Crystal Cerberus

Final Fantasy VII

Chapter Twenty-Two: the Price I'll pay to stay With Them

Disclaimer: I own nothing of great significance.

A/N: Depending on how this goes, this IS the last chapter. I've been given…ideas…by a certain someone…for an interesting plot twist that makes my stomach churn just thinking about it—and not in a particularly good way. But everything works out in the end.

Rixah, this may disappoint you, but…I refuse to take it to a more violent level on the account that it would be physically impossible.

Oh, and the secret behind that nagging feeling in the back of my head that if anything happened to Vincent I was in deep shit is finally revealed!!

WARNING: Violence, insanity—as in crazy people—etc. And little kids.

This chapter made me think of the fact that I started this a LONG time ago. O.o

Thanks for helping me figure this out, Derik!!

Suddenly, the blackness I was falling back into changed—the noise seemed eerily familiar, and there was dark purple, blue, and black swirling around me. I could see my own hands again, and when I tried to, I realized I could sit up.

"Agh…" I groaned, placing a hand against my head. I was completely myself again, I realized through the pain. But everything was so…so heavy around me; it was hard to breathe.

This darkness… I blinked a couple times, trying not to let them close. …This is…Nero's darkness? They…they can't get me in here… It was cold, but much more tolerable than any winter I was used to. I'm…safe.

Safe…

am I really?

I gotta trust Nero…

Yeah…he…helped me after all, right?

I had a tingling feeling washing through my limbs, a pleasant sensation that made goosebumps rise on my skin at the cold. I was alive, and though my thoughts were slightly scattered, my anxiety was gone, and my fear of things lurking in the dark with it. The piercing pain coming from my head and stinging in my limbs was slowly fading, and as I relaxed breathing was an easier task. My eyes shut as I gave into the lullaby Nero was so strangely fond of.

I turned off the GameCube after saving my Tales of Symphonia game, and turned off my small TV as I stood up to leave the room. It was three o'clock in the morning, and Beth was already asleep in her bed. I was surprised she hadn't woken up once from the volume I had it set on. I carefully shut the door as not to wake her, and walked past the front door…and froze.

"Shhhh!!!" I heard a male voice hiss faintly.

A female voice responded. "The lights are all out, I think everyone's asleep by now…"

I grabbed the wooden practice staff from near the door, swung it open, opened the screen door and landed on the porch, ready to swing.

One of the two was behind me before I could register it, a hand clapped over my mouth and one hand moving to my neck as I struggled, trying to scream.

Two fingers pushed down on a part of my neck, and all went dark around me.

I was bathed in a warm light, and deposited into a pair of arms that easily held me up as the last bit of darkness faded from around me.

"See? She is intact," a voice said, matter-of factly… in an accent…a really, really, sexy accent, right next to me. I blinked until my eyes focused on the side of a face, partially covered in metal plates.

"Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii Neeeroooooo…" I greeted him sleepily, giving him a goofy smile.

"Yeah, but her brain isn't!!" Another voice snorted, and I looked to see a girl that looked maybe fourteen…but was older than I was by far more than a year. Yuffie. I looked around to the familiar faces, registering each and every one of the ones I knew by name…and settled back on Yuffie.

"I beg yer pardon," I responded, waving an arm at her (and almost making myself fall out of Nero's arms in the process), "My brain is JUST fine…" And I stopped, looking back up to Nero, around the room, and… "Where's Derik?" I thought he'd be there waiting for me, too…

I got an upset look from Yuffie, and saw a look of regret on Vincent's face…Shelke looked bothered, and I realized most of my friends did. We were in the main deck of the ship, and by the clouds surrounding us, we were flying.

"Uhh…" Yuffie seemed stuck for words.

"What's with the faces?" I asked, kicking my legs slightly. Nero set me on my feet, getting the hint, but kept a hand tightly on my shoulder as I nearly fell again. "Yuffie…?"

"He…he went home," she said, "After you…kinda passed out, a girl from…Gemini…came, and…well, he attacked her."

"He killed her," Vincent continued when Yuffie stopped. "Before she attacked, she told us that it's necessary to kill the body here, or else an empty shell would be left behind."

"And that's why she came—to get rid of you guys," Cloud threw in. He looked more frustrated than angry and confused, which relieved me—a little.

"As long as nothing happens to the original body, the soul stays intact and will return to that body. Alexander Cylek was born here, in this world, and…Derik killed her original body, so she's gone for good. And then, uh…a while ago, an emergency hatch opened…" Yuffie paused, biting her lip. "I volunteered to go, since Derik wasn't in here and I was worried…and when I got there, he was holding his materia and standing by the opened hatch with his gunblade like this." My eyes widened dramatically as Yuffie raised a hand out far like she was pointing something to her chest. I grimaced, looking down to hide my building tears. For a brief moment, I think Nero's hand squeezed my shoulder before falling away. The ninja approached me, holding out blazing red materia that had heat rolling off in waves as I took it. "Here…Tory. He said to me, 'My part here is over. Give this to Tory and tell her to take care.' And then…he threw the materia at me, stabbed himself and fell out before I could stop him."

"Thank you, Yuffie," I said softly, staring down at the orb. Sighing sadly, I unbound the Fire materia in my arm and caught it carefully, almost dropping it before placing Derik's in my arm where it would be safe. As for the other materia, I tucked it into my pocket and blinked tears away.

"Yeah…" she sighed quietly. I was almost shocked by the heat I felt going through my arm from the materia.

"That kid took her on 'imself!" Cid shouted, throwing his arms up for a minute before putting them back on the wheel. "Said to take care of you. And what does he--" he waved a hand to Nero –"do?!"

"Make it so they can't reach me," I said, smiling weakly. "Derik has a girlfriend to go back to, and my family should take it well once they know I'm okay. And…now that he knows it's okay, I guess he figured his business was done." I was feeling a little better already, thanks to Cid's not-so-subtle attempt at lightening the mood.

"Tory." Vincent caught my attention quickly, and I turned my head to him. "You said they couldn't reach you…?"

I nodded. "Once Nero pulled me into the darkness," I paused, wanting to find a way to describe the situation properly, "It…it wasn't all that scary…but it was like bits and pieces of me were being pulled apart, but put back and stuff when he did it…and anyways, it seems the darkness causes the chip to malfunction or shut down…but it was goofed before that. But now that I'm out of it, they could retaliate at any given time."

"Hmph…I suppose it depends on the two who are in charge?" I nodded when Vincent said this.

"They won't be too happy about Alexandra," I sighed and nodded, "And they've got scientists and ex-Turks…" Pausing, I looked him in the eye and said, "And I know damn well that there's not a single Turk or ex-Turk that's dangerous." Tifa looked like she was about to comment on my language—like Vincent had been about to earlier, and I raised an eyebrow at her. Denzel had said a more…vulgar word in Advent Children.

"…You have a point there," Cloud said with a light shrug. "But we can take them on."

"And also, Victoria," Shelke said, "Alexandra Cylek mentioned the chip was implanted in your skull to monitor your behavior and contact you?" I nodded. "…And also to force you down so you cannot defend yourself against them."

"Uhh…yeah," I agreed, looking down.

"That is unacceptable," Nero said, and I jumped in surprise as the oblivion picked up speed and howled. His eyes were narrowed dangerously as well.

"I agree," Shelke stated, her hands balling into fists. That was enough of a gesture, despite her slightly more calm facial expression to tell me that she was PISSED. But I knew why—the Restrictor had chips implanted in the brain stems of the Tsviets to keep them from killing him, but…

Well…I really didn't wanna think about that. Let's just say it worked out for the Tsviets in the end.

"Don't worry, Victoria," Reeve said, and I realized that I was about to cry again. He came forward, setting a hand on my shoulder. "The chip can and will be removed." What the hell was with people and my shoulder today?! I pushed aside my irritation, however, and appreciated the comfort.

