Lucrecia's Legacy

A Fanfic. Copyright 2006.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Sleeper

"Do not touch my sidearm."

This guy was Cloud's opposite; pale, tall and almost slight. Dark hair nearly covered his face and ran down his front. In fact, he was covered in hair. He'd clearly been in the basement for years, maybe decades. Cloud seemed fresh, hardy and young; this guy sounded weary.

"Cut it out, girl. He can't get you now." Barrett's voice sounded high and sweet, compared to the deep, metallic harshness of the sleeper's near-whisper. He turned sideways so I could see the stranger myself.

I was clutching Barrett's vest, my nails fairly digging his skin. The sleeper was staring directly at me. I jerked back involuntarily and buried my face again.

"Do not touch my sidearm," he repeated. "I could have killed you."

Cloud stood his ground, unimpressed by the sleeper's trick of swirling and floating above the coffin.

"You said it: this place is the beginning of my nightmare." All the misery of the past years weighed on his golden head, and he shook it slowly. I half expected to see tears drip from his usually-glaring blue eyes. Now he was just a boy again, sad and wounded.

The sleeper barked, "You go first."

Cloud's story was the same he told in Gold Coast, so I stopped listening, and fell back near Red XIII. Reddie searched my face a moment, then turned to the two men. I hugged his ruff and settled in. When the sleeper began, I barely attended.

"You know Lucrecia?!" The sleeper narrowed his eyes, giving me a hard, sidelong look. My face must have given me away. I hesitated, not really sure that my input would be relevant.

"Hojo once called me his Latest Lucrecia."

His reply stunned me: Lucrecia was Sephiroth's mother! Did I have a son? Not likely, even if I couldn't remember much. Lucrecia was a research assistant, just like me.

The guys were staring at me.

"Hey, you saw. Hojo surrounds himself with women. He selected us by our education. At Gold Coast each of those bikinis was a Master or PhD in the laboratory. Except me. Just a science background and a hobby in natural healing. He's studying my gene pool. You know, my parents and grandparents. Besides, I haven't been there more than a couple years." Never mind the details; I wanted to hear the rest of his story.

He certainly regained my attention. The culture and education of the voice was in marked contrast to the appearance. He looked disgusting: messy, matted hair and long, curling fingernails, not to mention the disintegrating dark clothes under all that hair. Not that he smelled or anything. His coffin was the only one that didn't reek of decay.

The guy wasn't dead; I'd shouted to Barrett. Surely this would be the Turk in the notes. Was there a neck under all that fur? I grabbed the wrist instead; there didn't seem to be a pulse, but the body wasn't cold. Wouldn't call it warm, but he wasn't a corpse. Was it my imagination that he was a little warmer at the neck I finally located?

"Barrett, he's got a wicked looking pistol. You want it?"

"Yeah, go ahead and take it. You should have a weapon."

"Not me. Can't stand the noisy things." My fingers fumbled with the holster: the snaps were tight. And I didn't like robbing the body when it didn't seem quite dead.

"Not quite dead" barely entered my mind when the curling fingernails raked my hand. I yelped and tried to withdraw. But the sleeper had my wrist before I could move. "Baaaarrrrrett! Help me! NOW!!!"

My buddy instantly fell on the coffin and grabbed the long claws, twisting and breaking a few. He snatched me to himself and pulled away, all in one motion. Then the sleeper rose full-body out of the coffin, defying gravity.

"What are you doing here? Get out immediately." The rest of our fellowship crowded around us, drawing their weapons, and waited for the man's first move. Cloud came forward and thus the confrontation had begun.

The Latest Joiner

In vivo experimentation! The story seemed ludicrous. How could anyone let the Professor do such a thing? He certainly wasn't inclined that way these days. Being the consummate research scientist, Hojo and "Romance" were an impossible combination. And yet, he always seemed a little leering around us. As the old saying goes, "The only rooster in the henhouse."

And he was secretive about his experiments. It's common knowledge that Sephiroth was specially treated to epitomize SOLDIER. My boss always told us that he "co-created" him, so to speak. And while I did not doubt Hojo's ruthlessness, amoral would be a better word. Science is all; science justifies all. Gives me the creeps to even imagine him and sex, much less anyone having him. Not that he isn't a looker. At least, he clearly was one in his day. Well, so was I, I think. As usual, the faint glimmer was wiped out immediately.

Always on the tip of my tongue or in the back of my mind. And then a sick feeling. Aversion therapy? One had to wonder. Reddie didn't recall the procedure that gave him bioluminescence. He insists that he wasn't born that way. And the healing? Yes, the scratch marks were gone. Blood on my shirt was the only sign left. Sure as hell wasn't born with that ability. It comes pretty handy though, since archery skill is not highly sought-after these days. Just as well. Battles are busy enough for me as it is, already.

But the sleeper was done with us. He pronounced some nonsense about worse dreams and atonement. We were summarily dismissed; the cover was returned to its place. Yuffie said something snarky about him being a crybaby in his sleep, while Tifa led the us out the door.

Barrett mourned, "Too bad; we could've used those weapons." Had I missed something? Was there more than just a pistol? I turned and stared back into the darkness, trying to think about what he'd had. "Trying" to remember just made it worse. Would I be like this the rest of my life?

Yuffie returned for me, taking my arm. "Come ON. Forget about that loser. What d' you wake him for, anyway?" She took for granted that I'd deliberately healed him, like it was Contain or something. I let her herd me toward the spiral stairway. God, I hated those stairs! At the top, I had to hug the walls to keep back the panic. The walkway to Corelle had sealed it for me. I never knew I had acrophobia. Just the thought of the suspended foot bridge left me sick to my stomach, sweating cold sea water.

My anxiety spell was interrupted by Yuffie levitating right to the web-covered ceiling. She came down like a dropped stone, facing behind me, hand on her weapon.

The stranger stood there, pulling at his unruly black mane. So, now he wanted to join us; maybe his TURKS training would help. Figured: another Shinra employee; another disgruntled customer. I remembered his other arm. How could I have forgotten that metal claw?

He pretty much floated ahead and up the center of the tower. Nice trick. We never saw his matted mop again, as we searched the place, room by room. It was lousy with living monsters as well as a cranky host of the undead. What a mess. Books and apparatus everywhere, covered in dust and crawling with spiders, webs and other creepy crap. I was sick to death of the place long before we finished. Did you know that healing and curing eliminates the undead? I do now. Everyone fought well, but Cloud was otherwise completely lost in thought. He examined every device and gizmo in the laboratory, scanned all the titles of the books lining the walls, obviously searching for something. He wasn't talking. Yet.

Battle after interminable battle, we inched our way through, and finally out of the accursed place. The inn felt like a little slice of heaven. Grateful for hot showers and clean sheets, I barely hit the pillow before sliding into the abyss. As usual, the night felt like forever, no dreams, just darkness. This time I was glad.

Nibelheim was lovely in the morning, sparkling and inviting. The place begged for a walk, and I complied. Again saw some people in uniform, but they casually moved along, totally unconcerned by my aimless ambling. Actually nobody seemed to care anything about us at all. It began to dawn on me that the district was patrolled by some sort of militia. No Shinra blue-suits or soldiers anywhere, just men and women in black and red. Was Cloud wrong about his town? Or were they some sort of local response to the reprisal five years ago? And why would Shinra rebuild a town exactly as it was? Good job, though.

A young man came up to me, smiling. I snapped to, sorry to have gone out alone; the militia was indeed taking note of us. This guy wore the usual black and red, but he was much more heavily armored than the rest. I knew I couldn't take him alone.

"Where are the rest of your fellows?" Handsome dude, another cultured voice. It would be best to play dumb, be the sweet, old lady sort of thing. Another reason not to go armed.

"Fellows? You have me at a disadvantage, sir."

"You can call me Vincent, ma'am." He swept aside the cape, so I could see the claw, and bowed deeply and gracefully. He was still smiling; now I could see his eyes were warm, chocolate brown, rather like my... husband's? But the memory was gone as soon as it occurred. I dismissed it and allowed myself to register my delight and relief. Oh yes, he was definitely a cutie.

"Don't scare me like that! What'd you do, sell all that hair? Must've made a fortune!"

He shook his head and turned to show me the long queue down his back. Tifa and Aerith had some serious competition in that department. He watched me, his eyes intent: now just brown, they'd flashed deep ruby red when I chided him. Remembering the formalities, I grabbed his right hand and gave it one strong pump.

"Welcome to the crew. Everyone may be still asleep. There's breakfast at the inn. Hungry?"

"Thank you. My family fed me. They insisted." Family! I whistled involuntarily, surprising both of us.

"I can just imagine they were stunned. How did you convince them you weren't a ghost? You were a sight, no lie or exaggeration!" He had to have frightened them out of their wits. He nodded, looking oddly annoyed and puzzled.

"I cleaned up and shaved at the inn, before I returned. They tell me I haven't changed." That must have been some scene. Vincent left it at that, though. Oh, well. There would be plenty of time for the details later. Tons of time, if our travels to date were any indication. Never any questions--the information always leaked out, slowly but surely. If the Shinra were involved, it wouldn't be pretty.

"Come. We'll wake the others." He might as well see them at their worst; the ladies--Yuffie especially--hated mornings. I shrugged off the familiar feeling (was it a scent?); it would go away anyhow.

"So, my lady. Which is your husband?" The question startled me, but after all, I still wear the band. It's only natural to expect a woman traveling with men to own one. Hadn't thought much about it: sort of own them both, like family. The usual heaviness in my chest nearly rose to my throat. I swallowed hard, looked casual and kept it short. That poor guy didn't need to know my troubles. All in good time.

"Neither. I'm the senior member of the group. I can't figure out who is the leader, though. I'm the latest joiner. We don't know where my husband is." The truth still hurt.

"I'm sorry."

"Thanks. So am I."

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Yuffie's Fountain

Enough already! What's with all the suspended foot-bridges? Yeah, yeah, I know. You can shoot an arrow over a ravine; don't tell ME about archery. So Shinra couldn't afford to put in a decent tramway? It has to be there to discourage people: it certainly discouraged me.

