A/N: Surprise! Bet you didn't expect anything much from me, did you? Well, same here. Right now I should be revising for all my subjects – which from the few practices I did I realise I have big gaping holes in my knowledge – but hey. I got bored of revision.
Edit: exams are over. They were over a month ago. That says a lot about my updating time, eh?
"Tre se'i xleron, Link?" /Am I dying, Link?/ Saria whispered.
His magic was failing. The protective bubble around them rippled; glowing cracks snaked across the dome. Saria gasped from the difficulty to breathe.
"Te vren leisen, te vren leisen." /You'll be alright, you'll be alright./ Link whispered. He held her close, her small body clutched tightly to his chest.
Saria tilted her head. The magical platform was dissolving at the edges. /In the Forest, we never had to worry about death./
"Te vren leisen, sere, vren leisen." /You'll be alright, please, be alright/ Link let his tears fall into her hair. Her tears stained his shirt.
"Les Kokiri, les fey, svuiron neir paux vonce xleri." /Kokiri and fairies, none of us were meant to die./ She gasped in pain; her fingers clenched tighter to his shirt.
Trembles racked her body. Link desperately threw forth his magic, trying anything to maintain the protective environment.
Nothing came. A crack ran through the upper dome, a jagged black entry to the void ripping the artificial blue sky. Precious air howled loose as the dome collapsed, a crushed fruit bleeding forth its core.
Link screamed out a name. He couldn't hear himself over the growing vacuum, his mind was a haze of panic and fear. Maybe it was Saria's name, a last call; maybe it was one of the Goddesses, a final prayer of salvation.
Finally a spark: Link latched onto that small burst of magic as tightly as he could. Where there was once nothing, the spark grew and flooded his system, more magic than he ever summoned before bottling in his veins and bleeding with his sweat. Desperately he threw it into the dome, mending the crack, regenerating the air, stabilising the balance–
– and then his magic disappeared. Flares of unguided power replaced the previous well of waiting magic. But it was alright for now; the dome had been completed.
Saria's breathing was still ragged, but had lost its gulping edge. "Faus fey Shael xlerie. Faus fey Navi xlerie." /But Shael died. But Navi died./ Saria couldn't stop the trembles. "Se'I xleron." /I'm dying./
"Sere, te vren parfien." /Please, you'll be fine./ Link rocked her gently in his arms. He couldn't see anything past his tears. "Te vren parfien." /You'll be fine./
"Se'i paral, Link," /I'm afraid, Link,/ Saria choked, "Se ne'von yul xleri. Se ne'von yul xleri." /I don't want to die. I don't want to die./
"Sere, Madeira," /Please, Goddesses,/ Link prayed, "leicer Saria." /save Saria./
The muted rags of breath and the silence of the abyss was his only answer.
Aeris gritted her teeth and charged. Her arms ached from the weight and strain of the sword. Sweat had plastered her hair across her eyes, but she did not have the time to wipe it aside. Blade high, she released an explosive yell as-
A wooden stick snapped at her wrists, forcing her to let go of the sword. In a deft flick it bopped her on the head before a leg extended and – somewhat gently – kicked her away from the falling blade.
Link sighed. "You have a strange habit of charging in suicide runs." He tossed aside the stick to take his sword.
Aeris trembled with exhaustion on her position sprawled on the wet grass. Her muscles protested too much to allow her to sit up. "Cloud does that all the time," she gasped, wiping the hair from her eyes.
Link peered at the village a distance off. The innkeeper didn't want any sword swinging in his garden, so Link chose a place not far between the fields and forests. The trees acted as a decent barrier against the gently falling snow and the field gave them open space to practice in.
Speaking of Cloud, it was about time for him to walk by in his hourly inspection of their training. Focussing on the village entrance, Link could see a spike of yellow hair passing through the gates.
"Cloud has an extra thirty kilograms behind his sword," Link finally replied, "I need you to be light on your feet rather than powerful." He turned around to face Aeris' direction. "And put on your jacket; sweat and snow isn't a very healthy combination."
