Disclaimer: I do not own Final Fantasy VII, nor any of its characters or components. I do own all that you did not see in FFVII. Don't steal, or Raven will come to find you with her spoon. And she will dig out your liver and eat it.

A/N: This has been in the works for at least six months. I thought of it, but refused to start writing until I knew precisely what I was talking about. Now that I have that covered, I've decided to begin. Forgive the very mysterious writing style of the first few paragraphs - it fades back into my regular style shortly after. :) Huge thanks go to Wyrren Sarrasri, who introduced me to FF and encouraged me to write this. Be warned, Wyrr - it's much, much longer than I thought it would be!

Faith & Feather

Chapter One: Let there be Heroes

In the north, where the land stretches itself thin for dominion over the ocean, where it throws up cliffs and mountainsides to hold the great Mother out of its room, there is a place so desolate and windswept that even the humans that have infected the surface of the Planet like parasites do not dare to go. The wintry land is so bitterly cold that the sun, on most days, passes it by, so desperately, evilly barren that only the very strongest and harshest of the Planet's creatures can survive. Yet even the monsters no longer visit the Crater. There the blood of the Planet rages through her veins, perceptibly stronger than anywhere else on the surface. There the Planet weeps her loudest as she toils to repair the waste that was laid to her ice-crusted face. There waits the wraith.

It hovers, its cries a silent ringing chill of loneliness and regret. It is borne by the Planet's grief, held aloft by Her hope and locked in place by its own desperate reaching for something whose name it has forgotten. It howls, something only those with horrible experience or extreme empathy could hear. Out to the ocean, something stirs and begins to weep, a choked sound that echoes along dark corridors. Don't leave me here, alone. To the west, something jerks from disturbed slumber and screams to combat tears. Don't hurt me any more. I'm sorry. And to the east, something sighs and shies from the call. Let me lie. The wraith calls to them all, despairing in its loneliness. And the Planet cries with the wraith and calls for someone, anyone, to come to her aid this last time...

- - - - - - - - - -

A scream, a falling platter, the sound of shattering porcelain. A moan of horror and a cry for help. Footsteps running, frantic for another human, an explanation, anything alive. Blood coated walls reflect dim light through the doors. Door like an evil smile as it waits for the next venturer into the darkness within. The footsteps of serene authority and on the orders of a girl shutters are flung wide. Then the authority shatters and the footsteps race up flights of stairs to fling wooden shutters wide. The heavy stench of blood through the whole building, shattering the tranquillity that once resided in the structure. She slumps and starts to cry, shocked, hopeless sobs. A broken orb flashes and lies still. The girl reaches out to prise it from fingers long gone cold.


- - - - - - - - - -

Tifa hummed softly under her breath as she polished glasses. This was the life she loved, the life she craved - absolute simplicity, keeping an inn, giving her customers a place to have a good time. She had everything she needed right here. Final Heaven was her business and her home. And with all - or most, she thought with a mental sigh - of her friends gathered around her again, she thought she might have been the happiest woman alive.

It had been a year since they had defeated Sephiroth; a year since Midgar had been all but obliterated by the force of the Planet's protectors and Meteor. Nearly a year since she had dismissed the wreck of Seventh Heaven and opened Final Heaven in Kalm. She set down the polished glass beside a gleaming row of its twins, and looked out across the bar.

At a large table in the centre of the bar sat Rude, Elena, Cid and Reeve, playing poker. Judging by the steady flow of obscenities she could hear coming from Cid, the old pilot wasn't doing too well. Rude was utterly silent, his face serious and his eyes masked completely by the large dark glasses that were more constant companions to him than Elena and Reno. He was undoubtedly winning. Elena and Reeve had teamed up after Reeve had lost within the first few minutes. Elena, despite her larger experience with Rude, was still unable to read his bluffs. She leaned over to Reeve and whispered something, making Cid scowl and thump the table in annoyance. His cigarette, which had become one long, cylindrical ash, wobbled dangerously as he growled, "Dammit, am I the only one not cheatin' at this table? It ain't fair to team up, and it ain't fair that you get to wear those glasses, Turk!" Rude's head swung towards Cid, the glasses revealing nothing of that which was behind them. Cid scowled and went back to grumbling quietly to himself. Tifa giggled to herself. It seemed the bald Turk did not like to be accused of cheating.

Across the other side of the bar, at (and under) several smaller tables were Barret, Marlene and Red XIII. Red was stretched out beneath the table, his muzzle moving slightly as he spoke with the muscle-bound black man and his daughter. Occasionally he flicked his tail away from Marlene, who seemed determined to burn herself or die trying. Tifa could just hear Barret's deep voice above the ominous rumbling of the thunder outside. She ducked her head to peer out the window, surprised that it hadn't rained yet. The clouds had been gathering since a week ago, as thick and dark as murky water. Lightning flashed and thunder crackled through the skies, but still no rain fell. Tifa sighed to herself and picked up her dishcloth fretfully. She hated this sort of weather.

