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The Call For Order

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Chapter I - Blue Fireworks

 

Cries of awe filled the air as a trail of sparks rocketed through the night sky, before exploding into a crescendo of colour and light. Cheer erupted straight after; loud applause and merriment from the crowd almost drowned out the sound of fireworks. Gathered in the town square of Edge, the people, the survivors, celebrated three years of life and successful rebuilding.

Crimson eyes watched from the shadows of a nearby alley as another wailing streak of sparks soared across the inky black night. This time they burst into a shower of brilliant green shimmers like tumbling emeralds. Vincent Valentine quietly crossed his arms as he leaned against the cool brick, his golden gauntlet shimmering with coloured reflections of the fireworks. He tucked his chin into the safety of his blood-red cowl to avoid the gentle breeze sweeping at his cape. He cast his mind back.

They were now in 3AC. Three years After Crisis. Three years since the catastrophe of Meteorfall. Also three years since he was last seen by AVALANCHE, or by anyone else for that matter.

He pressed his back further into the wall and into more shadow as a child ran past his narrow retreat from the scene. She tugged expectantly at the hand of her mother as she pointed towards the centre of the square with barely contained excitement. “Mommy! Look at the pretty fireworks! Don't they look great over the statue!” The enormous Meteor Monument, built in remembrance of the terrible Meteorfall, stood proudly under the glittering fire show.

“They do, but slow down!” her mother laughed, a pretty sound that was quickly lost in the thunderous bangs of celebration. They were soon consumed within the crowd as another cheer rang out with a clash and rumble of glitter, another following shortly after, then again. The monument seemed to shine more brightly than ever, its construction helped along by refugees who used nothing but the best metal they could find from Midgar's ruins.

This was the town of Edge, built eastward to the remains of Midgar and standing testament of the people's will to survive and carry on. Vincent turned away as another firework cracked the sky open with a flash of red, scattering brilliant, shining fire. While the people of Edge appeared to be moving on with their lives, Vincent was only bitterly reminded of the fact he had failed to move on at all. The past three years had been wasted on him; mostly spent in a dark, dingy library deep within the Shinra Mansion.

He was at a loss as where to go, so returning to the place he had been rudely awakened seemed to be his only option. Back to the forbidden town of Nibelheim where even the bravest feared to set foot. At first he wasn't sure what he was looking for. A reason to be, perhaps. A reason to live.

Hojo was gone. Sephiroth was gone.

… Lucrecia was gone.

He had no reason to stay on this earth; he felt unwelcome on the very soil he was born on. One night as he sat idly looking through some tomes in the library, situated under the dank, rotting floorboards of the mansion, he discovered something he hadn't noticed before. Deep in the gaping jaws and belly of that dust and damp riddled manse, it appeared there were further secrets. Vincent read the terrible scriptures of a madman, diaries that went into macabre detail in how to remove organs, rend flesh from bone. How to splinter a mind and stir madness.

But it was there he found more turmoil and more questions, as well as a sickness seeded with bile that lay festering in his stomach. Vincent seemed to attract mystery, but it was not what he wanted; quite the contrary. He wanted answers.

The crowd reached a fever pitch as a particularly large firework flecked with gold burst in the sky. It lightly shook the foundations around him with a rumbling echo that died on the wind.

“Whooo! Well would'ya check out that baby!!” It was a booming voice that Vincent would recognise anywhere. He quickly turned back towards the entrance of the alley and the square with interest.

“It's super pretty!” A little girl chimed up in amazement.

“It's super, super pretty,” a woman's voice agreed with a bubble of amusement. “What do you think, Denzel?”

“It's pretty cool.” The boy's voice would have sounded indifferent, except for the hint of a smile on his face.

A heavily built, dark-skinned man crossed the square wrapped in a puffy white vest. His huge brown boots thundered down upon the cobblestones, his confident stride highlighting his muscular frame. However, the scary effect was completely ruined by his passenger; a little girl wearing a white turtleneck jumper. Her small arms circled around his thick neck, wide eyes fixed on the firework-ridden sky with an expression of delight. Vincent recognised the man to be Barret Wallace, former leader of AVALANCHE, and his adopted little girl, Marlene.

By his side followed a woman most fair, wearing a black zip-up leather vest with a white shirt underneath. A black leather duster, similar in make to her vest, hung low around her hips and reached down to her ankles. Her chocolate coloured hair appeared almost black until a firework illuminated the scene with blinding colour. Vincent knew this to be Tifa Lockhart, however her charge he did not recognise. A small boy shuffled close to her heels, his messy and tousled hair a hazel shade. He wore a short sleeved dark green hoodie over his light brown button up shirt, scuffing his sneakers as he dragged his feet across the square.

Vincent should have known that some of his former teammates would appear here, at the third year anniversary of saving the world by their own hands. After all, that's why he was here... wasn't it? Vincent had to question himself. He simply wasn't sure anymore.

“What colour fireworks do you like, Denzel?” Marlene called from her towering father's shoulders, giggling as he shrugged further into his jacket causing her to jump up slightly.

“I'm not so bothered about fireworks...” the boy shyly mumbled.

“There must be one that you like though, right?” Tifa gently encouraged with a smile that took him off-guard.

“B-blue. I like blue ones. But I don't think I've ever seen a blue firework before...”

Barret roughly scratched at his thick beard with giant metal fingers belonging to his steel right hand. “Well, I think I'll go talk ta the guy in charge of this whole thing. I'm gonna get ya that blue firework if they ain't already got some.” He turned towards Denzel and gave him a confident grin before stomping into the crowd, parting it with his sheer bulk just as another firework burst over the gathering. A beautiful purple. Marlene waved back from his shoulders above the sea of people. Tifa smiled, stifling a laugh at the little girl's enthusiasm but also at how she appeared to be floating and bobbing midair above people's heads. She waved back.

“I don't want to be too much trouble,” Denzel suddenly said, causing Tifa to look down in surprise.

“Now what makes you say that?” she asked incredulously, lowering her arm.

“I'm not stupid,” he said in a low voice, a tone of bitterness to it. “I know you're trying to cheer me up since Cloud left. He left because of me, didn't he? Because I'm too much trouble to take care of.” Tifa lowered herself down to Denzel's height and took a gentle but firm hold of his shoulders, causing him to look up into her very serious face.

“You're not the reason why Cloud left. Cloud has his own reasons for leaving and you're not a single one of them. You're not any trouble. Not to Cloud, not to me, not to anyone. We love you very much. Do you understand?”

She held his eyes steady with her own. Denzel remained silent for a few moments before finally nodding his head. Tifa's face broke out into a smile.

“Now that's good,” she said with relief as she stood up straight and stretched, arching her back and reaching her arms up towards the explosive display. Inside though her mind was anything but relieved. She discreetly frowned to herself; she desperately wanted to speak to Barret once she had the chance. A yellow firework flashed and boomed in splendour above them, accompanied with crackling sparks. They heard Barret before they saw him, pretending not to stumble out of the crowd with Marlene hanging around his neck, grin still set in place.

“Now you're in for a treat!” He winked at Denzel as he attempted to catch his breath.

“Did they have any blue ones or did you have to go find some?” Tifa asked her old friend. She thought it rather odd if they didn't already have any blue fireworks. They weren't particularly rare, Tifa had seen them before in her childhood back in Nibelheim. However for Denzel, a child and orphan of the slums, it wasn't something common at all.

“They already had some, guess it was jus' coincidence that they hadn't already set 'em off.” He looked towards the sky expectantly. “Keep watchin' lil' man! You're gonna get yer own firework!”

True to Barret's word, a screaming streak of sparks fired from the ground as they turned towards the sky, growing quieter and quieter as it shot into the night. Then came a tremendous bang; a shape of deep blue emerging from the blackness and scattering across the night canvas in sparkling streams. The crowd gasped and loudly cheered. Tifa looked to Denzel from the corner of her eye and smiled at the boy's amazed expression. His mouth was slightly open, his wide eyes taking it all in. This was the biggest firework yet, which made it all the more a fitting present for him. She just made him out over the roar of people.

“Whoa.”

“Daddy, daddy look!” Marlene animatedly pointed towards the shimmering blue. “Denzel's firework is so pretty! I'd like one too!!”

Barret chuckled and jerked his shoulders, causing Marlene to bounce up and down and laugh with pure enjoyment.

As the firework continued its crescendo it struck blue across the square, illuminating the monument in a brilliant shade of cobalt. Denzel slowly looked around, drinking in the scene. Looking to his right, he suddenly locked eyes with a crimson shadow in an alleyway. Stunned, he abruptly stepped back, losing his footing and falling with grasping hands against Barret's leg.

“Wha-Whaa-!!” The cry and pull on his pants leg made Barret immediately look in alarm to where Denzel's gaze was transfixed, catching a glimpse of a crimson cloak, a dashing figure, then nothing. The next flash illuminated nothing but bricks and emptiness.

A few moments passed in shock for both of them. Barret's giant hand lay on Denzel's shoulder as the boy breathed heavily, unsure of just when he'd placed it there. The crowd sounded muffled as if underwater as the two of them tried to gain their bearings.

Marlene and Tifa exploded into laughter. “Denzel fell over! Denzel fell over!” Marlene sang from her father's shoulders.

“Denzel, don't look up too much! You'll lose your balance!” Tifa laughed as she carefully helped the boy to his feet, feeling bad for laughing but unable to stifle it. “Are you alright?”

“T-Tifa! I was-”

Barret cut in sharply, “He's jes' fine, lost his balance. Tha's all.” Denzel looked up in question to the giant man who just nodded his head slightly as if to say, 'It's alright.' Somewhat understanding, Denzel kept quiet.

Tifa furrowed her brows, not missing the silent exchange, but decided not to push the matter. Instead, she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear as she became lost in thought.

“Now!” Barret raised his voice to his trademark boom, “My lil' girl wants a firework! What colour would mah precious flower like?”

“Gold! A pretty gold one!” Barely containing her excitement, Marlene almost fell from Barret's broad shoulders. He laughed and grabbed her sides, lifting her up and setting her down safely next to Denzel.

“Gold it is, so daddy's gonna get what his lil' girl wants!” He turned to Tifa, a sudden hint of gravity to his expression. “Make sure you look after 'em.”

Tifa looked questioningly at Barret. “Of course I will, you know me well enough by now.” She smiled what she hoped was a reassuring one, but she was inwardly suspicious of his sudden change of behaviour. Barret seemed almost spooked.

“Don't worry about it!” He appeared to respond to Tifa but looked at Denzel, who knew it was meant for him. Then with a smile aimed at Marlene, he pushed back into the crowd of townsfolk and towards the monument where the fireworks were being set off.

The hulking man made sure he was well hidden within the crowd before turning around to ensure Denzel was indeed alright. Satisfied, Barret stopped for a moment, lost in thought.

'Vincent? Here?'

Chapter Text

 

Chapter II – Upon a Cloud

 

They had done it. It was official. Barret Wallace was the, 'Best dad in the huge entire world!!' Well, according to one seven-year-old Marlene Wallace he was, anyway. After seeing 'her' firework that Barret had arranged with the townsfolk in charge of the display, she had proclaimed his new title with vigour. They had stayed for a good hour or so afterwards in which a group of refugees had come and set up a rather modest hotdog stand, though modest was putting it kindly; the counter was made from a bunch of rather soiled cardboard boxes lined up in a row.

Despite the appearance, the smell had drawn most of the crowd over as the festivities continued and this included their own little group. After ordering their hotdogs with their own preferred toppings, (Marlene and Denzel both wanted ketchup, Barret with a big helping of mustard and chilli which made the children cringe, then Tifa with a dollop of relish,) they decided to make the short walk back home. Seventh Heaven, otherwise known as Tifa's bar.

“This hotdog is really good!” Marlene said happily as she took another bite, holding Barret's hand and lightly swinging his arm as she walked.

“Yeumph is realph goofh,” Denzel managed to speak around the roll currently halfway in his mouth.

“Don't speak with your mouth full, Denzel,” Tifa lightly chided. “These do taste amazing though.” She took the last bite of her relish hotdog and dusted the white powder from her hands that had came from the bun.

“I gotta say, they out did themselves with this hotdog here!” As Barret took a huge bite from the remains of his mustard and chilli creation, the other three all shared a look between each other. Fortunately, this went unnoticed by the muscular man.

Soon they came upon the bar which sat against a background of worn concrete buildings and bent girders with rusty steel bolts. The bar itself looked worn too, being framed by the same steel girders and metal salvage that came from the ruins of Midgar. The bar kept its traditional feel, made from wood with its set glass windows and smooth brown oak finish. However, it looked like the surrounding metal structure was the only thing keeping it standing.

As Tifa walked up the steps while gathering her keys from the utility pouch woven onto the front of her duster, she could hear the children behind her yawn. Shuffling their feet with fatigue they followed her up the small set of stairs. She was just as tired as they were. Momentarily fumbling with the keys she located the correct one, unlocking and pushing open the front door.

“Come on, kids, time for bed,” Barret said as he wasted no time guiding them across the room and up the stairs. Tifa watched for a moment before turning to the door and taking down the notice which read, 'Bar closed due to third After Crisis festival.' Ensuring the open sign was indeed flipped to show 'Closed', she did a quick check of the bar to make sure everything was in its place. Her eye caught a ring stain on the counter, so she quickly took out her cleaning cloth from behind the till to polish it from the wood.

Her mind was full of questions and simply not enough answers. Denzel's admission troubled her greatly. They were all hurt by Cloud's sudden disappearance, especially herself. Simply thinking about it made her come close to falling back into depression, but she kept a brave face for the sake of the others. She had the children to look after. It hurt her greatly to learn that Denzel blamed himself for Cloud's sudden absence.

The stain was now all gone with nothing but a gleam left in its place. She allowed herself a heavy, shouldered sigh and a few moments of self pity as she leaned against the bar to the ticking of the wall clock. After a few minutes had passed, she swallowed the threat of tears and recomposed herself for the others. She followed them up the stairs with heavy feet.

As she rounded the corner and stepped into the doorway of the children's room, she crossed her arms and leaned against the door frame, smiling at the sight. Barret was just tucking in a sleepy Marlene, already changed into her light blue pyjamas with white bunny rabbits decorated across the fabric. She yawned as she clutched the duvet, murmuring something to Barret as he kissed her forehead. Tifa was almost certain she heard the words 'tickly' and 'beard.'

“... Tifa?” She looked over to find Denzel peering up at her from behind his own bed cover with sleepy eyes. She walked over to the side of his bed and sat beside him.

“Yeah, sweetie?” She tucked in his duvet a little more neatly and ran a hand through his messy locks.

“I'm sorry about earlier. I don't want to be any trouble...” Tifa paused and stifled another sigh, this time one of frustration.

“Denzel, you're never any trouble. You never have been and you never will be... alright?” She ended her sentence playfully and messed his hair from side to side. Normally this would have caused the boy to complain but he was simply too tired to protest. Instead he gave a lazy shake of his head.

“I just thought... if I was good enough and didn't cause trouble... Cloud might come back.” Tifa immediately stopped messing around with his hair, slowly dropping her arm back to her side. It was getting to be a little too much and she had to swallow back tears. A heavy weight fell upon her shoulder and it took her a moment to realise it was Barret's. She glanced over to Marlene to find her sound asleep, her duvet rising and falling gently.

“Cloud...” Tifa began. “Cloud just has some things to sort out, that's all. Things that can't be sorted out here. With us. So he decided to leave and... get these things taken care of. When he's done, he'll come back. Regardless of how much trouble you cause or not.” Tifa couldn't really believe her own words and didn't expect Denzel to either, but he seemed to accept this.

“... Sure?” His voice was laced with sleep.

“I'm positive.” She gave him a weak smile that was anything but positive and lightly kissed him on the cheek. “Goodnight, Denzel.” She gained no response, his eyes were already closed and his breathing evened out.

As she walked out of the room and pulled the door softly shut, Barret, who had been waiting for her outside, pulled her into his arms and into a comforting embrace.

“Now I know that couldn’t 'ave been easy, girl.” She paused a moment before returning the embrace in silence. “What'd he mean by he was 'sorry 'bout earlier'?” Barret asked. Tifa took a steady breath and explained to Barret what had happened, when he had went with Marlene to ask about a blue firework for Denzel. She couldn't see his reaction but she could feel the muscles tighten in his arms.

When she was finished he gave a sigh of his own, releasing her from his hold to run a hand over his cornrow styled hair. “Well shit, Tif'... That kid sure has been through the works. But hey, you sounded like you took pretty good care of it in there.”

“Did I?” She turned suddenly to look up at his face. “I lied to him. I didn't know what else to say. Cloud's gone and none of us know why, and now an eleven-year-old boy has got it into his head that he's the one with the problem when we all know who the real problem is!” Barret urgently hushed her and she quickly realised she had raised her voice. Taking a calming breath, she steadied herself.

Barret began, “... If I get my hands on that scrawny lil' piece'a shi-”

“Barret,” she warned him but it was no use.

“-I'll stick my gun arm right up his skinny lil' as-”

“Barret!” she raised her voice while keeping it a whisper and proceeded to punch his arm. He stopped and gave a slight wince before whispering out.

“Ow.”

Tifa couldn't help but crack a smile and stifled a laugh as he rubbed the part of his arm that her fist made contact with. “Say what you want about Tifa Lockhart,” he said, “she can still throw a punch.” Her smile faded after a few seconds and she looked up to him with russet eyes, a serious quality to them.

“Thanks, Barret. I don't know how I would have handled the kids for the last couple of days.” He rubbed his nose with the index finger of his prosthetic.

“Don't mention it, anything for my fightin' gal.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “We'll find him, Tif'. We will.”

She responded weakly, “Yeah.” And they stood in the hallway in silence.

Minutes passed as they made themselves comfortable leaning against the wall, the moonlight spilling down the corridor from the end window.

Barret suddenly seemed to think of something and almost jumped forward, moving her and himself away from the door. “Wha- what's wrong?” Tifa stuttered out. When he didn't respond she placed her hand on his arm to bring him to attention. “Barret, you're scaring me, you haven't been acting yourself since we were watching the fireworks-” He cut her off as soon as they were far away enough from the bedroom door for his own comfort.

“Yeah, 'bout that. Listen, I was sure at the time but I think I may have saw a phantom or summit.” Tifa gave him an incredulous look.

“What?”

“Bear wit' me here,” he paused with a serious expression on his face, as if to brace himself for his next words. “I think... no, I'm pretty damn sure of it...”

Tifa's patience had worn thin about two hours ago but she still took care to keep her voice hushed.

“Sure of what?!”

“I'm sure I saw Vince!” Tifa was stunned. She blinked back at him a few times, her mouth open slightly. “Yeah I know, ridiculous, right?” he almost laughed at himself. “It's been what, three years?” Tifa quickly recovered.

“Vincent? You mean OUR Vincent?”

“Yeah. OUR Vincent,” Barret mimicked her term for him. “When Denzel fell I saw him lookin' towards the alleyway. He looked scared outta his mind an' I swear I saw Vince's cloak. Only one guy I know who wears a cloak like that,” he paused and then continued. “Only one guy I know who can scare the shit outta lil' kids and adults like that too.” Tifa gave him a disapproving look and somehow managed to look concerned at the same time.

'So he didn't fall because of looking up too high...' she thought.

“So Denzel saw him? Why didn't you tell me?” Barret scratched the back of his neck with his giant steel fingers.

“I didn't jus' wanna bring up the fact that you and me may personally know what scared the crap outta him. I dunno what Denzel saw and even then I wasn't fully sure myself,” he paused in thought then continued as if he was struggling with himself. “Shit, I dunno, I just made the decision and rolled with it. I didn't wanna bring it up during the festival.”

“It's alright, Barret, I understand,” she sympathised with him. “Denzel seems okay but I think we, or well, you,” Barret raised an eyebrow at her here, “should talk with him about it.”

“Why me, man?” He crossed his arms defensively.

“Well, you're the one who saw him, right?” She placed her hands on her hips.

“Well, yeah but...” he protested weakly. He knew Tifa was right. He was never good at the whole, 'giving a talk' thing and he went out of his way to avoid it. While both of them knew Vincent, Barret was the one who saw him so it was only sensible that Barret spoke to Denzel about what he may, or may not have, saw. Now it was a question of how do you tell a kid you know an almost-sort-of living suspected vampire, and that he was actually a friend and saviour?

“Great! Well that's settled,” Tifa said in a final tone, shortly followed by a yawn. While she didn't know the time, she knew it was very late. However, she didn't think she would be able to sleep even if she tried now. Vincent Valentine, the living enigma who had disappeared for three years, may have been sighted. But she trusted Barret and if he was pretty sure he saw him, then she'd very well believe it.

“Come on,” he said gently. “Let's get some rest, we'll talk about this shit in the mornin'.” He guided Tifa to her own bedroom before heading towards Cloud's room, his temporary accommodation. He then wished her goodnight but not before assuring her he was just next door if needed. She watched as he quietly clicked the door latch shut before heading into her own room and towards her own bed.

She stood for a moment in the darkness, the moonlight washing the floorboards to a white shine and causing her shadow to stretch back into the remaining black, into infinity. She held a heavy heart and she was sure it was responsible for her heavy footsteps, though she knew the more reasonable explanation was lack of sleep. Pushing herself forward with her toes, she fell forward onto the bed and buried her face deep in the pillow. After a few minutes, she rolled over on to her back and looked up at the pipes that wove in and around the ceiling.

Failing to find any comfort in their intricate structure, she turned her attention towards the window and her thoughts to two men as she slowly drifted towards sleep.

'Cloud... Vincent... I wonder where you both are now?'

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter III - The Reeve Special

 

A crackling sound greeted Tifa's ears and she blinked lethargically, rubbing sleep from her eyes. Sizzling suddenly burst from downstairs and she recognised the sound immediately. Something had been added to a hot frying pan. Eggs perhaps. A delicious smell made its way to her nose that caused her mouth to water, her stomach persuading her to sit up. She looked around in a daze, not quite remembering when she had fallen into slumber.

As she sleepily got her bearings, a realisation dawned upon her that made all of her lethargy instantly disappear. 'Barret never uses a frying pan, he can barely cook. Which means...'

She jumped up at the thought and began looking for her shoes, quickly realising they were already on her feet as she slept in her clothes last night. She stumbled out the bedroom door and almost jogged down the stairs with baited breath. Turning the corner hard, she dashed past the bar and burst through the kitchen door, preparing to meet a certain blonde, spiky-haired ex-SOLDIER.

“Cloud! I-!” Her voice died in her throat. Instead she was met with a bewildered Reeve Tuesti, clad in his standard red tie and matching navy suit with pressed trousers. This time however, he was wearing a white apron with pink frills adorning the edge over the top of his attire. He stood frozen over a frying pan, his spatula hovering midair, about to flip an egg.

“Oh...” Tifa finished with disappointment but quickly put on a jovial tone to disguise it. “Hello, Reeve! I wasn't expecting you.” She smiled but it was a fake one that he could see right through.

“I can see that,” Reeve said in a kind tone as he raised the corner of his lip into a small smile. He resumed in flipping the egg, rearranging the sausage and bacon around the pan. “I called in on business but it does involve you as well, not just Barret.” This definitely caught Tifa's interest. Reeve would occasionally call on Barret as he was in charge of finding new energy sources for the Planet. He had spent the last three years looking for oil fields, or other fossil fuels that the people could use.

Fossil fuel was a long way away from Mako in terms of power, which caused many problems of its own. Mainly that a lot of machinery was now redundant and had to be completely redesigned to make use of the new fuel they were using. However, the people accepted this gratefully; a fuel that didn't rely on the Planet's very life was truly a blessing right now. So, Barret would report any oil field findings to the World Regenesis Organisation. Then the head of this, which was Reeve, would use this information to drill and gather up the fuel to help the refugees. She failed to see how she fit into all this.

“So, what do you need me for?” Tifa spoke up. Reeve grinned and gently rubbed at his thin black beard and moustache.

“I need you to take a seat and wait for me to finish your breakfast. No use speaking to everyone when they have empty stomachs.” He flipped a rash of bacon, causing a fresh burst of sizzling to erupt from the pan. Tifa smiled and shook her head, thinking to herself, 'Typical Reeve, always so quick-witted.' She decided to humour him and walked back out of the kitchen to find Barret and the children. Her departure was quick, the kitchen door continuing to swing side to side after she had left and Reeve couldn't help but look up from his cooking. He shook his head gently in the direction Tifa had disappeared in with his own found empathy.

“I'm sorry, Tifa,” he apologised softly under his breath before returning his attention back to the noisy pan. It was then that he noticed he may have slightly overdone one of the sausages. “Oh dear. Well, guess I'm having that one!” He laughed to himself and began to whistle for the remaining time he was cooking.

It was past the bar and following staircase where Tifa found the others, in the little adjoining room that was mainly used as a dining area. And it was truly a sight to behold. Marlene and Denzel were playing with Cait Sith by throwing him up in the air, his little cat-like robot body being tossed this way and that. She was amazed the little gold crown didn't fall from his head as he almost touched the ceiling, his red cape flailing alongside his white gloved hands.

“Put me doon! I shouldn't be played with by wee bairns!!!” His distress was ended as Denzel caught him safely, the cat's little black tail somewhat portraying relief as it coiled around the young boy's arm. “Ahhh, aye tha's better. Now how aboot you put me doon and we can all-”

As the cat puppet continued his drone, Denzel and Marlene both shared a rather cheeky glance between them.

“-have a nice ti-yii-YIII-YAAAAAAAH!!!” he screamed as Denzel threw him up once more to his great dismay while Marlene laughed and clapped her hands. Barret sat on the deep red padded corner seats and smiled when he caught Tifa's eye.

“How'd ya sleep, girl? You look kinda rough,” Barret voiced his concern as she sat down beside him. While most people may have taken offence to his words, Tifa knew Barret long enough to know that while he was brash, he was also honest and meant no harm. Besides, she wasn't that type of girl. That didn't mean she couldn't tease him a little though. She put on a tone of pretend hurt as Cait Sith continued his wail in the background.

“You sure know how to make a girl feel good about herself.” She was amused by the guilty look that wavered across his face, and as he scratched the back of his neck, it didn't take long for the smile she had been trying to hide to break out across her face. Once he saw it and realised she was joking, he grinned back at her in relief and chuckled; a deep throaty sound. He was about to speak but it was at that moment Reeve carefully strode through the doorway, minus his effeminate apron. Two plates balanced precariously on his right arm while the left bore napkins draped across like a strung up pair of ghosts, his hand gripping two cups of steaming coffee.

Here we are,” Reeve said joyfully, placing the meals down on the table with surprising grace, following up with the two mugs and napkins. “Two Reeve Specials. Bon Appétit.”

“Special? Don't gimme that shi-” Barret was cut off as Tifa elbowed him in the side.

Thank you, Reeve, it smells wonderful.” She gave Barret a sideways glance but to him it looked more like a glare. Reeve just chuckled as he set down the cutlery, which Tifa wasn't even aware he was carrying. 'Where on earth did he have the room?' Her thoughts were answered when he pulled a fork from his left sleeve and placed it down on the table. She must have been openly gaping because when Reeve glanced at her, he couldn't help but laugh.

“Don't worry, they're clean.” He smiled kindly, the humour reaching his eyes. One could almost be given the impression that they were sparkling with mirth. Tifa shook her head. They all knew Reeve was a magician of sorts, in more ways than one with how he was able to control Cait Sith remotely. Now however, she was almost expecting him to pull out a series of knotted, coloured rags from his mouth.

“Heeelloooo, A LIL' HELP OVER HERE!!”

The trio of adults all looked over to find a screaming Cait Sith hanging on to the ceiling pipes for dear life. Denzel and Marlene were almost doubled over in laughter. Reeve quickly left the table and walked under the hanging cat puppet. As if understanding, Cait Sith let go and fell, tumbling towards Reeve. Suddenly, with an almost cat-like grace, he grabbed the sleeve of Reeve's suit and hoisted himself up onto the groomed man's shoulders. The children were left gaping in surprise, Marlene in awe while Denzel looked impressed.

“Now then.” The cat brushed the imaginary dust from his shoulders, then reached up to adjust his little crown despite the fact it hadn't appeared to have moved even the slightest inch. “You two better finish off yer breakfast, we have a lot of work tae do.” Reeve walked back to the table and took a seat, noticing Barret had already started on his breakfast. He was stuffing bacon and eggs into his mouth with the eagerness of a half-starved man. Tifa smiled politely and unfolded her napkin to rest on her lap, gently picking up her knife and fork. She stopped just before she was about to cut into the crispy sausage.

“Wait, have Denzel and Marlene eaten yet?” she asked both Barret and Reeve at the same time. Barret looked stunned, as if trying to figure out how he was meant to answer with half of the plate's contents in his mouth. Thankfully, Reeve did it for him.

“Don't worry, Tifa, they both had cereal earlier.” Tifa was visibly relieved at this and finally cut into the food on her plate, popping it into her mouth. Reeve took a moment to observe her.

'Always thinking of others before herself. One day it's going to get her hurt, as much as I hate to admit.' At the thought, Reeve's shoulders sank which caused Cait Sith to look at him questioningly.

Come on, Marlene, let's go play hide and seek,” Denzel offered, and as Marlene smiled in agreement, they both ran off into the bar area. This would have given Barret a headache if he was playing with them, as the bar definitely held the most cunning hiding places. Like behind the dishwasher. Or the wine rack. Or to Barret's dismay, what he liked to call, 'The goddamn motherf***in' air vent.'

“Mmmm, this is beautiful, Reeve!” Tifa praised him fervently before beginning to cut into her fried egg. Barret had already finished his plate and was roughly using a napkin to wipe bits of food from his coarse beard. He grabbed his coffee mug in one of his giant hands and took a mighty swig. Once finished he looked at Reeve expectantly.

Awright,” he began with a boom. “What 'ave ya got for, apparently,” he gestured between himself and Tifa here, “the both of us?”

Reeve looked at Tifa with hesitation. “I feel I should wait for you to finish before I begin, do you mind?” he asked politely, his manners impeccable. Tifa was caught in the middle of taking another bite of food from her fork, the utensil stuck between her lips. She blinked, caught by surprise, before shaking her head to allow Reeve to continue.

“Very well then.” He smiled a mysterious smile and leaned forward, interlocking his fingers together as he did so and resting his elbows on the table in front of him. “I've been thinking-” Cait Sith was quick to cut in.

“Ooh, thinkin'! There now, that's what he needs ya foor!” Reeve sharply jerked the shoulder that the puppet was resting on, causing him to crash to the floor with an, “Ooomph!” Tifa bit back a laugh.

As I was saying before I was rudely interrupted,” he glanced down at Cait Sith here, where nothing could be seen of the cat apart from his pointy brown boots which were twitching in the air. “I have been thinking that it's time for us to really clean things up.”

Barret looked at him quizzically, his hand curved around his coffee mug. “What'dya mean?” he questioned. “I've been sendin' ya oil field locations, you're sendin' fuel and Midgar scraps to tha' people of Edge to rebuild. I'd say we're cleanin' up pretty fine as is.”

Reeve nodded in agreement but continued as Tifa finished the last morsel of food off her plate, now beginning to neatly align her cutlery. “I agree, the process is going excellently and the people are really beginning to regain hope, as well as trust back in organisations such as the WRO. But the idea I speak of isn't just regarding the area around Edge or Midgar Ruins. I'm talking on a global scale.” Reeve watched as both Barret and Tifa reacted to this, Barret by arching an eyebrow and Tifa by pausing mid-sip of her coffee.

“Sounds dangerous,” Tifa began after recovering, setting her white coffee to the side and paying full attention, her russet eyes almost shining in the sunlight that spilled in from the windows behind her. Now it was Reeve's turn to be taken off-guard by the sight of her bathed in a deep orange burn, her hair shimmering strands of ember. The spell only lasted a moment, and was broken as she continued. “We all know the Planet is recovering, slowly but surely. You sound like you know a way to speed up the process.”

Reeve mentally shook himself and focused back on the subject. “I do. Or at least, theoretically.” He paused for a moment, but it was too long for Barret to bear, his patience lost.

“Come on, Reeve, jus' spill whatever it is and let's all continue ta live already!” His gaze bore down on the man but Reeve never lost his elegant composure.

“The Lifestream is still disrupted.” Barret lost his anger to confusion, but before he could ask any further questions, Reeve elaborated. “The Planet is healing the more the Lifestream is restored to its former balance, and it's a delicate one that we need to monitor. I believe the complete disregard people had for this balance previously is what caused the calamity of Meteorfall. Shinra's abuse was definitely a major factor in this, alongside Sephiroth using the Black Materia to sap out this energy even further. However, this time we can prevent any similar disasters. That is, if we take care of this balance.” He looked at the two of them to make sure his words were sinking in.

“So basically,” Tifa paused to gather her understanding, then gave voice to it. “You want us to regulate the Lifestream and bring it back to its former balance years and years ago, so the Planet can fully heal. Then monitor this balance to ensure nothing like Meteorfall ever happens again. Is that right?” Tifa looked at Reeve to make sure she was right in her understanding of it all. He looked rather surprised.

“Well done, Tifa, I'm impressed you grasped it so quickly. That's exactly right.” Before Reeve could say anything else, Barret cut in, his voice laced with annoyance.

“Well when Tif' explains it I understand perfectly, not from yer mouth I don't!” Reeve uncharacteristically rubbed the back of his neck in slight embarrassment, but quickly regained his composure.

“I suppose I should have explained it a little more... eloquently,” he admitted.

“So this still raises the question of how we're meant to do this. An' don't go ramblin' on me, dammit.” Barret seemed to grumble at the whole situation. Reeve nodded and made a conscious note to try and explain things more clearly.

“First of all, we need to bring the Lifestream back to its former balance. To allow the Planet to heal fully. Now from what I can tell, the Lifestream can go one of two ways to become unbalanced. It can either increase in an unusually large amount, or decrease.” He went on to explain further, before Barret once more lost his very volatile temper. “So basically, it can have too many spirits, or souls if that's what you prefer to call them. Or too little. From what I can tell from the Planet's scars, it has too little, from all the energy we abused from it in the past.”

Barret crossed his arms and leaned back, his eyes narrowing in thought. “Okay, I getcha. You're sayin' it needs more souls. So what, you're expectin' us to like...” he jumped to his feet at the awful thought. “Like, go around killin' people or summit?!” Reeve immediately raised his hands, partly in defence and partly to calm Barret down.

“No no no, not at all! You misunderstand me.” After Barret had lowered himself back into his seat, Reeve discreetly let out a sigh of relief. “Not people, we've been missing something else...” Reeve let it hang in the air which Barret was in no mood for. He stamped his heavy boot on the floor which caused the breakfast plates to rattle, and Cait Sith to fall once more. He wasn't seen tumbling off the chair but he was heard with another, “Oooww,” followed by, “sometimes I hate me life.”

“Monsters.” Barret and Reeve both looked at Tifa in surprise when she suddenly spoke up.

She peered down at her coffee in contemplation. “What we've been missing is the monsters. How they increased Before Crisis and especially during Meteorfall. So...” she hesitated but Reeve waited for her to continue, while Barret looked on in disbelief that Tifa seemed to follow the whole thing. “We need to return the souls of the monsters back to the Planet. That will restore the balance.”

She looked up once finishing and, realising that they were both staring at her in rather an odd fashion, rubbed her left arm self-consciously.

“What?” she said.

“Nothing at all, Tifa,” Reeve replied, delighted. “Quite the contrary, indeed, bravo.” Barret looked lost, running a hand over his black cornrow hair. He took a moment to digest all of the information before turning to Tifa.

“So,” Barret began. “Kill monsters?”

“Kill monsters,” Tifa confirmed.

Barret liked straight answers.

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter IV – Much Ado About Vincent

 

It was decided then. It was time to clean up the Planet. By bringing nourishment in the form of souls back to a weak and diminished Lifestream, they would bring back order to a currently disrupted and chaotic balance. After breakfast, Reeve had busied himself with making phone calls all day. It was how he had found both Barret and Tifa, by calling Barret's phone the night before and being told by the answering machine his whereabouts. (That he was currently with Tifa because, 'Some ass-hat with no brains decided to disappear an' left everyone else to clean up after 'im!')

Most of the calls he made were strictly business, regarding the WRO, the latest shipment of shrapnel to Edge and something regarding a public campaign. Tifa had made herself busy during this time, cleaning up the kitchen and bar while thanking the heavens that it was a Sunday. Most bars were open every day of the week, but not Tifa's. Her bar shut every Sunday so she could spend time with the children, thinking it would be unfair to them otherwise.

Dinner time came and went by the time Reeve had finished. The nearest window showed an evening sky of deep purple, the stars just beginning to peek out from their hiding places in the heavens. Birds could be heard looking for a place to nest for the night, as well as Denzel and Marlene playing upstairs with Barret and Cait Sith. Reeve took a moment to sit on one of the cracked red leather bar stools, sighing in relief rather loudly as laughter floated down from upstairs.

“I'm certainly glad that's all over with,” he said. Tifa, who was putting some wine bottles away behind the bar, turned around and smiled sympathetically at him. Mind made up, she turned back to the wine rack and picked out a vintage Rosé wine. Placing it on the counter, she reached for a wineglass from the top shelf while simultaneously grabbing the corkscrew she kept hidden behind the till. She noticed his impressed look, how she was able to gather what she needed so quickly without having to so much as glance at what she was reaching for. However, what Reeve didn't know was that this was a familiar routine for Tifa.

Many nights she had sat alone in privacy at the bar, opening a bottle of wine for herself when she gave up trying to sleep at night. Or didn't want to admit how lonely she actually was. The thought sobered her so much that she didn't want any of the wine that she was offering Reeve.

“It's not necessary, Tifa, really,” Reeve politely declined, but it held light reservation. She unscrewed the cork with skill and poured the wine into the glass, the last remnants of light from the window catching the red liquid and making it shine a sparkling pink.

“Nonsense,” she chided lightly, the corner of her shapely lips upturned. “I think you deserve a glass after your brilliant plan on,” it was here that she turned her voice to a dramatic roll, “SAVING THE WORLD.” Reeve laughed, a wavering sound that reminded Tifa somewhat of a butterfly's wings.

“Well, it's very much appreciated. Thank you.” He wiped a thumb across his moustache to smooth it down before taking a sip from his drink. He made an appreciative sound, cherishing the flavour. “Speaking of which,” he referred to his plan as he carefully set down the glass. “I think it's about time I picked up my phone again and gave a call to some of our old friends.” Tifa smiled and nodded in agreement.

“Who are you thinking of calling first?” she asked.

“Well, I think it's best I start off with Cloud, then...” Reeve paused, not missing the look that fleeted past Tifa's face. “... Then we'll go from there.” He studied her closely, he'd never seen this look before on Tifa. Almost as if she were about to cry. “Is that alright?” he asked gently.

“Of course!” Tifa quickly put on a more upbeat tone, but her face betrayed her. “Though do you mind if I call him, Reeve? He... He left...” she swallowed at the fact that occurred to her, eyes burning. “It's been a week today since he left. He hasn't picked up since then. I'd like to try once more.” Reeve was silent during her confession. Taking another quiet sip of his wine, he took out his phone from the breast pocket of his suit with practised ease.

“I don't mind whatsoever, use my phone. Saves you the bill.” She smiled in gratitude but it wavered. Turning around, she dialled the number she had been dialling so many times this past week. 'A week...' she thought. 'It's been a week, that has to mean something to you. Please, PLEASE . Pick up your phone.'

It began to ring.

Her heart sounded like it was in her ears as she listened to the dialling tone with difficulty over the drumbeats of her heart.

Ring... Ring... Ring...

Beep! 'Hello, this is Cloud. I can't answer right now, leave your details and I'll try to get back to you.' A loud beep resonated in Tifa's ears, which to her sounded like a final sentence. Like a judge's gavel thundering down upon her. While the phone was no doubt recording, she remained silent. Lowering the phone slowly from her ear, she hung up.

Her back was turned to Reeve but he observed her closely, the way her shoulders sank with her head, his phone with her hand. She turned around slowly and dejectedly placed his phone back on the counter. She didn't say a word and neither did he; silence triumphant. He took another sip of his wine, then quietly said, “Do you want to talk about it?” Tifa shook her head, her right hand gripping her upper arm so tightly that her knuckles turned white. Her gaze didn't move from the floor.

“... Why don't you go get some fresh air? I'll look after the place while you're gone.” A pause. “It's a beautiful evening for it.” Tifa didn't care. Her gaze was stubbornly fixed on the floorboards. Reeve sighed and raised himself from the barstool, making his way carefully behind the bar and towards Tifa as if he were walking on eggshells. “Come on.” He gently placed his hand on her shoulder, guiding her towards the front door. Tifa moved along with him sluggishly; zombie-like.

He opened the door with his left hand, never removing the other supporting Tifa. A cool breeze hit their skin, causing Reeve to shiver but the woman beside him remained disaffected. “If you want some time to yourself, just let me know. Being outside does wonders for me when I'm feeling blue.” He was answered with silence that was only interrupted by two robins chirping merrily as they danced overhead.

He slowly moved to the side and lowered himself down on the front step, patting the space beside him inviting Tifa to join. Slowly, she sank to the wooden floor, bringing her knees up and wrapping her arms around them. They sat in companionable silence, Reeve giving her the time to speak if she so wished. His eye caught the two robins he heard just moments before, watching as they perched on an overhead girder. It was then that cheeping exploded from above them and he realised that they were feeding chicks at their nest.

“I think I'll take that walk after all,” Tifa suddenly spoke up, lethargically rising to her feet and slowly descending down the front steps of Seventh Heaven; one by one, as if in a trance. “Thanks, Reeve.” He furrowed his brow in concern; her voice was far from the Tifa he knew. It sounded too... monotonous.

“Take all the time you need, Tifa. Please make sure you come back before dark...” 'Otherwise you'll have me even more concerned,' he added that last part mentally to himself. He could just make out the nodding of her head in response as she walked down the street and towards the town square. Once she was just a shadowy figure against the twilight, he made a mental note to send Cait Sith after her later to check up on her. He allowed himself to sigh and uncharacteristically ran a hand through his shiny, combed back hair. He turned around and walked back inside to finish off his drink. He suddenly found he needed it.

Tifa didn't know where she was going, only that her legs were carrying her somewhere and she couldn't have cared less. She was broken. The countless messages she had left on Cloud's voicemail when he first didn't come home, let alone the second and third night. It quickly became a habit. She would wake up early in the morning after she had finally fallen asleep by the phone, just to leave another message. This lead to her getting five hours of restless sleep at most a night. In the end, on the fourth day, Barret had called her. When she told him what had happened, he dropped everything to be by her side. It was only on the evening he came around when she finally got some rest, sleeping until evening the very next day.

It had been painful to attempt to get in touch again. Barret had handled it for her when he realised how she was destroying herself; with an endless cycle of broken hope. To be let down again, and again, and again. Her mind was reeling with possibilities, as if it was finally starting to work. 'Has he forgotten about me? Has something happened to him? Was the work too much that he had to get away? Were the children too much? … Was I too much?' That last thought brought a severe burn to the back of her throat and caused her eyes to fill up with tears, so much that she could barely see the pavement in front of her feet where her gaze was fixed. She blinked, and tears crashed down.

Her right shoulder suddenly jerked back in pain as it collided with something heavy, though her broken heart masked the physical sting of it. She tore her eyes off the pavement and looked back through her tears to find a man angrily glaring back at her. A very tall and muscular man.

“You better watch where the hell you're going,” he loudly threatened in a deep voice, turning his huge mass towards her. He could only be described as a brute. Tifa had seen many the type when she used to work in the Slums as a barmaid.

Dirty jeans that hung at the waist, belly spilling over the top. A tight fitting T-shirt that used to be white, but was so stained in grease and dirt it was hard to tell. His beady eyes, a little too wide for his own head, bore down on her. Tifa didn't care right now. Her throat burned too much along with her eyes. She turned back and continued to walk, almost automaton like , in the direction her feet took her.

“I don't think you UNDERSTAND, little girl!!” The man bellowed in fury, striding past mightily and blocking her path. Tifa stopped and stared up at him, narrowing her sore red eyes. His violent outburst had completely cleared the street of any who may have been in it, though Tifa had been too busy staring at the ground to have noticed if there was anyone around anyway.

“Awww, lil' babe's been crying! Now ain't that a shame,” the brute mocked her, before throwing the heel of his palm into her shoulder with great force. This was the same shoulder he knocked into earlier, causing Tifa to stumble back and hiss through her teeth, pain screaming at her. The sudden violence seemed to make the alleyway shadows squirm, but if anyone observed more closely, they may have noticed one shadow tense solidly.

Tifa was at her breaking point. Her nails dug into her palms as she balled her fists tightly; bracing them for the impact of one of her punches that was surely coming this man's way. She didn't have her fighting gloves, her 'Premium Hearts' as they were affectionately named, with her. However, she figured she didn't need them to beat the living crap out of this guy.

If Tifa paid any attention, she would have noticed that it was getting darker, the deep purple giving way to a striking blue. Street lamps were beginning to turn on one by one, as if spectators coming to watch the inevitable fight; meanwhile a crimson shadow moved swiftly and silently, almost inhuman in agility, to avoid them.

“You better apologize, or I'll give ya somethin' to really cry about!” He pounded his fist into his own burly hand to emphasise his threat. Tifa swallowed hard against the burn in her throat and wiped her arm across her face; allowing her to see more clearly and to help stem the flow of tears. Straightening her back, she stood defiantly and gave him a watery, but truly false, smile.

“I'm sorry,” Tifa began, a sickeningly smug look creeping across the brute's face as she spoke. “About this.” She ended her mock apology with an effective and powerful kick to his knees, making them buckle and bringing him crashing down to the concrete; smug look effectively erased off his face as his shins hit the pavement, and especially so when she then delivered a punch straight to his face.

A sickening crack rang out. The sound of violence.

“AAARRRRGGH!!” he screamed and held a hand over his mouth, blood seeping around his tree trunk-like fingers. His furious speech was slurred around the pool of red liquid leaking from his broken teeth. “I'LL FUCKIN' KILL YOU!!!” He brought up his huge arm to strike her and Tifa braced for it, aiming her next punch, but her vision was suddenly blinded by a deep red.

“Not if I have the pleasure first,” a deep voice intoned coolly. Tifa blinked furiously and reeled back as her mind tried to catch up with what was going on. All she could suddenly see was blood-red. As she moved back, she finally made out that it was a crimson cape. One that she'd recognise anywhere, though its ends were now ragged and torn. It was a familiar sight that, ironically, she hadn't seen in three years. She looked up in marvel, watching as ebony locks swept with the breeze across the shoulders of a man many of them thought to have long disappeared.

Vincent Valentine stood towering over the brute, standing in front of Tifa for protection. He seemed to have just fabricated from thin air, his silver revolver pointed at the man's skull. The feeling of gunmetal against the thug's head made him whimper.

“S-sthorry! I'm sthorry!!” he slurred out in panic, pleading an apology with his hands raised in defeat. Vincent's glare lessened by a fraction, his fiery eyes hard with contempt. He slowly lowered his weapon and the man didn't waste any time clumsily fleeing. Teeth and blood smears were left as he ran, streaked across the pavement in messy streaks. Vincent glared at his back, tucking his chin back into his cowl and holstering his gun with practised efficiency. He turned his glowing red eyes over his shoulder towards Tifa. She was a mess, her eyes red and puffy from what looked like crying.

A terrible voice seeped into his head, a feeling similar to needles being injected into the skin. An extremely deep and malicious sound, as it spoke; a cracked and breaking tone, a whisper always followed after that sounded like a slimy, squirming mass of leeches.

'SHE REEKS OF DESPAIR, IT MAKES ME HAPPY. LET ME DEVOUR HER.'

Vincent forcefully threw up mental barriers between his conscience and Chaos; the spawn of everything putrid and black, the demon from hell that dwelled inside his body and mind. Tifa didn't seem to notice his mental distraction. She rubbed at her arm tenderly, and it was only then that he noticed the damage she had taken. Her right shoulder and bicep were already turning a nasty shade of indigo.

She rubbed her eyes, fresh tears creeping to the surface. She felt ashamed to cry in front of Vincent, especially after meeting him for the first time in three years, but it was mostly now out of relief. She wanted to reach out and touch him, grab his cape, make sure he was indeed alive and well. That he really was standing in front of her. That he really was alive.

“I'm so glad you're alright,” Tifa choked out. “I've worried about you for a long time.” She smiled, a wavering one, but genuine and clear as day. Her admission shocked Vincent, but the only reaction he gave outwardly was a few blinks in surprise. Tifa tried again. “Thank you-” she began but was interrupted before she could fully thank him for his assistance. Angry voices suddenly rose from the streets which contained the majority of bars and clubs in Edge, the same direction the thug had ran off to.

“Over there! That's them!”

A group of men shouted excitedly and began to gather, too many for Vincent to count from this distance. 'Of course,' the gunslinger thought. 'He ran to gather up the rest of his pitiful and pathetic gang.' Vincent wasn't alien to fighting, and neither was Tifa, but he judged the situation. Tifa didn't have her fighting gloves nor was she in the right state of mind to put up much of a defence. He couldn't protect her from an entire gang, and while it was arguable that Tifa didn't need protecting, Vincent didn't like the odds.

Another niggling voice in his head, primal and raw. It hissed around a mouthful of razor blade teeth, voice wavering in tone and a deep growl rumbling after its words.

'Asssert Dominanccce. Break their ssspirit and eat their heartssss.'

Vincent glared and pushed Galian Beast from his mind, a feral creature born from the true qualities that made animals into monsters.

“Come, we must leave. Quickly.” He strode without hesitation towards a nearby alley, his gauntlet shimmering in the light of street lamps. Tifa followed without question, hissing in pain as her arm and shoulder throbbed. Her eyes burned from tears, the wind encouraging her discomfort. Vincent stopped between two bricked walls, a house on either side. Judging the distance, he suddenly leapt up towards the navy sky, clearing two stories with ease and landing on the tiled roof of the left building. Tifa was left gaping below as he turned around. “We must hurry, they're approaching,” he said tersely.

Tifa's mind was a myriad of thoughts, but she pushed them away and focused on the matter at hand. There was nothing in the alley to use as leverage, no dustbins or empty crates. However, the alley was narrow enough to pull off a wall jump.

She backed up, causing Vincent to furrow his brow slightly in confusion and watch with interest at what she was about to do. Bursting forward in a sprint she jumped at the right wall, the heel of her shoe digging into the brick before fluidly kicking off, now reaching towards the left wall in an impressive display of leg strength. She fell just short and grasped at the edge of the roof, catching it with her left hand, but the momentum caused her to swing and smash into the wall on her right. The side of her that was injured.

She screamed as air was forced from her lungs, pain howling from her shoulder. She became faint and began to lose her grip, but Vincent's hand shot down and grabbed her forearm, pulling her up just in time as the gang rounded the corner and started to check the alley. Voices could be heard giving directions from below. Vincent knew they'd heard Tifa's scream. They had to move.

He crouched down low to avoid prying eyes, his own crimson ones regarding Tifa with care. She was crouched next to him, almost rocking on her heels as she cradled her shoulder. It was now a deep indigo that stretched towards her collarbone, pitch black at the edges. She bit down on her bottom lip, her eyes tearing up but this time from pain. Despite her agony, she hobbled further into the centre of the roof before standing up straight so she was out of the gang's sight.

Vincent berated himself. He had spent so long on his own that he didn't consider Tifa may not have been able to reach the roof the way he did. He moved towards her, still crouching to avoid unwelcome eyes, before standing up to join her once reaching the centre. He stood silently next to her and scanned the rooftops, Tifa undoubtedly doing the same thing. Thinking the same thing. There was only one way to go, and the shouting below them was reaching a fever pitch. They had to go. Now.

“Can you manage?” Traces of concern could be heard in his voice. She shot him a determined look through her pain riddled features.

“Like I have a choice?” And with that, she kicked off the roof and onto the adjoining one, moving carefully but quickly across the roof tiles. Vincent followed, his cape sweeping behind him.

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter V – Hide and Seek

 

The moon loomed from behind scattered clouds in the sky, watching over the pair of shadows that dashed and climbed from rooftop to rooftop. One fluidly ducked, darted, leaped and almost seemed to disappear at times within the shadows of chimneys and other taller structures. The other ran gracefully, kicking off ledges and other protruding debris used in the construction of buildings with impressive footwork; from looking it was hard to notice that either were injured in any way.

As Tifa kicked off the wooden floorboards of some worn scaffolding, her shoulder throbbed in pain causing her vision to swim. She felt sick.

Slowing down to a stop, she panted hard as she wiped her forehead with her left arm, her right hanging limply by her side. When she drew it back she saw it dripped with perspiration, her forehead beaded with sweat. A tingling feeling crept up on her like pins and needles, a sensation of white that fell upon her eyes and blinded her. She was brought to her knees as she tried to right herself, but the feeling sapped her strength and robbed her of sight.

She closed her eyes, frustrated. A bubble of anger swelled within her and forced her to her feet, only to lose balance and teeter towards the side; towards a three storey drop. She threw her arm out in panic, just catching the scaffolding to support herself; right before Vincent appeared by her side having dashed to reach her, arm still slightly outstretched, cape floating on the rush of air before finally settling at his heels.

“Tifa-”

“I know, okay?” she bit back. Vincent gave her a hard stare and she immediately regretted it. She sighed. “I'm sorry, I'm just... in pain.” Her voice was strained, the wind catching her chocolate hair and waving it gently, somewhat reflecting the waver in her voice. She turned her head to the streets below as raised voices were becoming closer and closer, sweat running down her cheek and dripping from her chin.

A manic voice rushed into Vincent's head, hysterical as if on the brink of suicide. It was quick and sharp-like, inviting madness, psychotic laughter and screams echoing long after it silenced. If he listened for too long, he felt the fabric of sanity begin to fray and unravel in his mind.

'Look!!! She's at the edge the edge of the world the edge of everything!! PUSH!! HER!! Go on she deserves it, surely! The screams the blood the howling, bones smashing I can SEE!! The marrow the wonderful juicy tasty part of bones on the pavement, doitdoitDOIIIIIT!!!!!'

Vincent snapped his head to the side, hard . Hellmasker lingered; hyper, crazed, twisting. His head hanging horizontal as if hinged on a snapped neck, brimstone eyes burning through the dirty hockey mask and into Vincent's grip on sanity. He jammed his eyes shut, shut down his mind, re-enforced his mental barriers. The maddening urge. Finally. It was gone.

When he returned to the rooftop he was standing on, he found Tifa to be staring at him in concern, but the fear in her eyes was not lost on him.

“Vincent? ... Are you alright?” She stood up straighter and took a step closer to him, hesitantly. He took a step back in turn. His annoyance rose close to the surface, and he feared his demons as well.

“Fine,” he said curtly. Tifa shot him a sceptical look, concern written all over her face.

'Should I mention I've been calling his name four or five times before he noticed me?' she wondered. She decided against it.

There were so many questions just ready to burst forth. She wanted desperately to know where he had been, what he had been doing, why he never tried to get in contact, why he disappeared. She may never find out, knowing Vincent Valentine. He was illusive at the best of times, to pry him open was like trying to open a locked box without a key.

She feared if someone did manage to open it, they would find it to be similar to Pandora's; something terrible would be unleashed. What exactly, she did not know.

“Vincent,” she began cautiously. “Are you sure you're alright? You seem... paler than usual-”

Pain flared up in her arm catching her off-guard and she quickly covered it with her left hand, inhaling through her teeth and hissing into the night. Vincent turned away and her eyes ineluctably fixed onto his golden claw as it shimmered in the silver light cast above.

“We do not have time for this, we are being chased.” He looked up at the moon as he spoke, his crimson eyes burning in the pale luminance. He turned to look over his shoulder, and noticing Tifa's gaze on his claw, took no time in concealing it within the folds of his cape. “Are you well enough to keep moving?” She blinked at the sudden disappearance of the wicked looking appendage and nodded her head.

“I'll manage.” She didn't sound very convincing, neither to herself nor Vincent. She could barely feel her arm and it worried her, but the situation they found themselves in surpassed that worry completely. They were being chased by God knows how many people, though to Tifa it sounded like a gang of at least thirty or so. Screaming rose from below, tearing down the alleys and echoing through the streets. Vincent, about to break into a sprint, stopped at a passing thought. He paused.

“If you feel unwell once more, shout for me. I may not reach you next time.” With that, he bounded forward with long legs and leapt to the next rooftop, becoming a silhouette once more. Tifa was slightly stunned, but mentally steeled herself for the path ahead. The air was heavy with the sound of an oncoming riot. She took care to hold her arm in place as best as possible, then leapt off the edge following the trail of a shadowy cloak.

As Vincent ran, he made sure to keep an ear attuned towards Tifa. Her footsteps. Her breathing. He occasionally turned sharp eyes over his shoulder, ensuring she was still following closely behind.

Another voice, bringing an icy chill like frost settling across his braincase and a heavy emotion to be an attendant. It was slow and cumbersome, having difficulty with making words; it broke and dragged them out like dragging corpses. After it spoke, moans and groaning of pain would carry on in his head.

'She-ee is bro-kennn. Per-hap-ss we sho-uld e-nd her-rr mi-ser-yyy.'

Vincent was mentally weary. He tiredly pushed Death Gigas from his conscience who dragged his presence away without resistance. The more compliant of the tetrad, he was a walking hulk of lumps, scars, stitches and the abomination of scientific wrongs.

His three year absence had given all of his demons time to become accustomed to his body and grow in power since his awakening from that damnable coffin. They had become harder to control, harder to resist in their macabre suggestions and insinuations. They had changed from what his former teammates had once known them as. And he feared the day that he lost control. Not just around his old comrades, but around anyone that was human.

“Vincent!!” Tifa's cry broke his brooding and he immediately whirled around, pushing his cape aside and behind him as he did so, alert and ready. He found her leaning against a stack of planks, no doubt ready for use in building construction. Sweat dripped from her forehead as she struggled to stand. Discreetly annoyed by his mental distraction,Vincent relaxed from his tense stance seeing that she wasn't in any immediate danger and strode across the rooftop to her side. He hesitated.

“... Do you need assistance?” he asked. Tifa stubbornly shook her head, then immediately regretted it as a wave of nausea came over her.

“Do you even know where you're heading?” Vincent seemed to stare blankly back at her in response. 'That's what I thought.' She wiped her forehead and winced as pain shot up her arm.

“Somewhere we can wait out this... search party.” Tifa was amused at Vincent's terminology for the gang that were no doubt out for their blood. “Do you have elsewhere in mind?” he enquired.

“My bar. Seventh Heaven.” Vincent raised an eyebrow at this and she knew what he was thinking. It was an obvious place to go and a place they would go in search for her. But that was if they knew her, and she believed that they didn't. It was the best chance they had. (What Tifa didn't know was that Vincent had no idea she even had a bar called Seventh Heaven.)

“I don't think that guy knew who I was,” she clarified. “I think they're too stupid to remember faces.” Vincent couldn't help but quirk his lip at her comment, humour passing over his face like a fleeting ghost. The incredibly rare sight was hidden by his tall cowl and he tucked his chin inside, thinking she had a point.

Despite them stopping Sephiroth a few years ago, they were not worldly recognised for their actions. People celebrated the day Meteor was stopped by Holy, but AVALANCHE was just a group of 'terrorists,' as they were branded and publicly announced by Shinra. Only a handful of people knew what had really transpired, what had really brought on the events of Meteorfall and who had stopped it. Very few knew the truth, and subsequently, recognised them for it. Vincent met her eyes and almost paused at the pain conveyed through them.

“... Alright. Show me the way.” Tifa nodded and weakly began to raise herself from her wooden support, left arm shaking. Cool leather at her elbow made her look up in surprise as Vincent supported her arm, gently helping her rise to her full height. Their eyes met and a moment was shared; indescribable in its complexity.

It was quickly broken as Tifa suddenly cried out in pain, once again gripping her shoulder in hopes to quell her suffering. Before Vincent could ask any more questions, she began to move quickly. “Come on, it's this way to the right.” She took a few shaky steps before becoming emboldened enough by the lack of additional pain to start running. Vincent quelled his concern and followed, two shadows once more jumping from roof to roof with Tifa now being the lead.

It took a few blocks and more bouts of pain for Tifa before they finally reached the bar. They stood on a rooftop opposite, looking down into the street below. A group of thugs seemed to be patrolling the narrow pathway, their eyes darting over the entire area no doubt in search for them.

“I don't suppose they'll let us walk through the front door,” Vincent said moodily. He turned his bright, blood-red eyes to Tifa, who reflected his inner feelings judging by the look of vexation on her face. A cool breeze swept Vincent's tattered cape to the side and made Tifa's hair dance, though some was stuck to her forehead with sweat. “Do you have any ideas?” he enquired calmly.

“I'm thinking.” Tifa sounded stressed and began to show it by pacing behind him. Vincent's eyes followed her for a moment before he crouched at the roof's edge, returning his gaze to the streets below. Keeping watch like a vigilant, stoic gargoyle.

She paused shortly after he turned away and took a moment to truly look at him. She admired his tall figure and strong posture, though it seemed rather rigid. The way his cape lazily moved along with the wind, his ebony locks following suit like joining an old friend. It was a somewhat pleasant sight, yet something bothered her.

'The way he moves and speaks, as if he's trying to control... something. You've changed, Vincent. Something's off and I just can't place my finger on it. Though I guess your hair's longer than I remember-”

“I do hope you've thought of a way in.” His sudden baritone caused heat to rise to her cheeks with a vengeance and she quickly spun on her heel to face away from him.

“I'm working on it.” That was a lie and she knew it. As she rubbed her right arm all she could think about was Reeve and Cait Sith. Barret and the children. Were they worried about her? What were they doing? Were they still playing? Were they alright?

Her mind cast back to the times Barret would play tag with Denzel and Marlene. Hide and seek. Play pretend. Suddenly, unbidden, Barret's brash voice growled in her head from a few days past. 'I'm never playin' with em' again! They were hidin' in the goddamn motherf***in' air vent!!' That was it!

She burst out in excitement, like a philosopher reaching an epiphany, “The goddamn motherf***in' air vent!!”

Vincent seemed to freeze. He slowly turned to look over his shoulder towards her, his eyes reflecting disbelief. Did Tifa Lockhart just swear? Silence reigned between them for a few moments.

“Pardon?”

Tifa caught herself and rubbed her right arm self-consciously, her blush flaring up again. “Well, err, that's what Barret calls it. The, ah... air vent. We can use the air vent to get into the bar, it comes out straight behind it. The kids hide in it a lot, so if it can fit the two of them I'm sure we can use it.”

“Very well.” Vincent rose to his full height, Tifa's gaze drawn to his claw as the fingers flexed slightly. He made his way to the edge and hopped down to the closest building. Making sure Tifa was following, he made his way to the roof of the bar. A few leaps and jumps after, they were standing on the roof tiles of Seventh Heaven.

Shouting rose up from below and Vincent motioned for Tifa to lower herself.

“Come on, let's find these bastards quick! Hurry up, Eddie!”

“Hold on, I think I saw somethin'!” Tifa held her breath and tried to lower herself even further onto the cool roof tiles. She saw Vincent's arm reach under his cape and rest upon the grip of his gun. She studied the smoothly etched barrels and the way they gave a dangerous glimmer in the moonlight; she welcomed the distraction from the current situation. Seconds passed painfully like minutes, their ears tuned to the group below. Tifa arduously held her breath while Vincent seemed wound with tension, like a taught bow string.

“Nah, it must have been a cat or summit.” Mocking voices rang out and finally began to move away. Tifa sighed heavily while Vincent moved his hand away from his revolver. She rose and, while keeping her knees bent, made her way past the upper floor windows and to the right hand side of the building. Her eyes finally rested on the air duct they had been looking for. She inspected it for a moment, then leaned forwards, putting her head inside.

Voices echoed from within and while muffled and indecipherable, she could judge from the pitch that it sounded like arguing. It was too dark to see how far the drop was, if there was indeed one at all. She didn't know if it curved midway or if it was a straight fall.

Vincent assessed it himself, moving in front of her and peering down the pitch-black shaft. He paused, as if hesitating, before turning to Tifa.

“It appears to be a straight drop, though it slopes inwards near the bottom,” he informed. Tifa was amazed he could tell, given the darkness. “You may cause yourself further injury if you attempt to drop down here.” His glowing eyes moved to her wound. It was a myriad of purple and black blotches, creeping around her shoulder and down her right arm.

He could tell it must be causing an agonising amount of pain just from looking at it. Tifa covered it gently with her left hand, seeming to hold it in place as her right arm hung limply by her side.

“I'll be okay once I get inside, I'm sure we have some Curative Materia...” It was Tifa's turn to hesitate. Materia grew the more it was used, it channelled the energy of the Planet to the user. Without frequent use, it would slowly diminish. The question was if the Materia they still had, the ones they hadn't donated to the refugees of Edge, were powerful enough to heal Tifa's wound.

“Is there enough space at the bottom for me to catch you?” This caught Tifa off-guard and she was made speechless by Vincent's question. He patiently waited for her to answer, his gaze holding her own. It struck her as unthinkable, to imagine Vincent offering to catch her, despite the fact it was quite a logical thing to do. It took a moment for her to respond.

“I don't think so, the space behind the bar is quite narrow. I'm sure I'll manage, but thank you,” she finished with a confident tone, though she didn't exactly feel very confident. Vincent turned back to the air vent, seemingly lost in thought. After a few seconds, he turned to look over his shoulder at Tifa, his cape rising dramatically on the wind.

“I'll lower you down first to lessen your fall. I'll follow after.” He moved aside, next to the air vent and looked at her expectantly. He didn't leave any room for negotiation. Tifa nodded, feeling a little nervous. She moved to the mouth of the metal duct, placing her foot firmly inside. Shuffling around a bit, she manoeuvred herself so that her back was to the vent. She made sure her left arm, her usable arm, was closest to Vincent.

As he held out his right hand, Tifa took a moment to take him in. They all knew Vincent to be a gentleman, but to see him as he stood right now was a rare treat indeed. She smiled and placed her hand in his own, relishing the extremely rare chance to be actually holding the hand of Vincent Valentine. The leather he wore was cool and his thin hand felt deceptively strong as it held its firm grip around her own. He gently began to lower her down, as he did she moved back bit by bit until she had nothing more left to stand on. Here she looked at Vincent, silently asking if he was ready. He nodded slightly.

She moved back fully and dropped rather suddenly, gasping as air rushed from her lungs at the unexpected speed in which she fell. Vincent was lurched forward but he held on strong, his claw audibly colliding against metal as it gripped the side of the duct. The metallic sound echoed down the vent. Tifa's left arm was now beginning to hurt with the strain as she dangled in the middle of the duct like a pendulum. She sorely wished she could have used her right arm for extra support.

Vincent slowly lowered her down until he himself was inside the mouth of the vent, his golden claw gripping the side so tightly that it was leaving indentations in the metal. 'His strength's impressive. I don't remember Vincent being this strong...' Tifa thought. She looked up once she stopped in her descent. Vincent had lowered her down as much as he possibly could, his arm fully outstretched. She was about halfway down the vent.

“I'm going to let go now,” Vincent warned. Tifa simply nodded up at his shadow, the moonlight accentuating his silhouette. A pair of blood-red eyes glowed back at her in the darkness. She braced herself.

Vincent's strength disappeared and she fell fast to the bottom, cracking her back on the base of the vent slope. She grit her teeth but the bump made her right arm knock into the duct walls, causing her to scream in pain. She tumbled further, tightly gripping her injured shoulder, and suddenly she was blinded by light. She was finally inside Seventh Heaven once more.

Reeve and Barret, who were standing in the middle of the bar and appeared to be facing off, stared over the counter at her in shock. Cait Sith, who was sitting on the counter top, jumped to his feet.

“TIFA!!” They all cried out in unison and scrambled to her aid, but stopped when a noise like thunder echoed again from the air vent.

A few more bangs, an echo of rumbling, then a ball of crimson tumbled from the vent's mouth. Vincent just caught himself before he landed on Tifa, falling into a crouch beside her gracefully as his cape pooled around him. She was curled up in a ball of agony as tears streamed down her face, her left hand clutching at her injured shoulder. Vincent immediately went to her aid, blood-red eyes roaming over her figure in check for any fresh injuries, then checking the extent of her already existing ones.

Besides him and Tifa who were in their own little bubble, everyone else in the room was awestruck. Frozen in place. They could barely move, let alone speak the name of the man they'd all thought to have disappeared off the face of the Planet. The room was glass and words were the hammer.

After what felt like an eternity, Cait Sith finally shattered the taut atmosphere.

“Sooo... THAT'S where you've been hidin' foor three years!!”

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter VI – To Heal a Fighter

 

Pain. Anguish. That was all Tifa could register. Everything was distorted. A mixture of voices and movement, both muffled. Too loud, too much. She suddenly felt numb, the pain but a phantom. She just made out the feeling of tears running down her face as she faded in and out, the floor disappearing from underneath her.

When she came back, she was sitting on what felt like a bar stool, her back propped up against something solid. Noise and pain enclosed around her. Suddenly aware that someone was gently wiping her face with what felt like soft tissue, she leaned into the hand. Clarity seemed to return in bouts and, with it, understanding of language. It all flooded in at once.

“What the hell were you thinkin'!!!” - “There isn't time for this.” - “Everyone keep it doon!” - “This looks like a Scapula fracture.” - “How are you aware of this?” - “I don't care what it is, heal it!!” - “Yer gonna wake up the bairns!!”

“St-stop it...” she tried to shout over the voices all seeming to speak at once, but it came out as a mutter lost on all ears.

“Where's the Cure Materia?!” - “Like hell would I know!!” - “I'll go look foor it!” - “I will assist you.” - “You're ain't goin' nowhere, I ain't done with you yet!!” - “I will return so you can, 'be done' with me then.”

Tifa cleared her throat and tried again, it came out louder this time, “Stop it.” But her plea was lost in the sheer volume of noise.

“Look, you f***in' smart ass!! She wouldn't be hurt if it weren't for you!!” - “I had no part in this-” - “LIKE HELL YOU DID!! IT'S YOUR MOTHERF***IN' FAULT, VINCENT!!!”

She summoned up all of her strength and cried out, “STOP IT!!” The room immediately quietened down. She gasped for air, feeling like the noise had been suffocating her until then. Strength gone, she struggled to speak again. “N-not Vincent... not his fault...” she muttered, her head drooping to the side. The little colour she could make out clashed and swirled, spinning down some sort of imaginary plug in her mind like a brain drain. Darkness crept up and fed upon her eyes.

Black.

 

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She groaned, her eyes heavy with sleep. Her body ached. Blearily, she cracked her lids open and immediately regretted it. Disorientated and vision blurred, she winced at the harsh light that fell from the window. She could just make out a sky of pure blue, clouds strolling by wistfully. A beautiful day.

“Good morning.” Startled, she moved her head to the side towards the voice and struggled to sit up. A gentle pressure on her left arm pushed her back down. Blinking away sleep, she was met with the clarity of Reeve smiling down at her. Her russet eyes glanced about, becoming more aware of her surroundings. Still in the bar area, she appeared to be lying on one of the long corner seats situated under the window. The soft padding beneath her confirmed this. A stitched quilt of many faded colours covered her snugly with a fluffy pillow situated under her skull, full of down. Much like her head at that moment.

“How are you feeling?” Reeve asked gently. Tifa swallowed to clear her throat, still feeling a lingering burn.

She croaked out, “Like a word Barret normally uses.” Reeve laughed, sounding relieved.

“At least your sense of humour isn't broken.” A look of confusion settled over her face.

“Broken?” Reeve smiled sympathetically, only then did she notice the glass of water in his hand as he held it out to her. She went to take it eagerly, suddenly becoming aware that her right arm was held in a sling. She looked at Reeve questioningly as she took the glass from him.

“It may taste funny, I mixed in some painkillers.” No sooner had the words left his mouth, Tifa grimaced, having already drank from it. He laughed at the face she pulled. “No doubt you want to know what I'm talking about.” Tifa nodded as she gulped down the bitter tasting liquid, already feeling much better for it.

“Well,” Reeve began, “where to start...” He leaned forward, elbows on knees. “You'd broken your shoulder. A Scapula fracture, as it's also known as.” Tifa raised an elegant eyebrow, as if asking, 'How in the Planet's name do you know that?' Reeve grinned. “I got the same look from the others-” Tifa almost choked to interrupt him.

“The others! Barret! Vincent! Where-” Reeve quickly held up a hand to calm her.

“I'm getting there, please, relax. I'll do the talking, okay?” Tifa, feeling somewhat defeated, nodded and leaned back into her pillow as she returned to slowly draining her glass.

“Yes, well... where was I? Ah yes. I'm quite familiar with Scapula fractures, I got one myself when I was younger. Car crash.” Tifa blinked at this glimpse into Reeve's past. She mentally tucked it away. “You certainly don't forget the pain of a broken shoulder, and I never forgot that or the name. Doctors threw it around like I was supposed to know what it meant.” He leaned back, his gaze fixed on the ceiling as though he were reliving the moment.

“Anyway,” he began once more, snapping himself from his own reverie. “You were in and out of consciousness last night. I don't know how much you remember, but we managed to find some Cure Materia and we healed your shoulder the best we could with it. It's power had drained from lack of use, but if we use it a few more times, I'm sure your shoulder will be back to normal in no time.” Reeve smiled.

Tifa looked down and moved her arm experimentally within the sling, wincing as pain danced around her collarbone and through her arm, but it wasn't even half as bad as the pain she'd felt from last night. The bruises were still rather deep but only indigo remained, the near black tinge having disappeared like it was never there.

“I wonder, do you remember shouting at everyone last night?” Tifa looked away at Reeve's question, as if peering into the distance for an answer, before replying.

“Vaguely. I remember lots of... noise. Shouting. And pain. Lots of pain.” She turned back to Reeve, who was rubbing the thin beard at his chin, nodding.

“Barret was quite... aggressive last night. He blamed your injury on Vincent.” Tifa's eyes widened at this.

“Vincent helped me!” Her voice rose. “Barret can't blame it on him, if Vincent wasn't there I-!” Reeve was quick to calm her.

“Don't worry! It's all been cleared up. Vincent explained what happened after you were healed. I feel he left out details though, I think summary is a better way of putting it than 'explained.'” Tifa finished the last of her medicine, and at Reeve's gesture, handed the empty glass back to him.

“So, where are the others?” she asked. As if on cue, a series of footsteps were heard thundering down the stairs like a small stampede. A few seconds later, Denzel and Marlene appeared around the corner looking frightened and breathless. On seeing Tifa, they immediately broke out into smiles, all worry dissolved from their small faces.

“TIFA!” they cried out, rushing to her side.

“Hey! There you are!” Tifa stretched out her left arm, wide and welcoming. The two children raced against each other to be the first to reach her arms, piling on top of one another as they hugged her.

“Now ain't that a relief!” Barret's boom came from the corner as he rounded it, a silly grin plastered on his face. Cait Sith followed at his heels, narrowly missing the man's giant boots as he approached. “Good to see you're alright, Tif'.” Tifa smiled back at him in return.

“I feel a lot better,” Tifa said with a smile. Barret crossed his arms, his grin still in place.

“It's a good thing we had that Materia left over after donatin' most of 'em. Found it in Cloud's room, he must'a left it behind.” Tifa's smile faltered slightly at the aforementioned name, but it returned in full when she felt a small hand tug at her arm; Marlene's little face looking up with wide eyes.

“Tifa! I saw Vincent! Really, I did!” She shuffled, squirmed and danced about in excitement. Tifa grinned and held back a laugh at the little girl's thrill.

“Oh, did you now? Hmm, I find that a little hard to believe...” Tifa teased and pretended to look doubtful, but her act fell flat when she burst into laughter at Marlene's expression. Her cheeks were puffed out in defiance as she stamped her foot. Denzel looked lost, shuffling awkwardly next to her before staring at his sneakers.

“I did! I'll prove it!” She ran from Tifa's arms and to the bottom of the stairs before Tifa could say she believed her. “I'm gonna get him right now!” Marlene declared, then proceeded to march up the stairs with purpose. Cait Sith grinned at the others, flicking his hand in a quick wave before he followed suit. Tifa couldn't help but laugh again.

“I take it Vincent's upstairs?” she asked once her laughter had subsided into a smile that truly reached her eyes, making them sparkle with mirth.

“He's in your room...” Reeve informed Tifa, but Barret shaking his head caught his eye, “...last I knew?”

“Naw, I checked this mornin'. I thought he was down 'ere...?” Barret ended as if questioning himself. The unspoken implication brought the room to silence. Denzel looked around like a lost boy in the woods. The three adults sat in heavy silence, and while he knew it seemed important, Denzel had no idea why everyone had suddenly become quiet.

“Errm...” he began, and felt very awkward when all three pairs of eyes turned to look at him. He swallowed nervously. “Who's Vincent?” When they all continued to stare back at him, Denzel blushed furiously and looked down at his shoelaces.

“Didn't you tell him, Barret?” Tifa, who was first to speak, sounded accusing and Barret was quick to raise his giant hands up in defence.

“Hey, I jus' told 'em this mornin' that you hurt your shoulder. They ran straight downstairs ta see ya. I didn't 'ave time to tell 'em 'bout Vince.”

“So how does Marlene know?” Reeve interjected.

“I dunno, I was about to ask you. Like she says, she must'a seen 'im. I didn't tell her. Jeez.” Barret looked hot under the collar, scratching roughly under his white jacket at the base of his neck. “Don't matta anyway. He's gone now.” Little feet plodded down the stairs, and Marlene appeared at the bottom looking beside herself with sadness. She cuddled Cait Sith in her arms.

“... He's gone, isn't he?” she said, looking up at the others. Tifa held a sad look that almost matched Marlene's while Reeve nodded empathetically. Barret looked grim and sighed heavily. Denzel had a rather annoyed expression on his face as he walked towards the young girl.

“It doesn't matter, they all leave in the end.” Marlene was so shocked, as were the others at Denzel's statement, that she didn't resist when he took Cait Sith from her arms.

“Hey noo!” The little robot cat's voice was the first to rise in protest. “Tha's not a very nice thing tae say!” When he struggled in the boy's grip, Denzel simply put him down. Marlene's eyes began to fill with tears, and she held back a sob. Barret almost growled.

“Denzel, you betta apologise right now to ma lil' girl or-”

“Or what?” Denzel challenged, turning to face Barret. Tifa was beyond stunned. Reeve simply remained silent, watching the scene play out. Marlene was crying now; big fat tears rolling down her cheeks. Barret was lost for words, moving his lips but nothing came out. Then he stomped his way over to Denzel, the force of his boots hitting the floor feeling like mini earthquakes.

Cait Sith yelped and hid behind the boy's leg. Tifa rushed to stand and almost tumbled as a wave of dizziness hit her like a wall, causing Reeve to reach out to support her. She pushed past his arms and moved straight in front of Barret despite her body screaming in protest, putting herself between the giant man and Denzel.

Click!

Everything stopped. All eyes turned to the front door.

Vincent stood with his hand on the handle, staring hard at the scene before him. His gauntlet flexed slightly, as if sensing something was amiss. Denzel gaped and tripped over his own feet, scrambling from the imposing figure standing in the doorway.

'T-those eyes! The o-ones I saw in the alley!!' Denzel thought in panic.

“VINCENT!” Marlene cried, running up and immediately taking cover under his cape. She clung to his right leg for dear life, tears rolling down her face to drip and run off Vincent's leather.

Tifa sighed in relief, “You came back.” She sounded like she was reassuring herself, which wasn't lost on Vincent. His sharp eyes fell upon the boy that frantically scrabbled away from him.

“Perhaps at the wrong time,” he stated before looking down at Marlene, who had now cloaked herself completely; her little feet the only give away that she was under his tattered cape. Vincent's brows furrowed slightly, but did not fully show his surprise at Marlene running to hide behind him. He was used to people running away from him, not running to him.

Laughter, mad and mocking in his head. Hysterical. Screams that just kept going on and on and on.

'So young, young YOUNG innocent and DELICIOUS!! Don't you want her??! To take advantage and rip off that face, face pretty enough to eat!!! EAT FACE!!! And those eyes- EAT THE EYES AND SHE CAN'T SEE WHAT YOU DO NEXT OH YES, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT OH!!! When you move to that pretty pretty PRETTY LITTLE SKIRT-'

Vincent almost snarled; he felt physically sick. He snapped his head to the side, gritting his teeth as the screams just didn't stop, won't stop, never stop. Blinking hard, he quickly held grip on reality. He looked once more at Tifa; her back was rigid, her left fist clenched.

“Vincent,” she started, a warning tone in her voice. Barret seemed to look at him suspiciously with a hardened stare, but stopped when he caught sight of Denzel almost cowering at the bottom of the stairs. He moved over to him.

“Come on lil' man, you and me are gonna have a talk!” He picked up Denzel with a heave of his mighty arm, placing him back on his feet and leading him into the dining area. Denzel looked pale, following along almost blindly. “A pretty long talk...” Barret mumbled to himself as he led him away.

Tifa stared a little longer at Vincent, before lowering herself down to one knee. She opened her left arm invitingly, and as if summoned, Marlene ran from under Vincent's cape and into her arms. Tifa hushed her as she clenched her little hands into the fabric of Tifa's sling, hiccuping tiny sobs into the woman's leather vest. Reeve walked towards them both and picked up Cait Sith.

“Well, that's that taken care of.” Despite his words, Reeve sounded uneasy. Tifa looked up to Vincent, her left arm circled protectively around Marlene.

“Where have you been?” she pried. Vincent turned towards the window, the sun catching his eyes and setting the flecks of gold within them alight. Tifa couldn't help but stare in wonder, she had never noticed them before. Beautiful, yet haunting.

“I have been tying up some loose ends.” She nodded, but couldn't help but feel disappointed. Tifa turned back to the little girl sniffling in her arms. She knew better than to ask further; Vincent wouldn't reveal any more to her. A thought occurred to her and she suddenly bolted to her feet, causing Marlene to jump in fright.

“The bar! Reeve, I should have been open hours ago-!!” Reeve interrupted her panic.

“It's alright, Tifa. Myself and Barret discussed it last night, we decided to keep it closed to help you recover. We left a sign.” Worry was still etched across her face, voice rather frantic.

“I can't afford to keep it closed for this long, I'm barely keeping above bills as it is!” Cait Sith held up his hands to calm her from his seat in Reeve's arms.

“Dinnae worry, we got it all sorted for yae,” the puppet reassured. Vincent gazed at the robotic cat in curiosity.

'What a strange accent, it is one I do not remember.'

Tifa ran a hand through her chocolate hair, fine strands sliding through her fingers. Marlene looked up and held onto the hem of her white shirt. Tears all gone, but the tracks still evident on her face, she smiled up at the woman. Tifa smiled back, though it wasn't very strong. Vincent watched on in silence, thinking the worry lines on her forehead were quite unfitting of her fair features.

“Don't worry, Tifa,” Reeve spoke confidently, calming the fighter before him. “I'm going to be paying everything while you're away.” Tifa looked surprised, protesting mildly. Reeve once again reassured her, while Vincent felt as if he had missed something, and not for the first time that morning. As if sensing this, Reeve turned to him. “Speaking of which, I need to explain my plan to you, Vincent.”

The man in question studied Reeve carefully, crossing his arms and fixing him with a look that was almost suspicious. His claw involuntary twitched as his demons stirred, but only Vincent knew about the latter. They squirmed inside his head, a spitting mass of vitriol. They had become harder and harder to control lately, enough to make even his gauntlet move against his will and it put him on edge. Why his claw? Could they move his right hand if they so choose? Over time, would they control his body? His mind? Vincent wanted to continue his search for answers. He straightened his back, reaching his full height and towering over the others in the room, before nodding to Reeve in silent agreement that he would listen.

“Okay, but I suggest we do this outside, give Tifa some peace.” Reeve smiled kindly at her. “If you need anything, you know where to find me.” Setting down Cait Sith and walking to the front door, he exited the building and out into the crisp morning air. Vincent uncrossed his arms and went to follow, but paused for a moment. He peered over his shoulder at Tifa, who looked on with interest.

“He won't be bothering you anymore.” And with that, Vincent followed the trail of cold air that was let in by Reeve seconds ago.

Tifa was shocked; it didn't take long for her to realise he was talking about the brutish man from the night before. She sincerely hoped he hadn't...?

“What did he mean by that?” Marlene asked in confusion. Tifa looked down at her and after a moment of wonder, smiled reassuringly.

“Don't worry about it, sweetie. I'm not too sure either. Why don't you go see daddy?” Marlene's face lit up and she immediately ran towards the dining room to see Barret, pulling Cait Sith along with her.

Once alone, Tifa allowed herself a hefty sigh. She couldn't wait to get herself cleaned up. Moving towards the stairs, she climbed them and made her way to the bathroom while pondering on what Vincent had said to her moments before. Looking down at her sling, a more pressing matter came to mind.

'Now, how on the Planet am I meant to shower with this thing on?'

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter VII – With a Single Step

 

A crystal blue sky hung majestically over Edge without a cloud in sight, the sun beating down merrily. A gentle breeze stirred occasionally before falling back into slumber. Outside Seventh Heaven, two figures stood on the porch idly, warmed by the sun's rays. Reeve sighed happily as he leaned against the wooden banister, while his companion seemed to step back into the shadow of the overhang.

“Such a beautiful day, and it's only morning,” Reeve remarked as he raised his head and smiled to the sun.

“Hmph,” Vincent grunted, crossing his arms. He found little reason to smile, especially considering recent events which had transpired. Reeve turned to him with a raised eyebrow, waiting for him to speak. When it became evident the gunslinger had nothing more to say, the well-groomed man continued.

“Hopefully this will last all day.”

“What is it that you want, Reeve?” It sounded more like an accusation than a question. Vincent narrowed his eyes as Reeve turned to him, the smile falling from his face as he straightened his back. A man now all about business.

“Alright, let us skip the pleasantries then.” And with that, Reeve began to explain his plan to Vincent. To clean up the Planet once and for all, returning the remaining stray souls of monsters back to the Lifestream and restoring its very delicate balance. Throughout his explanation, Vincent listened diligently, occasionally tucking his chin into his cowl as a passing breeze teased strands of his ebony hair.

When Reeve finished, Vincent remained quiet, contemplating everything he had been told. Uncrossing his arms, he emerged from the shadow of the porch overhang and into the harsh sun to stand next to the president of the WRO. Voices spat and hissed in his head, writhing in burning hatred of the sudden light. His gauntlet gleamed a burnished gold, blinding as it cast off intense reflection.

“... Your logic appears sound. However, I feel I cannot accompany you.” On hearing this, Reeve cocked his head questioningly. Black strands danced in front of his eyes, teased by a refreshing zephyr.

“Vincent,” he began. Piercing red eyes turned to meet his own. “I won't pretend to know what you've been doing or where you've been these past... three years now, is it? However, I feel this is something only our group can do, it's very important. And your help would be very much appreciated.” He met the cloaked man's steady gaze, unwavering, though it unnerved him. It felt like those blood-red eyes were staring straight through him.

“I recognise the importance of your proposed task. However, I have my own reasons...” Vincent trailed off, knowing that the reasons he spoke of consisted of the four monstrosities that shared his body. He was looking for answers, but at a loss as where to find them. If not wandering aimlessly, he had spent most of his time deep within the rotting womb of the Shinra Mansion, but that only served to raise even more questions.

“Well,” Reeve began, nodding to himself. “You do what you have to do, Vincent.” He looked back up to the crystal blue sky. Vincent watched silently, secretly appreciative that Reeve didn't push him for more information. The man was well known for being laid-back, despite his very high standing position. Pushing himself up and away from the banister, Reeve pulled his cellphone from his breast pocket.

“I suppose I better try and get in touch with some of the others again. Mainly Yuffie and Cid.” He flipped open the PHS and began wading through his vast collection of contacts, when the front door suddenly creaked open. Vincent and Reeve both turned to look over their shoulders to find Tifa walking towards them. Her hair shone in beautiful copper hues as she stepped out into the sun, her right arm now free from the confines of a sling. They both couldn't help but stare at her beauty.

She stopped and blinked at the sudden attention.

“I'm sorry, have I interrupted something?” she asked tentatively. Vincent turned to look up at the sky his companion seemed so enraptured in before, while Reeve waved his hand as if dismissing the notion.

“Not at all!” he exclaimed brightly. “I'm just about to call Yuffie and Cid again.”

Tifa smiled at this. “So, I take it you got in contact with Red?” Reeve's grin alone answered her question.

“That's right, I did so yesterday while you went for your...” he fished around his vocabulary for the right word, but came up short. “... Walk.” Tifa simply shook her head in an amused manner, a smile creeping onto her face. “As soon as I explained everything he was already on his way, he said he should be here in a few days.” Tifa nodded and moved towards the wooden banister, crossing her arms on top and leaning against the wood, similar to Reeve's position moments before.

“I can't wait to see Red, it's been such a long time.” She smiled to the sky before arching her back, raising her arms into the air then lowering them to the base of her spine. A familiar stretch.

“I'm just going to make these calls, I'll be inside.” Reeve motioned towards the bar before moving to the door and leaving the two standing on the porch. The wind whipped up around their feet, Vincent's cloak drifting lazily along with it as did Tifa's duster. They stood in silence, listening to the sounds of construction being made to buildings, the laughter and buzz of distant conversation and the sound of birds fluttering overhead.

The sound of Edge.

“So,” Tifa began. “I take it Reeve explained everything to you?” She turned to him with a smile, russet eyes taking on a red glimmer in the sun.

“He did.”

“Sound great, doesn't it?” she asked rhetorically. “I'm looking forward to us all being together again.” Vincent crossed his arms at this, his eyes narrowing. He heard of Cloud's disappearance from Barret, thus knew that Tifa spoke with either false hope or true optimism.

“I'm afraid I shall not be accompanying you.” On hearing this, the smile fell from Tifa's face.

“Oh...” The disappointment in her voice was palpable. She straightened up and turned to him. It was now that he could make out the remaining extent of her injuries. Her shoulder was healing quite nicely, a light purple bruise all that remained. He quickly deduced that she had used the Curative Materia again.

“How is your shoulder?” He changed the topic.

“A lot better now. The Materia isn't as strong but I'll make sure to use it more often.” She patted the utility pouch on the front of her duster, where Vincent could make out a shape resting inside. No doubt the crystallised Mako she was referring to.

“Vincent, about what you said to me earlier... You don't mean... I mean, you didn't...” The fighter struggled with words, but much to her ease didn't have to finish her sentence.

“No, I did not kill him.” Tifa sighed in relief, one she didn't realise she had been holding back. That was all she needed to know. Silence passed for a few moments, before Tifa once more broke it.

“I know this may be intruding, but may I ask why you can't join us, Vincent?” Vincent almost grumbled: he knew he couldn't deter the question for much longer. He kept his gaze fixed across the street, not really looking at things but rather, staring through them.

He gave the same answer he'd given previously. “I have my own reasons.” Tifa crossed her arms, seeming to study him intently and Vincent prepared himself for the inevitable onslaught of questions.

“... Alright.” Vincent blinked in surprise. “I won't push you, but this is something that only we can do together. We'll be travelling the Planet again, maybe you could find or... do your reasons, if you came with us.” He remained silent. Tifa sighed, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, revealing her delicate white teardrop earrings.

“Thank you.” Caught off-guard, he fixed his crimson gaze upon her quizzically. “For last night,” she explained. “I never got the chance to say it before. If you weren't there...” She rubbed her right shoulder. “I would have been a lot worse off.” Vincent gave a small nod, his chin disappearing into the folds of his cowl.

“I'm sure you would have been able to handle the situation, if you had your gloves with you.” It was a small, attempted consolation from Vincent, but it sounded more like an admonishment and gave little solace to Tifa. She knew he was right.

“Yeah,” Tifa tried to sound confident, but it came out defeated. “Well, wherever you go, I'm sure we'll see you again.” Tifa turned to go back inside, but Vincent's sudden baritone stopped her.

“When are you planning on leaving?” Tifa paused, looking back in thought.

“I'm not sure, but Barret was talking about later tonight. As soon as I know I'll tell you.” Tifa then continued towards the door and entered the building, leaving Vincent alone to stare at the sky.

As soon as she stepped into the bar, Tifa could hear nothing but expletives. Reeve leaned on the counter, rubbing his temple with both hands while shaking his head. Barret sat beside him, laughing heartily at the phone that was left on the bar top, the loudspeaker echoing around the room.

“Cid, this is for a very good cause!” Reeve almost seemed to be pleading at this point, much to Barret's amusement.

“Yeah man, most of us 'ave already agreed to it,” Barret cut in with a huge grin.

The loudspeaker erupted, the phone vibrating across the counter with the volume. “You've all gone crazy! You sure you guys ain't havin' a midlife crisis 'n doin' this for nostalgic reasons? 'Hey! Remember that time we travelled the Planet together knowing we were all f&$^ED?!'”

Barret effectively as he would call it, 'lost his shit', and burst into laughter; a mighty bellow that shook the floorboards. Reeve had buried his head in his hands at this point. Tifa grinned, walking over to the phone.

“Hello, Cid!” she called enthusiastically, genuinely happy to hear the rough pilot's voice.