"Yeah!" Cid agreed, glancing down to smirk at me. "They ain't getting' away with messin' with you guys! You're one of us, now, after all." I smiled, and laughed at his next statement. "Even though you're an alien."

"Well, at least I'm a human alien." I paused as my smile faded, and my stomach churned while my vision warped for a minute and I began to feel odd, hateful thoughts floating through my head. There were quiet whispers that weren't there before—I couldn't make out the words, but they sounded…malevolent, malicious, somewhere along those lines. Reeve dropped his hand and gave me a concerned look for a minute.

"Come on, aren't you excited?" Tifa laughed, trying to lighten the mood. "We're gonna fix things, and…"

"Yeah," I said abruptly, forcing the voices down for the time being. I showed a smile, and added, "I'm…I'm gonna miss Derik, but as long as he's home safe with Jeri…"

Yuffie nodded at that, rubbing a finger under her nose as she sniffed. "I'm gonna miss him too…"

"So he didn't question my wanting to stay…?" I questioned, feeling at a bit of a loss despite the fact that I was glad I hadn't been taken back.

It seemed to please Tifa the most that I was staying, and Vincent and Yuffie were definitely happy about it too—despite the fact that Vincent was more…subtle about it, I figured he was glad I was staying here. And well…I was pretty well accepted by everyone, and had a lot of friends so far, to say the least.

"No. Like Yuffie said, though…he told you to take care, though, which means he left you…in our care," Vincent sighed. "Which reminds me…Yuffie--" his red eyes fixed on the ninja. "I am not in dire need of being taken care of." Yuffie's face lit up, and I stared in confusion as Tifa giggled at them.

"Have I missed something?" I demanded, placing my hands on my hips.

"Well, uhhh…" my extremely short friend scratched the back of her head. "Y-y'see, after you finally fell asleep after that time in Nibelheim, I was talking to Derik about not feeling comfortable leaving Vincent in the care of some stranger." I raised an eyebrow, and opened my mouth to say something, but she raised a hand to stop me. "Derik…brought it up when we got on the ship…So anyways, he convinced me you were trustworthy and Vincent would be safe if I left him in your care…"

I was stuck between feeling stupid and flattered, and I found myself laughing. Way to go, Derik! "Oh my gosh--" I gasped between loud bursts of psychotic-sounding cackles that rivaled Hojo's, "—you—you ACTUALLY…?!"

"…Is she gonna be okay?" Cloud asked as I almost hit the floor.

"It's not funny!" Vincent huffed. Barret starting laughing, and so did Cid, and soon I had almost everyone showing some sort of sign of amusement, even a soft chuckle from Nero. It wasn't often that Vincent got angry, but…was that really anger?

"Can't breathe!!" I gasped loudly, finally dropping to my side. The soft chuckle from Nero repeated itself as he presented a hand to me, and I continued to laugh while in my head, I was squeeing—Nero had a light sound for his laugh, one that was pleasant and pretty.

"I had no idea you were only thirteen then," Yuffie reasoned through fits and giggles. "You look about as old as I do!! I wouldn't have said it…if I knew, but you still managed really well…"

I took Nero's hand, and he dragged me to my feet.

"Thank you," I giggled.

"Of course..." he responded, making sure I could stand again before letting go.

"I wasn't the only one!!" Yuffie shouted suddenly, "WEISS DID THE SAME THING!!!"

"At least Vincent as a few years on Nero," I responded.

"Try nearly forty," Vincent threw in, ducking his head and crossing his arms as he hid some of his face from view.

I didn't laugh. Genuine shock settled in my system from him finally coming out with that in front of me. Even though I knew about it already, it was…somehow surprising.

"Are you okay, Tory?" Tifa asked, smiling at me in a perfectly knowing way.

I opened my mouth, waited a second, and closed it. This repeated three or four times until I finally got a coherent noise to come out.

"…You look…like…twenty…"

"Hmph…I know…" Vincent muttered softly.

"Breaks your heart, doesn't it, Tory?" Yuffie asked after a minute, and my face felt like it was suddenly on fire.

"YUFFIE!!!" I squeaked, "NO!!! No, no, no, no, no no no NO!!!!"

"If you're embarrassed about how red your face is," Yuffie grinned as I stalked forward toward her, "Just look at Vincent!"

My curiosity got the better of me, and I looked at him. A pink tint adorned his normally pale features, and though he seemed to be trying to look fine, the embarrassment I saw when he glared at Yuffie told me Yuffie's words had affected him. I glared at Yuffie as well, and she began to back up. Seeing Vincent bothered…was the last straw.

"Isn't he so cute?" Yuffie went on frantically as she passed him. I continued forward after her.

"Urusai, gaki!" I snapped. Yuffie responded with a string of what was probably Wutaian insults, but suddenly stopped.

"Where did you learn that?" she questioned, seeming surprised.

My anger not lessening as I grabbed her by her shirt, I said, "Wutaian is pretty much Japanese, which is another country in the world where I'm from." I raised a fist to punch her, and she cringed, but a hand caught my wrist before I could.

"Tory…" Vincent said, pulling me back, "It's fine."

"THANK YOU VINCENT!!!" Yuffie shouted, scrambling away from me.

"I didn't do it to get you out of that," he responded in an almost harsh tone, his eyes lowering again. I turned kind of pink and said,

"Sorry…"

"It's no' like she di'n't d'serve it," Barret grumbled, causing Yuffie to pout.

"You're really mean!!" Yuffie accused dramatically, causing me to giggle.

"See? I'm not the only one," I said in an obviously triumphant way. Changing the subject for obvious reasons, Tifa cut in.

"So Tory, can you tell us a bit about your home?"

I grinned. "I don't see why not…but if Gemini cuts in," I turned to Nero, "Can you…?" He nodded. "Okay then…let's see, umm…I live in the country, away from most cities, and the nearest actual CITY city is pretty far away itself…Earth doesn't have mako or magic or anything, but it lives on anyway." Laughing at their obvious shock, I went on. "We have a president that runs out country, but!" I raised a finger and said, "I left during the election. So I don't know who the new president is or will be, but anyone is better than the one there while we left. There are cabinet members and stuff, but…" I paused. "I'm…I'm really not to good with government and politics and all that crap, but…well, our government can be stupid at times, but we have a lot of freedom and stuff and…well…"

"You're trying to get to the point that it's better than Shinra," Tifa said.

"Exactly," I agreed. "But our world is pretty messed up, too…it's huge, with a ton of countries, and states, and…well…" I wanted to move on. "But anyways, I have six horses—or had six horses—I'm not going back." When I saw their confused faces, I groaned. "Do you guys know what unicorns look like?"

"Are those what you call horses?" Cloud questioned. I felt like I was educated a bunch of little kids, and Cloud's open expression didn't help.

"They look like unicorns without the horns," I shrugged, "And instead of the whole, 'hold your chocobos,' it's 'hold your horses' back home."

"So do you ride them like chocobos?" Yuffie asked, obviously not freaking out anymore.

"Yup." I grinned once again, flashing back to my two boys. "Sweet animals, too…" I paused, remembering MOM's horse. "Except…Kozmo."

"Why?" Tifa asked.

"Let's just say I compared Azul's attacks to Kozmo's brutality towards me." I facepalmed, sighing heavily.

"I hope that is at least a bit of an exaggeration?" Shelke said with a mild flinch. I didn't blame her, but I was surprised by the show of emotion at the memory.

"Yeah."

"So," Barret said, drawing back to another subject earlier mentioned, "How can the planet live without mako?"

I groaned out, "That would be something I don't know. We have lava beneath the surface of the earth, though."

"So if instead of mako, you have lava, does that mean there are volcanoes everywhere?" Yuffie asked.

"Not everywhere," I responded, frowning. "Thank goodness for that, and another thing…It can get really cold because the lava's really far from the surface. But…in a lot of places, there are lots of volcanoes. I'm not too great at geography in either of the worlds. But I probably know a lot more about this world than my own…" I blushed as I said it, feeling stupid. "Let's just say…Gemini wanted us to be…educated, before they sent us here."