Shaking herself away from her worries, she grinned slightly at the sight of Reno passed out on her bar. Later, she would have to disinfect viciously, but at the moment it was kind of cute, a twenty year old sleeping like a baby - albeit that he was drooling all over her previously nice clean bar. She grimaced and turned to the other man in the bar. Cloud Strife was sitting by himself at the end of her bar, staring at the same mug of beer he'd been staring at for the past hour and a half. Tifa folded her dishcloth and leaned over to talk to him.

"Hey, Cloud. What's the matter? You've barely said a word all night."

The blond man looked up from his mug as though startled. "Huh? Oh… nothing, Teef… just thinking." He smiled at her, trying to be reassuring. Tifa put on a stern expression and he sighed. "I was just thinking it would be nice if we could have found Vincent and Yuffie. It's just not the same without them." He made a face. "There just isn't enough high-pitched giggling and periods of ………" He trailed off pointedly.

Tifa laughed. "I know how you feel. I miss them, too… I really wish Yuffie could have come. I can't believe she's actually that into restoring Wutai that she's listening to her dad when he tells her not to go away from the place!"

"Yeah." Cloud agreed with a snort. There was a long pause.

"We did all we could to find Vincent, Cloud. We asked around at Nibelheim and we went to the waterfall. Where else could he be?"

"That's exactly what I don't want to think about." Cloud admitted. Tifa grimaced, though she, too, was worried about the red-cloaked man. She picked up her dishcloth again, winding it through her fingers as she worried. Cloud watched her for a few seconds, then snatched it from her hands.

"Quit worrying, Tifa. We did what we could, remember?" He gave her a grin, then tossed the dishcloth onto the bench behind her. Tifa shook her head at him and laughed.

A sudden, unprecedented silence fell. Cid's cigarette fell to the floor, stirring the cloud of smoke wreathing the poker table. Reno jerked and nearly fell off his barstool. Tifa looked towards the door in surprise as the sound of feet hurrying up her stairs reached them through the sudden gap in the thunder.

"…I told everyone in town I was closed tonight…"

Fists pounded the door and a voice no one expected to hear yelled, "Hey! Guys, let me in! Let me in!"

Tifa's eyes widened in delight. "Not by the hair of our chinny-chin-chins!" She all but leapt the bar in her rush to get to the door first. She flung the door wide and let out a gasp of surprise. Where she had expected to see a short teenager with dark hair and a cheeky expression stood a walking mud-monster.

"Well, nice to see you, too, Boobs!" It shrilled, crossing its arms. Tifa let out a cry of dismay and tugged it inside, wine coloured eyes concerned.

"Yuffie! What have you been doing? I thought you said that Godo wouldn't let you come?"

Yuffie's head dropped forward, but she clenched her jaws and looked up again stubbornly. "That's what I came to Kalm about. I hoped you'd all still be here." She took a deep breath, digging in one pocket of her faded khaki shorts for something. "Godo's disappeared along with Staniv. Chekhov, Shake and Gorkii are all… dead." She looked grave. She thrust out a hand before her. "And look what happened to my Leviathan!"

- - - - - - - - - -

The shore of the Northern Continent was mostly made up of sheer cliffs. To the east there was a bay, but that was far from here. The tall, unforgiving cliffs looked out onto the ocean. Waves beat themselves futilely against their feet, hurling chunks of ice, driftwood and other debris at the ice-crusted rocks. And, running lightly across the surface of the churning ocean, there came a black Chocobo. It warked optimistically as it saw the land and dodged projectile icicles as it scrabbled its way up the cliff. The man that clung to its back urged it on quietly. His cloak was scarlet, waterlogging turning it a darker shade of blood red. He held the reins of the Chocobo in one hand, but the other not-so-human appendage was closed carefully around a large gun. Vincent Valentine was by no means a cruel or evil man, but to look at him, one wouldn't know it. Wild black hair was only partially tamed by a scarlet bandanna, which covered his forehead all the way down to his blood red eyes. The black Chocobo reached the top of the cliff safely and warked proudly, taking a moment to rest before issuing a querulous chirp. Vincent fed her a green, which she ate ravenously, and stroked her feathered crest.

"Not much farther, 'Sydia..." He muttered to her. Wary eyes surveyed the landscape. In truth, he wasn't sure where he was going. He nudged Obsydia along and she started to move again with relentless good humour. Vincent had raised her all by himself, refusing, when the time came, to give her up for a gold. She was a faithful Chocobo, one of the few who did not flee, squawking, the moment they sensed him near. He bent closer to her neck to shield himself from the icy wind, using his knees to guide her where he thought she would have the least trouble. After several hours of trekking, he slowed Obsydia's pace, eyes fixed on a slight green glow above a rise. So his wandering had led him to the North Crater. He should hardly have been surprised. Everything seemed to end the way it begun - why not here? He swung himself down and Obsydia nuzzled him affectionately. Vincent ruffled her feathers and dug out some more greens.

