. . . The Art of Trudging . . .

One foot forward, that's it, and then another. Watch it now, that part's slippery. Damn snow.

Of all the places in the goddamn world I could be, I'm freezing my ass off trudging through the snow of Icicle Inn. Not even a proper name for a town, either. Who the fuck came up with that?

"Well who?" I said aloud, through gritted teeth. Unfortunately, she heard me.

"Your mom," she replied, exasperated and looking particularly short with snow up to her knees. She looked like a midget, and frankly, the imagery was funny. So I laughed. And she glared, and the world was still spinning. Damn.

Really, I'm not bitter, nor resentful. I just hate snow. It's too many things at once. Complicated. All wet and frozen and white and cold... just too much. And that's just the stuff on the ground. I don't even want to talk about the crap in the air around us.

Us. Right, I had the martial midget for company.

"Cid? Are you ok?" she spoke, never forgetting that awful mothering tendency she has, "You haven't cursed or spoken at all for awhile now." She was making fun of me. I liked that.

"Fucking great, Tifa," I replied, with my ever present charm. Used to be popular with the ladies, ya know. Unfortunately, unless you're riddled with inner tragedy or carry a big sword, no amount of charm works. Thus, the empty smile, and humorless eyes. That girl really needs to start drinkin'.

But still, she's fun to pester.

"Do you always have to be so..." she began, but then flashed that empty smile again. She's far too good at that. Glad I'm too old for her, or I might get wrapped up in it. Seems the case with most men her age, except the ones that actually matter.

"...Me?" I finished for her, using the wonderful gusto years as a pilot supplied. She laughed. It's about damn time; I've been trying to get her to do that for awhile now. She could use it. Hell, I could use it.

So why were we out here, slowly wearing on each other's nerves? Long story. Always the case. Save the world, find that long haired pretty boy psycho, get a snowboard... yadda yadda.

But that was the grand scheme of things. Currently, we were looking for a missing team member. Damn gunman, if he wasn't so useful, or amusing...

"Can we stop for a moment?" she asked, looking even smaller in the great expanse of sterile white. She'd pushed herself too hard again. Dammit Strife, why'd ya leave me with her? And Valentine, why the fuck did you take off like that?

"Sure, hon," I said, being the gentleman that I am, and helped her over to one of the pine trees. Under them, the snow wasn't so deep, and it was easy to find a spot to sit.

That's when I noticed the scratch on her cheek.

It was new enough to still look painful, but healed over enough to suggest it had been at least a day or so since it happened. She tried to hide it, with that ridiculously long hair of hers, but she can't hide anything. Girl wears her emotions on the outside, where people can easily twist them. No wonder she's such an aggressive fighter.

And when did I begin to notice this?

"Ya got a story behind that scratch?" I asked, with all the delicacy of a hack saw. Guess there's a reason I use a harpoon instead of an awl.

"What would you like me to tell you?" she replied, uncharacteristically rough. That narrowed things down to two subjects. I was getting too old for this...

"Something," I replied, frantically searching for my lighter, "Make something up if ya hafta. It may not look like it, but I can listen." She sighed, a resigned and pained sound. I expected her to either start crying, or to go back to that sluggish cheerfulness I had come to expect. She did neither.

"How often do you talk with Shera?" she asked, causing me to drop my lighter. Another reason I hate snow: small objects become lost in it. Dammit.

"As often as I need to," I replied, digging frantically for my lost lighter. She frowned; I could feel it in the back of my skull.

"How often do you really talk with her?" she nearly chanted, soft and slow. This Tifa could really grow on ya, that was for sure. The tone of her voice would make a man melt if she didn't watch it.

"Every now and then, I guess," I replied, not really thinking about her question. I was thinking about where Strife probably was, and whether or not Yuffie had stolen his materia yet. Where Valentine could be. How irate Barret probably was, and the classy way 'ole Red was dealing with it. About everyone, I guess. Splitting up always feels weird.

"You should talk with her more," Tifa continued, dreamily staring off into space. That's when I suspected she wasn't really concerned with me. Women always have some hidden agenda when they talk. Boy did I need a cigarette.

"Tiff, stop worrying," I said, letting the nicotine tingle in my head as I finally found the means to light my cigarette, "You sound so damn old." I didn't mean to make it sound so rough, but having your dreams stepped on can do that to ya. All grace is lost, ya could say.

"I'm not worrying!" she burst out, her fists clenched as she bolted to standing position, "I'm past that!" I slowly brought myself to stand in front of her, and decided to do something kind. Poor girl was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

She didn't flinch or lean into me when I hugged her. Fair enough. At least her breathing slowed down a bit.