Not more of the numbskulls!” The sound of his laughter rang out over the speaker. “How you doing, Tifa? ^%$#! It's been a while!” Tifa grinned and made small talk while Barret and Reeve composed themselves, though the grin never left Barret's face, and neither did the grimace on Reeve's. Much to the WRO leader's dismay, Tifa began to once more explain the plan to Cid. However, this time he seemed to listen.

' Well,” he began. 'Hope you don't count on me flying you everywhere! I'm still trying to make an airship that can run off fossil fuel, 'n %&$^ am I stumped!'

“Like we told you, Cid, we'll be mostly on foot so we can hunt out monsters,” Tifa reassured.

'Tell ya what, I'll stay here in Rocket Town and try an' get my baby in the air. You guys come 'n meet me here and we can have some goddamn tea, how about that?!' Tifa and Barret laughed in unison.

“You got yourself a deal.” Barret settled the rest of the conversation and everyone gave their goodbyes to Cid, as well as wishing him luck on his mysterious new airship. On hanging up, Reeve sat heavily on the bar stool looking rather exasperated, a rare sight to see.

He glanced up at the two before finally saying, “Next time, you call Cid.” He was made even more annoyed by the laughter that erupted from both Barret and Tifa.

The day passed without much more event. Reeve tried but was unsuccessful in contacting Yuffie, only receiving her answering machine message. ' This is the Single White Rose of Wutai! I'm away on ANNOYING business for my father, leave me a message and I'll THINK ABOUT calling you back!' At Barret's suggestion, (and persistence), himself and Tifa began packing up to leave that evening; getting an early start seemed to be a good idea and Barret was restless. They decided to meet Red XIII on their travels, making sure they both had their cellphones and all of the numbers necessary to get in contact with everyone in their group.

It was here that Tifa remembered Vincent didn't have a cellphone, but then realised it wouldn't matter since he didn't seem to be joining them. 'Still,' she thought. 'I'll have to remember to get him one in future, he shouldn't distance himself so much.' Reeve made calls for the rest of the day, mainly WRO related, and made arrangements for Seventh Heaven to be taken care of in Tifa's absence. Cait Sith watched and played with Denzel and Marlene, while Vincent it seemed, never moved from his post outside.

As the sun finally began to lower and the pavement began to cool, Tifa stretched and decided to take a break from packing. Suddenly she recalled that she was meant to tell Vincent when they were leaving. Cursing under her breath, she made her way across her room and towards the stairs, hoping that he was still where she had last left him. As she passed the wooden dresser, she paused. Slowly stepping back from the doorway, she moved towards the furniture and pulled open the top drawer. Rummaging through her items, she finally lay hands on what she was looking for, recognising it instantly by material alone.

Pulling her hand out, she retrieved her Premium Hearts. She ran a thumb over the soft leather, familiarising herself with them once more. She looked at them with admiration, like a proud mother would look at their child.

“I missed you guys,” she said softly. Stuffing them into the front pocket of her duster, she continued out of the room and made her way downstairs. It wasn't long before she was quickly made aware of raised voices.

“No way!! You can't come with us, Marlene!” Quickly reaching the bottom, Tifa stood by the stairs, watching Marlene hang on to Barret for dear life as he spoke to her on one knee.

“I'll be good! I promise!! Please, let me go with you!!!” she begged, her little hands gripped on to his puffy white vest, knuckles white. Barret's shoulders slumped as he sighed in exasperation.

“It'll be dangerous, I can't let ya go. An' I can't let Denzel go either. You two gotta' be good an' stick with Reeve. He's gonna look after yer. A'ight?” Denzel stood next to Reeve and Cait Sith, looking rather dejected. It broke Tifa's heart. Decidedly steeling herself for Barret's rebuke, she walked farther into the room.

“Of course you can come with us, Marlene.” The surprise on Reeve's face was almost comical, while Barret seemed to look on in horror. He turned a sharp gaze to Tifa, with an expression as if to say, 'Are you for f***in' REAL?!!' Marlene's face lit up like a lightbulb and she ran over to Tifa, Denzel following suit but walking rather than running.

“Does that mean I can come too?” the boy asked, scratching the back of his neck in uncertainty.

“Sure.” Tifa gave him a brilliant smile.

“Tifa!” Barret hissed in anger. “Are you NUTS?!! We're gonna be fightin' MONSTERS. We can't have them with us!”

“Oh, dilly dally,” Tifa brushed off his rage, taking Barret completely off-guard. “We'll protect them, we can have Cait Sith keep watch too. Have them stay behind while we fight, and Red will be able to help as well. Reeve is busy enough, I don't want to leave them.” Reeve made to comment, but couldn't deny the truth to Tifa's words. Instead, he ended up uncharacteristically scratching the back of his neck. Barret stood up, looking lost. The absurdity of Tifa's suggestion made him look down at the two children with a blank stare. Marlene and Denzel stared back with what appeared to be their best puppy dog eyes.

“Ye can count on me!” Cait Sith joined in, pounding his little furry chest with a gloved fist. Barret looked down at him incredulously.

“Oh... ALRIGHT.” He waved his arms in defeat as Marlene cried out in joy, hugging Tifa's waist tightly. “But if ANYTHING HAPPENS they're comin' straight back, ya hear?” Tifa nodded.

“Don't worry, Barret, we'll protect them,” she reassured him with a smile and he grumpily crossed his arms in response. The front door suddenly opened with a loud creak, turning all eyes towards Vincent as he entered the bar. He couldn't help but notice the irony, that he had somehow gotten into the same position he had been in that very morning. Mocking laughter resounded in his head.

“That's a relief,” Tifa said with a smile. “I thought you might have left already. I wanted to let you know that we'll be leaving soon.” Vincent nodded, his eyes passing over Denzel. While the fear was still evident on his face, the boy seemed to look up at him with newfound awe. Though Vincent was aware of the talk Barret had with him, he suddenly felt curious as to what exactly Barret had told the child. He moved his blood-red eyes back to the fighter that stood in the middle of the room.

“I have decided to accompany you on your journey,” Vincent addressed Tifa, watching as she blinked away shock, before a huge grin broke out on her face.

“That's great, Vincent! I'm glad you're coming with us,” she said earnestly.

“Well, I wasn't expectin' this,” Barret said as he stomped towards Vincent. “It's good ta have ya' with us.” He clapped Vincent on the shoulder with a grin, almost causing the gunslinger to stumble from the force. However, Vincent caught himself. “We could use all the help we can get.”

“I'm glad you changed your mind,” Reeve joined in, giving him a smile of his own.

“The mair the merrier!” Cait Sith enthused with a feline grin.

Vincent couldn't help but feel surprised at the group's earnest reaction to him joining their quest. He felt it was undeserved and wasted on him. After all, he was joining them for selfish reasons. He had spent many hours contemplating, but ultimately decided if they were truly to travel across the Planet, it would give him a better chance of finding answers. Also, an equal chance to atone, to help heal the Planet that he had a great part in destroying. By failing to stop Hojo, he had as much a part in the Planet's destruction as Sephiroth himself.

However, he kept all of this to himself, simply nodding in response.

Extra time was spent making additional preparations, Tifa and Barret helping the children pack their own belongings into backpacks while Reeve went about closing the bar for a long-term period. Heartfelt goodbyes were given to Reeve as he wished them luck, assuring them that he would be on the other end of the PHS if he was ever needed. Vouching that he would make sure to check in once every few days, Reeve Tuesti finally departed, heading back to the WRO Headquarters where he was surely missed.

As the keys were turned in the lock of Seventh Heaven's door for the last time, to await their return in what would no doubt be, a very long time, Tifa remained standing at the top of the porch stairs as the group made their way down them. The sun just peeked above the horizon, bathing them all in a beautiful orange that made the asphalt appear to burn. The air was warm, and almost felt reassuring as birds sang merrily overhead. Tifa breathed in deep, stretching out her arms and arching her back, like she had done so many times before.

“Are ya comin' or what?” Barret called from the street.

“You guys go on ahead, I'll catch up!” Tifa called back. As they moved on at a slower pace, she reached into her utility pocket, pulling out her Premium Hearts. Holding them in her hand, she felt the material once more in a pensive manner before grasping them tightly. Slowly, she pulled each glove on. First the right... then the left. She marvelled at the feeling, like this was what she had been missing for so long. The part of her that she needed to meet again, like a reunion with an old friend.

She flexed her fingers. Finally, after three years, Tifa Lockhart had found herself.

'I may or may not find you out there, Cloud,' she thought to herself. 'But I'm not just doing this for the Planet, or for you. I'm doing this for myself. No more moping around. All journeys start with a single step...'

And with that, Tifa took hers.

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter VIII – Lucky XIII

 

Cobblestones slowly began to turn to grass; lush, green and simply a sight to behold. As the party moved away from Edge, they could already see signs that the Planet was healing. Scars finally beginning to fade from the land's weathered surface.

“Daddy, look!” Marlene cried as she ran ahead, throwing herself down on nature's carpet and rolling around in the soft blades. “It's so soft! And tickly! Like your beard!”

“Marlene!” Barret almost whined in embarrassment, scratching the back of his tree-trunk like neck. “We'll be in Kalm soon, you don't 'ave much longer to go playin' in the grass.” The small town of Kalm could already be seen in the distance, framed in the purple hues of eventide as the party headed north towards the quaint hamlet.

“Ah! Thair she is!” Cait Sith called from Denzel's arms, pointing excitedly behind him. The messy-haired boy turned around in response to see Tifa jogging up to meet them.

“Where did you go?” Denzel asked, genuinely curious. Marlene's laughter was audible in the background, as well as Barret's admonishment.

“Oh, nowhere,” Tifa said as she smiled down at him. Denzel eyed her disbelievingly, but Tifa shrugged it off and ruffled his hair. “Honestly,” she reassured. “Don't worry. I'm not going anywhere.” There was a hidden meaning to her words and it certainly wasn't lost on the eleven-year-old. He nodded and blessed her with a small smile, which only made her own grow in return.

“Denzel! Tifa! Come play with me!” Marlene called joyfully to the fighter and the quiet boy while Barret complained about grass stains. Tifa grinned and walked over to join her in the lush field. Denzel was not so keen.

“Aw come on now, Marlene! Tifa ain't gonna play with yer! She's too old-”

No sooner had the words left his mouth, Tifa dropped to her knees next to Marlene and began to roll along with her in the grass. Barret's jaw dropped while the air filled with their laughter. Just when he thought his jaw couldn't go any lower, Cait Sith hopped from Denzel's arms and with a, “Noo, that looks like fun!” promptly joined in. Denzel stood awkwardly next to the huge gun-armed man as Barret simply watched in disbelief, laughter abound in the air.

BANG!!!

A shot cracked out like thunder before rumbling adrift on the wind, leaving ringing in all the ears of those nearby. A wolf-like creature slumped to the ground as Vincent spun his revolver twice, then holstered the smoking gun. He turned his crimson eyes to find that everyone had froze.

“You should not let your guard down so easily,” the gunslinger chastised, his words as sharp and cutting as a blade. His eyes were narrowed in annoyance as he looked over them. Tifa appeared to have reacted instantly, standing over Marlene and Cait Sith instinctively for protection, a classic fighting stance with her fists at the ready. Barret stood with one hand on Denzel's shoulder, his prosthetic hand now a machine gun that was pointed straight at Vincent, the maker of the noise. Vincent quietly exhaled through his nose, making a, 'hmph' sound.

'I suppose they haven't completely forgotten themselves,' he thought disdainfully.

He then sharply turned away, striding over the bleeding corpse of the Kalm Fang, his cloak billowing after him.

Barret lowered his gun as he watched the retreating back of the aloof Vincent Valentine.

“Jeez...” he huffed. “You awright, Denzel?” He looked down at the boy expecting him to be rather shaken, but instead found the youth to be watching with great interest. Denzel looked up through his messy brown locks, his eyes locking with Barret's.

“He scares me.” Oddly, Denzel said this in a respectful manner, as if in admiration. And this somewhat troubled Barret. He slapped a huge hand onto Denzel's shoulder, but with reassurance rather than force.

“Ya know what? He scares me sometimes too. An' that's saying somethin'!” Barret grinned at Denzel here. “Remember what I told ya? Vincent's an old friend of ours, but... jus' be careful 'round 'im. Don't annoy him, a'ight?” Denzel nodded, but didn't seem completely satisfied.

'Why can't I annoy him? Will something that bad really happen?' he thought in curiosity as Barret turned away and walked towards the middle of the field to join the others. Denzel followed, deep in thought.

“You both okay?” Tifa asked to Marlene and Cait Sith at her feet. Marlene nodded and gave her a rather weak smile, while Cait Sith provided a confident thumbs up. She watched Vincent's retreating back with annoyance, rather irritated that he had scared the others without warning. Suddenly, the hairs on the back of her neck prickled and she spun around; Barret yelled and Marlene screamed. As if rehearsed, she swiftly brought up her left leg and threw out her foot with force. The Kalm Fang howled painfully as her boot connected with its stomach in a mighty blow, throwing the wolfish beast to the ground heavily. Stomping her foot on its neck, she snapped her heel to the side and crushed its windpipe in one swift blow.

“Shit!!” Barret exclaimed running up to her, his gun-arm transforming back into a steel hand. “You awright?” He began checking her over, his arm hovering above her healing shoulder.

“Yeah,” Tifa breathed out, adrenaline coursing through her veins. “I just, reacted.” Vincent only now reached her side, cloak falling around his heels as his hand rested on the grip of his silver revolver. Barret turned to him enraged.

“Where the HELL were you?!! So much for not letting your guard down, huh?!” He glared down menacingly at the cloaked man and became even more enraged when Vincent said nothing. To Vincent, there was nothing to say. He may have had his gun drawn from a distance, but he knew that he could have possibly been a few seconds too late in saving her. Ironically, after his own warning about not losing guard, it was he himself who had fallen prey to it. Barret was about to descend upon him in unbridled rage when a small voice stopped him.

“He was about to shoot it.” Barret blinked down at Denzel in surprise, the boy now standing next to Marlene. The little girl reached out to hold the boy's hand, giving Denzel her support. “I was watching.” Barret gritted his teeth so hard that they could almost hear them grinding

“That don't matta' ta me,” Barret began calmly, restraining himself as much as he could. “He should'a been here ta begin with!!”

“Calm doon. He's here noo, and the bairns are fine,” Cait Sith chimed in, walking over to stand in front of Denzel. The cat toy tugged and curled at his whiskers as he watched Barret try to contain his anger.

A venomous sound hissed through a mighty jaw in Vincent's head, bearing teeth like razor shards; a dangerous, guttural sound.

'Put him in hissss placcccce.'

Vincent closed his eyes and turned away, physically and mentally as he turned his back on Galian Beast. Reopening them, he looked towards the horizon to find the sky a most wondrous shade of amethyst. Stars began to reunite after a long day of sleep, sparkling merrily from their perches in the sky.

A surge of primal rage seized Vincent's body, making his claw flex on a will that was not his own. He looked down in alarm as golden talons began to dig uncomfortably into the leather on his left leg. He did not fight, he somehow knew this was meant to be a message. A warning.

'Do not turn from me.'

“Forget it, Barret,” Tifa spoke up. “We're all fine. Let's go, we want to reach Kalm before dark, remember? You two,” here, she pointed to the two children. “Stay close, okay?” She smiled at them then strode past Vincent with purpose, completely unaware that only seconds ago he had been frozen to the spot against his will. Cait Sith lead Denzel and Marlene away with vigour, dancing about their feet as he followed after Tifa. Barret brought up the rear, the thundering of his huge boots still heard even against soil. He stared hard at Vincent as he passed, but said nothing more on the matter and continued on.

Vincent paused to watch them leave before looking down at his gauntlet. He turned it over, inspecting it carefully. It shimmered and gleamed, even in the rapidly declining light. He gave his fingers a few experimental twitches, then flexed his entire claw. A troubled expression settled over his features.

'I may hold control now, but for how much longer? When did it escape my notice that these demons could control my very body? They grow in power, and I fear that I, in return, lack it...'

“Errm...” His eyes quickly snapped up, only to find Denzel looking up at him rather awkwardly. This time however, the boy seemed to hold his gaze despite his fear. Vincent slowly lowered his claw and discreetly moved it behind his cape and out of sight. “You're not leaving, are you?” Denzel asked earnestly. Vincent looked up further to see that the group had stopped, no doubt having realised he had stayed behind. It was then he noticed Tifa walking back towards him. “Is there something wrong with your...? Err...” Denzel shuffled his feet in embarrassment, trying to find a word for Vincent's gauntlet when Tifa made it to his side.

“Vincent? Is something wrong?” She cocked her head to the side slightly, concern evident on her face.

The gunslinger looked down at Denzel before eventually answering, “No... nothing is wrong.”

Tifa didn't seem to fully believe this, watching his face for a little longer than necessary. “He hasn't bothered you, has he? He came running over before we could stop him.” Tifa looked down at the messy-haired child as he stared adamantly down at his scruffy sneakers.

“No, he did not,” Vincent paused for one moment. “And no, I am not leaving, Denzel.” On hearing this, the young boy looked up sharply to meet Vincent's gaze. He then broke out into a small smile, running back towards Barret, Marlene and Cait Sith in the distance. Unknown to the two adults present, not only was Denzel thrilled that Vincent was going to stay, but that the tall and 'scary' man had remembered his name. Tifa laughed quietly.

“You've made his day now,” she said with a smile, turning to Vincent. “Thank you, you honestly don't realise what that means to him.”

“I believe I am beginning to.” They met each others gaze, Vincent's crimson eyes on Tifa's own russet hues. An understanding seemed to pass between them, unspoken, but heard all the same. For right now, or at least for the rest of this journey, Vincent and Tifa didn't plan on going anywhere.

“Hey! Move yo ass!!” Barret roared to them both, signalling for them to hurry up. The fighter grinned and shook her head while Vincent crossed his arms. Suddenly, Tifa hissed through her teeth, gripping her right shoulder.

“Are you alright?” Vincent asked as he uncrossed his arms, a trace of concern evident in his voice. She nodded, fumbling around in the front pouch of her duster.

“Yeah, just still a bit painful now and then. This should do the trick.” She pulled out the Cure Materia and held it up to her right shoulder, where a light but rather large bruise was still evident. The small glittering bauble glowed rather hauntingly in the dark and Tifa, on further thought, couldn't help but compare it to Vincent's eyes. She glanced at him from the side of her vision, noticing how a crimson aura seemed to leak into the twilight from his gaze.

“... Do you need assistance?” Vincent asked as he watched her carefully, her brow furrowed in light concentration.

“I can manage.” Tifa began to walk forward, motioning for him to follow with a slight nudge of her head. He complied, walking in step with her. “Best not keep Barret waiting, he doesn't have the best of patience.” A jingle began to ring out gently into the night from the Materia, before an emerald glow began to pulsate from within its centre. Ribbons and glittering flecks of magic resonated and spilled from the shiny marble, wrapping themselves around Tifa's injured shoulder. Vincent watched the magic take hold, entranced as it danced around the wound in green hues; as if embracing the injury itself. After a few seconds, the glow faded along with the chime. All that was left in its place was a fully healed shoulder.

Tifa gave it a few experimental shrugs and sighed quietly in relief. Pocketing the Cure Materia once more into the front of her pouch, she stretched her arm that once held a heavy injury. As Vincent turned to watch her, he suddenly became aware of another glow in the distance. It came from the east, and with it a sound like many, many footsteps met his sensitive ears. He quickly tensed, raising to his full height. This made Tifa alarmed and she immediately balled her fists, her arms raised and at the ready.

“Vincent? What's wrong?” Vincent ignored her, his hand now resting on the grip of his gun as he stood and listened. Barret, Cait Sith and the children ran up to meet them.

“What's the matter?” Cait Sith asked from the arms of Marlene. Tifa shook her head, motioning to Vincent who stared intently into the distance. Barret, impatient as ever, rubbed a finger under his nose.

“Yeah? And? I don't see anything,” he disregarded brashly. Vincent knew that the others could not yet see the red ember in the distance, given his eyes were just as sensitive as his ears. Most of his abilities were heightened as a result of the demons that dwelled within him.

The sound was becoming louder, gaining ground fast as the glow intensified; the distance between them was closing.

It was heading this way.

Vincent whipped his gun from its holster, pointing it eastward towards the sound while fluidly moving in front of the group, arm outstretched. No more words were needed. Tifa moved in front of Denzel and Marlene with her fists held ready, while Cait Sith yelped and scrambled from Marlene's arms to hide behind Barret's giant boots. Mechanical whirring could be heard as Barret's arm, in all its complexity, clicked and shifted into place to make a very large and very intimidating gatling gun.

The glow seemed to slow down, the odd thunder-like sound becoming quieter, more soft.

“What's that?” Marlene asked, more in excitement than apprehension. It was only now that the others could finally make out the fiery red glow. However, due to Vincent's eyesight, he could clearly see what was approaching them. He holstered his ornate revolver, much to the confusion of the others, then turned to look over his shoulder at Marlene to answer her question.

“An old comrade.” Tifa looked puzzled, before realisation struck her like lightning. She dropped her stance and broke into a run towards the glowing fire. Barret and the others looked on, startled, while Vincent blinked in surprise, before a shadow of a smile appeared on his face as he tucked his chin into his cowl.

Red XIII finally came into sight, his red fur taking on an orange shimmer in the firelight that came from the bright burning flame on his tail. A cat-like grin broke out on his face when he caught sight of Tifa running up to meet him.

“RED!!” she cried out; the huge smile on her face could be heard more than seen. She almost dived on him, dropping to her knees and ruffling his auburn mane enthusiastically. The quadruped laughed, sitting back on his haunches and enjoying the attention. His tail seemed to burn brighter as it swayed back and forth in delight.

“It's nice to see you too, Tifa,” Red XIII said earnestly. “I see you still haven't grown accustomed to using my real name.” The fighter grinned back at him in a guilty manner as the others caught up behind her.

“Sorry, Nanaki. Old habits die hard, right?” The lion-like beast nodded, causing the beads and tassels that hung around his face to jingle with the action. His left ochre coloured eye seemed to glimmer in mirth.

“Indeed they do.” He spoke with wisdom that betrayed his animalistic appearance. He reached up with his left pastern that was adorned in beautiful golden bracelets to scratch his ear; effectively reminding Tifa that he was still very much a beast in mannerism. Nanaki stopped, his nose twitching, before a look of great interest passed over his face.

“That smell...? The scent is... different, but unmistakable. It can't be...” Tifa looked puzzled as Nanaki stood and manoeuvred in a way so that he could peer over her shoulder with his left eye. His right bore a heavy scar from something that was still unknown to his old teammates. Barret strode over confidently behind Tifa with Marlene holding his hand, blocking Red's view. Upon seeing Nanaki, or Red XIII as the brands on his legs would indicate, the girl immediately let go of her father's hand and ran over to the big, lion-like dog.

“Red!” she cried, giving him a great big cuddle into the side of his neck. As she buried her face into his fur, Nanaki smiled, almost purring at the girl. “I missed you!”

“And I missed you. You've gotten bigger, Marlene. I take it your father has been looking after you.” At this, Barret pounded his chest with a mighty fist.

“You dayum right!!” he bellowed, grinning madly. “It's real good to see you, Nanaki. How the heck did ya make it here so fast from Cosmo Canyon? Reeve told us you'd been headin' over to Edge in a few days!” Denzel walked over with Cait Sith following at his heels, and Nanaki watched with interest, nose twitching.

“Yes, well, that's because I didn't come from Cosmo Canyon...” Nanaki trailed off in what seemed to be a mysterious manner, but was actually in fact, distraction. His nose twitched in greater frequency as Cait Sith drew closer, and Nanaki moved towards the cat robot. Cait Sith adjusted the small crown on his head warily as he watched Red XIII draw closer. Suddenly, Nanaki stuck his nose into the puppet's white chest fur, sniffing heavily.

“Hey noo!” The robot cried out, slapping Nanaki's muzzle away and causing the dog to shake his head and rub his nose with a hefty paw. “Tha's rude!” Cait Sith admonished, pointing at him as if scolding a child.

“You're a different model, aren't you?” Nanaki enquired with great curiosity, sitting once more on his haunches. Cait Sith looked surprised, then began to curl his whiskers with a grin on his face.

“Aye, that I am! I'm impressed! Model number three, at yer service!” Cait Sith bowed to Red XIII dramatically, grabbing a corner of his little red cape and sweeping it in front of him majestically. Nanaki nodded, but seemed puzzled. Denzel, surprisingly, was the first one to pick up on this.

“What's the matter? You look confused,” the orphan spoke up from beside the small cat. Nanaki turned his single amber eye to the young boy.

“It is a look that does not befit you.” Nanaki's ears perked up instantly at the deep baritone, and he immediately rose to his feet as Vincent moved towards the group. His cape rose in the breeze as he approached, teased by the light winds that passed across the field.

“That scent, it was you!” Red said, mainly to himself. “It is great to see you well, Vincent. It has been a long time indeed!” He padded over to the tall man, his tail almost wagging as it swept behind him, sending warm and passionate sparks into the violet evening sky. Vincent nodded to Nanaki, remaining still even as the beast's nose twitched more than ever.

“You mentioned that you did not depart from Cosmo Canyon,” Vincent stated, watching Nanaki carefully as the beast still seemed to be concentrating on a scent in the air. Red nodded in a distracted manner, a heavy expression settling on his features. He gave Vincent a rather suspicious look, then continued, providing him with his full attention.

“That's right. I've been in Fort Condor for the past few weeks.”

“Fort Condor?” It was Tifa's turn to be puzzled as she spoke up. “That means you would have passed through the Mythril Mines and across the marshes to reach here.” Nanaki turned his good eye to the fighter and nodded to confirm this, the colourful feathers in his mane moving slightly from the action.

“Fort Condor? Why 'ave ya been there of all places?” Barret asked, using the knuckles on his metal hand to scratch his black beard in thought.

“I'll explain later, for now it would be wise of us to move. It's getting dark.” Nanaki was about to continue on but stopped, turning to look back at the others. “I must say, it's lucky that I met up with all of you out here.” He smiled a rather toothy grin.

The group agreed to move on quickly as the light rapidly began to fade, violet giving way to an endless navy blue. Explaining to Nanaki that they were heading to Kalm for the night before continuing on their journey, they prepared to move on. After Cait Sith jumped up onto Red's head, (stating that his feet hurt,) and Marlene climbed onto Red's back with his consent, the party covered the last stretch of their journey to Kalm, making merry conversation under a sea of waking stars.

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter IX – Dirge of the Beast

 

Upon entering from the southwest, it did not take long for the group to locate the inn in Kalm; a straight left from the entrance found themselves a warm welcome in an atmospheric abode. The innkeeper appeared to be caught unaware by the rather large party coming through his doors; especially given the way he jumped up, sending papers scattering along with a log book and set of keys. Pleasantries were exchanged as well as a modest amount of Gil, before the slim and kindly man lead them up to their rooms for the night. As the group settled, they watched him leave in rather high spirits, no doubt from the newfound jingle in his pocket.

Denzel and Marlene wasted no time in running to the nearest beds, scrambling to jump up and down on them in excitement. It was the first time they had stayed at an inn before, and they took in their surroundings with the charm and fascination only a child could hold. Tifa and Barret settled them both and readied them for bed while the others made themselves comfortable in the room. It wasn't long before both children fell into slumber, light snoring occasionally heard from them both.

“Tha' didn't take lang,” Cait Sith said softly with amusement, tucking Marlene's quilt under her chin with great care so as not to wake her. He then carefully made his way to the bottom of the bed, plonking himself down at the edge to watch the others. Red was situated at the foot of the bedstead, lying down on the rug with his tail carefully raised so as not to burn anything. Barret and Tifa sat next to each other on the bed at the far end of the room, next to the window that Vincent had taken upon himself to lean against.

“Alright, Nanaki,” Tifa began, hands resting on her knees. “Are you going to tell us why you've been in Fort Condor?” The creature in question raised his muzzle from the rug, ears twitching.

“Certainly.” He paused as he rearranged his tail carefully, bringing it closer to lie next to his front paws. “I have been carrying out grandpa's dying wish.” This grabbed the attention of the others with a steel grip. They knew that he referred to Bugenhagen, the wise elder of Cosmo Canyon who Nanaki affectionately referred to as, 'grandfather' or 'grandpa'. The old man had passed away during Meteorfall when AVALANCHE was still banded together, at the respectable age of one hundred twenty-nine, just short of his one hundred thirtieth birthday.

“Dyin' wish?” Barret pried, his brow furrowing. Red nodded slightly, appearing to take a breath through his nose to steady himself before continuing.

“Yes. Grandfather told me that there was more to life than just what was within Cosmo Canyon. He asked that I travel the world, to survey it and gain true knowledge. It was also the reason he asked me to continue accompanying Cloud and your group, rather than staying behind during Meteorfall.” It was here that Red paused, cocking his head to the side in an inquisitive manner. “May I ask where Cloud is?” The room fell into silence. A look of annoyance settled over Barret's face.

'Damn,' the dark-skinned man thought. 'I thought Reeve would'a told 'im!' Red's gaze fell upon Vincent as the man looked over his shoulder, about to answer Nanaki's question to save Tifa the trouble. While the others may have thought that the gunslinger had not been listening to their conversation, Red XIII knew better. However, they were all surprised when Tifa was the one who spoke up.

“Cloud has been gone for a little over a week now. No one knows where he is. I've tried calling him but he won't answer his cellphone, so I figure he'll get in contact when he's ready,” she finished, cracking the knuckles on her hands in contemplation.

'Or if we find him first, ready or not,' she added mentally. Barret blinked in surprise at her steady tone, as if spoken from a woman who was discussing something as menial as the weather. Vincent uncrossed his arms and held his crimson eyes steady on Tifa's form. This was certainly an unexpected turn, one which he had not foreseen. And with it came newfound respect for the woman that sat in front of him. A hiss through giant teeth, sharp and primitive in his head. Growling rumbled long after its words. Vincent found that oddly enough, they sounded appreciative.

'Ssshe isss sssstrong. A sssuitable mate.'

Vincent's brows furrowed at the beast's words. He had never heard the demon speak in such a manner.

'Mate?' A strong urge clawed from within him, but it was not enough to break Vincent's guard. However, he now knew with certainty Galian Beast's intent and he quickly averted his blood-red eyes to look back out the window.

“I'm sorry to hear that,” the red dog sympathised, gazing apologetically at the fighter before him. She simply nodded in response. Barret studied Tifa's face with concern, before smiling to himself.

'Glad she's doin' better. Tha's more like the Tifa I know. But she's still got a long road ahead of her.' He was brought out of his thoughts by Tifa turning and shooting him a quizzical glance. Barret shrugged roughly, his smile widening before he turned back to Red.

“So anyway, I get why you ain't in Cosmo. But why Fort Condor of all places?” Barret asked, moving his left hand to rub at his right bicep, circling the arm as he massaged the muscle. Red XIII seemed to grin at the gun-armed man's question, his left eye creasing as he gave a pleased expression.

“Ah, now that is the question, isn't it? You could say that I heard some rumours, or indeed, that a little condor told me.” Here, Nanaki chuckled at his own joke. “Apparently, a condor has returned to the Fort. I can confirm this to be true. I travelled to see for myself.” Tifa clapped her hands, a big grin on her face as she shuffled about in excitement.

“You mean that little condor chick we watched hatch out of the egg has come back?” The thought alone made her giddy. During their travels, they had helped some resistance fighters defend the Fort; stopping Shinra from trying to get rid of the extremely rare condor species nesting there, because they saw it as a threat to their Mako Reactor operations. The resistance succeeded, even though the mother had died. Its fluffy little chick, however, hatched from the egg, then flew off to no doubt continue the species' survival. After the event which was now known as 'The Siege of Fort Condor,' it was delightful news to hear that the birds had returned and continued to thrive.

“I don't think it's that exact chick,” Red laughed, “but they have indeed returned.” Tifa immediately turned to Barret, hands clasped in excitement.

“We have to stop by there! I can't wait to see the condors again!” Barret chuckled deeply, a throaty sound.

“Sure, I don't see why not. I'd like to see 'em again.” He smiled at Tifa's enthusiasm, then broke out into a grin when she suddenly jumped up and began to pace in excitement.

“I wonder how many of them there are now? Or where the chick we saw before went? Maybe there's a whole bunch of them somewhere that we haven't even seen yet!” Tifa's vigour and eagerness greatly amused them all, causing Barret and Cait Sith to try and laugh quietly to avoid waking the children. Nanaki shook his head in amusement, the tassels in his mane chiming together musically to join in with the merriment. Vincent turned to look over his shoulder at Tifa, watching her closely as she almost danced about in excitement. Seeing the way she was acting brought forth a strange feeling in him. He felt like he was really seeing her for the first time, that he was finally getting a glimpse of the woman he remembered from three years ago. He felt captivated, as if he had travelled back in time. And suddenly very, very, old.

“- And I'm sure Vincent wouldn't mind, would you, Vincent?” Tifa looked at him in question, as did the rest of the group. Vincent blinked, crossing his arms and tucking his chin into his cowl. The gunslinger's silence seemed to confuse the fighter. Thankfully, Nanaki spoke up.

“I'm sure Vincent would accept stopping by Fort Condor on our journey.” The feline gave him a grin as if to say, 'I knew you weren't listening.' His tail flicked back and forth, portraying the lion-like creature's amusement.

“... Do as you wish,” Vincent eventually replied, turning once more to the window. He could feel Tifa's gaze linger on his back as he did so.

“Well,” Barret said as he stood up from the bed, “I guess we should get some shuteye. It's been a long day.” Tifa turned to the dark-skinned man in thought, walking to stand next to him.

“I really wish we could have taken care of some more monsters,” she admitted, “I don't feel like we did very much.” Her brows furrowed slightly as she pulled her gloves tighter around her fists. Red's ears flicked in thought at this. Standing up on all fours and shaking slightly to ruffle out his flattened fur, he turned to the fighter.

“Well, now would certainly be the best time...” he trailed off as Tifa and Barret looked at him in question.

“Whatcha mean?” Barret asked suspiciously, narrowing his eyes at Red XIII.

“... Monsters thrive in darkness.” They all turned to Vincent in surprise as the cloaked man turned to face them, his sudden speech set in a mysterious tone. A voice descended upon his mind and lay waste to all organised thought, a sound like huge beams of wood being rended. The power was suffocating.

'DARKNESS. MY DOMAIN. THE PERFECT PLAIN TO TEAR ONE'S EYES AND ROT ONE'S FLESH.'

Vincent closed his eyes and turned away to look back out of the window, pausing to reinforce his mental barriers. Once Chaos had been quelled, he continued. “Now would be the most opportune moment for us to seek them out, if we so wished.”

Tifa turned to Barret, russet eyes seeking answers. “What do you think, Barret? I think it's a good idea.”

Barret shook his head, a stern look passing over his weathered features. “Yeah, an' what we gonna do 'bout tha' kids? I ain't waking them up this late jus' so we can go monsta' huntin'.”

“Of course not, one of us can stay behind and look after them. We won't be that long, right?” Tifa reassured.

“I'll doo it! I dinnae mind,” Cait Sith said as he jumped down from the bed with a soft thump. “Just leave it tae me!” Here, he pounded his furry white chest with a gloved fist. Barret seemed to hesitate, lost in making a decision. After pacing for a few seconds, he finally turned back to Tifa.

“Awright. I can't say it ain't a good idea, an' I'm itchin' to really try out ma new arm.” Here, Barret flexed the fingers on his prosthetic. “But only fer an hour, right? I don't like leavin' 'em alone too long.” Barret looked over towards the beds where the two children snoozed away, none the wiser about what was being discussed. A rare, affectionate look passed over his face as he watched them sleep.

“Dinnae worry! As lang as you promise tae come back soon, I'll protect them with mah life!” With Cait Sith's assurance, the rest of the party agreed to the plan and the one hour time constraint. After quick preparation and a goodbye kiss left for Marlene by her father, they made their way downstairs to inform the innkeeper. They found him sound asleep at his desk, slight drool covering the reception papers that littered the wood top.

“Perhaps we should leave him be,” Nanaki advised, motioning towards the exit. Tifa nodded in agreement, though the amusement on her face was as clear as day. They decided to sneak out, taking care to close the door softly behind them. A full moon greeted the four ex-AVALANCHE members as they walked out into the crisp midnight air, casting pale light over their surroundings and enshrouding everything in a silver glow. As they made their way down the empty streets, Vincent paused and turned towards the bright circle in the sky, so bright that he couldn't help but think of it as a pale imitation of the sun. The light cast a silver shimmer upon his ebony hair.

'This strange feeling of foreboding... It does not sit well.' Vincent narrowed his crimson eyes, glancing towards the retreating backs of his comrades. After a moment, he followed, resolving to be on his utmost guard. Red XIII's tail burned brightly as they approached the grasslands outside of Kalm, the flame's orange glow warming the town's buildings until then; as he moved away, the fire receded with him, letting the brickwork grow cold once more. Vincent remained a few steps behind the party as Barret took the lead.

“Okay, listen up foo's,” Barret turned around and addressed the group, (missing the look shared between Tifa and Nanaki at his use of 'foo.') “We gotta be on our toes, jus' cause we're lookin' for monsters don't mean they can't get the jump on us. So stay alert, or I'll personally beat yo' asses!” He punched his fist into the palm of his hand, the resounding smack reinforcing his words. “Nanaki, I'd like you ta go in front. You're damn helpful as a light.” Red XIII swept his tail behind him at Barret's words, lazily blinking at the man.

“It's certainly good to know that I'm valued in this team,” the lion-like creature spoke in jest, though his face remained stoic. Tifa ruffled his mane, consoling him despite knowing he spoke jokingly.

“Tifa, you're with me.” Tifa nodded at Barret, clenching her fists in response. “And Vince-”

BANG!!

The gunshot cracked out into the night, the others turning quick as lightning to find another Kalm Fang had fallen victim to Vincent's revolver. The man in question spun then holstered the smoking gun, before turning attentive blood-red eyes to Barret.

“... Yeah, keep doin' that,” Barret finished, crossing his arms. The stern look he gave the gunslinger was completely ruined by the grin tugging at his lips.

“He means to say, 'good job,'” Tifa corrected, smirking when Barret began to protest mildly. Vincent merely nodded in response, stepping around the corpse of the creature as its soul began to return to the Lifestream; glimmering emerald ribbons and flecks of life slowly drifting up into the air, returning to the Planet.

“I suggest heading east, towards the Mythril Mines. With the large expanse, I'm certain that will be the best place to seek out our foes,” Red XIII advised, turning his ochre eye in the direction he spoke of.

“Sounds like an idea, quicker we get there tha' quicker we can get back,” Barret said determinedly as he brought up his right arm and pulled it back, causing machinery to whir, click, shift and turn, until his prosthetic hand changed into a huge gatling gun. “Let's go!” he bellowed, stomping after Nanaki who lead the party on with his ever burning flame as guidance. Tifa and Vincent followed close behind without complaint. As they made their way towards the eastern expanse, with only the full moon and a burning tail-flame to guide them, they encountered many Kalm Fangs. However, none of them were any match for the group.

Nanaki lunged at any that stood in their path, sweeping his weaponized headdress at foes with force or literally fighting tooth and nail. Barret provided support, aiming at approaching beasts with his gatling gun, crying out in triumph whenever he scattered a group of them with noise and a hail of bullets. Tifa had fully recovered from her previous shoulder injury and provided cover from both sides, gracefully ducking and pivoting attacks before delivering a brutal counter, her gloved fists shattering bone. Vincent remained at the back of the group, making short work of anything approaching. With his heightened eyesight and hearing, he dispatched enemies from great distances with his gun, the ornate revolver constantly smoking as it howled with use and rained bullets on their foes. Even though they were all significantly weaker due to three years without combat, they still held their fighting instincts.

“I think that's the last of them!” Tifa called out, pulling her gloves on tighter and wiping the sweat from her brow. There were indeed a lot more monsters in the dead of night, deducing that they must have fought off at least twenty of them.

“It would seem so,” Red called back warily, still casting his eye around the area, ears twitching. The group now found themselves close to rounding the mountain that lead to the Mythril Mines, and also towards the marshes which held intimidating giant serpents known as Midgar Zoloms. “I do not suggest heading any further, lest we walk into the marsh and run into a Zolom.”

“Did you encounter one on your previous journey?” Vincent asked coolly, turning to look at the red-furred dog. A small zephyr swept past, causing Vincent's cape to rise on its currents. His ebony hair brushed past his eyes and over his red bandana. Nanaki looked back and shook his head, the wind running though his fur in waves and causing his mane to become tousled.

“I didn't, but I don't wish to test my luck. Or should I say, our luck.” Vincent nodded, about to turn back and once more scan the area, when vicious hissing broke into his psyche and growled within his skull around huge canines.

'Sssomething SSSTRONG aproaccchesss. We are in itsss territory.'

Despite the beast's warning, it caused Vincent's blood to boil with the excitement it felt. Galian Beast became restless and more prominent in his skull. Vincent snapped his head to the side, gritting his teeth in an attempt to subdue the demon's great sense of thrill. Red XIII immediately became alert, his nose twitching greatly as his ears shot upright and turned towards Vincent.

“That smell, there it is again. It's much stronger this time...” Nanaki spoke more to himself in confusion. Before he could question the gunslinger who stood with his back turned to the group, the whole ground trembled.

“... What was that?” Tifa asked in alarm, digging her boots into the soil in an attempt to keep her balance. The ground almost seemed to shift under their feet as an enormous rumble left the earth quaking. Nanaki's retractable claws emerged from his paws and dug into the soil for purchase, while Vincent shoved one of the golden pointed toecaps of his boots into the dirt.

“How the f*** would I know!!” Barret crudely shouted back, stumbling from the tremors. “Keep it togetha! Hold your ground!” The gun-armed man's natural leadership abilities shone through, despite him never being designated as such. These were the crucial moments where Barret was not just a comrade who had your back, but a true born leader who kept everyone together. Another rumble yet again tore through the earth, but this time everyone was braced for the tremor with weapons at the ready. Another quake... then another. Finally, a shape emerged from behind the mountain. As it moved from the cover of the ridgeline, the full moon banished all shadows in a wash of silver light.

A horrible, violet eye turned on them, surrounded by a pelt of golden hue. Great, long horns stretched out from its skull, acute and deadly. It turned its mighty neck, palatinate mane lining its vertebrae and falling across its shoulder blades. The whole party looked up in shock, utterly stunned as they stood in the humongous beast's shadow. They barely reached up to the top of the monster's elbows. It moved a mighty paw towards them, causing the very earth to tremble as if in fear.

“K-King... Behemoth!?!!” Nanaki stammered out in stupor. “Weren't they only seen at the bottom of the Northern Crater!?” Tifa could only stand, mouth agape. She could barely think. Nanaki was right, King Behemoth's were extremely rare. The party had only ever seen them in the Northern Cave, three years ago when they descended into hell to confront Sephiroth.

“Let's sort tha' shit out later! Right now, WE GOT A BIGGER PROBLEM!!” Barret only narrowly dodged a grand swipe from the Behemoth's paw, the huge resulting gust of wind knocking him back from the dodged blow. “SHIT!! IT'S TOO POWERFUL!! Red! You got any Materia?!” Barret opened fire on the Behemoth, causing it to rear back and let out a staggering roar that seemed to shake the very mountain. Red XIII whimpered at the sheer volume of noise, ears held flat against his head. Tifa shoved her palms against her ears, pressing down hard. Vincent ducked his own head down with grit teeth, but not from the monster's roar.

'I am the true alpha. Thisss isss MY territory. Let me assssert dominanccccce.'

“I don't have any Materia with me! I donated it along with everyone else!” Red shouted back to Barret over rapid gunfire. The Behemoth did not seem fazed, instead whipping its long, barbed tail as it set its violet eyes on Tifa.

“Tif'! Move it!” Barret shouted, trying to gain its attention. “Hey, ugly! I'm tha one ya want!” The giant wolf-like monster paid him nor his bullets any mind. It approached Tifa, lifting up its powerful barbed tail and preparing to lash it down. She was frozen to the spot, legs unresponsive no matter how much she tried to run.

'Come ON! MOVE IT, LOCKHART!! MOVE!!!' The Behemoth's tail whipped down in a vicious strike, a sickening smack resounding as soil and earth was sent flying, obscuring the view.

“TIFA!!!” Red XIII and Barret screamed out. Soil rained down on them so heavy it felt like chunks of rock. A brief glimpse through the debris let them just make out a red cloak. Tifa had been thrown on the ground and out of harm's way, Vincent hovering over her with laboured breath. Tifa was stunned, like a deer in headlights. Everything sounded like it was underwater, like she was in her own fishbowl world. Vincent's words shattered the glass.

“Tifa... are you... alright?” His breathing was heavy as he leaned over her, his claw beside her head to support himself. She blinked and leaned up, watching him move to accommodate her.

“I should be asking you that.” Her voice held great concern as she watched him appear to struggle. Like he was trying to hide his difficulty with something, but couldn't quite manage to do so. He slowly stood up, staring back at the Behemoth which had grown agitated to have missed. Its tail whipped behind it furiously.

'What's wrong with him? I've never seen Vincent like this before...' Her thoughts along with Barret's and Red's cries of relief were drown out by the Behemoth's bellow, a roar which shook the ground. Vincent glared at the beast, moving to the side and pulling his gun from its holster. However, his hand faltered slightly, the barrel of the gun tilting towards the ground. This wasn't unnoticed by the fighter as she once more got to her feet, eyes concentrated on Vincent.

“Tif'!! You awright?!” Barret called from her left, his gatling gun locked onto the King Behemoth. Red stood by his side, his own tail whipping behind him and sending passionate embers into the night sky. “Stay focused girl!” Tifa nodded, glaring in anger at the Behemoth as it rounded on Vincent.

“I suggest we flee! We're not strong enough for this battle!” Red yelled out, canines bared at the monster and a growl rumbling from his throat. His nose twitched in agitation; the strange scent that had been coming from Vincent had been growing stronger and stronger.

“And where to?! I ain't leadin' that thing ta Kalm!! We got no choice! Unless we can tire it out so it can't follow us or defeat it, we don't exactly have a lotta options here!” Barret growled in agitation, pulling back his arm and firing his machine gun. “COME ON! How many bullets do you want from me!?!” The gun fired madly, flashing brightly as it unleashed round upon round into the beast. While the bullets lodged into its side and caused blood to spurt from each wound, the Behemoth was not deterred. It tucked in its head, readying to gore Vincent on its titanic horns. Vincent readied himself, raising his gun and taking aim, but an overwhelming surge of power ravaged his body and knocked him off-guard. Hunching over as if physically hit, he did everything in his power to hold on to his revolver.

'I am the alpha male. Let me challenggge it. Let me asssert dominancccce!'

Vincent shook his head, jamming his eyes shut in desperation as he almost ground his teeth together. Though it appeared he was ignoring the cries of his comrades, the truth was he could no longer hear them. The Behemoth began to charge, the ground trembling as it was trampled under the beast's mighty paws.

“VINCENT!!” Tifa cried out, sprinting towards him. She lunged, arms outstretched, knocking him to the ground just as the Behemoth swung its head, acute horns tearing a deep recess into the earth. It slowed down to a trot, turning around. On seeing that it had once again missed its mark, it let out a great roar of frustration. Its tail thrashed in fury as it turned again towards them. Tifa looked down at Vincent who was just getting to his knees, his breathing ragged. A painful feeling swelled in her chest at the sight of him; never before had she seen him in such a state. Her blood boiled and she stood up, fists clenched so tightly that she could feel her nails digging painfully into her palms. A scream ripped from her throat as she was overcome with emotion at the whole situation.

“AAAAAAAARRGHH!!” She charged in fury at the Behemoth which, caught completely by surprise, stopped its advance. Tifa's limit was broken. She unleashed a flurry of blows upon its raised paw, knocking it back with her Beat Rush. The huge beast stumbled in stupor as its paw was deflected hit after hit. Jumping up, Tifa then threw herself back and lashed out her foot in a deadly blow, delivering a powerful Somersault to the side of its face. It roared out as its neck was lashed to the side, stumbling back in surprise. Tifa landed safely in a crouch, breathing heavily. She still wasn't at her best, but it was certainly an improvement. It was all slowly coming back to her.

While the Behemoth was stunned she turned to Vincent. He was left crouching, cape rising up on the wind and blocking any of the party's view of him. His gauntlet was raised to his face, not entirely under his control as he screwed his eyes shut. His right hand began to shake as a primal rage ravaged his senses. He knew, then, that it was too late. Galian Beast tore through his mental barriers with one sweep of his razor-like claws and pushed to the surface with thrilling glee.

'Not here! NO...!' Suddenly, a snarl tore from his throat as he doubled over and began to convulse. His gauntlet was no longer his own as it ripped into the earth with excitement. As if in slow motion, his revolver fell from his grip, tumbling down and hitting the ground with a dull thump.

'Let. Me. Asssssert. DOMINANCCCCCCE-!!!'

Tifa stepped towards him in panic. Barret stood numb with shock. Red's ears shot up in surprise. Never before had any of them, ever, seen Vincent drop his gun. Nanaki's nose twitched rapidly as he looked over to Vincent. Horror slowly washed over his face, ears now held flat against his skull and a whimper unwilling rising from his throat. He bolted towards the fighter in fright.

“TIFA!! GET AWAY FROM HIM!” She staggered back in surprise, turning to Red as he shouted at her, dashing quickly to her side.

“We have to help him! I'm not leaving him there!” She was about to sprint over, but was pulled back by a mighty tug. Red gripped the corner of her black leather duster with his teeth, holding her back. She tried to move against him, pulling hard and was almost thrown forward as a huge rip resounded. Catching herself, she spun on her heel to confront the dog. “RED!! LET ME GO!! What's WRONG with you!?!” Nanaki stood with a piece of torn leather from the right end of her duster in his mouth, but the frightened look on his face quelled all of her anger. She grabbed the ripped piece of black fabric from his jaw and stuffed it into her front pocket; now was not the time to worry about it.

“You do not understand! It's not Vincent!!” Red spoke in frantic tones as Barret's gunfire hailed in the background. Tifa's brow furrowed in alarm as she looked back at the gunslinger. While they had been speaking, the Behemoth had recovered and was now standing over the man in question, paw raised and about to deliver a devastating blow. Tifa and Red were rooted to the spot in horror.

“ARE YOU GUYS FINISHED?! SHIT! VINCENT, MOVE YO F***IN' ASS !!” Barret attempted to distract the creature, but it was too late. Amongst the screams of the others, the paw was thrown down viciously upon Vincent.

In a flash of gold as quick as lightning, the paw was then completely deflected.

The team stood and stared in complete astonishment. Frozen, they watched as the Behemoth was sent lurching back. Even the beast appeared bewildered as it looked down at the ball of crimson beneath it. With a colossal roar seething in anger, it tried again, throwing all of its weight into its next blow. A great whoosh of air could be heard from the force as it plummeted down on Vincent Valentine.

This time, it was completely blocked as a golden gauntlet was thrown up against the humongous paw, stopping the devastating force dead in its tracks. The beast stared down in shock, an incomprehensible look on its face. The whole air seemed to change as terrible, golden eyes emerged to look over the appendage. Suddenly, the Behemoth's whole paw was lurched down; then in an act of strength simply not human, the entire Behemoth was violently hurled across the plain, slamming into the nearby mountain and causing the earth to quake. Barret slowly lowered his gun, jaw hung open in stupor. Tifa simply looked on, numb to the core. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled in terror as Vincent, or what used to be Vincent, stood to its full height and turned around. Nanaki stepped back whimpering, as if knowing whatever it was that hung thick in the air. The whole team were familiar with Vincent's transformations during their journey three years ago. But this...

Galian Beast stood at twice the height of Vincent, with twice as much muscle rippling under his shimmering indigo fur. Huge and wicked bestial horns ripped from his skull and curved inwards, devilish in appearance. His golden eyes pierced the darkness, smouldering as his long tail whipped restlessly behind him. The demon's mane was a bloodied crimson that bled to silver at the ends. Galian Beast raised his head to the moon and unleashed a howl from his mighty jaws, one which tore from his throat and set a grip of icy fear upon all who heard it. His massive canine teeth gleamed in the moonlight like rows of huge, broken razors. The King Behemoth unsteadily got back to its feet, roaring at the creature that had thrown it so effortlessly to the side. Blind with rage, the Behemoth charged straight for the demon.

Galian Beast turned to stare at the fast approaching creature, a thrilling look passing over his terrible features. Muscles tightened while awfully sharp claws tore into the earth. He tensed, golden gauntlet moving behind him for balance, before lunging forward and charging right back at the towering monster. The tattered red cape that hung around the demon's waist blew wildly behind him. The King Behemoth lurched its head, swinging its great horns, but Galian Beast was beyond swift and moved like a blur, easily avoiding being gored. He dug his golden plated paws into the soil, almost identical to the golden plating on Vincent's boots, before leaping up onto the Behemoth's face. His claws tore asunder flesh as they savagely dug in, blood bursting forth and spurting out wildly. The Behemoth bellowed in pain.

Galian Beast then reached out his wicked gauntlet and gripped at the maw of the monster. With brutal strength and force, he wrenched at the bone, completely breaking free the lower jaw in a sickening snap. A gush of blood exploded from the wound like a burst reservoir, the Behemoth's tongue lolling from the rupture. The demon seemed to revel in the red liquid as it spurted and covered his fur. The Behemoth's roars were more like screams, a guttural sound of mourning and suffering as it staggered and swayed to the side.

The demon then clambered up onto the Behemoth's neck, clamping vast canines the size of a whole forearm viciously into the fleshy jugular and snapping the spine with ease, causing another torrent of blood to gush forth. The Behemoth began to froth, a terrible and bright red, before finally collapsing under its own weight. The ground shook heavily as the lumbering monster fell. Galian Beast moved to stand triumphantly on its giant corpse as it bled out, his fur thick and dripping with fresh blood. He turned to the group, appearing to grin sickeningly as he bared his teeth at them, stained with life's crimson.

'I AM ALPHA. I AM KING.'

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter X – Healing Rain

 

Recesses crawling with darkness so potent that one could see it writhe and wisp... Thoughts were devoured here, obscured and lost in meaning... The feeling of eyes upon him... He could feel himself crawling in his own skin, repulsed and tormented by the sensation creeping under his flesh... A violent shift and suddenly, a single fleck of light... Vincent desperately grasped for it.

The ground slowly reappeared under his feet with an odour of blood so terrible and acrid that it almost caused him to retch. The pungent smell assaulted his nose as he wavered blindly, his vision blurred and bespattered with black. He grasped at something, anything, to gain his bearings. His right hand found something soft and, to his dismay, wet. As the black began to creep out of his vision he straightened up as best he could, swallowing down the bile that rose in his throat. His hand was soaked in blood.

He couldn't help but watch as the deep red liquid ran off his leather glove like a stream, dripping heavily from his fingers. A feeling of dread accompanied it. He focused to see what exactly his hand lay on and immediately wished he hadn't. Blood seeped from what had been the King Behemoth's ribcage, tattered flesh and matted gold fur pierced by its shattered ribs. He hastily withdrew his hand from one of the protruding bones, his mind blank as he tried to comprehend just what exactly he was looking at. Ribbons of emerald danced and twirled around the dead creature, flecks of green light rising into the night like fireflies. Vincent studied the rest of the beast and grimaced at what he saw, his lips set in a thin line as he furrowed his brow.

'Did I... truly do this?'

The Behemoth's mighty jowl lay next to its head, tendon and muscle still clinging to the hinges of bone. The force of its body crashing to earth had planted the upper jaw's teeth firmly into the soil. The spirit in its eyes had been broken, along with one of its huge curved horns. The wind blew past lazily, bringing a fierce chill to Vincent that made him realise his face was covered in wet blood. It was then he realised that his whole body was drenched in it, the stench overwhelming. A hiss erupted around the image of horrid, blood stained teeth in his skull, the sound wavering in glee.

'No. I did thissssss.'

Vincent bristled, glaring as he forcefully pushed Galian Beast from his mind. The huge werewolf-like creature simply snapped his jaw in satisfaction, licking his canines as he sauntered back within the gunslinger's head. When his presence had fully receded, Vincent's glare softened to a look of dismay. His crimson eyes moved down to his golden gauntlet as he raised it, palm upwards. Blood stained the metal as it ran off the surface, the wet trails left behind beginning to crust over in a dark, murky red. One could barely tell the original colour of the wicked appendage, unless they were familiar with it.

He could see the others out of his peripheral and he took time to check that they were unharmed. While he was relieved that they were well, he simply couldn't bear to look at them. Instead, he watched the mighty soul of the Behemoth be claimed by the Planet; its huge essence taken away by the sparkling malachite-green wisps of energy. It was a beautiful sight to a danse macabre.

The flesh slowly melted away from the monster's bones, all of the blood running off to pool at the base of the creature's final resting place. In a way, even the blood returned to the Planet, the soil soaking up the red liquid like a thirsty plant. Suddenly, an incredible force hit Vincent like a punch to the stomach, forcing him to double over and drop to one knee. Noises erupted in his head like squealing amongst leeches, skin writhing in discomfort. He only vaguely recognised someone calling his name as his body was racked with pain, a vicious and alien pulling sensation that tore from within and caused him alarm. A tremendous power bore down upon him, a pressure so huge that it felt like his skull was being crushed.

'NO. I WILL NEVER BEND!'

Chaos' malicious and broken voice boomed and rattled his braincase, while Vincent could feel the demon twist and turn inside. This simple action caused Vincent to shudder involuntary from the sheer power Chaos exuberated, the sudden urge to vomit overwhelming. Paralyzed, Vincent could do nothing but endure whatever it was that seized hold. Hot liquid rose to the surface and reached his mouth, but he forcefully swallowed it back down. The intense taste of copper met his tongue and it was then he realised he had swallowed down nothing but blood. Chaos turned once more, causing Vincent to be lurched down further to the ground against his will. Finally, after what felt like minutes, the pulling abated and Chaos withdrew back into the depths of the gunslinger's psyche, dangerously irritated.

The enormous pressure was lifted from Vincent and he gasped for air, only now realising that he had been suffocating. The sudden intake of oxygen made the bitter taste of copper catch the back of his throat, causing him to cough hard and grit his teeth. The pain had felt like nothing he'd ever experienced before; it rattled through him as if shooting through his very bones.

' …! What was that?' Vincent thought in alarm, truly vexed. 'Chaos' words... I have never known him to speak or act in such a manner. My control is slipping faster than I anticipated... and I... I am powerless.'

The thought caused frustration to bubble and boil under the surface, his claw flexing irritably; Vincent wasn't entirely sure if it was by his own doing or his demons. Suddenly, he felt a small hand rest gingerly on his shoulder, causing his muscles to rapidly tense in response. He purposely shrugged it off as he shakily rose once more to his feet, feeling the owner flinch away. When the hand returned to gently hold the elbow just above his gauntlet, he turned his eyes to meet concerned russet hues. The fear they held was not lost on him.

“Tifa...” Barret warned from behind her. The gunslinger didn't have to look to know that the dark-skinned man had his gatling gun pointed at him. Vincent held her gaze for a mere second before quickly averting his eyes. To Tifa, it was in a way that almost appeared ashamed. He removed his elbow from her hand, turning away to focus on the King Behemoth's remains and causing Tifa's brow to furrow, perplexed. She watched as blood ran down his face, disappearing behind his cowl to drip from his chin. Ignoring the red fluid that now covered her from reaching out to him, the fighter opened her mouth to speak.

“Did you assist in this?” She blinked, taken aback by Vincent's sudden question. She followed his gaze to the skeletal remains of the Behemoth, its huge bone structure now all that was left to show of the events which had transpired that night. She paused uncomfortably, knowing that he actually addressed the whole group.

Nanaki cautiously spoke up.

“... In what way do you mean, Vincent?” The gunslinger suddenly spun to face them, his glowing eyes burning. Barret thrust his gun forward ready to shoot as Tifa stepped back in a flash with raised fists; even Nanaki tensed, flame-tail whipping behind him, prepared to strike.

“Did you assist in killing the King Behemoth?” Vincent bit out curtly. The wind picked up and blew more strongly across the field, as if feeling the tension in the air. Vincent's cape swept and rose with the currents, blood dripping from the ends of the soiled fabric while Nanaki's tassels jingled and danced. The sound of leather crunching together joined the chime as Tifa balled her fists. Barret's strong voice broke the silence like hammer to glass.

“We 'assisted' by distractin' it. Tha's all.” Barret stared down Vincent with a hard gaze, accompanied by the scowl on his face.

“... I see.” Vincent already knew the answer; he simply didn't wish to acknowledge it. A monster which once took three of them at full strength to bring down, was now brought down single-handedly by himself. Or more specifically, a demon that had grown far too powerful and far beyond his control. He stared blankly at the scene of death created by his own hands, taking some of it into his own being. A numbing sensation smothered any emotion he had left.

He turned his back on his comrades.

Tifa slowly lowered her fists, before trying to reach out to him once more.

“Vincent-”

“Leave me.”

She froze, hand outstretched, before lowering it. She knew there was no use in arguing. She took a step towards him despite knowing better, the want to console him too overwhelming.

“Tifa.” She turned towards Red who had spoken, watching as he shook his head, spiked mane swaying in the cold night air. She paused, indecisive, before nodding in surrender. Turning back, she walked towards the others, her drooped shoulders the only outward sign of her own felt defeat. Whirring broke the tense air as Barret changed his gun-arm back to its prosthetic form. His face was set in a grim fashion and when he spoke, it was in a fatigued rumble.

“Come on. We're late.” With that, Barret trudged away, wiping a hand over his face; his mind no doubt trying to catch up with everything it had witnessed that night. Red watched him for a moment before following, slinking away and taking the light of his tail with him, inky blackness beginning to creep back and claim the grassland once more. As the lion-like dog moved on, his remaining embers caused a glimmer to shine from between the grass blades. The light caught Tifa's eye and she looked towards it in curiosity.

It was Vincent's gun.

She stepped towards it softly, pensive. The triple-barrelled revolver lay innocently on the ground, blood spattered all over the muzzle and giving the ornate engraving of the three-headed dog a gruesome suggestion. The silver-chained pendant that hung from the grip shimmered in a pool of wet blood, the crimson liquid settling in the grooves like a grisly series of red rivulets. Tifa realised that this was the first time she had really gotten to see Vincent's gun up close, and subsequently, that she did not recognise it.

Bending down, she reached for the grip and picked up the deadly weapon, ignoring the blood now running from her gloved hand. It was heavier than she thought. From past experience of watching Vincent wield his guns, one was given the impression that they were as light as air. She brought up her left hand and gently held the underside of the barrel, holding it securely as she examined it further. She had to admit, while she never cared much for weapons in general, (always preferring to rely on her fists;) it was a beautiful gun. Rather Gothic and haunting in design, but nevertheless, beautiful.

She looked over her shoulder to the cloaked figure standing behind her, exuding an air of forceful seclusion. Resolute, she turned on her heel and strode over to Vincent. However, she became slower and more hesitant the closer she approached. Eventually she stopped dead, six feet away from him.

“Vincent...?” Tifa tried out, a gentle pry. No response. “... Here's your gun.” She placed it down at her feet with great care, blood running over her knuckles as she did so. The wind blew gently, waving her chocolate coloured hair with it. “I won't intrude on you anymore. You know where to find us. … We'll be waiting for you.” With her piece said, Tifa turned away for the last time. Steadily walking on, she followed the glow of Red's tail in the distance and eventually caught up with the pair. They travelled in silence all the way back to Kalm, no doubt lost in their own thoughts and feelings. Tifa was not alone in this – yet only she knew the feeling of melancholy that settled in her heart.

 

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The innkeeper jumped up in his chair, startled as the front door was suddenly thrown open. Three familiar faces trudged in wearily, and it took a moment for the man to realise that it was some of the group that had checked in a few hours ago, (at least, judging by the clock on the wall.) A look of confusion passed over his face, before horrible realisation dawned upon him.

“You didn't go out of town at THIS hour, did you?!” he blurted out. The three turned to look at him with a start, as if they didn't even realise he had woken up. The young woman was the first to speak up.

“Why? Is there something wrong?” she asked in an innocent manner, but he could tell by the tone of her voice that she seemed to know more than she let on.

“Yes there is, young lady! Terrible monsters have been known to come out this late. Not like normal ones either, not like before. I'm talking powerful.” This easily caught the interest of the group, given they now all regarded him with an advertence that was almost palpable. He continued. “Now, this mining town ain't a stranger to monsters, we've had to fight them off before to get to the mines. Mainly Kalm Fangs, while avoiding the odd Midgar Zolom. But a few months ago, there's been strange sightings...” he crossed his arms.

“Strange sightin's? Like what?” The largest member of the group asked suspiciously, taking a step closer him. The innkeeper steadily met the gun-armed man's gaze.

“Huge creatures, powerful beyond what we're used to dealing with. A few weeks ago, I heard someone talk about the sighting of a beast as tall as a mountain!”

'That may have been the King Behemoth that we just encountered,' Red thought quietly to himself. He looked up to the kind man with a sharp feline eye.

“I thought the mining operation in this town stopped because of the Midgar Zoloms?” The fire-dog enquired, a rather puzzled expression on his face. The innkeeper nodded.

“It did, but After Crisis they started to decline in number. We decided to try opening the mines again shortly after, and they haven't been giving us any bother. As long as we don't get too close to their territory, of course. The past few years have been great, the town's never been better. But now... any time after dark, really powerful monsters have been appearing. It's too dangerous to go out anymore. There's been rumours that they've come from the north.” Here, the group shared a look between each other. There was no doubt that they all thought the same thing. The Northern Crater. “Anyway, I don't hold much to gossip. I prefer facts, you know?”

“Yeah, I hear ya. Thanks, we'll keep all that in mind.” The large and bulky man wasted no more time in climbing the stairs to their room, the young woman following closely behind. The red-coated dog nodded politely to the innkeeper in thanks before climbing the stairs himself. The young man scratched the back of his neck while yawning, thinking on the odd group that had decided to stay with him that evening. It was too much to ponder on for such a late night, and he instead decided to retire as well, moving into the back room towards his own bed.

As soon as Barret reached the top of the stairs, a frantic and hushed voice rushed to meet him.

“Where've yer been? Av'e been worried sick!” Cait Sith jumped down from the windowsill and rushed over to the ex-AVALANCHE leader, dancing about his feet with worry. “Been lookin' out that windae fer what feels like hoors! It's past midnight!” The little robot's fretting was completely ignored as Barret tiredly made his way over to Marlene's bed, his feet booming down upon the floorboards. As Tifa and Nanaki appeared on top of the landing, Cait Sith ran over to them. “Wha's chewin' at him?” Tifa moved straight past the cat as if in a trance, shuffling over to the window and staring out through the glass. She watched as small drops of water began to hit the pane. It had started to rain. “... Where's Vincent?” Cait Sith suddenly sounded afraid.

“Do not worry,” Nanaki spoke softly. “He's going to catch up with us.” The fire-dog nuzzled under Cait Sith in such a way that he was lifted up onto his muzzle, before Nanaki raised his head and sent the little cat sliding down into his bushy mane. “I apologise for us being late. It's been... an eventful evening.” As Red comforted the robot and discussed the Kalm Fangs they had dispatched, Tifa continued to watch the rain hit the window. It fell heavier now, the pitter-patter against the glass a rather comforting distraction. She almost jumped when a heavy hand fell upon her shoulder.

“Hey,” Barret said wearily, his tone soft. “Me an' Red were talking earlier on the way back, decided to keep what happened between ourselves. You alright with that?”

“... I guess so.” Tifa turned around to face her old friend, her russet eyes meeting his own of deep brown. “I'm worried about him, Barret,” she admitted. Barret just sighed in response, running a hand over his cornrow styled hair. It was rare indeed for Tifa to speak of her feelings, so he knew it must be affecting her greatly for her to give voice to it.

“Right now, I'm more worried 'bout us.” Tifa blinked at Barret's own admittance. “Look,” here, Barret lowered his voice to a tone that gave him a husky rumble. “You saw that thing. We've seen Vince transform before but... that thing was huge. Twice tha' damn size of him normally. That grin it gave us... I can't geddit outta ma head.”

On Barret's mention, neither could she. Enormous teeth, the size of her arm. Stained and dripping with blood, its eyes burning a disgusting yellow... but what really shook her was how much the beast looked just like him. From Vincent's left gauntlet replacing its left arm to the golden plating on its feet, the tattered crimson cape that hung around its waist... never before had any of them seen this variant of his demons.

“He's dangerous, Tif,” Barret continued. “And man, I'm jes' lookin' out for Marlene, ya know? An' all of us. So... I think it's best if we just keep this between ourselves fer now, an' keep a close eye out. That is, if he comes back.” Tifa nodded, not outwardly showing the painful stab she felt at Barret's words. It hurt to admit, but he had a point. Maybe... maybe Vincent wouldn't come back this time. “Come on girl,” Barret finished, “let's get some shuteye.” He gently lead her towards the beds while the light patter of rain echoed all around the room.

 

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Tifa stirred, blinking her bleary eyes. A downpour of rain met her ears, along with Barret's heavy snoring. She gently rubbed sleep from her lashes, turning over to face towards the wall and readjusting herself under the soft duvet. She nestled her head back into the downy pillows with every intention of going back to sleep, when something caught her eye as she adjusted to the darkness. Dim, bluish light spilled from the window and on to something on the floor, casting a reflection that took Tifa a moment to recognise what it was.

Water droplets.

She blinked, this time in confusion as her brain sluggishly came awake.

She slowly rose up on her elbows, staring at the innocent little drops of rain on the floor. They made a trail. Moving the duvet from her person, she peered around the room. She could make out the glow of Red's tail from the bottom of the stairs, no doubt where he decided to rest for the night. (The fire-dog preferred to stay away from the rest of the group as they slept, out of courtesy, as he believed the light from his tail kept them awake.) Barret could be heard more than seen, deeply snoring in a way that made Tifa think of a grizzly bear. Denzel and Marlene still slept soundly, judging by their silhouettes gently rising and falling on the beds next to her. It was then that she noticed the outline against the window, the shadow causing her breath to catch in her throat.

It was Vincent.

The gunslinger rested on the windowsill with his back against the framework, left leg propped up with his gauntlet draped across the knee. She could just make out water droplets dripping from the golden appendage and also his tattered cape, the sound joining the rhythm of rain outside. His face was turned towards the pane, as if watching the raindrops dance against the glass. Tifa quietly got out of bed, never moving her eyes off him as she crept her way over to where he reclined.

“You came back,” she whispered as she moved to stand behind him. Vincent gave no indication that he had heard her, remaining as still as ever. She frowned, watching water run and drip down his face and ebony hair. He was no longer covered in blood, the rain clearly having washed it away. However, he appeared soaked to the bone and it concerned Tifa. She had no idea how long he had been out in the heavy rainfall. It was then that she noticed a different kind of liquid ooze from his left arm.

Blood.

A series of deep, angry gashes ran down his bicep, located just under his cloak and above his gauntlet. The red liquid was viscous, flowing slowly from the wound and falling to the floor in steady drops. Tifa tried to catch his eye with her own filled with worry, but the man simply continued to stare out of the window. She rummaged in her front duster pocket, pulling out the Cure Materia contained within and holding it towards his arm. The bauble shimmered and chimed softly with green light, before emerald wisps drifted from the orb and began to knit the gashed flesh back together. Vincent's muscle flinched slightly in response, but he himself did not move.

Tifa concentrated on the wound, puzzling over how he had received it in the first place. He didn't appear injured when they had left him; unless of course, he was ambushed on the way back. However, she knew Vincent to be excessively careful and couldn't quite bring herself to believe that he would have been caught off-guard. Unless...

“I hope you picked up your gun,” she whispered to him. She began to feel dismayed when Vincent, yet again, did not respond to her; completely steadfast. She was beginning to grow increasingly worried, yet she also understood his strange behaviour to an extent. What had happened... it confounded and scared them all. But she could only imagine how Vincent himself must feel...

She swallowed uneasily, focusing her attention on healing his wound. The gunslinger gazed intently at the raindrops running rapidly down the glass, his red eyes glowing in the dark alongside the glittering Materia.

What Tifa didn't know was that Vincent had indeed been attacked by a group of Kalm Fangs while he had wandered in the downpour, but he had let them attack and subsequently ravage his arm. He did not have the will to fight, and instead scared them away with a single gunshot from his revolver. The gun rested safely in its holster strapped to his right leg, hidden from Tifa's view as she concentrated on healing the deep gash made by the Kalm Fang's claws.

“... I'm not scared of you, Vincent.”

This finally gained a reaction from him, his gaze slowly moving from the glass to meet her own. She stared back at him, worry written all over her features.

“I'm scared for you.” Vincent blinked slowly, as if dazed, inwardly surprised at her honest whisper. As she returned her attention to the magical orb that mended his wound, a warm feeling wrapped and spread around his arm, easing the sharp pain and bestowing him relief. He moved his gaze to join Tifa's in watching the glimmering tendrils of magic, discreetly leaning further back into the wooden framework as the painful tension finally left his aching muscles. The two of them remained in silence, watching the Cure Materia work and glow gently in the dark to the sound of heavy rain.

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter XI – Doughnuts and Bagels

 

A strong feeling of heat greeted her eyelids, a bright light washing over her vision underneath. Eyelashes fluttered before Tifa eventually cracked open one eye, immediately regretting it as she recoiled from the intense glare. Groaning, she raised her head from the pillow and turned over, lifting the feathered case up and clamping it over her head. Her arms cradled around the makeshift retreat while thoughts groggily passed by, her mind swimming in and out of lethargy. For some reason, Cloud's voice, unbidden, spoke gently within her head.

'Come on, let's go while the sky's smiling.' That was what he used to say to the children, whenever the sun was at its brightest. He'd happily lead them outside to play, while she would grin and wave to them from inside the bar. The memory brought a smile to her face, however, it was anything but happy. It held a tremendous sense of loss, her heart stabbed with the pain of days gone by. Days that were certainly looking like they would never come again.

Tifa gloomily sank her head further into the pillow as much as she possibly could, as if doing so would protect her from the world... or her thoughts – or indeed, her feelings. Her resolution from yesterday evening was already wavering. It seemed so easy then. A brilliant sunset to see her off on her no doubt long journey; her closest friends accompanying her on this quest of good cause, walking by her side in high spirits. However, she knew she could not lie to herself.

She missed him.

Peeking a weary eye out from her fluffy makeshift fortress, she scanned the inn room only to find she was alone.

'How long have I been sleeping?' The thought caused her to emerge from under the pillow and, with great reluctance, push away the warm duvet. It was then, as she sat up in bed, that she suddenly realised she couldn't even remember falling asleep to begin with. Events from the night past rushed into her head and she sharply moved her gaze to the window. Brilliant sunlight filtered through the glass, allowing her to see tiny meandering flecks of dust. Finding nothing out of place on the windowsill, she turned her gaze to the floor and began looking for little red droplets that should be stained into the wood. She found nothing.

'Was it a dream...?'

Uncertainty crossed her features as she sat and contemplated in the empty room. 'It seemed so real... although, if I don't remember falling asleep, maybe I never woke up to find Vincent in the first place.' It was a little too heady a thought for Tifa having just woken up, and rather farfetched to boot. She decided to change her route of reasoning. 'Or maybe I fell asleep and... someone put me to bed.' The sudden image of Vincent carrying her to bed caused her to simper in embarrassment, while humour bubbled up from within her. 'Yeah, right! It was probably Barret.

The smell of something wonderful greeted her nose before she heard the little feet against wooden stairs. Turning towards the landing, she watched as Denzel just reached the top. On seeing her sitting up and awake, he treated her to a rare smile and quickly dashed to her side. He carefully carried a brown paper bag, the smell that wafted from it simply divine. Tifa's stomach growled.

“Hey,” she croaked out, voice still laden with sleep. “What have you got there? It smells wonderful.” She reached out and gently combed her fingers through the boy's locks, causing him to shuffle his feet awkwardly.

“Barret took us to the bakery. Me and Marlene had doughnuts.” Tifa grimaced. Normally she would encourage them to have something more healthy, especially on a morning. However, while Barret was stern outwardly, he was an absolute softie when it came to kids. This resulted in them 'getting away with chocolate,' as Reeve would laughingly say.

“Do you not feel sick after having that for breakfast?” she asked. Denzel blinked back at her.

“It's not breakfast...” Tifa's eyebrows rose quizzically at his answer. She knew she had slept in, but no inkling for how long. Before she could ask, Denzel answered for her. “It's afternoon.” He stumbled back on one of his undone shoelaces, clutching the little brown bag as Tifa jumped to her feet, silently scolding herself.

'I'm meant to look after Denzel and Marlene, not sleep in and leave someone else to take care of them. How irresponsible!' Her mental lecture was interrupted when Denzel held up the paper bag at arm's length; a simple offering.

“It's okay,” he said. “We brought something back for you.” Tifa blinked, stunned, before giving him a small and rather sad smile. It occurred to her that Denzel thought she jumped up at missing breakfast, rather than the true reason of shame for not looking after him and Marlene. His innocence warmed her heart.

“It's not a doughnut, is it?” Her hesitant question caused the messy-haired boy to grin back at her rather cheekily.

“Maybe.” Tifa resisted the urge to groan, before carefully reaching into the brown bag and pulling out the pleasantly warm ring-shaped object from within. The delicious fragrance intensified as the sweet good emerged from its papered concealment. Tifa was pleasantly surprised to find herself holding a sliced bagel with a generous spread of cream cheese on top. “Barret said you'd like that instead,” Denzel explained when Tifa shot him an amused look. “You do, don't you?”

“Of course I do! Thank you.” She wasted no time in taking a bite out of the glazed doughy roll, humming out her satisfaction. It was truly delicious. Denzel watched her with a thoughtful expression, remaining silent as she enjoyably worked her way through the treat. As she chewed her last bite, he suddenly spoke up.

“Are you sad?”

Tifa paused mid-chew.

Denzel shyly looked down at his feet, holding the paper bag closer as he scuffed his sneakers against the wooden floor. “Just that, you seem sad.” Tifa swallowed down the last morsel of her food and gave the orphan her full attention.

“I'm fine, Denzel. Don't worry about me.” She gave him a reassuring smile, but internally she was surprised at the boy's intuition. Her heart ached over Cloud, as much as she hated to admit. But if she didn't admit it, she would be lying to herself. And overall, Tifa had learnt through hardship that lying to oneself was even worse than heartbreak. She resolved to try and hide her feelings more around the children; they didn't deserve her sorrow. “Come on,” she changed the subject, “how about I meet you downstairs after I get ready. Does that sound good?”

“Yeah, okay.” Denzel moved towards the stairs.

“Hey, hold on.” The young boy stopped at Tifa's sudden voice, turning back with a puzzled look. She'd noticed that the bag in his hands didn't seem to be empty, which caught her curiosity. “Is there something else in there?” He looked down at the paper sack Tifa gestured to before uneasily nodding his head.

“Y-yeah...” he muttered with guilt, which Tifa immediately caught on to. She tilted her head slightly to the side and placed her hands on her hips.

“Denzel,” she began gently, but the chiding tone was unmistakable. “You didn't steal anything, did you?” At this the boy's eyes widened.

“N-no!” While too quick to defend himself, Tifa could tell that he was being truthful. When Cloud first brought Denzel home and into their care on that fateful evening, June twenty-ninth, one year ago, it took a long time to teach him that stealing was wrong. For many nights he would sneak in, having stole something from the surrounding area. As an orphan of the slums, it was simply a way of life. From apples to bread, chocolate, comic books and even at one point, a radio.

Cloud had complained of lack of music on the road, leading to a portable radio being 'mysteriously' left on his desk a few days later. Despite him having a good clue who left it, he didn't bother to chase the matter and instead told Tifa, 'Hey, it's such a great model... waste not, want not, right?' After a lot of what Cloud would call 'debate' and Tifa 'argument', she grudgingly agreed, but only after he promised it would be the one thing he would keep and to reprimand Denzel in future. (Part of the argument was that it was a Shinra issued model and it wasn't like they were going to miss it.)

“... Alright, I believe you,” Tifa calmed the boy. “So what's the matter? I promise I won't get angry.”

“It's not that...” Denzel shook his head. “It's just... Barret didn't want me to get another bagel. So I waited until he wasn't looking and bought another one with my own money. Please don't tell him.” Tifa furrowed her brow, confused. She had known Barret long enough to understand that this seemed rather irrational for the man. She knew she was missing something.

“Don't worry, I promise not to tell. But only if you explain to me why he didn't want you buying any more.” Denzel nodded, eased by the woman's reassurance, and shuffled back towards Tifa in the manner of a scolded child.

“Okay. I just... told him I wanted to get something for Vincent.” Ah. There it was. Now Tifa understood. “I asked Barret but he said to leave it... I don't know why.”

“I see.” Tifa paused in thought, holding her chin before flashing Denzel a smile. “How about you go find Vincent and give him that bagel before it gets cold. Don't worry about Barret, I won't tell him.” She walked closer to the boy then dropped to one knee so she was at his eyelevel. “But before you go...” Tifa reached down and picked up the stray shoelace on his right sneaker, tying it neatly while ignoring his weak protests.

“Tifa! I can do it myself...”

“Then why don't you?” His responding mumble caused her to smile greatly. “Also, I want you to take this.” She pushed aside her duster, reaching into the back pocket of her knee-length black shorts and pulling out a handful of coin. She glanced over the amount before pressing it into the boy's hand. Denzel looked over the Gil, his eyes widening. “This should cover for the bagel,” she explained.

“B-but it didn't cost this much... there's one hundred Gil here.”

“I know.” He looked up at her with wide eyes, but she simply smiled back in amusement. “Go on, before it gets cold.” Denzel's eyes seemed to light up with a sense of duty, and he nodded before running off downstairs to locate a certain crimson cloaked man. She watched him hurriedly embark on his quest, her smile fading only after he'd disappeared. A sense of guilt washed over her.

'I'm not even sure if Vincent really did come back... I hope he's alright. Please find him, Denzel.' She stood in silence for a moment longer before turning towards the bathroom, eager to clean herself up. (Not to mention her heart.) After brushing her teeth, taming the beast that was her hair and splashing her face with cool water, Tifa felt refreshed enough, physically and mentally, to seek out the others. As she finally descended the stairs, voices floated up to meet her. Or rather, singing.

“Ooo, what a bonnie moooornin'~! Ooo, what a bonnie day~!”

“That's 'beautiful,' don't sing if yer gonna change the words. An' it's noon, not mornin'!” Barret's voice boomed at the cat puppet.

“Yer spoilin' all mah fun... ahem! Tha sun'll come oot, taemorrow~”

“Wrong again! It's already out!”

Red XIII turned and nodded in greeting as Tifa reached the bottom of the landing, while the two comrades began to bicker in the background.

“Afternoon. Did you sleep soundly?” Nanaki asked, beginning to scratch behind his ear with his rear pastern. The beautiful golden bracelet that adorned it jingled from the action.

I did, like a log. A sedated log.” The fire-dog grinned in amusement at her words. “In fact, I'm pretty sure I'm still drugged,” here, Nanaki looked up to her with interest as Tifa continued. “Not only did I have the most vivid dream, or at least... I think I did... there, you see? Proves my point. But now I'm greeted with, well... this.” She gestured towards the scene unfolding in front of her, Cait Sith having now branded his Megaphone (named Marvelous Cheer) and yelling songs from the top of his voice to a very angry and flustered Barret. Nanaki hummed in thought.

“If your dream was so vivid, perhaps it wasn't a dream. Then again, perhaps it was neither.” Enthralled by the mystery of his words, Tifa turned her full attention towards the wise lion-like creature. “Maybe it was a vision, a premonition of things to come. Or your soul trying to tell you something.”

“My soul?” Tifa cocked her head to the side slightly.

Nanaki nodded, his spiked mane swaying. “Indeed. All living things have a soul. A spirit. The teachings of Cosmo Canyon express the importance of listening to one's inner-self. Dreams can be a way for your soul to reach out to you, so it is important that you take notice of them.” Tifa's brows furrowed into a deeply pensive look while she turned over Red's words carefully. “May I ask what it was about?” His sudden question made her eyes snap to his lone ochre coloured one.

“Ah well- err...” she fumbled over where to begin, but Nanaki simply nodded in understanding.

“Don't worry, you don't have to tell me. I am sure you will find your answer in time.” He stood to all fours, fur lightly ruffled. “Now then, I believe I should interfere in the bickering of this...” he stared at the red face of Barret and frantic gestures of Cait Sith. “... 'Happy couple.'” Tifa grinned as she watched Red XIII pad into the fray. She had to admit, they did fight like a pair of old married folk and she had to bite back a laugh.

“Tifa!” On hearing her name she turned towards the door to catch Marlene running excitedly towards her. “You're awake!” At his daughter's call, Barret turned around in surprise, as if he just noticed the fighter standing behind him.

“Hey girl, finally awake huh?” Tifa scratched the back of her neck in slight embarrassment. A small tug on the leg of her shorts caused her to look down. Marlene looked up at her with soft brown eyes.

“What happened to your duster?” Blinking in surprise, Tifa glanced down at the aforementioned garment to find that the right end had been torn off.

'That's right... Nanaki ripped it while stopping me from reaching Vincent last night.' The thought caused worry to stab at her chest; she really was concerned about him. She decided to follow Denzel in looking for him after she had questioned the others regarding the man's whereabouts.

“It must have got caught on something. Don't worry, I can fix it up later.” Tifa and Red shared a look between each other as Marlene nodded, accepting the rather vague answer from the fighter. She ran over to Cait Sith just as the innkeeper walked through the door behind the reception desk. He stopped, momentarily surprised, before regaining his composure.

“Oh, leaving already?”

“Pretty much, jes' need to pack our things,” Barret nodded, pleased. “Thanks fer the room.”

“Anytime! You lot are always welcome. I must say, you've certainly livened up the place. I could hear you all the way from the back room!” Barret scratched the back of his huge neck, the action alone showing his apology.

“Sorry aboot that!” Cait Sith spoke up from one of the wooden tabletops.

“Hey, no problem,” the innkeeper grinned. “Just sign out on the ledger when you're ready to go. Be careful in your travels and remember not to go out after dark. Especially since you've got kids.” They all thanked the kind young man for his hospitality before he returned through the door he'd entered from.

“Well, better start packin' an' get this show on the road. Come on, Marlene.” Barret began to climb the stairs to their room, his adopted daughter following closely behind with Cait Sith in her arms. As Red went to follow, Tifa's hand on his spiky auburn mane stopped him. He looked up at her quizzically.

“Nanaki,” Tifa began in a subdued tone. “Do you know if Vincent came back?” The fire-dog's lone eye moved back and forth between her own russet ones as he contemplated his answer.

“... Not that I'm aware of.” Tifa simply nodded; she had nothing else to say. Nanaki was about to continue up the stairs but paused, turning to Tifa once more. “If you by any chance wonder where Denzel is, I saw him run outside not too long ago.”

“Thanks, Nanaki, I'll go look for him now. Can you tell Barret that we'll meet him outside when he's finished?”

“Of course,” the fire-dog nodded, “though he may be less than pleased to find he has more than his own packing to do.”

Tifa grinned, feeling mischievous. “If he makes a fuss, tell him I'll make it up to him.” Nanaki grinned his own feline grin then disappeared up the stairs, his tassels making a melodious chime as he went. Tifa watched him for a moment, before turning around and making her way to the front door. Gently pushing it open, she wasn't at all prepared for the brilliant light that greeted her. Momentarily blinded, she quickly raised her hand up to shield her eyes. When they had finally adjusted, she couldn't help but stare.

'Wow... You would never have guessed that it rained last night.' Tifa looked up in awe at the sky; a most wondrous shade of blue that stretched out for what seemed like forever. She felt like she was looking through a crystal lens, tinted of pure cobalt. A few scattered clouds whimsically strolled by, and she felt inclined to follow them. 'Perhaps they know the way Denzel went.' Amused by her own thoughts, and quite aware of how ridiculous it sounded, she decided to go through with it anyway. 'It's not like I have any other leads.' As they lazily ambled north, so did she.

All kinds of people littered the streets, no doubt basking in the glorious weather. Tifa kept a sharp eye out for the young orphan boy, carefully peering down passages and looking into darkened corners. Merry chatter surrounded her as she weaved between the bodies of people. A sudden tug on the back of her duster made her spin around quickly. Denzel looked up at her with a frown.

“Denzel! I'm glad I found you, we'll be leaving soon.” The boy remained quiet, staring down at the bag he still clutched in his hand from earlier. “... I take it you didn't find Vincent.” She couldn't hide the disappointment from her voice and neither could Denzel from his features. He shook his head rather sharply and Tifa could tell immediately that he was upset. She lowered herself down to one knee and reached out, circling her arm around his shoulders and pulling him towards her. “Come here... it's okay.” Her chest stabbed with pain when she began to feel Denzel's shoulders jump slightly. He was crying.

Back in Seventh Heaven, late at night, muffled sobs could sometimes be heard from the children's room. Tifa knew them to be Denzel's, and it pained her greatly to know that the boy occasionally cried at night. However, Denzel tried his hardest to hide his sorrow, and so did she. She understood that and never interfered, leaving him to cry softly to himself. She thought that if she did address the matter, it would embarrass him and wound his pride, such was Denzel's nature. The next morning, if she knew that he had been crying the night before, she would always make a special effort to cheer him up. A trip outside for some ice cream always seemed to do the trick. However, this was the first time she had known Denzel to cry in front of her.

“Don't worry,” she hushed, gently rubbing his back. “I'm sure he's around here somewhere.” Tifa struggled to hide the hurt and uncertainty in her voice. “Vincent did this all the time when we travelled with him. I'm sure he'll turn up.” At least that was certainly true. The gunslinger was known, notorious in fact, for disappearing at great lengths at a time; especially at night. However, he'd never had an 'episode' (as the others had grown to call it) like the one the night before.

“Y-you're j-just saying that...” Denzel struggled out between hiccups, trying his hardest to hide his tears. His voice was strained but otherwise, Tifa thought he was doing an admirable job.

“I'm not, Denzel.” She held his left shoulder and lightly gripped his chin. “Look at me and tell me that I'm lying.” The boy wiped his arm across his face hurriedly before looking up at Tifa with red eyes. He studied her face intently for a few seconds.

“... I believe you,” he finally managed, wiping his arm over his face once more. Tifa smiled sadly, gently ruffling his messy hazel locks. Apart from the redness in his eyes, you wouldn't have guessed he'd been crying. Tifa was proud of the boy's bravado, though she thought he tried too hard.

“Denzel,” she began gently. “Crying doesn't make you any less brave.” Denzel's eyes widened, like a deer caught in headlights. Despite his shock that Tifa had called him out on his short fit, he seemed to be listening so she continued. “In fact, afterwards, you'll find that it makes you stronger. If you ever need to cry, don't be afraid to. I'm always here if you want to talk, okay?” The boy appeared to think this over before nodding hesitantly, reaching out and squeezing Tifa's hand in another rare display of emotion.

“... Okay.” He smiled weakly and Tifa met it with her own.

“Come on, the others should have finished packing by now.” As she stood up, Denzel surprisingly still clung to her hand. She smiled down at him, secretly delighted that he hadn't let go. She gently curled her fingers to grasp his and lead him away from the bustling crowd of Kalm, back towards the direction of the inn. They spoke idly about the weather, and on Tifa mentioning that she followed the clouds to find him, helped bring a brilliant and rather silly grin to his face.

When they came in sight of the inn and the others waiting outside, Denzel sheepishly let go of her hand. Tifa smiled in amusement, knowing that he was still slightly embarrassed to outwardly show affection. As such, he reminded her of Cloud... and also in a way, Vincent. The former was certainly more awkward, while the latter was probably the most introverted person she had ever met on the Planet. The boy ran towards Marlene as she waved to him, holding on to her own designated adult; the adult in question being Barret.

“Hey Tif', thanks for leavin' me to pack all your stuff an' everything.” Barret's sarcastic greeting was met with a grin from the fighter.

“You're very much welcome! I always said you could be more gentlemanlike.” On hearing this, Barret let go of Marlene's hand and crossed his mighty arms.

“Wha's THA' supposed ta mean?!” Tifa simply held back a laugh, but it showed through the quake of her shoulders.

“Come on, noo,” Cait Sith chimed in from the top of Nanaki's head. “Enough bickerin' an' mair walkin'! We're oof ta Fort Condur!”

“What are we waiting for then?” Tifa grinned. “Let's go!” They all began moving towards the outskirts of town and towards the grasslands, and despite her outward enthusiasm she couldn't help but look back with a heavy heart. She sincerely hoped Vincent was alright, and that he really would catch up with them. Logically, she knew the chance of this happening was slim. The others seemed to have accepted that he wasn't coming back given what happened last night, so why couldn't she? Amidst the merry banter, Tifa dropped to the back of the group, dragging her heels. After a few minutes of walking, Barret's muttered disbelief cut through her thoughts.

“Well, I'll be damned...” She was about to scold him for swearing in front of the children, but as she looked up, a figure in the distance caused her to stop, stunned. A man in a red cloak leaned against the brickwork of one of the buildings with his arms crossed, the plains clearly visible behind him. As they moved closer, he leisurely uncrossed his arms and rose to his full height, turning towards them.