"So it wouldn't be so obvious that you weren't from here, right?" It was Cloud who figured that. I was lying again, but I wouldn't let them find out that in my world, there were video games about them.

"Uh-huh." I smiled a little. "And I'm…sorry I lied to you guys."

Reeve let out a laugh, and responded to that truthfully. "I doubt we would have believed you if you had told us when we first met!" he said, smiling.

"You guys…didn't…believe me anyways…" I mumbled, "Until Alexandra showed up, you got angry, and…"

"Sorry about that, Little Lady," Cid sighed, looking at me from the wheel. "Didn't know another planet could sustain life, I guess." I nodded weakly at him. I saw Cloud's face take on one of thought and worry.

"So…" Nanaki said, drawing my attention from the blonde. "How is it that you have the powers of the Cetra?"

"Oh!!" I exclaimed, snapping my fingers as I watched the ones who didn't know about that look at me in confusion. "Right, they injected me with the cells of a Cetra--" I paused, not wanting to know how they got them and shuddered—"and…well, I dunno."

"Shinra trash!!" Barret shouted, causing me to jump.

"Hey," I sighed, "Not all of them--"

"Yes, all of them!! Aside from Vincent and Cloud and…and…" Yuffie stopped, scrunching up her face as she tried to remember something. "Well…there was this one guy who…" she giggled, "He was nice. I um, 'attacked' him when I was really little and he played along…" her face brightened with a blush, and she continued, "Now that I think of it, I feel really stupid. Anyways, I HATE Shinra!"

"Hold old were you then?" I asked, knowing who she meant. It was Zack.

"…Around your age, but a bit younger? Nine or ten, not too much…younger than you…"

I sighed. "Wow, Yuffie, weren't you a bit old to be playing games like that?"

"You know," Tifa said, crossing her arms and smiling at me, "You're really mature for your age."

"I…I get that a lot…thanks."

"Well, it's true."

"But…anyways, I'm not happy at all with what Shinra did, but they're human too. The Turks are assassins, and they may seem devoid of emotion, but they can laugh, joke, be stupid, make mistakes…be really nice and stuff and save me time and time again and be totally cool?" Mostly, I was describing Reno. That last bit was directed to Vincent, who had glanced sidelong at me. I decided to move on. "And SOLDIER? Think, you guys. Some wanted to be famous, and some just wanted to try something new; go on an adventure." That brought me to a subject I would have to tread on lightly. "And…one man didn't have a choice…" My voice lowered as I tried to push my guilt aside, considering I shouldn't have been feeling it—I didn't do anything to him. "He was born into it. He didn't have a freaking choice! I don't think I have to name him."

"Sephiroth," Cloud said, his voice filled with obvious hatred. Vincent's eyes flickered downward, and I sighed, putting a hand on my hip. I couldn't say much, because I had "just" learned that Vincent was sixty.

"Yeah," I said. "…And I'm sorry, about what all of you went through…"

"Why?" Vincent questioned, red orbs catching and trapping my gaze.

"…Because…I know…that you were all affected badly somehow by him…it's obvious." I bit my lip hard for a minute, trying to fight the guilt back once more. "And I shouldn't have brought it up. Sorry." Silence followed for a minute, before Cloud broke it.

"I mean it when I say that it doesn't matter anymore. He's gone…and even if he comes back, we'll just get rid of him again." He sounded so confident, so sure. "…So don't worry, okay?"

Cloud…he was toying with you in that last fight…

"…I…" it was hard to speak all of a sudden, when a conversation between Zack and Sephiroth floated into my head. Sephiroth had cared, he was human…he had smiled…

"Hey, come back here, where ya goin'?" Yuffie said loudly, waving a hand in front of my face.

"About…three years back, when I first learned about this world," I answered, flinching back a bit. "I remember when I had no idea who Sephiroth was, or SOLDIER, or…mako or the lifestream…and even then, I didn't think it was real…it just seemed so magical, and amazing compared to my life…"

"Do you regret coming here?" Reeve asked, obviously wanting an honest answer. "Or perhaps learning of our existence in the first place?"

"No. I regret ending the lives of my enemies, but not meeting all of you in the process. Heck, I'm happy I met Nero. He and Shelke both started as enemies, and they're my buddies now!!" I laughed as I said that last part, turning to smile at him. He was still standing a bit away from the group, and he turned his head away. "…At least I think so…"

"Why is that?" he mumbled so quietly I almost didn't catch it.

"Various reasons!" I grinned, placing both hands on my hips. "You're quiet and polite when you're not defending your brother, and you've showed that you're just as human as the rest of us—like Shelke has proved it, too." I waited a minute, but when I didn't get a response, I went on. "And you've saved me whereas you could've easily let my consciousness be dragged back to Earth. Thanks."

"…May I ask something?" he questioned suddenly, turning his head to look me in the eye as he approached the group.

"Ask away."

"What prompted you to throw your weapon at me in such a manner that it would effectively knock me down in my weakened state, without furthering any wounds?"

"Gimme a sec," I said as his words took their time registering. "Oh. I dunno. I got a bad feeling something would happen if you went in there. Your brother at the time was possessed by Hojo, and…well, he said you'd served your purpose and thanked us for disposing of you, which we obviously didn't."

"So I guess you figured he'd be killed if he went in there?" Yuffie asked, twirling. "See, Nero? She's a smart little thing, huh?"

"So you stopped me."

I shrugged. "Look, when Vincent still had the Protomateria, he was in Edge fighting Rosso and Chaos went cuckoo. I didn't know if Omega would be able to manipulate Weiss the same way, but either way…you seemed like you actually had a few traces of sanity left…which Rosso didn't and Azul barely had self control."

"A few scraps of sanity?" Nero narrowed his eyes. "I am perfectly sane, I will let you know, and I will admit to losing my control over the darkness once in a while, but--"

"Nero," Shelke said softly, "she was referring to when she was still your enemy."

"Thank you, Shelke," I sighed in relief. "I know you're sane now, Nero…"

"…hmph…"

I giggled, earning a half-hearted glare from the dark Tsviet. "You look like a little kid when you do that." This seemed to surprise him.

"…I do not."

"Yeah you do."

"I am not a child."

"I didn't say you were. I was just saying you look like one."

"I suppose it would worsen the argument if I told you to act your age?" Nero sighed, and I imagined a pout beneath the plates.

"Yeah. I'll show you what would happen if I acted like some of the other kids from school." I cleared my throat and looked at Yuffie, deciding that acting stupid in front of these guys wasn't going to lower their opinion of me. "Follow my lead and pretend you're a kid again." I began to skip in circles around Nero and sang, "Nero's a widdle kiddie, Nero's a widdle kiddie," with Yuffie coming in and helping a second later before I finally stopped and patted Nero on the shoulder.

"…Please do not do that again."

"I won't. Can't promise Yuffie won't, though."

"Nope," Yuffie added with a giggle.

"…" I sighed.

"What's wrong, Tor?" the short ninja questioned.

"…I miss Derik…" I said, lower lip sticking out slightly as I looked at Yuffie. "…well, uhh, how did the fight go?"

"That bitch didn't stand a chance!!" Yuffie said, the mood lightening a bit. "It barely lasted two minutes!! Okay, maybe three, but Derik was barely wounded!!"

"W-was it epic?" I sniffed, giggling a little through my tears.

"…I suppose you could call it that," Vincent said. "He did very well." In Vincentese, that meant "He kicked ass harder than I thought imaginable."

"Hope he's home safe. Umm…how did Alexandra get here, though?"

"It was like she warped in," Yuffie said, scowling. "Made a dramatic entrance, landing on the water and walking across it all gracefully and crap!!"

"Hmm…Are you upset because dramatic entrances are your thing?"

"Yes!!!"

"Yuffie, this isn't meant to flatter you, but you really are cooler than her."

