huh?”
Vincent stared at her in silent appraisal for a long moment, and she could almost sense the elegant eyebrows rising beneath the bandana at her complete weirdness. ”Are you alright…Tifa?”
“Fine. Why?” She trotted out an expression of innocent bewilderment. One that he found remarkably suspect if the increased sharpness of his gaze offered an indication.
“You don’t look well,” he flatly replied.
”You don’t know?”
She bit her tongue just in time to keep herself from blurting the words right out loud. How could he not know? He had to know. So he did know, but he didn’t want to accuse her outright. He wanted her to confess. So he would be wholly justified in shooting her. Well, okay. He wouldn’t shoot her, but he probably wanted to be certain of his grounds to complain. A psychological trick then. One of those Turk ploys to make the cornered prey sing like a strangled canary before dispensing retribution, all by pretending concern. On the other hand, she did feel pretty lightheaded, and he did look a little worried. And what’s more, he had a single leaf stuck in his hair, just above his ear. An incongruous sight that drew her fascinated gaze as surely as a cat to a mouse, and like a cat, she itched to bat at that leaf and send it fluttering to the ground.
Tifa fisted her hand against her thigh, partly to cover the condemning lump in her pocket, but mostly to resist the impulse of her fingers to travel to his hair, even as she concluded that he didn’t know. He didn’t know because he’d been so bent on scaring the bejeebers right out of her that he’d probably been too busy to notice, what with traveling through the treetops to drop like a fallen acorn from the closest tree to land just behind her. Therefore, if she, Tifa Lockhart, did not look well, she could lay the blame at his golden-plated feet. And with that judgment duly reached, and disregarding a complete lack of evidence to convict him of the crime as well as totally ignoring the fact that she was not making the slightest bit of sense, she discovered her own justifiable complaint to throw back at him.
“You startled me, Vincent,” she replied with a hint of pique. “That’s all.”
…And what’s more, you did it on purpose, didn’t you, Mr. Valentine. Confess now. You know you want to. You’ll feel better for it, I swear.” Her lips twitched as she pressed them into a hard line to forcibly suppress an errant giggle. She was becoming positively giddy.
“Forgive me, Tifa,” he dutifully apologized.
”No, I won’t forgive you, Vincent. Because your apologies are meaningless when you fully intend to scare another ten years off my life at the very next opportunity.”
“Okay, Vincent,” she answered flippantly. “Just don’t let it happen again.”
He merely inclined his head in easy acceptance as he studied her features with an unreadable gaze. She couldn’t begin to imagine what thoughts might be rattling around in his head. Probably that he should order her to take a nap right away.
“Did you…um…see anything? From up there?” Her fingers uncurled against her leg as she again examined that stray leaf with a keen eye.
“I detected no threat from any quarter,” he coolly reported. “But I was able to obtain an unobstructed view to the valley’s end, and I spotted what appears to be a charred structure in the distance.”
“A burned house?” Tifa absently queried, uninterested in potential threats or burned down buildings, but only in a single leaf tangled in a wayward strand of inky hair. Already her willful hand drifted upward of its own accord to capture her prize, and she was helpless to make it stop. Or maybe she just didn’t want to…
“Or a barn.”
Vincent curiously watched her traveling hand with speculative eyes, and when she purposefully stretched her fingers out to zero in on the side of his head, his own hand automatically came up in a defensive move to block her from achieving her nebulous goal, but she deftly eluded his uncertain fingers and snagged the leaf from his hair, drawing it back before he could determine her target much less stop her. With an enigmatic little smile, she brought the leaf close to her eyes to study the delicate veining before carrying it to her mouth to gently brush the cool surface of the leaf against her lips. Her dark lashes drifted halfway down as she reveled in the smooth silken texture of the leaf against her mouth, and then she simply opened her fingers to let the leaf flutter down to her feet.
Disconcerted by her unexpected behavior, Vincent tracked the liberated leaf’s route to the ground as he absently stroked his fingers through his hair to dislodge any other such leaves that might still be clinging there, as though he planned to eliminate any and all further temptations, but in reality he found himself helplessly caught up in a haze of wonder at the picture his unruly mind conjured of her drawing a single strand of his hair through her slender fingers, but for another reason than to steal a stray leaf.
Tifa couldn’t help but notice Vincent’s obvious discomfiture over her intrusion, especially when he splayed his fingers against the side of his head as though with the intent to obstruct access should further compulsions to grooming come over her. Dismayed at her own temerity, she ducked her head away from his uneasy gaze and pressed repentant fingers to her ruefully pursed mouth as her embarrassment softly painted her cheeks a pretty rose blush.
Vincent absently curled his fingers into his hair as his rapt gaze lingered on the lips against which Tifa graciously permitted her fingertips to gently rest, powerless to carry his eyes to safety, no matter how much he berated himself for treading dangerous ground. In that instant, he could find inside himself no trepidation and no propriety. In that instant, he wished only for his fingers to know what her fingers knew. His lips longed for the tutelage offered to a mere leaf. Every part of his body tensed in silent watchfulness as he disciplined every muscle to stillness lest he act. He dared not open his mouth lest imprudent words escape his tongue. He willed time to a standstill and denied his eyes the right to blink or his lungs the permission to breathe as though he believed that the single flicker of an eyelash or murmur of breath would release time to its due course and carry him past the moment. An inevitable event he could not permit to happen, because in that next moment he feared that he would do that which he should not.
…But that which he very well could…
She stood so close to him now that he had only to raise an arm to draw her into his embrace. He only had to tip his head to kiss her, should she look. Barely the labor of more than a thought, should she surrender. So simple a task to test her. So great would be his reward. A compelling venture so plainly offered, and one that he could easily accept. In that next moment. The one that could not come…
Worried that Vincent stood too long, motionless and silent, Tifa stole an anxious look at him, wondering if he planned to speak to her presumptuous act, only to find him vacantly staring, only to helplessly tumble into the darkening depths of his fathomless gaze. Hardly conscious of her movements, she tipped her head to look fully into a transfixed face that seemed leached of all expression as her own suddenly languorous fingers slipped away from lips softly parted in wonder to trail down across the soft curve of her chin and trace the slender column of her throat to eventually float to a tentative rest against her breastbone where her own elevated heartbeat thrummed against her fingertips.
Vincent’s sooty lashes drifted down as his crimson eyes jealously shadowed the audacious journey of her hand. He made a prolonged study of the way her slender fingers worried a button on her shirt before forcing his traitorous gaze back to her face, only there to rediscover the inviting and pliant mouth a privileged leaf had known.
A slow, unsteady breath whispered across his lips, and that moment he’d arrested in its motion escaped his custody to elapse into the next. His knee bent to bring his heel from the ground, and vaguely purposeful fingers abandoned their restive occupation at his temple to fleetingly brush against a pale cheek before pausing in flexed suspension against his chin, as though gathering the courage to proceed.
His name came off her lips small and weak, as she lacked the breath to drive the syllables far from her tongue, but that one softly spoken word achieved a startling result nonetheless. Vincent’s head snapped back as though she’d rudely shouted, and his crimson eyes abruptly narrowed in consternation as though she’d sworn. He took one quick step back. And then another. The whole while staring so hard at her that she fleetingly wondered if she’d grown horns and a mustache.