“Vincent!” Marlene called out in greeting, waving excitedly to him from next to her father. Denzel stopped, frozen to the spot next to Nanaki. A few seconds later and the spell was broken; the orphan bolted towards him. Red grinned, his wagging tail a dead giveaway to his feelings. As Tifa watched Denzel reach the gunslinger and offer up the brown bag he had been holding on to for so long, she broke out into a huge, relieved smile.

“'Boot time he caught up tae us!” Cait Sith said from the top of Red's head. Tifa couldn't have agreed more. When the party finally reached him, Vincent simply nodded in greeting. Tifa smiled back at him brilliantly, displaying the whites of her teeth. This took the gunslinger by surprise, but the only outward sign he gave was a blink of his crimson eyes.

“Come on, standin' 'ere won't get us thair any faster!” Impatiently, the cat puppet jumped up and down on Nanaki's head. The fire-dog nodded to Vincent as he passed by and Tifa felt like it was some sort of silent exchange, one that they both understood. She followed Red XIII, moving on past the gunslinger with Barret while gauging her old friend's reaction. The dark-skinned man gave nothing away. A thought occurred to her.

“Oh yeah, thanks for putting me to bed last night, Barret.” The great hulk of a man turned towards her, his brows furrowed questioningly.

“No problem, but I wouldn't say I put ya ta bed. More like lead ya to it, we were both pretty beat.” Tifa blinked, her own brows furrowing slightly, before realisation dawned upon her. She froze while Barret continued past her, none the wiser.

'Hold on, if Barret didn't- ... but... there's no one else who could have-'

“Come, lest you fall behind,” Vincent intoned coolly, passing her by with a brown paper bag in his right hand; Denzel happily following at his heels. Tifa watched her friends move on ahead in stupor. Shaking herself mentally, she followed after them. As she walked on, she watched Vincent's back and smiled to herself in disbelief.

'Well, I think I found my answer, Nanaki. Though I'm still not quite sure I believe it.'

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter XII – Warking On Our Way

 

Many things in life were a mystery and Tifa found that she liked it that way. Perhaps it was the romantic notion to it all that she secretly coveted. Were there other planets out there just like theirs, hidden amongst the glittering stars? Or how about the unsolved and unanswered mysteries that already surrounded them with each waking day? How exactly did the Planet create WEAPONS, the gigantic creatures that acted as guardians of this world? What were the Cetra really like, the mystical race of deeply spiritual people who lived millennia ago?

While these questions encompassed the Planet they lived on as a whole, it was also the most trivial of queries that Tifa found herself ensconced with. Questions like: just how exactly did Reeve control and manipulate Cait Sith? Is Cloud's hair naturally that spiky, or does he use hair gel? And one such question of this nature she was pondering right now... does Vincent Valentine eat?

Now Tifa knew that if she asked that question to anyone else they would probably laugh and say, 'Of course! Everyone has to eat!' As if it was the most simple question they had ever been asked in their life. Yet among her comrades and herself, it was one of the great mysteries of life. Even now, as their motley group made their way to the Chocobo Farm outside of Kalm, the bagel that Denzel had given Vincent earlier seemed to mysteriously disappear bit by bit. Tifa gave her best efforts to watch him inconspicuously, but this was Vincent Valentine. She had no doubt he knew what she was up to. The second her attention was called away, even for the slightest moment, another bite-sized portion of the bagel went missing until it eventually vanished.

Logically, she knew that even Vincent Valentine had to eat. He was by no means invincible, after all. However, the significant lack of proof or evidence to support this (or his appetite) lead her to forever wonder. Nothing was simple about the man and nothing was quite as it seemed either. In the end, Vincent Valentine was a walking enigma. And Tifa found that she liked it that way.

“Ah yes, Barret,” Nanaki turned his good eye to the great hulk of a man who walked by his side. “I forgot to ask about your gun; it appears to be a different model than last I saw.” The ex-AVALANCHE leader grinned, raising the giant index finger on his left hand to rub under his nose while he raised his prosthetic.

“Dayum right!” Metal slid together with metallic whirs as his right arm began to shift and click into place with technological efficiency, until his hand turned into a giant silver gatling gun. “I got this baby's parts from the Midgar Ruins. Requisitioned her myself using only the best scraps of tech I could find from Shinra's Headquarters. I figured since I took em' down, I deserve a trophy, and here she is!” Barret held the gun up triumphantly to the sky, before turning it back into its original prosthetic form. He lowered it down and regarded it with pride, balling the metal hand into a fist and pounding it over his heart.

“'She'?” Tifa questioned, turning to him with an amused smirk on her lips as the party began to climb the hill leading towards the farm. “Have you done that thing that all men seem to do and named your property?”

Marlene laughed as she ran to hold her adopted father's hand, swinging it back and forth while Barret scratched the back of his neck. “I think she has a pretty name, doesn't she, daddy?” Barret smiled softly at his little girl in response, bending down to effortlessly pick up the giggling seven-year-old and settle her on his left shoulder.

“She does indeed, but I gotta say I think it ain't jes' pretty. Myrna's a beautiful name.” Tifa's grin promptly fell as she regarded her old friend with sympathy. She knew that Myrna was the name of Barret's wife who died when Shinra razed his hometown of Corel. The fact that he named his new gun, a literal extension of his right arm, after his passed partner really touched her heart. She moved closer to him and laid a hand on his right shoulder, smiling as he looked back at her with a raised brow.

“Aw come on now, Tif'! You bustin' up my rhythm...” he grumbled. She could hear Red shaking his head, his coloured tassels clashing together musically.

“Just when I think I am beginning to understand you humans, you then speak of something that seems completely bizarre to me. Do all males of your species name inanimate objects out of affection?” Despite his words, the fire-dog sounded more intrigued than patronizing.

“Well,” Tifa began. “It's more renowned for men to do it, but women do it too. It's also mainly for things that hold sentimental value to us, we don't tend to name all inanimate objects. For example, we normally give our weapons a name because they fight alongside us. They're something we've come to rely on.” Nanaki seemed to think about this, his tail lazily waving back and forth behind him.

“... Grandpa called this headdress he gave me 'Limited Moon', but I never quite understood why. It was just a headdress to me, but since his passing and my travels I believe I am beginning to understand. It is an extension of one's self and a wish to leave something of importance behind, whether it be something as simple as a name. I will respect my grandfather's wish...” Nanaki looked up, peering into his mane as he addressed his weapon. “I shall call you Limited Moon from now on.”

Cait Sith stirred from the top of Red XIII's head, pushing aside the spikes of hair to look down at the wise creature. “Whit was that? Sorry, ave bin watchin' cloods!” Tifa ignored the sharp pain in her chest at hearing the familiar sound, and also the image of the childhood friend that it was normally associated with, instead focusing her attention to the top of the grassy knoll they climbed.

“So, erm...” Denzel muttered a little before gathering enough courage to speak up, looking up at Vincent with curiosity. “Does your gun have a name?” The gunslinger looked down at the boy from over his crimson cowl, his sharp gaze causing the orphan to quickly look at his feet. A few moments passed before Vincent spoke, his rare baritone unintentionally gaining everyone's full attention.

“It does, though I am not the one who named it so.” Denzel's gaze shot straight back up to Vincent, as if surprised that he'd gained a response. A pleased look flitted across the young boy's face and he straightened himself, as if trying to get a better view of Vincent's own features over the cowl.

“Oh, what's it called?”

“... Cerberus.”

“Cer... ber-us,” Denzel carefully tried the name for himself, a look of wonderment on his face. “That sounds really cool.”

“It does,” Tifa joined in, pleased she had finally learnt the name of Vincent's new firearm that she'd picked up the night before. “I noticed that it was a different gun.” Nanaki's ears perked up at this and he looked over with great interest at the tall, crimson cloaked man. As Vincent strode on, his movements brushed his cape aside and occasionally revealed the black and silver firearm that rested in its holster.

Red managed to catch a glimpse of the weapon strapped to the gunslinger's upper right leg. “So it is, you certainly have a keen eye, Tifa. You mentioned that you were not responsible in naming it, Vincent. May I ask who did?”

Vincent suddenly fell silent.

Seconds passed painfully slow, like watching the great turtle-like creatures known as Adamantaimai cross a great expanse unhurried. Tifa furrowed her brow in confusion, while Red appeared to nod in acceptance at the man's lack of answer. Denzel looked up in curiosity, but seemed to understand and kept quiet rather than prying and asking questions. Barret opened his mouth to speak, but Marlene's gasp brought his attention to where she excitedly pointed from his shoulder.

“Look daddy, look! Can you see the big flower field! It's so pretty!” She scrambled down her father's arm, sliding down his bicep and leaping onto the grass in excitement. Barret laughed heartily at her enthusiasm, watching her sprint the rest of the way towards the hilltop.

“I can't see it yet, Marlene. Wait for me ta get closer first!”

“Hey, I wanna see!” Denzel called after the young girl, clumsily running after her while trying to avoid one of his now undone shoelaces.

“Aww man...” Barret stared on in amazement, his voice holding a rare note of wonder as his height finally allowed him to catch a glimpse of what lay beyond the knoll. “... You guys wanna see this baby.”

The two children had stopped at the top, so enthralled at the sight that they didn't even look over when Barret moved to join them. The rest of the group hurried to see for themselves what exactly had entranced them so, and they were in no way disappointed. Cait Sith stood up on Nanaki's head as the dog reached Barret's side, the puppet raising a hand up to shield his eyes as he drank in the landscape. Red XIII smiled, lifting his head higher to gain a better view for the cat and himself. Tifa jogged up to meet them but quickly slowed to a stop, her mouth agape at the sight that met her. Vincent joined them, standing to Tifa's left and taking in the wondrous scene for himself.

A huge field lay below them with flourishing red roses, some of their petals being swept away to dance with the wind; a rich and opulent scent accompanying it. The abundant flowers swayed with the slightest breeze, as if waving to their onlookers on the hill. The Chocobo Farm was set behind the lush bloom, as if framing the perfect picture.

“... Beautiful,” Tifa breathed out. It was such an amazing sight to see, especially for a recovering Planet. Three years ago, during the world crisis that was Meteorfall, there were barely any flowers to be seen. Huge plains that were once mighty grasslands were reduced to nothing more than blackened soil and dead plants. The Planet had been dying, slowly but surely. But now, as Tifa looked down upon the happy congregation of roses, she felt joy swell in her heart and a great surge of encouragement for their mission.

“Hey, Marlene! Race you to the field!” No sooner had the words left the young boy's mouth, Denzel took off in a sprint down the hill.

“Hey! That's cheating!” Marlene quickly followed suit, fleeing after the young boy. The slope helped build her momentum and in no time she had already passed Denzel, pulling a face as she flew past.

“H-hey! Now that's cheating!” The children laughed as the both shot off down the grassy incline and straight towards the Chocobo Farm, ignoring the concerned cries of Tifa as they went. Knowing the children weren't paying any attention to her, Tifa tutted, stomping the heel of her right boot into the soil.

“Denzel's going to trip over one day if he doesn't start tying that shoelace...” Tugging her right glove tighter around her fist, Tifa began to sprint after the two children as a strong breeze whipped up a storm of rose petals and sent them swirling all around her. Those remaining on the hilltop couldn't help but stare in wonder as the woman swiftly and gracefully made her way to the bottom of the knoll among a maelstrom of petals.

“She sure is a bonnie lassie. Come on, Nanaki! After 'er!” Cait Sith held tightly to the fire-dog's deep red fur, nudging his little brown boots into the side of Red's neck. Nanaki shook his great spiked mane before peering up at the crowned cat.

“If Tifa heard you speak of her that way, she would... what's that term...”

“Kick yer ass?” Barret provided helpfully. Red XIII blinked at the gun-armed man.

“... Something along those lines, yes.” A hint of a grin was left on the feline's lips before he suddenly took off after Tifa and the children without warning.

Cait Sith was heard howling all the way down, his little body tossed around just as ferociously as the fire-dog's vibrantly coloured tassels; all the while making just as much noise as the jangling beads, screaming, “Slow doon ya mad hoound!” Vincent watched Nanaki shoot down the knoll with impressive speed and made to follow, but Barret's stern voice stopped him dead in his tracks.

“Hey, wait just'a second, Vincent.” The gunslinger turned to the dark-skinned man questioningly, watching as he stomped over. Barret's eyes of burnt umber held Vincent's own, a serious expression set on his features. Vincent waited patiently while the ex-AVALANCHE leader appeared to gather his thoughts, and a few seconds passed before the man continued.

“I wanna let ya know that me, Nanaki and Tifa decided to keep yer...” Barret scratched the back of his neck here. “... 'Episode'... from last night, jes' between us.” Vincent tucked his chin into his cowl, not quite a nod of appreciation but taken as one by Barret all the same. The gun-armed man nodded in response before changing demeanour, narrowing his eyes and jabbing a finger at Vincent. “But don't get me wrong when I tell ya this. I don't trust ya.” Vincent simply crossed his arms in response, a stray breeze carrying rose petals drifting past his heels and sweeping his cape to join them.

“... Your hostility has not gone unnoticed.” This was certainly true. Barret's previous bouts of anger directed towards him had certainly been taken note of, and it had started to wear thin on Vincent's nerves; or should he say, his demons.

“Good,” Barret responded gruffly. “Cause I don't buy tha' shit you gave before 'bout Tifa's shoulder. I ain't stupid. You left summit out, an' it don't take a genius ta figure that out.” Vincent kept quiet, which only seemed to make Barret's blood boil. The gun-armed man turned to descend the grassy slope, but paused and looked back over his shoulder. “You're an old comrade, an' tha' means summit. But 'til I can check things out with ya, just... stay away from ma lil' girl.” And with that, Barret made his way down the hill, leaving Vincent to stand at the top alone.

Vincent tucked his chin into his cowl, a deeply pensive expression settling over his features. Another zephyr full of petals blew past, encouraging his ebony locks to dance with them. The few black strands that managed to escape his bandana wisped past his nose gently. He knew what Barret spoke of was true. Vincent intentionally left Tifa's injury unexplained when he was faced with elaborating on the incident back in Seventh Heaven. While Vincent was certainly not one for lying, he decided that 'twisting the truth' was undoubtedly worth avoiding any possible embarrassment for the fighter.

He had explained the incident to Reeve, Barret and Cait Sith as himself and Tifa being chased by a gang and that Tifa had sustained her injury during their escape. He left out details of exactly how she had received her fracture and, as a result, the brute she had encountered. He ultimately decided that to explain Tifa having been caught unawares, and also without her fighting gloves, would most likely make her embarrassed; or even perhaps, if he knew the woman remotely well enough, disappointed at herself over events beyond her control.

A grim expression fell upon Vincent's brow at that last thought; his own control was something that was falling into decay and it troubled him greatly. Especially Chaos' behaviour shortly after he came to his senses, finding that Galian Beast had tore into the King Behemoth. He had never known the malicious entity to act in such a strikingly bizarre way and he desperately wanted answers. Barret's concern was certainly not unfounded, and Vincent decided that he would heed the man's wishes to avoid any further conflict.

His claw suddenly flexed against his will and Vincent stiffened when the image of huge, sharp canines assaulted his mind; a mighty growl rumbled through his braincase.

'It wasssss a great kill.'

Vincent glared and pushed Galian Beast back into the recesses of his psyche, the demon taking hold of his claw and flexing the wicked talons once more before leaving. After his presence receded, the gunslinger checked his gauntlet for himself, experimentally moving all of his fingers to ensure that it was back within his control. Satisfied, he slowly lowered the golden appendage while a look of melancholy fell over his features. Standing atop the hill, watching Barret being greeted as he reached the others playing within the rose field...

He felt most certainly, and irrefutably, alone.

His hand moved to Cerberus's grip, resting there for a moment before he pulled the revolver from its holster. He raised it towards the sky, the long triple-barrel held steadily vertical as if saluting the sun. Sunlight danced and glimmered over the engravings, the pendant that hung from the grip especially shimmering. Vincent regarded his weapon, his companion, with respect; as well as a sense of longing.

'Father, why was your gun in the Shinra Mansion? I do not understand...' Vincent's gaze wandered to the silver-chained pendant that hung from the revolver grip. A gift from his mother, shortly before she died, and one that his father attached to his gun and held close until he met his own fate. A terrifying voice shattered his thoughts with great force and seeped into his mind like a plague, festering all cognition and motility.

'IF ONLY YOUR FATHER WAS HERE TO SEE YOU NOW. A SHELL OF A MAN AND A REPLICA OF ANOTHER.'

Vincent bristled, his crimson eyes hard with anger knowing that Chaos referred to him as being a replica of his father. He fought the hellish entity from his head, but the image of something wicked and horrific staring back at him caused him to falter. Sulphuric eyes burned into his skull, the same colour that streaked waves of molten lava; a searing yellow of malevolence. Vincent was staring into hell.

And it was staring right back.

He screwed his eyes shut and shook his head while the demon laughed, a cracked and breaking sound accompanied by a chorus of squealing leeches. The baneful being receded back into his mind and as Vincent came back to some semblance of sense, he could feel Chaos grinning at him. It was then that the gunslinger realised the demon was toying with him. Alarmed and feeling slightly rattled, especially since knowing it was only a fraction of Chaos' power, Vincent unsteadily took a few steps forward to test himself before making his way down the slope amid a flurry of rose petals.

His comrades at the bottom were blissfully unaware of his previous troubles, laughing merrily amongst themselves between the flowers. Marlene and Denzel were already running on ahead and closing the last stretch of distance towards the Chocobo Farm, Cait Sith shouting at their backs through his megaphone. This caused another bout of laughter to erupt from the team and as they began to follow the children, Vincent couldn't help but feel like a misplaced ghost; awkward and invisible, he followed the party in silence.

“Chocobos!!” Marlene and Denzel cried out in unison, running up to the pen that enclosed the tall birds. The creatures raised their heads at the children's excitement, while the one closest to the fence stretched out its long neck to preen its yellow feathers. Once finished, it turned to the two younglings before making the unforgettable chirp associated with its species.

“Kweh!”

“Kweh!” Marlene mimicked, reaching out her hand to stroke just under the bird's orange beak and down its neck. The Chocobo raised its head in delight, shaking its great tail feathers and scratching the earth with both of its three-toed feet. It looked like some semblance of a dance and Marlene and Denzel laughed at the sight.

“Hey! You kids! Get away from tha' pen!” An old man wearing yellow-tinted aviator shades burst out of the nearby farmhouse and sprinted towards them, causing the two youngsters to scramble in panic. Denzel ran behind Tifa and held onto the back of her duster while Marlene bolted towards her father. Barret was about to lower himself to catch her but the little girl ran straight past him and into the safety of Vincent's cloak, causing the gunslinger to blink, stunned, while Barret fiercely glared at him. The great birds behind the fence made a series of high pitched 'warks' in quick succession, as if laughing at them.

“Oh! It's you folk!” The old man slowed down, bending over with hands on knees to catch his breath. He ran a hand over his wily grey hair, regaining his composure while pushing his glasses further up his nose. “Haven't seen y'all for a good long time! Sorry about scarin' ya kids, you can never be too careful 'round here.”

“Who're you?” Denzel mustered up the courage to ask, moving out from behind Tifa's legs.

The old man grinned, tugging at his wiry beard. “Me? Why, I'm Choco Bill o'course. I own this here farm, sonny.”

Cait Sith jumped off of Nanaki's head, walking over to Denzel while curling his whiskers. “Tha's right!” the puppet spoke up. “Bill here helped us cross the marshes and raise Chocobos back in tha day!”

Denzel gazed down in surprise while Bill nodded at the little booted cat, looking up to address the whole group once more. “So, I take it you folk wanna cross the marshes again. Tha's why you're here, right?”

Barret nodded, crossing his arms while grinning. Marlene peeked out from the folds of Vincent's cape, eventually creeping out to join her father now knowing that the old man wasn't a threat.

“Tha's right,” Barret confirmed. “Good ta see ya again, Bill. So, think ya can hook us up?” The old man nodded, tilting his head to look over the top of his shades, the yellow-tinted lenses gleaming in the sun.

“Sure thing! But I only got two Chocobos right now that're trained ta cross the marshes. The rest 'ave been sold, it's tha season for it, ya know? I'm sure you folk will be fine, the Midgar Zoloms have been few and far in-between. If ya ask me, it's like they've been chased away by summit...” Vincent crossed his arms at this, knowing the most likely reason for the Zoloms disappearance was the King Behemoth.

“What's a Midgar Zolom?” Denzel pried, looking up at Tifa. Tifa opened her mouth, but Bill beat her to it.

“Well, sonny, it's a serpent-like creature over thirty feet tall!” Bill raised his arms up high and Denzel followed the action with wide eyes. “It picks up on footsteps that enter the marshes... and then,” Bill quickly brought his hands together in a loud snap, making Denzel jump. “BAM! It attacks!” Denzel blinked at the man while discreetly moving back to hide behind Tifa's duster once more. Choco Bill began laughing heartily. “Don't worry though, there's not many about and with one'a my Chocobos, you'll be over the marshes in no time!”

Nanaki nodded at this, his tassels jingling together musically. “I passed over the marshes myself last evening, I did not encounter any trouble,” he reassured.

Cait Sith looked back at the fire-dog at this. “Aye, but with how fast ya are, I ain't surprised! I was throon aroound like one of those rose petals!” Nanaki simply gave the cat his own version of a feline grin.

“But a Chocobo can only hold two people at most,” Tifa voiced her concern. “Two of us are going to have to walk on foot.”

“Don't ya mean three?” Barret shot a confused look back at the fighter. “There's seven of us, Tif'.”

“I know, but Cait Sith is light enough to ride on one of our shoulders.” Barret scratched the back of his neck at her reply while the cat puppet curled his whiskers and nodded in agreement.

“Awright then,” Barret began. “Show us these Chocobos, Bill, and we'll be on our way.” The old man nodded, grinning as he pointed over to the pen.

“I believe you've already met Boco.” The Chocobo at the fence raised his head upon hearing his name and gave a great 'Wark!' in greeting, ruffling his feathers. “And Bobby Corwen is...” Bill looked around in confusion before shaking his head. “Must be with ma' grandson. Hold on.” The old man pinched his thumb and index finger together, then raised them to his mouth before blowing hard. A loud whistle rang out through the area. After a few moments, the Chocobo called 'Bobby Corwen' came dashing from the stables at the far end of the farm.

“How did you do that?” Marlene asked in wonder as the Chocobo made its way to Bill's side. The old man simply looked over his shades at the girl and tapped his nose mysteriously.

“I want to know how he knows their names. They all look the same...” Denzel muttered to himself. Tifa walked over to the newly arrived Chocobo and reached towards its head, stroking the soft feathers sticking haphazardly out from the top. A pleased look passed over the bird's face and Bobby nudged Tifa's arm in encouragement, causing the fighter to grin. Gil exchanged hands as Barret and Choco Bill shared information, and after Bill saddled up the birds and handed the reigns to Barret, the old man wished them good luck on their journey. As they left, Bill called after them, “Don't worry, once ya get to tha Mythril Mines on the other side of the marshes, they'll just up an' run back 'ere! They're good birds, they are!” And with that, the party began to make their way once more across the fields and towards the notorious marshes; with the occasional collection of stray rose petals dancing by, seeing them off on their journey.

After much discussion amongst themselves, the travel arrangements ended with Barret and Marlene taking Boco, while Tifa and Denzel took Bobby Corwen. (Tifa was rather adamant about taking Bobby, and Barret had suspicions this was because she had taken an immediate liking to him.) Red XIII agreed he would follow on foot, having already crossed the marshes and understanding that the children's safety came first. Cait Sith surprisingly decided to stay with Nanaki, while Vincent also agreed in staying behind to offer cover for the group. (While also assuring, when asked by Tifa, that he would be able to keep up.)

As Barret and Tifa spurred the Chocobos ahead, Cait Sith sighed from the top of Nanaki as he watched them speed further into the distance. “I'm bored, noo.”

Nanaki raised his head slightly to speak up at the puppet perched on his head. “That did not take very long. It is late afternoon, we have a few hours still to Fort Condor. I imagine that it will be dusk by the time we arrive.” Cait Sith crossed his arms at this as they walked in silence, occasional gusts of wind blowing at their backs.

Grass slowly made way for marshland, the group's feet beginning to sink into the wet ground with each step. Red began to trot to avoid getting stuck while Vincent picked up his pace to move alongside Nanaki, the golden sabatons on his boots helping prevent his feet from subsiding. A thought suddenly occurred to Cait Sith and he reached behind his cape to pull out his megaphone. Placing the instrument between his legs, he rest his hands around the cone as began to drum on the sides. Red's ears flicked at the sudden beat.

“Ah would like tae, reach out mah hand, I mae see ya, I mae tell ya ta run~” The little cat began to sing while using his megaphone as a drum.

Nanaki seemed to immediately recognise the tune and to Vincent's incredibility, the fire-dog actually joined in. “On my way, on my way~”

Cait Sith grinned madly as Nanaki began to nod his head to the beat, making his tassels chime in time to the drum. Vincent almost grumbled, not quite believing what he was hearing let alone being subject to. A cat robot and a lion-like dog singing.

“Well pick me up with, golden hand~” Here, Cait Sith pointed over to Vincent's claw which Red caught from the corner of his eye, causing the dog to bark out a laugh. “Come oon, Vinnie! Join in!” Vincent raised an eyebrow at the cat while pulling Cerberus from its holster, deciding to concentrate on looking for enemies instead and ignoring the singing. Cait Sith shook his head before returning to drum on his megaphone. “I mae see ya, I mae tell ya ta run~”

Suddenly another voice could be heard in the distance, along with the sound of clapping, singing, “I would like to hold my little hand~ And we will run, we will, we will crawl, we will~”

To Vincent's dismay, he recognised the voice to belong to Tifa and looked ahead to find that she had slowed down with Barret to join in; the bulky man next to her whistling to the tune, no doubt having recognised the song as well. The children laughed, clapping from the backs of the Chocobos in delight while Vincent shook his head in disbelief. Even the yellow birds seemed to be joining in, bobbing their heads in time with Cait Sith's drumming. They all joined in together.

“Send me on my way~! On my way~! Send me on my way~! On my way~! Send me on my way~! On my way~! Send me on my way~! On my way~!” Everyone burst into laughter, bar Vincent.

'It's going to be one very long walk...' The gunslinger thought to himself... yet if one listened carefully, they may have just made out the chime of a silver-chained pendant joining the rhythm.

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter XIII – A Fruitful Wizard

 

The furious beating of wings matched the thundering of boots that resounded deep within the caverns, alongside various degrees of cussing by a certain muscular and dark-skinned man. The shouting resonated outside as the volume grew and grew, until finally a torrent of black shadows burst from the Mythril Mines; alongside a frantic and near flailing Barret. Bats swooped and weaved around the man as they clicked, screeched and chattered, just barely missing his head and making the hulking man duck before flying off into the dusky gloam. Barret quickly moved his hand to the back of his neck, shrugging into his puffy white vest in a way that shook the garment out. Marlene calmly walked up to her father, watching with a smile as he patted down his arms.

“It's okay, daddy,” she spoke up, causing the man in question to spin around, startled that his little girl had caught him in such a position. “They looked like fruit bats!” Barret shot her a rather incredulous look as he attempted to regain his composure, though it fell flat when a stray bat glided past his head and caused him to almost throw himself to the ground.

“I don't care what kinda bats they are, Marlene! Everyone knows tha' bats can bite ya!”

His daughter giggled, shaking her head in amusement. “These ones don't, honest! They eat fruit and mainly live in rainforests.”

Barret stopped checking his vest collar to look down at his little girl in disbelief. “You gotta be kiddin' me. Where'd ya hear that nonsense?!” He was about to continue but faltered when he saw Marlene's face. Her cheeks were slightly puffed out as she held her arms close to her sides; a telltale sign she was annoyed.

“It's not nonsense! I read it from a school book!” The gun-armed man attempted to console his daughter, but he couldn't quite rid the look of doubt from his face. This only served to make Marlene even more upset, her frown tightening into a small scowl; it also didn't help that Barret found her expression to be amusing and the smile that tugged at his lips only served to further the little girl's anger.

“She's right,” a voice spoke up from behind, causing them both to turn around and see Nanaki approaching with Cait Sith straddled upon his head. “They certainly looked like fruit bats to me, if I'm not mistaken.”

“See!” Marlene called in triumph, before a thoughtful expression passed over her face. “But it's strange, because they don't normally live in caves.” Nanaki smiled a feline smile, his lone ochre-coloured eye almost appearing to glimmer.

“That's right. I believe it may have something to do with the tree your father bumped into.” Barret, who had been looking up in search of more of the winged creatures, suddenly became alert on being mentioned. Crossing his arms, he raised an eyebrow at Red XIII and was about to question the fire-dog but Cait Sith beat him to it.

“Oooh aye, that was quite tha' nasty bump ya had thair,” the cat puppet laughed. Barret almost grumbled. While they were traversing the mines, their group came across a rather wondrous sight. Past the sloping crags and crevices lay a steep cliff that opened up onto a great cavern. A huge pool of Lifestream lay at the bottom that divided the area, great streams of it occasionally bursting forth like a geyser and splitting the scenery with vivid emerald. But what made the sight truly wondrous was the lone tree perched on the edge of the precipice. Light shone down upon the great plant from an opening in the ceiling, while the steady glow of the Lifestream encased it from below; giving the whole scene a near tangible ethereality. Or at least, it did, until Barret accidentally stumbled into the tree and cast a whole colony of bats into flight.

“Yeah, so what if I knocked tha' tree?” Barret spoke up in defence. “What's tha' gotta do with bats livin' there or not?” Movement in the distance caught his eye and he looked past the fire-dog to find Tifa, Vincent and Denzel emerging from the caves having just caught up. However, Barret had to double-check at the sight. If he was not mistaken, Vincent seemed to be slightly hunched over. His brow furrowed as he watched Tifa hover by the gunman's side like a fluttering bird, a hint of worry etched on her features.

“An astute question, but it concerns the mammals because if my nose does not deceive me, the tree in the Mythril Mines was in fact a fruit tree.” Red sat back on his haunches, his tail flicking behind him and sending a wave of sparks into the air. “I assume they must have gone inside to feed, rather than actually roosting there.” Marlene nodded, happy that Nanaki was helping to explain the odd occurrence. She looked to her father in hope of some sort of recognition, but was disappointed to find him staring off into the distance instead. Cait Sith stared down at Marlene from his seat on top of the fire-dog's head, sensing her solemness but remaining silent.

“We must move. Night is falling.” Before he could gain an answer, Vincent briskly passed the group with long strides, his tattered cape billowing after him. Tifa moved to follow, but decided against it and stopped next to Barret. The gun-armed man watched Vincent leave with suspicion before turning towards the fighter. He found her expression troubled and waited before calling out to the others behind him.

“He's right. Come on, let's move out, y'all.” As the group began to follow after the gunslinger, Barret lowered his voice to Tifa. “Everythin' alright?” The fighter looked up in surprise before turning to watch the retreating back of Vincent Valentine.

“I'm not sure,” she paused in thought. “I'll tell you later.” Barret wasn't quite happy with her answer but nodded anyway. After a few moments, Tifa dropped back to walk with Denzel, having no doubt noticed him walking off to the side alone. Barret observed as they seemed to discuss something that brought a small smile to the young boy's face. The sight caused Barret to make one of his own.

'You always were able to make people smile, Tif'. Jes' wish I could make you smile more. An' not one a those fake ones you seem so good at doin'. A real one.' Barret became lost in thought as he began to think back to all the times Tifa had really smiled. He cast his mind back, and subsequently cast his mind away from the scenery slowly changing around him. Barret did not notice as trees began to creep up around the group, interspersing the plains with bright foliage and a sweet smell that drifted upon the wind. It wasn't long before the party found themselves surrounded by trees.

“... Do you guys remember this small grove being here before?” Tifa suddenly voiced, her confused tone breaking Barret from his reverie. The gun-armed man looked up and blinked in surprise at the sight of the small woodlet that seemed to have just grown up around him.

“Hey, these are all fruit trees!” Denzel called out, looking around in wonder. Barret looked up and found the boy to be right; the trees were ripe with an abundance of fruit ranging from lemons, to apples, oranges and peaches. The fruitful orchards waved their branches to them in the wind, their leaves causing a great rustle as if the very trees were chattering amongst themselves.

“Well, I believe this answers the question of why fruit bats are in the area,” Nanaki observed with great interest, raising his nose into the air and inhaling the sweet scent of fruit. He turned to Tifa, “And to answer your earlier query, I don't recall this grove being here during our travels years past. Admittedly, I forgot to mention this as I passed through here on my journey to Edge. It is a great sign of a healing Planet.”

Tifa nodded, reaching out to gently caress one of the leaves of a nearby apple tree. “It's a wonderful place... but we need to keep moving. Vincent's right, it's getting dark.”

“What's so bad about it getting dark?” Denzel looked confused, turning to Tifa for answers. The fighter blinked, forgetting that the children didn't know about the powerful monsters that now appeared. She was about to answer Denzel but Barret beat her to the punch.

“It's bad cause Ifrit will come in tha' night an' snap ya up!”

Denzel simply stared.

“Yeah, right. You really think I'm going to believe something as childish as that?” Despite his confident words, the hazel-haired boy looked slightly unsettled. Barret noticed this and continued with a grin, persisting to tease the boy. Tifa frowned upon this, but the smile that tugged at the edge of her lips was unmistakable. As Barret continued his gibes, Vincent walked on alone while Nanaki, Cait Sith and Marlene brought up the rear. The cat puppet looked down from his perch once more, finding Marlene to be just as quiet as before they entered the orchard.

“Hey, Marlene, whit is yer favourite fruit?” The young girl looked up in surprise, blinking at the question from the little robot. She turned away to look at the ground, moving her arms to wrap around her waist and tucking her chin into the collar of her white turtle-neck jumper.

“Peaches...” she said dispiritedly.

“Well, ya see,” Cait Sith began, “ah think I mae 'ave something stuck in mah ear...” Marlene looked up in question, tilting her head as she watched the small cat twist his finger inside his fluffy pointed ear. Suddenly he grasped at something and pulled it away in a gloved fist. The young girl was about to question when he opened his hand to reveal a juicy, ripe peach.

Marlene looked in awe at the fruit, her mouth slightly open. “How did you do that?!”

The cat puppet grinned, rolling the fruit onto his forearm then down across his shoulders to bounce into Marlene's waiting hands. “Ya cannae put logic to magic, missy!” The little girl looked down at the fruit in thought, running her hands over the velvety skin. A delicate pink. She looked back up to Cait Sith, watching as he twirled his whiskers in amusement. However, the grin suddenly fell from his face as he shot her a serious look. “Keep ya chin up, lassie. You tell your uncle Cait Sith if thair's anything wrong, okay?”

Marlene hesitated, “But, you're not my uncle...”

As Red XIII moved on ahead, Cait Sith turned and called from the lion-like creature's head, “Ah guess ye cannae put logic to that either!” Nanaki looked back and graced her with a feline grin, the furry duo continuing towards the rest of the party. The small girl watched them go before raising the peach to her mouth with both hands and taking a bite out of the fleshy fruit. She chewed thoughtfully, turning Cait Sith's words over in her head. The fruit was delicious and she smiled a small smile as she wiped the juice away from the corners of her mouth. She began to move towards her father, now preoccupied with figuring out the cat's magic trick.

“Hey,” Barret turned to her as she approached, pausing at the bitten fruit in her hands. He looked around, checking to see if there were any trees at Marlene's height for her to have plucked the fruit from. There wasn't. “Where'd ya get tha' peach?”

Marlene smiled. “A wizard gave me it.” Barret gave her an incredulous stare as Marlene continued past her father, walking ahead to join Tifa and Denzel as they pointed animatedly at the different kinds of fruit trees. Barret shook his head, following after the party as their banter fluttered above the rustling of many orchard leaves.

It wasn't much longer before the great structure that was Fort Condor came into sight; an old Mako reactor that sat atop a steep rugged crag, situated on a grand hill. The reactor had seen better days, moss now creeping up the sides of the rusted metal and branching out around the unused apparatus like a leafed spider web. The sight was somewhat pleasing, as if the Planet was reclaiming something that, in the past, had taken so much from it. The most striking view however was the magnificent creature perched on top. Framed in twilight, a huge condor sat with its enormous wings outstretched, the wing feathers circling what was no doubt its nest. Tifa found the sight to be uplifting, knowing the noble bird was warming its eggs which hatched only once every few years. She had been so excited to see the species again. Now that she was actually here, she felt a great sense of pride knowing that herself and her comrades played a part in protecting them from Shinra three years ago.

Their party slowly made their way up the hill and into Fort Condor, the fort itself carved into the face and interior of the huge crag, and Tifa immediately noticed some changes since her last visit. Gone was the single rope that acted as the only entrance into the fort, instead replaced by a sturdy spiral staircase. However, the rope ladders leading to the other sections of the structure remained. Also missing were the majority of the resistance fighters, no doubt having little reason to stay now the threat of Shinra was abolished. Yet those who were greatly dedicated to the condors' safety remained and it was these people who recognised their odd crew. Hearty greetings were exchanged, as well as 'welcome back's to Nanaki, and a tour of the fort was quickly conducted for the benefit of the rest of the group.

“No doubt you have noticed some changes,” the shop attendant who also acted as their guide informed them. “After Shinra fell, we no longer needed to maintain most of our defences. One of these being the main entrance, which used to be a single rope that you would need to climb to enter the fort. This was in place so that if the enemy did indeed attack, they would have to enter single file which would make it much more difficult for them...” Here, she turned and flashed them a rather cheeky grin. “... And easier for us. So now we've installed a spiral staircase which is much more accessible. We can continue to use it as a defence, however, since its narrow space still enforces single file rule.” She continued down the corridor before stopping at a rope ladder and turning to smile at the group. “Up here would be most familiar to you, I'm sure.”

“It certainly is,” Tifa nodded. “It's where we carried out our defence of the fort against Shinra and issued commands to the resistance fighters.” The guide nodded, pleased that she still remembered. As the attendant continued up the small wooden steps leading towards the item shop and sleeping quarters, Tifa couldn't help but feel rather sullen. Her memory of their efforts fighting at the fort were predominantly that of Cloud, given he was the one who mainly issued all of the orders. She mentally shook away the feeling, steeling herself once more. 'I won't let this get the better of me,' she thought. 'Especially not around the children.'

“... And here are your sleeping quarters,” the guide pointed out as the last of them descended the rope ladder. “If you need anything else, you can find me in the item shop since, well, I work there!” She laughed to herself as the party thanked her, then climbed back up to the previous floor. Denzel wasted no time in running to the beds that arched against the granite wall, jumping onto the nearest one in excitement.

“This place is so cool!” the orphan exclaimed. “Did you really fight Shinra here?” Tifa and Barret began to make themselves comfortable while Vincent did the same, lowering himself down on the bed situated furthest from the others. Cait Sith jumped up to sit next to the gunslinger, while Marlene stood quietly next to the ladder that hung in front of the bed Vincent had taken.

Nanaki padded towards the boy, his tail tucked closer to his body in careful consideration of their close quarters. “We did indeed, Denzel. In fact, it was the only armed conflict that Shinra ever lost.”

The boy stopped his bouncing to look at Red in surprise, an impressed expression on his face before it turned to one of smugness. “That's because Cloud was with you, wasn't it?”

Tifa looked back at the boy in surprise just as Barret glanced over to check her reaction. While the fighter was caught off-guard, she quickly recovered and instead smiled which only served to confuse the dark-skinned man. 'I guess despite everything that's happened, Denzel still looks up to Cloud,' Tifa thought. 'I'm glad he seems to be taking it better.'

Denzel's comment highly amused the lion-like dog judging by how Red had to bark out a laugh. He regarded the boy with mirth glimmering in his lone eye. “I guess you could say that.” Before Nanaki could continue any further, something in his mane suddenly began to vibrate.

… Ring! … Ring!

Everyone looked towards the fire-dog as he blinked, reaching up with his bracelet adorned right pastern to scratch behind his ear. The PHS fell to the floor with a clattered thump, rattling inside the hairclip it was encased in as it vibrated. Nanaki opened the clip by pushing down on the end with his paw before attempting to press the green answer button with his nose. After a few sighs of frustration, he looked up to Tifa apologetically.

“Would you kindly?” he asked. Tifa tried to stifle her laugh, feeling sorry for the quadruped, and picked up the phone; hitting the loudspeaker button with her thumb after glancing at the caller I.D. A jolly voice resounded throughout the room.

Good evening, Nanaki!” Reeve's voice came through loud and clear. “You answered very quickly that time, have you been practising?” Tifa couldn't hold it anymore and burst out laughing, a pretty, uplifting sound that made Vincent look up in surprise.

'I do not recall her laughter being so... melodic.' He couldn't help but stare; it was like she was suddenly a different woman, one free from burden... and strife. That last thought caused him to think about a certain spiky haired ex-SOLDIER who also happened to share his last name with the word. 'Perhaps free from strife in both ways.'

Reeve appeared to share Vincent's feeling of surprise judging by his voice over the loudspeaker. “Ah! Tifa! I take it you've all met up with Nanaki, then? Most excellent!”

Barret crossed his arms, looking sceptically at the handheld. “Yeah, we did. An' you said it'd take him a few days to get ta Edge. What's tha' all about, man?”

Reeve paused, questioning this for himself, but thankfully Nanaki intervened. “It passed my mind to mention to Reeve that I was leaving from Fort Condor. No fault of his own.”

This certainly caught the WRO leader's interest, judging by the sound he made on the other end of the line. “Fort Condor? That would explain how you've all met up so quickly! I apologise for misinforming you all.”

Nanaki shook his head, his tassels clashing together musically. “It is I who should apologise, Reeve. Regardless, we all met up just outside of Kalm. We are in fact in Fort Condor currently.” The fire-dog began to explain why he had been at the fort to begin with, while Barret and Tifa gave brief interludes of their progress and informed Reeve of the Kalm Fangs they had dispatched. Reeve sounded very pleased as Vincent listened idly by, more lost in his own thoughts and appreciative that they did not bring up his recent lapse of control.

A voice crawled into his mind like frost creeping over glass, bringing a chill that lay heavy across his skull. Words were broken and spoke around cracked and sutured lips, moans of pain to follow after.

'In-no-cence strr-ay-ss.'

As Death Gigas ambled back out of his consciousness, willingly at that, Vincent grew concerned at the demon's strange behaviour. Blinking, he snapped from his reverie and became immediately aware of Marlene quietly climbing the rope ladder to his right. Suddenly understanding the abomination's words, Vincent decided to ponder on the creature's apparent assistance later. He had a more pressing matter to attend.

“Marlene.” The young girl stopped, frozen. Hesitantly looking to Vincent, she behaved as if she'd been caught which wasn't lost on the gunslinger. She clung to the ladder, hanging midway as the group continued to discuss their progress with Reeve; none the wiser. Marlene waited with trepidation for Vincent's next words, and the crimson-cloaked man considered them carefully.

“... Do not stray far.”

After her initial shock, Marlene's face lit up and she graced the man with a most pretty smile. Then with a small nod of her head, she climbed the rest of the ladder and was gone. Vincent watched her go, rather perplexed with not only Death Gigas, but with the young girl who rarely ventured out on her own. It was most strange for her to try and leave in such a manner, but he figured that if she wished to explore then that was her decision to make. Not his. However, Vincent held an internal struggle, feeling somewhat concerned for the child's safety. Did he make the right choice? He made to rise from the bed, but Barret's voice from hours past stopped him. 'You're an old comrade, an' tha' means summit. But 'til I can check things out with ya, just... stay away from ma lil' girl.'

Vincent remained seated.

Once again, he found himself to be in rather a difficult position. By respecting Marlene's wish to leave, he could also be leaving her within danger's grasp. By following to ensure her safety, he could also be ensuring Barret's wrath. Laughter, cruel and mocking, echoed in his head.

“Dinnae worry.” The sudden voice caused Vincent to look down sharply at Cait Sith, surprised that the puppet had caught on to his train of thought. The cat looked up at him and nodded, readjusting the small crown on his head. “I'll follow 'er.” Vincent remained silent, his blood-red eyes following the small robot as Cait Sith carefully climbed the ladder and slinked away after the little girl.

Icy fingers once more curled around his skull as words were snapped and dragged out. Pained and sore scarlet eyes bore into him.

'Da-aamned if y-ou do... da-aamned if y-ou do-nn't...'

This time, Vincent gently pushed away the hulking mass of lumps and stitches, careful not to provoke the creature's more volatile side. He knew all too well that, while Death Gigas was the more complacent among his demons, one push in just the wrong way could send the abomination into an uncontrollable frenzy; a frenzy more powerful than any of Galian Beast's capabilities. He closed his eyes, taking rare indulgence in the respite as the others continued their ramble in the background. Rarer still, he chose to respond to Death Gigas; who sensing this, listened eagerly.

'… I fear I am already damned.' As the gunslinger was left once more to his thoughts, he failed to notice the small shadow that darted away from the ladder. Unbeknownst to Vincent, Cait Sith had been watching him with great curiosity. The little robot turned away and began curling his whiskers, indulging thoughts of his own.

'Vince is sure actin' strange lately! Anyway, betta go find Marlene!' The puppet quickly made his way to where he last saw the girl, down another rope ladder that lead to the spiral staircase at the entrance. This greatly concerned the cat and he quickened his pace to follow the child. A few sharp turns and finally he sighted her, the girl slowly making her way down the corridor that lead outside. Cait Sith began to shadow her carefully, ducking under rocks to ensure he remained out of sight, curious to see what exactly she was up to. Marlene suddenly turned to look over her shoulder and the cat quickly threw himself behind a particularly large stone.

Cait Sith waited in slight alarm, hoping she didn't spot him; if she found him, he was unsure what she would do. Marlene paused, hesitating slightly before whispering, “I'm sorry, Vincent.”

She then continued outside, leaving the fort behind her. This caused the feeling of slight alarm to explode into fully fledged panic for Cait Sith and he quickly dashed to catch up with her, now uncaring if she spotted him or not. A light breeze greeted him as he stumbled out of the fort, his eyes darting around in search of the wandering Miss. Eventually he caught sight of her a little ways down the hill just as she was sitting herself on the edge of a pointed rock, the end jutting out from the side of the slope it was embedded in. She looked up to the purple sky, the last vestiges of eventide slowly giving way to night. Cait Sith sighed loudly in relief, causing Marlene to jump and spin around in panic.

“Cait Sith!? You scared me!”

The puppet looked slightly offended as he made his way towards her, dancing over stray rocks and pebbles that littered the steady incline. “I scared ya? Ye scared me! Ya shouldn't be out here! Vinnie told ya not tae go too far!” Marlene fell quiet, bringing her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. She rested her head on her forearms, staring wistfully at the mountain range. Cait Sith's brow furrowed as he reached her side, carefully sitting next to her. He wrapped his tail round her back gently as he swung his feet back and forth over the ledge. “Whit's tha matter, Marlene? Why are ye such a sad bairn?”

Marlene gently sighed, looking down at the small cat who looked back at her with a shared sadness. “I know I shouldn't be out here. I hope Vincent doesn't get angry with me... but I wanted to think.”

Cait Sith blinked. “Tae think? Surely a bonnie lass yer age dinnae need ta go oot an think. Ye leave tha' tae the adults!” Marlene tucked her head into her arms causing Cait Sith to tilt his own head, seeking out her face. She huddled into herself and it took a few moments before her voice rose from her own self-made bundle.

“... It's daddy. He doesn't listen to me.”

The robot cat was struck with confusion. “Barret? O'course he does! Whit makes ya say things like tha'?”

Marlene finally raised her head and looked over her arms with watery eyes. “Outside the mines, he wouldn't believe me when I told him the bats in there were fruit bats. And when I try and tell him things I've learnt from books, he doesn't listen to me then either...” Marlene's shoulders shook as she began to sob, big fat tears rolling down her cheeks. Cait Sith looked on helplessly, unsure how to comfort her. It sounded very strange for Barret to act in such a way if what Marlene said was true. The cat rose from his seat and clambered up her leg to perch on her knees. “Th-that's why,” she managed between sobs, “I d-don't mention things like that any m-more. So I a-act like I d-don't know things, cause then d-daddy doesn't i-ignore me.”

“... Tha' soonds very strange fer Barret, I'm sure he's got a reason. How aboot I talk tae him? Dinnae worry yerself, uncle Cait Sith is on the case!” The girl opened her arms and pulled Cait Sith into her lap, cuddling the furry cat as she tried to stifle her sobs. The little robot returned the gesture, holding her gently while he pondered on what Marlene had told him. They sat for a while, both perched on the jutted rock, huddled up against the wind which seemed to pick up by the second. “Come on, let's get yae inside. It's gettin' cald an' I bet the others are worried sick.”

Without warning, a great whoosh of wind roared around them and Marlene and Cait Sith both looked at each other in question. When another resonated, this time from above with an echoing boom, they froze.

“... Thunder?” Marlene questioned hesitantly, looking up to the sky. Suddenly, a huge burst of wind struck them with force, making them cling to each other tightly in fear of being blow away. A huge shadow enveloped them, bringing the icy chill of fear with it as the wind grew stronger; boomed stronger, the currents more fierce. It took Cait Sith everything he had to hold on to Marlene. Abruptly, the girl was abruptly lifted off her feet and Cait Sith tumbled to the ground from the sudden force. He clawed at the rock below, just managing to hold grip as he finally caught glimpse of just what bore down upon them.

A huge condor hovered above, its enormous wings causing a mighty torrent of air to hit with each grand beat. It clutched Marlene in one of its talons and spread its glittering wings to their full span, no doubt readying to once more take to the skies. As it did, the wind briefly subsided and Cait Sith took this chance. Using every ounce of strength he had, he threw himself towards Marlene, just catching her foot as the condor took flight in a flash of gold feathers and a boom of air. Cait Sith yelled over the torrential gale and screams of a young girl.

“MARLENE!”

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter XIV – One Flew Over the Condor's Nest

 

Wind roared against her ears, a relentless onslaught of noise that was almost as great as the fear that swelled in her chest; fit to burst. The gale whipped and tossed her hair wildly while the cold acted as a fierce assailant that chilled her skin to absolute numbness. Marlene fought for air amid the mighty torrents, the wind catching the back of her throat and silencing her screams. She could vaguely make out Cait Sith clinging to her foot with all of his strength, flailing mid-air against the grand windstorm.

As quickly as the wind had robbed her of voice, the great talon loosened around her waist and she dropped like a stone, her heart leaping into her throat with fright. A second of free fall later and she collided with something soft and downy, yet despite this the unexpected impact knocked the wind straight out of her. She was vaguely aware of Cait Sith landing beside her over the stinging of her elbows and knees, the cat having lost his grip at her sudden descent.

“Yeouch!” The puppet quickly untangled himself from his red cape, jumping to his feet and hopping over to the girl. “Marlene, are ye alright?” She nodded despite the pain, slowly raising to a sitting position while rubbing the tears from her eyes.

“Y-yeah...” She ignored Cait Sith as he continued to stare at her and instead shakily turned to look around at wherever they were. High above the ground and just as high as the mountain range that lay against the horizon, (at least, it seemed to be to Marlene,) she found herself to be sitting in a rather large nest. Straw, brittle yet thick, stuck out in odd angles that poked uncomfortably into her skin. Small tufts of golden down were littered around her, and she blinked when the pale yellow strands and shimmering feathers turned into green moss and rusted metal. She quickly stood up, panic gripping her once more as she finally realised where she was.

She was on top of the Mako reactor.

A huge shadow passed over them, not unlike the one that assailed them before, and Cait Sith jumped up towards the condor as it passed overhead as if he could reach it by doing so.

“Hey! Yer could 'ave bin more careful in droppin' me, ya lousy bird!” The cat shook his fist towards the grand creature, his words only now making Marlene realise that Cait Sith had landed outside of the nest and on to the oxidised metal. The bird took no heed to the puppet's words, instead circling around the reactor in preparation to land. Marlene rubbed at the goosebumps on her arms as a chilling wind blew, a shiver racking her body. She was cold, scared, and feeling lost. Not only in how she was meant to get down from where she found herself, but also in regards to her father... the thought brought a fresh set of tears to fill her soft brown eyes.

Cait Sith moved to stand in front of her as the condor began to descend, its great talons reaching out as it beat its wings to skillfully slow its momentum. The pose struck Marlene as being oddly familiar... and the feeling of its importance wouldn't leave her, even through her fear. She tried to calm her rapidly beating heart, focusing on the way the huge bird was coming towards them.

“Dinnae worry, Marlene,” Cait Sith pulled out his megaphone as he addressed the girl. “I won't let no condur get ya. A'mae not look like much, but I'll protect ye with me life!” The cat moved the megaphone closer to his mouth while changing his stance, inhaling deeply and puffing out his furry white chest.

“W-wait...” Her hesitation caused the puppet to look back at her in question, his chest deflating as he let out all of his built up air, the condor speedily approaching by the second.

“It cannae wait! That thing's getting closer, fast!”

“I know, Cait Sith, but I don't think it's coming after us.” The cat blinked at her and lowered his megaphone, looking quickly between Marlene and the condor, remaining alert. Despite her shaky voice, the puppet listened carefully to the young girl. “It looks like its going to land.” True to her words and no sooner than spoken, the golden feathered bird flapped its mighty wings before gracefully touching down on the reactor, its talons gripping firmly onto a thick railing that was welded near the edge. Cait Sith almost dropped Marvelous Cheer, but held fast onto the golden megaphone.

“How did ya know it weren't attackin'?” The dazed expression on the puppet's face caused the corner of Marlene's lips to tilt up a margin, yet her fear lingered.

“W-well... I... read it in one of my books,” she paused, watching the huge bird as it surveyed them carefully; a shiver passed over her as it ruffled its feathers restlessly. “I... l-like to read about animals.” Cait Sith crossed his arms, an impressed look passing over his face.

'Thair sure is a lot more tae Marlene than I thought,' he curled his whiskers as he considered that this may be a side to Marlene that not even her father saw. 'Mebbe this is whit she was talkin' aboot earlier?' His thoughts were broken when the girl in question suddenly stumbled back, her mouth moving but no words coming out. Cait Sith froze, about to spin around to see what had spooked her but just a second too late. He was abruptly lifted off his feet, his cape gripped firmly in the condor's beak. Marlene watched in horror as Cait Sith flailed around helplessly, protesting the manner of his treatment.

“Cait Sith!” she choked out, watching in terror as the condor began to lift its thick neck. With or without her books, Marlene had an idea what the golden bird was about to do. The sudden image of the condor throwing Cait Sith in the air and snapping him up caused her to suddenly regain the ability to move her legs. She jumped to her feet, stumbling on her knee-length white skirt as she scrambled to his aid. The cat puppet reached for her as she made a great leap towards him, taking hold of his outstretched hands with her own. Despite her added weight, the golden bird wasn't fazed in the slightest; lifting the small girl up with ease alongside the cat.

“Marlene, it ain't gonnae let go!” Cait Sith struggled in the bird's beak, but it was a wasted effort. The condor was far too strong for either of them. “Ye gotta let go, quick! Ah'll be fine!” The cat puppet began to panic as they were lifted further from the ground; further from a safe distance for the child to drop. Yet Marlene simply shook her head, holding fast onto Cait Sith's hands as she dangled helplessly, screwing her eyes shut.

She was terrified... but she wouldn't let Cait Sith go.

Swallowing hard, she desperately wished for someone to help. As the condor raised them towards the purple star-scattered dusk, Marlene gathered all the courage she had and pushed through her fear, screaming from the top of her lungs to the first person that came to mind.

“DADDY!”

 

 

"""

~ o0o ~

"""


As Tifa carefully clipped the PHS back into Nanaki's mane, the fire-dog's ears suddenly stood upright at the same time Vincent sprang to his feet; his back ramrod straight as he looked up intently towards the rope ladder. Tifa almost fell back from her crouch in surprise, just managing to catch herself by the heels of her boots. Her eyes shot towards Vincent in alarm while Nanaki quickly stood up, his tassels jingling wildly as he listened to something she could neither see nor hear.

“Vincent?!” she hesitated, watching him with great concern at his strange behaviour. “Is something wrong?” As soon as the words left her lips, Vincent bolted towards the ladder and, (to the astonishment of everyone in the room,) leapt clean up to the top while kicking off the dirt wall halfway. Tifa jumped to her feet, about to shout after him when Vincent's voice drifted down from the hole.

“Marlene is in danger!” Tifa blinked in shock, immediately glancing to where she last saw the girl to indeed find her, and Cait Sith, missing. Panic swelled in her breast and not even a second passed before Barret was charging after Vincent, his boots thundering heavily as he rushed after the gunslinger, cursing heavily about being a bad father. Tifa made to run after them just as Red XIII did when Denzel raced past her to follow, but she quickly grabbed the boy by his dark green hoodie.

“H-hey?!” The boy sputtered out as she pulled him back by his hood, the fighter fixing him with a unwavering stare that demanded full attention.

“Denzel, you have to stay here.” Her voice left no room for negotiation, yet the boy's expression was a challenging one.

“Why?! I want to help! I need to help Marlene!” Tifa gently took hold of his shoulders, and was slightly taken aback by Denzel's angry stare.

“Denzel,” her tone was firm. “You'll be helping by staying here. I won't let you get into danger as well. Do you understand?” The orphan angrily threw her arms away, fixing her with a defiant look that simmered with rage. He quickly dashed past her, too quick for Tifa to catch, however the boy didn't get very far. Tifa blinked in surprise to find that Red XIII blocked the orphan's path, having waited at the bottom of the ladder for her.

“Tifa, go quickly, I will speak with Denzel.” Tifa furrowed her brow, torn between leaving the boy in the agitated state that he was in, but also in leaving Marlene. She clenched her fists, their leather coverings crunching while indecision clouded her features. However, it did not take long for her to decide.

“... Look after him, Red.” She jogged towards the ladder and past the fire-dog, jumping onto the third rung and quickly beginning to climb. As she did, she shouted back down, “I'll talk to you later, Denzel!” The boy could be heard protesting in response, while Nanaki's soothing tone was intermittent throughout. She regretted leaving him, but some things were simply more important right now. On reaching the top, her eyes darted around for any sign of the others, but it was almost as if they had vanished into thin air. Suddenly, Barret's voice could be heard booming down from the ladder that lead to the upper level, and Tifa quickly followed the noise. Her mind was ineluctably drawn once more to Cloud as she realised where this ladder lead; to the small wooden shack where the ex-SOLDIER had issued orders in the past to the resistance fighters. She shook the memory away with grim determination.

'Now is not the time, Lockhart!' With that thought she grabbed onto the rough ropes of the ladder and once more began to climb, Marlene now in the forefront of her mind as Barret's boom echoed loudly down the tunnel enclosed with soil.

Close to the top, she leapt the rest of the distance from the ladder and caught the edge of the hole, swiftly pulling herself up with strong muscles as her eyes fixed on what appeared to be Barret and Vincent squaring off.

“What the hell d'ya mean ya saw her leave?!” The dark-skinned man bore down on Vincent threateningly, his booming voice almost shaking the very foundations of the shack.

“There is no time for this,” Vincent curtly replied as he turned and strode to the door of the wooden structure. Tifa walked over to them in annoyance at their bickering, yet also confused as to why they hadn't made it outside yet. It was then that she noticed the thick wooden planks that boarded up the door.

“Ya damn RIGHT there ain't time for this-!” Before Barret could continue, Tifa cut him off.

“Barret, stop it! What is wrong with you?! Marlene needs our help!” The gun-armed man turned to look over his huge shoulder at Tifa, before shaking his head and fixing Vincent with an impressive glare.

Barret growled out between grit teeth, “I'm sick of your shit, Vincent! Now, move your f***in' ass!” before he stormed up to the cloaked man and shoved him aside, his strength knocking Vincent into the wall. Tifa shouted at Barret, but her voice was lost in the noise of his gatling gun. His arm having now transformed, the gun sparked off red embers as it charged a huge fiery ball at its end. No sooner had Tifa recognised it as Barret's Big Shot ability, he fired the charge into the door, a fiery blast encompassing the wooden frame and burning it to cinders. He charged outside through the receding flames as Tifa quickly moved to Vincent's side, the gunslinger just pushing himself away from the shack wall.

“Vincent, are you-”

“We have no time for this, nor does Marlene.” He ran straight past her without a second glance, following Barret's trail of destruction. Tifa moved to sprint after him, but the shattered planks of wood caught her eye; the pieces had broken into themselves where Vincent had been thrown, their splinters jutting out in all directions. Anger boiled to the surface at Barret's rash action, and also concern that the gunslinger may be injured. She sprinted after them both, deciding to confront them later; her worry for Marlene taking precedence over all. As she made it outside, she could finally make out the young girl's screams. Looking up, Tifa was stunned at the sight of the huge golden condor sitting atop the reactor above them, lifting both Marlene and Cait Sith into the air.

“MARLENE! YER DADDY'S COMIN'!” The sound of Barret's arm charging once more as he shouted up caused Tifa to look over in alarm. This time his gun-arm, or Myrna as it was named, began to emit bright blue sparks. Before he could fire his Mindblow, Tifa ran over and quickly thrust the barrel down towards the ground. Barret gave her a very angry and very incredulous look. “TIF'?! What tha HELL ya doin'?!”

“You'll hurt Marlene and Cait Sith, not to mention the condor!” At Tifa's words, a complex looked passed over Barret's face as he grit his teeth, slamming his boot into the dirt.

“GODDAMMIT!! Now you're pissin' me off!!” Tifa was about to reassure her old friend when a flash of red caught the corner of her eye. She turned to find that Vincent had begun to scale the rugged crag, slowly making his way up the rock face by leaping between crevices. She took a moment to watch him in awe, before Marlene's screams snapped her back to attention.

“Come on, we'll find another way around!” She began to sprint around the side of the reactor, looking for another way up while shouting reassurances to the girl. Barret quickly followed, his huge boots thundering down as he charged after the young fighter; he didn't need to be told twice.

 

 

"""

~ o0o ~

"""


Marlene was beginning to lose her grip, her arms aching from the effort of holding onto Cait Sith's hands. The cat didn't seem to be faring much better, judging by the look of strain on his face. The mighty bellow of her father suddenly met her ears and relief washed over her like warm rays of the sun. She shouted back at the top of her voice, and was equally relieved to find that this time Tifa answered, yet all legibility was lost with the wind. Without warning, both herself and Cait Sith began to descend, and the two looked at each other in confusion before Marlene could feel her feet touch the ground once more. She quickly pulled Cait Sith into her arms as the condor let go, the bird clicking its beak and making a series of chirrups.

“It's aboot time,” Cait Sith breathed out, “me arms are killin' me!” The puppet quickly jumped down from Marlene's hold, whipping out his megaphone as he spun around to face the condor. “Yer dun it noo, ya lousy bird! We got friends in high places, an they'll be e'en higher when they get up 'ere to teach ye a lesson!” The bird simply clicked its beak once more, ruffling its feathers as if in indignation.

“H-hold on Cait Sith...” Marlene stared carefully at the golden condor, only now beginning to notice how it shifted about restlessly. “I think it looks worried about something.” Cait Sith turned and shot her a look of disbelief.

“Aye, probably aboot how it's gonnae snap us up!” The puppet was about to continue, but the hurt look that passed across the girl's features stopped him. He turned back and on closer inspection he could see what Marlene was referring to. The huge condor shifted its weight restlessly on its perch, its eyes darting to something at their right. “So it does...” The cat scratched the back of his neck before addressing the small girl. “Ah'm sorry I didn't believe ya, Marlene. If it wanted tae eat us, it would 'ave dun it by noo.” Marlene smiled and nodded at the cat, pleased that he was listening to her. A shrill chirp snapped their attention back to the condor as it moved to the right, towards what appeared to be a giant pile of collected twigs, hay and foliage. The duo watched with great interest as it began to rearrange clumps of straw in its beak, pulling away a particularly large cluster to reveal the bird's well-kept secret.

Another nest lay cautiously tucked away behind a rusted structure, (which the condor had lifted both Cait Sith and Marlene over,) that was more carefully rearranged than the last. What made this nest so special however, and explained why it was so carefully hidden, were the three glittering, speckled eggs that lay inside. Marlene and Cait Sith looked in awe as their shells held a golden sheen, accentuated by the small light of the waking moon. Movement caught their eyes and it was then that they realised one of the eggs had been broken, hidden behind its possible brothers or sisters.

Cait Sith blurted out, “So yer a mother bird? Ye could'a fooled me, whit with yer manners an' all!” The mother in question ruffled her feathers and squawked loudly at the small puppet. The robot simply twirled his whiskers in response, a small grin on his face. “Aw, dinnae be like that!”

Marlene moved carefully towards the rocking shell, pausing to look up at the huge condor, silently asking for its permission. The bird seemed to understand this and twittered in response, a noise that held a great sense of impatience. Cait Sith seemed to notice this too and joined Marlene in approaching the shell. As she cautiously rounded the corner of the nest and past the two remaining eggs, the sight caused her to gasp in delight. A tremendously fluffy condor chick sat inside the base of a shattered egg shell, moving its head back and forth while flapping its small wings. As cute as it looked, the baby bird seemed to be struggling with something, and Marlene and Cait Sith quickly moved over to investigate. As they approached the fluffy chick, it raised itself up as best it could, giving itself a princely look that was completely ruined by its suffering expression.

“Oh no... I think it's sick!” Marlene carefully ran her hand over the chick's yellow down as she voiced her concern. She looked up to the mother condor that watched from above. “... Is this why you brought us up here?” The bird seemed to nod, tucking its beak into its chest feathers while uttering worried chirrups. Her hand suddenly ran over a bump as she stroked down the chick's throat, causing the baby bird to make a strange and pitiful tweet that made Marlene jump.

“Noo it didn't like that!” Cait Sith looked at the chick in puzzlement, before realisation dawned on him. “Marlene, why dinnae ye check its throat?” Marlene blinked at the cat's suggestion, but the baby bird seemed to understand what Cait Sith was saying and opened its beak for her. After her initial surprise, she leaned forward, resting her hands on her knees as she peered inside the bird's mouth. Cait Sith moved over to have a look for himself, jumping up to get a better view. What they saw shocked them.

“Is that... metal?” Worry swelled in Marlene's chest as she watched the small chick struggle with the object lodged in its throat. Cait Sith looked equally worried, turning to look up at the mother condor who anxiously danced on her perch.

“Ah'm sorry aboot callin' ya names earlier,” Cait Sith called up, “any mother who cares aboot her bairns is a good mother.” He took the corner of his little red cape and swept it in front of him, bowing to the grand golden bird. The mother bird chirped in response, clicking her beak as she turned her gaze once more to her youngling. Cait Sith did the same, looking back at the chick with contemplation as to how it had swallowed such a thing to begin with. “Ye know, I think it may be debris from tha' old reactor. Poor thing probably swallowed it while it was eatin'.”

“Y-yeah...” Marlene paused in hesitation, turning to Cait Sith while stroking the young bird in reassurance. “Could you pull it out?” The cat puppet blinked before shaking his head.

“Me arms are too short tae reach tha' far. Ah'm sure ye can manage though, Marlene.” The girl in question didn't look too convinced, grimacing slightly at the idea of putting her arm down the throat of a condor. Regardless, she pulled at the ends of her white turtle-neck jumper, preparing herself before raising her hand up to the chick's mouth. The princely little condor opened its mouth wider, and she hesitated for a moment before she began to reach inside.

Her face turned to one of slight disgust as she cried out, “Y-yuck! It's all warm and slimy!”

“Well, whit doo ye expect? Ye got yer arm doon tha' throat of a bird!” Cait Sith grinned as he said this, clearly enjoying Marlene's reactions as he watched, twirling his whiskers. The grin slowly fell from his face as he was left to his thoughts, before eventually saying, “Dinnae feel ignored, Marlene.” The girl looked to him in surprise, knowing he spoke about her feelings towards her father. The cat continued, “This condur wouldn't 'ave bin able tae get any help if you weren't 'ere. Ye an' me, we can get overlooked 'cause of our size. But it means we can doo things others cannae, an don't I know it!” The small girl pondered this, before smiling and nodding at Cait Sith. The cat nodded back, grinning once more. Returning to the job at hand, Marlene took a steadying breath before quickly reaching all of the way down the little bird's throat. The fluffy chick flapped its wings in discomfort, and Marlene swiftly moved her hand around to find the obstruction. She finally grasped at something sharp and hard.

“I got it!” she called out excitedly, carefully manoeuvring her hand so that the shard of metal wouldn't cause any damage to the bird. Finally, she dislodged and pulled out the reactor debris, causing the condor chick to make a sound similar to that of a cough. The youngling made a few more odd spluttering-like noises, before giving out a bright and jovial cheep.

“Noo that sounds betta! Ye did it, Marlene!” Cait Sith hopped up and down, mimicking the fluffy yellow chick as it danced about in joy while making loud peeps of gratitude. The mother condor was equally thrilled, spreading her huge wings and joining in with her chick's rejoicing. Marlene smiled while wiping her right arm of saliva, before inspecting the metal shard she had pulled out. The piece had indeed come from the reactor, judging by the corrosion. The metal was warped, like it had taken the brunt of a blast and could actually be shrapnel. Regardless of what it could be, Marlene decided it was best to get rid of it. She turned and walked over towards the reactor edge, gripping the piece tightly in her hand. Using all of her strength, she threw the piece away from the nest, watching as it was eventually consumed by the encroaching night.

As she moved back towards the condor, her heel caught on some moss that grew innocently on the side. Her sharp turn caused her to lose balance, and as she slipped and fell backwards, everything seemed to happen in slow motion. Cait Sith bolted towards her while shouting her name, arms outstretched. The mother condor looked up in alarm, while her chick shrilly cried out. Marlene reached out and grabbed the cat's arms in panic, but this only served to drag the puppet with her. In seconds, they were both sent over the edge; tumbling madly in descent. Despite Marlene's best efforts, the sheer force of the wind pulled Cait Sith from her reach, and she watched helplessly as he fell further and further away from her. Using what little breath she could catch, she screamed loudly for him.

“MARLENE!” She blinked as her voice was lost in three others shouting simultaneously, and she tried to look past her tears caused by the biting wind to locate the makers. Suddenly, her fall came to an abrupt end as a strong arm materialised underneath her. It took the girl a moment to realise that it belonged to Vincent, the man having leapt from halfway up his climb of the reactor to catch her. She clung to the buckles of his cloak as they now fell together, his tattered cape flapping wildly in free fall. Panic swelled in her chest at the thought of them colliding with the ground, and she closed her eyes in terror. However, the imagery in her head never came to be. Vincent landed expertly despite the harsh thud that met her ears, falling into a crouch with one knee meeting the ground. He looked down as he released the girl from his right arm, watching as she still grasped at his cape for dear life, her eyes screwed tightly shut.

“... You can let go now, Marlene.”

Unbeknownst to the girl blinking up at him, a deranged voice swiftly took hold of Vincent's rational mind and buried it deep in psychotic screaming. Eyes burning with lunacy seared his brain as they convulsed in their sockets. Reality unhinged from his mind like a door coming off its hinges.

'Don't let her go never let her go!! She wants to learn horror terror the macabre the INSANE- Oh can you see it in her eyes?! Perhaps we should start with the eyes without them she will SEE ME!! THEN I CAN SEE MYSELF!'

Vincent buckled, his other knee now meeting the ground with the first as he snapped his own neck to the side; Hellmasker mirroring the image in his head with a sickening crack while giving a voice to mania. He grit his teeth and blinked hard, shaking from the effort of ridding the entity from his head. Marlene stumbled back from the gunslinger, looking on in fear that maybe she had somehow hurt him; completely unaware of his internal struggle.

“MARLENE!!” She recognised her father's boom instantly and turned to run to him, finding Barret already waiting with outstretched arms. He scooped her up effortlessly, burying his face into her neck as he sighed in utter relief. “I'm so glad... I'm so glad yer alright!” Marlene could feel something wet trickle down her collarbone as she hugged him back.

“D-don't cry, daddy,” she comforted while tears ran down her own cheeks. “Your w-whiskers hurt!”

“YAAAAAAA-HA-HAAA!” Everyone looked up to find Cait Sith tumbling towards them but Tifa was quickest to act, jumping up and skillfully catching the little cat puppet. “Ooompf!” Cait Sith looked up into the relieved face of Tifa Lockhart. “Oh, helloo, Tif'. See ye next fall?” The woman simply shook her head in amusement, holding the cat closer to her as she expressed her relief towards his safety. A melodious piping met everyone's ears and they all looked high to find the mother condor circling above them, Marlene only now realising that it had took flight to try and catch herself and Cait Sith. She waved up to the golden bird as it sang above them, shouting her thanks, much to the confusion of everyone else. The condor dropped something in response that glittered in the dim light, and Marlene was startled when it landed soundly in her lap.

“What's tha?” Barret questioned, looking over his daughter at the small object. The girl carefully picked up the red orb, turning it over in her hands. Despite the dim light, it still somehow managed to shimmer a marvellous ruby. Barret blinked in astonishment before blurting out, “Materia?!” Captivated by the red marble, Marlene didn't even notice when Tifa and Vincent walked over to inspect it for themselves.

“Thank goodness you're alright... It looks like the condor left something else for you as well.” Marlene could hear the smile in Tifa's voice before she saw it on her face, blinking when the fighter held out a long golden feather. “I suppose it's thanking you back for... whatever you thanked it for. This drifted down after it dropped the Materia.”

“Did the condor really leave this for me?” Tifa simply smiled to her in answer before carefully tucking the girl's hair behind her left ear, sliding the glittering plumage in to hold it in place.

“... It suits you.” Vincent's sudden baritone surprised them all, and Marlene positively glowed at the gunslinger, who tucked his chin into his cowl in response.

“Aye, tha' it does!” Cait Sith piped up, having worked his way up to sit on Tifa's shoulder. “Noo if ya don't mind, av'e had enough near-death experiences foor one night. That, and ah'm starvin'!” The others stared blankly at the cat puppet, before bursting into laughter. Barret and Tifa mainly out of relief that they were safe, while Marlene simply in joy. Vincent remained quiet, staring in contemplation at his gauntlet before looking up to the sky as it began to turn a deep shade of blue. He remained for a few moments more as the group began to enter the fort, his mind lingering on an entity that no sane man should know, before finally turning to follow; the condor returning to her baby chick whilst calling jovially at his retreating back.

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter XV – Brothers In Arms

 

Steam wisped and swirled in a graceful dance from her mug, and Marlene enjoyed watching it disperse then gather once more as she gently blew on it. The warmth of the liquid radiated through the red ceramic, and she relished the feeling of heat seeping into her fingers; a welcomed change from the biting cold she had previously been subjected to. The thought caused her to hold the mug closer as she shivered lightly, it was hard to believe that a few moments ago she had fallen out of a condor's nest. A light weight fell upon her shoulders and she looked up in surprise to find Tifa covering her with a wonderfully soft blanket.

“How's your drink? Is it warm enough?” the fighter asked while carefully rearranging the material to cover Marlene more securely. The girl nodded with zest, taking another sip of her hot chocolate while lightly swinging her legs under the table.

“Mmm hm! It's really good, too!” Tifa smiled in response, crouching down beside the girl so that she could look at her better. She watched her drink for a moment, before gently placing her hand on the child's knee, holding her gaze with her own.

“... I'm so glad you're alright, Marlene,” Tifa breathed out, as if a weight had finally been lifted from her chest. The small girl shuffled on her wooden stool, looking into her mug as if looking for an answer.

“I'm sorry I caused so much trouble.” The fighter blinked at her mumbling, reaching up behind the girl's left ear to readjust the golden feather that was laced through her hair.

“Don't be silly, you did nothing wrong.”

“But I did!” Marlene shook her head quickly, almost causing the feather to fall out. Tifa paused for a moment, her brows furrowing at the girl before she once more reached up to secure the glittering plumage. “I... I didn't listen to Vincent...” This caught the fighter's full attention.

“Vincent?” Tifa thought back to Barret's earlier outburst, when she found him facing off against the gunslinger. At the time, she was more focused on helping Marlene than paying any attention to their bickering. Thinking back however, she now understood Barret's directed anger.

'Was it true that Vincent really saw her leave?' Marlene interrupted her thoughts, unknowingly answering her internal question.

“He told me not to, errm... 'stray far.'” Tifa watched the girl fiddle with the handle of her mug, staring adamantly at anything that wasn't the fighter's eyes. The whole situation struck Tifa as odd, she was certain that she was missing something.

“Tha' may be true,” a voice piped up, “but ye were only just ootside the fort.” Marlene and Tifa looked up in surprise to find Cait Sith hopping up to take the seat across from them. “Vinnie was gonna follow yer, but I told 'im I'd go instead.”

“I hope he's not mad at me... Denzel told me not to make Vincent mad.” Marlene's shoulders sank, causing the blanket to dip from her shoulders. Tifa was inwardly alarmed by the girl's words, a look of shock passing briefly over her features.

'What exactly has Denzel been telling Marlene? Does he know about...?!' The thought caused the fighter to pale slightly, before she tried to rationalise with herself. 'If Denzel really did know about Vincent's 'episode,' and indeed Marlene, they're handling it very well. … I'll have to ask Barret later.'

“Of course he's not mad,” Tifa said as she reached out and raised the cover back to its original position, smoothing out creases in the fabric, “he even commented on your new feather, and I have to agree with him. It definitely suits you.” Marlene remained quiet, taking another sip from her mug before nodding and gracing the woman with a small smile.

“Ye alright, bonnie lass? Yer lookin' rather pasty thair.” Tifa blinked at the little booted cat's concern, about to reply when her mind latched onto Cait Sith's term for her. She raised an eyebrow at him from across the table.

“'Bonnie lass'?” The puppet slapped his gloved hands over his mouth, shaking his head while Tifa watched him with barely contained amusement. While working as a bar hostess in the slums of Midgar, those few years back that felt like a century ago, she had been called all kinds of things. Some complimentary, some degrading, and some down right vulgar. (Those who called her the last two normally ended up with a boot between their legs.) It was such an oddity to hear old words coming from the crowned cat. Tifa opened her mouth to respond when the shop attendant walked over to the table.

“How are you doing- oh!” The woman blinked at the flustered puppet. “I hope I haven't interrupted anything...?”

“Of coorse not!” The relief in Cait Sith's voice made it difficult for Tifa to hide her grin. “Quite the contrary, actually. Hope those sandwiches are fer us!” It was only then that the fighter noticed the plate of food held in the attendant's hand.

“They sure are. I hope you like strawberry jam, because your friend here asked for them.” Marlene hid behind her mug as both Cait Sith and Tifa looked at the small girl in surprise, knowing her to be normally shy around strangers. The woman gave a kind smile as she placed the food on the table, close to the lantern situated in the middle. She then turned to Marlene, having noticed the feather in her hair. “It's amazing that you got to see a condor up so close, let alone get one of its feathers! You're certainly lucky!” The little girl blushed at this, turning a shade of red that almost matched her mug, clearly unused to the attention.

Cait Sith gave the attendant a feline grin as he curled his whiskers. “Thank ye fer tha' drink and tha' food. Marlene really likes the hot chocolate!” The girl gave a hum and a shy nod in agreement.

“Yes, thank you for everything you've done,” Tifa said as she smiled gratefully at the woman. “I'm also sorry about my friend, well...” She searched for a more sensitive way of putting her next words, but came up short. “... Blowing up your shack.”

“Oh, don't worry about it!” The attendant waved it off, much to Tifa's surprise. “I'm just glad everyone's alright. Besides, there's been talk about rebuilding, so you've done half the work for us.” The kindly attendant laughed once more while Tifa couldn't help but shake her head in slight disbelief, chuckling alongside the woman.

“Say, Marlene, how aboot we play a game?” Marlene blinked at the cat from across the table, caught in the middle of taking a bite from one of the sandwiches. “Just befoor bed, what do ye say tae a game of snap?” The girl seemed to think about this, chewing thoughtfully on her neatly cut, triangular sliced bread, before swallowing and smiling at the feline.

“Actually... I'd like to play battleships.”

“Battleships?” This caught the shop attendant's attention. “You know, in between Shinra attacks, the resistance fighters used to play battleships to pass the time. They said it helped them to strategize and keep their minds active. I'm sure we have the boards around here somewhere... I'll go find them for you.” The woman smiled and briskly walked off to begin her search.

Tifa watched the shop attendant come tour guide leave as Cait Sith began to tease Marlene for 'being too old fer snap.' She was about to turn away when she spotted a flash of crimson from the corner of her eye. Quickly turning to her right, she just managed to catch a glimpse of Vincent's cape disappearing behind a wooden frame. Tifa raised an eyebrow in curiosity, knowing that past the framework was the rope ladder that lead to the item shop. She paused in thought before rising from her crouched position next to Marlene, the girl looking up to her in question.

“I need to go take care of something, will you be okay here with Cait Sith?” Marlene smiled and nodded in response, which Tifa mirrored with her own smile.

“Of coorse she'll be fine! Until av'e beaten her at battleships!” Cait Sith gave Tifa a thumbs up, which Marlene retorted with the ever mature, 'No you won't, and you smell.' This caused the two to erupt in playful bickering and Tifa went completely unnoticed as she reached over and, on second thought, grabbed one of the larger sandwich slices. Moving to the six wooden steps that lead up to the raised level, she took them three at a time before walking towards the item shop. She paused with uncertainty on reaching the doorway, finding the black area beyond it seemingly empty.

“... Vincent?” She stepped hesitantly around the wooden frame while peering further into the darkness. Red eyes suddenly blinked back at her and she jumped, just stopping before she walked into her friend. “Ah, you scared me!” As her eyes began to adjust, she could just make him out leaning against the wall next to the rope ladder, dim light spilling down from the shop above. She could also make out her close proximity, her nose only an inch or so from his chest. She quickly stepped back while the gunslinger crossed his arms, carefully observing her.

“... How is Marlene?” Vincent finally asked. She nodded, staring carefully at his face. Despite the dim lighting, she could see that he looked rather pale.

'Just like that time on the rooftops in Kalm, and next to the Lifestream...' she thought.

“She's fine, thanks to you,” Tifa motioned to him with a nod of her head. Vincent, however, didn't really seem to notice. She could see that he looked tired, despite the poor lighting. “I should be asking how you are. That was quite a big fall you took, and with Barret earlier...” Tifa rubbed at her right arm, looking up towards the top of the ladder. All of the ladders in the fort were brightly illuminated by lamps situated above, but it seemed that the lamp here suffered from a dying bulb. The resulting dimness frustrated the fighter, especially since she was trying to check if Vincent was indeed well.

“Do not concern yourself with me.” Tifa frowned in response to his words, placing a hand on her hip as she gave him an admonishing stare.

I'll 'concern' myself with you as much as I want, despite you telling me not to. You should know that.” She took his silence as acknowledgement to this. “Why are you hiding in here anyway?” She finally gained a response from him via an elegantly raised eyebrow.

“That was not my intention. I simply did not wish to disturb you.” Vincent's focus drifted past her shoulder and Tifa followed his gaze. She could see Marlene and Cait Sith setting up their newly acquired battleship boards, carefully placing their plastic ships amidst the glow of the lantern. Tifa smiled as she watched both girl and cat talk animatedly to each other over a small mountain of sandwiches.

“Are you going to finish that?” Vincent's voice broke through her observation and she turned back to him, realising that he spoke of the sandwich that she had forgotten she held.

“No,” she shook her head, which caused the gunslinger to furrow his brows slightly. “You are.” She held out the generous slice towards him, causing Vincent to blink in return. The fingers of his gauntlet began to twitch and Tifa looked at them curiously. They moved in a way that seemed unnatural to the fighter, and she was taken aback when Vincent quickly uncrossed his arms and moved the golden appendage behind the folds of his cloak.

“I'm afraid I must decline your offer.”

“Oh come on, it won't hurt you-”

“I do not wish-”

Please, Vincent.” Vincent fell silent. Tifa's plea surprised the gunslinger, though he gave no outward indication. Her russet eyes sought out his own crimson ones, imploring. “You don't look very well, and you barely eat-”

“I could say the same thing about you, Tifa Lockhart.” It was Tifa's turn to be surprised, mainly at the oddity of being addressed by her full name, and by Vincent no less. She narrowed her eyes at him, searching his own blood red ones carefully. As much as she'd like to tell him otherwise, she couldn't actually remember the last thing she had eaten.

“... Okay,” she nodded, before tearing the sandwich down the middle. “How about I have this bit, if you promise to have the other.”

Vincent narrowed his eyes, before closing them and softly exhaling through his nose, making a quiet 'hmph.' He slowly reached out with his right hand to take the offered piece of bread, and Tifa felt amused at the near apprehensiveness of the act. The laconic gunslinger carefully turned the divided slice over between his fingers, an odd expression settling over his features. Tifa, now satisfied, took a bite from her own piece. She hummed out her contentment as she chewed.

“It's really good, trust me,” she said with a smile before finishing off her last bite. Dusting the crumbs from her gloved fingers, she tilted her head slightly when she noticed that Vincent continued to stare at his own piece. “I've finished mine. Come on, you promised.” The cloaked man looked up briefly, before returning his gaze to the food in his hand.

What Tifa didn't know was that Vincent's lack of appetite was due to the tetrad of demons that dwelled within him. Often he went for days, even weeks, without eating. It was almost unnecessary, when his demons provided him nourishment through their own feeding. The notion of hunger was almost foreign to him now, though he wasn't completely unaffected by it. When he managed to suppress his demons for a long period of time, (which was becoming increasingly difficult,) it also meant that they weren't able to feed. So when hunger finally did raise its head, it almost crippled him in its severity.

So was the price of control.

Vincent had learnt from this, and though he made a conscious effort to eat more so that his body could sustain itself, he would still forget at times. He was brought from his thoughts when Tifa's exact words only now occurred to him.

“Promise? I did not promise anything.” As he looked back up at the woman, he was met with a true smile that reached her eyes.

“No, but your actions were enough.” With that, Tifa turned around and began to make her way back towards the main area, leaving Vincent to contemplate her words. As he looked down at the torn sandwich in his hand, he couldn't hide the small smile that tugged at his lips. He resisted the urge to shake his head as he pulled his cowl down with a single gold talon, before taking a small bite from the torn slice.

He chewed thoughtfully for a moment, before swallowing with just as much contemplation. He pulled his cowl down briefly once more, taking an extra bite and chewing even more carefully than the last. He finally swallowed and appraised the remaining piece in his hand.

Tifa was right. Whatever it was, it was good.

He looked up and was slightly surprised to find that the fighter had only moved as far as the doorway. On second thought, Vincent decided that he should have known better. Of course Tifa would wait to see that he finished his food; he did 'promise' after all. She leaned against the wooden frame with her arms crossed, her back facing him as she watched Marlene and Cait Sith play their battleship game which was now fully underway. The gunslinger doubted she even noticed he'd eaten some of his slice. She looked enthralled.

“Tifa.” The woman jumped for the second time that night, quickly turning to look over her shoulder. A look of surprise passed over her face when her eyes rested on the half-eaten sandwich in his hand. “What does this contain?”

Tifa blinked at the question before answering, “Strawberry jam.”

“Hm.” Vincent's vague reply caused Tifa to blink once more before a brilliant grin appeared on her face. Despite his nonchalant response, the slight expression on his face spoke a thousand words. Deciding to leave him be, knowing he would no doubt refuse to eat anything while she was watching, she decided it was time she sought out Barret. Pushing herself up from the wooden frame, she moved away from the doorway and left Vincent to finish his remaining share. However, the grin never left her face as she crossed the room.

'So, Vincent is taken with strawberry jam sandwiches! Who knew?' Her thoughts were interrupted by Cait Sith's shouting.

“Ye sunk mah battleship!” The cat danced on his wooden stool as he placed the last red pin into one of his ships. Tifa glanced over and had to stifle her laugh at the way the puppet had arranged his plastic fleet. Shaking her head, she left the two to continue their game as she made her way towards the party's sleeping quarters. A gruff voice met her ears as she drew closer, one that she instantly recognised as her old friend's.

“Sure, Reeve... They're both fine, ain't no problem.” Barret pushed the PHS further against his ear as he spoke, his left arm outstretched to hold up Marlene's red Materia. The man turned the bauble around in his hand, watching as it glittered even in the dim light. His eyes moved from the sparkling orb to Tifa as she approached and he gave her a small nod in acknowledgement. “So, how's tha' bar?”

Tifa smiled gratefully to him, knowing that Barret was asking Reeve on her behalf. The bulky man leaned further back into the wall as he listened to the WRO leader, the hole leading to the sleeping quarters not too far from his feet. Tifa slowly moved over as he spoke to carefully peer down the ladder. She could make out the warm glow of Nanaki's tail, and she wondered if Denzel was doing any better.

“Tha's good to hear. I'll tell 'er. … A'ight, I'll check in with you next time. Later.” Barret snapped the PHS shut then stuffed the phone into the side pocket of his green cargo pants. He gave a hefty sigh, running his steely metal fingers over his cornrow styled hair before turning to Tifa. “Bar's good, Reeve's lookin' after it.”

“That's good to know,” Tifa nodded towards the Materia. “I hope you give that back to Marlene.” Barret threw the marble into the air before catching it and pocketing it to rest alongside his phone.

“'Course I will. I jes' wanted to check it fer myself.” Tifa nodded, her expression resting into a thoughtful one. A few moments of silence passed comfortably between them; the sign of true friends. Tifa was the first to break it.

“... Barret, I was speaking to Marlene earlier and she mentioned that Denzel told her, 'not make Vincent mad.' Do you know anything about that?”

“… Aww shit.” Barret's brow furrowed as he pushed himself up from the fort wall. “Yeah. Back when we were travellin' ta Kalm. I told 'im not to piss off Vincent.” He could almost feel the glare that Tifa shot his way, and he quickly raised a hand up in defence. “Hey, I didn't exactly say it that way. I jes' told 'im not to annoy 'im or summit.”

“I can understand why you said it, but I think it's best the kids don't know anything about it, even if you did just hint-” Barret hastily cut Tifa off, his temper rising as he thundered towards her.

“Dammit, Tif', I didn't exactly tell 'em! I think it's good that they know at least this much, tha man's got one helluva problem!”

“From what I can see, you're the one with the problem!” Barret blinked, only now noticing how close his face was to Tifa's. Tifa stood her ground, her fists balled tightly as she stared up at him, unmoving. Barret stepped back, anger still evident on his face even as he shot the fighter a questioning look.

“Whaddya mean, I'm the one!?” he hissed through grit teeth. “The man's been actin' all weird, I told him ta stay away from Marlene cause I don't trust 'im!”

“Wait, hold on,” Tifa's face lit up with realisation. “You told Vincent that? Then why were you shouting at him earlier for not following her?”

“Because he should'ave-! I mean...” Barret paused as he put two and two together, instead huffing angrily and turning away. A light weight rested on his arm, and he looked down to find Tifa's hand. The fighter leaned around, trying to catch his eyes with her own.

“Barret... we both know Vincent saved Marlene. If he didn't catch her...” Barret shrugged off her hand while shrugging into his white vest before turning to meet her gaze.

“Yeah, I know, I know... Still, it don't make things betta' when I know Vincent's lyin' ta me. Mind explainin' that?” Tifa's look of confusion only served to fuel the bulky man's anger but he took a deep breath through the nose before giving Tifa a very serious look. This immediately caught the fighter's attention as it was a look only seen when Barret was all business, and usually reserved only for AVALANCHE meetings years ago.

“Tif', about your lil' accident.” Barret nodded to her right shoulder, and Tifa couldn't help but move her left hand over it self-consciously. “Vincent didn't explain how you fractured yer shoulder. You got chased by a gang, an' you got hurt gettin' yerself back to tha' bar. I heard all that, but I ain't buyin' it. It's clear he left summit out, I ain't no blind man. And I want ya to be straight with me... cause if he did that to ya...”

“What-no!” Tifa's eyes widened. Reeve's voice suddenly rang out in her head from days past. 'Vincent explained what had happened after you were healed. I feel he left out details though, I think summary is a better way of putting it than 'explained.'' She thought over the words along with Barret's before realisation dawned on her features.

“So he didn't tell you about...” Tifa paused while Barret crossed his arms, a somewhat pleased expression on his face from no doubt knowing he was right.

'How sweet of him,' Tifa thought, appreciative to Vincent's prudence of the situation, before sighing. She knew she had to clear up the affair. “Vincent didn't tell you about the brute.”

This most certainly caught Barret's attention. “Brute? Whaddya mean?”

“... Another man gave me this. Not Vincent, if that's what you're thinking.” Tifa almost had to spit out her words and Barret slowly uncrossed his arms, seeing she was struggling. “He caught me off-guard, and I...” she swallowed bitterly. “I didn't have my gloves with me. So... yeah. That's when Vincent stepped in.” Barret hesitated before nodding, walking over to the fighter and pulling her into his burly arms.

“Come 'ere.” Tifa didn't resist. They stood for a moment in silence, sharing the comfortable embrace. Barret rested his chin on top her head, lost in his own thoughts. He secretly regretted pushing the matter. He never liked upsetting Tifa, and her explanation made him reconsider his thoughts about their more aloof comrade.

“... Still, I would have knocked him out though.” The point-blank statement from Tifa caused Barret to blink before bursting into laughter, his body shaking as his mighty bellow echoed off the walls.

“Yeah, I bet ya would'ave too.” Tifa could feel Barret's grin from the top of her head. She pulled away, giving a brief smile to her old friend before prodding a finger into his chest.

