E Pluribus Unum Part 1

Requiescat in Sanguinem
Tempus Morieris
Circus Vitae


Daylight broke over the visage of a woman standing by the sea. Long, black hair flowed freely to a point just below her waist, ending where her form-fitting corset did. Any man who saw her at a distance would have lost his breath, as she seemed the image of a fantasy pinup: lithe legs in leather pants, overlarge breasts pressed into the position of ultimate cleavage, even a materia pendant placed strategically between them…an excuse to stare?

At a closer look, a slightly different image would emerge. Her slimness was not due to good genes, but the presence of strong, hard muscles due to a now decades-long martial arts regimen. Among the smile and frown lines, the small battle scars on her face, she bore purple markings in a near-tribal design. Some were thick, dark, and nearly black; others were thin, spidery, and barely more lavender than her natural complexion.

She reached a hand to her pendant. This hand was callused and battle-hardened. Cradling it in her fingers, a smile began to creep around her face. If one were to dare to creep even closer to her, as close as one might stand near a dear, old friend, or a lover, her image would mutate further.

Her eyes, naturally a smoldering mahogany, had taken a metallic gleam of gold. They narrowed, not in the crinkle of a smile, but in a glare of determination. As her fingers clasped the materia hard, her smile transformed into a smirk. With a small nod to herself, she spun and strode confidently away from the seaside cliffs, towards the canyon before her. Walls of powdery blue stone would soon surround her, sheltering her final destination where glass stairs would carry her far beneath the Planet…to the altar of the blessed. (Or the damned.)

A half-sane giggle escaped from Tifa’s lips. The sound barrier was broken, and while she walked, she began to sing…

        Sors gloriosa
        Et generosa
        Aeris, Aeris

        Veni, veni, veniam
        Ne temori faciam

        Estuans interius
        Luce incorrupti
        Aeris, Aeris

* * *

(Do it quickly, before you lose your nerve) she thought. Slowly, with a care few who knew her would recognize, she dismounted from her black chocobo. The trip from Wutai had been long and annoying. She wished, not for the first time, that her interest in chocobo breeding had been as intent as Cloud’s.


Yuffie winced at the thought, the memories, and concentrated instead on remaining un-nervous. Placing one foot carefully in front of the other, she plunged herself behind Lucrecia’s waterfall and into the cave beneath it.

The roar of the water she’d just passed made her entrance and first several footsteps seemingly silent. The steady sound became farther away as she progressed deeper. And the deeper she went, the more oppressive the silence seemed to become. She grimaced with every footfall, every pebble she kicked, every slight whisper of breath she heard escape her lips.

I feel like I’m walking around a tomb. She finally was approaching a place where the passage widened, though, and she became a bit more hopeful. Her final steps took her into a rounded cavern where, front and center, lay a coffin with a deep ebony finish.

“No duh on the tomb observation, Yuffie,” she said under her breath with a wry smile. She shook herself back into seriousness and concentration. Then, taking a deep breath, she slowly approached the coffin and examined it carefully. She smiled and nodded to herself, then reached forward and undid the clasp.

Suddenly, the lid flew up and its inhabitant popped straight up into a sitting position.

Yuffie screamed and jumped back, one hand covering her mouth and the other subconsciously floating to her abdomen.

“That’s your greeting?”

She moaned softly, taking a few breaths to calm down before replying. “And that’s yours?”

“Those who are polite, knock. Friends call more often than once every ten years. You must then be neither.” Vincent examined her with a wary eye.

“…b-but how did you--”

“I may have been in here for the past ten years, and I may have been asleep just now, but no, I wasn’t in stasis for ten years. This time is not like before. I’m perfectly aware how long I’ve been in here.”

“I was going to ask how you knew I was in here, but that does answer other wonders.” Yuffie offered him a half-smile.

“You’ve already forgotten about my super-senses? Senility must set in early for the Wutaian. Though I wouldn’t enjoy seeing the antics of your father after ten more years of deterioration.”

“Godo’s been dead for eight years.” One of her hands flitted back to hover just over her pelvis.

“I would offer condolences, but I doubt that’s your reason for calling on me.” He rose softly until he was perched on the edge of the coffin, then dropped down to the stone floor. “I could guess, but I would rather you tell me. Why are you here?” His voice was cold, yet gentle.

She swallowed. “I’ve made a mistake.”

“I daresay we’ve all made some fairly large mistakes since…” Vincent’s words trailed off as her head began to shake softly.

“No, no, no not that kind of…” Yuffie grimaced. “Well, we’ve been separate and big-headed and egotistical, so probably, but this is personal and big and…”

Vincent found that his mouth had gone dry. “Why come to me?”

“I thought…you might understand.” A breath. “He wrote to me. And he visited me. But he always tried to stay as distant as possible…at first I thought he just needed to get his head back together. After his swim in the Lifestream and subsequent psycho time. Tore me up inside. We’d…been seeing each other secretly, since the Gold Saucer, so I didn’t have any right to stay with him in any of your eyes. So Tifa did.

“She brought him back. From both his own head and going near catatonic again in the Northern Crater. I just figured that was it. I had lost. I went home, to protect and rebuild Wutai. Godo was sick and a slave-driver. For the last two years of that bastard’s life, all I was doing was hocking materia…and…” She swallowed. “Avoiding the eyes and hands of every prick he hauled in with more than a couple gil to rub together. He wanted to marry me off, for a mere pittance, when I…lo-loved…”

Vincent’s brow furrowed, and his eyes were clouded with bewilderment. “You mean to say that you fell in love with Cloud?”

“Please don’t tell me I was stupid and foolish. I was a teenager, and I was. I know I was. I don’t think I would have gone for an arranged marriage, anyway. My feelings just made it that much worse. But then my father died.” She laughed bitterly. “I thought that was the answer to all my problems. Finally, I thought. I had all these ideas for rebuilding, gobs of cash saved from selling materia. The lords didn’t care.”

She saw his confused gaze. “I’ll explain. Wutai, bass-ackwards Wutai, is still under a convoluted system of noble families. I needed their support to do anything. I was the base, authority-snubbing, tomboyish dyke of a daughter of the most incompetent leader the country had ever seen. They wouldn’t depose me, honor prevented that, but they wouldn’t aid anything I tried. They were purposefully contrary. Then things changed. Everything worked out. We’ve been happy and on our way up.”

“…how, Yuffie?”

“Don’t ask.”

“I thought you--”

“It’s ugly, but it’s not what concerns me.” She waved a hand. “Right after I made the…I mean, right after things began to turn around, Cloud began to write to me. This was probably four years ago. Eventually, he took some vacations up to Wutai. We were back to being close again. Friends again. It was wonderful and such a surprise. You know, none of us really kept in contact with one another, I don’t think.”

She continued. “He always felt rogue, like he had nowhere to lay his head. No family. No hometown. I tried to convince…no, at one point near the end, I was begging him to relocate to Wutai.”

“You still weren’t over him?”

“I had…a twinge or two, but I was mainly concerned for him. You see, whenever he wasn’t in Wutai, he was living in Nibelheim. Completely alone.” Yuffie lifted her eyes to meet his. “And then he disappeared.”

Vincent’s eyes widened in shock. “He’s just gone? He vanished?”

“Yes, he has. But…I did see him one last time. I went looking for him, two months ago. Found him the first place I looked. That damn fake, haunted village…”

Her feet passed over well-worn cobblestones. She heard a melancholy tune floating through the air above her. Yuffie’s gaze fell square on the house in front of her. The replica of Tifa’s house. “I should have known,” she whispered sadly. However, she did not change her course and continued into the building and up the stairs…

He was at the bench of “Tifa’s” piano, slowly but steadily playing the melody to the tune written on the sheet music before him. Dressed in black leather pants and a tight, sleeveless blue top, his physique was on display. Strong arms, muscular chest; Cloud Strife still did not look a day over twenty-one.

Her breath caught, and he chose that minute to pause his playing. Their eyes met, and he learned that he was not alone any more.

“How long?” He left his question half-finished.

“Not more than half a second.” Yuffie winced at the unspoken implication. (What, does he think I was stalking him? Peering in? Staring.) “You know,” she said, her voice growing a bit too-loud, “you could have just told me. Instead of this.”

Cloud rose. “What are you talking about?” He sounded genuinely confused.

“The old times were a mistake. Or hormones. Being friends is too awkward. I’m okay, but don’t write. You won’t see me again.”

“They weren’t! Yuffie, that’s not what I…not what…”

“Eight months, Cloud. Without calling, writing, or visiting. Now I know I don’t have any claim to you, but you could have said good-bye.” Her face fell. “Especially when I was so…so used to having your company again. I liked having your friendship, even if I can never have…” She willed her tongue to stop moving before it went way too far in sharing her inner thoughts.