“Are you alright, Vincent?” she queried more strongly, her turn to be concerned at his strange behavior. A slight frown tinged her features in a thin veneer of disappointment at his untimely retreat.
He curtly nodded his head and spun away from her, swiftly striding off across the glade as though in response to some impatient summons, only to come to a sudden halt in mid-step. Tifa wrinkled her brow in perplexity as she wondered if he’d changed his mind and might retrace his steps back to her, but for several long seconds he stood motionless with his back to her. Then just about the time she thought she might manage to think up something to say to prompt him back to life, he woodenly fell into motion, stiffly returning to his previous seat on the fallen tree limb. Avoiding her wondering gaze, he pointedly retrieved his book from where he’d left it atop his folded cloak and opened the cover, only to stare in stunned incomprehension at the leaf that slipped from between the pages. Unthinkingly, he lifted his eyes to gaze at her, this bewitching woman who had cursed him with leaves, at that moment knowing that from this day forward he would never look at innocuous leaves the same way again.
Tifa tensely studied his frozen face, searching for censure or accusation, but finding nothing in his face but a hint of something that looked suspiciously like dismay. But that couldn’t be, she knew. It was irritation more likely. She took a step toward him, but halted in place when he promptly shifted his eyes back to his book, obviously to belay her tentative advance.
”I…um…read a little in your book, Vincent,” she uneasily confessed. “I hope you…don’t mind…”
He shook his head in response, and then followed with verbal confirmation. “You may read the book whenever you wish, Tifa.” His stilted words contradicted the generousness of his offer, and any inclination she harbored of asking for the book instantly vanished, along with her hesitant smile.
With a tight shrug of her shoulders to convey an indifference she couldn’t hope to feel, Tifa deliberately turned away from him with a disgruntled frown, deciding then and there that she only had one course of action left to her, only one she was brave enough to act on at the moment, because she couldn’t ask him for his book, and she didn’t think it was a good time to inquire about the waterfall incident, and if she went too close to him again, her capricious fingers were liable to…delve. So she’d just get out the Midgar history book from the backpack, flop down on her blanket, and shut Vincent and his inexplicable behavior from her mind. Unfortunately, the moment her troubled eyes caught sight of the rumpled blanket she’d unsuccessfully smoothed into place against the ground, she instantly remembered her mysterious laser light rock and the unsettling daytime dreaming episodes the thing invoked.
Tifa paused in mid-step as the thought suddenly occurred to her that she actually could mine Vincent for information without telling him about the rock. A few well-placed queries might get him to cough up some informative fact that would help her get a handle on the matter. What's more, the idea of bugging him about it just then, when he seemed to want nothing more than to ignore her and read the story he’d so selfishly stolen away from her seemed a mighty fine idea. Why should she cave and let him have things his own way anyway? Especially when he probably expected her to obediently go away. Why should she let him win again?
With her courage somewhat bolstered by her intriguing plan, Tifa deliberately turned back to face him, finding him just as she left him, stiffly hunched over the book reading expressionlessly, no part of him moving but for the ends of his hair in the subtle breeze and presumably his eyes as they slid back and forth across the page. She uneasily folded her arms about her slim waist as she pensively studied his stolid face and lowered lashes.
Now faced with her own self-prescribed task, she decided that he didn’t seem all that inviting a subject to question, and the idea already seemed a remarkably bad one. On the other hand, she didn't have a single thing to lose but her composure, and she'd lost that so many times today it should be old hat to him by now. With that thought in mind, she sucked in a quick, shaky breath to refuel her dwindling resolve before it deserted her completely and forced her stubborn mouth open to spit out her dubiously prepared question.
“Vincent, what do you know about dreaming?”
What a perfectly inane question to ask him. Did those words truly come off her lips?
Wary crimson eyes reluctantly rose to scrutinize her equally wary face over the top of the book, and after a few seconds slipped past in silence, he finally responded with the barest trace of bewilderment in his inflectionless voice. “Did you say…dreaming?”
“Um hmm.” She nodded her head for emphasis. “What do you know about it?”
“Dreaming,” he repeated as though to test her.
“Yes. Dreaming.” She offered him an encouraging smile.
He quirked an eyebrow beneath his bandana. “What about…dreaming?” The topic required a narrowing of parameters before he’d venture to respond to it.
“Well, you know…how dreams work…”
“The process, you mean?”
“Yes, that.” She nodded eagerly. “The process of dreaming.”
Vincent dismissively lowered his eyes to the book. “I know little of the process of dreaming.” He did, however, know much of the dark realm of nightmares.
“You don’t know anything?” Her voice rang with disbelief and dismay. Vincent knew about things that were sessile, and he knew about Cetran letters. He had to know something about dreaming.
Vincent turned an unread page. “Dreaming is an electrochemical process,” he remarked indifferently. “I know little else.” Except that in a single instant of dreaming he’d concocted a taunting vision of Tifa Lockhart’s imminently kissable face framed between his two hands, one of which he no longer possessed. An impossible illusion that would haunt him for the rest of his life, he suspected.
“An…electro…chemical…process?” She didn’t care for his sterile description of an activity so magical, but she had brought up the subject to Mr. Sessile, so she couldn’t complain.
“Dreams are created through electrical activity in the brain, and the whole process is driven by specific neurotransmitters,” he patiently explained as he turned yet another unread page.
Tifa wrinkled her brow in a display of deep thought, pretending to digest his comment as she fretted over a way to ask what she really wanted to know. After swiftly examining and discarding several lame ideas, she realized that her dull brain wasn’t going to cough up some innocuous and less obvious question that would work, so she decided to just ask it.
“Vincent, do you think…um…since dreams are electrical…do you think dreams can be…like…” She winced along with her next word. “…Recorded?”
Helplessly drawn by her curious query as well as by a sudden tension in her voice, Vincent looked up from his book again in cautious appraisal. With her head inquisitively tipped to the side, she endured his unblinking scrutiny even as she met his unrevealing crimson eyes with equal steadiness, her own brown eyes wide with keen interest, looking exactly as though she expected him to respond with some consequential bit of information.
His smooth brow creased beneath his bandana as he silently held her gaze and considered the matter, more than a little perplexed by her peculiar conversational gambit. Sensing some indefinable and hidden objective on her part, he analyzed her question in a search for her underlying motive, but after several moments of fruitless contemplation, he conceded that only continued pursuit of the topic might bring her secret agenda to light. Vincent laid his open book against one knee and straightened his back, clearly signaling a new attitude of earnest commitment to the discussion at hand.
“Recorded, did you say?” he coolly inquired. “What do you mean?”
Tifa’s level of anxiety instantly shot up several degrees, in equal parts to the sudden drop in her desire for conversation with Mr. Valentine. She surely had managed to draw the man’s undivided attention, and he seriously looked like he wanted to talk. Maybe for the first time ever. And wasn’t that what she’d wanted? How did that saying go again? Be careful what you wish for because you most surely might get everything you wanted plus a hell of lot more? Well, she had it, and she hadn’t decided yet if she liked it, but she supposed she’d better make use of it while it lasted. Nervously, she cleared her throat.
“…Um…yeah…recorded…you know…like…on a computer disk”
He studied her for a long moment in pensive silence, and she restlessly shifted from one foot to another beneath his inspection. “I know little of computers, Tifa,” he finally admitted, his voice emotionlessly flat.
