Running On Empty

He skidded to a stop in the middle of the gloomy pathway where the trail forked off in two directions. His narrowed eyes darted down one path and then the other as he strained to see in the dim light. She had come this way. He was sure of it. Only moments had elapsed since he'd glimpsed her standing at the head of the trail and called to her. Without a word or a look behind, she had vanished into this menacing grove of twisted, long-dead trees, and now he could not determine which pathway she might have taken.

He stared down the path that forked to the left. Nothing. He spun to the right. No sign of her that way. He held his breath and listened intently, but he heard no movement. In fact, the entire area seemed completely void of any sound at all. As though every living creature but himself had possessed the common sense to flee before...

Before... what? He paused in contemplation, then snorted in disgust.

Before... absolutely nothing....that's what.

Impatient at his own foolish thoughts, he flipped his long bangs from his face with a jerk of his head and tentatively stepped into the path that forked to the right. He had to choose a path and take it. There was no time to waste. Allowing his imagination free rein would not achieve his goal. She was in trouble and needed his help.

Why then did she run from him?

The bothersome thought stopped him cold in his tracks. Why would she run from him? He shook his head. She wouldn't. She just hadn't seen him; hadn't heard him call her name. That was all.

Something brushed lightly against his ankle, and he looked down. A frisson of fear trailed an icy finger up the length of his spine when he realized he could no longer see his shoes. An opaque, viscous fog swirled around his ankles and completely swallowed his feet. As he stared in disbelief, several spidery tendrils oozed from the thick mist and stretched to curl around the hem of his trousers. Uneasily, he kicked at the strange substance and was greatly relieved to see the invasive fingers break apart and spin away into thin air. He took a step forward and watched the fog swirl away, seemingly repelled by his movement. He stopped and the black fog flowed around his legs once again, even deeper than before.

Apprehensively, he rapidly walked up the pathway, hoping to reach the edge of this strange miasma. The skin crawled on the back of his neck, and he suddenly became convinced that the very shadows spun in behind him and reached malevolent tentacles to take him down. Heart pounding, he whirled around to find the shadows and gnarled, twisted trees still in their place. Only the eerie, undulating ground fog remained.

A whisper of movement flickered into the periphery of his vision and away again. He whipped his head around and spied her peering at him from behind one of the shattered, blackened oak trees a few feet up the trail. Her beautiful long hair flowed loosely over her shoulder, the soft tresses painted the color of honey by a stray beam of bright sunlight that filtered through the roiling, malignant clouds above her.

When had it grown so dark?

No matter. He had found her now, and they would leave this place. He reached his hand toward her as he walked quickly up the path. "Come with me now, Lucrecia. We must go back." His soft voice echoed in the dead silence.

"No!" She cried out. She jumped from behind the tree to stand resolute in the middle of the trail. She glared at him, her green eyes contemptuous behind her oval, gold-rimmed reading glasses. "I will not go back, Vincent! Go away!"

"But, Lucrecia. Don't you see the approaching storm? We have to go."

"Stop!" She shrieked, her voice shrill with a brittle edge of hysteria. "Stay away from me, Vincent!"

His steps faltered uncertainly to a stop a few feet from her, his mind struggling to form a reasonable explanation as to why she would choose to remain in harm's way.

"Lucrecia...please..." he pleaded. "Come back with me. You are not safe here."

He lifted his open hand toward her again and took a careful step forward. "I...I love you, Lucrecia. Please, come with me."

He froze as she started to back away from him, and his empty hand fell limply to his side.

"Leave me alone, Vincent!" she screeched. "I won't go! Not with you!"

She turned and bolted up the trail, and he stood and watched her go, his heart pierced through by the acid-tipped blade of her rejection.

When had he given her the power to hurt him? He couldn't quite remember. Somewhere in the seamless flow of bright, magical days when she loved him. Or so he had thought. Or had it been wistful imagination...or desperate hope?

Maniacal laughter rang out overhead. Vincent gaped up at the grossly aberrant creature that circled above, clumsily flapping its spiny wings to remain aloft. The thin face of Professor Hojo smirked down at him from the bony plated shoulders of the ghastly thing. Various protrusions and ridges stretched the cloth of the blood splattered lab coat wrapped about its scaly body.

"H...Hojo?!" Vincent choked out, his mind numb with utter disbelief. When had Hojo taken this form? What had this arrogant, small-minded weasel of a Shinra scientist done?

The raucous laughter erupted again, Hojo's thin lips stretched wide in a delighted grin. "Well, well. If it isn't the Fool! Still chasing after her? How pathetic! See how she runs from you in disgust!"

The crazed Hojo thing swiveled its head to peer owlishly at Lucrecia through its blood-speckled glasses as the leathery wings flapped madly in its struggle to stay aloft. Instinctively, Vincent slipped his hand inside his suit jacket to retrieve the gun from his shoulder holster while the Professor had his attention focused on her. His heart pounded wildly against his sternum even as he coolly focused his intent on the destruction of the inimitable Professor before he could harm Lucrecia in any way.

Vincent slipped the gun from its holster and steadily brought it in line with Hojo's twisted cranium, cautious to make no sudden move that might draw Hojo's attention to him. Vincent aimed carefully. The pistol was not an efficient long-range weapon, and he didn't want to miss. With one eye squeezed shut, he sighted down the silver barrel and squeezed the trigger.

The large caliber bullet tore through Hojo's lopsided head just as Vincent expected, but a second later the wound vanished as tissue and hair regenerated before his stunned eyes. Hojo hardly seemed bothered by Vincent's act of attempted homicide. He nonchalantly turned his attention from Lucrecia to grin widely at the dark-eyed Turk.

Vincent started to lift the pistol again, but immediately recognized the futility in doing so. With a muttered curse, he flung the gun to one side. Hojo chuckled as Vincent bowed his head in surrender.

"You amuse me, Valentine." Hojo sneered. "Remove your almighty gun from the equation, and you are powerless, you inept excuse for a Shinra assassin."

Vincent crossed his arms and refused to respond to Hojo's gibes. Instead, he lifted his head to see where Lucrecia had gone. To his utter astonishment, she stood only a few feet from him. She had apparently slipped back down the trail while he'd been engaged in his plan to dispatch Hojo. However, she wasn't interested in him. He might as well not have even existed in this plane of reality for all the attention she paid him. Vincent's mind closed in denial at the adoration that glowed in her eyes as she stared into the face of Professor Hojo, PHD. Once an obnoxious, self-absorbed scientist skulking around the basement laboratory in the shadow of the esteemed Professor Gast, Hojo was now an obnoxious, self-absorbed, self-regenerative monster creature that could barely keep himself in the sky with his inefficient wings. What did Lucrecia see in him to worship?