Her apparel had been changed to allow for actual swordfighting. Aeris wanted to keep the blouse, but the dress had to be changed for something more practical. Yuffie had presented all sorts of miniskirts and altogether too short shorts – where she found them she wouldn't reveal – but Aeris eventually chose a collection of long trousers made of soft hide.
She rolled over in an attempt to get up. She gave up after a brief struggle. "I'll survive."
True, but Cloud was getting on Link's case for nearly anything regarding Aeris, and he definitely will over her getting sick right after recovering. Link chuckled as he watched Aeris' flailing sweaty form. Best not get Cloud too excitable.
"Aeris, Link!" Link was pulled out of his thoughts by Yuffie's voice shouting from behind. "I hope you like rhubarbs, because that's all we have!"
Turning around he smiled at the approaching group: Tifa and Yuffie were both holding picnic baskets, Barret had somehow managed to find a coat large enough to shield him from the drifting snow and Cait Sith had abandoned the giant Moogle in favour of riding on Red XIII's back. It looked like the entire group chose to come with Cloud.
Cloud glanced at Aeris' collapsed form. "Take a break, Aeris," he gave a sullen glare to Link, "you don't need to push yourself too hard." A brief pause, then, "We'll protect you."
He didn't like the blank look Aeris passed his way before it changed into an amused smile. He didn't like how she looked at Link questioningly before answering him.
"It's alright, Cloud." Stretching, she flopped one more time before accepting Tifa's hand up. "I've always wanted my own knight in shining armour," she smiled at Cloud, "but I don't want to be the damsel in distress."
"The snow really is beautiful," Tifa murmured as she smoothed out the picnic blanket, "we never get days when we can sit back and just enjoy the surroundings." She gave Cloud a pointed look before stepping back to examine the blanket's position beneath the tree. "Now come on, Aeris; no need to look at the basket so longingly."
Thankfully Yuffie's remark about rhubarbs was a joke: there was rhubarb pie, rhubarb crumble and rhubarb pudding, but there was also other fruits, sandwiches and cold meats native to the region. Aeris somehow managed to maintain her feminine grace whilst quickly downing as much food as she could.
"So what're you learning?" Yuffie asked through a mouthful of rhubarb. Tifa rolled her eyes and raised a hand to close Yuffie's jaw.
Aeris glanced at Link. Link nodded. Cloud frowned slightly. "It's not much yet, just getting me quick on my feet. Plenty of drills to build up body strength." She chuckled lightly as she looked at Tifa and Yuffie. "I have a deeper respect for you two now."
"Well," Tifa said, "we've had training since we were pretty small. I bet you had that too," she nodded towards Link, "although I guess a few centuries of practice made you even better."
Link shrugged. "Not any real training, no. I just picked up a sword and… didn't die." He smiled lightly. "I guess surviving this long says something."
Cloud raised an eyebrow. "You were never taught? Then how do you know how to teach?"
This time Link's smile widened broadly. "Aeris," he called out loudly, catching everyone's attention, "go show Cloud what I taught you. I'll declare you winner only when you give him a solid spanking."
Barret burst out laughing, but other than that everyone just stared. Yuffie was too busy choking on her rhubarb to make any remarks. Cid was broken out of his shock when his cigarette started burning his hands. Aeris dipped her head down to hide her deep blush, and Tifa was feeling just as embarrassed for her.
"But," Aeris mumbled, all too aware of the gazes on her, "you said I can't fight head on yet."
Link waved her worry off. "You don't have to," he replied airily, "just strike when the opportunity allows. You can hold your own already." Grabbing his sheathed sword he tossed it into her lap and gently nudged her towards the clearing.
Cloud shook his head. "This is stupid, she can't possibly-"
"Scared, Cloud?" Barret gave him a big toothy grin. " 'Fraid our li'l Aeris will whoop yer sorry behind?"
