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Top Guide (In This Town)

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Tifa woke up in her bedroom.

Not the familiar, comfortable one above the Seventh Heaven, with photographs of her family and friends at the bedside and a collection of powerful gauntlets and levelled materia stashed in a trunk under the bed.

The bedroom she’d had in Nibelheim, a child’s bedroom for a sixteen-year-old girl.

Kidnapping was her first thought, because she’d visited the horrifyingly detailed recreation of that room more than once and there was always some crazy bastard trying to mess with the last two Nibelheimers’ sense of time and identity, it seemed like. But then she sat up, and the weakness in her limbs wasn’t drugs.

Unless it was the hallucinatory kind, she guessed, but. She didn’t think so. The scars on the backs of her hands were almost all gone, and the deep one across her chest that she had felt faintly with every breath she drew since the burning of Nibelheim. She formed a fist. Threw a punch into the air, still sitting up in bed.

The wind from her punch made a few loose papers flutter. Enough strength to beat a Nibel wolf still, probably a northern Bandersnatch too. She wouldn’t want to face a dragon. She couldn’t hope to face Sephiroth.

Sephiroth.

Tifa sat very still in her bed tasting the Nibel air in her lungs, and trying to cope with the near-certainty that this was not a dream.

Because, if what it looked like had happened had really happened, for whatever mad reason…she was sixteen again. Sephiroth was coming soon. (I will never be a memory, he had told Cloud.)

Tifa couldn’t let him kill everyone.

Even if she was caught in an illusion or a dream, she had to do everything she could to make it turn out differently this time. She couldn’t live through standing by helplessly while her home burned, not again. Everything in her trembled and raged at the idea.

If it was a dream, maybe making it go right this time would put some of her demons to rest and let her put Nibelheim behind her completely. For the most part, she already had—was over her father’s death just as much as she ever had been over her mother’s. But still. The ghost of it clung. The shame. The blame that went along with surviving. So maybe that was all this was. Like the fractured map of Cloud’s psyche the two of them had blundered their way through, after they fell into the Lifestream in Mideel. A self-reckoning.

Maybe she’d died in her sleep and this was the Lifestream giving her a chance to make peace with her regrets. Maybe, if she made it through this, she’d turn around and the Turks would be priming the charges to drop the Sector Seven Plate, or she’d be descending the impossibly delicate stairway to the spires of the true, hidden Ancient city where Aerith had died.

But she was going to act like it was real, just the same as she had with Cloud years ago when she found him in a train station in under-Midgar's gloom, twitching and confused and potentially dangerous with his giant sword that he sometimes raised for a blow without seeming to know why… She was going to act like it was real, because just in case it was, she couldn’t waste the chance.

That meant not repeating old mistakes, first of all.

Decided, Tifa flung her comforter aside and swung her feet to the ground. Ugh, cold floor. She’d gotten too used to Midanyeard weather, all the other Nibel teens would laugh at her for finding this chilly. Still, she could handle the Northern Crater, if she needed to. This was fine.

She changed out of a pretty little nightdress she had legitimately forgotten the existence of until she saw it into real clothes—not the brown skirt and vest set that had been her favorite in these days, of course; bad memories.

She didn’t own any black.

Blue skirt, she decided, turning her way through her wardrobe, a little long for her taste but it was side-slit so she could move in it without having to worry about too much extra material getting in the way—though she’d been getting better at dealing with that anyway; if Cloud could handle it so could she, even if he didn’t rely much on kicking. And a stretchy dark-green top that her father would say was too small for her, but she didn’t mind it ending inches above the skirt’s waistband; the important thing was that it gave her freedom of movement.

Tifa stared at herself in the mirror. A child gazed back, twice Marlene’s age but in so many ways so terribly much more ignorant. Sixteen was old enough to marry, more than old enough to work; sixteen wasn’t a child. But from the viewpoint of twenty-six it was, and that was what she saw in the mirror.

Green wasn’t her best color, but it brought out the brown of her eyes and hair and made her skin look warmer. Made her look more like her mother. It didn’t matter what she looked like. She knew who she was.

She wore the boots with the heels. They were black.


The kitchen downstairs turned out to be fragrant with chocolate-chip cookies baked last night, and she munched one absently as she tried to remember where the glasses were. Right. In the cupboard under her mother’s china. She wouldn’t have thought she could ever forget the layout of the house she’d grown up in, but…anyway, milk. From the refrigerator on the left.

Milk and cookies was a completely acceptable breakfast. She didn’t have small children to care for anymore, and that was actually extremely awful to consider but at least it meant she didn’t have to set a good example.

She’d never realized until she came back to find Shinra’s recreation just how many of the things around the house had been her mother’s, even eight years after she’d died.

The vases Shinra had placed in those spots had been similar, in some cases probably items manufactured in the same place around the same time, but none of them had been her mother’s vases. The pattern of painted roses had been almost correct, but the brush strokes just a little different.

She’d never understood why they’d made such an effort. Any out-of-town visitor able to notice that the decorations and furniture had been exchanged for new would also have noticed that the Lockhart family was missing. There was a horrible suspicion it had all been for her, that Hojo had known somehow about her narrow escape.

More likely it had been for Cloud, but he’d been underground in a mako tank when the town was rebuilt. And Hojo hadn’t meant to let him go unless his mind collapsed and ‘Cloud’ disappeared. Maybe it had been part of the clone experiment as a whole, testing how much of Nibelheim's survivors remained in those rocking chanting husks, by how they reacted to their homes.

There was even less point to trying to puzzle out the nonsense evil decisions of the Shinra now than ever, and it was ruining the taste of her milk and cookies. She shoved a cookie into her mouth whole just in time for her father to open the front door and come into the house.

Tifa rushed to the kitchen door to greet him, then sort of waved awkwardly as he stomped his feet just inside the door to get any possible dirt off, before continuing forward across the parlour. She fell back out of his way to let him into the kitchen, which made him smile. “Morning, Tifa,” he said, and made for the coffee-pot.

She smiled back with lips pressed closed around her mouth crammed full of cookie. She passed him the milk.

Her father gave the green top a look askance, but didn’t actually say anything, so Tifa happily pretended obliviousness. He’d obviously already eaten breakfast, and probably been out working for a couple of hours.

It was a point of pride for him that his business was too successful for Tifa to need to work—even a lot of the housekeeping was done by a couple of the town widows who came in twice a week—but sometimes his work ethic clashed with the lazy adolescence that was part of the modern middle-class lifestyle, and it had always been awkward. That was part of the reason Tifa had taken to the Zangan with such discipline, really—school only ran in the three months of deep winter, and she’d needed something to work on, to make the passing days feel worthwhile.

Raven Updike had been marrying Sable Broom, she remembered suddenly. They’d saved up and taken out a loan from Raven’s father to commission Tifa's dad’s little construction company to build them a brand new house of a modern design, and he’d been out surveying the ground to plan the foundations for all of the week leading up to the massacre. Bits of grass were stuck to his shoes, matching the slivers of green sock that showed under the hems of his trouser legs. He’d been out surveying this morning, and green socks meant today was Odinsday.

Tifa started on another cookie, trying to plan ahead without thinking too deeply about the situation. What were her resources, besides herself?

“Tifa?”

“Hm?”

“If the Shinra people come today, try not to bother them too much,” her dad said.

“Yeah, okay,” Tifa agreed absently, then blinked. “Wait, what? Daddy, what did you just…?”

…he was wearing his green socks. He’d died wearing his green socks. On an Odinsday, seven days after Sephiroth came to Nibelheim.

It was today.

“I know you’re interested in SOLDIER, honey, but soldiers aren’t all patient men, or even decent ones. Just…ask polite questions and don’t get too political. And don’t let them get you alone!”

In spite of everything, Tifa’s smile was a lot softer and gooier than the irritated one she’d probably have worn the first time she’d lived through today, if she’d worn such a tight top then and provoked this lecture. She’d been on the other end of the fretful scolding now, she knew just how much it meant he loved her—and having her Dad try to hem her in to keep her safe wasn’t suffocating the way it could be when Cloud slipped up and tried it.

After all, she knew she wasn’t immortal, now, knew how bad people could be…knew that her father’s restrictions had an expiration date, and didn’t threaten to box her in for the rest of her life. Knew she could leave whenever she wanted. “Okay, Daddy,” she said. “I’ll be careful. You want a cookie?”


She excused herself before she could make herself sick on cookies to go visit Master Zangan, who should be in town right now, since he had been last time. Found him in the kitchen at the inn and got him to take her out into one of the uphill pastures to run her through a rigorous training session, by the end of which she felt like she had a pretty good grasp of where her power was now—pitifully, horrifyingly low, but her teacher praised her forms, at least. She hadn’t grown enough between now and adulthood for her balance to be hard to find in the body she had now. She wasn’t sure she’d really grown at all, except for muscle bulk.

Zangan proceeded to teach her a kick she’d already learned, in the not too distant future, after he’d gotten her away from Nibelheim and healed up, but before he’d left her to fend for herself. He didn’t notice she already knew it, just praised her quick learning.

Having him in town used to make her feel like nothing bad could happen. He’d been the strongest person she knew.

When Nibelheim burned, he’d been there to help her afterward. But he hadn’t even tried to protect everyone.

The Shinra team had come in the late afternoon last time—nearly evening, really. Tifa finished training, brushed down her skirt and boots, went home, sponged the worst of the dust and sweat off her face and the back of her neck and under her breasts, and ate a sandwich.

The normalcy of it all was surreal, almost hypnotic. As if perhaps all her life since yesterday had been a dream, all the strength and blood and victory and ashes, and she wouldn’t have to do anything heroic, but could just keep living like this, peaceful days succeeding one another endlessly into the future forever.

Of course, even if her world hadn’t burned down, she would have had to grow up soon, anyway. Or if she hadn’t, she would have been sorry.

She got out into the square in plenty of time to see the Shinra delegation arriving. They’d come by truck, which was technological marvel enough for this backwater, and they paused along the road, between the one truck that actually belonged in town (and didn’t actually work) and Old Man Hilgrid’s big water tanks, while their leader turned and…addressed the troops.

It looked pretty formal, even with the other SOLDIER in black standing at conversational ease, but she’d seen this moment from Sephiroth’s perspective and replayed in Cloud’s, and heard about it from Cloud’s garbled recollection before that, so she knew they were actually talking about hometowns and parents and what it felt like to come home.

Across the square, Sephiroth’s shoulders shook with laughter in a way that…really wasn’t humanizing at all, possibly because it accentuated the otherwise pretty nonexistent family resemblance to Hojo, but Tifa found herself ignoring him, in favor of looking past and studying the faces.

The dark-haired SOLDIER looked a little concerned under his easy confidence, and it only took a second to spot Cloud among the hidden faces. It was partly how well she knew his movements after all the battles they’d been through together, even if she could already spot ways they were different now before he began to be ridden by the ghost of Zack Fair, and partly the way only one of the troops seemed like he was hiding inside his uniform.

Corporal’s stripes, she noticed, and ducked behind the wooden cistern as Sephiroth moved on into the square. She’d learned Shinra rank insignia in her early days as a terrorist. Not that their AVALANCHE had ever favored tactics like precision strikes against command, but it was still good to be able to identify who was giving the orders at a glance. She hadn’t known Cloud was an NCO, probably because he didn’t remember either.

The other two troopers were unremarkable, she couldn't even tell which one had fallen to his death last time, and Fair lingered at the back of the formation with the one left on guard as the Shinra unit swung back into motion. Tifa lurked in the shadow of the cistern as Sephiroth strode into the town square, expression bland—not quite irritated, but possibly irritable.

It was never safe to make assumptions with Sephiroth, but she was fairly certain this wasn’t the one she knew. The way he moved was wrong, somehow, the way his eyes slid over things. Still dismissive, still cold, but the Nightmare…that Sephiroth burned with cold, cared for nothing but at the same time was afire with the will to possess it all.

This was only the chilly, foreboding individual that had so failed to impress her ten years ago, when he’d arrived with no sign of Cloud. Even the familiar scornful motions of his laugh had seemed just different enough from the laughter he had turned on her and her friends that she would be shocked if he remembered the future she came from.

This Sephiroth didn’t know anything.

Tifa would have to make sure it stayed that way.

He paused without entering the inn, possibly waiting for Fair but looking more as if he'd frozen in a moment of abstraction, and Tifa stayed still. If he attacked her here in the square, at least no one else would be in the way of his sword; otherwise, she was still on reconnaissance. But since she was her entire team so far, she was simultaneously plotting.

She knew roughly how the next day was going to go.

Sephiroth would ask the innkeeper about hiring a guide; Old Man Hilgrid would tell the General that the best guide in town was young Tifa Lockhart, and he’d speak to her father about hiring her. Her father would agree, of course. He was protective, but it had been years since he’d been able to stop her rambling Mount Nibel, fighting monsters and discovering hideaways; it could only be safer with an armed escort, as well as more profitable and prestigious.

It had never bothered Tifa as a girl that Shinra didn’t keep any staff on-site to keep the mako reactor in repair, but looking back it was another sign of how rotten the whole company was. There’d been reactor faults in Corel and Gongaga, the latter of which had blown up the town, though admittedly that hadn’t happened yet; the things needed maintenance.

And even now they’d sent a combat team to handle the monsters and reactor malfunction without a technician or scientist in sight. Maybe Sephiroth was an expert in reactor mechanics, or something, but even so…

This really had been a setup all along.

They’d known that; it had Hojo’s slimy fingerprints all over it. And yet. Seeing it all again from this perspective. It stank.

SOLDIER Fair caught up, and he and Sephiroth spoke briefly; Sephiroth seemed to issue some general commands before finally disappearing inside, followed by the two troopers. Cloud looked like he was wishing he could jostle the General aside to get out of the square faster, but probably only if you knew he was hiding.

Fair was standing alone.

Tifa had a decision to make. Not whether to interfere—that was already made. How. There was Cloud, of course, just vanished inside, but he wouldn’t be able to do any more than she could, yet.

She knew one thing that was making her hesitate, and shouldn’t: Without being kidnapped into the Jenova Project, Cloud would probably never become the hero she’d known, with the strength to save the whole world in his sword. That was more than worthwhile, if he was happy. His dreams of strength had been founded on dreams of not being alone anymore, after all. And to be strong enough that he could have saved Tifa, when they were small and she fell like an idiot. There’d always been more to him than his power, and just because he stayed fully human didn’t mean he couldn’t be a hero.

He’d have died for the sake of Aerith and the Planet without a second thought, he’d have gone through hell as many times as it took; if she’d thought they needed him to become the strongest in the world to save it she might have felt like she had to honor what his wishes would have been and let Hojo have him, even though it was the last thing she wanted. She would have lived with herself somehow.

But if keeping him from being tortured was part of a plan to save Gaia from going through all the calamities they’d all only barely gotten the Planet through alive? There was no decision to make.

She would miss him, her Cloud. But it was too late to get him back, so she had no regrets about protecting the Cloud within her reach. Her fingers smoothed across her skirt as the tension between her shoulders eased, and she stood straighter.

Time for another go at saving the world.

Tifa stepped forward.

Chapter Text

SOLDIER Fair noticed her right away—probably he’d been aware of her all along, if he was half as good at his job as Cloud's initial skills suggested. She’d been staring, after all, even if she’d been doing it from under a cistern.

“You’re one of the SOLDIERs Shinra sent?” she asked. It was more or less how she’d started last time, and she’d made an okay first impression then, so she could rely on it seeming both natural and inoffensive now. She hoped.

The dark-haired SOLDIER grinned at her. He was exactly as she remembered, really, not that she’d thought he was anyone of significance at the time. Vibrant, she'd called him once. The incongruously familiar hilt of the Buster Sword jutted over one shoulder. “Yeah, name’s Zack, and I’m with SOLDIER,” he confirmed. “First Class, mind you, First Class!”

No wonder Cloud had picked that part up.

“Huh. Are there a lot of those?”

“Nope,” definitely a little smug, but only a little, “we’re a small, elite group.”

Last time, Tifa thought she remembered complaining about there only being two of them, and then she’d chickened out of asking about Cloud, and left. She also hadn’t waited until Sephiroth went inside to approach, that time. “My name’s Tifa,” she said. “You’re going up to the reactor, right?”

Fair nodded. Nothing classified about that part, at least. “That’s right.”

“The path’s pretty tricky, so you’ll need to hire a guide. I’m the top guide in this town,” she boasted. It was nothing but the truth, but it felt right to brag a little—he obviously didn’t believe in modesty, and pride gave her a reason to bring it up, right?

The SOLDIER grinned. He was only a couple of years older than her, she realized, for all his height and confidence. Years younger, now. He’d died younger than she was inside her head. “Okay, then I guess we’ll be relying on you.”

He gave a broad, friendly feeling with his hands braced on his hips. Cloud had moments, even ten years on, five years after Fair’s death, of moving like this man; mannerisms that didn’t quite belong if you’d known him before. But even at his most confident and charismatic he’d never had this kind of presence. Cloud wasn’t an outgoing person by nature. Zack Fair was, like nobody else Tifa had ever met. He reminded her of Cait Sith, a little bit, which was weird.

She guessed Reeve was sort of like him, too. Reeve was always weirdly idealistic for such a morally compromised person. It fit. They were both Shinra, after all. Tifa was more fond of Reeve than she’d normally be willing to admit. She didn’t think talking to SOLDIER Zack Fair would be much like talking to Reeve, though.

Cloud had adored him. Aerith had loved him. He’d been loyal to a mako-poisoned Cloud, which meant part of him reflected part of her, even if their reasons weren’t quite the same.

Even if he was SOLDIER, she had to believe he was someone that could be trusted to try to do right.

“I’ll do my best,” she promised.

It didn’t come out as girlish and charming as it would have when she was really sixteen, or even with youthful determination to prove herself. It sounded serious, like a promise, and she knew Zack Fair had noticed by the way his eyebrows twitched. “Yeah? Well, all a guy can ask.”

Tifa bit her lip. “Yeah, nobody can do better than their best.”

Mako-blue eyes darker than Cloud’s lingered on her face with more attention, now. “Something wrong?”

“Uhm.” She stepped a little closer, not wanting to say any of what she was considering saying too loud.

To her gratification, Fair mirrored her, closing the distance a little more. He was smiling again. She wondered if he was always smiling. “Come on, you can tell me. What’s up?”

Tifa decided to spit it out. “…Sephiroth can’t go to the reactor.”

Fair frowned, suspicion chasing good nature abruptly off his face. He immediately looked years older, and a little like the incredibly dangerous person he had to be, considering his rank. (Still kind of stupid, though.) “Are you…”

“Shinra’s hidden things there,” she said, and then because she was talking to a loyal Shinra employee, even if that was a strange way to think of someone who’d died for Cloud, she changed it to, “Hojo has hidden terrible things there, and in the mansion.”

“Hojo?” Zack repeated, and if it wasn’t with the alarm that name deserved it was at least full of disgust.

“Secrets…and lies…that he won’t be able to handle. Sephiroth won’t.” She bit her lip. She needed an ally. She was just one girl, even with everything she knew; she wasn’t strong yet, didn’t have a team of terrorists or a raft of mastered materia to rely on. She didn't even have any connections. There was no way she was going to let the destruction of Nibelheim happen the same way again just because she wasn’t strong enough to change it alone. SOLDIER Fair was her best hope.

“Listen, uh…”

Fair was looking spooked. Well, no way out but through. “There’s nobody alive who could stop him if he lost his mind,” Tifa said, knowing it was true. “Is there?” she asked, to get him to admit she was right.

Like pulling teeth, Fair admitted, “I’m the closest there is left to someone as strong as him, so no. There isn’t.” His hand went up to his sword, but just to touch it, with the ends of his gloved fingers; not a threat she had to defend against.

Which was good, because at sixteen she didn’t have a prayer, especially with no materia—she didn’t know how strong he was, exactly, but the information she had said he really was the next strongest SOLDIER after Sephiroth. And it didn’t matter how big that gap was because right now, for her, it was the distance between trying to strike the crest of Mount Nibel with a rock thrown from Nibelheim, and trying to throw one to the moon. One might be closer, but she wasn’t likely to hit either.

Fair shook his head, hard. “But that doesn’t matter.”

“It matters if your General kills everybody I know!” Tifa retorted, stung even though she knew that he couldn’t know how real the possibility he dismissed was to her.

“What, the town?” Zack Fair looked around, then back at her, eyebrows still knit. “Are you guys involved in…whatever this is?”

“No. We’d just…be available.”

“I don’t think the General is that kind of person,” Zack said, and it was hard for Tifa not to break in and say if only you knew. But a shadow crossed his face again, and he said, “What is it you want, miss?”

“This mission is a trap.” Her fists tightened until it hurt. She needed better gloves. “He’s your friend, right?” You’re not the Sephiroth I know, Cloud had remembered Zack saying in that reactor, ten years ago and a week from today. And she hated him and would go on hating him forever, but maybe it was true, and for all the blood he had spilled for Shinra already it was not until he’d lost his mind that Sephiroth had become the kind of person who would murder helpless people who were not his enemies.

And in this time where there was no one who could fight him, that had to be her best hope. Friendship, and a nightmare’s better nature. Because right now she wasn’t powerful, and she had never in her life been subtle. All she had was what she knew.

Tonight, she determined, she would sneak into the Manor and rescue Vincent, and then burn that library down. Gast had been ignorant enough to believe Jenova was Cetra right up until Ifalna set him straight; whatever good research he had done wasn’t enough to be worth the poisonous misconceptions. Never mind whatever Hojo had added.

She had watched Cloud shatter under the revelation that he was not who or what he believed; he’d put himself back together with her help and Aerith’s, and everyone’s, and while she knew in her heart that Cloud was stronger and better than Sephiroth—just maybe, if the Calamity’s son broke a little less, or even just a little slower, her home would be safe. Her father would be safe.

Her Planet could be saved.

“I’m his friend,” Fair agreed, carefully.

“So…help him.” And this wasn’t for Sephiroth’s sake and she wasn’t pretending it was, but if he wouldn’t believe Sephiroth was dangerous at least he seemed to think it possible the man was in danger.

Fair puffed out a little sigh. “Say I believe you. What do you want me to do?”

“He can’t go to the reactor. You have to convince him to let you go without him.”

A somehow heavy pause. “The last time I took a mission so Seph didn’t have to, it…didn’t exactly turn out well.” That was grief in his voice and his eyes, though not anywhere else, really, and she wondered about it, whatever story lay behind this sorrow that Cloud had never remembered, or at least never shared.

She would never have guessed that anyone had ever called the Nightmare ‘Seph,’ and as if the thought was a reminder Zack Fair winced a little and added, “Don’t mention I called him that, would you? I do it to his face because it’s good for him, but behind his back it’s just kind of disrespectful.”

“I won’t. And I don’t think anything you could do on this mission could possibly be worse than what will happen if Sephiroth goes up there tomorrow.”

“You seem so certain.”

Tifa pressed her lips together. “I am.”