“It’s not you,” he began.

“I know, I know, ‘It’s not you, it’s me.’ But it’s all the same in the end.”

He swallowed. “I’m sick.”


“Do you think I live here for fun? Do you think I want to be alone? I’m looking for answers here. This is the place where I stopped being normal and…became whatever Hojo made of me. I’m doing research.”

“Why didn’t you ask me to help you?” Yuffie approached him and, exercising restraint, took his hand in hers. “I can’t stay here, but I can read. And look. And offer you a place to take your breaks.”

He turned away. “She won’t get out of my head. I can’t expose anyone to that.”

“You’re strong, and I’m sure I can tell the difference between you and Jenova--”

“It’s not Jenova. I think it may have something to do with that, and it’s what I started researching here…but that’s not my problem. No. I have someone breaking into my head every time I let my guard down, and it’s someone I thought was my friend. She was inside once.” Cloud’s hands curled into fists. “Now she thinks she has a right to be in there whenever she wants.”

“…you don’t mean…?” Yuffie gasped. “But how could she? She wasn’t ever exposed to Jenova like you were. Manipulate materia doesn’t have that effect, and doesn’t last ten years, anyway.”

“I know. She’s seen things…looked into more than the distant past. And she’s jealous.”

“Jealous? But she seemed happy even after that first time we were at the Gold Saucer together. Debacle for us, but she was glad I got to spend some time with you.”

“A little while after Meteor, when I was sitting around here trying to figure out what had been done to me…I realized she’d gotten inside somehow, was digging. I blocked her out.” Cloud looked up and into her eyes. “I decided, then, that no matter what had happened or might happen with us, I would stay away from you til I was sure she was gone. It took six years.”

“That’s why?”

He reached up and brushed a hand down the side of her face. “And then I came to make my peace with what-ifs. Say goodbye. But you were free. Alone. The way you looked at me…” His voice caught. “I couldn’t leave. I decided to take it slow, so we weren’t just using our memories. Kidding ourselves.”

Her voice started to tremble. “B-but then you disappeared again…”

“She’s back. Not full-time, thank the Planet, but I…can’t keep her out.”

“What does she want?” Yuffie whispered.

“I don’t know. But from…my experiences, I know I have to keep her from getting angry. I have certain memories and areas of my consciousness blocked--for now.”

“You’re going to tell me to leave and not come back.”

His look was anguished. “I don’t want to put you in danger. Don’t you know I care for you?”

A strange fire began burning beneath her eyes. “No, no I don’t. You haven’t done a thing…to tell me…or show me. Not in ten years.”

“Do you think I haven’t wanted to? The last time…I came back to you to say goodbye. Get my last glimpse to help me fight her back out of here.” He gestured to his head. “Out of my mind, leave it for me…because I can have you, in my mind.”

She scoffed. “Screw that, Cloud.”

He looked at her, wounded.

“If there’s something you want to do or say, you’ve got about five seconds. Then I’m walking out that door and going back to Wutai.”

It seemed like he was there before the words had left her mouth. His hands clutched at her lower back, drawing her tight against his body. His lips began at her neck and marked a trail upward until he found her mouth and kissed her hungrily.

Yuffie’s arms curled around his neck, and she matched his eagerness, mark-for-mark. He broke away, tongue and lips running across her collarbone as his hands slid up her form-fitting top. A moan escaped her as his fingers touched a more sensitive spot; the noise stirred him from his mad pursuit.

“We shouldn’t.” Cloud’s breathless voice vibrated against her shoulder.

“Maybe not.” She bit her lip. “But I don’t want to be safe. I want you, if only once.” Slowly, she peeled off her shirt, then replaced his hands on her breasts. She pulled his head back down to hers and deliberately ground her hips against his. A brief pause, only to utter the words, “Don’t. Stop.”

It was mere moments and slow motion all at once. He laid her down on the bed even as various articles of clothing were being flung across the room. Fingers, lips, tongues explored the exposed skin of the person before them. Their cries rose to a level threatening to awaken the ghost town outside, and then he was within her, finalizing the long-delayed consummation.

Yuffie fell to pieces beneath him; he slowed. Her eyes fluttered open with a sudden realization. She arched her back, and his world exploded.

“You shouldn’t have…” Cloud mumbled.

A smirk. “I told you not to stop.”

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to black that out. Keep it away.”

“Maybe I don’t want you to block out that I love you.” Silence.

He sat up. “It’s dangerous for her to know I’m in love with--”

“This story, while in the range of ‘too much information,’ is nice and all, but what’s the point?”

“This isn’t me whining or anything.” Yuffie’s voice wavered. “He was gone when I woke up. All I found was this.” She thrust a bit of fabric into his hands.

Vincent arched an eyebrow at her before unfolding the white cloth. His eyes widened as he examined it. “What, was this the pillowcase?”

She closed her eyes and nodded. “It looks like it’s written in…”

“If this is why you’re here…”

“One of the reasons. Not the only.”

Vincent continued. “…I can confirm your suspicions. This was written in Cloud’s blood. I can smell it.”

She sank to the floor, shaking. “I didn’t want to be right.”

“You found this two months ago? Have you gone to anyone else?”

Yuffie shook her head. “There’s no one to go--”

“We would all, I should hope,” he said, voice quivering with restrained anger, “care about this. Especially since it involves three of us.” He paced. “How did she get this power? What’s her motive? Do you have any idea?”

“I’d like to know. I haven’t seen her in ten years, of course. Cloud hadn’t either…except in his mind. She forced her way into his dreams, his thoughts, raping his own brain!”

“It’s disgusting, Yuffie. I will never deny that. I am a bit curious, though, why you would taunt someone Cloud was so afraid of.”

“I wanted to be with him!” Her voice had risen to nearly a yell.

“Did you have to do it on a replica of her own bed? That’s not the way to avoid the wrath of the psychotic!”

Her eyes widened. “I--I never even realized, Vincent. Though I don’t put any of it past her if it’d happened in a neutral place.”

“I don’t really, either. It’s just…I’m a bit concerned. If Cloud’s disappearance and…this note are her reaction to one night together…” He looked at her, and she met his gaze steadily, confirming what his suspicions and senses had told him.

She swallowed, fighting back tears.

“…how will she react, Yuffie, when she discovers that you’re carrying his child?” Vincent moved next to her, placing his good hand on her shoulder.

Drops swam in her eyes, which were fixated on the object dangling from Vincent’s claw and the words written upon it:



The two chief scientists of what had (ironically) been dubbed “The Jenova Project” were pacing amidst the chaos.

“Gone.” The voice was melancholy, empty. “Our labors are all for nothing.” The sentence ended in a near-growl.

“Red? Aren’t you more worried about the dead?” Reeve’s shock was painted on his face. “She apparently killed everyone on duty, down to the interns.”

Never was his old friend’s feline gaze more unnerving. “You know what the purpose of our research was for,” Red XIII hissed. “If they were dead, but we still had our results…”

“That was your goal.” He sank down into a nearby desk chair and surveyed the lab. Filing cabinets ripped apart, the contents burned. Cabinets with every piece of glassware, down to the stirring rods, shattered. “Mine was to help everyone tainted by Shinra get themselves somewhere back near normal.” His eyes rested on the device that they’d spent the majority of their post-Sephiroth, post-Meteor lives developing. The only intact object in the building, aside from an elevator and a handful of cameras.

“Still the humanitarian. Though you’ve got a few million lives pressing down on your conscience. I’m sure I would be, too.” He crept around the holding tank, eyeing the bolts and tubes and pipes.

“I checked it already,” Reeve said, changing the subject. “It’s in perfect working order. Not a damn o-ring is out of place. Pristine like the day we built it.”

“Which is the problem.”

He was silent for a moment. “I would say it’s a problem, developing a machine that extracts Jenova cells, and coming in to work one morning to find someone has deliberately drained it.”

“But it’s whole. And it’s not like it goes in reverse.” Grimaces were even uglier than normal on an animal face.

A nervous laugh. “Apparently, it does. Our security cameras, which seem to have been deliberately left alone, show a woman entering the building, slaughtering our colleagues and friends. She smashes everything to bits, straps herself in here, just so--” He gestured to the Collection Point, which looked like a chair with tubes radiating from it.

“Yes, the tapes also show that it was Tifa Lockheart!”

“Jenova’s a shapeshifter. You know that as well as I do.”

Red XIII gave a small nod. “We also painted a huge target for whatever consciousness she has left, gathering cells here.”