Rolling his eyes, he dragged his sword from its position in the grass and walked into the clearing. "You sure you can do this, Aeris?" His glance darted at Link before returning to her. "This isn't your fight."
She hesitated, but then her face took a more determined edge and nodding once followed him away from the trees. Even with only a week's training they could feel the fighter's aura emanating from her, the grit and determination to strike to win-
"Let's see how rosy those cheeks can get!" Yuffie hooted.
-and immediately the aura was broken as she fumbled with the sword in trying to hide her following blush. It was to Cloud's credit that he only sent Yuffie an annoyed glare.
Vincent sighed and moved away from his position leaning against a tree. Standing between the two fighters he raised his hands, "Ready…"
Aeris fixed her grip, but she was still blushing and couldn't look Cloud in the eyes.
Cloud tried to ignore the group, focussing solely on Aeris' form. He couldn't read any intent from her – had she learnt to hide it, or did she still have no basic plan?
"Begin!" The moment Vincent's red cloak left his view, Cloud charged forward in a straightforward downstroke. While he didn't want to hurt Aeris, he didn't want the fight to last any longer than it should and best not-
With a curse Cloud twisted aside, modifying his grip to parry the thrust at his abdomen. He did not expect Aeris to dart forward. He did not expect her to crouch with her sword extended, and when he slowed to prevent skewering himself he did not expect her to lunge.
Off to the side he could hear Yuffie guffawing and Barret cheering Aeris on. Her face was still flushed, but it was not embarrassment.
Cloud raised an eyebrow when she gave a mischievous grin and twisted around, sword spinning for his head.
He blocked and immediately tripped when the attack melded away as a feint disguising the sweep kick to his ankles.
He briefly enjoyed the view of the falling snow before slashing his sword to push Aeris a distance off.
Excitement. That was it. He didn't expect Aeris to be one to enjoy close up combat either.
Tifa didn't either. "Aeris is getting as far as she is only because Cloud didn't think she'll be a real danger." She frowned when Cloud started getting serious, anticipating Aeris' attacks and countering. "Do you think she can win?"
Link smiled. "Yes," he gestured lazily at the fight, "and for many reasons," he caught their attention, "but none of them because she's a better fighter."
Barret scratched his head. "Then wha's the point of havin' her fight? They're gonna know who shoulda won."
"Reason one," Link commented, ignoring Barret, "is that she knows the ground and he doesn't. Consequently he doesn't know that underneath that thin layer of snow is a rabbit hole." They winced when Cloud's offensive jump was halted when he suddenly stumbled, biting back a curse as he pulled back his ankle.
"Reason two," he continued, "is that Aeris knows most of Cloud's moves, but he doesn't know what she can do. She's surprisingly lithe; she managed to learn the basics of a back flip already." Hampered by a swollen ankle there was not a lot of pressure Cloud could apply against Aeris who darted in and out of range, escaping some of his attacks with the surprising acrobatic twist and leap.
"But really, reason three," he gave a thin smile, "is that Cloud is hesitant to actually strike Aeris. You can see that, he's pulling his punches. Aeris, on the other hand, isn't holding back."
Cloud frowned as he parried Aeris' attacks. They weren't particularly strong – he could feel that she had only started learning how to use a sword, and hadn't been drilled enough to put her entire strength behind a swing – nor were they particularly fast. But there was something about her current style that caused alarms to ring in his mind.
She released a short yell right before her blade slammed into his expecting block. He took the time to admire the effort she was putting into the strike, fists clenched white, chest heaving, eyes focussed – when he realised what was wrong.
Her eyes… were angry.
No. Anger was not it. Whatever it was had transcended past her previous playful and determined look, pushing into deeper into wildness than he expected she was capable of reaching. Eyes quaked in delirium as she forced herself into a greater frenzy.
Suddenly the pressure was gone. Startled, Cloud turned around to find Aeris' sword. Another sweep kick took him, striking hard against his sprained ankle. He staggered back; a sword flicked for his shoulder, barely blocked; a straight slash for his knee, missed; a thrust for his waist, splinters against steel; a curve around his arm, struck true.