“So who are you,” Fair said, looking her up and down. They were close enough in age it wouldn’t have been creepy if his eyes had lingered, the way a lot of people’s did; if she minded people looking she wouldn’t have dressed the way she had in the future. But (just like Cloud) he didn’t linger; maybe he noticed her body and cared, maybe not, but either way it didn’t show. His girlfriend had a better figure, anyway. “Besides the top local guide?”

She shrugged, a smile coming to her lips crooked and wry. “Just a Nibel girl.”

Fair stared at her for several more seconds, like he was hoping she’d decide to open up to him if he waited a while. Then he sighed, shook his head—disconcertingly, the smile was back. “I can’t go behind my commanding officer’s back just on your say-so. Plus, you’ve never tried to put one over on Sephiroth, he has a real nose for intrigue.”

Tifa and all her friends had been led around by their noses by dead Sephiroth, so this wasn’t exactly surprising. So she needed to be more convincing? She could namedrop Aerith, but if Fair called her to check he’d find out she had no idea who ‘Tifa Lockheart’ was, and while that would get his attention it would also make him more suspicious.

She wanted to save claims of time travel for a last resort. Could Sephiroth hear them from here? Cloud wouldn’t be able to, her time’s Cloud, unless he was right inside the upstairs window listening, but she wasn’t sure how their senses compared.

“He was born here,” Tifa said abruptly. Softly.

She had Zack Fair’s attention.

“It was…obviously, it was before I was born. If you ask around, most people don’t know, they’ll just say a long time ago Shinra people used the Manor. If they’re old enough they might remember there were scientists, it was a major secure research facility so they didn’t mingle much. But I…explore everywhere, and…they made him in the Manor.” She pointed toward the dilapidated hulk of it. “I don’t know how long they kept him here after he was born, but this is where it started.”

“Are you saying…”

“I’m saying SOLDIER goes back to the experiments they did here, starting almost thirty years ago. The Jenova Project.”

And for some reason that got her all of his attention. Had Sephiroth just now, on the way into town, told them his supposed mother’s name? She didn’t think she remembered that happening, but her memory was hardly flawless. “Jenova…Project, huh?” SOLDIER Fair repeated. “You know anything else about it?”

“Some.” Tifa hesitated, trying to decide what she could plausibly know. If the Manor burned down tonight he was going to suspect her now, no way around it. Bad planning, oh well, worth it. “His designation was Project S.”

That convinced him, for some reason. “But what makes you so sure the General is going to flip off the handle if he finds this stuff out?” He didn’t necessarily sound like he disagreed.

“Some of what’s in the labs…it isn’t true. It’s set up to make him feel as alone and betrayed as possible. And he’s not the most…stable person in the world right now, is he?” That laughter coming in—she was pretty sure it hadn’t seemed ominous just to her. Fair was worried. She needed to make sure he was worried about the right things.

He didn’t confirm, but he didn’t deny.

Tifa said, “I think maybe Hojo…just wants to see how far he’ll go, if he does snap.”

Fair pulled a face. “You think? Man. Not a lot I would put past Professor Creepy, but you need to stop talking about Sephiroth like that. He’s loyal to SOLDIER. I’m gonna trust him unless he gives me a real reason to stop.”

Oh, he would. “Loyal to SOLDIER?” Tifa echoed. “I would have thought you’d say Shinra.”

Another of those complicated faces that made him seem older. “Shinra is…complicated. SOLDIER is a team. We watch out for each other.”

Like they watched out for you, Tifa thought, with more than a little venom because there had been SOLDIERs in the battalion that brought this man down, five years in the future on a rocky bluff overlooking Midgar. Cloud had told her he remembered that much. The scattering of broken swords around a dark-haired corpse. That was no kind of team she would ever want to join.

But she preferred people who projected their own virtues onto others over those who projected their own flaws. “Take my warning then,” she said. “If nothing else. Watch out for Sephiroth.”

For all the good that would do.

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Fair assured her. And didn’t say thanks, on purpose she was sure. “By the way…I’m not sure about that building, but if you’ve explored inside the reactor, try not to mention that. It’s a classified facility.”

Without waiting for her to respond, he gave a little wave and vanished into the inn.

Tifa was embarrassed to have been so focused on being plausible she’d forgotten about Shinra’s habits of secrecy. At least Fair didn’t seem like he wanted to sic the Turks on her for trespassing and potential espionage.

Cloud would probably wait until nobody was obviously watching to go visit his mother, so Tifa went…home.

It didn’t feel like home anymore, and at the same time it would always be her truest home, and she didn’t…well, she tried not to think about it. Decided to put together something for dinner; settled on a baked noodle dish that had been a trendy imported piece of Junon-style cuisine when her mother was young. These days most people with ovens also had at least one glass or ceramic dish suitable for baking in, but Tifa had her grandmother’s old porcelain casserole along with her recipe cards, and if it wasn’t actually better it was certainly fancier.

It had been a long time since she’d had anything fancy that wasn’t a weapon. She hadn’t really missed it, to be honest, or she would have bought some since Meteorfall, but she had missed having her mother’s things.

She wondered if the Shinra reconstruction team had tracked down replica casseroles. She hadn’t looked in the cupboards in the false house. Possibly a careful concern for her own mental health was not one of her virtues, but she didn’t actively pursue self-destruction.

Cleaning up the kitchen once she had the dish assembled was even more soothing than the cooking of it. Getting everything cleaned and put back in its precise proper place. You had to have a very strict system of organization when running a restaurant kitchen, even if you were the only cook using it, which she hadn’t been in years.

She left the noodles baking and slipped outside again, shading her eyes against the sinking sun. It would be behind the folds of the southwestern spur of the Nibel range soon, and then Nibelheim’s long twilight would set in, but for now everything was still washed golden. Should she go to the inn? Avoiding Sephiroth seemed like a good idea, and she didn’t want to push Fair, but she would prefer not to miss Cloud completely…

She turned sharply right at the deliberate sound of boots on cobble, approaching her from the western side of the square. Closer to the direction of the shop than the inn, but allowing for the fact that you couldn’t cross the middle of the square that didn’t mean much.

“Hey, Tifa…” It was…Gregor. Gregor Yeagar. He was a year older than her, and they’d been friends as children, but she’d liked him less the older they got.

He was the only boy her age who hadn’t left town to look for work, and she’d eventually realized he thought sticking around meant he got his pick of the local girls. And of course he picked her. That wasn’t vanity, it was just…everyone had always chosen her, in Nibelheim. She’d been strong and beautiful and, by Nibel standards, wealthy. Everyone wanted to be around her. It had been nice, when she was little—had been a comfort, after she lost her mother—it had meant nothing, when everyone was dead.

She’d liked Gregor, when they were kids. He supported her wilder ideas, never tattled. But looking back, she couldn’t really forgive her younger self for choosing someone like him over Cloud. “Not now, Greg,” she said.

“No, listen, Tifa.” He fidgeted. “That…Shinra guy. I saw you watching them, and um. Talking?”

“Yes,” Tifa allowed, because she’d done the exact opposite of trying to hide it. She didn’t want people to know what she’d said, but the fact that she had talked to Fair was pretty blatant, which should have made it less suspicious, unless she was missing something. It wasn’t like anyone was in a position to accuse her of conspiring with Shinra or betraying AVALANCHE for having a social conversation with a SOLDIER First.

“Look,” Greg said, very firm for this one word, and then his confidence (though not that oddly pompous edge) seemed to drain away and he said, “look, he’s not going to be in town long, and I thought we could…have a little bonfire up on the hillside together? I can bring the good ale and I’ve gotten really good on dad’s gitar since I last played for everybody.”

Well. This hadn’t happened last time. She guessed seeing her actually getting along with Zack Fair had pushed Greg a little. Or, well, last time she had spent the next hour or two lingering in the town square getting steadily more miserable as she struggled to accept that Cloud wasn’t coming. Today, she knew he was already here.

She could brush it off, ignore the invitation, tell him she’d just been asking Fair about Cloud—not that he’d be happy to hear that, exactly, or that she would have been eager to own up to it when she was really sixteen; her promise with Cloud had been a private comfort to her, back then. But she could leave it at that.

“Greg,” she said, and settled her weight on her heels. The boots made her an inch taller than him.

Goddesses, she’d been so—As a teenager, it had meant so much to her to be approved of. If she’d gone against what was expected of her she’d usually just done it, never said anything, not drawn any attention even by sneaking around, so that anyone who minded had to be the one to make a scene. She was still like that, a little, but…she’d learned. She wasn’t a child anymore.

“Greg,” she said, gently because there was no reason not to be, “there’s something I want to make clear. I’m not going to date you. I’m definitely never going to marry you.” An extraordinarily unattractive look of befuddlement had overtaken his face, but it was shading into offense. “You’re…not my type,” she said, and it honestly had less to do with his looks than with the fact that he was really very incredibly boring and a bit of an ass and wore a terrible hat, but she didn’t feel compelled to clarify.

“So, what, you’re…chasing around after that Shinra guy? He has to be like twice your age.”

Tifa rolled her eyes. “He’s eighteen. But he already has a girlfriend, it’s not like that.”

“Oh my gods you asked?” Greg looked like he couldn’t decide whether to be appalled or impressed.

That surprised her into laughing. “No. With some people you can just tell. He seems nice, you should talk to him too.” She paused. Fair did seem nice, and in another time he’d fought Sephiroth after he turned on Nibelheim, but he was still a SOLDIER. “Or don’t. He’s also sort of dangerous.”

“What would I even talk to him about?

Tifa shrugged, and then her eyes caught on a snatch of blue across the square, pinned against stone by the last fierce shards of sunset. “Excuse me, Greg.”

“Tifa, listen…”

Excuse me, Greg,” she said, and walked past him.

It was rude, but you learned to be rude to pushy people, tending bar in the big city. She didn’t at this point actually care what Greg Yeagar thought. Or even what he told the rest of town. She didn’t think she’d be staying here very long after this, no matter what happened.

And meanwhile there he was. Cloud, anonymous in Shinra blues with the helmet hiding his hair and eyes, lurking at the place where her house adjoined his, just like he’d said he had at the inn in Kalm, years ago in the future.

Chapter Text

Tifa walked across the town square toward Cloud, standing where her house adjoined his. He’d said, back in Kalm right after they left Midgar with Aerith and the others, that he’d tried to visit her this evening.

She knew that hadn’t really happened, because just as he was doing today, he’d been hiding from her then. Had probably waited even to go visit his mother until after she got tired of sitting in the square hoping for a yellow-crested third SOLDIER to magically turn up. But it was nice to see that the fiction had been built on an actual wish to see her, and not just the knowledge that he would have wanted to, if he’d lived up to his lofty goals and been able to impress her.

The thing she regretted most, of all the choices she’d made in her life (out of all the things she’d actually been able to control), was not telling Cloud from the start that there was something wrong with his memories.

She didn’t know if some forewarning would have helped them save Aerith or prevent the summoning of Meteor or the awakening of the Weapons, or any of the other catastrophes they’d faced, but at least it would have spared Cloud some anguish, and made it harder for Sephiroth to shatter him with revelation. At the very least it would have meant that when they lost him, it wouldn’t have been her fault.

She’d been afraid, that day in Kalm, and not wanting to make everybody else trust Cloud less, and not trusting Cloud completely herself even though she wanted to, so she just…hadn’t said anything when it would have made sense, and hadn’t been able to bring it up, after. It didn’t make any sense as a lie, but she’d known it wasn’t the truth because she’d been there and met the SOLDIER who came with Sephiroth, and it hadn’t been Cloud.

Unless, of course, she was the one whose memories were wrong. Though since she’d been the one not going into micro-fugues without noticing, and he hadn’t remembered anything since supposedly catching up to Sephiroth in Nibelheim’s reactor five years before, that hadn’t seemed likely.

He’d shared her memory of their promise. He had to be Cloud. She’d needed him to be Cloud.

She hadn’t known what to think, so she’d said nothing. It had been the easiest choice, not the right one.

She regretted it, more than not being a friend to Cloud when they were children, more than dragging him along to the City of the Ancients because even if they hadn’t helped any she didn’t think they’d hurt Aerith by being there when she was murdered, and at least that time she hadn’t known she was doing the wrong thing even as she did it.

Of all the things her Cloud had ever needed from her, honesty had always been foremost.

In the present, she walked toward him steadily, and he was so consumed in indecision he failed to notice.

“Hey, Cloud,” she said. He jumped to face her; cringed a little in recognition. Found out.

Gaia, he was so young. From this side of twenty-five all teenagers looked pretty young, but it was especially strange when it was Cloud. In some ways he seemed younger now than he had at fourteen with his hair pulled back into a bright yellow tail, bragging about his dreams of greatness on top of the village water tower.

He’d grown, since then. Grown a little less cute. He was only a little smaller now than in the future, just like her—but as a man, he should have had plenty more growing left to do at sixteen.

The thought struck her suddenly of this Cloud growing to adulthood breathing the free air, far from Hojo’s clutches, reaching the age of twenty-one whole inches taller than the man she’d known. His height had never seemed to bother him, wasn’t something wrong with him, but it had been another thing stolen from him by Hojo and she was fiercely glad to be planning to steal it back.

“Come on,” she said, beckoning a little. “Come over to my place. I made cookies.”

“But I,” he said wretchedly. Didn’t seem to have planned any words to come after that.

“It’s okay, Cloud. You don’t have to have saved the world already at sixteen. Even if you never get to be famous, it’s okay. But I want to talk to you privately, okay?”

Cloud trailed after her, baffled but easy as always to pressure into doing things when he felt confused. He had the strongest will in the world once he was sure of something, but if he hadn’t settled into a conviction on an issue he’d do what you wanted without much fuss. It was one of the things she found endearing about him, and it was good to know it really was an original Cloud Strife quality.

She got him to take the helmet off once they were inside, checked on the casserole, grabbed the plate of cookies, and in case of dad took him up to her room, where she put the cookies on top of her piano and waved Cloud onto the piano bench. She sat on her bed, facing him. His Shinra helmet was tucked awkwardly against his hip. He had that little dusting of faint freckles across the tops of his cheeks again, or still; the ones that had been faded almost to gone when she met him in Midgar, that she’d watched reappear as they ranged across the Planet and he put Hojo’s labs further and further behind and spent time under the sun.

“Have a cookie,” she suggested. He obediently reached back and took one, but didn’t eat it, just sat there holding it carefully in his hand. “Did you already go see your mom?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

For a second it was almost like they really were normal teenagers having a normal awkward visit, in spite of Cloud’s uniform, but Tifa didn’t let herself get attached to the idea. She pulled one knee up to hook her arms around, and then stared absently around the room (the real room, it was hard to remember that), at her childhood belongings.

“So I’m from the future,” she said.

Cloud stopped determinedly not looking at the several inches of thigh she’d just flashed to gape. “What?” he asked, like he hoped he’d heard her wrong.

“I’m really twenty-six, not sixteen. I just woke up here this morning, instead of in the bar I owned in Edge City. Which is a place you’ve never heard of because we didn’t build it until after Midgar fell,” she said before he could comment. Though he might not have. It was hard to predict, with Cloud, but he tended to ignore the details and go for the core of a person’s statements.

He was squinting at her, that half-worried, half-pugnacious look Cloud got around suspect information. He’d put the cookie down on his knee. “You’re pulling my leash,” he said.

It was a turn of phrase the Cloud she knew would never have used, too sensitive to anything that made a person sound less than human. “I’m not,” she said, and sighed. “Look, Cloud, the future…it was bad.”

“How bad?”

“Half the world’s population died.” That was taking Nibelheim and Weapon and Meteor and Geostigma and Deepground together, but it was really all one long chain of catastrophe. (It probably shouldn’t be counting Wutai or Corel or Gongaga or Banora or the Sector Seven plate; those were just Shinra being Shinra, and half of them had already happened in this time.) She definitely had Cloud’s attention now. “It started this week. Well, for us it did. Most other places didn’t notice anything for about five years.”

“What happens?” There was this look on his face—a little pinched, a little anxious, without the deep well of something between resignation and serenity Cloud-in-the-future had had to draw on in the face of trouble. But smooth and open and willing to listen, and teeth gritted like he was getting ready to punch trouble in the face, and everything suddenly seemed just a little easier because she had Cloud.

Tifa let out a breath. “Whooh. What doesn’t?” But that wasn’t helpful. “First was this mission you’re on. Hojo set it up to drive Sephiroth crazy. In a couple of days he’s going to kill everyone and set Nibelheim on fire. I caught up with him at the reactor, and he cut me down but I didn’t quite die.

“We met up again in five years—I was running a bar in the Midgar slums and blowing up reactors at night, and you’d just escaped from the Science Department and thought you were Zack.”

The cookie fell off Cloud’s knee and hit the carpet in a spray of crumbs. Not because he’d jerked dramatically or anything, but because knees weren’t very flat surfaces, and all it had taken to dislodge it was a shift in the angle of his thigh as his body weight rocked back. He didn’t even seem to notice. “I…what?”

That did sound weird, didn’t it. Back up. She’d lose Cloud if she made too little sense, she knew that from experience. “Hojo did a lot of experiments on both of you, before you escaped. You got mako poisoning and amnesia from it, and wound up getting some memories that weren’t yours to fill in the gaps—I mean, you remembered the right name and hometown, but you got confused about some other things. You thought you were in SOLDIER.”

“…oh.”

And that—that way he retreated into himself, the shamed tuck to the chin—she knew it, she’d seen it in her Cloud, after the Temple of the Ancients. It was sort of the prelude to the boneless way his head had drooped when she found him again after Sephiroth hollowed him out at the Northern Crater, before the two of them had fallen into the Lifestream and really found him again.

She hadn’t expected to see it, this soon. The child Cloud she remembered had never hung his head without defiance in the set of his shoulders and jaw. He’d been planning all that time to someday show them all. She had been to the center of his mind and she knew that more than anything, under the pugnacity and bruised pride, what he’d wanted was to belong.

(That was why it had frustrated her so to watch him pulling away in the face of slow death. He needed his space but he needed his friends just as much.)

Not making it into SOLDIER had really broken his heart. “It made sense to think you were in SOLDIER,” she assured him. “You had their uniform on and the mako eyes, by then, and some of Zack’s memories of being…” She shrugged. “It was a huge mess, okay? Anyway you joined my terrorist group and a lot of things happened, and we helped stop the Planet being hit by a meteor.”

“…ah.” If she hadn’t known him so well, she probably wouldn’t have heard that shade of judgement in his voice, there, the doubt under the soft confusion.

(She had always loved that about Cloud, how soft he grew in his undefended moments, when he forgot to hold his strength up like a shield against the world. Even when she came to understand that it was partly from having been stripped down to the bare essentials of self, all his natural defenses stolen from him as Hojo tried to shatter his mind beyond recognition—it made her want to hold him close and protect him, just like his strength made her want to put her shoulder against his and lean there forever.)

The slant in his eyes, she caught next, like he’d moved on from thinking she was crazy to suspecting her of pranking him. That honestly did make the most sense. We stopped the planet from being hit by a meteor, honestly, that sounded like the kind of thing they might have made up when they were five. If they’d known what a meteor was then. She thought they probably hadn’t. Also they’d barely spent any time together when they were five, next-door neighbors or not.

“Cloud,” she said. “I’m telling the truth. I can prove it if I have to, I think—I have some information that can be verified—but mostly I just have to ask for your trust.”

She smiled, slightly wry. “I talked to Zack Fair—I guess you probably saw me? I didn’t tell him about the future, but I’m hoping having some warning will convince him to step in and…help Sephiroth, I guess.” She shook her head. “It’s a weird thing to hope for, I hate him so much. But I’d rather have him alive and sane than dead and crazy.”

Cloud breathed in, parted his lips—paused. “Tifa,” he said, and then nothing else.

It was strange, watching Cloud hesitate to speak. When he was younger, when they were kids, he didn’t talk often, but when he did it was with a fierce, defiant confidence.

When he was older, in the time when they’d really been friends, his confidence wasn’t defiant anymore because it was founded at first on false, and then on real, knowledge of his strength, and on the value of what he fought for—and when he lost that, he would stumble and go quiet. It always felt so wrong, to see him like that.

This, Cloud at sixteen, worn down by failing at his dream, was strangely like the dying, self-blaming Cloud Geostigma had created. Enough that Tifa had to check the urge to shake him and tell him he was so much better than this and they needed him. But he was different, too. So…young.

His mouth firmed up. “Is Sephiroth…really that bad?”

That was strange, too, and Tifa brought her hand down hard on the bed, not in anger but for emphasis.

“He broke, Cloud,” she told him firmly, willing him to understand. “He came apart and was crazy and didn’t care about anything besides destroying the world, so he and Jenova could rule over its shattered husk. I would say that he stopped even being a person, except he would smirk when he murdered people, or found a new way to hurt you.”

Surprise in Cloud’s face, and she realized she’d forgotten to mention, taken it so much for granted it hadn’t needed saying. “You were the one he hated most,” she explained.

If they hadn’t known it already, the convoluted plot at the Northern Crater, designed to break Cloud’s spirit and force him to be the one who gave Sephiroth his weapon at the climactic moment, when he could have used any of Hojo’s completely brainwashed victims for the same purpose at any point after he first hijacked Cloud at the Temple, had made it clear. And the way Cloud had commanded Sephiroth’s complete attention when he came back during the Geostigma epidemic confirmed it again. Sephiroth hated Cloud like no one and nothing else.

“Maybe because you’d killed him, or because Hojo tried to make you into one of his clones after that but you never gave in all the way. It was hard to be sure why, just that it was true. Even Aerith and President Shinra, he killed them because they were obstacles, maybe out of spite, but he never tried to kill you until the end, because he wanted to make sure you suffered.”

Okay, now Cloud looked scared. Which she guessed was the only sensible response to the idea of the sadistic superpowered ghost of Sephiroth carefully keeping you alive the better to torment you. She sighed, and felt terribly, horribly small, even though she hadn’t grown more than an inch after being sixteen for real—she’d lost at least twenty pounds of muscle, though, so it wasn’t like it wasn’t true.

“I need you, Cloud,” she admitted, staring at her bare feet on the counterpane. “To be on my side with this. I didn’t want to lie to you, but also…just…it’s always been easier saving the world when you were there.”

She’d chosen him over saving the world, once. Cloud wasn’t her world but he was her home, and if there had been anything she was sure she could do better than anyone else to protect the Planet she’d have gone and done it, but…when they hadn’t known if there was any difference they could make, or even any hope for the world at all, as much as it needed any help it could get, she’d preferred to stand by someone she loved and try to pull him out of the dark.

Maybe that was weak. Maybe it was even cowardice. Probably it was both. It had certainly been a decision thick with guilt. But.

But it was who she was. She would always prefer to be someone who would selfishly stand by her loved ones, than that girl who had had no one and nothing left, and thrown herself into a war not caring if she died.

Her hometown existed again now, but it wasn’t real to her. The Tifa she was now didn’t belong here.

She needed Cloud.

He looked up and met her eyes, and…

It was strange, not seeing that mako shine. But they were Cloud’s eyes, still. “Tifa,” he said, just a little smile at the corners of his mouth, “of course I’ll help.”