“If she’s collecting every remaining bit of herself and reforming, we ought to warn someone,” he murmured. The two of them sat in silent contemplation for a few moments. Neither moved to leave.

Suddenly, a burst of static emanated from Reeve’s hip. He snatched the two-way radio from its holster and held down the comm button. “Yeah?”

It was one of the security officers posted at the entrance to their building. “We’ve got a couple of rather insistent visitors who claim to be friends of yours. Normally we’d let them up, but…”

“The person who did all this looked like a friend of ours.”


He exchanged a look with Red XIII before continuing. “Who is it?”

There was an extended pause before another, very familiar voice came over the channel. “I’m here with Yuffie. Judging by the security measures and the reactions of people around here, I suspect you’ve already had an encounter with the reason for our visit.”

A growl. “He dropped off the face of the Planet for ten years, but he knows?”

Reeve’s eyes widened in realization. “You can’t possibly think--”

“He has Jenova in him!”

“Yuffie doesn’t.”

“Since when do they get along?” Red XIII demanded.

“They managed to put aside differences to save the Planet, if you recall,” came the soft reply.

A brief stand-off. They stood a few moments, regarding each other. Then Red XIII gave a slight nod and walked over, placing his muzzle near the radio. “Bring them up to us.”

* * *

“‘Let’s check for someone in Junon, Yuffie,’ he says. Is there something you’re hiding from me?” Yuffie asked as she was led, along with Vincent, to the elevator.

“Turks know how to find things. Information and people.” The two of them stepped inside, and he pushed the button for the laboratory.

“I would have never guessed.” She smirked.

“No, not judging by the ones you got to meet back in the day. They stopped making them like they used to.” He did not smile back, but his eyes softened a bit.

“Apparently!” she laughed, as the doors behind them slid open.


“I see some of us haven’t changed,” growled Red XIII. “I see you’re still making light of times of trouble.”

“It’s not my fault you’re such a sourpuss.” She made a face at him, then turned. “Long time no see, Reeve.”

He nodded in greeting.

“So how did this odd partnership form?” Vincent asked.

Reeve crossed his arms. “Could ask the same about yours.”

“She came to me yesterday with some rather awful news about some friends of ours.” His stance and expression were equally wary and stony.

“My friends from Shinra days were having problems stemming from the Mako/Jenova treatments of the past. The only research I’d ever found was a book of Professor Gast’s at Cosmo Canyon. I went back there about six years ago, found Red, and we formed a partnership.”

“In the largest building in the city? Formerly Shinra’s?”

He threw his hands up in the air. “I’m the only surviving executive of the most powerful power company in the world, how do you think I’m going to make a living? Another power company. A different styled one, though. You could say they’re franchised. Barret even managed to get one built in New Corel.”

“Impressive! Especially considering what happened to the last one.” Yuffie offered a small smile.

Red XIII turned abruptly and walked into a small security station next to the elevator. “Catch up is good and all, but I’m more concerned with what you know about all this.”

Exchanging glances, the others followed his lead.


The four of them leaned over the surveillance monitors and were silent as the loop from 3:00-3:30 a.m. played back.

A woman entered the lab. Slender, but strong. Her steps were quiet, light, and perfect; she nearly appeared to be floating. Her dress was dark, her hair long, and her face covered.

Her movements were slow and deliberate. Some of her blows were physical, while others occurred seemingly with a twitch of her fingertips. Flames of pure magic, not materia. There she stood amidst the chaos of her own creation, reigning destruction in a dance with perfect choreography. The figure paused, removed a mask, and sneered at the camera.

Yuffie gasped in spite of herself, and Vincent nodded. “So it is as I thought.”

“Wait,” Reeve gasped, “you really think it is--”

He held up his hand, as the footage kept rolling.

One thing was left pristine in the room. A piece of equipment that consisted of a chair-apparatus connected to a holding tank. Even in grayscale, the contents of the tank appeared to glow through its glass containment. Tifa’s feet seemingly slid to a position next to it. She traced her fingertips along the glass, down and around each metal support, and finally placed her whole palm on the tank.

Like a frostbite victim trying to feel the fire, or a medium reading the portents of a crystal ball. She smiled at the camera and mouthed something.

“Rewind it.” Yuffie’s voice was barely audible.

“How far?”

“…what did she say?”

They watched again as the malicious smile formed, and the lips formed soundless syllables. “Hello, Yuffie.”

She shook her head and pounded the screen with her fist. “I haven’t done anything to you!”

Vincent pulled her back. “So, she seems to be draining the contents of that tank.” He turned to the others. “What’s in it?”

But Red XIII growled, “Why Yuffie?”

Reeve broke the impasse. “Nothing’s in the tank. Not any more. It used to have all the Jenova cells that we removed from people we were trying to cure. Restore to normal. It takes multiple treatments, and we didn’t want the cells free to do whatever. So we kept them.”

“So someone could waltz in and take them? How foolis--”

“It doesn’t work. in. reverse.” He glared. “Come on, you’ll see.” He pointed to the device standing in the laboratory just beyond them.


“First of all,” said Reeve, “the subject sits in this chair, just like so, and straps the connection straps at two points. The first goes over the neck, we pinpoint the jugular vein. You saw Tifa do this. The second goes around one of the thighs, we pinpoint the vena cava. Blood is taken from the vena cava, run through our filtering system, and then replaced in the body via the jugular vein.”

“What does that have to do with the ‘no backwards capability’ thing?” asked Yuffie.

“Well, the Jenova cells come out via the filtering process…basically, they end up falling down in the filter area, into the holding tank. Even if you could reverse the filtering system, you couldn’t get them out of the tank. You would just be taking blood from the jugular and putting it in the vena cava. And it’s all blood from the veins, so it wouldn’t do a bit of difference.”

“She only put on one strap,” said Vincent. “She didn’t reverse the filter, she just used the portion of the cycle that returned substance to her bloodstream. And she had enough power over the noncorporeal cells to call them back to her.”

Red XIII began pacing back and forth. “That’s impossible! She didn’t make a single adjustment to the system. It’s exactly how we left--”

“It’s not. At least, I certainly hope that what I’m seeing is not what the tank was like in pristine condition.”

Three very puzzled sets of eyes were now scrutinizing him.

“I do not perceive things as you all do.” No response. His voice took a turn for the sarcastic. “My Jenova ‘superpowers’ allow me to see that there is very minute etching all over that glass tank.”

A few moments of stunned silence overtook the group, in spite of all the unusual events they’d been becoming accustomed to.

“Vincent?” Yuffie’s voice wavered, breaking through. “It doesn’t say ‘Yuffie,’ does it?”

“Even I can’t see that well. I think it’s microscopic.”

Reeve was instantly on his radio. “Hey, Reg. Bring up the handheld digital scope from my truck. And the monitor, since I’ve got no working consoles up here.”

* * *

The guard most likely left in an even more disturbed state than he had been in when he arrived. Reeve had quietly instructed him to set the equipment down in the middle of the floor and then leave them in private. He began to scan the tank on his own, steadily increasing the levels of magnification.



“Now, I don’t need to know your project’s planned end, whether you were being philanthropic or wanting to acquire power. Let’s assume you were being philanthropic. When it results in this rather large tank full of Jenova cells, apparently sealed forever, what were you going to do with it?”

“Seal it even more impenetrably.”

“…then?” Vincent raised an eyebrow.

“Shoot it off into space,” Reeve called cheerfully from the tank.

Yuffie and Vincent shared a look of bewilderment.

“I got in contact with Cid awhile back,” he continued. “I’ve been funding some research. Though we hadn’t decided yet whether we want to shoot it so far it escapes orbit, or place it into orbit where we can go up and monitor it. Either way, the technology to get a crew into and out of orbit is in place now.” He looked up and saw their faces. “What? She came from space, I figured we should send her home at last.”

“…that’s…not it,” said Yuffie slowly. “You stopped looking at the screen. There’s words on it. I can’t make them out yet.”

He adjusted the focus. “It looks like they were etched on the inside. Reversed.” He stepped up the levels of magnification, and the letters grew larger and larger.



The messages in the glass remained a mystery. They had slowly analyzed them. The pattern kept repeating itself: four individual lines, over and over. Some letters slightly differently etched than the others. Strings of words that simply did not make sense on their own. Dusk fell and the four of them were already exhausted.

“What do you suggest we do? Give up?”

“She’s mad, Reeve. Insane. She left us gibberish and thought she was being clever.” Red XIII shook his head. “This is beyond us.”

“Just because you can’t figure it out, doesn’t mean it’s gibberish!”