Someone didn't think that one through. The steep incline actually worked in my favor. I could pull myself up the ropes with my arms. It felt more secure, safer. I know I've done this before, maybe working on my home. Some day I'll remember the details.

By the time we climbed Mt. Nibel, we had enough fighters to give everyone a rest in battle. Good thing, too; we met green dragons all the way through the caves. This was the first time I actually wondered if it was really necessary to kill every single animal that crossed our path.

A green dragon is a glorious creature. I remembered Cloud's description of Hojo's experiments with mako and Jenova. What could have been perverted to come up with such beauty, grace and power? Are they simply our fellow denizens of this planet, and not mutants?

Who am I to judge Jenova mutants? Takes one to know one, I guess. In Nibelheim it became clear that all our lovely skills and powers were courtesy of everyone's favorite researcher. Cloud got the SOLDIER treatment; Reddie acquired biolumnescence, and I became a healer. Looks like each is an enhancement of an otherwise naturally-evolving trait. Though, for the life of me, I can't see the evolutionary value of a glowing tail, unless it increases the survival rate of the newborns in their dark dens.

Was Aerith treated? She says her skills were present even when she was tiny. Hojo would be content to test and study her in pristine condition, untouched. She maybe got lucky, if one could call the "Last Surviving Cetra" lucky.

And our newest colleague? We found out in spades early on. Vincent admitted he was rusty, and we figured after a thirty-year hiatus from life, he would need some warming up. Cloud assigned me to his maintenance, while Aerith would cover the rest of the party.

Vincent started pretty slow, although his aim was perfect. He rarely missed, shooting in the Zen manner, all stylistics, all art; I studied Zen briefly during my Archery training. Lots of flourish, lots of "getting into the zone." Not the greatest method for hunting. And I do remember hunting, I think because I hunted alone. Prey can spot flourish a mile away.

The battlefield can be comparatively forgiving. But, while Vincent was an ace, it was a very good thing he's armored. Exhaustion overcame me after the first battle, and I dropped unconscious as soon as the emergency was over.

The dreamless sleep, or "going deep," I call it. Healing somebody is a conscious act, self-healing much more complicated. It's a redirection of my life-force. When healing others, I can feel the force rather like electricity, and it flows along the various systems and out of the body. Aerith says to some degree it's the same with her, so it must be natural. Too bad it won't self-direct much when I'm awake; those naps were sure to cause trouble at some point.

Vincent was a pretty matter-of-fact fighter; his TURKS training served us well. On the other hand, he was slow enough to take a lot of hits that should have been easy to evade. A dragon can overpower an entire party in one blow, especially after effecting the dragon force.

Mr. Valentine soon stunned us with his first limit break. He fell face forward, so I ran to heal him. He rose and morphed! Some sort of indigo beast took his place, and dispatched a hail of fireballs. I was knocked backwards, and missed the rest of the battle.

Aerith was standing over me, shaking her head. What did I do now?

"Fini, He's agonizing again. He says he knocked you out. Talk to him." Had to be doom-and-gloom Vincent. I stretched and yawned.

"Aerith, tell him to get over it."

"I could have killed you." He was behind my head. Looking serious, as usual.

"Heard that one before, and I'm still here. You will see and do lots worse in many battles. What about Confusion, for instance? By the way, Valentine, what do you want to call that limit?"

"Call it? Name it?? I want to forget it." Miffed, he turned and walked stiffly away.

"Was it something you said?" Aerith giggled, "Hey, why don't WE name it? Violet lizard. 'Violet' wouldn't appeal to him, I shouldn't think."

"Galein. Like the purple crystals. There's also a galliwasp lizard down in the subtropic islands."

"Where do you get this stuff? Galian lizard sounds good." She looked pleased, and went to spread the word to the others, and maybe to tease Vincent with it. Nothing stayed serious with Aerith.

"Um, close enough. Natural science is my specialty. Hojo didn't choose me as just another pretty face, you know." But I was already talking to the air. I dragged my butt off the cold cavern floor and looked for Vincent. It occurred to me that maybe I should let her tease him; hadn't seen him smile since we met in the square. Alway grumpy and proud. It gets tiresome.

Well, flatten me with a Chocobo feather! He returned arm-in-arm with Aerith, both seriously discussing the name.

"What do you think?" He looked almost mischievous. "Galian Beast it is."

Now it was my turn to be serious. I felt the need to preach. "It is an aspect of you. Not separate, but something that comes from inside. Your 'beast' is simply a little more spectacular than most. You are the Galian Beast, at least a part of you is."

"All the more appropriate, then." The imp was gone, and sadness took its place. "I have this monster inside me." He sounded positively funereal.

"Yeah, you and everyone else. C'mon guys, let's get out of here. Vincent needs some sunshine, and my butt's frozen from the floor." A small speck of daylight beckoned, and I beelined for it.

It wasn't sunshine, but the most beautiful sculpture on the planet. A mako spring. THE mako spring: the reason Shinra built the reactor here.

Cloud said that even the great Sephiroth called it "A Miracle of Nature." Much more impressive than anything I've ever seen, the fountain shone brighter than the filtering sunlight.

Then Yuffie caught my eye: she was mesmerized, slowly becoming more and more excited, like a groupie at a rock concert. Her eyes grew wider the closer she got. That mute agitation began to worry me, and even Tifa sidled up to her and whispered at her.

"Yuffie, what's up?" The kid just growled at us, a lion guarding its kill. Her attitude was one of religious awe. She never touched the formation, but instead hovered close, not quite caressing its surface with her outstretched hands, as if it might burn her fingertips with its incandescence. She was enchanted, worshiping a beloved idol.

Tifa came away, spooked by the transformation.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" I dropped my voice to a near whisper, not wanting to break the spell. SHE was beautiful like this, transformed to full maturity by... By what? Was it an appreciation for the natural wonder, its almost overpowering radiance, or the eons of formation represented in this one structure?

"This sucker could bring in a freaking fortune!!!" She squealed, jumping up and down, now frantic, alternately clapping her hands and pumping her fists. That was it. Naturally.

"You go ahead and try to take some," Both disgusted and amused, I smiled and walked away. Eh. Yuffie's just Yuffie. Callow and shallow, like I tell my daughters.

I froze. MY DAUGHTERS! I grasped at the memory. Twin daughters. God, what are their names? No good. But now I had more clues. Brown eyed husband and irritating daughters. The rest would come.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Jerks, wimps and creeps

"Shall I give you a lift?" Pretty cheeky for a cat on a toysaurus, I thought. It had to be a man. It doesn't take a great detective to guess that one, though. Most higher ups are still male, as befits such a cutthroat organization. Scarlett's an anomalie, and a strange one at that. Dresses like a hooker, commanding armies; frankly, I can't see her asking to carry me.

Cait rarely spoke to me, and I didn't want to associate with it. My instinct was to avoid giving it any excuse to come close. That travesty of acting at the Gold Saucer wasn't fooling anyone. No one invited Cait; it just joined. Not bad in battle, and a heckuva body blocker, but it seemed to be watching everyone, staring, and then horning in unbidden. I'd be polite to it, just to hedge my bets.

"No, thank you. There's a town not far from here, I'm sure of it. It's just that we left a perfectly good buggy the other side of Nibelheim. What a waste."

Cloud consulted with Tifa. Sure, there was a village in the middle of the plain. What was it called? I hoped they weren't asking me, because I only know that I used to know. There was a Shinra installation there, a training center of sorts, but they dropped out of sight a while ago. Can't remember why, but I'll bet those kids were too young to know its name or demographic. Shinra would have shut down any communication a good while ago, if the place had any sort of promise.

It was a long, long hike. My jeans were falling down my hips. I felt ridiculously pleased by the thought. No doubt the rest of me was skinny, too. I wondered if everyone else was bored to tears with all the walking. After all, would Sephiroth be hiking all this time, too? I mused peevishly. Why couldn't he just stick to Midgar? There are plenty of hiding places there. Not to mention some great shopping... And I could use some new clothes, especially shoes. I contented myself with daydreams. By now, we had lots of money; we were almost gillionaires. Who knew beating and looting enemies could be so lucrative? With Yuffie as our seasoned instructor, we became very good at stealing as we went along. It was a sport for her, and a necessity for us. One never knows where the best weapons and items are without a little hunting.

Finally, a sort of tower loomed on the horizon. The heck? Looked like a very heavy missile, aimed and ready for launch. An ugly thought crept in. I turned on the toysaurus. "Hey, Cait. You know what that thing is?"

"Looks like a rocket ship to me." The stupid cat didn't even need to try to look innocent. The perfect poker player with an expressionless face.

"Not a missile? Shinra being Shinra and all." The thing was camouflaged, although the closer we got the more it looked just plain rusty. The town itself was inviting, the people friendly and informative. We should "look for the Captain" became a familiar refrain. So we looked for the Captain.

He was nowhere in the village, so the guys climbed the gantry access to the rocket and brought him back. No more heights for me. Already had a bellyful of that. And I'm not exactly sweet on enclosed spaces, like ships--even spaceships. Or especially spaceships. In fine, Yuffie and I sat that one out. We stayed behind and were able to get to know Mrs. Captain. Geez, even she called him the Captain. Shera, actually, was her name, and at first she seemed intelligent. Rather like my coworkers in Research. Another PhD to make me feel like an underachiever.

So you can imagine my reaction when the Captain showed up and started screaming at her. I was stunned, rooted to the floor by the barrage of abuse. Nothing she did was right, and she wasn't allowed a word in edgewise. He swore and sputtered, then threw himself in a chair, put his feet on the table, and ordered us to sit down and drink some goddamned tea.

Everyone was duly impressed, and continued as if nothing were wrong. I left in disgust, but not before I told Shera that her Captain Cid was a first class jerk. Only I wasn't so polite about it. Cait motioned me to the back, where there was a very small plane. A real beauty, Bronco class, quite tiny and obviously the recipient of loving care and restoration.