Hojo dropped heavily to the ground beside her and turned to face the Turk as he folded his wings to his misshapen back. He held his scaly claw to the side and smiled benevolently into Lucrecia's rapt eyes. Vincent's heart sank as she lifted her hand, and Hojo closed his twisted talons around her slender fingers.

He wanted to protest, but he could not articulate a single word with his heart lodged in his throat. He simply stared at them while he labored to comprehend this turn of events.

Hojo looked at Vincent and shook his head sadly. "She was never yours, Mister Valentine. She is mine to do with as I wish. Mine and Jenova's. And now if you will excuse me, the time has come to finalize my ingenious experiment...after I finish with Lucrecia."

The evil glint that flashed in the Professor's narrow eyes revealed the nature of his intent as he turned to draw Lucrecia to him. Galvanized into motion, Vincent dove for them, bent on separating his beautiful Lucrecia from the malignant arms of this perverted monster. But he never reached them. He never even came close. Instead, he stumbled and fell at their feet, his feet and legs hopelessly ensnared in the dark tendrils of shadowy mist that had surreptitiously twined around him while he'd stood frozen in the pathway.

Vincent kicked frantically to free himself, but the tendrils crawled up his body as the viscous, dark substance slowly oozed in behind. Terror took his mind when he felt his body drawn away as the hungry shadows swallowed him. He dug his fingers deep into the ground, and cried out when his nails tore away as he clawed furrows through the soil in his desperate struggle to halt his backward movement.

Hojo laughed, and Vincent twisted his head to look up as more tendrils swarmed around his chest, drawing his body deeper into the insidious, dark mass. He reached a bloody hand toward Lucrecia and screamed as Hojo sank his jagged teeth into her exposed throat.


His voice choked off as the sinuous vines locked tightly around his throat. His mind slipped away as he gasped for precious oxygen and his ears filled with the din of her endless scream.

Then she fell silent.

Hojo laughed again and leaned over to come nose to nose with Vincent. Lucrecia's warm blood dripped from the Professor's fangs and splattered into Vincent's face as the vise-like tentacles whipped around his head. Hojo leaned over and whispered into the dying Turk's ear, the putrid smell of rotting flesh washing over his face as the monster spoke.

"He who would wantonly revel in Darkness will surely be consumed by Darkness."

Vincent Valentine expended his last coherent thought in a silent scream of pure rage before the suffocating blackness surged over his face and buried his mind within a fathomless tomb where pain and useless emotion ceased to exist.

His eyes flew wide, and his chest heaved as he struggled to draw in breath past a painfully clenched throat. The cloying darkness pressed against his pupils as he stared blindly into the deep abyss of the starless sky, his very sense of self lost in a churning sea of confusion. By slow degrees, the familiar nightmare relinquished his captive mind, and awareness flowed in to fill the void. He drew in a ragged breath and stirred as the coppery scent of blood burned acridly in his nostrils. A cold gale touched his face with sharp, icy fingertips, lifting tendrils of his hair to drift across his frozen cheeks and lips.

As he gazed into the dark sky, he let the tension ebb from his body and wondered, as he always did upon awakening, how a nightmare that visited so frequently could continue to retain such power over his senses. Invariably, he always needed a few moments to reorient himself as to his whereabouts, which left him feeling vulnerable and off-balance. Point in fact, he had no clue at this moment where he was.

He remained still and passively listened with his highly receptive ears, but he heard nothing but the low moan of the wind that flowed across the craggy peak in mournful passage. He heard no creature, no voice, nothing…only the wind.

He turned his head slightly to inspect his immediate surroundings and patiently waited while the details of his environment swam out of the featureless gloom as his preternatural vision adapted rapidly to the dark. Bemused, he stared at the low ridge of jagged rock a few inches from his nose. Then, he shifted his eyes to a lone, straggly bush that had optimistically set its roots down a crevice in the stone and now seemed to retain only a tenuous grasp on life in this arid place.

He blinked and turned his face upwards again, searching for something familiar, anything that would dispel the murky fog in his brain and enlighten him as to where he was and how he came to be here. He tracked the granite mountain face to where the peak high above him abutted the dark sky, and his gaze momentarily froze there as a vague shadow of a thought teased him.

He narrowed his eyes as he concentrated, but the thought flitted away into the darkness, a shy creature startled into flight.

Cautiously, he drew his legs inward and pushed himself up with his metal claw, instinctively scanning the area around him as he moved. He knew there was no person or creature about that meant him any harm. He would have already sensed a living presence if that were so. Still, it was better to err on the safe side and appraise his situation fully.

Looking around him, he realized that he'd fallen into a cleft in the mountain face, a hollow rimmed by a broken wall of rock and brush. Apparently, his fall had been cushioned by a thick layer of loose earth that covered the rock floor beneath him, saving him from serious injury.

Grasping the cracked rock with his gloved hand, he pulled himself to one knee and peered over the low natural wall. Nothing lurked on the other side. Nobody else was around. All his senses told him he was alone in this place, wherever he was.

A dull, persistent throb drew his attention, and he absently lifted his fingers to his frozen cheek. He winced as a fingertip encountered a deep gash across his cheekbone. Carefully, he traced the wound and blood welled out beneath the light pressure of his touch. Although the jagged cut seemed deep, it had already partially sealed, and a niggling itch beneath his skin confirmed that his innate healing ability would dispense with the minor injury in a matter of hours.

With a dismissive shrug of his shoulder, he lifted his face from the deep collar of the cloak and swiped at the blood that trickled along his jaw-line, unconsciously glancing at his fingers as he drew his hand away. He moved to wipe his hand against his cloak, but he froze in place, staring intently at the bloodstained fingertips.

He slowly leaned back on his heel as his brows drew together in concentration, an elusive memory teasing his mind, so close yet just beyond his mental grasp. A memory of....

Bloody fingers?

From the vague shadows, the stark vision of bloodstained fingers outstretched towards him flew into his brain, followed by the memory of Tifa Lockheart's terror-stricken face as the whole of his bottled-up memory rushed in behind.

The nightmare alone had not disoriented him. He had transformed into Chaos and back, a process that always left him somewhat dazed.

He jumped to his feet, and a blast of frigid wind hit him fully in the face as he stood above the low ridge, violently snatching his cloak from around his tall frame and whipping his hair into his eyes as the strong air current whirled against the mountainside.

Carefully, he scanned the landscape all around him, the crimson eyes easily picking apart the dark terrain with his genetically enhanced vision. His heart sank even as his search skimmed over the barren slope, producing nothing but a few scrubby plants and rocky protrusions, all too diminutive to camouflage a full-grown woman.