“Okay, now it's your turn to explain.” Tifa's serious expression caught his full attention. “Cait Sith told me that Marlene says you don't listen to her.” Barret opened his mouth, but the fighter beat him to it. “And before you say, 'I do listen,' it's only when she's trying to tell you things she's learned. What's that all about?” Barret fell silent. A few moments passed and Tifa looked at her old friend in concern.

“... Now that Cait Sith mentioned it, I've noticed it too. Marlene's been quite upset about it, she's more than clever enough to notice things like that. Aren't you proud that she's smart for her age?”

“It ain't that, Tif'.” Barret quickly shook his head. “It's jus'... she's growin' up too fast.” Tifa's concerned look caused the man to sigh, and he turned to look in the direction where his little girl played.

“I wasn't there for her because we had ta go save the Planet three years back. I was doin' it mainly fer her. Now I feel like she's growin' up too soon, she's no longer the lil' girl I rememba.” He felt Tifa's hand on his arm once more, but did not turn to meet her eyes.

“Barret, she'll always be your little girl. No matter how old she gets. But you have to stop treating her like she's one.” Barret finally turned to look at Tifa, and after a moment, nodded slowly.

“Yeah... I guess you're right.” Tifa nodded back, inwardly surprised at Barret's confession, but pleased that he had told her all the same. She walked over to the ladder and began to climb down to the sleeping quarters to check on Denzel. She felt that Barret needed to be alone. The man watched her leave, and sighed roughly through his nose.

'Marlene may be my lil' girl... but you'll always be mah big girl, Tif'.' With that thought, and mind made up, Barret stomped his way towards the room where the voices of Marlene and Cait Sith seemed to have reached a fever pitch. He found the cat puppet jumping up and down on his stool, exclaiming how could he have lost to a little girl, with what appeared to be a half-eaten mound of sandwiches placed between them. Marlene grinned in triumph, placing the final pin into her board and completing what appeared to be the image of a smiley face. Barret had to blink at the sight, and shook his head at the way Cait Sith had arranged his game pieces.

Looking ahead, Barret was surprised to find Vincent leaning against the far wall, no doubt watching the two's antics and with what appeared to be a shadow of a smile no less. As Barret drew closer, the smile promptly vanished and it made the gun-armed man wonder if he'd really seen it at all. Vincent uncrossed his arms and straightened up to his full height, sensing the man's intention to speak with him and secretly steeling himself for a rebuke. Barret studied Vincent carefully before speaking.

“I need ta clear sumthin' up with you.” Vincent tucked his chin further into his cowl, waiting for the gun-armed man to continue. However, Barret seemed to hesitate and the uncharacteristic action did not go unnoticed by the gunslinger. “... I had ya down wrong.” Vincent's eyes narrowed slightly as he gave Barret an inquisitive look, as if he hadn't quite heard the man right. Barret sighed, reaching up to scratch the back of his neck with giant steel fingers, before he held out his left hand.

Vincent blinked at the gesture, inwardly stunned. A moment passed before Vincent moved to grasp the hand with his own, but became perplexed when he raised his golden appendage. He hesitated slightly before lowering his talon-adorned hand and raising his right instead. Barret raised his own, but paused himself at the sight of his steel prosthetic held out towards the crimson caped man.

Barret couldn't help but chuckle deeply, “Guess you an' me ain't so different after all.”

He grinned at the gunslinger before instead choosing to give him a rough clap on the shoulder. “Look, back there wit' Marlene... I mean, when you- ya know...” Barret paused, clearly struggling for words, before he gave up with a shrug of his shoulders and a wave of his hand. “Nevermind, forget it. I'll tell ya later.” As Barret turned around and began to head back towards Marlene, Vincent's voice quietly intoned at his back.

“... You're welcome.”

Barret paused and turned his head slightly to the side, before continuing over towards his little girl.

After all, he never did get to learn more about those fruit bats.

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter XVI – The Boy Who Cried Cloud

 

The sun rose lazily above the mountain range, its encroaching light spilling out into the sky and sending the stars to slumber amongst streaks of pink and gold. The rays that escaped through the gaps in the mountains struck Fort Condor in magnificent beams, causing the surrounding rocks to burn a deep orange. However, the colour was nowhere near as vibrant as the coat of the visitor that stood witness to the scene.

Nanaki padded closer to the edge of a jutted rock high above the plains, the sun catching his fur and blessing it a sheen of fire. Wind teased gently through his auburn mane and he raised his head to greet it, his tassels and golden bracelets joining the musical chime of birds flying overhead. The fire-dog breathed deeply through his nose, taking in the wonderful scent of fresh morning dew and listening to the carefully orchestrated sounds of dawn. The light rustling of grass, the soft beating wings of small birds...

The muffled crunch of stones underfoot.

Nanaki's right ear swivelled back towards the sound before he turned to look over his left shoulder, finding Tifa Lockhart walking carefully towards him and the edge of the great precipice. His ears shot upright at the sight.

“Be careful, Tifa.” The woman seemed to pay him no mind as she made the rest of her way to stand beside him. The quadruped's gaze lingered on her, having noticed the light shade of purple under her eyes. “I'm surprised to see you awake this early, though I'm not sure of the the exact time-”

“Five forty-five,” Tifa answered rather snappingly. Nanaki nodded, deciding to say little more on the matter and moving his left eye to follow the fighter's gaze down to the valley below. The river in the distance sparkled brilliantly as the sun's reflection caught its waters; the forest next to it adding to the tranquil scene while being framed by two mountain ranges either side. Another small breeze blew past and Nanaki raised his head once more to embrace it, closing his eye as the wind sent ripples through his fur. Tifa however chose to rub at the goosebumps the cold had formed on her upper arms.

She knew Nanaki was right to be surprised. While Tifa certainly wasn't one for sleeping in, she was never up this early. However, she had suffered from a rather bad nightmare, one which involved a certain spiky haired childhood friend. As a result she had been up for a few hours previously, trying (and failing,) to fall back into slumber. Her heart ached alongside her eyes, and as she reached up to rub at them a sudden heat fell upon her back. Snapping her head to look over her shoulder she was met with the bright glow of Nanaki's tail flame, the lion-like creature having raised it towards her to provide warmth. She gave her four-legged friend a rather weak smile, which was met in turn with a sharp and toothy grin.

While keeping his tail elevated, Nanaki sat back on his haunches and turned his eye to the northwest. They remained in silence for a few moments more, both listening to the whispering wind as it gently passed them by. Nanaki was the first to speak up.

“Do you see the structure in the distance, just behind the mountain range?” Tifa turned to look in the direction of Nanaki's focus, squinting her eyes as she searched the horizon. “Look carefully,” the fire-dog advised, “it's partially hidden.” Tifa took heed of Nanaki's words but began to doubt that she could see it, knowing that his eyesight was much better than her own. Just when she was about to give up, she finally spotted the odd structure in question peeking out from the side of a mountain.

“Ah, yes! I see it,” Tifa smiled, pleased at her own discovery before a thoughtful look settled on her weary features. “Isn't that Junon?” Nanaki nodded, his tassels jingling in agreement.

“It is, and where Barret advised me that Reeve wishes for us to go next. But do you notice anything else about it...?” The fire-dog let his question hang in the air, causing Tifa to become puzzled at his mysterious insinuation. She looked once more at the city in the distance, this time taking in every detail that she could see to try and spot something that was perhaps missing. It took a few moments more of focused scrutiny before realization hit her.

It wasn't what should be there, but rather what shouldn't.

“Is that... Sister Ray?!” Tifa blurted out, staring rigidly at the long barrel shaped shadow that sat against the horizon. Her mind ground to a halt as it tried to rationalise with itself, a myriad of thoughts assaulting her within seconds. The mammoth weapon was notorious, being an extremely powerful cannon built by Shinra that used both Huge Materia, (extraordinarily rare and powerful Materia created in Mako Reactor cores,) and Mako as a power source respectively. However, it was mainly infamous for taking down two enormous and near legendary creatures created by the Planet called WEAPONS; first Sapphire Weapon at Junon, and later, Diamond Weapon. “But, wait... wasn't it-”

“Moved to Midgar, to destroy the barrier surrounding the Northern Crater three years ago?” Nanaki finished for her, knowing exactly what she was going to say. “Yes. However, I am unsure if you can tell but it is a lot thinner in width. I do not believe it to be Sister Ray, yet it's most certainly sitting in the same position the cannon used to be situated.” Red XIII swept his tail out behind him before returning it close to Tifa's back, a wave of embers dancing into the air. The action struck Tifa as being oddly pensive.

“I guess it wasn't built when you travelled here from Cosmo Canyon?” She turned to look at the fire-dog, briefly distracted by the way his mohawk-like mane waved gently in the breeze.

“When I last passed through Junon, they were carrying out construction work. I thought nothing more on the matter, but it makes one wonder what they're possibly building. Unless...”

“... Unless it's another cannon.” Both Nanaki and Tifa shared an uneasy look between them, the statement bringing them to an ill silence.

A soft chorus of twittering broke out as a group of tiny chaffinches passed overhead, both ex-AVALANCHE members watching as the birds made their merry way towards Junon and its rather foreboding new structure. As they moved further away, their little wings made small blots of shadow in the morning sun, causing them to become nothing more but flickers against a grand horizon.

Tifa looked up to the sky of deep pink with a yawn, the urge to stretch suddenly overwhelming. She raised her arms up as she arched her back, reaching towards the golden-washed clouds before bringing them back down to the base of her spine. Her muscles ached, but it was a pleasurable sensation that came from flexing after recently awakening. Nanaki glanced over in amusement, discreetly moving his tail back to avoid burning her whilst she stretched, but he couldn't look away as the sun caught her hair; the light making it shimmer in hues of molten copper. Tifa soon noticed this but when she gave him a questioning look, Nanaki waved his tail as if waving away the unspoken enquiry.

'Even for an animal such as myself, her beauty is to be appreciated. Or perhaps... Am I too human-like in noticing such things?' The thought caused the fire-dog to fall into deep consideration, and it felt like minutes before Tifa's hand on his mane snapped him back to attention. He turned his eye towards her, giving the fighter his full regard.

“Red...” Her face held a soft look of concern which caused the red dog's ears to stand up a little straighter, anticipating her next words. “How is Denzel?” Nanaki paused before sighing through his nose, turning back towards the horizon and mountains set aflame by the sun.

“... I'm unsure. I spoke to him, like we agreed. I feel he is still angry about being left behind, even if for his own safety.” Nanaki turned to look back at Tifa, noticing how the concern on her face made her appear even more tired than before. “... It is difficult to explain to one so young why they must stay.”

Tifa hummed in agreement. She fully understood Denzel's frustration, however she knew it didn't make explaining the situation to him any easier. “I said I would speak to him later. By the time we got back into the fort last night, he was sound asleep. I didn't want to wake him.” Tifa heard the sudden jingling of Red's beads and tassels, and she didn't have to look to know that the fire-dog had nodded his head.

“His anger may have outlasted his sense of rationality, but certainly not his fatigue. I made sure to rest near the ladder afterwards, in case he woke up and attempted to leave once again.” A rather heavy expression settled on Nanaki's features before he spoke his next words, his ochre coloured eye taking on a glimmer in the sun as he turned to the weary fighter next to him.

“Tifa... Denzel is unpredictable. I do not believe he truly listened to me, and I think it would be best if you spoke to him. I would also suggest keeping a close eye on the boy,” Nanaki paused for a moment here. “Or perhaps, two, if you get my meaning.” The fire-dog blinked his lone eye twice to accentuate his words, earning a light chuckle in response from the woman next to him.

“I will Nanaki, don't worry.” Despite her reassurance, Red could tell from the slight crease on her forehead that Tifa would do well to heed her own words. Another breeze rose up to caress them both, this one holding a particular sweet scent that caused Nanaki's nose to twitch rapidly. Tifa inhaled deeply, enjoying the smell while listening to the rustling leaves of many trees below them. It was then that she realised what the aroma was.

Fruit.

The fighter looked down into the valley below and towards the Mythril Mines, the abundant grove of orchard trees seemingly waving back to her as another zephyr worked its way through their branches and across the plains.

'That's right,' Tifa thought. 'I almost forgot about the fruit trees.' Another current of air rich with the promise of apples and lemons passed by, causing Tifa's stomach to almost follow the wind with growling longing. She raised her hand to her abdomen, pausing in thought before turning away and carefully moving back from the rock's edge.

“Where are you going?” Red XIII enquired as he turned to watch her leave with curiosity, moving his tail away from her back to let her past.

“Breakfast,” she simply replied, her upbeat tone trying to belie the weary croak in her voice. Nanaki was not fooled however, easily being able to see through her façade by the way she dragged her feet. The red-furred dog watched her go with concern, hesitating slightly before padding after her.

“Perhaps you should get some more rest, I can see about bringing you something to eat if I enquire around the fort.” Tifa glanced over her shoulder, cracking a smile at the way the morning sun set her four-footed friend's fur on fire.

“I'm not heading back inside; I'm going to get some fruit from the orchard. Besides,” she breathed out as she began to climb down some pointed rocks, “Denzel likes apples.” With that, Tifa clambered down the rest of the slope littered with jagged crags, Nanaki following by expertly leaping from rock to rock to join her descent. As the two passed by the fort entrance, familiar singing met their ears from within. Both woman and animal paused to listen, both sharing a raised eyebrow between them.

... How doo ye like, yer eggs in the mornin'~? I like mine with'a kiss~” The echo suddenly stopped.

For a moment, silence abound.

Then, “GET OFF MAH FACE YA DAMN CAT!!” Barret's voice boomed through the fort and echoed out the entrance, causing both Nanaki and Tifa to shake their heads at the commotion that ensued. Heading further down the slope, they both continued on their way as Cait Sith's rendition and Barret's rage continued at their backs and into the early morning.

 

 

"""

~ o0o ~

"""



A gentle breeze swept across the plains and over the whole party as they traversed across the grasslands, Fort Condor now nothing but a tall blot on the horizon. Heartfelt goodbyes were made by all, (especially towards Nanaki given his rather lengthy stay,) and even the mother condor sent them all off with a heartfelt farewell; circling around the fort with a great and jubilant cry as Marlene waved back in turn, shouting her thanks with great enthusiasm. Even hours after leaving, the grin never left her face as she examined the glittering red marble in her hand, holding up the red Materia to the sun.

“Soo, err...” Cait Sith hesitantly looked over from his perch on Tifa's shoulder to the huge man that moodily trudged next to her. “I did'ne mean ta kiss yae-”

“Look, I don't even wanna THINK about it let alone talk about it!” Barret bit out between grit teeth, turning to the puppet and huffing heavily through his nose in a way reminiscent to a raging bull. Cait Sith yelped and hopped off Tifa's shoulder, only to be caught by Marlene who was walking behind them. Giggling, she took off with the golden-crowned cat in both arms. Barret shook his head as he turned back to watch her, the little girl running over to Denzel before talking animatedly and holding out the little robot towards him. The orphan showed no interest however, instead turning away to stare blankly at the surrounding meadows.

“I take it you've noticed too?” Barret blinked, looking over to find that Tifa had been watching Denzel as well. “He's been quiet for hours,” she mumbled, a crease of worry lined across her brow. The dark-skinned man nodded, reaching up to scratch at his thick beard in thought.

“Mebbe. Tell ya one thing I've noticed though.” At this, Tifa looked over to him curiously. “You look beat.”

“Thanks,” she croaked, sleep still laden in her voice. Barret brushed off the snippy response, more interested that despite the fighting girl's clear lack of sleep, she seemed oddly more determined. Her fists were clenched tighter, her back straighter and her strides longer. The sight took him back to that dreadful day when their whole party descended into hell to stop Sephiroth. Everyone had walked with a grim kind of determination that day; each step filled with purpose. It was in watching Tifa now that Barret realised she was walking in the same manner, and it made him wonder and worry about the fighter's well-being.

“So,” Barret began, deciding to change the (seemingly sore) subject, “mind finally tellin' me what was up with Vince yesterday?” It took Tifa a moment to realise what Barret was talking about, the brief look of confusion lifting from her features.

“Oh, you mean after we exited Mythril Mines?” Barret nodded. Tifa thought back carefully to the gunslinger's odd behaviour, remembering that Barret had questioned her on it. She had said that she would tell him later, because in all honesty Tifa wasn't entirely sure what had happened herself.

“... To be honest, Barret, I don't know. But he started acting... strange... after we passed the Lifestream, actually.” Tifa raised her fist and swept the knuckle across her tired eyes while Barret shot her a rare look of puzzlement.

“Tha' Lifestream? Whaddya mean?”

“Like I said, I don't know,” Tifa snapped, her patience worn thin. Barret stared at her and Tifa immediately regretted her words. She sighed, “Look, I'm sorry, Barret. I really don't know what else to tell you. Vincent just seemed to... walk quicker, and kinda hunched over a bit.”

“It's cool. Jes' I was thinking, the Lifestream can only make ya sick if you spend too much time exposed to it. Mako Poisonin', an' all that.” Tifa nodded with a grimace, suppressing a shiver as she thought back to the time herself and Cloud fell into the Lifestream in Mideel, along with Cloud's own case of Mako Poisoning. “Maybe it was just coincidence or summit. Unless Vince's been swimming in tha' stuff, passin' by it ain't gonna do shit!”

Tifa's resulting silence concerned the gun-armed man and when he noticed her staring blankly at the ground as she walked, this only served to concern him even more. He moved a giant hand to rest on her shoulder, making Tifa snap her gaze to him with a start.

The fighter blinked a few times before saying, “Sorry, what was that?”

Barret simply graced her with an incredulous look, as if to say 'You serious, girl?!' Tifa could only watch with a sheepish expression. What Barret didn't know was that Tifa had been lost in her thoughts regarding her missing childhood friend, and subsequently trying to come to terms with the very new feeling that rose to the surface. Normally her thoughts on Cloud brought forth painful emotions, but this time she felt nothing but frustration and anger. Despite her emotional confliction she swallowed down the bubbling resentment, choosing to confront it later and focus on Barret instead.

“You mentioned something about Vincent?” Barret crossed his huge arms, not dismissing the perplexed and rather annoyed look that had passed Tifa's face.

“Yeah, I was jes' saying that Vincent will only get sick if he's been swimmin' in tha' Lifestream.” Barret fixed her with a look that was almost reserved exclusively for Marlene; one of fatherly concern. “...You sure yer okay?”

“I'm fine,” she brushed off. “Besides, I don't even know if Vincent can swim.”

“Me neither, but I'm sure if he tried he'd probably turn into ash or summit-OW!” Tifa delivered a playful punch into the side of Barret's arm, unable to contain her grin, but when he shot her a look of great indignation it finally broke the fighter.

She burst out laughing.

Barret almost tripped, startled at the sudden noise but pleased that Tifa was starting to act more like her old self. He grinned, showing the whites of his teeth.

“Tifa! Daddy!” Both adults turned around to find Marlene running up to them. Her left hand was held up against the glittering feather in her hair while she bore a shiny red orb in her right. “What Materia is this?” While Barret reached down to take the ruby marble, Tifa looked behind to check on Denzel. She found that he was still in the same position as last, the hazel-haired boy continuing to stare blankly at the lush meadows even as Cait Sith danced around his feet in a failed attempt to grab his attention.

“Barret.” Tifa nudged her old friend before tilting her head towards Denzel. Barret nodded; no more words were necessary. Marlene watched the interchange with curiosity, not saying a word as Tifa moved back to walk towards Denzel. For Marlene, no more words were necessary either. The girl watched as Cait Sith, on seeing Tifa's approach, fell back to join Nanaki who was walking alongside Vincent at the group's rear. Even the cat puppet seemed to understand their need for space.

“So!” Barret began, focusing back on the glittering ball in his hand and in full-on dad mode. “This is a-”

“Summon Materia.” Marlene finished for him, causing Barret to blink back at her. “Cause it's red, right?”

“... Yeah, tha's right. So you gotta be extra careful wit' it. Cause it's got the power of tha'-”

“Ancients, also known as Cetra!”

“Are you SURE you dunno what this is?” Despite his words, Barret couldn't keep the pride from his voice nor the grin from his face. As he continued to teach his daughter, Tifa reached Denzel's side. The orphan gave no indication of acknowledging her presence, and a few moments passed along with a gentle, meandering breeze before Denzel finally spoke.

“I don't want to talk to you.”

“Maybe not. But I want to talk to you.” The boy tore his eyes off the fields and looked up to her in response, a hurtful bitterness behind his eyes. The sight almost hurt Tifa as much as his words.

“So what? It's not going to change anything. It's not going to change the fact you left me behind!” Denzel suddenly looked down at his sneakers, watching his (once again) undone shoelace whip back and forth as he walked. He kicked his foot into the dirt before mumbling, “It's not going to bring Cloud back-”

“No, it's not.” Tifa's sharp response caught the boy off guard and he could only look up to the fighter in stunned surprise. “But us dwelling on the fact that he's gone isn't going to bring him back either.” Denzel remained quiet, turning back to stare adamantly at his sneakers and Tifa had to sigh quietly at the sight.

“Denzel, I left you behind because I care.” The boy looked up slightly, and Tifa took it as an indication that he was listening and continued. “If it was Marlene in your place, I would have done the exact same thing-”

“And if it was Vincent?” The quick question caught Tifa off-guard this time, and she was made further speechless by the challenging gaze that Denzel had directed on her. “Or Barret? Or what about if it was you? Would you like it if someone stopped you from helping and left you behind?!” Tifa's stunned silence only served to enrage the orphan even further and he kicked his foot ferociously into the dirt, sending up grass blades and soil.

“Nanaki says I'll only understand when I'm older, but why can't I understand now?! I lived in the slums, even after... mom and dad...” Denzel stopped walking and looked down at his feet, his fists shaking. “…I can take care of myself!” A moment passed before a gentle pressure rested on his shoulder and though he wished to shrug it off initially, he found he had little energy to do so.

“... I know, Denzel. You don't have to tell me that... but you don't have to prove it either. I can already see.” The rustle of Tifa's leather duster let him know that she had crouched beside him by sound alone, though he decided to look over anyway. The boy was suddenly struck by how tired Tifa appeared to be, now being close enough to see the extent of the light shade of purple that had settled under her sore eyes. She tenderly moved her arm to settle around his shoulders before pulling him into a motherly embrace; one that even Denzel, despite his state of agitation, was unable to resist.

They stayed like that for a few moments, Denzel's anger melting away like ice brought to a flame, before he meekly asked, “Are you okay?” Tifa pulled away slightly to look down at him in surprise, a small smile gracing her features.

“I'll be fine, Denzel.” She squeezed his shoulders as she pulled him in tighter. “We'll be fine.” Denzel remained quiet until Tifa let go after a few moments, rummaging around in one of her front duster pockets. The hazel-haired boy watched in confusion, about to speak when Tifa suddenly pulled out a deep red-skinned apple.

“Here,” she handed it over to him and Denzel accepted it without a word. “I picked it for you this morning.” Denzel nodded, a small but rare smile appearing on his face. Red apples were his favourite fruit, and he was delighted that Tifa had remembered. The boy hesitated for a moment, before carefully reaching up to wrap his arms around Tifa's neck. The fighter was left in a moment of stupor before returning the gesture in kind, relishing the rare display of affection from the boy.

As she looked over Denzel's shoulder, she caught sight of Vincent standing in the distance watching. Tifa smiled weakly at him, lightly shrugging her shoulders while motioning to the boy with a tilt of her head. Vincent nodded in return, acknowledging the gesture with what seemed to be approval before returning his gaze to the party's flanks. No sooner had Vincent returned to his watch, Cait Sith's frantic voice rang out.

“Err, dinnae wanna interrupt anything but we 'ave a problem!”

Tifa swiftly let go of Denzel and jumped up, having her fists raised and ready in a flash at the same time Barret's arm was heard shifting and transforming. The distant chime of Vincent's silver pendant was enough to know that the gunslinger had already pointed Cerberus at the threat. Cait Sith hopped over to hide behind Tifa as she stood in front of Denzel, while Marlene peeked around her father in hope of sighting whatever it was that Cait Sith had become so alarmed about. As Tifa leaned around to see past Barret's hulking frame, she finally spotted the enemy.

A Zemzelett slowly lumbered towards them, its owl-like ears twitching as it flapped its great spiked wings. It clicked its beak in disdain when it caught sight of the group, its red eyes narrowing. It slowly raised its green wings and Tifa immediately recognised the monster readying a magic spell, when suddenly a great and uplifting howl pierced the air. Nanaki suddenly sprang into the middle of their group, raising his head to the sky and howling his Lunatic High before dashing straight for the Zemzelett with alarming speed. The bird-like monster barely had time to react before Nanaki dashed straight into its abdomen with great force. The Zemzelett cursed in one shrill shriek as it fell to his Sled Fang, Nanaki sliding behind it as he attempted to slow down his momentum, his claws digging deep into the soil.

Barret and Vincent lowered their weapons at the same time Tifa lowered her fists at the sight of Red grinning back at them over the now fallen monster. Its body slowly began to melt away, glimmering flecks of emerald rising up into the sky as wisps of Lifestream began to reclaim the long lost soul. Both Marlene and Denzel stepped out from their cover to watch in awe as the Planet readied the spirit to join its collective brethren. A sudden pain stabbed Vincent in the chest and he hunched over attempting to catch his breath; Chaos hissing dangerously at him through gleaming spikes of ivory. After a few moments, the pain ebbed away into a dull ache and Vincent slowly returned to his full height. The gunslinger quickly looked to the group, thankful that his brief episode had seemingly gone unnoticed. As everyone walked over to Nanaki, Vincent became lost in thought as he began to contemplate his recent development with unease.

Red XIII padded over to the party, spots of blood now decorated in a spray pattern across his muzzle. He surveyed them with a glimmer of mirth, especially at their dumbfounded expressions, before saying, “After spending so long in the fort, I needed that.”

Cait Sith crossed his arms, grinning as he nodded his head. “That'll doo, dog. That'll doo.”

The last stretch of their journey to Junon passed without much more event, though Tifa grew more tired and Vincent even more quiet. Marlene happily walked next to her father, overjoyed in now knowing that the Materia she held was the powerful summon known as Phoenix, while Denzel slowly emerged from his shell and spoke idly to Cait Sith and Nanaki. Upon reaching the city entrance however, the whole party was brought to silence at the sight that greeted them.

Under a cobalt clear sky, a long structure sat proudly in the same place the notorious Sister Ray once called home. Thankfully however, this structure was not a cannon; far from it in fact. A giant flag pole gleamed under the burning midday sun; huge and colourful carp-shaped streamers waving with each passing wind, all individually bearing glimmering scales that shined in the strong light. Seagulls called out jovially as they circled the harbour while the jubilant cries of fortunate fishermen met their ears. The sound of waves lapping the shore joined the melody, the crystal blue sea beckoning with its sparkling waters. The old, worn and rundown village that had once been overshadowed by its concrete cousin was no more. It had been transformed back to its former self; a successful fishing village.

“Wow.” It was all Denzel and Marlene could muster in unison while Barret made a low, impressed whistle.

“Dayum... check out tha' actual city!” Tifa looked up in search of Shinra's concrete monster, only just noticing that the elevated airfield was missing which now allowed the sun to fully shine down over the once constantly darkened village. She raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun, the near blinding streams of light making it difficult for her to focus. However after a moment or so, she realised that the blinding white was not from the sun, but from an enormous waterfall. Water now spilled over each of the seven levels that housed lines of the city's apartments, bouncing down each section before finally rejoining the ocean. The construction work that Nanaki had spoke of that morning was not for another cannon, but for a huge water feature instead.

“You guys have the same look my daughter had when she came back home after six months.” The group turned to see a middle-aged man approach them, the wrinkles around his eyes deepening as he smiled. “I take it you haven't seen Junon in a while, either?”

“Sure ain't.” Barret crossed his arms, surveying the man with an impressed grin. “Mind explainin' some stuff ta us?”

“Certainly! It was already my intention!” He turned around and swept his arm up to the monumental flag pole. “This here was put up to replace Sister Ray, the people of Junon wishing to fill the missing space left by the cannon. Even though we hated the weapon, after living under it for so long the spot simply felt, well... empty.” The man pulled at the ends of his grey beard in thought. “We decided to celebrate Junon's independence from Shinra's long rule, and our recovering economy from the pollution that Shinra had left behind with this flag pole. It's our symbol of strength.”

“Fitting I am sure, but if I am not mistaken isn't that koinobori hanging from the pole?” Nanaki's words confused everyone except the kind gentleman who simply chuckled.

“You have a good eye! Yes indeed, a gift from Wutai to improve relations. A great symbol of peace. Despite our involvement in the Wutai War, our hand was forced by Shinra. Our people did not wish to fight, and I believe Wutai understood this too. Now we are on very good terms.”

Barret turned to Nanaki, brow raised. “'Koinobori'? What the heck's that?”

“It's the Wutai term for carp streamers. It's part of a celebratory custom that they hold.” Barret gave Nanaki a look that said, 'How in Planet's name did ya know that?!' The lion-like dog simply grinned back in response.

As the man continued to explain that they were still in the middle of creating their own unique flag, Tifa was beginning to really feel the effects of her long-lasting fatigue. She rubbed at her eyes, her draining energy coupled with the intense heat of the sun causing her eyelids to droop. She felt herself beginning to sway on her feet, a light-headed feeling crawling over her as she struggled to reopen her eyes. Just as she stumbled back feeling she was about to white out, she fell into something strong. Taking a moment to regain her bearings, she eventually looked up to find Vincent's concerned eyes staring back at her, his right hand resting lightly on her shoulder.

“Tifa.” She fought to keep the embarrassment from her face when she realised she had fallen into the gunslinger's chest, choosing to rub more adamantly at her eyes. She quickly looked to the rest of the group and was thankful to find that none of them had noticed. She didn't want them to fuss over her. “... You should rest.” Normally the fighter would brush off the advice and reassure that she was fine, but this time she did not have any energy to argue. She weakly nodded, the man continuing his ramble in the background on the grand water feature. “The inn is to your left… Do you wish me to accompany you?”

“I... I think I can manage, but thank you, Vincent.” The crimson caped man nodded his head, watching carefully as the fighter made her shaky way to the small and humble building. Once she entered without further incident, he turned his attention back to the kind man who was now describing the waterfall's additional function as the city's water purifier. However, Vincent couldn't help but occasionally turn his gaze back in concern.

Upon entering the inn, Tifa made a beeline for the beds against the far left wall. She vaguely recalled that the inn in Junon was actually a resident's home that they had kindly let out for travellers, but in her brief glance around the room she didn't spot anyone. Shuffling over the middle bed, Tifa flopped down heavily onto the mattress feeling absolutely drained. She was only vaguely aware of the downy pillows and as she turned onto her side and sank deeper into the soft duvet, Tifa was out like a light.

 

 

"""

~ o0o ~

"""

 

The feeling of small arms wrapping around her waist caused her to stir briefly. Groaning lightly, Tifa turned her head and groggily opened her eyes to find out who was behind her. Even through her haze of fatigue, she easily made out the messy hazel locks of Denzel. Smiling at the boy, Tifa turned back and situated herself once more into the pillows, delighted when she could feel him cuddle further into her back as a result. The fighter felt that this was the orphan's way of saying sorry, and she gladly accepted it. She moved her hand to rest over his own smaller one as her fatigue once again became too strong to ignore. It didn't take long before her breathing evened out and she fell back into slumber.

Unbeknownst to Tifa, Denzel had been lying beside her for an hour using the time to carefully think things through. After much thought, the boy made up his mind.

'Don't worry, Tifa. I'm going to find Cloud all by myself. Then you'll see.'

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter XVII – Fight Fire With Fire

 

Flames licked at her feet as a wall of fire surrounded her, its crackle a cacophony of laughter. Her eyes darted to and fro to no avail. There was no escape. Sweat dripped heavily from her brow and chin, falling onto her chest to trickle down the curvature of her breasts. She clenched her naked fists, quickly realising that her fighting gloves were missing. Mako eyes blistering with malignity suddenly appeared amidst the flames.

A fierce malachite green.

“Tell me what you cherish most...” She spun around towards the source of the voice to find a black-caped man bearing down on her. She stumbled back, her recognition of the figure instantly gripping her in terror. She attempted to speak but he beat her to it. “... Give me the pleasure of taking it away.” Sephiroth raised his katana, Masamune, and Tifa froze; all words she attempted died in her throat. He brought down the huge seven foot sword and, with one fell stroke, sliced her open.

Her skin screamed as the curved blade ran through her flesh, leaving a trail of fire hotter than any of the flames around her. Blood poured from the diagonal cut. She fell, her mouth held open by a silent scream. Suddenly she found herself falling forward instead of back, falling towards the arms of the world's enemy. Sephiroth's eyes were gone, his sockets now replaced with flames as his mouth hung open; a mirror of her own. Just like his eyes, his mouth held fire.

“I fear not death. Do you understand? I've already seen hell.” Flames erupted from him as Sephiroth burst into fire and Tifa found herself falling into the arms of the damned.

 

 

"""

~ o0o ~

"""

 

Tifa choked. Bolting upright she gasped for air, raising a hand to her burning throat. An image of cut flesh assaulted her mind and she grasped at her chest, frantically pulling away her clothing in search of the bloody gash. Instead, much to her relief, she found a thin, silvery scar that followed the same path the blade had taken in her dream.

It was also the same path Sephiroth's Masamune had taken eight years ago; beginning from the top of her left shoulder and through the valley of her breasts to finally rest at her bottom right hip. She relaxed slightly though her breathing still heavy as she pulled her white shirt back down and shakily grabbed the zipper of her black leather vest. Slowly zipping up the garment, she inwardly cringed at the loud sound it made in contrast to the near silent room. A thought suddenly occurred to her and she quickly snapped her eyes to the space beside her on the bed.

“Den-z...l... !” she breathed out, her throat searing in pain. Tifa coughed at the irritable sensation, her voice hoarse.

The boy was gone.

She swung her legs over the side of the bed, still coughing into her hand. A fierce chill greeted her clammy skin as she stood up, and Tifa wiped the sweat from her forehead as she glanced around the room.

Empty.

Her throat flared up with a vengeance as she tried to call out, causing her to hack into her hand after she made nothing but a thin, pitiful squeak. She rubbed at her burning throat, eyes watering as she swallowed.

'My throat's on fire, as if... Have I been screaming in my sleep? Where is everyone?' Tifa took the opportunity to scan the room more thoroughly.

A wooden table was situated in the middle of the inn, its three chairs slightly pulled out as if inviting a trio of ghosts. A fire crackled heartily in the stone hearth to her left providing what would have been a warm glow, except the lack of company gave the light an eerie feel as it cast long, wavering shadows. Tifa glanced at the flames but quickly averted her eyes as a fresh image of her nightmare sent a terrible shiver up her spine. By taking extra note of her surroundings, she was suddenly aware of the solitary ticking of a grandfather clock that sat against the far wall. Oddly drawn to it, Tifa carefully stepped over the ornate rug in the middle of the room and made her way towards the timepiece.

Its case had seen better days, the wooden surface scratched with deep grooves. The glass window was no different, covered in patches of dust and grime so thick that Tifa struggled to see the time. The brass pendulum lazily swayed back and forth, mimicking the fighter's hand as she rubbed away the filth from the smooth casing.

The face read half past five.

'What? It can't be...' she thought, quickly glancing out the window into nothing but pitch-black. 'It's too early to be dark... What's going on?' Unease began to settle in as the mocking tick of the clock continued in the empty room. Tifa inspected the piece further to find that the pointers weren't actually moving, the hands frozen permanently in time.

She quickly stepped back from the grandfather clock, feeling ill as she critically studied the way the pendulum continued its swing in time to the ticking movement, yet the hands refused to budge. Swallowing, the fighter pulled at the hem of her white shirt to ensure her scar was covered before adjusting her leather vest and, fists clenched, hastily made her way towards the door. Finally stepping outside, she breathed more easily though her relief from the unsound inn did not last long.

The air hung thick with fog that had no doubt rolled in from the shore, obscuring most of her vision. However, fog or no, she could easily see that the village was empty. She tried calling out again, pushing past the resulting pain to attempt to make a sound. Her voice was as dead as the wind.

'Where is everyone?! … I have to find the others!' She swallowed against the fire in her throat and hurried on, her movements causing the fog to wisp around her like smoke. A thought crept into her mind, telling her that this was all a nightmare, but the notion only made Tifa quicken her pace. It didn't take her long to lose her bearings. She looked up in search of the mighty flag pole that had beckoned to their group on entering Junon to find that the huge and colourful carp streamers, or koinobori, now hung limp and lifeless; their majestic colours drained by the heavy grey. Further ahead, the fighter was struck with a strange yet brilliant orange glow that came from the upper levels.

'That light... it's coming from the sixth city section...' Tifa noticed how the fog seemed to blur the colour, creating an eerie distortion that bled into the surrounding air like water paint spilled on canvas. The sight caused a fresh shiver to rack her body, an ill tingling setting her feet into motion. She broke into a sprint towards the edge of the village, running blind in hope that the freight elevator was still there the last time she visited Junon years ago.

Locating and passing through the stone archway set into the side of Shinra's concrete giant, Tifa breathed a sigh of relief when she found the elevator she had been looking for, albeit it now rather rusty. She jabbed at the 'up' button with her fist, watching as the amber warning light began to rotate as the metal grated platform jerked into motion. She took a moment to lean against the metal railing, her breathing laboured as she fought to draw breath against the burn in her throat. She rubbed at her arms, her skin clammy and cold as she looked up with impatience.

'There has to be someone up here. There has to be. Even one.'

The elevator groaned before finally juddering to a halt, the amber light disappearing and once more leaving the fighter in complete solitude. Tifa hastily stepped off the freight elevator, wiping beads of sweat from her forehead as she studied the giant steel reinforced door that now lay in front of her. She began to search for a device to open it but there was nothing obvious. Tifa stepped forward, narrowing her eyes in the dim light as she scrutinised the area more thoroughly, when a heavy clunk caused her to jump and raise her fists in a flash. The huge door groaned before it began to pull apart, the black and yellow tape that ran across the middle finally beginning to separate.

Intense heat hit her like a rushing tidal wave.

Tifa choked. She raised her arms up to shield herself from the blast, turning her head away as she gasped for air. Screams and urgently barked orders met her ears amongst the roar of a sound... she would never forget for as long as she lived.

Fire.

She finally looked up, her eyes widening while her mouth fell open in horror. An inferno ravaged the city's apartments, great billowing plumes of smoke rising into the night. Huge torrents of water fell in arcs across the city level, the water feature come purifier containing most of the fumes, yet despite being so close it did nothing to smother the flames. The towering wall of fire had attracted what Tifa knew to be the entire inhabitants of Junon. Crowds of people watched in terror as the destruction continued; pointing, screaming, crying as they watched the insatiable appetite of the blaze devour everything in its path.

'This has to be a nightmare... This can't be... just like my own home... my...'

“WATERA!” A union of cries bellowed out and Tifa snapped her gaze towards what she now recognised as members of the WRO, the World Regenesis Organisation, casting magic in an attempt to combat the inferno. They were met with limited success as pillars of water burst forth from their Materia, but there wasn't nearly enough to douse the flames. Most of the troops were taxed, some kneeling in an attempt to conserve stamina while others were desperately trying to use their own Materia to, oddly, no effect. One of the soldiers even threw his signature red beret to the ground in frustration.

Tifa forced herself to move through the crowds, watching as WRO soldiers pushed people back to remain at a safe distance. Her eyes rapidly scoured the innumerable masses in hope that she would see someone familiar, the air of panic infectious as she began to search more frantically, hoping beyond hope that she would catch even a glimpse of Denzel.

Something cold suddenly grabbed the back of her vest and pulled.

Tifa cried out in fright, her throat searing in agony at the yelp forced from her lips. She dug her heels into the asphalt and spun around, swinging an adrenaline filled punch at her captor. It connected with a dull and painful sounding thud, and when she felt her ambusher flinch, Tifa blindly threw another. A resounding smack rang out as she found her fist caught in a wicked claw. Looking up, Tifa was ensnared in searing yellow eyes. She shrank back in terror, then suddenly with a blink, it was gone. Red eyes now stared back at her as Vincent quickly recoiled, his golden talon pulled within the confines of his cloak.

Tifa breathed hard, her mind reeling. She stared in shock, unsure at what exactly she had seen – or indeed, what she was seeing.

She swore that Vincent appeared dazed and she was unsure if he really was standing in front of her, though the sting of her knuckles told her otherwise. She shook her head, hoping to shake off the near surreal reality she found herself in. She was convinced that there was something wrong with her; that it was all in her head. It was the only explanation she could give. When she looked back up she found Vincent to be observing her carefully, not a trace of expression left on his face. Tifa was starting to believe that she had imagined that, too.

“Vi-c...nt..?” she tried out, hacking into her fist at the effort. The man in question straightened up, his brows furrowing ever so slightly.

“Are you well?” he asked urgently, about to step closer before reconsidering. She tried to speak, to apologise, but the burn in her throat was almost as hot as the surrounding fire. She swallowed with difficulty before straightening her hand and waving it across her throat a few times. Vincent immediately understood.

The sound of hurried footsteps approaching through the roar of noise made Vincent glance over his shoulder, and before Tifa had a chance to seek their maker, Denzel suddenly appeared next to the man looking breathless. He was about to speak when he looked up, his eyes widening at the sight of the fighter. Tifa's own features relaxed as she breathed out a hefty sigh of relief, quickly kneeling down and drawing the boy tightly into her arms. Vincent watched with slight surprise, the fighter's reaction unexpected, though he was secretly amused by Denzel's baffled expression. Tifa mouthed something to the boy as she carefully ran her hand through his messy hazel locks and Denzel cocked his head to the side in response.

“What's the matter? Can't you speak?” he asked, pulling back to look at Tifa. The fighter shook her head and she was surprised when Denzel looked up to Vincent with worry on his face, as if asking the crimson cloaked man what to do. Vincent tucked his chin further into his cowl, his crimson eyes glimmering from the surrounding blaze. Tifa's breath caught in her throat at the sight; his eyes were molten. Flashes of her nightmare struck with force and she forcefully shook her head to be rid of the images. Denzel gripped her arms tighter. Vincent suddenly spun on his heel and began to walk towards the human-formed barricades of the WRO.

“... !” Tifa tried to cry out as she jumped to her feet but her throat no longer occupied any voice. She didn't want to be left alone again.

“H-hey!” Thankfully, Denzel was able to speak for her. “Where are you going?” The boy was about to follow Vincent, but the man's curt voice stopped him dead in his tracks.

“Stay.” Vincent continued to walk.

“Why? I'm going with you!” Denzel's challenging tone finally caught the gunslinger's attention and Vincent stopped to glance behind his shoulder just as he was about to step into the crowd. He carefully studied the boy alongside the rather angry expression on his face. Tifa held her breath, knowing full well Denzel's sore spot for being left behind. She now knew it was something that they both shared. A few taut moments passed before Vincent spoke.

“... I need you to stay here and look after Tifa for me.” On hearing this, Denzel's anger vanished with a stunned blink. Recovering, he quickly nodded with a hint of a smile. Vincent nodded back before turning his gaze to Tifa. “Stay here. I will find you again.” Tifa could only nod with dumb shock. Then with a flourish of his crimson cape, Vincent disappeared into the crowd and was gone. She could only stare, not entirely sure of the exchange she had just witnessed between the orphan and the gunslinger.

“Don't worry,” Denzel's confident tone brought her to attention, “I'll look after you.” Tifa blinked before quirking a smile and lightly ruffling the boy's hair much to his chagrin.

Unbeknownst to both Tifa and Denzel, once Vincent was out of sight he took a moment to examine his gauntlet. The wicked appendage gleamed in the surrounding inferno, light dancing across the burnished gold as the flames continued their hellish twist. His brow knitted as he dwelled on recent events, and doubly so when a dull pain throbbed in his right jaw. He discreetly raised his hand to rub at the bone. He could already feel a bruise forming where Tifa had struck him. He tensed as a putrid voice shattered his thoughts, an injection of vitriol accompanied by a chorus of writhing leeches.

'SHE'S STRONGER THAN SHE LOOKS. THOUGH WHAT ABOUT THE INSIDE? SHALL WE FIND OUT?'

Vincent reinforced his mental barriers and hurried his pace while Chaos' laughter resounded in his skull. Even the gunslinger knew it was useless. Instead, he focused on his intended goal and was soon consumed within the frightened crowd of Junon.

Once Vincent had left, Tifa watched the WRO members continue their attempt in fighting the blaze while Denzel exuded an air of duty as he remained by her side. She scanned the crowd in hopes of seeing any of the others, but there were simply too many people. She looked to Denzel and tried to voice her question but the fire in her throat smothered all sound. The boy noticed that she was trying to speak and looked up in confusion, watching Tifa carefully as she swept her arm across the crowd before shrugging her shoulders.

“Errm... Oh!” Denzel finally understood. “Everyone's over there somewhere.” He pointed towards the far left of the strip where a group of WRO trucks were stationed. “Barret said he was going to call Reeve about the fire, but Cait Sith said he already knew. I don't know what he meant, but then all these soldiers came and started fighting the fire.”

'So that's how the WRO got here so quickly,' Tifa thought. 'Crafty old Cait Sith. I should have known.' Even after three years, no one quite knew how Reeve controlled the cat puppet or how they remained in constant contact. Tifa nodded, thankful for the information. Another curious thought popped into her head and she looked at Denzel questioningly before pointing to him, then over to the left side of the strip. Denzel raised a brow as uncertainty passed over his face.

Err... why am I here? And not there? … Right?” Tifa couldn't help but smile as she nodded, impressed that the boy was following. Denzel scuffed his sneaker on the asphalt and Tifa noticed that once again, like usual, his right shoelace was undone. “I followed Vincent when he left. It's just that... I don't actually know how to get back.” Denzel didn't need to interpret the way Tifa placed her hands of her hips, the boy immediately understood. The fighter kneeled down and began to tie his right shoelace while the orphan chose to look away with a hint of embarrassment. Just as she finished, Vincent finally returned from amidst the flock of civilians. Denzel quickly shuffled away from Tifa's ministrations, a tinge of red to his cheeks as the man approached. The martial artist rose to greet the gunslinger.

“Here,” Vincent said, not wasting any time as he reached inside the folds of his cloak and pulled out a bottle of crystal blue. “Drink.” He handed the item to Tifa, and upon closer inspection the fighter found it to be a Potion. She nodded her thanks, a small smile gracing her lips when she realised Vincent had most likely left to bring the medicine to her. She unscrewed the glass stopper and gratefully slaked her thirst. The cool liquid was bliss on her throat and she chugged the entire bottle down with abandon.

“Denzel.” The boy looked up to the gunslinger with great attention, anticipating the man's next words. “... Good job.” The boy broke out into a brilliant grin while Vincent tucked his chin into his cowl, not quite a nod but taken as one all the same. Tifa couldn't help but smile herself at the sight. She wiped the corner of her mouth with her thumb as she swallowed the last few drops, the fire in her throat easier to manage now. After handing the empty bottle back to Vincent, she decided to try and speak.

“Thank y-...” Denzel looked up to her in surprise while Vincent blinked before nodding. He was about to speak but a woman's scream rose above the surrounding roar.

“No! My baby! My baby's still in there! You can't!!” The trio snapped their gaze towards the barricades to find a WRO member wrestling with a poor, distressed woman.

“I'm sorry, ma'am, it's too dangerous! We need to get the fire under control first!” She struggled and clawed in the soldier's grasp but the man kept a strong hold, pulling her away from the burning apartment she was desperately trying to reach with outstretched arms. The sight caused horrible memories to assault Tifa and a strong emotion to surge through every fibre of her being.

Before she even knew what she was doing, Tifa was sprinting through the throng of people and towards the inferno, ignoring the cries of Vincent and Denzel at her back. A chorus of shocked gasps erupted from the crowd as she swiftly ran towards the line of soldiers, and to the astonishment of all, dropped into a slide and passed straight under their legs. Some were quicker to react, but Tifa was quicker still, avoiding all of their attempts to catch her as she simply ran. One of the WRO members even lunged at her but only ended up losing his standard-issue red beanie as a result. Chaos erupted at her back; a myriad of people cheering her on and others shouting in utter bafflement while military orders were barked out in an attempt to regain control.

She fled towards the alleyway next to the apartment building, the flames reaching for her through the shattered ground floor windows. Smoke poured out of the complex and drifted up on the sweltering night air. There was little room to breathe, little room for error. Tifa had to be quick. She rounded the corner to enter through the rear and was faced with a solid oak door. She took a few steps back and steeled herself, the leather of her gloves crunching as she balled her fists with ardour.

'I won't let anyone else lose their family to fire. Not like...' She dug her left heel into the concrete.

'...ME!' On that last note Tifa swiftly raised her right leg and with one powerful kick, slammed her foot into the door, knocking it clean off its hinges. A surge of flames rose up from the resulting force, the fresh burst of oxygen enticing the fire, and Tifa quickly raised her arms to shield herself from the blast. She gritted her teeth as she felt her skin already being singed, the heat nothing but intense. The smoke and hot air caught the back of her throat and Tifa hacked as she attempted to catch her breath. She had to move. She quickly yet carefully stepped over broken glass and moved into the burning apartment, straining to hear the sound of anyone inside over the mocking cackle and crackle of the blaze. She attempted to cry out while remaining half crouched to avoid the smoke, but once more found herself silenced by her raging throat.

A deep, moaning creak suddenly met her ears and Tifa just barely managed to jump back before a huge beam of wood came crashing down, the mighty timber riddled with glowing embers now blocking her path. She gave a hoarse cough as the flames rose higher, her throat searing in agony. Just as swift as the beam fell, a shrill wail broke out above her. Tifa snapped her gaze towards it, instantly recognising the sound of a frightened child. A surge of emotion once more pumped through her, igniting a fire of her own; one that resided in her heart. Tifa clenched her fists and pushed past her pain, overcoming her limit.

The fighter drew back before throwing herself around in a circle and sweeping out her leg like a raging wave, smashing half the wood with her Waterkick, before drawing back a fist and punching clean through the splintered remains. As the beam crashed to the ground, Tifa hopped over it and rushed up the stairs towards the second floor.

She was working on nothing but adrenaline now.

The smoke assailed her as she ascended, her eyes now burning with irritation alongside her throat. She was finding it harder to breathe. An idea quickly came to mind and she thrust her hand into her utility pocket, pulling out the torn end of her duster. She quickly raised it to her mouth in hopes it would block most of the smoke as she continued. Parts of the wall and floor peeled with the heat and Tifa could feel the skin on her forearms beginning to scorch as she swiftly searched the rooms, the cry of the child her only beacon in the suffocating smother.

She finally located the source of the sound when she entered the far left room, confirmed by the scattered toys and clothes that were yet untouched by the patches of fire. Tifa hacked into her fist as she approached the source of the wail; inside a walnut wardrobe. She carefully opened the door, unwilling to scare its occupant while she lowered herself down to peer inside.

A small boy was curled up in the corner, and Tifa deduced that he was no more than three years old. His eyes were wide and tearful as Tifa smiled at him and tried to speak, but began to cough through the billowing smoke. Wiping the tears from her eyes as best she could with her makeshift mask, she pocketed the torn material before raising both hands so the boy could see and beckoned to him. This certainly seemed to do the trick as the child almost jumped into her arms, clutching tightly around her neck as she lifted him up securely to rest against her chest. She quickly spun on her heel to leave but the little boy desperately reached over her shoulder with outstretched arms.

“Koopy! Koopy!!” Tifa gave the boy a confused look before turning to see what he was reaching for.

A lone Moogle toy sat propped against the blackened wall, its pom-pom a little dirty but otherwise it was relatively untouched, its glossy button eyes still polished to a shine. The fighter pointed to the toy and mouthed to the boy in silent question. The child simply intensified his grabbing motion, but it was the only answer Tifa needed. She doubled back to the stuffed plush, quickly retrieving and handing 'Koopy' to the small boy who cuddled in to it tightly. Child in tow, she quickly left the room to find that the whole building was simply torrid. Her skin felt scorched and her energy was draining fast, her vision beginning to swim as she struggled for air.

The landing she stood on suddenly began to crack and Tifa barely had time to react as it gave way underneath her. She held on tightly to the boy as she reacted on reflex, leaping just as the floor opened up to reveal a gaping maw of fire beneath her.

In only a few seconds, Tifa was suddenly mid-air over a pit of flames.

She reached out desperately in panic, just catching the remaining edge of the floor with her right hand, the rest of her hanging over the huge, burning fire. She choked in the rising smoke, using all of her strength to push the child onto the landing and to safety. It was now that Tifa sorely wished that all of this really was a dream, but the heat on her skin was far too real. She could feel her strength begin to wane and her grip beginning to loosen... but the feeling of small hands gripping her arm forced her to pull energy from a reserve she never knew she had.

Scrabbling for purchase, Tifa threw her left arm up to grab the edge and despite the screaming protests of her arms, slowly hoisted herself up while the boy gave small tugs and cries of encouragement. Back on the safety of the landing, Tifa rolled over onto her back, struggling to breathe. The small child reached over to where he dropped his toy and clutched Koopy closely to his chest, his eyes wide with fright. Tifa tried to smile at him, but her throat flared up with a vengeance and she hacked so hard that she could taste blood in the back of her mouth. The boy pulled at her clothes with urgency and Tifa tried to comply, but like a poison, the smoke had sapped most of her strength. She struggled to sit up, her eye suddenly catching the open window to the far right.

She didn't know if she was going to make it... but she'd come too far to give up now.

Outside, the flames of the inferno reached ever higher as a strange quiet settled over the huge gathering of people. The only sound that of the blaze and the passing rumours and conjecture from the crowd. Close to the barricades stood Vincent alongside Denzel, now joined by Barret, Marlene, Red XIII and Cait Sith, all who had been briefed on the situation. The air was uneasy as they waited, their eyes all focused on the building they had last seen or heard their friend enter. The WRO continued to fight the fire with Materia, (and prevent anyone else from interfering much to the party's, and especially Barret's, annoyance,) but it was still a long struggle yet.

Vincent was growing very impatient. The talons of his claw twitched as a terrible, mocking voice sundered his thoughts with twisted glee, the words alone causing Vincent to tense rather than the feeling similar to needles being injected into the skin.

'AND SO YOU HAVE LET ANOTHER WOMAN WALK TO HER DEATH.'

Vincent threw up his mental barriers against the hellish spawn, but its words lingered for far longer than he would have liked. Unable to remain idle for a moment longer, he quickly began to stride towards the barricades.

“THERE SHE IS!” The shout of a WRO member caused the crowd to burst into excited chatter but when Tifa finally emerged through the smoke, all black-faced with soot and cradling the small boy who in turn cradled his Moogle toy, the civilians erupted into cheer and applause.

Vincent let out the breath he didn't even know he was holding.

The frantic mother they had seen earlier was finally reunited with her son, the boy quickly releasing his grip around Tifa's neck as his parent reached out to cradle him, tearfully singing her praise as the boy cried heartily into his mother's shoulder. While the pair were being checked over by a soldier, Tifa herself was ushered towards one of the WRO trucks before any of their party were able to say otherwise. Vincent, who was closest, followed quickly and he was secretly taken aback with how swiftly the medics in the vehicle had responded.

I've already started the oxygen therapy, can you check her carboxyhaemoglobin levels?” One asked as he situated an oxygen mask around Tifa's nose and mouth.

“Just gathering the needles, how about symptoms of smoke inhalation?” The member in the truck began taking out what he needed for a blood sample and Vincent quickly looked away at the sight of the syringe. Too many memories. Not now.

“Still checking, but it's looking minor surprisingly. She must have kept close to the floor.” The medic closest to Tifa began administering eye drops just as a group of soldiers started to form another human made barricade to stop the advancing crowd. Vincent swiftly avoided the troops but Barret and the party did not have such luck, just reaching the truck a few seconds too late. As the gun-armed man began to boom at the organisation members to let them past, Vincent observed the medics as they went about preparing Tifa's arm to draw blood.

One cleared the soot from her skin with an antiseptic wipe while the other began to tie a tourniquet around her arm to better show her veins through the dirt. As they brushed aside her garments to accommodate the band, Vincent caught sight of a thin, silvery line just peeking over her white shirt and creeping up her left shoulder. Suddenly Tifa's hand obscured his view and he snapped his eyes up to find the fighter shifting uncomfortably, almost physically recoiling from his gaze. She quickly pulled her black vest back in to place, her shirt following suit while Vincent turned away as the medics began their blood test.

'… That scar... Only a grave wound could leave something of that magnitude.' The gunslinger crossed his arms, and was about to brood on his unintentional discovery, but he was interrupted by a stampede of footsteps. Glancing over he found Barret and Red XIII dashing towards the fighter, Marlene, Denzel and Cait Sith at their heels. Tifa stretched her arms out towards the children as they almost jumped on her, gracing them both with a huge smile through her oxygen mask. Everyone spoke at once.

“Tifa!!” - “Are you okay?!” - “I'm glad you are well!” - “What the HELL were ya thinkin'?!” - “Ye alright, lassie?!”

The fighter smiled, nodding her assurance to them all as they fussed over her. Vincent observed the odd reunion of sorts and the relief abundant throughout. Even the medics joined in, informing them all of her condition and praising her on her bravery. Barret, however, still seemed to be particularly on edge. The gun-armed man tapped his giant boot down on the concrete, a exasperated expression plastered on his face.

Unbeknownst to the others, Barret had only one particular thought in mind as he swept a hand over his black, cornrow styled hair.

'Marlene first, and now Tif'? Tha's it. I need a holiday.'

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter XVIII – The Best Medicine

 

Dawn broke over the horizon of Junon, the sky streaked with cotton candy clouds that were set alight by a deep amaranth. A lone cargo ship sailed from the port, the first vessel to do so that morn. Waves lapped at its hull while the bow gently parted the water, the waking sun setting a reflection of soft pinks upon its surface. It was on this ship's deck that Vincent stood, his arms folded as he watched the city of Junon become smaller and smaller. However, it seemed no matter how far the ship sailed, huge billows of black smoke could still be seen rising high into the air from the shore.

A reminder of the previous night's inferno.

Spray hissed up the sides of the boat, carried by a crisp, yet gentle, breeze that swept at the tattered ends of the gunslinger's cloak. Vincent paid no heed however, too rapt in his own thoughts.

Despite the complications the WRO had regarding most of their Materia, they were finally able to combat last night's blaze due to quick thinking on Reeve's part. The leader of the World Regenesis Organisation had given quick orders to evacuate the area before instructing for the pressure of the city's water feature to be lowered. Lacking substantial power, the huge torrents of water that had arched over the apartment strip crashed down like a waterfall over the inferno, finally extinguishing all flames. It did not come without sacrifice however, as WRO efforts were then focused on dealing with the resulting water damage.

Throughout this, their party had been evacuated with the rest of the populous down to the fishing village below where many people remained in the street, straining their necks to look up at the billowing plumes of smoke that was the aftermath. It was then that their party decided to retire to the inn, however Tifa was retained by medics who insisted on overnight supervision. Barret responded with his own insistence of staying by her side, while Vincent, Red XIII and Cait Sith continued to the inn with Denzel and Marlene in tow after the tumultuous events of the night.

Yet despite sleep quickly gracing his comrades, sleep did not grace Vincent.

He was greatly troubled by his increasing lack of control, specifically his most recent lapse as a result of catching Tifa off-guard, and he had contemplated events long into the night. And here he was, still pondering into the early hours as he watched the rolling waves and pink shimmers dance across the surface of the sea.

He had joined in his comrades' quest to heal the planet by dispatching monsters, but it was more a guise for his own personal pursuit for answers.

And he had yet to draw a single one.

A small and weak cough to his right alerted him of Tifa's presence and he quelled his surprise, having been too deep in thought to have noticed her earlier. The fighter leaned with her arms crossed over the deck's metal railing while she looked out towards the horizon. The cold breeze teased her hair while her chest rose and fell rather quickly. Vincent could tell that she was having a little difficulty breathing. He turned towards her slightly.

“I'm... alright.” Vincent blinked. Tifa simply gave him a mischievous look, her russet eyes glimmering in the pink dawn as she breathed out, “I could tell... what you were going to say.”

The gunslinger tucked his chin into his cowl.

“... Do not exert yourself.”

Tifa nodded when a strange expression fell over her features. Vincent turned to her in question and was about to speak when Tifa suddenly inhaled sharply, pain passing over her face before she gave a great and noisy sneeze.

Vincent just stared.

Rummaging in her front utility pocket with a grimace, Tifa pulled out the torn right corner piece of her duster. Shaking it out to rid of dirt from the previous night, she used it to gently wipe at her nose. Soot had peppered from her nostrils, a result and reminder of her literal trial by fire. Vincent had to suppress his amusement as Tifa turned back to him with soot smeared across her face.

“The medics warned... me of this,” she managed between laboured breaths. “Soot fr-m the... fi...” The fighter began to cough as her voice started to break, pain flaring up her throat. Vincent quickly scoured the area behind him before motioning for her to follow, guiding her towards the middle of the ship. Finding a small deckhouse towards the stern, he lead the fighter inside and towards one of the benches. Tifa graced him with a small smile as she pocketed her torn duster piece and sat down, heat creeping back into her arms at the respite from the crisp sea wind. She attempted to speak, but the effort only caused her to break into another coughing fit. She didn't miss Vincent's brows furrowing slightly, his expression almost austere.

“Do not force your words. Silence can speak for you.” Tifa raised an elegant brow in response while she blinked rapidly, eyes watering. The man reached inside his cloak and Tifa watched, curiosity piqued. However, the urge to rub at her eyes was too overwhelming and she quickly wiped away excess water from her lashes. When she pulled back her arm, her vision was met with a bright neon.

Vincent held out a Hi-Potion, waiting patiently for her to take the crystal green bottle as the fighter looked up in surprise. Tifa stared for a moment more before her stunned expression melted into one of mixed amusement and gratitude. She took the medicine from him, her fingers brushing lightly with his own. Carefully opening the bottle, she took a hesitant sip of the concoction. A second later and she was drinking with haste; she didn't realise just how thirsty she was. Vincent turned to look out of the circular window behind him, the pinkish light catching the flecks of gold in his eyes and setting them to burn.

Tifa swiftly drank the last drop of the rather astringent drink before nesting the empty bottle beside her. Swallowing, she found her throat pleasantly cooler and chary of forcing her voice, she spoke with gentle words, “You always seem to... have one of those handy. Thanks.”

Vincent glanced over his shoulder before returning to look out of the window. “You should rest. It is still early.” He changed the subject.

“Yeah, well...” Tifa stretched, arching her arms to join at her lower back. “I've had enough rest. Slept when we... first entered Junon and besides, those beds in the... WRO trucks aren't the most comfortable... just ask Barret.” Vincent turned to face her, the fighter's occasional struggle for breath not going unnoticed. His eyes softened slightly.

“How are you, Tifa?” She responded to his sudden question with a blink.

“I already told you... I'm fine. Well, still wondering why... Barret insisted on taking the... first ship out of Junon. Everyone's still exhausted from... last night.”

“... That's not what I meant.” Tifa's brow knitted at his cryptic words but when Vincent's eyes came to rest upon her upper left shoulder, she suddenly understood. Quickly raising her hand she covered the already hidden scar further as if it would deter his gaze.

'I should have known,' Tifa thought. 'When most people ask, 'how are you,' it's just a greeting. But when Vincent asks, it's in the truest sense of the question.' She looked over the gunslinger's shoulder and out of the window he seemed so absorbed in before, avoiding his piercing red eyes as she considered her wound from years past.

'How do I tell him? Especially after Cloud- ...' Tifa couldn't finish her own thought; she fell silent.

Vincent observed her carefully. A cumbersome presence that towed rime across his skull joined the anguished words spoken through sutured, dead lips.

'An-nother wou-nnd fes-terrs.'

His eyes hardened in response to Death Gigas' words. Pushing the hulking creature back towards the recesses of his mind, the gunslinger was about to turn back to the window when suddenly the demon shifted; violent and wild, the monster slammed against Vincent's mental resistance which caused him to physically lash his head to the side. His claw jerked to his face, the talons twitching like the crooked legs of an insect.

'Igg-nor-rance bea-rrs a hea-vvy toll, an-nd the wi-ise muss-t pay it.'

Only then did the abomination recede, all anger and resistance absent as was its presence. Vincent took a steady breath through his nose and swiftly drew his claw within the confines of his cloak. He was vaguely aware of Tifa now standing but not even her rigid call pulled him from the depths of his thoughts. He turned back to the window with a stiff turn just as two sets of guffawing floated on the sound of swelling waters.

“The sea's most favourable, she is! We'll be tiding up to Costa del Sol in no time!” The voice held a gravelled tone like that of a seasoned sailor.

“Good 'nough fer me. After last night, I need a drink!” Barret's signature boom was almost as loud as the crashing waves.

“The night matters not, matey, any time's a good time for drinking!” Another round of boisterous laughter drifted along with the silvery backwash of the ship before the captain headed port side while Barret finally trudged into the deckhouse, pretending not to have stumbled at a particularly steep rock of the vessel. Tifa finally ripped her concerned eyes from Vincent's back to look at her old friend and blinked at the bowl of soup cupped in his left hand.

“Whaddid I tell ya 'bout wanderin', girl?” Before Tifa could say anything, Barret thrust the wooden tableware into her hands. “Cap'n made this jus' for ya on his own lil' stove. Better get something good down ya.” Tifa reluctantly sat back down and carefully balanced the bowl in her lap, casting a glance over the contents of creamy seafood chowder before attempting to address Barret again. This time she was interrupted by the man shrugging off his puffy white vest and placing the garment around her shoulders.

“You should wrap up warmer, real chilly out there. Early mornin' an' all that-”

“Barret.” Tifa finally managed, her voice a firm cadence. This caught the gun-armed man's attention. She made to nod towards Vincent but was stunned to find that he seemed to have vanished into thin air.

“He stepped out while you were fussin' with yer bowl. Go on, it ain't gonna eat itself.” Tifa couldn't help but shake her head, secretly squashing her concern for the crimson caped man though it didn't last long; the feeling was obstinate. She fiddled with the wooden spoon dug deep in her soup. A giant but gentle hand came to rest on her shoulder. “You need ta stop worryin', Tif'. After last night, let us do the worryin' for ya.” Tifa paused in her idle toying, suddenly remembering a strange incident.

“Barret,” she began, her voice elsewhere as her mind focused on recalling the memory. “When I woke up in Junon inn... it was the strangest thing. The clock there was ticking... but the hands weren't moving. Even the pendulum... was still swinging...”

A deep throated chuckle brought her back from her recollection and suddenly feeling self-concious of her recount, Tifa elbowed Barret in the side. This just served to make her old friend break into a belly laugh as deep as the surrounding water.

“H-hey,” Barret finally managed to breathe, wiping tears from his eyes. “Ya know, tha's jes' tha' same thang I noticed, too.” Tifa straightened up and turned to her friend while he leaned back with a huge grin on his face. “I went ta check up on ya yesterday but you were sound asleep, so I pulled up a chair an' waited for the innkeeper wit' Marlene. Noticed the clock while I was waitin' and she kept going,” here, Barret put on a mock high voice, “'Daddy! Tha' place is haunted! There's a ghost in tha' clock!'”

Tifa burst into wheezy laughter at Barret's impression, and the man himself had to fight off chuckles as he continued.

“S-So here's me tryin' ta tell 'er that there's no ghosts, when this creepy noise starts comin' from it. 'Whoo-OOO-ooo!'” Barret raised his trunk-like arms and waved them while imitating the sound, making Tifa hold her sides. “Marlene runs out all frightened, and stupid ass Cait Sith comes out from behind tha' clock shouting after 'er sayin' it's jes' him. Damn cat must'a snuck in behind us!”

Tifa was now doubled over in laughter. Barret paused to laugh himself, the deep sound quivering through the bench they were both sitting on. “W-When the innkeeper finally came back, I let 'er know 'bout ya an' that we were staying later. When I asked her 'bout tha stupid clock, she tells me the washer behind the hands is stuck and she hasn't got round ta gettin' it fixed yet!” Barret's could barely hold his amusement, his mountainous shoulders quaking. “S-Stupid damn thing got Marlene so spooked she clung onta Red for the rest of tha' evenin'!”

Both Tifa and Barret erupted in laughter, Barret's a boisterous bellow while Tifa's became a wheezy chortle from the strain. As the fighter spluttered for air she fell heavily against Barret's side just as a strong wave tipped the ship.

“WHOOOAAA!!” The deck listed and Barret toppled along with it, sending both fighter and ex-AVALANCHE leader rolling straight out of the deckhouse. Vincent, who had been standing outside, turned his head slightly at the sudden commotion to catch the pair tumble helplessly onto deck. Barret was sprawled out in an unceremonious display while Tifa lay limp next to him, her friend's puffy jacket cocooned around her face and shoulders. Barret was the first to recover, sitting up with a bolt when he caught sight of the woman shaking next to him.

“Tif'! You okay, girl?!” Barret quickly grabbed the end of his jacket and tugged the garment away from her face, expecting the worst. What met him was something he was completely unprepared for.

Tifa was in silent hysterics.

Clutching her abdomen, she shook with laughter under a soft pink sky while the ship seemed to rock along with her merriment. Vincent stared for a moment longer, and after ensuring she was unharmed, turned his attention back to other matters. Barret couldn't help but grin mightily at the sight, beginning to chuckle himself. Despite Tifa being unable to actually laugh, her wheezy imitation was infectious nonetheless.

'Haven't seen Tif' laugh like this in ferever. Guess laughter IS the best medicine.'

“Whit's up with you two? You'd think ya'd been up drinkin' bevvys intae the wee hoors!” Barret turned to find Cait Sith trotting up to them, the sea breeze teasing his whiskers and little red cape.

“We ain't been drinkin',” Barret said as he began to gently help Tifa to her feet. “Yet...” he muttered under his breath as he shrugged back into his vest. The cat puppet shot him a feline grin that told the huge man he'd heard. Tifa took a few deep breaths, finally recovering from her laughing bout. She motioned to Barret and after taking his nod as understanding, moved back towards the deckhouse. Barret watched her leave before turning his attention back to Cait Sith. “How're tha' kids?”

“They be fine, still snoozin' next tae Red and oor bags in tha' captain's cabin. Still beat after ye decided tae get the early boat.” Barret nodded, ignoring the cat's minor jibe and instead roughly scratching at his growing stubble.

“We have a survivor.” Barret looked back on hearing Tifa's breathless voice and his jaw hung slack at the bowl of slightly spilled seafood chowder in her hands. “Empty Potion bottle... got caught between the gaps... of the bench,” she explained with a hint of a smile. “Stopped it from tipping over.”

“... Right,” Barret brushed off, still trying to remember when she had set the bowl down in the first place. “Well, go an' eat it before ya spill anymore of it.”

“I didn't spill it... you did.” Tifa stirred the remaining soup with her wooden spoon and began to eat the comfortably warm dish while she watched Barret become vexed.

“Awright! First gettin' tha early boat and now a bowl of damn soup! Anything ELSE people wanna blame me fer!?”

“Barret.” Vincent's cool intonation turned not only Barret's, but all heads towards him. The gunslinger stood with his eyes dangerously narrowed towards starboard. “Access to the lower decks is restricted by captain's orders, correct?”

“Yeah,” Barret said as he trudged over to Vincent's side. “One a tha' conditions fer us being on this ship. Had ta stay top deck or in the captain's cabin round to tha' left.” Barret huffed through his nose while his eyes narrowed at the gunslinger. “Why?”

Vincent tucked his chin into his cowl as he straightened, his hand coming to rest on the grip of his revolver; his eyes not once moving. Barret turned to where his gaze was fixated.

The sight made the gun-armed man stiffen.

Two men were busy carrying a large crate between them, slowly shuffling down metal stairs to what no doubt lead to the ship's cargo hold. The act itself was not what caused alarm, but rather, their uniform. Armour of blood red, their helmets bore three, hard-set circular lenses set deep within their steel plating. On their upper left arm, a badge of familiar insignia. A notorious set of characters set within a red and white diamond logo, however it had a black image of what appeared to be a meteor painted over the top.

“No f***in' way. Hell no. HELL NO.” Barret's arm whirred loudly as it changed into his signature gatling gun and he held Myrna close as his lips curled into a snarl. “Shinra are DEAD!”

“Keep yer voice doon!” Cait Sith snapped as he hopped to Barret's side, Tifa quickly following suit. “Nae use lettin' them know we've caught on tae them!”

“I don't... it can't be...” Tifa narrowed her eyes at the two infantrymen, as if they were both just an illusion and that they would disappear on closer inspection. “The logo's slightly different... but I'd recognise it anywhere. I can't really believe it... but it's definitely Shinra.” The fighter set down her half-eaten bowl and nudged it away with her foot before raising her fists and balling them so tight that their leather coverings crunched loudly.

“Noo let's keep a level head aboot all this,” Cait Sith said as he patted the air with both white gloved hands. “It looks like Shinra alright, but we shouldn't go runnin' in. All heck would break loose!”

“Agreed.” Vincent swiftly removed his hand from the triple-barrelled revolver at his hip. “I will assess the situation. I suggest you all remain here until I return with information. Also let Nanaki know of their presence.”

Barret gave Vincent a stern look and stared hard at the man before finally saying, “... Alright. I don't like it, but I ain't no fool. Jes' don't make me have ta save yer ass later.” Vincent nodded and began to walk away as Barret shifted his gun back into a prosthetic hand.

“Now hold on a minute,” Tifa swiftly stepped in front of Vincent's path, effectively bringing the gunslinger to a halt. “You're not going alone... I'm going with you.” Vincent regarded Tifa with careful appraise, taking special note of the way her chest heaved as she fought to draw breath.

“Tifa, you are in no fit condition.” The fighter narrowed her eyes at this and straightened up, the pink rays of dawn setting a shimmer of fire to her russet eyes.

“I could say the same thing... about you.” Vincent remained silent. The two of them continued to stare at each other while Barret and Cait Sith just watched, not quite understanding the rather strange exchange.

“Well noo,” Cait Sith said, first to break the tense atmosphere, “there's only one thing tae it then!” The robot hopped up onto the ship's railing with cat-like grace before jumping up and swinging himself onto Vincent's shoulder. “I'll jes' have to join Vinnie here instead, won't I?” Vincent snapped his head towards the small puppet and blinked in surprise at the small cat now sharing his shoulder.

The crimson caped man narrowed his red eyes slightly, almost grumbling out, “That will not be necessary, Cait Sith.”

“Well yer stuck wit' me, like it or not! It's the only thing that'll keep this young missy here from worryin'!” Vincent glanced over to Tifa at the cat's gesture and Tifa turned away with her arms crossed.

“Listen Tifa,” Barret began, a rare fatherly tone. “We all gotta watch each other's backs. I ain't gonna be responsible fer more people gettin' hurt. As much as I hate tha' Shinra...” Here, Barret grit his teeth. “Cait Sith's right. We gotta play this all careful like. So I'd prefer it if you sat this one out.” Tifa remained quiet, staring distantly at the two Shinra infantrymen disappearing down the steel steps leading towards the cargo hold.

“Yeowza!” Cait Sith suddenly cried out, “That's a mighty fine bruise ya got thair, Vinnie! Where'd ya get that from?!” Barret and Tifa both turned their attention towards the gunslinger who was now staring hard at the small cat perched on his right, the small puppet quickly drawing back from peering down the man's cowl. Vincent remained silent and glanced towards Tifa, who was struck with realisation and looked away in slight embarrassment; they both knew where the bruise had come from, but neither were willing to tell.

“... Anyway,” Barret began, deciding to ignore the subject given Vincent's response – or lack thereof. “Let's leave it to them ta get more info, Tif', an' then we can go kick some ass. But right now, how 'bout ya come with me so we can go get Red?”

“Fine.” The snippy response was followed by the fighter spinning on her heel and marching towards the captain's cabin. Barret scratched the back of his trunk-like neck as he watched her go.

“Well, shit. Pissed her off now. Hope y'all happy, 'cuz now I gotta go deal with it.” The hulk of a man bent down and scooped up the half-eaten bowl of soup that Tifa had placed on the floor. “Hard enough gettin' that gal' to eat anything as it is...” he grumbled to himself. Straightening up, he jabbed his index finger towards Vincent and Cait Sith. “I give ya both fifteen minutes. You better be back by then, or I'll personally kick both yer asses.”

“Done,” Vincent replied before briskly striding towards the cargo hold, Cait Sith clinging to the man's shoulder while saying, “I dinnae remember ye bein' soo tall!” Barret raised a bushy brow as he watched the odd duo go, taking slight amusement in the way the cat's tail curled around the top of Vincent's back. Once they were out of earshot, Barret couldn't help but think out loud.

“... A bruise, huh?”

He stood for a moment in thought before beginning in the direction the fighter was last seen. It didn't take long for Barret to track down Tifa. The young woman stood outside of the captain's cabin, taking a keen interest in the soft pink horizon rather than Barret's presence. The gun-armed man sighed heavily as he swept a hand over his cornrow styled hair.

“They're still sleeping.” Barret was almost given a start by her sudden voice. He nodded and held out the bowl of almost forgotten seafood chowder towards her. A moment passed before she took it without a word, continuing to look out at the horizon as the sea lapped up the boat sides. The sound of rolling waves and the rustle of Tifa's duster the only sound shared between them.

Some time passed before Barret sighed, “Look, don't be blamin' me. I ain't exactly happy 'bout it either-”

“It's not that, Barret.” She turned to her old friend with a slightly knitted brow. Barret raised his own brow in question, but the fighter turned away again to stare out at the sea.

'How do I tell him about Vincent?' she thought. The man's behaviour greatly concerned her, especially earlier back in the deckhouse. She knew that pushing him with questions would only make him withdraw further into his infamously aloof shell, and that addressing Barret with such concerns would most likely cause a commotion. One that she was sure not only herself, but Vincent would also like to avoid.

“Well,” Barret began, “whatever it is, you know you can talk to me 'bout it, yeah?”

“... Yeah.” Tifa took in a deep breath, forcing air into her lungs though painful as it was in her current condition. She swallowed against the irritation in her throat, still feeling the effects of being exposed to smoke. “... Thanks.”

“For what?” Barret rubbed his nose with a steely prosthetic index. “I'm pissed too fer not bein' able to lay the smackdown on those braindead, candy ass Shinra... &^#$!” Barret stomped his foot heavily into the deck, causing the floor to vibrate so much even Tifa could feel it. “They've bin' dead fer three years, so how the HELL we just saw some of their stupid ass mooks, I don't even-!”

“Barret.” She tried to hide her smirk at watching her old friend become worked up. It brought her back to fond memories of times past. The man turned to her and began to calm down, recognising the look she shot him. “I'm worried... about it too. But... you're right. I'm sure Vincent and Cait Sith... will find out more for us... to go on.”

“They betta. I'm gonna call Reeve when they git back an' tell him I'm opening up a can of whoop ass!” Tifa grinned at this.

“Tell him... I'm going to open one too.” Barret gave a hearty laugh, landing a huge hand on Tifa's shoulder.

“You bet. That's if them two get back in one piece, if ya know what I mean. Vince didn't exactly look too happy 'bout Cait Sith joinin' him.” Barret grinned at the implication, as did Tifa, but her grin quickly fell when she was bitterly reminded of Vincent's increasingly strange demeanour. Barret looked at her in concern as she looked away to stare at the contents of her bowl.

“Hey, I didn't mean nothin' by it...”

“It's alright, Barret.” The man in question didn't look entirely convinced. He sighed through his nose, turning towards the sea and placing his huge hands onto the railing as he leaned against it.

“... Tell yer what.” Barret's serious tone immediately caught Tifa's attention. “If you start eatin' more of that soup, I'll tell ya why I got tha' early boat out of Junon.” Tifa's brow furrowed at him in question, but this time it was Barret who continued to stare out towards the horizon. Deciding to go along with Barret's suggestion, she slowly picked up the wooden spoon and dug it into the chowder, beginning to eat. Despite it being significantly cooler, it was still pleasantly tasty. Barret glanced over to her before nodding and returning his gaze to pink waters.

“Well, rememba' the man we first met when enterin' Junon? Told us 'bout tha' new constructions and stuff?” Tifa nodded. “Well, when you went to tha' inn, me and him got talkin'. Turns out it was Priscilla's father.” Tifa blinked, stunned.

“Priscilla?” Tifa quickly recalled the name, remembering the young girl who had almost drown when they first entered Junon three years ago. Cloud had performed CPR on her and saved her life. Tifa felt a stab at recalling her childhood friend, but she quickly pushed it aside. “I remember. The girl... with the dolphin.” Barret chuckled.

“Yeah, called 'Mr. Dolphin.'” He shook his head. “Anyway, while y'all got bored an' wandered off, or went ta sleep in yer case, he started tellin' me how she left Junon jes' a few days ago. Pursuin' her dream of bein' an actress.” Tifa nodded, unable to see where Barret was going with this, but remaining patient nevertheless. “Now, bet yer wonderin' why I'm tellin' ya this.”

“... You could say that,” Tifa replied as she put another spoonful of soup in her mouth.

“Well,” Barret continued, “I told 'im 'bout us savin' her and he finally recognised us. Guess it has bin' a while. We got talkin'. Ya know, bout things... People.” Tifa raised a brow at Barret's wording. “He mentioned something that Priscilla had seen jes' before she left. She swore she saw someone familiar.” Barret finally turned to look at her.

“Spiky haired guy. On a motorbike.”

Tifa stopped; her spoon left hovering halfway to her mouth.

“Now,” Barret began hurriedly, “before ya ask me why I didn't tell ya, it's cause it ain't for definite. I didn't wanna build yer hopes up. So I didn't tell you, an' I didn't tell anyone else either.” Barret watched the fighter carefully as she slowly placed the spoon back in the wooden bowl, staring distantly into it. “... I don't want ya gettin' hurt even more, Tif'.”

“When.”

“Huh?” Barret moved away from the railing and stood to full height, turning towards her.

“When did she see him?” Barret paused, looking up slightly.

'Bout... three days ago. Like I say, she thinks she saw 'im. Dunno how long it's been now since he's bin'-”

“Week, four days,” Tifa quickly replied. Barret frowned, staring hard at the fighter. He carefully reached out and took the bowl of soup from her, Tifa letting it go without resistance. He was pleased to find that she had eaten almost all of it. The fighter now moved her gaze to stare blankly at the horizon. The same position Barret had found her in.

He sighed. “... I'm gonna go wake up Red an' explain everything. If ya need me, I'll just be in here.” He lay a hand on her shoulder and gave it a brief, gentle squeeze before Tifa listened to him trudge towards the cabin door behind her. It gave a slow creak as it slowly opened before clicking shut once more.

Tifa crossed her arms over the metal railing, feeling the cold seep into her skin. A refreshing contrast to the extreme heat she had felt from the night before. However, she didn't really take notice. Her mind was caught in a myriad of thoughts and her heart a whirlwind of emotions.

Despite the chaos of her mind, only one thought was predominant over all others as she stared out over the bright shimmers that danced across the sea. A cluster of clouds lit up by a soft amaranth slowly wandered past and she watched them idly drift by over a pink sun.

'Cloud...'

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter XIX – Sins Of Us All

 

“Soo, say we come back in sixteen minutes instead o' fifteen. Would Barret send everyone af'er us on red alert?”

The robot received no answer.

So he continued, “Ooo, oor what if we come back too early! Think he'd tell us we didnae do enough and tae go back?”

“Cait Sith,” Vincent finally addressed the puppet in a husky rumble. “I suggest silence be exercised.”

Perched on the gunslinger's shoulder, the cat curled his tail closer to the man's back as Vincent descended the metal steps that lead into the cargo hold of the J.S. (Junon's Ship) Blue Narciss. The duo followed the path of two heavily suspected Shinra soldiers, both of which had disappeared along with their shared crate of unknown goods. Quickly turning the corner once reaching the bottom, Vincent bent his knees slightly to lower his height and conceal himself behind the nearest available piece of cover. From there he took the opportunity to scan the area while Cait Sith turned to peer behind him.

Beams of morning sun broke through in little squares from metal grates set above, illuminating sections of the hold with slivers of pink tinted light. Rows and rows of red painted boxes stood like lines of soldiers; steely and unmoving.

“Freight containers...” Vincent muttered to himself.

“Aye,” Cait Sith whispered back, “Nothin' too unusual foor a cargo ship.”

“Perhaps for one who does not pause to consider their number or content.” The crowned cat leaned forward on Vincent's shoulder.

“Whitddya mean?” Vincent straightened slightly, peering over the top of the worn stacks of cardboard boxes he was using as cover before lowering himself behind them once again.

“Consider how fast this ship is moving, Cait Sith.”

“Well, cap'n said we'd be at Costa del Sol pretty quick cause o' tha good tide. Whit's tha' got ta doo wit' anything? Ship's canny fast, so what?” Vincent glanced at the cat before returning his attention to the main hold.

“One might say too fast for the amount of cargo it's carrying.” Cait Sith's whiskers twitched on hearing this.

“... Ye saying that the cargo is too light?”

“If there's cargo at all.” Cait Sith fell silent as he surveyed the numerous rows of metal boxes. Now that Vincent mentioned it, the small robot was able to understand the gunslinger's suspicions. The containers looked heavy and fortified, and gave the impression that they were carrying a manifold of valuable goods. Yet the speed in which the ship travelled made them seem as if they were as light as air. The more the cat thought about it, the more he thought that maybe that was actually the case. One thing was certain, however.

Not everything was as it seemed.

A set of two voices suddenly echoed through the hold and Cait Sith instinctively curled more securely to Vincent's shoulder, his little white gloved hands grasping the folds of the man's cape. Vincent did not hesitate; immediately breaking from cover he weaved through the teeming mass of freight containers with nimble footwork. The voices became louder as a result and eventually discernible to Cait Sith's ears.

“Just throw it down there with the rest of them.”

“Yeah, why don't YOU throw it down there with the rest of them. Dumbass.” Vincent pressed himself against rusted metal of the nearest container just as Cait Sith leaned forward slightly with perked ears.

“Who the hell are you calling dumbass?! Dumbass!” Light shifted from above as the boat was boosted over a strong wave, setting pink beams to quickly encroach upon the surrounding shadows. Vincent was prompt to step back further into the remaining darkness, but he and Cait Sith both did not miss the two sets of red lenses that gleamed from the far corner of the room.

“You, you dumbass! You realise what's in here, don't ya?! 'Throw it down there.' Yeah, great idea, if you want us both getting exposed!” A curse rang out with an accompanied clang as the soldier in question almost dropped the crate he was carrying.

“Crap, I almost forgot about that! Too used to working with junk.” The other man's helmet gleamed as it shook from side to side. They both handled the crate with evidently greater care than before and set down their goods gently before beginning to open the fastenings on one of the freight container's loading doors. With both their backs turned, Vincent silently stepped out of the penumbra and began his approach towards the two troops. He quickly darted between each row of containers, a man possessing footsteps of a ghost; a shadow weaving between darkness and light.

“Well, coloour me impressed,” Cait Sith whispered low. “Yer really good at this, ye bin' practising or somethin'?” The gunslinger stopped two rows from the soldiers and resisted the urge to twist his head away from the cat's whiskers tickling his ear. He pressed his shoulder against another container and quickly surveyed the hold from his new vantage.

The sun was rising fast given the pink squares of light were now turning a pale shade of yellow. Their thin beams flickered over the two soldiers as they heaved open the doors of their chosen freight container, however due to Vincent's southwest position, his sight to its contents was obscured. A considerably large gap divided the cargo hold, its path splitting the shipping containers down the middle in some semblance of a walkway. Vincent stood on the left-hand side of the divide, and quickly deduced that crossing to the right would be a better option. He glanced towards the two soldiers to find they had disappeared inside the now open container, no doubt to set down their load. He did not have time to run across; he had one chance.

And he would have to be quick.

“Hold on.”

Cait Sith didn't have time to respond when Vincent suddenly dived towards the floor. Curling to the side, he used his momentum to roll across his broad shoulders and over the metal surface on his upper back. Cait Sith bit down a yelp as he fell to Vincent's chest and scrambled to gain a tight hold of the leather straps adorning the front of the man's cloak. The gunslinger's cape followed the arc of his legs in a whorl of crimson, and in a heartbeat he had his sabaton boots planted firmly on the opposite side of the walkway as he fell into a crouch behind a container on the other side. A split second after his dive roll the two Shinra soldiers re-emerged.

“Ye could'a warned me-!” Cait Sith huffed with pique as he clambered up the gunslinger's cloak and hoisted himself back onto the man's shoulder.

“Shit-!! John! Did you hear that?!”

Cait Sith clapped a hand over his muzzle.

“Not this again... you sure you're not scared of the dark? Again with the noises...”

“No, seriously! I heard somethin'!” Vincent slowly rose to his full height and resisted giving the small puppet now perched on his left shoulder a most admonishing glare.

“Yeah. Sure.” An uneasy pause.

“Oh, FINE. Come on, we'll have a look. You're such a coward, David.” Footsteps began to enclose on Vincent and Cait Sith, almost suffocating in their unspoken threat to their discovery. “So tell me, how exactly did you get this job again?”

As the two Shinra troops began to converse, Vincent swiftly moved to the container's side and held himself completely still, as if he had turned to stone. Seconds passed in agony for Cait Sith, his body wound with tension as his fur rose higher with each footstep that fell closer and closer. Just as the troops reached the pinnacle of their approach, Vincent suddenly sprang from cover and darted across the narrow gap to the container just next. Cait Sith's breath caught in his throat as he snatched a glimpse of both soldiers' backs. When Vincent and his cape settled once again behind cover, the cat breathed a gusty sigh of relief.

The two men had now turned the corner to inspect the steel box the duo had only moments before been hiding behind, and Cait Sith was secretly impressed with Vincent's expert timing; a moment too soon and the soldiers would have spotted them as they passed by. The puppet was about to comment but Vincent wasted no time. Checking down the narrow passage between each box, the gunslinger began to weave through the maze of containers with careful lithe while keeping an ear trained on the pair of soldiers. Though still discernible, the voices of the infantrymen began to wane as the crimson-caped man crept closer to their previous position; the farmost corner of the hold, and towards the freight container they had left open when they had begun their patrol.

A quick tap on his shoulder halted him in his tracks. Promptly pressing his back to the nearest steel receptacle, Vincent turned his blood red eyes to Cait Sith.

“Vinnie, look thair.” At the puppet's whisper, he followed the cat's gloved finger to a line of containers that stood one row away to the right. Though they looked the same as all the others in the hold, what was so curious about these however was that their doors hung open for all to see.

“Empty. Just like ye said.” Cait Sith stood and crossed his arms, his tail flicking back and forth at Vincent's back. The man remained silent. Guilt struck the little robot and he looked down in an attempt to meet Vincent's eyes. “I'm sorry tae 'ave almost shoouted back there. Ah plain fergot!”

Vincent slowly walked up to the open boxes, (secretly mindful of Cait Sith's balance,) and began to inspect the inside of each. Once satisfied that they were indeed empty, he eventually replied in a low rumble, “It is of no concern.”

Despite the man's words, Cait Sith didn't look entirely convinced. His whiskers twitched back and forth as he wrinkled his little black nose. Finally, he scratched the back of his neck and dropped into a seated position on Vincent's shoulder. What the cat didn't know was that Vincent was now secretly grateful for Cait Sith's mistake. After all, it had given them an ample opportunity to distract the two troops and inspect their cargo. On that note, the gunslinger made to move once more towards the abandoned container in the far corner, but paused on second thought.

“And Cait Sith.” The cat looked back to him in question. “... I did warn you.”

Before the puppet could utter a single protest, Vincent broke out into long strides towards the corner of the hold, his cape billowing behind him. Yellow squares of light spilled from the grates above and shone over the two as they moved, casting a glitter over Cait Sith's crown while Vincent's claw shimmered a molten gold. The robotic cat carefully turned around to keep an eye out for the two soldiers, their engaged conversation still echoing from behind. Reaching the side of the Shinra troops' container, Vincent embraced the shadows once more by pressing his back against the aged metal. It was here that he noticed a series of letters etched into the side of the steel. Deep and crude in appearance, the grooves were matched by an insignia of a meteor, exactly like the one they had spotted previously on the soldier's armour.

“SIN...” Vincent read out low. “An acronym, perhaps?” Cait Sith turned around in response and near jumped at the sight.

“Well, whatever it is, it's givin' me tha' creeps! Come on, let's find oot what's in here so we can git oot all the quicker!” Vincent tucked his chin further into his cowl in agreement. Leaning around cover, he checked down the open walkway to ensure it was clear before finally ducking inside.

His steps faltered.

Vincent suddenly felt sick.

“Sure is dark in 'ere!” Cait Sith whispered as he clambered down the front of the gunman's cloak and dropped gracefully to the floor. Hopping to the back of the container, the little booted cat began to carefully inspect the five fortified crates that were stacked carefully against the far wall. He sprang on top of the closest one and began to pull at the lid with his little white gloved hands. He pulled and pulled, but the lid wouldn't budge. Annoyance rising, his tail swept back and forth before he gave up and stomped on the crate with a pointed boot. He turned to Vincent, only to find that the man hadn't moved a step from the entrance.“Whit you waitin' fer, Vinnie? Hurry up an' help 'fore they come back!”