"Yes, I know."

"I have to go with that," Tifa said with a soft smile, "Alexandra was really harsh and rude."

"Umm, so." I looked at the orange sky around the ship, and asked, "Where are we going?"

"We're goin' back to Edge," Cid snorted, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

"Are we there yet?"

"Don'choo even start."

"How 'bout now?"

"No!"

"Now?"

"NO!"

The game only lasted so long until Cloud suggested I stop before Cid "gets really cranky." I agreed, apologizing to Cid. When we finally got back to Edge, Tifa was treating the adults to a drink, and I got chocolate milk.

All was well and good.

The end.

That's a load of BULL SHIT, as I soon realized.

No, Tory doesn't get a simple glass of chocolate milk. Poor Tory was happy as a clam, wherever the heck that expression came from, minding her own business (poking fun at Cloud's adorable hair), and something went wrong.

Something went terribly wrong, and I couldn't help it. At the time I didn't even remember what I had been doing a second before, but suddenly, I was in a field in the middle of the night, surrounded by a swarm of monsters. My body reacted on its own, as if I'd hit an "auto-pilot" button, and rather than attacking at first, they seemed to back away before moving in rapidly and enclosing me. One, I had shot twice in the arm and it was lying on the ground and screaming in a way that seemed eerily familiar. It was also the second smallest. One was circling me slowly, while the rest seemed to hold still. I kept my gaze locked on the one circling me, my gun following its movements. It was tall and thin, and its eyes were a burning red. The only other thing I could make out was the talons on the left arm, which were considerable longer than the ones on the right. There was one with bat wings, and it was making a roaring sound that didn't seem to be coming from its mouth.

A few of them were tending to the one I had hurt, but that one kept circling me.

"Can you here me?" it asked, its voice a deep, distorted-sounding rumble. I reacted by making a move to pull the trigger, but something struck me in the back of my head so hard I was sent to the ground, crying out in pain.

"Ahh!!" I gasped as I rolled onto my back, a form above me slipping into three or four before phasing back to itself, and blurring and unblurring. It…it was Cloud. "What…the…he--" The word froze on my tongue as First Tsurugi's edge was placed beneath my chin. I heard something that sounded like crying…I looked over and saw a blurry version of Tifa holding Yuffie up while tending to her arm, which had red all over it. Also red, was most of who now kneeled down near me, but there was just as much black. "Vin…cent?" I questioned, breathing heavily as my eyes filled with tears.

"What' th' fuck wuzzat?!" Barret promptly bellowed, adding to my powerful headache. Cloud had obviously hit me to the ground, but I was too disoriented from the blow to register more than that.

"Cloud?" I mumbled through the haze of pain that was becoming more and more distant. The edges of my vision were going black, and my head fell to the side to get a better look of Yuffie. I couldn't see anything aside from Nero approaching, but I couldn't even see his facial expression.

The three that surrounded me began to talk, and that was about the time I lost consciousness.

I woke up in a bed again, gasping for breath. I remembered the night before, hoping it was a dream—but the sharp, throbbing pain in the back of my skull told me otherwise. I reached out and took my glasses from the bedside table, scrambling into the room Yuffie usually slept in.

"Oh…" I whispered, eyes widening as I saw her in the bed, asleep, with one arm above the sheets and bandaged. Her face twisted, and she blinked her eyes open, which immediately fixed on me. "Y—Yuffie…"

"Tory--" she began to say, sitting up. Her eyes were wide, and her expression was hard to read.

I bolted immediately, getting halfway down the stairs before I jumped and landed on the floor, turning for the door. I sensed someone behind me, and felt the tension in the air, but didn't wait to see who it was that was coming towards me. I continued out the door, adrenaline already kicking in as a soft cry of distress passed my lips.

It was dark out, probably in the early morning hours still. No one was out, and my bare feet barely made any noise at all. I was running as quickly as I could, and I heard a voice shout from behind me. Cloud was calling me. Not too much longer after that and I heard a motorcycle starting and I ducked into an alleyway, emerging on the other side of the buildings and running forward. I was running in the direction of Midgar, where there was enough rubble and debris to hide.

Crying made running almost impossible, and my tears came in near waterfalls as I tripped, landing on my left arm and skidding. It stung violently, but it wasn't as bad as my head. I got back up and started running, jumping as a lone car drove past me, and I ran across the street when it was out of the way. It was so quiet…I could hear Fenrir's engine as Cloud searched for me, and something else…it grew and grew, the closer I got to Midgar. During the day, busy lives and noises blocked it out, but I knew it was always there. It was the soft sound of the lifestream, probably coming from the reactors. I'd never been so sure about it.

My pace quickened as I thought I saw something up on a roof, and I whimpered in fear. I'd never been afraid of the dark. I was afraid of what was in it.

"Help," I whispered, shutting my eyes briefly, "I'm scared…" Whoever it was who I was whispering to, I didn't get an answer. I was on my own, and Derik wasn't going to be here to defend me this time. I kept running, and it became impossible to hear anything else aside from my own heartbeat, pounding wildly in my chest.

I couldn't have been more scared if Sephiroth himself popped out—heck, I'd probably glomp him and squeal in both delight and relief.

I laughed at that thought, glancing over my shoulder—just as I crashed into a man.

"CRAP!!!" I screamed, grabbing the dude's sleeve while rolling so I'd take the landing blow. To my own surprise, his arm shot out and stopped him from hitting the ground while his other arm held me up by my shoulders. He got up, clearing his throat softly as he dusted his shoulder off. I almost squeaked as I heard another guy laughing.

"Aw, damn, man, I can't tell you how funny that looked!!" The laughing man said, in a voice I had recognized just from the laughing.

Reno.

And the guy who was getting up while holding me to his shoulder? Rude.

I backed up immediately, eyes wide as I saw them.

"…You alright?" Rude asked, shooting a glare at Reno.

"Uhh…yeah," I said, blushing. "I—I'm sorry."

"Huh…you in a hurry or what?" Reno questioned, stepping closer. I tensed, his eyes were on my bare feet.

"…" I didn't really know what to say. In all honesty, I wanted to be polite, and these were two of my favorite characters. "I…don't have time for this, I…"

I'd hurt Yuffie. I'd attacked one of my friends for no real reason other than I started seeing things that weren't there—or rather warped versions of what was there. Tifa hadn't done anything to my chocolate milk, and I highly doubted anyone else did. What was wrong with me?! I needed to get as far away as possible.

The chip. The thought struck me hard in the face.

Oh God, Gemini was acting!! But…

I had started to back up again, but a question from Rude stopped me.

"Who's chasing you?" he looked tense, like he was sharing some of the unease I felt.

"…My friend…" I said softly, biting my lip.

"Don't seem like a friend to me, yo," Reno replied, frowning. "You need some help…?" He seemed serious; in fact, both of them did. And then…that whole "yo" at the end; I'd never heard or seen him say that, aside from in fan fictions.

"No!" I laughed nervously, "I just…" I combed down my bangs, considering the rest of my hair was still in a ponytail. But…something in their eyes…they were Turks, supposed to bury their emotions…I saw something that showed a sort of disgust that wasn't directed at me. I took a guess, and by the faces I got afterward, I was right about their assumptions. "It's not an abusive boyfriend problem!" I huffed, crossing my arms. "I ran out because I was upset because I did something stupid and I think he's mad at me even though he's not the type of guy to get that angry and—and now I feel really stupid because not only did I jump to the conclusion that he'd kill me but now I feel retarded for talking to complete and utter strangers about a problem."

Reno looked ready to say something, some of the…unease seeming to disappear for a minute, until there was a soft noise…a rumble.

"…Cloud," I muttered, recognizing the sound of Fenrir's engine. "Crap, I think he knows where I am…"

"You're runnin' from Strife?" Reno asked, his face taking on a comically freaked out face.

"What did you do?" Rude inquired, frowning. These two knew as well as anyone that Cloud could be VERY dangerous.