Vincent levered himself over the broken wall of rock and straightened up to stand against the steep slope. He spotted a wide ledge several feet down-slope from the hollow in which he'd fallen and headed towards it, taking quick sideways steps against the slanted rock. He slid the last few feet and stepped out onto the windswept shelf. Walking right up the edge, he leaned out slightly and peered down into space. A sheer cliff fell away from beneath his feet and plunged several hundred feet straight down before giving way to the natural slope of the mountain face.

He turned his head and gazed back up the mountain in the direction he had come. His eyes retraced his path back to the hollow from which he'd emerged and beyond to the naked mountain rim above. He noted the cracked and broken rock that scarred the craggy face of the declivity rising above as well as a type of spiky, brambly plant that seemed to grow in whatever crevice its seed could take root. Nowhere did he see any logical place into which she might have fallen, and she should be somewhere nearby if Chaos had carried her here. Of course, Vincent wasn't sure if Chaos had landed or fallen into that rocky rimmed hollow, but he knew one thing for certain. If he had successfully caught Tifa in flight and flown her to this slope, she probably would have tumbled down the mountainside and over the ledge into the valley below. Of course, he had no way of knowing if he had even managed to catch her. Either way…she was dead.

With a heavy heart, he drew his cloak tightly around him to stave off the cold wind and stared off into the distance, idly tracing the gleaming silver trail of a river snaking its way across the plains far below. A fleeting sense of familiarity slipped through his mind and away as his thoughts turned inward to sift through the encroaching shadows inside. He didn't even bother to resist the self-condemning voice within.

He had failed her. Just as he'd failed all those he'd ever cared for. Hadn't he expected it? He'd known full well that he probably would not succeed. He had known the odds were against him, but he had hoped it would be different this time. His heart ached beneath the weight of his failure. Why could he not seek solace in the fact that he'd acted this time? At least, he had tried. Not like before when he'd stood back and waited too long to act, and his mother had died. Then he'd failed her again when he'd broken the promises he made to her as she lay dying in his arms, a betrayal that undeniably led to the loss of…

No! With a jerk of his head he slammed and locked the door on that unbearable memory, abruptly closing off the pain that sought to overwhelm him before it could gain a toehold. That shattered fragment of his past retreated back into the remote recesses of his mind as though it had never been.

He thought instead of Nibelheim, that deceptively sleepy village at the base of those wild, twisted mountains, no doubt a mirror of the landscape in Hojo's brain. More than thirty years had passed, but it seemed only a short time ago that he'd finally confronted Hojo to put a stop to his madness and failed dismally. He had stood aside, doing his duty for Shinra, watching the terrible events unfold, knowing it needed to be stopped. He had hovered on the periphery of their scientific experimentation because it was what she wanted. Oh, he had known it was reprehensible, but he wasn't in any position to voice moral protestations. So he had done nothing until it was much too late…too late for Sephiroth…too late for...Lucrecia. A knife twisted in his heart at the memory of her then. Deathly pale and weak from the injections of Jenova. She had been dying before his eyes, but he'd stayed out of Hojo's way and let him torture her with his demented experiments, even though he professed to love her.

He should have suffered in her place. Despite all the torment Hojo gleefully put him through and despite all that he still suffered from the changes in his body wrought by the vindictive Professor, it would never be enough to balance the scales against the pain he had caused because of his inaction in Nibelheim. Nor against the evil deeds he'd carried out in Shinra's name.

Yes, he'd tried to save her, and if he had died trying, then his death would have been well worth the effort. Yet here he stood, his heart still beating in his chest while she lay somewhere below, her lifeless body shattered against the merciless mountain. Vincent bowed his head and sighed tiredly. He couldn't stay here forever on this desolate mountainside, although he wasn't sure where he would go when he left. He would make that decision later. Right now he intended to find her and lay her to rest. He would not leave her body for the carrion birds to pick over.

He knew he'd set himself a task that might take some time, but he had no obligations to anyone but her and all the time in the world. Still, he may as well get started, and the most likely place to begin was down. With that in mind, he peered over the edge of the cliff again, this time searching for a means of descent, but the sheer, smooth cliff appeared devoid of any substantial footholds. He supposed he could just jump and let Chaos take him, but his stomach churned in revulsion at the very thought. No, he would fight Chaos for possession of his own body at every turn.

A loud, raucous screech from behind brought Vincent spinning to face the mountain again, even as he released the cloak to the wind and reached for his pistol. His gloved hand fell on an empty holster. With a sense of regret, he realized that the revolver had fallen out somewhere on the mountainside. He fervently wished that he still had the Death Penalty slung to his back, but he'd let the heavy rifle fall to the deck of the Highwind. Fortunately, he still had the Quicksilver tucked away in its shoulder holster right where he'd always carried it as a Turk.

Vincent reached for the silver pistol as his eyes tracked the dark sky for the source of the screech. The vociferous creature would probably turn out to be quite harmless, but he would take no chances. He'd seen plenty of vicious creatures lately to make him more than cautious.

The creature screeched again, and Vincent locked onto the dark shape as it flew out from the brush high above. He lifted the pistol and sighted in on the flying bird, his keen eyes easily following it across the night sky as it circled back. With a little shock, he realized that the flying beast was a drackbird. He expected the appearance of indigenous carrion birds, but he never thought he'd see a drackbird. That species of bird had been nearly extinct in his time, mainly because the aggressive birds were slaughtered at every opportunity. He hoped they were still as rare.

He watched the bird disappear into the brush once again, and suddenly realized that he should discover what drew the bird to that particular place. From what he remembered about them, drackbirds were drawn by the scent of even a minute amount of blood, and they reputedly had a predilection for human flesh. If Tifa was up there...

Quickly, Vincent reholstered the Quicksilver and started up the mountainside toward the thin, brush covered ridge where the bird had vanished. The craggy slope quickly grew steeper the higher he climbed, and the gusty wind played havoc with his cloak and long hair. Still, Vincent made short work of his ascent as he agilely scrambled upwards, his genetically altered muscles and catlike reflexes serving him well as he moved over the rock.

Again, the drackbird screeched above his head and was answered by another from farther away. Startled, Vincent paused in his climb and leaned against the cold stone to peer overhead. There were now three of the bloodthirsty creatures flying towards the ridge, and he didn't know if their number included the one he'd seen originally. He strongly suspected that it did not, and now he had no doubt that something had indeed drawn their attention.