“Cloud…”

“We made a promise, right?” A little shrug, less exaggerated than the one she’d gotten used to. “I’m not famous or a hero, but…you said that’s okay.”

“Of course it’s okay.” She scooted forward, let her feet drop over the edge of the bed to hit the floor as she leaned across the middle of the room to take his hand. “Famous doesn’t matter, and you’re my hero no matter what.”

He’d spent their whole childhood waiting for her to notice him. That wasn’t a regret she intended to leave unaddressed.


Cloud offered to help with the part of the plan that happened that night, but she told him the most important thing he could do was stay close to his commanding officers and keep an eye on them, make sure neither of them did anything extreme—especially Zack Fair, since Tifa couldn’t predict him from his past behavior, now that she’d thrown a wrench into things with her ominous information.

(“What happened to Zack?” Cloud had asked, and she’d barely heard him talk about Fair in the future, really, but she still noticed that he didn’t say the name quite the same way—but more like than she might have guessed. Cloud had admired Zack Fair this long ago. Of course, he’d admired Sephiroth, too.

She’d hesitated. “How well do you know him?” she asked.

“I met him…about a year ago? On a mission that went…really, really wrong.” Cloud shrugged, trying to act like it didn’t matter when even now he obviously felt like Fair had hung the moon. “I’ve seen him a few times since, every month or two. He’s…different from the other SOLDIERs. Doesn’t act like the regulars aren’t people. And he gets happy to see anybody whose name he knows. Every time.”

“…he died protecting you,” Tifa said, and hoped it wasn’t a mistake. “Not because of you,” she added, because she knew how Cloud could get. “But you weren’t in any condition to fight, when Shinra caught up. So he hid you, and fought everyone who came. And you survived.”

She wished she could tell him more, but that was really all she knew.)

She sent him back to the inn with a packet of cookies to share or not at his discretion. She didn’t know if he liked the rest of his unit enough to want to. Wondered if he would be able to sleep after all she’d told him, especially sharing a bedroom with Sephiroth. Of all the bizarre images. Did Sephiroth take off that coat when he went to bed? Somehow she couldn’t help picturing him lying on top of Old Man Hilgrid’s quilts as stiff and upright as he used to always be, flying around heckling AVALANCHE.

Sharing a town with Sephiroth would be enough to keep her awake, but she wasn’t really planning to sleep tonight anyway.

Chapter Text

Nibelheim didn’t sleep with the sun like it once had. Shinra had brought cheap electric light, and with that far more use of the evening hours. But by ten-thirty all but a few small lights were out, and by eleven nobody stirred.

Except Tifa Lockheart, creeping up the path to Shinra Manor.

She wasn’t exactly creeping. Humans had the instincts of both predator and prey, and that meant most kinds of surreptitious movement patterns tended to grab their attention. If anyone happened to see her, she didn’t want to be obviously up to something. But she was being as quiet as she could, and had let herself out a back window of her house rather than cross the square under everyone’s noses. Just in case there was anybody awake to see.

The manor door opened without a creak and she slipped inside, the barren dusty interior a comfort in its desolation. Nobody to see her here. She waited a few minutes, to see if anyone was following, then went to climb the overly ostentatious front stairs.

She’d made her plans while sharing dinner with her dad, and doing the washing-up, and finishing off the cookies, and waiting after that for everyone to go to bed.

Vincent was her first priority. If Hojo had already hidden the key and left the clue to the lock combination (which she definitely had not memorized the first time, though it had taken Cloud enough tries to input it fast enough that he probably had) and if Tifa could successfully kill the Lost Number monster by herself, if it had been created and was in the safe at all—all of which were extremely questionable ‘if’ values—then she could let herself into the coffin chamber the normal way.

Honestly, though, Tifa liked her chances against the door better. If nothing else, it had the advantage of efficiency. She only had so much time at her disposal.

Only one of the two-headed zombies in the basement corridor lurched out at her on the way to Vincent’s room. This was lucky, because it left her so battered she might have died against a second one.

That was embarrassing, especially since the ones in Dio’s Battle Arena had been stronger, and still only really dangerous because by the time you got to them you were usually up to your neck in handicaps. She leaned against the wooden door once she reached it to drink a potion, getting her pitiful reserves of health up near enough to whole that she saved the second potion for after she took another injury, because a lot of its efficacy would be wasted if she took it now—it was so strange being weak enough to recover with one potion. She didn’t like it. She guessed it saved on gil, though.

Stowing the empty bottle away, she squared up against the door, breathed in. Breathed out. She was weak, now. Barely more than a child. Most of the way through her training—nearly a first-level master of the Zangan style—but weak, still. There was no room for sloppiness in her forms; that was what her first monster fight since waking up in this time had reminded her. She had no extra strength to waste. Even against obstacles and enemies that didn’t feel like any sort of threat to her adult mind, everything needed to be perfect.

Her kick made the door explode.

If Vincent had been asleep when she arrived, he was probably awake now. She advanced through the splintered opening, alert for more monsters, but nothing stirred.

The lid of his coffin came up easily when she pulled. Because he actually could have gotten up at any time, and had chosen not to. Right.

Tifa couldn’t remember what they’d said the first time, except that Vincent had been at his melodramatic worst and Cloud bringing up Sephiroth had gotten his attention. “Vincent Valentine,” she said, as his eyes flicked open, red and cold and menacing.

Looking like the monster he thought he was. But she knew him. She knew how brutal and heartless he could be, and she knew how carefully he could use his golden claws to lift a child out of danger. She knew his favorite cocktails all had cherry or strawberry syrup in them, because of his sweet tooth, and that sometimes when some percentage of 'everyone' got together for a pint, if she slipped him one full of soda instead of beer he’d give her a grateful look, even after he’d stopped being so afraid of allowing any lapses in his self-control.

He’d been so much better, after Chaos and the Deep Ground crisis blew up. There was a special sort of medicine in making peace with your ghosts and saving the world.

Vincent froze at the sound of his name, and then his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Who are you?” he demanded. His voice rasped a little, but not as much as it should have after decades in dusty silence. “Did Hojo send you to disturb my rest?”

Tifa snorted. “No. I can’t wait to punch his face in.” She had tentatively placed this part in the ‘plus’ column: the fact that various horrible people were still alive meant she got a chance to hit them. Never having punched President Shinra in his double chin had always disappointed her. “I’d like your help,” she added, and waited to see what Vincent said to that.

His expression flattened out. “It’s none of my concern now,” he said, and reached for the coffin lid. Tifa put her foot on top of it, holding it down with her full weight. Vincent frowned, and yanked.

He was several times stronger than she was, now. She had to hopskip backward to stay upright, and Vincent settled sulkily back into his box like someone woken before dawn for frivolous reasons. “Go away.”

Tifa pulled the lid aside again before Vincent even got it fully into place. “I can’t. I need to set a fire that will probably burn this building to the ground, and I can’t do that with you inside.”

Vincent drew the lid shut, for all the world like he was bunching covers over his head. “Go ahead.”

Tifa ground her teeth. Self-destructive asshole. “I can’t do that,” she said. “Sephiroth can’t see the documentation Hojo left here, or he’ll kill everyone. And I’m capable of murder for the good of the world, but I’m not going to burn you alive just because you’re lazy.

Unexpectedly, the coffin lid did not move when she mentioned Sephiroth, nor did Vincent speak into her silence.

Exasperating man.

“It’s easy to decide to die,” she told him, at length. “It’s easy to stop fighting when there doesn’t seem to be any hope. I know.

“But you’ll always regret it. You know that. If you’d been brave enough to choose Lucrecia over the Turks before Hojo got his grubby claws into her, maybe none of this would ever have happened. If she’d been brave enough to choose you sooner, it might have been okay. Not choosing is almost always a bad choice. If you come out of hiding, more things will happen—things that can’t unhappen. I know that’s frightening. But things happen without you, too. When you’re not there. When you do nothing.”

Tifa rocked back on her heels. “You can’t make the world go back to the way it was before, get back the same happiness or hope from your memories…not even if you could wind back time.”

She smiled a little, at herself. She wouldn’t go back to the girl she’d been if she could—she hadn’t really been happier then, for one thing, and that girl had already tried and failed to make a difference so leaving it to her would just mean everything turned out the same way again. But Vincent’s experience was different. And it was still true, for both of them.

“But…there are still possibilities. Still things you can do to make the world better. Her choices…they weren’t your fault. But whatever you’re blaming yourself for right now…lying here until you die won’t make it better. The biggest sin of all, to me, is not trying to make things better.

“You aren’t a monster, Vincent. Nothing Hojo did to your body, nothing Lucrecia did to bring you back, could make you one. As long as you have your mind, you decide. And it’s what you decide to do that makes the difference between a human and anything else.”

She waited. But the man in the box didn’t move, and he didn’t speak. “Lucrecia is still alive,” she told him. “Preserved in crystal. Hidden away. You two really are a pair, aren’t you? And maybe you’re both right to be concerned—she’s got Jenova in her, and you’ve got those things that replaced your Limit Breaks. But they don’t control you.”

Vincent probably didn’t believe that yet—had probably never really tested it, yet. Didn’t know that even when he ran out of control, the worst his monsters ever did was be too stupid to stop using fire attacks on a dragon. Tifa had fought beside him the world over, against monsters and nightmares and men, and the only times he had ever been a threat to her had been under the kind of heavy Confuse that left anyone lashing out at random.

“They don’t control you,” she repeated. “Hojo doesn’t control you. You can choose to do nothing for the rest of your long life if that’s what you really want. But it’s not your destiny. And it’s not what’s right.

“Sephiroth is an adult now,” she said, and—they were the same age now, weren’t they. Twenty-six, give or take a year. She wondered if he felt older to himself than she did, or younger—he’d been part of Shinra’s Wutai campaign when she and Cloud were still small children, she thought. Couldn’t even remember the first time she’d heard his name, because it had come up in adult conversation around her before she’d had the first idea who he was, or cared at all. “They put him in the Shinra military. Made him a General.”

Whatever that rank actually meant. Tifa didn’t take Shinra’s ranks and titles very seriously, and it wasn’t just a matter of enmity—she’d learned from Reno a few months ago that Rufus might have been the official Vice President since his teens, but had spent several years after trying to assassinate his father under house arrest on the Turk level of Shinra Tower. Which explained why he hadn’t been at the executive meeting where the plan to drop the Plate had been finalized, and how quickly he’d turned up after his father really had been killed.

Whether Sephiroth had had any authority in the company when he was alive was something of a mystery, and one that might for the first time actually be relevant soon. But it could wait.

“If Hojo and Jenova have their way, he’ll become a monster soon,” she confided in the coffin. “Maybe there’s no way to change that. Maybe it’s too late for him. Maybe it’s his destiny. But it’s not too late for the rest of the world, not yet. I know that much. Everyone who has the power to fight him has a responsibility to try.

And still, Vincent Valentine lay still and silent. Like the dead.

Well, then.

Tifa walked around to the side of the coffin, set her feet, pulled back her clenched hand, and drove one of her best board-breaking punches straight into the middle.

Her fist went clear through and she felt her knuckles stop against Vincent’s armored stomach, but cracks ran out all the way to the edges; with a second blow she shattered the lid apart, and met Vincent’s startled expression through the falling shards.

“What are you?”

She knew it wasn’t her feat of strength that had impressed him, though he probably appreciated the rhetorical force of it. “Tifa,” she said. “Tifa Lockhart.” She held out her right hand. “Get up, Vincent Valentine. The world isn’t done with you yet.”

He let her pull him up onto his feet.


The important thing to burn was underground, so she didn’t want to risk setting the house on fire and leaving the basement untouched, but it was probably not a good idea to set it while they were down there—if the smoke built up in the tunnel they could wind up passing out before they got aboveground.

When Tifa brought this up Vincent volunteered his stash of gunpowder, and they set up a simple incendiary bomb at the foot of one of the bookcases and then carefully laid a line from there out the door, up the earthen tunnel, up the staircase—this was difficult and involved propping boards along the stairs, and Tifa seriously considered stopping there, and just relying on their ability to run fast enough to be out before the blast, except they had a system going and it seemed like a shame to quit before they were done. They’d gotten as far as the upper landing in the main foyer when they heard a rattle at the door.

A second later, the building’s front door swung open, and Zack Fair stepped in over the threshold. Tifa straightened up and tried to act like it was perfectly normal to be drawing lines of powder across the floors of abandoned buildings in the company of men in strange costumes. Vincent took a second longer to stand, unfolding in that slow predatory way of his, but it had probably been a lost cause anyway.

The door closed behind Fair, and he came forward, climbing the curving stairs with an easy, casual attitude. Stopped on the first landing and looked up the last stretch of steps at her, hands propped on his hips, and gave an incredulous little shake of his head, a smile pulling at his mouth.

“Well, young miss, what are we doing up so late?”

Irritation took a second place to worry. She’d known he would guess she was responsible for the fire. But that was supposed to have been after it was already safely done.

If he was here, being sarcastic and condescending, could she still make this work?

“I needed to get somebody, SOLDIER Fair,” she said, waving a hand to indicate Vincent, who immediately got all of Fair’s attention in a way that made her think he’d already had most of it anyway, and he’d just been looking at her for some kind of show. “This is Vincent Valentine, he used to be a Turk. Then Hojo decided he would make a better experimental subject.”

Fair’s expression grew tighter, but it was hard to read. His eyes flicked away from Vincent to settle on Tifa again for a moment. “He the source of your info?”

“A little of it.” It was true—Vincent had filled in a number of gaps in the story of How And Why Is There Sephiroth. Just not this Vincent. But she couldn’t attribute it all to him to cover up her time travel, because he wasn’t an unimpeachable source, especially as far as Zack Fair was concerned.

“Hm.” Fair contemplated Vincent for a few more seconds. “I have friends in the Turks,” he said. Vincent did not noticeably react. “Do you know Cissnei? Tseng?”

All these years and Tifa had had no idea Tseng had known Zack. It made sense, sort of, since Aerith had known them both, Tseng for most of her life…she wondered if her Cloud had known.

“It’s been twenty-six years,” Vincent said. “There’s probably been some turnover.”

Fair snorted, apparently catching on to Vincent’s possibly-nonexistent sense of humor immediately. “Huh, yeah, probably…and now I want apple turnovers for breakfast…wait, hey, how old does that make you?”

Vincent turned his face away. He looked, as always, no more than thirty—in Tifa’s old timeline they hadn’t had time, yet, to see if he never would age, or if coffin hibernation had just put his time in suspension, but he certainly didn’t look as old as he should.

“You were around when the General was born, weren’t you,” Zack Fair said, suddenly intent. Mako eyes tended to glow a bit brighter when their owner concentrated hard; it showed here in the dimness as it had not in the sunlit square this afternoon.

“Vincent used to date Sephiroth’s mother,” volunteered Tifa. “Before she married Hojo.”

Fair grimaced. “Hell of a way to resolve a love triangle, Professor…oh, man, this means Hojo is Sephiroth’s father, doesn’t it? That poor guy.” He shook his head. His eyebrows knitted. “Unless you are,” he told Vincent.

Vincent flinched, but it was a Vincent flinch and therefore subtle, and Fair probably didn’t catch it. “I’m not,” he said.

“Which doesn’t mean you’re not entitled to help him,” Tifa said firmly, gripping Vincent’s shoulder.

Her Vincent, she’d probably have slung an arm across his back and gripped the opposite bicep, sort of a stealth hug, but this one didn’t know her that well yet. “Come on,” she said, letting go. “We have to get you out of here so we can wreck Hojo’s schemes.”

“And set the building on fire?” Fair asked, and there went the hope he’d been sufficiently distracted by Vincent. His eyebrows were really high, and his eyes were several degrees cooler than his smile. “I know you said the boss shouldn’t believe whatever’s down there, but controlling what information people can get isn’t the kind of thing that screams ‘trust me,’ you know? And burning down a building seems kind of overkill. I mean, it’s not that far from the rest of town.”

Tifa flinched. Realistically, even if the flames from the Manor did begin to spread—to the Rainside’s store, or to Cloud’s house; those were closest—the fact that the town was currently full of living people would make it very unlikely that anything would actually burn down. Hel, at the moment Sephiroth would probably help put it out!

But still, now the idea was in her head. The people who used to die in the reactor explosions in her terrorist days had been—bad enough, and those had all been Shinra employees. She couldn’t burn down Nibelheim several days early. “Listen, I…” she said.

“Miss,” Fair said, spreading his hands a little, “I don’t want to get mad at you. Actually, I’m already kind of mad, but.”

“Was that meant to be a threat?” Vincent asked. He didn’t sound especially menacing—actually, he sounded bored—but his gun had found its way into his hand sometime in the past second. Tifa laid her hand on his wrist before he could do anything more overtly aggressive with it.

He hadn’t asked many questions after taking her hand, earlier. It had been all practicalities: what are we burning, how are we accomplishing that, what’s our time frame. He would want to know more eventually, she was sure, would want to know about Lucrecia and where she got her information. There would be drama. Tifa had been perfectly happy to give him time to process, but she should have thought about the potential consequences if the plan got interrupted.

For now, she only had her fingers on the back of his wrist, and sincerity in her eyes. “Vincent, no. Please.”

He dipped his chin behind his collar, gazing at her under his eyebrows. If he was surprised, he wasn’t showing it. “Why not?”

“Because he’s our best chance of getting through this with minimal casualties.” Tifa let her hand fall, felt a crooked smile rise. “And I owe it to more than one of my friends to see that he gets out of this alive.”

Vincent didn’t question this, even cooperatively put his gun away though he kept his hand near it, but Zack squinted at her. “Sorry, what? Who do I even know from Nibelheim?” The squint widened out again, and he actually snapped his fingers. “Cloud, right! Are you two friends?”

Tifa sighed. “Yeah,” she admitted. There went that secret line into Shinra operations. “Sort of.”

Damn. She wasn’t cut out for this kind of operation, she really wasn’t. Could keep her mouth shut around enemies just fine, unlike most of her original AVALANCHE comrades, even around friends most of the time, but lying to people’s faces had never come easy to her. It should be Aerith here, that girl could wrap a person around her fingers in five minutes flat and make them grateful for it. Not that she’d ever lied much more than she could help, but—she had charm, and a cheerful poker face, and was never particularly concerned about getting caught keeping secrets.

Also, she was dating Fair, so he’d probably give her a lot more benefit of the doubt.

Thinking about how Aerith was, right at this minute, completely alive, cheered Tifa up. “We have to destroy those documents before Sephiroth can read them,” she said, because that was non-negotiable.

Fair’s forehead furrowed. “And I’m telling you again, I can’t let you go around destroying things just because you think you’ve got the right to control what Shinra information Shinra employees have access to. The General’s got high enough clearance to get in here, probably. Pretty sure you don’t, actually. I checked, this is a restricted facility.”

“A restricted haunted mansion,” Tifa grumbled. (Although there had been a lot fewer monster attacks during this visit than five years in the future, for some reason. Even though Fair and Cloud had been held here, so it wasn’t like nobody had been here to kill them in the interim.) Was it too much to hope he’d ‘checked’ in some other manner than asking Sephiroth?

It was at that point the front door opened again, and…a Shinra trooper stepped, a little hesitantly, over the threshold.

Cloud. Helmet on again; Tifa knew him anyway. He stopped when he saw the three of them, let the door swing shut behind him.

Tifa’s breath came out in a huff. “I swear if Sephiroth comes in next I am just going to set everything on fire on the spot.”

Chapter Text

“Uhm,” said Cloud, and Fair’s expression said that had made her seem more than slightly mentally unbalanced. Ugh, whoops. (Vincent was unperturbed.) “I saw Zack headed over here, and I wanted to ask him something, so…”

“No, it’s fine, join the party,” said Tifa, beckoning him up. He wound up on the steps below Fair before he stopped.

“What’d you wanna ask?” Fair said cheerfully, turning on the landing to look down on the trooper, and there was just the faintest edge of something that said he actually had noticed he was now surrounded, and was ready to move if Cloud turned out hostile or the other two tried to strike while his back was turned.

Tifa couldn’t claim she wasn’t thinking about it. She didn’t think she could put him down in one stroke even if she managed to surprise him, and Vincent would have a hard time taking him down without killing him, and she was (probably stupidly) still hoping to have him as an ally. If nothing else, they could rely on him to fight Sephiroth once he did go mad, and there was no way to know whether burning the books would actually make the difference.

Sacrificing Fair’s power would be stupid, but telling him as much as she had in a bid for trust had clearly also been stupid. Ugh. Tifa could do logistics fine, but strategy was a bitch. There were never any good options.

Cloud made one of those little sniff-snort noises he made sometimes, some lesser ancestor of a laugh. “Feels stupid now,” he said, and reached up to pull off the helmet. “I mean, whatever’s going on…” He wasn’t carrying his gun, Tifa noticed. Wasn’t armed at all. That was actually stranger than the youth or the uniform, somehow. He’d gone out without a weapon. Cloud never did anything without a weapon. Cloud carried at least one giant sword with him while snowboarding and while racing chocobos. She had seen him swim with a weapon on his back.

“Your friend Tifa is planning to set Shinra property on fire along with this guy,” Zack explained. “She says he’s a Turk, I dunno, none of them really have this kind of dress sense, you know?”

“Tifa’s setting a Turk on fire?” Cloud asked, and she was only ninety percent sure he was being funny on purpose. He’d tucked the helmet under one arm against his side, like a familiar weight.

Fair laughed. “Yeah, no. Did you know about this?”

Cloud shook his head. “We talked earlier, but she didn’t say she was setting anything on fire. Tifa?”

“It has to burn,” Tifa said, grateful Cloud wasn’t planning to spill everything to Zack at the first opportunity. “Before Sephiroth can see it.

“The thing in the Reactor…I’ve seen it,” she continued, and she hadn’t, not in the reactor, she’d been cut down before Sephiroth got that far, but she’d seen Cloud’s memory of it and confronted half a dozen faces of Jenova herself, knew the slick Poison-Elemental taste of her in the air. She knew what they were dealing with. “And the misinformation downstairs will make it so easy for that thing to get to him.”

She didn’t think much of Sephiroth, honestly—seriously doubted Jenova had made any of his choices for him. But there was a difference between the man she’d led up to the Reactor and the one she’d followed there again a few days later, intent on vengeance, and it could be distilled to ‘lost all his marbles down a very deep hole.’

“And then,” she pressed, “there will be nothing left to do but try to stop him. And I doubt the four of us together could put a scratch on him.”

Fair’s reaction was less…he wasn’t angry she was talking about taking his boss down, or offended she doubted his own power, or disdainful she was considering herself and Cloud as part of an attack force alongside him and the scary mutant Turk. No. Something about what she’d said hurt him. “I’ve got to look at this stuff,” he said, through his teeth. “If I’m gonna even consider hiding anything from him, I need to know.”