…Well, I attacked one of Cloud's best friends, he knocked me out, I saw her face when I woke up and ran. Thinking back on her expression, which I had thought at the time was fear and resentment, had been…surprise and relief instead.

"I overreacted to something and ran out the door before I could ask anyone about what happened before," I sighed, partially in my own relief. "I panicked, figuring they'd be mad at me…" A wave of sadness washed over me as I could no longer hear the engine. "Umm…wow. Sorry, I uh…" I looked up to the both of them, blushing. "I just…unloaded a bunch of crap on you…"

"It's fine," Rude said.

"Mmmm…" Reno was looking at me, eyes narrowed, looking thoughtful. I decided I didn't like his thoughtful faces. "How old are you?"

I liked the infinite reasons for that type of question even less. "I'm thirteen, Sir…" I whispered, taking a cautious step back. He seemed to get the idea and put his hands up—I saw a black leather band on his wrist. His EMR…Turks were never unarmed.

"Whoa, hey, no!!" He said, shaking his head. "An' I ain't no 'Sir,' it's Reno, got it?"

Memorized?

He went on as I tried to keep a straight face. "I ain't gonna try nothin' yo."

"…I'm Tory." Being polite, I offered my hand to Rude, who took it and shook lightly.

"Rude," he grunted, pulling back. I held my hand out to Reno, who seemed a little reluctant to do something so formal, but he took it anyways and shook.

"Umm…" Suddenly, it felt awkward again. "I'd better be heading back." I pointed a thumb over my shoulder, and meant to turn around.

"That's not the right way," Rude said, hesitance obvious in his voice. I turned pink and looked back at him. "To the…Seventh Heaven…that's not the right way."

"…This is my first time leaving since I came to Edge…" I admitted, knowing this would result in my asking for directions, which would end in my getting lost.

"We ain't in no hurry," Reno said, smiling widely over at Rude. "The Boss gave us the night off, yo. Besides, I think we oughtta pay our old buddies a visit…no harm in walkin' the kid home, right?" Rude sighed, shaking his head lightly at Reno's reasoning.

"I…I'm sorry," I said, "You don't have to go through the trouble, I can find my way…" Okay, yeah, a lie.

"It's no trouble, yo," Reno said, and I took in a moment to look at his features. He seemed to do the same for a minute. "It's waaaaaay to late for kids to be out."

He was pale, the moonlight shining down through a break in the clouds just enough to cast down on the three of us…his skin seemed to glow, and his sea green eyes, red hair and the red tattoos stuck out as well. He looked kind of like a fox…and he certainly didn't seem like the type that I should trust, but…Shinra was trying to fix things, and Reno was no child molester. An asshole sometimes, definitely, but he wasn't trying anything stupid. If not Reno, I trusted Rude.

"O…kay…thank you," I sighed.

"This way," Rude said, taking a left. I'd been zigzagging and running all over the place, so I really didn't have much of an idea, other than I had gotten closer to Midgar. I followed close, but not little-kid-oh-my-gosh-I'm-scared close.

"Well, FIND her, dammit!!" Yuffie was screaming into a cell phone, in the middle of the bar, as I peeked at her from the crack I had opened the door. "Before anything happens to her…Cloud, please, she could be hurt, or…or…GAH!!!"

"Hi, Yuffie," I said weakly as I stepped into the bar.

"Tory!!" Tifa shouted, smiling before she saw who was with me. "You!"

"Hello to you to," Reno greeted with a smirk. Rude shifted in discomfort.

"They brought me back…" I said, shutting the door behind the two of them.

"Cloud? Reno and Rude found her…" Yuffie paused, grinning at me. "Yeah, you better come soon." She flipped the phone shut, came forward smiling like she was gonna hug me…]

And even though I saw it coming, I didn't bother to dodge the slap. My face stung, but I was glad she was okay.

"You IDIOT!!! What the hell did you run off for?!" she demanded, putting her hands on her hips. "Did you honestly think I was mad? You were out of it, all of us could tell!!"

"…So was that slap for me freaking out and running?" I asked, totally forgetting that I had two confused but amused guys behind me.

"Yes."

I looked at her arm, then looked at Tifa, who was approaching me. She hugged me tightly, and I was reminded that I was weak compared to her, despite the two-inch height advantage I had. Almost grudgingly, she let go and looked at the two Turks, but her look of anger broke into a genuine smile. "Thank you, both of you." She looked back to me and said, "Everyone else but Shelke is out looking for you…I better start making some calls…"

…Everyone.

Was out looking…

For me…

"So, Lockheart," Reno said, grinning in a nearly feral manner, "long time no see."

"Should I wait upstairs for the grown-ups to finish talking, Yuffie?" I asked, trying not to smile.

"No, you're staying down here," Tifa responded, grabbing my shoulder before I could escape. "Good to see you guys. What can I get you?"

"I'm gonna sit down…" I muttered, feeling her hand slip away. I sat over in a corner, sighing and resting my cheek on my arms as they settled on the table. I was tired…and I was relieved. Picking my head up, I looked to Reno and Rude, mumbled another 'thank you' and fell asleep on the table before they could respond.

I was vaguely aware of a hand shaking my shoulder softly, and I said something I can't recall as I shook my head and buried my face closer to my arms. There was a sigh, and I knew I was being picked up. The person said something, earning a few laughs, before he started walking.

"Thank you," I managed to mumble, snuggling into the comforting heat of the chest and shoulder I was against before I completely fell asleep again.

I was in a bed again when I woke up, feeling sunlight pouring in from a window. My eyes opened, and I sat up with relative ease. The back of my head didn't hurt at all anymore…maybe I'd been Cured while I was asleep.

I wanted to lie down, snuggle under the safety of the blankets…

And I was no sundial, but I knew for a fact that it was afternoon.

So I got up, and this time I pulled my shoes on, and my hair was down…I'd showered the day before, and washed my hair, so it wasn't in bad shape at all. I sighed, putting on my glasses. I stood up all the way and headed into the bathroom for necessary morning business.

My ears aren't too great when I'm reading or busy doing something else, but my time in battle had made them keen to certain noises. I could hear children.

Downstairs.

Small children.

Sighing, I set the hairbrush near the sink and walked into the hall, practically tiptoeing down the stairs.

"Attempting to practice some ninja stealth skills?" Yuffie asked as I came into view, and I shook my head.

"Who's she?" a familiar voice questioned, and I looked over to a familiar, small face. Denzel. Thank Kira his voice was that of his original voice actor's.

"Denzel, Marlene, this is Victoria Carlton, and she'll be staying with us," Tifa said, approaching me and laying a hand on my shoulder. I looked over both of the kids, and realized that, once again, everyone was here. "She goes by Tory, though."

"Nice to meet you," Denzel said, walking forward to shake my hand. I took it, shook it, and let it go, letting a yawn escape in the form of a heavy sigh.

"Pleased to meet you," Marlene giggled with a big smile.

"Nice to meet the both of you," I responded. Looking to Barret, I grinned and said, "Now I see what ya meant, man, she's adorable." That earned a proud smile from him.

The small girl giggled and blushed. "Thank you!"

"So…how old are you two again?" I questioned, raising an eyebrow.

"Twelve."

"Seven."

I looked at Denzel, and I looked at Cloud. "Hey, Cloud? Are all children this small when they're twelve?!"

"…" He turned his head, not looking very happy with me. Ah, still fuming about last night, I see.

"Are you STILL mad about me running like that?!" I squeaked, flailing my arms.

"I'm not short," Denzel said, "how old are YOU, seventeen?"

"Thirteen," I corrected before turning to Nero. "And YOU!!!"

"Yes?" he replied airily, tilting his head. "Were you expecting a good morning hug, perhaps?"

"…No, but I want one anyways," I said as I closed the space between up and hugged him. "But were you up on a roof last night, watching me running by without saying anything?"

Nero's eyes glinted as I looked up at him and he said, "I may have."

