Dragon Lady; Josephine's Journal

Love doesn't conquer all. It doesn't even conquer some.

After Meteorfall

Midgar was not destroyed, and the planet did not die: The impending disaster was absorbed by Lifestream. After an eternity of living from battle to battle, our fellowship was suddenly idle.

It’s not that we didn't have plans. Tifa would return to cooking and serving lunch in her Seventh Heaven. Cloud, on the other hand, could probably not continue as a mercenary. He would have to look for more mundane work. As would Vincent, unless, perhaps, he joined the militia at Nibelheim. (He wore their uniform, and a craftsman from the old days donated the armor.) Barrett was invited back to Corelle, hailed as a favorite son. Cid was now eager to join Shera in Rocket Town, and Nanaki could expect a hero's welcome in Cosmo Canyon. Lord Godor was waiting for Yuffie, ready to welcome her with open arms, eyes peeled for materia.

Me? I wanted to reconnect with my children, all four of them. However, I was still a terrorist in the eyes of my parents, and just another stranger to my boys. Would I be a returning hero, or cast out again, as unsuitable even for motherhood?

Granted: no one would be interested in my neurotic sort of heroism. I couldn't measure up to the comrades who fought alongside me at the North Crater. Not as courageous, nor as skilled. But surely I was entitled to a homecoming, too.

The doubts that crowd my mind (and jangle my nerves) had to be overcome to finish the task at hand. Every one of us had shortcomings that could have aborted the whole quest. Some nearly did. Aerith never made it to the finish line alive, yet she still contributed at the end, just as she had planned, through the Lifestream. The more personal weakness we overcame, the more miraculous the outcome seemed, at least to me.

This diary was begun in the stateroom on the Highwind, and has been re-written since. I'd gone deep into self-curing that time and remained out until daylight, healing some four hours. I could have slept another two days. When I'd reconnoitered with the group, we'd been hovering over Midgar since Meteorfall and were preparing to give the planet a quick once-over, before everyone went separate ways.

While Meteor never actually struck, we could see that damage was widespread throughout the neighborhoods on the upper plate. The conflicting gravities roiled the atmosphere over Midgar, creating strong whirlwinds, even some significant tornados. The city had already been peppered by Diamond Weapon, and was badly shaken by the recoils of the Sister Ray mako cannon, so the storms threw swirling clouds of debris around the city. Reeve urged all residents to seek cover below the plates; anyone foolish enough to disobey was likely killed in the chaos.

In the quiet after Meteorfall, people cautiously sought out their homes to survey the damage, while we watched from the Highwind. It was comforting to see survivors taking stock of their surroundings and preparing to rebuild. The city was almost unrecognizable from above, but each district was at least peaceful; a few would certainly rise again. Reeve could lead the return to normalcy.

For my own peace of mind, I needed to know my children were safe and well. Reeve checked on the kids, and learned they were unharmed. He was told that my daughters had been evacuated either to the Northern Shore with their father, or to Foothills with my parents, and the boys were taken to Kalm to stay with Mrs. Gainesborough and Marlene.

My relief knew no bounds. It was too late to even pray for the children. I had been disabled during the crucial moments of danger; they would believe I'd abandoned them. My first instinct was to seek them out, let them know I had been protecting them. I would eventually reclaim them, this time prepared to deal with anyone who got between us. While Midgar might be a dangerous place, I could certainly rise to the challenge, having survived a near-execution, as well as the final battle against Sephiroth. And I had my friends.

It wasn't apparent that we were instrumental in the salvation of the Planet. The people never understood that Sephiroth intended to annihilate all human life on the Planet. Armageddon was hidden away in the North Crater. Except for the crew of the Highwind, no one was aware of the battle. Lifestream (liberated when we destroyed Sephiroth) moved very visibly in and around Midgar, and would rightly be credited with the rescue. A few higher-ups from Shinra were privy to our work, but we could not count on our safety among the common people, who considered Avalanche the terrorists responsible for Meteorfall.

Nevertheless, my soul longed for a home in the ruins. Midgar would still be the perfect place to rebuild my relationship with the girls. I consider myself a Renaissance-sort of person, enduring by my own wits and skills. The only thing preventing my independence in the past had been frail health. Thanks to Hojo, that would no longer be a problem. This isn't to say I would never be ill, only that I have a fighting chance, same as anyone else. My weak constitution was compensated by youth, an extremely strong will and pro-active nature. I always tried to hold my own against the rest of the world, and I believe I managed. Why else would Hojo want to use me for breeding for SOLDIER, if not to take advantage of my fighter genes?

Never having been a gentle, "girly" girl, I could begin anew without husband or other family, for that matter. Love doesn't conquer all; it doesn't even come close. Now I was on my own, and I looked forward to it.

There was the little seaside hut outside Wutai; Lord Godor gave me the place to make a home. And a sweet chalet on Gold Coast was time-shared by all our fellowship. Furthermore, each of us was wealthy enough to purchase property anywhere on the Planet. I could easily buy a condo near Shinra headquarters. Previously such a place would be well out of reach, even with my husband's salary and mine combined. Now it was simply a matter of choosing and nesting. With all the stores of items we gathered along the way to the North Crater, we were collectively worth about 29 million gil. And that was before we reckoned the materia. Consult with Yuffie, if you'd like a valuation of that: millions and millions, most likely. You should count your fingers and check for your jewelry and personal electronics afterwards.

My comrades had allowed me squatter's rights to the stateroom. Even so, it looked unoccupied: it's not my custom to claim an area with decorations. I prefer to inhabit a place, and then let my lifestyle add to the surroundings. In short, my kit and weapons--my stuff--were on my body, same as my clothes.

I lost a lot of belongings to my ex-husband, to Hojo’s faked laboratory fire, and the hardships of the road, but I also had the ability to more than compensate any loss suffered before Meteorfall. Not many citizens around the planet could make that claim, with the Shinra economy in ruins. Besides, I am not the sum total of a bunch of things.

On top of all that, our time on the road taught me to live sparingly, enjoy food and cleanliness when I could get them, and to ignore any inconvenience that was less than fatal.

So I awoke comfortable with the idea of moving on. I joined the others, and we watched the emergent activity for a while, and then dispersed to various parts of the Highwind. After I posted an entry to my journal, I again checked through the windshield of the cockpit for our position. We'd passed over the ocean beyond Junon, with Lucrecia's waterfall in the distance. It sparkled in the sunlight, rainbows shooting through the mist as we moved slowly over the Central Continent. I would have to wait until we were back over Midgar, and that could take hours.

No matter. I would spend the time exchanging good wishes and farewells with my companions. First, I searched for Yuffie. Did she realize that Godor would probably now arrange a suitable partner for her? They were ninja nobility, if such a thing could be said to exist in today's world, and their line must not die childless. (Ninja nobility: an oxymoron if ever was one. And Yuffie almost a princess! Well, sort of.) At any rate, I wanted to see her reaction when I suggested she faced an arranged marriage in Wutai. That is, if she hadn't already planned some minor torment for me. We had honed our punking and teasing into a fine sport to ease tension and fear on the road. Coudn't wait to find her.

Vincent’s Decision

While I was searching for Yuffie, Captain Cid intercepted me. I should find Vincent before we flew over Nibelheim. He sounded serious and somewhat hesitant. What was the fuss? Surely our Mr. Valentine would return to his son and whatever family remained. I searched high and low. Low and high, actually -- he was standing on the upper deck, wind blowing his hair and mantle. It was quite a sight. My heart skipped a beat, seeing him in full hero mode! Too bad no one got a photograph.

I approached to shout some final farewells. And was once again stopped by Cid.

"Give them a minute, Jo. Unfinished business." He pointed past our hero.

Cait Sith was also on deck, his back to a nearby wall, talking and gesturing. Vincent stood facing the wind, not even acknowledging the cat. After a few minutes, I walked over to them.

"Fini, we decided that you should not venture on your own." Cait was putting on a no-nonsense tone, resulting in a ridiculous parody of Reeve's authority. The wind wasn't helping the impression, either.

"Indeed?" It came out in a most unlady-like snort. "You, God and who else? You're joking, right? Go back to your girls, Reeve! Midgar is mine just as soon as we pass over it." Oh, brother. We were all going to be hoarse from screaming over the whistling air currents and the engines.

"Be reasonable, Fini. You'd best stay with us. The streets are dangerous, with looters and gangs battling to establish territory."

"That’s your job, Mr. Commissioner. See to it to that order is maintained, to protect people like me, so we can rebuild." Sheesh, if I couldn't survive a few criminals after Sephiroth, who could? At that moment, Vincent slipped his cape over my shoulders, in a courtly, elegant motion. I beamed at him, but he looked oddly pensive, almost anxious, leaving me wary, if only a little too late.

"Josephine, enough of this argument in the howling winds. A strong gust will surely sweep you off the deck. Cid, it's settled. She'll come with me for now."

"Nothing is settled, Buster!" But I didn't have time to say more. Cid produced my weapons and handed them to Vincent, who wrapped them into the cape with me, effectively creating a cocoon pinning my arms. Any real thrashing about, and I would be sliced by the unsecured, razor-sharp broadheads. He'd snookered me. Again.

"Bye, Jo. Don’t be a stranger, Sweetie!" Cid patted my cheek, gloating in my irate impotence. I wanted to spit, but Vincent was already rising to the railing and we were over in an instant.

The two of us landed with an audible thump on a grassy plot in an orchard. My human transporter immediately extracted the weapons and restored them to their rightful places on my person. He then slung his cape back onto his own shoulders and put his armored limb around mine. The extra arrows needed to be set safely into the quiver, but my arms were impeded by the massive metal claw. I couldn't shrug it away, so I turned my frustration on him.

"Vincent, this thing is heavy. And where are we now? For crying out loud, have you lost your mind?" I sputtered. There was no point in struggling; the deed was done. I looked into his face for a clue, but his eyes were reddish-brown, and he was calm. With great effort, I closed my mouth and waited for an explanation.

"We were merely wasting time with pointless discussion. Reeve would not permit you free passage through his city until he could be convinced of your safety. Would you prefer to stay with him?" This was a valid question; I did not want to live with Reeve and his twin “girls,” whatever their status. Best to avoid that setup.

We’d landed in the middle of a plantation, and since there was no one else in sight, another tack occurred to me: play on his chivalry. I put both hands on his shoulders, looked wide-eyed up into his face, and pleaded in a low, controlled voice. No whining, just the sound of pure reason.

"Vincent, you, of all people, should know I don't want to be here. Please, let's recall the Highwind, and I'll work out something with Barrett and Cid. It doesn't have to be Midgar; that was just an idea. The kids are too far from Nibelheim to reach them easily. This is Nibelheim, isn't it?"

With a sly smile, he swept his arm around, indicating the orchard.

"These fruit-lands are located just outside the town, most recently forming part of the militia's base. Provided by my son, or more correctly, our family, some years before Sephiroth burned the village. We can stay here at the manor that was owned by my parents. You are familiar with the winery, no doubt?"

"Fruitland's Finest wines? We kept a stock of nearly every variety. All great stuff. My husband especially favored the cognac." Now it was easy to recognize that the tidy rows of trees gave way to vineyards in the foothills. And the winery was right behind. From the mountains to the river was a vision of modern agriculture, orderly and fertile. I wondered that I had not noticed it before. Our group had passed through in Dio's sand buggy, searching for Sephiroth. It was different season, and we were pre-occupied with our quest. Seemed like centuries ago.

