"Wow, its really coming down out there," Tifa commented, gazing out the window of the two-story house she and Cloud shared. A heavy curtain of rain obscured the darkened streets of Nibelheim. Cloud was stretched out on the sofa in his stocking feet, idly watching the fire and eating popcorn.
"Oh, bar mistress? Im running low on popcorn " Cloud teased his wife playfully, picking up the near empty popcorn bowl and shaking it so the un-popped kernels rattled.
"And? What do you want me to do about it?"
"Well, I "
"I mean short of punching you upside your spiky blonde head so you go get it yourself."
"I just thought you would want to know."
"Hmm. Well now I know and I dont care go get your own popcorn."
"You arent very nice, you know that?" Cloud sighed and got up from the couch, heading for the kitchen to make more popcorn. Tifa watched him leave as she sat down on the couch and pulled her housecoat around her tightly. Cloud had changed in the two years since their defeat of Sephiroth, he was no longer as indifferent and he was beginning to open up more about his feelings. Everybody had parted ways after their journey was over and were trying to return to their normal ways of life. Barret had moved to Kalm with Marlene while Corel was being rebuilt and had bought a small house. Cid and Shera were living comfortably in Rocket Town and working to rebuild Cids rocket. Cait Sith had been more or less returned to storage and Reeve was working for ShinRa, which had slowly begun to recover from its massive financial losses with Palmer at the head. Yuffie had returned to Wutai and was hailed a hero while Red XIII had taken up his grandfathers work in Cosmo Canyon and was trying to map the heavens. Vincent was for all Tifa knew Vincent was dead. Hed been the only one of the group to break off all connections before leaving. No word of where he was going or what he planned to do with the rest of his life. When Tifa and Cloud had finally tied the knot, they had debated searching for him, but decided it was best to leave him alone. Her reverie was broken when Cloud returned and dumped a handful of popcorn on her head.
"Cloud! Youre getting butter in my hair!" Tifa said angrily, brushing several of the kernels from her long brown hair. "Have you got any idea what it takes to keep hair like this in the condition its in?"
"Youre in my spot," Cloud said, shrugging. "Think of it as a hot oil treatment or something."
"What would you know about a hot oil treatment?"
"I dunno." Cloud flopped down on the sofa again and put his head in Tifas lap.
"Whatever." Tifa idly laid a hand on Clouds chest and began tracing circles with her finger.
"Dont do that, it tickles."
"Oh? My big, strong, mercenary doesnt like being tickled?" Tifa poked her husband in the ribs and he smiled. Suddenly several gunshots rang out above the beating of the rain on Nibelheims cobblestone streets. Cloud sat bolt upright as Tifa stood up and went to the window.
"What was that?" she asked, peering into the gloom.
"I dont know maybe I should go check " Cloud stood up and went to the hall closet to get his sword.
"Dont be stupid, you havent touched that thing in two years."
"Once a mercenary, always a mercenary," Cloud answered, hefting the sword easily.
"Well wait until morning to find out."
"I think I should go find out what it was."
"Cloud, its probably dangerous. Please just stay here " Tifa pleaded.
"Oh all right but if its something I could help with "
"You already said you wouldnt go." Tifa went back to the couch and sat down again. "Come lie back down."
"Yeah I guess I prefer the option of curling up in front of a fire with you to wandering around in the pitch darkness, in the rain, looking for someone with a gun " Cloud tossed his sword aside and lay back down on the couch, his head comfortably in Tifas lap.
"Damn straight you do." Tifa scooped up a handful of popcorn and began popping kernels into Clouds mouth. The couple sat in the relative silence of their living room, each comfortable in the others presence, blissfully existing in a tranquil state of inertia. Tifa was fairly certain she could drop off to sleep and let Cloud carry her up to the bedroom later at night if he took a mind to it, when a rapping on the door interrupted her thoughts.
"So much for a peaceful night," Cloud grumbled, half sitting up.
"You stay there, Ill get it," Tifa said, standing and pushing Cloud back down.
"Thanks beautiful, I owe you one. How about another hot oil treatment?"
"Very funny." Tifa rolled her eyes as she opened the door. She was shocked at who she found leaning weakly against the doorframe. His normally blood red cloak was soaking wet and appeared almost black in the meager light from the fire that radiated through the doorway and he looked even paler than he had first joined their party in the basement of ShinRa mansion. His gun was held loosely in his right hand and the look in his eyes was haunted.