"Why didn't you stop her?" Yuffie asked, hands on her hips.

"I saw no reason to stop her while she was in a panic. She would not have listened, and perhaps my trying to subdue her would only add to her fear."

"Stalking her on a roof most likely wasn't helping," Vincent stated, directing his gaze to the younger man who resembled him slightly. "She's already pretty paranoid." His gaze looked to me. "What were you dreaming about last night?"

"Beats the crap outta me." I threw my arms out after detaching myself from the dark ex-Tsviet. "I can't remember…why?"

"You didn't want me to put you down," he sighed, "you started crying and flailing when I did."

"Why the heck didn't you wake me up??" I demanded, feeling my cheeks flush in embarrassment. "Gosh Vincent, I'm sorry…"

"I tried," he stated, "you didn't want to wake up."

"…Are you really thirteen??" Marlene questioned, taking my hand and tugging slightly to get my attention.

"Yes I am, I'm tall because I ate my veggies when I was little."

"I told you so!!" she said, sticking out her tongue at Denzel.

"If you don't wanna be short like Cloud, you should eat your vegetables, Denzel," I stated, looking perfectly serious. I turned to the spiky-haired man who was glaring sidelong at me from the table he was sitting at. "Clooooouuud, you're not really mad at me, are you?"

"…No."

"You look mad," I said, walking forward. Marlene let her hand slip from mine as I approached him. "Did I make you mad?"

"No!" he shouted, immediately groaning and clutching his head. "I have a freaking hangover…"

"Poor baby," I mumbled, inwardly squeaking in shock. One would think it would take a lot to get someone with SOLDIER enhancements to get drunk…I guess either I was wrong or he DID drink a ton last night.

Cid snorted as I rubbed Cloud's back soothingly. "Y'know, you ge' much taller, an' yer gonna be taller than Cloud is."

"…Yeah, I know," I mumbled. The blonde dropped his head forward on the table, sighing as I applied pressure between his shoulder blades. "Cloud, really, you're not short, it's just that the extreme height runs in my family." It was odd seeing him vulnerable, and without the First Tsurugi's harness on his back.

"Mmhmm…"

Tifa giggled and I tried to suppress a laugh as Cloud brought his arms up to the table to rest his forehead on them.

"This happens whenever we have out get-togethers like this," the bartender sighed, rolling her crimson-brown eyes. "And he never learns."

"Mm-mm…" Cloud mumbled something as he shook his head slightly. He was really tense all over…I didn't want him feeling uncomfortable with me rubbing his back, but I knew that the tension was pretty bad. My mom's back was pretty tense, and I was no Kuma when in came to massages, but…well, I was good at it. Kuma and Beth were both really good at massages, but Kuma by far was the best. I put my hands on his shoulders and moved my thumbs in circles, sighing myself as I tried to relieve some of the pressure and tension.

"Maybe you should go upstairs and sleep…?" I suggested, not stopping.

"'M fine where I am…" he grumbled.

"So, what did I miss last night, Tifa?" I asked, looking over to the woman.

"Oh, nothing but most of the guys getting drunk. It's a good thing Barret didn't decide to pick the kids up yesterday to bring them here, because they wouldn't have gotten any sleep!"

"Sure they would've!!" Barret laughed loudly, hoisting his daughter onto one shoulder while ruffling Denzel's hair. I "aww"ed at the pleased way Marlene giggled. "We probably wouldn't have gotten that loud if we knew they were upstairs!!" I glanced at the clock. 2:39…or 2:40, it was hard to tell, considering I was on the opposite side of the room.

"Nothing would have shut any of you up!!" Yuffie grinned. "Tory, Reno was SINGING last night!! You should have heard him!"

"Oh, man…" I whined, pouting. "So…did they make it through the night okay?"

"Rude was pretty sober when they left," Tifa explained, "So he got Reno out."

I moved my hands down just a little, again cautious due to my not wanting to make Cloud feel uneasy, and continued to massage. "Doesn't this guy ever take a break and relax?" I asked, slightly irritated.

"No," Marlene said, putting her hands on her hips, "He's almost always out on deliveries!!"

"Figures," I muttered, "He's gonna hurt himself, and then when something worse than Omega comes around the world is SCREWED."

"That hasn't happened yet," Vincent stated calmly, "hopefully, there won't be a need to fight again…" by the tone in his voice, he doubted what he was saying. He knew it wasn't over yet.

"So, Tory, where are you from, anyways?" Denzel asked, moving to another, more carefree subject.

"Umm…" I looked to Tifa, and she shook her head, smiling a bit. "Junon," I said, nodding back to Denzel. "I'm from Junon."

"Did you like it there?"

"No, not really, I hate cities."

"So why are you in Edge?"

"Because, A), I'm waiting for someone, and B), like Tifa said, I'm staying here. My parents…have a lot to handle right now, but it's not like we're having family issues…and C), I have no intention of going out to the middle of nowhere, with no one else around me, JUST so I can get away from the city."

"…Oh," Denzel said, blinking. "Is he asleep?"

"Cloud?" I said, ducking down a little. I couldn't see his eyes because his face was buried well in his arms. "Chocobo?" No answer. "Yes, he's asleep."

"…You shouldn't call him that, he might get mad," Denzel sniggered.

"It's good for him to get used to people realizing that his hair looks like a chocobo's behind." I smiled at the brunette, who was blinking his big blue eyes at me. He was so cute. His lips were pulled into a thin line as he made choking noises, trying not to laugh.

"There ya go, Cloud," I said, crossing my arms while smiling in a satisfied way.

"Wan' me to take Spiky up to his room?" Barret asked, setting Marlene down.

"Yes, thank you Barret," Tifa laughed softly.

Barret nodded, and I moved aside so he could pick Cloud up and plop him across his shoulder with little effort. After he disappeared up the stairs, I started sniggering.

"What is it?" Marlene questioned.

"Nothing," I said, putting my hands up. "He just looked so much like a little kid with Barret carrying him like that…" Tifa smiled and agreed.

Settling in was easy enough…the main group left, and eventually Yuffie even went back to Wutai. Cloud was running deliveries again. Vincent lingered at the Seventh Heaven for a few days longer, which surprised me. I didn't want him to leave, because I was scared I'd never see him again. He would soon leave, to God knows where, until he was needed again, and then he'd show up. Maybe I wouldn't be there anymore when that time came.

Oh, and I had been drawing with the other kids, and I got praise for my artwork…

It was Crystal, snuggling a three-headed dog.

It was the picture I had wanted to show Derik.

And finally, Vincent left, and I had gotten a hug from him before he left as I held back my tears. I had drawn and redrawn the picture of Crystal and the puppy-Cerberus until it was to my liking, colored it, and gave it to him. He had been impressed by my artwork, and the complement I received meant a lot…and the amusement in his eyes as I told him the girl's name. He had accepted the picture when I told him I wanted him to have it…but I'd rather not go over the whole conversation.

After he left, I didn't cry, but I felt all empty, like part of me had torn away and gone with Vincent.

Eighteen days after meeting Vincent Valentine, I realized that I had been attached to him for three years; even though it was fourteen days before that he accepted my friendship.

"Tifa?"

"Hm?"

"…I'm tired."

"Maybe you should go upstairs and rest. I think all the fighting is finally catching up to you."

"…Okay…" I sighed, slowly walking towards the stairs. "I guess rest would be a good thing…"

"Tory, are you okay?" Denzel asked, causing me to pause in my step.

"…Not really…" I looked at Denzel…despite what he had been through, there was still a bit of naivety, something I thought I no longer had, even before I had gone to Gaia…but now I knew it was gone. "Denzel…if you can avoid it…never raise a weapon for anything but self defense…"

"Huh?"

"…" I sighed and raised a hand to ruffle his hair affectionately. "I won't be able to live a normal life if I go home; that's why I'm staying here…but you still have something near a normal life. Don't let it go to waste."

