a/n: yo everyone. this is an...ok chapter? i don't know. please review, and thank you to all who have so far--if you are confused PM me and i can set some things straight, lol


Chapter Four: Understanding

It followed that after Yuffie extinguished the candles and headed upstairs, waving a sad goodnight in his direction, Leon could not sleep. Night had fallen, the heavy, darkest part now lying like a thick blanket around Radiant Garden, and he sat, alone in his room, unable to close his eyes. The window was open; his only window, a wide sort of bay that peered out on the sleeping town below. A cold breeze was teetering through, brushing his feet where they dangled, bootless, over the bed. He was not lying down—his mind was too full of thoughts for that—and instead he was sitting on his comforter, back against the pallid wall behind him.

He thought, for a moment, of how different his room was from Yuffie's. Sort of bland and boring, all white-washed walls and neat lines and no stray thing out of place, whereas hers was like the cat threw up and then liked how it looked, so it did it again.

His thoughts wandered from the messy, cacophony of colors and things that was Yuffie's room to the fact that, should she ever succumb to this disease, they would have to clean it. And all the mess and junk and things would have to be thrown away, a sort of sad reminder, a morbid tombstone to the way things could have been. Taking away everything Yuffie and throwing it in a storage room, or the garbage, or giving it away—that would almost be worse than having to destroy her if she became a heartless. Because Leon knew that once that happened she would no longer be Yuffie, just a sort of shell-corpse of a once-happy girl; but that girl would still be in all her items, every article of clothing, every shuriken that hung on the wall, every poster and blanket and paper and thing

He realized he was breathing rather heavily through his nose; he could not close his eyes, nor was he tired; calming himself down slightly, he rose from his creaky, flat bed, and went to his dresser. He pulled on his pants and a shirt. Just for the hell of it he threw a couple of articles of clothing on his neat, hardwood floor. They stood out eerily against the emptiness in the dark.

Mechanically he went to the door and shoved his cold feet into his boots where they stood, as always. On auto-pilot now, not even entirely sure of where he was headed or what he was planning on doing once there, he swung his gunblade from its lean against the wall into his holster, the comforting weight at his hip allowing him to think more clearly.

He knew exactly where he was headed. How to get there, well, that would be another matter entirely.

With easy practiced—"Come on Squall, if we climb from your window no one will wake up"—he flung himself out and over into the cold night air, dropping from the window ledge to a store sign, crawling with frigid fingers until he was over a low-slung roof, which he hit roughly. Running across he jumped into the nearest alleyway, peering back at the opening from which he came.

"Come on, Squall," he whispered to himself, heading off into the dark.

_______

Rikku didn't like Merlin's house. It was shady, she thought, turning over in the make-shift cot he had set up for her down near the door. Everything creaked. The wind was rattling through the shutters, and the damn computer was on sleep mode, yet still made a sort of humming sigh. Merlin snored. Loudly. She heard him toss and hit a pile of ever present books with a sleepy sort of groan.

Yuna's cot was next to hers, separated by a little space; Paine's was long-ways beneath theirs, and Rikku peered down at her friends harsh features, softened by sleep. Then she narrowed her eyes in Yuna's direction; her eyes were closed, her mouth slightly open, a soft breath escaping too quickly—

"Yunie!" even at a whisper Rikku's voice carried around the whole house. Yuna's mismatched eyes shot open quickly, and with a little 'oh my,' she shot straight up. For a second or two the cousins remained like that, one stark straight and the other hiding laughter within a lumpy old pillow.

"I knew it," Rikku giggled, "I knew you weren't asleep."

Yuna shook her head. "Everything's so creaky. And loud."

"And Merlin snores."

"And the doors move—"

"And the computer's whirring—"

"And if you superstitious people don't shut up I'm going to get mad." Paine's voice was groggy with sleep, normally sleek silver-hair mussed with tiredness. Her head was peaking out of several blankets and this caused Rikku to break into a new fit of giggles.

"Sorry Paine!" Yuna murmured back, "Go back to sleep."

The two waited side by side until they could hear the steady breathing once more; then Rikku threw off her blankets and shrugged into her boots where they lay in a heap on the floor. Her clothes, wrinkled from sleep, and her hair, wild braids flying about her head, made her look slightly mad as she tipped over on quiet feet to the door. Yuna followed suit.