Cloud howled in pain as the sword snaked around his wrist, engraving its passage past his gauntlets into his forearm. It kept moving, a direct line towards his ribcage. With a weak curse he dropped his own sword, gripping his arm and pushing it into the blade to push it off course. The blade slid by, whisking past his arm pit.
He stepped back to avoid another sweep only to stumble into another rabbit hole. Cloud twisted to avoid another slash; falling, he managed to bat away the second strike; his side struck the ground, breath expelled, and he realised he had no way to avoid the final sword plant…
Before the blade fell a hand snake forth and plucked the sword from Aeris' grasp. Throwing it aside it gripped her arm tightly, pulling her into the owner's body as it gave her a tight hug. Aeris fought against it, struggling against the hold. Quickly a head appeared over her shoulder – Link's – and whispered gently. Her struggles ceased, and still shaking from the effort she sagged into his form.
Tifa ran up, and carefully he passed Aeris' weight into Tifa's arms. She gently passed Aeris to Barret before heading to Cloud with her healing Materia.
Link sighed as he looked at Aeris' cradled form. "Maybe Aeris won, maybe Aeris lost."
Everyone looked at her. Concern, wariness, fear?
"What the hell did you teach her?" Cloud growled out. Tifa held his hand as she healed it, but he pulled free to stagger towards Link. He pressed two fingers into Link's chest accusingly.
Link glanced at the hand impassively. "I taught her how to hold a sword."
"Oh, bullshit!" He raised his partially healed arm. "Aeris was not like this before. She would never have fought to want me dead. What the hell did you teach her?"
Link pushed aside the offending fingers. "Jenova's lesson," he said softly, "is to survive, no matter the cost. Caught in a fight, do everything you can to win." He looked back at Aeris' slumbering form before facing Cloud once more. Cloud could see the mix of disappointment and regret on Link's face. When they regained eye contact, he read Link's true message:
Could you have controlled a mage who would stop at nothing?
"As soon as she gets the basics of her sword work, I'll teach her control," Link gave Cloud a side glance before heading back, "and then we'll work out what to do from there."
"No more lessons," Cloud growled, "if she really needs to learn how to fight with a sword I'll teach her." He glared at Link's back, daring him to turn and challenge him. "No more lessons."
Tifa glanced worriedly between the two. "Cloud, I think that's-"
Link sighed and shook his head. "Fair enough." He gave Tifa a grateful nod and departed.
Aeris didn't know how to read the presence of her friends. For one thing, it was nice for them to be around, but their presence bordered on breaking into her privacy. She was in bed – the same one, again, she noticed wryly – and Tifa and Yuffie were sitting close as Barret and Cid challenged Vincent to another game of poker in the corner – judging by the pile of chips and the number of ace of spades on the floor, even though the two were cheating Vincent was still winning. She raised her head; Cait Sith had procured a brush somewhere and was fighting Red XIII's numerous tangles. Cloud was leaning against the closed door, eyes partially closed.
With the number of weapons still hanging in the corners or near their owners it looked like they were doubling as security. Protecting her, or protecting against her?
"Alrigh', yer grumpy faced pistol boy," Barret rumbled gleefully as his slapped down his cards theatrically, "beat that! Full 'ouse, aces trips!"
Two of the aces were spades.
Cid groaned. "Play smarter nex' time, ya moron," he rubbed his face tiredly, "anyways, four o' a kind, all aces." He grinned at Vincent nastily. "Yer goin' down, wonder boy."
Vincent glanced at both hands impassively before revealing his cards. "Royal flush, spades."
Cid groaned once more. "Ah have tha feelin' that his ace is the real un."
Aeris couldn't help but giggle. All eyes turned her way.
"You're awake!" Tifa exclaimed brightly. "Are you feeling better?"
Aeris didn't quite remember feeling bad first to feel better. Come to think of it, she couldn't remember falling asleep either, or the conclusion of her fight with Cloud.