Vincent noticed that there were only two voices arguing and eyed Yuffie carefully in his peripheral vision. Her face was pale, and she was tottering back and forth. He couldn’t tell if it was hunger or exhaustion, but he did not want to let it escalate.


“You can waste all the time you want on this. I do not care. I will spend tomorrow conversing with security and the police, looking for actual leads on her whereabouts!”

“Excuse me,” said Vincent.

“What?” Red XIII half-snarled, turning to face him. “Are you going to offer your veiled opinion on this matter, when you have yet to tell us the important reason you showed up on our doorstep?”

“I have no tale of my own to tell. Since you were not exactly gracious hosts, we’ve been here all day with no break for a meal. I see Yuffie over here on the brink of sleep, and I realize that we should eat and find an inn.”

Yuffie noticed that all sets of eyes were on her. “I’ve been a little under the weather lately. I think my story can wait until the morning, but…” Her voice trailed off for a moment. “I think she left a clue here. I think she left a clue with me. …I…think she wants me to find her.” Her hand trembled slightly as she moved to brush a piece of hair back behind her ear.

“Come along.” Vincent reached his good hand down to her, helping her up. With a surprising amount of warmth, he guided her towards the elevator, his hand on the small of her back. He turned back for a moment. “Gentlemen. We will discuss plans in the morning. What to do next, because I don’t think we should all sit here alone playing codebreakers. If nothing else, because we’ve a shortlist of the next people she’s likely to visit in the night.”

* * *

Yuffie looked tiny on the opposite end of the booth. She had her arms wrapped around herself defensively. “I’ll just have whatever your soup of the day is, thanks.”

“You’ve not eaten all day.”

She shrugged.

“Chicken salad sandwich,” added Vincent as he handed the small menus back to the waitress.

“I didn’t know you ate.”

“It’s for you.”

She grabbed her water glass but, instead of taking a sip, she moved her hand, swirling the ice cubes. “I’m not that hungry.”

“You are not like me. You need food, especially…with your stress levels up so high.”

Lifting her eyes from the ice water, she studied his face intently. “…is…that…why you’re being so nice to me?”

“Of course, Yuffie. It’s not because I could identify with a psychotic person wanting to harm both me and a person I cared deeply for…simply because I wanted to be with her. That couldn‘t be it.”

Her brow furrowed. “But…in your case, they were already together before…”

“I think you’ll see, in Tifa’s mind at least, she saw things a little bit differently.”

The waitress arrived, setting their food in front of them, and laying the check down on the table. Vincent pushed his plate until it sat in front of her.

A quiet understanding between them, Yuffie grabbed a sandwich half and took a cautious bite.

* * *

They slowly walked back to Ghost Square. Not a word had passed between them after they’d seen… Just who the hell do they think they are? She’d said it earlier, and she would be saying it to her dying day. Fuck the Shinra. Everyone was tied to them.

“Even us,” she said softly.

“Huhn?” Cloud’s response was less than eloquent. Quite fitting, given the night’s events.

“We hate the Shinra, avoid them at all costs, and spend time trackin’ their damn mistake…and our lives are still all messed up because of them! We trusted Cait…maybe it was a mistake…it was a cat, gawd…but he ended up being Shinra.” Yuffie paused before the stairs in the lobby. “My fath--Godo told me that I couldn’t trust anyone on the outside. That nobody was what they seemed. Everyone was fake. I just said the last part of my thought. Everyone’s fake…even us.”

“We’re not fake! We’re going to find Sephiroth.”

“Why, Cloud? I know it’s not just revenge. I know what revenge looks like, acts like, and you’re nothing like it.”

“I have to. Or I won’t make it.” He started to go up the steps.

“Are you lying to all of us? Faking with all of us?” A tear slipped down her cheek. “I know I hurt you all with my materia scheme in Wutai. I said I was sorry! Why did you have to do this to me?”

He turned back. “I didn’t do anything…”

“Let’s ignore everyone and everyday. Talk about tonight. I can’t believe you acted the way you did…messin’ up that play…bein’ such a jerk in the gondola. Why did you even go with me if you hated me like that? And why did you let me think…if…” She closed her eyes. “Nevermind. Just get the fuck away from me.”

“Let you think what?”

“Stop actin’ like you had no idea what you were doing. Protectin’ me when we were fighting. Helpin’ me with my seasickness. Rescuin’ me from that pervert up on Da Chao.” She bit her lip. “Why did you have to be so nice? Why couldn’t you have just asked me to stop when I was tryin’ to be nice back tonight?”

A strange light flickered across his face, and he glanced around himself nervously. “It’s complicated,” Cloud whispered. “I’m complicated. Sometimes I’m not even me. Barret’s crazy and obsessive, Cid’s old and bitter, Vincent’s a freakshow, Red XIII is too quiet, Aeris is some lost race and also constantly finding trouble, and Tifa…”

“I get it. You an’ her.” A sniffle.

“No.” His eyes bored into hers with an intense emotion behind them--was it fear? “She changed. She doesn’t even know it yet.”

Yuffie grabbed his hand. “Then why--”

“It’s not safe, and I’m not ready. It’s too hard. I like you too much to…more than just ‘nice’ would hurt you. I wanted you to leave me alone and be safe. I do like you, so much that I’m telling you nice.”

She nodded. “I just…”


“My first kiss, and you didn’t even kiss me back.”

He fully turned back towards her and touched her face. “Do-over for both of us.” And he brought his lips down to hers.

Then they broke apart.

“We’ll have to tell the others what we saw..and heard…in the morning. Barret won’t be happy.” A pause. “Goodnight.”

“Sweet dreams,” she whispered back to him as he climbed the stairs. As he made his way down the hall and into his room, she got a funny feeling in the pit of her stomach. Like she wasn’t alone. She turned behind her, to where the other end of the inn’s hallway formed a balcony in front of the stairs…and met a pair of smoldering burgundy eyes.


She screamed and bolted upright, panting in her terror. “Even then?!” A moan. “No, no, no…” Was the dream memory or message or symbolism? And paired with the clear recollection of her post-date gushing to Tifa in their shared room at Ghost Square… Yuffie’s stomach was turning in time to pace her tormented mind.

Vincent had turned to watch her with concern at first scream and became quite worried when he watched her stumble towards the bathroom.

On her knees in front of the toilet, she gagged and dry-heaved, but nothing would come out. The churning slowly passed, and she sank back, sitting on her feet with her head in her hands.

“I would have woken you earlier, had I known this would be your wake-up call.” Vincent stood in the doorway.

“Why?” She didn’t move a muscle.

“Reeve got a call…a little after daybreak.” He swallowed.

Hollow fear began to build within her. It took a lot to unnerve Vincent.

“Barret said there was…an accident in Corel.”

“An accident that was probably something you-know-who did on purpose?”

“Quite likely, don’t you think?” he asked.

“I don’t know what to think any more. I don’t know what she wants with us…or if she’s just trying to get to me.”

“No one knows except for her.” He reached down and helped guide her back to her feet. “Now I told Reeve that we would meet them at the dock as soon as you were rested and ready to go--”

“I can’t eat now, and I’m done with sleeping for quite some time.”

He patted her on the shoulder. “Then, as soon as you are ready, Yuffie, we are flying to Corel. I think we should prepare for the worst.”

* * *

They touched down in the dust bowl. The four figures exiting the Gelnika were obscured by the sand swirling around them. They were silent and had been silent on the trip, for the most part.

When Vincent had inquired of the details of Barret’s early morning call, Reeve could only manage to answer: “He sounded like he was about to go crazy. Not…not Barret crazy. Not angry. About to snap completely and jump of a cliff crazy, with his last words making less sense than Cloud’s mako-induced haze.”

Red XIII cocked his head. “Shouldn’t we talk to Cloud about this? Tifa being a childhood friend and all? Plus, I’d imagine he’d be Barret’s first choice for back-up.”

Yuffie had just curled up into a ball where she sat, willing her new waves of nausea to go away. There was no time to explain her problems; not when she had the gut feeling that the new development could very well be much, much worse.

Vincent had just set his mouth. “We better be contacting everyone we can, after we find out the details of what happened here.”


As they approached the outskirts of the town, they were met by a familiar, yet unexpected face. Olive complexion, clean-shaven head, any trace of emotion obscured by dark sunglasses.

“Fancy meeting you here, Rude.”

He remained expressionless. “We all had to get work somewhere, Reeve. I pulled the unlucky card of being head of security at the energy tower here.” Reading Yuffie and Vincent’s expressions, he added a bit more information. “All energy towers using Reeve’s technology are, as far as I know, either thermal, solar, or hydroelectric. Ours receives thermal from mako as well as solar, given the amount of sun we get in this neck of the woods.”