Outside was no less creepy than Merlin's little cottage; the wind had picked up, and Rikku could spy clouds over the horizon, dark and black. Yuna sighed. "I'm so tired, but couldn't sleep."

"Ack. I know." Rikku pursed her lips, moving away from the door. "Let's do something—might as well, we're up anyway."

Yuna pulled her friend away from the door, yet still their voices sounded too loud for the silent night. They walked a little ways. "Like what?"

"Well…let's explore!" Rikku got a wicked gleam in her eyes. "What better way to celebrate becoming humans again then a midnight treasure hunt!"

"Without Paine?"

"I knew that Maleficent wanted us out of the picture—too afraid of the Gullwings, that's why she took part of our hearts and placed it into that Materia, made us small—" Rikku continued as if Yuna had never spoken.

"We're not entirely sure that's the reason, Rikku, we need to do some more research—"

"And if we find a great treasure tonight, then we come rub it into that sleepy mc-sleeper's face; serves Paine right—"

"Rikku, where are we going?"

"Shh!" Rikku, suddenly spying a sort of movement up ahead, pulled Yuna behind the nearest trash can. She peered over the lid. "Is that Squall?"

"Leon? But what would Leon be doing out so late at night?"

"I don't know," the wicked gleam was back. "Let's follow him—"

Yuna mouthed in unison, "And find out."

_______

She kept rubbing her eyes, the wind whipping her hair into her face; she brushed it back impatiently, feet swinging nimbly from the small little wharf she had situated herself on. In front of her the water was dim, greenish with dirt and decay; behind her she could feel Vincent, standing and watching the stars. With forced, shaky movements she felt again at her eyes, which were swollen and raw from crying. Slow footsteps echoed down the peer, presumably from the warehouse she had just recently vacated.

"Look, Rinoa," she recognized the voice which seemed too loud for the hushed night around her; she looked to the side and saw Vincent swing his head gracefully to face the speaker, who was blocked out by the mass of her friend's cape, "I'm sorry. About what the boss said…"

"Its fine, Reno, I'm not mad at you," her voice was thin and shaky. "I'm mad at him."

"I know, I just—" he sighed, and she felt him swing himself down beside her. She looked over at him, red hair tousled in the breeze, kept from his face only by his goggles, which were now reflecting the moon back at her. He was examining the sky, and Rinoa followed his gaze to see a mass of black promising a bitter storm on the horizon. "I just wish I could do something, you know?"

She leaned back on her hands, bumping clumsily into Vincent's metal shoes. She peered up into his face, meeting crimson eyes. Her stare returned to Reno. "You can! Come on, we can fight him together—us three, and Rude, and maybe some of the others—"

"You know I can't go against the boss, Rinoa," Reno eyed her seriously.

"Why not? It's not like you actually like what he's suggesting, do you?"

"No, I don't. But he is the boss. And I am a Turk."

Heavy silence followed this. Rinoa pulled her legs up and tucked them under her chin, arms wrapping around her knees in a small, childish sort of comfort. When she did not speak after a time Reno stood sadly.

"You know, I wouldn't blame you."

She glanced quickly up at him. He seemed so tall, hair spilling behind him in the wind as his eyes were again brought to the gathering storm. "I wouldn't blame you," he continued, "for leaving. Not once. And I would do my best to keep him off your trail for awhile."

"But he's killed so many." Rinoa's voice was a hoarse whisper as she buried her face in her knees. "So many of us, because they defected."

"He hasn't caught Aeris yet. Or Zack. Or Lulu, come to think of it."

"Or Barrett." Vincent's deep monotone caught her off guard.

"Yeah, but," she bit her lip, "what about Cissnei? And Zell? And Quistis? Irvine hasn't been seen in ages, and Genesis is long dead. And Angeal."

"Why are you staying with us, though?" Reno's voice was urgent. "Why do you feel the need to follow the boss around? He's not doing what you would want to do, so leave. Nothing except your conscious and dead feelings are keeping you in this group—"

"I can't leave. Not you, or Rude…"

"Rinoa, listen to me: he is going to have you kill. He is going to have you help spread along the process of disease so that Sin will grow faster and this world will be consumed. He is going to make you gather what little Lifestream the planet will have left in order to resurrect our own lost worlds—but would you really feel anything good in gaining a world that shouldn't exist in the first place? And only does exist because we killed and maimed and slaughtered—"

"Alright! Alright!" Rinoa stood, facing him. "I get it, alright?"