She almost retorted then, to bluntly remind him that he’d said the same thing about dreaming, yet he’d popped off with some stuff about electrical chemicals and neuro-thingers, but then she bit her tongue when she realized that Vincent was only speaking the truth. Of course, there hadn’t been any computers around in his day because they hadn’t been invented yet, and he hadn’t had an opportunity or probably even a desire to acquaint himself with one since then. In fact, if presented with such a disk, Vincent Valentine would probably just use the thing for target practice. Toss it high into the air and blast it to bits with one hand tied across his suspicious eyes.
“Well then…like a…movie?” she amended. They did have movies back in the day, didn’t they? “Or a…” What in the world would a sneaky Turk have recorded stuff on back then? “…Tape…recorder?” she added weakly.
His eyes narrowed on her face then, and she worried that she’d finally manage to annoy him with her questions, poking and prodding him with unwelcome reminders of the past he’d lost.
“Why do you ask, Tifa?” he coolly queried.
And hadn’t she known that question would come flying off his lips sooner or later? And in exactly that tone?
Why was she asking, indeed? What madness had possessed her to start? This crazy conversation had no future, because she wouldn’t ever get the answers she sought with this line of questioning. Not unless she shifted from computer disks and tapes to rocks. She could surely imagine that conversation now.
”Vincent…do you think…since dreams are electrical…that they can be recorded on rocks?"
“Recorded on rocks, did you say? Did I actually hear you say what I believe my ears heard, Miss Lockhart? You wish to know if dreams can be recorded on rocks? Rocks as in stones? Those sorts of rocks?”
“Yessireebob, Mr. Valentine, those sorts of rocks.”
”Have you been ingesting those berries I told you not to eat, Miss Lockhart? Or devouring any toadstools with red caps?"
But she hadn’t asked that, and he wouldn’t say that. However, he was still watching her closely as though he were thinking that, so she’d best get to the business of extricating herself from this happy little talk that had nowhere to go.
“No reason really,” she made herself say. “Just something I thought of...you know…just a silly idea…that came to mind…while…er…while…ah…” Her desperately questing brown eyes roamed the whole glade for a clue before abruptly catching on the book lying laxly in hand and claw. Her mental and verbal floundering instantly ceased.
“…Reading your book,” she added more confidently. “All that spy stuff, you know.” She had no clue if the text of the book had anything in it about dreaming, but she knew that fine-looking spy guy seemed to possess a boatload of cool gadgets, even if the so far elusive ‘broken clock’ wasn’t one of them. So Vincent just might swallow her big fat lie that the story could make her think on such things. As long as she didn’t breathe a word about…rocks…
Vincent’s eyes fell to the open book, and Tifa pensively waited while he scrutinized the page at length, looking as though he imagined he might find the exact text that had sparked her nutty question right there beneath his fingers.
“I know of no technology that would enable the recording of one’s dreams in the manner you have described,” he stiffly replied. “Nor have I read of any scientific principle that would suggest the possibility. However, I possess very little knowledge of the subject.” He pointedly closed the book and laid it aside, signaling an end to their discussion by both word and action, a perception on her part that he reinforced by rising to his feet and crossing the glade, giving her a wide berth as he walked past her.
Uneasily, Tifa turned on heel to watch him go, wondering what the man was up to now as she pondered on the advisability of pursuing the matter further, now that she’d contrived an acceptable premise for her questions. She watched him as he went down on one knee beside the discarded backpack and deftly unknotted the ties one-handed. Then he reached down inside and drew out his gun cleaning kit, at which point she knew exactly what the man planned. To disassemble his precious gun and meticulously clean every little part while pointedly ignoring her so as to avoid any further attempts at inane conversation from her quarter. Her eyes darkened with her displeasure.
Vincent rose to his full height with the gun kit in hand, and his cool eyes skated right past her disgruntled face as he turned away. Further annoyed at being so cavalierly dismissed, her hands came flying to her hips, and she glared steadily at him as he retraced his steps past her on his way to the tree where he’d left his rifle propped. She hoped that the stubborn man could feel her protracted glare from the twin holes burning straight through his thick hair into the back of his head, but if he did, he didn’t grant her the satisfaction of knowing. He simply picked up the rifle and laid the barrel across his shoulder as he returned to his self-designated seat on the fallen branch. Setting the gun kit down on the ground at his feet, he flipped the lid back and examined the contents at length with lowered eyes veiled behind inky lashes. Finally, he removed a well-used rag, and laying the rifle flat across his knees, he busied himself wiping the gun barrel down as though he planned to remove every incriminating fingerprint from the black metal surface.
Tifa tried glaring at him harder, but he failed to offer her even an accidental glance her way, and finally she threw her hands up in disgusted surrender, irritated at herself more than at him. Why should she have expected anything else from a taciturn man like Vincent Valentine? And why wasn’t she used to it by now? And why was he bothering her even more? It wasn’t like she didn’t know how he was. Maybe he was like an allergy. The more she was exposed to him, the more annoying he became. Of course, it didn’t help matters that she was pretty cranky already, a rueful acknowledgement that made it difficult to blame him. She couldn’t be mad at him anyway, and she wasn’t. She just needed to sleep, and she should take a long nap right away. Just throw herself right down on that blanket immediately, go straight to sleep, and leave Vincent Valentine to his beloved rifle. If only she were sleepy…
Tifa’s covetous eyes landed on the book Vincent had so casually discarded. He’d said that she could read it anytime she wanted, and she should probably march right over there and get it so she could immerse herself in the cheesy exploits of Mr. Spy Man and his kidnapped lady love in distress, and ignore Mr. Valentine. Just as thoroughly as he was managing to ignore her. In fact, he seemed so busy that he probably wouldn’t say a word about it. Not that he wouldn’t notice her. He would definitely notice her, of that she was sure, but he would pretend not to. Which was just the same, wasn’t it? Only one problem with that whole idea. She’d be in range of his hair again, for those brief seconds needed to steal away with the book, and unfortunately she’d just noticed another wayward and beckoning strand of raven hair, one that fell tauntingly into his pale face as he worked.
Alrighty then. The History of Midgar for her. Maybe she’d find that really boring part about commerce and politics that would bore her straight into oblivious slumber as surely as a knock in the head with a hammer. Tifa promptly broke away and turned her back to the source of her dissatisfaction and made a beeline for her pallet and the backpack beside it with an air of gravity and determination worthy of a head of state marching straight to her office to sign an emergency declaration of war. Vincent lifted his deceptively impassive eyes to watch her go, the rising turmoil inside him revealed only in the unconscious clenching of his fingers around the cleaning rag in a hand fallen to stillness.
Unbeknownst to her, those shadowed crimson eyes keenly followed her every move as she gracefully folded her legs to sink to the blanket cross-legged and as she leaned to reach one arm out for the pack that wound up being farther away than she’d planned. A tiny smile of self-deprecation curved her lips as she took the heavy tome in hand and dragged it across the blanket toward her. Clasping the book to her chest with one arm, she unfolded her legs to stretch out against the pallet on her side where she propped herself on one elbow and wriggled around a bit to settle in comfortably. Finally satisfied with her level of comfort, she laid the book down before her and opened the cover to shuffle through the pages with a hand so small and fingers so slender that they gave lie to the startling damage they could do when so directed. Seemingly oblivious to the single strand of chocolate hair that slipped down across one cheekbone, she unconsciously drew in one leg in a habitual position he’d come to know well, a position that when coupled with that particular book reminded him too clearly of another time.