"Stay here," he told her firmly. She warked cheerfully and gobbled the greens, then scratched at the snow in an almost thoughtful manner as he gathered some wood together. He didn't need the warmth, but Obsydia certainly did - a day of running through freezing temperatures was not what she was accustomed to. He stacked the wood haphazardly together and held out his hands. "Fire!" The wood crackled alarmingly with the spell, but was soon burning away merrily. Obsydia cooed and scratched out a nest for herself near the blaze. Vincent looked at the long climb to the Crater and at the fire. He wanted to reach whatever he was searching for completely rested. He lay down in the snow between Obsydia and the Death Penalty. "Keep watch, 'Sydia."

Obsydia cooed softly and nudged the red-cloaked man reassuringly. She nearly jumped out of her skin when his PHS rang.

Vincent sighed softly, too tired to be jumpy, and answered it. "…Vincent speaking."

"Oh Vincent, you are there!" Tifa sounded relieved. "I've been calling and calling…" Vincent knew. He had been trying to ignore the PHS and trying to cut AVALANCHE out of his life as easily as he had everything else. Somehow it had not worked as it should have.

"Vincent, we've been so worried… where are you?"

He looked around as Obsydia settled down again, scolding loudly in Chocobo-speak. "Somewhere." He said bluntly. Tifa laughed. "I am on the Northern Continent."

"Oh… what are you doing there?" Tifa wondered aloud. When he didn't answer, she moved on hastily. "It doesn't really matter… look, Vincent, we've got trouble. Yuffie's dad has gone missing, and we're all going to Wutai to help her out… we were hoping you would come, too, since you would be able to help, having been a Turk and all…"

Vincent considered. As much as he hated to purposefully recall his days as a Turk, they were there, and the skills he had learned were of use to his friends. "…I am pursuing something else at the moment… but I will join you in Wutai as soon as I may." He could sense Tifa's reservations. After a long hesitation, she started to speak again. There was a "Yoink!" from the background and then-

"Hiiiiiiiii Vinnie!"

Vincent winced and held the PHS away from his ear. "Hello Yuffie."

"So, Vinnie, what's up? Where are ya?" Vincent found it incredibly difficult to believe that Yuffie's father was missing and three of her closest advisers were dead.

"I am nearly at the North Crater." He replied. Yuffie made an interested noise.

"Whatcha doin' all the way up there, Vinnie?"

Vincent considered this. He wasn't entirely sure. He only knew that he had felt some strange need to travel. Something was tugging at him, urging him onward, even as he spoke. He looked at the lip of the crater, high above his head. "I am not certain. I will tell you when I find out."

"Sounds like a groovy mystery!" Yuffie declared. When he did not respond, she sighed loudly into the phone. "Vinnie, you need to watch more cartoons. Speaking of groovy mysteries… you'll come help me with mine, right?" Vincent stifled a smile. Now he could hear part of her grief showing through in her tone, an uncertain quality he had rarely heard before in the young ninja.

"I promise that I will come to Wutai as soon as possible." He told her, knowing she would accept no less. Yuffie let out a delighted squeal that made him wish he had refused.

"Knew ya couldn't resist me, Vinnie!" She giggled. If Vincent had been a different man, he would have rolled his eyes. Instead he stared straight ahead, wondering, not for the first time, why he was so unnaturally attached to these people. "So, I'll see you soon, right?"

"As soon as possible, Yuffie." Vincent reiterated.

"Okay then, Vinnie. See you in Wutai!"

"Good bye, Yuffie." There was a beep on the other end. Vincent wondered idly if Yuffie was even now being scolded for hanging up on him, if Cloud had wanted to speak to him. He shrugged, pocketed the PHS, and curled up beside Obsydia again. Even he could not survive without some warmth in a place like this.

- - - - - - - - - -

Elena sighed boredly as she tapped her fingers disconsolately on the railing that lined the bow of the bridge of the Highwind. It was a beautiful airship, there was no doubt about it, but it was just so boring. Reno was down in the cargo hold sleeping off his hangover, and Rude was outside on the lower deck, staring out at the same view she was, but without the reassuring safety of Perspex before him. She wondered why he did it - she didn't like heights at the best of times - hell, she was already feeling air sick - but to deliberately put herself through something like that… the very thought made her shudder. She looked over to her left, where Tifa stood, watching Cloud. The blond man stood behind Cid, who was piloting the airship himself. She knew one of the pilots in training had died in the crash a year ago, when the Highwind had plummeted into the core of the Planet. Since then, she supposed Cid had done it all himself. He was like that - too stubborn to hire more help.