"Vincent! What are you doing here?" Tifa cried.
"Vincent?" Cloud said getting off the sofa, as their old ally stumbled into the room and collapsed weakly on the floor.
Tifa shut the door quickly as Cloud leapt over the couch and knelt by Vincents still figure, carefully turning him over. Tifa joined him and gently shook his shoulder.
"Cloud!" she gasped as she pulled her hand away. Her palm was stained bright red, the color of blood. The blood blended perfectly with the rain-drenched cloak and Tifa noticed a patch of the material that seemed almost darker. She pulled away the fabric and found the source of the bleeding. "No bullet hole " "Im going to call Lyria, she might make a house call if I tell her its an emergency here, help me lift him "
"Its late, are you sure shes on duty?" Cloud asked as he gently helped Tifa lay Vincent on the couch.
"She always takes the graveyard shift she says its usually quieter." Tifa pulled an afghan from the back of the couch and carefully tucked around the inert figure. "Cloud, build up the fire, his skin feels like ice.
"Gotcha, go call the doctor."
"Right." Tifa went into the kitchen and dialed the hospital number that was scribbled on the pad beside the phone. She noticed her hands were trembling and unconsciously wiped her bloody right hand on her housecoat.
"Nibelheim emergency room, how may I help you?" a bored sounding male voice asked.
"I need to speak to Dr. Lyria Kindred."
"This line is for emergencies only, maam, not personal calls."
"This is an emergency!"
"I cant put you directly through to the doctor maam."
"Please! Its urgent!"
"I cant redirect calls maam, its against protocol."
"Listen buddy, either you get me through to Dr. Kindred or Ill come down there and do several very painful things that are most definitely against protocol and several that Im not certain are anatomically possible, but Im just dying to find out." Tifa threatened in a tone she hoped got her message across.
"Ah Ill see what I can do "
Tifa held the line for a few minutes, glancing at the clock on the wall. Quarter after twelve Lyria was certain to be on duty.
"Hello, Dr. Kindred speaking. I assume this is Tifa, judging by the emergency operators description of your threats."
"Hi, Lyria. Could you come down here? We have a bit of an emergency on our hands."
"I dont know Tifa; this is supposed to be a fairly busy night."
"Its an emergency."
"What, did Cloud cut himself with that big butter knife of his?"
"Ive got three autopsies to do tonight. There was a triple homicide."
"I dont know all the details. From what I understand, someone was attacked in a back alley by some massive winged creature. Two others heard the commotion and came out to investigate, both were slaughtered, but one managed to get off several shots with a handgun. So now we have a murderous winged creature flying around our city, at least its been wounded though, hopefully the police can find and dispatch it."
Tifas knuckles were white from gripping the phone so tightly. "Lyria its important "
"Whats the emergency? I dont know if I want to risk my life if theres a bloodthirsty murderer roaming the city."
"Hes not roaming the city anymore, hes at our house."
"Hes here just trust me, it wasnt his fault "
"I dont get it."
"Just come over, ok? Surely three dead people can wait longer than someone whos dying "
"Well no not exactly hes hurt."
"All right, Im coming."
"Thank you, Lyria."
"Dont thank me yet. Its probably going to be my duty to turn him in."
"No. You wont do that. Not after you understand what happened."
"Im putting my reputation on the line for you Tifa."
"You wont regret it, I promise."
Dr. Kindred hung up the phone with a sigh, pulling her long brown hair back into a ponytail. While only in her mid-twenties, Lyria Kindred was the only female doctor in Nibelheim. She received a lot of censure from her older male colleagues for her attitude towards patients. Time and time again shed been told to be objective, not subjective to each case. A doctor who took everything personally would break down or be snuffed out like a candle. They said it was because she was a woman. A weak, sentimental, overall emotionally unprepared woman. She took the night shift because then there was no one to mock her. On a rare occasion, she did take the day shift, but only if there was a case in the maternity ward that none of the men wanted to dirty their hands with or a particularly difficult patient. She spent her breaks in the nurses lounge rather than the larger, more opulent doctors quarters, not because she didnt have the status to, but because the nurses understood her problems. None had the guts to go through with getting the medical qualification needed to become a doctor and had opted for nursing to help take care of the sick and injured. Lyria had wanted more. She knew she was smart enough to be a doctor, she knew that she lived in a world of sexual equality, she knew there were more and more female doctors, why couldnt she be among them? She was a good doctor. She knew she was. But, still, her coworkers labeled her as inferior. She had to concede that younger male doctors shed met and worked with had not always shared this sentiment. Unfortunately, the entire Nibelheim medical staff was comprised of doctors in their fifties and sixties who were set in their ways. Numerous times shed been approached by friendly, fatherly looking older physicians who wished to offer her a bit of helpful advice.