Her accidentally appropriated posture couldn’t fail to ignite that not so distant memory forever embedded in his snare trap of a mind, a memory he couldn’t have forgotten if he wished. And…he didn’t wish to. Just as he didn’t wish to deny his reminiscence now, as he willfully slipped into the illusion in his mind, of the sinuous figure of a woman quietly reading by the flame of a single flickering candle, a beguiling mistress patiently waiting within the shadowed environs of a richly draped bed, inside the airship quarters of her too long absent captain. While the craven man who longed to be the man for whom she waited hid inside the safety of a darkened corridor and boldly watched her like a stalker in the night, brazen enough to imagine all that he wished to possess but not selfish enough to take that which he wanted.
On that night, not so many days past, he had bitterly chided himself for his base desires, for his romantic yearnings, for his impossible dreaming of being with a woman he could never have, knowing full well that he was not the man to be graced with her favor. He could never be the man she deserved. Now, as then, he went to task to admonish himself of the same. He had no choice but to accept the truth. He was not the man she wanted or would ever want. He wasn’t, was he? No, he was not. He was not the man for which she longed to hold her. Not the one she longed to kiss her. No, that man would be Cloud Strife. He was the man Tifa Lockhart wanted. Wasn’t he? The one she loved. Didn’t she? Yes, she did. Cloud could be the man who could hold her. The man who could love her. But…couldn’t he be? He shook his head in a single sharp jerk of his head, not only in rejection of his question but also in rebuke to the marked lack of conviction to his argument. He tried again, frowning deeply in his determination to persuade himself.
No, he damn well was not that man. He could never be that man.
Because…he was a despicable…freak of a man…and he didn’t have two hands to touch her…and…he wanted to kiss her…he wanted to taste her...but…he didn’t deserve her…he wasn’t good enough for her…he had blood on his hands…so much blood it would sicken her…but she graced him with her smiles…and…she tormented him with her tears…and…she made him feel…she made him feel…normal. She made him feel…of value. She made him…feel…
And that was the crux of his problem. The well-spring of his ever increasing turmoil. Tifa Lockhart made him feel. She made him feel too much. And…not enough…
Helplessly, he remembered how he’d stood there before her, hardly the space of a few minutes past. Jealous of what a leaf had known and in full possession of a plan to learn as much. Poised immobile in an instant of indecisive hesitation. Not from cowardice and definitely not from a lack of desire, but from an inability to choose, between whether to sink his fingers into her lustrous chocolate hair or to first stake out his claim with a caressing thumb before taking full possession of parted lips ripe with promise and invitation. The same promise and invitation he thought he’d heard in her voice, when she’d expressed his name in that husky, breathy murmur of a word that slipped across those same lips that taunted him. And in that instant, when she’d spoken, he’d known the lie of his own perceptions. He’d recognized the perfidy of his own mind to create the fantasy of a willing woman where stood only a bewildered one. That his capricious mind could present to him such a convincing illusion deeply worried him. That he’d wanted her badly at that moment deeply pained him. And his knowledge that he would most surely have acted had she not spoken…frightened him.
So simple a thing she had done. Plucking a stray leaf from his hair. An innocent and generous act wholly characteristic of her nature. But an act that had set him to a crumbling edge. Teetering barely in balance with the ground cracking beneath him and caught in a singular moment of cataclysmic potential. That one fleeting moment that he couldn’t permit to expire. A moment that had defiantly disobeyed him, because he didn’t possess the power to order time to his whim. Nor could he set back the clock. He was only human after all. With a human heart locked inside a monster’s body and with a human’s mind powerless in the midst of chaos. Not the Chaos that ever lurked inside him seeking an opportunistic release, but the chaotic storm summoned by her as certainly as if she’d pressed her fingers to a materia orb and willed it, when with her one simple act she had plucked him, just as she had that fortunate leaf, from his complacency. Unlike that leaf that she had then allowed to slip to the ground on the gentlest of breezes, she had cruelly released him into the whirlwind, and made of him a feather caught in the punishing currents of a tempestuous maelstrom.
Vincent sorrowfully shook his head to himself. He could see only two meager options left to him, and both provided him with the same outcome in the end. He could and should reapply his wavering will to the matter at hand and struggle harder against an ever more vicious undertow. Or he could peacefully accept his defeat and commit himself into the riptide to permit the dizzying current to take him where it willed. Either way he would remain a condemned man.
…And he’d grown so damned weary…
Nessa gasped raggedly for air as her legs turned watery beneath her, not so much from the taxing exertion she’d demanded of her weakened body in her headlong pursuit, but more from the crushing blow of being forced to surrender to the futility of trying to catch up to a fleeing bird on the wing, and from the bitter disappointment left in the wake of her purloined hope.
Unable to go on, she stumbled woodenly to a stop at the far edge of the Nibelheim square, just past the last street lamp at the end of the lane. Just beyond the safety of that last comforting pool of soft illumination cast across the ground. Just past that last refuge on the shore of an ocean of dense darkness, with the dark, threatening façade of the Shinra Mansion before her and the foreboding structure of the water tank behind her.
Nessa couldn’t fail to recognize her predicament at once, but she couldn’t dredge up the strength or the will to retreat. Not with her heart banging painfully against her sternum. Not with her lungs stubbornly tight in her chest, resisting her strangled efforts to draw breath despite craving the oxygen she wasn’t permitted to acquire. Her own body seemed bent on punishing her for the temerity in asking such a small thing as to know, and for her stupidity in running straight to the exact place that she didn’t wish to go.
Nessa panted desperately to draw air into inflexibly tight lungs, weakly bending at the waist to grip her knees in trembling hands for support as she labored with staring eyes pinned to the ground. The oily shadows swirled surreptitiously and silently in the darkness around her feet with the sinuous unwinding of a snake’s coils shifting lazily from their slumberous rest to engage the hunt.
Across the way, the ornate but rusted gate creaked slightly on the night breeze as though a playful shade bumped it back and forth with one skeletal finger to taunt her, and her respirations grew increasingly labored and unproductive as her heart raced ever faster inside her chest.
Distantly, Nessa had to acknowledge, no matter how much she wanted to deny the fact, that she was displaying the first symptoms of an impending anxiety attack, an affliction she’d not suffered in so long a time that she might have forgotten how terrifying an experience it could be, if the event weren’t too much like confronting death. Because that was exactly what it was like. Dying. Right there where she stood. From a heart exploded from overwork. From lungs collapsed from lack of breath. Such a singular experience, she could never forget, and she absolutely didn’t want to try to get through such a horrific spell again. Not here. Not now. Not when she'd lost herself all alone in the voracious darkness without Myron to help her.
With a great deal of effort, she centered her formidable mind on assuaging her growing symptoms before she lost control completely, drawing desperately on rapidly dwindling resources. With an audible gasp, she dragged in a tortured and ragged breath to force precious, stabilizing air into her obstructive lungs while at the same time she made a deliberate attempt to calm herself with cool reason before her fulminating distress, in conjunction with her willful and too imaginative mind, could sweep her away into full-blown panic.