“I assumed it had to be along those lines, given Barret allowing its erection.” Vincent scrutinized his surroundings. “It’s abnormally quiet around here.”

“I don’t blame them for hiding. I would, in their position. I’ve met you here on purpose--for many reasons, your meeting is to take place in the tower.”


New Corel was like a ghost town possessed. The streets were empty; seemingly, the buildings were, too. Yet beneath the solid, silent exteriors, Yuffie could sense activity. Those hiding inside, fearing for their lives, were also angry beyond belief. Trust had been breached. The unthinkable had happened once again.

Someone needed to pay.

She’d taken to the habit of walking quite near to Vincent. The vibes the place was sending off were so disturbing that she found herself clutching his arm to help her continue walking. As her hands came to rest at his elbow, she caught a knowing, cynical look shot from Red XIII to Reeve. She shuddered at the implication of her sudden closeness to their most mysterious comrade. At least the truth will surprise them more, she thought to herself.

It was a relief to arrive at the power plant, where a slight buzz of activity was allowed. Still, they felt the glares of distrust from the few people milling about.

“He’s just inside,” Rude assured them, as he led them into the building. They walked down the main passage, through a doorway, and turned into a narrow corridor. The door at the end was their final destination, and they filed through it, one-by-one.

Yuffie’s heart lurched forward. Even though she and Barret had never really gotten to the point of “friends,” she knew the man in front of her was the perfect image of misery. She knew because she’d learned misery well.

“Mr. Wallace?” Rude was…the opposite of his nickname, the epitome of businesslike politeness.

His intense eyes looked up through hollows. “I think ya can just use Barret at this point. I won’ be boss for much longer, and ain’t no way in hell, I will be mayor. I be lucky if they don’t lynch me for this shit.”

“Barret.” Reeve stepped forward. “I’m still not sure what’s happened, aside from the fact that it took place here. You’re not the only one having troubles, though. That’s why I’m not the only one who came.”

It was at that point that he truly noticed the members of the group that had filed through his office door. He sprang to his feet. Joyful surprise softened his face for a moment. “Red! Yuffie! Vincent! Why, kitty-thief-coldman!” He laughed to himself.

Yuffie was astounded as she was enveloped by a sudden embrace, followed by a mane-ruffle for Red XIII and a hearty handshake for Vincent.

“Y’all came for me?”

“We all would have come for anything, had you just asked,” Vincent said. “However, we came on our own volition, because we knew chances were high that your problems were…” His voice trailed off.

“Horrible.” Yuffie broke in. “You’re not alone in this. We need to know your story. Then we can compare it with ours and…help or solve the problem.”

“Good! If there’s somethin’ terrible going ‘round, we can fight it.” Barret gave his gun-arm a loving stroke. “And if y’all already know, then maybe we can set some bad stories fuckin’ straight.” He eyed Rude suspiciously.

They could see repressed anger behind his façade, as he protested. “I am only reporting what someone who saw her said! Before he…because she…” He shook his head. “I know there was no love lost between you and Reno, but he said what he said because he wanted vindication! Not because he wanted to hurt--”

“Why don’t we hear the whole story, see what we can add with ours. Perhaps you are closer to the same page than you think,” Reeve suggested, as he nodded over to Barret.


“I’m gonna start at the beginning, so Yuffie and Vince here’ll understand. Ever since I got back to Corel, I’ve been mad about improvin’ the place. It was my fault that Shinra ruined everything…more my fault for leavin’ them to be nothin’ more than a way station to the damn Gold Saucer! But the Shinra ‘zecutives were right about one thing: minin’ coal was dirty and dangerous. And the people here still wanted power. And work…work that wasn’t so hard as coal.

“Five years past Meteor, and we’re all stuck in the same damn shit as before. No matter how much materia I sell, how many gil pieces I invest in the town…everyone still hates me. ‘Cuz they can never go back to coal now and be happy. But it’s a secret hate.” He laughed, bitterly. “Nobody in Corel would go around bad-mouthin’ no guy who pays for the school, the roads, makes up bullshit jobs so we’re not all dependin’ on the Saucer tram. They despise me anyways, jus’ think I don‘t realize.

“I ran for mayor. It was stupid, but they was even stupider, ‘cuz they elected me. So I decide to see if…maybe…somebody since Shinra has found a way to make power that’s not Mako or coal. And Reeve here had. Now, I had trouble trustin’ him at first…” He shook a finger in Reeve’s direction. “…part of me thought to myself, once a Shinra, always a Shinra. But he done me good. With his comp’ny’s money plus Corel’s money a.k.a. my money, we built this tower. No problems. Good jobs, good power.

“It was a rebirth. We called the town ‘New Corel,’ after. For five years, we been happy. They stopped hatin’. I would go into the mayor’s office from 9 a.m. to noon, and then work here 1 p.m. to 8. Marlene had friends at school and was our secretary in the afternoons. I even got over my Shinra hate and hired these Turk goons. Three of ‘em, in charge of security. Could have one here ‘round the clock, if I needed ‘em.”

Barret sat down, then, his face contorted in pain. “We was happy. All of us, even if the work was hard sometimes. It was better than coal. Or an ass-beating…” His voice died, and he shook his head, overcome.

Rude broke in. “There was a breach in our security. Not that our security was ever exceptionally tight. Our biggest fears out here were pranks and vandalism. Not everyone around was as happy with the new power supply as the majority were. We generally only kept two personnel on duty in the middle of the night. No one would visit, and one person was usually sufficient. Especially considering one person was always, always a Turk. Who wants to harass the night shift, especially when they make sure your house stays nice and cool in this heat? Last night, one of our regular guards was ill.” A pause. “So Elena joined Reno on duty.”

“You essentially had more security than normal,” Vincent stated with surety.

A nod. “Elena was working a double shift, on top of it, so around 10 o’clock, she was getting pretty hungry. She called Marlene to ask her a favor--to bring her up some dinner. That’s the last thing we know for sure.”

Yuffie’s mouth went dry at the sound of the name she’d last associated with a four year old child.

“Marlene had left around the time Barret went to sleep, so he didn’t miss her when she didn’t return immediately. No one heard the screaming until 2 a.m.” Rude swallowed. “The nearest neighbor to the plant called Barret, who called me. The two of us prepared for the worst, and still didn’t comprehend what…what we found inside.”

“Is she…I mean, if there was screaming, she couldn’t be…” Yuffie’s voice broke through the silence, stuttering the thoughts the rest of them had swirling in their heads.

“She was the only one alive. Every worker on duty…Reno…‘Lane…” He shook his head. “Everyone dead, but she’s all right. If you can call being tied up and forced to watch the murders of two people all right. She’s in her home, with a nurse, under sedation.”

She looked at him knowingly, watching the nervous fidgeting, the tics, as he kept trying fruitlessly to hold back any clues to his emotions. “I can’t imagine…”

“I can.” Rude’s voice cracked. “She fucking bled them dry. What she did to the workers was horrible, I won’t deny that… But what she did to the last--the best was brutal. And no one has any damn clue for a motive!”

“I been tellin’ you, a dyin’ man don’t have to see straight! How do we know it was Tifa? How can we even be thinkin’ it’s her?” From the look on Barret’s face, it was obvious that this was already a major point of contention.

“Did Reno identify her by name?” Vincent asked quietly, eyes on Rude.

“He said she didn’t look the same, but yeah. His dying breath…you think he’d waste it on something petty and old as a grudge against AVALANCHE?”

“My condolences. It’s always hard to deal with a comrade going down.”

He was quiet for a moment, then reached up to adjust his sunglasses. “That’s not the worst of it, actually.”

“It’s not?” Red XIII looked up. “Has she accessed mako from the thermal devices? Done something else suspicious?”

“It’s easier to show you,” Rude replied.

* * *

They passed cleaning crews on their way to the heart of the plant, which seemed to be shut down for the time-being. Rude paused outside the doors to the main security room. “We collected evidence, photos, are finished with every other area of the building. Here things are…untouched, because she was cruel and deliberate. And we believed that with Reeve’s assistance, we could decipher…something…” He waited a moment to recompose himself. “I have seen many terrible things. This room is among them. I understand if not all of you follow me. I wish none of you had to.”

Yuffie bristled slightly at the concerned looks shot in her direction. Just because every new piece of this puzzle freaked her out more didn’t mean she couldn’t handle receiving more to help solve it! “Tifa seems to have become terrible. If we don’t look at what she’s done, we won’t know how to keep her from doing more.”

There was a collective setting of jaws as they entered the crime scene. Two chalk outlines were all that remained of two people who weren’t necessarily friends, but not quite enemies. Splashes of a dark red-brown color covered the already dark walls. The splashes didn’t make sense, though, relative to the bodies.