Bet having a slavey to clean and cook gave Captain plenty of time for his hobbies. Cloud should see this, maybe we could purchase the little plane? I cautiously entered the back door, on the lookout for that jerk, Cid; maybe I could spit on his feet. But there was only Shera, Vincent and Reddie. When she saw Cait and me, she backtracked a bit and retold her story. She had flubbed the space shot, ruining Cid's chances to rule outer space. She'd fussed too long with a broken safety device, and Captain aborted the launch. She would follow him to the ends of the planet.

Her meekness was grating on my nerves.

"Sounds to me like you saved his sorry ass." I growled, "Well, you get no kudos from me," and headed out front to find the others. If I stayed around I was going to say something I might regret. I walked straight into a little party of Shinra suits and soldiers.

Rufus Shinra and his retinue! Why would he make a personal appearance? The rocket? No, he said he wanted the little plane. Our group was already headed back to claim the Bronco for themselves. I turned to follow them, hoping no one saw me.

"Josephine, it's been a long time. You're supposed to be dead." Me? The kid was talking to me.

"Pardon me if I can't recall when we last had the pleasure, sir." So now I'm dead? Maybe he would lend me a few clues.

"Dear Old Dad thought you were the cat's meow. He said so after dancing with you at that formal, a couple of years back. You look completely different in jeans. A lot younger. (Oh, brother...was I going to puke?) Is your husband here?" The question just about stopped my heart. So who was I? But there was a huge ruckus in Captain Cid's back yard. Someone was starting the Bronco!

No way I was going to be left behind with that creepy white suit. My feet moved faster than I thought possible, barely touching the ground as I lightly jumped the little fence, screaming at my buddies on the plane. It hadn't lifted off yet, and taxied right at me. I swallowed the panic in my throat and was nearly ripped apart when I latched onto a strut. Why me, flying? They pulled me inside. Our people were all over the tiny thing, like possum babies on their mother's back, just clinging and hanging on. Captain grabbed a wing and hauled himself aboard, cursing and growling.

The jerk simply left Shera behind; no doubt she would be questioned by Shinra. At the moment, his entourage was shooting at us, and one of the idiots got lucky. After banking left and right, the Bronco crashed into the ocean, never to rise again. And that was okay by me, except for one thing.

We were stuck with Captain Cid, in all his foul-mouthed, inflated ego glory. He was crabbing at Yuffie. She was hopping up and down, heedless of the bouncing she was causing. Already nose to nose with Cid. Then she stopped abruptly, dropped to her knees and hung her head off the wing. I knew exactly what the problem was. Me, too, only not so violently.

After she emptied her stomach, she pointed forward and shakily said, "We are headed right to Wutai. It's a nice town. Let's go there."

How disingenuous was that? The brat.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Dissing and the Dissed

Our impromptu ocean crossing was miserable. The Bronco's propellers pulled us over the top of the water. Ocean-going ships have underwater propellers in back. Even at low speed, a constant spray kept us soaked and chilled the entire journey.

After what seemed an eternity, we found ourselves drying out on the beach. There were only seabirds to welcome us, and they gave a rousing ovation, shrieking and diving at our heads. Must've disturbed their hatcheries, or some such. Cid fought them off with--you guessed it--curses, threats and his lance, finally managing to moor the Tiny Bronco just far enough inland to protect it from high tide. He was almost sweetly protective of his broken toy, and repaired what he could even without any decent tools. Then we all searched for some makeshift camouflage, so we could expect to find it unmolested on our return.

Yuffie led us up a sloping, winding hillside, where the view was ocean as far as the eye could see. I've always adored the seaside, and it worried me that such a gorgeous panorama was just plain depressing. I was still mulling over the meaning of Rufus' words.

Did my family really think I was dead? How would it matter to Shinra, anyhow? Creepy kid probably had a mommy fixation. Word was his mother abandoned both father and son shortly after the boy was taken for grooming as future corporate chief. He was just a child at the time, but President Shinra presented him as his heir.

Never mind that. Am I dead, legally speaking? How the hell would I know? I can barely recall leaving Hojo in Gold Coast, let alone working with him or worse, dying for him. Fuzzy, blurry and vague: they all make great descriptions of my memories of work. But they were coming, little by little. Same with family. I could see their faces, and maybe soon I would be able to pull together names and other data. Hurts likes the dickens, though, and takes a considerable effort to dredge up anything. Aversion therapy, indeed.

Now Barrett was shouting. Reddie looked tense and on guard, growling slightly. Cloud had balled his hands into fists and was speaking in a low tone to Yuffie. Geez, I always miss stuff when my mind wanders.

We had no magic! All the materia was gone, and Yuffie tore off northward. Her last words were that she had nothing to do with them. Them, of course, were soldiers attacking the guys up front, left only with bare weapons and armor. Vincent pulled me back a bit, and shot from just in front of me. Regardless of the loss of materia, it was over quickly. Our lagging buddies didn't even have time to come up the slope to help.

Materia isn't necessary for what I do, and limit breaks occur naturally, too. What hurt the most was Yuffie's betrayal. I was so disappointed in her. Kids being kids, no one expected saintliness, but the little delinquent really cleaned us out. With just our weapons and items, we could still hold our own in battle, but only just.

We agreed we could make it to Wutai intact. Then we found the first footbridge.

"Guys, tell you what. You go ahead, and I'll guard the Tiny Bronco." It would be a long way down again, but nothing could get me on another suspended bridge. Had every modern engineer on the planet sworn off bridge-building? These artifacts are on just about every continent.

I was suddenly enveloped in heavy black and red cloth, and lifted up onto a shoulder.

"You needn't worry about the height, since you won't see anything."

"Vincent, I can't breathe! Put me down!" Full panic mode took over; the bridge would break, and we'd all drop into the canyon. I was sure we were all going to die!

"Then you'd best calm yourself and conserve the oxygen. This is the first of three. You'll be released after all of them are safely past." His voice was curiously soothing, and he'd pinned my arms against his shoulder. I fixed my thoughts on conserving air and plotting revenge.

"Safely past" is a relative phrase. Divested of the cape and properly reoriented, my body registered its protest. My legs buckled and I sat down hard. I grabbed the grass between my fingers and just about kissed the earth.

"You ok?" Tifa looked amused. "Don't you just love a man of action?"

"Yeah, right. Thanks, Valentine. Remind me to pay you back some time soon."

As soon as I could, I stood and surveyed ahead. Wutai was a glittering spot against the seaside cliffs, a little gem set among otherwise dark, unpopulated mesas. It was a pleasant walk; the plains were dry. While most creatures ignored us, the birds were still pesty. On the other hand, they hoarded useful stuff. I never thought about birds being such collectors, but it was evidently true. Items can be just as good as magic, and plenty were dropping during each battle.

There were very few citizens wandering the streets of Wutai. We poked around a bit, and were met with guarded friendliness, a tight-lipped secrecy. These were Yuffie's people.

The place was totally Ancient Asia, a real remnant of prehistory, and so very appropriate a hometown for a ninja. Pagodas and gracefully carved roofs were everywhere, and a pantheon of stone gods watched over all from the cliffs. A real tourist trap.

While we were searching for our prodigal, we checked the tavern. Only to be confronted by Elena of the TURKS. We'd met earlier outside Gongaga, and had gotten along well until she realized I was with Cloud and Avalanche. Just business, no offense taken. I like the girl, but right now she was nearly hysterical, shouting at us and her two partners. Reno calmly tried to shut her up; they were on vacation, so forget it. Rude watched glumly, saying nothing. After her snit, she ran out the door, presumably to make a report.

Where's the excitement in being hitmen when they're bogged down with paperwork? Reno muttered to Rude to let her go; she was a big girl. Then he told Cloud that they really didn't want to mix work and pleasure. We should leave them alone. I felt vaguely dissed. We left.

We cornered Yuffie twice, but she fooled us both times. We even found her in a shouting match with her father! Godor may have been the boss of Wutai, but he clearly couldn't control his daughter. He, too, dismissed us. We had to get our materia, regardless of family quarrels. After a short rest break, we left to case a tiny pagoda across the walk.

Took a while to figure out its entry. It was all commotion inside. A strangely foppish man, totally overdressed by anyone's standards, was cackling and bragging loudly. He'd caught himself a couple of prospective brides?! The loon had both Yuffie and Elena. He sicc'ed his goons on us and disappeared with our girls.

We quickly dispatched the henchmen and spread out to search. The guys reconnoitered with the TURKS, and I headed up the face of Da Chao, the cliffside shrine. All through the carvings were footpaths, so no problem there. Trouble is, I was alone when I spotted the super-sartorial moron, gloating over his captives, whom he'd lashed to the cliff. I sneaked slowly, creeping along the path, as close as I could get to Yuffie. Didn't look down, didn't look right or left; just kept my eye on the girls.

That's how the Rapps--half insect, half dragon--found me. Barely had time to look up, when it flattened me against Da Chao. Fighting and shouting came to me through the buzzing darkness, and I passed out.

It took me a minute to clear my head enough to recognize Rude of the TURKS. "Are you able to stand? Let's get you down from here." Wrong thing to say! I looked "down" and threw myself against him, grabbing his suit coat in a bunch, trying to melt through him and into the cliff wall.

"Hey, hey, lady! What're ya doing???" He quickly regained his composure, but mine was gone completely. Acrophobia doesn't listen to words. I knew we were okay, but I was completely frozen, both mentally and physically, by the terror of the height.

"Thank you for your help. I can take her from here." Again from behind my back. No, please God, not Vincent! I thought it but couldn't vocalize it. I knew what would come next. He pulled me off the nonplussed Rude and floated off the path. The rest of the trip was facilitated by my compliant unconsciousness.

I awoke in Godor's manor. Yuffie was returning the materia. He was very sorry for all the trouble she caused. He would teach her a lesson; she would climb the Tower of the Five Gods. She would be tested to the maximum, maybe even killed. He was an enormous person, muscular and yet somewhat refined-looking, and he smiled dangerously as he spoke.

"Would you like to watch? It should be quite a show! Yuffie against the best fighters in Wutai. I'm the finale. You're invited to attend."

"Are you crazy? I don't want to watch you kill your daughter. What kind of father are you?" No way would I be a specator; it would be a very good time to search for temporary housing. Yuffie could be badly injured. I couldn't bear it.