Tifa sighed. “Fine.” She didn’t like the idea of this information in the hands of a free agent she couldn’t burn, but realistically, Hojo had the information. The information was not the threat here, it was Sephiroth’s reaction, and there were probably few ways for him to get it that were safer than a potted summary from a trusted subordinate. It still wasn’t worth trying to kill him, and what other way was there to stop him? So, fine. “This way.”

Fair nodded, and took a step up after her. His boots scuffed up their neat gunpowder line in passing in a way that looked careless, but Tifa suspected it wasn’t at all. Nobody else stepped on it. “You seem cool, and you’re a friend of Cloud’s,” he said, as they went into the study-bedroom and the least secret of all secret doors slid open at their approach. “I don’t want to have to take you in for terrorism.”

“Thanks,” said Tifa.

Going down the spiral stairs she walked carefully on the right, leaving the line of boards with their improvised wick undisturbed, and to her surprise the SOLDIER copied her.

Fair reacted to the creepiness of the lab, but not strongly, reacted a little more to the bomb and asked Cloud to disarm it, finally turned to squint at the rows and rows of unlabeled volumes shelved over most of the walls, down the brief tunnel and even more covering the next room. Tifa guessed there was probably a system? She didn’t care. When Fair asked, “Where should I start?” she shrugged.

Fair was twice the musclehead Tifa had ever been—picture him on a piano, hah, she bet he couldn’t even cook—so it wasn’t like he’d manage to learn much before he got fed up with trawling through densely printed science text and moved on to action. And then she’d know how she needed to react.


“Ancients?” Fair said, pulling his head out of a book sometime around half past midnight. It turned out he could handle more than an hour of reading, if he kept moving around the whole time and mumbling to himself. Seeing him lying flat on his back with a book open over his face, Buster Sword propped up beside him, kicking his heels over the edge of Hojo’s operating table, verged on the surreal. “SOLDIER is about copying Ancients, this is what I’m reading. That’s…”

“Wrong,” said Tifa crisply, turning her back to the door.

She had flipped through some of the material while Fair buckled down and Cloud, with her nod, opened their little bomb and took the incendiary components out, and it had quickly become obvious why in the original version of this week Sephiroth had spent days down here doing his research before deciding to murder everyone in existence. Everything was dense scientific theory and data, with clear statements about anything appearing maybe once every thousand pages.

“It’s wrong. The Jenova Project is about copying Jenova, and Gast Faremis was wrong when he decided she was an Ancient. She killed them. Almost all of them. With nightmares and monsters and plague. And she’ll do the same to us if she gets the chance.”

He sat up. “Yeah? And how do you know? Did she tell you?”

Technically, yes. Tifa did get some small fraction of that information directly from Jenova. “Gast found out he was wrong later,” she said, “but none of that information is here, only his initial conclusions. Along with some lies Hojo added. And Sephiroth trusted Gast. If he finds this, he’ll believe it, and then he’ll trust her.”

Cloud frowned, and Vincent (where he had tucked himself into the one corner of the room not lined with books, behind the operating table desk, surrounded by equipment that had once been used to warp his body) narrowed his eyes.

Fair leaned forward on the desk, shaking one of the bound reports in one hand. “Jenova is a mummified corpse being dissolved in mako from the inside out. I don’t think trusting her needs to be on anybody’s list of concerns!”

“Shows what you know,” Tifa muttered.

“So tell me.”

Tifa bit her lip. What could she tell him, that would make the threat of Jenova seem more real, that would actually be believable in this time? The Calamity’s call could reach anyone with her genetic traits—even ordinary SOLDIERs; even the children born after enough SOLDIERs died and started polluting the Lifestream with her essence, if she got enough of an energy boost.

But it was harder for the Calamity to control her puppets the less of her they had in them, and there was no record of her taking any overt action in the two thousand years between her last battle with the Ancients and Sephiroth’s madness. Or even the twenty-seven years between Shinra breaking whatever seal the Ancients had used, and the Burning of Nibelheim. No definite record, anyway.

“Sephiroth’s mother,” Tifa said. “Doctor Crescent. After they implanted cells in her and the child she was carrying. Jenova was in her head.” I think. Probably. Not that Hojo wasn’t a plausible motive for despair on his own. But the woman’s ability to survive thirty years in a cavern and encase herself in crystal at will showed there was something going on there. “And she couldn’t…die. When she tried.”

She hadn’t wanted to introduce Vincent to this concept so brutally, it had been bad enough asking him come down here again without setting it on fire, and now she felt him look up sharply from his corner.

Zack Fair rubbed his forehead. His feet were dangling a few inches from the ground. “Lots of people who have these cells have died already. Trying or not. Some of the ones with the most of them have also gone crazy.” And oh, that explained a lot about why he was going along with this. More than just Sephiroth’s worryingly erratic behavior. High-level SOLDIERs were probably all a little cracked. That made Fair more remarkable, she guessed. Or maybe he just hid it better. “I can’t…call what you just said any kind of evidence, sorry.”

“Zack…” said Cloud, who had over the last hour built himself into a little fort of books against one wall that was disturbingly reminiscent of the ramparts Sephiroth had accumulated when he was ransacking this same room, a few days from now, which had still been there five years later when they came back.

He wasn’t reading nearly as thoroughly as Sephiroth probably had, just skimming, occasionally stopping at a single passage, his lips pressed together in that almost-pout of concentration she was used to seeing when he was trying to master a new Summon or a chocobo was being really recalcitrant. “I don’t want to take any chances with the General. I mean, what if it turns out like…”

“You think I’m not thinking the same thing?” Fair asked, leaving Tifa the one out of the loop. “Ugh.” He gripped his sword, hefted it in a gesture curiously short on menace; held it up to catch the light on its polished edge and then rested his forehead against the flat of it, briefly, as if his hand just wasn’t big enough to satisfy the depth of his need to knuckle himself between the eyes.

Straightened up, and returned the sword to its place beside him. “I’m worried, too, but keeping secrets has never been the solution to any of Shinra’s screw-ups before. I want this mission to turn out okay, for all of us and Seph and your hometown. We do not need this turning into the kind of problem Management tries to solve with carpet-bombing.”

Tifa knew the irony was unintentional.

“You were at Modeoheim with me, Cloud,” Fair said, and she’d never heard this story. Modeoheim…there were ruins, she thought, on the Northern Continent? Nothing good ever happened on the Northern continent. “A lot of that mission was classified, but…I know you have some idea what we’re up against here. Talk to me.”

“…the most dangerous thing,” said Cloud, and she’d really never heard him this deferential. Acknowledging somebody else as fundamentally more important than him. There was a subtle difference in the tone from the hesitation earlier, or from when he just felt too low to muster any forcefulness. He’d deferred to Aerith, but never this obviously. “Is if Sephiroth starts hurting people.”

“We don’t know there’s actually any risk of that,” said Fair. “We don’t know that’s something that even happens because of this Jenova thing! That happened one time. They aren’t the same person. And I mean, Angeal—”

He cut himself off, but too late to hide a pain that Tifa knew intimately. The guilt of living on when someone else had died. The weight of that death bolted to the bones of your wrists.

“…I think we should trust Tifa.” There was still deference there, but the words were firm, after a brief considerate silence.

“No,” said Fair. A hand up as if to physically block Cloud’s words, then carded back through his hair. “No, no. Don’t just tell me to follow your childhood friend’s lead without explanation, I can’t do that kind of thing anymore, and Tifa here’s not even my CO. Did she let you in on her plans, are you part of this scheme already?”

That stung, both of them, because technically yes, Tifa had, and Cloud was, but Fair made it sound so villainous. “She just told me what she was afraid would happen,” Cloud said. “Earlier today. After she talked to you.”

“Technically, yesterday now,” Fair said, heaved a sigh. “I can’t trust you right now, Cloud,” he said. He seemed really genuinely broken up about it, too, remarkably so considering they didn’t really know each other very well. Maybe because between being his subordinate and his friend, Cloud ought to have been someone he could count on, and instead there was nobody. Tifa really felt for him, she did.

It didn’t change anything.

Cloud flinched, just a little. Raised his chin. “I trust Tifa,” he said distinctly, and Tifa’s heart hurt because Gaia she did not deserve that from him, not in this time, when she had never stood by him once.

Fair sighed again, covered his face with the open book for a second. “Man, oh man,” he muttered. Looked up at Tifa again. “I can’t let you burn this,” he said. And his eyes weren’t cold this time but they had no give in them. “Not without giving Sephiroth a chance to decide for himself.”

“It’s not true,” Tifa said through her teeth. Could she and Vincent together take Fair? Which way would Cloud fall, if they tried?

Even if they won, could she really kill someone Aerith loved for trying to do the right thing? It would be a waste anyway, she’d already decided that, but…

“How do you know?” The look in his eyes—it wasn’t crazed, wasn’t even angry, wasn’t anything like the distance between Vincent and the world. It was just hurt, a hurt that went all the way down and that was so much like her Cloud that Tifa just…

“I know Jenova isn’t an Ancient,” she said, and it came out gently, like Fair was a child she needed to get back to his parents safe and sound, “because Aerith is.”

His mouth dropped open, and his eyes went wide, and for a second Tifa thought inanely eighteen is so young.

He rallied after a second, badly. “What? You—wait, Aerith who?”

“Gainsborough. She sells flowers, right? In Midgar, where nothing grows.”

She couldn’t read Fair’s face. If he got angry…well. They would handle it. They had him outnumbered.

Mostly he looked just…rattled. On the brink of scared. Vincent slunk out along the wall, nearer the door, and it looked menacing but was probably meant as a favor, getting into Fair’s line of sight so he didn’t have to deal with having the most dangerous person in the room behind him while freaking out about his girlfriend. Or maybe he thought Zack was going to bolt, or wanted a better view of the look on his face.

That expression changed, firmed up slightly at the sight of Vincent. “Look, if this whole thing is some weird—test from the Turks, just tell me whether I’ve failed or not and stop drawing it out.”

Tifa shared a look with Vincent. It was Cloud who asked, “Why would it be a test from the Turks?”

“Pffft.” Fair slumped a little on the top of the table, ruffled the spikes at the back of his own head. “Because Tseng promised to keep an eye on Aerith for me while I was gone, but he has the most godsawful sense of humor and, you know. Turks.”

“I’m the only Turk involved,” said Vincent. “For now.”

He’d saved Tifa having to have an immediate reaction, which was welcome because the reaction had been a fury that she didn’t want to have to explain.

Tseng had slowly over the years since Meteor become her favorite of the surviving Turks still working for Rufus—Rude came as a set with Reno, and Elena reminded her of some of her less-favorite parts of herself—but she would never actually forget the sight of him hovering in on a helicopter as the Plate Release Mechanism was about to blow, gloating about his capture of Aerith and the thousands of innocents about to die, slapping her across the face when she called out to them.

He’d been helpfully giving them a hint, of course, in hopes her new terrorist friends would come to rescue her. Given Aerith a chance to assure Barret that Marlene was safe. When Aerith was involved, he’d always bent his mandate of villainy to its breaking point, and Tifa had never much questioned why, once she’d learned how long they’d known each other.

But Zack Fair had been a hidden thread in that story, too, it turned out, and she just…Shinra. Damn Shinra. There had to be a way to see it burn that came at less cost than Meteor.

“Aerith…” she said once her temper was under control. “Aerith is special.”

“You don’t have to tell me that.”

“Shinra kidnapped her as a baby,” Tifa said, and it was unfair of her to share Aerith’s secrets like this but she had to say something to stop him ruining everything. “She escaped as a child. Tseng has been pretending for years that he hasn’t found her yet.” She licked her lips. “He won’t be able to keep pretending forever.”

Fair was beginning to look the kind of hunted that often led directly to weapons-up.

“You could call her,” Tifa suggested gently. She hadn’t been in control of the situation since Fair had stepped into the Mansion. She really had been hoping to fly a little less by the seat of her pants now that she knew what was happening. “I don’t know what she’ll say, since if she’d been ready to tell you, you’d know. But I don’t think she’d lie to you, either.”

Fair took out his phone, lit up the screen and stared dully at it for a second. “No signal.”

“Well, we’re underground,” Cloud pointed out reasonably.

Fair glared at him. “I know that.” Scrunched his eyes shut. “Sorry.” Opened them again to glare at Tifa instead. “You realize this is sounding more and more like something you made up specifically to screw with me personally, right?”

Yes, SOLDIER Fair, the universe is out to screw with you personally, because you’re just that important.

He wasn’t, except in the way everyone was important. But he was important to people who were, so…. Tifa shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you. Aerith and Sephiroth are mixed up in opposite ends of a single Shinra conspiracy, it’s not my fault you know them both.”

“But how do you know.”

Damn. “It’s complicated,” she said, which wasn’t even a lie. “And I’ve already told you more than I should have. Putting people in more danger just to satisfy you…there’s a limit.”

Fair made a face, but didn’t actually contest that.

For a while, he stared a hole through the bookshelves above Cloud’s head, the last book he’d looked at himself tap-tap-tapping against his knee. Finally, he looked her in the eye, all levity fled so that unnamed sorrow stood out stark and ultramarine. “You really think Sephiroth’s that close to the edge?”

“You really think he isn’t?”

Fair looked away first. “I don’t know.”

“Well, I’m not ready to gamble everybody’s lives on your hope that he isn’t.”

Fair’s left hand shook. It might not have been noticeable, except the pages of the book he was holding fluttered, and he dropped it onto the operating table with a mutter.

“Screw this.”

In an instant he’d snatched up his sword and was striding away, slashing bats to death as they dived at him screaming, hungry for blood.

“Zack!” said Cloud, leaping to his feet, but he was still behind Vincent, who was behind Tifa, chasing the SOLDIER up the tunnel toward Shinra Manor.

“We are not going behind his back,” SOLDIER Fair said, as he approached the foot of the spiral stair, “I don’t care how scared you are of him. Nobody telling anybody the truth about anything is half of the problem with this entire company!”

The secret door slid open for him as he reached the top of the stairs at the end of this sentence, and he stomped over that threshold and—pulled up short. Tifa, immediately behind him, did not know why for a moment until Fair’s voice resumed, somewhat subdued under the sound of a brittle smile,

“Uh, Sephiroth, hey. I was just looking for you.”

Chapter Text

And then, for the first time since that day in the Northern Crater when Cloud broke under his onslaught of words and Tifa’s lies of omission (because the thing they had fought in the center of the Planet had had no voice, and she had not come close enough during the Remnant incursion to hear him speak) Sephiroth’s voice reached Tifa’s ears.

Cool and dry, like lizard skin, but the tension underneath a little better leashed, less achingly devouring than in the hovering murder-ghost she knew best:

“And I was looking for you, Zack.”

He wasn’t happy, but he didn’t seem immediately homicidal, and as Fair laughed awkwardly Sephiroth continued, “There was something you wanted to tell me?”

“Uh, yeah, but it’s kind of complicated, we should get to someplace everybody can maybe sit down, and…you can tell me whatever you wanted on the way because I bet it’s way more straightforward.”

From the sound of things, Sephiroth didn’t move. “Less a message, more a general interest in where my second in command might be at one in the morning before a potentially demanding mission. I told you to get plenty of sleep.”

Tifa finished climbing the stairs and elbowed her way around Fair to get into probably-formerly-Hojo’s-bedroom, which felt very small with Sephiroth blocking the only other entrance. Fair shot her an anxious sidelong glance, and she realized he was worried she was about to carry out her earlier threat to burn everything down around their ears in frustration, rather than risk Sephiroth accessing the basement library.

There was a real possibility. She hadn’t entirely been joking. If she’d had a Fire materia equipped she might well have shoved her way back down the stairs, fired down the hall into the laboratory, and hoped for the best. But she didn’t, and she couldn’t, and Fair had disrupted the gunpowder wick in his dash up the stairs. The book of matches tucked into her bra pressed against her ribs, feeling briefly like a much larger object than it was, but she knew Fair would never stand by and let her get the blaze going hot, so there was no point in trying.

“This is Tifa,” Zack Fair announced, once he was apparently convinced she wasn’t going to dissolve into a wild fit of pyromania. “She’s volunteered to be our guide up the mountain tomorrow, except she doesn’t think you should come.”

Slit-pupiled attention narrowed on her, the air humming, but before Sephiroth could ask any questions, Fair reached backward into the stairwell and hauled Cloud out by the shoulder of his uniform, so that he stumbled into view like a startled kitten. “And Cloud here is the native guide Shinra assigned us. And the gentleman in red who’s probably lurking over my shoulder by now is called Vincent Valentine. He says he used to be with the Turks.”

Sephiroth’s gaze glanced off Cloud like he barely existed, and fell on Vincent, who was indeed lurking in the empty space Zack had left by dragging Cloud into the room. His eyebrows twitched fractionally. “Not exactly the regulation uniform.”

The back of Vincent’s golden claws smoothed down the edge of the cape. “Not my choice,” he murmured.

“I woke Vincent out of a coffin in the basement about an hour and a half ago,” Tifa stated. Her voice was level and firm, but the air seemed to swallow it whole. “He’d been there for more than twenty years.”

“Twenty-six,” said Vincent.

“Right, this is exactly the kind of explanation business I want to have somewhere we can all sit down. Come on, General, this room is not big enough for five people, we’re all gonna smother.”

With that, SOLDIER First Fair advanced, making little shooing motions with both hands, and astoundingly Sephiroth gave way before him, and allowed himself to be chivvied out into the hall. Well that was…a good sign, probably. If Sephiroth was still sane enough to listen to people, he probably wasn’t within less than an hour of staging a genocidal massacre.

Tifa shared a look with Cloud, who looked more baffled and less grim than she automatically expected, but the vague disgruntled embarrassment at weird bossy friends was the same as ever, as the two of them and Vincent trailed after Fair, up the little hallway filled with chairs that gave Tifa the impression of some sort of waiting room, and out onto the landing, gunpowder crunching underfoot.

A set of floating mirrors ambushed them at the far end of the landing as it became upstairs hallway again, but Sephiroth’s sword lashed out and shattered them all before anyone else could move. Tifa did her best not to react—to fight that weapon right now would be idiocy bordering on suicide, but to flinch as if she was afraid could ruin her differently.

(Mirages weren’t even very strong, the danger was in casting at them and having your spells rebound. Not that it mattered. Sephiroth was strong, and nothing seemed likely to change that in any convenient time frame.)

They settled into the two-bed room at the far end of the second floor, beside the greenhouse. Tifa would have expected Sephiroth to remain standing, looking down on them, but instead he settled himself in the desk chair immediately opposite the door, putting his back to the wall. The sword was gone again. Tifa awkwardly sunk onto the corner of the nearer bed, while Fair unnecessarily called dibs as he rushed to drag a red-upholstered rocking chair from beside the window into the open patch of floor on Tifa’s left.

This was the logical place for it, but it also blocked anyone from walking to that end of the room.

If necessary, she could still vault both beds and exit through the window—it might give her better odds than making for the door, even if she was slightly closer to that than Sephiroth was.

Vincent seemed content to stand, arms folded, his back to the decorative hutch sort of thing at the left of the door—which was an odd choice considering there was bare wall on the far side of it, but maybe he was being protective of her. Or making sure Sephiroth wasn’t between him and the window.

Cloud had ducked out again while Fair was retrieving his chosen seat, and reappeared now carrying the desk chair from across the hall. He set it down in the space to the right of the door, under a rather nice landscape painting featuring a large tree, and sat. He wasn’t looking at Sephiroth, and Tifa didn’t think having set himself up directly facing the man who would have been his hated eternal nemesis in another life had been intentional, the way it would have been if the two had ever somehow found themselves sitting down in the same room together, in her future.

But the fact that he was sitting down in front of the ultimate commanding officer who’d once been his idol, without demur or awkwardness, was definitely on purpose. The helmet was still in the basement. Cloud was here as part of her team to save the world from Sephiroth even if that meant saving Sephiroth from himself, not as a Shinra trooper.

(He’d chosen her, chosen trust in her, over Sephiroth, over Zack, and Tifa hadn’t even realized she’d still worried he wouldn’t until she felt the relief.)

“Soooo…” Fair rocked back and then forward, propped his elbows on the arms of his chair and laced them together. “Explanations. Tifa’s being a mysterious lady of mystery, but I checked out the stuff downstairs and it is definitely weird.”

In spite of Tifa being the spokesperson for her team and the first one introduced, Sephiroth had so far been reserving most of his attention for Vincent. This was fair, really; Vincent was both very weird, and the one who looked and was the most dangerous of the three of them.

Cloud was apparently beneath Sephiroth’s notice, which remained bizarre, and he stayed that way as Sephiroth now turned his head and fixed his eyes on Tifa. “What are you planning?” he asked.

It didn’t sound quite as bald a question as it should have, because of the reserve in his tone; the suggestion that he was judging her on her response more than asking with the expectation that he would learn any actual truth.

This was the first time Sephiroth had spoken directly to her since the forced hallucinations at the Northern Crater, and she felt reproached in a remarkably similar way considering he wasn’t amused at her expense this time. Considering she knew more than he did, this time.

“I…plan to save you,” she said. Held up a hand. “And before you say anything paranoid, no, I’m not pretending to care about you. I don’t even like you. But Hojo is planning to drive you insane. Literally, more than the normal level of maddening that comes from the fact that Hojo exists at all.”

She thought Sephiroth might have smiled slightly at that last part, a startled involuntary little twitch that had to have been genuine if it had happened at all. He certainly looked taken-aback. Fair made a sort of astonished sputtering sound. Cloud’s face was locked into a frown of concentration, and Vincent of course was impassive.

Tifa reluctantly ruined the slight uptick in the mood caused by her own poor joke. “And…if his plan succeeds…it will be dangerous for everybody.” She hadn’t wanted to explain anything to Sephiroth, didn’t trust him to have good judgment or good intentions and would prefer to keep him as much in the dark as possible so he could make as few choices as possible.

But Fair had been taking that option away even before Sephiroth showed up in the building. Because if you didn’t see Sephiroth as evil, then trying to control him like that probably seemed that way instead.

“Because you’re dangerous,” Tifa added, when the pool of silence created by her explanation widened inexplicably.

“That I must grant you,” Sephiroth said, and turned to fix his stare on Vincent. “What are you planning?”

Vincent stared back. Tilted his head a very small amount. “…the current plan is to interfere with Hojo’s plans,” he said at last. And wow, Tifa had to admit that right now the resemblance was striking, she could suddenly understand why Fair had asked.

“Are you sure you’re not related?” Fair asked, on the same wavelength. Sephiroth stiffened.

Vincent’s eyes had fluttered closed, and he gave a tiny huffing sigh. “I’m sure.” Eyes open again. “I let myself be assigned away from your mother,” he informed Sephiroth, which was probably a better idea than relaying the information by answering Fair directly, “and when I came back a year later, she was married.”

That was fairly conclusive. Too bad, really. If the way Sephiroth had fixated on Jenova had been a result of anything other than her psychically getting into his head, being able to wave a non-Hojo father under his nose might have been useful.

Sephiroth appeared to be trying to drill through Vincent with his eyes, until he abruptly turned his head away and looked at Tifa instead. “Are you under direction from Genesis Rhapsodos?”