"Leave." She had been so absorbed in Reno's speech that she had missed Rude's approach. "Fight for what you believe in."

"The Turks will remain with the boss, but our numbers are..ah...shrinking. And fast. If you can lie low we can keep Tseng from finding you."

Rinoa bit her lip. Her eyes roved around aimlessly, searching for something else to stare at besides her friend's faces. Why, she thought bitterly, why did she stay? She crossed her arms, rubbing them to get some warmth. She was feeling uncomfortably open and raw.

She stayed for the happy ending she wished she could have, that that man had promised her long ago. If that wasn't going to happen, why bother? All this killing. All this violence. Why?

It shouldn't be a hard choice. In fact, the answer was right in plain sight. She sighed heavily, mind made up. "Vincent." Rinoa turned on her heel, staring up into his pale face. "Will you come with me, or stay?"

"You know the answer." He responded gruffly, fingering the gun at his side. She took a deep breath and held it in, slowly exhaling.

"Kay then, I guess its settled." She turned towards Reno, who was grinning. "If you die though, I'll have to come kill you, Reno. You too, Rude."

"Go now, yo, before anyone sees—"

"Maybe you can find one of the others—"

"And don't forget to write, ya hear?"

Rinoa grabbed Vincent's good hand and sprinted off down the wharf, past the old warehouse and down the business district, searching for a nondescript alley, trying in vain, all the while, to ignore the tears that leaked out of her eyes and onto her face.

Reno had been right, always right; she was done waiting. At least now she could begin to do something, fight back—

Vincent's hand was warm in hers as she pounded down the alleyway she came from. She paused at the entrance to the run-down part of this world, where the lights were still flickering and shops and bars were still open. She was panting heavily, leaning against a seedy, dirty wall. She straightened and asked quietly, "Do you think we're doing the right thing?"

"I believe so." Was her companion's soft reply.

"Do you think we'll make a difference? Or is this place already doomed?"

"I cannot say." He answered bluntly.

"Vincent…are sins…ever forgiven?" she searched for his crimson eyes in the flickering light of the street beyond. They met hers, steady.

"I wouldn't know. I've never tried."

"You mean…never tried…" she nodded. "Well let's go try—we can phone in a verdict."

_______

He was staring at the flowers when he heard the sudden footsteps, appearing startlingly from the desolate waste beyond. He glanced upward quickly, hand moving almost automatically to the hilt of his sword, lifting it slightly and preparing for a sudden, quick, downward slice—

Sora burst through into the small clearing unexpectedly, and though no outcropping could have hid his approach he did not see the teenager running towards him. Standing now, with his hands on his knees, breathing heavily with exertion, he could almost picture the little boy he had first met long ago. "Sora," he nodded quietly, dropping the weight of his weapon, "what are you doing here?"

His voice brought the boy's head whipping up, and with a blinding sort of grin he exclaimed, "Cloud! I knew you'd be here! She'll be so happy—"

"She?"

Another person burst suddenly into the field of white and gold; her gaze, sure and steady, met his, and with a sort of disbelieving smile she said, "Cloud, where have you been?"

"Tifa—" he took a step forward, but stopped, lost for words. He looked to the side. The white and gold lilies swept him up and he remembered that mysterious girl from earlier. With a sort of hurried cough Sora brought him back into reality; Tifa's red eyes were grounding as he shook the fog that had gathered in his head.

"Well, its great that we found you, Cloud," Sora spoke when it was clear no one else would break the silence, "because we've been all over this place and we can't find anything but dirt."

Tifa nodded, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "I don't know how we'll be able to get off."

"Where are we exactly?" he couldn't quite bring himself to look at her eyes and found his own attracted to the muck covering Sora's large sneaker.

"A sort of Limbo, an Inbetween." Tifa frowned, pushing her way through the flowers to come a survey the bleak surrounding landscape. "I'm not entirely sure."

"Limbo?" Cloud frowned. "How did we end up here?"

Tifa shrugged with a helpless sort of purse tingeing her lips; a great silence seemed to swell up, and for some reason she felt oddly disconnected from the man across from her. His eyes were faraway, distant.

A gap had been created without her knowing.