Actually, I never doubted that Yuffie would survive the ordeal. Godor was a very indulgent daddy, considering the smart-ass mouthiness of his little darling. We understood one another well. He directed me to a small hut at the base of the cliffs, facing the ocean; a fixer-upper I could have if I wanted to stay in Wutai. Offer accepted, sight unseen.

The cabin was just a short distance from the hamlet itself, but still very secluded. Just some rooms, very simple. The floors were covered in dry mud; the place had been flooded by a spectacular storm. No matter; I now had nothing but time.

This would be my new home, and I had my share of the booty to rehabilitate and furnish it. Godor had also given me a futon, and I picked up windchimes in the tacky little materia/gift shop in town. The barest start. Cleaning would be a long process, a pleasantly unhurried chore. No immediate goal, except to remain in Wutai. Rather zen to have the ocean for backdrop.

After a pleasant day of cleaning and repairs, I fell asleep to the infinitely-changing sound of the breakers and seabirds. My final serene thought: One could age gracefully here.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Warming a Cold Trail

"Warrrrkkk!!!" The iridescent-green feathers looked surreal in the late morning light. Doors were definitely next on my to-do list. Who'd ever guess I'd catch a rare mountain chocobo, without even trying? I'd make a fortune breeding it!

"Let's go, Josephine. The others are waiting." Vincent's tone was urgent. He swung off the fabulous fowl and tied it to a nearby bush.

"Not me; I'm done. Yesterday proved that the battlefield is no place for me. Homemakers need a home." I choked as I said it; the pain filled my chest and came up my throat. Vincent ignored it, and spoke rapidly, oddly impatient.

"Nonsense! There are many more factors that win a battle besides the fighting. You have a gift for strategy, and we haven't yet seen your limit break."

He softened, yet still purposeful. "You don't want to cross the suspended bridges again, am I correct? Wutai warriors breed chocobos here; this bird belongs to Godor. It'll take us overland to the plane, and return home unbidden." He'd already collected my kit and was reaching for my arm. "Let's go, Lady."

Someone was running towards us. "Valentine, you big, stupid jerk! She's ours now; she wants to stay. You'll stay with Dad here in Wutai. Right, Fini?" Yuffie tried to stand up to Vincent, but failed miserably, height-wise. He spoke quietly.

"Wouldn't you prefer to keep her close, in our group? She's still married, still looking for her family. She can search for them with us." Yuffie looked contrite, conflicted, almost mollified.

"But you really like Dad, don't you, Fini?" So that was the crux. The kid wanted a mother. How did I miss that little detail? Dammit, I really craved some peace and quiet to put together my memory puzzle. Suddenly Yuffie seemed about ten years old, fragile and vunerable. She needed me more than I needed a nest.

"Are there more birds? Yuffie can come with us."

Vincent frowned. "I don't think..." But Yuffie interrupted, now a chattering teenager, happily pouring out stream of consciousness.

"No way! Chocobos make my stomach sick. Feather allergy; they go right up my nose. Lots of people are allergic. Or maybe it's the motion. Short rides are okay, though. The footbridges are cool, really historic, you know. Dad says..." She stopped and look right into his face. "Oh. Right, I forgot."

Vincent spoke quietly. "We'll take the bird and secure the Bronco. Tell the others that Josephine will come with me. An alternate route to bypass the bridges." I looked wistfully out the window; a bright, sunny day would have been perfect for a warm dip in the waves. I rolled the windchimes into the futon and gathered the mops and shovel. Yuffie grabbed them out of my hands and ran back in the direction of the village.

"Let me help you mount. There should be plenty of time to enjoy the ocean after we prep the Bronco. We've lost Sephiroth's trail. We need to backtrack and look for clues." I didn't answer, and saw no need to explain that, unless he could produce a bathing suit, there would be no quick swim when we arrived.

Yuffie was right about the motion, except that I found it hypnotic, not nauseating at all. Vincent rode behind me, and when I woke, he had wrapped me in his cape again. This time my face was uncovered. I tried to return it, but he insisted. "Your arms felt chilled. And I didn't cover your head this time." The first smile since Nibelheim; it was about time.

When we dismounted, the magnificent mountain chocobo spun slowly and deliberately on its dew-claw and loped off into the distance toward Wutai village.

The Bronco was untouched. We cleared the brush, primed the engine, and tested the starter and choke. Cid was a jerk, but at the same time an excellent teacher and a genius. "Master mechanic" doesn't touch the skills he possessed. He was also very precise in his instructions. Tiny Bronco aced the drill; we could relax and enjoy the shore. Vincent motioned toward the breakers, again looking impish. I nodded enthusiastically and shot right back.

"Well, take off those silly armored 'shoons,' and we'll wade." It was his turn to look uncomfortable. Just imagining a bare-foot Vincent Valentine made me grin and snicker.

He was not amused. "I don't think so." No surprise there. Now that the skinny-dip was pre-empted, we patrolled the beach, stopping to clobber the occasional Adamantaimai. Nothing to it with the materia... I felt a pang of guilt again. Why destroy animals in their habitat? Surely mutants had lives to live, too.

Cait was the first one back, materializing without warning. Never learned how he did that sudden-appearance thing. Quite a gizmo, all right. Had to be a wealthy, A-list so-and-so from Midgar's elite inner circle. Some sort of engineer, maybe: incredibly wealthy, most certainly. I thought back to Rufus Shinra's words. Could we have met? After all, who goes to formals? Government officials, Shinra suits, and the wealthy elite. I was itching to question the ridiculous hulk, but was also pretty certain the damned thing would lie. Creeped me out to even imagine the conversation.

Yuffie arrived with Red XIII, both giving us the fisheye and leading the rest of the crew. All very casual, you know. They had found the trip equally easy with the materia restored. Everyone clambered aboard the little plane, and braced for another cold, damp journey.

Rather than backtrack directly into possible Shinra traps, we skimmed the shoreline, up into the mountains of Central Continent, past a beautiful waterfall filling a pristine lake, and out the other side. We pulled onto the land's end; behind us was the wide inlet and the sands around Gold Saucer. In front, a pretty little hut sat in the middle of the peninsular. A good place to camp.

The lone inhabitant was a weapons maker, who excitedly related his recent visit with Dio, the owner of Gold Saucer. Dio now had the Keystone. "Wasn't that the clown who dumped us into that nasty, sand-locked prison? I asked. It still burned me to remember the false arrest and detention.

"Yeah, but he's also the one who gave us the buggy, as apology," returned Barrett. I sighed; we could sure use one now. It would be a long walk from the beach to Corelle. "C'mon, girl. You just had an ocean cruise. You could use the exercise." I popped him one on the side of the head, but he ducked fast enough to ease the blow. "Hey, don't go all bitchy on me. Killing the messenger? You won't die from a little walk."

And I didn't. Aerith and Tifa came with me to tease in some Chocobos with the lure materia. Not high quality, but a quick trip doesn't require a thoroughbred. Tifa was a little heavy-handed in battle and chased away a number of them, but a few hardier birds hung around for the greens. Aerith and I whispered until they let us mount. It amazed us how much more easily we could trap them now; we were getting good. And the yellow fowl responded to our manner. They are beautiful and smart; breeding them would bring satisfaction and wealth. Mental note taken.

Just looking at the neon-lit Gold Saucer made me gag, but I didn't care for the attitude we encountered in Corelle. What a bunch of crybabies; they scapegoated Barette for their lack of initative. Who was stopping them from rebuilding? Certainly not Shinra; they lost interest after the reprisals. What's one razed village or another to Rufus? Dio built a glittering wonderland next door, and these people neither sought work in it, nor tried to better their own little town.

Got no patience for that sort. Still, pleasure palaces are not my thing; I grew up ages ago. Not that I don't remember; I do. My girls just loved honky-tonk tourist centers, especially in the summer. Seems like my husband didn't, though. Where did we go? Northern Shore, was it? Cool, stony beaches that were refreshing in the hotter months. The memories were coming more easily. The guys left me alone to pull them together, mainly because I growled if they interrupted my reveries. They learned how I "looked" when I was remembering.

I went directly to the Haunted Hotel; let them negotiate with Dio. All the tinsel and commercial glitter left me cold. If I wanted sun, I could go out to the ropeway station and sit on the bench. Or maybe I would play the chocobos; they were interesting me more and more. There might be a career there, someday.

Everyone showed up unexpectedly: the ropeway was out. Another night in that silly place.

The next morning, I was more than ready to leave. There were too many special effects going on at all times. Not scary, just distracting. Good thing Reddie showed his fuzzy face and said that since we had a "Keystone," we would be leaving for Aerith's mysterious Temple of the Ancients. Good, this would be interesting. She really couldn't tell us much, because she didn't know. It would be a learning experience for us all. But first, another soaking on the Tiny Bronco.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. The guys returned, seething and keeping Cait at more than arm's length. Cid spat "Bastard gave the Keystone to Tseng of the TURKS!" While I didn't have a clue what a Keystone was, I gathered it really cost them to win it. Taken for fools, the men were beside themselves; there was nothing anyone could do. Cait wasn't a living creature, and we couldn't get at his creator/operator. Moreover, now Barette's daughter Marlene was taken hostage; we would have to cooperate.

Cooperate? The hell did that mean? Well, we were going to the Temple anyway, to back up the TURKS. They were probably already there. Shinra had the money, manpower, and ability to mobilize and move fast.

Back to the Tiny Bronco and another wet ocean passage.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Highwind and the Heel

By now, we were savvy enough to take precautions against the propeller spray, and we were much drier when we arrived on the jungle island southwest of Fort Condor. We pulled onto shore, where we could see the temple rising above the forest canopy. Aerith led us through the thicket easily, a woman entranced. Were we losing her? She was listening intently, her mouth working silently. Was she talking to the planet or the Lifestream, or both?

Vincent was suddenly very protective. The rest of us felt helpless, but he moved in slowly, taking her arm and talking in a low tone.

"Go slowly, Aerith. This place may be your Midheaven, but I have a very bad feeling that won't leave me." But she was already lost to that other world. The temple filled her being, overpowering her. She dropped and prostrated herself before the pyramid. The gloominess began to affect me, and I thought of just dragging her away from the looming structure. Then she smiled radiantly and ran lightly up the stairs. We had no choice but to follow.