“This isn’t just terrible,” said Red XIII. “There is something weird about how she left the room. It’s off.”

“I can tell you all, from way too much experience in destroying people, that these patterns of blood were not caused by its exit directly from the body.” Vincent grimaced. “She placed it where it is, most likely with purpose.”

“Purpose? But we can’t see the damn shit!” Barret squinted at one pattern that took up most of a wall. “Wait…I can make out a letter or two…L…U…S.”

Reeve snapped his fingers. “I have an idea! Let me grab the bag I brought from the Gel.”

They huddled together as he left for the office, seeking quiet solace in each other’s company until he returned. With a couple spray bottles and a digital camera.

“I told you, we’re not cleaning it yet…and we’ve taken plenty of damn pictures, okay?” Rude’s voice took on an edge of desperate anger.

“You all called me because I have some science knowledge, and you trust me. Keep on trusting. The camera is to take pictures of what happens after I use the bottle, because the effect isn’t permanent.”

Rude’s face remained set and skeptical, while Red XIII appeared to have suddenly realized what his lab partner had in mind.

He rolled his eyes and stepped up to the patch of blood that Barret had been staring at. “Watch.” He worked quickly, pumping the trigger on the bottle, lightly covering the surface.

Suddenly, they all could see the letters L and U (as well as others), glowing with a bright blue-green.

“Wait, Mako sticks to blood?” Barret looked as bewildered as most of them felt.

Reeve smiled. “This is luminol. It’s a substance that glows when it reacts with other substances. One of them is blood. Even if this room had been cleaned completely, we could have used this to see where the blood was.”

“I’m glad this wasn’t well known when I was a Turk,” said Vincent. “Though, at least, I may have been spending too much time in prison to fiddle with the project in Nibelheim, then.”

“There’s downsides. It will destroy a good amount of the blood sample. Also, it doesn’t last forever. So let’s hurry. Coat everything, take pictures. We’ve got a few hours of luminescence at this strength, but if it’s anything like what she left on our tank…we’ll need time.” He handed off bottles to Rude and Vincent, standing back with the camera to take a shot of the wall he’d covered.

“What she left…” Barret’s voice trailed off, and he looked at Yuffie. “Whoever did this’s been somewhere else?”

She nodded. “Yeah. Stole all the Jenova cells that Reeve and Red had extracted from people Shinra’d messed with.” She took a deep breath. Better now than never. “And she abducted Cloud, or mind-controlled him, whatever, in the middle of the night. He hasn’t been seen since.”

Everyone except Rude and Vincent paused in surprise.

“Cloud?” asked Red XIII. “How do you know this?”

“Because…because I was with him at the beginning of that night.” Her eyes blazed fiercely. “She left me a message as well. We’ll have to sit down, put ‘em together, and decipher them, because it’s beginning to look like she’s either batshit insane or an expert in code. Both?” She nodded at the words now enveloping them.



Yuffie lay down in her borrowed bed, pulling the patchwork quilt around her. She passed her fingertips over the various pieces of fabric, fitting into one another like pieces of a puzzle. She wondered if the things that Tifa left in her wake could ever fit together like this, like the gift Elmyra had given to Marlene.

She snuggled into the fluffy down mattress. I’m supposed to be resting, but I just feel useless. She’d emptied her stomach contents as soon as she’d left the tower, and Vincent had insisted she be given a place to lay down while they started to work on Tifa’s messages.

Her hand came to a rest on her abdomen. …sometimes I wonder if I’ve lost it. Or is this just what it’s like, to have Jenova cells inside? Is there a barrier? Am I just one of them now?

Should I just be waiting for my time to go crazy?

Sleep was just as much a stranger to her this evening as it had been for the past two months. Laying her head back on the pillow, Yuffie fought her deepest worries and listened to the voices that rose through the not-thick house walls.

* * *

They’d stared at the walls of the security room until the luminol went dim. Every wall was the same. It wasn’t enough to create one huge bloody message; it had to be repeated so there was no way it could be missed.

Barret had gone to spend the night at Marlene’s bedside; she’d been transferred to the local clinic. He’d given the rest of them the use of his house to rest and regroup. They’d sat down to a meal of bland take-out, and Vincent had convinced Yuffie to get some rest.

Rude sauntered over to the kitchen table that was to be their brainstorming area. He slid his long legs above and onto one of the two thick benches that was on either side. As he did so, he methodically set a bottle of vodka and four shot glasses onto the bare wood surface in front of him.

“I doubt I’ll be drinking,” said Red XIII.

A shrug. “I’ll save it in case I want to switch to something harder.” A bitter tone had entered his voice, and he began to pour himself a shot. “Anyone else?”

Two nods.

Vincent seemed to take his for nostalgia’s sake more than effect, and Reeve could barely tolerate his. Rude immediately was downing a second after the last drop of his first hit his tongue.

He set the glass down, his brow furrowing. He’d removed his sunglasses. “I never drank at times like these. That was a Reno thing. I needed to do a Reno thing tonight…maybe it’ll help me see what happened to him.”

Reeve placed printouts of the security room on the table, then added to it images of the Junon holding tank etching. “Here are the notes we took on the letters. We noticed a continuous repeating pattern. Four lines repeated. Three of them contained sentences, and the fourth contains a word or words that we don’t know.” He placed one blown up image on top of all of them. “Here is the repeating pattern in the second type of etched letters. While you were all asleep last night, I was getting a computer to do some of our work for us. It’s why I was awake to take Barret’s call.”

“What are the sentences?” asked Rude.

“I am alive here, let me out. She says she’s coming. There is more than one.”

“Who’s alive? Where is here? Who’s coming? More than one of what?”

“I don’t know,” said Reeve, “ and I think I need another shot.”

“What’s the repeating pattern within the odd letters? Can you write it down so I may look at it?” Red XIII’s tail twitched behind him, leaving patterns of alternating glow and shadow upon the wall.

Rude looked at the blown up image. “O…I…T…A… I…T…E… H…E…N…R… M…T…N…R…R… N…C…H…E…R,” he recited as he wrote down the letters.

“So they’re not in any sort of word order, correct?”


“And it’s not every instance of a particular letter? Every ‘E’ is not etched in the secondary way?”

“From this picture, it appears random,” said Rude.

Reeve recapped the liquor bottle. “He’s right. There’s not an obvious message that pops up. That pattern repeats, within a pattern of the four lines that repeats…so those letters could very well be part of another message.”

“Is it really code?”

“Code or an anagram,” said Vincent.

“I’m better with anagrams,” Red XIII said. “Pass the paper.”

Reeve scrutinized the image again. “I tried to use the computer to crack the code. Unless it’s a code of words in the Cetra language or some other unknown tongue, it’s not a code.”

Rude grabbed another sheet and began to tear it into squares.

Vincent arched his eyebrow.

“I work better with my hands. I’d have asked if there were a word board game about, but then I remembered. We’re in Barret’s house.” He chuckled. “He’s got a world of spirit, but I know from some of his memos that language is not his strong suit.” He placed twenty-one squares in front of him and copied down the letters.

“I doubt all those letters go to one word,” said Reeve.

“Do you think it’s a sentence?” Rude asked, randomly shuffling the papers about, hoping that inspiration would strike.

“If the other lines in the glass were sentences…” Red XIII’s voice trailed off, his head cocked to the side as he stared at his sheet.

“One line was gibberish as far as we can tell. Also, she’s insane.” Vincent leaned back, skeptical. “What if it’s just ‘so sorry, my Jenova now?’ or something equally silly and petulant?”

“Can’t be. There’s no ‘S’ or ‘J,’” Reeve replied, with a grin.

Rude began to pull pieces aside.

“Do you actually have something?” Vincent asked.

“I just decided to pull out simple words I saw. Here’s ‘in,’ and…” He moved some more papers around. “There’s ‘the.’”

“Pull out ‘a’ while you’re at it, then. Wait! ‘At!’”

“At least ‘in’ and ‘the’ could be part of a phrase on their own,” Rude retorted.

Reeve set his glass down firmly, third shot down. “For shits and giggles, let’s see what letters you’ve got left.”


Moving “in” and “the” to the side, Rude moved his hand, gesturing to the remainder:



“Can I pull out a word, can I?” Reeve seemed to be getting closer to the edge of intoxication.

“If it’s stupid, put it right back,” advised Vincent.

Reeve pulled up pieces of paper. “Ta-da!” Crater.

“How on the Planet does the word ‘crater’ help us? The one crater we know collapsed.” He shook his head. “Pass the alcohol before I slap you.”