Bluntly, she reminded herself that she was an intelligent, practical woman with little tolerance for nonsense. A woman well aware, based on a lifetime of challenging experiences, that physical dangers did not come from shadows and imaginary revenants, but from human beings willing to perpetrate evil acts. She firmly told herself that the Shinra Mansion was not some living, breathing malicious entity, but only a house made of brick and wood, one on the verge of collapsing onto its foundations from disuse and lack of care. She tried to convince herself, too, that the deep nighttime gloom around the Shinra Mansion was not the lair of some disguised and ravenous monster that swallowed stray women up whole, but merely the shadow cast by the mountain behind, granted life only through her claustrophobic fear of darkness and her intense hatred of the house that had so many years ago swallowed all trace of her brother, leaving behind only an empty room, a book signed in blood, and little else.
She told herself then, that if she turned right around and put her back to that horrid structure and its death’s caul of murky darkness, if she hurried as fast as she could possibly go, if she granted her feet wings and flew, she would be safely away and through her own open door within seconds. Back in Myron’s reassuring arms before he’d even know she had gone.
The vengeful and cunning shadows snickered around her, making light of her futile arguments. The rusted gate mocked her on a sudden gust of cool wind from the mountainside. The hollow-eyed windows scrutinized her every move, keenly tracked each and every labored breath, read her thoughts and smiled toothily at them.
Her nightmares had become her reality. Her darkest dreams her very existence. Somewhere inside her panicking mind, as she struggled valiantly to hold her hysteria at bay, she recognized that she was losing the fight. She could hardly remember why she was fighting. In another moment or two, the darkness would engulf her whole and never release her, and wasn't it what she deserved? Had she really thought that she could escape for even a moment?
All her life, she’d run from the inevitable. And she'd brazenly defied death in its course. Now...Death had triumphantly returned with his banner flapping in the breeze, cloaked in the richest and bloodiest shadows of the tormented and the wronged, come to claim his due now that no one would stop him. Why fight it? Why struggle? What point could there be? When in the end…it was all the same…
The gentlest of hands tentatively touched her shoulder, and the shadows stood still.
“Nessa…are you okay?”
Her knees nearly buckled then, and the arm came around her back in support. In protection. In proclamation to the purveyor of death that he would not take the field today.
And Death knew a lost cause when he saw it. A slip of a girl with bright emerald eyes could face Death down and make him know that he’d more than met his match. With nary a curse or a whimper of protest, he tossed down his banner in disgust. Then he turned tail and stalked away, taking all his shadowy minions with him.
“…Maya…” Nessa managed to gasp.
“Ssssh…Nessa…” she gently bade. “…Just breathe…”
Warm fingers touched her chilled brow, and her tangled thoughts stilled inside her mind. The softest and most beautiful shower of light enveloped her and returned her breath to her. Her heart slowed in its breakneck pace and settled to normalcy. Her limbs strengthened beneath her. Luminous emerald eyes peered into her face as she straightened. amd she sought out the concerned and searching gaze with her own eyes, now returned to sanity and serenity.
“That’s much better, isn’t it?” Maya said with an encouraging smile.
Nessa marveled that she could the girl's gentle face, until she realized that the sky had lightened incrementally, as though Maya had managed to rout the night just as easily as she'd set Death and all his attendant shadows to flight. Though that would hardly surprise her at the moment, she recognized the truth not so fanciful. The girl had simply arrived with the very first hint of dawn.
“…Maya…I was worried…I saw…Angel…and he…”
As though she’d summoned him by the very mention of his name, the great white bird that hadn’t flown so very far away after all took wing from the water tank behind her, and Maya held up her arm to accept him as he came to light on her wrist.
“…Left…” she lamely ended.
Angel hopped to Maya's shoulder, and the girl purposefully reached out to take Nessa by the hand. Drawing away from her with a tentative step, she urged her along with the barest of tugs.
“Come on, Nessa,” she softly but firmly commanded. “We have a lot to talk about.”
Obediently and wordlessly, Nessa followed along as Maya purposefully towed her across the square to the vacant bench beneath the stand of the water tank, where she released her to her own devices, leaving her standing uneasily in place, pensively watching, as the girl shooed Angel into flight and sat down. In her left hand, the girl carried the parasol from the umbrella stand inside the front door of the inn, and now she shifted it into both hands and laid it across her knees, drawing Nessa's puzzled regard. The older woman studied Maya's peculiar choice of accessory as the girl clasped both hands around the the umbrella.
“Are you expecting rain, Maya?” she curiously queried.
She smiled enigmatically. “Not especially, Nessa. But I expect that it will rain someday soon, don’t you?”
Nessa slowly nodded. She could hardly disagree, even if the girl's question left her wondering. Maya patted the seat beside her in wordless encouragement to Nessa to sit down, and Nessa numbly obeyed, nervously smoothing her skirt beneath her hands as she gingerly slid onto the bench beside the girl. Leaning back into her seat, she took note of the almost amiable vacuousness of Maya's open face, an expression that gave Nessa the impression that Maya had nothing more on her mind than passing time with a casual chat and patiently watching the sun rise. As she partly suspected, Maya' demeanor proved to be a deceptive illusion that the girl instantly dispelled with her very next words.
“Ask your question, Nessa,” Maya gently bade. Her beautiful emerald eyes came around to pin Nessa in her place. “And we’ll go from there.”
Nessa opened her mouth then, to express her bewilderment at this supposed question Maya expected her to ask, or to lodge a protest that there even was such a question, but the young woman anticipated her reluctance to voice her query.
“Ask your question, Nessa,” she reiterated more firmly. "We don't have much time."
Nessa numbly nodded her head, and then she dredged up the words to do as Maya wished, taking the younger woman's admonition to heart even as she suppressed the need to protest it.
Maya smiled benevolently at Nessa's concession and bent her head to listen.
Angel cried out in defiant protest from his perch above them, and Nessa tipped her head to look up at him in startled query.
Maya waved a dismissive hand. “Oh, don’t mind him. He’s just got his feathers all ruffled because he’s a bird.”
Angel squawked once in sharp retort and threw himself into the air as though in a huff.
“But…wasn’t he a bird…before?” Nessa arched one narrow brow.
Maya’s smile widened. “Ask your question, Nessa. Before I forget the answer.”
The warm afternoon sunlight surrendered to the cool shade of early evening as the sun inevitably crept behind the encroaching trees, stealing away toward the horizon with the remainder of the day firmly in its grasp. The two silent occupants of the quiet glade had both cocooned themselves within a safe little zone of their own making with a comfortable expanse of bare ground between them, both largely oblivious to the theft as each of them busily worked to display an attitude of indifference to the other.
Vincent Valentine had finished field cleaning his rifle long ago, even though he’d managed to expend an inordinate amount of time doing it. Much more than an ex-Turk in the field would conceivably ever need or could begin to explain, and with much more attention than he’d ever given the job before in his life. Without a doubt, he’d exerted an unusual level of meticulousness even for him, concentrating intently on the details of his task with narrowly focused eyes. The portrait of a man who’d made cleaning and polishing a single rifle his whole life’s work.