Erk. More heights, although my terror was mitigated by broad steps. What bothered me more was the massiveness of the ziggurat, its unimaginable weight. I couldn’t wrap my brain around it, and my stomach reacted by tightening painfully.

Once inside, I scanned around the tiny room. Problem solved! The relief flooded my body to the bone. There was no opening for a stairway below. The guys were picking the place apart when Aerith gave a little gasp and began to cry. Tseng, the leader of the Turks, was in a corner, lying in his own blood. I dropped to his side and took his hand.

He struggled, insisting that Sephiroth had run him through without warning or cause. The former epitome of SOLDIER intended to kill us all, down to every last human on the planet. We should take the keystone and attack him en masse.

Tseng's injuries were clean and easy to heal, but I could not manufacture blood to replace what he lost. Sickened by the sticky pool around us, I concentrated on making him comfortable, cradling his head.

"I am still alive," he hissed at me. I then realized I was automatically going through his pockets. Not looting, not really, although I would certainly remove whatever I found, should he die. He might have some item that would help, blood loss is way beyond my abilities. I pulled out his phone. His eyes widened a little bit, just as the phone autodialed. Elena answered.

"I'm back to base, sir." Making a full report, no doubt. Geez, the life of a Shinra hitman is all paperwork and procedure. Count me out.

"Come to the Temple of the Ancients, Tseng is wounded." I tried to sound authoritative.

"Yeah, right. You killed him, and we're next." This was going to be tough. Try something else.

"Uh, whatever. Come get him." Then Tseng touched my arm, so I put the phone to his lips. He whispered one word I couldn't hear, and Elena snapped, "Copied. We're on the way."

Waiting was not an option; Sephiroth would never be nearer. Tseng tossed us the Keystone and fell back. We couldn't do much more for him, except offer him water, and try to make him comfortable. Cloud briefly consulted the others and resolved to go below, leaving the Captain behind with me. We could follow them afterwards. They inserted the Keystone into the center of the altar, it glowed, and the party sank through the floor. I was glad: just the idea of wandering through the bowels of that block of stone scared me. The ultimate enclosed space, it would have been a tomb in the very ancient days. Who knows if they would find their way out?

"Oh, boy! My best-est buddy!" Captain Highwind grinned. He knew I couldn't stand him.

Tseng was asleep; the call drained whatever energy he’d had. His breathing was regular, so I pulled Cid a distance away.

"You going to start that again, now? This guy is barely alive, and you're baiting me?" I whispered right into his face, digging his arm. He drew back a bit and smirked.

"Aw, he's tough as nails. You're such a pushover for the wounded ones. How come you got no sweetness for me, your old Captain?" Gawd, not again. I tried to be patient, if only to keep my voice muted.

"Because you are a perfectly DREADFUL person with a filthy mouth. You verbally abuse your wife, and she's a fool to put up with you." Calling Shera his "wife" always rubbed him the wrong way. So sue me. ”If I had a 'mommie wife' to clean up after me, I’d treat her like the lady she is."

"Shera's not my wife. And I'm not a bad guy, just a little rough around the edges. The armed services do that to a man. Besides, look at Barrett!" Here we go again; he didn't get it.

"Barrett is an absolute knight around women. We respond in kind. And whatever happened to being an officer and gentleman? That runs a long way back through my family. My grandfather would never even say 'darned' to a woman. A dragoon, just like you, and he married a bard." Cid whistled. Wow, maybe he would listen to reason.

"A lady bard and a dragoon, eh? I'm impressed, even if those days are gone forever. What about your parents?" Crap. Answering that would probably cost me some thunder.

"My father left the service to be an educator. Mum was a white mage before she began to have children." A letdown, but the truth. Hey, at least I could remember. If we ever get to the metropolitan Midgar area, we would dig them up, figuratively speaking. Lord, how ghoulish. I was sick with worrying about their actual whereabouts. Were they still living?

"Good enough pedigree in my book, Jo. But, hey, whatever; it's just the way I am. Take it or leave it." I left it to check on the wounded man.

Tseng was still out when the helicopter arrived. The TURKS gently gathered him into a litter, gave me a barely perceptible nod, and disappeared as quickly as they arrived. Cid stood holding his lance at attention, in tribute to the fallen warrior, or maybe as warning to our erstwhile adversaries. Anybody's call. Attitude shift since our run-in with that crazy pimp in Wutai, I guess.

"Shall we head down?" But Cid looked seriously perplexed, and I saw why. The Keystone no longer shone. The altar was dark. Looked like we would have to stay. Didn't break my heart; enclosed spaces give me cold sweats.

The Captain reached over to inspect the stone itself. As soon as he did, Cait Sith rose out of the floor and intoned "You rang?" The keystone was glowing again, so the Captain touched it once more and sank into the pyramid. I found a dry, clean path on the other side of the altar, and walked carefully along it to the outside.

"You're not going in?" The big toy was facing me. I dismissed it with a wave and turned to the sun. All the healing, hopeless as it was, left me drained. No good heading into what would likely be overwhelming stress.
Enclosed space, random battles, and constant searching with no rest did not sound appealing.

"You trust me?" Unexpected question.

"Why do you ask?" I most certainly did not, but the topic was moot. We were stuck, but so was that stuffed behemoth. Anyone who belonged to Shinra would regret it, sooner or later. "What goes around comes around, buddy. Did they send you back here?"

"No, but they have it under control. I can still monitor. Let's talk: you have questions and I may have answers."

Of course you do, you son of a bitch! I thought it, but kept my mouth shut. No sense in cutting myself off from an information source. He would probably lie, but he would no doubt tell some truth. I couldn't imagine what could be so important. Neither could I think of why anyone outside of the research laboratories would know me. We stared at one another for a while, before I finally blinked.

"I'm listening." I stayed calm and tried to look neutral. The cat has a perfect poker face, so no clue there. I sighed and gave in. "Talk to me, Cait."

"Well, you know you're dead, right? Even Rufus thought so; Hojo won a big one there. Your family, actually everyone, was notified that your death was a laboratory accident. Two years ago. A fire, mako, materia, or something. There was a huge fuss over it, because there'd been one before. The professor dismissed it as caused by an inexperienced assistant handling volatile materials. After an inquiry overseen by Hojo himself, Shinra issued a full report to the public, promising that it couldn't happen again. Very tragic: the remains were consumed by the intense heat of the fire."

Not surprising, just depressing. Boy, I needed a drink. Then it occurred to me that anyone in Midgar could have known that, and I said as much.

"There's more. You were never supposed to be a research assistant. Oh, you were investigated and properly hired. But Hojo specializes in human experimentation. SOLDIER was his pet project: Sephiroth his greatest achievement. He was given a disproportionately huge budget." Cait was slowing down, almost musing. That last sounded like inter-departmental jealousy. My interest was piqued.

"Hold it! How do you know all this, then? Do I know you from the labs?" Couldn't hurt to ask.

"Sorry, Fini. Even when you can remember everything, you won't place me. You might place my girls. The doctor and the doctorate, we call them. An MD and a PhD assigned specifically to your case. They never gave away the scam, and worked personally with you. When you ditched everyone at Gold Coast, they panicked. They'd thought you were all friends; moreover, they worried about your ability to remember personal details. They kept discussing your departure, afraid for your mental health and your safety. That's when I decided to join."

I tried again. "The workers are your daughters?"

"Uh, no. Close friends." He sounded hesitant, unsure of his words.

"Yeah, well, I don't remember any doctors. Were they adversion therapists, more likely? What was so important that it was worth destroying my family? And what are they doing now; are they still connected to Shinra?"

"That I don't know, and I'm too tied up to investigate. I told them you're here, relatively safe, and that's enough for now. I do know what was so important." Well, finally. Maybe some answers were forthcoming. I needed a drink even more.

Cait froze, saying nothing for a few very long minutes. What now? I just looked at it, waiting. Then it hopped up and down once. "They've got Sephiroth with them! I can only hear. He's ranting like a madman; Cloud is, too. He's controlling Cloud. What? Something about the place being a storehouse. Wait, where’d he go? That's it, it's a huge battle now."

"Let's go help them!" I ran to the Keystone, but when I got there, the big hulk materialized, blocking my way. "Don't. They can handle it. They are handling it. It's just a dragon; Sephiroth's gone. Quiet down and just let me listen. We can't get there in time to be any use. Just let me listen."

The more I dealt with this clown the less I trusted it. I picked my way past the blood again, and sat outside to wait.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Dead Women Don't Fight Back

The sun had warmed me into a stupor. I was nearly asleep when I heard Cait talking. He was offering himself as some sort of sacrifice. The first thought that came to me was that it must be a trick, and the second, that I could lose my information source. He was sinking into the floor.

A short time later, the party rose up and rushed me out the door to the stairs. But it wasn't going to be as simple as that. I froze at the edge of the platform.

"Uh, guys. Why don't I wait here for Cait? He and I were talking, and we'll pick up where we left off when he returns."

Without word or ceremony, Vincent picked me up, not even onto his shoulder, and floated down the front of the ziggurat. My stomach emptied at the bottom. While I was wretching, the temple imploded. Good thing I was on my hands and knees; there was nothing left but a pit. Cloud, Tifa and Aerith climbed quickly down to the bottom, where Sephiroth waited. I couldn't stand the depth, turned away and vomited again.

"Ha, ha. Your turn!" Yuffied gloated. What a team we make, I thought. But the other women were shouting, their words garbled by the earthen sides of the pit. And the kid shook her fist towards the bottom.

"He gave it away! The Black Materia is gone! The only piece in the whole world..." I had no clue what she meant, except we must have lost something expensive.

It was too difficult to stand near the edge of the hole, so I closed my eyes and pulled myself a few feet away. Someone helped me to my feet, and I opened my eyes. Cait was right in front of me, talking to Vincent. Hey, wasn't he just crushed inside the collapsing pyramid?