Cloud left his position against the door to walk closer to her bed. "Alright now, Aeris?" Even through his grumpy exterior – arms still crossed, frown as permanently etched as ever – she could tell that he was worried.
Aeris looked around and counter their numbers. "Where's Link?"
Cloud's frown deepened. Surprisingly, it was Vincent that answered. "Off buying more supplies, I would imagine. Despite being in this northern region for a while he still hasn't bought a jacket or cloak yet. I think he mentioned getting a knife to carve a wooden practice sword."
Ah. Speaking of which… "I think the excitement caught me our fight, Cloud," I apologise, "I'm sorry for fainting half way through. I probably made a lousy opponent."
Why are the others glancing among one another like that?
"It's alright," Cloud answers after a moment of hesitation, "we'll help you get better at it."
Aeris nodded, mentally filing that not many were willing to look at her eye to eye. Something definitely happened. "So when's my next training session with Link?"
Cloud's answer was interrupted by a delicate cough from Tifa. "Cloud decided that he'll train you now, and Link agreed to the arrangements. I might be able to chip in here and there too," she added more brightly, "so no more secret training sessions in the corner of the woods somewhere."
Yuffie snorted. "Aw, screw that story Tifa." She leaned forward until her face was right in front of Aeris'. Chocobo-hair boy here got jealous of Link stealing his quality time with you, princess."
Aeris blinked. Cloud rolled his eyes then glared at Yuffie as Tifa quietly scolded her. He walked back to the door. "Take your time, Aeris," he called out before he left, "We'll continue your lessons when you're ready."
Aeris looked at the remaining group. "Did something happen?"
Barret shifted in his seat uneasily. "Well, uh…"
"Between Link and Cloud," Aeris clarified, "I keep getting the feel that Cloud's angry."
"You know," Link started casually as he dug through his purchased items, "you asked me what the point of getting Aeris to fight now was."
"Yeah, I remember," Barret grunted from his seat on the porch, "still wanna know the answer, too."
Link fished out the carving knife and planks of wood. It would be a very crude practice sword, he decided, but it hopefully won't break after one hit. "Would you believe me if I said it was to give her fighting experience?"
Barret shrugged. In the distance, right outside the village gate, Cloud was starting Aeris' new sword practices. He guessed one reason Link chose a forest region was to avoid the crowd of citizens watching. "I s'pose, but m'feeling is that yer reasons go a bit deeper."
"It does," Link agreed, "but what I said is true. It's best that she starts fighting against someone who isn't her trainer, but isn't her enemy either. Someone who would hold back to make sure she's safe. Cloud fits the bill perfectly."
The crowd oohed as Cloud did a chained a series of strokes together. "I guess," Barret accepted, "but wha' about them other reasons? Y'knew she'd go off later, din't you?"
"Better that you all know it is possible now," Link sighed, "than having it blow up in our faces later." He chuckled darkly. "In the beginning, everyone loses control. I did. Jenova unleashed her infected victims to slow me down. They surrounded me; some had to die but most could be saved, but the trigger broke." He pointed to Aeris. "A week passed, I awoke and looked around." Red, red on the city of white. Red walls, red roads, and corpses, bled of all life.
"An' how many…?"
He can be saved. They can be saved.
No. No time. Kill.
She cannot be saved. They must die.
Yes. Kill them. Die.
It's early in that child. He can be saved.
Death will save him. Kill. Kill. Kill kill kill killkillkillkill
"The entire city: fifty thousand." He stared at his hands silently for a while. "All dead just from swinging a sword. Jenova makes you a monster. If I had my magic, then…"
Barret nodded silently. He looked back at the training group. "Hey, they're movin' away. You goin' to follow?"
Link shook his head. "Aeris is surprisingly shy about having people watch her train. She'll be better off training alone."
