Title: The Fighter and the Faerie Queen

Chapter: 8 - Chasing the Black-Caped Man

Rating: T

Author: Death Mountain

Disclaimer: I don't FFVII.

Tifa bent over and gagged. She wanted to be sick, but she hadn't eaten since Kalm, so she could only dry-retch, which proved rather unpleasant. At the last minute she heaved a small amount of bile and digested breakfast. Aerith grabbed her and moved her hair over her back.

"Thanks," Tifa said. "Sorry about that, I'm not usually squeamish."

"Squeamish? No, I'd have gotten sick myself, if you hadn't first." Aerith wrung her hands, the color drained from her face.

"Well, you're welcome," Tifa muttered. "I can't say I'm glad to take your place."

Aerith shook her head distractedly. "Never mind, forget I said it. But . . . who could, I mean, our enemy is someone who could do . . . this?" She motioned to the gruesome, almost symbolic scene behind them.

Tifa glanced back. Baking in the sun, the serpentine form of a Midgar Zolom impaled on a tree awash with blood, a grotesquely arranged testament. "Sephiroth . . .? He's perfectly capable."

"Immeasurable strength," Red XIII said quietly. "The legacy of the Cetra. ShinRa's pride and ShinRa's shame."

The girls turned to him, surprised. He flicked his tail in lieu of a shrug. "I was an 'experiment' in ShinRa headquarters, remember? Houjou often talked to himself around me." His nose wrinkled in mild distaste at the memory.

"About Sephiroth?" prodded Tifa.

"The man was obsessed with Sephiroth."

"So you think he knows something about Sephiroth and the Cetra?" Aerith suggested hopefully.

"Houjou is mad," the lupine said simply. "He has no more sense than Sephiroth himself."

If Sephiroth could do this, what chance did they have to save the Planet? Tifa wondered. It was already starting to look hopeless.

"Ow!" Red stopped abruptly and Tifa, practically blind in the dark, tripped and stumbled over the undefined shape, hitting the cave floor on her knees. "What the—"

"The Turks," Red said quietly but clearly.

Tifa pushed herself back on her knees and squinted. "Oh. Aerith?"

"I'm all right." Green light flowed from the Materia in her staff, which she had been using like a lantern.

Emerging into a large hollow chamber, the first thing they saw was a suited figure lingering by the cave mouth, from which encouraging sunlight poured. Tifa recognized the man as the dark-skinned Turk, who had escorted them to the President at ShinRa Inc, the one who was surprisingly polite. Now he even waited for the group of three to enter and adjust to the new lighting before he spoke.

"Just a second!" he said, holding up a hand.

Tifa edged closer to Aerith. If ShinRa had caught up to them, they could still be after the Ancient, but she'd be damned if she let them take her again without a fight first. Red XIII also seemed to move protectively around them, the fur on his neck bristling.

He certainly was taking his time. "Do you know who I am?"

"From the Turks, right?" Tifa said cautiously.

"Well, if you know this won't take long. It's . . . difficult to explain what the Turks do . . ."

"Kidnapping, right?"

"To put it negatively, you could say that. He fell silent and frowned, glancing upward, then sighed. "But that's not all there is to it anymore . . ." For a moment it seemed he was having trouble speaking.

"Don't force yourself, Rude. I know you don't like speeches." A feminine voice echoed in the cavern from above them. They craned their necks to see the blonde woman in the familiar dark suit and shades. She waved to Rude.

"All right, Elena. Explain."

Aerith whispered, "She was there when Tseng and I got off the helicopter at the ShinRa building."

"Doesn't look much like a Turk," Tifa responded under her breath.

"I thought so, too."

Elena was already launching into her introduction. "I'm Elena, the newest member of the Turks. The Turks do the work that ShinRa can't dirty its corporate hands with. Reno should be here, but he's on probation for screwing up after you kicked his ass in Sector 7." She frowned. "Although I did get promoted to the Turks because of that . . . In any case, our job is to find out where Sephiroth is headed and stop you every step of the—"

"Elena. You talk too much." Tseng sidled up next to Rude from outside the cave mouth, looking tired and none too happy. Of course, the Turks were probably being worked to the bone in the short time since the incident at ShinRa HQ.

"Er, Mr. Tseng—" The younger Turk fumbled for words, probably trying to come up with an excuse or an abject apology.

Tseng glanced up at her sharply, making it clear that he was not in the mood for his subordinate's screw-ups. "I thought I gave you other orders." He nodded to Rude. "Now go, both of you. Don't forget to file a report."

Elena straightened up immediately, saluting him. "Yes sir. Rude and I will track Sephiroth south to Junon Harbor, where the—"

"Elena." Tseng sighed.

"Oh, er . . ."

"Just go, Elena." Having at least the courtesy to look embarrassed, she slunk around a corner, disappearing into a different tunnel in the caverns.

Rude nodded absently to his superior and looked back at Tifa and them. "Tell your friends, Reno says he'll see you after the injuries you gave him have healed. He wants to show his affection for you all with a new toy from the Weapons Development Division . . ."