"Did I come at a bad time?" Man, the thing had more tricks than a call girl. Everyone looked slightly spooked. When the others returned, Yuffie was rocking and keening, mourning "her" loss.

Sephiroth had struck again, mocking and manipulating our leader. So now Cloud was comatose. We'd barely unloaded one limp body for another. He didn't seem injured, and no amount of healing would wake him.

As I looked around at my comrades, I knew I was done with the whole scene. Memories were flooding back. Moreover, I was sure I could navigate back home. The gang was going to Gongaga to reconnoiter and wait out Cloud's recovery. They left me on the mainland, where I could lure a chocobo, and I headed to the metropolitan Midgar area to find my family.

It was surprisingly easy. Mum and Dad were staying in our condo near the center of the city. After an initial moment of joyous hysteria, my Dad threw me out. On principle, no less. If I chose to be a part of Avalanche, I was not their daughter anymore. Knowing my father, I decided that was that.

So everyone knew I was alive. Shinra'd made a short announcement that I'd faked my own death to join the terrorists! They instantly associated me with the attack on the reactor. A bit before my escape, but guilty by association. So be it; my husband would know me better than that. I headed to the Northern Shore, where we would normally be this time of year. Just outside of Midgar, just west of Kalm, we kept a small ranch that was easily accessible to the city.

The trip around Midgar was long and boring, but I passed it talking on the phone with the others. Good news and bad news: Cloud was awake and well, but Aerith had bolted. She would handle Sephiroth in her own way. Tiny Bronco was coming around the continent and I could rejoin at the Shore. Okay, I guess. Maybe I will--maybe I won't. A long-awaited reunion with my husband and daughters would change everything. I couldn't wait to see his face.

I hadn't thought much about it before, because it took forever to piece together the memories. The house was the same, and it was a perfect evening when I walked up the porch stairs. He knew I was coming and opened the door. His look stopped my heart. It was grim and sad, full of doubt and fear. I finally said, "Well?"

"Hello, Josephine. I'm glad you're alive." He stepped aside to let me in.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Behind him was a small, very attractive, and hugely pregnant woman. It took about five seconds before I recognized his departmental coworker. After all, I was supposed to be dead. Neither said a word, eyeing me patiently.

"Where are my daughters?" I spoke as quietly and with as much control as I could muster. Let's not burn any bridges just yet. The twins are still my daughters.

"You'd best leave them alone. At least, until they're of age to decide for themselves if they want to associate with you. They're not here." Hoo. Bet someone wasn't thrilled when Daddy remarried.... I'd have to take the high road.

"Blessings on you both and your baby." I turned and walked quietly down the steps with as much dignity as I could manage, despite the shock.

It would be a very good thing to disappear as suddenly as I came; alone is not a good way to be when you're a wanted terrorist. Why didn't it ever occur to me that that was a possibility? It seemed so obvious now. I was numb and needed time to recover, so I slipped into the nearby woods and aimed for the beach. The clothes I was wearing had to go. I changed into a more feminine top and pulled my voluminous hair into a tight bun. When did I grow such a mop? Then I checked into an old inn I remembered from years back, dropped my stuff and went to the attached pub. Alcohol. I needed lots of alcohol.

The place was small and smoky, full of jukebox music and chattering drinkers. Good: out of the corner of my eye I could see a woman on the other side of the bar, about my age and demeanor. It would make me less conspicuous if there were other unescorted ladies. I stepped back, handed the barmaid some gil and asked for seven shots of the good stuff. Three for each hour and one nightcap. Any less and I might stay sober; any more and I would be sick.

I immediately felt like an idiot: it was my mirror-image across the bar. The last two years hadn't been so great for me, and it showed. So I slammed the first two jiggers and asked for a soda chaser. CutiePie Barkeep finished serving the shots, and complied, leaving a pile of cash. That was for her, and I told her so. She smiled sweetly and promised to take good care of me. Fine; I needed an ally tonight. The music was loud, and I just wanted to be left alone.

"Hey, Baby, how 'bout a dance?" Already? Must be the lone lady thing.

"No, thank you, I'm in mourning." I remembered the ring and held it up. Then I turned to sip my soda. The next hour passed pleasantly, and I watched people in the mirror. The jukebox was never silent, and the crowd got happier and busier.

Another guy came by. The first fellow was trying unsuccessfully to impede him. I refused to make eye contact, and just stared at my drink, coddling it with both hands.

"You don't look so sad to me, Sweetie. C'mon. Dance with us." He took my arm, and I shrugged him off. I shook my head, not wanting to argue, one drunk with another.

"Whassamatter? C'mon, let's dance, Baby." I braced to push him away, but he kept coming, not looking the least bit amorous. He narrowed his eyes and lunged.

And bounced right off me! He slammed back into the wall and slid to the floor. We both stared in amazement at one another. Then he remembered his dignity. He turned to the barmaid.

"You see that? The amazon socked me one! What the hell?"

"You did that! I never raised a hand from my drink!" But I had a good idea what might have happened. After all, I was sick and sad, beaten down from all the battles and bad news. I looked at the barmaid, insisting, "You saw. He did that himself!" His buddies were gathering around now, the lot of them grumbling and menacing. I was elated, my heart was pounding, and I hoped it would happen again. Or I was toast.

Mr. Wonderful approached more slowly this time, warily watching my hands. I tried to look at him innocently, wanting him to make my day. He reached towards me, this time smiling.

"C'mon, Sweetie. I get it; you want it rough, don't you?"

"It doesn't seem to me that the lady wants it at all. You would be wise to leave her alone. She's recently lost her husband, just as she said." Vincent moved in to my side, looking quite the gentleman in a long, dark coat. His face was impassive, but there was danger in his eyes. They were ruby red!

"What a jerk, picking on a bereaved woman in her first hours of mourning." Nice try, Cid. He almost sounded sincerely affronted. Both men were unarmed, but there could be no doubt of the outcome of any confrontation. The rest of the patrons returned to their seats to watch the fun. I stood up, and headed for the door. Party's over, I thought. I fairly floated across the floor, my feet skimming the boards. The moment was magical.

"Guess I'm done here. Music's too loud anyway." My escorts followed at a short distance, silently challenging anyone foolish enough to disagree. They let me have it with both barrels just outside the door.

"You dumbass broad! You could've been killed!" Cid still looked incredulous.

Vincent lowered his voice, but he was barely controlling his anger. "Why would it ever occur to you to go drinking alone? You surely must have a death wish!" Bingo. My eyes welled and overflowed, I choked it back and turned away. Yeah, that would be good.

"It's too late. I got back too late. I don't want to talk about it now. Leave me alone a while. A couple days, at least. I'll be here." The room was just across the parking lot.

"You are coming with us now. Right now and no argument. You can be alone another time; it's too dangerous here. Especially now that it's clear you are not a normal, everyday housewife." His eyes were warming to brown again, and twinkling. I relaxed.

Cid let out a huge guffaw. "Yeah, Jo, heckuva limit break. Whatcha gonna call it? How about Chastity Belt, huh? Get it? Belted him pretty good, too, Lady!" Even I was chuckling by then. The men smiled and, each taking an arm, escorted me to the rented room to collect my things.

Moving on seemed like a logical suggestion now. Might as well see how things shake out. We walked to the beach and joined the others.

The Northern Continent

The Northern Shore could sometimes be a little chilly, especially with its long-distance view of the Northern Continent. This was not a pleasant passage; we were dry but we were cold when we pulled up in view of Bone Village. The rising smoke looked cheering, but the archeologists didn't need us underfoot while they were working. We bribed them for some key items, rearmed and hurried along.

Much of this leg of our trip escapes me, since I was lost in my own thoughts. The Sleeping Forest was monotonous and the ruins of the City of the Ancients just looked to me like the bottom of a drained aquarium. Broken conical shells everywhere, all bleached in the pale sunlight. It was old, it was in ruins, and I wasn't interested. Where was Aerith?

Further in, almost hidden in a woodsy area was an intact shell-house near a spring, a mansion, no, a palace compared with all the others. A central staircase led to a huge cavern below. The stairs wound a long, long way down to an elegant city square. Why would anyone build an extremely high stairway with no railings? Was I the only acrophobe on the planet?

"C'mon, Fini. Aerith's probably down there." Yuffie teased me by grabbing my hand and giving me a playful yank to the end. To my abject terror, I lost balance and fell forward. Several steps later, it was plain that there certainly was some sort of field acting as a railing, only better. It was impossible to fall off these steps, but that was no comfort for me. After all, it could be as ruined as the rest of the city, with equally invisible gaps, even.

The phobic spell was not broken, but rather increased by the fall. Reddie came to my rescue and supported me while Yuffie gleefully took me step by step down the walkway, relentlessly descending. I was ready to kill her, but it worked. No longer frozen like a statue, my legs simply obeyed the law of gravity, and after the worst fifteen minutes of my life, we were in the ethereal square.

This was the true City of the Ancients, spreading out from the landing. The homes on the surface were simply a run-down suburb, ruined by time and the elements. The City itself was shining with internal light, otherworldly in its beauty, and completely bereft of inhabitants. For me, the utter silence was worsened by the sense that this desolate place had been a bustling metropolis. Now it was hollow and empty.

Not quite. On a sort of platform that looked like a little gazebo, was our missing ally. Aerith was on her knees, deep in prayer or contemplation. Maybe in ecstasy, because her face was exquisitely beautiful, peaceful beyond words. I could feel her serenity and instinctively moved closer to partake in it.

Cloud pushed everyone aside and went up to her. He said nothing, and drew his sword. And stopped, the weapon quivering in his hands. Our voices cut through the city, the only human sound in many years. Just one shout, all of us in unison, rising to a scream, as Sephiroth fell on Aerith and ran her through. She was dead. The monster retrieved his sword and began to taunt Cloud, rising high into the roof of the cavern, leaving us at the mercy of a hideous alien creature, and a battle that seemed to last forever.

This was my first encounter with Jenova. Her first assault kicked in Chastity Belt, and I pushed forward to help the fighters. Feeling invincible, I rushed at her, and she flattened me. Earlier, that blow would have been my death, but it felt rather like bouncing against a heavy-duty balloon, and I simply regained my footing. Although I was weaponless, Chastity Belt allowed me to be up front with the participants, healing and restoring, immune to even friendly fire. As long as they posed no threat, I could move in and even touch my allies, and while I tended them they were also protected. The battle ended before I was able to fully test my new toy. What a gift!