"Dont take each and every sick little boy or pregnant young woman who comes here to heart. If you form an emotional attachment to each one, sooner or later, one of them will slip away and youll be left in the dust."
"So you want me to approach these people with a heart of stone?" Lyria asked the senior doctor coldly.
"Goodness no! Go in with a friendly demeanor and try to cheer people up but, for gods sake, dont get to know them! Especially critical condition patients. Let the nurses hold hands. Thats what theyre here for. If you want to do that then take a dive and become a nurse."
"But I can do so much good as a doctor and a surgeon! Im sorry, but this is where you fall short. Youre supposed to be compassionate and warm and caring. Not distantly friendly and cordial like you are. Its like you arent even human."
"Years of watching children die and knowing nothing can be done will strip some of the humanity from your soul. Were down here trying to play god and sometimes godll get irritated and send a curveball at us, just to remind us that were only human. It hurts when you lose your first patient. It hurts when you lose your second and your third and your fourth and so on. It doesnt stop hurting, but you do learn to numb the pain."
"Profound words from a heart of stone."
"Listen to me Lyria; Im trying to help you. Youll lose your reputation as a competent doctor if you dont stop trying to leave a mark on everyones life. Youre young. Dont lose your heart in your work. If you give everything to your patients then eventually theyll be nothing left. A pretty young thing like you, fresh out of college, should go meet a handsome young man and settle down. Then youll understand that theres more to your life than tending the sick."
"Dont tell me how to live my life. I entered this profession because I felt there was enough dignity and worth within the medical world for a woman to be considered equal with her colleagues."
"Well you are equal but you deal with things differently. Medically youre one of the best, but emotionally "
"What the hell is wrong with my emotions? Dont you understand that theres more to healing a person then patching up their body? What about a persons heart? What about their mind? What about their soul?"
"Medical doctors dont heal minds and souls. Thats what shrinks are for."
"It takes so little though a shred of understanding for five minutes can bring tranquility to a troubled mind. A lighthearted laugh with a sick child can heal a frightened heart. An embrace for a mere ten seconds can soothe a broken soul."
"It takes more than that. We cant have doctors running around laughing and hugging people, it just doesnt work that way."
"Why cant it work that way?"
The question had plagued her since her entrance into the medical profession. Why couldnt it work that way? Lyria sighed and hefted her backpack full of her medical supplies. Another unorthodox way of approaching her job, Lyria often made house calls. Shed found that showing up in the traditional long white lab coat, carrying a black bag and with a stethoscope around her neck only lent to the anxiety of whomever she came to see. Casually dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt with an umbrella in one hand, Lyria didnt want to draw attention to herself as a doctor.
Her thoughts returned to Tifa as she headed out into the rainy night. Tifa. When Lyrias family had moved to Nibelheim, Lyrias family had become close to Tifas. In a strange sort of way, Tifa brought her into medicine. Years ago when Tifa had landed herself in the hospital, in a coma, Lyria had come to visit. Lyria had been introduced to the whirlwind of activity and action in the hospital. She wandered the hospital and watched paramedics whisk a pregnant woman to the maternity ward; she saw doctors consulting and nurses bustling from room to room. Lyria had found her calling. The excitement, the rush, the feeling that she could be doing good for humanity sent her out of high-school a year early with medical universitys begging her to grace their campuses. Eight years of life in heaven, class to class, lecture to lecture, paper after paper of such superior quality that every professor on campus was convinced she had been born with a scalpel in one hand and a caduceus for a birth mark. Shed had friends on campus. Aspiring paramedics, pharmacists, pediatricians, gynecologists, and Mako radiation therapists, all like her, all young and wishing to contribute to humanity. Lyrias aptitude led her friends to joke that shed been delivered by the first Cesarean section performed from within the womb.