The leader of the Turks waited for him to exit before he addressed the small group. He brushed strands of black hair out of his eyes and cleared his throat. "Hello again. You look well, Aerith."

"I could certainly be better," she said in a colder tone than Tifa had ever heard her use.

"Relax, we're not after you anymore. We've got our hands full chasing Sephiroth."

"And I'm supposed to be grateful to him for that?"

Tseng shrugged. "No, I suppose not. Just thought I'd let you know."

"You almost sound like you're worried about me." Was she teasing him? It was in the same frosty voice, but it still sounded almost friendly. Tifa glanced sideways at Aerith, wondering about her history with Tseng. I hope she hasn't already forgotten he's the one who kidnapped her.

As though he could somehow detect her thoughts of him, Tseng turned his attention to Tifa. "You're . . . Tifa, correct? I believe we met in Sector 7?"

She glared at him fiercely. "Tifa Lockheart, and it's not good to see you again." There was absolutely nothing she liked about this man. He worked for ShinRa and he seemed fixated on Aerith, and nothing good could come of him.

"I see. Well, just because our objective has changed doesn't mean we will stand for any interference. So stay out of ShinRa's way."

"We are being following," Red said casually.

To get to Junon, they had to cut through a long string of forest, which proved to be much more difficult to traverse than the open plains. It was not pleasant to put your foot down and find a tree root or ingrown vegetation to trip over every other minute. But the sentry at the nest of that huge bird promised it took less time than to go around the forest.

Tifa never even considered that someone—or something—might use the terrain to move practically in their shadow. "ShinRa?" she asked Red, keeping her voice low.

"No, they would be more careful. And I only smell one person."

For a moment Tifa had the horrible thought that it was Sephiroth, and her gut wrenched sharply. But Aerith said nonchalantly, "It's probably just a bandit, and even I can handle one bandit. Midgar is full of them." Thank the gods for level-headed women! Tifa chided herself for getting carried away with her imagination.

"How much farther do we have to go until Junon?" she asked casually.

"What, tired already?" Aerith teased.

"Not on your life." Tifa felt a grin splitting her face.

Aerith edged a little closer, smiling impishly. "Are you sure about that? Because if you need me to carry you . . ."

Tifa's hand darted out and tugged her braid, eliciting a squeak from the flower girl. "Who's the bodyguard here?" They wound up in a minor scuffle, playfully snatching at each other's hair and clothes and laughing. Red XIII stopped to watch them with an air of mild amusement.

"Oh, you—" Aerith laughed breathlessly as she pulled away patting her braid, which had lost its tidy pattern in their tussle. "Look what you've gone and done!" Her cheeks flushed with laughter, she raised her smiling eyes fondly.

The taller girl shook her head, stifling a giggle that she had always found to be embarrassingly girly. "You started it."

"You didn't say to stop." Still grinning, Aerith turned around in a short twirl and indicated the unraveled braid. "Help me?"

Why couldn't she resist that smile? Even if she didn't want to, and she did, Tifa got the impression that she wouldn't be able to say no. Almost without her consent her feet had already moved to her shorter friend, and her hands had raised themselves as though itching to touch that soft fair hair.

Upon closer inspection Aerith's hair proved to be fashioned into a twist rather than an actual braid. It felt oddly cool and smooth under Tifa's fingers as she lifted it, and it had an appropriately floral scent that lingered even after a not-so-clean trip. For a moment she lingered on the familiar hair tie and thought of the pink ribbon in her own dark hair. Thinking about it was oddly comforting.

As the plait was sliding through her hands her eye fell on the back of Aerith's bared neck, a strong slender stalk in a graceful slope, the white complexion of skin hidden from the sunlight.

Aerith started, and Tifa withdrew her hand, realizing she had unconsciously laid her fingers at the nape of Aerith's neck. "Um, Tifa?" the slim Ancient asked uncertainly.

"Sorry," Tifa mumbled, aware that the atmosphere had abruptly changed. Tifa Lockheart, what are you thinking? You must be weird or something . . .

Red observed this silently, with an unreadable expression in his yellow eyes.

A soft rustle from the bushes made both girls jumped, and they exchanged slightly guilty glances. Tifa coughed, feeling her face heat up again as she realized their tail had probably witnessed the little "show" they'd unintentionally put on. If it's a bandit, they're probably thinking how lucky they were to happen across such a pair of ditzes!

"We should keep moving," Aerith pointed out, all business, but as Red took the lead she flashed Tifa a smile that said she was not embarrassed in the least.

Funny thing—as soon as she saw that beautiful smile, neither was Tifa.

There you go, a new chapter. I'm a dork. I'm an idiot. I need sleep. I have a speech due tomorrow. Kill me. bangs head on the wall

I'm sorry, guys. I must be driving you crazy.

So, can you guess who the bandit is? Hehe? Nah, couldn't be . . . could it?

I finished this at 11:30 PM my time, so expect errors. I'll check it later. Enjoy.

Next chapter—the "mysterious" bandit's identity is revealed, and thus the party gets predictably sidetracked.