But Aerith was still dead, beyond our power to resucitate her. The battle had ensured that we could not get to her in time. We laid her remains to rest in the spring around the upper mansion and resumed our search for Sephiroth.

The meaning of her deep trance continued to vex me, as if I should know whatever it meant. I'd achieved that state many times myself, but only in the safety of the dojo or temple. And always surrounded by trainers, in the presence of a master. It's dangerous to go into deep contemplation by oneself. The veil between life and death is thin and easily breached; Aerith had to know that. And she wasn't alone, she was surrounded by the lifestream, at one with the very essence of those she loved. And yet, her very ecstasy left her vulnerable to Sephiroth, and he'd dispatched her easily, unimpeded. Why would she deliberately expose herself?

There was no time for mourning or even simple problem-solving, though. We arrived at Icicle Village, and I was looking forward to a hot bath and warm blankets. The thought of the next leg filled me with dread. The glacier and frozen highlands awaited.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Glacier and the Guardian

"My grudge isn't with you, Ma'am. It's against Cloud." Elena of the TURKS was being sweet and polite to me, but her eyes were like flint. "He really did in my boss."

There was no way to convince her that we did not injure her Tseng. Cloud refused to fight back. Astounded, she sputtered, "Why didn't you..." and waited. He stalked off without answering, and we followed. This inter-gang relationship was becoming more complicated with each encounter. There wasn't time for explanations, however. The North Crater was still a long way off.

We spent the next several hours fighting numbing cold and disorienting blizzards, searching for a way to the Gaea Cliffs. It wasn't supposed to be all that far. We stopped when the majority of our party could go no further. It would be necessary to eat and rest and warm ourselves right on the glacier, in the midst of the baffling snow fields and pestering enemies. We weren't even able to pitch camp in the howling, biting winds. Here was the gate of the coldest of hells, and death waited on the other side.

I've always hated being cold, and could not imagine a more miserable way to die. Unable to even see each other, we waited for the inevitable. The shrieking wind was beginning to sound like human shouting.

"Let's go! Anybody who can, grab the others and come with me!" We obeyed, and found that we were close to a cottage at the base of the very cliffs we sought. Mr. Holzoff, explorer and elusive local legend, led us inside and helped drag the others into the warmth.

Barely able to move, I wasn't much help. The inside of the cottage was definitely cheering, but almost suffocatingly hot. I quickly lost consciousness. When I awoke, Barrett, Cait and Red XII were discussing our projected path up the face of the cliffs. Everyone else was still out. I hadn't gone "deep" at all, and had just thawed out normally. What was up with all the machismo -- no winter clothing, even for the skinny kid? I may have been a wuss for wearing a parka, but I was one of the first awake. Reddie had his fur -- and Cait? Well, if you aren't a living creature you can't die of cold.

Mr. Holzoff sadly intoned that he had lost comrades to the cliffs, but was willing to share his expertise, if only to prevent the dire losses he suffered. If we kept together, supported one another, and followed his directions faithfully, we just might make it.

As a result, the next leg was a piece of cake. Just learning that the caves were warmer than the exposed rocks restored us. There was even a healing spring in the topmost tunnel; it felt like cheating after hiking in a howling blizzard! We were through it and out the other side in no time. And as icing on that cake (for me, anyway), we fought a mutant that really deserved to be whacked. Damned Marlboro almost ended the whole quest in one breath. Being attacked by a gross-looking, mobile vegetable is just wrong, especially when the noxious plant is practically invincible. Made the Schizo dragon seem normal, the logical owner of the ice cave. Unfortunately for the latter, we had to kill it just to get through to the outside ice peaks. I was beginning to be sickened by all the dragon-slaying. Seems we could do better than destroy such magnificent creatures, even the mutants.

We climbed the highest ridge and peered over it. Color and light were swirling together and apart, interweaving inside and around the crater, rising like a geyser, then spinning into a tight funnel cloud. Was it the Lifestream, still working to heal the wound of the planet? We watched a while, hypnotized by the spectacular colors and activity.

Then a gory sight: Sephiroth was just ahead, slicing into dark, hooded figures, and dispatching them to the depths of the nearby crevasse. Cloud designated a group of three, and they advanced to confront him. Directly above us, a huge airship raced past toward the brilliant light show.

We followed, eventually catching up to our own, who were arguing with Shinra suits, including my erstwhile boss, Hojo. We filed in quietly. Cloud was caught up in some sort of ice and materia formation high overhead, and that was rapidly melting and threatened to collapse.

"Come, you belong to me. We need to leave immediately." Hojo demanded I return to his fold. No thanks. I moved away from him and bumped into one of the suits. I tried to back away, looking for my comrades. Then someone took my arm and pulled me out from under the growing waterfall.

I realized too late that Rufus was herding us towards the airship. They dragged me on board, along with Barett and Tifa. We were immediately separated into different staterooms, doors locked from the hallway. A short while later, we deplaned on a long runway with the ocean stretching out on three sides. My friends were nowhere in sight. A small contingent of Rufus' people hustled me through the nearest door, down a hallway, across a boulevard, up a tramway and back into what seemed to be an upper floor of the original building. I think so, anyway. This was a base: there was an enormous cannon and the buildings themselves were armored. Likely both an air and naval port.

It irritated me to be once again a prisoner, although I was glad enough that I wasn't Hojo's guest. I would learn more over the next few days, while I languished, fed and comfortable but bored, in a tiny holding cell. I was allowed a monitor, through which I was fed the usual Shinra news, semi-technical presentations and official drivel. I didn't lend much credence to anything on the monitor, but two stories caught my eye.

Biggest news was Meteor, and that was blamed on Avalanche giving the black materia to Sephiroth. That sounded true enough, although I missed the actual transfer up in the crater. There was surely something wrong with Cloud; he messed up anytime Sephiroth was near. They must have been together, hanging in the ice and materia overhead at the crater.

On the bright side, Shinra promised to punish those responsible for the calamity. There would be a series of public executions broadcast from Junon, and I would be one of the guests of honor! Disturbing to see my image on TV, the old, shorter hairstyle looking very blah, especially with the ugly standard-issue laboratory glasses. I've always hated the Network, and this did not endear them to me further. A day later, a uniformed sentry opened the door and stepped back to allow Rufus to enter. He smiled casually, almost benignly, at me. The hair rose on the back of my neck.

"Hello, Josephine. We meet again." The guard placed his back to the door, covering the small window to the hall. I didn't like the looks of that action, and backed into the far wall. Rufus walked right up, lifted my chin and smiled down into my face. Only he could turn the angelic "blond hair and blue eyes" model upside down. Evil with a pretty face and silky voice.

"Let's have a little talk. Maybe we can strike a deal, my dear." Who was he calling his dear? Nausea was beginning to rise into my throat.

"What do you want to know, Sonny?" Wrong answer. He backhanded me across the face, practically snapping my neck. Then he quickly reversed and repeated the slap with his palm. Maybe it would be better to say nothing at all. Blood was replacing the bile at the back of my throat. I stared back, unblinking. Geez, what did he want, anyway?

"Good. You learn fast." He slipped his arm around my waist and pulled me to him. Yikes! Not my cup of tea. Automatically, I pushed as hard as I could with my fists into his midriff, and managed to separate us. I braced against the wall and set my face. And was rewarded with a series of sharp jabs around the eyes and mouth. Creepy sicko...

"That's what you think, Momma." He recovered very quickly, sure of his advantage, and punched me in the chest. Just the right move. Even though I nearly puked from the impact, I felt the familiar elation, and pushed my whole body forward as hard as I could. He bounced backward, recouped and lunged again.

This time he hit the Chastity Belt. He was slammed backwards against the guard, and the two of them made the wall rattle. Alarms rang through the hallway. Did I do that?

Maybe not. The public address annouced a Code Red, not a drill. Weapon was approaching. Well, okay, but what sort of weapon? After all, there are weapons and then there are weapons. I snorted aloud at my addled thoughts.

Rufus looked annoyed and then worried. He straightened his tie and jacket, nodded to me, hissed something to the guard, and bolted out the door. The sentry stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind him.

The alarms continued and announcements came fast and repeatedly. There was a surge and shifting of the floor. After a short silence, a series of huge shocks rocked the building. Another enormous shift followed another surge, and then relative quiet reigned. The door opened and the halls were filled with running soldiers.

"Come with me. Let's get out of here!" The guard pulled me through the door and up the hallway into an empty lecture hall with a wide projection screen up front. The sound of ocean and wind came from a door to one side. My guard shoved me into that room and shut the door behind us, securing it as if it were an airlock.

I faced him and waited for an explanation. He looked shocked and sad, but turned immediately upward at an opening torn into the ceiling of the room.

"He decorated your face real good, the bastard. Up here. It should lead to the turret." Turret? The cannon? He grabbed the edge of the hole and pulled himself out. Then he reached down for me. I hesitated. What now?

"Trust me. It's all I can do. I didn't know; he was only supposed to interrogate you. Let me help now." Oh well, what the hell. I didn't have any better ideas. I reached up and he hauled me onto the building's shell. Even through the adrenaline rush, that hurt enough to stop my breath, and he left me face-down on the metal surface.

This was facing the cannon's still-hot barrel, and when I picked myself up, I could see the end smoking slightly. There were two women near us, in the middle of hand-to-hand combat. I moved toward them, recognizing my ally Tifa and Shinra's Scarlett.

Not quite combat: more of a catfight. Tifa was giving as good as she got. Even better, knocking the other off her feet, all whiny bitching and gesticulation. Beyond Tifa hovered that enormous airship, closing in slowly. It moved away and made another pass at her, but this time she jumped right at it and fell onto some ropes. She was lifted onto the ship.