She brought her attention back to Tifa. The tall woman had walked over to her and was offering her a smile. "Hi." She said. Elena cleared her throat.

"Uh. Hi." She replied uneasily. She wasn't sure how she felt about collaborating with old enemies, even though Reeve said so. She had made up her mind to hate AVALANCHE back in the time of Rufus Shinra, but now that she was working with them, she wasn't so sure. Tifa leaned on the rail and looked out through the Perspex beside her.

"So, what's really been going on in Midgar?" She asked conversationally. "Reeve didn't tell us much - I think he wanted to get away from it completely for a while."

"I can understand that." Elena responded, motor mouth taking over where her mind still whinged about Tifa being a part of AVALANCHE. "I mean, it's a huge leap going from Head of Urban Development to the President of Shinra and unofficial Mayor of Midgar. I don't know how he does it." Elena liked Reeve. He was the sort of nice, slightly crazy person that anyone at all could talk to, even when they didn't want to. Reeve was a regular, down to earth guy with too many problems for Elena to even start thinking about.

"No kidding. But he's optimistic about the future of Midgar?" Tifa inquired, rusty eyes wide with curiosity. She was one of those who found true pleasure in listening to other people, even when she was in trouble herself.

"Oh yeah." Elena agreed fervently. "He has the whole Shinra army helping to rebuild the place, except us. There are practically no guards anywhere in Shinra any more. It makes the people more inclined to think well of the company after everything that's happened, but I don't think it's too good an idea. I mean, we still have all the old Shinra weaponry and development plans and stuff…" Elena came to the sudden realisation that she had let her mouth run away with her again. She bit her tongue firmly to stop herself from saying anything more.

Tifa smiled. "Sounds like it's a busy place. Same old Midgar, huh?" At Elena's nod, she let out a sigh. "I miss my old sector, I guess… kinda ridiculous. I always hated the dump. But… it was home, you know?" She gestured to the ocean fling past beneath them. "I've been so many places now, it would be so easy to settle down anywhere. But… I'm glad I have Kalm. And Final Heaven."

And Cloud? Elena wondered. She felt a stab of pain, missing Tseng for the billionth time. Anyone would think she would have let go of him by now, but she still missed the man fiercely. Even though he had been harsh on her at times, he had really made her feel as though she was a part of the Turks. He had gone out of his way to be nice to her, especially when she was just a newbie. Reno and Rude did no such thing. She sighed.

"What's up?" Tifa asked, not probingly, just a quiet invitation to let it all out if she needed to. Elena looked at the older woman and shook her head with another sigh.

"I just… I never really feel like I'm a part of the Turks. I know I'm part of the team now, but… it seems like I'll never be one of the group like Tseng was…" She looked down over the rail. "I'm not as good a shot, and I'm not as strong or as fast…" In fact, there was just about nothing she could do better than Reno and Rude.

"But you must have been let into the Turks for a reason, right? They don't let incompetent morons into high positions like that." Tifa reassured her. Elena sent her a look.

"Does 'Gya ha ha ha' sound familiar to you?" She asked snidely. Tifa let out a laugh.

"Okay, so he was the exception that proves the rule." She giggled. Elena poked out her tongue, but laughed as well, and immediately went into a spirited Heideggar impersonation. When she was done, Tifa was gasping for breath, tears of mirth streaming down her red face.

"Well, there's something you definitely do much better than Reno or Rude!" She laughed, leaning heavily on the railing. Elena grinned.

"That and hacking. I'm a computer nerd." She confessed. "I can't do much else as good as Reno and Rude can, but you give them a computer and they can barely turn it on, let alone use it. Actually, I think that's what got me into the Turks. They didn't have anyone who was fit enough to do the other Turks stuff as well as be a tech, except Tseng, but he was useless with the engineering side of it."

Tifa nodded. "Well, there you are then. A veritable host of talents." She smiled at the younger woman as the Highwind lurched. "You get air sick too, huh? So do Cloud and Yuffie."

"Yeah…" Elena muttered as she popped some pills into her mouth and swallowed them dry. "At least I'm not a baby about pills, like Reno. He's allergic to cats. Wouldn't be a problem if he'd take the pills, but you'd seriously have to hide them in his food for him to take them, and even then he'd probably sense them."

Tifa started to giggle again. "You're kidding, aren't you?"

"Heck no… hey, you remember the circus in Sector Three? Well. There was a drug bust there this one time, and Reno's wandering around with his eyes all puffed up, sneezing something chronic…"

"Oh no!" Tifa exclaimed, the perfect audience. Elena giggled.

"To make a really long, humiliating story short… he pretty much got held hostage because he was sneezing so hard he couldn't hear or see them coming…" Elena shook her head in amusement. "It was really scary at the time, but it was hysterical afterwards. We never let him forget it. Him, sitting there in the straw with his eyes and nose streaming and demanding that we 'acd like real Durks, dot some padsy cops frob a bad soap obra'."