A small crowd approached us, red and black uniforms visible in the distance. Vincent hailed them with his armored claw, pulling me closer with his other arm. He spoke evenly, almost nonchalantly to me.

"Allow me to make the introductions. We will be honored guests; I kept them abreast of our progress during my visits." Now his eyes were deep chocolate and smiling, waiting for my approval. I sighed ruefully. Fatigue was already setting in again, and the cold air chilled me to the bones. I would need to rest and recharge. There was nothing left to say, and nothing else to do. Surely this stopover could be easily borne, at least for a while.

It then occurred to me that perhaps this would be my proper homecoming. A welcomed guest! Not too many places would hail me as a returning hero. I began to relax, and smiled back.

I can be such a trusting fool around Vincent.

Nibelheim: The Militia and the Manor

The Nibelheim Militia

The leader, who also looked to me to be the senior officer, reached out expansively to Vincent, giving him a hearty hug and repeatedly patting his shoulder afterward. He was a large, middle-aged man, standing directly (and rather pointedly) at the side of a similarly dressed woman. For her part, she grabbed my comrade's arms, pulling him close and kissing his lips. Unsettled by all the sudden emotion, I fell back a bit and averted my eyes, but Vincent seemed to expect the show of affection, accepting it somewhat passively, but with good humor.

I tried to keep myself out of the scene. After all, these were people from Vincent's early days. Was it before or after he joined Shinra? I wondered. He'd mentioned military training when he first joined us, in the basement in Nibelheim, but I'd assumed he meant TURKS. I tried to step back a little, hoping to learn some answers in their manner.

But the uniformed lady had already taken both my hands and eagerly pulled me forward. I prepared to duck a kiss, but she was eyeing my weapons.

"Is this the archer? We may have some work for her here. Right, Walt?" The gregarious lady nudged her partner, who gave me the once-over and grinned at my friend.

"She's pretty, Vince. Looks like a keeper to me." The man had taken my elbow, but I pulled away, nervously shaking my head and trying to smile. Trouble already?

"Uh, no. Just here for the short-term, to keep me out of possible trouble in Midgar." I hoped to make light of the whole embarrassing situation. Vincent simply smiled, complacent with his friends' assessment.

He drew me to his side again and said, "Hildy; Walt; this is Josephine Lindorm, our dedicated healer. Josephine, these are friends from my pre-Shinra youth, Hildegarde and Walter Randolph. His sister Eleanora is also a friend of mine." Hugs again, each of them kissing my cheek. Real friendly bunch, this militia. I hoped I didn't seem standoffish, but I was grateful that no one else tried to embrace me. Maybe it was just Vincent's old friends trying to make me feel welcome, but I didn't want them to have the wrong impression of my relationship to their buddy.

The rest of the soldiers remained respectfully at attention as we greeted. Then all proceeded to the compound. It felt strange to walk shoulder to shoulder with so many armed strangers, and not as a prisoner. The vibe was still cautious, as if the rank and file were assessing us visitors. Guarding or protecting? Whatever. Their turf, after all.

Deliberately maintained to look like, and ostensibly to function as, a winery, the base was a beautiful replica of the sort of town one would find in an old woodland community or alpine foothills. Picturesque chalets surrounded a central lodge -- a mansion, really -- all rough-hewn timbers and white stucco exterior. Inside the woodwork and fireplaces felt at once luxurious and intimate.

Maybe I just really needed a nap in front of one of the comfy blazes that were stoked to perfection, heating the great rooms of what looked very much like a ski resort. No snow, not at the moment anyway, just cold, damp, early spring weather. And no tourists, unless one counted Vincent and me.

The warmth made me sleepy, very sleepy. Our hosts took notice and steered me up one side of a graceful central stairway to a sparsely furnished bedroom, also fully paneled and bragging a fireplace just as big as those that warmed the Great Room. They offered me a change of clothes and promised to check in with me later. I barely stripped away my weapons before dropping on top of the coverlet, and was out in a few seconds.

My weapons were gone when I awoke. Nothing else was touched, though, and I figured they had a right to remove any possible danger from outsiders. All was forgiven just as soon as I noticed the adjoining private bath. I had a full suite to myself! First a long, hot shower. Then a leisurely search for my comrade. No hurry at all.

Preparations for the Feast

The towels were thick and fuzzy, a real luxury after the ones we got at the inns, if we ever got any. I snuggled it around my torso and lazily sauntered into the bedroom. There I found Vincent, sans armor, on the edge of the bed, with my everyday shirt in one hand and his red cape in the other. Strange enough to see him without all the bulky metals, but even more so, sitting there holding my unwashed top. It embarrassed me that I left it out, but there didn't seem to be any hamper for dirty laundry. Oh, well, not like it was dripping in sweat or grease. Just no longer fresh, maybe a tad stinky.

"Hello? Did they bunk us together?" My voice did not surprise him, and he turned slowly toward me, looking serious, his eyes' beautiful ruby color deeper than ever.

"Josephine, bathing again? You are washing away your very essence." He sounded disappointed, as though he really meant it. I giggled involuntarily, then recovered as much dignity as I could, wearing only a towel.

"What's it to you? And it's only my first shower. Just one, and it was lovely, with unlimited hot water and Turkish towels. See? May be I'll start a new fashion around here. Seriously, I really hate to put on my old things now." My feminine top was at least clean, to go with my freshly-shampooed hair. All the cleanliness was beginning to make me feel giddy and I flushed with the pleasure of it all. "Hildy offered one of her uniforms, but I didn't feel comfortable wearing it right away. Maybe later when I need something fresh."

Vincent stepped up very close to me and lifted my chin with his knuckle. Felt pretty darned cold after my hot shower, and I flinched just a little bit. He raised an eyebrow, and smiled, but did not release his hold.

"At the moment you don't smell like you. Just soap and shampoo. Also, Josephine, remember that, before long, you will need to rest some more. You are not fully recovered from the last battle with Sephiroth. Go easy on the alcohol and do not revel into the early hours. Don't make me rescue you from another drunk."

That just wasn't funny any more. I changed the subject.

"Hey, aren't you coming to the dinner? And you didn't answer my first question." What was up, now? It wouldn't be much of a party without Vincent there to ease the awkwardness and make the introductions. Maybe I'd give it all a miss. The prospect of an evening meal with strangers was just plain unappetizing.

"These arrangements were according to my wishes." Guess mine were not factored into the equation. I didn't have time to voice my displeasure before he continued, dropping my chin and turning toward the windows.

"Certainly I will attend; my family is preparing the feast. But remember, this is both a military base and a winery. These people work and play very hard. You ought not to be left alone; there will be some lone wolves among the ranks. And, please, personal favor: wear more than a towel. A word to the wise." Now he was smiling again. "Dinner is in one-half hour; you can join me in the dining room when you are ready." He folded his cape over the valet by the closet. Then he unwound his scarf, and set it on the dresser. He left without combing -- or even checking -- his unruly mop in the mirror. Clearly, that was all the preparation he felt necessary.

Vincent never seemed to reek of sweat or dirt, at least not as much as I did. For the first time since we met, it occurred to me that there simply was never any decay about him, not the normal sloughing of dead cells. Not even dandruff! Must've been part of the thirty-year sleep, or maybe the Jenova treatment? No doubt, the family would accept him any way he presented himself.

Nevertheless I felt like the consummate outsider, and would need to dress appropriately for dinner, so as not to offend our hosts. And I wondered what they would think of our sleeping arrangements. All danger now in the past, we were no longer on the road surrounded by enemies. Nor was there any need to share a bed; this mansion would surely have many rooms with plenty of furniture. Obviously, my self-appointed guardian would continue to keep me close at hand. I sighed and returned to my preparations. After all, we had nothing but time.

The woman staring back from the mirror was a mass of long hair and weathered cheeks--actually burnt in battle. That would heal once I got the full rest I needed. Ridiculously ruddy for a woman my age, I thought as I twisted the back locks into a knot, up off my neck. The clean, dry hair begged a few touches of makeup, but it had been so long, I wasn't up to the application. And the last time I wore any cosmetics and perfume was for my disasterous foray into the North Shore tavern, the night-out that first triggered Chastity Belt. I wriggled into the girly top, and spoke to my reflection, remembering the unwelcome greeting.

"Hey, Baby. You don't look so sad to me." Why is it drunks always call women that, even one way too old to be any guy's baby? Oh, well, a few glasses of some really decent wine would make me feel a decade younger. Maybe I'd be the lone wolf, prowling around for prey.

The aroma of kitchen preparations wafted up the grand central stairways. Whatever they were cooking was already making me hungry. And I could afford every calorie I would no doubt stuff down.

And Fruitland's Finest wines! I certainly hoped Vincent wasn't going to monitor and control my imbibing. That would be criminal, given the circumstances.

Couldn't wait to get a glow going.


Vincent's Homecoming Feast

At first it looked like chaos, rather than an orderly dinner party. Vincent fit in very well with his black clothes, but then, so did I with just my girly top and jeans. The rest of the guests were either uniformed or casual, and were milling about, attentively watching the others and occasionally leaving for the kitchen. Apparently everybody contributed to the preparation and serving of the meal. After a while, one could see that each person would do his or her part and then settle in to eat. I could not see any actual pattern, but it was clear each was expected to participate in both the production and the enjoyment of this banquet. At any other time, I would be in there with the rest of them, working the kitchen and serving the table. This was not my production, though, and the local population were celebrating their homecoming hero, doing it up right.

There was a small line of well-wishers visiting with Vincent, who was holding court next to a few empty places at the center of the table. Each person would either shake his hand or quickly embrace him, or both. Most said nothing at all. For his part, Vincent serenely accepted the affection. I tried to attach myself to the end of the queue, hoping no one would notice me.

I was intercepted by a tall, dark soldier, proffering a tiny glass of aperitif and directing me to a nearby seat. The handsome man left before I could thank him, so I looked around a while at the busy scene, sipping my wine and passively absorbing the activity.

A little later, the soldier sat opposite me, across the board. Dammit, I knew I had to stop staring at him, because he was watching me, too. Should I know him? Most of the people wandering the room's periphery followed his lead, taking their places around the banquet table. Vincent moved to my side, and lifted the little glass from my hand and drained it. I watched him, dumbfounded. Had I somehow gotten his drink? He bowed close to my ear.

"Josephine, go very slowly. There will be a wine served with each course, and other liquor besides. Not to mention after-dinner drinks. Request only half-glasses and sip just some from each. Alcoholism is a lifestyle here."

He then announced to no one in particular, "Can we have a glass for the lady?" Without waiting for acknowledgement, he sat down and tasted his soup. In less than a minute there was a pretty, uniformed server setting a large glass of white wine next to my plate. The attractive soldier smiled at us and asked, "Fish or fowl?"

"Pamela Valentine, I would like you to meet Josephine Lindorm. Josephine, this is my son Victor's bride." Then it occurred to me that the dark gentleman had indeed seemed disturbingly familiar. I looked again across the table, and he was all smiles, watching my reaction. Flustered for the first time since we immersed ourselves in this orderly commotion, I turned to my dinner partner, my cheeks burning.