That made no sense to me, so I turned away, frazzled. Where else could I run from here? My protector stopped and blocked me. I was losing my balance. I didn't like the height but the ocean seemed safe enough. The wind, the roar of the waves, the airship engines, the discomfort and all the battle noise were confusing me. The loser of the slappy contest was running toward us, sort of. Spike heels and a tight satin gown were certainly working to our advantage; she would never catch up to us. Wierdly wired chick, that one. I paused briefly to enjoy the spectacle, then returned to the sentry.

My new buddy was looking over my shoulder, astonished. I heard, or rather felt, a body thumping down behind me, so I turned to look back again towards Scarlett. I smacked into some familiar black fabric and was lifted off the cannon, gasping in agony. There was another small shock and my companion was shouting that he was coming, too. I could feel hands grab at my arms and waist, and then I was flat on the airship's deck, looking up at Cid, Vincent, Barrett and my fellow escapee. From the looks on their faces, I knew I shouldn't enter any beauty pageants soon. But there wasn't a Shinra suit or uniform in sight.

The airship was ours? Cid grinned, "Welcome aboard the Highwind, Jo."

Well, well. The good guys win one, for a change. Aching, I tried to get more comfortable and rolled over to one side, nearly smothering Yuffie. Green was definitely not her best color. Motion sick again, poor kid. Cheer her up, why don't we?

"Ha, ha. Your turn." I couldn't resist. My face hurt.

"Who does your makeup, Fini? I'd sue if I were you."

We made a good comedy team.

"Say goodnight, Yuffie."

"Huh? It's broad daylight."

Never mind.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Encounter in the Stateroom

I thought I was just being a crybaby, but the others were indignant that Rufus had roughed me up. I knew enough to grab a stateroom for some “deep” rest. The world could wait, could it not? Anyone who specialized in earth science was making estimates for Meteor’s impact. Days? Weeks? It was impossible to tell without any sort of station in space for proper perspective. Whatever. After a few hours, I was refreshed enough to reconnoiter with reality.

My knight was Jim Ryu, a lifer with the Shinra elite military. We needed to keep his presence with us under wraps. He was no doubt listed as one of the many casualties of Weapon’s attack on Junon. If they took the time to pick up the pieces and investigate my escape, he would join us on the WANTED displays.

Cloud was nowhere on board. It was clear from Tifa’s moping that he was not among the rescued. Cid, on the other hand, was excited and chatty about the recovery of his “Bikini Goddess,” so I let him fill me in. The Highwind’s crew hated Rufus, and were waiting for an opportunity to mutiny. My friends had been with Cid when the ship’s command reverted back to him, or shortly thereafter. Except for Cloud, we were all together again. It seemed natural that the Captain would take over the operation.

We began to search for our missing leader. There was a dome capping the crater. The Highwind, with all its power, simply could not breach it. Could there be another way to approach the search? We began to canvass towns already visited. Icicle Village was first on the list.

Snowboarders spoke lovingly of Mideel, a tropical resort known for its rare above-surface flow of Lifestream. A warm-springs town with a health spa and clinic, it was Mecca for anyone injured on the slopes. Icicle Inn’s EMTs encouraged those recuperating from broken bones to go there to heal.

Another tourist trap. The men moved around through the shops, but Tifa locked right into a lead. Cloud had indeed surfaced in the Lifestream, nearly comatose from an overdose of mako exposure. She would remain with him; she was useless to us now.

We left Tifa with our blessings. The end of the planet meant nothing to her. Her loyalty was touching, but we needed to move ahead. We did indeed care about preventing the end of the world.

Their absence left me blue, recalling how bereft I felt over my own family. The easiest thing to do was stare through the cockpit’s windshield: the earth passed below us in a blur of blue and greens, and the clouds formed a lacy filter in between. Time did not exist while I watched this, and it eased the pain.

“You miss your husband?” Vincent leaned against the window, facing me.

“Not really. Well, yes: he was a good guy.” I felt a bit ashamed at my weakness.

“I lost my family, too. My parents died years ago, long before Sephiroth burned Nibelheim. And other family members lost their lives defending the town. My son is grown. Alive, but his childhood can never be recovered.” He didn’t look sad, just full of wonder.

So was I. Son! He’d never said anything about it before. My daughters weren’t dead either, just unavailable, and I had their childhood to remember. I reached out to stroke his shiny hair, then pulled back. He noticed my reaction.

“What’s wrong?”

I gave a short laugh, and my maternal instinct kicked in.

“Vincent, your hair is full of snarls. It looks all shiny, but…” He cut me off, seemingly more amused than I, or maybe just wishing to end the somber mood.

“It’s back in a queue, so what’s the difference? It’s out of the way.”

“You can’t leave it like that! What a shame. Otherwise, it’s beautiful.” Just then I looked up, feeling self-conscious again. We’d caught the attention of Cait and Jim and Barrett. This was too much; I thought, I’ve got to learn to keep my opinions to myself. I moved to the doorway, but Vincent followed me.

“Do I disgust you, then?” What now?

“Are you kidding? It’s just hair. I’m being a mommy, is all. It’s from having daughters. It’s easier just to comb it out now than to have to cut it out later.”

“So have at it, if you like. The hair does not matter to me, but if it bothers you…”

Without another word, I took him to sit in a stateroom and began to pull out the snarls. His was perfect, thick and silky hair, just as one would expect, since it wasn’t brushed or blown for decades. It didn’t look any different when I finished, so I wound the scarf back the way he wore it. What was I thinking? Vincent was right: just ignore it. The embarrassment overwhelmed me and I pulled away. Vincent blocked me in the hall. His eyes were deep maroon, very serious and he spoke quietly, barely audible.

“You are not my mother, Josephine. I’m just delighted to be able to make the other men jealous of your attentions.” Then he was gone. “The others” were watching the whole thing, but said nothing. How awkward! C’mon guys, bust me, or something.

“So who’s next?” I held up the comb, in mock threat. “No one? I thought not!” I closed the door to the stateroom, and headed to the operations center, where I could have more solitude.

Vincent had a son! The boy would be in his thirties. That would make his Dad somewhat younger than him, I should think, although Vincent sometimes seemed older than me. We joked about him being on the high side of fifty, making him the august elder of the fellowship. All dignity and pride, he kept to himself most of the time, talking less than even Cait or Reddie. He was appalled by his limit breaks, which became more beastly and bizarre with each level. It didn’t matter to the rest of us: they were just Vincent’s repressed violent side. I mused over the meaning of it all. Who needs to repress violence when he can just shoot the problem full of holes? Must be a lot of anger there. Mental note: don’t provoke Vincent. So, what happened to his son’s mother? Did she survive Sephiroth’s destruction of Nibelheim? Did she survive Vincent?

My husband, he’d said. Not mine anymore; their baby needs a father. I hoped I could keep it that way in my head. Ms. Lindorm! I’d never given up my maiden name entirely, so the transition wouldn’t be too tough. If we ever survived Meteor, I was on my own, Miss Josephine Lindorm again, after almost two decades.

”Ahem.” No solitude on this ship. It was Cait. Oh, right. He’d promised me information. Did I want more information? My conclusion was, “Not really.”

“When we get a chance, I have people for you to meet.” It sounded urgent.

“Your doctorals, your girls?” An ugly thought: What is he, a bigamist? A Shinra higher-up would be able to afford a lot of perks, and a few ladies might be among them.

“Yes, but there’s more.” He stopped again.

“Cait, I’m sick of this. There’s always more with you. Stop being a damned drama queen and provide some facts. Or leave me alone. I’ve found enough trouble as it is, already.” I was spitting nails, and needed to shut up and calm down. The airship was worse than a tenement building. The noise of the engines covered a lot of racket, but the proximity of the crew and our group made eavesdropping unavoidable. I returned to “my” stateroom, where I’d been a prisoner, shut the door and punched the mattress. Just once, because it felt silly. What I really wanted was to punch the wall, or a door, or even better, a window. The ship was entirely bullet-proof, retrofitted for Rufus’ personal use. Being a lady was no longer an option for me, so I buried my face in the pillow and screamed a few obscenities. When that felt ridiculous, I sat on the bed and pouted. There was a timid knock. Oh, well.

“Come in.” The silly stuffed behemoth hopped in. A thought occurred to me.

“Talk to me, Cait. I’m starting to remember the formal dance a few years back.” The poker-faced cat stood still. A machine, just an expensive toy, really. A wealthy man’s wind-up toy. I knew I would figure it out soon, so I could bluff. “We danced.”

“Fini, you danced with a number of us. And my girls asked your husband, too.”

“But he refused.” Another bluff. He wouldn’t dance with anyone, even me. He hated dancing. Furthermore, he was a lousy dancer. We had an agreement: I would dance, to fulfill our obligation without involving his two left feet. He allowed himself to be dragged into a slow one now and again, because I was usually already taken. That, however, was rare, and I would certainly remember, because I would tease him about it for ages.

Most of the suits were overweight and, frankly, gross, but not all of them. I would definitely remember a slow one with one of those hogs. I needed a little more time, and I would work it out.

“What did you want to say? I’m sorry I got upset. It doesn’t get me anywhere, but it’s just the way I am.” Apologizing to a one-time traitor, disguised as an oversized moogle! This was surely going to give me nightmares.

“You need to come to Midgar, to your family condominium. It just wouldn’t be right to tell you here. My girls can visit with you there. We can make things right.” He was talking fast, and it sounded to me as if he were making it up as he went along. The sick feeling was coming back. Not a memory, but a certainty.

“Why can’t you tell me now?” That’s when it really hit home, pulled together serendipitously. All the hints and details were making sense. Together they made perfect sense.

“They have someone else to show me.” My eyes were stinging with tears, and I could hardly breathe. No, I didn’t remember yet, but I couldn’t escape the conclusion. “The girls have my baby. Right? Is it my husband’s child, too? I’m Hojo’s Latest Lucrecia.” That made me the mother of a monster.

“Fini. Don’t cry, I promise you we can make it all right. We don’t have your baby. Babies, actually. They are well, and happy, and normal, and you can meet and hold them.” Then he ran out of words.

When my world tilted 90 degrees, I was talking to a massive moogle topped by a tuxedo kitty. I was glad I was sitting down.

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In the days before we were the River Dog and the River Hag.