Tifa blinked. Her conspiracy against a conspiracy was suspected of being part of yet a third conspiracy? “Who?”

Fair squinted at her. “You act like you know all about this ‘Jenova Project’ and you don’t know who that is?”

“I know a lot about Project S,” Tifa fired back. “It happened in my town. Did Gast have other subjects somewhere else or something?” She would have expected that to come up at some point. Or…wait, there’d been something like that mentioned during Deep Ground, hadn’t there? Something with Jenova but not Sephiroth, anyway. She hadn’t really paid attention to the minutiae, content that Vincent, Reeve and Yuffie knew what had happened.

Tifa had the common sense not to blurt out anything about Deep Ground, and as soon as she’d congratulated herself on that she realized that Sephiroth was sitting horrifically still and she had very possibly just triggered his scheduled murderous rampage.

Well, he was at least somewhat isolated here; the only better time for it would have been halfway to the reactor tomorrow, with Vincent lurking nearby in a sniper’s blind.

Explain,” he commanded, and the air shivered, and oh, that was him trying to be menacing, wasn’t it.

And sure, Tifa had some bad memories associated with this menacing look, but none he wasn’t calling up with just his face. And she’d seen that face much more terrifying than this, seen it blank with hate and smiling faintly with madness and smirking as he hovered on seven wings at the core of the world. And then she and her friends killed him.

She felt her lips draw back. “Shinra lies.

Sitting on a perfectly prosaic desk chair in a dusty room in the house where he’d been born—the room where he’d been born, for all Tifa knew—Sephiroth’s eyes burned cold. “That’s not new information,” he bit out.

“Oh, excuse me for assuming that if you knew they were lying to you, you’d stop doing as you were told!”

“You certainly seem to consider yourself an expert on my life.”

“I know everything about you I need to.” Not quite true, maybe; the thing she needed to know most was whether it was even possible for him to choose anything but becoming the Nightmare of the World. But enough to judge him, as he was insinuating she couldn’t? Oh yes.

Tifa felt lighter than air, like she was in the midst of a combat high one punch from setting loose a Limit Break. “You want to know what I want you to do?” she asked. “Go away. Leave this town and never come back.”

The set of his jaw suggested defiance. Tifa rose to her feet. “And if you won’t? If you insist on staying here and seeing your mission completed, and visiting Hojo’s trap of a library? Stay away from the reactor.

“The reactor happens to be my mission,” Sephiroth retorted. “Or would you rather have power to the region continue to be disrupted while mutated monsters become more numerous?”

It sort of made her want to laugh, having him looking up at her and sounding positively pissy, except that he could and very probably would bisect her at any time she became too much of an annoyance, and then not only would she be dead, she would have derailed the events that barely saved the world last time, without setting in motion any stronger defenses for the new future.

“Let Shinra send a technician,” she said. “Someone whose job it is to fix machines. Are you going to tell me you don’t think it’s even slightly suspicious they sent you of all people on a mission like this?”

“Considering your mountain is covered in insane dragons,” he snipped back, “not at all.”

“…nn.” She couldn’t even dispute that; Mount Nibel was unfriendly at best. Of course, if they’d sent their technicians in a helicopter they could have stepped out right at the foot of the reactor. She cocked her head, one hand landing on her hip. “Well, if the technician was going to have to go up on foot past the monsters I guess you could argue that makes sense, but really, isn’t it beneath you to be dispatched to walk up a mountain and fiddle with equipment just because Shinra can’t spare a helicopter?”

“Everything in peacetime is beneath me, but I must do something. More importantly,” he continued, while Tifa was still astounded at the ego on the man, “Civilians from this continent aren’t usually familiar with helicopters. Who are you?”

“Just a Nibel girl,” she said. Didn’t smile the way she had, saying it to Fair. This wasn’t fun; Sephiroth wasn’t someone she could tease. “Ask anyone. I’ve never left this town in my life.”

“You were recommended to me as the most talented local guide,” Sephiroth said levelly. “You could have met with anyone in the isolation of the mountains. I ask again. Who are you, and who are you working with?” His left hand turned—did not clench, or rise, just rotated, so that now if he called the Masamune into it there would be space for it to appear in, and it would not intersect a wall or anybody’s body.

She saw him see her notice what that meant.

The angle of his shoulders changed. He didn’t consider her a threat—no surprise, he had never seemed to consider Cloud a threat, no matter how many times he was killed—but he wasn’t sure she was harmless anymore, either.

There went her chance at getting a free shot at him while his guard was down. She was spending cards right and left and not gaining anything.

“Hey. Hey,” intruded SOLDIER Fair, leaning forward in his seat so he was in her peripheral vision. “Calm down. We’re just talking here. General, Tifa’s been really tightmouthed about her sources, I’ve been letting that go so far. She’s totally convinced Hojo has it out for her town and wants you to kill everybody.”

“I don’t think Hojo cares about us,” Tifa corrected. “We’re just what’s available. Isolated towns are about the most controlled conditions you can get for large-scale human experiments,” she added bitterly.

Sephiroth’s fingers curled in their black glove, and Tifa expected to see Masamune slide into existence. Any second. “And what is the goal of this…supposed experiment?”

“I don’t know. Stress-testing the product, maybe?” Cloud and Vincent had both gone a very specific shade of quiet one day when Reeve started talking about testing certain recently-developed sustainable building materials ‘to destruction.’ It had only taken a single discreet kick in the ankle for Reeve to notice, and stop. He’d worked with Hojo for years, after all.

“Tifa.” Fair sounded outright disappointed in her, which was mostly annoying. They didn’t have the same goals, and she wasn’t his to reprove.

“Hojo is insane. I can’t explain him.” He’s hoping you’ll try to destroy the world and awaken the Weapons of the Planet because they sound interesting was the closest thing to a solid theory she could put forth, and it wouldn’t be helpful to do so.

She needed to get access to those video logs Gast had left in Icicle, somehow. Was it possible to make copies? Hojo hadn’t, and also hadn’t destroyed the originals, but as she’d just finished explaining, Hojo was not a good guide to what a sensible person might do—though also the videos were probably more secure from Turks in an abandoned house on the Northern continent than in Hojo’s own possession. He certainly wouldn’t have wanted to give Shinra any reason for second thoughts about his magnum opus.

There was no profit to be made, after all, in the destruction of the Planet. It was very bad for business.

(Such had been Rufus Shinra’s great ethical breakthrough, as Tifa understood it. She wasn’t sure if it could be achieved in this timeline, without a Weapon blowing the top off his Tower with him inside, and the Calamity dropping an enormous rock almost on his head, and Lifestream contamination condemning him to perish slowly and horribly.

But if Jenova’s threat could be contained, Tifa would have to move on to fighting Shinra’s slower but no less devastating march toward planetary extinction. Perhaps she would go to Midgar and find Barret and Jessie and the others, and come up with better plans this time than just blowing up reactors. The spiral threatened to be dizzying if she thought about it too hard, not least because nothing good had ever resulted from running up or down endless spirals of stairs—the fall of the Sector Seven plate, their doomed attempt to sneak into Shinra HQ, the trip down into the buried Ancient city only to watch Aerith die.

Of course, none of that mattered if she failed here.)

“Nevertheless,” said Sephiroth, “it was intimated that you would explain something.”

Well, that hadn’t been her idea, had it. Tifa looked over at Fair.

Who sighed, and gave a crooked, tired smile. “No, that was me. There’s a whole mess of notes downstairs,” he said. “About this Jenova Project thing. They look legit. Tifa says some of it’s fake and some of the rest is wrong, but she won’t name any sources and believe me I’ve tried. Says she’d put them in danger. And as brass as she’s acting, she’s really worried about how dangerous you are.”

Sliver-pupiled eyes, a less living green than mako or spring leaves, turned back to her.

“And?” Sephiroth prompted, as thought Tifa was more likely to open up to him than to SOLDIER Fair.

“That’s all I’ve got to say.”

Sephiroth paused, and when he spoke again he would have sounded calm to the average listener, but Tifa knew better. “I was hoping for rather more justification when Zack called this meeting. Thus far you have merely displayed an impressive paranoia and a willingness to break into Shinra property.”

Tifa shrugged. These were skills you developed as a low-level ecoterrorist in the Midgar slums.

Sephiroth leaned forward slightly in his chair. “We’re going to have to take you into custody, Miss Lockhart.”

The heroes in novels at this point usually said something like, you’ll never take me alive! but Tifa knew better. She’d been taken prisoner before. She’d been scheduled for execution. She’d had her execution initiated and survived only through the combined incidence of a slinky red psychopath’s personal gloating needs, her own escape skills, and the convenient arrival of a Weapon to smash open a wall.

There weren’t a lot of reasons in her view to choose death over surrender. When there weren’t many people on your side of a fight, dying was the biggest surrender of all.

That didn’t mean she was going down easy.

She raised her fists, watched Sephiroth draw himself back again the barest amount to put his guard up, to summon his sword...

Jumped backward from a standing start up onto the bed behind her, raising a great cloud of dust from the diamond-patterned counterpane; used its springs to launch herself, rotating one hundred eighty degrees midair, toward the middle of the other bed, with no time expended on crouching.

“Vincent!”

Tifa snatched up the lamp from the endtable between beds on her way past and flung it ahead of her to smash out the window, even as Vincent’s gun whipped up to pin Sephiroth in place.

It tracked over to Zack Fair as he lunged up out of the red rocking chair, as Vincent slid past him, and then they were both at the window and Tifa was jumping. This was the second story, but the ground continued to rise behind the Manor, and the drop totaled only a little more than twenty feet.

“Plan A,” she said as Vincent landed beside her and they began to run, into the cleft in the cliff that gave onto the lower crags, “is officially a wash.”

“Hm,” he agreed.

Tifa glanced over her shoulder only once, as she and Vincent made for one of the more obscure tracks that branched off the grassy main trailhead onto the chill and barren slopes of Mount Nibel. No pursuit had materialized, but she saw the pale shape of Cloud’s face under the yellow burst of his hair, leaning out the window after them.

Chapter Text

They were ambushed by a trio of Twin Brains halfway up the trail, and she flung herself at the first one with a shout she stifled at the last second in case it carried to any pursuit, and a flare of relief in her chest. It was so nice to have something she could hit.

“These things Stop you with their flash attack!” she called out to Vincent as a bullet streaked over her shoulder. “If I get hit, smack me!” Don’t shoot. Her life was alarmingly fragile just now, and neither of them had a Phoenix Down on hand.

“Hm,” Vincent agreed.

In the end each of them needed to be smacked back to alertness by the other once before the Twin Brains were finished, and Vincent got clawed rather fiercely coming forward to wake her. At least he hadn’t been frozen alongside her; that was when this sort of status-affecting monster became really dangerous. It was why only the foolhardy hunted solo. The power of a well-coordinated party was multiplicative.

“Ugh,” said Tifa, as they shared her last potion evenly between them to mend the worst of the damage. Now she sort of regretted leaving her healing incomplete earlier, except if she hadn’t she wouldn’t have anything to share now. “That was a lot harder without any materia.” At this rate she was going to find out the state of her Limit Break in this body sooner than planned.

Vincent gave her a hard look. “This seems like a good night to have equipped everything you own,” he said.

Tifa snorted. “I did.” She stood up again, pressed her folded hands into the small of her back and stretched in a backward arc to get out the kinks. Not as necessary in this springier younger body, but already part of the price she paid for being so top-heavy in front.

She squinted through the dark, lit by the stars and a sliver of moon. It had been a long time since she had needed to know these trails, but she’d learned them young and her mountaineering skills came in handy often enough to avoid rusting away, even after all these years running a bar. “This way.”


She led him through the dark to a spring—an ordinary one, clean of mako, that ran nothing but water, gushing out into a pool that fed a mountain stream that remained largely barren of life until it had gotten a few miles away from the reactor and the scouring winds of the Nibel peaks. Water was the most important element of wilderness survival—as vital as fighting monsters or resisting cold, and more essential than food, which could wait a few days if necessary.

She hadn’t geared up for hiking on this outing, and maybe that had been her first mistake—maybe she should have stolen up to the reactor in the dead of night to try to cut the problem off at the root. But it was easier to determine how to destroy the books, and she’d wanted Vincent at her back before she tried to face Jenova.

But at any rate she had no canteen, and after the long hike up here she was more than ready to fall to both knees and scoop up double handfuls of aching-cold, crystal-clear water. Once the worst of her thirst was quenched, she realized Vincent was still looming over her, and craned her neck up to point out, “There’s room for two.” Maybe he was watching her back in case of monster attack. There were some predators that liked to stake out water holes, day or night; it would be embarrassing to be carried off by a Zuu. Also inconvenient, and conceivably deadly.

He shook his head. “I don’t need it.”

Tifa snorted at him. “Not everything that won’t kill you is something you’re best off enduring. You’ll feel better with some water in you, I promise.”

Vincent shrugged, and knelt, filling his cupped right hand with water and taking a slow, careful drink. She watched his facial muscles twitch as his long-parched throat at first reacted with panic to being asked to swallow, and then ease as his body slowly realized what it was being offered. He knelt in place for several seconds after his hand was empty, the golden claws of the hand that was no use for holding water working a little against the stone, then bent to scoop up another drink.

Luckily his hand was large enough not to be useless as a cup; Tifa would go crazy with frustration trying to satisfy a thirst one-handed. Or more probably stick her face in the pool and drink like a dog. Then again, patience was definitely a virtue in which Vincent had her beat.

They both drank as much as they could bear, long after they were presently thirsty, and then stayed in place even though this place was vulnerable—Tifa because her stomach was uncomfortably full; Vincent who knew. Tifa wished she’d brought her canteen into the Manor. It had seemed like unnecessary weight at the time; she hadn’t intended to have to flee into the hills. Now she couldn’t carry water, which was one of the great advantages humans had over most monsters.

“No water bottle?” Vincent asked. He was definitely judging her on lack of preparation now.

“I was planning to go home after we set the fire,” said Tifa. She did have a canteen, at least. Teenage self was not hopeless.

She stood. “Come on. I know a good cave near here.”

The only monster they met on the way was a single kyuvildun they managed to take by surprise, so it had no chance to do any damage before it died. This part of the mountain wasn’t very popular with monsters, too low for the large things that frequented the peaks, but far enough above the green zone to deter most of the small prey creatures that Nibel Wolves depended on for their staple diet. The cave was where she remembered, and still unoccupied. It was narrow, and had no rear outlet, which if they were trapped here would be unfortunate but meant they didn’t have to worry about anything dangerous making its way up from the tunnel system, or anything huge coming in the front.

Tifa wrinkled her nose, dug the matches out of her bra, and lit one just to make sure there was nothing lurking at the back. There wasn’t. Vincent watched this, notably unimpressed. He could shut up. His low-light vision was better than hers, but he couldn’t see in the actual dark either. After she’d put the match out and tucked the booklet away, he asked,

“Did you lose your materia.”

Hah. She wished that was all.

Tifa thought longingly of the collection at home. She wouldn’t allow herself to miss the people there, not now while she had things to do, but her missing equipment was impossible not to feel wistful for. At some point in their world travels they’d become both supremely confident about ordinary monster fights and obsessed with preparedness for the really dangerous ones, and almost never carried a mastered materia when they could be mastering a new one, with the result that even after Yuffie had made off with a full third of the hoard after Meteor they’d still had at least one of everything.

(Cloud liked to carry a fresh Restore whenever he went out on his deliveries, leveling it up in the inevitable monster fights, so that once it duplicated he could sell the mastered one cheap to people who needed it, and start over with the fresh version.)

Most of the orbs the Sephiroth Remnants had stolen had been mastered, thankfully, so the chain of replication hadn’t been broken for anything unique like Ultima, when the plundered materia dissolved or exploded along with the thieves. Cloud had moved the rest of his collection to his room at the Seventh Heaven, after that, and combined with Tifa’s stash they’d had a comprehensive arsenal, to the point that Tifa had been as unlikely to bother equipping mere elemental magic materia for battle anymore as Cloud to ride a wild yellow chocobo.

But all that was further away than the moon, and even more untouchable. She put her back to one wall and sat down, deep enough to be out of the wind. Very little starlight made it in so deep, either. “You could say that.”

“Tifa Lockhart.” Vincent tried out her name in his mouth, it sounded like. It had been a supremely uninformative answer to what are you, if she was honest. She leaned back against the stone. It was a little too cool for comfort.

Vincent lowered himself to sit not quite across from her, his back to the opposite wall. That was—a lot more social than she was used to him being, wow. Then again, he was always more comfortable one-on-one than in groups, she knew that.

And comfortable or not, he wouldn’t be looking at her so hard if he wasn’t expecting something.

Tifa smiled, almost in spite of herself. Their group had scattered, after Meteor, and Vincent had vanished most of all, but he’d gotten a phone after the Remnant incident and started checking in, and actually started visiting for no real reason after Deep Ground. So she was used to seeing him in ordinary, homely spaces, not just in the kind of place you wound up on ridiculous word-saving adventures.

It was still far less weird to be with Vincent in a random cave than a young Cloud in her childhood bedroom.

“I’m a time traveler,” she said, answering his question from the room of coffins a few hours late. “As far as I’m concerned, you and I have been friends for years.”

She should really go on, tell him at least as much as she had Cloud. Should sketch out all the ways the world was in danger—Jenova and Sephiroth with Meteor; Omega; Shinra’s mounting energy depletion—or at least what was relevant to him. At least a little about his Lucrecia, because Vincent not asking didn’t mean he didn’t want to know. But she was tired. Tired of telling people the truth and having them think the worst, or disbelieve her, or figure out more than she could afford for them to know.

“Came back through time,” Vincent assessed, and in the near-dark the faint red mako glow of his eyes was easy to see, and it was easy to see that it brightened, his attention intensifying. “How?”

Oh. “I don’t know.”

“…ah.” Well, of course he’d be disappointed. His regrets were another twenty-six years or more in the past. “So that’s…how you knew.”

“We’ve been through a lot together.” Tifa drew up one knee under her chin. “I wouldn’t have wanted to kill you anyway, but I wanted to save you especially, because it was you.”

Vincent was silent for long breaths. “You do realize that whatever memories you may hold, I am not your friend.”

Tifa shrugged. “Well, yes. But at the same time, it’s still you.” This Vincent wasn’t bound to her by shared horrors and triumphs and quiet sunrises, but time could mend that. He might yet betray her as that one never would have, but he hadn’t yet, and she couldn’t see a likely reason for it looming. He certainly retained no loyalty to Shinra.

Because she was his friend even if he wasn’t hers, and also because he might unpredictably side with Sephiroth if he decided Lucrecia would have wanted it, she leaned in a little and said, “It wasn’t your fault, you know. Dr. Crescent’s decisions. She was an adult, and I don’t know how many women you knew in the Turks or wherever, but we don’t actually need the men in our lives making our choices for us.”

Vincent’s eyebrows drew together. “I know that,” he said, a note of bafflement entering his monotone. “But she asked.”

Tifa squinted. “What?”

He stared into the wall. “Taking such risks with her body…I suspected Hojo was pushing her into it for his own purposes. When I tried to ask, she…” Vincent fell silent, and for a second Tifa thought that was where he was going to stop. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d left a story unfinished. “I only realized afterward…” he murmured. “That she meant for me to say that what she did to herself affected me. To volunteer myself as a reason to take care. That I’d hurt her, and she was still…”

He shook his head. Didn’t know the phrase ‘on the rebound’ or was above using it. “I didn’t understand, and then…it was too late.”

Suddenly his eyes were on hers, piercing. “You didn’t know this?” There was the suspicion of an accusation, the suggestion that if she had tricked him…

Tifa felt a small smile starting even as she shook her head. “Nah. You usually talked out the heavy stuff with Cloud.”

Incredulity, as polite as Vincent was capable of. Hah, right. He’d met baby Cloud. All fresh-faced and hesitant. He probably didn’t see what they could possibly have in common. She scrunched her face up. “He…was kinda different, by the time Hojo was done with him.”

“Most people are.” Vincent unfolded, made his way to the mouth of the cave. “I’ll take first watch.”

Tifa opened her mouth to debate this, then realized with two of them it was a simple binary choice, and she had been awake for twenty-two stressful hours but woken him from his long nap about three hours ago. Easy decision. “Thanks,” she said. Curled herself up as best she could, grateful now that the blue skirt was longer that she used to prefer, because it kept more of her off the cold stone. Tents were another thing she did not have a stash of in this time.


When she woke up, injuries much recovered for the rest, it was to find Vincent’s red cloak had been tucked carefully around her. She’d always been a heavy sleeper and her subconscious knew Vincent as safe, so she wasn’t surprised to have slept through it. Surprised, and touched, that it had happened, though, that certainly. So much for ‘I am not your friend.’

The front of the cave was grey with the coming of dawn, and Tifa folded the cloak over one arm and went that way. Vincent was crouched gargoyle-like in the mouth, looking frankly odd with that little red about him. “Hey,” she said, offering the cloak back. After a second, Vincent took it. It puddled in his lap.

Tifa sat down beside him. On his left, beside the prosthetic arm. Not so close that her shoulder or hip was in danger of pressing against him, because Vincent liked his space and she’d been presuming too many privileges so far probably. But fairly close, because she was better at actions than words, even if she was better at words than most of the jackasses she knew, and just because she wanted him to get past the idea that he should never do anything didn’t mean she wanted him to feel like the only thing that mattered about him was what he was good for.

Like he was a monster she wanted to use. Like he would ever make her feel unsafe.

“Sorry,” she said.

Vincent bent his head around to stare at her down the length of his own shoulder. It was one of those poses that looked intensely choreographed, and she’d always assumed he did this kind of thing intentionally, until that time on the Highwind right before the final battle with Sephiroth when Cloud had pointed out he acted cool all the time, and Vincent had been genuinely baffled by this information. She’d watched since, and it was true. He did not do this stuff on purpose.

Well, most of the time he didn’t. Some of the acrobatics were definitely just showing off.

She elaborated: “If I was too harsh yesterday. I do know what it’s like, to regret not acting when you had the chance, so much it steals the breath from your lungs. Don’t run, I learned. Don’t stand still if there’s some place you need to get to. Right now…this is me, getting a second chance to protect everyone.”

“There’s nothing more precious,” Vincent said.

Marlene and Denzel’s faces flashed across her mind, and Tifa curled in around them and swallowed it down. “I know,” she said. She did appreciate the chance.

“Aren’t you afraid,” he asked, “that this is only an illusion? Or…would you prefer to hide in it, even if it were?”

“No,” Tifa said. Her fist closed. “No, I refuse to be afraid.

“And I wouldn’t want…I was happy, Vincent. I’d built a new life. I had people I loved. The world wasn’t ending, not anymore, not any time we were there to fight for it. I was prepared to wear mourning for the rest of my life, for everyone we’d lost, but I was happy.” Bit down, then, trapped any further words behind her teeth, because these were the things she couldn’t say, the things she mustn’t think. She had to live, now. In the now.