"Vincent, I never even thanked him for seating me. What he must think of me now!" Vincent shook his head, and motioned for the man to join us. The fellow simply called across the table to him.

"We'll talk later. You must be famished, both of you. We can meet in the Great Room after dinner." Satisfied, Vincent turned to his soup.

In the end, Pamela brought both fish and fowl, without waiting for our answer. We divided the portions between us and dug in. After he finished his own wine, my companion once again drained my glass. This time, I simply watched, again struck by the strange behavior. Never saw him drink a drop before!

Because Nibelheim is a center for agriculture, I expected nothing less than the wide variety of vegetable dishes that began arriving on platter after heaping platter. These the servers simply set along the center of the table, and everyone helped themselves. There were many, many different varieties, but I took only a few spoonfuls from the closest dish of stir-fried greens. In the meantime a new server refilled my glass with a properly dry chardonnay. I quickly drank half, one eye on my partner.

While both entrees were perfectly prepared, I found the fried fish exquisite. Lightly seasoned and crispy all the way through, it was different from the seafood I often ate on the Northern Shore above Midgar. We never fried anything. This was excellent and gone way too soon. I looked about for a server and a new one appeared at my elbow.

"Dessert?" Already? I thought things were moving along rather fast, but this was, after all, a military base. These people were simply efficient, even while eating. We both watched as Vincent emptied my half-glass of chardonnay in one quick swig. I shrugged.

"No dessert, thanks. Could I have a cup of black coffee?"

"Liqueur preference?" Wow! I was beginning to love this place. A tiny, single serving bottle of chocolate creme was delivered with my cup. Vincent touched my wrist and gave me a meaningful nod. He seemed amused, and I blushed again, immediately wary, and looked around.

It was reassuring to note that he was also finished with his dinner, although he declined dessert or coffee. The rest of the diners were still on the main course, eating with gusto but, compared to us, they were showing polite restraint. Mortified, I turned back to Vincent.

"What happened? Are we gluttons or what?"

"We are returning from battle, and have forgotten our table manners. No matter. These people are used to hearty appetites in road warriors." But I was embarrassed at being caught off guard. I said nothing more and gave myself to sipping my coffee. My concerns were baseless, however; no one was watching us. The dinners were quickly gone, replaced by a variety of desserts, and more steaming beverages. A few were accompanied by other tiny bottles, and the air soon filled with the warm scents of coffee, chocolate, anise, creme de menthe and amaretto.

Obviously, I was going to get along very well here, at least at mealtimes.

Fruitland's Victory

Dinner ended just as quickly as it began. Vincent took my arm and propelled me to the adjacent Great Room, where the diners were filing in through the multiple entryways. The handsome soldier couple joined a good looking, older woman in front of a roaring fire. There was a group of teenaged girls nearby, watching their every move, all the while gossiping among themselves.

"Josephine you've already met Pamela and my son Victor. This is his mother Eleanora Randolph, a very good friend of mine from the old days. You two may find that you have much in common. Nora raises chocobos on a seaward ranch outside Nibelheim." The lady handed me a warm drink, and gave Vincent a quick hug. He returned it and moved on, leaving me sniffing the excellent cognac and staring shyly at his family.

"Did you recognize Vincent's son?" His ex was looking at me, amused by my earler discomfort. I had a ready answer.

"Well, yes, after a minute. But he looks enough like you to stymie me at first." Actually they all looked rather similar. Was it because I was already drunk? The inaugural sip of brandy almost startled me by stinging first my tongue, and then my throat. The heat spread to the rest of my insides, making the first mild shock a decidedly pleasant preamble to the rest. I blinked back tears and smiled. Just the way I liked it. It'd been years since my last brandy!

"Good, eh? It's my pet product, my namesake." Victor grinned at me. Apparently my reaction to it was common. I almost mentioned that Fruitland's Victory was probably sitting at that moment in my ex-husband's liquor cabinet. Instead I kept quiet, and raised the glass to him in tribute.

Pamela suddenly bristled at Eleanora. "You shouldn't ambush people like that. The burning catches people off guard."

"Oh, Pammy, she recognizes what it is. From what I've seen so far, Josephine knows her way around the vines." The lady nodded to me approvingly, and raised her own snifter.

Knowing one's way around the vines. How quaint.

"I'm not an expert, but Fruitland's Finest is practically the only brand I've ever drunk." Drunk was right. The fireplace was beginning to heat the room and my head was swimming; way past time to slow down. I looked for a place to set my glass, and was rewarded with a new one, just as warm and full as the last.

Now the little flock of young women were watching me. A pretty, petite gal pushed away from the others. She walked up to me and cut right to the chase.

"Is it true you single-handedly lured Vince into Avalanche?" Where did that come from? It wouldn't do to allow that sort of rumor to rise.

"Uh, no. We didn't actually meet one-on-one until he joined us. Even then, we didn't see him until the day after we finished clearing out the Shinra Mansion." Now I was on guard, and nervously tickled my lips with the snifter's contents. With the greatest effort I could muster, I didn't quite sip the brandy. Instead, I continued to fake it, even though it was becoming more delicious with each taste. Could the vapors themselves intoxicate me?

Where was Vincent when I wanted him to corroborate my recollections? The rest of the young ladies crowded around, peppering me with schoolgirl-ish questions. What was it like in the Mansion; wasn't it scary in the basement? They said they'd heard about our operations there, and a delighted, giggly shudder ran through the group. How did we kill what was already dead? He said he had to shave off a lot of hair; what did he look like before? He's cute now, didn't I think? Did I notice the family resemblance? What did I think about their winery and base? Would I stay and join them in the militia?

At the last two questions, Eleanora abruptly shooed them away, exclaiming, "Fini must be exhausted; don't bother her yet with such nonsense. We can call you Fini, can't we? Your name's like mine: a little too long for friends."

I swirled around to look once more for my missing dinner companion, to rescue me from my own drunkeness. He was nowhere in the Great Room. Party's over, I thought. Eleanora steadied me with one hand, removing the snifter with the other. After studying me a few more seconds, she smiled and returned my drink.

"Deserted you, did he? He's like that, you know." Surprised by the frank assertion, I looked straight at her for the first time. She met my gaze, her brown eyes reminding me a lot of my friend Tifa. Only this lady was darkly beautiful, much like Vincent himself -- and many others in the lodge. There was a certain look to the local people, making me mentally compare Tifa's long, dark hair and Cloud's bright, spiky blond cut. He'd said he was a loner as a child. Was his mother an outsider, like me? If so, a little discretion was in order.

"Vincent keeps to himself. We all do. Shinra really messed up everyone's lives. Similar to what happened here." That said, I clammed up. No one's grief ever compares with that of another: I wouldn't want to intrude, and didn't want any details. Everyone's story has some pretty sad chapters, and no doubt Eleanora's had hers, too, especially where it involved Vincent. She nodded and indicated the bevy of beauties that seemed to belong to her. Arson orphans? Many young people lost family when Sephiroth torched Nibelheim. The girls continued watching us intently, but asked no more questions.

Did I offend already? I should learn to keep my opinions to myself: stick to the facts. My feelings were probably irrelevant to the people around this town. For the first time since we landed in Nibelheim, I began to regret missing my chance to settle in Midgar alone. The happy crowd began to seem unpleasant, full of strangers who could judge me.

At that point, I simply set down my drink, said "Forgive me; I seem to be already in my cups," and headed out to find my room.

Encounter in the Guest Room

The main foyer and grand double stairway was quite cold, compared to the Great Room and dining hall. It felt good to be brought back to reality, and I drew a deep breath of chilly air. How much did I actually drink? Probably didn't eat enough to offset the alcohol, I decided. A hot bath, warm bed and several hours' sleep should clear up any resulting inebriation.

The paneled room was visibly cheered by a small fire. Must have been newly lit, because the suite wasn't yet fully warmed. I sprinted into the cold bathroom, suddenly uncomfortable with all the drink.

During the banquet, my companion had knocked back just about every glass I so much as tasted. It seemed impossible I was drunk, although Himself might have gotten a little happy, if that word could ever apply to Vincent. The bath again beckoned me, so I stripped and began to fill the tub. Couldn't wait to soak again. Then I remembered my embarrassment over the soiled top and collected the clothes from the floor to put in a bag or pillowcase. They were going to think I really was a pig, what with bolting down the meal and leaving dirty laundry all around.

"Please don't tell me you are preparing another bath, Josephine!" This time there was real annoyance in Vincent's tone. He gently pulled me aside, entered the bathroom and abruptly shut the valve. Startled by his sudden presence and vocal attitude, I stepped in behind him and grabbed a towel to wrap around me.

The hot water safely staunched, my roommate slipped off his shirt and moved closer to the fireplace. I remembered the dirty laundry and took a pillowcase from a window seat. Aha! This was just like my parent's place, with built-in storage everywhere, being used in just the same way. Bet there was even a laundry chute. Must be pretty standard with big houses, I thought. Nearly giggled, until I remembered my irate buddy. A little too much alcohol equals inappropriate reactions. Oh well, maybe he'd be faring no better.

"The hell? What bug's bitten you?" I came up behind Vincent and tapped his bare shoulder. Strange to see absolutely no armor, no cape, no scarf, not even shoons. His feet looked small without them.

"No one needs that much bathing. Especially not you." He turned and drew me onto the hearth. The fire felt good, after the pre-emption of my hot bath.

"Look, if it's too noisy when I'm running the water, it can wait. I'm just a little tipsy and wanted to relax before going to bed." Now I felt sheepish, admitting I drank too much after all his warnings.

But Vincent was in a very forgiving mood. He almost smiled and spoke very softly. Usually his voice rasped, even when low, but now his tone and words were silky smooth. Was it the drink?

"I warned you about alcohol and lone wolves. You weren't listening, were you?" What wolves, I wondered. The only ones seriously plying me with alcohol were women. Where were the wolves? I was going to ask Vincent to clarify, but stopped when I saw the ruby color of his eyes. He was actually encouraging me to stare into them. Or maybe I coudn't help myself; the brandy, the gorgeous crimson irises, that wonderful meal, and now, my usually grouchy guardian practically purring at me.

Once again he lifted my chin with his knuckle. Then he kissed my lips deeply enough to hurt, almost bruising them, and long enough, and sweetly enough, to make me forget to breathe. When I remembered and finally took some air, he was finished, drawing back and gazing at me. He seemed to be waiting.


I decided he could make the next move.

He tugged gently at the towel, releasing the tuck, and let it fall to the floor. Then he reached up to undo my hair, purring again in that silken tone.

"There. Now would you like to help me with my things?"

Yeah, I was thinking I might like to do that.

Jenova's Joke, Or Hojo's Revenge

And so our little dance began. Caught completely off-guard, I was slow to respond to his advances. And Vincent was surprisingly direct. I wondered if he could be as drunk as I. But he knew what he wanted, and didn't seem the least bit hesitant or questioning. He smiled a little half-smile, looking pleased when I finally reciprocated with a timid return-kiss, trying to avoid his evening stubble. He gloried in my surprised submissiveness, returning my little peck with an urgency that again crushed my lips and chin.

Frankly, that sort of thing was not even on my radar. When I left the Great Room, all I had wanted was a hot bath and the bed to myself.