Urgency guiding his movements, he climbed more hastily. He had seen with his own eyes how quickly the voracious drackbirds could take apart a corpse, and he didn't intend to let that happen to her. The broken face of the nearly vertical wall had thus far provided an uncomplicated ascent, but Vincent suddenly found himself facing a smooth, concave wall virtually lacking in any handhold or toehold. He paused and turned his face upward to see how close he had come to his goal, and his blood froze at the sight of the dark shape hurtling toward him. The drackbird dove straight for him, its coal black wings folded and sharp talons extended. With fierce red eyes focused on him, the bird opened his jagged beak and screamed in challenge. He jerked aside as the creature swooped directly at his face and away, narrowly missing his nose.

Vincent flattened his body against the rock wall once again and swung his head to track the bird as it flew out over the plains and circled back, obviously lining up for another attack. With his cheek flattened against the stone, he drew his left arm back and drove the metal digits of his claw into a narrow crevice as far as they would go and curled them into the granite. Then he set his left foot firmly on a minute outcropping and slightly turned his body away from the wall, reaching for the silver snub-nosed pistol while his eyes sought out the feathered assailant as it zeroed in on his position.

Intensely focused on the closing Drackbird, Vincent's fingers had barely brushed the ivory butt of the gun when another feral bird dropped onto his shoulder from above, digging sharp talons into his shoulder and pecking wildly at the partially healed gash across his cheekbone. Pain seared the whole right side of his face, bringing tears to his eyes. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut and struck at the large bird as he buried his face in the deep collar of his cloak. Largely undeterred, the ravenous creature closed its hooked beak on the top of his ear. Vincent backhanded the bird again and blindly landed a glancing blow that had little effect.

At that moment, the first Drackbird swooped in to join the fray. It dropped heavily onto the top of Vincent's head and promptly sank its talons into his scalp. With a curse, Vincent swept his arm up and grabbed a fistful of feathers. He tore the bird off his head and flung it away, losing his footing in the process. The momentum swung him away from the wall, the metal claw his only tether to the mountainside. He twisted his body back in an attempt to regain his footing even as the remaining drackbird tore painfully at his exposed ear.

The sole of Vincent's boot scraped across the stone as he reached back and closed his fingers around the bird's thick neck. He jerked the bird forward and bit back a cry of pain when the jagged beak ripped loose. With a great deal of satisfaction, he slammed the creature into the cliffside, feeling the neck give beneath his fingers at the impact. He flung the bird away from him and watched the wings flutter loosely in a parody of flight as the carcass tumbled away in the wind.

Vincent knew he didn't have time to tarry here. There were more of the vicious birds above and perhaps more on the way. Ignoring the blood that trickled down his neck from both his torn ear and the newly opened gash on his cheekbone, he quickly found his footing and flattened himself against the granite face again. Once he secured his position, he leaned back slightly and looked up, searching for any potential means of ascending further over the smooth surface.

He realized immediately that he would not be able to climb the rest of the way. Not only did the wall curve out slightly, but the stretch above also provided absolutely no place for him to grip. He estimated that the location that interested the drackbirds was only about eight feet above his head, and he could see that what had appeared to be a brush covered crevice from below now appeared to be the edge of a rock shelf.

In an attempt to judge the stability of the shelf, he focused his attention more closely on the edge itself and froze as another drackbird soared out into the space above him. Totally motionless, his eyes followed the bird as it circled back and landed on the brushy rim again.

Satisfied that the bird would not attack just yet, Vincent started to return to his examination of the cliff face, but paused as he noticed the drackbird tearing at something in the brush. He stared hard, his sharp eyes locked on the brush as he strained to see what had captured its attention. The bird jerked hard with his hooked beak, and he glimpsed something lift from the brambly plant growth. At first, he couldn't make out what the pale object could be. Then the bird let go and the object dropped over the side and dangled there.

Vincent's keen eyes easily made out the gloved hand that extended past the plant cover, and he now knew without a doubt that Tifa's body lay atop that narrow ledge with at least two drackbirds in attendance. There was no time to waste. He quickly examined the lip of the stone ledge for a solid handhold. He would have to attempt a jump, an impossible feat for an ordinary man; a difficult one for him, especially with the wind howling around him. However, he had no choice. He just prayed the drackbirds ignored him for a few more moments.

Vincent shifted one foot to a more secure outcropping and flattened himself against the wall once again. Cautiously, he worked his metal claw from the crevice he'd jammed it in. Once free, he laid both claw and gloved hand against the cold stone and flexed his knees, peering upward to gauge the distance and trajectory of his leap. He waited until the wind eased a bit. Then he took a deep breath and pushed hard with his feet, launching his body into space.

Seconds later, he successfully gripped the stone rim of the ledge, but his fingers slipped away as they encountered loose silt and vegetation. The sharp metal talons skittered a bit, but finally dug in and held. Before he could lose the thin purchase he'd gained, he hurriedly swung his legs forward and pushed off against the cliff, providing the impetus he needed to lever the upper half of his body onto the ledge. From there, he easily swung his lower body up and rolled fluidly to his feet.

He stepped away from the edge and spun in the direction he thought he'd seen her hand, retrieving the Quicksilver as he turned. The wind hit him full in the face, ripping his cloak away from his body and sweeping his hair from his face, forcing the metallic scent of her blood into his nostrils. His crimson eyes narrowed on the two large Drackbirds that stood atop her indistinct form, mostly hidden in the tall brush. So silent had been Vincent's arrival on the ledge, the birds hadn't even noticed his presence downwind. Vincent lifted the pistol and fired at the taller of the two birds, his unconscious aim as natural as pointing his finger. The bird dropped where he perched. Startled, the other Drackbird screamed and clumsily lifted itself into the wind with a loud flapping of its great wings.

With his gun still in hand, Vincent ran to her, dreading what he might find. He didn't know how shattered her body would be or to what extent the hungry Drackbirds had gotten to her. It wasn't that death or injury bothered him. On the contrary, he'd seen too much…done too much. He just did not want to see her...that way, but there was no choice. He would not leave her body here.

A moment later, he stood beside her. She lay face down in the brush with her limbs out-flung and her hair fanned out into the brambles. She looked like nothing so much as a doll that had been thrown down by a bored child and forgotten. With a hiss of disgust, Vincent kicked the dead drackbird away from her side, the tip of his boot sending the crumpled bird over the edge.

Slipping the Quicksilver back into his shoulder holster, he dropped to one knee beside her. Immediately, he thought he could see the movement of her shoulder blades in the shallow rise and fall of respiration, but he didn't trust his eyes. He was well aware that sometimes the brain delivers what one wishes to see. He leaned over and pressed two fingers into her exposed neck. His eyes widened in surprise at the strong throb of her pulse beneath his fingertips. She was most definitely alive. At least, she was alive for now. However, he needed to determine if she had sustained serious injury or not, but before he did that he would have to move her. He knew full well that he might exacerbate her injuries in the process, but she was lying too close to the edge with her arm dangling in air. He feared she would awaken and roll of the ledge. Not only was it imperative to get her away from the long drop-off, but he wanted to bring her closer to the stone face to get her out of the cold wind.