"I get the feeling," Sora's voice, steady and sure, brought her back to reality and she was grateful for the distraction, "that this place…isn't really suppose to exist, you know?" He was frowning, having moved to the edge of the circular flower garden; he proceeded to step in between the waste and the garden, pausing in between each step as if something were going to forcibly stop him. Tifa glanced at the dirt around her; she had to admit, the way the sound died off quickly, the odd landscape, the lack of anything living did give the place a rather eerie feel.

"But how are we here?" Cloud wondered aloud. "If it doesn't exist?"

"Ha," Sora looked sheepishly in his direction, "I never think about that. Too much work. But it sort of reminds me of how the Nobodies' home was like, or Betwixt and Between."

"Well, if this world is like those, then shouldn't we be able to leave like how you left the other ones?" Tifa asked. Cloud met her eyes and her heart hurt.

"I had someone with me who had the power of darkness." Sora scowled into the grass as the weight of their situation finally sunk in; with no darkness and no Gummiship, how were they expected to get out of this place and back home?

_______

Her sleep was littered with nightmares, ones in which she was forced to watch as Squall and Aerith and Cid changed into heartless, their black, shadowy masses slinking forward towards her feet. When she tried to run she looked down, only to find her feet were unable to move and her leg gave way beneath her and she realized that they were not turning into heartless, rather, she was.

More than once she woke crying, commanding herself to go back to sleep, her right leg throbbing and head blazing.

She prayed for the deep sleep, the one in which you did not dream.

_______

He had smoked his way through half his first pack, not even bothering to finish a cigarette, when he realized that several gruff, wild-eyed men were eyeing the bundle he had left with obvious interest. With disgust he stamped out the lit one in his mouth and pushed through the gathering crowd down the street. The lights were flickering and his lungs felt sweaty and sticky, his mind slow and sluggish and craving one more cigarette after being denied them for so long.

He was going to go back to his garage. To the new ship he was building. He did not feel like facing the kids at home, not tonight. He rubbed at the scruff gathering on his chin, stepping past rickety old shops that promised old-remedies to a various number of diseases, but nothing of which he was interested in.

Near the end of the block, where the neighborhood began to improve, the sweet smell of strong liquor accosted him from across the street. He peered over at the flashing neon sign indicating a bar, one right on the edge of the slums. Its exterior was nice, but some of the men being thrown out at the moment were three sheets to the wind—inside, it was probably a hell-hole.

He knew that he didn't need a drink—he'd been on that wagon for quite a while—but he figured he might as well stop in for a sip of something. He wouldn't be in there for long.

Walking across to its door he took in the wooded exterior, looking out of place next to the dark, seedy shops that lined the road. Its sign flickered dully, proclaiming that 7th Heaven was open for business, and he snorted at the name as he pushed open the glass door.

Inside a bar lined the far wall, and booths and tables the open area between; it was not crowded, but the few inside seemed harsh, their hoarse voices calling for more beer as they drank away their sorrows.

The floor was not crowded, but he noted with dismay that the bar was hopping. He spied one open stool near the wall, and pushed his way forward to sit between a man uttering guttural curses into his mug and a slim, petite woman, the only in the place besides the haggard girl working behind the counter. He said nothing, just sat and found himself staring at the rough grain of the surface before him, gouged in places by who knows what.

"What'll it be?" the waitress girl broke him out of his revere. Dulled by the tobacco and lack of sleep, it took him a moment to respond. He felt like all in the bar were looking at him.

"Ah, a…a glass of water." He was staring intently at his hands, trying to ignore the smell of alcohol hitting him in waves.

"Honey, it's liquor or nothing, I afraid." The girl looked exasperated, as if she wanted to scold him for going into a bar and asking for water. He felt ashamed, but didn't know why.

"What about a Neo-Elixir, can you give him one of those?" He did not know the voice. He found it was coming from the girl beside him.

"But they's just an energy drink." The worker seemed intent on getting all her customers drunk.

"Yes," the girl beside him had a clear voice, one that was laced now with sarcasm and forced patience towards the waitress, "but he wants one."

Several long seconds later a gold-sort of liquid was slammed on the counter before him; he took a tentative sip, and immediately felt the heat of energy slipping down his throat and into his system, like a non-alcoholic beer. He took a bigger gulp before turning to the girl next to him. "Thanks." He said, trying to focus on her face as it turned towards her; it was hard with the screaming men in the background.