Vincent closed his eyes and took a steadying breath through his nose before he made his way towards the crowned cat. Nausea accompanied every step, and when he reached the crate in question the man felt physically sick. Cait Sith jumped down from the box and watched carefully as Vincent crouched down and reached towards the lid, the puppet secretly unnerved by the way Vincent's eyes glowed a piercing red in the darkness. Gripping both sides in hand and claw, the gunman began to pull. After a few seconds, Cait Sith was about to voice the futility of their efforts when in a display of surprising strength, Vincent wrenched the lid off the container, finally revealing the ship's true consignment in a wash of green light.

Mako.

Jars upon glass jars of the green liquid stared innocently up at them from the opened crate.

“Well noo, I dinnae remember ye bein' soo strong!” Cait Sith tilted his head at the gunslinger in thought. “Guess I must'a loosened it fer ya!” He flexed his little arms before gripping the side of the crate with both hands and raising himself up on his toes to peer inside. “But this ain't good. Ain't good at all...”

Vincent's heart suddenly beat painfully in his chest.

Dropping to his knees with a start, he hunched over slightly as his claw twitched with rapid jerks. Cait Sith jumped back in fright, almost stumbling over his own feet. “H-hey, ye alright thair?” Vincent did not reply. The small robot looked frantically about in panic as Vincent's breathing turned ragged. Immediately suspicious of the cargo, Cait Sith looked between the glowing crate and the gunman before he quickly hopped up and, with every ounce his strength, heaved the lid back over the box of Mako. Vincent suddenly gasped for air and swiftly drew back from the crate.

'What is... happening... ?!'

“Phew! Jeez, ye alright?! I dinnae think this thing could be booby trapped!” Cait Sith quickly moved to Vincent's side as he shakily rose to his feet. He glanced at his claw before drawing it within the confines of his cloak. “... Ye mind sayin' something? Yer startin' tae worry me.” Vincent peered down at the small cat from over his cowl before spinning on his heel, his cape following in a twist of tattered crimson.

“... Let's go.” He hurriedly made for the exit of the container, the feeling of nausea fading with welcome relief after each step.

“Not quite whit I had in mind, but ah'll take it!” Cait Sith quickly followed at his golden plated heels. Just as the gunman was about to step back out into the hold, two voices began to draw close.

“See, nothing there. Sure you're just imagining things again, David.”

“Yeah, yeah... I know what I heard. I'm tellin' ya, John, I'd bet my next wage that it was somethin'!”

Vincent quickly ducked out of the container and pressed himself against the side of the metal, crouching just under the steel box's engravings that he had examined only minutes before. A sudden clawing at his back made Vincent snap his head, only to find Cait Sith clambering up his cape by using the folds in the fabric as footholds. Reaching the top, the small cat hoisted himself up and curled himself securely to the gunman's right shoulder. The odd duo abided in the shadows, still and attentive to the two Shinra troops weaving through the maze of containers as they returned from their patrol.

Reproachful, scarlet eyes suddenly bore into Vincent's skull, bringing a heavy chill accompanied by a chorus of groans that spoke only of agony and death. Words were severed and dragged out like corpses, leaving a chilling trail of ice across his braincase. Anger boiled under words spoken from stitched lips.

'Ce-aase this hii-diing. To hi-ide is to de-nyy trut-th. The guill-tyy shh-ould fa-acce their misss-takes. For I a-am ONE OF MAA-NY-!'

Rage suddenly coursed through his veins and Vincent's claw was thrust up by something beyond his will. Wicked talons flexed before they lashed out towards the rusted container at his side, digging into the fortified alloy.

SKKREEEEEEEEE!

Metal screamed as golden talons were dragged down through the steel with ease, ripping open the heavy container with terrifying strength.

“Vince! What on Gaia are ye doin'?!” Cait Sith's panicked hiss was lost amongst the screech of rended metal, and another sound that was just as hair-raising.

The unmistakable high-pitched whine of lazer sights being activated.

The surge of requiting rage finally released its grip on Vincent, and the man staggered back while Death Gigas dragged his hulking mass away to reside once more within the gunslinger's psyche. Vincent only barely managed to retreat to the rear of the container before two red dots homed in on what was his and Cait Sith's previous position. He immediately recognised the snap of rifles being loaded with fresh magazines, and he fought to regain his bearings as an audible, echoing click told him that the Shinra troops had cocked their guns.

And that he was running out of time.

“Cait Sith, go. Now.” He turned his sharp gaze to the stunned passenger on his shoulder. It took a moment for the cat to find his tongue.

“I ain't leavin' ye doon here!”

“And condemn us both to capture?” Cait Sith's tail gave anxious flicks as a rush of footsteps drew close, their urgent whispers almost drown out by the sound. “Report to Barret, tell him of our findings.”

“And whit aboot you?!” The glow of the soldiers' helmets quickly became visible around the corner, the three centre lenses that were once dim now lit up a threatening red. Lazer sights darted with frenzy down the passage towards them.

“There is no time. Now,” without warning, Vincent snatched the back of Cait Sith's cape in his leather gloved hand and tossed him up into the air, “go!” The little puppet flailed in panic and surprise before he managed to catch one of the top edges of a nearby container. Frantically pulling himself up, he stood on top of the steel receptacle in a mixture of confusion and fright. Not only at Vincent's alarming behaviour, but from the rarely heard urgency in the man's voice.

Stray beams of light suddenly grasped his attention.

Looking up, Cait Sith watched the shifting rays that spilled down through little square gaps of the latticed grate above him. A stack of crates and containers lay not too far away, and the puppet immediately saw them as a means to climb up to the grate and escape. He also realised that it was no doubt Vincent's reason for throwing him up there in the first place.

“W-who's there?!” The soldier's frightened call brought the cat back to the situation at hand and he crept low to look over the container's edge. The two Shinra troops had their rifles drawn and were cautiously moving down the passage towards the container Vincent had torn in to. Vincent himself had moved one row behind, right next to the steel box that Cait Sith had been thrown to and was currently hiding upon. Even in darkness, and from the height he was situated, the small robot could easily see that the gunslinger was struggling. Vincent's movements were taut and the man appeared a shade paler, even more so than usual.

'Whit is wrong wit' ya, Vinnie?! I've never seen ye like this!' Cait Sith's thoughts turned to the gunman's reaction when they had opened the crates full of Mako, and fear bubbled in his chest that maybe the crates had indeed been rigged with something. It was the only connection the puppet could make as to Vincent's bizarre, and almost scary, behaviour. The cat watched helplessly as the two troops began to close in while Vincent had stopped moving completely. If Cait Sith didn't know any better, he would have thought that the man had given up.

'I cannae watch this anymoore!' Pure emotion swelled in the cat's breast and Cait Sith stood up with determination, decision made.

He would not leave his friend behind.

Reaching behind his little cape, Cait Sith hopped down from the metal receptacle and landed neatly on Vincent's shoulder. The gunslinger snapped his head to the cat in surprise just as Cait Sith pulled back his hand and began to shake his balled fist. The very moment the first troop made to turn the corner, Cait Sith threw his Dice towards the soldier's feet.

“Whoa-aaaa!!” The Shinra troop completely lost his balance as he stumbled on the small cubes and floundered backwards, crumpling to the floor in a clumsy mess. Then, as if a spell had been broken, Vincent finally moved once more. Swiftly leaping on top of the container Cait Sith had fallen from, the crimson caped man crouched low and out of sight. However, while unable to see the soldiers, (and vice versa,) the odd duo were still within earshot.

“Shit! Lost it. Whatever the hell that was...” Hurried footsteps soon joined the annoyed and rather rattled voice.

“John! You alright, man?”

“Sure. What do you think, dumbass?! Keep your rifle close and yer eyes peeled. I have a feeling that whatever it is, it's still around... Ow! Seriously, what is this?” A soft rattle echoed as the soldier grasped what he had landed on, before a strange and awkward silence followed. Finally he cried out, “Dice?! You've been playin' Liar's Dice with the others in here again, haven't you, David?!” As the two Shinra soldiers began to bicker, Vincent made his way to the stack of crates and containers he had thrown Cait Sith towards earlier, all the while remaining crouched to avoid being seen. He slowly began to scale the mountain of boxes to reach the grate, and subsequently, escape to the upper deck. Cait Sith watched him with concern; he had never seen Vincent appear this fatigued. The two voices below took on a sudden, frenzied pitch and Cait Sith looked down in alarm with perked ears.

“Holy mother of-!! What the hell is down here?! Look at these claw marks!” Metallic clacking echoed throughout the hold as the soldiers' rifles were re-adjusted and no doubt gripped tighter.

“My god... quick, go up top and call for back-up! Only a monster could tear through something like this...”

Vincent paused half-climb and glanced down into the hold below. A moment passed before he continued his ascent.

Silence reigned. Unspoken words filled the air between Vincent and Cait Sith.

 

 

"""

~ o0o ~

"""

 

Twelve minutes ago, Barret had been talking to Red, Denzel and Marlene. Five minutes ago, Barret had been watching the sunrise. And two minutes ago, Barret had been keeping a lookout for any more suspicious activity or, 'stupid ass Shinra mooks.'

But now? Now, Barret was pacing.

'It's bin' about seventeen minutes since I last saw 'em. If they don't come back damn soon I'm gonna kick both their asses so hard-' His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden rusty creak at his feet. Blinking, Barret moved his huge boot out of the way of the latticed grate set into the floor to inspect further, when suddenly it juddered then sprang open. The dark-skinned man almost tripped over his own feet as Cait Sith's little white gloved hands appeared at the edge of the hole. The small robot quickly pulled himself up onto the deck before spinning around and peering back inside, hands outstretched.

Before Barret could say a word, a wicked claw lashed out from the darkness and dug its golden talons into the floor. Vincent quickly followed after, pulling himself up and moving aside with a sweep of his crimson cloak. He ignored Cait Sith's silent offer of help and instead crouched next to the grate, pushing the metal cover shut with a click as it locked into place.

For once, Barret was speechless... though the spell didn't last long.

“Yo! What sorta time d'ya call this?!” He crossed his burly arms and scowled at them, but the relieved grin on his face gave away his façade. Vincent slowly rose to his feet. It became immediately evident that the gunslinger was not standing to his full height, and instead appeared to be slightly hunched over. His pale features struck Barret as he turned towards him. The ex-AVALANCHE leader unfolded his arms and shot him a suspicious, cursory glance.

“Barret, I need to contact Reeve.” At this, Barret's brow furrowed and he looked at Cait Sith in question, who simply replied by shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders. He turned back to Vincent.

“Mind tellin' me what the hell's goin' on first?”

“Cait Sith will brief you.”

“... Ah will?” A sharp glance from Vincent quickly made the cat correct himself. “Err, aye! Ah'll fill yer in. Nuthin' tae worry aboot!” Barret seemed to mull over the matter before he finally gave a gruff nod of his head. Fishing the PHS from his cargo pants' side pocket, he threw the device to Vincent who deftly caught it.

“Alright. Go an' call Reeve, but once yer done I'm expectin' yer report too. You ain't gettin' outta this that easily.” The hulk of a man turned to leave, but hesitated. Glancing back over his huge shoulder, he said, “His speed dial numba is one-nine-seven-two.” Then he continued on his way with Cait Sith in tow. Vincent raised a brow at the gun-armed man's back before looking down at the sleek black handheld in his palm.

He had no idea how to speed dial.

He came from an age, a world, where phones were all connected by wires. Technology had advanced significantly since then and his long sleep quickly saw to it that he was buried in ignorance when it came to more... recent aspects of technological development. Nevertheless, Vincent endeavoured.

Flipping open the device, he fumbled with strange screens and alien menus. He knew some fundamental elements to the phone, having been forced to use it three years ago during their journey. Yet this model was significantly different from the one he last saw. He personally found it unnecessary; there was no need to replace the last model. It still worked to its intended function, after all. Finally reaching the keypad menu, Vincent pressed the previously advised keys before hitting the glowing green button. The phone began to ring.

Ring... Ring... Ring...

Beep! “Ah, Barret!” On recognising Reeve's voice, Vincent brought the device up to his ear. “Making good on your promise to contact me, I see. I take it this is about last night's fire?” Vincent momentarily became lost in thought, leaving Reeve hanging on the other end of the line. “... Barret? Are you still there?”

“... Reeve.”

“Oh! Vincent!” The WRO leader's surprise was palpable. “What a surprise! Is everything alright?”

The gunman almost hesitated, “It is as so.” Reeve made an agreeable sound, so Vincent continued, “Though I do not recall speed dial numbers being more than one digit in length.”

The well-groomed man almost sounded sheepish as he hastily responded, a hint of embarrassed inflection to his words. 'Yes, well being in the position that I'm in, it's a precaution in the event that my contact number falls into wrong hands. My number cannot be accessed by normal means, only through this programmed code. It was at Barret's suggestion, actually.' Vincent fell silent. Sensing that this was an intended business call rather than leisure, Reeve filled in the silence for him. 'So, to what do I owe this pleasure, Vincent?'

“There have been some... suspicious sightings. On further inspection, it would appear to be Shinra.”

It was Reeve's turn to fall silent. Vincent turned from the light breeze that teased strands of ebony hair from his bandanna to wisp gently across the bridge of his nose. He continued as he watched the rising sun in the reflection of the sea, “Are you familiar with the acronym, SIN?”

“Shinra Intelligent Neo-genesis.”

Vincent blinked, “What?”

“The last word is from the language of the Ancients, or Cetra. 'Neo' means new, while 'genesis' means, 'the coming into being,' or 'the origin.' So I presume overall its intended use is to mean, 'intelligent rebirth' though I am still theorising-”

“That is not what I meant, Reeve,” he interrupted, “how do you know this?” Vincent's question sounded more like a demand.

Reeve hesitated on the other end of the line, before uncharacteristically sighing, “I've known for a while.” The WRO leader listened to the stunned silence at the other end before continuing, “I have been aware of their presence for about four months now. Tracking their movements and keeping them under heavy, yet covert, surveillance. They appear to be no threat. In fact, most of their observed efforts are in favour of the Planet.”

“... And you thought it wise not to inform us?” The gunslinger could not keep the slight taint of bitterness from his words as he gripped the small handheld tighter.

“Please understand, Vincent.” The earnest plea gripped the gunslinger's attention and he listened with great advertence. “... This is within the WRO's jurisdiction. I have a responsibility for everyone and the Planet. I can easily understand the concerns of a Shinra group suddenly rising up, but to let it be known would cause widespread panic. I gave you all the task of assisting with the Planet's healing. To let you all know about this development would only distract from and interfere with your mission. I am taking great precautions, and as such, I'm handling it. It's under control.”

Vincent remained quiet for a few moments, carefully turning over Reeve's heartfelt confession. Finally, he spoke, “Do you intend to tell the others of this, 'development?'”

“... In time. I promise.” Vincent tucked his chin into his cowl before he slowly lowered the phone from his ear and hung up. Staring out at the horizon, the wind sweeping gently at his cloak, Vincent felt an overwhelming sense of loss. His quest for answers had finally rewarded him with one... but it was a bitter pill to swallow. How many more lies would be weaved? And by his own comrades at that? In hindsight, Vincent could now see the oddity to Cait Sith's words when they first 'discovered' the new Shinra group's presence. The cat had known all along.

He raised his golden gauntlet and stared hard at the metal. His mind was a flurry with unanswered questions and he sank into deep reflection.

The intense feeling of sickness he had suffered previously, the emergence of this new Shinra or 'SIN' as they were also known as, Reeve's newly confessed secret, Cloud's whereabouts, Denzel's troubled actions, Tifa's mysterious scar, Chaos' strange behaviour and his own increasing lack of control...

Sharp and wicked talons flexed and glimmered in front of a burning sun.

It came upon Vincent's shoulders to make a heavy decision, but he could no longer deny it. He desperately needed answers, especially ones regarding his progressively worsening relapses in control. And there was only one place that he knew of where he might glean a single scrap of hint or clue.

After much deliberation, Vincent finally came to a decision. He was going back.

'Nibelheim...'

Four voices cackled and echoed in his head.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter XX – Rosa Blanca del Sol

 

The promontory was the first thing that came into sight, proudly rising amidst the azure waters of the Western Continent. It was only when the air turned warm and the sea turned crystal that the small resort town nestled in the side of the peninsula became visible. Striped parasols of many colours lined the golden sand and, from the distance of their approach, appeared like a field of polythene flowers. Waves rolled merrily on the beach and beckoned their ship in with whispering surf; a siren of deep blue.

They had finally arrived at Costa del Sol.

Despite the havoc on deck from scrambled sailors ordered to search the cargo hold, spirits among the party were as high as the sun and as clear as the sea... as was Cait Sith's singing.

“Good moornin', good moornin'~ We've danced tha' whole night through~ Good moornin', good moornin' tae you~”

“Dayum, do you ever stop singing?!” Barret glared at the small puppet by his feet. “Every mornin' I swear...”

“It ain't my fault ye dinnae appreciate mah creative flair.”

“Flair?!” Barret scoffed, “How bout I track down some Contain Materia an' cast tha' real Flare on yer ass!” Cait Sith responded by hopping back and whipping out his megaphone, Marvelous Cheer, before pointing it at the hulking giant.

“Ye cannae take me doon tha' easily, ya huge, bearded bull!”

“B-bull?! Com'ere ya scrawny lil' piece'a catnip!” Barret and Cait Sith's commotion added to the overall chaos on board the J.S. Blue Narciss, while chaos of a different breed blighted the mind of a certain gunslinger who stood by the ship's railings. A voice that promised abyssal torment assaulted him with an echoed accompaniment of slimy, contorted worms.

'I WILL END THEIR DISGUSTING EFFERVESCENCE.'

Vincent's claw was taken hold by a power beyond comprehension and golden, knifelike fingers slowly began to enclose around the metal railing they had been resting on. Alarmed, he fought back with all of his willpower. After a few seconds of futile struggling, Chaos finally relinquished his hold but not without leaving him a lingering mental image; a mouth bared with nothing but elongated, frightening canines. Vincent wrenched his claw from the railing and quickly drew the appendage within the confines of his cloak, staring blankly at the five narrow indentations now left behind in the half-crushed metal.

He quickly glanced behind him towards Barret and Cait Sith, finding the bickering duo none the wiser of his struggle only seconds before. Vincent closed his eyes and breathed deeply through his nose, slightly tasting the briny air as he turned away from the railing. Warm currents of zephyr teased the tattered ends of his cape as surf lapped and curled up the ship's sides. While he was not normally one to agree with any of his demons, he found that this time he did agree somewhat with Chaos' words.

He found nothing to be jovial about, especially given recent events, and his teammates' unfounded enthusiasm and playful banter only served to annoy the gunslinger. And it would seem his demons as well, given the irritated twitching he felt through the talons of his left hand. He flexed the claw within his cloak, gravely aware that he'd not even felt a fraction of Chaos' true power. His mind wandered, and so did he as he moved towards the middle of the deck and away from the evidence of his decaying restraint.

'For how much longer will I hold control? No more can I ignore the fact that I am progressively worsening.' His thoughts turned to the cargo hold and the damage he had caused as a result of Death Gigas. Not only did the monstrosity effortlessly tear through reinforced steel, but he also indirectly endangered Cait Sith by alerting Shinra soldiers of their position.

And that was his greatest concern.

He knew it was only a matter of time before he endangered the others; not indirectly, but directly at that. He had already put Barret, Tifa and Nanaki in danger when Galian Beast sundered his psyche and fought the King Behemoth they had encountered outside of Kalm. Ironically, the beast had most likely saved them given the grim tide of battle before his forced appearance. But the demon was still a risk Vincent was unwilling to take.

As he watched more soldiers rush past, he overheard a snippet of urgent, hushed tones. “They dunno what the heck's down there, but some've been saying it's a monster!”

“What?! I ain't goin' down there! We ain't being paid to deal with that kinda stuff!” Regardless of the words exchanged between them, the trio of infantrymen hurried towards the cargo hold, their standard issue combat boots thundering past Vincent's own top boots of plated gold. The gunslinger watched them go with a dark, bitter sense of amusement: little did they know that they had just passed the monster they so desperately sought.

As Costa del Sol grew even bigger on the horizon, Vincent observed the final approach towards the resort town as he turned his mind to other matters. His decision to return to Nibelheim was not one to be taken lightly; he would require supplies, especially after handing his last remaining Potion to Tifa, and he made a mental note to locate the nearest vendor before seeking out the town's exit. The main problem, however, was that Vincent was not familiar with Costa del Sol. In fact, far from it.

Suddenly a voice chimed in his head, one that he hadn't heard in thirty-three years.

'You've never been to Costa del Sol?! You should go, you look like you could use some sun, Vincent.'

Vincent froze. Why? Why did he think about her now?

'… Lucrecia.'

Before he had a chance to be claimed by memories and past sin, laughter erupted from the ship's port side. Vincent turned towards the noise, as did Cait Sith and Barret, to find a flustered looking Tifa Lockhart marching out of the captain's cabin and making a direct beeline in their direction. The cat puppet and gun-armed man finally stopped their bickering, frozen with barely contained terror as they watched the angry fighter storm towards them. Vincent turned to Tifa as she took a moment to catch her breath, sensing that she was about to address him as well.

“Why didn't anyone tell me... I had soot on my face?!”

A fresh burst of laughter erupted from the cabin's doorway at Tifa's breathless exclamation; Nanaki, Denzel and Marlene absolutely succumbed with mirth. Vincent blinked and folded his arms, tucking his chin into his cowl. Barret attempted to hastily defend himself while Cait Sith hid his own laughter behind a gloved hand, though his shaking whiskers betrayed him. This only served to fluster the fighter further. Vincent recalled watching her smear black across her cheeks after she wiped her nose previously. He thought it of no importance to mention; he assumed Tifa had known, given she told him of being informed about her condition earlier by medics.

However, this certainly didn't seem to be the case as he now watched the fighter chase a sheepish Barret and hysteric Cait Sith about deck amidst the laughter of Nanaki and the children. After observing for a few moments, Vincent decided to make himself scarce before Chaos grew even more irritated, but not before secretly adding the small stab of guilt he felt for neglecting to inform Tifa to his never-ending list of regrets.

 

 

"""

~ o0o ~

"""


Voices hissed and spat vehemently in his head as he stepped out of the shadow of the ship's hangar and into the sun, his crimson eyes constricting painfully at the harsh light. Vincent physically recoiled at its unexpected strength, ducking his head away with a flinch as he paused mid-stride.

He had never known the sun to be this strong.

“You folk have a good journey now,” the captain wished them as they stepped off the ship. “Sorry 'bout all the commotion earlier. Nothing to worry about, you 'ave my word.” As he spoke, the now known Shinra infantrymen busied themselves with moving equipment from the ship's hangar come cargo hold, carefully preparing steel freight containers to be unloaded onto the harbour. Their whole job was a farce; Vincent knew the majority of the containers to be empty. The gunslinger watched with hard vigilance as they continued 'unloading' the docked ship.

“Yeah, thanks fer tha' ride on such short notice,” Barret said with a nod, but the inflection of suspicion to his words was unmistakable. Gil exchanged hands before they were shaken and after general, (or from Barret's side rather sarcastic) pleasantries, their party finally left the ship, and Shinra SIN, behind. The children ran on ahead excitedly, tugging Cait Sith between them with the very picture of child-like jubilance. Tifa followed, trying to be discreet in rubbing black powder from her cheeks with a balled fist. She paused in thought and turned to look over her shoulder towards Barret and Vincent.

“Tell me... what you found later. I need to watch Denzel and Marlene... before they get lost.” With that, she quickly followed after the party's two small charges as they ran off towards the direction of the beach. Breathless huffing from beside his leg made Vincent look down to find Nanaki panting noisily, the fire-dog's long tongue left to dangle from the side of his jaw.

“If you think the sun is bad, my friend, then try having fur.” Vincent was secretly taken aback by the quadruped's words, unaware that Red had seen his reaction to the searing elements. He gave a single blink of his crimson eyes in response as Nanaki padded by, his fiery tail only adding to the sweltering heat.

A refreshing breeze lazily passed to the cawing of gulls overhead, and Barret and Vincent were left to stand alone at the harbour.

“Ya know,” Barret began after a few seconds of near awkward silence, “this place hasn't changed all tha' much.” He walked over to the side and gripped the quay's railings with both hefty hands, staring out towards the golden sand. “Water's a helluva lot more clear though. Before, you could just about see tha' bottom, but now it's like looking through crystal.”

“... Hmph.” Vincent crossed his arms. Frankly, he didn't care. He had more pressing matters to attend to rather than hear the discussion of Costa del Sol's climate. Despite his thoughts, he did wonder at the sudden shift of heat only moments before they reached the peninsula. The air had been relatively cool until then, and despite his better judgement he had retreated below deck to escape the blazing sun.

“Take it you ain't tha' sort to enjoy that kinda stuff,” Barret commented with a flippant wave. “Well, betta' get used to it. Things change, however small. I learnt that tha' hard way.” The man paused before muttering under his breath, “Turns out the same applies ta' lil' girls, too...”

Vincent narrowed his eyes slightly at Barret's words; there was a surprising amount of wisdom behind the man's rugged exterior. He walked over to join the ex-AVALANCHE leader, reaching inside his red mantle as he did so. Grasping what he was searching for, he pulled out the intended item and tossed it towards Barret. The gun-armed man snatched it mid-air with a burly fist.

“Reeve is still expecting a call from you.”

“... Yeah?” Barret replied with surprising nonchalance, staring at his returned PHS in his palm. “Well, he's gonna have ta wait.”

Vincent's brow knitted slightly. Barret's behaviour was unusual. He stared for a moment before asking, “Do you not wish for my report?”

It was here that Barret finally turned to look at Vincent, and it struck the gunslinger just how tired the man really was; his burnt umber eyes lacking their usual alertness.

“Ya know what? I think I've heard enough from Cait Sith. Between Marlene, tha' dumbass Shinra, you, and Tifa? ... I'm taking a break fer a few days.” Barret pushed himself up from the railing, his left bicep flexing along with the flaming skull tattoo that inked it. “Now don't get me wrong, I'm still gonna hear ya out whether ya like it or not. You ain't gettin' away with shit on my watch.”

Now there was the Barret that Vincent was more familiar to.

“But right now? I'm havin' me some downtime.” Barret turned and trudged away, but not before speaking back over his shoulder. “I don't take you for a drinkin' man, Vincent. But whenever you're ready, I'll be in tha' bar.”

The hulking man continued in the direction of the nearest beer, pocketing his PHS into his green cargo pants as he did so. As the gunslinger watched him leave, Vincent couldn't help but feel slightly perplexed at Barret's words. He easily understood the man's well-placed concerns towards Shinra, and especially towards himself. He had also overheard of Marlene's plight towards her father from Cait Sith.

But Tifa?

He turned towards the direction he last saw the fighter depart in. It was no secret that she hurt over Cloud's disappearance. Yet for Barret to voice his concerns so openly, Vincent felt that perhaps the situation was more serious than he initially thought. Barret and Tifa were very close, any member of their party could see that. So to ignore the gun-armed man's insinuation towards her emotional state, or perhaps even physical, was foolish at best. Vincent did not pretend to know Tifa well; after all, they had simply been comrades sharing a common goal during Meteorfall. But being as such required even a modicum of knowledge of the other. And Vincent knew well enough, even after three years of distance, that Tifa was a mistress of masks.

He crossed his arms in thought, causing intense rays of light to catch his gauntlet and reflect a blinding glare into his eyes. Stunned, he quickly lowered his arms again while blinking the sting from both red irises.

He was beginning to dislike the sun.

Spinning on his heel, he made his way in the direction he last saw Tifa while voices spat and howled in his head.

The resort town bustled with activity and Vincent found that he longed for a retreat to the countryside he had become so accustomed to roaming. Though he quickly lost his way amongst the numerous villas, it did not take long for him to locate the remainder of the party. Laughter rang out amid the distinctive yelps of Red XIII, and Vincent hurried his pace towards the sound. Approaching the coast, he finally caught visual of the woman he was searching for. Tifa perched on a small group of stone steps that lead on to the beach, leaning back with a small yet sympathetic smile as Denzel and Marlene laughed by her side. The two youngsters held on to wafer-thin ice cream cones, yet half of Marlene's chilled treat was missing.

On further inspection, Vincent found the absent portion to be on Nanaki's nose.

The fire-dog desperately pawed at his snout while stretching out his long pink tongue to reach the frozen cream that rested innocently on his muzzle. Marlene laughed harder at the sight while Denzel tried to hide his own mirth, but his chuckles radiated through his shoulders.

“Yae were tha' one complainin' of bein' tae hot! Is that now tae cald fer ya?” Cait Sith japed from Red's spiked mane.

“My nose is... more sensitive than yours! It feels like it's going to freeze!”

Vincent resisted shaking his head as he approached the group. Cait Sith was the first to notice him, the silly grin immediately falling from the feline's face at the sight. The cat puppet tucked himself further into Nanaki's mane as he drew closer. Tifa noticed this and looked over her shoulder to where Cait Sith's sight was trained. On spotting him her face fell into one of shock which she quickly covered up with a weak smile, but the emotion remained clear in her russet eyes. Vincent became instantly suspicious. Surely his arrival wasn't that unusual.

“Vincent! Glad you decided... to join us.” At her exclamation, Nanaki, Denzel and Marlene all turned around. The fire-dog completely stopped his attempts in reaching the ice cream on his nose and stared in surprise at the gunman. Marlene also stared, her eyes wide and mouth slightly open. Denzel looked up at him with an awe that secretly took the gunslinger off-guard.

“Whoa,” the boy finally managed to utter.

“Tifa, I wish to speak with you.” Vincent wasted no time in addressing the fighter, choosing to instead ignore the others. His sudden request caught Tifa by surprise, and she blinked before rising to her feet. He was inwardly grateful that she seemed to understand the unspoken need for privacy.

“Alright, sure.” She turned towards Red XIII. “Nanaki, would you mind...?”

“Not in the slightest, Tifa,” the fire-dog nodded, now licking ice-cream from his paws, his nose finally free from the frozen confectionary. Cait Sith gave her a brief thumbs up, providing extra assurance that they would both look after the children. Justly reassured, she motioned to Vincent with a quick wave of her hand and began to lead them away to a more secluded location. The gunslinger followed suit with a curl of his crimson cape.

Moving away from the beach and the hustle and bustle of tourists, Tifa kept close to the cobblestoned promenade that looked out upon the crystal blue waters of Costa del Sol. The walkway was surprisingly empty, with the majority of crowds on the sand or in the heart of the resort town itself. As they walked, Tifa occasionally glanced towards him from the corner of her eye. Between that and the suffocating heat, Vincent felt his patience being truly tested. After the fourth inquisitive glance, he finally broke the tense silence with a curt snap.

“Is there a problem?” Tifa stopped walking and Vincent stopped with her. She gave a quick sweep of their surroundings and, ensuring the promenade was indeed empty, swiftly moved under the shade of a nearby palm tree planted next to a building. The gunslinger followed with piqued curiosity.

“Have you looked in a mirror?” The question caught Vincent by surprise, but the only outward indication he gave was a blink of his blood red eyes.

“I can't say that I have.” He crossed his arms with care this time, thankful for the respite from the harsh sun and that it didn't reflect off his gauntlet like before.

Tifa hesitated before finally speaking. “Your eyes. They look like they're burning... in the sun.”

Vincent's brow knitted ever so slightly. He now understood the reactions of his comrades when he approached them, though he did not see reason as to why Barret neglected to mention his 'condition' earlier. However, given the man's most recent behaviour, he felt that perhaps he should not be so surprised.

“I was not aware,” he droned, looking over Tifa's shoulder and across the ocean. He cared little for his appearance; like any lost and time forgotten relic. The fighter appeared concerned and moved restlessly, as if she wanted to say something else. He turned his sharp red eyes back upon her, in which Tifa almost shuffled awkwardly on her feet before she decided to change the subject.

“So, how can I help?” It was here when she looked up at him that he found he was not the only one apparently affected by the sun. Strong light caught her eyes and he couldn't help but stare as they were turned a glimmering russet. He compared the sight to looking through a wine glass filled to the brim with deep Rosé. After a moment's pause, she shot him a rather puzzled look. He quickly averted his gaze.

“Barret appears to be acting in an unusual manner.”

This snapped Tifa to attention, and Vincent only now oddly noticed that the black smear of soot had finally left her cheeks. “Barret?” she questioned. “He seemed fine when we... left the ship.”

“Perhaps he was. Yet having spoken to him moments earlier, he no longer leaves that impression.”

“... I'm not sure I understand, Vincent.” Tifa tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear as an unsettled countenance joined her struggled breaths. Concern bubbled within the gunslinger at the sight, though he promptly qwelled it.

“He would not hear of my findings despite making an earlier request to do so.” 'Though I believe demand is a more appropriate term,' Vincent added mentally. “He advised that he would be, 'in the bar,' should I wish to seek his prescence at a later hour.”

Of all of the reactions Vincent expected, he did not foresee Tifa looking relieved. “Oh, is that all?” she breathed out, her shoulders visibly relaxing along with her brow. “Barret sometimes does this. It's usually when he's... under a lot of pressure. He just needs... some time.” She turned her head to look out from their sequestered refuge, no doubt towards where she knew her long time friend to be located. “Still, I'll go see him later... to check up on him.”

Vincent tucked his chin into his cowl, making a half-nod. He did not question Tifa's judgement when it came to matters regarding the gun-armed ex-AVALANCHE leader. “Very well,” he said, and began to cross the shade of the palm tree to retrace his steps back down the promenade.

“Hey, wait-!” Vincent paused mid-stride, coolly looking back over his shoulder. He did as she asked while Tifa hacked into her fist at the sudden outburst, her body still recovering from her dangerous dance with Junon flames. “Are you... going to tell me... what happened?”

The gunman studied her carefully before finally replying, “If you wish.” So he returned to her side and began to explain about his and Cait Sith's encounter with the Shinra soldiers, informing her of the mostly empty freight containers while leaving out any particulars of his demonic relapse. Tifa raised her hand to her chin in thought, a troubled crease to her brow as she listened.

“Mako?!” she cried out once he'd finished. “Barret definitely needs to... know about this.” She had already started briskly walking back towards the promenade, taking the same steps Vincent had only moments earlier. The gunslinger followed, inwardly surprised at Tifa's spry movement. He suppressed a flinch as he stepped out of the palm tree's shade and back into the unforgiving sun. Something in his skull snapped fiercely while another hissed loudly in agitation. “I'll find him now, Vincent,” she spoke as he caught up and fell into step by her side. “But I still think... you'll need to speak to him... yourself.”

Vincent remained silent. He knew Tifa to be right, but that didn't make the prospect of speaking with Barret any easier. The man was predictable in his temper, but less so in the actions that resulted. A breeze picked up across the parched cobblestones, and a torrid wind swept both Vincent's cape and Tifa's duster out behind them. Vincent clenched his jaw, the additional heat only adding to his discomfort. Tifa however almost choked as the zephyr caught the back of her throat. She stopped and began to hack into her hand, a coarse and painful cacophany. Vincent immediately reached into the folds of his cloak, only to grasp at... thin air. He silently admonished himself, forgetting that he had yet to acquire provisions.

“I-it's... o-kay,” she managed between laboured breaths, knowing what he reached for. “I'll get a... dr-nk fr-m... bar.” Vincent stared before he slowly lowered his hand, making a mental note to restock on supplies – specifically Potions.

“Do not push yourself,” he said as he redirected his concerned gaze.

Tifa nodded, brushing water from her eyes. She gently massaged her throat with svelte fingers as she spoke, “I won't. But yo-u shou-ldn't... eith-er.” She continued onwards and, after a slight pause from Vincent, so did he, both of them finally rejoining society by way of the promenade. Reaching the main area of the resort town, Tifa wasted no time in quickly crossing the centre square with hurried strides. The fighter was completely focused on locating Barret and sensing this, Vincent ceased following. She glanced behind her when she no longer heard his footsteps and gave a brief nod; an unspoken agreement that they would part ways.

“Can you manage?” His sudden question was answered with a simple smile and a wave of the fighter's hand as she walked on, her steps never faltering. Vincent continued to watch Tifa's back as she carried on her way, until eventually disappearing within the crowd of tourists. He stood in the middle of the plaza for a few moments, preoccupied with his concern towards Tifa's condition. Deciding to take her word, or rather her actions, that she could manage on her own, he pushed the matter to one side and began to seek out the nearest shop vendor. The square teemed with tourists and Vincent began to weave through the masses of people as the sun slowly climbed higher and higher as the day went on. With the slow inclining path of the sun, his demons became more restless with the growing torridity, and the gunslinger took to any available shade he could find in hopes of qwelling their irritation.

Thankfully, he found the vendor within a relatively short amount of time. Situated between Costa del Sol's inn and a line of villas, a rather rickety looking yellow van was parked next to a small wooden table lined with goods and souvenirs. A blue and white striped awning was attached to the top of the vehicle and hung over the displayed items to provide blessed shelter from the oppresive heat. It was then to the gunslinger's chagrin that he realised he had passed the vendor once before, not recognising the store due to its deceiving appearance.

“Well, hey there!” a rather plump man greeted as he approached. The storekeeper suddenly froze and seemed to pale slightly when Vincent swiftly moved into the shade of the overhang, but he quickly put on a genuine, albeit shaky, smile. “N-name's Butch. What can I do for ya?”

While accustomed to being regarded with fear or hostility, Vincent was not used to such a prominent reaction and his brow furrowed slightly at the man. Before he could contemplate further, he suddenly recalled Tifa's previous comment on his eyes. Choosing to ignore the shopkeep, he quickly picked out two Potions and a Hi-Potion from amid the miscellanea. After picking up a few other odd items, some after a moment of consideration, he reaching into his cloak and grabbed a handful of Gil. Dropping the required amount of coin onto the table, he glanced up sharply.

“Where may I find the exit?” The shopkeep, or Butch, was completely taken by surprise by the question and gave a hearty chuckle while pulling at his bushy brown mustache with thumb and forefinger.

“Heh. I'm used to tourists asking for directions, but never for the exit! It's over there by that really big villa, just pass under the bridge.” Vincent looked in the direction Butch pointed and inclined his head in appreciation. Picking up his purchases and storing them within the folds of his cloak, the gunman briskly left the makeshift store and walked back out into the scorching sun. Moving through the throng of tourists, Vincent quickened his stride towards the exit. While he knew Barret wished to hear his account on events within the ship's cargo hold, he could no longer prolong his own personal search for answers. While he did not wish to abscond from the group in such a manner, he felt that it was his only option to avoid stirring up confrontation. With Tifa unknowingly relaying his report to Barret on his behalf, he felt that this would be his most opportune moment.

A quick flicker of red caught the corner of his eye and he paused mid-stride. Turning towards the brief glint, he found himself staring at a villa window which, at current length, held a faded image of his reflection. His brow furrowed slightly as he once more recalled Tifa's words. Staring hard, Vincent slowly stepped forward and closed the distance, his image becoming more solid with each step.

What he saw in the glass made him freeze.

Eyes ablaze with molten fire stared back at him, the severe sunlight causing them to glow a deep and bloody red. He hurriedly drew back from the pane while mocking laughter abound in his head. Spinning on his heel, Vincent briskly made for the bridge and the town's exit, his cape billowing behind him.

 

 

"""

~ o0o ~

"""

 

Tifa's fist connected with a dull crunch and the twelfth Beachplug fell to the ground, its sepia coral shell cracked under the force of her fists. Suddenly pivoting on one heel she threw out her foot as she spun around, delivering a brutal spinning hook kick into another of the beasts as it tried to sneak up behind her. She gasped for breath as the monster fell to the sand, its three blue tinted tentacles flailing wildly as it dropped.

'Thirteen,' Tifa counted in her head. Her chest heaved as she wiped perspiration from her brow, pain flaring in her lungs. She had been advised by medics back in Junon not to overexert herself, but she needed to let off steam. And Tifa knew of only one way to do so. Her leather gloves crunched loudly as she balled her fists tighter, her Premium Hearts voicing their willingness to fight. The mild smoke inhalation she suffered from greatly affected her stamina, though after three years of little fighting, Tifa wasn't sure what her own limits were anymore. The thought frustrated her more than her current condition, and she quickly began to search the coast outside of Costa del Sol for more creatures to beat up. In the distance she spotted another Beachplug and her mind wandered as she approached the creature.

She had located Barret back in Costa del Sol with relative ease. He was in the bar aptly named 'Bar del Sol', exactly like he told Vincent he would be. Yet when she approached him, she could tell he was in no mood for talking. In all the years she had known him, Barret would occasionally fall into one of these spells, so it didn't concern her too much. However, what did concern her was how little interest he showed in the Shinra activity Vincent had reported. She relayed the information briefly, to which Barret replied that Cait Sith had already informed him of the Mako shipments. After that, she decided not to pry the man further and instead left the resort town to deal with her own stress in a different way.

Just as she reached her next target, the Beachplug suddenly spun towards her and reared up, catching the fighter by surprise. In a split second, Tifa realised that the creature had known of her approach and lain in ambush. Just as she raised her fists in defence it struck, fixing its beady yellow eyes on her lithe form as it lashed out with an ice coated tentacle. The spindly limb hit her left forearm with little force, but the magic it held seared up her arm with a painful, frigid jolt. She grit her teeth in pain as she retaliated with a straight punch, knocking away the second and third tentacle that came her way before she brought up her knee and smashed it square in the face.

'Fourteen,' she finished, watching as the squid-like monster fell to the sand just as its brethren did before it. Pulling out the Cure Materia from the front pouch of her duster, she held it close to the frostbitten burn that crept up her left forearm with spiked fingers. The emerald bauble chimed and glimmered before dancing ribbons of light wrapped around her arm and began to close the small fissure-like cracks of ice in her skin. She sighed in relief and was about to pocket the Materia when suddenly the orb pulsated, sending a wave of glittering sparkles into the air and a tremor of power through her arm. Tifa looked at the green sphere in surprise before smiling, recognising the Materia to have grown stronger.

Returning the bauble to its resting place in her pocket, Tifa turned around and began to walk down the length of the coast, back towards Costa del Sol. She strolled slowly by the surf that lazed up the shore, taking time to regain the breath she had lost when a familiar red-clad figure caught her eye. Glancing up, Tifa's brows rose in surprise.

It was Vincent.

The gunman strode across the lush fields near the resort town, his cape trailing behind him in a billow of crimson. Given the distance, it seemed that he had yet to notice her and curiosity piqued, Tifa diverted from her path down the beach to make her way towards the gunslinger. Before she could ponder on her friend's unexpected appearance, she suddenly noticed a stray Beachplug creeping up behind the man as she approached.

“Vi-c-n... !” Her quick bark snatched the words in her throat and forced them out as a series of faint notes as she wheezed against the strain in her lungs. Pushing through her pain barrier, Tifa broke out into a sprint towards the crimson caped man. Just as Vincent abruptly spun around and whipped out his gun, Tifa leapt into the air and threw out her foot in a grand jump kick. The gunslinger blinked when the monster he had his gun muzzle trained on suddenly disappeared, Tifa Lockhart's foot suddenly flying into view. The fighter's chest heaved when she came to rest, bent over with hands on knees as she held her boot planted firmly over the fallen creature.

'… Fifteen.'

Vincent slowly lowered Cerberus with an incredulous air.

“Tifa?“ he finally managed, fixing her with a stern gaze. “What are you doing here?” His question almost sounded admonishing and sensing this, Tifa straightened her back, turning to him while wiping sweat from her furrowed brow.

“I could ask you... the same thing,” she managed to breathe out. The fighter watched him carefully as he turned away while holstering his gun with skilled efficiency.

'His eyes aren't glowing anymore,' Tifa noted. 'Guess it really was from the sun.' Despite her thoughts, she was still unsure. Nothing was ever straight forward when it came to Vincent Valentine. Even now she was trying to deduce why he was wandering outside of Costa del Sol, and she had a feeling that if she asked, she simply wouldn't get an answer. In the end, she figured it was best not asking. '… You really are a question to the world, aren't you, Vincent?'

“You should not wander alone in your current state.” His sudden voice snapped the fighter from her thoughts and Tifa balled her fists tighter, a bubble of indignation swelling in her chest. She didn't need this right now. Between Barret and her strong, yet begrudgingly so, longing for Cloud, Tifa was in no mood to be reprimanded.

“I can look after myself, Vincent,” she snapped, pointedly knocking her boot into the fallen Beachplug as it began to dissipate into sparkling wisps of green essence. Vincent gave her a hard stare and after a moment she sighed, annoyance melting from her features as she looked across the field and towards the ocean. She almost instantly regretted her sharp words; after all, Vincent only spoke out of concern.

“... I can see that,” the gunslinger eventually replied, tucking his chin further into his cowl. A brisk yet pleasantly warm wind swept across the field and tickled the grass, brushing aside Tifa's chocolate coloured locks as it did with Vincent's ebony strands. The two stood in silence for a few moments before Tifa spun on her heel and began to walk back to Costa del Sol. When she realised Vincent didn't follow she paused, turning back towards him.

“Aren't you coming?” The gunman remained silent. Turning towards the mountains in the distance, Vincent almost seemed to hesitate before he began to walk away. Greatly puzzled, Tifa was about to ask where he was going when a thought suddenly occurred to her. Suppressing a grin, she called at his retreating back, “You said I shouldn't be... wandering alone... right?” Vincent came to a complete standstill. “Besides, you still need to... speak with Barret.” With that, Tifa began to walk back to town. As she did, she kept an ear trained behind her.

When she could hear the grass behind her crunching under gold-plated boots, she could no longer keep the grin from her face.

 

 

"""

~ o0o ~

"""

 

It didn't take long for the pair to return to Costa del Sol and its sweltering heat, much to the gunslinger's chagrin. Their return was for the most part silent, both parties engrossed in their own thoughts. The sun beat down a merry welcome and as they walked, Tifa occasionally glanced over her shoulder to ensure that the gunslinger was still indeed following. Her mind was preoccupied with trying to figure out why Vincent was outside of Costa del Sol to begin with.

If she didn't know any better, she would have thought that he was about to leave.

She quickly shook the notion from her head, though the worry had already wormed its way inside her and gave way to insecurity; one that had manifested due to her childhood friend's disappearance. She knew Vincent had a tendency to wander, even during Meteorfall three years ago. It certainly wasn't uncommon and the man had never failed to return so far. Yet this time, something didn't feel right. And it was the same with Barret's current behaviour. Was it instinct, or even woman's intuition? She didn't know. However, what Tifa did know was that she was going to keep a close eye on the pair of them.

She held back a sigh as they passed under the sunbaked bridge that lead into the resort town, feeling at a loss. She couldn't very well force Vincent to speak with her old friend, especially when he was in no mood to even converse with her right now. As she tried to think on what to do, all she could think about was how much she could really use a shower right about now. Suddenly, past advice that had once been forgotten rang out in her head.

'Here's the key to the villa, I got another one cut for you. Just in case you ever need to go somewhere, you'll always have a place here.'

Tifa stopped walking, realisation bringing her to a complete halt. Suddenly rummaging in the front pouch of her duster, she moved aside her set of keys for Seventh Heaven and her Restorative Materia, as well as her torn duster piece. Just as disappointment began to pool heavily in her chest, her fingers suddenly brushed with a piece of jagged metal. Quickly grasping it, she pulled out the long forgotten key that had rested at the bottom of her utility pouch.

“... Is something wrong, Tifa?” Vincent asked, coming to stand by her side. His eyes, once more a molten glare, settled on the lone golden key that Tifa held up in the sunlight. She looked over to him and blinked in surprise before returning her own gaze back to the glittering instrument.

“No, no. Everything's fine... I just... remembered something.” Vincent gave her a long stare, his eyes slightly narrowed, but said no more on the matter. Tifa hesitated, uncertainty briefly crossing her features before she turned back to the gunman. “Vincent... do you mind coming with me?” The man in question blinked before tucking his chin into his cowl. After a few seconds of silence, Tifa was about to question him when he gave a curt nod. She returned the gesture with an added half smile before beginning to climb the stairs that lead up to the top of the bridge.

She preyed to whatever deity kind enough to listen that she was right. During the last days of Meteorfall, Cloud had returned to Costa del Sol and purchased the huge villa here named 'Shinra Villa' by the locals, due to the fact the building used to belong to Shinra's president. And Tifa figured that if Cloud really did take the ferry over to Costa del Sol about three days ago, then maybe he stopped by the villa and left some clues.

Or better yet, that he was still here.

She swallowed uneasily as she reached the top of the stairs, grateful that Vincent agreed to join her. As much as she hoped that Cloud really was still here, she was unsure how she would confront him after all this time. She had asked Vincent to join her for moral support more than anything else and though she felt guilty for not telling him this, she also felt her own admitted selfishness would not go down well with the gunslinger. She gripped the key tighter when she reached the front door situated just to the right of the bridge. She idly glanced at the plaque that hung outside, the cursive font reading, 'Villa Cloud.'

Breathing deeply, Tifa grabbed the golden key and pushed it into the lock. Turning the mechanism, the bolt shifted with a loud click and with baited breath, the fighter pushed open the door.

“L-look! I don't have a key and I know you kicked me out before, but my friend owns this place I swear!”

The two women, one on the bed and one by the door, stared at each other in surprise. Seconds passed like minutes before the words stuck in Tifa's throat finally became dislodged. They came out in one giant blurt of disbelief.

“Yuffie?!”

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter XXI – A Different Kind of Love

 

“Tifa!!”

The spell of stupor was finally broken.

Yuffie leapt from the bed, bounding towards the fighter with outstretched arms as wide as the smile on her face. Tifa took no time in welcoming her graciously into her own arms, the two women holding each other warmly in an embrace only true friends shared. It was a few moments before they finally parted, Tifa taking the young ninja gently by the shoulders and pushing her back a few steps, holding her at arm's length.

“I can't believe you're actually here!” Tifa appraised her with glowing warmth. “I haven't seen you since we all... met up a year after Meteorfall!” Yuffie grinned back before lightly spinning around on one heel with arms held wide, openly flaunting her presence in the spacious villa room and causing a laugh to bubble from the fighter.

“Well, here I am, so you better believe it!” Yuffie declared. The silly grin remained on her face before her jovial expression suddenly shifted into something close to serious. Tifa blinked, completely taken aback by the sudden change in demeanour: not to mention the utmost oddity of seeing such an expression on the adolescent's face. It was almost alien. She watched as Yuffie began sizing her up, hands planted on slim hips with an inquisitive gleam to her chestnut coloured eyes.

Tifa suddenly felt like a ball of Materia.

“... Yuffie?” she ventured, feeling a little uncomfortable under the teen's scrutiny.

The young ninja eventually replied, “You alright, Tifa? You're kinda jiggling around more than usual.”

Tifa blinked. It took her but a moment to realise the ninja was referring to her chest and she swiftly brushed her off, shooting her a stern look of reproval. Yuffie was quick to defend herself, immediately jumping back while waving her hands, the white tassels of her sleeveless dark grey hoodie joining the shaky movement.

“H-hey, I was just saying! I mean, they're kinda distracting! Gawd!” Yuffie's energetic response broke Tifa's façade, her frown quickly replaced by her earlier smile. The ninja's own grin fell back into place, but the concern remained in her eyes. “Seriously though, are you okay? You look like ya need to take a breather or something.”

“I'm fine, Yuffie,” Tifa waved her off yet again, this time with gentle reassurance rather than admonishment. She was touched that the happy-go-lucky ninja had become so concerned on noticing her occasional struggle for breath. Even if it was noted through her chest apparently being, 'more jiggly than usual.' “It's a long story... I'll tell you later.”

“Well, THAT'S a relief!” Yuffie said as she bent down to tighten the zigzagging laces of her beige knee-high boots. “I don't have time to listen to some long-winded borefest.”

“Oh, is that so?” Tifa began, one hand now planted firmly on her hip. She knew the ninja was teasing, but she decided it was time to give her a taste of her own medicine. “Well then,” Tifa began, tone laced with nonchalance, “I think I should go and report you... for breaking and entering. Unless you tell me... what you're doing here.”

“Wha-!” Yuffie immediately bolted to full height. “But it's me! YUFFIE! Hellooo?!”

“Who?” Tifa pretended to think, raising her hand to hold her chin. “Sorry, never heard of her.”

The ninja's eyes narrowed through the bangs of her short black hair. “... You drive a hard bargain.”

“I know.” Tifa could no longer stifle her grin. It was rare to see the teen when she knew she'd been bested. Especially since it was usually said teen deceiving the rest of the party by playing crafty tricks. Yuffie stomped her foot while pulling at the hem of her black tank top, stretching the white hibiscus flower print with the action.

“Jeez, you're just like my old man! Always asking what I'm doing and where I'm going...” Yuffie turned towards the window, the two loose strips of fabric from her black, white trimmed headband flowing behind her. “I've been away on business for him, but he still keeps calling to check up on me like every FIVE minutes...” Despite her words, Yuffie spoke in a distracted tone, one that was almost wistful.

Tifa didn't fail to notice this, but before she could question the oddity of the ninja's behaviour, Yuffie turned back to her with her usual boisterous air. “So when I came here I decided to take a break, but no way I'm paying the price of the inn! It's daylight robbery!” The teen brushed some imaginary dust from her khaki shorts before straightening the black arm warmer on her left arm, as if dusting the very idea from herself. “I know I'm a thief, but even I've got standards!”

“Apparently not enough to stop you from... breaking in here though,” Tifa remarked, gazing around the villa. It was different from last she'd remembered, renovations clearly having been carried out on the place. Though the interior remained somewhat the same, the walls once enclosing a large bedroom were now gone, including the walls that had created a small office opposite. The two once been rooms had now merged with the entrance to make one rather lavish lounge suite, complete with beds and sofas. Though Tifa still saw no visible clues that Cloud had stopped by.

“Hey, the beds are waaay comfier in here, plus I know Cloud owns this place! 'Friends with Benefits,' right?” Yuffie's casual response snapped Tifa from her visual sweep of the room with a shocked and slightly horrified blink.

“Err, Yuffie, that term doesn't mean-” Before Tifa could hurriedly explain, the ninja interrupted.

“Whatever! So come on, spill it! My turn to be the bad cop and ask the questions!” Yuffie leaned forward, hands on knees with a devious intent to interrogate. “What are YOU doing here?”

Though Tifa sorely wished to correct the ninja's phraseology, (and also pry further in hope of getting less vague answers,) she decided to let the matter slide. “Well, we're all on a mission... to help restore the Planet. Reeve's been trying to get in contact-”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa...” Yuffie held up her hands as if she were trying to slow down a frantic Chocobo, a look of bewilderment on her face. “Reeve? What mission? What do ya mean 'we'?”

“Well, I'm not alone,” Tifa smiled.

Yuffie opened her mouth to say something, then suddenly closed it again. Tifa grew confused at the ninja's continued silence, watching the befuddled expression on the teen's face fall into one of complete and utter shock. The fighter then noticed that Yuffie wasn't looking at her, but rather, what was over her shoulder. As Tifa turned around, she suddenly realised why the usually rowdy and rambunctious ninja was rendered speechless.

Just beyond the open doorway, halfway across the bridge of sun baked stone, stood Vincent Valentine. The man held a stoic expression as he gazed out into the distance towards the mountains, his cape teased by westerly winds. Tifa silently chastised herself; in running into Yuffie, she had completely forgotten about her aloof companion. She briefly wondered why he hadn't followed her inside the villa, but decided it was something to be addressed later. For now though, Tifa took a step to the side, shooting Yuffie a knowing look through half-lidded lashes accompanied by an expectant smile.

The ninja remained paralyzed, unable to do anything but look between Tifa and the crimson clad figure, her mouth opening and closing like a koi fish. Suddenly, the once reeling Yuffie bounded out the door with barely contained excitement and trademark enthusiasm. Tifa grinned, choosing to lean against the doorframe with her arms folded, eager to witness the scene of reunion.

“VINCENT!!”

The man in question visibly tensed, his head snapping to the side with both brows raised, undoubtedly recognising the familiar voice instantly. On seeing the young ninja rushing towards him, Vincent completely froze, as if bracing himself. Just when she was almost upon the gunslinger, Yuffie suddenly slowed down – as if on second thought. Tifa watched in surprise, once again noting the ninja's sudden change in demeanour with confusion; it was not unlike before back inside the villa. Coming to a complete standstill in front of the man, Yuffie gave a small, self-conscious cough into her fist before straightening up and, instead, stretching out her hand.

Vincent slowly moved his rather stunned gaze from the teen's glowing countenance to the offered appendage, his brow slowly dropping into a suspicious furrow. Yuffie simply continued to beam back at him, a huge grin plastered across her face. After a few seconds, Vincent finally spoke.

“... You're not going to jump on me?”

Yuffie's impossibly large grin somehow grew even larger. “I thought you'd never ask!!”

Tifa could barely stifle her laughter when Yuffie proceeded to leap upon the man in a grandeur hug, causing Vincent to almost stumble with the ninja in tow. After a few seconds, he stiffly stepped back from the teen who in turn released her hold from the shoulder folds of his mantle.

“Where the HECK have you been?!” Yuffie suddenly rounded on the reticent man with an accusatory finger. “Gone off to be all depressing on your own now, have you?!” Vincent looked behind the ninja and towards Tifa with probing eyes, as if he were asking his own questions through his gaze alone. When Tifa just smiled back at him with a slight shrug of her shoulders, he turned back to Yuffie and gave a simple, lazy blink.

“Perhaps I could enquire about your own whereabouts, Yuffie,” Vincent coolly replied. Yuffie turned away with a huff, pulling at the white wristband around her right arm. Despite her clear display of irritation, the jubilant expression on her face ruined any gravity to the act.

“Yeah? Well, TOUGH! I'm not telling you anything unless you tell me first, so spill it!” She turned back to Vincent before leaning forward with a gleam in her eye. “Though I guess we could make some sort of deal if you've got any Materia...”

As Yuffie began to prance around the gunslinger, firing excessive questions with the usual gaiety expected from her, Tifa couldn't help but watch the scene with a small smile... and an added tinge of wistfulness. She had sorely wished to have found Cloud inside the villa, though the odds of it happening were slim. She recognised that fact before she'd even opened the door, yet it still didn't stop her from envisioning her reunion with her lost childhood friend. Though she was still pleasantly surprised and indeed grateful to have found Yuffie, she couldn't help but watch the ninja's reunion with Vincent and wish that it had been her own to have instead.

“You gone full vampire or something?! JEEZ! What's up with your eyes?!” Yuffie's sudden cry snapped Tifa from her own self-induced melancholy with a start. Tense with unease, she turned to watch Vincent for his reaction. The gunslinger stared down hard at the young teen before him, the molten glare to his irises giving his normally stern exterior a frightening edge. Yuffie ceased all jesting and shrunk back from the man's gaze.

Tifa quickly decided to change the subject. “Vincent's not the only one who's here, Yuffie. The others... should still be down by the beach.” This most certainly caught the ninja's attention, her eyes widening as she turned to look at the fighter, an excited grin creeping across her face.

“What? Really?! Then what are we waiting for!” Yuffie bent down and pulled her knee-high black socks higher up her legs before suddenly breaking into a sprint towards the coast, hurriedly shouting, “Why didn't you tell me everyone was here?!”

“I tried to!” Tifa called back around a cupped hand before coughing at the strain. Vincent passed the fighter a fleeting glance of concern just as Yuffie could be made out over the bustle of tourists yelling, “Last one there gives me all of their Materia!” She sped off towards the shore before waiting for any form of reply, leaving her two stunned comrades standing in the middle of Costa del Sol's only bridge.

Tifa soon ceased her coughing and rested a hand on her chest as she strained out, “She's still got the attention span of Denzel... in an ice cream store.” Vincent turned to the fighter with a raised brow, secretly amused at the comparison made between the ninja and the young boy. He tucked his chin further into his cowl before crossing his arms, now staring out over the opposite side of the bridge and across the busy plaza. Tifa moved from the open doorway to join him, resting both hands against the parched and arched brickwork of the bridge. Both parties turned their thoughts towards their most recent and unexpected arrival, a rather terse silence settling between them. It was a few seconds before Tifa finally broke it.

“May I ask why you... didn't follow me inside, Vincent?” The gunslinger turned his head slightly towards the fighter, meeting Tifa's eyes of russet. She could see he was weighing his response carefully, his continued silence only serving to intrigue her further.

At last he finally replied, “... I felt the possible want for privacy outweighed my presence.”

Tifa nodded, though her brow furrowed in bemusement at his cryptic answer. While she appreciated Vincent's gentlemanly tact and consideration, she felt perhaps there was another reason why he didn't follow her. One which Vincent was unwilling to give. 'Did he actually guess I was looking for Cloud...?' Before she could give voice to her thought, Vincent continued.

“I was here if truly needed,” he said idly as he turned back towards the torrid streets below. “Though given our most recent arrival, it would appear that was not the case.” Vincent took a brief moment to recall Yuffie's entrance and in turn inwardly chided himself; he'd been so rapt in thought he hadn't even noticed the ninja's presence until the last second.

Tifa shook her head: partly towards the exuberant teen he was referring to, but also to shake away previous thoughts. 'I shouldn't jump to conclusions. He couldn't have known. Only me and Yuffie were with Cloud when he came back to buy this place.' Pushing the spiky-haired friend from her mind, at least for the time being, she turned and graced Vincent with a sheepish smile. “I'm sorry I didn't... give you much warning about Yuffie. To be honest... I didn't get much warning myself.”

Vincent simply tucked his chin further into his cowl. He felt her apology was unnecessary, especially when he believed it was he who should in fact apologise. He'd wanted more time to consider his next move. While his decision to embark for Nibelheim remained unchanged, his resolve in abandoning the party had wavered. Or more specifically, leaving behind a certain fighter who was suffering from smoke inhalation. (Though it was something he did not at all readily care to admit.) As such, he'd decided to ruminate outside rather than follow Tifa, despite her earlier request.

Yet Vincent knew that was not the only reason.

'You never did require my presence, did you, Tifa? Your unease in entering the building was clear from the beginning, though for what reason remains unseen. What did you expect to find...?' His eyes narrowed slightly as he studied the woman beside him. She had caught his attention the moment she requested his presence; it was most certainly unusual behaviour for the usually self-assured fist fighter. Coupled with the fact she had a key to such a lavish villa, Vincent's suspicions only grew. In the end, the man ultimately decided it was none of his concern. After all, he had enough unanswered questions. Such as if he should remain with the group for the time being.

Then again, with the sudden and unexpected appearance of Yuffie, Vincent felt that perhaps reconsidering his decision to leave the party wouldn't be so improvident.

“You know,” Tifa began, “I'm surprised you let Yuffie... hug you for so long.” When Vincent met her comment with a raised brow, she continued. “Three years ago... you could barely stand next to her.” Despite her words, Tifa spoke with a fondness that came with pleasant memories of the past. “I guess distance does... make the heart grow fonder. That or... recalling all the tricks Yuffie kept trying to play on us.” The gunslinger considered her words. Though he found the young teen as obnoxious as ever, there was a certain charm to her light-hearted optimism that could not be ignored.

“She's like the little sister I never wanted,” Vincent wryly commented, turning his gaze back towards the plaza.

Tifa blinked.

Did she hear right? Did Vincent Valentine just make a joke?

She shot him an incredulous look, not quite believing what she'd just heard. After a moment of stunned silence, Tifa gave a brief, disbelieving laugh. “She's like a sister to me, too,” she chortled. “Well, one who stole anything she could... at every opportunity.”

Vincent peered over his cowl at the fighter, watching her display of mirth with a hidden hint of his own. He couldn't help but recall the time the ninja had stolen all of the party's Materia during their journey three years ago, just before their arrival in her hometown of Wutai. He felt that perhaps Tifa was right. If distance didn't make the heart grow fonder, then fond memories certainly did.

“We should probably... chase after her,” Tifa suddenly spoke up, rising from the dusty sandstone she'd been leaning on before brushing away the resulting fine powder from her hands. “Besides, if I get there first... she won't get my Cure Materia. And you don't have any to give... right?” The fighter shot Vincent a rare, audacious grin that immediately reminded him of the very ninja who'd just left moments ago. Reaching down towards the toes of her boots, Tifa held her fingers in place as she stretched her calf muscles. Rising and arching her back, the fighter took a deep and slightly raspy breath before bursting into a sprint and taking off after the ninja.

Vincent watched her go, secretly impressed with the speed in which she carried herself across the plaza. He turned and made to follow, but stopped when his gaze unintentionally settled on the open doorway of the villa. Moving closer, the gunslinger narrowed his eyes as he peered inside. A moment; then Vincent finally turned away, briskly following after the fighter in a flurry of crimson.

 

"

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~ oOo ~

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“HOODIE SIBS!”

It wasn't long before Yuffie was found by the beach surrounded by a thrilled Nanaki, Cait Sith and Marlene. The girl laughed and clapped her hands as Yuffie excitedly spun Denzel around, the ninja overjoyed at the prospect of finding another who wore similar clothing to herself. The lion-like dog and cat puppet watched their newfound comrade with big toothy grins, Nanaki's tail wagging back and forth in a fiery display of joy. On catching Tifa sprinting towards them, the fire-dog's tail began to sway more vigorously.

“Check us out!” Yuffie exclaimed as she let go of Denzel to address the approaching fighter, causing the poor boy to stumble over his feet in a dizzy daze. Despite her concern, Tifa had to bite her lip to stop herself from laughing at the sight. “'Bout time you caught up! You're SOOO slow! So who's this squirt?” Yuffie asked with a grin, jabbing her thumb in Denzel's direction.

“I'm not a squirt. I'm eleven,” the boy stated with a hint of indignation as he straightened the hood of his dark green hoodie.

“This is Denzel,” Nanaki spoke up as he padded beside the orphan, his spiked mohawk of a mane teased by passing winds. Yuffie simply shot him a blank look in response, raising her hands to give an exaggerated shrug of her shoulders.

“Ye dinnae know Denzel?” Cait Sith asked in surprise from his perch between Red XIII's shoulder blades. Tifa shook her head at the cat, struggling to catch her breath as she came to stand by the teen. The fighter recalled the last time she had seen Yuffie; two years ago when herself and Cloud held a group reunion to celebrate a year since Meteorfall. At that time Denzel wasn't with them, instead being taken into their care a year later. Since then, business visits and calls had been made and he had been introduced to most of the passing party. That is, all except for Vincent and Yuffie, and Denzel had finally met the gunslinger a few days ago.

“Nope!” Yuffie announced, placing hands on hips. “But if he wears a hoodie like me, then that practically makes us partners in crime!” Yuffie shot the boy a cheeky grin. Denzel's eyes widened at this and he looked to Tifa as if asking for help. The fighter gave him a small but reassuring smile.

“I'm not sure... Denzel would like that. You were taught not to steal... by me and Cloud, weren't you, Denzel?” The boy looked down at his sneakers and nodded awkwardly at the same time Yuffie spun towards Tifa in shock.

“Waitwaitwait- WHAT? You two finally tie the knot?!” It was Tifa's turn to blink in shock at the ninja's grand leap to conclusion and she gaped before finally finding what remained of her voice.

“Just because we took in Denzel, doesn't mean...” Tifa failed to hurriedly explain, the sheer weight of the thought bringing her mind to a standstill and a lump to her throat.

“If they were to be wed, I believe I have not been informed.” Vincent's sudden baritone turned all eyes upon him as he strode up behind Tifa while passing a cursory glance over her sunken shoulders. Yuffie gave a hearty grin and quickly hopped her way over to stand in front of the gunslinger. When the ninja continued to stare up at him without a word, Vincent simply continued to stared back.

Finally, Yuffie thrust out her hand saying, “Cough up, mister! Guess you're getting slow in your old age, huh?” The others bar Tifa looked on in confusion while Vincent studied the expectant teen with a lackadaisical air. That was, until a voice cleaved his thoughts with a tone not of this world, but rather one from the abysmal plain of fire and Thanatos.

'GIVE HER A REASON TO RUN. THEN SHE SHALL SEE JUST HOW 'SLOW' WE TRULY ARE.'

Vincent swiftly stepped back, snapping his head to the side and causing Yuffie to recoil with a start, as if she'd been bitten.

“V-Vincent? H-hey, I was only joking. Sorta. Maybe.” Yuffie's concerned voice was lost to the gunslinger as he struggled with the imperious demon, urgently trying to quash the near overwhelming urge that Chaos had this time brought with his presence.

The urge to kill.

“Joke's on you, Yuffie,” Tifa quickly intervened, bringing the ninja's attention to herself. “I told Vincent to come here last... since he doesn't have any Materia.” The fighter's planned distraction did the trick as Yuffie turned upon the woman with an appalled gape.

“YOU SERIOUS?! That's cheating!” While the ninja launched into one of her infamous tirades, Tifa shot Vincent a concerned glance to find the man had moved a considerable distance away to now stare out across the ocean.

“So what brings you here, Yuffie?” Red quickly defused the situation. “Last I heard, Reeve had no success in contacting you.” This halted the teen mid-rant and she turned towards the fire-dog.

“He tried doing what?” Yuffie immediately fished in the back pocket of her khaki shorts and pulled out her PHS. “Pfft, I would have known if he tried to contact-!” No sooner had she spoke, one glance at her call list made the rest of her words catch in her throat. “... Oh.” Tifa peered over the ninja's shoulder and blinked at the text scrolling across the screen reading: 'Twenty-four missed calls.' “I miiight have put it on silent to avoid my dad... Whatever! So, is someone gonna start tellin' me what's going on around here?! Or has cat got your tongue!”

“Ah most certainly 'ave not!” Cait Sith cried out while crossing his arms. “It's yer own fault ye dinnae know aboot oor plan.” Before Yuffie could retort, a small voice intervened.

“Who are you?” Denzel suddenly spoke up. The others looked to the orphan in surprise while Yuffie just grinned. She hopped over to the messy-haired boy and bent down to meet his eyes.

“Me? I'm a NINJA.” Denzel's eyes widened as Yuffie flicked the trailing ribbons of her headband as proof. “And him over there?” Yuffie prodded her thumb over her shoulder towards Vincent. “He's a VAMPIRE.”

Yuffie ,” Tifa warned, not missing the look of fear that flitted across Denzel's face; much like when he'd first encountered Vincent.

“Oh, OKAY. Maybe not, but he's gone off to be all moody again. Sure ol' Dracula was the same.” Yuffie's grin slowly fell from her face before she looked over towards the gunslinger. “... Is Vinnie okay?” she asked. Tifa nodded and tried to give her a reassuring smile but it was small and weak, much like her belief in Vincent's wellbeing.

“He is fine,” Nanaki spoke up to reassure both women, “Vincent is Vincent.” Yuffie looked towards Red before beaming in response while Tifa nodded more assuredly this time. Red returned the gesture, a secret message conveyed between the fighter and the fire-dog; a promise to keep watch. “I believe Yuffie is owed an explanation to our presence. Though may I request we do it somewhere cooler?” Nanaki's tongue lolled from between the gaps of his canines and down the side of his jaw.

“Errm,” Marlene hesitated, unsure of interrupting. “Can we go to the beach? There's umbrellas for shade... and I want to build a sand castle.” She shrunk back in embarrassment at her admittance.

“Sand castle?” Yuffie suddenly spun towards the small girl, startling Denzel who was standing next to her. “Why do that when you can build a sand pagoda!”

A huge grin lit up Marlene's face. “What's a sand pagoda?” she asked with excitement.

“Come on, I'll show you!” Yuffie grabbed the girl's hand then, after a moment's thought, also grabbed Denzel's, causing Marlene to laugh at the boy's wide-eyed expression. Yuffie then danced and spun her way hand in hand with both children towards the beach. “Come on you bunch of squares!” she called back over a spinning Marlene and stumbling Denzel to her stunned onlookers.

“... If Vinnie is Vinnie,” Cait Sith began, “then Yuffie is definitely Yuffie.”

Nanaki and Tifa both nodded their heads in agreement.

Shortly after the ninja departed, Tifa recalled that Vincent still needed to speak with Barret in Costa del Sol's bar. On looking over towards the gunslinger however, she felt he was in no fit state to be bothered. Deciding she would just speak to Barret on his behalf, she let Red know of her plans. The fire-dog assured he would inform Yuffie as well as their mission to restore the Planet; at least, once he finally garnered the teen's very short attention span. After watching him leave with Cait Sith on his back, Tifa turned around and steeled herself to try and talk with her old friend once more.

The sun eventually began to decline as she crossed the plaza, the blistering heat slowly but surely waning to a bearable warmth. Despite the cooling air, Tifa was still grateful for the respite from the sun on entering the bar, the fresh blast from the air conditioning a welcomed blessing. Moving through the odour of lingering cigarette smoke from a recent patron, Tifa found Barret resting on the farmost barstool of Bar del Sol; exactly the same position she had found and left him in before. This time however, Barret seemed preoccupied with something he held in his hand. Quietly seating herself on the stool beside him, she just made out the small, golden pendant in his palm right before Barret hastily concealed the jewellery within the inner pocket of his vest.

“Jeez, you could at least gimme some warnin'...” he grumbled, returning to nurse his drink.

“Sorry,” Tifa said, her voice lined with sincerity. “I just wanted to tell you... there's a surprise waiting for you outside.”

This gained a bushy raised brow from the man. “I've had enough 'surprises' fer one day... it's not more of Cait Sith's singin', is it?”

Tifa gave a weak grin. “No, it's not.” They sat in comfortable silence in the otherwise empty bar, the hum of the air conditioning replacing the absent buzz of conversation. The clink of glasses occasionally chimed as the bartender went about cleaning glassware behind the counter, keeping to himself.

“... Reeve called me earlier after you left,” Barret began, the strain in his voice immediately evident. Tifa turned to him with her full attention. “I told 'im about... you know.” Barret made a cautious glance towards the bartender and Tifa immediately understood he was talking about Shinra. “Tells me he's gonna track 'em, see what's goin' on. After that, he told me what caused tha' fire back in Junon.” Here, Barret finally turned his gaze to meet Tifa's own, the pain held behind his burnt umber eyes causing her breath to catch in her throat.

“It was an oil fire.” Barret looked down into his beer. “People still ain't used ta usin' fossil fuels yet. An' all it was? One small pan fire. Tha's what Reeve said. Thirty-nine people are already confirmed dead.” Barret shook his head before turning back to Tifa, holding her eyes with a steady gaze. “… Four of 'em were kids , Tif'.”

“Oh, Barret...” Tifa gently moved her hand to rest on the man's broad shoulder, squeezing gently. “Are you really blaming yourself?” she whispered. “How can you? You've done nothing wrong.”

“How can ya say that?!” He twisted on his stool to fully face Tifa, his voice thick with a mixture of emotions. “I'm tha' one who's been findin' and deliverin' tha' stuff! It's jes' like Biggs, Wedge and Jessie-”

“What about them?” Tifa snapped. Barret stopped, his brow furrowing. “You weren't to blame... for what happened. We all know... who was responsible. They followed you because... they wanted to. It was their own choice.” This time, Tifa was the one who turned away. “... They believed in you, Barret,” she began softly. “And so did I.” Tifa clenched her fists, looking back up to her friend with hidden fire in her eyes. “I still do. And if something happens to me... I hope you don't go beating yourself up over it. Cause then I'll have to go and... beat you up for you.”

The fighter fought for breath once she'd finished, her throat flaring in pain at being used so much. Barret held an odd expression, almost as if he were offended and relieved at the same time. Suddenly, he wrapped his burly arms around Tifa and pulled her into a hug, almost pulling her clean off her stool. “I ain't gonna let anything happen to ya, Tifa,” he muttered into her hair. “Ever. I promise.”

Recovering from her initial shock, Tifa smiled and returned his hug wholeheartedly. “Don't make promises... you can't keep,” she chided softly. She gently pulled away, resting both her hands on Barret's shoulders. “People believe in you, Barret. They wouldn't use this new fuel... if they didn't.”

The dark-skinned man considered her words before he finally uttered with a half-smile, “... Mebbe yer right.” Tifa nodded, watching her old friend return to the beer he was holding. However, rather than taking his usual swig, he instead swirled the contents around the glass. Seeing how he was absorbed in thought, Tifa felt like she was overstepping a personal boundary. Barret already seemed to know about the events Vincent had relayed to her and she felt she was no longer needed. She gave one last, firm squeeze to his shoulder.

“I'm going to head back out. I was going to tell you more about... what Vincent told me, but you already seem to know.” Barret nodded in response. Satisfied, Tifa slipped down from her stool and with one last brief smile, made her way down the stairs to the bar's exit. Barret turned to watch her leave, a slight, troubled crease to his brow.

The bartender paused in cleaning out his glass, leaving the rag stuffed at the bottom of the tumbler as he also watched the woman go. “Hey, buddy...” he said as he came over. “You want another? I'll give you a double; on the house.”

Barret gave him a brief glance before pushing his glass away. “... Naw, I think I'm done drinkin'.”

 

"

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~ oOo ~

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"

 

The sun was finally beginning to set when Tifa stepped back out into the plaza, the air still warm but allowing enough room for one to cool. Tourists could be seen making their way to their respective accommodations, while others headed for restaurants and bars seeking an evening meal or a good time; the resort town at last beginning to wind down for the oncoming night. The fighter watched couples slowly go about their way and took a steady breath, savouring the slight saltiness that came with the ocean air. Just as she grew dispirited and began to think on Cloud with a heavy-heart, a familiar voice called out to her.

“Hey, Tifa!” The woman turned to find Yuffie running up to meet her. This time however, the grin that was usually set on the ninja's face was nowhere to be seen. On reaching the fighter, the teen fiddled with her white wristband before fidgeting under the woman's gaze. “I'm sorry,” she finally managed.

“Hmm? For what?” Tifa asked, genuinely confused at Yuffie's apology.

“... Red told me about Cloud.” On hearing this, Tifa could feel the lump in her throat return from earlier and she turned away, looking out towards the beach. Music had just begun to play from somewhere along the sands. “Hey,” Yuffie began softly. “I know what'll cheer you up.” Tifa turned back towards the ninja, watching as her usual grin crept back into place. Just as she opened her mouth to question her, Yuffie grabbed Tifa by the hand and began to drag her away. “Come on!”

Why did she have a feeling she was going to regret this?

 

"

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~ oOo ~

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"

 

'I knew I was going to regret this...' Tifa thought to herself as she pulled at the arms of her wetsuit. She looked down at the red and white striped board beneath her with distaste. She already missed her fighting gloves.

“Don't worry, it's easy!” Yuffie called from next to her. “Well, it is if you're a pro. Which you're not. Actually, neither am I but details !” Tifa shook her head as she watched the ninja on her own surfboard, the ebb of crystal waters bobbing her up and down.

“I thought you got... motion sick at things like this?” Tifa called out as she leaned forward and began to paddle towards the ocean, just like Yuffie had taught her when they'd rented out their gear.

“I normally do, but some really hot guy told me that surfing's a good way to try and overcome it!” Yuffie quickly lifted her chest as she hit choppy water, centring her weight on the board to allow the nose to stay above the surf. The ocean sparkled with the reflection of pink and yellow hues from the sky, the sun now a burning orange circle peeking above the horizon. “It kinda works, I can last for about twenty minutes before I start feeling sick. Controlling a board feels different than standing on an airship, ya know?”

Tifa nodded, wondering just how long the ninja had been in Costa del Sol. Though Yuffie was apparently still new to surfing, she manoeuvred her board in such a way that the fighter couldn't help but wonder if the ninja had a natural knack for the sport. Distant voices yelled at her back and Tifa stretched around on her board to wave; she knew the voices belonged to Nanaki, Cait Sith and the children who watched from the sand. However, she had to double-check when she spotted Marlene sitting on the shoulders of a heavy built man. Tifa waved more enthusiastically and was delighted when Barret waved back at her, thrilled to see her old friend had finally decided to join them all.

Music drifted from the shore as the tune she'd heard earlier was struck up from the band on the beach, the soothing melody joining the chorus of waves. Suddenly, the band began to sing. “Love power~ A little love power~ Stronger than the hurricane~ And softer than the summer rain~”

Bigger and bigger waves began to roll upon them making Yuffie grin and grip her white surfboard tighter, the yellow lined black lightning bolt design becoming lost in the surf. “Here we go! You ready?” she grinned, turning to the fighter. Tifa nodded, though she felt anything but ready. She'd only had a few hours of lessons from Yuffie who herself admitted to being a beginner. As the water began to swell, Yuffie swung the nose of her board to the left and towards the beach, ready to be taken in by the oncoming wave. Tifa watched carefully and copied the ninja, feeling the water begin to lift her board.

“Err,” Yuffie hesitated, looking over towards Tifa with a sheepish grin. “Is now a good time to mention that I've never been able to stand up?”

“Wait, what?!” Tifa snapped her head towards Yuffie only to find that she'd fallen off her surfboard and was now being washed away by the very wave Tifa was being carried by. The fighter forcefully pushed down the jolt of panic that hit her and instead gripped her board tighter.

'It's okay. You can do this. Yuffie showed you how to do it, even if she can't actually surf...' As the wave began to pitch and surge with swirling water, Tifa found her thoughts to be less than comforting. Swallowing, Tifa focused on the technique Yuffie showed her as the wave swelled with a mighty roar, reaching it's peak. Now was the time to put it into practise. Quickly pushing up from the board so that both her arms were fully extended, Tifa fluidly pulled both knees up to her stomach before raising to her feet. Immediately, she felt her balance teeter and she threw her arms out to desperately regain it. Suddenly, Zangan's lessons from years past flooded into her mind.

A fighter was nothing without their footing.

Planting the heel of her foot firmly on the board, Tifa leaned back slightly and held the other close to the tail while remaining in a crouch, focusing her weight midpoint. Stretching her arms out to maintain her balance, Tifa kept her eyes front and focused. After the initial moment of fright passed, elation slowly took it's place. As did realisation.

She was surfing.

But those few glorious seconds passed and a split second later, it was over. The wave came crashing down faster than Tifa anticipated and her foot slipped from the board, sending her careening into the open maw of blue with a surprised scream. Just as she was enveloped by the ocean, Yuffie surfaced from the deep, sputtering indignantly before squirting water from her mouth.

“YUCK! Gawd that's nasty. I totally didn't fall, though! How about you, Tifa?” Yuffie looked around for the fighter, only to find that she'd disappeared. “Err... Tifa?”

Before Yuffie could truly grow concerned, Tifa burst from the depths along with her surfboard, quickly cupping both hands to wipe excess water from her face. Just as she managed to open her eyes, she caught a flash of crimson and gold through the blur and sting of salt water. As her vision cleared, she watched Vincent sprint across the sand towards her, gun drawn and at the ready. The rest of the party looked on in stupor, while realization dawned on Tifa that her scream probably alerted the once absent gunslinger to her aid. She gave a stunned blink before quickly calling out to him as loud as she could.

“I'm okay, Vincent! Really!” she coughed, spluttering from the salt water.

“Speak for yourself! Damsel in distress here!!” Yuffie waved her arms madly at Vincent and flailed around in the surf, pretending to sink below the water and eliciting a laugh from the fighter beside her. “AREN'T YOU GOING TO SAVE ME?!” Vincent raised a brow and instead chose to cross his arms, clearly having every intention to simply watch the spectacle in front of him from the beach; much to the ninja's chagrin. “YOU TRAITOR!!” she screamed back just as a wave came up from behind her and enveloped her in sea water.

Tifa hugged her board as she was succumbed with laughter, her sides aching from the strain of attempting to remain buoyant. Crawling onto her surfboard, she straddled the instrument as she tried to catch her breath. Watching the antics of her comrades around her, Tifa realised something that made her truly smile.

She may not have the love of Cloud, but she still had the love of her friends.

As they carried on with their shouts and laughter, the band continued to play and sing long into the dusky sundown. “Love power~ What kind of power~? A little love power~ It can lift you~ Lift you up when you get low~ And make your life bright as the rainbow~”

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter XXII – Tailing in His Tyre Tracks

 

It had been three days since their arrival in sunny Costa del Sol and their time spent there had passed in a blur.

'Much like last night's events,' Barret mused, when he woke up and found himself in a bath tub donning a certain sailor suit he thought he'd lost three years ago.

“The hell... ?” he grumbled, fumbling beneath him and tossing the bath plug that had been pleasantly situated between a certain crevice at his rear end. The events of last night soon came rushing to the forefront of his mind, joined by a most vengeful headache.

“Aww man...” He rubbed his creased forehead with giant fingers, embarrassment bubbling to the surface alongside images of the night before. Some came in greater bouts of clarity than others and Barret found he preferred the ones that remained in the obscurity of blurs and alcohol.

Though he had to admit, the memory of a drunken Yuffie stealing billiard balls from the inn's pool table thinking they were Materia was a damn funny one.

The throbbing behind his eyes intensified as he gripped the sides of the tub and, with a groan, slowly began to lift himself from his makeshift plastic bed, mind as foggy as the bathroom's mirror. As he approached it to wipe away the remaining condensation, preparing to survey his no doubt drab visage, he suddenly recalled with slight horror why he'd slept in the lavatory to begin with.

Spinning round, Barret almost tumbled over his own feet as he dived towards the door in a drunken lunge. Catching the handle, he paused briefly to listen with great strain before giving the brass a quick and cautious jiggle.

Locked.

He blew a sigh of relief, trudging back to the mirror while running a hand down his haggard face. Recounting the night's events was proving regretful for the gun-armed man. He could remember the happenings of the past few days well – such as Tifa informing him they could stay in a top-line luxury villa right out of the blue, though she suspiciously avoided any line of questioning on the matter. He could also recount his resulting frustration on hearing said matter after having already paid for their inn room for the next few days.

Yet he couldn't quite remember the past twelve hours or so. Mainly on account of a certain ninja who decided sharing celebratory reunion drinks was mandatory and not to be argued with. Barret leaned over the sink and rubbed his eyes. He was certainly no stranger to booze, (after all, he'd spent the first day in town nursing his conscience at Bar del Sol,) but his concern mainly stemmed from the fact this was the first time he'd woken up in a bath tub... and wearing different clothes at that.

He twisted the sink's tap, watching the water pool in his cupped hands before throwing the liquid up into his face. The cold burst on his skin felt incredible and brought refreshing clarity from hours past in the form of Cait Sith's voice. 'Ye know, we gonnae be leavin' early taemorrow but dinnae worry yer drunken socks off! Ah'll wake ye up in tha' moornin' with mah beautiful singin' ye seem tae enjoy soo much!'

Barret suppressed a shiver. Quickly telling himself it was just the cold water, he moved over to the towel rack to dry. Pressing the fluffy material against his face, he shook his head as he tried to shake the threat of Cait Sith's morning musical reprisal from his mind. He knew hanging the cat from the bar's ceiling lamp would end up in some sort of repercussion, but at the time Barret was too drunk to care.

He cast a wary glance at the door, reassuring himself it was indeed locked despite knowing he'd only checked it moments ago. Sighing, he hung the towel once more from its proper place before returning to the mirror. Sweeping his knuckles across the chilled surface, he peered at his now unveiled reflection. It was just as he thought it'd be, complete with dark circles under his eyes. He took a moment to appraise his outfit, watching the gold trims of his navy collar shimmer as he turned this way and that. Pulling on his red neckerchief to straighten the folds, it suddenly occurred to him that something was missing. Turning round, he spotted the missing piece from his attire almost instantly. Nabbing the garment from the toilet seat, Barret returned to the mirror and placed the white and navy cap on his head.

Through the haze of his hangover, Cloud's comment on his chosen suit rang out from three years ago. 'Ahhh... You look like a bear wearing a marshmallow.'

Barret stopped tugging at the knotted cloth around his neck, squinting through his migraine at his reflection. He shook his head and growled, “Marshmallow my ass...” before tossing his cap over his shoulder.

What did that stupid ass know anyway? Besides, it wasn't like Barret cared about what others thought of him. He'd been outcast from his hometown for years, let alone by complete strangers because of the gun grafted into his right arm. Yet here he was, finding that he did still in fact have a damn to give. Otherwise he wouldn't worry about Tifa and Marlene as much as he did. In the end, deep down past his gruff exterior, Barret did care. It was why he'd banded AVALANCHE in the first place; out of concern for the Planet, it's people... and the future left for his little girl.

Then again, there were some things simply not worth caring about. Like the opinion of an oblivious, spiky-haired jackass. And why should he care? He did cut a dashing figure, after all. And life was all about guilty pleasures, wasn't it? Or at least, that's what Barret told himself when he began to flex his muscles and strike a pose in front of the mirror.

'Dayum,' he thought. 'Back in tha' day, the ladies would'a been swoonin' at the harbour fer a piece of this!' As he raised his burly bicep towards the mirror, a sudden scratching on wood ensnared his full attention. Lowering his arms, Barret slowly turned towards the sound. The scratching stopped. Barret's muscles now tensed with trepidation rather than pride. Straining his ears with the fine-tuned precision of a Jumping, he mimicked the rabbit-like creature's tenacity for caution as he crept towards the door. On closer inspection, a glint of gold flickered from behind the keyhole.

Realization struck Barret like a bolt of lightning, but before he could act it was too late. A blast of noise filtered through the door and resounded throughout the bathroom in a muffled, wooden score.

“Whit dae yae doo whit a drunken sailor~ Whit dae yae doo whit a drunken sailor~ Whit dae yae doo whit a drunken sailor~ Early in tha moornin'~!”

All caution flew out the window. Barret stormed the rest of the way across the restroom, twisting the lock and wrenching the door open. Cait Sith was caught red-handed, frozen in surprise with golden megaphone in hand. The weapon come instrument hovered midair where it had once been pressed against the door's keyhole.

“Yer up early!” Cait Sith babbled. “Err... top of tha moornin' tae ya?”

Barret grabbed his thrown sailor cap from the doorway and pitched it at the fleeing cat, hitting Cait Sith squarely in the back of the head and sending him head over heels down the hallway. As the little robot dived behind the inn's reception desk, Tifa suddenly rounded the corner. She blinked at the sight of Barret, who in turn blinked back at the pile of clothes resting against the curve of her hip.

Tifa readjusted the stack of fabrics under her right arm before finally addressing her old friend. “Well, at least you kept them as pyjamas.”

Barret refused the groan that rose in his throat, instead choosing to scratch at his thick beard. He idly recognised the need to shave. “Yer soundin' a helluva lot betta,” he changed the subject. Tifa ran her fingers through the pile of folded clothes as she ambled towards him.

“I guess the few days of rest helped. That and a few Potions did the trick.” Barret nodded, taking note of the ease in which Tifa carried herself. Her chest no longer heaved for breath; all symptoms of her smoke inhalation gone. “Here,” she said, pressing some articles into his arms. Barret raised a brow when he recognised them to be his green cargo pants and white fishnet shirt with vest jacket. Tifa met his cocked eyebrow with an upturned lip. “I washed them last night, remember?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Right.” Barret hoisted the clothes under his arm, squinting beneath the inn's artificial lights. His temples and the backs of his eyes throbbed.

Tifa shifted her hip slightly, her head following. “You don't remember anything, do you?” Barret took one look at the fighter's expression and immediately came to a decision. 'Mebbe it's better I didn't.' Tifa looked down and shook her head as if she'd heard his very thoughts. “Anyway,” she tucked a strand of dark chocolate hair behind her ear, “thanks for letting me and Yuffie have the villa.”

“I keep tellin' ya, it ain't no problem,” Barret waved her thanks without a second thought – and not for the first time. “Figured you could use the space to do 'girl talk' an' all that other crap.” When Tifa fixed him with a raised brow, he quickly continued. “Besides, like I said, I could only book a room with three beds. Lucky we even got that on such short notice, it being tha' season an' all...”

Tifa nodded. “Well, I still really appreciate it, though the only 'girl talk' I've had has been Marlene asking after you this morning.”

Barret grinned on hearing this. Despite Marlene's insistence on staying with Tifa and Yuffie, even dragging a less than thrilled Denzel along with her, Barret knew his little girl would want to come back eventually. She always did; whenever he left her under the occasional care of Tifa and Cloud on long business trips in the past, it was only a matter of time before she asked Tifa of his whereabouts.

Barret was brought from the fond memories of his adopted daughter when the puzzlement to Tifa's words struck him. “You sure 'bout that?” he asked. “I figured you an' Yuffie would'a had a whole lot more to talk about.”

“Oh, we have, but she's mostly been out partying for me to really speak with her.” Tifa narrowed her eyes at Barret who immediately tensed. “Actually, she never came back last night. Do you know anything about that?”

An instantaneous recollection of hours past flashed across Barret's brain, bringing the invasive mental image of an intoxicated Yuffie snatching the inn's pool cue and using it for, 'secret ninja staff technique practise... stuff.'

He opened his mouth to speak when a sudden high-pitched whine came from the elevated sleeping area opposite the bathroom. Barret and Tifa both turned to see the gaping jaws of Nanaki, his tongue rolling out from between his canines as it stretched long with his yawn. He blinked his lone eye sleepily at the two from atop the middle bed, his fiery tail drifting with lazy flicks as it hung from the bedside.

“While I'd remind you that some are still trying to sleep, I feel it's unneeded given Cait Sith's earlier interruption.” The fire-dog then gave Barret a pointed stare, causing the dark-skinned man to stomp his boot in annoyance.

Barret could no longer hold his tongue. “Don't you f***in' look at me, Red!”