If now was the past and what she couldn’t afford to cripple herself mourning was a future, well, that didn’t change anything. You can’t stand still. You can’t run away. You have to walk forward.

There ain’t no gettin’ offa this train.

Corel would be destroyed next year, if she changed nothing. If a year from now Shinra still stood and Scarlet was still in a position to throw tantrums backed up by battalions of guns held by men who didn't ask questions.

For a moment she was seized by the wild impulse to go scrabbling away east over the mountains, to fight and climb until she found herself at the edge of the impassable desert's edge, and then find a caravan to carry her in to the fading coal-town, to see it whole.

To see who Barret had been before he lost everything. To meet Myrna and Eleanor, and Dyne before he’d broken.

But of course it wouldn't help, except perhaps to make her situation that little bit more real, and anyway it would just be fleeing the weight of responsibility. She couldn't lean on Barret anymore.

For so long they'd picked up one another's slack in so many little practical things, from Barret not being able to do Marlene's hair with only one hand to how long Tifa had spent avoiding situations where she'd need to punch humans to death. But he had his family back, and unless Tifa failed he'd get to keep them, and never need her.

She had to save the world.

So first, she had to save Nibelheim.

“How long?” Vincent asked, breaking into the pain in a cool voice, and Tifa breathed again. “How old are you, really?”

She liked the way he’d put that.

“I’m twenty-six.” If she judged that blink right, he’d been expecting more. Flattering, actually. “Which I admit is still younger than you, although…come to think of it, I’m not sure how you rate the life experience gained in that coffin.”

“You don’t?”

“It never came up.”

“…I slept most of those years away, anyway.” Vincent stared abstractedly at the dim, lichen-roughened outline of stone for several seconds, then turned his eyes back to her. “Twenty-nine,” he said firmly. “I’m twenty-nine.”

“There you go, then. We’re practically the same age.”

Not that an age gap would have worried her; she’d never considered herself less than an equal even of Cid, who’d been old enough to have worked for Shinra since before they became a power company. But it was pleasant anyway, to think of them that way. Only three years apart. Vincent was usually so distant, and she normally didn’t mind, but right now he was all she had. She’d try not to cling too hard.

More than a little, she doubted Lucrecia Crescent had deserved his loyalty much more than Shinra had, but she knew the kind of idiot love made of you, and fear, and she never passed judgment without knowledge of the particulars, no matter how much easier it would be.

She raised one hand, pointing east and south, over the ridge they were within and part of the plains below, and more mountains beyond that. “Lucrecia is that way,” she said, and watched Vincent’s head orient like a compass-needle toward north. It was sad, but Tifa did understand. “It’s pretty much impossible to get through the ring of peaks she’s inside on foot, but if we can steal a helicopter or something later on we can go visit.”

The black or green chocobos to cross the ring of mountains without Shinra-tech required an investment of time and gil and access to multiple continents to capture breeding stock that she didn’t anticipate having remotely soon. A helicopter almost had to be how Lucrecia had gotten in in the first place. Which of course raised the question of the pilot.

She lowered her hand. “I don’t think locking herself in a cave for thirty years did anything for her conversational skills, but I know enough this time I might be able to convince her to talk at least a little bit sensibly.” So far she’d only gotten anywhere with people she actually knew, but Crescent wasn’t in a position to kill her or sell her out to Shinra. “If we tell her Sephiroth needs her she might even come out.” That might be feeding false hope, on both ends; she wasn’t sure it was even physically possible for the good doctor to leave her crystal altar anymore. But she hoped.

Doctor Crescent’s judgment was questionable and her priorities were strange, but she had esoteric expertise and a brilliant mind, and if the maternal fixation that had cropped up during Sephiroth’s breakdown hadn’t been a fluke of alien biology, she might be very useful in keeping him grounded.

Tifa would endure a lot more than making sure an annoying scientist didn’t take advantage of Vincent too badly, if it meant Sephiroth not throwing in his lot with Jenova. He was terrible and deadly already, but he was only a man.

Vincent stared out across the dim humps of the mountaintops. “Decades…in the darkness of a cave?”

Tifa blew out a gust of air. Explaining things always led to explaining other things. You’d think she’d have learned. She refused to discuss Chaos and Omega, on the grounds she didn’t understand anything about them. “Like I told Fair earlier, something about the experiment made her…immortal, I guess, but she doesn’t trust herself around people. As far as I can tell she’s been in this one cave since she left Shinra, which wasn’t long after Sephiroth was born.” She did not have a good timeline. For any of this. Why had she never cared about who had done what when?

“Was she…waiting for me?”

And that, that was why Vincent was so distant, Tifa sometimes thought. Because his blank expression was pretty impeccable and he was genuinely indifferent on plenty of subjects, but he really couldn’t lie worth a damn, and if he opened his mouth while he was hurting he could break your heart from sheer proximity.

“No,” Tifa promised. Which probably hurt in its own way, but she couldn’t explain Crescent’s choices much better than she could Hojo’s. She just knew that if Lucrecia had wanted Vincent, she could have gone to him. She’d left him in his coffin against the Planet’s need for an avatar of Chaos, instead. Maybe that was selfless, and maybe it was just the opposite kind of selfishness from her own clinging to Cloud when they found him in Mideel. That was between Lucrecia and Vincent. Tifa wasn’t getting into the middle.

She swayed a little sideways this time so her shoulder bumped his arm, just above where metal joined flesh. “When we found her before, she panicked whenever anyone tried to go near her. She’s not okay. But it’s not your fault.”

Vincent was her fault, at least a little—probably more Hojo’s, but Lucrecia supposedly cared, and Tifa only cut a grown woman so much slack for being bullied. But it wasn’t her place to say so.

She stood, stretching her arms in front of her this time and rotating her torso, getting out the kinks that sleeping and sitting on stone had left in even a sixteen-year-old back. “It’s not quite day up here yet, and they’re almost an hour behind down in the valley. Want to catch a few winks before we move out?”

Vincent straightened up, whirling the cape back around his shoulders. “I have slept too many days away already,” he declared, but headed back into the cave all the same. He chose a different hollow to curl into than she had, having a larger frame, and stayed half-sitting against the wall, but he really did seem to go to sleep pretty quickly.

Tifa settled into a new perch on the stone lip of the cave, letting her feet swing over a twenty-foot drop. “I’ll wake you up in less than an hour,” she promised.

Chapter Text

Tifa spent Vincent’s nap plotting, and having a very long pee over the edge of the path, as discreetly as she could manage, and when the sun nudged its way up over the crest of the eastern mountaintops, she was ready. She gave Vincent another twenty minutes after that, as dawn crept down the mountainside toward the valley floor dyeing things gold, then went and stood over him and called his name until he woke up.

He didn’t point his gun at her when he did, which seemed like a good sign. Ranged fighters could be trickier to wake without incident than people who needed to be able to reach their opponents.

On the way back to the spring for a morning drink of water, she gave her teammate a rundown. The plan relied fairly heavily on him, so his input was important. He didn’t have any major amendments to suggest, but seemed pleased to have been asked. Especially because it gave him a chance to give her flat disbelieving looks when she got to the weirder parts, and make her back up and explain the relevant piece of the future for context. (This didn’t always help.)

Somehow they avoided being ambushed by anything, which was just as well. They were out of potions, and Tifa wanted to be at her full strength, such as it was, if they had to fight Sephiroth.

Vincent was faster than she was, though at this point only a little—ten years into the future, he’d learned to take advantage of the alterations to his body in such a way that he could glide over the surface of the world faster than most land vehicles, but for now he merely had the pace of a long-legged man.

This was still enough to give him an edge over her, once he knew the route, and once they’d done all she thought they could afford by way of preparation and there was still no sign of Sephiroth, Tifa stationed him overlooking the base of the trail from a convenient vantage point on one of the lesser peaks, below the Ice King itself.

What she wouldn’t give for a PHS.

Tifa herself adopted a position three-quarters of the way down a certain near-vertical mountainside, perched on the upper curve of one of the wild spikes bursting from the main peak of Mount Nibel. Because her memory of this week was mostly irrelevant now, beyond her certain knowledge of what Sephiroth had done once and could do yet, but one detail still mattered: the rope suspension bridge up to the reactor had fallen out from under them, on this day ten years ago.

They’d lost one of their party then, the Shinra trooper who was not Cloud. The rest of them—especially the normal humans, her and Cloud—had been extraordinarily lucky to reach the ground whole. Just as she and Cloud had been lucky to survive the fall they’d taken when they were eight, the day her mother died.

If the bridge fell again today, there was no guarantee Cloud would be as lucky a third time. Even at the lower end of the bridge, it was a thirty-meter fall onto hard rock. In the worst-case scenario, the fall could leave you spitted on a needle-sharp stone spike for the Zuu to nibble on as you decayed. And Tifa was not willing to live in a world where she had gotten Cloud killed for trusting her, due to a stupid oversight.

But who knew, maybe Sephiroth would get unlucky and break his neck.

Vincent took a while to arrive, dropping liquid-like at last over the far cliff. Tifa watched him pick his way across the space below with jumps already too long for anything purely human. He was adjusting. By now the sun was nearly directly overhead, and she had been starting to hope that the Shinra weren’t coming today and she’d be free to spend the afternoon doing something about Jenova after all.

…that was Tifa’s least favorite of all the decisions she’d made so far, ranking below even the brilliant ‘draw SOLDIER’s attention to house, then attempt to burn same house down under cover of night.’ She hated it, but she couldn’t see any way around it.

The plan, as it stood, didn’t involve destroying Jenova.

The biggest reason for this was that Tifa still didn’t have a Fire materia, and hauling a slimy mako-oozing Poison-aspected carcass, that outweighed her, by hand down the mountain to somewhere with enough fuel to build a bonfire would have been impossible in the dark, and would take too long now that it was light, when Sephiroth might be along at any moment. Even assuming the operation went off without a hitch otherwise, it didn’t seem wise to be caught in the act of stealing his ‘mother’s’ corpse.

Tifa didn’t think Jenova could adopt any of her mutant attack forms without Sephiroth’s input from within the Lifestream, but she didn’t know she couldn’t, and even the weakest of those forms would utterly crush her and Vincent fighting alone, at their current strength.

The heart of a Mako reactor was a reliable way to destroy most things, and Vincent had brought this idea up, but of course for Jenova it was only a shortcut into the heart of the Lifestream.

Tried that. Bad plan, fail.

What Tifa wouldn’t give for Aerith’s healing water right now. Seriously, it should have been Aerith here. If she’d woken up in Midgar just a few weeks ago, she could have made it here and wiped Jenova out with her Limits before Sephiroth even arrived!

Even Tifa could have gotten a lot more done, with even a day longer to prepare, a day with no SOLDIERs on the horizon. Whatever was responsible for this either hadn’t had many options or didn’t care to make this easy.

She really hoped it wasn’t Jenova, using the last of her strength to wind tings back and take another shot at the Planet. But surely she would have brought Sephiroth back with her instead.

Of course, Tifa had already taken steps to prevent Cloud becoming the Hero he had been…

She shook herself free of the doubts. It was too late for them.

The point was, there had been no point smashing down the door to Jenova when there was no immediate way to destroy her. So she was still waiting, sealed away, an evil promise.

It should be fine. Sephiroth had visited the reactor and left again without losing his mind, the first time. Of course, he hadn’t been to the library yet, at the time, and hadn’t as far as she knew gotten face-to-face with the Thing. On the other hand, in this time Tifa had hopefully weakened his faith in the library, if nothing else. The timing of his mental collapse was now utterly unpredictable.

Ideally, Tifa would like him to break down in the mountains, violently enough that Fair became willing to help her, cloud, and Vincent put him down, but fusing with Jenova beforehand would give him extra power that would make defeating him much more difficult. To the best of her knowledge, the current version of Sephiroth could not, for example, fly.

The second-best option was for him to remain mostly stable today and leave again, giving her time to get more resources together. It wasn’t ideal, because the time they’d gained to get stronger the first time had always come at the expense of other peoples’ lives, and she couldn’t count on Sephiroth toying with her long enough to build an arsenal. She wasn’t Cloud.

Even Cloud wasn’t Cloud, not in the way that mattered to predicting Sephiroth. Tifa would rather take him down right here, today, but if she couldn’t then she had to buy time for all her allies to get stronger.

Time. It always came down to time. It was the only resource she had, and yet she didn’t have nearly enough of it.

Vincent’s arrival, as he climbed the cliff below her to within conversational distance, was a welcome interruption to her latest cycle of brooding. (This was why she hated being leader, besides the fact that it meant Cloud wasn’t available to do it. You were obligated to spend your free time brooding, in case you’d missed a better solution.) Tifa leaned forward. “They’re coming?”

Crouching on a spike three meters down, Vincent nodded.

“How long?”

“Perhaps a third of an hour behind me.”

The Shinra party had gotten moving hours later than last time. She wondered if it was the need to find and probably vet a new guide, or if after their late night the SOLDIERs had slept in. If they’d slept at all.

Didn’t matter.

Sephiroth was climbing the mountain. Why was he climbing the mountain? Duty, curiosity, mind control, because he was a contrary ass. Whatever. She supposed it was better than having already locked himself in the basement lab with the books. Probably. Hopefully. Even if he was headed straight for Jenova.

Fair was coming too, and two troopers. Vincent couldn’t tell whether one of them might be Cloud, let alone which. The guide was a red-haired man, almost definitely Zeke Cooper, one of the local trappers, who’d gone out of his way to dissuade Tifa from learning the trails as a girl but finally given in and shared a variety of safety and navigation tips, once he accepted her determination.

(He’d led the party she took out to re-hang the fallen bridge, on the previous version of tomorrow, and wouldn’t let her look when they found the corpse of the missing trooper, head cracked like an egg against Nibel stone. She hadn’t insisted, and the guilty sense of failure she’d had as a guide who’d lost one of her charges had been eclipsed a few days later by the destruction of Nibelheim, so that the memory barely felt like her own.)

Tifa cracked her knuckles. “Okay,” she said. “You find a place under the far end of the bridge—don’t look like that, you’re bright red, you need to be out of line of sight—and if the bridge goes out, each of us tries to catch the nearest trooper.”

Vincent looked down at his cloak like its bright color bemused him, and Tifa reminded herself yet again that as accustomed to it as she was after knowing him for years, they were still well within the first full day he had spent out in the world with this kind of coloration. On some level, he probably still thought of himself as wearing Turk blacks.

Without further protest, he turned and proceeded to retrace his steps across the tops of twisted rock formations, to the far cliff.

They waited. The Shinra team arrived, led by Zeke—she made out the rise and fall of his nasal voice and Nibel accent interspersed with Sephiroth’s cool-leather tones and the way Fair managed to sound piping in a grown man’s voice. They started onto the bridge, and Tifa listened to the ropes creak. It was a broad bridge, though less ambitious than its counterpart in Corel—what was it with Shinra, accessing their ultramodern metal monstrosities with rope-and-plank suspension bridges? Two walked abreast.

Tifa began to think that her own absence from the party, or the relative heat and dryness of the early afternoon, might have changed things so the bridge would remain whole, and she would have wasted all this time for nothing.

There was a sharp snap that echoed all the way down the mountainside, and then the bridge fell out from under everyone’s feet.


Tifa launched herself out of coiled readiness to snag the trooper who’d been in front around the ribs, and knew in the moment of impact by his muffled oof! and the way he startled and then stilled in her arms that it was Cloud. She used him as a counterweight to get her feet in front of them and kicked again off another spike, and then the side of a large flat upthrust of stone that was a less extreme example of the same resistance to erosion that had created the Ice King, and then with a final somersault they reached the ground.

She set Cloud down on his side before straightening out of her crouch. Her teenage knees were aching at having been pushed past their limits, and her back, and the places where her arms attached at the shoulders were displeased with her for catching someone who outweighed her by at least a few kilos. But Cloud was fine.

“What,” Cloud began, pushing himself up onto his knees, and she put a finger to her lips. Assuming the rest of the party had landed safely, they were just on the other side of this rock formation, and she would prefer not to be cornered by Sephiroth.

“Tifa,” Cloud began again, softer, and his voice was heavy and almost…fearful.

It wasn’t the same tone exactly as he’d said her name in seven years from now while dying, when she was trying to get him to break past his self-hatred and go help Marlene, but it reminded her of that moment anyway, of I’m not fit to save anyone. “Did you…?” She squinted, not sure what he was asking. His shoulders drew back, though he was still kneeling. “Did you drop the bridge?”

“What? No!” Her stomach lurched. Oh, Gaia. She’d told him she was a terrorist, and then obviously known the bridge would go down, what did she expect him to think? “It snapped last time. If it broke again, I didn’t want to risk you not surviving this time.”

“But you let Zack fall.” His tone and eyes were solemn, measuring—maybe somewhat judgmental, but not accusing. “And Mr. Cooper.”

Now, Tifa knew, because she had seen it on a journey to the center of Cloud’s mind, that Zeke Cooper had been one of the people to find her and Cloud lying unconscious in this ravine, after Cloud failed to stop her from tripping and falling like an idiot. Had been the one to carry her away for medical treatment, while her father lingered to pin the blame on Cloud for the whole misadventure. Of course Cloud had somehow come out of that conversation believing it really was his fault, so maybe he didn’t hold a grudge.

At least Cloud hadn’t complained about her not trying to save Sephiroth.

She shrugged. “Only one person died last time. The SOLDIERs can take it, and Zeke’s probably fine. I just couldn’t risk you.”

Cloud heaved a breath in, let out a sigh through his teeth. Rubbed the back of his neck and let his weigh roll off his knees so he was sitting on the stone instead of his inflexible trooper boots before he looked up at her. “I believe you,” he said. “But everybody else won’t.”

Tifa sank down to sit on her heels, since Cloud clearly wasn’t standing any time soon. “I guess it looks pretty bad,” she admitted. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t drop a bridge under Sephiroth if I thought it would work, but I don’t think it really would, and I’m not quite at the point where I’m willing to rack up collateral casualties like that.”

She’d never been entirely comfortable with collateral casualties, not really. It was why she’d personally gone on so few AVALANCHE bombing missions. Supply runs? Stealing bomb construction materials from Shinra depots? Sure. But she’d been all too willing to stay home with Marlene when they went out on an actual bombing. Like not placing the charges or pushing the button kept her hands clean.

Now there was too much on her shoulders to afford that kind of cowardice, but she still held back. Weakness? Or something worth fighting to protect?

“Well,” said Cloud uncomfortably, and she remembered again that he was currently a Shinra soldier, and probably thought of it as his duty to protect the public from people like her, “that’s good. Uh, your dad stormed into the inn this morning in a fit. Somebody told him about me coming over to visit you yesterday, so when you weren’t there this morning he figured I’d done something.”

Anybody could have seen a trooper going into or leaving her house, but if he’d known the trooper was Cloud the informant must have been Greg, who’d been close enough to hear her use his name. Damn it, Greg. Damn it, Dad. “I’m sorry,” she groaned. “Why does he always do this?” She glanced at Cloud’s complicated expression and fumbled. “I uh. I don’t remember about the time we fell here when we were kids, because I hit my head, but you told me about it, in the future. I know Dad blamed you.”

She leaned in a little. “It was already more than you owed me trying to help, you know. It wasn’t your fault I hurt myself. If anything it was my fault you scraped your knees.”

Cloud’s face was a study. He looked down; aside; finally, in self-defense, up at the sky. “It was fine, anyway,” he told it, with a forced sort of conversational nonchalance that made Tifa sort of want to ruffle his hair even though his embarrassment was catching. “Well, sort of fine. Zack kind of pointed his sword at your dad when he burst in, and Sephiroth told him you’d been caught trespassing on Shinra property and were wanted on suspicion of terrorism, so it was a pretty fun morning.”

Tifa chuckled. “Sounds like it.” She stood up again, dusting her skirt off. “Okay, I should probably go. Vincent and I have a rendezvous set up, you want to come with or go back to the Shinras?”

“Um.” Cloud struggled visibly for a second. “If I don’t go back, Zack is going to be sure I was in on your plan to drop the bridge.”

“But even if you do,” Tifa followed the thought to the end, “they’re still going to be suspicious.” That sounded pretty uncomfortable. She knew Cloud hated being the outsider. “If it helps, Vincent also saved the other guy. I’m sure he’s going back.” Unless he attacked Vincent and got himself shot to death, but since they’d gone this long without hearing shots fired, it was probably safe.

“Mm. Yeah.” Cloud looked up at her, then his jaw firmed. “I’m going back,” he said firmly. “I can do more good there.”

“Can’t argue.” Tifa held out her hand. “Meet you at the reactor, I guess.” Cloud didn’t need her help to stand up, of course, but he let her help him anyway. She let his hand go. “Zeke will probably take you past the mako fountain on the way up, take a minute to enjoy it for me?”

Cloud’s lips twitched sideways. “Okay. Oh, but first.” He dug into one of the pouches on his belt, which were mostly intended for the troopers to haul ammunition. Came out with a small, very lumpy plastic bag, folded over on itself around its contents, which he pressed on her. It was nearly heavy enough to be bullets, but not that hard. “Just…uh, technically it’s from Mom. She has no idea what’s going on, though,” Cloud assured her, and then ducked around the rock formation to go rejoin the Shinra team.

Tifa peeled the bag open and found it contained two of the dense oaty rolls that traditional Nibelheimers called bannocks. Cloud’s mother cooked on an electric stove so it must have been grilled in a frying pan, and in around the bread were packed dried apple slices. It was solid, old-fashioned trail food, and Tifa hadn’t had a Nibel bannock in ten years. She stood clutching the little packet and very determinedly did not cry.

Be assaulted by emotions later. She wrapped the food up again and, lacking pockets, stuffed it down her shirt where it wedged looking like a small, lumpy third boob, before making for her exit plan.

It was probably just as well Cloud hadn’t come with her. She wasn’t sure about his physical strength at this age, but she knew she couldn’t have carried him the whole way.

They’d placed the rope so it wasn’t visible from the ground under where the bridge had been, but she needed to hurry to be out of sight before Sephiroth started up the path. She tied the end of the rope to her belt, to avoid leaving it behind her and encouraging pursuit, and then went up hand over hand, the heels of her boots only making the climb slightly more difficult. Her sixteen-year-old arms felt the climb, but even with the ache from catching Cloud this was something she could do.

Vincent was waiting for her at the top. Didn’t, of course, offer her a hand getting over the lip of the cliff—he’d probably have caught her if she’d managed to fall backward over it, but help that wasn’t obviously needed wasn’t his style. “All good?” Tifa asked, shaking her left arm like she could shake the trembling out of it.

Minimal shrug. “The man was alternately outraged and…terrified. I tore his uniform.” His left hand opened and closed like an insect’s pincers.

“Yes, well, you saved his life, you’re the hero.” Tifa peered over the edge of the cliff she’d just climbed; she could make out a flame-orange dot moving somewhere below, showing Zeke had survived, and the stripe of off-white that was Sephiroth. It was harder to be sure about Fair but SOLDIERs could take a lot of punishment, he was probably fine. “Looks like they’re on the move. We have about an hour.”