Still, once peeled, my shyness (whatever was left after the initial astonishment) evaporated. And finally his insistence on sharing the bedroll over the past few weeks made sense.

My partner was now more serious than ever, murmuring short explanations.

"Whatever it would take to keep you at my side, I was willing to do it." Just then, I was willing to forgive any past hurt and anybody, especially Vincent, as long as he kept his arms comfy-tight around me.

"Did you think I was imprisoning you to make you miserable?" Well, I certainly wasn't miserable now. Or feeling restrained against my will. At the moment, couldn't get close enough to him.

Again he was purring, that rare twinkle in his eyes. "You were becoming irritated at the very sight of me. I was afraid I would drive you into another's arms."

Oh, really? Who would that be? I asked, but it was a coy question. I knew who, and Vincent didn't answer, except to shush me. He caressed and cuddled some more until I was ready for just about anything he had in mind.

Self-healing had removed every scar, every blemish from my body. I was glad to have a youngish physique and the corresponding stamina, more so because the rigors of the road left me slimmer than I'd been since my teens. Not skinny by anyone's definition, but healthy. Must have been all that hiking, or maybe it was the treatment, whatever that was, begun by Hojo.

Regardless of how I got there, my body was still my body, minus all the wear and tear of the previous decades. There even remained some of the lines I had when I was young. For instance, there's a tiny, shallow crease between my eyebrows, a little to the right. Not really a frown line, as long as I don't frown. Maybe just a character line, still there, along with the ones that also appear when I scrunch up my face to laugh or smile.

So, I still looked like me. But some things were different; stronger, maybe heartier would be a good general description of my insides. Unfortunately, Jenova and the mako infusion were indiscriminate, not picking and choosing, and surely not consulting me beforehand.

Then came the punch line. And it wasn't funny.

Things were warmly romantic, and I was getting lost in the bliss, when my eyes popped open wide, really wide, and I heard myself gasp. Vincent drew back immediately. He looked a little sheepish, then he searched my face. He continued to speak in a low, soothing whisper, kissing me gently and stroking my chin and cheek.

"Well, Josephine, that shouldn't surprise you."

"But. But I..." Again with the sputtering. I was embarrassed and outraged. No one needs to lose their virginity twice in a lifetime!

Of course. Why hadn't I guessed? Everything else had healed. Except for a very brief, almost (though not quite!) sympathetic sniff at my bewilderment, Vincent continued to soothe me with his silken words and caresses. I felt betrayed, tricked by the Jenova treatment. He, on the other hand, seemed to have expected such a development.

With his leisurely, almost infinite patience and gentleness, persistence triumphed, and we were able to enjoy the rest of our evening together. It was one of those unexpected little coups that would continually surprise me about Vincent. He guessed that it could be a possibility, and knew just what to do.

"How could you have known? You're an expert on such things?" I was only half joking, the problem safely in the past, and our idyllic evening rescued from Jenova's interference.

"Josephine, didn't Reeve give you a record of Hojo's experiments? He had a file compiled regarding those done on my own body..."

"But how do you know about mine? What did he show you?"

"That would have been very indelicate of Reeve; it didn't happen. You did get a file. You ran it, didn't you?" He was almost scolding; he already guessed the answer.

"It upset me to watch it, so I stopped. Hojo went on and on about the conditions prior to the experiments and the projected results. Reeve was with me at the time, so we shut it off."

"And you never played it again. It doesn't take a genius to conclude that he was preparing you for breeding. And not entirely in vitro or with just anybody. He wanted to enjoy you himself; you were going to be his Latest Lucrecia."

"But I thought I was, already."

He hesitated. "Josephine. Hojo never tricked Lucrecia. She actively and willingly participated in Sephiroth's conception." That never occurred to me. My theories included subterfuge, like he used on me. At that moment, I despised Lucrecia; she was no better than Hojo. Vincent saw my reaction and voiced his disapproval.

"That was over thirty years ago. Hojo was younger, a powerful up-and-comer in Shinra, willing to do anything and use anybody to further his designs. Don't judge her too harshly, until you have all the facts. And you know, Josephine, we may never get all the facts. The files are incomplete; at least, mine are." He seemed peeved by my sudden anger, and we stopped the discussion. I didn't want the evening ruined by ancient history. Surely, of all the people on the Planet, we should know that no one can live in the past and remain sane.

In an effort to recapture our previous intimacy, I reached up to him. His hair looked soft and shiny, and I began to run my fingers through it. This time it was smooth, recently combed, free of snarls. Vincent watched me, whispering that he remembered when I groomed him in the stateroom of the Highwind.

"You see, Josephine? You are not my mother." I chuckled silently and buried my face into a handful of the shiny stuff. Clean, as always. When did he ever bathe or primp? I never saw. I'd have to ask him, some day. Just not yet; I was afraid that I knew the answer.

He cuddled me until I became sleepy. Then we kissed some more and wished one another peaceful dreams. Couldn't help but wonder if any dream could be peaceful after the night's revelations. Viewing the files went to the top of my "to do" list. After a good night's rest, at least.

With a few satisfied sighs, I began to doze, cuddled against my new lover. For the first time since we met, I actually enjoyed sleeping in Vincent's arms.

The Damascene Band

Reveille in Nibelheim

I awoke facing a dark fireplace: definitely not cheering or romantic. Morning was the first time, too, that I noticed the eight-foot windows, streaming with the bright sun. We hadn’t used the coverlet or quilts, so the sunbeams alone warmed me. The drapes were fully open. It would seem we didn’t remember to shut them the night before.

We never wore night-clothes on the road, but then again, neither did we sleep in the all together. My nakedness felt very strange in the full morning light, and I resolved to shower immediately and wear the uniform lent me by our hosts. While it was nice to have a plan, I still reached for Vincent, hoping he would have other ideas.

His side of the bed was empty, and his clothes gone with him.

Suddenly bereft of my lover, I nevertheless remembered that yesterday I would have been tickled pink to find the bed was mine alone.

Once that minor shock passed, I reconciled to a morning by myself. As usual
when things did not go my way, I would “change gears” and reorient. The best therapy for me is always work, housekeeping, hunting and archery practice. Yeah, a combination of the four. If I remained in the militia, there would no doubt be plenty of work for me, but probably not just yet. This mansion and the other buildings were already under the care of experts, spotlessly clean and properly appointed, to say the least. Frankly, on the road I'd had enough of hunting to last a lifetime. So archery remained the only choice, at least until I had a better idea of how I felt about all that had recently happened.

It worried me that I felt depressed, almost weepy, on such a beautiful morning. Never did we say anything to one another that would lead to any sort of union, temporary or otherwise. Nor was it expected or even wanted. Not the clingy sort, I don't think, either of us. But I still craved a cuddle and some breakfast in bed with my lover. Even a "Thank you--Goodbye!" would have been nice. But it didn't

“He’s like that, you know.” Of course. I remembered.

Clearly we did not share the same values. Truth was, I had no idea what Vincent's values were, except that he was always beating himself up over supposed sins and trivial transgressions. He would, I guess, be the shadow, the phantom, "coming and going like the wind," accountable to no one but himself. Feeling guilty, but still continuing on as always. It seemed bizarre that he would even consider any sort of intimacy appropriate with that attitude. But what "that attitude" was, what he was really thinking, I doubted I would ever know.

After my shower, some basic grooming (combing through all that long wavy hair!), and a short period of tidying, I was ready to move on. My clothes had disappeared with the nighttime, and I first wandered about wearing my towel. The loaned jumpsuit was made for a fairly curvaceous person. And that person
would be Pamela Valentine, not Josey Lindorm. Even her name sounded curvier. Rather snug in the butt and loose in the bust, it pretty much showcased my figure flaws, although the length seemed fine. It would do until I found my other things. I hoped they were being laundered, and planned to look for them later in the day.

The bright sun beckoned. To be honest, my hangover needed some fresh air and activity. Wine sometimes does that to me: not so much a headache, as a queasy stomach and a voracious appetite. Heck of a combination. I wandered down the central foyer looking for breakfast.

It was too late to join in morning mess; the place was deserted. In the dining hall there were still pots of hot beverages and some leftover pastries. I ate a tiny bite of a muffin that tasted of cheese and fruit, and decided it would be better to wait until I could buy a hot meal.

First, I would locate and reacquire my equipment. Then I could plan some sort of

Armament and Transport

The armory was housed in the prettiest chalet in the compound, one that would be more appropriate as a honeymoon cottage in a resort. The quartermaster looked askance until I introduced myself.

"You sure?" He grinned and pointed to my name patch.

Apparently Mrs. Valentine removed only the unnecessary (or maybe no longer correct) insignia. Should have checked, but I honestly gave it no thought. I let out a short laugh, and the soldier echoed it.

"They told me to watch for you, Ms. Lindorm. We have your recurve, arrows and broadheads. You want them all, or are you looking for target practice? May as well tell you that we have no archery here, although the rifle range is just
outside the compound, to the west."

This was going to be much easier than I thought. The arrows were transferred to me, along with the rest of my kit. If I had to hike, I would need the broadheads, as well as target tips, so I collected everything they had.

"I know where to practice, thanks. Hey, what's with the handgun?" It was in the same cubby as my other weapons. The quartermaster went back again and
returned with Quicksilver.

"Vincent told us this was yours, if you wanted. Right now, we don't have extra ammunition for it, though, just what he left." While I could easily carry the handgun, I finally decided to leave it in the armory. Not enough rounds to justify the weight of the weapon itself. And I hated the noise and acrid smoke of firearms. Sweet of Vincent to think of me; I said as much, thanked the soldier, and left.

By the time I walked from the compound towards the village, my mood had lifted. I was pleased to see the same sparkling morning as when Vincent and I first shook hands in front of the inn, many months ago. Just for nostalgia, I looked around the town, strolling past the Shinra Mansion and out towards Mt. Nibel. The Mansion looked deserted and completely derelict; apparently no one thought it presented a good rehab project. I did, though, and made a mental note to look into it later. A soldier stood guard in front of the main entrance, but
I decided any questions I had could wait until later.

It was soon clear that a trip to Mt. Nibel and the reactor was out of the question. I had no desire to walk in the bitter cold of the hills. The breeze was absolutely glacial and in no time my feet were freezing. I trotted back into Nibelheim and stopped for a quick cocoa at the inn to warm my insides.

When I finally exited east of the village, I headed to where we hid the buggy given us by Dio, owner of the Gold Saucer and the sands below. It had been a peace offering, sort of an apology, to atone for our nasty imprisonment in his desert town. Couldn't believe my good fortune!
How did it escape being scavenged by a wandering thief?

A thief like me, for instance. Of course I had no key. The buggy was simple, stripped down to basics, so I reached into the steering column and easily pulled out the wiring.

That's when I first noticed the Damascene band. Twenty years of wearing a
wedding ring caused me to simply accept it on my finger. A love-gift from Vincent? Didn't matter; it had to go back. We'd already been over this once before. The pretty trinket was much too intimate a present for anyone but a life partner. And we were definitely not life partners. One night’s loving does not a marriage make. Besides, no more of that stuff for this lady.

I tucked the band into a side pocket of my quiver; it would be necessary to wear it again after the wiring was done. Otherwise I was guaranteed to lose the darned thing in battle.

A little trial and error with the wires, and I was on my way.