“Why not?” Nanaki calmly replied. “I'm not the one who provoked Cait Sith's anger by hanging him from the ceiling light.”

“Wait, you did what?” Tifa spun on Barret, who in turn threw up his arms, exasperated. Before anyone could comment further, a great, raucous snore came from the bed beside Red XIII. The fire-dog stretched his neck towards the sound in order to accommodate his monocular vision. He shook his head in amusement, his auburn mane swaying alongside tinkling tassels. Tifa bit her lip as she turned towards the sight while Barret snorted trying to suppress a laugh.

Partly swathed under the duvet lay Yuffie, her arm draped across her eyes with a slackness that matched her jaw. Though Barret wasn't close enough to see, he could just imagine the pool of drool beside her pillow. Tifa quietly moved up the small set of stairs and approached the teen's bed, using one thumb to skim through the pile of clothes at her hip as she did so. Both Barret and Red watched with interest as the fighter pulled out the ninja's articles and lay them neatly atop the elm footboard. Yuffie continued to snore undisturbed and Barret couldn't help but wonder how long it took the ninja to finally run out of energy; inebriated or otherwise.

“Yo, Red,” Barret turned towards the sleepy fire-dog on an afterthought, “how's Yuffie sleepin' here? Ain't that meant ta be Vincent's bed?”

Red XIII nuzzled his snout between his paws and rubbed sleep from his eye before replying. “I believe Yuffie found herself too drunk to go elsewhere. If Vincent did return to his quarters last night, I did not notice.” On taking heed of Barret and Tifa's odd expressions, he continued. “I'm sure he would have found accommodation elsewhere.”

Barret brushed away the subject with an amused grumble, “Yeah, bet findin' Yuffie in your bed is enough to turn anyone insomniac.”

Tifa snapped from her troubled train of thought to shoot Barret a scolding look over her shoulder. “If you're not careful, Barret, I'll make you do the washing next time.”

“Ya know what? That ain't a thang.” The Ex-AVALANCHE leader crossed his burly arms, his muscles accentuated through the tight sleeves of his sailor suit. “You do enough as it is, Tif'.”

Red XIII shook his head. “It is fortunate that I don't wear clothes.”

“Oh?” Tifa began, a teasing lilt to her voice. “Well, I'll guess I'll just have to freshen you up with a bath, Red.”

Though Nanaki looked unperturbed, his ear gave him away with a few trepidatious flicks. “That won't be necessary, Tifa.”

Barret guffawed – then winced, his head throbbing with returned vengeance from the act. Tifa shook her head and briefly wondered just how much Barret had to drink, though she knew with Yuffie involved it would have been no small measures. “Right, well,” Barret grunted, rubbing his temples, “I'm gonna go change. 'Nough kickin' back, we still got a job to do.” He began to trudge back to the bathroom with clothes underarm, pausing only to pick up his thrown sailor cap from the hard vinyl floor.

Nanaki softly called at the built man's back over Yuffie's snores, “I suggest you return your current outfit to Lost and Found, unless you truly wish to keep it...?”

Barret paused and turned slightly as if he were about to say something. A terse moment; then a sigh later, the gruff man continued on his way.

As Red XIII began to rouse Yuffie from the throws of intoxication and busy himself preparing for the journey ahead, so did Tifa, the fighter finally departing from the inn to return to Cloud's Villa - or Villa Cloud as it was so aptly named. The morning breeze was warm and welcome on her skin, as was the laughter of children to her ears as they played ball somewhere in the town square. The wind gently passed through the folds of her leather attire, enticing the smell of fresh linen from her undershirt and the scent of shampoo from her hair to be carried away on the Planet's breath. She breathed deeply as she walked, savouring the air taken into her lungs and how pain no longer plagued her.

Jogging up the parched steps that lead to Costa del Sol's only bridge, her heels kicking up dust as she climbed, Tifa found her eyes inexplicably drawn towards the mountains that stood proudly against the horizon. She faltered outside the villa door, key in hand as she gazed over the rolling plains towards the peak she knew to be Mt. Corel. Russet eyes rising to lofty heights, she regarded the tallest mountain with a still respect one could only hold for Mother Nature. Her mind was suddenly drawn to the recollection of Vincent turning towards the very same mountain three days ago. Her delicate brows furrowed.

'When did I become so paranoid?' Though she didn't want to admit it, she already knew the answer. Refusing to acknowledge her suspicions on Vincent attempting to leave the party, (and that two weeks had now passed since Cloud himself disappeared,) Tifa twisted the key in the lock and, with a heavy heart, pushed open the villa door. She was greeted to the sight of Marlene and Denzel sitting at the centre table of the lounge suite, two bowls of cereal placed between them. The face of the former immediately brightened and the little girl hopped off her chair to run up and greet the fighter.

“How's Daddy?” Marlene asked eagerly, looking up with wide, soft brown eyes. “Is he okay?”

“He's just fine, Marlene.” Tifa gently placed her hand on the girl's shoulder and gave it a soft squeeze. “Your Dad can look after himself, just like you.” Marlene visibly glowed at this, the golden condor feather laced through her hair shifting as she puffed out her chest. Tifa reached down and tucked the glittering plumage back behind her left ear, unable to help but compare the little girl to the proud birds that grew such beautiful feathers.

“We're going soon, right?” Denzel piped up around a mouthful of cereal, audibly crunching away at his wheat hoops. Tifa refrained from telling him not to speak with his mouth full - as usual - and instead took a rare moment to simply enjoy the boyish behaviour. Even though it was just the way he ate his breakfast, the oblivious fashion in which he chewed at his cereal coupled with the blatant disregard for manners while slurping his milk...

It reminded her of Cloud.

Denzel blinked rapidly over the spoon in his mouth, suddenly aware of the fighter's yearnful and lingering gaze. Before he had the chance to swallow down his hoops and ask questions, Tifa took on a thin, veneered smile. “Come on,” she ushered, handing Marlene her folded cotton skirt and white turtleneck from under her arm. “Out of those pyjamas, the pair of you. We've got a lot of ground to cover today.”

“And more monsters' butts to kick, right?” Marlene asked, taking her offered clothes. On noticing Tifa's surprised visage, the little girl hurriedly explained herself with flushed cheeks. “That's what Daddy says, anyway...” She focused all of her attention on avoiding the older woman's eyes and pulling at the hem of her blue, bunny rabbit patterned sleepwear.

'She really is just like her father,' Tifa thought with an upturned lip. 'Neither are them are dressed yet. And both of them have an interesting taste in nightwear to boot.'

“You sure that's what your dad says?” Denzel asked Marlene, spoon clattering as he dropped it into his emptied bowl. “I'm sure he says something else instead of 'butts.' More like, 'Gonna kick some monster as-'”

“Denzel!”

The orphan gave a sharp jolt at Tifa's snap and quickly fell in line with Marlene, deciding his dark grey sweatpants had some interesting lint to pick at from between the baggy folds. Tifa shook her head and moved towards the messy-haired boy, untucking the last bundle of clothes from beneath her right arm. When Denzel held his gaze resolutely on the creases in his trouser bottoms, Tifa waved his folded dark green hoodie and button up shirt beneath his nose. Marlene stifled a laugh from between two balled fists behind them.

“Let's go, mister. Time to get ready.” When Denzel continued to ignore her, Tifa tilted her head to try and catch his gaze. Noticing this, the boy simply turned away to now stare into his empty cereal bowl. “Oh, don't be like that,” she gently coaxed. “Besides, you're right.” She tried to keep a straight tone, but a few chuckles bubbled up from beneath it – ones which weren't lost to the orphan's ears. “Barret may say things like that, but that doesn't mean you should.”

Denzel appeared to think about this before he finally turned to meet Tifa's gaze. “But you guys say stuff like that all the time, so why can't I?”

The amused quirk to the fighter's lip fell into an empathetic one as she appraised the orphan with soft eyes. She reconsidered Nanaki's past words and certainly had to agree with them; Denzel was unpredictable at best. 'And I suppose troubled at worst,' she thought. Tifa easily understood Denzel's confusion. As a child of the slums, and having grown up there as a teenager herself, it certainly wasn't unusual to hear that kind of language. But while Marlene was more conscious of manners despite her father's occasional vulgar tongue, Denzel didn't have any parental guidance for years of his young life.

That's why she sorely wished for him to follow in Cloud's footsteps. Not chase after them.

“Well,” Tifa began, “we don't all talk like that. Have you ever heard me or Nanaki swear?” Denzel frowned for a moment before shaking his head. “See?” she smiled and lightly ruffled his hair. “Swearing doesn't make you any more adult than anyone else, but sometimes I guess it's the only way for us to say how we really feel. But that doesn't make it anymore right. Right?”

The boy thought about this for a moment before giving an affirmative nod. “... Right!” With a rare grin, Denzel hopped down from his stool to join Marlene, his socked feet slipping on the floor rug as he scurried off after the girl with clothes in hand. Tifa watched him go with barely concealed surprise, secretly taken aback by how easily he'd accepted her explanation. It was a difficult subject to address and the fighter couldn't help but wonder if she'd chosen the right discourse. Giving a light shake of her head, Tifa shook off her doubts and made to ensure all her belongings were packed for the journey ahead. As she passed by the modest lounge and moved towards the beds, a dim light caught the corner of her eye.

Turning towards the source, she peered down the stone stairs that lead into the mouth of the basement. A soft glow beckoned with enticing warmth and her thoughts immediately turned to Red XIII, before equally as quick she realised the fire-dog was currently at the resort's inn. Brow knitted, Tifa silently tugged her fighting gloves on tighter. The cellar had been dark during their entire stay... until now. Placing her foot lightly on the first step with fists tightly clenched, the fighter began to descend as quietly as possible with delicate footwork. The air noticeably cooled from one stair to the next despite the warm wash of amber across the granite brick walls, but it wasn't as cold as the ill feeling that pooled in the pit of Tifa's stomach. On reaching the stone landing, a fierce chill took hold that made the hairs on the nape of her neck prickle. Pausing behind the final corner, the fighter took a steady breath and raised her fists slightly.

Tifa didn't know what was down here, but she did know when to trust her instincts.

After some considerable mental steeling, Tifa slowly turned past the wall and crept her way down the last small set of steps. Unbeknownst to the fighter, she wasn't the only one at great disquietude.

'The hunt hassss been lacking. I long for prey.'

'Go-o baa-ck to the sinn-ner's hold. Fin-issh wha-at you star-rted.'

'This is a great place a MARVELLOUS place to hide all the dead, gashed bodies!! We can sit and talk to them as we watch them rot! What tales they tell with their festering stares!! Their putrid eyes!! I can almost TASTE the decay!!'

'RETURN TO WHENCE YOU FIRST PERISHED. THEN YOU SHALL KNOW THE TRUE TRUCULENCE OF MAN.'

Tifa took her first tentative step forward, glancing towards the lantern that hung from the centre of the ceiling before quickly averting her eyes to squint into the darkness that lay beyond. A sudden shimmer in the black caught her eye and she clenched her fists tighter, before freezing with dreaded realisation. It was too late. The leather of her gloves crunched loudly from the instinctive reaction and the sound echoed loudly in the enclosed underground. The earlier shimmer disappeared and Tifa bristled when a sound similar to her own scrunching gloves met her ears from the darkness.

'We ha-ave com-paa-ny.'

A shadow within shadows suddenly emerged to meet Tifa's eye and she slowly stepped back under the solace of the lantern light, the shape rising to its full height and turning to follow the fighter as she did so. Suddenly, a pair of blood-red eyes materialized from the darkness to loom over her. The initial spike of fear in her breast instantly gave way to soothing relief when the fighter recognised the crimson glow that bled into the surrounding black. Vincent unveiled himself from the shadows, his silver buckles and gold sabatons glimmering as he slowly stepped into the dim light. Tifa took a step back in turn, taking note of his paler-than-usual complexion.

“I didn't know you were down here, Vincent,” she breathed out, lowering her fists. “You should really tell someone next time.” Potential danger passed, Tifa took the opportunity to appraise her surroundings as her eyes adjusted to the gloom. The basement appeared unchanged from what little she could remember of it. A lone desk lay pressed against the far wall, an odd inkwell and quill perched upon its worn wood finish in place of the modern pen. To the corner over Vincent's right shoulder, numerous crates lay stacked high towards the ceiling like a pale timber imitation of Mt. Corel. Realising her unexpected company had been ensconced behind the wooden made refuge and equally realising Vincent stood in continued silence, Tifa turned back to him with a tilt of her head.

Blinking as if coming to, the gunslinger finally spoke. “I expected a repeated blow from your fists, rather than your tongue.”

Tifa immediately felt sheepish, not missing his reference to the incident in Junon. The event instantly conjured in her head and she turned away, weaving through the boxes, barrels and occasional bottle strewn about the floor. “... I never did get the chance to apologise for that,” she murmured, reaching the desk and running her hand along the rim. Dust cleared in her wake.

Vincent crossed his arms, his gold talons glittering under the lantern. “Do not concern yourself. It was a strike made in error.”

Tifa gave a slight nod and conceded, though it did nothing to lessen her guilt. Her fingertips suddenly brushed against a small leather-bound book and she picked it up, idly realising it was the only thing left untouched by a mantle of grey matter. Turning over the red hardback, she swept her thumb across the fore-edge in thought. She couldn't ignore the relief she felt having found Vincent, her concern towards his welfare only waxing from Nanaki's earlier words. Recalling the conversation, she snapped her gaze back to the gunslinger. “Wait, did you sleep down here?!”

“My sleeping arrangements were... preoccupied.” Vincent tucked his chin further into his cowl, his cape drifting with the cool currents of air that carried across the slate stone floor. “I did not wish to disturb you nor the children.”

“You're never a disturbance, Vincent.” Despite her words, Tifa couldn't help but feel like she was lying through her teeth. While she knew Vincent never actively sought to cause distress, his recent behaviour and uncanny ability to cloak himself in total darkness was nothing short of perturbing.

And then there was his 'episodes.'

Her heart quivered under the uninhibited image of huge bloodstained teeth held in the gaping maw of a yellow-eyed beast. Physically shaking the sight from her head, she quickly turned back to the odd article held in her hand. Unclasping the little latch held across the book with curiosity, she opened the soft leather cover to find the contents to contain that of a ledger. Numerous numbers were scribbled down the paper in columns, some awkwardly inked at an angle to make them appear as if they were tumbling down the margin. Squinting down at the bottom of the page, an incredibly familiar scrawl across the signature line jumped out at her in the gloom.

Cloud Strife.

Tifa stopped breathing.

She stared blankly at the Chocobo scratch only her childhood friend could achieve, her lips parted as result of her slack jaw. Recovering with a quick intake of air, she scoured the document with newfound intent. On closer inspection, it was an invoice for renovations carried out on the villa a little over a month ago. Her eyes darted to the top corner of the page. What she found held her breath prisoner in her throat.

The payment was dated four days ago.

The sheer surreality of the situation hit her and she let the book hang limp from her hand. Cloud was never one for paperwork, preferring to pick up a sword than a pen. Despite him running his own delivery business, he let Tifa manage most of the finances since her experience in running a bar left her in good stead. All he had to do was sign the occasional form. Yet here she stood, holding a business transaction completely unfiled by herself.

A sound floated by somewhere in the distance but it was drown out by her own thoughts. Another resonance, muffled and lost to the snares of her internal dilemma. Finally, a deep timbre permeated her mental fog and she blinked rapidly, spinning towards Vincent with a start. The man now stood two steps behind her.

“Tifa.” His voice was a firm baritone, eyes hard. Tifa just stared at his half-cowled face, not quite seeing it. She had her head in the clouds – or at least, on a rather specific one. When the gunslinger raised a delicate eyebrow towards the edge of his bandanna, Tifa suddenly sprang to life.

“I've got to go,” she blurted out, immediately sprinting for the stairs before Vincent could utter a single word. She took the steps three at a time, clutching the little red ledger tightly as her duster slapped against her calves. Flying past granite brick and once more embraced by the warmth of the upper floor, Tifa turned the corner hard where she felt like she slammed into a wall she just passed.

“Whoa! Where's tha' fire?” Barret chuckled, enveloping her shoulders with giant hands. “Got another kid ta save?” Stepping back from his chest, Tifa shook to her senses and thrust the book out to her old friend. The man simply raised a colossal eyebrow and took the little leather-bound from her hand. “Whaz'zis?” When the fighter didn't respond, he unclasped the latch and flicked through the pages. As he did, the clink of metal on stone caught Tifa's ear and she turned to see Vincent calmly emerge from the basement, having climbed the last step.

As the crimson-caped man moved further into the room, the sun that spilled through the villa windows caught his attire and brought his buckles and sabatons to a brilliant shine. It was then Tifa noted that herself and Barret weren't the only ones to have cleaned themselves up, if the smell of treated leather and boot polish was anything to go by. A mix of turpentine, beeswax and resin floated from the gunslinger which caused her to fall momentarily distracted; blended together, they made a subtle yet warm intoxicating smell she could only describe as masculine.

A grunt from Barret snapped her to attention and she turned to just catch him fighting with his emotions, his brow rising with a jump before quickly falling to a furrow. “What the fu-” Just as he was about to curse, Marlene and Denzel both came running from the bathroom and Barret quickly changed his course of language, “-uuudge!?” His eyes of burnt umber locked with the russet ones of Tifa and she gave a stern nod in response.

“Hey Daddy!” Marlene cried, pulling on Barret's green cargo pants. “I missed you! Did you miss me?”

“'Course I did, baby girl,” Barret gave a small albeit troubled grin before reaching down to slightly ruffle his little girl's hair. “But you know I was right round the corner if ya needed me, don't cha?”

“That's what I kept telling you...” Denzel muttered from behind Marlene, tugging on the tassels of his dark green hoodie. His remark earned him a rare stuck out tongue from the usually sensible seven-year-old. Denzel opened his mouth to say something else but the abrupt slam of the villa door turned all eyes to the sudden newcomer.

“Urrrrrrrgh...!” Yuffie groaned, her arm draped melodramatically over her eyes before she slid from the doorframe and tottered further into the room. Barret shook his head while Tifa cocked a brow at the ninja. She was growing increasingly dithered by the constant interruptions, as was Barret judging by the way he folded his huge arms. “Are you guys done already?!” the teen exclaimed, squinting through her no doubt heavy hangover. “Red and Cait Sith told me to wait outside, but the sun's killing me!”

“Perhaps you could use some air,” Vincent dryly commented, surprising most in the room (but especially Barret) at his sudden rumble as he brushed past Tifa and made his way to the door. The fighter had a sneaking suspicion Vincent was creating an opportunity and, rather than let it slip, she decided to grasp it.

“Hey,” Tifa turned towards Denzel and Marlene, “why don't you two go and show Yuffie how to really get some fresh air? I've heard tag's a good way.”

The ninja in question froze in horror while the children beamed. “W-wait, you're kidding... right?” she stuttered. When Vincent continued to walk out the door with the youngsters grinning at his heels, Yuffie stumbled after the flutter of his crimson cape with a hungover wail. “It's not like I've been standing outside for thirty minutes already!”

Before the gunslinger stepped out of earshot, Tifa just caught his response of, “Then maybe you should run for thirty minutes more.”

She silently thanked Vincent and once they were gone, Barret wasted no time in flapping the ledger in front of the fighter's face. “Where the hell d'you find this, Tif'?”

“In the basement.” Barret opened his mouth, but Tifa beat him to it. “And before you ask, I don't know why it was down there. Guess he needed somewhere to put things during the renovation.”

Barret raised his arms and was about to stomp his foot when he caught himself. Glancing at the open door, he instead chose to grit his teeth before hissing out, “You tellin' me he bailed 'cuz he needed ta do some f***in' decorating!?”

Tifa tutted and crossed her arms. “You know that's ridiculous. If that really was the case, why all this mystery?” She turned away and clenched her fists, gaining some comfort from the familiar crunch of leather. “... He would have answered his phone by now.”

“Yeah,” Barret swept a burly hand over his cornrow styled hair. “An' he would'a probably been heading back ta Edge by now too. If he were, we'd 'ave run into him on the way here.”

Tifa brought up a hand to gently hold her chin, trying to fit some of the puzzle pieces that was her childhood friend together. Eventually, she began to muse out loud. “If he really was said to have been spotted three days ago when we left Junon, but that ledger is signed and dated four days ago... then were we actually one step behind him when we arrived?” Barret blinked, but Tifa continued. “But we stayed in Costa del Sol for three extra days. So... we're now four days behind him... right?” The fighter turned with hopeful eyes towards her old friend who simply gave a blank stare.

“Err, mebbe?” Barret scratched at the thick beard hugging his chin. “About that, yeah.” The dark-skinned man's uncertainty passed on to Tifa and she hesitated briefly, going over her train of thought once more. All she knew was if the party had stayed in Costa del Sol for three extra days, and Cloud had signed the ledger four days ago, then they must have just missed him when they arrived.

Then there was the matter of Yuffie. How long had she been in Costa del Sol? Surely she would have seen Cloud?

There were simply too many unanswered questions.

The sudden snap of fingers turned Tifa's attention to Barret, who was now standing with the look of an inventor who had just reached an epiphany. “Yo, Priscilla's father mentioned she saw 'im on a motorbike, right?”

Tifa furrowed her brow. “Well, that's what you told me, Barret. His bike's definitely gone from the back of Seventh Heaven. I don't see what this has to do with anything, apart from the fact he's probably miles ahead of us by now...” She bit her lip at the notion. Just when she thought she had a lead, the reality of the situation made it slip further from her grasp.

“You ain't thinkin', Tif'.” Barret tapped a giant index finger against his temple. “Motorbike, van, car... they all got one thang in common.” The fighter turned towards her old friend with a puzzled expression, the image of Cloud speeding away from her with a few revs of his bike haunting the forefront of her mind. Seeing Tifa thoroughly preoccupied, he answered for her.

“They all gotta refuel.”

Tifa's eyes widened in realisation. There were very few vehicles that ran off gasoline, almost all of their engines designed around and accustomed to utilising Mako. As such, the very few rarities that had redesigned engines equally had very few refuel stations.

“Where's the nearest station?” she asked urgently. Suddenly, the image of Cloud driving away wasn't so dire.

Barret answered almost immediately. “Corel. … Home.”

Tifa nodded and took the ledger from Barret, pocketing it securely in the front of her duster alongside her keys to the villa. With that, she began to stride out the door with Barret following close behind without a word, her mind moving as swiftly as her feet.

Would she really find her lost childhood friend? Or was the attempt itself as futile as chasing clouds? There was only one way to find out.

And Tifa was going to catch this Cloud.

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter XXIII – Guardian of the Pack

 

The glorious weather of the Western Continent sent them off on their journey as the party finally departed Costa del Sol. Clouds gently rolled by high above them as the surf beat its rhythmic goodbyes at their back, but its lulling lap on the shore was mostly drown out by an over exuberant Yuffie.

“Whoa! Where'd you get this?!” she cried, holding up a glittering ball high to the sun as the group traversed across the grassy expanse of the peninsula. Numerous puffs of dandelion tufts twirled through the air and danced around the party, giving a nearby Tifa the impression they were rejoicing. She held back a forlorn sigh as she watched them drift past, her troubled heart wishing she could hold on to the carefree nature that nature itself offered on display. Some of the feather-like balls became nestled amongst the group's garments and the fighter stifled a fierce grin when she caught sight of some dotted amidst Vincent's mane as he strode ahead.

“Marlene received that from a very special friend,” Red smiled a toothy smile and blinked his lone eye up at the aforementioned girl. It was done in such a way that Marlene was unsure if it was intended as a wink and, embarrassed, she clutched the fire-dog's fur tighter as she rode on his back, burying her flushed face into his mohawk mane.

“Well, I want your contacts! This is the genuine article!” Yuffie tossed the orb into the seed stippled air before leaping up to snatch it mid fall. The further they travelled from the outskirts of the resort town and its cape, the more Tifa noticed flowers appearing to sprout around them in colourful abundance. The fighter turned from her observations of the surrounding scenery with a bemused blink, the oddity of the ninja's words suddenly more intriguing than the growing flourish of dandelions.

“'Genuine'?” Tifa parroted, “What do you mean? Because it's a Summon Materia?”

“Well, yeah...” Yuffie immediately stopped in her bouncy stride once she processed Tifa's words, a sudden look akin to horror on her face. “Wait, you mean... you guys don't know?!”

On hearing the teen's stunned blurt, Tifa also stopped as did Red XIII who had been trotting beside her. Barret, on overhearing the outburst, turned from walking ahead with Denzel and Cait Sith while Vincent paused to peer over the folds of his cloaked shoulder. Yuffie looked between the group for any sign of understanding, but was met with either blank or patient stares. Dandelion seeds continued over the collection of recently turned statues and onward on their journey across an endless blue sky.

“... You can't be serious.”

“Then perhaps some enlightening is in order?” Red asked rhetorically, shaking his mane and releasing some trapped plant tufts back into the wild.

“I thought you of all people... animal... things would know,” Yuffie bit back, crossing her arms as if offended. Red, unperturbed, gave his head an inquisitive tilt, though his tail flicked with a sudden restlessness. Yuffie ignored it, instead looking back to the surrounding party. “So, you guys haven't used any Materia at all?

“Just the Cure Materia I have,” Tifa spoke up, “but other than that, no.” The fighter rest her hand on the curve of her hip, shooting the ninja a puzzled look.

“Give it here,” Yuffie ordered, stretching out her palm with inviting fingers.

“Yuffie, this better not be one of your tricks-”

“I'm serious, pass it over.”

Tifa studied her young friend's face carefully. A moment passed before, finally satisfied, she handed over the bauble – albeit with some reluctance.

Yuffie rolled the orb between the tips of her fingers and thumb as she inspected it closely, the Materia taking on a merry glitter in the sun. Finally, the teen took a deep breath before she began to speak in a matter-of-fact tone, holding up her index finger in the air and wagging it almost as fast as her tongue. “Artificial Materia manufactured by Shinra suddenly stopped working a few months ago, so now only natural Materia created by the Planet can be used. That's why I'm on a journey to collect as much original Materia like this one for mysel-,” Yuffie quickly caught her tongue, “-Err, I mean- in the name of Wutai!”

While the others stood stunned in shared epiphany, Red XIII stepped closer with a keen eye and perked ears. “Perhaps since the Planet is healing, it is now able to determine which Materia is man-made and which is not?” the fire-dog ruminated. “Interesting... it chooses to channel energy only to Materia it birthed itself...”

'Of course!'  Tifa suddenly thought, her mind taken back to the terrible blaze in Junon. 'So that's why some of the WRO's Materia wasn't working!'

“Which is why Summon Materia is especially rare now,” Yuffie nodded to Nanaki, pointedly holding up the Phoenix Materia in her other hand, “because they was never able to be artificially replicated. Like I said, it's the real deal!”

“I getcha,” Barret finally joined in, crossing his muscular arms with a confused blink, “but how can ya tell? There ain't no difference between Materia that's man-made and which ain't jes' by lookin' at 'em!”

“Aye!” Cait Sith chimed in, hopping over with a spring to his brown booted steps.“That's whit ah'd like tae knoo!”

“Urgh, maybe to those with an untrained eye!” Yuffie gave an exaggerated roll of her eyes. “'Course there's a way to tell! I mean, just look at it!” The ninja thrust out the Curative Materia in front of her, causing both Denzel and Marlene who had crept closer to inspect the bauble to jump back in shock. The sphere glittered merrily in Yuffie's palm, filtering the bright sun through it's pellucid body and bathing her arm in a brilliant shade of emerald.

Everyone just stared.

“Errm...” Denzel finally spoke up, “I don't see anything...”

“He's right,” Tifa agreed as she stepped closer and plucked the Materia from Yuffie's palm - ignoring the teen's mild sputters of protest as she did so. “I can't see anything either. How can you tell which one is real and which isn't?” she asked, spinning the bauble around in her hand.

Yuffie's demeanour suddenly flipped like a switch and she leaned in closer towards an instantly wary Tifa. “Maybe you should listen closer...” the ninja suddenly spoke with a mysterious tone.

As Yuffie leaned down to hand the Phoenix Materia back to a keen Marlene, Tifa turned her attention towards her own magical implement. The crystallised ball of condensed Mako looked no different to when Tifa normally viewed the sphere. It was a shade of the purest colour, shimmering from the bright sunlight and its own contained luminescence. It was hard to believe there was an actual difference between the manufactured counterparts made by Shinra. Materia had been used near constantly by their entire party three years ago, yet not a single one of them was any wiser to a Materia's source. Because of this, Tifa couldn't help but wonder. Was Yuffie really telling the truth?

'Listen closer...' Recalling the ninja's words only served to further puzzle the fist fighter. Nonetheless, she decided to raise the ball to her ear. The lulling surf of the sea and significant chatter from her friends quickly became apparent, causing Tifa to moue at the prospect of missing her chance. Just when she'd lost all hope of hearing a sound, the surrounding babble of the others turned to mutterings as a distant chime called faintly to her like a whisper on the wind.

The jingle snatched her breath from her throat and just as quickly as it came, it was gone. She leaned in closer with rapt attentiveness, her ears strained in hopes of once again catching the far off call of bells...

Tifa's concentration was shattered by Yuffie's sudden holler.

“Still nothing?!” the teen gaped before jumping over to snatch back the Cure Materia. “I guess you're all just a bunch of noobs!” The ninja raised her hands to give an ostentatious shrug of her shoulders.

Nanaki briefly shook his mane, his tinkling tassels reminding Tifa of just the sound she'd been listening for before she'd been so rudely interrupted. “While many believe Materia hold their own power, they're actually more of a signal to the Planet to transfer its energy. A conduit, if you will.” The fire-dog paused to stretch out his long tongue, wetting his nose and muzzle before continuing, “If your claims are to be believed, Yuffie, and Materia can truly be told apart, then have they gained some sort of sentiency as to alert the user to their origin ...?”

Denzel and Marlene blinked rapidly, the two children turning their attention back to the Phoenix Materia which lay cradled innocently in Marlene's small hands. Barret appeared just as stumped as the youngsters, crossing his trunk-like arms as he considered Red XIII's words with a twitch to his brow. Vincent, who had been standing a considerable distance away, turned towards the group with slight bemusement. Even Cait Sith raised a gloved hand to his furred chin, his tail swaying back and forth in a near hypnotizing rhythm that Tifa couldn't help but watch as she grew perplexed.

“I have... no idea what you're talking about, Red,” Yuffie spoke up with her usual, unabashed candour. “Hold on, 'claims'? … Are you calling me a liar?!”

The wrinkle on Red's brow melted from one of deep puzzlement to an amused quirk. “Perhaps in not so many words...”

“What's that supposed to mean?!”

As Yuffie launched into one of her typical tirades while the others gathered around Marlene to take a closer look at her Materia themselves, pain stabbed deep within Vincent's head like a long bladed knife. He snapped his gaze from the group and towards the edge of the plains, unsure if the action was of his own doing. His answer came in the image of two gleaming rows of bared, arm-length teeth.

'Paaaaaay attentttttion.'

Vincent immediately bristled, his shoulder muscles pulling tight as he moved his gloved hand to the grip of Cerberus, his eyes trained on the far off hill line. Galian Beast's presence lingered at the fringes of his mind, pushing the limitations of his hearing past the undignified prattle of Yuffie and the roar of waves. A dull rumble occasionally met his ears; a soft, distant pittering that reminded him of tumbling stones. Vincent turned towards the rugged cliffs that clung to the mountainside, the surrounding crags offering elevation to the grassland but in turn blocking his view of what lay beyond. Vincent's gaze hardened as he glared through the passing storm of dandelion seeds.

It didn't take long for the gunslinger to realise it wasn't falling rocks he heard, but rather, falling feet.

He unholstered Cerberus and re-attuned to his more prominent surroundings, only to realise Tifa had appeared by his side and was pulling her fighting gloves tighter around her knuckles.

“Trouble?” she asked with a carefree inflection, though her expression and stance told otherwise. Vincent glanced towards her, falling momentarily distracted by a dandelion tuft weaved between her chocolate tresses. Both parties' attentions were swiftly brought back to the matter at hand when the ground beneath their feet began to rumble. Red XIII was also brought to attention judging by the way his ears flicked upright as his fur rose alongside his neck. The fire-dog dug his claws into the quaking earth as he inclined his head, assuming his familiar battle stance.

Before any vocal warning could be uttered, two sharp, curved tusks emerged above the neighbouring hill line accompanied by a low drawn and guttural roar. Barret immediately transformed his right arm into his trusty gatling gun while Cait Sith quickly ushered Denzel and Marlene to stand behind the dark-skinned man. A pair of yellow eyes quickly fixated on the group as the full body of a turtle-like creature rose and revealed itself from behind the rolling grassland.

“Adamantaimai!” Yuffie hollered above the thundering of its huge feet as it steadily charged straight towards them. Cait Sith bolted towards the ninja in response, scrambling up her clothing and quickly curling himself around her shoulders.

“Aren't they normally docile things?!” the cat puppet cried out as his body was racked with a violent shiver. “Well, when we're not in their taerritory anywhoo!”

Tifa vaguely registered Cait Sith's words as she sprinted towards Denzel and Marlene, recalling the party's past encounters with the shelled beasts. She hurriedly pulled the two young charges back, guiding them towards Vincent and to a safer distance. After watching the gunslinger accept them into his care with a single, swift step to their front, she snapped her focus back to the stout reptile in alarm. They'd only ever fought Adamantaimai on the beaches near Costa del Sol, usually when they'd unknowingly stepped a little too close to their nests. So why did one attack them so far from the shore?

She clenched her fists and strode towards the charging beast with knuckles raised, her duster sweeping at her heels.

For one to attack them so openly was rare indeed.

“Well then,” Yuffie began, unhooking her shuriken from its back harness and rotating her right arm to loosen her muscles, “I think it needs to learn a lesson about not being in the territory of Yuffie Kisaragi! Come on, Cait Sith!” On hearing his name, the golden-crowned cat found courage and jumped up to stand on her right shoulder, rising to meet the ninja's call. Before either Tifa, Barret, Vincent or Nanaki could utter a single note of caution, the teenager broke out into a fully invigorated sprint.

“Chaaaaaaaarge!” On Yuffie's queue, Cait Sith pulled out his megaphone and blew harshly into the cone while cupping his hand around the bell, making a trumpet-like blare. Racing towards the Adamantaimai, the two comrades watched as the creature slowed in its advance. The more they closed the distance, the more the monstrous creature grew in height – its full size quickly becoming apparent. Bringing itself to a hefty trot which rumbled the earth, the huge beast lowered its head and roared its own bellowing war cry, revealing a beak full of enamel razors.

Yuffie stopped dead in her tracks while Cait Sith dived to hide behind her back.

“Retreeeeeaat!!” In a flash, Yuffie turned tail and fled, Cait Sith clinging to the trailing tails of her headband. As the pair raced past Barret, the gruff man shook his head and cursed the newly dubbed clowns under his breath. Bringing up his chrome-coated gatling gun, he held his left hand over Myrna's barrel with a fierce grip before opening fire. Marlene jumped with a high-pitched squeak as bullets instantly rained down upon the Adamantaimai, a multitude of harsh pings resounding as the small metal cases ricocheted at high speed off the beast's carapace.

“Barret, cease fire!” Vincent snapped, at once recognising the futility of firearms and the danger of stray rebounding bullets. Barret paused for but a moment, but a moment was enough. The huge turtle took its chance and thrust forward with surprising speed, extending its neck and opening its jaws ready to take a devastating bite out of gun metal through Marlene's screams.

That was, until Tifa beat the creature to it and speedily delivered a haymaker to the underside of its mandible.

The reptile's beak audibly clapped shut as the creature's head was lurched upward by the force, its curved horns narrowly missing Tifa's arm on ascent. Barret staggered back in shock but quickly regained his composure as well as his footing, hastily creating distance between him and the huge monster. Marlene stepped out from behind Vincent's shroud of protection, grave concern for her dad etched deep across her small face.

Shit, Tif'! Gimme some warnin' next time!” the gun-armed man bellowed albeit somewhat shakily. Something at the back of the fighter's mind wanted to reprimand Barret for swearing in front of the children, but it remained there as the Adamantaimai rounded upon her in seething anger. Tifa was unperturbed, rounding on the beast herself with fists tightly clenched and raised to her face. The marigold-scaled turtle met her fighting display with its own, presenting huge teeth showcased in a jaw display case. The reptile growled deep in its throat and Tifa was quick to match it with her very own.

“Get away from him.” Her threatening intonation triggered the turtle's rage and it raised a giant clawed foot to strike when a sudden streak of red dashed across the plain. Before Tifa could register what was happening, the beast reared up and bellowed in pain. The fighter stepped back, repeating the same action Barret took only moments before when he'd been caught off-guard.

Red XIII clung to the beast's foot after having leapt upon the creature, teeth firmly clamped into its scaly hide. The Adamantaimai thrashed fiercely in hopes of dislodging the fire-dog but Nanaki held on with matching ferocity, his blazing tail painting streaks of fire in the air as he was violently tossed to and fro. Tifa was dazed, unable to help but watch as drifting dandelion tufts were caught in Red's erratic fire display, the seeds set aflame and sent crashing to earth in silent bursts of ember. Nanaki's sudden gut-wrenching yelp snapped Tifa to her senses as the turtle reared up and threw it's entire weight to the ground, flinging the fire-dog to the still shaking earth with a dull and sickening thump.

“RED!” Tifa yelled, rushing towards the canine in a heartbeat as the Adamantaimai grew frenzied and began to hurl its weight around in unbridled rage. Suddenly the fighter found herself caught in a rain of crashing pillars that were the creature's feet, the quaking soil serving to throw her balance off alongside her footing to evade; the danger of being crushed becoming very, very real.

“Tifa!” Marlene cried, dashing abruptly from Vincent's side before the crimson-cloaked man could react and running closer to the middle of the field. Before the gunslinger could give a single utterance of caution, her father stepped in for him.

“Stay back, babygirl! Come'ere!” Barret snatched his daughter's arm as she made to pass and dragged her back, holding her firmly behind him despite her struggles and protests. Yuffie and Cait Sith quickly joined to calm the small girl, though their frantic ministrations betrayed their worry and indecision to act. Denzel stood behind Vincent's sweeping cape and watched his closest friend cling to her father's trunk-like arms before turning to see Tifa continue her clumsy footwork in avoiding the monster's wrath.

“I... I gotta help!” His own declaration steeled his resolve and Denzel made to run when a wicked claw snapped to hover in front of his eyes. His incredulous gaze followed the shimmering gauntlet that stayed his advance to the gunslinger at the other end of the golden appendage. Vincent looked straight back at the now glaring orphan over his blood-red cowl. “Let me go!” Denzel barked, though the man's responding glower forced him to shrink back and quickly avert his eyes. Barret's advice from nearly a week past echoed in the boy's head.

'Remember what I told ya? Vincent's an old friend of ours, but... jus' be careful 'round 'im. Don't annoy him, a'ight?'

Denzel's knuckles whitened.

Though Vincent remained outwardly calm, his mind raced as he assessed the battle. Gravely aware that bullets had no effect and would most likely ricochet off the creature's carapace and cause unintentional friendly fire, his options were limited as were Barret's; not to mention the pair were unofficially charged with guarding both Denzel and Marlene respectively. Cait Sith had little in the way of fire power as did Yuffie, though her shuriken had the precision to possibly find a vulnerable spot. Nanaki's speed could work to the group's advantage, but the fire-dog already appeared injured and not even Tifa's powerful punches could see through the Adamantaimai's armour of shell and hide.

The situation looked bleak - nor did Fate hold them in her favour.

As Tifa only just managed to avoid one of the monster's mighty clawed paws by a hair's breadth, alarm swelled in Vincent's breast and surged through his blood at the sight. The watchful gunslinger could watch no more and he made to sprint to Tifa's aid when an incomparable force seized his limbs and stilled his hand. His skull rumbled like the very earth under the monster's feet, though it was with growled words rather than with sheer weight and brute force.

'Waaaaaaaaaiiit.'

The gold talons of Vincent's gauntlet twitched and jerked as he fought for control but Galian Beast prevailed, holding him against his will before pushing his primal senses to share that of Vincent's own. The oddity of the demon's action didn't go unnoticed by the gunslinger and he immediately grew suspicious; not to mention increasingly alarmed. He suddenly felt sick. From the corner of his eye, he caught Denzel glance up at him with a mixture of anger and question.

With Marlene now safely under Barret's care, Yuffie had moved to flitter on the outskirts of the battlefield while Cait Sith hopped by her feet, the pair clearly trying to find a way to reach Red XIII. By seeing to his aid, both were aware that they could risk him further injury if the monster noticed them. The time it would take to drag the fire-dog to a safer distance was more than enough for the beast to spot this and charge, made worse that any attempts in trying to distract the beast with weapons would end up for naught as it would only shrug them off from its armoured carapace. Nanaki also appeared to share this line of thinking as he shot the pair a look that prayed caution. Yuffie bit her lip, her concern only mounting when she watched the quadruped struggle to stand.

As Tifa dodged another volley of pounding feet, her lungs screaming for air, she suddenly came to a realisation.

She didn't necessarily need her balance to escape.

Unsteadily rising to her feet once more, she anticipated the next clawed paw to thunder down. This time however, she threw herself off balance. Diving to the side, she forced all her strength into her own momentum and dropped to the ground, causing her to power slide right past the beast's makeshift cage of limbs and straight out from under its plastron. Her outstretched heel dug deep into the pulped soil and left a streak of mud in her path, caking her boots, legs and duster in wet earth. She paid it no mind and sprang to her feet, reaching her four-legged friend just as he made to stand with an evident limp.

“I'm fine, Tifa,” Nanaki reassured before she could even open her mouth, “it's just my left shoulder blade...” he turned to watch the Adamantaimai cease its assault on the earth beneath it, the turtle pausing to stretch its neck down and peer between its legs in confusion. Red whipped his flaming tail behind him as he limped to stand by the muddy woman, his left paw raised and held limp from the ground. “I can still fight!” he barked.

“Red...” Tifa fought to tell him he was in no shape, but she didn't want to add insult to injury. She knew Nanaki well enough to know his pride came first and foremost. Instead she went to pull her Cure Materia from her front duster pocket to hold against her friend's furred shoulder - only to grasp nothing but air. She looked down in surprise to then recall Yuffie having snatched the orb back just before the attack. Nanaki turned to the fighter in question, accidentally streaking mud across his nose as it made contact with Tifa's soiled glove. She was about to answer his inquisitive gaze, when both fire-dog and fighter were interrupted by a familiar rumble. Their eyes widened as they snapped their gaze back to the field, only to find their distraction hadn't gone unnoticed by the Adamantaimai who was now charging straight towards them with an open jaw set with teeth.

“Yuffie!” Tifa shouted in a near accusatory tone just as she frantically made to pull herself and Red out of the creature's warpath.

Denzel, who watched the turtle's onrush from the gunslinger's side, could no longer watch nor hold his tongue. He spun on the so far silent, crimson-cloaked man in anger. “Aren't you gonna help her?!”

Vincent suddenly turned on the orphan, his cape twirling in a flourish of crimson to reveal two piercing gold eyes and a wicked claw poised to strike; a bestial snarl tearing itself from the gunslingers throat. Denzel was struck with cold horror, stumbling back to land roughly on his elbows and scrabbling away in fright. Before the boy could register what was happening or even attempt to scream through his tightened throat, a high-pitched wail pierced his eardrums. He snapped his head back to find two Beachplugs hit the ground behind him, their shells and rubbery scales each cleaved with four deep, bloody gashes. The creature's shrill cries were lost to the others in the heat of battle, or rather, the growing screams of Cait Sith.

As Denzel lay shaking on the ground, Tifa and Nanaki looked on with shared trepidation at the turtle bulldozing its way straight toward them. Suddenly, Yuffie's shuriken whizzed past their ears accompanied by a scream that wavered in pitch with each rotation. A black blur was just caught centred on the huge ninja star before it suddenly rocketed off the projectile into the seed-filled air, homing in on the Adamantaimai with great velocity. The beast jammed its clawed feet into the earth, tearing up soil as it attempted to rein in its own charge.

Grinding to a halt, the turtle lift its head only to find a small cat blinking back at it from between the two tusks curved around its beak.

“Errr,” Cait Sith stared point blank into the beast's face. “Fancy meetin' ye 'ere?”

The reptile quickly made to throw off the offending feline when the weapon Cait Sith had flown from followed up with a zoom, causing the beast to retract its head in rapid succession. However, the shuriken never met its mark, instead circling back around to return to Yuffie's hand with an audible clap.

“And who says I never have a plan?” the ninja said with a grin to the stunned and now speechless onlookers of Tifa and Nanaki. She turned back to the cat she had so ungracefully affixed to her weapon and shouted to him around a cupped hand. “Go get 'im, Cait Sith!”

“Oh no ye doon't!” the robot cried, grabbing the sides of the monster's head and pulling at it from within its metal-tinted armour. “Get oot here and fight like a... like a turtle!” The Adamantaimai had no room to shake off the cat puppet within its shell and it quickly extended its neck to viciously lash its head from side to side.

This was the chance they had all been looking for.

While the beast lay distracted, Denzel choked for air. Staring into the vacant eyes of two squid-like creatures lying dead behind him, he shakily turned to look up at the man responsible. Vincent stood frozen, his chest the only thing that moved as he appeared to heave just as heavily as the orphan. His claw hovered mid-strike, blood oozing down the spiked talons. Dandelion seeds lay sullied around them, caught in red spatter before being brought to earth to rest in pools of blood.

Vincent snapped to his senses and whipped his claw into the confines of his cloak.

A savage growl hissed through knife-like canines, a deep rumble reverberating through his skull after its words. Vincent noticed, however, that it spoke not in threat, but rather admonition.

'Protecttt the pack.'

He took a swift step back. A few moments passed before he spoke curtly, “... Denzel.”

The boy looked up to the gunslinger with palpable fear in his wide eyes.

“Go to Barret. Quickly.”

Denzel didn't need to be told twice. Scrambling to his feet, he half ran, half staggered away while glancing over his shoulder. Vincent didn't need to suspect – he knew the orphan was checking to see he didn't follow. Once a suitable distance grew between them, Vincent turned away to gravely contemplate his recent relapse. Never before had he so completely lost himself – not even when Death Gigas took hold and ripped open a steel container back on Shinra's covert cargo ship from Junon. His memory was riddled with fog; one moment he was trying to reach Tifa, and then...

Then his blood sang with fury and his sight filled with red.

Next he was aware, he was standing over Denzel with blood on his hands; or rather, his claw. He carefully drew the appendage from the folds of his cloak, turning his gauntlet palm up to inspect. Blood, thick and fresh, still dripped from the talons and stained its gold finish. His brow furrowed deeply under his bandanna.

'Had I left Denzel to aid Tifa, he could have been gravely injured. Did Galian Beast anticipate this...?'

A better question that now preyed on Vincent's mind, very much like the demon had a tendency to do, was if Galian Beast was truly helping him. He could arrive at no other conclusion given the creature's strange words. He received his answer in the form of two gold, predatory eyes gazing at him from the darkness of his psyche.

Vincent fell into the stony silence of his own solitude.

“Yo, come ta see some fireworks?” Barret asked as he turned to glance at Denzel just stumbling to his side. The ex-AVALANCHE leader missed the boy's ghostly visage, too pre-occupied in tinkering with his gun-arm as he turned back to the battle at hand. “'Cuz yer about ta get some!”

While her father failed to take note of the youngster's appearance, Marlene did not. “Denzel, are you okay?” she asked from beside her father's leg, reaching out to grasp his hand in her own. She immediately noticed her small fingers begin to quake with Denzel's.

A guttural roar fixed all attention on the Adamantaimai. The creature grew berserk, thrashing wildly as Cait Sith clung onto one of its ivory horns for dear life. Tifa tended to Red further away while Yuffie stayed her distance with shuriken raised, looking for an opportune opening.

And Barret was about to create one.

Raising Myrna level with his eyes, he looked down the barrel while holding the underside with a solid grip. He lined up his sight and waited for the raging turtle to manoeuvrer its body in just the right position... “I'd had enough of yer bull****,” Barret growled, his patience and limit tested. The Adamantaimai threw its front closer to the ground with one particular lash of its head, causing Cait Sith to lose grip and swing up into the air from the momentum. Barret found his opening.

“GOTCHA!” Barret roared, a side compartment of his gatling gun snapping shut with a satisfying click. The gun whirred, its pitch growing higher and higher before it spat out a small, oval shaped object. The monster didn't have time to react, nor did any of the party, when the projectile hit its mark.

The moment it did, the grenade exploded.

A huge eruption of fire encompassed the beast with a thundering boom, flames raging into the sky as the ground shook from the blast of Barret's Grenade Bomb. A harsh clang rang out with the beast's yowl as huge fragment was sent flying through the air. The rended shell tossed and flipped violently before it fell to the scorched earth with a dull, resounding smack. As the remnants of the inferno dissipated, the Adamantaimai turned towards Barret with a look of murder in its pained yellow eyes. It's upper right neck and shoulder were now exposed, its armoured shell cracked and split away to reveal the soft, marigold hide underneath.

“Y-ye could'a warned me!” Cait Sith managed with a cough, the small cat seen dropping from the Adamantaimai's stubbed tail looking scorched but no worse for wear. The blackened reptile paid the puppet no mind and instead began to charge towards Barret with a furious bellow. Marlene jumped and quailed, gripping Denzel's hand tight as she quickly pulled him behind her father. Before the dark-skinned man or any of the others could react, something shot across the field with surprising speed. Yuffie reared up her shuriken as she ran before, quick as a flash, she leaped up and brought the bladed weapon down in an arc upon the Adamantaimai's exposed flesh.

Blood burst and spurted from the creature's neck like an erupt fountain. The monster staggered from the blow in surprise and fell mid-charge, it's huge armoured body crashing to earth with a boom and ripping up soil as it coast across the ground. The ninja leapt away as the beast came to rest a few feet from Barret, her Greased Lightning technique finally breaching the turtle's defences and with it, its invulnerability. The reptile writhed on the ground as it struggled for air. Barret trudged over to look down at the creature, a strange mixture of pity and anger behind his eyes. He raised his gun-arm and fired a few final rounds into its exposed hide.

The Adamantaimai's head slumped to the ground.

Barret lowered his weapon, watching as the beast slowly began to dissipate into hundreds of glittering emerald specks. Marlene cautiously walked up behind her father to join him, dragging Denzel with her to watch the dancing wisps of Lifestream soothe and reclaim the angered soul. Yuffie and Cait Sith both joined to witness the scene as did Tifa and Red, though the latter did so with an evident limp. Threads of pure energy washed over the turtle's shell in gleaming waves of green, slowly dismantling the armour into smaller flecks of light.

Across the plain, pain like a hot-bladed knife stabbed into Vincent's chest with agonising force. The gunslinger hunched over with a violent jerk, his heart quivering in throes. He fell to one knee, grasping through the folds of his cloak at his chest while his skull erupted with a sound akin to squealing, writhing leeches. The presence alone was suffocating, let alone the sheer unmitigated power that came with it.

'I REPUDIATE!'

Chaos' severed voice consumed his noetic senses as his body screamed for mercy, an alien pulling sensation once more tearing through his insides. He buckled to the ground, his knees quickly soiled in dirt and blood. Just as he felt like he was going to snap, all pain abated. He pulled himself to his feet, frantically gasping for air as Chaos hissed with alarming vehemence through ivory spikes. Vincent could feel the demon brandish its hellish wings and he quickly threw up his mental barriers. Chaos paid this no heed, instead enclosing himself within the two appendages and sinking into the deepest depths of darkness within the gunslinger's skull.

Vincent was left shaken.

He snapped his gaze to the party to find his episode had thankfully gone unnoticed, the group pre-occupied with talking amongst themselves on other matters. Or, to be specific, Materia.

“Yuffie,” Tifa began, turning from the rising sparkles of Lifestream that emanated from the dead Adamantaimai, “you never gave me my Cure Materia back. I could have really used it for Red earlier.”

Nanaki's ears flicked at this. “I could still use it I suppose, though I'm sure its fine.” Red XIII took a moment to rub the now dried streak of mud from his nose, though his left shoulder gave him difficulty in doing so. Tifa shot him a sceptical look.

“Oh yeah,” Yuffie said flippantly, hopping over to stand by the fighter and the fire-dog. “Well, I can do better than that! Now, hold still...” The ninja pulled out a green silk handheld fan that was folded up under her black arm warmer and stretched out both her arms. Lowering her left, she held the implement up high with her right and flipped it open while a look of concentration settled over her features. Tifa watched carefully, resisting the sudden urge to itch her legs as the mud that caked her calves began to harden. Yuffie closed her eyes and slowly drew the fan down alongside her head simultaneously, her chin coming to rest on her chest. Suddenly, Tifa and Nanaki were enveloped in pure blue light. A cleansing feeling washed over Tifa for a few blissful moments before the light expanded and dissipated in a series of small bubbles.

The fighter watched as Nanaki gave a few experimental shrugs of his shoulder as he pawed the earth, the blade now having no trouble moving under his fire sheen fur. Though Tifa had seen it many times during their journey in the past, Yuffie's ability to tap into her own magic reserves to heal others never ceased to impress her; though this also meant it was an ability used scarcely. While the ninja often joked about 'secret ninja techniques,' her Clear Tranquil was certainly an ability Tifa believed to be a true one.

While Red nodded his appreciation to a near gloating ninja, Tifa decided to rain on her parade.

“Yuffie.”

“Yeah, Tifs?” the teen grinned.

“... I still want my Materia back.”

“Oh, right! Of course!” Yuffie pulled the orb in question from one of the satchels on her belt before tossing it towards the fighter. “Here ya go!” Tifa caught the Materia mid-air and made to pocket it when she realised mud from her gloves had smeared over the ball. Pausing, she rubbed her thumb over the sphere to clear its surface when she noticed mud wasn't the only thing being cleared. Blinking, she looked at the green ink streaked across the thumb of her fighting glove before staring down at the Materia in her palm.

Only that it wasn't Materia, but rather, an underlined number six pool ball.

Tifa stared at the marker coloured sphere before she calmly tipped her hand, rolling the ball across her palm to drop on the ground. Closing her eyes and taking a steadying breath through her nose, the fighter slowly pulled her now green marker soaked gloves on tighter.

She had just left Costa del Sol a mere hour ago. Already she had almost been crushed to death by a giant turtle, covered and soiled in mud despite having a shower just before they'd left and weary of thinking about the whereabouts of her childhood friend despite knowing it was fruitless to do so.

Tifa was tired, dirty and sick.

And Tifa Lockhart was in no mood to be trifled with.

She opened her eyes and fixed her gaze on a now panicking Yuffie, slowly walking towards her with fists raised as her soiled duster slopped against her legs.

“T-Tif'? I was only joking! I mean, come on... You know me! Right? … Right?!”

While Vincent contemplated the gravity of his dilemma and his own deteriorating mental state, Yuffie's screams were heard rising over Mt. Corel.

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter XXIV – High Anxiety

 

Rolling hills, precipitous paths and steep inclines... It was times such as these where Nanaki was glad to be a quadruped. He recognised all too well that there were occasions in one's life where you just had to sit back and count your blessings. After all, he had no boots for stones to fall trapped in. No clothing to weigh him down nor cold wind able to breach the warmth of his fur coat.

But what he wasn't so grateful at the moment for, was his enhanced hearing.

“Whhhhhhy?!”

Yuffie's wail somehow rose above the mighty roar of the nearby waterfall and Nanaki had to flatten his ears from the lamentation.

The ninja's moans had been growing alongside the crash of falling water as the party had made their way up the winding narrow path that lead to this point. Now, they stood on a rather footworn wooden bridge that served as the only crossing between both Costa del Sol's and Corel's mountain range, all the while Yuffie desperately reached out her green smeared hands towards the clear water thundering down from a nearby mountain peak... to no avail.

“So... close...!” she strained out, kneeling precariously at the bridge's edge, “I... I can't go on like this...” The ninja finally admitted defeat by flopping onto her back with arms spread wide, staring up at the sun and the flecks of rainbow that danced across her eyes as light filtered through the makeshift lens of the waterfall's spray.

That was, until her vision was suddenly obscured by a curious, lone ochre coloured eye.

“Aaah! Dog breath!” Yuffie sprang upright and Red deigned to give a brief huff through his nose.

“You humans don't exactly have pleasant smelling breaths yourselves...” Water droplets began to latch onto his fur from the thundering falls and the fire-dog shook out his spiked mane, causing rainbow shimmers to scatter like small diamonds much to the horror of a recoiling Yuffie.

“AAAAH! Yeah, but at least we don't smell of wet dog!” she cried over raised arms.

A soft voice suddenly spoke up, “Well, you were trying to get some water anyway, weren't you?”

Nanaki turned around as Yuffie cautiously peered over her raised arms to find Tifa saunter over, her duster hanging rigid with hardened soil. Mud clung to her arms and legs like moss to a tree, thick and resilient.

“You look like you could use some yourself, but at least you aren't so vocal about it,” Red dryly remarked, pointedly looking at the rambunctious ninja. Yuffie guffawed at the pair.

“Can you blame me? I mean, look at me!” She waved her arms up and down to emphasise her marker soaked skin. “I look like that big green comic book character! What's it? Bulk?”

Tifa simply shook her head, hiding her amusement behind a slightly upturned lip. After Yuffie had tried passing off a green coloured billiard ball as Materia, Tifa had no qualms about smearing the offending marker pen ink all over the ninja's face. When Yuffie attempted to rub it off with her hands earlier that day, the colour only spread like a contagion. “Well, I'm sure Denzel would know,” Tifa continued to answer the teen's earlier question. “He loves reading comics.” On mentioning the boy, Tifa turned around and looked past the chipped posts of the bridge in search of the orphan she knew to be trailing behind. His behaviour had been increasingly worrying the further they walked from Costa del Sol and the fighter figured she would give him some space rather than push him for now.

She knew Denzel to be more delicate than he let on and, if anything, it only served to remind her of Cloud. Pain stabbed in her gut and twisted like a knife at the recollection and rather than lingering on the remnants of a smile in her mind's eye, she quickly moved her gaze to look ahead instead. Red didn't miss the reaction given by the flick of his ear as it rotated towards her, but otherwise he gave nothing away. The small, sharp intake of breath the woman had gave had been near inaudible, but not to the fire-dog's ears.

'We all hide our pain, but for how much longer can you conceal yours, Tifa?' Nanaki fell into deep rumination regarding the fighter – knowing all too well that her namesake was not only apt for her physical skills in battle, but also for her emotional aptitude.

For Tifa was also a fighter of the heart.

But what made her so resilient? Was it a common trait amongst humans? In that case, would he himself be classed as resilient, too? Even knowing he was certainly far from being considered human? Red XIII wasn't sure - and not for the first time that day. More and more he caught himself contemplating his own nature since they'd begun their journey, and more and more he'd been yearning for an answer to his existential meditations. Yet if there was something he knew for definite at that moment, it was that Tifa was pushing herself.

He once more chose to paw at the dried streak of mud that had smeared across the top of his nose, the offending earth debilitating his sense of smell. “We have a long walk ahead of us,” he began, sniffling through the aroma of soil. “Perhaps we should return to Costa del Sol to refreshen-”

“No.” Tifa's curt response caused the lion-like dog's brow to shoot up in surprise and even Yuffie stopped half-way in rising to her feet. “We keep going.”

Yuffie openly gaped. “But Tif'-”

We keep going.” Her words were final.

Red XIII peered at her carefully from behind a spike of mane that strayed loose from his mohawk. Yuffie's stance stiffened into one of a more serious nature, her back straight and expression unsettling in the solemnity rarely seen on the ninja's face.

The air around them grew taut and stretched out into a long, awkward silence.

'Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken.'

Vincent's sudden words permeated the air and Tifa was indeed startled to find the gunslinger calmly crossing the bridge towards them, his long, easy strides accompanied by his tattered cape billowing in ripples of fabric behind him. Tifa immediately noticed his gauntlet was held close to his chest under the folds of his cloak and she couldn't help but fall disconcerted at the oddity of the stance, let alone his sudden bout of poetry.

“Gawd,” Yuffie rolled her eyes, all evidence of gravity purged from her posture though a faint red tinged her cheeks, “and I was supposed to be the melodramatic one!”

“I think you'll find the word you're looking for is, 'uneducated,'” Red spoke up, but any ill-intent found in his words was washed away by the glimmer of mirth in his eye. This had the 'desired' effect on Yuffie as the ninja launched into one of her infamous tirades about how she, 'knew lots of important stuff he didn't', and how, 'poetry was stupid.'

“YO!” Barret's boom almost rattled the very mountain pass. “Y'all waitin' fer a written invatation or sumthin'!?” the ex-AVALANCHE leader bellowed from across the bridge as he shouted back to those lingering by the falls. Yuffie immediately snapped her mouth shut before bounding towards the gun-armed man who waved from the other side of the gap, prepared to unleash a lengthy, well thought out response that Tifa surmised would most likely amount to, 'No, you.'

As Barret and Yuffie began to exchange words, Red XIII heard more than saw Cait Sith join the verbal fray while Marlene giggled and waved jovially to him from beside her father's leg. The fire-dog shook his head, his tassels chiming with the child's laughter as he watched them continue their trek down the trodden path. He made to follow but paused with paw raised, turning to shoot both Tifa and Vincent a quizzical look.

“Go on,” Tifa half-smiled. “I'll wait for Denzel.”

Red turned his lone eye to focus on Vincent and, when the crimson-cloaked man nodded in response, Nanaki returned the gesture before padding ahead, following the sheer bulk of Barret and the accented hollers of Cait Sith. Tifa felt the exchange had been one of those unspoken agreements Vincent and Red tended to share so well and she quickly shrugged it off, watching the fire-dog's burning tail disappear down the winding trail after the others.

Turning to face her present company, she now found Vincent staring up at the cascading waterfall before them. The gushing streams caught the sun from its position behind her, causing an entire spectrum of colours to burst forth from the crystal-clear spray and dance across her eyes like a shattered kaleidoscope. Her breath caught in her throat at the sight of the gunslinger bathed in rainbow while her mind recalled his earlier utterance. She couldn't pretend her heart hadn't fluttered at his words; after all, it was always attractive to hear a man speak in verse. She was certain that was a given and any woman would agree – including Yuffie, despite her apparent, outspoken opinion on the matter.

… She also couldn't pretend that Vincent didn't have just the right voice for it. Husky, low and smooth like an aged malt, he'd rolled the words off his tongue as easily as he did shooting his gun. But Tifa kept that particular thought to herself.

“Is it a habit of yours to interrupt with prose?” she finally asked, facing the falls to join his lingering gaze.

“Only in the right circumstances,” he smoothly replied, once again surprising the fighter with his small leniency towards humour. His crimson gaze never budged from the tumbling waters. Silence stretched out between them, but unlike the one Tifa experienced before, this one was a comfortable stillness only found between friends. A grave expression settled over his brow and Tifa noticed the slight change of demeanour from the corner of her russet coloured eye. Questions lay at the tip of her tongue but she decided to keep them there rather than break the tranquility. Unbeknownst to the fighter, Vincent's mind was stirred with troubled memories of a woman who lay encased in crystal, situated atop another, far grandiose waterfall on the Western Continent.

A woman who, like him, was lost in time.

A woman he'd failed.

'To think of all the good we can do! The progress in science! It's just amazing, isn't it, Vincent?'

“It's just... magnificent, isn't it?” Tifa asked rhetorically, breaking the precious calm. Pulled from his distant recollection with a barely concealed start, Vincent snapped his gaze to her and blinked at the colours dancing across her shoulders from the water's spray. “It's so clear. I guess the work we're doing is really paying off.” He observed for a moment before he realised she was talking about the waterfall. He stood stunned for a few seconds more before a small, bitter smile played unbidden on his lips like an old ghost played on his mind, but both were hidden from the woman next to him.

He tucked his chin deep into his cowl before grunting in response. “... Hmph.”

Tifa blessed him with a small smile of her own at his answer but it promptly fell when her gaze did upon his hidden gauntlet. “Are you hurt?” she immediately asked, straightening up to face him. Vincent bristled and curled his claw in tighter, but not from Tifa's words. His talons slowly dug into his ribs and Vincent fought whatever it was that had taken hold, using all of his willpower not to flinch in pain.

His skull seared with the cruel, cold fingers of ice as scarlet eyes bore into him, bloodied and sore.

'To ble-eed is to li-ive.'

“Oh, that reminds me...” Tifa began to ruffle deep inside her duster pocket while Death Gigas watched from the pit of darkness within Vincent's head. The gunslinger stepped back as discreetly as possible in concern for her safety, though the act was made pointless when the fighter herself closed the distance between them. “Here,” she said as she pulled a slim bottle from her pocket. The sun caught the curved glass and Vincent had to blink past the gleams of light to recognise the crystal blue liquid that lay inside. “I bought this earlier. For your jaw,” Tifa explained, holding out the Potion towards him.

The hulking demon, who'd watched the interaction with interest at that point, suddenly turned away with a groan that sounded suspiciously close to humourous. Vincent held back a soft sigh. “Tifa,” he began with a gentle rumble. “It is not necessary-”

“I know,” she brushed him off, “but neither was it when you were giving me Potions before. So here.” Vincent wanted to argue that it had been completely necessary since she'd been suffering from smoke inhalation at the time, but the defiant gleam in her russet eyes left no room for debate. She held the medicine outstretched and steady as he contemplated his answer to the roar of water.

“Vincent... let someone look after you for once.”

This gained a rare raised brow from the gunslinger, the irony of her speaking such words not lost on him. He was about to bring attention to this when, with a boldness he should have expected from the woman by now, Tifa reached out and took his right hand, pressing the bottle firmly into his leather covered palm. The words hung in his throat.

“You think I haven't noticed?” she began softly as her fingers lingered over his own.

Vincent froze, his blood suddenly arctic.

Just what had she noticed, exactly? His slipping grip on control? His near assault on Denzel? His sudden, painful and unexpected 'episodes'? His mind raced with nauseating speed. Despite his cognitive processes suffering a Mako reactor-like meltdown, the thought of how long it'd been since he'd had any real human contact still made itself prominent. He couldn't remember the last time someone had physically reached out to him.

His mind was sent for another tailspin when Tifa squeezed his fingers around the glass bottle in his hand.

“I... don't want to push you.” Here she hesitated, the side of her lips giving a self-conscious twitch. “But you're being very distant. More so than usual. And I just... I just want to make sure you're alright.” She looked up at him through her lashes and Vincent could only stare back at her over the material fortress that was his cowl. She gave a meek shake of her head. “I haven't forgotten what you've done for me. Helping me back in Edge.” Tifa paused, the incident with the violent thug still embarrassing to recall. Yet while it brought forth the agonising memory of her broken shoulder, it also came with the recollection of her encounter with Vincent after three long years.

For that, she supposed it was worth remembering for.

“I guess what I'm trying to say is... I'm just trying to return the favour.” Her gloved thumb gave a concerned brush across his knuckles before she slowly withdrew her hand and tucked a fine lock of chocolate hair behind her ear. “It's not much, but I had to pay you back somehow.”

Vincent swallowed and finally found his tongue. “... You owe me no debt.”

Tifa quirked a smile. “Apart from my gratitude, maybe not.”

A beat passed before the cloaked man hummed low in acceptance of her answer.

The conversation had not been one Vincent had anticipated in the slightest, if at all, and while he was pre-occupied with the lingering phantom of her fingers wrapped around his, Tifa stared at his face – or what little she could see of it over his cowl and under his bandanna. Suddenly she blurted out, “Can I have a look?” When Vincent awarded her with a dazed blink, she glanced to the side with a slight dash of bashfulness. “Your jaw, I mean.”

Once again, words escaped the gunslinger. He could feel Death Gigas rumble in the recess of his mind and he understood the monstrosity's amusement: Tifa wanted to see what simply wasn't there. While fragile, his body was able to repair itself at a far greater rate due to the demons that dwelt within him. He certainly wasn't impervious to injuries or wounds and would suffer them as well as the next, but in terms of recovery he far surpassed his fellow man.

Oh, how he envied them. How he longed to be human.

Spiked wings unfurled in his skull and smothered his brain in endless void. His thoughts were choked with the echo of cracked words split and rended from this realm.

'WHY DESPAIR? THIS IS TRUE GREATNESS.'

Vincent revolted, the overwhelming urge to lash out his claw and rip a certain muscle from one's chest sending him to the verge of panic. He lashed his head to the side to re-enforce his mental barriers while Chaos sneered at him as he screwed his eyes shut. Wicked, sharp talons twitched and seized wildly under his cloak. Tifa straightened in alarm, yet despite her fear she took a rigid step towards him. Something in his mind screamed and spat and Vincent instantly recoiled.

“Tifa- !” Her cautious advance was abruptly brought to an end when Vincent's claw whipped out to block her path on reflex, revealing the wicked appendage from its hiding place and the coating of blood that drenched its gold plating. The fighter instinctively reacted by whipping up her fists in defence, right before her gaze landed with stupor on his gauntlet. Her mouth hung open and she stared at him wide-eyed, her shock so great she felt like she might as well have been physically hit.

“Vincent,” she choked out. “Is that your... ?”

The gunman remained illy silent, swiftly drawing the appendage back within the folds of his mantle. Tifa knew the answer then and it didn't sit well with her. Vincent was a gunslinger. He excelled in firearms. He certainly wasn't inclined to close combat and she'd never known him to ever be so, though the blood staining his talons now told her otherwise.

And it wasn't his.

He remained steadfast in avoiding her gaze, taking another step back as he busied himself with tucking away the Potion bottle she'd handed him earlier. Once it was safely resting with its two brethren in the inner pockets of his cape, along with the Hi-Potion he'd also purchased earlier in Costa del Sol among other things, he turned away to gaze back up at the waterfall. A frown knit heavily on her brow as Tifa contemplated reaching out to him, but she ultimately decided to hold true to her earlier words. She didn't want to push him.

She looked past his shoulder and back towards paths just walked, her mind buzzing with questions and thoughts about not only one bedevilling man, but now two. She held back the anxiety that threatened to break from her chest in a hefty sigh and turned her attention across the bridge. When Tifa realised Denzel still hadn't rounded the corner, her expression immediately fell into that of a troubled mother's. It wasn't odd for the boy to linger and Tifa usually offered him any space he might need, trustful of Denzel not to fall too far behind, but he never took this long to catch up. She briskly passed Vincent, though not before offering a squeeze of reassurance to his upper arm through his cape. The man tensed as slim fingers traced across his mantle, though he gave no other indication of his surprise or mental turmoil.

“Denzel...?” Tifa called out, brushing her hand along the fissures in the rockface as she followed the crag wall. Stones crunched and ground under the shuffle of sneakers and she caught herself right before she bumped into her charge. The sight that met her lifted her brows.

She found the orphan practically hugging the mountainside, his eyes wide as he stared down at the river running beneath the bridge and through the valley far below.

“T-Tifa...” he barely sputtered, “I'm- I- I can't... I don't like... h-hei-”

“Hey, it's okay.” Tifa reached out and combed her fingers through his wavy hair as quickly as she'd comforted him. The shame in his voice tugged at her heartstrings and reminded her what it was like to be a child again. All the uncertainty. The insecurities. The constant need for approval.

Hiding your fears because you were never taught otherwise.

But Tifa wanted to teach Denzel otherwise.

“I don't like heights much either,” she murmured. “But that's okay. How about we walk over together?” Tifa smiled and held out her gloved hand. Denzel looked at the outstretched appendage with dubiousness, but slowly moved his own from the rockface he'd been gripping to take it. Tifa's smile grew and she gently tugged him away from the stone walls, coaxing the boy towards the waterfall. He shakily complied, practically hanging onto Tifa's mucky calf as she moved away and slowly carried them both towards the bridge hand in hand. The orphan desperately tried to avoid looking down, but in doing so caught sight of something else that made him freeze. Or rather, someone.

Denzel stared hard at Vincent's back with wary eyes, watching as the man stood close to the bridge side and observed the tumbling waters of the nearby fall. Immediately self-conscious, he tried to let go of Tifa's hand but the fright from earlier still held fresh in his mind and coursed through his frayed nerves. Barret had told him before they left Edge they were on a quest to hunt down monsters. Now, Denzel couldn't help but wonder: Was Vincent one of them?

'Is that why I shouldn't annoy him? Do the others know? … What do I do?'' The possibility of Vincent turning on Marlene much the same way he did him dawned on the orphan. He couldn't shake the thought or image from his head. He wanted to protect her. To prove he was brave enough. And Vincent kinda looked like a monster. He had a big claw and red eyes... His gaze flicked to the side of the bridge.

'Maybe I could just push him off the edge-'

Denzel's mind seized to a halt. He blinked in shock at his own thoughts and gave his head a sharp shake, sending wavy locks to grow even more tousled as he leaned further into Tifa's leg. The fighter caught the odd action and gently squeezed his hand, a concerned frown marring her features. He was obviously scared. An idea suddenly occurred to her.

Tifa hesitated for a moment before she finally spoke. “You know... I fell off a mountain once.”

Denzel immediately snapped his gaze up to her with awe. “Really?”

“Mm hmm,” she hummed. “I was about Marlene's age. Well, maybe a little older. I was looking for someone who... went to the Lifestream. I thought they were past Mt. Nibel, so I went to go find them. Turns out, Cloud saw me leave and decided to follow me.”

While discreetly listening before, the mention of Nibelheim's infamous mountain most certainly earned the rest of Vincent's ear. Denzel scrunched up his nose in confusion. “Why did you think they were past a mountain? That's kinda dumb.” The boy only realised what he'd said after the words left his mouth and he snapped his gaze down to his feet, only to stop dead in his tracks. He caught sight of the drop flickering out from between the bridge planks and wavered, throwing himself onto Tifa's mud-caked calf, but the fighter held strong to his hand and gently guided him on.

“Well,” she continued softly, “people used to say no one living could pass it. So, I thought maybe those who weren't with us anymore could. It made sense to me at the time. I was young so believing things like that didn't seem odd to me.” If Tifa took offense to his words, she didn't show it. “Guess you're brighter than I am, huh, Denzel?” She shot him a crooked smile and the boy was steeped in guilt, avoiding her eyes and instead watching the way her hair brushed against her leather vest as she walked.

The fighter continued. “I was almost at the top of the mountain before Cloud caught up with me, but by then it was too late...” here, she gave a brief exhale; a shadow of a laugh. “I missed my step, and then...” Tifa looked into the distance as the memory played behind her eyes.

Denzel peered up at her with his own pupils grown wide and gripped her hand tighter. Vincent turned his head slightly.

“What happened?” he asked eagerly.

“Well... I don't remember much after falling. I was in a coma for seven days afterwards.”

“Whoa...” Denzel gaped at the fighter and Tifa smiled. Her plan on distracting him from the drop below was working like a charm. “What happened to Cloud?” the boy asked.

“Cloud?” she repeated. “He was on crutches for a few days. Apparently he kept trying to visit me. Even tried bringing me soup everyday after I woke up, but my Papa was so mad... he kept turning him away.” Tifa smiled down at the boy, her own grin surprising her. Vincent watched with interest, noting down the insight into Tifa's past as he looked to the mountain peaks with worldly respect.

“But why? He tried to help you, didn't he?” Denzel wrinkled his nose.

“Well, he thought Cloud lead me there.” Tifa looked ahead, hiding a smile knowing they'd almost reached their destination. “He didn't know he was actually trying to stop me. And Cloud never told him the truth, in case my Papa got angry and blamed me. Me and Cloud weren't actually that close back then, but we used to always find trouble when we were together. I guess I tended to stay safer when I was alone.” Here, Tifa turned to grin down at Denzel. “But where's the fun in that?”

A rare smile across Denzel's face, before he looked up through his messy locks in question. “So... who were you looking for?”

Tifa's own smile fell. It was a few moments before she finally replied. “My Mama.”

Denzel grew silent.

Vincent fully turned to regard the martial artist, watching her back carefully as she continued to lead the young boy across the final stretch of the bridge. His quiet esteem for the mountains extended to the woman before him and he finally moved from the mighty waterfall and its encompassing roar to shadow her.

“Here we are!” Tifa cheerfully announced, releasing Denzel's hand and masking her pain with a proud smile. The boy in question blinked up at her before he snapped his head to and fro to look around in complete surprise.

“... You did well, Denzel.”

The boy tossed his head back with wide eyes as Vincent strode up behind Tifa, the crimson-cloaked man watching both orphan and fighter near jump at his presence. Denzel quickly narrowed his eyes and took a few shaky steps back, shooting him a steely look through his azure gaze. Vincent returned it with his own of blood-red; both man and boy studying each other intently. Tifa immediately grew suspicious not to mention alarmed and instinctively stepped in front of the boy, breaking each other's line of sight. Vincent and Tifa regarded each other with immoveable obduracy.

“Hey, Denzel!” Marlene suddenly called from somewhere down the mountain path. “Come look at the pretty flowers!”

Denzel spun round to catch sight of his best friend waving to him with a fully outstretched arm, her smile clear as day in her voice. “Y-yeah! Okay!” he called back with a nod despite knowing she couldn't see it. He turned to Tifa, silently asking for permission. Sensing this, the fighter tore her eyes from the man before her to wave the boy away. Denzel hesitated, his gaze flicking between the two adults. Finally, he turned to jog down the trail and join the beckoning girl.

When Tifa continued to remain stationary rather than follow after him, Vincent cautiously moved to stand next to her shoulder.

“... Are you alright?” he asked quietly.

She turned and shot him an expression the gunslinger couldn't quite decipher. “Yeah,” she breathed. “Are you?” They both held each other's gaze, each searching for something neither were willing to give. Tifa finally broke away with a brief shake of her head, briskly turning to follow after Denzel and Marlene as the pair raced each other down the mountain path. Vincent remained where he stood, his mind caught in the turbulence of his troubles. He pushed his cape aside and turned to peer down paths just walked, past the waterfall and the wooden bridge with its worn posts and frayed ropes. He could just make out the great field that was the peripheral of Costa del Sol, the storm of white dots that were dandelion seeds passing by like a bizarre bout of summer snow.

… Vincent had a suspicion he'd angered her.

Though she recounted part of her past with resolve, it was clear it pained her in doing so. In deciding to question her welfare he was prepared to be brushed off as per usual from the fighter, but he was not prepared for the emotion she met him with. Her russet eyes burned with something akin to accusation. Though he knew not of what, he willingly took the blame. Just another burden to add to his shoulders. Vincent unholstered Cerberus and focused on the descending trail ahead, ignoring the small, secret part of him that clawed at his mind and cried for absolution. He didn't deserve it.

He finally took after her, revolver drawn to seek the blood of his enemies. He remedied his guilt with bullets.

Just another sin.

As the rocky trail began to curve and slope, his vision was encompassed with a myriad of yellow on green. His ears were met with the playful cries of two children who'd ran ahead of him earlier. As he approached, he beheld the plain before him with respectable wonder. Daffodils swayed in great waves below him, their pastel yellows and sunny golds swathing the field in colour. It was only when his name was called did he realise the sight had brought him to a standstill.

“Thair he is! Come on, Vinnie!”

He turned to see Cait Sith leap up and down from Nanaki's head, the furry duo having evidently waited at the bottom of the path for him. He inclined his head, tucking his chin within the depths of his cowl as his gold-plated boots continued their clink against gravel and stone. His approach afforded him better sight of the party and he passed his gaze over each in turn. Yuffie was sitting by a nearby river, furiously scrubbing marker pen from her arms and face. Tifa was by her side with a rare and genuine smile, peeling away layers of mud and grime from her arms and legs with a wash of fresh water. Barret stood by one of two rock pillars outside a nearby cave entrance, arms folded with a mighty grin as he watched his daughter fish through the plant petals to hold up a carefully plucked daffodil. She proceeded to tuck the flower down the front of Denzel's button up shirt, much to the boy's discomfited protests. The flower head poked out from the top of his buttons and sat proudly against his chest.

Vincent turned his gaze back to the two before him only to find Cait Sith seeking out his hidden claw while Red XIII eyed his withdrawn gun with interest. His talons involuntary twitched under his cloak and the gunslinger curled his claw tighter to his ribs. “Are you anticipating battle?” Red suddenly asked. Vincent wasted no time in responding.

“Always.”

Nanaki nodded sagely. “Yes. Too easy is it to forget ourselves in presence of the Planet's bounty.” He turned his head with a jingle of his mane chimes, looking over the plenteous plants and their sunlit petals. Vincent followed his gaze, reflective of the Planet's recovery. Flowers were as rare as gems many years ago and just as valuable. People had fought and even spilt blood over them, their properties for herbal medicine invaluable to those who couldn't afford Shinra's manufactured product. To find someone who practised the art and science of herbalism was rarer still; something Vincent knew all too well. His mind touched over an old memory from another lifetime. Soft hands. The sweet smell of chamomile.

'Mother...'

Cait Sith glanced between the gunslinger and fire-dog before swiftly breaking the atmos. “Soo... shood'a give you two a moment?”

Red gave an unexpected snort. “A moment is never enough for us, is it, Vincent?” Nanaki grinned up at him, a set of sharply pointed canines accenting his humour. Vincent gave a brisk nod in agreement, a rare warmth of friendship shared between them. Cait Sith shook his head from atop Red's own and shrugged with both white gloved hands, though a grin teased at his muzzle.

“How about we scout the perimeter?” Nanaki suggested, not missing the twitch of Vincent's index finger over his gun trigger. The crimson-cloaked man focused on something in the distance and the lion-like dog followed his gaze, only to find Tifa and Yuffie now engaged in some sort of water fight given the splashes they threw each others way. Vincent pulled Red XIII from his observations with a brief hum in agreement.

“Move on ahead. I will accompany you shortly.”

The quadruped watched with a careful eye before responding. “Very well.” Nanaki turned with a flick of his tail, a wave of embers passing over his slender back as he slunk away to begin his patrol. Cait Sith kept watch over his black-furred shoulder as Vincent began to walk towards an unoccupied and more cloistered part of the river. The small cat puppet turned back round and leaned down to peer over Red's crown using both outstretched arms for purchase.

“Ah guess yae worried too?” he voiced.

Nanaki's eye flicked up before his gaze returned to the surrounding fringes of the field. “It would appear anxieties are running high,” he mused. Cait Sith leaned back to contemplate Red XIII's words, crossing his arms as his white-tipped tail flicked back and forth from under his cape. As the pair headed off on their scouting route, Vincent just reached his chosen section of the river. The gunman paused before holstering Cerberus, turning to pass a quick glance over his shoulder. Satisfied he wasn't observed by any unwelcome eyes, he carefully lowered himself to kneel by the water's edge.

His image slowly emerged from the turquoise depths and he stared hard at his reflection, the flowing water distorting his vision with its steady currents. He softly exhaled through his nose and closed his eyes, taking a rare moment to listen to the bubbling flow before him. Finally, he pulled his bloodied claw from the confines of his cloak. The shimmer of its gold plating had now been lost to dried blood, the appendage crusted over with the liquid of veins. A cracked and dirty red spread across the metal, giving his gauntlet the appearance of onset rust.

Vincent turned his claw over, brows furrowing under his bandanna as he regarded the knife-like talons encasing his left hand. A memory flashed behind his eyes and he suddenly thrust the claw into the water in anger, the resulting splash violently throwing ripples into the flow. He held his arm in up to his elbow, muscles fighting against the relatively strong current as he desperately submerged the appendage as he did the memory. He wanted to drown it.

He didn't want to think about it. He didn't want to think about what lay beneath the metal.

Two yellow eyes seared the back of his mind with malevolence as he slowly surfaced the appendage as well as his self-control. His gauntlet re-emerged with a flash of light, its surface cleansed of blood and once more gleaming a lustered gold. Vincent regarded the burnished plating just long enough to ensure all traces of violence were gone before he rose from the riverside. Closing his eyes, he inhaled deeply through his nose in hopes of bringing order to his thoughts. As he once more surveyed the area, he took note of a cavern that lay across the running waters of the river, the cave set into an opposing mountain range. He idly wondered what secrets lay within, but felt it best not to continue down that path of thought.

Some secrets were best kept just that.

He turned away with a whorl of crimson, his tattered cape trailing after his form as he strode back towards the field and through the sea of yellow daffodils.

It did not take long for the gunslinger to catch up with Red XIII and Cait Sith, the pair lingering on the outskirts of grassland. It appeared they'd ran into little conflict in the short span of his absence, but Vincent kept true to his word and joined the furry duo on their patrol route. The canine and feline each looked upon Vincent's now revealed claw in surprise, but said little more on the matter. Banter was exchanged for a few minutes, mainly from Cait Sith himself, before they finally encountered any from of hostility. A few scarce Beachplugs made themselves known but fell quickly to Vincent's gun and Nanaki's claws as they engaged combat, the squid-like creatures making a swift retreat as Red snapped at their tentacled heels.

It wasn't long before Barret's boom alerted the trio they were once more on the move and as they returned to the Planet's bounty of sunny flowers, they were all greeted by a much cleaner and much wetter-looking Tifa and Yuffie.

“Whit happened tae you two?” Cait Sith laughed, “Yer both lookin' a bit drenched, thair!” The fighter and ninja each turned to each other, the former giving Yuffie an accusing lift of an elegant brow while the latter shot Tifa a truly mischievous grin. The small cat puppet looked between the two women before deciding to mutter a, “Yae knoo whit? Nae'er mind...”

“So, where have YOU guys been?” Yuffie changed the subject with an accusing tilt to her hips. When Cait Sith tapped his little black nose, the ninja huffed and turned away with a limp dance of ribbons from her wet headband.

Tifa decided to take a different route of questioning. “Ready to go?” she instead asked with a quirk of her lips. Nanaki nodded and began to move ahead while Yuffie gawked at the fistfighter for ignoring her question. Tifa's eyes settled on Vincent's now visible and gleaming claw, but when she turned questioning russets to the gunslinger, the man simply turned away to avoid her gaze. Tifa shook her head, giving a barely audible sigh of exasperation. “Come on, Red,” Tifa reached down and lightly brushed her hand across the mane running along his neck. “Let's clean your nose, first.”

The fire-dog blinked. “Ah, yes. I'd grown so accustomed to the smell of soil, I'd actually forgotten!” he grinned up at the fighter and they both began to walk through the flowers and back towards the river, Cait Sith admonishing Red's forgetfulness the entire way. Vincent watched them go in deep thought, now overhearing Tifa talk fondly of the abundant daffodils that surrounded them.

It was a moment before he realised Yuffie had moved to stand next to him.

“Hey, Vinnie?” The trepidation in her voice finally coaxed his gaze from the retreating fighter to focus on the ninja in question. Her chestnut-coloured irises searched out his own, the concern they held secretly taking the gunslinger aback. It was a far cry from the look of mischief usually found in her eyes. “I think Tifa's mad at something,” she continued. “I've never seen her like this before.”

Vincent held back a sigh. “... I'm afraid I'm the wrong person to ask regarding the matter, Yuffie.”

“Oh, yeah? That cause she's mad at you?”

Vincent snapped his gaze back to the ninja's own. The look on her face told him he'd given her all the answers she needed. She smirked before tapping her forehead with a slim index finger, eyes raised in thought. “Tifa said she loves daffodils. Wouldn't stop talking 'bout the stupid things since we got here. Why don't you go give her one or something? It'd be like a peace offering!” Yuffie grinned before grabbing the ends of Vincent's cape and ducking under the fabric at his back, the gunslinger barely able to form a word of protest before she danced away with a giant grin, heading towards the impatient bellows of Barret and the laughter of his daughter in the distance. “You were always good at pissing people off, Vincent!” she called back before spinning her way through the flowers with her usual carefree grin.

Though her parting words hit a little too close to home, Vincent couldn't help but feel a bubble of amusement at her antics. He looked over the swathes of sunny bulbs before him in thought, the flowers gently swaying to a melody only they could hear. That, or they laughed at his expense.

'Daffodils... Hmph.'

He spun on his heel to join Barret before the man grew even further impatient.

The entire party finally rejoined at the entrance of the cave Barret had taken to standing by earlier, their brief break officially over with the ex-AVALANCHE leader's stern call. Once everyone was accounted for, he lead the team into the short cavern that acted as a direct passage through the mountainside. In a minute or two, their motley crew stood at the bottom of a steep and rocky incline, the trail littered with loose rocks and unsecured stones. Odd shoots of grass and weathered trees bordered the climb in thick growths, clinging to the harsh terrain with stubborn roots. The low sun glimmered down from the crest with intense rays, almost blinding them with its intensity as it concealed whatever lay over the top in a wash of gold.

The sight took their breath away with its beauty.

“Well, can't stand around here gawkin'!” Barret exclaimed before giving a gruff grunt as he began to climb the steep slope. “Let's move, people!” The gun-armed man forced his sheer bulk up the trail, his heavy boots rattling the unsteady rocks as he heaved himself up the incline. Tifa followed, her leg muscles straining with the effort as she ascended the near vertical path. Nanaki bounded up after them, Marlene and Cait Sith on his back while Yuffie followed with a lot less grace, scrabbling up after the quadruped amidst falling stones with accusations of how he was a, 'no-good cheating, lion-dog... thing!'

Denzel watched them go with a nervous grimace before he shook himself and balled his fists. Stepping up the first few rocks, he began to carefully ascend the slope for himself. His loose footing immediately became evident as gravel and stones began to shift under the soles of his sneakers. His determination began to falter, but he pressed on. Soon, the orphan was stretching out his hands to grip small boulders ahead of him to aid his climb, his muscles and lungs protesting at the effort. Suddenly, a boulder he used as a literal stepping stone dislodged from its dirt depression and he slid back with the tumbling rock, his hands scrabbling for purchase amongst the small rock slide.

His sudden fall was abruptly stopped when his foot caught with a broad shoulder.

Denzel looked behind him in shock as he was slowly pushed back up, his hands once more finding purchase against the incredibly steep trail. He turned to meet the blood-red eyes of Vincent Valentine, the man offering himself as footing for the orphan. Denzel's words caught in his throat as Vincent gently pushed him back up with a nudge of his shoulder. The gunman appeared to hesitate before he finally spoke.

“... Stay close to the others.”

Denzel understood the hidden meaning behind the sombre tone and nodded shakily, withdrawing his unlaced sneaker from the right side of Vincent's cloak to place back onto the trail. The gunslinger tucked his chin into his cowl, remaining close behind the boy as he continued his climb. Vincent carried himself up the trail behind him with easy strides, his long legs and height working to his advantage. Occasionally Denzel would once more slip under the tide of loose pebbles, but Vincent was always quick to offer him footing in way of a study shoulder, the pair continuing their climb to the summit.

It wasn't long before the two finally met the rest of the party at the peak, Denzel quickly re-joining the others as Vincent consciously followed behind, the right side of his mantle covered in footprints and gravel. As the group caught their breath and moved on, they followed the winding trail that lead into the blinding sun; that lead into Corel.

They travelled in single file across the narrow mountain path, a fast approaching sunset framing their figures in melting orange. Playful banter echoed across the burning peaks and surrounding valleys as a gun-armed man, a fighter, a fire-dog, a small cat, two children, a ninja and a gunslinger continued their long journey over the mountains; their silhouettes bathed in the brilliance of an auburn sun.

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter XXV – Hanging Decisions

 

A melodious hum encompassed the 'oohs' and 'aahs' of two children who gazed down over the pool of green below them, while the gut of one adult twisted in on itself with acidic, agonising pangs.

Vincent felt physically sick.

“Whoa, look at all the Mako!”

Denzel hung over the rusted railings of the old Mako Reactor with palpable awe, his fear of heights completely quashed by childish wonder. Marlene joined him in the emerald glow – basking in the luminescence of refined Lifestream.

“Yo, be careful 'round tha edge,” Barret warned as he trudged up behind them, his feet carrying less weight in their falls than usual. Marlene looked back at her father and nodded with a smile while, as if broken from a spell, Denzel stumbled back from the edge with eyes wide as saucers. His sudden awareness of height and subsequent fear of falling was knocked out of him, literally, when he collided with something cool yet solid at his back. He peered over his shoulder to find a leather covered leg with ornate silver buckles strapped tight to an ebony belt.

Denzel looked up from Vincent's waist to find the gunslinger staring hard at the rust-ridden Mako Reactor stood deep in a sea of viridian. His crimson gaze didn't falter even as the orphan stared rigidly back, stretching in an attempt to see over the man's cowl.

If Denzel didn't know any better, he'd say Vincent looked sick.

Two hands suddenly pulled the boy back, Tifa's careful grip on his shoulders guiding him closer to her own waist. Her russet hues were trained carefully on the crimson-caped man and Denzel looked back and forth between the pair with a hint of confusion marring his brow, recalling the two adults' behaviour at the last bridge they passed.

'They're doing it again...' he thought.

“Oh wow, have you seen this drop!” Yuffie exclaimed as she grasped the oxidised steel railing in both hands and leaned over the edge, the top half of her body teetering over the rusted barrier. “That is one looooooong way down!”

Tifa grimaced when she felt Denzel recoil against her legs and she tore her gaze from Vincent to shoot the ninja a cautionary glance. “Sure is,” she muttered.

“I mean, can you just imagine! Slipping then falling and falling and falling-”

Tifa pinched the bridge of her nose. “Yuffie.”

“-and falling and falling and-”

Barret turned around and, on noticing Tifa's exasperated expression and Denzel near hiding under her duster at this point,decided to intervene with an all-encompassing boom.