Tifa covered her mouth with her hand to try to control her laughter. "I just don't see it." She admitted. "He always acts so cool."

"Come off it - he's the biggest sleaze in the history of the universe." Elena replied with a grin. She was strangely proud to be able to say this of someone as close as her brother. He really was, too. She let out an exclamation of joy as they passed over land again. "Land ahoy! I see Wutai!" She refrained from tap dancing. "I'm gonna go wake up Reno!" She dashed out of the bridge, leaving Tifa to watch the small village come closer. Foreboding twisted her insides. She didn't want to see what they would undoubtedly find there. She pushed herself away from the rail to go find Yuffie. The girl, still sick as a dog in the cargo hold, would need all the support she could get when they reached her village.

- - - - - - - - - -

Elena wrinkled her nose as she stepped into the cargo hold, the sickly sweet smell of vomit near making her lose her breakfast. She cast a sympathetic look in Yuffie's direction. The pale ninja waved her on with a weak and slightly delirious grin. "Don't mind the mess!" Elena nodded uncertainly and skirted the area on her way to the Chocobo stable. Her heels clopped loudly on the steel floor as she went on her way. She wondered if Reno would hear her coming.

Her unspoken question was answered as she opened the door to the Chocobo stable. Her leader was sprawled out across the straw, one arm flung up to protect his eyes from the light. She knelt as quietly as she could. "Reno?"

The response was muttered cursing. She hid a grin. "Come on, Reno. We've nearly reached Wutai."

"Why don't you and Rude go ahead, then?" Reno grumbled bitterly. Elena smiled slightly as she began to gently pull him to his feet, quite a feat for someone as short as she was.

"Because you're the leader, of course." She chided him cheerfully. Reno snorted, but struggled to stand up on his own two feet. He opened his eyes gingerly and let out a volley of swearwords. By the time they had staggered out into the cargo hold, however, he was walking normally, albeit blindly, with one hand on her shoulder and the occasional "Step."

They eventually made it out onto the observation deck, where Rude was leaning heavily on the railing. The whole craft jerked and tilted as Cid turned them for an easier landing. Reno swore and opened his eyes stubbornly so that he could actually keep his balance somewhat. Elena just gave in to fate and dropped to the deck, knowing there was no way she could stand with nothing to hold on to in high heels.

When they were once again on a straight heading on a smooth glide for what passed for Wutai's airfield, she got up and walked over to where Rude peered over the edge in apparent interest. She approached nervously, both hands out ready to grab the railing should the Highwind make any sudden movements.

"How can you stand to look down at this?" She asked Rude, clenching the railing tight it both hands. Rude didn't reply, but then, he rarely did. Elena's face tightened as they swept down towards Wutai. They hovered over the small town, near the square that held the great bell, Godo's mansion and the Pagoda of the Five Mighty Gods. She stared as one of the flight crew cheerfully unrolled a ladder and tossed it over the side.

"Welcome to Wutai." He joked, and disappeared back to his duties again. Elena looked down at the long climb and wished she could faint on command. As it was, she wasn't feeling too confident about facing that descent. Still…

"Solid ground!" She exclaimed enthusiastically, taking a few steps toward it. Yuffie, who had emerged with Tifa, uncovered her mouth for a few seconds.

"Amen to that." She muttered, before clamping the hand determinedly back over her lips again. Elena felt sorry for the girl - she sure as hell wouldn't want to go down this ladder in the condition! She put her hands on her hips.

"Why isn't Cid landing?" She asked, just as Cloud and Red sauntered out of the stairwell.

"Cid and Barret are going to land the ship outside of Wutai." Red assured her. "Yuffie wanted to get back into… her home without being seen by most of her people."

"It's not exactly comforting to see your new leader about to blow chunks." Yuffie added, voice slurred slightly. Tifa poked her younger friend in the shoulder.

"I don't know about that, Yuffie. It could be inspirational. Like, look what you'll go through for them." She suggested brightly. Yuffie (and a good number of the others in the vicinity) stared at her. Tifa coughed. "So… I'm going down the ladder first, because I'm not having anyone below me!" She announced, and swung herself confidently over the railing. Reno, ever the enthusiastic voyeur, made a slight protest, quelled by the glares he received from all females present, plus Cloud.

Elena gulped as she lowered herself carefully onto the rope ladder. It was times like these she really, really regretted her choice of shoe.

- - - - - - - - - -

In the scant morning light, a figure could be seen slowly ascending the outer rim of the crater in what had to be the most difficult way possible. Obsydia had been left at the base of the slope/cliff to save her energy for the quite probably not-so-triumphant return of her master. After several hours of determined climbing, falling and climbing again, Vincent made it to the top of the crater. Even without his abnormally keen eyesight he could have seen the sudden spurt of healing that the combination of Holy and the Lifestream had made a year ago. The crater was almost completely sealed over again, with only the occasional crack of doom in the black rock. Green mist seeped from these cracks, giving the crater an eerie, alien look. Vincent descended into the crater, senses on high alert for whatever had called him here.