The buggy not only didn't protect me from the hostile creatures I encountered, it alerted them to my coming. Lord, how I hate noisy things! But the weapons maker was a good distance past Gongaga, and I had no intention of walking the whole way.

The inviting sight of Cosmo Canyon ahead gave me a quick twinge of regret, but I had resolved not to stop over anywhere until I reached the other side of the continent. Otherwise, it made a good marker for the half-way point of my trip.

The warm sands were a welcome contrast to the chill winds and dampness of Spring in Nibel. Most of the creatures in the Cosmo area ignored me, but the Skeeskee showed up in flocks to run alongside the buggy, giving up when I raced them outside the desert edges. In fact, I was so sure that the hyper little birds were only interested in trying to beat the buggy that I played with them a while, running the vehicle back to the western river to try again. It was heartening to learn that it wasn't necessary to kill everything I encountered. Finally, I beeped the horn twice, revved the engine, and left them in my dust.

Not all creatures were willing to peacefully coexist: it wasn't their nature. This was especially true of the woodland animals. They were vicious, particularly aggressive; the buggy didn't frighten them, and they targeted me every time I drove through a clearing.

The most annoying enemies were the singing frogs. Usually they couldn't get past my defenses, but since I was alone, any status ailment would have been a disaster if they got lucky. The very thought left me constantly on guard, watching for enemies and ready for a battle. I could feel the shield growing around me as more and more of the pestering creatures came in sight.

After a while, the defensive Glow ignited and I must have been quite the picture, driving the buggy, lit like some sort of animated toy. But then the singing frogs avoided me, and the other enemies were not as troublesome. Larger monsters came up, and I either raced past them or killed them quickly with an arrow. I held Chastity Belt in reserve for a more troublesome encounter, should it ever arise.

There were no really challenging fights. Most of the trip was uneventful, with the movement over the road making me carsick. I figured it had to be because I was alone: the boredom gave me time to think and to notice every little change, inside of me and out. While I didn't regret drinking a single drop of Fruitland's Finest, the dehydration and queasiness definitely seemed to affect the day’s excursion.

After a few hours, though, just when I was fed up to the teeth with driving, the little hut on the peninsula appeared in the distance. The Gold Saucer glittered on the left and the southern sea stretched dark and deep, out to the horizon on the right. The noisy buggy heralded my arrival, and the arms maker came out to meet me.

The Quiz

"Why have you come here?" Zen, of course. A simple, direct answer was required, no explanations allowed.

"To learn the art of archery." Until I actually said those words I had not realized that I'd put Nibelheim behind me, with no real intention of returning.

The Master smiled.

"That is not the truth. Why have you come?"

What a pain in the butt. I knew the proper answers to the question, and they all made me feel hurt and angry. It would be useless to appeal to the Master if I could not answer him truthfully. What would I tell him? That my lover abandoned me, and I needed some reconnoitering? Not this kid. I closed my mouth and shook my head, ready to leave.

"What did you want to ask of me?" That was an unexpected boon. A teacher will not teach unless asked to do so. He was allowing me to ask. Now I had to know my real purpose. Did I want to be taught, or did I want to practice shooting arrows?

"Master, teach me." Might as well see what I could learn.

"Will you learn? Do not waste my time with frivolity. Return to your husband."

The hell?! My brain screeched to a sudden stop. Then I had to do a mental U-turn. He didn't mean my husband, my ex back in Midgar: he meant the owner of the Damascene band that I was once again wearing. I almost let out a laugh, squelched it immediately, but when I recovered my composure, I figured I had blown my only chance to receive instruction. For his part, the arms maker waited out my silliness in serene silence.

"Master, the ring does not belong to me. I intend to return it." If that didn’t sound like chocobo guano, nothing did. But he smiled and nodded, his eyes mild, ready to teach. I shut up and waited.

"Go back and return the ring to the owner. When you are ready, then you may present yourself. Alone. With no baggage."

Except for my weapons and battle items, I carried nothing, much less any luggage. The Master was demanding that I divest myself of anything that would interfere with instruction. It shamed me to admit to myself that I was wrong to seek any learning from the Master. He remembered my last visit: target practice is all I really wanted, some time both to think and to escape thinking. I apologized to him, feeling humble.

Guess my troubles hung about me like a pall. It didn't take Zen discipline to see I was running away from many things, and not just the past. I bowed and apologized again, thanking him for his instruction.

A stolen ring, a stolen buggy and a stolen night of love: even my clothes were not my own. What a strange situation for me. Never took anything that wasn't mine before I joined Avalanche. Now stealing, running, hiding, even killing all seemed normal to me. Hard to remember that most people thought them wrong.

No town belonged to me, not even Kalm, where I was born. Left that when I got married. Left the brothers and sisters, too. With my marriage over, there was no place to go that I considered home. Neither did I have a job, and certainly no career. Not even a hobby, really.

The weapons maker’s brief instruction directed me back to myself. Who and what was I now? I resolved to push aside maudlin thoughts of all I lost: time to move forward.

No, I didn't feel like crying. That must have been the hangover, back in the manor. I hadn't cried a real tear since I met my sons in Midgar, before the final battle in the North Crater. They broke my heart, just by being babies, by being young and sweet, beautiful and healthy. Happy, normal babies were not for me, but for their foster-mothers. The women who were raising them, and doing a good enough job to keep them smiling and laughing: Arisu and Mayumi were their real mothers. The boys laughed with them. They made tinkling music when they all joined in the merriment. I couldn’t; I knew I was the outsider and left.

A very wise man in the Ancient World used to say that if we do not cry all our tears, we cannot enjoy all our laughter. At that moment, standing outside the weapons maker’s hut on the peninsular, I knew I was finished crying. Would I also cease to laugh? Lately, all my laughter had been bitter or ironic.

I doubted that there were any normal emotions left in me. Certainly I never cried again after that meeting. And I'd been such a baby before, tears welling up with any hurt, sadness, joy, whatever. My daughters used to tease me about it, and I fondly remembered their gentle ribbing. All permanently in the past.

It was time to go back to the Fruitlands, to return the buggy, the uniform, the ring. Time to start over, with just myself for company, my clothes and weapons for property.

Oh, and some four to five million gil. Give or take a million.


Gold Saucer, Gold Coast or Gongaga?

Of course, Gold Saucer was out. That noisy light show was not my idea of entertainment, much less relaxation. Leave it to the kids, and anyone else who wanted enough sounds and excitement to crowd their thoughts out of their heads.

And it was too much of a detour to the condominium in Gold Coast, although I would have loved to bathe in the warm waters there. Well, not like there wasn't ocean all around the Central Continent. Still, I knew it would be best to head first to Gongaga for a full night's sleep. Didn't get much the night before.

Gongaga was one of the most peaceful towns we visited on the road. A ruined mako reactor will do that to a place. It's where my comrades had taken our leader Cloud, to rest and recover after he was overcome by Sephiroth in the pit of the Temple of the Ancients. I might even have slept in the same bed as he did, and I left at the first light of dawn. No bathing, no breakfast. Cosmo Canyon was the next stop, plenty of food, rest, and even some companionship to be found there.

First, though, I planned to skinny-dip in the western ocean.

Cosmo Canyon was very secluded, away from every other population center, even from any Shinra installation. The surrounding desert was formidable, a challenge that weeded out the casual tourist, leaving only the motivated pilgrim. It ran right down to the ocean on the west. There was a beautiful, green and blue lagoon, completely cut off from all civilization. People rarely went there, certainly never on purpose. It remained a virtually untouched breeding ground for hostile desert and marine creatures.

It was amazingly easy to clear the beach. I found a host of enemies, and they all attacked at once, not having seen many humans. They naturally assumed I was dangerous.

They were right. I shot the largest Beach Plug, killing it instantly and the others rose up together to avenge their companion. Since I worry most about status attacks, I protected myself solely against them, allowing plenty of physical hits. After sufficient battering, my body released Chastity Belt and lit up like a pinball game going tilt. I leveled the front line of enemies, chasing off the rest of the Plugs and a good number of Desert Sahagins, with the subsequent shock wave. The light streamed from my eyes and mouth, and every pore that dripped perspiration. Make no mistake, I was sweating like a prize fighter with a hangover.

With the beach to myself, I washed it all away and extinguished the Glow. It was the first time in years that I could remember swimming in the ocean. I floated on my back, paddled about, and rode the waves to my heart's content. When I satisfied my urge to surf and dive, I lay in the hot sun until the saltiness made my skin itch. Nearby Cosmo Canyon and a quick shower would fix that.

Food and Visitation

Cosmo Canyon was always in distant sight of the lagoon, and my memories of past visits had already begun to tease me with visions of restful nights and simple, delicious food. By the time I readied the buggy, I was practically starving. Pilgrims seeking to sit by the Cosmo Candle could expect a bountiful meal and plenty to drink at various inns and pubs set into the face of the cliffs. Not exactly a tourist trap, the Canyon was a well-appointed destination for those devoted to the preservation of the Planet. It engendered a subdued, peaceful feeling, rather than the frantic search for pleasures usually associated with touring.

Each pilgrim was politely questioned at the gate for purpose or intent. The natives didn't really care whether or not a visitor was a true believer. Just that they needed to be on guard against anyone who would disturb the atmosphere that they carefully cultivated, one of peaceful concern for the natural world.

Okay by me, as long as I was fed and rested. A day at the beach left me sunburned, dehydrated, and tired, with my wavy hair stringy from the seawater and sand. The greeter did not recognize me, or if he did, he welcomed me as a regular visitor. That was fine; I could rest and eat, then visit with my little Nanaki at my leisure. I went directly to the pub, ate a fine vegetarian meal, and took a room in the adjoining inn. Except for my being older and, I hoped, wiser, it felt a lot like staying in a hostel as a student, decades ago. Only with weapons. And a lot more respect from the innkeepers.

Nanaki would no doubt be happy to chat a while with me, before I returned to the Fruitlands. I looked forward to seeing his furry face and listening to his cultured, dispassionate take on the last battle in the Crater and the Lifestream's rescue of Midgar. Maybe we could sit by the perpetual bonfire called the Cosmo Candle and listen to the windmills a while.

Cosmo Canyon was an odd place. Conservation was everything and everywhere. It was necessary to take only a perfunctory shower, because all water was recycled and the used-water holding tank was deliberately dinky, shutting me down after three and a half minutes. The only way to prolong it was to flush the toilet, and at the moment that was unnecessary. Might as well honor the Spirit of the Canyon. No matter, I could shampoo my hair in the morning; it would fit well with my plans. A small price to pay for the tranquility and peace I enjoy in that town. In fact, it wouldn't have been wise to remain there very long, since the atmosphere could take the edge off my battle mien.

So very peaceful in its intent, yet in fact noisy as Hell. The place is almost completely supplied by wind power, and the turbines that surround it run twenty-four hours, day and night. They are very loud, almost drowning out the sounds of the desert winds themselves. The crackling fire of Cosmo Candle cannot compete with them, except when one is sitting very close. The droning makes the perfect white noise for sleepers, though, and left me feeling like the only person on the Planet. It was close to noon when I arose. I cannot think of any time I've ever slept so long and so well in my life.