“YO, YUFFIE!”

The ninja snapped to attention and leaned back from the balustrade as Barret's roar echoed through the chasm and rose above the gentle glow of Mako deposits. Everyone bar Vincent turned to stare at the ninja who lamely stared back.

“... And falling,” she finished.

“I would advise caution,” Nanaki finally spoke up, the chimes of his mane joining the natural melody of Mako. “This walkway doesn't appear entirely stable.” He continued past the ninja, claws audibly clicking against the patterned steel grating of the ramp. As he slunk past Marlene, Cait Sith, who rode atop the fire-dog's neck, stretched a hand out towards the girl whilst bearing a most cattish grin. Marlene smiled and took his gloved hand in her own, allowing herself to be gracefully guided down the walkway like a father would his daughter on her wedding day. Barret grinned at the sight and followed after them with a chuckle reverberating through his shoulders. On hearing their oncoming approach, Vincent briskly strode ahead, his cape billowing behind him with audible flutters as he took the surprising and incredibly rare role of party lead.

Tifa's brow furrowed heavily at the sight, perplexed by the gunman's decision to become point man. Usually her laconic comrade was found protecting their flanks or rear, his ranged weaponry picking off distant, ignored targets or enemies attempting ambush with deadly precision. What surprised her even more however was Denzel suddenly pushing off her legs to shakily stumble after Barret, his eyes fixed rigidly on the crimson-caped man who stalked ahead.

Tifa crossed her arms, lost in a runaway train of complex thought. Just when she felt she was about to derail from the tracks, she latched onto a concern she'd almost forgotten since their departure from Costa del Sol. Turning to the ninja behind her, she found Yuffie to be observing the surrounding area with rare sobriety, her features awash in green luminescence.

“Yuffie,” Tifa began softly, though it didn't any lessen the surprised jolt from the teen. “Can I ask you something?”

“Depends on the something!” Yuffie grinned, accompanied by a brief flick of her hand to the trailing ribbons of her headband. “But sure, you can ask me anything, Boobs!”

Tifa held her tongue at the nickname and her first memory of Yuffie that came along with it, instead choosing to ignore the bait in favour of focusing on the topic at hand. “How long were you in Costa del Sol for?”

“Of all the questions you could throw at me, you ask me THAT?” Despite her apparent incredulity, Yuffie tapped a finger on the end of her chin. “Let's see...” she stepped away from the railing she'd previously been hanging over and turned her full attention towards the fighter. “I was there for... three days before you guys showed up.”

“Three days? Did you stay in the villa the entire time?” Tifa placed a hand on her duster-clad hip.

“Not exactly. I did at first after seeing the inn prices,” Yuffie waved her arms in a grandeur display of annoyance, “but then some woman claiming to be a caretaker or something barges in saying,” here, the ninja took on a whiny, high-pitched voice, “'You can't stay here without express permission from the owner! Leave or I'll report you!' What a drag!”

Tifa brushed away some stray chocolate locks from her face as she turned to gaze at the rust-riddled Mako Reactor. “So, what did you do then?”

“Well, I grabbed my stuff and went looking for somewhere to stash it while I figured out a place to stay. I found a bunch of lockers and was throwing my junk in when I bumped into these totally hot surfer guys!” Yuffie grinned, the memory dancing behind her eyes. “We got talking and apparently one of their buddies had fallen sick so they had a room to spare. I offered 'em some gil to help foot the bill so long as they let me stay! Win win! They even gave me some surfing lessons too, it was totally sweet!”

Yuffie threw her arms out and began mimicking the stance of being on a surfboard, trotting past Tifa and down the ramp as if she were surfing on waves. The fighter held back a grin at the sight.

“So, how come I found you in the villa?” Tifa tilted her head, her gaze deep with inquiry as she sought the ninja's own.

“At that point their room lease expired, so by the time you found me I'd just thrown my stuff back in there thinking I wouldn't be bothered again! But so much for THAT idea!” Yuffie rolled her eyes as a grin teased her lips, her referral to Tifa's sudden interruption of her sleep at the villa not going unmissed by the fighter.

Yet Tifa blinked with a puzzled air, her brain attempting to do the math.

'So, if Yuffie was in Costa del Sol three days before we were... then she must have been there at the same time as Cloud! But if she stayed somewhere else other than in the villa, she could have missed him completely...' Tifa turned away, her gaze falling ahead and on the retreating hulk that was Barret. 'And if Cloud did have Fenrir with him, there's nowhere to store a motorbike in Costa del Sol. So... did he camp on the outskirts of town?'

The little red ledger that rested in her duster pocket suddenly weighed a lot heavier.

“You're sure asking a whole lotta questions. What's the deal? There something I don't know about?” Yuffie's voice cut through the fighter's flummoxed buzz of thoughts with a teasing grin, but it was effectively cut short when Tifa turned to her female compatriot with an expression of utmost sobriety.

“... I'll tell you later, Yuffie.”

'Once I've figured out just what's going on myself.'

Yuffie's brow furrowed slightly and she studied Tifa intently as the woman moved on ahead, the fistfighter picking up the length of her strides in order to make up the now considerable distance between her and the rest of the party. As she drew near and began to close the gap with Yuffie tailing behind her, she just made out Barret's brazen voice making jovial conversation – or argument, she wasn't sure.

“Man, I can't wait fer a propa' brew of java. None of that instant shit you keep feedin' people back on the Eastern Continent. No wonder you all look like tha walkin' dead!”

“Hey noo, I know of a certain bonnie lassie who wouldn't take too kindly tae yer words!”

“You know Tifa isn't included in that statement as well as I do, Cait Sith,” Red XIII spoke up at the crown-wearing cat entwined in the fine tangles of his mane.

“Well, how aboot Reeve?” Cait Sith crossed his arms with a twitch to his whiskers, “He's from thae Eastern Continent and I'm sure he wouldn'ae appreciate it, neither!”

“He's more of a tea drinker anyhow,” Barret brushed off the small robot. “Get between him an' a cup of Earl Grey and yer just askin' fer trouble. Found that out the hard way when I called 'im before dawn once.”

Red merely shook his head, the black vacuity of his scarred eye accentuating the amused glimmer to his lone ochre-coloured counterpart. “I didn't realise there were particulars to making coffee. For myself, it's simply a drink and nothing more.”

“Nothing more!?” Barret gawked, “Naw, it's more technical than that! You gotta get the right roast o' beans fer the brew yer making then get the water to just tha right temperature... Jes' you wait, I'll show you a true cuppa coffee made the good ol' fashioned Wallace way!”

They were brought from the subject and subsequent perplexities of coffee when suddenly the walkway beneath them juddered and groaned, causing Marlene to squeak in surprise and cling to her father's hand while Denzel threw himself against the man's legs in frightful desperation. Tifa swallowed her own bubble of fright and clenched both railings in gloved hands while Yuffie snatched the duster at her hips in a white-knuckled grip.

“Everyone hold still!” Red barked, his claws instinctively protracting to scratch deep into the metal etchings of the steel ramp while his tail burned ferociously as it whipped to centre his balance. Cait Sith took fistfuls of Nanaki's mane into his hands as he peered down over the ledge, the green glow of Mako beneath them suddenly appearing sick and malignant as the liquid bubbled with twisting, tempting vapours. Snapping his gaze ahead rather than below, the small cat puppet fixed his eyes on Vincent's rigid back, suddenly aware of the man's crooked posture. The catwalk quaked with tremors for a few more terse and heart-stuttering seconds before, finally, the structure and wooden trestles it lay on fell silent.

The collective sigh of relief was almost palpable.

“Everyone walk a bit more lightly, a'ight?” Barret spoke up, relinquishing his hold on the two children who'd sought his safety. “Slow an' easy like.”

The words had barely left Barret's lips when suddenly Vincent, who was a considerable few strides ahead of the party, burst into a sprint that left the oxidized plating resonating with the impact of gold sabatons on steel.

“The f*** did I just say!?” Barret snapped after the trailing beats and flutters of the gunslinger's tattered cape. Cait Sith was quick to act, (much to the surprise of everyone else,) and hopped down from Red's head to dash after the crimson-cloaked man, taking care not to focus on the way the catwalk swayed under the sudden movement and how his own balance was thrown too close to the edge for comfort.

Vincent couldn't take it anymore. He ran.

'Insides burning! Organs searing in fire in heat in FLAMES!! It burns it BURNS IT BUUUUURNS!!'

'IGNORANT HOST. RUN.'

Fire choked his heart and raged through his gullet as his very flesh blistered with an alien heat that pulled at his very core. Hellmasker continued his fevered ravings while Chaos bared satanic teeth that sunk deep into his skull and set it in aberration and brimstone. To breathe was to take in propane; air only serving to further ignite the inferno that ravaged his body and mind. Reaching the end of the walkway and ducking around the side of the reactor, Vincent nearly doubled over as he stumbled desperately to right himself.

'What is... wrong with me... !?'

While it was one of the many unanswered questions Vincent had since carried with him on joining his old comrades in their quest, he at least had enough evidence to know it had something to do with the giant pit of chatoyant green beneath him.

Though what the correlation was between himself and Mako, he failed to grasp.

“Ye alright thair, laddie?”

Vincent snapped to attention at the sudden accent and pulled himself upright with great effort just as Cait Sith rounded the corner of the reactor's cooling tower.

“I'm fine,” Vincent grit out between clenched teeth, the strain of maintaining his posture taking a heavy toll on his insides as they writhed and entwined in on themselves. The little booted cat didn't buy his assertion and took a step closer much to Vincent's – or his demons' – annoyance.

“Vinnie, ah got cat's eyes, not bat's eyes! I ain't blind! Whit's wrong with yae?”

“That's none of your concern,” he snapped a little too quickly, striding towards the abandoned railway tracks that once carried coal between Corel and the town's nearby mines many, many years ago. He could hear Barret's tumult even over the whir of the reactor and it was to that realisation which Vincent froze mid-stride, his eyes widening slightly. Spinning on his heel to peer up at the rusted tower over his rigid cowl, Cait Sith was almost whipped by Vincent's ragged cape at the action and, as he fell on his back and onto the chequered plate flooring, the robot followed the gunslinger's gaze with alarm and confusion.

It took but a moment for Cait Sith's caveat to die in his throat, his furred jaw falling open at the sight.

The party had spent so much time looking down that they hadn't bothered to look up at the towering reactor before them. Nondescript puffs of steam slowly rose from the vents embedded in the sides of the lofty metal structure, discreet in size and dissipating before they reached any real height to grow noticeable. The hum of generators within the containment cylinder was mostly drown out by the refined liquid the tower was steeped in, the distinct melody acting as a natural mask to the auditory workings of an unmistakably active Mako Reactor.

Vincent narrowed his eyes to a dangerous glimmer. “Cait Sith-”

“A'fair ye ask, I didn'ae anythin' aboot this, Vinnie!” the cat puppet was quick to defend himself with frantic, waving hands.

“And does Reeve?” Vincent almost bit back, his bandanna sticking uncomfortably to his forehead as sweat seeped through the crimson cloth.

The cat remained silent.

Golden talons twitched with fervour of both scorching body and searing mind and, as Cait Sith turned back to him, Vincent was quick to tuck the wicked appendage against his writhing stomach.

“Ah think it's best tae let 'im knoo aboot this yerself,” the robotic feline finally replied, raising a gloved hand to shield his eyes against the low sun as it crowned the surrounding mountains. “If thair's one thing ah doo know though, it's that it looks like tha reactor's operatin' at less'un half capacity. Someone's certainly tryin' ta keep all this hush-hush!”

Vincent studied the head of the reactor once more, recognising the cat's words to ring true as the machinery hummed softly around him like a long-lost song recollected. Another pang knotted in his stomach and Vincent visibly flinched before his torso involuntary lurched forward as if he'd received a punch to the gut. He heaved for air as he almost buckled, just catching himself from falling to his knees much to Cait Sith's fright and most salient concern.

“Jeez, whit's wrong with yae, Vince?!”

His heart beat painfully within his ribcage while something wicked snapped its eyes open in the back of his skull, but before Vincent could attempt a response the whole walkway and all of it's connecting framework gave a loud, encompassing groan. Cait Sith and Vincent both looked to each other as the ground juddered beneath them and it was a split second before both cat and gunslinger bolted to the other side of the reactor, their footwork egged on by the panicked commotion of their comrades and the sudden screams of two children.

“EVERYBODY HOLD ON!!” Barret boomed, his giant fingers wrapped tightly around rusted railings as the walkway began to quiver and sway. Vincent briefly paused at the bottom of the ramp, the sight itself momentarily bringing him to a standstill. Denzel and Marlene clung onto Barret's waist for dear life while Tifa hung onto Red XIII as the fire-dog fought to keep his paws gripped on the patterned grating. Yuffie remarkably held her balance well as she tried to quickly usher the others off the wavering catwalk, her wide eyes seeking anything to use as leverage or a means to escape.

Cait Sith looked back and forth between the party and the audibly protesting bridge before he ran over with a frenzied dash and began to scrabble at the railing, doing everything in his power to try and steady the walkway despite knowing his strength and size would make his attempts nothing but vain. Vincent swiftly moved to assist the feline when another surge of pain ravaged his body with alien ferocity, pulling at his innards and forcing him to double over. Rather than assist the small robot which was his initial intention, Vincent instead ended up grasping the railing for support as his stomach lurched with agonising twists. Cait Sith turned to him in alarm and moved a hand out on reflexive impulse to help, when suddenly the cat's mouth fell open in fright.

“Vinnie, watch oot!”

“Vincent, watch out!”

The gunslinger scarcely had time to react to Cait Sith and Tifa's unified cries when suddenly a pair of claws swiped straight for him, barely missing his pale face as he narrowly dodged the oncoming blow. The monstrous paws caught the last two buckles of his cloak in their descent and tore open the straps with an audible snap, loosening the fabric and partly revealing his ornate black buckled shirt as the gunslinger spun and near stumbled back to face his assailant.

Amber eyes burned deep with rage in the dragon-like skull of what Vincent recognised to be a Bagnadrana, the six-legged creature rearing it's long neck in an act of intimidation as it approached with a piercing hiss. Vincent rose to meet its full height with his own, gloved fingers brushing aside his cape as he shakily reached for Cerberus' grip, stepping more prominently in front of Cait Sith and shielding him from the monster's piercing glare.

The creature bristled within its sickly green carapace and Vincent attempted to push past the nausea that wormed its way through his gut. His chest heaved and he could feel the slow trickle of sweat work its way down his high cheekbones to drip from his cowl-concealed chin. Strength starting to falter, his focus waned with it and as if sensing this, the monster before him reared up and inhaled deeply with a noise similar to that of a punctured gas canister.

A sudden crack of gunfire pierced the air and the dragon-like creature roared in pain, it's signature Poison Breath ability interrupted by the telltale sound of Barret's gatling gun, Myrna.

“Tha hell's wrong wit' ya!? Get a hold of yourself!” Barret barked, spinning the cylinder of his gun-arm back into place with a satisfying click just as the lumber trestles beneath the catwalk groaned deep. Suddenly, the wood cracked and split with an audible and resounding snap and Red yelped, the two women on the wavering walkway yelping with him as they each cried out and fought for balance. Panic flitted across the ex-AVALANCHE leader's face and Barret looked between himself, the walkway, and the monster still reeling from his well-placed series of bullets, before he made one of the most difficult decisions a father could make. Taking firm hold of Denzel and Marlene, Barret heaved the two children up into his trunk-like arms.

“''Ere! Catch!” He didn't wait for Vincent or Cait Sith to answer before he suddenly tossed the two youngsters across the now gaping breach between the reactor and the crumbling catwalk.

Marlene barely had time to squeak before she landed soundly on the reactor's support structure with an equally stunned Denzel following shortly after, the boy stumbling to fall next to Cait Sith just as the cat made to help him to his feet. On sight of the hissing monster, Marlene quickly ducked under Vincent's cape in fright and the gunslinger finally grasped some of his once lost clarity at the young girl's action. Unholstering Cerberus, he aimed it squarely at the Bagnadrana while conflict warred within him at his comrade's cries and the children suddenly entrusted to him.

“Cait Sith, take Marlene and Denzel to safety,” he ordered brusquely, unveiling the girl's hiding place with a flick of his cape as he approached the recovering creature.

“But Vince, whit aboot-”

“Leave me!”

Vincent made his own decision and ran straight for the dragon-like beast, leaving no room for negotiation as he lithely sidestepped around its snapping jaw and lead the monster away from the two children, all the while keeping one eye trained on the catwalk and the unsteady forms of Tifa, Yuffie, and Nanaki. He could just make out Barret on the lower section usher to the three above him before he backed up and, with surprising speed for the hefty man, sprint forward to leap across the now open gap towards his daughter on the other side.

Noise echoed around them in a cacophony of disarray, from the Bagnadrana's piercing hiss and audible snaps at Vincent's heels, to the panicked pleas of Marlene and Cait Sith aimed at an indecisive Barret. The man watched helplessly as Tifa, Yuffie and Red XIII fought to right the walkway beneath them as it screeched with protest and Barret curled his hands into mighty fists.

'Shit-! I can't leave tha kids but I can't leave the others, neither! Even if Vince is actin' as bait!' Barret's alarmed gaze flickered over to the man in question at the thought, watching as he nimbly dodged each savage swipe and bestial blow in lieu of fighting back. The dragon-like creature scuttled after the gunslinger with mounting rage and while Barret knew the man could handle his own, he didn't miss the way Vincent's step would occasionally falter or the way his back would jerk from some unknown assailant. The ex-AVALANCHE leader furrowed his thick brow at his comrade's alien behaviour.

While Barret trusted Vincent well enough to handle any given situation – he did throw him the kids, after all – he still felt the need to keep an eye on the gunslinger and watch both of their backs.

As Barret wrestled with his ability to determine the right course of action, Vincent continued to fight his own personal battle against the acid rising through his gullet as he acted as decoy for the group. Suddenly, an ear-piercing screech rose through the air as the groaning framework of the walkway resonated with violent vibrations before the metal wrenched apart, tearing away from the reactor's support structure.

“F***!” Barret swore heavily, decision made for him, and he threw out his trunk-like arm to catch the severed metal of the catwalk's railing before it careened and completely crumpled in on itself. He grunted in pain as his muscles snapped taut and bulged from his arm, his biceps as steely as his determination as he desperately held onto the severed structure. He could hear the snap and tumble of wooden trestles as they broke apart, falling into the bubbling pool of Mako beneath them and Barret roared over the resounding splashes to the three now stranded across the yawning gap, “JUMP, DAMMIT!”

“Easy for you to say!” Yuffie bit back before she visibly shook her head with a snap of her trailing headband ribbons. Using what little catwalk was left on their now crumbling island, Yuffie stretched out her long, lanky legs and focused all of her strength into building up a sprint. Reaching the edge, Yuffie sprang into a grandeur leap, screaming all the way over the pit of Mako. Landing roughly atop the salvaged metal Barret desperately clung to, Yuffie scrabbled to her feet and nearly threw herself the rest of the way to land next to the gun-armed man and onto stable ground.

Marlene and Cait Sith were quick to reach her side and the ninja shot them a troubled yet reassuring grin before she rose, worried eyes turning to her two friends still on the far side of the broken platform.

“Hurry it up, Tif'!” Barret grit through the whites of his teeth as sweat began to bead on his brow, his strength tested to its limit as the debris he held onto pulled, screeched and grated in his grip. The fighter turned from her panicked gaze of the severed catwalk and the two children standing across the divide to the fire-dog scrabbling for purchase on the slanting platform. Nanaki turned to her with grave wisdom behind his ochre-coloured eye and nudged her palm with his nose. Tifa hesitated but nodded grimly all the same; no more words were needed.

For them to go together would throw the balance of the platform completely and risk neither of them making it.

Tifa clenched her fists and took a deep breath of the Mako-laden air, the moisture almost catching the back of her throat and making her gag. Gaining as much footing as she could on the rickety structure, Tifa followed Yuffie's actions only moments earlier and burst into a sprint towards the mangled edge. Kicking off, Tifa bound forward with great momentum and soared over the bubbling Mako deposit, her duster flapping audibly mid-flight.

She landed with lissome precision, knees curling up to her chest and slender fingers pressed against the mangled plating to cushion the impact. Rising swiftly, she hopped from the debris her old friend clung to and across the gap to Barret's side. Marlene rushed to her and Tifa circled an arm around her shoulders, giving her a reassuring squeeze as she quickly sought out Denzel. Finding the boy to be shuffling nervously against Yuffie's side, she spun back to the pressing matter at hand and waved hurriedly to Red XIII while trying to ignore the drum of her heart against her ribcage.

She knew Barret wouldn't hold out for much longer.

“Come oon, buddy boy!” Cait Sith cried, frantically hopping in place next to a straining Barret. Nanaki's ears pricked at the sound of the cat's plea and he gripped the patterned grating in each of his protracted claws, lowering his furred body closer to the rocking structure. Muscles wound like a taut bowstring, the fire-dog curled ready to spring across the divide when the sudden crack of gunfire pierced the air. Tifa jumped, startled, before inwardly cursing herself for almost forgetting about Vincent despite catching sight of his strange behaviour earlier. The sharp screech of framework pulled back Tifa's attention just as the fire-dog made an impressive leap from the protesting walkway with lithe cat-like grace.

Soaring through the air for a few painfully tense seconds, Nanaki crashed down upon the severed platform just as the makeshift island behind him crumbled; the structure crumpling in on itself as it fell with a shrill lamentation of metal, careening straight into the walls of the Mako Reactor's deep, engorging pit. With Red out of immediate danger, Tifa spun to seek out her crimson-clad comrade when the sudden, unnerving sound of thousands of beats rising like an orchestra score beneath them caused her to freeze.

Red appeared to do the same as his ears stood bolt upright when suddenly the severed walkway Barret clenched desperately to snapped with a hair-raising rend of metal. The quadruped yelped as the whole platform listed down towards the bubbling, acidic green pool of Mako.

“RED!!” Yuffie cried along with Cait Sith, Marlene and Tifa as she lunged for the walkway's opposing railings. Catching the wrenched balustrade, Yuffie's arm snapped painfully taught and the teen cried out, doing everything in her power to hold onto the falling walkway along with Barret. Tifa's heart lodged in her throat and she dived towards Yuffie, grabbing the ninja by the waist and contributing her own strength to her friend's efforts. Cait Sith yelped in panic and grabbed onto Tifa's leg while Marlene clutched onto the other with an equally frightened Denzel, the three of them tugging at the fighter's calves together.

“SHIT!” Barret unabashedly swore, his arm glimmering in perspiration as he fought to keep his own grip while Nanaki scrabbled and clawed for purchase against the ramp. “When the HELL did ya... get so heavy... Red...!” he strained, sweat dripping down his face to trickle through his beard.

“Now is... not the time... !” Nanaki managed to bark back amidst the clack and scrabble of his claws as he fought to pull himself up, his mane and fur near standing on end in fright.

The thunderous beats beneath the group grew louder and louder with a vengeance, the sound reverberating through the air around them until suddenly a great flock of birds burst forth from the pit below. They swirled and danced in a tornado of discordance, screeching and clicking their beaks as they circled and rose. Tifa snapped her gaze skyward, catching the sharp glints of the birds' elongated horns and recognising them to be a swarm of Needlekiss.

Realisation struck her like lightning and she flicked her gaze to the destroyed remnants of the walkway Nanaki, Yuffie, and herself had once been standing on, the metal jutting out like a multitude of rusty, broken bones. The framework had found its resting place against the walls of the Mako Reactor and Tifa could just make out the smattering of nests that lay within the pockets of the structure walls; no doubt belonging to the flock of birds before them who had been disturbed by the falling debris.

“Tifa, look out!”

The fighter barely had time to react to Yuffie's holler at the Needlekiss diving straight towards her when suddenly a gunshot cracked through the air with a deafening bang. Blood burst from the feathered monster as it careened to the ground just as Tifa turned to find Vincent spin back towards the rapidly approaching Bagnadrana at his heels, once more retraining his gun sight on the wounded dragon-like creature. Tifa barely had time to mouth her thank you over the sheer volume of noise when Cerberus once more roared, piercing the shrill screech and chatter of birds with another round of bullets fired from the gun's triple-barrelled maw.

Finally catching the Bagnadrana off-guard, the shot ripped through a gap in the monster's steel-like carapace and the persistent creature collapsed with a gurgled roar to the steel grated floor. Vincent lowered his gun and visibly gasped for breath, his shoulders heaving with his chest as sweat ran down the long bridge of his nose.

It had taken Tifa being in immediate danger for him to finally aim straight.

His gut wrenched like the sound of the platform his comrades desperately clung to and Vincent turned his suffering gaze to the swarm of birds soaring above, the creatures physically and audibly driven to a frenzy after he'd fell one of their own. They swooped increasingly lower, their spear-like horns growing dangerously close as the multitude of beating wings almost suffocated the party with the noise. Vincent furrowed his brow under his sweat-soaked bandanna, flicking his crimson gaze at his surroundings and making a quick reconnoitre of the area.

A large cliff lay to the southeast, the decrepit railings that circled the edge – or at least the ones that still stood – suggesting it had once been used as a popular viewpoint of the reactor. Vincent also equally deduced that it would make a great vantage point for him to pick off and distract the flocks of Needlekiss that swarmed a struggling Nanaki and the others fighting to save him.

Though his want to help was great, Vincent knew that his role of decoy was not over yet.

Raising Cerberus into the air, Vincent took a steadying breath through the acid and bile that rose through his gullet before, with a rare, devil-may-care air, he deftly pulled the trigger.

The flock above him reached a fever pitch as the bullet ripped through the swarm with an ear-piercing bang and echo that was lost in the furious beat of wings. Hearing the commotion above him, Vincent turned tail and sprinted towards the railway tracks he'd inspected earlier near the Mako Reactor's entrance. Snapping open Cerberus to expose its cylinders, Vincent snatched a handful of .44 Magnum bullets from one of his cape's inner pockets before shakily thumbing them into the break-top revolver's three chambers. The encroaching cawing and flutter of wings at his back told him his decision to play decoy was the right one and he snapped the gun's cylinders back into place with a flick of his wrist, Cerberus voicing its agreement with a satisfying click.

Reaching a small, red brick bridge supporting the stretch of track before him, Vincent leapt down to the path beneath before ducking under the miniature archway that lead to another set of stairs and, to what he assumed to be, the viewpoint of the Mako Reactor. Stretching long legs to his advantage, Vincent bound up the stairs three at a time before he rose Cerberus in the air and fired another volley of bullets towards the airborne monsters. A chorus of shrill caws rang out amongst the chaotic flutter of wings and as Vincent reached the top and moved out towards the centre of the cliff, his gut suddenly wrenched with an agonising twist.

Vincent doubled over, his gauntlet clawing at his stomach as Cerberus almost fell from his trembling grip. The glow of Mako deposits surrounding the reactor mocked him as he heaved for air, struggling to catch his breath as he attempted to right himself; his strength waning as he fought off exhaustion. A sudden whoosh of air by his ear forced him to flinch away and he spun to face the Needlekiss that almost speared him with its bladed horn. The birds flocked and hovered above his head and Vincent cast a quick glance to the reactor below, secretly thankful that most of the creatures had followed him rather than continue to assail his comrades.

Quelling his concern for Nanaki to focus on the matter at hand, he aimed Cerberus once more and began to fire into the swarm. Their cries were nothing short of cacophonous as Cerberus began to pick off and feast upon the majority of the flock, their indigo-tipped wings beginning to blur together in the chaos of feathers of wings as many of them dropped with resounding thuds to the ground. Suddenly, the gunslinger was racked with another bout of pain and as he attempted to straighten himself, one of the two remaining creatures dived down in a swift swoop with its silver-crested horn aimed straight for his chest. Just catching the bird's intent, Vincent quickly holstered Cerberus before pushing back his cape. Crouching low, time appeared to slow for the gunslinger as he softly exhaled before executing a swift and graceful somersault, his cape curling in a whorl of crimson as he flipped backwards to barely dodge the bird's blow. Spinning around, he lashed out with five wicked, golden digits and clipped the monster's wings, sending it soaring to the ground.

What he didn't anticipate however, was the second monster following up behind.

The Needlekiss collided with his shoulder just as he lashed out with his claw, catching the bird's neck and sending it falling with its brethren, but not before losing his own balance.

Thrown back past one of the many gaps in the rusted barrier, Vincent was suddenly sent tumbling over the cliff edge.

His claw desperately lashed out at the rock face as he attempted to regain his grip as well as his breath, chest heaving painfully whilst his lungs screamed. Golden gauntlet dug deep into a series of cracks, the wicked digits creating their own series of fissures as he slipped further and further, inch by inch, tearing deep gashes into the rockface as gravity and something parasitical and alien within jerked him inch by inch towards the pit of Mako below.

He scrabbled for purchase amongst the fissures in the cliff, the rising condensation making the crevices slick with condensed Lifestream and causing the metal of his gold sabatons to scratch audibly against the hard surface. He clawed and wrestled for purchase, but it was no use.

He was slipping.

His cape fluttered audibly in the rising wisps of steam as they drifted up from the pit yawning at his feet; gaping at his heels. An unknown fire raged through his entire being and Vincent almost completely lost his strength, his sanity, grip faltering at the alien pull on his insides and the gleaming yellow eyes that burned deep within the back of his skull. He weakened and dropped a few agonising inches more; his knife-like talons carving deep gashes into the rock as everything and nothing spat and screamed in his head.

Vincent jammed his eyes shut as he attempted to catch his breath and shut out his demons, willing himself the strength to pull himself back up, when suddenly a crunch of stones underfoot forced his gaze back up towards the cliff edge.

Vincent suddenly found his voice. “Denzel... ?!”

The orphan stared coolly back at him, the warm, Mako-laden wind ruffling his unkempt hair. Vincent inwardly cursed himself for not noticing the child trail after him earlier and just as he was about to warn the boy of his proximity, Denzel suddenly shuffled closer to the edge despite evident hesitation to do so. Vincent paused, words lost to confusion as the gunman peered up at him through the sweat that clung to his furrowed brow. Ebony bangs swept across blood-red eyes as Denzel looked down to meet them, an incomprehensible expression etched across his face awash in luminescent green.

Vincent fell silent, the only sounds between them being the occasional flutter of his tattered cape on passing wind currents as he desperately clung to the slick cliff rock, struggling with an ever losing grip and overall grasp on the situation that was unfolding in front of him.

Denzel took one more step closer to the edge until he was at the very brink, his sneakers knocking stray pebbles to clack and careen down into the gaping pit below. Confliction warred behind his hazel eyes before, suddenly, the orphan crouched down low at the edge.

Denzel made his decision.

 

Chapter Text

Thin fingers suddenly curled around the jutting armour of his talons as two small hands reached down to yank at his gauntlet. Vincent summoned what little strength he could gain from within and forced himself to aid the boy's desperate attempts to pull him up from the beckoning abyss below, boots scrabbling for purchase with the shrill scrape of metal on rock. Denzel clenched his eyes shut, clearly terrified at the sheer drop in front of him and focusing all his efforts in maintaining his grip rather than peering into the void. Vincent's attempts to call to the pale-faced orphan were lost as another wave of searing nausea engulfed his body with acidic deluge. His grip faltered, golden claw cleaving into the slick rock as he slid further down the crag face.

Azure eyes snapped open as Denzel's pull was now reversed from pulling up the gunslinger to the gunslinger pulling him down – Vincent unintentionally dragging the boy to join him in his ineffectual battle with gravity and subsequent descent. Worn sneakers ground stray pebbles perched on the precipice of the pit as the orphan attempted to sway the tug-of-war in his favour, but he soon tipped like an overweighted scale to suddenly hang halfway over the edge. A bubble of panic swelled within Denzel's gut to rise through his chest before bursting from his lips in an unintelligible babble of pure fear. The sound slowly grew from its cocooned mumblings to metamorphose into a terrified yell.

Something long and buried deep stirred at the boy's cry and Vincent lunged for Denzel's arm just as he tumbled past, the orphan falling from his precipitous perch with sudden and surprising speed. Thin yet strong fingers dug through his hoodie sleeve and latched around his wrist as Vincent caught him mid-plummet, willingly paying the price of falling halfway down the cliff face from the additional weight and enticing pull of gravity. Metal talons screeched against rock as four entities spat deep within his psyche. Knowing he couldn't maintain his hold much longer, an odd silence swelled inside Vincent's skull as his head buzzed with the disconcerting sensation of truth, panic, and madness amongst the howls of his demons.

Denzel's scream suddenly permeated his self-induced psychosis.

“AAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!”

Vincent grit his teeth and reacted in kind, pulling the flailing boy closer to his side in hopes to quell the child's frightened struggles. Something seized his limbs and paralyzed him with ill raging fire, pain searing his bones and boiling his very marrow. Sweat ran down the narrow cartilage of his nose to careen into the pit below with a singular drip – and he feared he would soon join it.

It was only until another's reaction reached his ears that Vincent was reminded he wasn't alone.

“Denzel?!!”

The panicked vocal response of Tifa instigated one of Denzel's own, though the boy could only manage stuttering, terrified babbles in response to one of his deepest fears laid bare beneath his dangling feet. The woman's own gasp of surprise mixed with the sound of the boy's hysteria, which in turn caused the symphonic voices of the party to strike up in frightened cacophony.

“SHIT!! WHAT THA HELL'S GOIN' ON!?!”

“D-Denzel!!? Daddy, please save them!”

“ACK!?! V-Vince?! How the heck did ya get all the way up there!?”

“Save yer questions fer later, lassie! Hang on, Vinnie boy!”

“I'M COMING, DENZEL!! HOLD ON, VINCENT!!”

Tifa's impassioned plea was followed by the resonations of feet falling upon metal as the woman audibly rushed to their aid, the chaotic chatter of his comrades rising with the Mako vapours that twisted and danced about his tattered cape ends.

“Vincent!!”

A voice, distinct and sagely, snapped his neck towards the cliff edge as onyx brows jumped to skirt the border of his sweat-soaked bandanna. Nanaki peered down at him, breathless and ruffled, his tail whipping to and fro with frightened disrest. The gunslinger's surge of inward relief at the sight was short lived when an explosion suddenly detonated beneath them, Denzel jostling in his grip as a blast of searing air rushed over them in a torrid wave. The force threw up the gunslinger's cape in a magnificent bellow of crimson but the man bearing the mantle fell literally winded, sliding down to the utmost extremities of the rock face until he hung from the very edge of the protrusion, leaving glaring claw marks in his wake.

One more drop would be one more too many.

'I refuse to let Denzel... pay for my mistakes!'

Something inside his skull snapped open anguished eyes and with a surge of strength unaware he possessed, Vincent took tight hold of the boy's wrist before he wrenched his arm forward with alien power, tossing the very orphan all the way up the cliff and towards the awaiting fire-dog as easily as throwing a ball of Materia. Nanaki's brows visibly shot towards the heights of his mohawk before he reactively snapped for Denzel's hoodie, clamping the fabric between his teeth and holding the terrified youngster in a firm jaw lock.

Power subsiding, so did the gunslinger's final reserves of strength. With one last glance at Denzel and his new guardian dragging him to safety, he let himself succumb to the foreign entity that sapped his vitality and lay corrosive waste upon his very innards; crimson eyes rolling back into his skull, Vincent fell.

The clamour of frightened cries beneath him slowly waned to a ghostly lament within the creeping ivory that drank of his sight. The echo persisted within the stark landscape that slowly began to paint itself around him, the chorus of his comrades eventually consumed by an overwhelming glow akin to bright sun on snow, then suddenly he was standing in a vast plane like a misplaced ghost amidst a painting.

White flowers as crisp as bleached parchment grew around his gold-plated feet and coated the ground, only punctuated by the occasional blades of emerald green grass that managed to worm its way from beneath the bloom; paper petals dancing to an invisible wind. He blinked, confusion settling heavy on his sweat-beaded brow as he scanned the blank void beyond the flower field he suddenly found himself planted in. He drew a shaky breath, testing his lungs to calm the heart he couldn't quite feel, though no air came to him yet neither did the need for oxygen. Time felt like a far away apparition, as far away as he himself felt from any sense of realism, and he fought the sense of urgency and panic that gripped his conscious and threatened to consume him.

What that sense of urgency and panic was for, he couldn't quite recall.

He began to examine his surroundings through the fog of disarray which clouded his mind when the unmistakable presence of another precipitated his senses with a tingle that crawled across his skin. Ignoring wavering nerves, he spun to face the unknown entity with a flourish of crimson. The bloom surrounding the scape like a fluorescent spotlight was near blinding, but even across the canvas sea the silhouette of a woman was unmistakable; a lone figure standing across the divide of stark and white. Over the far distance, he could just make out long, pulled back hair teased by a wind he could neither feel nor hear.

The breath he wasn't sure he could take caught in his throat.

Uncertain of just what he was seeing, or if he himself was indeed real – if this was real – he suppressed the urge to recoil from the dazzling radiance and took a single, cautionary step forward.

The flowers swallowing his feet swayed to accommodate his boot before they rippled out with an all encompassing roar. A tidal wave of petals plucked away to soar in a hole-ridden curtain of ivory. His sight bespeckled with white as the surreal painting he found himself in began to peel; jagged flecks the colour of bleached bone soaring past to billow out with the shock wave he'd created. His cape whipped behind him as he threw up hand and claw to shield his face, crimson eyes squinting to peer through the gap of forearm and gauntlet.

White flora continued to ripple outwards like the water of a disturbed puddle as the landscape started to erode, petals and grass floating skyward to disappear into an infinite void. As the paint began to melt away, so did the mysterious hourglass figure of the woman. His voice choked in his throat as he tried to cry out, pushing through the storm of petals to stretch a leather gloved hand towards the silhouette.

When the pale blossom curtain finally rose to unveil his sight, she was gone. Lost to fade in an endless cotton-coloured sky and leaving nimble fingers splayed in a desperate grasp never to be met.

He froze. Eyes widening, his fingers curled in recoil before the whole plane began to list, the very landscape itself tipping towards the empty void it floated in. Blood-red cape fluttering into his back like the embrace of an old lover, the sensation of being windborne crept upon him before he careened backwards. Falling from the crumbling plane, he tumbled into an eternal blanket of ivory.

Suddenly, his back slammed into something cold and hard.

The impact struck his spine and his back arched as he gasped for air – real air – the blow bursting from his chest to resonate though his very bones. Something screamed from within and as he tried to grasp a single shard of sense amidst the phantasmagoria, he was suddenly aware of thin yet strong fingers pulling at the front folds of his mantle. Heaving, his chest near convulsed with the effort to breathe and he fought against his dementia and disorientation to find some sort of identity.

“Vincent! Vincent, get up!”

Vincent. His name was Vincent.

Clarity burst through in a flood of lucidity and blood-red eyes snapped open, golden flecked irises burning as they sought the voice which pulled him from the brink. Wide eyes the colour of cognac, bright with fright and brimming with resolve, held his own and granted him the rest of his senses; the trickle of cold sweat running down his nasal bone, the frantic roars of the party, and the urgency of their current position. Coming to, he fought to pull himself up from the worn metal rail track he lay on while Tifa pulled him towards her with white knuckled fistfuls of crimson.

“Would you guys hurry it up, already!?” Yuffie's strained voice permeated his confusion and delivered instant awareness of his surroundings.

Barret and Yuffie stood at the foot of the Mako Reactor, the ex-AVALANCHE leader gripping a severed piece of railway between both burly fists as he grit his teeth with the strain. The track itself looked like it had been subject to an explosion, ripped from the redundant supply line to instead be employed as a makeshift safety net come bridge; one which both him and Tifa now stood on, hovered over a chasm of iridescent Mako. Yuffie held the long piece of severed rail in place with her shuriken as she leant over Barret, the star-shaped weapon having pierced through both ends of the softened metal with two of its four bladed points, effectively pinning the corroded track to the reactor's support structure. Holding her ground, she forced all of her weight onto the ninja star also known as Conformer, hands visibly shaking with the effort of keeping it steady.

Vincent studied them with stunned realisation; they had caught him mid-fall using Corel's old rusted supply lines.

Before he had time to linger on his epiphany, a loud crack resonated from above and he snapped his gaze to the very cliff he'd been hanging from for a time he couldn't quite recall. Great slabs of rock began to crumble from the wicked claw marks cleft deep into the crag face. A slick chunk of stone slid from its pocket within the wall to hurtle straight toward them and as he struggled to his feet, the tight grasp on his mantle swiftly fell away. Before he could even think about reaching for his triple-barrelled revolver, Tifa spun with great momentum and swiftly executed a perfect spinning hook kick; smashing the rock squarely out of the air with the brute force of her heel. Gracefully returning her feet to the narrow, protesting rail track beneath them like a ballerina returning from a pivot, she grasped his mantle yet again and near heaved the dazed gunslinger to his own two feet.

Though he was aware she spoke to him as she pulled him back along the ladder-like bridge amidst the rock fall, the ill sensation laying waste to his insides distracted his cognitive processes while reminding him he was still very much alive. Skull buzzing, he watched as the fistfighter proceeded to smash away tumbling pieces of debris with her fists as she worked her way back towards the reactor and the two straining comrades holding their walkway in place beneath it.

“TIF'! WATCH IT!!”

Barret's bellow snapped him from his bane of Mako vapours and he straightened from the pain of his writhing innards to catch the plummeting slab of stone that elicited the dark-skinned man's cry. Tifa spun in surprise and near blanched, trying to manoeuvre her body on the narrow track in order to perform another masterful and profound technique of martial artistry, but they both knew she wouldn't make it in time. Danger clouding his mind and momentarily smothering his fog of confusion, Vincent instinctively thrust Tifa forward before he moved to cover her back and shield her in a shroud of crimson. Throwing up his left shoulder, the rock clipped the bone with a dull crack and a hard grunt from the gunslinger before tumbling down into the void below.

He barely had time to assess the pain or the panic-stricken voices at his ear before Tifa's hands were upon him once more, slender fingers wrapped around the folds of his mantle and urgently pulling him across the audibly straining rail track.

“I... can't... hold it... much longer... !” Yuffie cry intermingled with a metallic wail, the makeshift bridge beginning to buckle under the stress it hadn't endured since decades past. Corroded track lines arched down towards the sea of Mako as gravity took its toll and the young ninja's shuriken began to falter. The piercing shrill permeated Vincent's befuddled brain and he pushed through his pain to nudge Tifa forward, but the fighter held on strong to the creased folds lining his cape.

“Oh no you don't!” she snapped, pulling him along as she situated her feet to use the tilting line planks like the rungs of a ladder. “I'm not leaving you!” Aiming an obdurate glare at the gunslinger she was unsure could even hear her, she pushed hardened calves onward to climb the last stretch of corroded railroad. “Last time I did that... I find you hanging off a cliff... with Denzel of all people-!”

The fighter's strained mutterings were cut short when the track gave a violent jerk downwards, the grand pit of gurgling fluid taking on a frightening edge. Biting her tongue in lieu of crying out, she took firm purchase of her companion's mantle and the lumber sleeper beneath her foot. Pushing onward with all her strength, Tifa propelled herself forward and leapt across the final divide between herself and her old friend, dragging a not quite coherent gunslinger with her. Barret, on seeing her intended action, immediately let go of the railway track to stretch out his huge trunk-like arms to catch her.

Without the dark-skinned man's considerable muscle the oxidised line completely crumpled under its own weight, chair bolts unscrewing to pop from their metallic fasteners as twin beams contorted to sever from their own infrastructure. Tifa fell into Barret's arms just as Yuffie wrenched her shuriken from the confines of the corroded metal track; the ninja delivering the rails to an eternal iridescent green grave just as Vincent barrelled into Tifa from behind, sending the four ex-AVALANCHE members tumbling into a grandeur heap upon the steel grated floor.

Seconds trickled by in agonisingly slow ticks. Eventually, sore muscles arduously disentangled themselves from the pile of limbs. Yuffie rolled to lie spread-eagled across Barret's outstretched arm as the ex-AVALANCHE leader's thick tattooed bicep became a pillow for the young ninja's head. The dark-skinned man maintained his hold around Tifa's hips as he fought to catch his breath, aching muscles recovering from an ordeal that had pushed them to their limit. Slender legs stretched diagonal to entwine with his own as Tifa herself lay draped atop Vincent's mantle, hands still curled deep around his cape as she rest half sprawled across his chest. The gunslinger's right hand rest instinctively on the small of her back, beads of perspiration trailing to fall from high cheekbones. Suddenly comprehending her position with a tired flush, Tifa strained to lift herself and Vincent slid his gauntlet away with agonising difficulty to allow her to roll into Barret's embrace.

Distorted imagery of his chimerical encounter flooded back and Vincent closed his eyes in weary resignation as blurred imagery began to play behind fallen eyelids. Chests heaved as the group stared up towards the heavens, the melody of tumbling rocks the only sound between them as the cliff continued to crumble from its previously unexpected guest. Appreciating the cool safety of the patterned steel floor with gracious fervour, they lay gazing into a pink and indigo streaked sky, each trying to recollect just how they'd gotten themselves into such a position in the first place.

Out of the four ex-AVALANCHE members, Yuffie was the first to speak up.

“... Give me Sephiroth over this any day.”

Tifa and Barret both turned their heads towards the ninja while Vincent wearily cast only his gaze in the form of one barely cracked open crimson eye. Silence rang triumphant for a few terse moments before it was broken by a dulcet, uplifting melody; light and delicate like a handful of feathers set to the wind.

Tifa laughed.

Slowly, Barret's bass chuckles joined the bubbling hymn as did Yuffie's guiltless giggles and it wasn't long before all three AVALANCHE members were succumbed with mirth, their bodies shaking as they lay flat on their backs, roaring with the hysteria of a post near-death experience.

Vincent barely hid a snort behind his crimson cowl, lips curving into a ghost of a smile as he gazed up at the milky white of waking stars from his resting place on the worn steel grating.

Hilarity, it would appear, was highly contagious.

Rapid footfalls and the click of nails on grate sang a small bar in the melody and the gunslinger - as ragged as the cape lain beneath him – let his head fall slack to watch Nanaki sprint towards the mirth-crippled party in a blur of orange and fire. Panting, the fire-dog slid to a halt across the divide of severed railway track. A messy tuft of tousled hair peeked around the quadruped's own of spiked mohawk as wide azure eyes sought out the main instrument of the song. On sight of Tifa, the boy near tumbled from Red XIII's back to meet her but two small arms wrapped tightly around his waist and held him to the spot.

“DENZEL!”

A tearful Marlene's exclamation was muffled as she buried her face in the back of his moss-green hoodie and the orphan visibly stiffened in turn much to the amusement of the lion-like dog. Watching the young girl clutch onto her best friend like a child would their favourite stuffed toy, the lone, mirth creased ochre-coloured eye of Nanaki met Vincent's own of tired esteem. As Denzel's arms slowly moved to return Marlene's embrace, an unspoken understanding of relief was shared.

“Yoo're... sure... hard tae catch up to!” Cait Sith's voice piped up amidst the laughter which rose up over the mountains and Mako deposits. “Me an' Marlene gave chase tae try an' lend ye a hand, but instead ye got us runnin' back an' forth like'a bunch o' manic Choco- eh?” On catching sight of Barret clutching the party's only two women to his side in the throes of laughter next to an indisposed Vincent, the cat puppet paused in his Nanaki-addressed rant to slow to a stop behind the quadruped.

“... Whit's so funny? Did'ah miss somethin'?”

Red XIII's ear swivelled towards the robotic feline before his head eventually followed with a jingle of tassles. When he next spoke, it was with a grin that nearly matched Cait Sith's.

“The most worrying thing is, no, you did not.”

 

"""
~ oOo ~
"""

Pulling themselves together - physically and mentally - from the Mako Reactor floor, the trio of adults finally made to move from the area. While Tifa went to help Vincent to his feet, (the gunslinger politely declining which made the fighter bite the inside of her cheek,) Yuffie dealt with a furious Barret throwing around expletives like they were going out of fashion. From his time lying on the floor, the gun-armed man had eventually caught sight of the wisps of steam emanating from the Mako Reactor's top-most vents in discreet puffs; subsequently sending him into an anti-Shinra frenzy the likes of which hadn't been seen since his and Tifa's early AVALANCHE days of sabotage and subterfuge.

After the group's initial shock, any calls to Reeve had been postponed after no small amount of persuasion and reasoning on Tifa’s part – the rapidly declining light and shared reluctance to traverse such dangerous terrain in the dark making a convincing argument to her old friend. With the promise to check in with their executive comrade upon reaching Corel, Barret grudgingly agreed and immediately sought out more dilapidated structure work to blow up. With grit teeth, the gun-armed man fired an impressive charge at some peeling reactor shrapnel and reft a big sheet of metal from the aging tower itself. Situating the piece over rusted railway lines with the help of Tifa and Yuffie, he created a small bridge to cover the severed track of equal size.

The fighter was the first one to cross, darting to Denzel’s side as the orphan did to hers. Arms wide and seeking comfort, they rushed each other, craving for the reassurance that the other was safe. Falling to her knees, Tifa curled herself around the boy as he dived into her arms, clinging to the leather duster hung low at her hips. Meanwhile, Marlene dashed to her father in a billow of white skirt and unshed tears. The burly man was quick to scoop her up in strong arms and sore muscles, holding her close with an all-telling grin of relief.

Yuffie watched the parental reunions with watery chestnut eyes before she turned her attention to an equally observant and tail wagging Nanaki. Skipping past the two adults and adoptive children, she made a beeline for the lion-like dog before throwing open her arms with a flourish of jovial mischief. Red XIII caught the action and her intentions equally as quick, barely having time to lower his ears let alone brace himself as the young ninja pounced to hold him in much the same way Tifa near cradled Denzel. Cait Sith watched on with his muzzle hidden behind a quaking paw, his whiskers jumping alongside his shoulders at the sight.

From afar, Vincent studied the group with a forlorn sense of detachment, a throbbing shoulder his only anchor to reality. His mind fell besieged to images of the metaphysical. The abstract... and the dead. The porcelain realm haunted his memories and left him in a dream-like state as he stood in silent observance of the team's relieved reunion. A sudden flash of yellow caught the corner of his eye and snapped him from his near state of catatonia, dragging his gaze from the backs of his comrades to follow the brief glimpse of colour. The vibrant dash moved to disappear behind the reactor tower and, with a hint of reluctance, the gunslinger made to follow.

Warm currents teased ebony strands to send them wisping past his nose as he once more approached the pits of bubbling luminescence, but the increased sensation of nausea coiling in his stomach was all but overshadowed by his discovery. Black-winged brows rose to disappear behind the heights of his bandanna as blood-red eyes locked with his playful and elusive target, and Vincent couldn't help but wonder if he was still dreaming – or if he ever woke from his damnable coffin at all.

A lone daffodil drifted and twirled upon rising Mako vapours, the plucked flower making a merry dance as it spun in a pirouette of petals before him. He watched the drifting bulb with glazed eyes before, ever so slowly, he moved to catch the flower with unsteady fingers.

A grinding of bone immediately halted his actions and he jerked to clasp his left shoulder, pain screaming through the upper extremity like liquid fire. The sensation radiated through his arm and sent wicked talons twitching in an agonised seizure before slowly falling still with his slumped shoulder. Cautiously prising long fingers from his now immediately prominent injury, he let his gauntlet hang limp before once more turning his attention to the flower head dancing afore his eyes in a near mocking ballet.

As the Mako vapours began to lighten, he watched the butter-coloured blossom falter in its tottering adagio and the gunslinger was quick to react, approaching the reactor railings in a lithe stride. Stretching out his right hand with care so as this time not to raise his left shoulder, he deftly caught the daffodil stem between gloved thumb and forefinger. His hand hovered in a moment of stunned clarity before he brought the sunny bloom from its vapour confinement, holding the flower close to his face as he inspected the splay of petals and corona.

He'd anticipated grasping thin air. Expected an illusion. Instead, he held proof of his grounded reality in the affirmation and form of an innocent, child-like flower.

His memory suddenly recalled a smiling Marlene standing in the daffodil fields at the foot of Mt. Corel, the recollection of the cheery child hanging one of the summery flowers from the front of Denzel’s brown button up shirt fresh in his mind. Vincent blinked, his focus moving from his inspection of the delicate petals to the crumbling cliffs above. Mind filling in the blanks, he drew the fragrant flower into the folds of his cloak with care, intent on returning the lost property come gift to its rightful owner and intended recipient. His lopsided shoulder gave a pang of protest as he withdrew his hand from beneath the snapped buckles, the bone feeling like molten lead and he fought a grimace through grit teeth as vitriolic voices hissed and spat in the back of his head. Suddenly aware of the sickness coursing through his veins like acid, the gunslinger spun on his heel to follow after the party, turning his back on the glowering Mako deposits behind him.

After expressions of relief were shared towards Vincent's well-being on approach, (Marlene especially by scampering up to take hold of his long legs in an ardent hug much to the stiffened gunslinger’s chagrin,) the group agreed to catch up later when the crimson-cloaked man served to remind them of the approaching twilight with a quiet yet simple, “Night falls.”

Moving on to cross the railway tracks, both children walking hand in hand with their respective guardians, the team soon dissolved into nervous and idle banter; a familiarity shared from their AVALANCHE days whenever they'd come out on top from a particularly trying ordeal. Nanaki lead the party while Cait Sith took point to act as scout from atop his head, the fire-dog walking with nose raised to welcome scents outside that of the cloying redolence of Mako. Fresh air found only at mountain altitude greeted them as did the vague yet smoky, distinct smell of coal, an entire heritage of mining hidden deep within Mt. Corel’s rich caverns and tall peaks. As they journeyed onward, Vincent caught sight of Tifa occasionally turning back to cast him a discreet glance under furrowed brows.

Passing the stairs which lead to the reactor's viewpoint and cliff where Vincent and Denzel had hung so precariously from, the group emerged from the man-made gorge to find a grand valley stretching out before them under the heights of an extensive railroad track. As his teammates stood on the adjoining red-bricked bridge to marvel at the sight, Barret's eye caught the back of a crooked sign standing by the cliffside like a lonely scarecrow. Gently nudging Marlene towards Tifa and Yuffie without a word, the gun-armed man stomped down the small set of cracked granite steps to inspect the notice which faced out towards the path leading to the town of Corel. Leaning around the signpost situated just next to the bridge's small archway to view its front, he scanned the barely legible scratches with a furrowed brow. Shaking his head with a scarcely contained snort, he turned to peer up at the rest of the vista-admiring party.

“Yo, Yuffie!”

The ninja in question turned from her whispers into the ear of a grinning Marlene to shoot the dark-skinned man a raised brow. Barret simply raised one of his own back, crossing his arms as the mischievous look on his little girl's face melted into one of embarrassment. She looked every bit like the child who'd just had their hand caught in the cookie jar. Dismissing his daughter's bashful shuffle, he instead turned his attention back to the awaiting adolescent.

“You still got that green marker pen?” he called out over the detailed conversation Tifa and Nanaki were currently engaged in.

Yuffie's brow raised to disappear under her headband before she hopped down from her perch on the bridge to join the ex-AVALANCHE leader. “Yeah, why? What's it to you?”

“Jes' givvit 'ere, would ya?” Barret said with an upturned palm, patience long since worn thin. Yuffie planted her hands on her hips to shoot him an indignant glare but eventually ruffled through the small satchel affixed to her belt. Pulling out a thin cylinder, she spun it around her fingers before planting it into the awaiting man's hand.

“Whatever, just... give it back, okay?” With that she spun on her heel and returned to Marlene's side, the girl now preoccupied with pointing out distant landscapes to an eager Cait Sith and curious albeit somewhat shaken Denzel who followed her animated finger with skepticism.

“Says tha damn Materia thief...” Barret grumbled under his breath, taking a moment to run thick fingers through his coarse beard. Uncapping the pen the ninja had previously used to try and switch Tifa's Cure Materia for a green coloured billiard ball, the gruff man turned to once more approach the sign. Reaching up, he began to scribble over its weathered surface in fast and furious strokes as the party's conversation continued; voices rising up to filter through the cliff gap and surrounding Vincent in an echo of talk and tinkling laughter as he slowly brought up the group's rear.

Taking measured strides, the gunslinger lingered in the shadows of the gorge as pain seared his shoulder like a branding iron. Refreshing mountain air teased the tattered ends of his cape as crimson eyes burned in the darkness, watching the backs of the party with tactical intent; the daffodil burning a hole in his cape to match the blaze of his injury. He took a cautionary step forward as Marlene bent down to scoop Cait Sith into her arms, leaving Denzel's side to join an impatient Yuffie and not-so-impatient Red. Sensing an opening, he unveiled himself from the shadows just as Tifa hopped up the nearby granite stairs. Beating him to the boy's side, she spoke down to the orphan with a light albeit somewhat troubled grin before reaching down to take his hand.

Vincent paused; Barret heard thundering up the steps before he was seen as he tossed a marker pen into the air to then snatch it soundly within a huge fist. Looking to the woman and boy, he jabbed his finger in the direction of the rail line with a jerk of his head following the motion. Tifa nodded with a quirk of a smile and moved on, guiding a clearly hesitant Denzel over the long track ahead. The gruff ex-AVALANCHE leader watched them go with an air Vincent not only recognised, but understood all too well. Silent, he strode up from behind the hulking man to stand by his side.

“... You watchin' over 'em, too?” Barret sniffed, rubbing under his wide nose with the thick index finger of his left hand. Crimson eyes shifted from Tifa and Denzel's back to meet those of burnt umber.

“… One could say that,” he eventually replied.

“Jes' as cryptic as ever. If anythin', I'd say it's them who've bin' watchin' over you.”

Vincent blinked, the machine gunner's astuteness taking him off-guard. He mulled over the man's words while Barret turned towards him with a hand raised towards his cloaked shoulder, but after a moment of cool regard, let it fall to rest once more by his side. Trudging forward with the gait and leisure not unlike that of a Nibel Bear, the dark-skinned man followed after the woman that was his old friend and the child she’d taken into her care, leaving the gunslinger alone with his distorted thoughts.

And his many voices.

“Yo.”

Before Chaos had the chance to whisper sweet leeches and oil-coated words into his ear, a brash voice pulled him from the demon's claws. Barret narrowed his eyes over his shoulder, having paused in his trek to watch him for a moment before grumbling out, “... You did'a good job back there. 'Preciate it.”

With that, he continued on his merry way. Vincent watched him go, immediately wary of Barret’s change of behaviour but even more so of the great-horned demon bristling within his skull. With a flutter of terrible spiked wings that made his heart stutter, Chaos oozed into the deep, dark recesses of his mind with dangerous irritation. Vincent closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose, softly exhaling to calm the palpitations to his heart as his demons squirmed uncomfortably under his skin. They growled and murmured an unsettling choir of discord and madness, stirring insanity and setting anxiety to fester and rot inside his muddled brain.

The ivory plane flashed once more behind closed eyelids and Vincent shook his head with a sharp twist, causing a searing flare of pain to shoot out from his collarbone. Using the burning discomfort to his benefit, the gunslinger focused and strode forward with a fought grimace and fell into step behind a now distant Barret, following the group's unintentional entourage of Tifa and Denzel whilst trying to ignore the female phantasm haunting his mind.

Halfway past the tracks, the acidic tide in his blood ebbed to a biting trickle and relinquished its nauseating hold, allowing the gunslinger to breathe easy once again. Easing his stride, Vincent took a moment to pause and relish the salubrious taste of mountain air as it teased the ends of his ebony mane. Turning back to take one last look at the discreetly active Mako Reactor, his crimson eyes caught an orange coloured sign standing under the end of the tracks and to the side of its trestles. Head falling with a slight tilt, Vincent narrowed his gold-flecked gaze. His attention was not so much captured by the notice itself, but rather, the bold graffiti scribbled over the top in thick strokes.

Scanning the signpost's original text of, 'Warning! Unstable area!', the crimson-cloaked man then turned his attention to the angry scratches of marker pen that overlaid the black lettering.

A black brow slowly rose to brush against the fringe of his bandanna and Vincent couldn't help but give a brief shake of his head. Spinning on gold-plated heels, the gunslinger turned in a whorl of tattered crimson and walked away from the sign, leaving Barret's fresh inked scrawl of, 'NO SHIT,' to dry in crude graffiti behind him.

 

"""
~ oOo ~
"""

Across the vast and grand curving tracks, the party journeyed onward. Tifa clutched Denzel’s hand tightly in her own as together they carefully traversed the arching railway lines, their heights reaching the very pinnacle of the mountains which framed them as their peaks were set to burn in the rapidly declining sun; the canvas sky splashed in a wash of pastel colours. Reaching a fork in the rails, the left arching high while the right dipped low, Tifa favoured the route with less height and guided herself and Denzel to a more comfortable altitude. Their path ended swiftly however as they came upon a small drawbridge risen over a tranquil river, the waters carrying the vague scent of the sea as gentle currents lapped at the supporting railway structure with a contented lull. Yuffie and Red XIII, the latter of which who also bore Cait Sith and Marlene as his passengers, were already there, peering up at the arch bridge situated just next to their position on the lower bridge's abutment.

Heavy steps alerted the fighter to Barret's presence and Tifa turned to catch him eyeing the small wooden shack attached to the winding railroad tracks lifted high across the water. Tracing the hugging mountain lines around to cross back over the taller arch bridge, she caught her old friend mumbling something about drawbridge controls before he turned around and began to retrace his steps to take the left fork in their previously trodden path. Yuffie turned to glance at his back but did a double take as her eyes suddenly lit up with an accompanying snap of her fingers.

“Err, hey, hold up! I remember this place! I wanna go check something!” The ninja had barely blurted out her intentions before she skipped after a hulking Barret, her energy infectious as she shot Tifa a beaming grin which the woman couldn't help but return: even if it was tenfold weaker. Nanaki paused to allow Marlene to dismount from her seat below his shoulder blades before he chased after the rambunctious teenager, the unmistakable air of intrigue synonymous with the fire-dog evident in the passionate fall of his paws – as well as his insatiable thirst for knowledge. Cait Sith waved a white gloved hand to Tifa as he passed by on Red's head and the fighter shook her own with a soft smile.

The soft warmth of Denzel's hand slid from her fingers and she looked down to find the small boy beckoned over by a curious Marlene, the little girl pointing up to the ribs of the arch bridge and causing the orphan to crane his neck up to follow her pointed finger. Speaking with a sweet and jolly chime about maybe seeing the daffodil fields that lay further down river, she grabbed her best friend's hand and began to follow after her father. Tifa stifled a laugh when Denzel's cheeks were set to burn like the surrounding mountains as he was dragged away and she took careful watch of the young pair as they made their way up the sloping tracks. Catching the figures of Barret, Red XIII, and Yuffie flicker out from behind the arch bridge's ribs as they crossed over with a trailing Denzel and Marlene, Tifa took a moment to enjoy the rare respite of solitude as well as the sight of her friends; to those who didn't know any better, it was the scene of a picture-perfect family.

The serenity of the river coupled with the rhythmic lap of its currents soothed some of the tension in her shoulders; even as the young ninja's noisy jubilance about a nest of baby chicks was carried on the wind. Looking upstream, Tifa turned to the bridge's edge to gaze into the water. A half moon shone brightly over the flowing surface and hung over her reflection like a lunar halo, light pinks and pastel purples of the twilight sky shimmering over the liquid blue as small stars dotted the steady currents.

Russet eyes gazed deep into the water, a sense of calm washing over the fighter even as her mind rippled with worry much like the body of the ever-flowing river. Troubled, she held her own gaze in the liquid mirror and searched the depths of her own image, looking for an illusive answer even as a shroud of crimson slowly rose from the deep to engulf her reflection like blood diffused through water. Before confusion could truly take hold, an unmistakable image formed behind her own over the rippling surface and she spun around to meet the undistorted counterpart of Vincent Valentine.

Stepping back as she almost slammed straight into his chest, the edge of her heel met that of the bridge's and she stumbled to right herself even as a leather gloved hand shot out to steady her. Straightening from her near fall, she shot the gunslinger an incredulous glare but when his hand remained wrapped around the rough skin of her elbow, it softened into one of dubious concern.

“... Vincent?” she breathed, a tilt of her head seeking out his own. When he remained in averting his gaze, she pulled her elbow from the firm grip of his hand to place her own over her hips. Turning away, she huffed out, “You really need to stop scaring people like that.”

Sensing her words applied to more than just the current happenstance, Vincent paused. Peering at her back from over his tall cowl, he watched as fine chocolate locks swayed with the soft breeze. Eventually, he rumbled out, “It was not my intention.”

Tifa continued to stand with her back to him, though her hands had now moved to grip her elbows as she hugged her arms under her chest. Sensing her dismissal, Vincent stood almost awkwardly as he contemplated his options. It was clear he had somehow angered the fighter, yet in attempting to right his wrongs he also risked in overstepping his boundaries. He did not want to push Tifa Lockhart; for he knew very well that she was well-inclined to push right back.

Or indeed, punch.

He fought the urge to rub his jaw at the memory and instead focused on her rigid posture – Tifa's cold shoulder almost balancing his own engulfed in flame. A sudden bubble of laughter from the taller bridge caught the fighter's attention and she turned slightly to catch Denzel attempting to hide his grin behind a moss-green hoodie sleeve. Vincent also turned to witness the rare sight, an overjoyed Marlene encouraged by the boy's reaction and continuing her mimicry of what appeared to be a very good imitation of her father's gait.

The delicate daffodil hidden within the inner pockets of his cape suddenly burned even more fiercely than his shoulder and Vincent narrowed his eyes in thought, his attempts to catch the boy unaccompanied coming to naught. Suddenly, a voice from the past resonated in his head and he froze at the notion forming in his mind.

… Could he truly pass up an opportunity to make penance?

Turning to the woman at his side, he blinked when he caught her observing him with a light frown, the shimmer of her russet eyes resting on his sloping shoulder. Gently attempting to raise his gauntlet with a discreet pull of his shoulder blade, Tifa narrowed her eyes and met his gaze with an accusatory brow. Before she had a chance to question his actions, Vincent reached up and slipped his hand beneath the snapped buckles of his cloak to disappear into the depths of his cape. The fighter could only stare as her frown melted into one of confusion, and the gunslinger had to hide his bubble of amusement when her expression changed just as quickly to that of surprise when he pulled out his chosen item from its hiding place.

Drawing the sunny flower from crimson folds, he gingerly pinched the daffodil between gloved thumb and forefinger before cautiously holding it out towards the stunned fistfighter.

“... I believe this belongs to Denzel,” he offered as her mouth continued to hang open in a silent 'O'. Lips drawing together, Tifa blessed him with a genuine smile as she reached out to pluck the presented blossom from his fingertips. A brief warmth of contact was exchanged as her hand brushed against his and she cradled the delicate flower close to her chest as she caressed its silky smooth petals. Glancing up from her study of the orange corona, she graced him once more with a smile so warm that it melted away all ice from her previous composure.

“... Thank you.”

Vincent nodded, his gaze momentarily diverted from the golden flower in the fighter's hand by Barret's wave of triumph from opposite the river. A sudden whirring of gears met his ears and the drawbridge behind Tifa juddered into movement before it began to lower with a churn of metal and steel. The fighter turned around to catch Barret flashing her a colossal thumb's up and she waved back, watching her old friend squeeze out of the cramped shack that served to hold the drawbridge controls. The gunslinger's own attention was pre-occupied with a determined Yuffie as he watched her scale the cliffs across the river with a raised brow. Secretly impressed by the way Nanaki followed after using his protracted claws as a climbing aid, it took him a moment to realise Tifa now stood halfway across the lowered bascule bridge and appeared to be waiting for him.

Turning his attention back to the fighter, he followed and she averted her gaze to roll the daffodil stem between her fingers with a slightly furrowed brow. Sensing she wished to ask him a question, Vincent paused and patiently waited for her to do so. Finally, after a few more twirls of the flower, she spoke.

“Vincent,” she began. “Why didn't you just give this back to Denzel yourself?”

A beat passed before he responded, “... The opportunity did not present itself.”

Tifa nodded in silence, appearing to accept his answer though the troubled crease to her brow remained. Turning away to continue over the bridge, she missed the rare flitter of hesitation that crossed the gunslinger's face. After a moment, Vincent continued.

“Also... I felt that perhaps... you should keep it, instead.”

Tifa stopped. Turning around from hanging the daffodil from the front utility pouch of her duster, she blinked rapidly at the gunslinger as he coolly strode up beside her, making a point to avoid her russet gaze as she scrutinised him for any sign or flicker of emotion. Finding nothing in his steeled composure, the fighter was about to pry further when Vincent explained himself. “Denzel may be so careless as to lose it again.”

Tifa simply stared at him before she finally shook her head, a smile tugging at the corner of her lips. “Okay,” she said, a teasing lilt to her voice that made the aloof man raise a black wing of an eyebrow. “I'll hold onto it for him.” Vincent nodded in response and was about to walk away when the fighter continued. “You know... sometimes it's okay to ask for help, Vincent.” The gunslinger paused once more and Tifa looked up through her lashes, holding his crimson eyes with her own of russet. Tucking a lock of chocolate hair behind her ear, she turned to watch Barret balk at a giggling Denzel and Marlene as they circled him while stomping their feet and waving their arms – much like her old friend was wont to do when he was angry.

“You can't do everything on your own. No matter how much you like to think you can.” She turned back to look up at the crimson-cloaked man for any sign of understanding, but all he gave was a slow blink in response. Tifa almost snorted, but instead settled for a shake of her head. “Just... don't push people away so much. Or you might find they'll start pushing back.”

Vincent remained silent.

Sauntering forward with a brush of leather duster at black-booted heels, Tifa began to cross the lowered bridge with much more ease than the rigid posture she'd upheld for the past few hours. Vincent mulled over her words like a fine wine as he turned his gaze towards the sky, the half moon glowing amongst a blend of faded rainbow pastels. Tifa's recent behaviour suddenly slid into focus as did, to a lesser extent, Denzel's; but before he had a chance to fully ruminate over his findings, Tifa's voice once more called him to attention.

“... And Vincent?”

Pulling his gaze from the moon's luminance, he found the fighter standing in the middle of the bridge with a soft, expectant smile aimed straight at him that forced a stunned blink from his stoic countenance.

Her smile widened in response. “It's okay. I mean... we're okay.”

As if suddenly realising her words, Tifa fought the heat that crept upon her cheeks before she quickly turned away to face the rest of the party at her back. "… Come on. The others are waiting.”

Ignoring the warmth that blossomed to spread in his chest, Vincent nodded with a phantom smile hidden behind his cowl and strode ahead to join the woman. Together they crossed the bridge side by side, the once tense air now replaced with an ease of camaraderie as they spoke softly of their surroundings and the calm it instilled after their previous ordeal.

Or, at least they did, until a certain ninja suddenly dropped down from the mountain slope to make a mad dash down the railroad tracks followed by a frantic Nanaki and screaming Cait Sith.

“MAKE WAY FOR BIG MOMMA!” Yuffie hollered, all but bowling straight into them as she scrambled past with something fluffy piled in her arms. Before Vincent or Tifa had the chance to question the teen, a shrill cry similar to that of a rooster pierced the tranquil twilight as did a string of Barret's cusses. Barrelling past with Denzel and Marlene under each arm, the ex-AVALANCHE leader shot a furious glare at the fleeing ninja.

“Yuffie, what in tha f*** did ya do?!”

“Run first, ask questions later!”

“AWW, HELL NO! YOU BETTER ANSWER ME NOW, DAMMIT!”

“JUST RUN!”

Vincent and Tifa barely took one glance behind them before the pair equally burst into a sprint, neither willing to be told twice as a flustered Cokatolis charged straight for them with its wings outstretched. As the bird gave chase and the party subsequently fled, a different kind of chorus other than the Cokatolis' shrill screech rose over the mountains and great bridge they were pursued over.

And this chorus held only one note and called only one, singular name.

“YUUUUUUFFIIIIIIIIIIIE!!”

Chapter Text

 

Chapter XXVII – Home Is Where the Heart Aches

 

 

“Here we are. End of tha line.”

Marlene squeezed her father’s hand in response as he took his last step off the winding railway, eyes of burnt umber passing a cursory glance over the ramshackle houses and patchwork tents dotting the rocky expanse before him. Cradled between a crown of mountains, a myriad of modest homes made up the quaint town tucked away in the spacious gap and it was a sight Barret knew all too well.

Corel. Home.

“It appears a lot more… welcoming than I remember,” Red audibly mused, padding up beside the hulking man with a telltale jingle of bracelets. “Or perhaps it's the lanterns. They remind me of home…”

While Barret gave a vague nod of his head, Nanaki’s soft inflection set Tifa's heart to ache. She followed up behind her old friend with a brush of her duster, placing a gentle hand over his muscled shoulder to give it a soft squeeze. Casting russet eyes to join umber, Tifa followed Barret’s gaze.

The spreading black of night was broken by droplets of deep orange and flickering yellow dotted all across town. Small fires lit in the comfort of a canvas tent or concrete shack glowed warm and inviting in the darkness and the fighter couldn’t help but share in some of the warmth, her heart rekindled to burn a homesick flame which rivalled Nanaki’s own.

From her peripheral, a different kind of glow approached her back and she turned to meet the bright blood-red eyes of Vincent. A crimson aura leaked out into the night from his gaze like blood tainted ink and, even in the darkness, the sunken shadow which fell across his eyes was evident. The fighter’s breath suddenly caught and held captive in her throat. Ear swivelling in her direction, Nanaki quickly turned around only for him to give a few rapid blinks of his ochre-coloured eye in response.

'How curious! His eyes burn as bright as my tail…'

Dutifully ignoring them both, Vincent averted his gaze before eventually letting his eyes fall shut to stem the bleed. Turning away to face the dark-skinned man at the end of her arm, Tifa found Barret had barely glanced back at the minor commotion; his gaze hazy and unfocused in a maelstrom of memories the fighter could only hazard a guess at. Red XIII watched them carefully, tail ember flicking to and fro to waver like the unsteady flame of a candlewick.

“What is this, happy hour?”

Yuffie’s interruption fell welcome upon the fire-dog's ears and he felt the tense air drift away as easily as the wind did through his fur. Bouncing up behind the group with an armful of feathers, the young ninja glanced back to check on her even younger charge who traced her steps in a tired shamble. Satisfied Denzel was closing the distance, she turned back to the sight that lay ahead.

“Sooo… is everyone just gonna keep standing 'round looking wistful or are we actually gonna get moving?”

“We were just appreciating the scenery…. now that we actually have the chance.” Nanaki wrinkled his nose, ears still ringing from the Cockatolis' prior pursuit. Yuffie responded by stomping her laced boot into the dirt.

“That wasn’t ENTIRELY my fault, ya know! If a mother bird can’t tell the difference between a bunch of feathers and its own chicks, then it should go and get its eyes checked!”

Nanaki blinked his own feline eye at her outburst and opened his mouth to speak when he abruptly noted one of the party to be missing. Ears pricking upright, he turned his head and scanned the group. Finding a lack of glittering gold crown and white patched fur, the fire-dog picked up his head in alarm.

“Cait Sith?”

“Ah'm 'ere!” Cait Sith’s head followed the muffled cry as it popped out from the bundle of down clutched in Yuffie’s arms, the feline sputtering feathers from his mouth and pawing frantically at his little pink tongue.

“You look like the cat that ate the canary,” Nanaki said with a level gaze.

“Aye, the canary almoost bloody ate me! Ah had tae hide in all this Phoenix Doon an' thae smell's drivin' me radge!”

“'Radge'?” Yuffie snorted, “Anyway, it’s your fault for jumping into it head first to begin with!” She shook her arms and jostled the robotic feline to fall at her feet with a vocal, 'oomph.' “At least it clued big bird in I was carrying booty – not babes!”

“So when do you plan on sharing your newfound wealth?” Nanaki spoke up, padding over to Cait Sith and nudging the cat to his feet with a gentle nuzzle of his nose.

The ninja gawked. “Are you kidding!? Finders keepers!”

The crunch of gravel underfoot made Cait Sith plant two gloved hands over Nanaki’s brow and unceremoniously shove the fire-dog's head down below his own. Standing on the very tip toes of his boots, the little puppet peered over Red’s crown of mohawk to watch Tifa approach with a lazy sway of her hips.

“I think you should share,” the fighter casually joined in. “It’s only fair compensation after having us run half the way here.”

“Wait, w-what!? No way!”

Before Yuffie could fully voice her indignation, a soft tug on her satchel belt snapped her gaze down to the small hand responsible. Denzel looked up with an awkward stare before his eyes flickered over to Tifa. Suddenly aware of her audience, he quickly averted his azure gaze and returned to making a sheepish shuffle on the spot.

“Errm… I kinda need the bathroom…” he muttered, cheeks turning red.

Yuffie blinked before nodding at the youngster with mock gravity. “Yeah, I think I already went back at the reactor.”

The teen jumped as did Tifa and Nanaki when Barret’s guffaw suddenly pierced the air. The dark-skinned man turned to shoot the ninja a huge grin, the whites of his teeth visible in the dark.

“Ah think you an' me both,” he remarked, a bite of irony to his tone.

“That laugh! Barret…? Is that you?”

The man in question turned to meet the direction of the mellow voice, huge brows lifting as did the corners of his lips. A figure began to emerge from the dusk and Nanaki padded towards the vague silhouette, nose high in the air as was Cait Sith who now sat atop his head. Tifa followed close behind, curiosity compelling her feet in much the same way it did Yuffie's and Denzel's.

Red XIII's tail flame banished the surrounding shadows on his approach and unveiled the mystery speaker. Mocha skin fell awash in an orange glow, revealing eyes of matching colour and kindly crows feet that showed someone who took to smiling through life's hardships. What truly struck most of the party, however, was the bushy head of auburn hair that accompanied the light chocolate shade of skin.

“Esther!” Marlene cried, letting go of her father’s hand to skip up to the older woman. The redhead smiled, quickly bending down to hug the girl close to the frayed hemline of her dress.

“Oh Marlene, you look bigger already! Have you been good while you were away?”

The girl in question looked up from the denim pinafore she'd buried her face in and smiled her answer with an enthused nod. As she began to tell the woman of the flower fields she'd passed through and the flocks of daffodils they'd found, with animated points and gestures throughout, Barret hulked over rubbing a huge index finger under his nose.

“Hey, Esther. It's good ta see ya,” Barret grinned, tired but genuine. “Been holdin' up tha homefront?”

“Now you know that's your job, but I've been doing the best I can while you were away.” The wrinkles around her eyes deepened. “Are these your friends...?” she asked, straightening from her crooked posture in order to look over each of the party in turn, wisps of hair falling from her waterfall braid in a cascade of auburn.

“You bet.” Barret turned to look over his shoulder. “Yo, y'all gunna say hello or are y'all jes' gonna keep standin' there?”

“I didn't know you were so popular, Barret,” Tifa spoke up first with a smile, walking closer while Denzel partly shielded himself behind her leather duster. “It's nice to meet you. I'm Tifa.”

“Tifa?” Esther blurted, eyes suddenly alight. “So you're the famous Tifa Lockhart! Barret talks about you all the time, believe it or not.” The mocha-skinned woman gently nudged Barret's elbow with her own, causing the man to roughly scratch the back of his neck and Tifa to slowly raise an elegant brow. “It's so good to meet you at last,” Esther smiled a kind smile. “You're a lot more stunning in person than what Barret described. It's no wonder he's so fond of you.” She turned to regard the gun-armed man with a soft quirk of her lips, though it stretched a little thin. “I'm sure you two will be very happy together.”

Tifa gawked and spun to face Barret with a prominent flush. Barret's mouth moved but no words came out. Instead, he waved his huge trunk-like arms while Tifa made a few frantic and awkward gestures of her index finger between the two – nearly matching Marlene's own gesticulations prior. Finally, she found her voice amidst Yuffie's poorly stifled snorts and sniggers.

“Wait- m-me and... Barret?! No, no, no, no-”

“Whoa! Yeah, it ain't like that! Tif's like mah lil' girl.” After receiving a rather pointed look from Marlene, Barret paused before shrugging his gargantuan shoulders further into his jacket. “Well, mah big girl,” he corrected with a grin.

“Oh! I see.” Esther's smile once more returned in full and Tifa watched the older woman carefully, a small suspicion beginning to niggle at her more than her burning cheeks.

“Yeah! Anyway, Barret’s like an Ancient compared to Tifa here!” Yuffie hopped up to join in with a grin. Barret shot her a look as dirty as the soil they stood on but it quickly dissolved when Esther started laughing.

“If that’s true, then I'm not far off becoming one myself.” Her eyes softened, light browns matching sugar cane skin. “And you are...?”

“The single white rose of Wutai, Yuffie Kisaragi!” Yuffie flicked the tails of her headband with a confident wave of her fingers. “And that's Cait Sith and Red XIII over there, but they’re not important.”

“Oi! And neither are you, ye cheeky hen!” the puppet exclaimed with an indignant hop.

“I'm well capable of introducing myself, and with my proper name at that...” Red shook his head and sent Cait Sith sliding down the spiked mane lining his neck until the cat settled at his shoulder blades. “My name is Nanaki. Well met.” He smiled the equivalent of a canine smile, pointed teeth peeking out from beneath modest flews. “If I may, you have a most interesting shade of hair colour for your skin. Is it natural?”

Barret's look of disdain quickly returned and he made to show Red his disapproval, but the red-haired woman behind him simply stifled a laugh. “I could say the same thing about your coat,” she remarked, “but yes, it's natural!” When Nanaki tilted his head at the same time Yuffie tilted her own, Esther's smile only grew wider. “I get asked that more than I care to admit. My father was a redhead and a miner from Kalm, but when the mines shut down because of the Midgar Zoloms, he relocated to Corel looking for work. That's where he met my mother and, well, here I am.”

“Wouldn't that make you really old...?” Denzel piped up with a waver as he stepped out from behind Tifa's calves.

“Denzel, manners!” Tifa chastised, quickly sending the boy scurrying back behind her leather duster once more. Hands planted on hips, the fighter peered down at the boy with a furrowed brow all the while Barret ran a huge hand down his face. She turned towards the older woman with an apologetic smile. “I'm sorry about that.”

“That's quite alright. I'm a teacher so I'm used to it,” the redhead chuckled, her spirit not dampened in the slightest. “It's actually a good thing to be able to speak your mind.” She aimed a kind smile at Denzel who peeked around the side of Tifa's legs, only for the orphan to hastily return to his hiding place.

“Sorry Esther, most of these foo's jes' dunno how to be polite,” Barret grumbled, crossing mighty arms over his white fishnet vest. On catching sight of a tall figure cloaked in the darkness Red's tail-flame couldn't reach, the ex-AVALANCHE leader's gaze turned into a leer. “Speaking of bein' polite...”

At Barret's trailed note, all eyes turned to follow the man's gaze. Sensing their attention – but more so Barret's directed accusation – Vincent shifted and made to approach with an idle gait. Stepping from the shadows, Esther's breath audibly caught in her throat and the gunslinger paused with a near flinch. Averting his gaze, he came to a stop with the clink of gold solleret on stone.

Remaining just within the light of Nanaki's flame, he regarded her with bleeding eyes and nodded into the depths of his cowl. “Vincent Valentine. My occupation is-”

He blinked, words clipped off a practised speech from over thirty-three years ago. A twisting mass of leeches lay waste to the cavities of his brain and finished for him with slick malice and oozing jocosity.

'MURDERER.'

Vincent quickly turned away as Chaos's laughter boomed in his head and seared his thoughts like an erupting volcano. “... Forget it.”

At this point, Barret had all but facepalmed into his hand while Nanaki, Cait Sith, Yuffie, and even Denzel and Marlene, all observed the gunslinger with either a series of blinks or raised eyebrows. Tifa, meanwhile, turned away wide eyes and visibly eased; the breath in her throat set free to ghost into the night.

“... Well, it's very nice to meet you all,” Esther said, first to break the silence with an unsettled smile. “You must be tired from your journey and I imagine you'd all like to rest up so I won’t keep you much longer. I bet you're glad to be back home, right, Barret?”

As if realising her words, the gun-armed man suddenly stiffened. Passing a tired grunt which suspiciously sounded like a worried groan, Barret looked away to run a hand over his cornrow-styled hair. “Err, yeah... think it’s 'bout time we checked out an' got checkin' in, instead...”

“'Checking in'?” Tifa echoed. “What do you mean?” The fighter turned to her old friend in question just as Esther visibly perked.

“Wait, do you mean... the hotel? The hotel isn't finished yet, Barret.”

“It ain't?!” Barret spun to face the mocha-skinned woman while Tifa rapidly blinked away her confusion. “I thought it was gettin' finished up when I left! What the hell have y'all been doin' while I was gone!?”

Esther rose her hands with a clatter of protest from the multi-coloured rosary beads hanging around her neck. “There was some urgent construction requests for the new bridge to be completed among other things,” she soothed. “Considering Corel doesn't exactly get many visitors, the hotel was postponed.”

“What’s wrong? Can’t we stay at yours, Barret?” Tifa turned to regard the dark-skinned man with curious concern, but it was Marlene's gaze which ultimately became his undoing. Wide, almost watery eyes held his attention and sagged the stout man's shoulders.

“Can’t they stay, Daddy?” the little girl implored.

“But... there ain't no room...” Barret's protest was meek for the usually brazen man which only served to double Tifa's troubled mind, but before she could give voice to it, Esther did so for her.

“Don’t be silly! I'm sure there's plenty of room for all your friends! And I bet Marlene would like to show off all her wonderful drawings, wouldn't you, Marlene?” On hearing this, the little girl positively beamed and shot a wide, white-toothed grin at Esther who returned it in kind.

Barret's frown only furrowed even deeper grooves upon his brow. “Guess I could mebbe squeeze 'em in somewhere...” he finally relented, causing Marlene to dart over to her father with barely contained joy. Pressing a brief hug to his left leg with an exclaimed, 'Thank you!', the seven-year-old wasted no time in grabbing a squirming Denzel's hand and dragging him down a darkened path she knew only all too well.

“Err, h-hey! Wait up!” Yuffie barely had time to protest, stumbling after the enthused girl who just waved behind her with a, 'Come on, it's this way!' and a laugh as carefree as the passing clouds. With a dramatic roll of chestnut eyes, the ninja bounced forward on lanky legs to give chase with a loud, “Urgh, kids these days!” Nanaki quickly followed after the eloping children with hurried bounds, equally caught by surprise judging by his pricked ears and Cait Sith's pleas for the two 'bairns' to slow down.

“You sure know how to get 'er goin'!” Barret sniffed, attempting to mask the grin on his face to no avail.

“She might have been away from my classroom for a few weeks, but Marlene hasn't changed. And in all these years, neither have you,” Esther smiled, the lost warmth of Nanaki’s tail-flame replaced by her fond inflection.

Tifa looked between her old friend and the mocha-skinned woman before she decided to let it go and mind her own business – she didn’t want to lose sight of Denzel and Marlene, after all. While the little girl let her heart lead the way, Tifa only had her eyes and they didn't serve her all too well in the dark. Catching a familiar figure in the black, she politely excused herself and moved to tail after the trailing tatters of Vincent’s cape as the gunslinger melted into the shadows with a casual stride.

Soft umber eyes watched Tifa leave as did light brown, Esther joining Barret’s side to stand in a silence most relaxed and homely. Just as the man’s gaze began to narrow on catching Vincent’s retreating shadow by lantern light, the redhead by his side called him to attention.

“Barret... have you told her, yet?”

“Huh?” The ex-AVALANCHE leader turned to face sceptical mocha eyes and he suddenly fought the urge to rub at his thick beard. Realising what Esther was referring to, he instead settled for scratching the back of his trunk-like neck. “Oh, yeah... Naw, I ain’t told 'er.”

“You know, the longer you leave it, the harder it's going to be.”

“I know, I know... I'll tell 'er, a'ight?” Barret gave a confidant nod to ease the redhead’s concern and took a moment to heave a breath of much missed Corel air. The creases around Esther’s eyes deepened and she turned away with a clatter of rosary beads.

“It's really good to see you back, but I'm afraid I need to get going. Those homework papers aren't going to grade themselves!”

Barret's chuckles rippled through his shoulders before he shot her a mighty grin. “Ya know, you ain’t changed all that much either. Yer still tha workaholic I left a couple’a weeks ago!”

Esther gave a soft chortle but it held self-conscious reservation in the form of a shy smile. Shaking auburn locks, she motioned for the dark-skinned man to join his compatriots before they completely retreated into the dusk. “You best be going too, or you might lose them.”

“Not if they know any betta'. I promised 'em some good ol' fashioned Wallace brew, an' they ain't gettin' none of it without me!”

As Barret pound a self-assured fist into his chest, Esther could no longer contain her mirth. “Of course,” she laughed, “who could possibly pass that up! No one, that's who.”

“Dayum straight.” Barret shot her one last grin which the redhead returned in kind. Wishing him a quiet goodnight, the older woman began to retrace her steps and pick back through the maze of tents and shanties. The gun-armed man made to turn away but hesitated. Scratching under the collar of his puffy white vest, he cleared his throat with a light, gravel-laced cough.

“Ya know...” Barret began. “Why don't cha drop by fer a cup, sometime?”

The teacher paused mid-step over a tent peg and attaching guy-line, denim pinafore partly bundled in her hands. While she straightened to smooth the creases from her frayed dress, she couldn't smooth the creases from the corners of her eyes as she turned towards him. “Well, there's no way I could turn down some Wallace brewed coffee from the maker himself! Sure, I'd like that.” With one last, warming smile aimed just for him, Esther carefully stepped around the myriad of tent pegs pinned in the ground and continued on her path home.

As they parted ways, Barret's gaze lingered on the redhead's back until the shimmers of her auburn hair were just passing glints in the lamp light. Resisting the urge to grin and the itch to whistle, the hulking man turned to follow his own path when a faint silhouette behind a nearby junk pile made him freeze. Shaking from his self-induced paralysis, Barret resisted the new impulse to swear and continued towards Tifa who patiently awaited his approach with folded arms. Purposely avoiding her gaze as he trudged past, the fighter fell into step by his side with a smooth stride; not a single word uttered between them.

Knowing she'd returned for him after no doubt noting his prolonged absence, he refrained from asking the obvious. But while Barret could ignore the mischievous glimmer to her russet gaze, he couldn't ignore the burning question of just how long had she been standing there for. Before he took the opportunity to ask, however, the woman at his side seized it first.

“So... Coffee, huh?” Tifa added with a roguish grin, sidling into Barret to give him a playful shove.

“Shaddap, Tif'. Jeez...”

Laughing, the fighter continued to tease her old friend as they headed towards the faint beacon of Nanaki's tail-flame; the two following the only moving light amongst the lanterns.

 

 

"""

~ oOo ~

"""

 

“Welcome home, Daddy!”

Marlene's jovial and arm-spread invitation permeated the silence which fell heavy upon the party like night’s shroud. Situated high on the third level of a series of small mesas, a rugged and stocky structure lay which very much befit the description of its owner. Reclining against one of Corel's mountains, the shack stood resolute in the face of the elements, proudly bearing its cracks and scars for the world to see like a weathered soldier. Gazing up at the hovel, the party looked over its crumbling brickwork in complete silence while the shanty in turn overlooked them with complete indifference.

Paying his companions no heed, Barret brushed past Tifa and an equally stunned Nanaki to trudge up the two inclining pieces of salvage set into the cliff sides to act as makeshift ladders. Climbing a rotten wooden board then a sheet of scrap metal which, judging by the symbols etched into its plating, used to be one of Midgar's old motorway signs, he soon reached the top and to the side of the little girl who squirmed excitedly outside their home. Taking a moment to ruffle Marlene's hair whilst mindful of the golden Condor feather laced between her tresses, he reached deep into the side pocket of his green cargo pants. Pulling out a hefty, rust-bitten key – much too slowly for Denzel's comfort as the boy practically danced outside the door – Barret thrust the piece into the keyhole and turned it with a definite click and grate of protesting metal.

Curling the steel fingers of his right hand, the gun-armed man pressed his knuckles to the peeling paint of the door with a gentle bump of his fist.

'Good ta see ya still in one piece. Keep standin' strong. One of us gotta...'

After a moment, he withheld an encumbering sigh and pressed his fist further into the cracked wood. The door pushed inwards with a long, juddering groan and swing on its frame to match.

“Here we are... Home sweet home.”

The words barely left his mouth before Denzel scampered inside, spurred on by a full bladder to blindly make a beeline for wherever he thought to be the bathroom. Marlene was quick to follow with a sunny twirl of her white laced skirt, spinning into the darkness to seek out the nearest light with a happy hum.

Shuffling huge boots across the threshold, Barret let his mind fill in the room's obstacles as he manoeuvred his giant mass to what he knew to be the far wall. Crouching to one knee, he squinted for the box of old machinery tucked away in the corner. A momentary fumble later, he grasped what he was looking for. Taking firm hold, Barret wrenched his arm back with practised ease and pulled the thick black cord tight between his fingers. With a sputter and a deep-seated cough, the electric generator chugged to life with a soft glug of gasoline, bringing the lights flickering on with it.

Standing, Barret turned to face the party as they each stepped through the door with care; feet slow and eyes wandering. When it became evident no one was willing to speak, the brazen man did so first.

“Well... make yerselves at home.”

Yuffie's mumble was first to break the silence. “It's a real fixer-upper...”