"Not a problem," she giggled, and he wished more than anything she wouldn't have—Yuffie giggled lightly as she raced forward into the market, gray eyes searching behind her for her company—because it gave him a sudden headache. "You looked uncomfortable—do you not like beer?"

He noticed she had a Potion in front of her, and was swirling the odd contents around half-heartedly. "No," he replied, taking another sip of his Elixir, "I like it too much. Been on the boat for five or six years. Maybe seven—can't remember."

"Well, good for you, then, staying clean." She smiled, but seemed sad, for it didn't quite reach her eyes. Feeling more aware now than before he shrugged upward on his stool, resting his elbows on the wood. "My name's Rinoa, by the way, nice to meet you."

"You shouldn't go around telling every man you meet your name." The deep monotone came from her other side, and for the first time he noticed the tall, dark man sitting there, hardly touching his cocktail mixture as he watched her.

"Oh Vincent—"

"I ain't going to go round telling every godforsaken person your name, now, I don't have the time." His lips tightened into a thin line. "My name's Cid."

"Hello Cid—that was Vincent Valentine, and you should just ignore him because he worries too much."

"What, is he your brother?"

"Nah, just a really good friend."

"Well, nice to meet you Valentine."

When no response was given Cid turned back to his drink; the bell tolled over the door as a new wave of people entered the bar.

"Uh-oh." Beside him Rinoa stiffened, her hair falling forward to cover he face. Cid glanced backwards at the tall man and his companion entering the bar, suited up in jackets and ties, weapons glinting in the half-light around them.

Silence fell slowly as everyone registered the newcomers, their distinctive appearance and the silver metallic of guns and things at their sides.

"Do you know them?" Cid hissed at the girl beside him. She shrunk lower in the stool; he noted the Valentine fellow was gripping his glass rather tightly.

Well, he thought, taking another sip of his own Elixir, things were about to get interesting.

_______

Her senses came back in waves: first the smell, dank and misty, finely layered with rotting wood; then the feel, a soft blanket separating her from the sand, one piled beneath her head, a towel over the rest of her makeshift bed; third the taste, a thick sort of grim that made her feel heady and her tongue feel too large for her mouth; fourth the ache, dull, sprouting from her back and ending in her neck; and finally sound, entering her ears in a slow, methodical sort of way.

She could hear the beach, but muffled, as the waves hissed along the sand. That meant she was probably lying in the corner of the old seaside shack. She could also perceive several voices chattering in low whispers off to the side, trying not to disturb her. Thinking slowed as she emerged from her faint, she clung to the sound, trying to discern any clue as to where she was.

"…I don't know, I think we should get Sora's mom or something."

"Nah, that'll raise a big fuss, and I think she's fine."

"You don't know that, man, maybe Selphie's right—"

"She's still breathing."

"Tidus, sometimes you are so stupid."

"But still, how'd she get here? It's just so weird, ya? And Sora 'n Riku aren't with 'er either."

"I don't know; we'll have to wait until she gets up to ask her…"

Kairi heard no more; if Selphie, Tidus, and Wakka were here, then she must be on the islands. If Sora and Riku weren't with her, then she must be on the islands alone. And it was then she began to cry, because she had once again been left behind.

_______

It was a bullet to one of its mechanical eyes that finally sent the beast whirring over the side of the platform to the floor below, which lay so far beneath them that, try as he might, Riku could not hear it hit the bottom. In front of him the girl folded her blade, easing it into a holster on her back, and behind him the dark-skinned man shuffled forward as he placed his guns away. "Hey, thanks for the help." He said rather amiably, and Riku sighed as Way of Dawn left his hand.

He hadn't even done all that much.

"Woulda been a lot tougher without you, that's for sure." The man continued, oblivious to the fact that the girl had begun a fast clip down the metal causeway. Riku was about to point this out when the man noticed and shouted forward with a gruff sort of voice, "Yo Lightning, hold up!"

She took no notice; Riku wondered if she had even heard, but the older man was cursing under his breath. "Damn girl never listens—come on, or she'll leave us behind." He started a lethargic sort of jog, still panting slightly. "Hey, you're not with PSICOM, are you?"

"Who?" Riku spoke for the first time, easily keeping up as they passed a set of crates piled one on top of the other. The girl, Lightning, had stopped just beyond them.

"Guess that means no. You don't look like one of them anyway."

"Ah."