Within the depths of his mind, he could feel the demon stirring itself to alertness. Vincent cocked back the hammer of his handgun, the Death Penalty still slung across his shoulders, as he made his way slowly into the middle of the crater. Chaos shifted, an almost nervous ripple in his subconscious. The thought gave him pause - what could make a demon nervous? He took several more cautious steps, then stopped, glancing around him. The call was gone, and yet he could see nothing that could have brought him here.

And yet…

Vincent squinted hard, straining with every sense he possessed. Was he being watched? He nearly snorted. It was a stupid question; he was always being watched. He very much doubted that anything watching him from outside his mind could be quite as terrifying as what lurked within it. He waved his claw in annoyance at the clinging greenish mist, which seemed determined to obscure his view with evilly shadowed curling wisps of nothingness. The green glow seemed slightly stronger there, before him. He took another step forward and let out a hiss of breath as the mist seemed to shape itself before him, coming together to form a definite shape, making his vision clearer around it.


Chaos roared to life, shoving Vincent aside roughly as it rose to control him. Vincent let it take him, too surprised to even try to reject the demon's hold. The voice was insistent, but Chaos was taking him away, far away, and the voice was calling him, but it was getting weaker. The call of the wraith and the Planet went unheard as Vincent let the darkness take him.

- - - - - - - - - -

"Well… welcome to Wutai." Yuffie said wretchedly, turning as pink as the formal kimono she wore. As pretty as it was, she hated it - hated the lack of mobility, the weight of the many layers of cloth. She sagged under its folds, yet the conditioning of the last year immediately made her straighten her posture. She glided expertly toward the host of surprised and amused faces adorning her living room. AVALANCHE was not used to seeing its youngest member in anything formal, let alone something pink.

Yuffie cleared her throat embarrassedly. "Hey, it's not my fault. I have to wear this thing now. Wutaian custom and all." She sighed, but deep down she was kind of proud that she could wear this kimono and take on a position of this power by herself. Her mother would have been proud.

Cid, who had returned a little while ago with Barret, let out a guffaw. Tifa glared and elbowed him angrily, turning back to Yuffie with a delighted expression. "Yuffie, you look great!" She enthused. Yuffie smiled at her gratefully, but shook her head.

"Doesn't matter. Come on… I'll take you to the Pagoda."

She led them outside with her head held high and her heart sinking low into her ancient-style Wutaian sandals. The people who passed them bowed respectfully to the heir of Lord Godo. She was their rightful leader now, just as she had always wanted. Of course, now she was the leader, she hated it - creeping around trying not to offend people and wondering if what she was doing was right. No great leader powers had come to her suddenly in a bolt of light - she was just the same girl she had always been. Yet the villagers suddenly had more respect for her, suddenly thought she had developed wisdom and power. She stifled a laugh as they ascended the steps into the Pagoda of the Five Mighty Gods.

"I hope you all have strong stomachs." She addressed the group quietly. Cloud frowned, but walked past her and opened the door into the Pagoda. The stale, metallic smell of old blood rushed out in a disgusting cloud to greet theme. Tifa coughed and tried not to be obvious about holding her breath, but Elena screwed up her face and covered her nose with both hands.

"Yuck." She commented through them. Yuffie shrugged helplessly.

"No one else will come near the place. They think it's cursed." She explained. "The second and fourth floors are just like this one. The third floor was Staniv's, and he disappeared along with Godo."

Cloud winced at the room he walked into. When last he had visited this place, it had been clean and fresh as all of Wutai was. Now it was rank, the blood-smeared carpet and walls all adding to a growing feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach. He took a look around and made a noise of disgust in the back of his throat at the entrails suspended from the ceiling. "God…" He didn't even believe in such an entity, it was just that room had such a profound evil clinging to it that he summoned the only thing he could think of to rid the place of it. Tifa stepped bravely inside behind him and gagged.

"Oh God," She said with more feeling than he had. She covered her mouth as though she were about to be sick. "That's awful. Who would do something like this to someone like Gorkii?" She asked. Yuffie walked inside, unafraid. She had been here many times.

"I don't know." She whispered. "But I have to find out. No one does something like this to my people and gets away with it."

The Turks moved inside. Elena's distaste for the blood all around her was obvious. Reno wrinkled his nose as he walked around, hands in his pockets. Even Rude rubbed his hands uneasily before striding away across the room. Cloud let them - they knew more about this sort of investigation than he did. Instead he moved toward Yuffie. "You said there was some sort of insignia on Godo's floor?" He asked. Yuffie nodded.