…As though the job actually required his undivided attention…
…As though he couldn’t have rodded the bore and scrubbed the breech in only seconds with a blindfold tied across his eyes….
…As though the peaceful but monotonous forest environment around him afforded him not one item of interest to draw him from so dedicated a task. Particularly not the preoccupied woman lying on her stomach with her chin propped on two fisted hands. Especially not the bare foot that lazily described idle circles in the air as she peered down into the open book in front of her. And absolutely most especially not the parted lips that silently moved along with the words she read on the page…
Vincent’s hand fell motionless in the middle of yet another languid, caressing stroke of the oilcloth against the gun barrel, and he frowned deeply at the ridiculously lustrous sheen that gleamed back at him. He could almost see his crimson eyes in the black metal as he glared. With a soundless huff of derision, he decided then and there that he couldn’t possibly justify his seemingly obsessive relationship with his rifle any longer.
Reluctantly, he set the weapon aside and commenced a test of how much more time he could waste carefully packing his gun care materials and reorganizing the contents of the metal box. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to complete the task, and short of purposefully dumping the box and starting over – a compelling idea which he could not defy his own nature to act upon – he could only set the kit aside as well. Leaving his vacant hand and claw with nothing to do but restively light atop his knees. He made a study of both, as though he’d never seen either before, until the sharp, unforgiving metal digits flexed against his kneecap.
…And in a dream…slashed through soft milky skin like a blunt knife through cream…
Vincent shot his hand to the side and promptly repossessed the discarded suspense novel. Deliberately shifting the book to the sole custody of his metal digits, Vincent dutifully planted his elbow on his knee and rested his chin in hand. Cognizant of a marked tension in his attitude, he stiffly rearranged his shoulders into an approximation of how he imagined a studious scholar might look poised over his book. Then he sternly planted his eyes on the page and began to read.
One paragraph successfully slipped from eye to brain as easily as the protagonist in the tale breached the high gate of his enemy’s heavily guarded fortress in the dead of night. The second paragraph advanced stealthily over marshy ground on the armed invader’s silent feet as the attack dogs barked menacingly in the distance. The third passage bogged down in the mud, and the industrious crimson eyes went slowly out of focus as the would-be rescuer sank slowly out of sight with nary a curse or a whimper.
The dancing leaves above him gossiped in hushed whispers as the minutes piled one upon the other and lengthened with the evening shade that advanced purposefully across the sun-dappled ground beyond his feet to boldly embrace her. Those selfsame crimson eyes, starved and thirsting, surrendered the empty sustenance of the page for the feast so near to hand. The lazy shadows nestled smugly into the curves of her supine body, and the mischievous breeze tugged playfully at the ends of her chocolate hair. A fascinated scholar blindly studied, meticulously documenting the details of the subject. The softest of murmurs distracted him, and vacant eyes absently sought the source to commence a new avenue of study.
…The curious behavior of softly parted lips mirroring bland words on a page…
Crimson eyes sharpened with intent, and the student calmly set the book aside and rose to his feet.
Ensconced comfortably on her rumpled blanket, Tifa single-mindedly scanned the page of the open book framed between her bent elbows, eagerly devouring the lines of text through the veil of her lowered lashes. She’d long ago resigned her vaguely frustrating surveillance of the silent man who had clearly cast her very existence from his mind to grant the whole of his attention to his precious gun. She concluded that the unsatisfying history book had to be more fulfilling than watching the absorbed man diligently ram that cloth-tipped rod in and out of the barrel of his breeched rifle, even if she still found his drifting mane of unruly raven hair moderately disturbing.
Since then, Tifa had grown blissfully oblivious to the gunman and his gun as the book finally managed to draw her in. Not so much the dryly written text about the industry of the various towns that loosely formed the community of Midgar that made her yawn. And definitely not the history of the wealthiest families of said metropolis. She sure didn’t want to read about the Shinra family and how they’d started the ruination of the city described inside that book, and after the sketchiest of reading, she’d brusquely rejected those passages with a brisk shuffling of the pages and skipped straight to the chapter about the Rain Gardens. The one that began with the presentation of the colorful captioned picture that had previously sparked her imagination to the point that she’d made the mistake of asking Mr. Touchy about it back in the tunnels. She sure wouldn’t be doing that again.
To her pleasant surprise, she’d discovered the story that now wholly absorbed her two pages past the picture of the caption referred to as “The Summoning of the Rain” and a page and a half beyond the bland description of a now defunct park. The historical account behind the commission that had produced the exquisite fountain that had once reigned over only one of many gardens in that wondrous and magical place full of statuary and fountains, winding paths and shrubbery mazes, decorative bowers and hundreds of varieties of flowers.
…The Rain Gardens…
A park crushed to oblivion beneath the ruin of the slums and the greed of an ambitious, callous man. The grounds that had once held it lost somewhere inside the filthy remnants of Valencia. A section of Midgar that had long ago lost its name even if the city did still exist. Sort of. If one could call Sector Two an existence.
The loss filled her with hollow regret that she could never see it except in the dry content of a historian’s summary, but the poignant and fulfilling tale she’d stumbled across offered her some consolation. The mythological tale written in the stars that had sparked the creation of the fountain that Vincent had called the Rain Dancer. A story that the sexy and daring spy guy and his ill-fated lady with the non-existent “broken clock” could not hope to compete. A fascinating tale of a mythical woman of surpassing beauty who had been granted, by the very gods in heaven, the amazing gift to call down the rain.
Her name was Elluvia. And she possessed the most glorious mane of hair that tumbled to her heels like a waterfall. According to the writer, accounts disagreed as to the color. Some said her tresses were silver and others said it was gold. Some said it was flame-red and some proclaimed it the color of night. In the picture, the whole fountain glowed a vibrant cobalt blue only partially diminished by the age of the tint denied her.
Whatever the color of her flowing hair, she had stolen the heart of the handsome prince of a wealthy kingdom with her incomparable beauty and her sweet and bashful temperament. A handsome prince that the historian, who obviously had not a single romantic bone in his body, had chosen to leave nameless, much to Tifa’s disappointment. She wanted to see how his name went with hers, just to double-check if they truly belonged together, but the privilege had been denied her.
At any rate, the man could not love her, because naturally he was betrothed to another. No big surprise there. Typical for such stories, she knew. And, as would be expected, the two of them were resigned to loving each other from afar most of the time, and when they could manage, they disguised themselves and secretly met in a dark and forbidden forest where no one dared venture but for the prince and his lover.
Then one day, a great drought settled across the land and lingered. For months, the countryside went without rain, and all the crops withered to brown, and the rivers and streams turned to dirt. The people were starving and angry and ready to take pitchfork and torch in hand to march upon the royal palaces. The king was about to lose his throne and his life for his lackadaisical attitude toward the whole matter. After all, his coffers were full, his granaries plentifully stocked and his gardens and pools fed from an abundant underground spring. No matter to him that the people were dying across the land. No matter to him until that they’d became so desperate that they figured they might as well just revolt because they were going to die anyway. But…he was plenty worried now.
The mightily worried king sent for the royal sorceress who arrived on the back of a great white dragon. And the sorceress generously told him of the young woman in the next kingdom over who could save the land. The one the people called the "Maiden of the Rain". The king wasted no time commanding the girl to appear before him, at which time he politely requested that she bring down the rain with the plan of torturing her into it should she disagree.