A truth Aeris would have been glad Link discovered. Even then, finally isolated from the spectator eyes of the town, she felt uncomfortable training with someone else. While Link was teaching her his method seemed a bit… gung ho, or at least casual. It was unnerving holding a sword underneath Cloud's eyes, measuring, judging, expecting…
"Well," he said, "you understand the theory, right? Especially against a crowd of monsters – which we face all too often – it's best to kill each in less than three strokes. So either the first stroke is the killing one or a feint with a follow up." He paused and mulled it over. "Block and counter when needed."
Aeris nodded hesitantly. "I understand the concept, but…" she compared her sword – Link's sword, really – to Cloud's. "Link says that tactic wouldn't work for me, since I don't have the strength to deliver powerful blows. He told me to be more defensive."
Cloud sighed and rubbed his temples. "I suppose. Enough theory. Try a straight up charge; we'll see what you can do so far."
She flexed her grip on the sword before running forwards. With a flick of her wrist she shifted her sword from a horizontal spear into an over shoulder slash. With a burst of effort her blade smashed into Cloud's. She winced to protect her eyes from the sparks, but opened one quickly to guide her blade around Cloud's and towards his chest.
A flick of his wrist sent her sword flying free of her grasp. He nodded. "Your technique is not bad, but needs more strength behind it. It could also do to be more aggressive."
Aeris shook her head. "Link said that I won't be able to reach the needed muscle mass quickly enough, and said something about hit and run like Yuffie – is something wrong, Cloud?"
His hand was raised and was gently massaging his temples. "Could you," he started but stopped. Shaking his head, he said, "While we're here don't talk about Link."
Aeris sheathed the sword and approached to stand right in front of him. "Why, Cloud?" Her voice was soft but her body language demanded an answer. "What's wrong? Why don't you trust Link?"
"How can you?" He gestured angrily. "We don't know who he is or why he's with us, he doesn't explain what he does and you, he…"
"He understands me," Aeris cut in gently. She took a step forward to shorten the distance. "He knows Jenova's disease. Can you understand the fear of death, Cloud?" She leaned forward until her head rested against his shoulder. "Can you understand the pain of having your body ripped away from you? Can you understand the horror of having your mind being eaten away and gradually replaced?" She shuddered briefly and looked up at him earnestly. "Jenova… has changed me, but Link understands. I trust him."
For a brief moment Cloud could only admire her face, the life within her eyes, and just imagine what someone else would see, two people standing close and nearly nose to nose, and with a leap in his heart he just wished… but the moment passed, and Cloud dropped eye contact. "I just… I believe his goals and our goals don't always match."
"What are your goals?" Aeris queried quietly.
Ironic how the quiet and the breeze reminded Cloud of the lights and fanfare of the Golden Saucer. He sighed, took a step back and turned around. "Keeping you alive. Keeping you safe, keeping you…" He shook his head. "My goal is your safety. Link's goal isn't."
"And Sephiroth, and the Black Materia?"
Cloud strapped his sword back to place. "I think that's enough swordplay for today. We'll work on it tomorrow."
"We are pressing forward."
That perhaps, Link mused, was among the worst things to say. It struck everyone as a surprise whilst the shock of Aeris' recovery held them complacent; it was said by him, who never gave a command; it was a command, and a command that wasn't given by Cloud. It was a challenge to Cloud's top dog status.
Ah, implications, implications…
Everyone paused from their dinner to look at Link. No, not everyone: Aeris bowed her head lower still. Vincent appeared unsurprised from the order, and imperceptibly nodded his agreement; Yuffie looked a bit lost, and glanced between Link and Aeris; Cloud's scowl deepened.
"I was thinking more along the lines that we are heading back." Cloud shifted in his chair to directly face Link. "Hunting for Sephiroth through the snow right now is pointless, especially since he never leaves any tracks to follow."
Barret nodded with a mumbled "goddam' creepy floatin' bastard," but stopped when everyone was still silent.
"We can't give him too much free time," Link argued, "Sephiroth is planning something. Jenova is planning something. We cannot ignore Saria's warnings, we have to act fast."