"Follow me." Expertly in her robes, she hastened across the bloodstained floor and ran up the stairs. Chekhov's floor was similar to those down below, except that her hair had been cut off and strewn around the room along with the blood from her body. Cloud's stomach rolled. Who could do something like this, not just to some of Wutai's most powerful fighters, but to anyone? Even Sephiroth had been relatively clean about his kills.

"I found the cracked materia here. Her hand was clenched around it. It was over there." Yuffie sounded sick. "I think she was left for dead, but she managed to grab it from whoever was here." It did, indeed, look as though the woman had dragged herself across the floor.

"Maybe whoever did this dropped the cracked Leviathan. Or maybe Godo dropped it as a sign and Chekhov wanted to make sure you'd get it." Tifa suggested, spooking them both. Cloud stifled an involuntary shudder as they ascended the stairs to the top floor of the Pagoda. He didn't even want to think about the creature that could do this sort of damage.

Cloud followed Yuffie up to the fourth floor, where they paused to breathe the fresh air. "Staniv always kept his windows open. He liked the air." Yuffie commented. The room was clean of the taint of the lower floors. Cloud took a few breaths of the cool, clean air before nodding to Yuffie to lead them on to the final floor.

The top room should have been as clean as Staniv's had been, but there, charred into the wooded floor, was a sigil twelve feet in diameter. A circle marked its outer limits, and on the inside was the silhouette of some sort of monstrous creature. Cloud stared at it, unable to comprehend the image.

"Do you recognise it?" Yuffie asked. When Cloud shook his head, mystified, she sighed in disappointment. "I thought it looked kind of like a serpent… see all the coils? But I just can't figure out who has this sort of mark. I have a chest of old scrolls, but since I left to find you straight away, I haven't been able to look through them yet."

Tifa cleared her throat. "Yuffie, why didn't you just call us with the PHS?"

Yuffie's face took on an innocent expression. "Well, we've had this storm that's been building since the day Godo disappeared. It was really bad, and I didn't think I'd be able to contact you."

"So you went across the ocean. Even though you get seasick." Cid filled in sceptically. Yuffie sighed.

"Oh, all right… I took the batteries out 'cause they were flat, and the new ones wouldn't go in right, and I got really angry because I was sort of panicking and… I kinda through it at the wall." Yuffie was going redder by the minute. "And, uh, since all my walls are shoji, it kinda went directly into the fish pond…"

"Aw, #$, girl!" Cid remarked. "You mean I'm gonna have to fix it up?"

"I'm sure you'll manage, Cid." Tifa said comfortingly. Barret wandered over to the sigil and stared at it.

"That thing… is it just me, or is that thing really screwy?" He muttered, swinging his gun arm back and forth uneasily.

Heels on the stairs foretold Elena's arrival. The blond Turk got to the top of the stairs and sighed with relief at the room that was not filled with blood and dead bodies. She bit her tongue when she saw the sigil burned into the floor. "Whoa… what is that?" She asked, clip-clopping closer to investigate. "I've seen this somewhere before."

"You have? Where?" Yuffie's response was immediate and frantic. She had to find out where her father was. Elena's brow furrowed.

"I'm… I'm really not sure. Sorry." She added, as Yuffie looked crestfallen. Barret swore under his breath and Elena looked discouraged. Her teammates were all downstairs with Red XIII searching for clues. She hadn't been able to stand the blood any more, so she had followed the rest of AVALANCHE to the top of the Pagoda. Now she was here, she was sort of wishing she had stayed downstairs. "I think maybe somewhere in the Shinra libraries, but-"

"Damn Shinra again!" Barret exploded.

"What's this about damn Shinra?" Reno interjected as he entered the room. Barret turned to him angrily.

"Damn Shinra's got somethin' to do with this - your girl there says she's seen somethin' like that before in the Shinra libraries!" He growled. Reno's aquamarine eyes narrowed in something like irritated amusement.

"What are you, thick? The Shinra libraries carry more than just information on what goes on inside the Shinra Company." He sneered. Barret scowled at the insult but to everyone's surprise, let it slide with no more than a, "Damn Turks…"

"Hey, we're not exactly thrilled to be working with you, either." Elena snapped, more confident now that her leader was around. "Reeve wanted us to help, so here we are. It doesn't mean we have to put up with you dissing us." She said, hands on hips.

"No one is dissing anyone." Tifa said firmly. "Right Barret?"

Barret's scowl darkened and he muttered something under his breath before storming back down the stairs. At a glance from Cloud, Cid shrugged and went after him, trailing cigarette smoke. Yuffie sighed.

"Well, if that's all you want to look at here, we can go back to my house…" She said tiredly. "I'll set you all up properly… start looking at those scrolls."