Chapter Text

Having an hour to kill, and the top of Mount Nibel being chill, they went inside.

Tifa wasn’t pretending those were the only reasons, but they didn’t hurt as additional incentive.

It was…strange to think as she swung her way down the chains that inexplicably constituted part of the route from the front entrance to the reactor core—maybe this was why an athletic type like Sephiroth had been sent to do repair work rather than a normal technician?—that this reactor had no flakes of her old dried blood mingling in some out-of-the-way corner with Cloud’s and Sephiroth’s and Zack Fair’s. That that whole drama she’d incompetently gotten herself taken out of early had never happened. That Sephiroth had never plunged into the green glow below and reemerged inside the Northern Crater where his monster-mother first made her dramatic entrance to the surface of the Planet.

That was what defined this building, after all. That and the monster inside.

Oh, wait. Monsters, plural. She’d forgotten the small ones until she saw their pods. She slowed to a stop, and Vincent halted when he reached her, hovering just behind her shoulder in a way that would be creepy if she weren’t so used to him.

She knew without looking his gun was in his hand. “What is it?” he asked.

Tifa shook her head. “Nothing that’s going to attack us.” Not on its own, at least. Possibly not ever.

She crossed the steel floor to the foot of the first row of pods, boosted herself up so she could look inside—as if it might have changed, somehow. Of course it hadn’t. The thing inside still grinned, ice-blue mako-crystalline rictus. Tifa always changed her mind from moment to moment whether the expression looked like malice or agony, or nothing at all because it wasn’t really a face anymore, just a death-mask. But she knew the thing would seize as if in pain as it died, so there were working nerves in there still, if not an actual mind.

Her stomach rolled and what had she hoped to learn? There was nothing to learn here.

She dropped down, and realized Vincent was giving her one of his pissed-off patient looks again. She gestured toward the pod. “Hojo made some monsters,” she explained. “Have a look.”

Vincent had an easier time seeing inside the pods, but even at his height some effort was involved, the sole of one ridiculous boot braced near the base and the rest of him levered up the additional necessary foot or so. Tifa always wondered why the windows had been included at all, when the size and positioning of the things meant no one could readily look inside while standing on the ground.

The obvious conclusion was that they were meant for looking out. Brr.

Which suggested the crystalized monsters had at some point in the process been conscious.

Where had Hojo gotten them from, she wondered. Vincent had been an opportunistic murder; Cloud and the Copies probably all salvage from Sephiroth’s rampage, judging by what Master Zangan had overheard. These seemed mostly to have started out as big men—SOLDIERs, maybe? Or SOLDIER hopefuls who’d been quietly shuffled away onto this alternate career path as specimens and their families told they’d died in combat, or training, or something.

Or maybe they’d been the ones without families.

Tifa had woken from a nightmare once that Cloud had gone away to Midgar and come back home to Nibelheim in just that way, and that she had climbed the mountain and slipped illegally into the reactor, looked through the glass at his fixed mako-pickled blue-fanged monster grin and not known him, because she’d barely known him all the time they were children and anyway there was nothing left.

She shivered.

Vincent’s head turned toward her. “Do they disturb you so?”

He wouldn’t believe her if she said no. He’d just take it personally. Vincent was good at that, though he never really raised a fuss. “They aren’t people anymore,” she explained. “No one should be able to do that.”

To turn a person into something that wasn’t.

Vincent looked away from her back into the eyes of the monster. “In a way,” he said, lowering himself back to the floor, “is that not what we do every time we kill? A corpse…is not a person any longer, either.”

That observation put a new spin on his coffin siesta, among other things. “I…guess that’s true,” she said. “It seems different, though.” The dead went back into the Lifestream and, without a strong will and a strong reason, dissolved again into streams of energy that gave rise to new life. They stopped being people when they let themselves go, but the echoes remained, and…it wasn’t the same. Death was the natural emptying-out of a life back into all of life, like water evaporating from a cup.

This was the opposite of that, forced crystallization of mako in and on a living thing, energy not released into the cycle but collected and compacted into a solid thing, until it rent apart the single small self that had once called that flesh home—or trapped it deep inside itself to suffer, which was probably worse. Though at least then there was a chance. Like there had been for Cloud.

Not for these, though. If they were released from their pods, they would die.

“Let’s let them out,” she said abruptly. “Where are the release levers?”

“…I thought we were still planning to avoid provoking Sephiroth. If such a thing is possible.”

Well, yes. Dammit. Tifa’s fists clenched. She’d left these creatures to pickle in possibly-agony for a decade in her previous timeline and never come back to free them; there was no reason it needed to happen right now this moment, now that she’d realized her oversight. But it still chafed. Maybe she just wanted to be able to do something substantive.

“Later,” she determined. “We’ll come back.”

They might die and never have the chance, but then the world would probably end anyway, so it wouldn’t matter.

She turned and glared up the stairs at the door labeled Jenova. Who’d done that, anyway? Why? Stupid question. Probably Hojo, for inscrutable crazy person reasons. Trying to understand Hojo was a bad use of time, and also disgusting.

Vincent followed her look. “That’s it, then. The nightmare.”

“The Calamity,” Tifa corrected. “Sephiroth…was everyone’s nightmare.” The Wutai had named him Demon long before he turned against humanity, and suddenly she was fiercely glad she was the one here, trying to solve the long nightmare. Not Cloud. She was tired of fighting but Cloud was tired to death with it, and yet it was the only thing he was always certain of.

She missed her Cloud like several ribs ripped out of her chest, but it just made her want to protect the innocence of the young Cloud on his way up the mountain more.

“You said it wants to use him,” said Vincent. “That from beyond death it conspired with Hojo to threaten Lucrecia and to deceive her son.”

She had said all that, hadn’t she? She rubbed a hand across her eyes. “I don’t…know for sure,” she admitted. “How much influence Hojo has. How much intelligence Jenova has. How much independence Sephiroth had. I know he was lied to, I know he made a choice, and I know he was needlessly cruel. If he can make a different choice this time, so we don’t have to fight him, so the Planet isn’t in danger from him—that would be better. That’s all.”

Vincent nodded slowly. He’d wondered once, in the midst of Sephiroth’s madness, whether killing the child of his precious person was yet another sin. If Sephiroth didn’t force the issue this time, Vincent wouldn’t either. But for now, he was sticking with her. He was still with her.

She turned her back on Jenova. If it could do anything without Sephiroth, it would have by now.


They came out of the reactor with plenty of time to spare. Tifa dug out her parcel of food—she hadn’t eaten in about seventeen hours, and as she expected the smell of food settled the faint nausea from the inside of the reactor immediately as her stomach roared. The reactor steps served as table and chair.

She shared her bannocks and apples with Vincent. He didn’t take much, but he seemed pleased that she’d offered. It probably wouldn’t kill him not to eat—since Deepground it had been tacitly acknowledged amongst their group that it probably would not kill Vincent not to breathe—even outside of dormancy, but it wasn’t good for him, either. She’d gotten in the habit over the years of pushing him and Cloud both into remembering to fuel themselves, when the occasion arose.

It took roughly the same methods as making sure Denzel didn’t ignore his vegetables, really, though in the putative adults’ case she suspected it had to do less with strategic obliviousness to a disliked experience than with detachment from their bodies, and a habit of screening out messages from them.

They’d really killed Hojo much too quickly the first time.

The heavy oat loaf was hard to chew through without water, but Tifa savoured the flavor. She’d never learned to make these. Her mother had died when she was just eight. She’d learned to cook from friends’ mothers and her mom’s recipe cards, and bannocks weren’t the kind of thing you bothered to write down or show off. They weren’t cool.

If she’d thought about it at all, she’d assumed she had plenty of time to learn such old-womanish things in the years it would take before she herself was old. But Nibelheim had burned, and little knowledges like the proper grilling of oat-cakes had gone with it.

The wind screamed over the knife-sharp edges of the Nibel peaks and through the spikes of the mountain king’s crown, that curved up around the reactor like fingers around an upturned palm. The sun was bright but hardly warm at all, and the sky was only a shade bluer than steel. She was home.

Eventually, the crunch of steps came up the path that curved up the peak and reached Vincent, who looked up, which alerted Tifa to the approaching sound.

She ate her last apple slice and stood, brushing crumbs from her lap.

She wished she had a better idea. She wished she knew more about what had happened in the reactor the first time. If she didn’t stop Sephiroth here, all she’d have done really was reversed the order in which he visited the two buildings that had set him off. There was no way that was enough.

If only she could just kill him and be done with it.

But that wasn’t an option, so there was no point thinking about it.

Sephiroth came into sight first, although he was actually third in line, behind Cloud and Zeke, because he was tall enough for his head to rise into view over the slope of the path before anyone else’s.

His attention must have been on the space around and above the party, watching for immediate danger, because it took him several seconds to notice Tifa and Vincent waiting on the steel stair-steps.

For a second he paused, and then his body language grew more focused and he pushed his way to the front of the line. His sword was in his hand, but the line of it extended behind him the way it often did when he was mid-monologue, in a backhand grip rather than the ready position. Not that he couldn’t bring it around and cut her in a second if he wanted, but he would lose a little speed and maneuverability.

(It looked even stupider, when he was standing on the ground and she was looking down at it.)

Zeke had let himself be shuffled back to the middle rear of the group now that they were in sight of the reactor, and Tifa didn’t like how he was looking at her. She couldn’t quite read it. He wasn’t betrayed exactly, or afraid, but it wasn’t a good expression. Cloud’s face was hidden under his helmet again.

Fair was watching her with narrow, careful Nibel-wolf eyes. He was at Sephiroth’s right shoulder, Vincent was at Tifa’s left. They were outnumbered, even if you counted Cloud as hers, but it wasn’t the numbers that concerned her.

Shinra’s greatest weapon led his party forward, only to stop far enough away that he had to raise his voice slightly to say, “Tifa Lockhart.”

“Sephiroth.”

He glared at her. Idly Tifa wondered how people standing up to him normally addressed him, if she was doing it so offensively wrongly. Probably it was defying him at all. She knew he hated that. “I confess I expected you to keep running.”

Tifa spread her hands. “Yet here I am.”

“Were you the one who sabotaged the reactor?”

Tifa was, to her surprise, actually surprised. “What? No. Even if I knew how to break one without it blowing up, why would I? It brought you here. I don’t want you here.”

Fair snorted half a laugh, a little of the wolf in him retreating. “Lady makes a strong argument.”

“I do!” Tifa agreed. “What would give you that idea? I’ve been trying to get you to leave since you arrived.” Really, what. She’d told Cloud she’d been a terrorist in the future, but if that conversation had been overheard, or passed on, Sephiroth would be asking very different questions. Or brushing her off as insane.

His fingers worked on the hilt of Masamune, very slightly. Unconscious gesture or subtle threat? She’d never seen it before. “You just tried to kill us.”

“I did not.” Tifa rolled her eyes, tried to relax her shoulders. Was that all? “Like a fall that distance would kill SOLDIERs anyway.”

A brief pause that suggested Sephiroth had not expected her to know that. “Then what was the point?”

“There was no point. I didn’t do it.” Had they not believed Cloud, or just not asked him? “I knew the bridge was run-down, and putting that many people on it at once was a risk.” Make it sound like it was part of her guide knowledge, like Zeke should have known better even though she’d done the same thing herself the first time. “It wasn’t like you’d listen to me after our little talk in the Manor. You’d have thought it was a weak gambit to slow you down. The troopers were in the most danger, so Vincent and me saved them. Everybody lived, right?”

Sephiroth’s eyes were narrow. So were Fair’s. “You’re lying about something,” he said.

Tifa sighed. “I’m really not.”

Well, she had made it sound like she cared a lot more about the unknown trooper’s life than she really did, but she did like having saved somebody, even if it was kind of inconvenient that he was here.

“All I’m asking,” she said, watching Sephiroth much more carefully than Fair—both of them were watching her more than Vincent, she noticed, even though they had to know that he was still the most dangerous—“is if you still insist on going in there, you take us along. We already went in, so there’s no point worrying about Shinra’s industrial secrets, even if I cared about those.”

Fair pulled a face. “You just like making our job harder, don’t you?”

“I guess it’s a side benefit.” There had been a time when the only thing she could do to carry out her vendetta against the company that had cost her everything was making their operations harder, more expensive, less orderly. That was all her AVALANCHE had had the tools to be, really, a speed bump in Shinra’s path, a voice crying out to the people in a language of blood and fire that resistance could, even now, exist.

Inflicting petty annoyance on Shinra operatives was a lesser version of the same thing, and if she hadn’t had larger goals she might have enjoyed it more.

She met the green specks that were Sephiroth’s eyes across the dusty expanse of the summit. “The thing inside,” she said. “It wants to use you. It’ll tell you you have a marvelous destiny, but all it wants is for you to be a monster that helps it devour the world.” Her lips twitched sideways a little, and she added, “It’s a lot like Shinra, really.”

They didn’t like that. Cloud she’d given a brief run-down of all the major problems with Shinra including the end of the world, and the other trooper’s face was hidden, but Zeke’s eyes looked like they were about to pop out of his head, and the SOLDIERs looked offended.

She let her breath run out over her tongue. “Tell me,” she asked Sephiroth, “what in the world do you cherish most?”

(Not give me the pleasure of taking it away because she might hate him forever but that was not her kind of vengeance, the kind that struck at the heart alone, for cruelty’s sole sake, and did nothing to protect anybody living.)

“What do you dream?” she pressed, when she got no response. “What is it you want to become? Do you want to save this world, or rule it, or tear it apart?”

A pair of wrinkles had appeared between Sephiroth’s eyebrows. “You assign me a very specific class of ambitions.”

Tifa shrugged. “It’s the scale you were built to operate on. Don’t tell me you don’t know that, Mr. ‘most things in peacetime are beneath me.’”

Zack Fair’s mouth pulled up at the corners at her joke even as his eyes became even more anxious. “What do you want, Tifa?” he asked, and for a second they could almost have been friends. “Why are you here? If you wanted to stop us getting this far, you could have dropped the bridge before we got to it.”

That would still only have slowed them down, but Tifa had to clench her jaw to stop it dropping open as she realized she’d never even considered that. She was so bad at this.

“You’d have gotten here eventually,” she said, hopefully not too obviously bluffing. “I’m not here to stop you.” What do you want?  the SOLDIER asked, as though it was that easy, as though she hadn’t already told them. “I’m here to supervise.”

Monitor Sephiroth for signs of incipient breakdown. Set straight any stupid ideas at their root, if she was lucky. Die, if she failed spectacularly, but Cloud and Fair had stopped him at the reactor once before; if he broke now it would be the two of them and Vincent even if Tifa went down in the first engagement again, and a three-hour trip to town with the bridge out. He might very well not bother with Nibelheim, even if he survived. It would be an improvement.

She’d spent this visit the first time standing around on the mountainside failing to draw Cloud into conversation, or recognize him behind the uniform he wore. She refused to be that useless again.

“That is impossible.” Sephiroth’s sword swung around to the front, menacing. “This is the second classified facility you’ve trespassed in within twenty-four hours. Company policy does not make allowances for it being ‘too late to prevent a security breach anyway’.”

“Because it’s against the rules, that means you can’t do it?” Tifa remembered that sort of thinking, remembered going to the very outer edges of what was permissible and stopping there. Because breaking the rules had a cost, a cost she hadn’t been willing to pay—and she’d also thought, somehow, as a child, that as long as she stayed within her bounds then she would not have to pay, anything, ever, that being good was a protection in itself somehow.

As though social backlash and random catastrophe were equally automatic consequences of transgression. As though she could bargain with the universe like a child with an indulgent parent.

That delusion had died with Nibelheim, and for all the desolation that had come after, she was freer for it. It was harder to know what the right thing to do was, when you couldn’t trust the rules, when there was no path laid out for you but what you forged yourself. But the freedom was almost certainly worth the uncertainty, at least. That much she had gained, in exchange for all her losses: a little bit of wisdom.

It was impossible, though, that Sephiroth was that naïve.

“Company policy is an excuse, not a reason. So it’s not a reason to listen to you.” She put her hands on her hips, broadening her stance blocking the reactor a little further. “Are you going to work with us? Because otherwise you’re going to have to make us move.”

“Tifa, come on,” Fair said, before Sephiroth could do anything to react to her challenge besides maybe quirk an eyebrow—he was a little too far away for her to be sure, with hair that pale. “We can’t just bring you inside the reactor. Maybe we can work something out where you don’t get arrested if you’ll just calm down?”

“Did you go back to the library last night?” The lack of denial was a confirmation, the way Fair did it. She tipped her head toward Sephiroth. “Do you know what he decided?”

Not to kill all humans, evidently, but it had taken him more than a few hours' reading to decide that the first time.

“Uh…”

The tip of the Masamune rose, and Sephiroth’s body was tensing. He didn’t like her curiosity on that front. “Give up your sources,” he commanded. “And stand down, and you will not be harmed.”

Stand down, to be taken prisoner? Stand down for execution, for experimentation, for Shinra? Oh, she'd surrender still if she had no other choice but death, but she wanted Sephiroth to blink first. He was powerful, but she knew better than anyone living what a damaged wretch he was. She felt her mouth pull into a scornful shape that was almost a smile, but her voice came out almost gentle on the response,

“We both know you can’t promise that.”

Sephiroth’s fingers worked on the hilt again, and Fair’s face was wholly given over to anxious squint. Even the wind seemed to drop, as though the mountain was listening for the deciding of this confrontation. As though the Ice King knew this SOLDIER's moment of indecision could control the Planet's fate.

The crack of feathers overhead brought Tifa’s eyes jerking up. She expected a Zuu—not nearly as dangerous as what was right in front of her, but marginally more likely to attack at this exact moment, and therefore worth taking a second to evaluate.

The shape she saw against the sun made her blood run cold.

A man in a long coat, descending on one black wing.

Chapter Text

It’s him, was her first thought, and her second was her brain supplying a jumbled explanation for how that could possibly be when Sephiroth was already standing in front of her, which amounted to the other Sephiroth having come back in time at the same time she had, but for some reason (such as being dead) instead of taking over his own past body he’d hijacked someone else with enough Jenova cells to make it work.

A random SOLDIER, maybe.

This idea was perfectly plausible, which was why her third thought was filled with such overwhelming relief as the flying man sank out of alignment with the noonday sun, and she noted first the lesser length of his hair and then the darker color, and that the coat was in fact grey shading toward rose-damask pink, and not the black it had looked in silhouette.

Then, the fact that the wing was on the wrong side, though it wasn’t as if she was going to assume Sephiroth was incapable of toying with the details of his manifestation. He favored his left hand for wielding his sword, though, when he had hands and a sword, so having it on the left would probably be an inconvenience.

The mystery monster man sank onto stone, between their groups so that Sephiroth was on his right and Vincent to his left, and curved his wing gracefully forward around his shoulder, spread the opposite arm gracefully around him to indicate in a single sweep everybody present, and tilted his head gracefully to one side.

Everything about the way he moved was graceful, to an absurd, measured, rehearsed extent, like Vincent’s poses at least twice over, and unlike Vincent’s mostly-accidental drama made her feel awkward and grubby and grossly unfeminine, which was a feeling she hated more than anything because being made ashamed of her strength made her want to break things. He looked like he might be about to break into an aria, or possibly a dance routine, which was an image she decided to preserve rather than let him start speaking.

Into the last seconds of his dramatic pause she slammed the words, “Who the hell are you?”

The man blinked at her, slow and superior. “I?” His voice was younger than the greying hair or the papery look to his skin suggested, but he could talk.

If Tifa hadn’t seen the one-winged look before, or had his eyes lingered on individual faces a little less, she probably wouldn’t have expected it; would have taken him for a new kind of humanoid monster. Of course, a few of those could talk, such as particularly old or clever Snows, but most of them were just hungry animals that happened to resemble people.

Reactor contamination created new monster types all the time.

“While admittedly I am not at my best,” the flying man began.

“Don’t bother,” Fair interrupted, cheerful and snide. “She’s never heard of you!” The brightness leached from his tone and he looked over to tell Tifa, “This guy’s bad news. He’s Shinra’s Most-Wanted, now that we know he’s still alive.” Big deal, that had been her and Cloud’s shared title for a month that the world spent ending, once. The SOLDIER’s eyes narrowed. “He killed everyone in his hometown.”

That was a somewhat bigger deal.

“We’ve all killed a lot of people,” said the Most-Wanted performance artist dismissively. “But never mind the introductions I deserve. Sephiroth,” he said, and much of the languid air dropped away as if it had never been, gaze intent on the General’s face. The way he said the name reminded Tifa of Cloud, almost, in a disquieting way. But the tone of the following words was insinuating, loaded with obscure layered meaning in a way Cloud could never even have imitated. “You’ve been doing some reading.”

Sephiroth looked—startled? It reminded Tifa, a little, of the look he tended to wear as he died. He turned his face away. “What of it?”

“Did you learn anything interesting?” the stranger pressed.

Now Sephiroth’s head swung back around, and he glared—though Tifa thought the expression lacked something. Or had something it shouldn’t. His expression was almost totally blank, but that had never stopped him from emoting before. “Genesis. What do you want?”

“Your help, of course.” Maybe the word she wanted was intimate. This Genesis person spoke to Sephiroth as someone who knew him, and expected to be acknowledged in return. “As one monster…to another.”

Wait. Genesis. That was—the person Sephiroth had suspected her of being an agent for, at the Manor last night. Fair had implied he was mixed up with the Jenova Project, which was at this point obviously true, but how had Fair already known that?

How did she have absolutely no idea who this person was? Had he been here the first time? Had Sephiroth killed him along with Nibelheim? Was he some bizarre dream facsimile her brain had patched together to inform her she hadn’t actually traveled through time but was in a coma, worrying her family?

(Relentlessly she catalogued him—under the grey which seemed to settle over him like frost or like mako-depletion on a mountain, he shared Aerith’s coloring. Outfit included. He was dominating the conversation through cryptic melodrama the way the Sephiroth she knew best liked to do, and had a wing like Sephiroth had unfurled shortly before the most recent time Cloud killed him. He was giving Sephiroth pause. He was a previous Shinra’s Most Wanted and she’d never heard of him.)

No. She had to keep believing this was real. There were plenty of things in the world she didn’t know about. Especially anything that had become irrelevant by the time Nibelheim’s ashes were cold.

“Don’t go around calling other people monsters!” ordered Fair hotly—his teeth were clenched, his eyes burning, and Tifa realized he really hadn’t gotten angry at her once, not yet.

“You don’t know anything.” The mystery man didn’t even look toward the younger SOLDIER to dismiss him. “And what about you, Sephiroth? Are you still convinced of Shinra’s little fairy tales? Do you still think of yourself as a human being? Or are you willing to listen to me, now?”

“It’s none of your business,” Sephiroth said flatly, “What I know or believe. What do you want.

The mutant heaved a pretty little sigh, and turned his head, presenting the angle of his cheekbone and a sliver of neck in an artful display of vulnerability that was really anything but that. Tifa had never seen a man use this type of presentation skill so constantly. He could not be real.