Luckily for her, the maiden possessed a biddable and benevolent nature, and it pained her greatly to see the plight of the people. So she danced. For seven days and nights, she danced. Until she collapsed from exhaustion. And in the end, she saved the people from starvation and the king from assassination. The king was so grateful that he released his son from his obligations and allowed him to marry her. And all lived happily ever after.
Tifa expelled a weighty sigh. What an unexpected and romantic tale she’d found in the history book. True, the writer had given the tale short shrift, relating it basically in summary, but she’d managed to discover a wealth of rich detail in between the arid, matter-of-fact lines. Still, she had a few questions she’d like to ask. Like…what in the world was that handsome prince’s name? And how did the king get off thinking he could command a resident of another kingdom to his palace? And how did that woman dance without getting tangled in all that flowing hair? And most importantly of all, what happened in that gaping space in the text between “…the King released the prince from his obligations…” and “…happily ever after…”
Tifa turned the page, hoping that the writer had talked about the Rain Dancer some more, but the subsequent text centered on a section of the Rain Gardens that displayed fountains and statuary of every real or fanciful creature of the sea. Mermaids and whales. Sea serpents and giant eels. Sirens and porpoises. And a Krakkan or two.
The next page briefly addressed the plethora of winged statuary scattered throughout. Such as a stone sculpture of a griffin and one of a roc chipped from black marble. Further on, she found summaries of all the historical figures represented in the Rain Gardens, as well as the images of the gods of mythology. Many pictures accompanied the text, but except for the color picture of the Rain Dancer, which had been leached of its vibrant hues due to the aged tint, all were in black and white.
She turned yet another page and found herself at a new chapter about the historical architecture of the consolidated villages of Midgar. She frowned her disappointment and promptly flipped back the part about the Rain Dancer to examine the picture more closely. Particularly in regard to the prince at Elluvia's feet. Tifa thought he looked sick or really sad, reaching beseechingly for his lover as she summoned the rain, but she wasn’t sure. And she supposed she would never know. Just as she would never see the Rain Gardens. She could only dream of how wondrous a place it must have been to see, and she could only wonder at how total and complete the destruction of the gardens must have been for it to be so completely forgotten outside the musty pages of a book that was older than she was.
…Not older than Vincent…however…
Could she ask him about the Rain Gardens? He’d said he grown up in Valencia. And he’d been a Turk back then. Working for Shinra in Midgar. And obviously he’d recognized the Rain Dancer when she’d showed him the picture. He might even know the story of the Rain Dancer. She could ask him, but in light of his stark reaction the last time she’d asked, did she dare?
Damn straight, she dared. She found the story of the Rain Dancer too compelling and the handy topic of conversation too convenient to pass up. Besides, it was high time the man dragged his mind away from that gun and socialized for awhile. In her humble opinion anyway. He might not agree, but she really didn’t care what he thought about it anymore. She carried a finger to the picture and reverently touched the face of the Rain Dancer with a ragged nail as she awaited his response. She fully expected at least a few minutes to pass in silence before he roused himself to answer.
Vincent halted in mid-step to gaze down at her bent head and wonder why he’d come. She’d spoken his name as though to mark his presence, but she didn’t seem to have noticed him there. That was for the best really, as he could now retreat and she’d never discover him there. She would never even know he'd been there. Never be moved to wonder at his nebulous motivations.
He told his feet to move away then. He bade his legs to turn. But his disobedient body held him in place. His willful eyes caressed her chocolate hair while his fingers itched to follow.
Tifa suddenly looked up to find him, considering his response time too long even for him. She fully expected to see the man still sitting on his branch with his rifle in hand, but instead her startled brown eyes encountered the long length of his legs where he stood with one foot in front of the other only a couple of feet away. Gaping unbecomingly, her wondering eyes traveled upward, so far up she had to painfully crane her neck to discover the pale face shadowed by the fall of his dark hair as he gazed passively down at her with bowed head. She’d hardly expected him to come address her summons so directly and in person. And just how long had he been standing there anyway?
She tried an encouraging smile. More for her sake than his. He didn’t answer her still, but his eyes narrowed inquisitively on her face, and he barely inclined his head in a nod of greeting.
Feeling a tad tremulous inside at the combination of the close proximity and his towering stature, she nervously scrambled to a sitting position and dragged the book to her, a move that only gained her a foot and a few paltry inches of additional space to put between them.
Vincent drew his lagging foot forward to stand stiffly before her with his boots widely planted, as though he planned to take up permanent residence there. The thought occurred to her that maybe he’d been there before she’d invoked his name. Maybe he’d come for some other reason than to see why she’d called him.
“Um…did you…want to rest…or something…” she asked uneasily. She waved a hand toward the bare expanse of blanket beside her, and his inscrutable eyes followed her direction to the spot and lingered there.
She took the opportunity of his distraction to climb to her feet, and his eyes promptly returned to a protracted study of her face as she straightened to face him. Apparently, she’d grown a hairy wart on her nose or a striped rock spider had settled on her face while she’d been sucked into the book, if his keen interest in her features were any indication. Resisting the sudden impulse to check, she surrendered to her unaccountable nervousness and stealthily slid her bare sole one step backward against the soft blanket.
”Was there something you wanted, Tifa?” he gruffly queried.
She stared speechlessly at him, stunned to the core that he’d finally spoken. “Wha...”
“You said my name,” he bluntly reminded her. He quirked an inquisitive brow beneath his bandana and stiffly waited as he continued to examine the potential consequences of her tentative offer. As yet, he hadn’t decided on his answer, even if he wasn’t the least bit tired.
“Yeah…I wanted to ask you…” She frowned in vague bewilderment. What was it she’d wanted to ask him? She’d asked him if he wanted to rest, but that hadn’t been what she’d meant to ask him.
Vincent suspiciously scrutinized the open Midgar history book she hugged against her chest. “What were you reading?” he queried with a trace of impatient demand.
He could well imagine that she’d found something in that infernal book she’d thought to ask him about. She’d taken him by surprise before, but she wouldn’t this time. If she meant to show him the picture of the Rain Dancer again, she would find him prepared. If she meant to ask him about the Midgar of his past, he would dance to her tune, but he would improvise the music. And if she’d found the story…the shocking tale of the perfect family that resided in the 200-year-old Souther street mansion…the wealthy philanthropist and entrepreneur who had frittered away a fortune to a calculating man and had beaten his beautiful Wutaian wife to death in an alcoholic tirade only to meet the cold eyes and implacable face of an executioner who had no love left in him. If she’d found that in the book…well…he couldn’t say…what he would say. He knew such a narrative, if fairly written, would offer a ready explanation to fall upon. The same one all the papers had splashed across their front pages.