Very carefully, he repositioned her and maneuvered her onto her back. Slipping his right arm beneath her shoulders and his prosthetic arm under her knees, he lifted her to him. With her head cradled against his shoulder, he stood and slowly backed away from the rim, coaxing the brambles to relinquish their tentative grasp of her tangled, windblown tresses. Another gust of wind ripped her hair free, and he turned and quickly carried her to the base of the rocky slope. He walked deeper along the ledge until he found a spot that seemed softer underfoot and somewhat sheltered from the icy wind, although there was really no place here the wind could not touch. With a sigh, he knelt and gently eased her to the ground. At least here, she would be more secure, and the accumulated silt provided a cushion from the cold, unyielding rock.

Well aware that time was her enemy if she had suffered a potentially lethal injury, he quickly assessed her condition to see what, if anything, he could treat. Her legs and arms were covered with welts and scratches where she'd fallen into the brush, and the front of her left leg was caked with blood that still barely oozed from a narrow gash just below her knee. Nothing life-threatening so far. His eyes moved upwards and froze on four long, shallow gouges clearly visible where her cropped shirt had pulled away from her stomach. The swollen tracks looked like the result of claws ripping through skin, and Vincent knew exactly what had caused them. These were the marks of the sharp talons of Chaos. A chill crept over him that had nothing to do with the icy wind. He knew quite well that this injury could have been much worse. With a shake of his head, he moved on.

He could see that Tifa's hands were covered in blood. Her bare fingers had sustained many small, deep cuts from her slide across the deck of the Highwind, and a long sliver of glass had impaled her right hand. Vincent grasped her wrist in his claw and raised her hand to take a closer look. The glass had speared through the palm of her glove and out the top, and the leather covering prevented him from viewing the extent of the damage.

Carefully, Vincent unbuckled the wrist strap of her Premium Heart fighting glove and slipped his fingers into the top of his boot to retrieve his knife. He touched his finger to the wooden handle and the blade sprang free and locked into place. With a couple of deft slices, he cut her glove so that he could more easily remove it without disturbing the bloodstained fragment. Then with a sharp twist of his wrist, the blade reseated into the handle with a soft click. Absently, he slid it back into his boot and returned his attention to her hand.

Slowly, he eased the glove off over her fingers, cautious to avoid snagging the material on the thin-edged glass. Once clear of the glass sliver, he pulled the glove free and let it fall to the ground. Now, Vincent could easily assess the damage and decide what would be required of him to remove the sliver. He gritted his teeth as he noticed a bloody, ragged area of skin where a drackbird had torn at her hand with its jagged beak, apparently attracted by the copious amount of blood that covered her skin. The bird had ripped through her glove and thoroughly shredded the tissue between her thumb and forefinger. Now he knew why the species had been nearly wiped out. He had developed a burning desire to bring them to extinction himself.

Ignoring that wound for the moment, he looked closer at the position of the glass. The splinter had knifed through her palm, sliding like butter between the small, delicate bones there. He could see that he would have to remove it very carefully in order to avoid ruining her hand further. Between the damage from the drackbird's beak and the glass splinter, her right hand would take some time to heal on its own.

Still lightly grasping Tifa's wrist in his metal fingers, Vincent's eyes returned to the dark bruise adorning her forehead, the most obvious reason for her unconscious state. He leaned forward and gently explored the swollen area with his fingertips, probing for any sign of a fracture. Although he was no medical expert, he didn't think the bruised area signified anything more than a solid knock on the head. In fact, as far as he could tell, all of her injuries could be healed simply with just a low-level Restore Materia. Unfortunately, he had slotted his Mastered Magic Materia into the stock of the Death Penalty. He dropped his eyes to the Escort Guard on his arm even though he knew he had no curative materia there.

He turned his crimson eyes to the ground and scanned the materia slots of her crumpled Premium Heart glove. Two of the slots were empty, and the materia orbs that remained contained no healing ability. A brief glance at the band on her upper arm confirmed that the nature of the materia slotted there would not help in this situation either.

Wondering if he still had any medicines, Vincent slipped his hand into the interior pockets of the cloak's lining and rummaged around, eventually pulling out several gun patches, a small can of gun oil, and a cleaning rod. He drew the cloak across his body and slipped his hand into the left pocket. From there, he retrieved 3 loaded clips for the Quicksilver, a half empty box of hollow point cartridges for the missing pistol and another box that rattled with the last three high caliber cartridges he still had for the large bore rifle he'd left on the Highwind. He set the ammunition aside and delved a bit deeper, finally discovering an extra ribbon he'd taken off a Tonsberry and a handful of forgotten, foil-wrapped chocolate pieces that had obviously been melted at some time. Unfortunately, he found no elixirs or potions hidden away in the deep pockets. With a sigh, he dumped everything back into the cloak except for the gun cleaning patches. Typically, he would not be so unprepared, but they had all become dependent on the materia. He was no exception.

Knowing full well that he had nothing, he checked his trouser pockets and shirt pocket anyway, hoping that some forgotten but useful item might be discovered there. His fruitless search did not take long. There was no help for it. He would have to make do with what he had. No one was going to drop by to help him or bring any medical supplies or curative materia, and he should remove the glass before she regained consciousness.

With that thought in mind, he grasped the sharp point of the glass with his fingertips and tentatively tugged it slightly, but he froze at the convulsive jerk of her hand. He turned his eyes to her face as a low moan slipped from her lips. Her eyelids fluttered slightly, and he waited quietly to see if she would awaken, but she fell still once again, seemingly having lapsed back into deep unconsciousness. After a few moments in which she didn't stir, he set to work on the extraction again.

White-hot pain seared through Tifa's mind, unfocused and all consuming. She struggled to move beyond the agony, to escape the torment but she couldn't find the way. In the end, the cruel pain took the shape of a tidal wave that drove her toward consciousness.

Her eyes flew wide. She stared uncomprehendingly at the dark shape that loomed over her, at what coalesced in her foggy brain as tentacles whipping around a formless head and slitted eyes, burning a fiery red as the thing glared malevolently at her. At the same instant, she realized the burning pain had centered in her right hand, and she violently jerked it free from the monster's grasp with a sharp cry of fear.

She threw her hands against the ground to scramble away even as a sharp voice penetrated her brain.

"No, don't do that!"