"I'll connect to the Shinra database and see if I can find anything." Elena volunteered as a peace offering. Reno nodded at her approvingly. Yuffie nodded in thanks, still not quite accustomed to the idea of the Turks being on her side. Still, she gave them the first room Elena attached herself to - it had a large open window that faced east and reached from the ceiling to the ground. A tiny bubbling fountain and a rock garden took up all the space two feet from the window. Three futons were soon set out upon the tatami matting. Eight pairs of shoes lined the doorstep of the ancient building. Elena had decided, by the time the sun set, that although slippers might look just fine on Tifa, Yuffie and herself, Cloud, Rude and Barret were three people that should never be allowed to wear them if she were to be expected to keep a straight face. It was probably this that made her keep to their room as she set up her beloved laptop and sat down cross-legged in the light from the window.

Yuffie poured over the crackly old scrolls at a low table while the others sat around her on cushions or just simply the padded floor. All the scrolls were in ancient Wutaian, so she was the only one who could decipher them. Tifa had already re-organised the kitchen to her liking and was starting on dinner for all of them.

"So, Elena likes her computers, huh?" Cloud asked by means of conversation.

"Yeah." Reno replied, eyeballing one of Yuffie's cats in an attempt to make it go away. For some reason, the creatures were always drawn to those who were allergic to them. After a few more seconds of uneasy, distracted silence he said, "She hacked into the Shinra system and made herself an employee. But she was pretty tactless about asking questions about where to go. Her family was pretty rich, so she probably got the best education out of most of the top scientists in Shinra." He shrugged. "Computer genius she may be, but she's still ditzy Laney to the rest of us."

Cloud nodded even as Yuffie shot a sideways glare at Reno from her table. She knew all too well what it was like to be known as a ditz. As Tifa walked in with cold drinks, she scowled at the scroll before her. It was nothing but old nursery rhymes. She discarded it in disgust and cautiously unrolled the next one, humming one of the tuneless rhyming story-songs as she did so. She remembered singing some of these when she was a child, but some of them she had never even heard of. Something about this made her sad. Who was there now to tell her what the tunes were? She sighed and went back to reading the Wutaian.

Reno made a smacking kissing sound as Tifa handed him his beer. "Thanks, babe." Tifa gave him a stern look and moved on to the others. Reno grinned and flopped back on the tatami matting, downing half of his beer in one swig. Oh, how he loved the icy burn tearing down his throat. There was only one thing that could ruin the beauty of the alcohol…

Beep! Beep! Beep!

…and there it went. Reno sighed and snapped open his Shinra-standard PHS. "Reno." His eyes slowly widened as a male voice on the other end gave a hasty report. "What? Slow down." The others watched him in interest as the surprise on his face slowly became boiling anger. "Yeah. Yeah, I'll be right there. Hang on -" he covered the mouthpiece. "Strife, can we borrow the Highwind?"

Cloud looked to his left. "Cid?"

"I'm flying it." The pilot said immediately. Reno uncovered the mouthpiece again.

"Yeah, don't bother sending a chopper, it'll take twice as long. We'll be there as soon as we can." He hung up and jumped to his feet, reluctantly but automatically surrendering his beer. "Rude, get our things together while I get Elena to pack up. Reeve's been attacked."

- - - - - - - - - -

Vincent resurfaced just in time to feel the sharp stinging pain of his body ploughing into the icy ocean from a great height. He yelled in surprise and pain and inhaled a great lungful of salty water that burned even as it chilled him to the core. He clawed his way to the surface, coughing and hacking for air. When he could breathe properly again, he struggled to stay afloat as he called hoarsely for his Chocobo. Of course she wasn't around. Chaos had probably terrified the poor bird half to death. Vincent wondered if this was not the beginning of his own.

Floundering around above the water, he turned around until he saw land. It was not too far, at least by global standards. He coughed as a wave washed over his head and stared hard at the coast. It certainly looked like the shoreline of Wutai. He supposed he ought to at least be thankful Chaos had flown in the right direction.

Vincent could feel the chill seeping into his bones. He had to get moving soon or drown, but really, what was the use? Could he make it so far with what little energy he had left? And then he would have to drag himself to the village of Wutai, no small journey in itself.

Vincent, we've been so worried…

What right had he to make them stop associating with him by giving up here? He had faced the loss of a friend too many times. If they truly regarded him as such, he had no wish to cause them grief by dying here. But why… why would they ever consider him a friend? Even when he was travelling with them, they had feared and avoided him.

You'll come help me… right?

Vincent sighed tiredly and struck out with a slow, determined sidestroke. He was not in the habit of breaking promises. Not even to irritating, whining, brattish ninjas who were probably just keeping him around for his materia, anyway.

- - - - - - - - - -

A/N: Oh my gods, that has to be the longest thing I have ever written! And this is just the beginning. Sheesh. 00;; Oh well, I'm not complaining. This is gonna be a really long haul, folks, but stick around, because it's one of the best planned things I've written. :)

Big thanks to Wyrren Sarrasri for being a very patient all around legend.

13/01/05 - Edit: New paragraph markers.