"I'm Sazh, nice to meet you." The older man smiled offering his hand as they came to a slow stop behind the girl.

"Riku," he grasped the man's hand and stepped back, looking around at the odd place he had landed himself in.

"We don't have time for this; we have to keep moving if we want to catch them." It was the first time she had spoken; her voice was deeper, and from behind her demeanor was sharp and commanding. Riku licked his lips, almost, but not quite, nervously.

"Aren't you gonna thank him, Lightning? He helped us defeat—"

"I don't care, and I don't need help from some kid."

"…Kid?" Riku almost, but not quite, snorted.

A ship zoomed overhead, and the breeze floated down to where he stood, ruffling his silver hair. "He could be PSICOM himself for all we know." She continued, finally turning to face him. Her lips were hard set against him.

"Look at him—does he really look like a PSICOM to you?"

She scoffed, and Riku's eyes narrowed. "I'm not a PSICOM, whatever that is. I had…ship trouble. I don't know where I am, but I'd be willing to help you guys, if you needed it—"

"I thought I told you, I don't need help from some kid! We need to move Sazh, now." She started forward without another word, leaving Riku behind her wondering at her bluntness. Sazh sighed, bringing a hand up to scratch at his head.

"Well come on, kid, or we'll loose her."

"You sure you trust me?" Riku thought this world was turning out to be immensely bizarre, with its beast-machines and metal landscape and PSICOM soldiers. He almost wished the man would answer no so he could sit down and leave them be, working on summoning enough darkness to get home, or at least to a familiar world. Instead the man shrugged.

"I don't know who to trust, kid, but I have a feeling we're gonna need more fighters—and hell, you can fight. So let's go, before I change my mind."

Riku grinned as the two took off after their hasty companion.

_______

There was a tightening in his arms, unused muscles flaring to life as the silent boot steps of the newcomers echoed towards the bar counter. He felt suddenly, gloriously awake, fingering his glass with a sort of calm dread. He only wished that he had his Venus Gospel with him—fighting without a weapon was going to be difficult.

"Rinoa." The newcomer's voice, deep, flitted through the silent bar. "I'm here to ask you to come back to us."

She sighed, turning slowly to face the man, hair floating back behind her face. "Hello, Tseng." She stood. "I thought we'd have more time, before you came after us."

"I never thought you would defect." The man, Tseng's, voice was a breathy exhale as he pushed an empty chair aside and walked purposefully forward. Beside him was a nervous looking red-head who was lagging back near the door. The lady behind the counter was about to tell this man off for ruining the atmosphere of her bar but took one look at his face and slowly slunk to the other corner. Cid watched it all from the corner of his eye.

"I…" she paused, and Cid could tell she was measuring the man's footsteps, even and steady as he swerved around two half-filled tables, whose occupants watched on with a sort of odd silence. "I couldn't live with it anymore, Tseng, the guilt and all…"

"I have orders to kill you if I cannot bring you back alive. That includes you as well, Vincent Valentine."

The girl's back was taunt against the bar counter, hands clenched into fists at her side. Beside Cid the odd cursing man had taken the opportunity to leave without paying, an empty stool sitting in his wake. Cid thought that the man, Tseng, would be just about close enough now—

"I can't believe you would go through with this." Rinoa seemed to be stalling. "Shinra is planning on working with Kadaj's gang."

"They were just born. They are new, and can be fixed."

"I'm not so sure." There was a pause in which, for the space of a second, nothing happened and nobody moved. Then Rinoa made a lunge for the glasses behind the bar, aiming to throw one at her attacker—but Cid moved faster.

With senses heightened from his drink he kicked the school backwards and swung around to throw his glass at the man with his forward momentum. The stool took him off guard, and he stumbled, off balance in his black slacks for just a moment; the glass hurtling at his face presented a bigger issue, and it did not take Valentine yelling for him to duck for Cid to realize that that Tseng-fellow was pulling out his handgun with practiced ease. He rolled onto his knees and to the side, underneath the nearest table, watching as the glass above shattered into a million pieces which cascaded harshly to the ground in a discordant of sounds. Warm liquid splattered him as he eased backward to stand in front of the girl.

He found himself staring into the gun's barrel.

"I suggest you move," Tseng said carefully, coldly. Cid grappled for anything else to use as a weapon but his hand came up short.