Rude cocked his head to the side, glancing at the letters left.



A shuffle. Nothing. Another.

“Give it up,” said Vincent. “At least put Reeve’s silliness back.”




“Wait. I see ‘north,’” Rude said.

“Is there an -ern?” Reeve smiled.

“Holy shit.” He pulled the letters out. “Look.”


“That leaves ‘i’ and ‘m’…‘I’m in the Northern Crater’… Or is she?” Vincent consumed another drink of the vodka. “What if it’s a trap?”

“If she wanted to kill Barret or me, she probably could have done it while we slept last night.”

“She certainly could have found me in Junon,” Red XIII added. “Reeve?”

He nodded in response. “Seeing what happened here, and at the lab, I know she could have gotten to any of us if she chose. We don’t need specifics, I suppose, since she’s not here to ask, but how was Yuffie sure Tifa did something to Cloud?”

“He’d pretty much stated that he was in fear of Tifa as soon as she found him. He’d isolated himself because of it. So when she awoke next to this instead of the man who’d been there the night before…” Vincent pulled out the bloody pillowcase. “She made an assumption. She came to me to prove it right. I can assure you that someone took Cloud’s blood to write this message. And in light of all these things, I only have one idea.”

“Ideas are good,” said Reeve.

A cynical smile. “This one isn’t particularly nice. Tifa deliberately left Yuffie alone, despite having the perfect opportunity to harm someone she deems a ‘bitch,’ at the least. She didn’t go after either of you in Junon, but she went after your machine. The brutal deaths in the power plant…the only link is Jenova.”

“What about the messages?” asked Red XIII. “Those don’t mention Jenova at all.”

“She wants to draw us out, to her? The crater could be a trap. But, if Cloud is still alive, it would probably be the only opportunity to save him. Cloud lost a lot because of the experiments done to him. I don’t think he’s had the opportunities that you’ve all had since Meteor.” Vincent stood up. “Yuffie will go wherever she thinks she will find him, and I will toss my hand in, too. We have to find Cloud…whether it’s to save him, or avenge him.”

Reeve stood up, smoothing back his dark hair. “Cloud’s sacrifice for us all was up there with Aeris’, even though he still walked beside us, in the end. I am with you.”

“As am I,” Red XIII nodded. “I am certain that Barret will be with us, as well. It looks like this will be the most unlikely reunion.”

As the three former members of AVALANCHE moved to leave the table, Rude spoke up from the bench. “Wait.” He looked up. “I know I don’t have enhanced abilities, and I’m not all that smart. I’m sure from your viewpoints, I’m just someone who lost a lot of fights to you. Yet, I can’t rest if I can’t solve what happened to Reno and Elena. If this is a trap, I want to be beside you when you walk into that net.”

“Bring scissors!” Reeve smiled.

* * *

The next morning, six gathered around Barret’s kitchen, instead of four. Reeve immediately began to speak. “I made a phone call before I went to sleep last night. Good and bad news.”

“Bad news,” said Yuffie. “I don’t want to wait for the punchline from hell.”

“Tifa has apparently already paid Cid a visit. She left her mark on Rocket Town. Only on the shuttle.” He nodded to Vincent. “You may have been on to something last night. Cid doesn’t think there’s anyone who’d been exposed to Jenova in Rocket Town.”

“What did the shuttle say? ‘For a good time, call Tifa in the Northern Crater’? ‘Cloud plus Tifa equals Smiley-Face’? ‘Ring around the rosey, die you motherfuckers’?” The words fell out of Yuffie before she could even stop them. She wrapped her arms around herself.



Reeve shrugged. “Cid spelled it out for me. W-E-C-O-S. He has no idea what it is, either. He was hoping we would. It happened about two weeks ago, and he’d just assumed it was vandalism. Except for one thing; the message was burned into the side of the shuttle. They’ve refinished and repainted it already, so there’s no point in looking at it.”

Barret shook his head. “So y’all sure that this is Tifa?”

“Cloud was convinced that she was very, very dangerous,” Yuffie said. “Decide what you want, but I believed him. Especially after…” Her words trailed off, and she shook her head.

“Cid wants us to pick him up before we head off. So I suppose this is last call. Are we ready?” Reeve looked around at his companions.

“Fuckton of ammo for the gun-arm!” Barret gave his trademark pat.

Yuffie smiled, in spite of herself. “I have a case of materia that I acquired lawfully, all for your enjoyment.”

“Is it all right that I left the positronic animals at home?” Reeve grinned.

“Perhaps,” said Vincent, “if we go in a strong, but cautious team…we may save more than one friend today. We knew Tifa, and the Tifa we knew was not a monster, was not Jenova.”

“Save Cloud, then try to save Tifa?” Red XIII nodded. “That should be the plan.”

“She may have turned, like Sephiroth, but there was a point where Sephiroth could have been saved, had he any friends.”

“Let’s go, then,” said Rude. “For friendship.”

“And hope,” replied Vincent.

As the group filed out the door, Yuffie paused.


“I know why I’m fighting,” Cloud said. “I’m fighting to save the Planet, and that’s that. But besides that, there’s something personal, too…”

Yuffie bit her lip, listening to his speech. But…all I have is Wutai…and nothing I do is going to help them. It’d probably be better off destroyed.

“A very personal memory that I have. What about you all?” He paused. And met her eyes.

She smiled to herself. So he hadn’t forgotten?

“I want all of you to find that something within yourselves. If you don’t find it, then that’s okay, too. You can’t fight without a reason, right? So, I won’t hold it against you if you don’t come back.”

The airship traveled very quickly, dropping off the crew and members of AVALANCHE. Yuffie wasn’t sure why she faked her landing in Wutai, staying on that hateful ship as it made its way across the Planet. She felt the Airship come to a stop, hovering near the outskirts of Midgar. The motion sickness passed with the motion.

She realized it, though, as she made her way back to the bridge. Cloud’s still here. And he’s all alone. However, as she neared the door, she saw someone else walk through it. Someone with long, dark hair. Puzzled, she continued on.

Cloud saw her through the clear panels of the door. He glanced at Tifa, then back at Yuffie. He shook his head, subtly.

That ass! Hot tears sprang to her eyes, as she heard the muffles of their conversation.

“What are you going to do, Tifa?”

“Did you forget? I’m… all alone. I don’t have anywhere to go.”

This isn’t happening. Gawd, I am such a moron! Yuffie ran down to the meeting room and huddled herself in the corner, as the tears continued to flow. He liked you. He even met with you a few times. But Tifa knew him first, and she was the one who saved him.

It’s not fair! I’m just as alone as she is, I have every right to fight for…

Everyone was stunned the next morning, when she “came back.” She’d never left in the first place. Her home was in shambles, and her own “friends” didn’t know she was coming back to join them when they were in trouble. Then, Cloud…

She shook her head. It didn’t matter. She didn’t have to get anything back, to fight for love.


Yuffie nodded to herself, as she prepared to walk out to the Gelnika. For friendship, hope, and love.

And this time I’m not going to leave the Crater empty handed because of you, you conniving bitch.




The bathroom in the Gelnika was tiny and utilitarian. Yuffie washed her face with the cold water from the sink. Cursing motion sickness. Cursing morning sickness. Her reflection showed a version of herself that she did not know: sunken eyes, face taut, thin and pinched; she looked like the victim of a vampire. Taking a deep breath, she tied her hair back with a red headband. She was in horrible need of a haircut; her trademark pixie had taken on a shaggy mind of its own.

She was met by Vincent as soon as she walked out of the door. “We’re almost there.”

“I’m ready.” She nodded. “Anything worth having is worth fighting for.”

He didn’t respond immediately; his eyes seemed to be searching for something in the distance. “I know you’re capable.”

“Thank ya much.” She rolled her eyes and moved to walk away, but he grabbed her by the arm.

“Don’t take this as an insult. I want you to stay as far away as possible.”

“Why?” She yanked herself away, furious. “Just because--”

“Because I got entangled with someone Jenova ensnared, once. If a form of Jenova arrives, fight. If Cloud needs it, help. I won’t let anyone be destroyed like I was, though. If she gets to you, it’ll only be through me. You don’t deserve that.”

“Vincent.” A tear slipped from her eye. “I understand. But you need to understand, too. You’re not the only one who’s lost something important. Not the only one that wonders, ‘Am I even real anymore?’” She paused. “This should have been impossible.” She placed her hand over her abdomen.

“All the more reason to keep her away at all costs.”

A shudder passed through the body of the craft, as it made its landing descent. They’d arrived.

* * *

The Northern Crater’s face had changed, but its soul hadn’t. A fine mist of mako energy permeated the air, like a green veil. The winds that passed along the outside ridge were frigid.