"You cannot ignore Saria's warnings," Cloud drawled, "we have nothing to do with your vendetta against Jenova. Attempting to track Sephiroth like this is a waste of time. Do you even know where to go?"
Link closed his eyes. "Well, n-"
"Jenova is planning something, a final feast of magic."
"Are you prepared, Outlander? You have to trigger the trap and force Jenova's magic against her. A desperate finale, if you will; if you fail, Jenova shall keep growing, and existence dies."
Their prayers of survival…
"Dear Link, you cannot stop me! Is this the best you can do? Your Cetra lie dead and devoured! Let the crumbling of their civilisation be the ceremonial chimes of my ascension! Let this corrupted wasteland be the stage of your defeat! You, dear Link, rely on the Cetra toy for power. Your magic is no challenge against mine!"
… left unanswered…
"Those Cetra… that was your last feast. This is your grave, Jenova, and your magic…"
The call of the Lifestream…
… the inversion of oblivion…
… Black Ice…
"… is your death."
The final battleground, and her frozen imprisonment…
Link's eyes snapped open. "To the frozen north, past the City of the Ancients and into the heart of the glaciers." He looked at everyone. "We have to get there. Fast."
Tifa bit her lip. "Are you sure-"
"We're not going," Cloud interrupted, "even with a general direction we're going to get lost in there for no reason. It's too dangerous."
"An' we're gonna jus' sit 'ere for the time bein'?" Cid countered doubtfully. "While I sorta agree with yeh, Cloud, yeh're takin' the path of a goddam coward, y'know that?"
Cloud faced Cid levelly. "No one dies this way."
Red XIII sighed. "Very well, we'll wait until we get better information. Does everyone agree with that?"
Hesitantly Cait Sith, Tifa, Barret and Cid nodded. Aeris' head was still bowed as if she had been ignoring the conversation. Vincent shook his head slightly, and Yuffie looked around lost.
"What the hell is going on?" Frustrated she finally cried out. "Who's dying? Where are we going? How'd Link know? And what does anything have to do with anything?"
Cid groaned and tilted his chair further back. "Nothin', Yuffie, don't worry yer pretty li'l head," he drew a long breath from his cigarette, "we ain't goin' nowhere yet."
Cloud decided he was not much of a morning person. Back then most of his mercenary jobs were done in the evening, or near midnight. Mornings were not times to go about with any additional mental activity.
Cloud's face showed no surprise. He was not surprised; at some point he expected Link to leave. It wasn't as if Link actually joined the group, although Cloud can't remember what the division line was between being part of the group and not. He nodded to Tifa's panicked form and took a sip of his coffee.
"He took quite a lot in supplies, but very little cash." Cait Sith leaned deeper into their collective vault. "Probably expects us to buy it again."
Then again, everyone sort of… tagged along, Cloud concluded. The core group really consisted of Tifa and Barret. Cloud was meant to work part-time.
"Vincent left as well!" Tifa left Vincent's room with a slip of paper. "He wrote something: I saw the birth of evil, I will see the death of it. We all have our duties to fulfil." She sighed and went about knocking everyone's door.
Cloud nodded calmly. Vincent was another latecomer, come to think of it he joined slightly after Link. He also had his own vendetta against Sephiroth. Cloud didn't actually expect Vincent to break away from the main group, but it wasn't all that surprising. He counted through the group: those two really make the numbers with vendettas. Unless you counted Barret against Shinra, but Barret was shouting a fuss over the missing supplies behind him.
"Anything else missing?" he called out to Cait Sith. The stuffed cat had frozen after checking on their Materia.
"Oh, damn it." Tifa brushed her bangs away from her eyes. "Yuffie left as well."
"With all our Materia," Cait Sith mewed, "again. Aside from the few we had equipped on ourselves, she took the rest."
"Wonderful," Cloud exhaled. "Any reason why she left?" He was starting to hate this particular morning. Link he expected. Vincent he understood. Yuffie had no reason to go marching into the snow.