It was strange when I came into contact with her. I wasn't thinking about her at all, not really. I wasn't even thinking about myself. I thought about my daughter, the one I hadn't had yet.

I wanted her to grow up to be a nice girl. Quiet too. I'm loud enough.

Odd I guess, but I didn't have time to dwell on it. Tifa was pulling away sooner than I expected, and she was whispering.

"...My fault, I shouldn't have been so hard on him," she muttered, shoulders hunched, "...He just needs to be with people. He needs to talk." Oh boy. She thinks he ran off 'cause of her prodding. Maybe it had something to do with it, but our little man of mystery is just that. A mystery. It could have been the alignment of the stars that set him off.

"...Tiff, it's prob'ly not ya that did it," I tried that tactic I've seen Red do a couple times, something about shifting the blame away or some mumbo jumbo like that, "He's got a lot of issues, and he's kinda been out of the loop with civilization for a while."

"But he said he heard her," she whispered, even softer than before. Ah, that one woman... Lucinda or something like that. The one that Valentine mutters about when he thinks no one is listening. The one Tifa mutters about when she's been brushed off again by Strife.

"Well if it isn't Lockhart and Highwind..." a smug voice spoke from the trees. My hand grasped my harpoon, which had been laid aside when we decided to rest. Tifa didn't seem to notice, but I knew she'd come to her senses soon. At least she'd better.

"All alone in the snow? Where are your little friends?" the voice continued, and that's when I recognized it. There was only one person who was so arrogant, smooth, and appeared when you least wanted to see him.

Fucking Rufus Shinra.

Tifa surely noticed him, standing like the ice king he wants to be. His unsoiled white suit and soiled personality. He fit in the snow perfectly, like he was fucking father winter or something.

"Where are your fucking little friends?" I asked, making sure he knew we weren't defenseless. There was always something intimidating about a harpoon, and I was expert at posturing with it. But 'ole Rufus doesn't really take a hint. Prick.

"If you mind, I wanted to speak with Lockhart," Rufus purred, casually flicking his hair. So that's what it was. Bastard. He'd get an iron enema before I'd leave him alone with Tifa. He was such a... wolf in sheep's clothing. White sheep's clothing.

"Cid..." she whispered to me, waiting for me to decide something. If there was ever a flaw with Tifa, it's that she lacks leadership skills. She'd be a fucking fine lieutenant, though. But that meant...

I was the leader. Shit.

"Do you really think I'm so stupid as to let you off with Tifa alone?" I said, trying out another position with my harpoon, "Or is it you're that goddamn stupid?" Tifa smiled at that one, a step up from the empty smile. Smart girl, she's got a sense of humor.

"Of course not you ill witted pilot," he replied, masking his annoyance with boredom, "I suppose you could stay here. I mean no harm... really." No harm? Was this a fucking joke? I've seen monsters that were a fucking cakewalk in comparison. And big nasty ones at that.

"What is it Rufus?" Tifa asked, letting him live for another five seconds or so. At least, in my mind, that was the case.

"The white belled flowers bloom in May," he recited, like a tired melody from a phonograph, "After being buried under January's snow." What kind of fancy pantsy shit was that?

"The Hell?" I burst out, before I could fully assess the situation. But Tifa was pale, and I realized I had missed something. And sure enough, with a smirk and a careful prop of his shotgun over his shoulder, Rufus disappeared into the steadily thickening swirl of snow.

"...And in June the flowers hang their white heads, mourning the sun's return," she muttered, turning her face to the snow.

And I knew better than to ask what it meant. I only hoped that whatever information Rufus had come across wouldn't harm the girl. She tightened her gloves, adjusted the tape on one of them.

So it was me. Me and the martial midget.

"You ready to git movin'?" I asked, better now to play the leader. She nodded, and soon we were trudging again. Snow makes the even the graceful look like fools. I could only imagine what I looked like.

"...Lily of the Valley..." she whispered, and I pretended not to hear, "...he couldn't have known. Only Zangan..."

We were the ones that found Valentine, an hour later, half frozen and surprisingly easy to convince to return with us. I didn't mention our run-in with Shinra, didn't feel like it needed to be known. He didn't mention why he had run off. We were all too tired to share stories anyway.

And when we were all back at the inn, warm and safe, I couldn't help but think a little. I'm bound to do that once in a while. Did Tifa's parents ever see her trudging through the snow, when she was young? Did they see how small she was?

My daughter would never see the snow, so long as she didn't want to. I was sure of it. If I ever got the chance, she would never be engulfed in anything so unpleasant. But that was crazy talk anyway.

I was getting too old for this.

AN: For JessAngel, for Christmas, and the last of my snow obsession. Let's just say that living in midwest lately means loads of snow.