Too late. Her right hand hit the ground and her cry turned to one of pure agony. She tumbled over on her side and curled up into a fetal position, clutching her injured hand tightly in the other. Her fingers scraped against the sharp glass jutting from the palm of her hand, and she remembered. She pulled the side of her injured hand protectively against her stomach, careful to turn her impaled palm down, away from any contact with her body. A whimper hovered on her lips, but she bit it back. Shakily, she sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly as she waited for the pain to subside. Then she drew in another.

Several breaths later, the searing pain had ebbed away, leaving a throbbing ache in its wake. Finally feeling somewhat composed, she rolled over onto her back again and looked up at the man who kneeled quietly beside her. He hadn't spoken another word as she had struggled to overcome her pain. He remained as still as the rocks around him and watched her.

Although he didn't speak often, she had heard his voice enough that she recognized it. She turned her eyes to his dark silhouette, an obsidian shadow against an only slightly less dark background. The weaving tentacles now resolved into his long locks of hair, whipped about his head by the bitter wind. The molten red slits she had thought were the eyes of the malevolent flying beast, on the verge of making an entrée of her hand, she now recognized as his luminous, crimson eyes now that he stared directly at her.

She grew uneasy as she looked into those indifferent, blood red eyes that seemed to float unblinking in thin air, as though they belonged to a hidden predator lurking in darkness. A sudden shudder ran through her whole body, but it had little to do with his presence. Now that the pain didn't demand her entire attention, she realized that she was literally freezing here on the ground.

She clumsily pushed herself upright with her left hand, cradling her right against her stomach. She nearly fell back as darkness swam into her consciousness and threatened to carry her down, but a firm hand dropped to her shoulder and held her in place while her world righted itself once again.

Now that she was sitting, the full force of the wind blasted against her, setting her teeth to chattering. She wrapped her arms tightly around her ribcage and huddled into herself, shivering, trying vainly to gather the warmth of her body to her, but the icy wind tore all warmth away just as it whipped her hair around her body, capriciously tugging the tangled strands in frigid fingers.

She started as a blanket of blessed warmth enveloped her. She looked up and tried to see his face as he tightly buckled his cloak around her, but it was simply too dark and windy.

"T-t-thank y-y-you...but y-y-you are g-g-going to f-freeze..." she stammered out between chattering teeth. She peered at his red eyes in the darkness, all that she could see of him, and waited for a response. He did not speak.

She snuggled into the cloak and drew in a ragged breath, looking up to the featureless heavens above her. "W-w-where are we?" she asked, her voice a bit steadier this time.

"In the mountains." Vincent replied flatly.

Tifa looked up into the empty sky again and wondered what had become of the Highwind...Cloud...all the others. She prayed everyone was okay; that the Highwind hadn't crashed. She certainly knew that she should be dead, and she wasn't.

"T-that was y-you...up there...that caught me." She stated. There was no question in her mind as to why she was still alive. Since Vincent sat on this mountain with her, there was no other explanation.


"What? Chaos?"

"Chaos caught you."

"Oh..." She turned that over in her mind. That must be what he called the creature that he became as a result of his transformations.

"Well...I guess…I should…thank you." Tifa stammered, her natural shyness producing uncertainty in her voice. She really didn't know what to say to him. There were no words for what he'd done for her.

Vincent did not respond to her overture of gratitude. In truth, he didn't know what to say. He acted because he could save her. He hadn't really thought it possible that he would succeed, and he didn't feel that she was obligated to him in any way. The fact that she was alive was reward enough, and her acknowledgement made him uncomfortable.

Instead, he decided to address more practical matters. "The glass in your hand must be removed. I attempted to remove it before you awakened...." Vincent spoke matter-of-factly in his usual flat monotone. "Do you want me extract it?"

Tifa didn't answer immediately. She knew it had to be removed, and she desperately wanted it out. She also knew that it was going to hurt like hell, but there was simply no other choice. She nodded her head then opened her mouth to speak, but he spoke first. "Give me your hand." She stared at his dark silhouette for a moment before she realized that he had seen her nod her head. She didn't have to say anything. Vincent's unnaturally sensitive visual acuity never failed to amaze her even though it had saved them all more than once.

Realizing that he was quietly waiting, she drew her arm away from her stomach. She held her hand out in a tense claw with her fingers rigidly curved away from the spear of glass. Taking a deep breath, she stretched it toward Vincent, but paused as her fingers started to tremble, the sharp pain that had been lying in wait uncoiled to strike. She bit down her lip to hold back the groan that had formed in her throat.

Vincent took her fingers in a firm grasp and appraised the injury once again as he waited for her pain to abate. She had driven the glass deeper and opened the wound wider when she had scrambled away from him. Fresh blood now seeped around the embedded shard. He realized that he needed to have something to bandage the wound once he'd extracted the glass. He'd set the gun patches aside, but he still would have to have something to hold them in place. He glanced up at Tifa who had closed her eyes and was in the process of drawing in a deep breath. He recognized that her attempt to control her pain required concentration, but he had to find out if she had any healing materials on her at all.

"Are you carrying any healing potions or curative materia?" Vincent got straight to the point. Tifa opened her eyes to peer in his direction, her gaze unconsciously falling to her right hand.

"Well…I have Restore in my glove...." she faltered, realizing that her hand was bare. "...And I had some elixirs in my bag, but...I put it on the bench..." Her voice stuck in her throat. Yes, her supplies were on the Highwind, which was Gods knew where.

"The Restore orb much have fallen from its slot. You have no curative materia in your glove." Vincent informed her, his voice devoid of inflection.

Tifa swallowed hard. She immediately realized the gravity of her situation. She knew very well that if Vincent had anything he would not have asked her. This meant that any injury she had sustained, whether it would be tendon damage, broken bones or deep wounds, would have to heal naturally. Her stomach churned as the possibility of infection or permanent damage reared its ugly head.

She really didn't think anything was broken, but she knew the splinter of glass could have severed tendons and ligaments, rendering her hand pretty useless for awhile. Her head certainly ached though, and she reached up, wincing when her fingers encountered the huge knot on her forehead. She decided that her current state of consciousness meant that she would probably survive the head injury. Good thing she had such a hard head. A ghost of a smile touched her lips at the thought despite the gravity of her situation. Miraculously, she didn't seem to have any life-threatening injuries from her ordeal, and she considered herself pretty lucky under the circumstances.

The fire in her hand flared again as Vincent changed his hold on her hand, sharply drawing her attention back to what he was doing. She couldn't tell much in the dark, but he seemed to have his claw to his head. She wondered if he was okay. Perhaps he had injuries too. She opened her mouth to ask him and nearly choked as he jerked something from his head. A moment later she realized he had removed his bandana as he shook it out one-handed. He put it down somewhere and turned his crimson eyes back to her face.