Click. The black barrel of Valentine's gun was pointed over Cid's shoulder, loaded and ready; behind him he could feel Rinoa, tense and flighty, set to spring. It was a battle of patience, now.

"Woah—" with a sudden yelp the red-head, who had been standing close to the door, sprang forward, knocking over the remaining tables and their customers' drinks. He staggered to a near stop but hit their attacker, sending both tumbling ungracefully into a heap on the ground. "Reno—" Tseng said as, surprised, he pulled the trigger, sending a bullet into the knee of one man close to Cid.

With a yell the wounded shuffled forward and swung a punch at another angry customer who had just lost his beer—as the riot increased in intensity behind them, as the two suited figures struggled to their feet, Cid grabbed the girl's hand, knocking into the barrel of Valentine's gun as he ran towards the street and open air. "Come on," he shouted over the din, dodging punches and kicks as he went.

The night was dark and cool, the fresh breeze calming to his adrenaline drenched senses. He let go of the girl and motioned them forward down an alley, across a side-street, and back near the good part of town. Valentine followed like her shadow.

"We are we going?" Rinoa panted, continuously looking behind her to check for pursuers. Vincent was running with his gun pointed back, metal shoes pounding odd staccato on the concrete beneath him.

"To my hanger." Cid's head was clearing, wondering why he helped this strange girl. "I think you two have some explaining to do."

_______

Below him was nothing, the sharp drop off he had saved Yuffie from earlier. Above him, glittering eerily in the moonlight, rested the old castle, decrepit and unused. He stood a moment at the edge, wind blowing his hair softly around his face, wondering if this would amount to anything other than a painful fall to the ruins below—his Glide spell was shaky at best, and he had not used it in quite awhile. His feet brushed nothingness.

She would not have waited. She would have smiled and back-flipped off the edge, a dissonance of hootings and yelpings as she took off into the sky. She would almost fall, yet continue to go, go, go—

His eyes hurt. This thinking was getting the best of him. He was not, nor would ever be, Yuffie, and if he wanted to do this correctly he would have to do it his own way. He fingered the crystallized spell he had won from Cid a few years back. It would not last long—he would have to fly low and fast, towards the lip of the hanging castle that once housed the witch. If he was too slow it would only hurt more in the end.

He thought he heard a giggle behind him and sighed, closing his eyes and willing patience. Rikku and Yuna had been tailing him since he left Merlin's house—he wasn't, as they seemed to deem him, a total moron. Rather, he didn't wish to deal with them now, and ignoring them was the quickest way to do so. He imagined them taking shelter beside some rock, wondering what he was doing at the edge of a cliff so late at night.

"…Whatever." He said to himself, done with waiting. Clouds were rolling in behind him, about to cover the moon and his only light—he could wait no longer. With a deep breath, he took one step forward into the air—

"Squall! What the hell--!"

He was beginning to barrel downward, one foot teetering on the edge of the stone behind him when he felt small hands grabbing at his jacket. "Stop it, Rikku, I'm not—"

Whatever he was going to say did not come, for he dropped like a dead weight, and even the combined forces of Yuna and Rikku, grunting and screaming, were not enough to keep him anchored to the rock. However, they could not keep themselves up either.

Leon found that he was dropping rather sharply and rather fast, the extra weight of Yuna, clutching his jacket sleeve, and Rikku, toppling head over heels next to him, proving too much for his feeble Glide spell. He willed it to work, watching his destination edge further from site. Besides him the two girls' screams were caught and ripped from their mouths as their hands grasped his. The air was sliding disconcertingly past his face, making his eyes water. He could not keep his hands at his side—the wind pushed them up and out, until he was like a bird.

A bird dropping fifty miles per hour towards hard rock below.

Finally, somewhere near the bottom when Leon had just begun to worry, the old spell kicked in with a jolt, and their descent slowed to about half of their original speed. Rikku got her voice back and Leon could finally discern what she was shouting.

"Of all the stupid, half-assed stunts Squall, I think this—"

He managed to slow them down even more, startling the thought out of her. Yuna was rather quiet and pale-faced, grim looking as she clutched the circulation out of Leon's arm.

"What in Ansem's name are you doing?!"

Again their descent slowed. He realized he could make out, by the dim moonlight, the hard rocks and broken outlines of the ruins below. He concentrated harder.