Barret's glare cut off the ninja mid muse and Yuffie quickly stood to attention under the lone light bulb hanging overhead. “Err, right! 'Make yourselves at home!' … Where?'”

While the teen peered around the room with a sniffy countenance, Nanaki stood to join her, his presence alone adding a warm glow to ward away the cold artificial light. Sharp ochre made a slow sweep across the ramshackle dwelling, wet nose twitching at the scent of stale air and rubble dust. As Red XIII observed what appeared to constitute for some kind of living room, Cait Sith slid from his mane-lined neck to drop to the bare concrete floor in silence.

A musty old sofa lay pushed up against the far wall, cotton bulging from its ripped seams to spill out like frothing sea foam. An old model television sat stacked upon a weathered crate opposite, its wires exposed to run across the floor like a circuit of train tracks until they eventually disappeared behind small cracks in the wall. Moth-eaten curtains hung draped across square gaps where windows should be, but instead were left empty and glassless. Night's cool breeze filtered through nibbled frays in the fabric and gently stirred any lingering dust across the floor like miniature tumble weeds; as barren and bare bones as Corel’s nearby desert.

Barren, but not lifeless.

Though Nanaki considered himself finished in his observations, his lone eye fell upon Tifa who remained at his back. Craning his neck, he watched the young woman take in the room with a slack jaw, head slowly turning with russet eyes wide. Wordless, Cait Sith began to make himself useful by scooping up stray balls of cotton into his arms that had tumbled from the sofa's innards. While Tifa fought to find a word and Nanaki one of comfort, Vincent stepped into the threshold with an air of quietude. Ducking beneath the door frame, the gunslinger returned to his looming height and came to stand by Tifa's side just as Marlene returned from the far corridor with a lantern grasped in both hands.

“'At's mah girl,” Barret murmured with a grin that teased the stubbled corners of his mouth. Pointedly ignoring the others, he took the instrument from Marlene's hands and began to move into the adjoining room that made up his living space. Unscrewing the glass chimney from its base, Barret listened to the slosh of lantern oil inside but was soon interrupted by a soft set of footsteps intermingling with the melody. Glancing up, he watched Tifa walk under the cracked stone archway that was the entryway into his open kitchen. The fighter’s eyes glistened in the dark to roam over an old patchwork tablecloth and myriad of outdated appliances before they finally met his own.

“Barret...”

The man in question held her gaze for a moment before he broke away to shift his eyes over her shoulder. Marlene was now busy tugging at the hand of a bewildered-looking Yuffie, the latter near dragged down the corridor by the seven-year-old to bare witness to the little girl's room. Meanwhile, Nanaki and Cait Sith both occupied themselves with clearing away the sofa's stray cotton batting while Vincent took to what little shadow he could find in the lit room and observed. Eyes of burnt umber narrowed in on the gunslinger's slumped shoulder, but before he could contemplate any further, Tifa spoke through the gloom.

“Barret, talk to me.”

His gaze shifted back to the glimmers of russet he could just discern in the darkened kitchen. Blowing a harsh sigh through his nose, he turned away and once more began to fiddle with the lantern in his hands.

“What's there ta say?” he muttered as he turned his focus on adjusting the wick using the lamp's side key. Setting the instrument down on the centre table's patchwork cloth, the gun-armed man trod over to the row of kitchen units lining the far wall. Reaching over the sink to grab the tattered rag that made for a poor excuse of a curtain, he tugged the fabric away to reveal a windowless hole and a stream of moonlight that set the burnished metal of his prosthetic arm to glisten. Silver beams cut through the gloom like gleaming knife blades and Tifa's breath caught in her throat when she caught sight of the vista which lay framed within the square gap.

From the shack's high vantage point, the town of Corel was nothing more than a sea of glowing lights and blackened silhouettes; vestiges of life among the dark. Dots of orange blossomed through night's ink like dabs from a master's brush, creating a scene which could almost be mistaken for an oil painting.

“There's plenty to say...” Tifa eventually recovered, responding to Barret's earlier rhetoric with a lofty tone. While she remained taken with the beautiful vista the gap afforded, Barret used the natural light to guide him in his rummaging until he found a wrinkled old box from a nearby drawer. Sliding back the sleeve, he pulled out a long match from within and struck it sharply against the sandpapered edge. The stick sparked to life with the burst of a solitary flame. Returning to the table, Barret dropped heavily into the wooden chair whose back faced the entryway and lit the lantern wick, illuminating the kitchen in a soft, homely glow.

Replacing the glass chimney, Barret blew out the match with a heavy sigh that slumped his shoulders.

“... Alright. Whaddya wanna know?” he said with a resigned grumble.

Tifa spun towards him with a twitch of her brow. “Well, first of all, where's all your money going from Reeve?” When Barret avoided her gaze, Tifa resisted the urge to bite her lip. Marching away from the window, she stopped at the opposite end of the table. When the gun-armed man still didn't respond, the fight slammed her hands down on the surface. “You can't tell me he doesn't pay you enough that you have to live in squalor-!”

Barret quickly shushed her with a loud hiss, diving to catch the lantern that jostled in its place with a protesting flicker and slosh of oil. “Keep it down, would ya?!” he bit out through grit teeth. His eyes flicked over the collar of his padded vest. When it was apparent the others remained unperturbed in the other room, Barret heaved a relieved sigh and focused on readjusting the disturbed lantern. “Course not... It's jes that there's more important things to spend gil on.”

Tifa opened her mouth, but the ex-AVALANCHE leader was quick to interrupt. “An' 'fore ya ask, Marlene's room ain't like the rest of tha house. Go check if ya don't believe me.”

Tifa pursed her lips and removed herself from the table, straightening her back to study her old friend carefully. He remained transfixed with the flame encased in front of him. The fighter's gaze softened. The small wrinkles of his face suddenly appeared deeper in the soft light.

“Look.” Barret lowered his voice to a throaty murmur. “The money I've bin gettin' paid's all been going somewhere. It's been going to tha town. Helpin' fix the place up a bit.” The gun-armed man watched the slow sink in Tifa's shoulders before his gaze returned to the lantern ember. “Payin' for Marlene's schoolin' ain't enough, ya know? Ain't no good if the school itself's run down. So I do my part. Pay fer new equipment. Clothes and books... and Esther does me a good'un in turn by gettin' copies of all that nature stuff Marlene's interested in. Fer all that and helpin' Corel get back on its feet? I think I can do without some fancy crap for a while.”

Shrugging further into his vest, Barret finished and looked up from the light to find Tifa now standing with her back towards him. A near eerie silence settled over the kitchen, occasionally permeated by the telltale accent of Cait Sith next door.

'Well, shit. Guess I done pissed her off fer not tellin' her.' Barret shook his head at the thought and began to study the plaid pattern of the tablecloth before him. Fighting the grimace that tugged at his lips, he brought up both hands and buried his face to wipe at his weary eyes. Before he could draw them away, however, a soft force enveloped him in a warmth that almost knocked him clean off his chair. Startled, Barret could only give a stunned blink at the fighter suddenly encircling his neck in an all encompassing hug.

“I'm so sorry, Barret...” Tifa's muffled voiced floated up from the head of chocolate hair buried in his shoulder. Before he could ask why, the same arms which circled him began to squeeze in a little bit tighter. “But... why didn't you tell me?!” When the dark-skinned man continued to remain quiet, Tifa looked up to find her old friend tapping a single finger against her forearm. Getting the message, the woman loosened her grip and Barret made a quick, mock gasp for air.

“Dayum, Tif'! When'd you learn to hug like yours truly?” he grinned. When Tifa returned it, albeit weakly, Barret's own faltered. “Yo, don't be gettin' all sappy on me, ya hear? I didn't tell ya 'cuz you got enough of yer own shit ta worry about. And it ain't like this is anyone else's fault but my own.”

“I know...” Tifa said with a hum of reluctance as she slowly returned her chin to rest on Barret's broad shoulder. “But you know I'm here if you need me, right?”

Barret's chuckles radiated through Tifa's very bones as he circled his own burly arms around her. “Heh... right. An' the same goes fer you, right?”

“Right,” Tifa smiled. The two shared what they both found to be a much-needed embrace. Comfortable within each other's company, they let the world around them slowly tick by to the dance of the lantern flame.

“Oh, hey! I didn't know there were free hugs going on in here!”

Barret quickly released Tifa while the woman in turn fought to roll her eyes. Rising from her own embrace, she looked over her old friend's head to watch the wildly grinning ninja who'd just bounced through the kitchen archway.

“Come on!” Yuffie swept an index finger under her nose before throwing out her arms. “Don't let me miss all the action! Gimme some sugar!”

Barret almost snorted, rising from his chair with a raised brow. “That ain't what that means. Anyway, you ain't gettin' no 'sugar' after that stunt you pulled crossing tha mountain.”

“You bringing that up AGAIN?! Sometimes I think the kids are the only ones on my side!” Yuffie was quick to launch into a vocal list of, 'Why the past is irrelevant á la Yuffie Kisaragi', when Tifa blinked at the ninja's remark and swiftly began to peer around the dimly lit room. Barret chose to ignore them both and instead began rifling through cupboards to pull out what appeared to be various ceramic coffee mugs. Failing to find what she was looking for in the kitchen, Tifa glanced at her two occupied comrades before she quietly stepped under the archway and into the dilapidated living room.

The hum of the electric generator greeted her as did the sight of a now spotless floor. Both Nanaki and Cait Sith sat with their backs toward her studying one of Barret's old bookcases; hugging the wall to the left of the sofa, its shelves were filled to the brim not with books, but rather, a miscellanea of old cassette tapes adorned with various stickers and labels. The fighter went unnoticed by the pair as they spoke quietly amongst themselves, but she wasn't, however, unnoticed by a pair of half-lidded blood-red eyes.

Tifa paused, her gaze held captive by Vincent's own. The gunslinger observed her with an expression of languid indifference never before seen from him by the fighter as he leaned against the far wall near the door. Questions rose in her throat but were just as swiftly quashed when a hint of gold glimmered from the shadows of his eyes. Tifa blinked. Just as quickly as it was there, it was gone.

She glanced towards the ceiling light with a puzzled groove of her brow and a few rapid flutters of her lashes. Vincent responded with an almost imperceptible tilt of his head. Shaking the image from her mind, she shook her own crown of chocolate locks and subsequently waved him away. The gunslinger watched her carefully before his gaze slowly shifted over her shoulder. Following his focus, Tifa peered behind her to find a lone corridor stretching out into the darkness. Within the black, however, a sliver of light ran in a horizontal line across the floor, indicating a lit room with a closed door. Returning her eyes to the man before her, Vincent only gave a slight nudge of his head before he tucked his chin further into his cowl and resituated himself more comfortably against the cracked concrete wall.

No words were needed; Vincent knew what she sought – or rather, who.

Tifa gave a nod in gratitude before she turned around and stepped into the darkened corridor. Her mind was abuzz with thoughts of the crimson-caped man she'd left at her back. His behaviour had been growing increasingly strange to say the least and, while the fighter understood and appreciated the importance of privacy, Vincent's actions had been growing nothing short of alarming. She was certain the others had noticed too, but talking about Vincent Valentine was an unspoken taboo amongst their party. One that had been set in stone three years ago after they'd first awakened him. Or rather, after something else had first awakened...

Tifa suppressed a shiver at the memory and instead focused on another to help quell the rush of goosebumps that raced down her arms.

'That yellow shimmer... I'm sure I've seen it before...' Tifa paused to pinch the bridge of her nose as her eyes fluttered closed. Her mind was sluggish in its attempt to recollect. Weariness crept up to greet her like an old friend and it was only then she was aware of just how exhausted she was. Her knuckles still stung with the persistent throb of their previous knocks with rocks and she made a mental note to check for any damage later, yet the idea only made her brow furrow as Vincent's oddly slumped shoulder was once more brought to mind.

'You're hiding something, Vincent. You always have. But why is it bothering me so much now...?' Through the haze and fog of her fatigued mind, a niggling voice asked why she should concern herself so over a man who clearly wanted very little to do with the people around him. Who constantly pushed others away to what was, in the end, to nothing but his own detriment.

'And yet...'

Her fingers absentmindedly teased the silken petals of the daffodil resting in her duster pouch. Fighting off a sigh, the fighter continued towards the door encasing light with the decision to think upon such things later. A decision mainly dictated by the tired burn of her eyes and the sting of her knuckles. A sudden gurgle of water bubbled from beneath the woodwork with the unmistakable sound of a toilet being flushed, and Tifa chose to mimic Vincent's earlier pose with a hint of conscious amusement on her part. Leaning against the nearby wall, the fighter crossed her arms and watched the judder of the door handle. A few jostles later, the door swung open in a wash of light to reveal a much relieved looking Denzel stepping out of the bathroom.

“Aren't you forgetting something?”

The boy visibly jumped with a few rapid blinks of his eyes before he squinted at the fighter in confusion. When Tifa merely gave am arched brow and a knowing smile in return, the orphan immediately understood with a start.

“O-oh, right.” Retracing his steps with a shuffle of unlaced sneakers, Denzel returned to the bathroom to reach for the sink taps and douse his hands. Tifa's smile broadened for a moment before it slowly waned when a memory, uninhibited, took hold of her mind's eye. The scene of Cloud playfully chastising Denzel for not washing his hands played out behind her eyes and she watched, helpless, until the memory abated on its own accord. Released of its hold, Tifa came to her senses with the sudden realisation she'd not only been subconsciously picking at the daffodil seated in her duster, but that Denzel was watching her with a deep and unsettled frown.

Azure eyes widened when they homed in on the sunny flower between her fingertips and the orphan quickly searched his person with a frantic pat of small hands on hoodie and button up shirt. Coming up short, he looked up to the woman with a baffled stare.

“How- I mean... Where'd you... get that?”

Tifa quelled her wistful heart with a swallow and a practised smile. “Vincent found it.” The words barely left her mouth when a scowl crossed Denzel's face with a vengeance. The fighter paused with a jump of her eyebrows. Studying the boy carefully, she continued with similar tact. “He told me to give this back to you, but-”

“I don't want it.”

Tifa paused, unable to finish Vincent's wishes for her to retain the daffodil by the well of confusion which stirred in her breast. Denzel stared hard at some unseen space with an unfocused yet steely gaze. Concern bubbled up from within the fighter and she sought out Denzel's eyes but the boy was adamant in avoiding her gaze. Lowering herself to one knee in a rumple of leather, Tifa eventually spoke in a tone as soft as Chocobo feathers. “Denzel... didn't Marlene give this to you? Won't she be upset if you don't take it back?”

“You're not my mother,” Denzel snapped.

Tifa was stunned to silence.

A beat passed. Regret flickered over the orphan's features before it was gone just as swiftly as the boy. Denzel pushed past her with clenched fists and marched down the corridor towards the rumble of Barret's trademark timbre, leaving Tifa kneeling all alone in the dark.

Seconds trickled by before the fighter found the strength to push past her aching heart and will herself to stand. Dimly noting the crack of light that crept out from beneath the bathroom doorway, Tifa moved towards it with sluggish languor. Pushing the door open, she stood for a moment in the florescent glow as one solitary thought ran through her mind as steadfast as the electric current Denzel had neglected to turn off.

'Cloud would know what to do...'

Tifa flicked the switch and let darkness consume her.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter XXVIII – Sweeter Than Sugar

 

The unfermented scent of ground coffee beans soon smothered the smell of must and damp in the long neglected kitchen and Barret inhaled deep of its riches. However, it was a different kind of wealth which truly blessed him that night. As he went about indulging in his favourite pastime of coffee brewing, the custom silence he'd endured for years in his impoverished home was quickly filled with the enthused antics of Cait Sith and Yuffie – and Barret was just as quick to realise he was actually a very rich man indeed.

“Hope you got a lotta sugar, cause I want the whole jar in my cup! APPARENTLY it’s the only way I can get some around here!”

Cait Sith was quick to make a snappy retort. “Well, ye could just walk oot thae front door and make oor lives all thae sweeter withoot that gob o'yours!”

The dark-skinned man listened to the pair instigate a bickering match while he carefully shift his coffee pot to the stove with a hidden tug to his lips. He was unaccustomed to company outside of his little girl’s graces and, while he treasured every single solitary moment with Marlene, the prospect of sharing his brew with old friends brought an unmistakable warmth to his chest not even steaming java could match. Latching a handful of mugs with a gargantuan finger dipped in each, he pulled them together with a clatter and a smile. It was good to be home.

“I feel you will make even the sugar taste bitter if you continue in this... heated debate,” Nanaki droned with a quick shake to unruffle his fur. It did little to unruffle the cat puppet's, however, given the megaphone now brandished in the feline's gloved hand.

Barret caught the glimmer of the instrument and the aromatic brew he'd just swigged a taste of suddenly turned to iced coffee. He almost choked. “If you so much as put that thing anywhere NEAR yer whiskers, I'll make you call Reeve, ya scrawny lil' toy!”

Cait Sith froze. Tucking the offending implement behind his cape, the cat raised both now megaphone-less palms and shrugged with a grin. At that moment, Marlene chose to dash into the kitchen with a square shaped object tucked neatly under her arm.

“Daddy, have you seen my crayons anywhere?” the little girl asked, eyes wide and full of hope. Barret turned away from the burr grinder and the extra beans he'd popped into its chamber to peer down at his adopted daughter.

“Now where'd ya go an' leave 'em this time?” Despite his words, Barret couldn't hide the teasing grin that tugged at the whiskered corners of his mouth. He reached for his own coffee with an air of mock indifference while Marlene narrowed her eyes in response and threw her hands over her hips. The act reminded Barret of Tifa so much that he snorted into his mug and almost inhaled the liquid inside. Quickly pushing the colouring book from under her arm and onto the table, Marlene began to circle her father while Barret continued to pretend attending to his brew.

Nanaki, Yuffie, and Cait Sith all shared a bout of confused glances when the girl's sudden cry of triumph permeated the coffee-enriched kitchen.

Daddy!” Marlene whined, snatching at the clasps of his trouser pocket to pull out the colourful box that lay within.

Barret simply laughed. “Well, I told ya if you kept leavin' them around, one day you weren't gonna find 'em!”

“That doesn't mean you should take them though! Didn't you tell me stealing was wrong?”

This time it was the other three party members who snorted. Barret fumbled for words, face set to turn a most interesting shade while the young girl appeared to take his silence for an answer. She fiddled with the waxy sticks of colour between her fingertips then turned to retrieve her colouring book. On Yuffie's intrigued prompting, Marlene began to flick through the pages and present her motley pieces of art to the three now gathered around the patchwork draped table, her grin only outmatched by the swell in her chest and the sparkle in her soft brown eyes. Barret tugged at his beard and watched with a smile.

'Why do all the women in mah life have to be tha sassy kind?'

With a shake of his head he returned to the remainder of his brew, adding the last of his ground beans to the bubbling blend. 'That should jes' about do it...' Turning down the stove to the ideal temperature, Barret surveyed his work with a practised eye and a gentle stir while Marlene continued her animated chatter behind him. Her soft intonations became the melody to which he worked and he listened with a half-tuned ear. 'Least she's keepin' the others entertained. Not ta mention distracted...'

A frown worked it's way over Barret’s brow. He was well aware of the state of his home, as well as the unease his comrades had carried in with them on sight of his living conditions. The air was laden with unspoken questions, but Marlene had swept them up as quickly as she'd swept into the room – all wide eyes and excited smiles, simply happy to have visitors share her abode. By hiding his way of living, he effectively kept the common etiquette of entertaining guests away from his little girl. Knowing he was the one who withheld her that slice of normal living set a great weight over his heart, and he sighed in a vain attempt to alleviate the burden.

“... And this one I want Denzel to help me with, because there’s two pages to fill in!” Marlene unwittingly cut through Barret’s thoughts and dragged him from the monstrous claws of self-loathing with a bubbly tug of her vocal chords. Removing the pot from the stove, he responded in kind and delivered his own salvation in the form of light encouragement.

“That sounds like a great idea. Why don’t cha go colour that in with 'im while Daddy makes an important phone call?” It took no more prompting on Barret’s part. Marlene wholeheartedly agreed with a nod into her turtleneck sweater and hopped from her seat at the table, skipping from the dimly lit kitchen with colouring book in hand. Before she completely disappeared from sight, Barret leaned back from covering his pot with a stray lid to call after her, “An' go and call in Tif' and Vince while yer at it, would ya, baby girl?”

Though no response came, the gun-armed man was satisfied with the hurried footsteps and turned back to his ministrations. On hearing Yuffie and Nanaki begin a discussion on what does and does not constitute 'art', his eyes wandered to the fridge door and the myriad of papers and magnets that adorned its steel-plated face. His heart warmed at the sight of an all too familiar Moogle dashed in pink and white crayon, grainy pompom sat neatly atop its head just under the pickaxe magnet which glued it in place. Though drawn by a then five-year-old Marlene, the picture itself remained just as sunny as its artist amidst the dolesome backdrop of his kitchen. Unable to help himself, Barret mentally compared the two and couldn't quite quell the smile that crept across his face. Though two years had passed, his little girl still had the same effect over him as did her art to his home.

She sweetened his surroundings like molasses to gruel.

“And what of so called, 'abstract,' art? Is that exempt from your critical eye despite it also being born from the desire to create and express ones self?” Nanaki's calm tone of inquiry cut through Yuffie's frenetic objections and Barret's self-induced haze. Uncovering his pot to assess the mixture, he gave it one final stir before taking a stray cup from the side. With a dip of his fingers, the gun-armed man sprinkled some cool water into the brew and watched as the coffee grounds slowly sank to the bottom.

“Only talk of art I'll have in this house is if it's 'bout mah lil' girl's,” he said as he held the pan lid to the pot's brim and carefully poured out several cups of coffee. “Now quit yer upper plate bullshit an' come an' drink yer java!”

“Yes, Cid,” Yuffie drawled, dropping into a nearby chair and eagerly reaching for the steaming mug in Barret's hand. The ninja appraised the chipped cup with narrowed eyes, twisting it between her fingers to observe the cracked enamel that adorned its surface. Faded paint crept across the crockery in crooked branches, each end promising a pale flower whose colour was lost to time. A heady, yet delicate earthen scent of fresh grounds wafted from the cup and decisively put an end to the teen's scrutinisation. She took a tentative sip under the eyes of the ever watchful Cait Sith.

“GAH!! BLEUCH!” Yuffie grabbed her throat and spluttered, an explosive spray of coffee just missing the amused feline who immediately became not so amused when the expectorated mist settled over his fur.

“AH YE SERIOUS, LASS?! 'At's mingin'!” The cat puppet leapt to his feet with a wrinkled nose and was quick to wipe himself down with a corner of his little red cape. Barret looked up from the small pan of coffee he set down by Red XIII's paws and, without a word, rose to the sound of Yuffie's continued sputters and trudged over to the fridge. Retrieving a glass bottle of milk and a can of whipped cream from its contents, he took a jar of sugar off the side and returned to the table to grab Yuffie's abandoned mug.

“Had a feelin' you weren't used ta tha more refined blends,” he grunted with a rapid shake of the aerosol can, a sharp, metallic clink ringing out through the kitchen in response. “Go on and put yer sugar in,” he prompted, setting the jar on the table. Drawing her lips into an undignified pucker, the teen snatched the container and unceremoniously dumped four heaped spoonfuls into the drink. Ignoring her pointed glare and the urge to raise a brow at her chosen sugar level, Barret unscrewed the milk's cap and poured a considerable amount into the mug before giving it a single stir. A cloud of white burst forth from the murky depths to rise and twirl around the spoon.

With a few more whirls of the utensil and shakes of the canister in his metal right hand, Barret removed the silverware before pressing his thumb over the can's nozzle. With a noisy spurt, he squirted a generous helping of whipped cream into Yuffie's cup. Cait Sith's nose twitched toward the fluffy topping with intrigue as the ninja appraised her drink once more. Taking note of the sweetened aroma that now wafted from her mug, the teen made to take another eager sip when Barret's raised hand stilled her own.

“If yer gunna have diabetes in a cup, ya might as well do it tha propa' way.” Moving to the counter, the hulking man fumbled with a stray tin before returning with a pinch of chocolate powder. Hovering his fingers over the brew, he dusted the top of Yuffie's whipped cream mountain with a flurry of cocoa snow. “... There. That ought'a do it.” Barret didn't have long to appraise his work when the ninja could wait no longer and took a decisive slurp through the froth, painting her nose with a thick dollop of cream in the process.

It was a moment later before her eyes widened to chestnut saucers.

“Oh man, this is good!” Yuffie began to guzzle down the contents of her mug when she paused with an abrupt gulp and a wipe to her nose. “Wait- so, what... were you just testin' me earlier?!”

Barret crossed his mighty arms, thick muscles bulging. “So what if I was? It don’t matter anyhow. Yer happy with it now, ain’tcha?”

The young teen peered over the man's biceps and opened her foam-coated mouth in response when a smooth baritone rumbled at her back.

“Women are difficult to please; Yuffie is no exception.”

Yuffie jerked in her seat and spun round with an audible slosh of coffee to face Vincent, the gunslinger in question drifting in from the living room with a lazy flutter of his cape. Cait Sith gave a small jolt and quickly reached up to re-adjust his immovable crown while Barret covered his own shock with a rough cough, though the latter's only give away was a twitch of his arms.

The ninja glared and rounded on the red-caped man with an accusatory point of her finger. “JEEZ!! Keep sneaking up on us like that, Vince, and one day we're gonna kill ya!”

Vincent gave a barely discernable grunt in response, dismissing the teen's shriek with a sink of his pallid countenance deep within his cowl. Even in the dim lantern light, the shadowed pull to his cheekbones was evident and only served to accentuate his drawn face. Barret rose a solitary brow and even Yuffie appeared to take note, given the cock of her head and the fleeting hint of concern that crossed her youthful features. Cait Sith's tail swayed back and forth like a restless pendulum. An ill silence settled over the worn kitchen.

The heavy air was suddenly permeated by a series of gentle laps. Barret spun to catch Red XIII lick the last remnants of coffee drops from his muzzle and, aware of the attention he now held, the fire-dog turned a keen eye to the group and observed them with cool regard.

“I cannot say I have ever tried coffee before,” Nanaki mused, taking a moment to peer into the saucepan at his paws. “But now I can.” He nodded to himself with a jingle of tassels before looking up. “And I am glad it was yours, Barret.”

A slow grin crept across the gruff man's face as he began to tidy away the various dairy and sugar containers from the table. “Heh. I may 'ave spoiled it fer ya then, 'cuz you ain't gonna taste anythin' better than that!”

Yuffie opened her mouth to no doubt protest when her eyes fell past Vincent's shoulder to lay upon a lone shadow that lingered in the open doorway. Rebuttal forgotten, the ninja hopped from her seat with mug in hand and danced her way over to the familiar figure silhouetted under the stone archway. “'Bout time! Come on, Tif', take Barret off his high Chocobo!”

Barret leaned back to peer around the fridge door as the fighter was half-pulled, half-dragged into the kitchen and the gun-armed man immediately straightened at the sight. The dim lantern light afforded him a glimpse of tired eyes and worry lines, as well as a smile that was as plastic as a child's doll. Ushered across the threshold, Yuffie made a grand demonstration in pulling out a chair for the fistfighter and guiding her into the seat like a sister would their youngest sibling. Cait Sith turned to watch the woman who now sat behind him and, after a moment of silence, plucked himself up from his seat on the table to now hang his legs over the side next to Tifa's arm. The woman responded by reaching out and idly running her fingers through the fur on his head in a distracted caress, one which made the puppet utter a sound suspiciously close to that of a cat's purr.

Suddenly, a cup of steaming coffee was set in front of her.

“White, jes' how ya like it,” Barret murmured, pressing a squeeze to her toned shoulder before he once more returned the milk to its rightful place in the fridge.

“Thanks, Barret,” Tifa near whispered, eagerly cupping her hands around the mug. “Marlene said you were going to make a phone call. I take it you’re checking in with Reeve?” She stared deep into her coffee and, despite the vapour rising to twirl like a stray kite, found it to be pleasantly hot against her fingers rather than the scalding touch the steam suggested.

Such was the magic of Barret’s brew.

Choosing to watch the liquid storm inside her cup, she let the heat seep through her finger bones. If the gun-armed man noticed her stolidity, he didn't comment on it. “You got it. I would 'ave checked in earlier by now, but I promised y'all coffee and I ain't one ta go back on mah word. 'Til everyone's got a cup, me an' Reeve are 'jes gunna have ta wait.”

Trudging back to the pan and stove, Barret grabbed his own neglected mug of java and took a swig, propping himself up against the countertop so that his back faced the open window. Despite his words, the steel fingers of his right hand drummed a titanic rap against the edge of the sink basin, sending a taut impatience to ring throughout the metal.

“With that said, that just leaves you, Vince.” Eyes of burnt umber shift towards the gunslinger to catch the man stiffen in turn, crimson irises flicking from Tifa's form to regard his own. Despite the feigned air of indifference the aloof man protruded, alongside the forced straightening of his left shoulder, Barret already caught the strange expression now concealed behind a steely countenance.

'... Huh. Guess you noticed, too. That look jes' now though... Naw, never mind. I ain’t gunna bite.'

“So, what's yer blend?” he continued. “I take ya fer a strong brew. Black as coal, nice an' simple like. Unlike some folk here who won’t be mentioned,” Barret sniffed. Yuffie opened her mouth to retort, but the gun-armed man didn’t give her a chance. “You do drink coffee, don't ya?”

Vincent tucked his chin deep into his cowl with a soft grunt and barely imperceptible hum of agreement. Nanaki turned an inquisitive eye to the crimson-caped man and padded over to leave his now empty pan on the floor. “I'm curious to know what other blends can be made. Grandfather told me to learn as much as I could about this world and I consider this to be one of many teachings. Perhaps you could enlighten me to your preferred taste, Vincent?”

On Red's insistence, Tifa finally looked up from her own coffee. Her gaze locked with the gunslinger's for but a moment before he dismissed her surprise and once more turned to Barret, ignoring all other eyes in the room in favour of watching the bulky man take another swig from his mug.

Vincent unfolded his arms with care.

“... Turkish.”

Barret froze mid-glug. Tifa stiffened, the hand that was combing through Cait Sith's fur stopping dead in its tracks. The bomb had been set. Now it was only a matter of time before its detonation.

And, just like the sabotaged Sector 1 Mako Reactor three years ago, Barret exploded. “Turkish?! TURKISH!?! THE HELL YOU WANTIN' THAT SHINRA SHIT FOR?!”

The man's boom near shook the very foundations of his home along with the cohorts who dwelled inside. Vincent remained disaffected, holding a silence which only served to infuriate the dark-skinned man further. Before anyone could cause a subsequent chain-reaction, Tifa made herself designated codebreaker and defuser.

“Barret, we should really call Reeve. It's getting late; either we call him now or we don't call him at all.”

The gun-armed man bared his teeth as if he'd just swallowed a particularly bitter-tasting pill. Glowering across the table, his eyes never left Vincent's, coarse knuckles whitening around the mug in his hand. Yuffie looked back and forth between the two tallest party members, headband ribbons dancing with each twist of her neck. Vincent's talons jerked by his hip in tandem with Red's ears flicking upright, wet nose twitching with an alarmed jingle of mane tassels. The wicked gauntlet suddenly disappeared behind one of many folds in the gunslinger's mantle.

“Here, I'll do it,” Tifa offered, pulling herself up from her seat with a slow rise, looking all the part like a matador who'd just stepped in the path of an enraged bull. Barret continued to glare straight through her.

“Am I missing something?” Yuffie huffed, blowing a foam curve into her whipped cream mountain.

“Well, Turkish coffee is whit thae Turks used tae drink!” Cait Sith interjected from his seat on the table. “That's hoow it got it's name. It's as strong as ah Baehemoth an' only served in thae wee'est o' cups. A real doozy!” On catching Barret's glower, Cait Sith jumped and waved his hands in front of his whiskers. “O-oor so ah've heard!”

“Yeah. Darker than black swill. It ain't actually a kinda coffee, but more like tha way ya prepare it.” Barret ground out the words as finely as any burr grinder, “Though I don't get why anyone here would be drinkin' that corporate crap!”

“I see,” Red nodded. “An interesting taste.” The lion-like dog turned a distracted eye and intrigued nose from Vincent Valentine to face the ex-AVALANCHE leader. “So, does the problem lie in the fact you cannot actually make it?”

Barret near gawked. Looking between the curious stares of Cait Sith and Yuffie, to the patient gaze of Nanaki and wary one of Tifa, the gun-armed man eventually threw up flesh and metallic hand both and turned away with squared shoulders.

“Can't believe I'm brewin' some damn TURK TAR! Bunch'a f***in' traitors!”

Tifa would have quirked a brow in amusement at her old friend were it not for her frown of vexation. Shooting Vincent a cautionary glance, she rifled through her duster pockets while Barret clattered through his various selection of pots and pans in the background. Pulling out her PHS with a flip, she secretly thanked Nanaki as the fire-dog struck up rudimentary conversation to deflate the tense atmosphere, allowing the fighter to focus on calling Reeve's speed dial number.

'One-nine-seven-two... I think that's what Barret said when he programmed it.' She punched in the number then hesitated, thumb hovering over the dial key. '… Well, only one way to find out.' She finished her thoughts with a decisive press to the glowing green call button.

Ring... Ring... Ring...

Beep! “Yes, just move the crates over there. No, no, not too near the oil drums or they might get soiled!” The sudden bark of Reeve Tuesti reverberated through the phone and Tifa hastily pulled the device away from her ear. The next set of orders were muffled and the fighter could literally hear the WRO leader cover the mouthpiece with his hand. “May I request that you also move the ammunitions case away from said flammable material? Honestly, I gave you but one job, please don't make me regret my decision...”

Tifa fought back the laugh that bubbled up her throat and instead settled for a polite cough.

Oh?” Ruffled material was fed through the speaker along with the metallic clink of cufflinks. Tifa could almost see the phone exchanging hands.“In all my time working with Barret, I've never known him to show any kind of manners. May I ask who's calling?”

“You didn't check the caller I.D. before picking up?” Tifa let her amusement break through in a white-toothed grin which only grew wider when Reeve's sheepish chuckles reached her ear.

It's rather busy here, I'm afraid! Barret did ask permission to program my speed dial into your phone, but I didn't expect a call from you so soon. It's good to hear from you, Tifa.”

“Likewise,” Tifa smiled. “Barret’s a little... tied up at the moment, so I thought I'd call instead. I know our report's been a long time coming, but... is this a good time?”

Before Reeve could respond, Barret interjected with his trademark boom. “It's the only damn time an' I'll be damned if I'm waitin' any longer! So get on with it!”

Yuffie, who was in the middle of polishing off her whipped cream mountain, almost choked on the remnants of her coffee to cut in. “Yeah! I know if I wait any longer I'll die of old age!”

?! Do my ears deceive me, or is that... Yuffie?!”

“Nope, that's Yuffie alright. Hold on, Reeve.” Tifa smiled and hit the slim key on the side of her phone before placing it down centre of the table next to the oil lamp, the luminescent glow of the screen joining that of the lantern's. The loudspeaker bounced off the walls of the small room as a buzz of activity was fed through the phone, the unmistakable chatter of troops and brattle of crates setting an audible backdrop from Reeve's end. “Alright, Reeve. Go ahead!”

I'm still reeling from the fact she's with you! I've tried contacting her multiple times since you first departed from Edge.”

“Yeah, well, she kinda joined us jes' after I called ya back in Costa.” Barret paused in grinding down a fresh set of beans to shoot a dirty look over his shoulder. “That an' she's bin' ignorin' all of her phone calls...”

Yuffie dropped her now empty coffee cup onto the table with a clatter. “Err, I AM in the room, ya know! Who's 'she'? The cat's mother?!”

“Ah most certainly hope not...” Cait Sith muttered, crossing his furred arms.

Ah, now where are my manners? My apologies, Yuffie. It's most reassuring to hear from you again! I must admit, you've had me rather worried over your welfare.”

“Worried, huh?” A sly grin snuck its way over the ninja's face. “You carrying a torch for me, Mister WRO head of... of...” Yuffie's ribbing petered off with a furrow of thin brows. “... What exactly do you do again?”

Reeve's unsettled cough echoed throughout the room and Tifa desperately tried to hide her laugh behind a bitten lip. “Err, ahem. Yes, well... No- wait, I mean... Most certainly not. Back to business, yes?”

“Indeed,” Nanaki nodded, a grin teasing his jaws. “A lot has happened, Reeve. This may take some of your time; are you sure you have ample of it?”

Of course! Don't mind me, I'm just preparing to dispatch some WRO aid from the area. I'm quite eager to hear of your progress.”

“An' we're as eager tae tell!” Cait Sith piped up, plopping himself beside the open handheld and curling his tail around the device. “We arrived in Corel a couple'a hoors ago but it feels like we're still catchin' oor breath! Ah guess best place tae start woould be thae monsters we picked off?”

A chorus of agreement was shared among the party as Nanaki began to list off the creatures they had encountered and subsequently defeated. From the various Beachplugs and Needlekiss to the lone dragon-like Bagnadrana, the fire-dog took time to note their ensuing battles. The well-groomed man hummed in approval once Nanaki finished his general summation, though a puzzled inflection ran deep in the man's baritone on mention of the unprovoked Adamantaimai which had attacked them outside Costa del Sol.

An Adamantaimai you say?” Reeve enquired. “They usually stay close to the shore. For one to charge at you so openly is puzzling indeed.”

“That's what I thought,” Tifa nodded. “But the more I thought about it after, the less sense I could make.” The fighter crossed her arms and continued, though her next words sounded distant as if she were audibly musing to herself. “We weren't close to its territory and I couldn't see any nests it could have been guarding. It wasn't even at night...”

At night?”

Tifa broke from her audible musing at Reeve's question with a flutter of lashes. “Yes, at night. Wait... did Barret not tell you?”

On mention of his name, Barret turned away from placing a very small pot on the stove to give a gruff shake of his head. Umber eyes settled over her shoulder with stern solemnity and Tifa stiffened in error. Whipping her head round and causing chocolate tresses to billow outwards like a summer dress, she spun to face the gunslinger at her back. Vincent simply returned her stare, crimson eyes shadowed by ebony strands under the brim of his bandanna. Beads of perspiration gleamed from his temple like liquid diamonds, the lantern's flicker affording her a glimpse of furrowed brows through dancing dark and stretched shadows.

“We have received reports during our journey that very strong monsters have begun to appear at night,” Nanaki elaborated, his long tail twitched to flick to and fro like a restless cat. “As such, we have avoided travel under stars.” A lone, feline eye passed between the trio of Vincent, Tifa, and Barret, a sage understanding held in its depths. Cait Sith gave an extreme tilt of his head from his seat, but otherwise remained silent. Yuffie withheld a yawn behind a black arm warmer and a slim hand.

I see. I've actually received similar reports from various troops. Eyewitness accounts from the populace have also been relayed: nothing concrete however, mostly just rumours.”

“Rumours? So I take it you don't have any leads on the matter?” Tifa asked, turning away from Vincent to face the phone and conceal her worried lip.

Since most accounts have been based on speculation and conjecture, I can't say that I do. That and given the struggle to supply electricity to most towns, any reported sightings outside them have simply been shapes and shadows.” Reeve paused before he blew down the mouthpiece in form of a gusty sigh. “I regret to inform that my resources are already stretched thin as they are to investigate any further.”

“Well, if ya think that's bad, that ain't even tha big news,” Barret near growled, changing the subject with smooth efficacy as he scooped up the steadily rising foam from his coffee pot with a teaspoon. “How 'bout I tell ya of tha f***in' live Mako Reactor we found on tha way ta Corel? Shinra sunnuva-!” The dark-skinned man kicked the cupboard doors by his feet and sent the pans inside to rattle in steel chorus.

A live Mako Reactor?!” Reeve's sudden blurt rattled the handheld across the table. “Are you certain of this?”

“Sure as all hell. Passed it by on the way here. Would'a blown tha damn thing up myself if I had a big enough bomb on me. Then there's the proximity of it to tha town – I ain't gunna be responsible for the rain of shrapnel that'll fall off that thing. You know yer way round reactors, right? Mind shuttin' tha damn thing down!?”

Tifa made a step towards Barret as the man almost visibly blew steam from his nostrils, but he just as quickly waved her away on noting her intentions. Turning back to his brew, he continued to scoop foam from its bubbling surface and spoon it into a separate coffee cup on the side.

Reeve's silence was audible in and of itself, and then, “… I already have some soldiers stationed nearby Corel. I'll dispatch them to the reactor at once before joining myself; I'll see to it personally.”

“You're coming to Corel?” Yuffie asked, suddenly animate as she rose her head from her makeshift bed of folded arms. “I thought you let everyone else do your dirty work. What's the big deal?”

A live Mako Reactor is a huge 'deal', Yuffie. As such, I would prefer to oversee this myself. Besides, you're right. This office of mine has been getting rather stuffy of late! I think I'm due for some fresh air and this might just do the trick.'

“Well, yer gunna have a job gettin' to it,” Barret grunted, pouring half of the pan's contents into the nearby cup before returning it to the stove. “The whole area's unstable. It's gonna take a lot of work to get over there now. I had a mind ta ask some of the folks round here; we might not be advanced tech wise, but we ain’t never had a problem rolling up our sleeves.”

“Yeah, cause this place just screams of good craftsmanship...” Yuffie muttered, but was quick to snap ramrod straight at the glare Barret shot her way.

Actually, Yuffie, Corel is a great pioneer in advancement. They gave up their dependence to Mako years ago and have adapted well without it. In terms of agriculture and utilising fossil fuel, there’s no better people for us to follow and learn by example.” Reeve paused, before a wistful note floated through the handheld. “It's strange really, to think how much the tables have turned...”

Barret, who had been scratching the back of his neck under his puffy white vest collar, resisted the urge to shuffle his feet even as his chest swelled with pride at Reeve's words. “It ain’t strange ta me. I'd say Shinra got what was coming to 'em. And they're gonna get it again – it don’t take a wise man to figure out who might’ve bin' tampering with a damn Mako Reactor.”

Indeed. If there have been any sightings of this 'Shinra SIN,' I'm sure WRO members in the vicinity would have relayed information by now. Still, rest assured I will direct nearby soldiers to Corel to help reconstruct the area and advise them to remain vigilant.”

“It's of great convenience that the WRO are already in close proximity. Isn't that right, Reeve?” Vincent, who had not spoke at all until that point, almost startled an answer from the well-groomed man on the other end of the line. Tifa turned to the gunslinger in surprise, more from his tone than his words; a subtle, underlying edge of annoyance that lined his tongue like a blade.

... It is, Vincent, yes,” Reeve conceded, a rustle of material and clink of cufflinks echoing down the PHS speaker. “Though it's mainly in the interest of public safety. The Western Continent has provided a significant increase in monster reports than here in the East. While this is beneficial to your mission, include the additional information of stronger monsters appearing at night, and, well...” The well-groomed man paused as if struggling with himself, before he eventually resigned in way of a troubled sigh. “... May I just ask that you all be careful going forward?”

Tifa smiled through her frown. “Don't worry, Reeve. We will.” Despite her assurance, the seed of doubt had already sowed itself deep in her mind.

'Reeve sounded awfully defensive at Vincent's question... then again, it was more like an accusation. Does Vincent know something we don't?' The fighter glanced over to the crimson-caped man in thought to find Vincent barely appeased by the WRO leader's words, if judging by the way he closed his eyes and slowly exhaled through his nose was anything to go by.

“Yeah, ain't nothing ta worry about,” Barret shrugged, pouring the last of the pan's contents into the small coffee cup he'd prepared. “If any monster gets between me an' these dumbass Shinra wannabes, they're gunna be in fer a world'a hurt!” He shot Tifa a white-toothed grin before turning around to face the phone lying on the table. “But speakin' of construction, Reeve, mind if I ask ya a favour?”

A distracted hum floated from the device and Barret took his cue to continue. “You said yer gonna send some WRO soldiers to help rebuild, right? Well, that's good an' all, but mind if ya let tha good folks round here do it instead? I know a few of 'em who could use the work and tha coin ta boot.”

That's a splendid idea, Barret!” the WRO leader's smile could be heard through the phone. “I don't mind at all, I'd be quite happy to pay the people of Corel for their aid. It is their town after all, and any pressure off of WRO resources is a welcome one, indeed.”

“Well, that's settled then,” Barret nodded, turning back to the counter to cast a practised eye over his prepared brew and the amount of froth which sat on its surface. “I'll ask round town and gather up some folk. Besides, gives me a good chance to ask some questions of my own. Fer that reactor to be up and runnin', someone had to have gone and activated it.”

'And when I find 'em, so f***in' help me...' he added in afterthought.

“Aye, we'll keep oor eyes peeled fer thae culprits!” Cait Sith exclaimed as he jumped up from his seat on the table and took a moment to poke at Yuffie's arms, the ninja having now buried her head deep within them. “An if we learn anythin' mair aboot these monster appearances, we'll be sure tae let yae know!”

Reeve made to respond when the phone suddenly emitted a loud crackle, before a wave of distortion burst from the mouthpiece in the form of garbled static.

KKKZZZZZZZZZZZ!!

“WHAAAH! I'M UP! I'M UP!” Yuffie bolt upright in her seat, rocking back on her chair's hind legs to almost careen over backwards while Vincent barely concealed a pained grunt and a flinch, his hand jerked to rest over the sturdy grip of his revolver; infallible instinct turned his undoing. Cait Sith jumped up himself, fur set to stand on end in very much the same way Nanaki's own mohawk and pelt of fire hue did. The quadruped picked his head up in alarm before he quickly bound over to the makeshift window, ears pricked and ochre eye sharp as he jumped up to rest his huge paws on the countertop. Tifa swiftly jogged over to join him and together they peered past the sink and moth-ridden curtains, just as the room was illuminated with a blinding flash of white.

Seconds trickled by before a boom followed that made fur stand and skin prickle. Out into the inky black night, an even blacker culmination of clouds loomed over the horizon. Gathered together in a cluster of darkness cracked with fissures of light, they created a sound that felt like the very sky was being rended; like tumbling boulders rumbling through the very clouds.

It flattened Red's ears and quaked Tifa's bones.

“Aw naaw, not this again...”

Barret's grumble tore russet hues from the distant spectacle in front of her and Tifa turned wide and quizzical eyes to fix on tired ones of burnt umber. The gun-armed man glanced over to watch Yuffie and Cait Sith fumble with the PHS on the table to no avail before moving back to peer out the window. Forks of lightning crashed to earth like dazzling spears, affording a brief illumination of a glittering tower that stood centre of a sea of sand.

“Corel started ta be hit by these storms a couple'a months ago,” he explained. “They're pretty damn noisy, but apart from that they ain't no real harm since they mainly stay over tha desert. Guess it's jes' the Planet re-adjustin' or summit. Always messed with tha electrics though, but we don't use all that many anyway.”

“So, this has happened before while you've been in contact to Reeve?” Nanaki asked, taking his paws from the countertop to hop down with a clatter of beads.

“Sure has,” Barret nodded. “Nuthin' ta worry about, sure he's figured out what's goin' on his end. Jes' means it's gunna take a lil' while 'fore we can talk to 'im again. Gotta sit the storm out.”

“How long do these go on for?” Tifa asked, rubbing her arms at the sudden chill that blew into the room.

“Hard ta say. Can be anywhere from thirty minutes to a couple'a hours or so.” The ex-AVALANCHE leader rubbed the back of his neck before twisting it from side to side. “'Sides, it's gettin' pretty late as is. I'll catch up with Reeve later, fer now I gotta try and figure out where y'all be sleeping for the next few days.”

Tifa stiffened. “Wait, 'few days'? I thought we were only staying the night?”

Barret tensed in response and regarded her with wary consideration. Overall, it amounted to a look that simply said, 'Aw shit.'

“It can't take you that long to gather up people to help rebuild, right?” she ventured, turning from the tired fumbles of Cait Sith and Yuffie as they passed the buzzing PHS between them in vain.

“... Naw, it won't. But I also wanna see Reeve here to make sure everythin' goes smooth, and who knows how long that'll be. It's also a good time as any to ask round and gather intel.”

Yuffie perked up at this. “Yeah, I wouldn't mind asking round town to see if anyone has any Materia.” The ninja caught herself with a blink. “I- I mean, purely in the name of scientific research, of course!”

“Hmm...” Red XIII joined in with a pensive rumble deep in his throat. “If you plan to explore the community, then may I also accompany you?” The fire-dog met Yuffie's dumbfounded stare with his own of cool intrigue. “If what Reeve spoke of is indeed correct, I would like to observe the townsfolk and their newfound way of life without Mako.”

While the two teenagers began a tenuous quarrel, (or at least, one of them considered a teenager by his species' standards,) Tifa crossed her arms tightly under her chest and turned away. The fighter was completely absorbed in thought even as Marlene and Denzel rushed into the room to eagerly peer over the sink at the spectacle outside. She vaguely heard Nanaki speak to them in calm tones, his reassurance easing the unnerved tension which clung to the room like static.

Barret watched her carefully, his extenuation weighing heavy on his shoulders.

He didn't need to ask what she was thinking; he already knew. And it wasn't a question of what, but rather, who.

He resigned himself with a sigh and settled a gigantic hand on her shoulder. “How 'bout we talk it over in tha mornin'. It's real late. 'Bout time everyone head to bed. I know I'm beat.”

Tifa gave a slow nod and her old friend began to muse out loud of their sleeping arrangements, from the beaten old sofa in his living area to some spare blankets in Marlene's room and an extra mattress stashed away in his own. He also noted a spare hammock on the roof but, given the current weather, ruled it out as a viable place to sleep for the night. Nanaki occasionally provided his own thoughts during brief interludes of the storm, a calm presence amidst the crackle of lightning which sent the two children scurrying under the table. Despite their capers and mischief charged by the thunder, fatigue followed their every footstep and it wasn't long before the pair were rubbing their eyes in the dim lantern light.

Pocketing his PHS with a snap, Barret terminated the call and accompanying buzz of static while Yuffie took it upon herself to guide the children to bed. (A selfless act for Yuffie, Tifa noted, but one that she quickly came to realise was just a guise for her to pick out the better of the beds.) The ninja wasn't completely ignorant to the fighter's gaze and she shot a cheeky grin over her shoulder, when suddenly it fell with a flicker of her eyes. Tifa's own fluttered in turn and she rose a solitary slender brow, but before she could open her mouth, the teen positively beamed at her with a flash of white teeth and mischievous eyes.

Yuffie trot from the room with her two charges and an extra bounce in her step, just as Barret turned around with a very small cup pinched between two fingers, leaving Tifa decidedly uncomfortable.

Her old friend stopped dead with a telltale tick of his brow. “What the hell? Where's Vince?”

Tifa snapped from her baffled musing to tear her eyes from the stone archway Yuffie had disappeared under. Her gaze fell upon the space that should have be occupied by a crimson cape, but instead she found it to be empty and indeed Valentine-less. Tifa cast probing eyes to the other two occupants in the room and received a cock of the head and shrug of the shoulders from Red XIII and Cait Sith respectively. She could practically hear Barret's patience tick away like a live bomb while the cogs of her mind ticked to their own rhythmic reasoning.

'If I were Vincent, where would I...'

A spark of realisation hit her as sure as the lightning fell to earth. “I think I know where he is.” Her sudden blurt earned her an incredulous stare from Barret, but before he could ask questions, she held out her hand. When he continued to stare, she clarified, “Here, I'll take it to him.”

Her old friend opened his mouth but, at a loss for words, simply closed it again. Silent, he passed the small enamel cup to her before turning away and muttering something about certain people being, 'a pain in the ass.' With that, Tifa left the room with a sweep of long legs and leather duster just as Yuffie returned, the teen barely skipping from the fighter's path as she made a hasty retreat.

The ninja threw her arms out with an appalled gape as if to say, 'What's the deal?!' but Barret cut her off with a stern glance.

“Don't even ask. I dunno when she got so damn good at reading him, an' frankly, I don't wanna know.”

“Huh? 'Him'?” Yuffie threw her hands over her hips and she cast her eyes over the room before they lit up with realisation. “You talking about Vinnie?”

“Naw, tha weather,” Barret rolled his own of burnt umber as a flash of lightning illuminated the room, accentuating them with a brief glimmer. “The hell do you think?”

“Gawd, no need to take it out on me!” Yuffie huffed through the subsequent rumble of thunder that followed in way of agreement. She turned away with a twirl of headband ribbons, an unusual pensive flutter to her tone as she tapped her chin with a lone finger. “But is it just me, or are those two... I dunno... closer?”

“I too gathered that impression,” Red XIII chimed in as he padded by the table, allowing Cait Sith to hop from its surface and into the fire-dog's mane. “What made you arrive to the same conclusion, Yuffie?”

“Ooooh, nothing. A girl's gotta have her secrets!” the teen grinned. Unbeknownst to the others, she'd fallen preoccupied with the lone daffodil she'd spotted hanging from Tifa's duster earlier. Her previous suggestion to a certain gunslinger hung fresh in her mind and, while she ultimately teased Vincent to level the playing field of who she pestered in the party, she hadn't actually expected him to follow through with it. Her smile faded when a more sombre thought formed and she scratched the side of her cheek. “I guess I noticed 'cause Vinnie's been actin' kinda... weird.”

“Well, that ain't no secret,” Barret shrugged, running thick fingers through his coarse beard as Red and himself shared a shrewd look of acknowledgement between each other. Cait Sith crossed his arms from his seat in-between the spikes of Nanaki's mohawk, but if the cat noticed the exchange, he said nothing of it. “But yeah, it's sumthin' I noticed myself,” Barret nodded. “Since Vince helped her out back in Edge, I'd say Tif's been goin' out her way to, I dunno... keep an eye on 'im or summat.”

“Oor maybe we're readin' too much intae it!” Cait Sith piped up, causing Red's ears to flick back from the sudden voice between them. “Then again, ah'd say good ol' Vinnie's bin givin' Tifa thae same treatment.”

“Huh? Edge? Yuffie blinked. “What happened back in Edge?” When it became apparent no one was about to answer her question anytime soon, the ninja stomped her laced boot in annoyance. “Come on, spill! I can't believe there's some juicy details I don't know about!”

Barret shook his head and ran a hand over his face, the dim lighting making his features appear more haggard than what they actually were. “I think that's a story you should be askin' Tif' for, not me. Anyway, it's late. I'm gonna turn in, so if you wanna know where yer sleepin' tonight, quit with the questions.”

A jingle of tassels told the gun-armed man that Nanaki nodded in agreement. He picked up the lantern from the table and made to extinguish the flame, all the while ignoring the pout of a certain ninja, when a sly glimmer took to her eyes.

“I already know where I'm sleeping tonight,” Yuffie drawled through a drawn out stretch reminiscent of a cat. “Marlene graciously asked me to be her guest. But hey, if you don't feel like telling me, that's fine... but I miiiight let it slip to Marlene that it was actually you who broke her wind-up Moogle toy.”

Barret froze. Cait Sith clapped two gloved hands over his muzzle just as the ex-AVALANCHE leader spun to face the teen. “What the?! How tha HELL do you even know about that?!” he hissed.

Another flash of lightning and rattling boom of thunder, before Yuffie answered round a cat-like grin.

“Oooh, you know... a girl's gotta have her secrets!”

Barret balked as Red barked out a laugh and Cait Sith's whiskers twitched in mirth. The pair left the room in a tired trot and made for their makeshift beds, Nanaki's tail-flame acting as a guide and comforting glow in the darkness of the thunderstorm. Barret shot the ninja one more stare of disbelief before he made the decision to check up on the children, finally snuffing out the lantern flame.

Even as the light faded, Yuffie's grin never did.

'Forget the sugar, revenge is much sweeter!'

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter XXIX – Shots in the Dark

 

Lightning lanced through the sky like lava through his bones; thunder soon echoed his throes and rolled with his shoulder.

Vincent Valentine was in pain.

The gunslinger grunted and pressed further into the stack of wooden crates he reclined upon. Hot pokers skewered his flesh, skin set to tingle with an aftercurrent not dissimilar to the charge that hung in the air from the resulting storm. So great was the rumble of clouds that he almost failed to notice the one strained and pulled from cold, dead lips.

'Ti-iimme... r-ottss...'

Ebony brows fell further than the beads of perspiration that trickled down his temple. Receding into the depths of his subconscious, the stitched mass of flesh and rotting muscle drug split knuckles across the cognitive lake of his mind, coating it in a thick layer of ice. His brain thrummed with a hazy, unnatural chill and Vincent grit his teeth, his mind buzzing like a particularly bad bout of brain freeze.

Then again, his was almost a literal case of it.

A sudden image flashed through the tundra blanket and ivory glare Death Gigas had draped across his skull; a glimpse of a dress. Ripples of soft cotton and wisps of long hair. A teasing dash of colour...

Brown. The woman's hair was brown.

Laboured breath hung in his throat when another molten whip of agony lashed across his collarbone. Air expelled from his lungs in a strained gasp only to be lost in a crack of thunder so deep the very clouds near sundered under its bellow. Despite the clash of whatever deities warred above, the small town of Corel remained remarkably at peace, the majority of the conflict carried out in the heavens above. The atmosphere swirled with a tension unlike any storm Vincent had ever come to known. A wind so little it was but a passing zephyr on a summer's day, while something dark and terrible waged war between earth and sky. The closest he could compare the turmoil was to the endless struggle raging within his own mind – a timeless battle of man versus demon.

But, for him, it was four against one.

As if sensing his thoughts, a deep laugh reverberated through the bone plates of his skull, unbridled derision shaking the fine sutures which melded each section together. The tranquil tundra within his head was suddenly thrown out of proportion, his thoughts nothing but fragments of haze and snow, each to fall in a flurry of white vertigo behind his eyes like a small child shaking a snowglobe.

He clenched his eyes and swallowed deep in nausea. Fire in his shoulder and ice in his head, a throbbing he couldn't quite remember yet didn't care to recall – much like that fantastical landscape of paper flowers and endless sky; it only brought suffering and confusion. His senses were falling waste to whatever laid siege at his gates, his walls crumbling under its onslaught...

“There you are. I thought I'd find you here.”

Vincent's back stiffened as another fork of dazzling neon split the sky.

Tifa.

Crimson eyes opened to peer over the valley of folds that made up his mantle, seeking out the unmistakable honeyed lilt of the fighter's voice over the rolls of thunder. Across the roof of Barret's crumbling abode, slim fingers latched onto the sides of a hatchway before Tifa Lockhart pulled herself up through the square opening. A delicate demitasse cup was pushed to rest safely by her hip, and only when its security was assured did she sweep her legs up through the remainder of the gap. Despite the awkward display, she still carried a certain grace only achieved through many years of honing her body into a fine weapon.

The woman rose and patted down the dust from her leathers, taking a moment to sweep curious russet's across the roof. It wasn't unlike the rest of Barret's abode rugged and worn like the man himself. Various crates of unknown content littered the concrete flat, along with grave fissures that Tifa couldn't help but wonder if they affected the integrity of the main structure at all. What mostly caught her eye, however, was the lone hammock that hung beneath a patched and ragged sheet suspiciously in the shape of a boat's sail. Bound to strong steel poles with spare rigging that all appeared to be remnants from an old ship's mast, the orange canvas swayed sunnily to and fro beneath a broken black sky.

Tifa took a moment to taste the air, an ionized tingle on the tongue, before falling into a crouch to scoop up the cup she'd left on the cleft floor. Rising quickly so the act was more of a bounce, she made her way to the stack of crates piled in the corner by the hammock and to Vincent's side.

“You forgot your coffee,” she smiled, dim and plastic. Crimson eyes acknowledged her, a brilliant red to pierce the dark and gloom like brake lights through fog. Swallowing down the gasp stuck in her throat, Tifa gingerly set the cup down on a nearby box.

She stood for a moment, shifting from foot to foot, rubbing her left elbow before she murmured, “... You should get it before it gets cold.”

Vincent barely moved. “Perhaps you should retire before you fall the same.”

Thin brows furrowed. Tifa watched him and Vincent watched back, nothing but the thunder raging between them. Eventually, the fistfighter turned away. Vincent's hardened gaze fell upon her countenance, back rigid and muscles taut from an emotion he recognised only all too well. A psychological glass pane rattled by a different kind of storm; visceral and wild. Hers was on the verge of breaking.

His gaze relaxed. “... The hour grows late. You should rest.”

Tifa continued to peer into the darkness that swathed Corel and its sea of lanterns. Pinpricks of light pierced the umbra like fine needles and, when Tifa turned her eyes to meet his own, Vincent could see their fiery glimmers captured in her depths like fireflies in a jar.

“Actually, I wanted to talk. To you,” she clarified, noting the almost imperceptible tilt of the gunslinger's head. In actuality, Vincent was chasing her words after breaking from the trance of her eyes.

He regarded her carefully, taking equal care to pull his shoulder into a more natural position, before he swallowed and answered thickly, “Is now a good time?”

It was a rhetoric Tifa didn't care for and she answered by way of shifting the Turkish coffee from his side and taking its place on the crate instead. Situating the tiny cup neatly in her lap, she secured its seat with lithe fingers wrapped around what little warmth was left in the ceramic. She stared deep into its foamed depths as if she would find all her answers there and Vincent stilled by her side, conscious in the knowledge that Tifa Lockhart wouldn't take no as a sufficient answer from him.

Fatigue brushed it's fingers deep into the corner of her eyes, and Tifa attempted to chase away the wisps of purple with the heel of her palms, but somehow only managed to appear even more tired than when she first rubbed at her lashes. Vincent regarded her with wary resignation, allowing her all the time she needed to gather her thoughts while he took the opportunity to rebuild his mental walls. When he caught a glimmer of water gather in the corner of her eyes, he could no longer hold his silence.

“Are you in any trouble?” he asked, a note of concern laced through his timbre.

Tifa blinked as if startled by the simple question, before a wry smile crept over her face. “I wouldn't say I'm in trouble,” she said, words soft. “More like I have them. If anything, I'd say it's you who's in trouble.”

The fighter smothered a yawn behind a gloved fist while Vincent gave a single stunned blink in return. Realising he'd mistaken her lethargy for tears, he numbly observed her while sleet crept across his skull and worked it's jagged fingers into the cracks of his psyche. Words were hacked and severed with a dead tongue before being equally pulled from dead lips.

'Taa-ke res-ponsi-bili-ty. Fa-ace the gal-llows.'

“To what burden of guilt do I bear?”

Vincent pointedly ignored the voice that whispered of murder and attempted feticide; a beautiful woman lying still on the floor of his mind as her skin slowly turned the colour of porcelain.

Worryingly, he didn’t know if the voice was his own or his demon's.

Tifa blinked rapidly and was quick to lower her hand, all trace of tears now carried on her lashes like dew drops on grass. “'Guilt'? Why are you talking like that? It's not like you've committed a crime or anything.”

Oh, how wrong she was, Vincent thought. Instead, he held his silence, the air only punctuated by the deep bass of thunder and slow beat of orange canvas on lazy winds. Tifa watched him for a moment, anticipation dancing behind her eyes, before she took a soft breath and turned back to peer into the murky depths of his Turkish coffee.

“I wouldn't say you're guilty of anything, Vincent. Unless you count all those hints about your past job something to hold yourself deeply accountable for.”

Black brows furrowed beneath crimson bandanna. “My 'past job'?” He discreetly tilt his head.

Tifa hummed in agreement. “Don't you remember? Though it has been quite some time, hasn't it. I wouldn’t blame you if you forgot.”

The gunslinger tucked his chin deep into his cowl as he sunk into equally deep retrospect. Pain and frost lay in pockets across his mind like mines in a field, making it difficult for him to recollect anything from its treacherous terrain. Instead, he simply found shrapnel; fragments of picture and colour he couldn't quite piece together through the small sun searing his shoulder.

All he could envision was that damnable dress. That plane of bone-bleached flowers... and blood. So much blood. It trickled from the corner of silken lips, muttering wordlessly as a withered hand reached for his own in the sticky, pooling lake of crimson that grew between them. A distance marked by two different rooms. Two different graves. Too much blood. Too much death. Too many secrets.

Thunder rattled his skeleton and the closet of flesh that concealed it.

“... Hmph.”

“It was shortly after we found... woke, you. Cloud, myself, and...” Tifa's larynx bobbed with a swallow. “Right after we left the Shinra Mansion.” Lightning branched and cleft the night with neon spikes, the sheer illumination pulling the fighter's eyes skyward. “Before we met up with the others at the foot of Mt. Nibel, Cloud asked you to keep the details of your past with Shinra a secret.” A lopsided smile played on her lips. “I guess he got enough trouble from Barret back then to know how much trouble he'd give you, too, if he found out.”

Vague images began to form, coming together like a foggy mosaic through the pain shrouding his mind. Clarity soon came with it and Vincent hummed, a light and mellifluous sound compared to his usual grunts and rumbles. Three years was a long time to recall any memory, but the day he was liberated from his nightmares by an ex-SOLDIER, a sole surviving Ancient, and a strong-willed fistfighter, was a day he would forever find difficult to forget.

He quickly recounted his slips over the evening: his clipped introduction with Barret's associate, Esther, then the implications brought forth by his admittance of preferred coffee taste. The resulting noise pulled from his throat was all the affirmation Tifa needed and she took a moment to smile at the sound, pleased. Her fingers teased along the rim of the coffee cup in her lap and she tucked a loose lock of hair behind her ear. Vincent watched the silken strand join the chocolate waves of its brethren. A focus through the pain. He breathed. “I will take more care with my words, henceforth.”

Tifa's eyes softened. “You always do.”

A gentle breeze rippled through his cape, causing it to billow in light flutters like a newborn bird testing its wings. The cool wind offered a momentary respite and the gunslinger relished the chill it blessed to his sweat soaked temple. Lanterns scattered below hummed to their own beat, swelling and ebbing in a tempo of orange flickers, their flames dancing with the passing zephyr. Vincent's shoulder thrummed to its own unheard rhythm; the unmistakable war drum of injury. Spots danced before his eyes and whether it was from Corel's lamps, the streaks of lightning, or his own wound, he was unsure. The crimson bleed of his gaze stemmed as he took a moment to consolidate his composure.

'My wound has had ample time to heal... is something preventing the regeneration process?'

The thought almost bothered him more than the misplaced heartbeat that pulsed steady under his collarbone. Vincent was by no means impervious to injury; he had taken more than his fair share of blows during their journey three years ago, as did they all. But his demons allowed him to recover faster than the average man. They didn't heal such grave damage with instancy, but in time they did nullify the pain and eventually treat the wound. For something to impede that process meant it, too, impeded his demons. Losing control, however, was another matter entirely.

He stooped his shoulder, that ever present heartbeat pumping what felt like lava around the upper extremities of his chest. Head throbbing with the vision of white petals and pale apparitions, it was only when Tifa's yawn reached his ears over the thunder that he came to his senses. He inwardly berate himself.

Too focused on the dead, did he forget the state of the living.

“Tifa.” He near startled the woman with her spoken name and watched her spine straighten, slim fingers set to clasp a little more tightly around the cup in her lap. Tired russets focused with curious intent while lightning flashed in brilliant splendour overhead. Despite her evident fatigue and concerns answered to what appeared to be to her satisfaction, the fighter yet remained. Suspecting an ulterior motive – or topic – was at hand, Vincent decided to address the issue. “Is there something else I can assist you with?”

The tight furrow of her brow eased for a moment before it was reined in once more. Tifa searched the distance for something invisible to the glowing eye as she struggled with something equally indiscernible to the gunslinger. Fingertips wandered from the smooth curve of porcelain in her lap to play with the hem of her duster pocket, and only then did Vincent note the lone daffodil that hung neatly from its edge.

“Has Denzel yet to reacquire his gift?”

Tifa's lips thinned at the sudden question, fingers near flinching as they brushed against the flower's mellow petals. Thunder rolled.

“He... wanted me to keep it.” Something in the fighter's tone suggested a mind steeped in troubled rumination and Vincent fought against the furrow of his own brow. Decisively putting an end to his own enquiries, he remained within the comforts of his own social boundaries and allowed Tifa the same in turn. The sky growled as the night took a long breath, Vincent's cape twisting in crimson curls at his back. Tifa's duster waved to the hammock behind which fluttered lazily in riposte. An orange wafture.

'How can I explain Denzel's behaviour to Vincent when I don't even understand it myself?' Tifa teased the vibrant daffodil crown in her pocket. Not only had the boy's actions been growing increasingly strange as of late, but she also had Vincent's own demeanour to mentally contend with. Both man and child were adamant in their reluctance to show emotion, reminding her only all too well of the childhood friend she dearly wished to find. Her heart throbbed with painful yearning.

Cloud's name was the first thing on her mind, but the last thing on her breath.

Slight yet deceptively strong fingers drift from the sunny corona to the rectangular shape that lay hidden within her leathers. Tifa took in the dry, static-charged air and willed it to inspirit her sudden, impetuous decision. Setting the Turkish coffee down to reside by her hip, the fighter manoeuvred her hand around the flower in her duster to pull at the book that weighed on her mind as heavily as it did in her pocket.

The ledger revealed itself from her utility pouch and crimson eyes homed in on the leather-bound like the laser sights of a sniper. Tifa squared her shoulders, willing herself undeterred though her heart jumped in her stead. Before the man could even think to give voice to his curiosity, Tifa held the object of his attention out towards him. A beat passed; slow and languid. Vincent took it without word. Blood-red eyes flicked from the ledger in his hand to catch her own – a silent enquiry.

Tifa nodded.

Angular fingers snapped back the book's clasp as deftly as pulling a gun's trigger before they opened the soft cover and thumbed through the pages. The fighter remained silent, heart thrumming in tandem with the lanterns. She watched the gunslinger with an unobtrusive air, marking the subtleties of his equanimity as he studied the written accounts in his hand. The deepening crease of his bandanna. The small twitch of his index against the book's spine. A flickering of molten irises as he scanned the page… Focus resolute.

Suddenly, Tifa felt like she was studying the past. Seeing the glimpse of a man who read status reports and mission files. A man who wore navy suits over crimson capes. A man that once was.

'I wonder... just who did you used to be, Vincent Valentine?'

As she peered at the gunslinger, an idea struck her as surely as the lightning flashed overhead; slight, yet brilliant. Vincent looked different now, not only in her mind's eye but also to her literal russets. He unfolded, his entire body rising with his eyebrows. His stooped spine straightened from the almost gargoylian posture he'd undertaken, the hunched folds of his mantle melting to roll down his back in a cascade of crimson. His glowing eyes, once glued to a singular name scribbled across the page, now pinned her to her seat.

“Tifa.” The gravitas of her spoken name was almost as tangible as the electric charge in the air. It stole her breath, but she was quick to steal it back.

“Vincent, you can track, right?”

Her whispered question hung in the air, almost lost to the thunder grumbling its discontentment above. Blood-red eyes narrowed in grave acknowledgement. The gunslinger studied her carefully, and she could almost see him tossing the words over in his mind. Finally, he replied, “... My detail in the Turks was espionage. Reconnaissance, and...” Vincent paused, hesitance crossing his features by way of an almost wrinkled nose, “... wetwork.”

Tifa tilt her head, confusion outweighing her surprise that Vincent had shared anything about himself at all. “Wetwork?” she echoed. When the man drew into himself with a curt tuck of chin in cowl, Tifa mentally filed the term away for later.

“For how long has Cloud been missing?” The question was direct, like a bullet's trajectory to the heart, and Tifa had to fight to expel air from her lungs. Though it only made sense Vincent would ask such questions, it was a different matter entirely for Tifa to be facing the subject so openly after hiding her worry for so long. It was a complicated knot of emotions that wound itself in her stomach, one that Tifa had no hope of disentangling in one night. So she took that bullet and bit it between the teeth.

“It's been about... two weeks, I think.” She gave a brisk shake of her head as if that would dislodge the answer from her jumbled mind. Fatigue burned her eyes. “Yes. Two weeks,” she nodded, the slight warble of her voice now steady with her answer.

Vincent watched her for a moment before he turned back to the pages in hand, a stray wind teasing his ebony mane to chase the valley of folds that ran across his mantle. His eyes scanned the ink, their glow stemmed only by a lazy blink of his lashes, two flickering candles trapped behind glass. “... I see,” he rumbled, pinching thumb and fingers together to clap the book deftly shut. “Two weeks is ample time for a trail to grow cold.” Tifa opened her mouth but he continued, a different kind of fire in his eyes: stoked; renewed. “Yet this is dated four days ago. Am I correct to assume this is the same book you picked up in the basement of Costa del Sol's villa?”

Tifa's jaw hung loose as she stared at the gunslinger. Thunder growled, deep, low, and distant. The cupid's bow of her lips pursed and she nodded. Vincent held the book in steady regard before he moved to hand the ledger back to its rightful owner. Tifa took it without a word, returning the leather-bound once more to its place within her leather pocket. Free from her searing gaze, Vincent turned his attention to the burn inlaid in his shoulder, molten muscles pulled in hopes of reprieve. Twangs of lava twist his collarbone and steeled his jaw.

'I now better understand her behaviour since Costa del Sol... but is this a truth worth knowing?' Vincent drew in the parched air and petroleum burn of oil lamps. While it was no secret the fighter pined for their missing once-leader, to know the particulars of his disappearance and clues had, in fact, been carefully concealed was a bitter pill for him to swallow. 'It appears even Tifa Lockhart has something to hide...'

Vincent's stomach curled in distaste. Too many secrets. Too few answers.

“I don't expect you to do this for nothing, Vincent. What I'm asking of you is... unfair. After all, it's not your problem...” She fiddled with the white hem of her shirt. “I know you have your own reasons for joining us on this journey, and I don't disparage you any of them.” Here, her russets captured his own irises snared in flame. “But if you help me find Cloud, I'll help you with whatever you need. No questions asked.”

Vincent's gaze hardened like cooling magma. “You don't know what you speak of, Tifa–”

“Oh, don't give me that,” she huffed. “I'm perfectly aware of what I'm offering. I can't ask a friend for a favour without returning–”

“Nibelheim.”

Tifa's words turned to ash in her mouth. “What?”

Vincent peered at her from over his cowl and under his bandanna at her squeak, a careful mask of impassivity set over his features. It revealed nothing. “It is imperative for me to journey to Nibelheim. In turn... I will track Cloud and assist you in your search.” A pause. A crack in the shield; a quick turn of the eye. “Know that if I had any other choice in the matter...” Voices suddenly howled in his skull like an insane maelstrom. Brimstone eyes seized and rattled in hollow sockets like a criminal would the bars of his cell.

'I would pull you downdowndown drowndrownDROWN! SUFFOCATE. WITH. ME!'

“It's okay, Vincent.” Her voice coaxed him back, but her own focus remained on the daffodil peeking over the rim of her duster pocket. “You might have been gone for a long time, but I like to think I know you well enough by now. Any reason you have is a good one, and that's good enough for me. You don't need to explain it.”

Her inflection was just as unreadable as her expression and after a few moments, Vincent gave up trying to decrypt it. Their pact gave him much to think upon, as did the terminology she'd used for him.

'Friend...'

His eyes turned to the sky then. He blinked. Then blinked again. The brief lapse of sanguine glow pulled Tifa's russets to follow and the sight stole her breath all over again.

The storm had discreetly moved on during their discussion, its thunder now a bored grumble over the distant desert of the Gold Saucer. The lightning had followed, its once dazzling tridents now a tired sliver that brought tiny grains of sand beneath to glitter. What caught their attention, however, was the smoky grey curtain of clouds that had been pulled from the sky, revealing a front row seat to the picture show of the universe. Hundreds and thousands of merry stars fell across the night in a crystalline band, steady in a galactic stream whose course was only plotted to time. Diamonds spilt over black silk, they twinkled and winked to their sole onlookers; a secret promised just for them.

Vincent and Tifa both forgot to breathe.

“... I've never...” Words were lost in the sheer heliosphere before them and Tifa was quick to give up on trying. Vincent managed a light grunt in response, bleeding eyes trained on the cascade of jewels set in the heavens. The lanterns of Corel were suddenly a very poor imitation.

'Not since I was a child in Nibelheim, or the projection in Bugenhagen's observatory have I seen something so...' Bugenhagen. Nibelheim. … Cloud. The thought brought Tifa crashing down from her cosmic flight. Just how many had they lost to achieve this? To see the sky the way it was meant to be seen, unmarred by light pollution nor blotted by Shinra's gruesome Mako Reactors? On retracing their steps from three years ago, it was hard not to think of their original journey across the Planet. And the price they'd all paid for it.

Tifa suddenly felt humbled and ashamed all at once. Overwhelmed. Did they really deserve the Planet's forgiveness? How could they? Humans had almost destroyed this – destroyed everything – out of unparalleled avarice and selfish greed. Something heavy and indescribable settled on her chest. A deep ache that surpassed even the well of tears her eyes could draw upon. Her soul wept.

“Tifa?” Vincent's voice was quiet, as if speaking alone would break whatever spell had been cast. Crimson eyes held steady on her form. Intent, alert, and somehow, she personally noted... soft.

“I want... to fix this. To fix everything.” Her heart spoke, the words spilling from her mouth without control. She shook her head. “All the damage we did to the Planet... how can it show us something so beautiful, after all the abuse we caused?”

Her question was answered with the celestial hum of stars. The pit in Tifa's chest began to gnaw at its gaping edges, when Vincent's sonorous timbre joined the resonance.

“... Sometimes it's damage that makes things beautiful.” He avoided her eyes, voice barely a whisper above the night's wind.

Tifa cocked her head. “... Vincent...?”

“The same way we must make mistakes in order to learn from them. It grants us wisdom; carves out a history from our harm. From there, we are given a choice. What we choose to do with that choice, to either learn from our actions or continue on in ignorance... that is where true beauty lies.”

Tifa stared at the man who reclined beside her, his gaze resolute on a distance marked by time rather than space. She could only in her wildest dreams fathom what he saw there. His words echoed in her mind and chased away the shadows of her heart, that dark, empty pit of her chest withering. It was then replaced by something else, something equally as deep. It gripped her throat and shook her shoulders, working its way up from her stomach to her heart, until it burst forth and freed itself from her mouth.

Tifa giggled. Then chuckled. Then, she laughed.

She waved away stunned crimson while rubbing at her own eyes, the burn behind them growing ever more persistent by the passing minute. She soon regained her composure, humour toying her lips as it lift her gaze to the sky. She answered the question he'd yet to speak.

“I'm just... so glad you're here. I don't know what I'd do if you weren't.”

Silence met her admission, but for Tifa, that was okay. It was a silence she knew, of the other two people she might have confided in, would have been filled quickly by Barret or left to awkwardly linger by Cloud. But with Vincent, it was accepted like an old friend and allowed to settle around their shoulders like the very mantle he wore. Its weight was an anodyne that eased her own.

'I think I understand. The Planet shows us this because we're learning. Thank you, Vincent. I know better now. We know better now.'

They stayed like that for countless moments, the world spinning on its axis in the inevitable tide of time, unaware of the two souls who sat and watched the starscape play out from billions of miles away. Corel slept soundly beneath the whirling galaxy, undisturbed and oblivious much like the rest of the world. Minutes trickled by, as did the night itself. When Vincent's eyes traced a shooting star across the sky to fall over the crown of Tifa's head, his eyes followed to find her head was now in fact resting gently on her chest, chin tucked neatly into the crux of her collarbone.

Vincent blinked. 'Since when did I fail to notice her slumber?'

The orange hammock beat out a laugh behind him. Vincent took a moment to wrestle with his indecision, his first instinct suitably quashed on account of the fire raging through his shoulder. He was in no fit condition to carry her. Nor did he wish to disturb Barret at such a late hour for information regarding sleeping arrangements. With no other course of action, Vincent mentally steeled himself – much as he had that particular night in Kalm – and reached out a wary hand. He hesitated over the slim curve of her shoulder before brushing gloved fingertips over her arm.

“Mmm...”

She was cold. The frigid winds of the desert blew in from the Gold Saucer and, though the breeze was light, the cooling sands were enough to elicit goosebumps over any uncovered skin. It was enough of a temperature drop for Vincent to notice through his leathers and he gently pressed his full palm to her shoulder with more urgency.

“Tifa.”

“Hmm... Huh? O-oh!” The fighter startled awake, hopping from her seat and sending the long since ignored cup of coffee by her side jostling towards the edge. Vincent dived to catch the crockery with a solitary finger while Tifa rubbed at her bleary eyes, her attempts to focus mixed with croaky mumbles and a slue of apologies. “Sorry, I must have... nodded off...”

Vincent nodded, carefully unhooking his finger from the cup's handle and setting the disturbed coffee back onto the crate. He hid his face deep beneath crimson folds and fought the grimace that came as a cost to his quick reflexes. His collarbone screamed like a thousand ailing souls in the Lifestream.

“Perhaps it is time you retired.” He busied himself with drawing into a posture that appeared more natural. “... The Planet will still be here when you wake,” he added.

Tifa smiled at that, a faint turn of the lips before she hummed in agreement. “Maybe,” she murmured, rubbing her arms. “But I also remember when it almost wasn't.”

The sudden sobriety to her words washed over the gunslinger and he took a moment to peer up at the stars. For a chilling moment, one more chilling than the desert sands, Vincent could almost feel that terrible, oppressive shadow of Meteor once more. His nausea returned with a vengeance.

“You know...” Tifa took a moment to fight against the yawn that stretched her jaw wide, “... the only thing more insulting to Barret... than asking for Turkish coffee... is not drinking it.” Her body was racked with a violent shiver then, as if the very notion brought ill feeling. Or perhaps, Vincent thought, someone had crossed her grave. Though given Tifa's words, he was almost inclined to believe it was Barret getting ready to walk over his own. “Please make sure you drink some, Vincent.”

Exhaustion and injury crept upon him, if the throbbing of his collarbone and pounding of his head were any indication, and so he decided to appease the woman as best he could. He picked up the tiny cup and gave a slight nod, long nose dipping to brush with his cowl's edge. “I will endeavour to finish it.”

Tifa suppressed a snort and waved him away almost drunkenly in her fatigued state. “Endeavour is to try. You promised.”

“Promise? I did not...”

Vincent blinked, the overwhelming sense of déjà vu momentarily quelling his pain. If Tifa's eyes sparkled from the stars, the lanterns, or mirth, he couldn't tell. She blessed him with a warm smile – a real smile – and, with a sway of her hips that sent her duster dancing, left him with the ghost of her past self to whisper in his skull.

'No, but your actions were enough.'

Vincent studied the demitasse cup pinched between thumb and forefinger, when the shrill protest of a zip being pulled along its metal teeth met his ears. His head snapped towards the interruption, when...

'… !'

Just as quickly he snapped it away, almost dropping his cup in the process. Vincent winced: more at the lecherous wolf-whistle from Hellmasker than at the brief glimpse of Tifa tugging her vest off. He forcefully threw the leering demon from his psychosomatic doorstep.

“... What... are you doing?” he ventured, taking every ounce of his self-control to keep his voice level.

Tifa stood by the orange hammock situated behind the crates where he reclined, casually bundling her leather vest up into folds. She knead the crumpled edges with her palms before answering in way of a tired drawl, “Making sure the Planet stays where I left it.”

Vincent listened for the telltale ruffle of additional articles being removed. Only when he found none did he slowly, cautiously, turn his head; the only sound of clothing his own click of buckles and rumple of leather. Clad in her sleeveless white shirt, Tifa placed her folded vest at the head of the hammock before chasing away the indigo shadows beneath her eyes. Though discreet, the tremor which ran through her arms did not go unnoticed when a languid wind teased her tresses.

Head swaying back and forth in tandem with the hammock, she began to seek out what Vincent could only assume to be a blanket to join her makeshift pillow. He set down his coffee and joined in her surveyal, eyes finding nothing of note, though he grew partially distracted by the slight tremble of her jaw. Something brewed in his chest then, a feeling so potent that his own pain shrivelled and died in its shadow. He recognised it easily, but hadn't felt its full strength towards another in over thirty years. It furrowed his brow and set to etch a line across his temple that would inherit its name.

Despite her clear intentions, Vincent still felt the need to make a prudent observation on her ill-thought out place of rest. He opened his mouth to dispute but stopped before he began. Tifa was in the midst of a grand stretch, her back arched like a cat and revealing a thin series of scars that danced around her hipbones like silver ribbons. One in particular caught his attention; long, thin, and most certainly not a stretch mark. It snaked around her right hip with a tail the colour of liquid mercury, when suddenly it disappeared.

Vincent's gaze snapped from the shirt pulled down in a white-knuckled grip to the fighter who now shied away from him – a complete contrast to the confident, lazy stretch she'd just performed moments ago. Tifa avoided him by settling on the hammock, easing and testing her weight against the taut fabric with caution. The ship's aged rigging held steady with little protest and, with a slight lack of grace and fumbling hammocks were renowned to cause, Tifa eventually hauled herself into the orange cradle and swung her legs over without much incident.

The hole-ridden boat sail held most of Tifa's focus as she squirmed beneath it, worming her head up to rest on the makeshift pillow of her leather vest. Finally she settled, tired russets seeking out the sky through holes in the canopy like a navigator charting stars through a telescope. Vincent watched her for a moment, or rather the shiver of her form through the hammock's fabric, before he turned away. Her scar persist throughout his mind until time was kind in recollecting a memory for him.

'It matches the same distinct pattern I caught marred on her left shoulder in Junon. But for the two to be connected would mean...' Vincent's eyes narrowed at the imagery. An injury that ran longer than neck to navel. A trench carved in flesh and blood. '… It was a grave wound indeed.'

Clearly the woman had survived this stroke with death. And yet the idea that something had almost killed Tifa Lockhart... it sent a niggling under his skin he couldn't quite identify. Vincent swallowed down the sickness steeped deep in his stomach and straightened, shaking himself from his own morbid musing. When he peered back at the fighter with new eyes at this revelation, he instead found his brow jumping to disappear under his sweat-ridden bandanna.

In what could have only been a few short minutes, Tifa had finally succumbed to slumber.

Vincent breathed a quiet sigh of relief and released the taut muscles of his searing shoulder. Her fatigue had been growing predominantly worse as the night progressed, to the point sleep deprivation had crossed his mind more than twice. While it was an ironic notion that he may have been the one to direct her to bed, he wasn't above the idea if it meant ensuring her well-being. On further study, he noted at some point during his brooding she had unhooked the leather duster that normally hung from her waist, instead utilising it as a blanket. And a very poor one at that, his mind pointed out, given it only covered her legs at best.

Failing to ignore the tremble of her arms or bumps of her skin, inhuman eyes scoured the rooftop and scrutinised each and every crate stacked around him. Rope, steel poles, scrap, and drained oil lamps, their contents drew a blank as did the rest of the area itself. The glow of his eyes moved to join that of its astral brethren. The celestial river offered no solution, nor did it condemn. It simply glittered and flowed as steady and placid as a summer stream. Vincent was at a loss.

Red hot agony struck his shoulder then, blazing a trail across his collarbone that took the gunslinger off-guard. He grit his teeth and weathered its rage, briefly toying with the idea of using Tifa's Curative Materia. One glance towards her serene form, however, rebelled the notion.

'This wound is my own to carry. I will not risk waking her on account of my own shortcomings.' After all, it was he who'd failed to notice Denzel follow him during those parlous moments at Mt. Corel. In doing so, he'd inadvertently placed the child in danger. And so this was his price to pay.

Another fervid torrent of pain stoked the flames in his shoulder and twist his muscles like a white-hot poker. Golden talons flexed in answer, but only caused a jerk in his arm that set off a tremor of grinding bone. His vision swam and he flinched to grasp the injury when the movement caused a telltale clink to emanate from his cloak. Vincent paused. Lowering his hand, he instead pushed aside the folds of his mantle to reach for the forgotten vials of medicine residing within.

He was a fool.

Pulling one from its seat, he held the crystal blue in reverence; especially so when he recalled it as the very same bottle Tifa had given him beside a mountainous waterfall. He made to peer once more at the fighter over the folds of his mantle, when his eyes followed the valleys of fabric down to the tattered ends of his cape fluttering in the breeze.

Now he felt like the very Planet and stars were laughing at him. All this time, he had everything he needed. He was a damn fool, indeed.

Vincent carefully set the Potion down on the adjacent crate before twisting to catch his cape's edge. Surveying the gap between himself and the hammock behind, he found it to be small enough and, satisfied, the gunslinger flicked his wrist. A billow of crimson surged forth and swallowed the fighter, momentarily held aloft on currents of air before drifting to settle and drape around her slim form. Tifa barely stirred, scarcely a murmur passing her lips.

Vincent cast an eye to ensure she was appropriately covered before he unwittingly fell into watching her. A brief flicker under long lashes, her tousled wisps of chocolate hair, the slow rise and fall of her chest...

The tremors of her arms ceased.

Though his eyes moved back to the demitasse cup and sapphire blue Potion that sat beside it, his mind lingered. He was unused to sharing company on an evening, let alone his very cape. The slight pull to the fabric caused him distraction, but it was the throb of lava through his veins that spurred him into action. He plucked the Turkish coffee from its crate with thumb and forefinger. Its contents was ice cold at this point, if the chill seeping through his fingers was any indication. He also noted Barret had forgotten the customary glass of water to accompany his drink. A wry smile tugged at the corner of his lips like a necessitous ghost. Or perhaps, Vincent thought, the man hadn't forgotten at all, and this was his own way of adding discreet scorn to his hospitality. Either way, Vincent couldn't help but feel slightly amused.

And that the idea of Barret crossing his grave was truer than he thought.

Carefully drawing down his cowl with a trembling talon on account of his injured shoulder, Vincent took a tentative sip of Barret's brew. It was smooth, bitter and rich, with a fine texture of grain that came when nearing the powdered grounds used in its making. Even cold as it was, his larynx hummed without provocation. It had been too long. Far too long indeed.

'Ack-! This tastes so bitter, Vincent! Could you pass the sugar, please? Thirteen lumps should do it.'

He watched the tide of encrusted gems glimmer overhead as he partook of his coffee, mind wandering to brief reminisces and fleeting memories. Lucrecia wandered past but not through them, brushing her fingers over each one like she was surveying a delicate set of glass beakers and tubes. Each caress was as fleeting as her ghost, carrying all the weight of her spectral form.

Only when his cup was half drained and the coffee began to thicken did he come to a decision. It was by no means conventional but, given the events of the evening, the whole night was anything but. Setting down his cup, he twist the incised crystal cap from his Potion bottle come gift, before pouring the medicine into his drink with a steady right hand. Thick and black, the brew bubbled in annoyance, but it was a pale imitation to the fire that raged through his shoulder. He eyed the tar-like concoction and, after a moment of considerable steeling, downed it like a choice liquor.

His tongue curled, the acrid brew proving hard to swallow with a bitterness that surpassed biting into a lemon five-fold. The sweet and acerbic herbal properties of the Potion mixed with the Turkish coffee brought a whole new meaning to, 'take the bitter with the sweet.' Vincent could no longer hold off the wrinkle to his nose. He coughed deep, the upheaval of his diaphragm setting his collarbone to grind and scream. He grit his teeth and gave a course grunt that resonated through his chest as he fought to keep the medicine down.

Only when the initial siege to his palate subsided did he notice the stretch of cape at his back.

Glancing over his shoulder, he was met with the muffled gasp of Tifa Lockhart. Glazed russets locked onto his own of pained crimson before they moved wildly to peer around the area like a startled animal. After a terse few moments, Tifa settled, fists and muscles unwinding with a yawn. “Just... surprised,” she managed, wrestling with a drowsy tongue. “By your eyes.”

Vincent held his silence, frozen by the awareness of his position but also her words. What was he but another monster of the night? A glower in the black? She had every right to wake up beside him in fear. He waited for the realisation and repulsion that would surely follow. Instead, she smiled.

“Like lights... in the dark. Like how they glow...” she mumbled, snared in a soporific state. “Mmm... it's warm...” The gunslinger barely resist cocking his head to the side, unsure what to make of the fighter's words. That her mind was fogged with exhaustion was evident. Weighing his response, Tifa unwittingly saved him by slurring something he, for once, assuredly knew the correct answer to.

“'Night, Vince...”

She shift and lay her head down once more, unwittingly curling into his cape. Vincent stared at her back before the glow of his eyes softened, and dimmed. He stretched his legs and leaned further back, allowing her better claim of his mantle.

“Goodnight... Tifa.”

Her soft breaths answered him as did the slight creak of hammock ropes. Vincent took a minute or two to ensure she was comfortable and indeed asleep before returning to his drink. He poured himself another shot from his Potion bottle, his mind now occupied with two apparitions; one intimate, one a stranger. He felt a familiar pain in his chest then; heavy and solid, it sunk deep like a tombstone and left a hole as empty as an unfilled grave. He glanced back at Tifa bundled under his cape and dreaming sweet dreams beneath the cosmos; blissfully unaware of his midnight plight. He heaved a sigh through his nose and turned back to down another dose.

Tifa's tired, carefree smile joined the two ghosts that drifted through his mind as easily as he worked his way onto his second Potion bottle. The inferno of his shoulder finally began to cool and heal, remedied under his skin like a salve to a burn, though his drink did little to salve his conscience. He straightened and gazed up at the star-crested heavens. His conviction to find Cloud steeled.

'If it is heartache I can save her from, then I will gladly do so.'

Vincent resumed his solitary toast to the stars.