That's why I felt cheated when I awoke with the same queasiness I had the previous morning. Would have been nice to experience the full healthiness of my new body for once, instead of constantly healing from battle or recovering from a glass or two of beverage. This time I would fill up on a hearty breakfast and hot coffee before I set on the road to Nibelheim. Only problem was that the very thought of hot coffee made me run to the bathroom to empty my stomach. Fortunately, that was a false alarm, and I merely shifted gears and grabbed a very quick shampoo and got dressed. It was well past time to do something about the damned hair.

The last visit our fellowship made to the Canyon, Elder Bugenhagen took only small groups into his cosmologic observatory, while the rest were left to our own devices. Spiritual retreat or not, we toured the place looking for shops, and found a specialty outfitter tucked deep into the cliffs, accessible only with permission of the owner. He opened a passage to the back of his establishment and we bought high-level items and materia that were better suited to our final trip through the North Crater. There were also signs posted for services available only to permanent Cosmo inhabitants. After we met with Bugenhagen in his planetarium, even these were graciously offered.

I presented myself to the shop owner again, and he was kind enough to pretend he remembered me. The resident barber gave me a quick clipping, hacking away all the long locks that were really getting on my nerves. It would be a relief when I once again stepped outside into the desert wind. There was still plenty of hair, rather longish on top, and I suspected that my newly-improved body would regrow it way before I wanted. The most important thing was to keep it short enough so I wouldn't have to tie it back when shooting bow. At the moment it was blowing all around, and still not getting in my eyes, perfect for the trip back and any battles encountered in the desert sands.

The ladder down left me next to the restaurant and bar, and once I got over my acrophobic reaction to the descent, I was ready to eat again. I slipped into the relative darkness and took the table nearest the door.

"Have you decided to become a completely different person, then, Josephine?"

The questioner really startled me, but my answer was automatic. Men always seem to hate haircuts on women, and I collected a full set of comebacks over the years. Not clever, but the guys usually shut up afterwards. Some day I plan to shave my head, to give me the opportunity to collect a few new retorts.

"Nah, I'm still me. Just less hairy. Vincent, what brings you to Cosmo Canyon?"

"Hitch-hiking, since you lifted the buggy from its hiding place." He let out a guffaw and dropped into the seat opposite me. "Seriously, I have been searching for you the last two days. You never said goodbye."

"Neither did you. Well, Roomie, I was just about to order breakfast. Interested?"

The Planet’s Best Maki

"They make the best maki, all crunchy, cold and yummy. Have some with a warm greens rollup, extra guacamole. I was dreaming about them all night. Excellent."

The owner smiled when he heard, gave me a quick nod and walked over to our table. We waited for Vincent's order.

"I've already had breakfast and lunch. The Turtle Paradise Special, please."

"If you're going to start, I think I will, too. A Lime Rickey would go nicely, thanks. Vincent, you look suspiciously fresh and free of dust. How did you manage to survive on foot alone in the desert?"

"I didn't. Victor and his wife drove me here in their transport. The buggy was gone, and I found your footprints at the hiding place. After the first day, I began to think that traveling alone would not be very safe for a single woman, even one so self-reliant as you. We could have gone together, if only you had asked. I blame myself for being unavailable to you, since I’ve been busy in the mornings. I decided to follow and join you. In turn, my family insisted on accompanying me. When we saw the buggy parked at Cosmo Canyon, they made noises about pressing business elsewhere and dropped me outside the gate.

“You haven’t been to see Nanaki. He was eyeing Dio's toy when I arrived. He said he didn't know you were so mechanically minded. He thought we should visit when we'd connected. Then we watched you climb to the suppliers. I followed, but you'd entered the outfitters, and the merchant told me you were getting your hair cut." When Vincent said that, I shook my newly-shorn locks, just to emphasize their short length. I snorted.

"And here I found you, Vincent, sitting in the dark. I left to get some target practice, and decided to stop over again on the way back. Oh, by the way, here's your ring. Did I rob you in your sleep or something?" I removed the Damascene band, set it in my palm and offered it across the board.

"That's yours. It has always been for you. Walter designed them and Hildegarde made the pair on spec. They were thinking of you and me when they did. The styling was unexpected and striking. It befits you just the way you said it does me." He gently closed my hand and pushed it back to my side of the table.

"Vincent, we've already gone around on this. Save it for your future wife." I watched his face go stony as I said it. His disapproval surprised me, given that we’d already discussed this before, when he seemed to agree with me. Why the sourpuss now?

"Josephine, are you deliberately being dense? That band was designed and sized specifically for you. You once told me that you like it, and I want you to wear it."

"Um, correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't these a matched pair of commitment bands?" How could I put it nicely, without triggering a proposal, insincere or otherwise?

"Yes, that is correct, Josephine, and no, I am not proposing; our union is a fait accompli. Furthermore, you officially sealed the relationship yourself, back on the Highwind. Duly witnessed.”

At that, I doubted his sanity. After all, one who often cultivated long silences—not to mention thirty years in a coffin—could easily hallucinate even as he walked among us.


“One witness only. You can call Yuffie, if you need to verify it.” I certainly was not going to play along by calling anyone’s attention to his fiction of “us.” My answer came slowly, because I was afraid of the answer.

“And what would she say?” Okay, then, let’s hear it. I steeled myself for an elaborate confection, even though the very thought of Vincent lying or having any sort of delusion, except where Lucrecia was concerned, struck me as weird, even rather frightening.

“…that, after the battle with Hojo at the Mako cannon, you woke from your healing. You whispered a sweet nothing about being undressed and then kissed me on the lips.” There was open challenge in his unsmiling face, daring me to call him a liar.

My stomach churned as I stared at him. It felt exactly like one of those hangovers in my youth, when my buddies would tell me about some unheard-of, embarrassing behavior during a drunken blackout. I remembered only waking alone, without clothes, wrapped in a blanket. But I could not doubt that I would kiss him, if slightly addled, and given half a chance.

Vincent calmly punched a number on his PHS and handed it to me. Yuffie’s voice came on almost instantly.

“Vincent, are you okay? What do you need? You never call me! Are you in trouble?” Now he was smiling, waiting for my response.

“Yuffie, this is Fini. Vincent was just telling me a story about being in the stateroom after fighting Hojo…”

“Oh, good! I thought I would go crazy not telling anybody. Fini, can I talk about it now? Are you two an item in Nibelheim? What a riot! You keep me posted, promise? Dad will be sooooo disappointed, you know, but that's okay. We are really getting along great now, but it won’t last. Pretty soon, we’ll be fighting, just like before. Only he won’t treat me like a child anymore, right?

“Hey, Fini. I’m sorry. What do you want to know?”

“We just wanted to know how you were making out back in Wutai. How is Lord Godor? Happy to have you home?” Never felt so lame. We chatted back and forth about being idle, and I let her prattle on and finally run down. After a quick goodbye and love you, little buddy, I closed the PHS and returned it to Vincent.

“I’m sorry I doubted, but I just don’t remember anybody in the stateroom with me after the battle.” Through all the eeriness, I knew I must have indeed made a pass at Vincent. He’s such a cutie, who wouldn’t?

“Then you should consult Cid. Everything is recorded in his Captain’s Log.”

“Please don’t tell me he knows about it, too! I feel like a fool enough already!” Why didn’t I remember anything at all? Cid would make the log available if I asked, and it would be good to get the details of the Battle for the Sister Ray. Maybe it would help me remember.

“I’ve already said that only Yuffie watched us. We were waiting out your self-curing, when you awoke. You kissed me, healing me at the same time, and went right back into deep sleep. It still shames me that you could trick me without even trying, nor even fully conscious. I did not specify your waking behavior when I reported to the others. You can see I forced a promise of silence from Yuffie.

“Is it so terrible that you would want me? Must we keep it secret even now?” He looked mournful when he said that, and I began to feel even worse than just hung over. No real answer to his questions came to mind, so I said nothing. Were we an item in Nibelheim, then? What’s an item, anyway?

The innkeeper brought our drinks and I first sipped, and then gulped the Rickey. I was desperately trying to settle my stomach so I could eat. My meal arrived immediately afterwards, and I could only take little bites. No meat and no dairy, just like when I was pregnant, years ago. That memory caused my lunch to rise in my chest, and I closed my eyes and concentrated on not losing the maki.

“Josephine, what’s wrong; are you sick?” Vincent stood right up and came over to my side of the table to sit next to me. I pulled away from him, but only managed to flatten myself against the wall. It wouldn’t do to get my lunch on him if I vomited. I swallowed back, hard, so I could reassure him.

“I just had an awful feeling, but no, it couldn’t be. False alarm. Guess the sun was a little too hot near the water yesterday. No doubt I got a touch of heatstroke. Maybe I waited too long to eat and re-hydrate.” Vincent looked relieved, so I said nothing more about it. He sipped his Special and watched in silence while I finished my meal. A very light lunch for me, but just then it seemed heavy with avocado and alcohol. Strangely enough, the food managed to do the trick, and the queasiness left. Vincent was again smiling—such a rare sight, it made me think he was up to something. Then he signaled the owner, paid him and led me out into the bright sunlight.

“So, shall we find Nanaki? He would be disappointed if you didn’t see him before we return to the Fruitlands.”

Teenaged Manticore

Our comrade was still basking in the hero's welcome lavished on him by the elders of the Canyon community. Considering he was still just a youngster, the accolades seemed to weigh heavily on him, and he jumped at the chance to leave the others and visit a while, just as we would on the road.

He bounded up to us, and I dropped to the ground and hugged his ruff. Then I whispered that I wouldn't embarrass him with kisses and cuddles, even though I really wanted to. Just to tell him that he was still Little Nanaki to me. After all that happened on the way to the North Crater, he must have felt a lot older than his years. Still hurts my heart to think that the two youngsters lost their childhoods to Sephiroth and the rigors of the road.

The long life of his kind, the Manticores, whatever they called themselves, would always ensure that he was a relative constant, compared with the rest of us. Generally unperturbed by his surroundings and neighbors, Nanaki was well on his way to becoming a highly esteemed citizen of Cosmo Canyon, rather like an elder in his own right.

We sat next to the Candle and discussed possible plans for the future. Vincent said he would not make any: that he was content to watch the future unfold. I felt that my own were too tentative, but I wanted to contribute something positive to the conversation. I related the vision of the gathering around Cosmo Candle that I had while in the Lifestream.

"Sorry, Nanaki, but there were no little Manticores. My feeling was that this was to occur quite soon, within the next few years. Marlene seemed older, but still very much a child. There were little ones everywhere, but they were all human.

"Regardless, you were definitely the center of the other. I saw you, much larger than you are now, massive, probably a lot older, and wearing a full headdress. Those are headdresses you wear, right, not just weapons?

"Here's the good part. You were leading a pair of cubs, each wearing their own little headdress! You took them to the heights north of Midgar and showed them the ruins of the city. It had to be quite far into the future. Midgar was overgrown by what looked like a rainforest, very verdant, lush and beautiful. If there were humans, they would be living as part of the natural ecosystem there." I did not mention that it was possible for humans to be completely gone from the face of the Planet by then.

"So, Fini, we will have to wait to see if anything in those dreams comes true. I'd like to believe that there is someone out there for me. What do you think?"