“So, what? Are we all gonna go down then?” Cid asked, lighting a cigarette.

“Reno and Elena couldn’t take her, apparently.” Rude swallowed. “Why would we risk not going full force?”

Meanwhile, Vincent and Red XIII had walked a short distance away from the group, eyeing the crater for clues to Tifa’s whereabouts.

“No…” Vincent paused, peering down into the crater. About two hundred feet down, he could see a large, flat platform area formed from an outcropping of rock. Upon it, he saw a figure, and what appeared to be a large crystal of solid mako. He motioned to Red XIII, and then he pointed down. “Confirm this.”

His good eye searched the area, his feline ears twitched forward, and he gave the air a sniff. “There’s someone down there. The smell of Jenova is strong, but beyond that, I cannot say. Given the amount of people Hojo gave Jenova injections to in the first place, and how many survived the Reunion… It would almost have to be Tifa. Reno and Elena are dead, add in our treatments, and you and Cloud just may be the only individuals with Jenova cells anymore.” Red XIII grimaced. “And Tifa, after the lab incident.”

“Over here.” The request was quiet, as Vincent motioned to the others. “We’re going to keep it down, and try for an element of surprise.” He pointed to the west. “I see a decent path that way. I think Reeve, Barret, and Cid should take it.” A nod to the east. “Another way down over there that is a bit harder and more direct. The four of us will take it. We’re a little more agile, and hopefully will be as quiet as you are.”

“We’ll need a signal,” Rude said. “We can’t have one team going in without knowing if the other is prepared.”

“I’ll wave my tail in the air twice,” said Red XIII, “that should be bright enough to notice. Barret can fire one shot in response, and we’ll approach that platform.”

The group split and began their advance. Even though years had passed, and the crater had collapsed, they all found that their path felt natural. When Sephiroth had been defeated, they had secured the fate of returning to that spot for the third time.

The final time.

* * *

From his vantage beneath a large boulder, Vincent could just spy the other group reach their destination point. He looked back at his concealed companions, nodding at Red XIII. “It’s time.”

With cat-like grace, he leapt just beyond Vincent, lifting his tail into the field of visibility for the other team.

Suddenly, they heard a voice calling out to them. “Can we end this charade?” A cold laugh. “I watched you all, with my eyes and my mind’s eye. Friends, let’s hold a council like human beings.”

The sound was Tifa, yet not. The warm, sweet, naïve tone their friend had at twenty was honey to this voice’s vinegar. Yuffie felt her heart dive down as the four of them exchanged glances, trying to deliberate their position non-verbally.

“Don’t make me force one of you out here. I could, you know.” They watched her emerge fully out onto the platform from her point of concealment. “There are seven of you. Come out slowly. I am here for good, not ill, despite your assumptions.”

Slowly, they emerged. At Vincent’s insistence, Yuffie was at the rear of her group. She was the last to see Tifa and could not stay the gasp from her mouth.

Her face was marked with lines of black and purple. Her eyes glowed yellow. A white streak had formed in her hair, just at the right temple. While she had never dressed very modestly, her practical style had changed to something more provocative, in stays and leather.

The strangest part, however, happened as she moved. Parts of her seemed to phase in and out of reality. If an arm moved; first the phantom skin moved, then the core. Flesh tone, then purple. The human mask seemed like it could no longer contain the alien.

“Tifa!” Barret cried out. “Why? Why’d ya…” His voice trailed off, losing muster on its way to accusing an old friend of murder. “Marlene was there,” he finished lamely.

The voice seemed softer, nearly human this time. “I saved her.” Her eyes flashed, and the voice was cold again. “She could’ve died like the rest of them, but Tifa insisted. A lot of things became messy to keep Tifa happy.”

Yuffie’s stomach suddenly lurched, and she leant against the stone wall next to her. Not now, this is not the time. She turned and placed her forehead against its cool hardness. Suddenly, she opened her eyes and saw that the “wall” was the large mako crystal Vincent had seen on the ridge.

Her scream interrupted Tifa’s rambling. “NO!”

Vincent went back to her, as a smirk crossed Tifa’s face. Her fists pounded and pounded, and as he reached her, he grabbed one arm. The other reached out, palm raised, fingertips positioned to brush the face that was buried inside.

The blue eyes were wide open, yet sightless. Arms outstretched but touching nothing. Face contorted in pain, lips locked in a silent scream, Vincent was eye-to-eye with Cloud Strife.

Rude stepped in, supporting Yuffie, even as Vincent turned soundlessly from the gruesome sight in front of him. The only noise anyone heard was the cock of a pistol.

He had a gun to Tifa’s head before anyone realized it, even her. Yet, she laughed.

“I will not hesitate to kill you.”

“She was right.”

“What?” he snarled, digging the barrel deeper into her temple.

“Tifa said if I took him, no one would notice. I had to make a show. Lure you all here. She thought, hoped, you would all jump at the first sign of trouble. But no one came. So I stole myself back, piece by piece. I came back to finish the job with Cloud, but there was one piece missing.”

A beat.



Her fingernails dug into his neck, tearing his flesh, loosing an artery. He lurched to his knees, still holding the pistol up, and she kicked it away. An afterthought. His blood spurted like a fountain, and she held her hand out, thrilling in the flow.

“Fuck!” A hail of machine gun bullets flew straight towards Tifa, Barret’s full force unleashed. Red XIII dove back behind the boulder, and Rude fell down, pressing Yuffie to the ground under him.

It was unnecessary. Tifa held up her free hand. The bullets slowed to a stop as they approached her, and they fell harmlessly to the snow. The hand thrilling in Vincent’s blood was starting to hold what appeared to be an iridescent blue blob.

“Vincent,” Yuffie sobbed.

“I think it’s finished,” Tifa said, half to herself. She held up her hand, and the blue coated it, traveling down around her body before slowly sinking in. The other hand made a simple gesture, and the bleeding stopped.

Vincent weakly touched his hand to his neck in surprise, then brought it down and stared. Something was…different.

“You meddling cretins,” she said lightly, in her cold voice. “You always thirst for power, and then fuck it up every time you get it. Miserable fools. I give you a gift. A gift of myself, by myself, and you squander it. Afterwards, you take my body bit and parcel, spreading it to the ends of the universe like chaff on the wind.”

She paused. “Every single one of you I inhabited was the same. You wanted petty things. If you had power, you used it to punish others for wanting the same petty things. Even this one. I only kept on because she told me something…of someone.” A smile. “My other half. Beyond this stupidity, she was not petty. She must have had my gift, but she gave it up for this.” She gestured around her in scorn.

“I take it back.” Tifa’s face contorted in a snarl. “I took it back.” She kicked Vincent lightly. “Every last one of you is now the pathetic mortal you should be. Even him.” She strode towards the mako crystal and, in one movement, she caused it to shatter. With another twitch of her fingers, Cloud was floating prostrate. She allowed him to rest on a raised, flat stone.

“Is he dead?” Vincent’s voice was a hoarse whisper.

“I have no mercy. Yet, I did not kill anyone that she cared about. That was the pact we made when we started this arrangement.” Tifa’s hand slid up, caressing the light green orb that now sat inside the materia pendant. “However, this one…this one, she thought suitable for my purpose. I want to trade. Corpus corpori. That she was sacrificed while this waste lives…”

“She’s going to try to resurrect Aeris?” Yuffie heard Red XIII mutter behind her. “She’ll kill fifty, yet can’t let the murdered have peace?”

A broad smile passed over her face, and she raised her arms up to the heavens. Streams and tendrils of the Lifestream began to pass upwards, passing over, around, and through her on their route to the sky. They all heard a buzzing noise off in the distance, steadily approaching. “Make me whole again,” Tifa’s voice prayed.

The buzz increased to a roar, almost like an engine. A shadow appeared overhead, steadily growing.

“Holy hell, look at that damn thing!” Cid yelled from across the platform. “That is a beautiful piece of fuckin’ aircraft!”


For it was actually an airship. The nose was slim like the head of a serpent, and its wings flowed back from the center cockpit. Bright and red, like a fierce dragon, it steadily descended downward almost vertically, landing nearly on top of them.

A set of steel stairs descended, and they watched in awe as two figures emerged, followed by others. Catching their attention first was a man with tousled, shaggy hair, carrying the strangest example of a sword that they had ever seen.

In front of him, on her knees, a young woman had burst forth. She had short dark hair, but familiar marks on her face and a yellow glow to her own eyes. She locked eyes with Tifa, and one word escaped her lips.



Part 2

All That Glitters Is Cold 3 Fanfic Competition

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