Now, two years after graduation, where was she? In a small mountain town, on a rainy night, going to give medical attention to a murderer who a friend from childhood had picked up. She wasnt even sure her patient would be human. She knew little of what Tifa and her friends had done to save the world. She did know that Tifa had some odd friends who had shown up at her wedding. A big black man with a gun for an arm, a pilot with his head in the sky and his mouth in the gutter, a cat riding an animated stuffed moogle, a member of the ShinRa hierarchy who apparently was with the cat, a talking dog, and a seventeen year old ninja had escorted Tifa and Cloud down the altar. Lyria shook her head as she approached Cloud and Tifas house. Perhaps now was time for some of that objectiveness she so terribly needed. She took a deep breath and rapped sharply on the door.
"Oh good, thatll be Lyria," Tifa said, obviously relieved as she opened the door. Standing with the thumb of her right hand looped through one of the belt loops of her jeans and her other hand carelessly holding the strap of her backpack; Lyria looked like shed stepped right out off campus. Nothing like a doctor should.
"Hi, Tifa," Lyrias casual tone matched her appearance, but Tifa knew her old friend Lyr was capable of handling any medical emergency with skill and decisive reasoning.
"Thanks so much for coming Lyr. I knew I could count on you." Tifa warmly embraced her friend. "Please come in."
"Yeah. Wheres my patient?"
"Here he was an ally of ours, back when we fought Sephiroth." Tifa led Lyria to the couch, where Vincent lay asleep.
"You say ally, why not friend?" Lyria asked, kneeling down beside the sofa and beginning to unpack her bag. She looked at the young man with evident curiosity. Long black hair, dark clothing, there was obviously a long story here. She glanced up at Tifa, waiting for an answer as she almost subconsciously reached for his left hand to take a pulse. Lyria gasped when her fingers touched cold metal and she looked in alarm at the gold colored claw where she had expected to see a forearm.
"We say ally because we know too little about him to consider him a friend," Cloud answered. "Well explain it later, once were sure hell be ok, all right?"
"Fine with me. I have to admit I am curious." Lyria rolled up her sleeves and carefully unbuttoned Vincents shirt. Her eyes first assessed the gunshot wound in his shoulder, but she could see it was only one scar of many. "So this is our murderer? I must say he certainly looks the part "
"He looks almost more like a corpse then he did when we first met him," Cloud commented and Tifa elbowed him sharply in the ribs.
"Shut up, Cloud "
"Yes, do shut up," Lyria agreed. "Why dont you go boil some water? And put lots of salt in it and make sure you boil it at low heat, not high."
"So I can clean the wound. Honestly, dont you know anything at all?"
"Salt water, boiled on low heat?"
"Yes, go already."
"Wouldnt high heat make more sense?"
"No! Not high heat, for gods sake, then the salt molecules will ionize too quickly and "
"All right, all right, low heat, just stop with the science crap ok?"
"Go boil my water."
Cloud left the room in a huff, shutting the kitchen door behind him.
"I didnt know the go boil water standby was still effective," Tifa said.
"Sure it is, the modern woman just has to adapt it a bit. Nowadays, its simply easier to tell them to do the near impossible. Boiling salt water on low heat will take him at least an hour."
"Assuming he doesnt get impatient and turn the heat up."
"So what if he does? Well be done by then."
"Yes. I cant do this alone. Hes got a bullet in his shoulder and it needs to come out soon. Normally I would do this in a hospital in sterile conditions with the proper tools and lighting but, since we have a potential murderer on our hands, I have to make some allowances. Now, theres a bottle of alcohol in the front pocket of my bag, hand me that, a couple sponges, and a pair of tweezers."
Tifa complied and Lyria applied a generous amount of the cleanser to a cloth. "Ok, this is the part where we encounter a slight risk, this is going to hurt a lot, but its necessary hold him down while I get this slug out," Lyria instructed.
Tifa nodded and braced her hands gently, but firmly on Vincents other shoulder and chest. Lyria didnt know half the risk they were running. Tifa knew Vincent changed if he was angry or hurt, but she didnt know how hurt he would have to be before Chaos attacked.
"Ready?" Lyria asked, carefully dabbing the area with the alcohol to clean away some of the blood.
"Yeah, I guess " Tifa closed her eyes and prayed that in a few seconds she wouldnt have a Chaos demon to deal with.
"Ok, here goes." Lyria took a deep breath and Tifa suddenly felt Vincents body shudder and tense.
"How long will this take?" Tifa asked, eyes still closed.
"Not long there got it "
Tifa reopened her eyes to see Lyria pressing a bandage tightly against Vincents shoulder with one hand and holding out a small bullet for Tifa with the other. "Take this and clean it off make use of Clouds water."