"Are you ready?" he asked quietly.

Her stomach flipped even as she steadily replied, "I'm as ready as I'm going to get."

Without another word, Vincent tightened his grip on her bloodstained fingers and pinched the thin splinter between the sharp thumb and first finger of his metal claw. Slowly, he increased the pressure of the metal digits until he thought they wouldn't slip on the blood-slick surface. He glanced at her face again. Her eyes were fixed on her hand, even though he knew she couldn't see a thing. Feeling his gaze on her, she jerked her gaze up to meet the unspoken question in his eyes.

"Just get it over with, Valentine. I can take it." She commanded, although the quaver in her voice gave the order less weight. "Just…just…make it quick…okay?" she added shakily.

He nodded, but she didn't see it. As Vincent shifted his burning gaze back to her hand, she squeezed her eyes tightly closed. She knew he wouldn't hesitate again. This was it.

A second later, white-hot pain speared through her palm and sent a firebrand of pure agony all the way up her arm, proving her dead right as Vincent meticulously drew the shard from her hand. She wanted to yank her hand away, but instead she held her whole body rigid and stubbornly resisted the urge. Her mouth gaped in wordless protest as she flailed the air with her other hand and latched tightly to the first surface her fingers encountered. Squeezing down with all her might, she drew in a harsh breath and held it.

An eternity passed and a molten river of fire threatened to overtake her mind until she could think of nothing else, any coherent thought crumbling to ash beneath the destructive flame. She became vaguely aware of a low keening that she thought was the wind, but then realized that the tortured sound burned from her own throat. She bit down on her lip to silence the sound and tasted blood on her tongue. With great effort, she tried to will her attention elsewhere, but a thick darkness crept into her mind as she sensed her awareness slipping away, crystalline ice melting into crevices and flowing down.

Then, just when she thought she would fall into blessed oblivion, the excruciating pain finally abated, and a dull throb took up residence in its place. She released the stale air from her lungs and slumped limply against the rock wall, her whole body suddenly overcome with a bone-deep exhaustion. She decided she didn't care what Vincent did now. She just wanted to sleep. Her eyelids slowly fell closed and her mind slipped its tether, drifting away on a languid current.

Vincent pressed the round cloth patches to the bleeding wound on each side of her hand, his viselike grip no doubt still causing her pain. He glanced over to see how she was faring only to find her slumped against the cold stone. She had finally released her crushing grip on his knee and drawn her hand away to rest lightly against her stomach.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

He thought she hadn't heard him at first, but then her barely perceptible nod satisfied him and he returned to his ministrations. Deftly, he wound her hand in the long piece of cloth that he used for a bandana, even as his unrestrained hair fell into his face. He wished that he had something more suitable to cover her hand, but they simply had nothing between the two of them. He tied off the makeshift bandage and gently laid the bulkily wrapped hand in her lap. Leaning over her, he drew the cloak closer around her still body, tucking the edges in beneath her legs so that the wind wouldn't catch the hem. She didn't even stir.

He rose to his full height and scanned the sky around him. He thought it highly possible that more drackbirds would put in an appearance, but he didn't see any creatures flying near them. Perhaps they had gone for good. He seemed to remember that the dracks were nocturnal birds, and he noticed that the sky had turned a deep shade of midnight blue to the east. The arrival of daylight appeared imminent despite the heavy cloud cover. He stepped away from the partial shelter of the cliff wall and discovered that the icy wind hadn't relented at all. He crossed his arms against the cold even though the short sleeves of his black cotton shirt did little to stave off the chill, making the absence of his cloak more acutely felt. Still, his adaptive body could handle the cold much better than Tifa, weak with exhaustion and injury.

He walked up to the rim and leaned out, scanning the slope below and then back up the walls of the adjacent cliffside. Although his eyes were very adaptive in the darkness at close range, he couldn't see off into the distance well. However, he could make out some features of the terrain. He lowered himself to the edge and sat down, crossing his boots at the ankle. As still as one of the rock-hewn Gods of Dachau, he perched motionless at the edge of the world and watched the darkness move across the land far below, diminishing as the sky lightened above him.

While he passively observed, his mind worked ceaselessly. In part, because he knew he had to find a way to get off the mountain with Tifa Lockheart, and partly because the deep gloom threatened to possess his mind once again. He had no time to permit the persistent and endlessly condemning voice of the past to sink its talons into his mind. So he turned his thoughts to the search for a resolution to their current situation, filling his mind with possible scenarios and potential courses of action.

There would be no rescue. Of that he was certain. At least, not anytime soon. The Highwind had gone down. Whether anyone survived depended on the ingenuity and pure stubbornness of her pilot. He had produced more than one miracle in the time he'd known him, and it would not surprise him in the least if he had done so again. However, there would be much to occupy them if they did survive the landing of the Highwind.

Vincent would have no trouble getting down alone. He could simply jump into the wind and transform into Chaos or he could leap easily from ledge to rock to crevice and so on until he reached the valley floor. Most likely the latter. He would not transform again if it were not required. Nor would he put her at risk by doing so. He would have to find another way and soon. He could smell the storm moving in, and he wanted to be off the mountain before it arrived. They had no shelter, no food and no water, and he didn't want to fight off a flock of drackbirds alone when night fell.

The morning light now spread completely across the valley floor, the sky above a uniformly roiling mass of heavy gray clouds. Vincent was again struck by the familiarity of the area below. Of course, he had overflown much of the continent in his travels, both as a Shinra Turk and as a member of Avalanche. So knowledge of the terrain should be within his grasp. He traced the silver ribbon of river to its source in the far distance, where it poured from a cavernous outlet in the adjacent mountain face. Then, he shifted his examination to the contour of the mountain range, the rim sharp against the overcast sky. Finally, he stared down at the shape of the valley floor itself. Indeed, Vincent did know exactly where they were, and he delved into his memory, looking for something tucked away there about this area that he could not now see, but that would provide a means of descent for both of them.

Then there it was. An image of a broken mountainside flowed into his mind, marked by ledges and gentler slopes than were found here. He would simply have to determine the distance between that mountain face and this ledge, and find a way to get there from here. Yes, he thought he could get them both off the mountain today. The descent would be arduous and fraught with peril, but much less hazardous than the alternative of remaining on this ledge. He just hoped that Tifa Lockheart would be amenable to his plan.

Tifa stirred and grimaced as a prickly tingle overtook her stiff limbs. With a huge yawn, she cracked her eyelids open and stared down with fascination at her clumsy-looking, cloth-wrapped right hand. Experimentally, she flexed her fingers and experienced instant regret when the sharp stab of pain nearly took her breath away. She wouldn't be doing that again, if she could help it.