…Self-defense…justifiable homicide…distraught seventeen-year-old son…protecting his sister…defending his dead mother…blah blah blah…
The news. Ad nauseum. Fiction presented as fact. But he knew the truth. If she asked about that, he could refuse to speak. Or he could lie and let her believe what the words said. She might even pity him. He could probably even use it to his advantage, were he a selfish, opportunistic man. Or he could simply tell her the truth, thereby ensuring that she would never come near him again. Which would make his life less stressful as he wouldn’t be forced to ponder if she would join him in his rest. If he should take up her offer. He wouldn’t have to wonder how she might react should he lie next to her. Should he dare to reach out and take for himself a strand of her hair. Should he be so presumptuous as to draw her into his arms and…
”A story!” Tifa responded exuberantly, jarring Vincent from his self-deprecating thoughts. She gazed down at the book in her arms with a hint of awe that she could have forgotten. After all, she’d wanted to ask him so badly that she’d actually dared to call him away from his gun cleaning routine. Then he’d flummoxed her with an easy accommodation.
“I was reading a story. In the book. That…I…”
She looked up into his face, her eyes brimming with eagerness and apprehension. Her words trailed away at the wariness in his face.
Vincent defensively crossed his arms, cautiously laying the sharp-tipped, articulated talons atop his flesh and blood arm. “What of this…story?”
“Well…it’s about the…”
She steeled her nerves to say it.
She held her breath and cautiously watched him. To her great relief, he didn’t react. He didn’t grow horns and sprout wings and turn into Chaos. He didn’t race for his gun. And that stricken look full of anguish that she’d put on his face the last time didn’t even try to make an appearance. Thank the gods in heaven.
“What of the Rain Dancer?” he steadily queried, as though he found the topic as innocuous as discussing the rain on the plain.
“Well…it’s the story behind the Rain Dancer…fountain…”
She narrowed her eyes on his serene face in appraisal. Even that trace of wariness had gone. Maybe she’d dreamed that business about showing him the picture. Maybe she should consult the rock and see it that dream was there.
Vincent promptly unfolded his arms and held out his hand for the book. “May I see it?”
Tifa nodded uncertainly and reluctantly surrendered the book to him as though he’d ask her to strip off her shirt. The oversized tome had provided her a sense of protection – from what she couldn’t say – and giving it up made her feel…vulnerable…
Vincent cradled the spine of the open book in his prosthetic hand and turned away from her to read. She pensively watched as he quickly scanned through the text, granting her the answer to the question she’d earlier posed to herself. He was, without a doubt, a fast reader, as he proved by completing the entirety of the summary in less than a minute.
“Hmph,” he sniffed contemptuously. “It lacks much in the telling.”
“It…does,” she slowly agreed, watching with interest as he turned to the next page. The one that talked about the Oceanic Gardens, she knew. “It doesn’t even say…the name of the prince…or…what happens…”
“…Garran…” Vincent absently responded. He gingerly turned over another page with the tip of one finger.
“Garran?” She tested the name on her tongue. Then she tried them out together. Garran and Elluvia. Elluvia and Garran. She decided their conjoined names to be very musical, although she found the first combination more to her liking.
”And the sorceress…does she have a name?”
“Dirva?” Tifa wrinkled her brow in disfavor. The name sounded like…one of those fat slimy worms that abounded beneath rotted logs…”
“Sister? Whose sister?”
“Elluvia’s sister.” Vincent shuffled through several more pages, quickly traveling on to a part in the book that she’d largely ignored.
“You know the whole story, don’t you?” she asked with a hint of amazement, already certain of the answer. How could she get so perversely lucky as to have the man who didn’t like to talk in sole possession of the tale she sorely wanted to know.
Vincent shrugged indifferently. “I have…heard it…”
As he stood in the clearing with the book in hand, offering Tifa automatic answers that he could have murmured in his sleep, Vincent worked through the pages, skipping over topics that didn’t affect him, targeting the ones that did. Deliberately, he read every item that mattered, and by so doing, he took control over the words and stole their power to harm him. He coaxed open the doors on his memories. Just a crack. Just far enough to peep at them so they couldn’t surprise him. Then so very quietly, he shut the doors again. One by one.
“Will you…tell it to me?” Tifa asked hopefully, even as she acknowledged the futility of asking. She really couldn’t envision Vincent Valentine sitting around spouting trite and romantic stories.
Several moments elapsed before Vincent realized that she’d asked him a question that he hadn’t truly heard. He turned on heel to face her, raising inquisitive eyes from the page. “What did you say, Tifa?”
Tifa paused with her mouth partly open, her question on the tip of her tongue to be asked again as she spent a few seconds pondering the fact that she rather liked the way he said her name. Now that he seemed to be saying it more. “Um...would you tell me the story? The parts that the book didn’t tell?”
“The book revealed very little of it,” Vincent informed her dryly.
“Well…will you tell me? Please?”
It was madness to ask him, she knew. She was begging for disappointment. And he didn’t let her down.
“I recall little of the tale,” he dully replied.
An unmitigated, bald-faced lie. Hadn’t he self-righteously proclaimed to himself not so many minutes past that he wouldn’t lie to her? What a hypocrite he was. But he could hardly stomach the idea of telling the story of the Rain Dancer. Not when the memory of the last time he’d told the story so closely preceded events he didn’t care to recall…
Oh great, she’d reduced herself to wheedling. That would certainly fly as well as a concrete kite. What in the world had gotten into her today? Did she really need to know the story so badly? She had to admit that she did. And if he didn’t tell her the story she’d be reduced to contemplating the clouds again. Yawn.
Vincent cautiously examined her expectant face. Her request left him hard pressed to refuse her. Because he didn’t wish to disappoint her. And truthfully, if he were to be honest, he had tried to tell the story once since. To Lucrecia. But she had dissolved into giggles at his telling and spoiled the narration. He hadn’t minded so much at the time, because they had moved onto more interesting endeavors. But Lucrecia…she had been safe. Then.
Tifa Lockhart was anything but…safe…
She frowned slightly at his silence, at his refusal to answer, her lips pursing in vague disgruntlement. His eyes instantly traveled there and made a detailed study.
If only…he could know what a leaf had known…
He barely shook his head, an absent denial of his own thoughts that deepened her frown.
He could not know. He could not ask. And he could not be. What better way to bring those truths straight home to him than to tell her the story? Not just the parts that he’d told before. But all of it. Every last word that reeked of unrequited love. Of sacrifice and betrayal. Of bitterness and loss. What better way to remind himself that he’d never had the right to choose? A fact that he seemed wont to forget.
Vincent lowered his eyes from her face to the open book to focus on the color picture of the cobalt fountain of the Rain Dancer. He gazed into her innocent and unmerciful face as he purposefully and inexorably drew his secure mantle of shadow and darkness around him. Of pain and futility. Of despair and resignation. Of sinfulness and unforgiveness. Then he abruptly closed the book on Elluvia’s face, and with shuttered eyes, he extended his hand to return the book to her.
“I agree,” he curtly replied.
Tifa worriedly scrutinized the foreboding countenance that had shifted from serenity to frigidity as starkly as though he’d cast an ice spell on himself. Uneasily, she reached out to grasp the book. “You agree with…what…”
“I will tell you the story.”
“The story of the Rain Dancer?” She sought reassurance in his stony face when she should have been leaping with joy as his unexpected surrender.
“The story of the Angel of Tears,” he amended in that inflectionless monotone that he mostly forgot to use of late.
“The…Angel of Tears…” she repeated weakly.
“The Angel of Tears,” he coldly confirmed.
“But what about…the Rain Dancer…”
“She is one and the same.”
And in that instant, Tifa Lockhart decided that she was truly sorry she’d ever asked.
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