"You didn't come out of nowhere, and your parents never taught you that you were the last, right? Maybe when there are fewer people messing up the Planet, you can find the others that are out there. They must be hiding far away from humans. After what Hojo did to you, can you blame them?"

We left unsaid the obvious, that people will come and go, since we are not as long-lived as he. No telling where that left Vincent, who had not aged in thirty years, or myself, who was now healing almost as quickly as I was aging. I certainly hoped I wasn't too long-lived, or I would face the same problems as our furry friend.

People were arriving to give thanks and celebrate the elimination of Meteor. The atmosphere was one of quiet, hopeful joy, and everyone was sharing their food, their feelings, and many good wishes with one another.

We enjoyed the party for a short while, then Vincent and I took our leave and walked out to the buggy. We wanted to return to Nibelheim before dark. When we got to the car, Vincent took my arm and turned me toward him.

"Josephine, answer me truthfully. Were any of those children ours?" Surprised by the question, I immediately remembered the baby with its eyes hidden by a mop of hair and nodded.

"One may have been yours, Vincent, now that you mention it, but I never got to know. My own boys could have been there, too, but I didn't recognize them. It was a vision, just a dream of the Lifestream. I can't explain; it wasn't future reality, but something that could happen, given the people and their present circumstances."

The memory of the little one in my arms made me sad for a while. After all, I was sterilized so long ago, and had been well past most of the ensuing grieving. It was not really my decision: my health left me little choice, if I wanted to survive to see my daughters to adulthood. Now I might never see them again, or my grandchildren, either. Everything hung on whether or not they considered me a dangerous terrorist, lunatic, or worse.

The vision itself was upbeat and hopeful, but the memory of it left me depressed and brooding. Well, I wouldn’t let anyone write me out of the Book of Life. And there was more to me than just childbearing.

Maybe I would breed chocobos with Eleanora. She would no doubt be glad to have my experience at her disposal. We could raise more of the elusive Gold chocobos, race them at the Gold Saucer, sell the offspring and make a fortune either way! I made a mental note to call Chocobilly on the ranch east of Midgar.

And I still wanted to tame and ride dragons, as fantastic as that sounded, even to me.

Rehabbing the Shinra Mansion

The Young Guardsmen

"Sorry, Ma'am. Can't allow anyone to move around in there alone." Well. That was an unexpected response to my approach. Since I was one of the original crew that cleared the place, one would think they'd be rather pleased to have me back for the next round.

"Oh, it's all right. Nothing in there I can't handle, I'm sure." So let's be reasonable with him. He probably wouldn't know my history. And if he could possibly know how I felt that morning, he would shut up and get out of the way, for his own safety.

Not hung over--just feeling the usual. The usual, lately, that is. Vincent and I returned to the Fruitlands and turned in our weapons. Then we went straight to "our" room in the main lodge. At least it would seem that it was now our room. Vincent yanked off his clothes and dropped face down onto the bed. And that looked pretty much like what I wanted too, so I followed suit. Came the bright sunny morning, and I was again suffering empty bed syndrome, only without all the night-before fun. This time I found my clothes already laundered, and in a neat pile on the dresser, alongside another red and black stack that looked like they belonged to my roommate.

Wrong. They were two-piece uniforms that fit me a lot better than Pamela Valentine's jumpsuit. After a quick shower, I looked again for the laundry chute, and found it in the bathroom. Towels in, out of sight. Damned nice luxury, that.

Another visit to the armory, and I was on my way to the Shinra Mansion. It was so easy to slip into a routine. Mine would include pursuing the various enterprises that I mentally noted while on the road. Rehabbing the old building had been the first possibility on my list.

The young soldier smiled regretfully, and shook his head. He didn't have the local accent or the look. In fact, he didn't have any regional look at all, except he may have been Samurai. Wutai, maybe? Probably raised chocobos, too: I'd ask Eleanora, or maybe Hildy. He handled his spear casually, as if he didn't intend to ever use it. My radar went off, and I looked at him again. Maybe not casual at all, just very experienced, comfortable with the weapon as a constant talism
an or familiar.

"Policy, Ma'am. Right now no one goes in alone." I was becoming exasperated. No one actually owned the place anymore, so who were they to block my entry? Well, if necessary, I'd put the fellow out for a while. Put off by his demeanor--and that spear--I decided to kid around first, to test the water.

"So, you think you can take me?" I hoped to catch him off guard, use a dazer to put him under and grab a quick look. Be back before he woke. Or maybe not. He brightened right up at that suggestion.

"I don't see why not. Let me check." Well, now. What did he have in mind? But the young man had misinterpreted my joking threat. He was actually using his PHS to find another escort, to help him take me through the old building.

Everything in Nibelheim was so much easier than anticipated. After all the months of uphill struggling just to find safe passage from town to town, my expectations were way too overblown. No one was inclined to interfere with my plans, or even to question them.

In a short while, a couple of young women joined us. I recognized them from the after-dinner affair in the Great Room. The petite gal who started the round of questions playfully waved to me with her whip/cat-o-nine-tails weapon. Well, that looked useful. We could keep her in the back row with that thing. On the other hand she wore a wicked looking cat claw, too. Have to see how it all played out. Her companion was a pleasant-looking spectacled girl, carrying an elaborately forged, deep-blue scythe.

Now the only problem was that, while all the young people wanted to tour the Mansion with me, someone needed to remain as sentry. I thought it best to let them sort it out, and before long, the reaper, now a very disappointed-looking young lady, stayed behind. I led the other soldiers down the stairway to the first level, stopping as soon as I saw the layout.

The place wasn't derelict at all; it was full of weapons, ammunition and other cargo crates. The militia had made it their warehouse just as soon as Shinra fell. Two soldiers patrolled inside, moving slowly around to us, asking for our credentials, of which I had none. My name and the new uniform seemed to be all I needed, though, and we were otherwise left to our own purposes. My escort remained respectfully silent unless I addressed them. It was if I were expected to check out the place. Why? I had not mentioned it aloud. The idea made me wary, and I looked them both over again, sparking a round of introductions. The young man bowed.

"Sebastian Cyan, Ma'am, from Junon, originally. Desiree Sunset, this is..."

"I met Fini the other night." She grabbed my hand and shook it hard a few times.
Her grip was unexpectedly very strong. I had thought her a petite and delicate kitten, but maybe I would revise that to wiry wildcat. Have to watch that one.

The Basement Beckons

There simply was nothing of interest on the first or second floor. Everything was just as we left it, only now there were boxes of ammunition and other supplies on every available square decimeter of space. Not a creature to be found that didn't belong, but the crates made my inspection impossible. I signed to my companions that we should go, and we prepared to leave.

From the second floor there came a groaning creak, a cracking snap, and one of the patrolmen screamed in pain, shouting for help. This set off the Glow, and I ran up the stairs to the right, following the sound.

The soldier stared in amazement at me, or at the Glow, rather, from his place on the hallway floor. There was no enemy at all, just a jagged hole where the boards had given way under him. His lower leg was at a very bad angle, surely broken. He struggled in a panic to get away from me. I barked an order, hoping t
o draw his attention from the pain.

"Good! Pull as hard as you can! Come on, pull it!" He was already effectively straightening the break, beginning to set the fracture. Now he looked uncertain, but not fearful.

"Take his upper arms and try to drag him backwards." My escort looked at the situation, recognized what I wanted, and braced themselves against the floorboards, pulling steadily on the injured man. The soldier yelled again, but this time he was trying to stifle it. I took his ankle into both hands and began to cure, while straightening it. It was over in no time and the newly healed man extracted himself from the floorboards, and stood up, gingerly testing the repaired limb and looking very surprised.

All in the light of the Glow. Quite a spectacular scene, what with the screaming, the group effort, and all. We gave each other a moment to calm down, and then there was a minor celebration, with handshakes all around. For the first time since I arrived, I felt accepted as a professional, rather than Vincent’s groupie.

"You can do that yourself, without items? And you didn't chant anything!" Desiree was fascinated. She had a little nervous habit of flexing the claw, opening and closing her fist, rubbing the talons together in a stroking motion that set off small sparks. These kids needed some real action.

"Oh, the healing. Yeah, sure. It's not a spell. I'm afraid I don't quite have the incandescence down to a science yet. That seems to be some sort of chemical reaction. I'll figure it out eventually." Already things were returning to normal, and I remembered the entry to the tower.

"The basement as boring as the rest of the place? I'd like to examine the infrastructure before I leave." Not really. Nothing for me in that musty old building. Just curiosity: Hojo had a laboratory full of records downstairs, and
the access was right in sight.

We walked over to inspect the door. Sealed tight, just as if we never entered it, all those months ago. Already the thought of those darned stairs was triggering the Glow again. Oh, well, it should be good for something. I'd punch the door open with it. Probably bounce if I fell forward, anyway. No reason Chastity Belt wouldn't work on floors as well as walls, although it would probably look a little bizarre, especially when I rebounded.

Neither of my companions said a word, and watched passively, while I slammed it open with the Belt. Obviously unused. There was a cargo elevator between the floors: the tower was empty, dank and dusty, looking exactly as we left it. Of course, I don't like elevators any better than stairs. And I wouldn't want a nasty critter to slip in with me, leaving no escape, and no room to draw my bow.

I didn't get to test the ability to land safely. This time, the door popped me backward just as it opened. My assistants looked at me as if I were insane.

"Just plain hate elevators. Not much for stairs either, but at least they won't trap us." Respectful nods. Still thought I was nuts.

We were greeted by a cloud of black bats, and my sudden, obvious panic made the soldiers snicker. Until the nasty things began to suck their blood. Then it wasn't so much fun. The lightning-charged Kitty Whip made short work of several of them, though, and Sebastian killed quite a few with, well, I didn't quite see what.

"Thought you had a spear? What is that thing?" It was already returned to his belt.

"Moon Shard is better for longer range. Sockful-o-Gil is effective on close-up enemies." He whipped the thing around his head again for emphasis, and tucked it back on his belt in one graceful movement. Desiree ducked, shouted "You frickin' scrumper!" and created a few more unprintable names to describe her comrade. Sebastian grinned, pleased with the demonstration. This released a new torrent of impressive abuse. Looked like Captain Cid had competition in
the oath-building guild. Mighty foul mouth on the petite, pretty kitten. Uh, tiger cub. No, make that tigress.

"Hey, whatever works. Maybe you should be a little careful with that. We can't afford to lose a soldier. Okay, guys, pay attention to the enemies' attacks. Monster magic will drop you faster than anything physical down here." I let the two of them lead, sweeping away the bats as they descended. With them in front, and the Glow ignited, there was little fear of heights this time. Just a long, stupid descent on an ancient, circular stairway. Who bothers with those picturesque anachronisms anymore? Hate'm. They belong to old horror movies.

When I arrived at the bottom, my companions had already turned toward me, watching in silence. What was with them giving me the fish eye?

"Something wrong? Anybody hurt?" They pointed to my feet. I'd long forgott
en about the floating bit. It took me months to realize I was doing it, riding just above the floors, or skimming over the ground. Sometimes in public, I'd float after a scare, or if we were supposed to be hiding. It had nothing to do with Chastity Belt, but was probably defensive. Harmless and rather silly looking, I thought.

"Just nerves. Don't worry about it. Let's go." Desiree let out a long, low whistle, but Sebastian shrugged and moved on. The deeper into the rooms we went, the darker the place got, except for the Glow. I began to lead, patting the walls with my hands, to test for openings or whatever might lead us to the rooms I wanted.