I let my hand fall away, sighed, and went up the stairs. I went into the room Shelke and I shared, tugged my ponytail loose, kicked my boots off and flopped down into the bed…and then took off my glasses to set them on the table. I rolled onto my back, sighing as I stared up.

"You know," I said in irritation, "I know I'm complaining now, but if I were to go home, I'd crave the adrenaline rush and constant danger of this world." No one answered. As if I expected someone to! "I'm the only one of my kind on this planet, and I guess I always wanted that. But now I'm able to hear the voices of the lifestream at night, when people are quiet…and frankly, that's very, very creepy! Even more so than me talking to myself like this!" I sighed, clapping my hands over my eyes as I began to shake. "I really must be desperate to let this go if I'm talking to myself like this…"

Adam…? I called out almost desperately, shutting my eyes.

For a moment, there wasn't an answer. But when it came, it was a question:

"Hey, kid…you doin' okay?"

I smiled, feeling my tension ease a bit. I'm fine. I just wanted to make sure…Derik was home safe.

"He is. I dropped him off myself, and emailed your family to explain the situation."

Adam, was that freak-out I had from you?

"No…that was Dustin."

My eyes snapped open wide. But…Dustin's the good one—

"Only when you're on his good side. Alexandra was his girlfriend. When I got Derik to safety after disabling the chip, he got pissed, and…while I was gone he took it out on you…I'm sorry, kid, I really am…"

So…you're still on my side right?

"…Sure. So…you met Reno and Rude?"

Yeah…

"They're cool, aren't they?"

I suppose so…but it was weird. I mean, before I saw them, I knew they were human and could actually due good, but…

"Weren't expecting the 'good guy' thing from them, were you?"

Hmm…I didn't even think I'd ever meet them. At least I gained SOMETHING from the freak-out.

"Tch. Well, I guess I'll tell that to Dustin."

W—wait, I don't want him to try something else—

"He can't. I pulled some strings with Hunter, played the 'we grew up together' thing and got him to make Dustin back off…"

I've told you how amazing you are, right? I have, haven't I? Because you rock. You're absolutely amazing. You know that, right?

"As I've stated before, I know full well how amazing I am. So you like the gun?"

Love it. It's not so plain anymore!

"Now, can I ask something?"

Go right ahead.

"If the deal I made with Hunter to keep you in my care entailed you to, oh, have to go somewhere else for a while, would you be royally pissed off at me?"

Oh…oh Gaia, no, you didn't!!

"You can come back afterward--"

Where do I have to go?!

"…I can't tell you that, but you'll know when you get there. Look, I'll talk to Reeve and try to get him to preserve your body at the headquarters, and I don't think he'll have much of a problem because you're his friend, but--"

I started to cry. I had pretty much been mentally assaulted by the goofy guy who had gone as far as making a goofy Angeal impression to stop me from crying, and now I had to go to ANOTHER world.

"I'll take care of everything. Nothing's going to happen to you. You'll be safe, no matter how many rules I have to bend to make sure of that. You know the world like the back of your hand."

I fell asleep somehow, maybe because he caused the chip to make me tired, but I just…passed out.

I was still there the next time I woke up, in the bed at the Seventh Heaven…Shelke was fast asleep in the bed across from mine, and I made sure not to wake her up as I got to my feet and put my glasses on. I snuck out of the room, relaxing a bit as I got into the bathroom.

About five minutes later, after taking care of…morning stuff again and brushing my hair thoroughly (obsessively), I was downstairs, saying "good morning" to Tifa and Nero.

"You look like you still have something on your mind," Tifa said, "is something wrong?"

"…I have to go somewhere else for a while," I stated, looking down. "Adam talked to me last night…he's one of the ones I actually like."

"Oh…but you shouldn't have to, if you don't want to!" she said, frowning. "It's not like you're not old enough to make decisions for yourself…"

I shrugged, sighed, and said, "Dustin's girlfriend was Alexandra, and he caused me to go berserk by using the chip while Adam was getting Derik home safe. Adam didn't want it to happen again, so he talked to Hunter and got permission to continue watching over me in exchange for having me go somewhere else, I think…"

Nero made a soft noise that sounded like he was sighing through his nose.

"So, are you coming back?" Tifa asked almost hopefully. It made me happy that she wanted me here.

"Yes…Adam says I'll come back. But…I don't care what any of them say, I'm not going anywhere until Nero's safe with Weiss!!" Halfway through my sentence the door was opening.

The timing was so cliché, like it had all been set up even though I knew it wasn't.

"You won't have to wait very long in that case," a deep, masculine voice chuckled. I spun, seeing the fear and surprise in Tifa's eyes at the newcomer.

"Weiss!!" Nero and I shouted in unison.

Weiss the Immaculate. It was definitely him, and the sanity I found in his eyes told me he was completely free of Hojo's control. Genesis Rhapsodos stepped in behind him, and I could feel the tension in the air rise.

"Hello again," Genesis greeted smoothly as he looked at me. Nero looked almost lost as Weiss embraced him, and the red-clad First stepped forward with a sort of fluid grace that had me unable to move.

"Tifa, it's okay," I said to her, putting an arm out to signal for her to stay back. "Genesis…it's good to meet you in person."

"Indeed it is, Victoria…" his blue eyes locked with mine, and I could no longer look away if I wanted to. "How unfortunate it is that fate has different plans for you…I truly was wishing that you would accompany us…" I was surprised by that, but creeped out because it was Genesis. But I was flattered because it was Genesis.

He was creepy, but really effing awesome.

"Who are you?" Tifa demanded, pulling on a pair of leather gloves.

Shit.

"Genesis Rhapsodos," he introduced himself. "And who might you be?"

"Genesis, this is Tifa, Tifa, Genesis really isn't a bad guy…" I finally managed to get her attention, and she gave me a stern look. I glanced over to Weiss and Nero, and Weiss seemed to feel my gaze on him, because he turned to me immediately.

"You, Woman, come here," he commanded. Tifa jumped, and he shook his head at her. "The other one." My legs suddenly felt like concrete, and I kept my head lowered though my eyes stayed on his face as I moved forward.

I could see Nero looking at me too, with what seemed to be concern.

"Weiss," he said quietly, "Brother, she is barely a teenager…" Yes. Yes, there was concern in his tone as I stopped in front of his brother.

A hand seized my chin and I gasped as I was dragged forward by that grip alone, and I had to brace myself against him by putting my hand on his shoulder.

"I'm fine, Tifa," I said through my teeth, feeling my face heat up. "Hello again, Weiss."

"Hmph…well, it seems I was wrong after all. You are a child…" he seemed bothered by that fact. "Nonetheless, you treated my brother kindly in a way that no one besides me ever dared…and he has not been harmed."

My jaw was bruising, I could feel it. I stood up straight as he stared down at me, letting my hand fall from his shoulder in a way that I wouldn't make contact with anything else, once I was sure I could stand up straight. If you're going to break my neck, please do it without breaking my jaw first…

"Weiss," Nero said in a quick way, and I wished I could see his face. "Weiss don't hurt her!" The Oblivion practically shrieked as Nero's voice rose, and Weiss's eyes widened as he turned his head to look over his shoulder.

"It's not my fault she's so fragile," he stated. I was startled by how…how much Nero seemed to care. "I won't hurt her." I reached up to his wrist and gripped it, attempting to dislodge his iron grip. "Hmph…" he looked back to me and let go, and I dropped my own hand in response.

"How are you feeling, Weiss?" I asked, taking a step back.

"What?" he seemed confused, maybe even startled at the question?

"Have…you recovered, from the battle?" I mentally shot myself, because the stammer was obvious, and he was probably smirking.

"…Of course," he said after a moment, raising his arms slightly while turning his palms toward me.

I smiled at him, a little shakily, but I did manage a smile before I turned to Genesis. "So…I, uh…Guess…you'll be going now that you've got Nero coming with you…?" The auburn-haired man reached up to brush some of his hair from his face, though it fell immediately back into place a moment later.