With her uninjured hand, she pushed herself away from the smooth rock and sat up. The wind dragged her hair into her face, and she impatiently reached back and gathered it up in her left hand. She pulled the thick, tangled mass over her left shoulder in the hope that it would stay there. Obviously, the wind hadn't abated at all, but she did feel warmer now that the sun was up. She stared off into the distance, beyond the rim to the landscape far below. Her breath caught in her throat and the blood drained from her face when she realized how high up the mountain they actually were and how very narrow was the ledge where they had landed.

She jerked her eyes away from the disconcerting vista and turned her gaze to the black-clad man that sat at the very edge of the stone shelf with his back to her, his arms and legs folded. The wind blasted against him, tugging at his shirt and tangling his long, black hair. She felt guilty that she now wore his cloak and would have offered it back to him, but she was pretty sure he wouldn't accept it. Besides, he seemed impervious to the cold and wind anyway. In fact, in the time she had traveled with him, he seemed impervious to nearly everything, including inconvenient things like human emotion.

"How do you feel?"

Tifa jumped at the sound of his low voice, and wondered if the man had eyes in the back of his head, hidden somewhere in that thick hair. He always seemed to know when someone was looking at him.

"I'm…better." She finally replied to his query.

"Good." He responded tersely.

For several minutes, the moan of the wind carried the conversation until Tifa decided to take it over again.

"What now?" She inquired of him, imitating his flat tone.

He didn't answer her immediately, and she grew irritated as she waited for him to reply. Finally, she opened her mouth to repeat her question, but he spoke first.

"We must begin our descent soon."

"And…how are we going to do that?" She asked uneasily. "Are you going to transform again?"

"No." He replied with a slight edge in his voice.

She wanted to ask him why not, but his tone deterred her from any argument. She would do better to find out what he did have planned, considering how far below the valley floor appeared to be.

"Do you have a plan to get down then?"


Tifa waited a few moments for the rest of his answer until she finally realized that was all of it. She resisted the urge to leap up, snatch a handful of his hair, and at least make him look at her. She was tired of talking to the back of his head. However, she didn't think she could stand up just yet, much less leap to her feet. So she resigned herself to dragging words out of him, even if only one at a time.

"Well, what is it then!?" She snapped. She hurt all the way to the center of her bones, and she didn't want to talk anymore, especially to the taciturn Vincent Valentine.

He surprised her when he finally stood and turned to look at her. He stepped forward until he stood in front of her. She craned her neck to stare up at him, her mouth agape. She had forgotten that she was wearing his cloak and his bandana, and his face would no longer be covered. This was the first time she had seen his entire face…the first time anyone in Avalanche had seen his entire face. She had expected him to be scarred or damaged in some way. Why else hide one's face? She certainly did not expect to see the flawless and handsome face before her now.

She knew she should quit staring or close her mouth, probably both, but she couldn't seem to pull her eyes away from this...stranger.

He stooped down to look her in the face, and her eyes followed his face down as he knelt. He raised one elegant eyebrow in question, and she finally snapped to her senses and looked away.

He didn't speak until she looked back at him again, capturing her gaze with his coldly indifferent eyes. Oh yes, the eyes were definitely the same. She could deal with that. He was still the same emotionless man as before. Nothing had changed. Her own brown eyes narrowed as she stared into his.

"You will have to trust me." He finally said quietly.

Trust him? She would have to trust him? Despite the fact that his mysterious abilities and utter lack of emotional response gave her the creeps, she already trusted him. She had spent too many hours fighting alongside him, watching each other's back, not to trust him. Besides, how could she not trust a man who would jump off an airship flying several thousand feet up just to save her hide? However, his statement sounded ominous, and she wondered what he had up his sleeve besides his arm. What other choice did she have anyway?

She shifted her gaze to her bandaged hand. Or was that bandanaed hand? She suppressed the sudden urge to giggle over that wayward thought. She fought to get her twitching lips under control, then realized that he still silently waited for a reply. Strangely reluctant to look at him again, she raised her eyes and looked past his shoulder to the swollen sky beyond. Finally, she nodded.

"Okay." She said simply.

Satisfied with her answer, he straightened and turned away without any acknowledgement or further discussion on the matter.

With a tired sigh, she slumped against the stone wall. She didn't even look at him when he spoke again.

"Get some rest." He advised. "You are going to need it."

She closed her eyes to shut out the sight of Vincent Valentine and everything else. She decided that she didn't want to hear his plan, and that he would probably reveal it to her long before she was ready for it. In fact, she was pretty sure it was going to be one of those days where she wished she'd never opened her eyes in the first place.

She snuggled down into the heavy cloak and let her mind wander where it would. In no time, her thoughts turned to the members of Avalanche, the oddest group of people she'd ever known and the only family she had. She refused to think that they might all be gone now. She had to believe that Cid had brought his ship down safely, just as he always did, and that every last one of them would be there if she ever got home. Their familiar faces slipped past behind her eyes and their voices echoed in her mind.

"There ain't no getting' off this train we're on, girl." Yeah Barrett, I know. The train doesn't stop. Think I got off in a big way, though. Found out you can fall off. Barrett, please be all right. Marlene needs you.

"Lady Luck, don't fail me now…" She won't let you down, Cid. I know she won't. She can't. Please be all right Cid. I know you don't believe it, but you have to go home to Shera because she loves you. And I think you love her too.

"Do you want me to tell your fortune?" Don't think I want to hear it right now, Cait Sith. Usually doesn't go my way when you tell it, but that's okay. Reeve, please be all right. I'd like to know you someday.

"Hey, Lockheart! Tifa… Can I have some of your materia when you're through with it? Ya won't be needin' it will ya? You'll probably just marry some ole boring guy and have a bunch a kids. Whatcha say? Can I?" Sure, Yuffie. You can have it all. Take it back to Wutai. Stack it on your dresser. I don't care. Just promise me you'll be okay.

"Tifa, I know it's an imposition and I really dislike having to ask but…would you please…scratch my back? I can't quite reach." Sure, Red. Don't worry about it. Anytime. Just…please…be all right. The people of Cosmo Canyon need you. And so do I.

"The Promised Land… I think I can find her there." Oh, Cloud. I'll help you find her. Just please…please be there if I get back. It doesn't matter if you can't love me. I'll do whatever it takes to help you find her. I promise.

"You will have to trust me." Yeah, Valentine. Whatever you say.

All the faces and the voices and events swirled into a hypnotic melange of color and sound that drew her inexorably down into the amorphous netherworld between reality and dreams. A ghost of a thought slipped from her grasp, and she tumbled over the edge into sweet peace.

Forty minutes later, she was dead to the world. She never even heard him go.

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