"Squall! Can you please answer me you big fat—"

"Shut. Up!" Leon inched to a halt until the three hung suspended in mid-air. With a forced slowness, so as not to not disrupt his focus, he wrapped one hand around Rikku's waist and pulled Yuna down to a standing position beside him with the other, modesty be damned. He inched upward.

"I need you to help me, and not be dead weight." He seethed through closed teeth.

"Oh! You have a Glide spell! How'd you get one of those, huh? They're super rare—"

"Rikku, please." Yuna's voice was faint. She was closing her eyes, face to the sky, as if that would help her be more buoyant. Rikku took the hint and followed her lead.

Their crawling ascent occurred much more slowly than their fast plunge. In ten minutes time they had just reached the lip of the canyon they had toppled off. Leon could feel the spell draining fast, and knew he would have to wait for it to charge if he landed back there now. Also, he did not think Rikku and Yuna would let him attempt this again.

He did not have the time to waste arguing with them.

"Come on, lean forward a bit." His arms were hurting from supporting the girls. Together they tilted forward, and suddenly instead of inching upward they were inching towards the towering castle. The moon was lower in the sky, light fading as the clouds covered it.

"Hey, Squall, I hate to break your concentration or anything, but do we ah…seem to be dropping a bit, to you?" Rikku's voice broke the silence.

"…It would seem so."

The lip of the ruined castle was closer now. The spell had to only hold on for a few more minutes. They floated closer.

"Squall, I think we're really starting to lose it—"

"Leon, maybe we should—"

The three could grasp upward and hang from the cliff's edge, which, as they neared it, slowly sinking, had risen from eye-level to about a foot above their heads. The spell was fading fast, if they didn't move now—

He reached.

_______

When she awoke the sun was not out. Clouds, deep and gray, were covering the sky, and she couldn't tell what time it was. She felt groggy, her eyes sticky and heavy, body sore as she twisted sideways to stare at her alarm clock. It was still early, not yet six—she could use some more sleep.

In fact, she knew she needed more sleep, but her eyes would not close. She kicked off her warped sheets with one leg and rolled heavily onto the floor, letting out a small noise as her knee collided with the blunt edge of a lone shuriken. She kicked it away as she stood, stretching, putting almost no weight on her right leg. It rested gingerly amidst the chaos that was her floor. She stumbled forward in the dark, tugging on more suitable ninja attire to face the day in—however lousy it was going to turn out to be—and groped blindly for the door handle.

The hall was quiet. No light in the kitchen meant that Aerith wasn't up yet—all the better. Cid's door was open, however—she stepped gingerly towards it, avoiding the squeaky floorboards, and peered inside.

No one was there. The bed was still made sloppily, cut outs of airships and Gummiships resting on the wall, newspaper thrown all over the place—she frowned, backing out and down the stairs. If Cid did not come back then he was probably sleeping at the garage for the night.

He only did that when he didn't want to face a problem at home.

She angrily blew hair out of her eyes as she stomped downstairs, not caring to be quiet any longer. Of course he wasn't coming home; he didn't want to have to face her—nobody wanted to face her.

She didn't feel like getting the toaster out so she had her bagel cold. She was about to go check the news on Cid's old computer in order to stay awake when she heard something, a banging coming from the front door. She moved towards the entry way, half-convinced that in her early morning delirium her mind was playing tricks with her.

Poundpoundpound.

Nope, there it was again. She wondered if she should open the door—she wasn't exactly in the best condition. Food seemed to help her leg now, though, for it wasn't hurting. She tested it gingerly as another knock emanated throughout the downstairs. She raced back into the kitchen and threw open the pantry, digging around for the spare shuriken she kept hidden there.

"I don't know about you," she had told Squall once, "but I've noticed that killers always come in the downstairs, so I'm going to keep a weapon here, to show my great preparedness."

The familiar coldness of sharp metal made her feel better than she had in days. She slunk back down the hall towards the door, where the pounding was getting more frantic and rushed; she prepared herself, threw one leg back to better her stance, clutched her weapon in front of her, and sprang. The door was thrown open in a crash of noise.

It was raining, and she hadn't bothered to turn the hall-light on, so only the dim night illuminated the figures in the door way. She squinted, pausing her shuriken mid-throw as someone yelled, "Wait, Yuffie—"

And suddenly Cloud toppled forward into her, sending them both crashing to the floor.

"Aerith!" she screamed.