"Yes," he responded. "Are you…concerned for his safety."

Even though I was, I shook my head immediately. "I care a lot about Nero," I sated, "and I'll miss him a bunch, but I don't have to ask to know that Weiss is gonna protect him."

"Wait…where are you going?" Tifa asked, shaking her head in confusion.

"It matters little," Genesis said. "What truly matters is that we will be prepared for a battle far worse than Deepground." I looked at him, trying not to bite my lip as he returned my gaze. "Don't worry. Your return to this world will coincide with our enemy's own."

"So…you're our allies in this?" Tifa seemed hopeful, obviously not wanting to see these three as enemies. I'd kill myself to save them the trouble if that was the case.

"We are," Weiss said. "Good luck convincing your friends, though."

"Genesis," I said quietly, "You know…Cloud, don't you?" He seemed to know that I knew a lot, but maybe I was taking a gamble.

He looked at me, surprised, but nodded. "Yes…yes, I do." He turned to Tifa, then. "Cloud may remember me…we have met before, and it was not under…friendly circumstances."

"So please do what you can to convince Cloud that he's on our side," I laughed kind of nervously to my female friend. "I um…may not be here by the time the Chocobo gets home." I tapped my finger against my head as I said "here," and she seemed even more worried. "Adam's talking to Reeve about taking care of my body for as long as…need be."

"Holy fuck!!"

I jumped, and Nero asked me if I was okay.

"I'm fine," I said, before nervously adding, "Adam…just popped in."

"I come back from getting coffee and…and fuckin' GENESIS is there!"

Your point being…?

"You sound like it's so normal!!"

I thought you'd know he was coming.

"No, I didn't…why?" Adam asked, sounding…less freaked out.

Because you have access to my other thoughts, and I had a dream where I spoke to him, and apparently it was a bit more than a normal dream.

"He probably fell into your more personal thoughts, where we can't see as well."

I sniggered. "Adam's surprised to see you guys."

"He…is the one who monitors you?" Nero asked, making sure he had the right guy. I nodded. "Can he be trusted…?"

"Of course he can," I responded, shrugging. Weiss seemed…the most confused. "The man who speaks to me through the chip implanted in my head…"

He seemed irritated when I said it. "I see."

There. Now, when am I being…woken up?

"I finished talking to Reeve."

How did you talk to him?

"Hacked the WRO database, thank you very much."

O…kay, fine, so you hacked the database.

"What's going on?" Tifa asked, trying to read my expression.

"Just a sec," I sighed, holding up a hand. What's—

"I told him we're taking you out today, so he's going to be coming by. Sit down or lie down upstairs, but say your goodbyes. You have ten minutes…and I can't stall any longer than that…okay?"

"I've got ten minutes before I have to go," I stated, showing off a small, sad smile. Thanks for everything, Adam.

"…Yeah."

"Ten?!" Tifa gasped.

"Yeah. Look, um…I…" I took a deep breath, willing myself not to cry. "I'd better get to the point. Reeve's gonna take care of my body, because Adam talked to him about it, so he'll be by later. I want hugs before I go, so you won't mind if I wake the kids up, will you?" My voice cracked on the final note, and she answered with a quick shake of her head as she pulled me forward into a hug of her own. "I-I'm gonna lie down in my bed once I say g'bye, 'kay?"

"All right," she sighed, tightening her hug before letting me go. I spun around to look at Nero, grinning sheepishly.

"You're probably getting sick of me hugging you, but I'm probably gonna be gone for a while…and I'm reeeallly gonna miss you…" I left it at that, looking down for a minute before Genesis stepped aside slightly more and Weiss gave Nero a gentle push, blue gaze fixed on me.

"I don't mind that terribly much," the dark-haired man sighed, putting his arms around me as I did the same.

"Thanks," I whispered, sighing. I looked at Weiss and said, "I don't know you well enough to hug you, and even if I knew you better, you'd be mad if I did, but…take care, okay?"

"Mm." Weiss gave me a strange look, furrowing his brow a bit. When Nero let go, he pushed me forward to Weiss, and my eyes widened in surprise as I was pulled against him. "You do deserve a proper thank-you," he explained, arms loosely around my shoulders. Probably to avoid Nero's worry that he would hurt me…"But this is to be spoken of to no one."

"I understand," I nearly giggled with embarrassment as I hugged him back. Not two seconds later I was shoved back carefully, and I just looked to Genesis and nodded. "I don't expect you to hug me, but I'm going to tell you to take care too."

"And you as well, Victoria." He gestured up the stairs with a red-gloved hand. "You're running short on time."

I looked to the four of them and ran, not bothering to be quiet as I burst into the kids' room. Denzel bolted into a sitting position, eyes widening as he woke up abruptly.

"What the--"

"No time, gotta go soon, won't be back for a while," I explained quickly, ducking down to hug him.

"Where are you going?" he asked, sounding concerned as he hugged back slightly. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," I pulled back, hurrying over to Marlene. "Hey, Marlene, time to wake up for a sec, I gotta go soon."

"H-huh…?" she mumbled sleepily, not opening her eyes. I sighed softly.

"Denzel, can you explain later?"

"Y…yeah…? When are you coming back?"

"Not sure." I shut the door as I exited, and saw that Shelke was already sitting up, her red hair disheveled from sleep.

"Victoria?" she questioned, sounding concerned. "You look…are you alright?"

"Shelke, I'm gonna be going to another world, but Reeve is gonna come by later to take my body here back to the WRO, so it'll be safe." I sat down on her bed, opening my arms. "I wanna say goodbye before…"

"…Oh," Shelke murmured softly, blue eyes wide for a second. "I see." She hugged me, and said something else that took me by surprise when I held her against my shoulder. "I'll miss you, Tory."

I nodded, sniffling as I put my chin on her head. "Boy oh boy, am I gonna miss you, Shelke…" I shut my eyes tightly, feeling the familiar sting of tears.

"This is not really…goodbye, is it?" she asked. "You'll come back. Otherwise you would not keep your body safe like you are going to…"

"I'm coming back, but I don't know when." I heaved a sigh as I pulled back, and went around hers to get on my own. "Until then…Weiss, Nero and Genesis are getting ready to leave." I pulled back the covers and settled in beneath them, removing my glasses and letting my ponytail loose as I covered myself up to my chin. "You should say hello and goodbye to them…"

"About a minute and a half." Adam said.

"I'll…wait," Shelke said with some effort, and I thought I saw her blue eyes glistening—but without my glasses, I couldn't be sure. She came over and sat down on the bed next to me, and I pulled my right arm out so I could take her hand. Everything was already beginning to dull, and blur.

"Will you tell everyone that I'll be back?" I asked, squeezing her hand with what fading strength I could. Wow, I'm losing it fast.

"I will," she promised.

"Thank you…"

My eyes shut, and I let go.

This is a happier ending that I thought it would have.

To all of you who have read this and stuck with me until the end; thank you.

For those of you who think: "Oh man, she's just gonna leave it at that?"

You're wrong, because I'm not. If you have faith in my abilities to continue this, in another world, in another GAME, please add me to author alert or whatever that one thing is that'll tell you when I have a new story up.

I'll tell you right now that it's Tales of Symphonia that I'm going to be writing in next, and even if you haven't played it, I'm asking you to please read it. This may take me a couple years to complete all the way, and I want to keep this going. I won't give up or stop typing, even if I take a break for a while.

I love you guys, and I couldn't have made it this far without any of you.

Derik: Thanks for putting up with me having you in as a character for so long. If this were ever to really happen, I would have been begging Vincent to shoot me by the time we got to Shinra Manor. And also, thanks for suggesting that we RP.

NorthMedian: Thanks for saying you'll help me out with some of the next story, and I look forward to your comments and advice.

Rixah: I think, honestly, that you left the most reviews. Thank you for your endless support, and the time you took to speak with me.

--Tory.