"She left a note as well: While you were sleeping I played with your fortune machine, Cait Sith. I think I broke it. Anyway, it told me 'Run Away!' and I said 'Screw you!' So. Here I am. Or am not. Hm. Well, I'm the best nature survivor this group has – you try and get from Wutai to some ugly forest near Junon by foot – and my feeling is that it's best used here. Or not here. Hm. Cheerio!"
"Wonderful," Cloud repeated, "so we've lost Yuffie as well." He frowned. "That put's a real dent in how we move through the wild." As a fighting unit their departures hadn't hurt Cloud too much – the real tankers were him, Cid and Barret anyway. But the loss of their individual skills made things a lot more complicated. "We're not missing anyone else, right?"
He looked around the room. Barret, Tifa, Red XIII, Cait Sith, Cid…
Tifa cleared her throat. "One more note: I'm sorry Cloud. I'm not afraid. I'm not afraid. Sephiroth scares me, but I won't be afraid. I'm sorry everyone. Stay safe. Love, Aeris."
"Why did you choose to come along, Aeris?" Link called out over his shoulder. The wind flapped his newly bought hooded cloak, spraying his form with snow. Link ignored it.
She pulled her mouth free from its place buried in her scarf. She was very grateful that Link insisted she buy her heavy jacket before the training sessions. "Cloud won't act against the Black Materia now," her words were nearly stolen by the wind, "he's afraid to act." She kept her eyes to ground to watch her footing on the ice. "Now isn't the time to be afraid."
Yuffie shivered underneath her makeshift cloak, a stolen fluffy bath towel. "D-don't g-get any ideas, Vin-ncent," she chattered, "b-but I'm sharing your c-cloak." Without waiting for any protest she huddled underneath his red cloak and pressed as closely as she could to his body. Her face was one of frozen misery; Link noted to get her better gear if they found another town.
"I'm more than twice your age," Vincent stated as Yuffie shifted the towel to allow the warmth to travel better.
"B-be a gent-tleman!" She snapped, "Arm around wais-st!" A pause and then a shriek. "N-not that arm! Fleshy one, fleshy one!"
"Sorry Yuffie," Link apologised, "but you'll have to endure this for a while. And Aeris, take my sword." Through her thick gloves she managed to catch it. "Our visibility's pretty bad, but so should everything else's be. But just in case."
She looked at him questioningly. "What are you going to use?"
He fiddled with something underneath his cloak. "The wooden sword I made came out as a stick. So with a bit of improvising and altering," he pulled the wooden shaft from behind his back, "I made a bow." He smiled grimly. "The journey is going to be hard, but we all have walked harder roads. We'll be alright. Let's keep moving."
Aeris looked up from the ground to see Link's cloak flap once more in the wind before being buckled tightly to him. "What are your goals?" He gave her a short glance before focussing on his own path, and at once Aeris knew the answer.
Forgiveness. Revenge. Redemption.
She shivered. Cloud was right; survival wasn't one of them.
A/N: Hmm… don't quite like the mood balance in this chapter. I wanted to make it dark and serious, but I felt that all this Link vs Cloud (would love to see that in a game like Smash Bros) was too heavy. So enter Yuffie; she's a character any author can work with.
Gave Tifa more lines today! Strange that as a central character in the game I've kind of been ignoring her in my story, mainly because I can't quite capture her personality. Barret and Cid is street, Vincent's stony, Cloud grumpy… No idea for Cait Sith or Red XIII, for that matter. Anyway, she plays a larger role later on.
Still unhappy with the balance. I guess not writing for this long does make you really rusty. As always, comments welcome. I hope you enjoyed this chapter and the tantalising possibilities hereafter. A special thanks to Shadow Rave, Vladimir the Hamster and stint alemany Byrd for giving motivation when my morale was flagging. Remember, the random comment or PM a couple of months down the line does wonders for your drive!
Now expect Odyssey Blade to update before the 30th of this month.