All the doors were open. We weren't fastidious about that sort of thing the first sweep, months ago. Nor would we take time to shut them this go-around. We wandered into the room where we originally found Vincent, but there wasn't much there, just a bunch of dry, rotted bodies and dusty coffins. This visit, I couldn't help but think about the desiccated corpses, which were probably the results of Hojo's failed experiments. Supposedly, if we could identify any of them, we might afford closure to their families. But these were ancient, maybe even thirty years old. Let their families seek them out. Shinra was no longer a threat; if anyon
e wanted to look into the matter, they were free to do so. Families seemed to just let things go, I thought with a stab of pain in my gut. Then I shook away the blues and pushed out of the room to the end of the corridor, lost in musing over Fate and its vagaries.

A Taste of Excitement

A weird slapping sound brought me back to reality. Sebastian was poking Moon Shard at a Ying Yang, making the boneless bogy shrink and shudder with each stab. I shouted to Desiree, who was preparing the Kitty Whip.

"Get back: leave it to him and his fire-spear. The disgusting thing uses Lightning and just might absorb it! Ice, too, for that matter."

The two-headed almost-humanoid began its ridiculous floppy-dance, striking out at the youngsters. Sebastian gave it plenty of whacks, making good use of Moon Shard's fire element. Otherwise it seemed practically invulnerable, just visibly annoyed. I let the stupid thing pound on the kids a while, and healed them whenever they weakened. They would need to learn a little about fighting
down there, before I got too tired to help. Besides, that spear looked like it could do the job.

"Peter puffin, Oedipus-emulator! You worthless progeny of a cheap she-cur! That hurt!" Desiree let out a new chain of swearing each time the thing struck her, but wasn't getting anywhere fast with her magic. At that point in the action, swarms of bats were attracted by the sounds and the fire-and-light show. Things were beginning to look a little desperate, and I expected I would have to start shooting. Still, I wanted to let the kids finish the job themselves.

Desiree enters into her limit break

Suddenly the cursing stopped. Screeching like a wounded puma, Desiree slammed the handle of the whip into the floor and spun around, using it as a pivot. Then her speed increased and she extended her legs, rapidly and repeatedly kicking the rubbery Ying Yang. Sebastian and I fell back, giving her room to enjoy the limit break. She beat the monster out of existence with her combat boots and finished by adding the whip to the repertory, clearing out the bats with a couple of electrically charged, overhead sweeps.

Desiree then dropped down to the floor, using her hands to steady herself, looking rather feline in the process. I half expected her to start licking her claw. Sebastian smiled, noting my reaction, then looked back at his partner and barked.

"Hey, none of that here! Wait until we're outside, will you?" She'd produced a lighter and was preparing to smoke a cigarette. Cursing, smoking and battling like a barroom brawler! Who the hell was she? Cid Highwind's kid sister?

She looked so disappointed, I felt the urge to take her mind off the craving for nicotine. "Probably best to wait till we are out of here. Hey, what do you call that break?"

Desiree stopped sulking and muttering under her breath. She looked thoughtful for a half-minute, then spat into the closest dark corner. Grinning evilly, she suggested a very vulgar phrase usually reserved for the dutiful partners of overtly sexy women. I could feel my eyebrows rise up practically to my hairline and I snorted.

"Actually, you call it whatever you want. It's your limit break. If you don't mind, though, can we substitute the slightly more polite Kitty Whipped in civil conversation?" She flashed another smile, somewhat placated. Then she was rolling up the still-sparking cat-o-nine tails, chuckling to herself, and ready to move on.

Just as we entered the Shinra laboratory, Sebastian let out a war-hoop. Desiree perked up and ran toward the shouting. A little drained by the earlier healing, I followed very slowly, ready to just watch the action, third-person style.

When I finally had them in sight, Desiree was ducking the blade of a Ghirofelgo, and cussing up a storm. Sebastian was crouched on the floor, partly covered in blood. The monster had already attacked him, and he was beginning to look exhilarated, ready to move into his own limit break.

Good, I thought, the place would be lit by someone else for a change. After
all, my energy wasn't unlimited. Only thing, that someone wasn't Sebastian Cyan. At first the Moon Shard looked brighter. The spear began to gleam, beginning with the honed edge, then the blade, and finally the shaft. The glowing turned a dull yellow, a low flame that turned red, became white-hot and finally a super-heated blue. Sebastian himself took on the bright luminescence, too, roaring like a war god, and gloating in his growing power. Rather than burn his hands, the flame slowly moved up his arms and over the rest of his body, melding both human and spear into a vaguely humanoid blue flare--the spirit of the Moon Shard. The room seemed hardly able to contain him, and both Desiree and I backed away to escape the intense heat.

Then something in the back of my mind clicked. The ammunition upstairs! Oh, Hell's bells. With the heat alone we could all be blown to smithereens. Maybe it would have been better to shut all the doors along the way. For that matter, there probably wouldn't be so many enemies down there if we hadn't left so many doors ajar, months ago.

The gloriously burning-blue god moved quickly to eliminate the rocking Ghirofelgo with three globular missiles tossed, or shot from its arms, directly at the overmatched enemy. Instant incineration, no glowing, no flames. Then our ally wandered away, roaring and looking for more action. That was also, not coincidentally, the end of any curious bats attracted by the noisy commotion.

"Sebastian! That's enough; all clear now!" It couldn't have been Sebastian. He paid me no heed, instead moving toward the entry, and supposedly headed toward the stairs or, worse, an elevator.

So the two of us women rushed around the over-heated super-human, and tried to block the way to the upstairs. Desiree spewed forth an uninterrupted stream of expletives at it, but I was afraid to incite it further. I pulled her behind me and faced it myself, speaking as calmly as I could and still be loud enough to break through the obsessive hunting and growling.

"No. Desiree, stand your ground. He won't hurt us. Sebastian! If you go upstairs, we will all die. You'll burn down the whole mansion. And maybe Nibelheim. Again." I did not look at Desiree, who I assumed would react to that with grief. Wrong. She let forth an uncomfortably high-pitched shriek, from the very top of her lungs.

"Cool it, ya freaking moron! Want to kill us all?" Desiree then spat at the fiery thing. It stopped and began to shrink, the blue flame dying down until all that was left was Sebastian Cyan, staring at us and looking spooked. After a while, I whispered at him.

"No control over that thing?"

He shook his head and looked at Desiree. "I'm sorry. So sorry."

Not again! I barked, "Stop that right now. You'll learn to handle it better, even if you never do get control. You should talk to Vincent Valentine; he has the same sort of breaks. For crying out loud, get over it. Soon." I bet myself mentally that he would never handle the spear so casually again. "Moon Shard has a history, it would seem. You knew about it, didn’t you?"

He puffed out his cheeks and let out a long breath. "Yeah, but it's never happened like that before. I could have killed you both!" I remembered the scene in the nearby caves, when Vincent was upset by his own break.

"Heard that one before. You wouldn't hurt us even possessed by the Moon Shard Warrior. It's a cooperative sort of thing. He's had a piece of you since you adopted the weapon, and wants to play his part. If he goes overboard, you won't allow it again. That's all. Things can happen in battle that go beyond our own selves. Save that burning blue thing for emergencies. You'll be glad to have him then." Don't they teach these kids anything anymore? It can't be all Zen and poetic choreography.

We returned to the laboratory, with them flicking at the bats as we went along. It was clear we couldn't allow any of us to move ahead alone. My perusal of the books and records would have to be quick. Desiree and Sebastian took care of whatever enemies attacked us, while I tore the place apart, looking for clues to my own imprisonment by Hojo.

There were none. Hojo hadn't been in the place for decades, leaving the local dirty work to his aides and proteges. Plenty of records, little relevant information. Now tired and discouraged, I wandered over to the other end of the basement, and looked at the stairwell. Vincent had ascended right up its center, but we would have to climb. An elevator sounded good at that moment. I turned to look for it, but the kids were staring expectantly at me. What the hell?

"Light the way, my lady." Sebastion looked pretty serious when he said it. Did they think I was a lamp?

"Sorry, buddy. Doesn't work like that. We start out in the dark." I flattened against the wall and slowly began to climb. After about ten or twelve steps, the inevitable vertigo ignited the Glow, and my escorts gave a low-level cheer.

Sick to death of the whole spectacle, I knew I needed rest. More than that, it would be necessary to hunt up a viewer for Hojo's file. Already drained by our long excursion, I had to drag myself up the stairs, with each becoming steeper than the next. When we reached the upper floor, I walked without saying anything at all, and the three of us exited the front door in silence. Desiree immediately lit a cigarette, took a deep drag, exhaled and then sighed audibly. She smiled at her girlfriend, who was flapping her hands to dissipate the smoke.

“Ahhhh, that’s the stuff.” Did I detect a purr?

"Hey, you're not done, are you?" Crest-fallen, the reaper looked at her and then back towards me. Flattered by the attention, I nevertheless wondered again if someone planned our little training session. Or, at least, expected it. It struck me as unfair that I might be chosen without my knowledge for such a responsibility. Leave that stuff to Vincent; I had a life to live. Made me think of the next item on my to-do list.

"Yeah. Fun's over, for now. You've got an element? Any further trip into that dump would have to be without fire." Sebastian look guilty. The girl slapped her scythe, causing it to emit a glittery cloud of sparks.

Lightning. Why was I expecting ice? Blue, right. Then I thought of the enemies in the hills and the cave. A sickle would clear away the nastiest of the grounders in short order.

"Where can I reach you, miss? Tomorrow okay? You’ll need some very warm clothes." She beamed at me, and indicated her pal.

"Desiree and I are both locals. They call me Sheol. Here, punch in our PHS numbers. And you can always find any of us in the tavern on weekend nights. Otherwise check with Eleanora Randolph, up at the chocobo ranch west of the base." We all exchanged codes.

"Breeders?" Both girls giggled and shook their heads. Sebastian pushed them aside and pointed at himself with his thumb.

"I'm the only professional. They are just good friends of Nora. We all help with the chocobos. I got my experience with the warriors in Wutai. Best in the West. Used to be the best on the Planet, until your Golds joined the races at the Saucer."

"Hah! Wutai! I knew it. Magnificent birds out that way. Can't wait to see what we've got for stock here. Maybe we can produce some Golds for the militia. See you all soon."

Worrying about the safety of the young soldiers had left me exhausted. Even skimming the ground, my feet could barely take me to the inn across the square, let alone to the Fruitlands. As soon as I entered, the innkeeper bustled over to offer me a chair, and I sank into it, bone weary. He quickly produced a small dusty bottle of some very fine Scotch, and poured us both a small libation.

"To my gracious host." I smiled gratefully, and sipped. Excellent stuff. He drained his glass, so I tossed mine back in one more gulp. The warmth moved down my throat and throughout my middle.

"Sir, you are a gentleman and a scholar." Just something my Dad always used to say. Most people over a certain age understood it to be a compliment. The innkeeper beamed, so I held the glass out for another. Then I reached into my kit and drew out the record file given me by Reeve Tuesti. Hojo could be very long-winded. The viewing might take hours.

"Sir. Would you scare me up a room with a private bath and a reader?"

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