"Yes, you. Unless you want me to send him," Lyria said, gesturing at Vincent.
"Oh ok." Tifa left the room, holding the bullet gingerly in one hand.
Lyria returned her attention to bandaging Vincents arm. "Sorry about that," she half whispered. "I know it hurt, but it had to be done." Lyria carefully taped her bandage down and rummaged in her bag for a second. "Here, at least I can give you something to help you relax." Lyria removed a syringe from the front pocket of her bag and inserted it into his arm. Almost immediately she felt his muscles relax and his breathing become deeper.
"What are you talking about? Is he awake?" Cloud asked, coming into the room with Tifa.
"If he were awake, wouldnt he answer?"
"Well I dunno, maybe not, seeing as its him."
"Id like to know whats going on here."
"Well tell you what we know. Come into the kitchen and well have coffee or something," Tifa offered.
"Coffee? This late? Sorry, one cup and Im up all morning although that might not be a bad idea." Lyria picked up her bag and followed Tifa and Cloud into the kitchen. Cloud plopped down on one of the chairs while Tifa rushed about making coffee.
"Ill tell you what I know, which is really very little " Cloud took a deep breath. "We met him a couple years ago, when we were fighting Sephiroth " Cloud continued the story, trying to include as many of the rather sketchy details he knew about Vincents past.
"I have to admit I find this rather difficult to believe," Lyria said, sipping her coffee. "Youre telling me that lying on your couch in your living room you have a sixty year old, shape changing ex-Turk, who doesnt look a day over twenty-seven, carries a rifle, and has a gold claw for an arm?"
"Its sorta difficult to understand Red XIII would have explained it better "
"Red XIII the talking dog? Why? Did he have some sort of rapport with our friend in the living room?"
Tifa could tell by the hint of sarcasm in Lyrias voice that she didnt understand. "Red just always understood things better, thats all I wish Vincent would wake up so we could find out what happened to him."
"Yeah until then, dyou wanna stay here Lyria?" Cloud offered.
"I would like to, Im very curious too. But I probably cant, I do have three autopsies scheduled for " Lyria glanced at her watch, "for an hour ago, so by now I think theyve probably called in one of the senior doctors and hes taking care of it though Ill probably get a nasty dressing down tomorrow. On second thought, I think I will stay here."
"Thanks, Id like you to be around if he needs any more help. Despite what he looks like hes not a bad person, hes just sort of dark, or maybe cold is a better word "
"Sure, glad to do it. If nothing else, Im intrigued " Lyria stood up and hefted her bag. "Ill stay up for a while and keep an eye on him and then hit the sack tomorrow morning. You know me; Im a creature of the night."
"Oh, youre going to like him then." Cloud muttered.
"Hmm? Whatd you say Cloud? Didnt quite catch that " Tifa said, though it was obvious shed heard. She grabbed her husbands ear between her thumb and forefinger, causing him to wince in pain. "You leave Vincent alone; hes had a hell of a life."
"Christ, Tifa, all right already." Cloud attempted to pull her hand off, but she held firm.
"Come on, now. Bedtime." Tifa pulled Cloud along by the ear. "Gnight, Lyria."
"Good night Tifa, Cloud," Lyria answered, entering the living room and collapsing comfortably in an armchair. She fumbled in her bag for a moment and pulled out a medical journal. Casting a final glance at the still form on the couch, she buried herself in her book.
"For gods sake, Tifa, let go!" Cloud whined as Tifa pulled him up the stairs and into their bedroom.
"Fine. But how can you be so insensitive to poor Vincent?" Tifa released Clouds ear and slipped off her housecoat.
"I dont know, I didnt mean anything by it "
"Honestly, even after you went through the same thing, knowing Hojo had used you for his twisted experiments."
"Good lord hes not even conscious, how can I offend someone whos out cold?"
"Its not nice anyway."
"I doubt hed care even if I told him to his face he looks like a goddamn corpse "
"Lets just go to bed." Tifa crawled under the blankets and turned her back to Cloud.
"Fine Im sorry Tifa "
Tifa squirmed for a second, hearing the sincere regret in his voice. "Oh, damn you, Cloud. I was almost sure I could go to sleep mad at you."
"Im sure you tried. Ill lay off the jokes, ok?"
"Id appreciate it. I cant help feeling bad for him "
"I guess I sorta do too."
"Of course you do, you arent heartless."