She couldn’t believe she was being forced to disbelieve in the entire world a little on the basis that an escaped science project was putting too much energy into being pretty.

(Actually…he reminded her of a Jemnezmy, the way they posed when casting Fascinate. Maybe Shinra had used monster DNA in whatever they did to him, on top of the obvious Jenova. Hel, for all she knew there were Snow cells involved in Sephiroth, on top of alien and human. She wouldn’t put anything past Shinra scientists.)

“Your help, as I said. To save me from my current fate in this disintegrating body. Your cells are stable,” Genesis declared. “You can’t make Copies.”

Tifa let out a disgusted noise, which had probably been unwise. Assuming any of this was real. “Yes he can,” she said, when both SOLDIERs and whatever Genesis was looked toward her. “It’s a Jenova thing. Hojo’s got a Theory about it he wants to prove.”

She flicked her eyes toward Cloud for just a second, even though the last thing she wanted was to draw any more attention to him than she already had, because she needed to see his reaction—she’d told him about the experiments he’d been subjected to, was pretty sure she’d mentioned something about Sephiroth Copies, but she hadn’t had any idea Jenova-based Copies already existed for him to have opinions on. He was looking wide-eyed and tense but not gutted; good enough. She checked on Sephiroth. Face looking particularly mask-like, wonderful.

Looked back at the clearly trouble-causing flying criminal Jenova mutant. Too late to not insert herself into the conversation; in for one gil in for a hundred. “Whatever you think he can do for you,” she said, “I bet you’re wrong. Adding more Jenova never helps.”

“When the war of beasts brings about the war’s end, the Goddess descends from the sky,” the winged enigma intoned, watching her carefully now. Which…what?

Lots of people who have these cells have died already, she suddenly remembered Zack Fair saying, last night. Some of the ones with the most of them have gone crazy.

Then again, the wording was oddly familiar…ah. You couldn’t spend long in Midgar without tripping over Loveless, really; the whole theater district was themed after it. Even in the slums, it came up; there were buskers who recited passages on streetcorners for spare gil, though Tifa had never gone to an actual performance.

The Goddess descends from the sky. “I hope you don’t mean Jenova,” she said, mouth feeling a little dry. Because that was really all they needed, an insane flying Loveless apocalypse cult that knew about Jenova and wanted her plans to come to fruition. The people who’d developed that kind of madness immediately before or in the aftermath of Meteor to try to deal emotionally with the destruction had been bad enough, and they’d generally had neither knowledge nor power.

“Of course not.” His voice was dismissive. His eyes were like knives.

Tifa squinted back. “…I’m glad to hear it,” she said after a second. How much did this one know? Did he think Jenova was an Ancient? He’d called himself and Sephiroth both monsters…. She looked over at Fair. He’d known about this, obviously. “So I guess there were other subjects.”

“A second team.” The hoarse voice from beside her shoulder startled everyone, but especially Zack and Zeke, who startled like a rabbit. The results of the Jenova Project both narrowed their attention on Vincent, which he barely seemed to notice. “There was a competition,” he said, as if suddenly making sense of a vague recollection, something he’d heard in passing. “Within the Science Department. Project G versus Project S. Hojo…was certain he could win, so long as Lucrecia…”

“Project G,” Tifa repeated. Cocked her head, considering the faded man. “G for Genesis?”

Genesis frowned at Tifa, then at Vincent, then back at Tifa again, as though he thought they would resolve into something comprehensible if he stared long enough. Then he looked at Sephiroth.

“…just who are these people?”

“We’re taking them into Shinra custody on suspicion of terrorism,” was Sephiroth’s response. There was a new edge to his voice that shredded its way across Tifa’s nerves, but she didn’t think it had anything to do with her. Except that he’d clearly made his decision, now, and it wasn’t the one she’d been hoping for.

The pink and grey creature smiled. It wasn’t a terribly pleasant smile—about as smug as Rufus Shinra’s, if not quite as cold. “Well, I can hardly let that happen. Infinite in mystery is the gift of the Goddess. If you whisk this mystery away into Shinra’s keeping, how will I ever satisfy my curiosity?”

He took two graceful steps back and to the side, until he was clearly physically aligned with the duo defending the reactor steps. Well. Since he’d sunk her previous plan, at least he was providing her with a new one.

“Oh, great,” said Fair. There was a whole weight of weary sarcasm to it—Tifa suspected he’d fought this guy before. It reminded her of the feeling of squaring off against the Turks yet again.

Sephiroth’s face was set into harsh, unfamiliar lines. Another intentional blankness, Tifa guessed, but she was not equipped to guess what it concealed. “Is this your choice?” he asked.

Asked Tifa, for some unimaginable reason.

“My choice is not to go quietly,” she said. Because that hadn’t changed. “I’m not in a position to turn down help.” She’d worked with Cait Sith while Reeve was still holding Marlene hostage. She’d cooperated more loosely with Rufus Shinra and his Turks, since his recovery from Geostigma. Uneasy alliances with unprincipled men weren’t a new concept.

Cloud looked unhappy. Damn. Tifa glanced at Vincent, who seemed unperturbed. Sephiroth had already given the bulk of his attention back to the pink man, who was smirking back at him.

“You should head back down the trail, Zeke,” Tifa said, her eyes on Fair and his commander as she closed her hands tight, wishing for a pair of gloves. “It’s about to get dangerous.”

Zack Fair sighed, and unshipped the sword from his back.

That sword had meant so much to Cloud. It was strange to see it in someone else’s hands.

“I guess we’re doing this then,” he said. Searched her face for something. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just explain?”

“Like that would help.”

After all, Sephiroth hadn’t offered to let her go if she explained, if she surrendered. Just to not hurt her. And he was too curious right now to kill her on purpose anyway. She didn’t stand to gain anything from giving in. Tifa squared up. The brushed-steel surface of the steps under her feet wasn’t especially secure footing, but the height advantage of being on them was not to be sacrificed.

“Did you call your girlfriend?” she called out, as Zeke retreated to the trailhead. This finally caused Sephiroth to take part of his attention away from staring Genesis down as if waiting for a signal to begin, to quirk a vaguely judgmental eyebrow, but he forbore to comment.

Fair gave her a somewhat dirty look. “I did.”

“And?”

“And she says we should talk about it once I get back to Midgar.”

Not discussing these things over an unsecured line provided by Shinra was smart. Or Aerith could be just stalling. Even odds. “I hope you get that chance,” she said, because she knew in her other lifetime Aerith and Fair had never seen each other again. Not living.

It was nice to remember Aerith was alive. And if they were going to keep it that way, it was time to stand her ground.

She raised her fists.

Fair raised his sword.

Sephiroth’s eyes were locked back on the greying mutant as the Masamune sung up, though Tifa was still within range and didn’t intend to let her guard down. Genesis’ left hand flared with magical light.

Vincent’s gun was fully loaded and he’d had the hammer cocked all day, and though it wasn’t aimed right at anyone just yet it could be trained on any of their opponents in an instant. His attention was mostly on Sephiroth, for now, as it should be.

And then there was Cloud, clutching his laughably inadequate rifle, looking back and forth between the two factions coming to blows. He’d promised himself to both of them. He didn’t want to betray anyone. Oh, Cloud.

“You don’t have to fight, Cloud,” Tifa said.

“Failure to serve under fire is an act of treason under Shinra Company Guidelines,” Sephiroth intoned. The Masamune drew back a little, like he was prepared to perform a battlefield execution on the spot. Shit.

“Seph!” Zack Fair yelped. “It’s his best friend!” Sephiroth’s eyes cut toward him only in the most sidelong half-glance, but he still flinched as if slapped and looked, for some reason, like he wanted to swallow his tongue. “That’s what I mean, though,” he added, almost whining. “You should get it. Have a heart.”

“Zack,” said Sephiroth—flatly, a reprimand.

“It’s fine, sir,” Cloud bit out.

Features grimly set, Cloud emptied his gun toward the pink Jenova mutant. And only him.

…fair enough.

“Hey Fair!” Tifa called. Slammed her fist into the opposite palm, like she still had perfect confidence in her ability to wreck the average SOLDIER in seconds flat. “Let’s dance.”

Fair laughed—a bright riptide over heavy stone. “Sorry, I’m taken!” he called, as his sword swung back over his right elbow, a preparation to engage she knew oh, so very well. “You know that!”

He charged.

Tifa waited until almost the very last moment, then jumped.

Into the air and clear over his head. It was a distinctive element of the Zangan style that was mostly only good for showing off—once your opponent was ready for it, anyone who couldn’t get in a solid hit on you as you passed over them, flying through the air with minimal ability to alter your trajectory, was weak enough you had never needed a fancy move against them anyway. It was very effective against some monsters that weren’t equipped to attack the space above themselves, though, or distracted human opponents. And the first time, it always worked.

She kicked Fair in the back of the neck, landed behind him, and punched him in the kidneys.

A good start to what promised to be a challenging fight.

Nearby, she was aware of Sephiroth’s sword swinging and stabbing in a strangely circumscribed range—admittedly she hadn’t seen him fight very much in his original body, but still. What was the use of having such an oversized weapon if you then restricted your movements that heavily?

Genesis had opened the fight with a rapid-fire trio of some kind of fireball, and bullets were flying with just enough regularity that Tifa soon did her best to get Fair between her and the non-Cloud Shinra grunt again, because he could afford to be shot by Vincent more than she could afford to be shot by a trooper. Which was sort of embarrassing to admit, even with Vincent’s power relatively limited compared to how she remembered him.

Fair knew what she was doing, though, and didn’t make it easy.

Zack Fair was good. He wasn’t a patch on future Cloud, but since Tifa could hardly compare to future Tifa that was just as well. He relied on strength more than speed, and was willing to swing ten times for the sake of connecting once—not an advisable style for anyone less sturdy than a SOLDIER, and risky even for him if he was ever against someone faster than him who could hit just as hard, and survive as much.

Tifa was not currently that person. Her best asset was her deep familiarity with how a sword of that size moved, and her ability to recognize the moves Cloud had clearly somehow absorbed from Fair, that had formed the foundation of his style. She ducked, and wove, and slowly picked up a collection of shallow gashes along the outsides of her limbs. She didn’t have any healing items or materia right now. Her resilience was low. She couldn’t rely on charging straight ahead and eating damage the way their party so often had, especially after Aerith had mastered that first slum-purchased Restore.

And range was telling against her—to land a hit, she had to make it through the space Fair could easily target with his sword, successfully deal as much damage as possible, and retreat again through the danger zone. Fists against steel tended to work better when you were stronger than the person holding the weapon.

Vincent’s support helped—she could time an attack so that Fair had to choose between defending against her or a bullet, if he noticed both in time—but it didn’t add up to giving her the advantage.

She was…not winning.

The battle as a whole, she decided as she countered what Fair clearly considered a sneaky off-hand punch, continued mostly because Sephiroth wasn’t putting forth his best effort. Neither was Genesis, judging by his lazy smirk, and Fair certainly wasn’t trying to kill Tifa, who also wasn’t trying to kill him, though she acknowledged she was at much less risk of doing so.

Vincent, still standing at the top of the reactor steps, occasionally sent a shot toward Sephiroth, but neither those nor the ones that struck Fair were aimed at vital points, and would only serve to wear the SOLDIERs down. Cloud continued to focus his fire on Genesis exclusively, even though it obviously wasn’t very effective and he had to time his shots around openings left by Sephiroth, which weren’t many.

In fact, the only person present who could be said to be fully committed to the fight was the second trooper, and even he was avoiding shooting at Vincent.

It was vaguely ludicrous, and really did remind Tifa again of some of their fights against the Turks, the later ones, as the Planet’s doom wore on and Shinra’s plots mattered less and less to anyone, even Shinra itself.

Just like those, the stakes were deadly serious, even if the fight itself was not.

She juked a hard right, trying to whip around inside her enemy’s range of attack and nail him in the kidneys again. The blow landed, but she was a little too slow, and Fair’s blade scraped along her ribs as she withdrew, spilling blood down her side. Tifa hissed, drove her elbow down into the side of the blade to force it toward the ground, and landed a kick to the outside of the knee followed by a glancing one, as she leapt back, to just below Fair’s huge SOLDIER belt buckle. Not fighting to kill didn’t mean she had to be nice.

“Urf!” he complained, doubling up and deflecting an opportunistic punch to the face with the hand not holding his sword, so that it only skimmed along his cheekbone. “You’re vicious!

“People get that way when you try to take their freedom!”

Tifa wasn’t eighteen anymore; she knew the world was big and complicated, and that it was hard to understand from inside Shinra just how insidious it was. It promised everyone who came to it the world, and fed them torn-off shreds and scraps of it while squeezing them for all the value they could produce. Even Turks got used up and thrown away. Even executives. Every single SOLDIER. When Midgar was brought to its knees, it brought terrible suffering because so many people had lived their lives within Shinra’s gut, feeling the safer for having been swallowed. Tifa had lived under Midgar, once, had been there as the people who survived the great city’s fall came together to build Edge.

Zack Fair wasn’t evil for being Shinra, even though it would be easier if he was. She understood.

But the wind screamed emptiness over the crags and long before she was born there had been trees upon this mountain, all the way up to near the top, there had been grass underfoot where she had only ever seen black ash, and Sephiroth was right there and she could do nothing to stop him, and everything they had built since Meteor, every bit of strength and freedom and love Tifa had ever gained for herself, all of that was gone, and there was only Shinra.

She flung herself at the SOLDIER recklessly and was batted back with the flat of the blade; hit the ground in a three-point landing and stood, frustration beating in her chest like a bird, brushing the dust from her left hand.

“Shinra is torturing the Planet,” she bit out. “If you think I’m going to trust anyone within Shinra to go against their own self-interest you’re delusional.”

It wasn’t a productive thing to say, of course, and sure enough there were his eyes widening and then going narrow again. “So you are an ecoterrorist,” he said.

“Ugh.” Was she, still? Probably. Or might be again. “I’m whatever I need to be,” she said. “So I don’t have to watch my people die anymore.”

Fair faltered, for a second. Not as if he was intimidated, or guilt-stricken. It was more a look of acute empathy that flashed across his face and made the sword he was swinging toward Tifa’s face slow down just enough to matter, as the force behind it slackened.

Tifa didn’t hold back in response. She ducked under the hesitating blade, threw a punch into the soft place just above his belt and then another that landed on his ribs as he twisted aside. His face hardened as he gathered power for a blow that probably stood a good chance of chopping her in two if it hit perfectly. Tifa ducked back. Almost out of reach.

The flat of the Buster Sword clipped her temple, and as the world jolted she felt her blood begin to boil, bright racing bubbles like the fizz in sparkling golden wine held against the light.

Perfect.

Chapter Text

Blood boiling gold, Tifa straightened up from the blow to the head that had pushed her neatly past her limitations. Fair had drawn his weapon back into a defensive stance, looking wary. As if that ever helped.

In the body she’d grown into once, she wouldn’t have used this against anything she didn’t want dead. But it would be much weaker now, because she was weaker, and this could only multiply whatever damage you did in your own right. And she needed every advantage she could get.

Tifa planted her feet on Nibel stone and unleashed her Limit.

The first blow connected, her purple-lit fists hammering into Fair’s chest straight through his guard and driving the breath out of him in a startled whoosh.

…the second blow connected, and she could feel the chain of coming strokes thrumming through her bones. When she had really been sixteen, her Limit had stopped at the first punch combo, but now she had felt the SOLDIER’s shinbone crack under the ball of her foot and driven her heel into his jaw to knock him clear off his feet in a spray of conjured water.

Looked like she’d found the answer to that endless circular barroom conversation, that always came back whenever fighters sat around drinking long enough: the Limit Break was not something produced by the body. She’d brought it back inside her soul.

(If any of this was real at all.)

She caught him by the front of his uniform as he tipped back under the force of her kick, hauled his weight up into her control, and threw him into the ground so hard stone shook.

Sephiroth had turned to stare. Genesis wasn’t taking advantage of the opening.

A sixteen-year-old with a fourth-level Limit wasn’t entirely unheard-of. Yuffie hadn’t been quite seventeen when they had stopped Meteor, and she’d had hers then. But Yuffie was the heir to a mighty warrior tradition fallen on desperate times, that had begun to train her in the midst of wartime and later been able to hand her the key to unlocking her full potential as soon as she came close to being able to handle it.

Tifa too had had a teacher able to track down the catalyst she needed on her behalf, but if the Shinra contingent had talked to the Master Zangan of this time, he certainly wouldn’t have given the impression of having done so yet. And, she knew, her Limit was unusually strong.

It was also unusually easy to miss with, if you screwed up even a little bit, and so she blocked out the audience as much as she ever could ignore Sephiroth or Cloud, and focused on her target. Her knuckles slammed the SOLDIER right, and then left. There was no time for him to even really try to get away, let alone fight back.

Connect. Connect. Connect.

In the second-to-last stage, the golden bubbles spilling effervescent out of her blood and into the air, Tifa seized her opponent by one arm and one hip, lifted him over her head and slammed him into the stone, spine-first. He hit with an explosion of pure energy that reverberated across the entire mountain peak and made a few stones break away, rolling and clattering a sort of percussive descant to the rumble of violence shivering down the mountain.

Drew back her fist that flared bright as a living star, dragged him upright again enough to be able to drive the full concentrated force of her spirit and will to live into the center of his chest, and sent SOLDIER First Class Zack Fair pinwheeling across the barren stone in a mess of slack limbs and black fabric.

He fetched up against the foot of the reactor. (Tifa knew what she was doing. She wouldn’t punch Cloud’s once-savior off a cliff without a very good reason.)

He lay still. It was hard to tell whether he was breathing.

“Zack!” Sephiroth called out sharply.

Fair groaned. “Mmmokay!” he managed, but did not attempt to stand up, or even roll over off his face. One of his feet twitched.

Tifa squinted at him. Faking? Probably not. She didn’t want to leave him conscious at her back, but she also didn’t want to risk killing him when her Limit had managed to avoid crossing that line. Cloud’s mouth was hanging wide open. It was hard to tell if he was distressed or just astonished, but she’d be surprised if he wasn’t at least a little worried about his…friend, mentor, whatever.

Sephiroth’s eyes were doing their best to burn a hole into the side of her head. “What exactly was that?”

Tifa rolled her eyes. “Limit Break.”

Obviously.” Sephiroth’s eyes were flaring at her pale and cold. Was he finally taking her seriously? If so, that would be unfortunate, because that had been pretty much everything she had. Another hit or two and she would probably drop dead. Hel, she might be bleeding badly enough to drop dead in an hour or so even without taking any new injuries, if she didn’t manage to scrounge up more potions or something.

“Me winning?” she suggested.

She wished Sephiroth would stop trying to be dramatic. He wasn’t bad at it, exactly, but she was so used to being tired of it, of having to wait through his self-aggrandizement to get to the point, of having to pay attention to what he was saying in case it was a clue even though she didn’t care what he had to say. This Sephiroth wasted fewer words, but as soon as he started posturing her patience clicked off just like always, and she went back to chomping at the bit to punch his face in, like a badly-trained chocobo.

“Oh shit,” the soldier Vincent had rescued at the bridge breathed aloud.

Tifa looked automatically, just as she would have if a WRO agent had reacted the same way. (Lots of WRO personnel had been ex-Shinra, though of course this man hadn’t been among their number because he had been dead.) She looked, and the chill in her bones returned as it hadn’t for Sephiroth’s fury. She was surrounded.

All around the peak, just outside and just inside the spires of the crown, had gathered what seemed to be a small army of SOLDIERs, in what struck her immediately as vaguely peculiar gear. Quilted sleeves instead of sleeveless knits. Xes across the surface of each helm. A scattering of men in equipment more like Cloud’s trooper uniform, with the triangle of lenses to promote some visibility.

Then—no. Tifa’s alarm twisted into a vague queasiness, because three of the figures gave every evidence of being Genesis, coat and all. But without that absurdly telegraphed sense of poise—with no real emotion she could discern at a glance, at all.

A few more wore the customized SOLDIER gear with no helmets on, and wore too the same face, with as little animation. And now she was looking for it…all the ones with helmets covering their vision shared that pointed jawline.

And each of them, whatever their gear, bore a single black-feathered wing.

Copies. Just as he’d hinted at having. Copies more numerous, more silent, more useful-looking at a glance than the numbered chanting husks in black cloaks had ever been. Was this what Hojo had been trying to replicate, with Cloud? (Cloud was safe, for now, he was behind Sephiroth, the clone-things were ignoring him.)

“If you believe,” Sephiroth said coldly, and she snapped her focus back to him. What did it say, that she had managed to be almost entirely distracted from Sephiroth threatening her with a sword? Well, besides being an example of the fact that you really could get used to anything. It was her he was looking at again, though, and that deserved her full attention. “That after this I will permit you to leave…”

“Yes, because you were so anxious to let us be on our way before.”

Tifa’s scathing retort was delivered more or less on autopilot. What did he mean by ‘this?’ Siding with Genesis? Proving she could under the right circumstances take down a SOLDIER? Genesis bringing in his humanoid horror show?

She was getting used to Sephiroth’s angry face. Bizarrely, it really was less alarming than having him laugh at you.

He began to advance. Tifa adjusted her footing, listening to the slide of grit over stone. Sephiroth’s steps were completely silent, like a mirage sweeping toward her.

Behind him, reduced to background, Tifa’s new ally swept his wing out in perfect time with his sword in a snap and rattle of pinions, scattering black feathers like rain. “I believe,” he announced, “we have worn out our welcome.” He bated sharply, and launched himself into the air.

There was just long enough to be outraged that he had torpedoed her negotiations only to swan off again once the battle proved predictably challenging, before the rustling of wings surrounded Tifa. Sephiroth looked, for a moment, taken aback, halted mid-stride, and once again she took her eyes off him to evaluate the more immediate concern.

Sure enough, copies of the self-proclaimed monster were closing in on her from both sides, wings fluttering; hands reaching out, clutching. Tifa kicked the nearest one in the shin, and didn’t feel bones crack because she was so weak right now. One grabbed her from behind. She kicked it, too. A kneecap popped out of alignment. There was no sound of pain.

They were lacking some of the greyness that seemed to define the original, but they lacked his grace, too, and up close now to one of the few with bare faces Tifa could see there was that deadness behind the eyes that she associated with humanoid monsters that lacked human intelligence, although…more so somehow. At least those usually came at her looking hungry.

She drove the heel of her hand into a chin and made the thing’s head snap back as it sought a grip on her forearm.

“Oh, for—I am trying to help!” Genesis called, from somewhere above the reactor.

Moment of truth. Well, she still couldn’t let herself be taken prisoner by Shinra, not with everything she knew. Even if Cloud decided to pass on everything she’d told him, most of the most actionable information hadn’t come up, because this Cloud didn’t have the context to have needed it.

Tifa bit her tongue and let herself be grabbed. Vincent, in the corner of her eye, went still in the grip of several helmet-wearing figures.

With a pair of one-winged clone-things at each elbow, they both were lifted away amongst the flock. Cloud and the other trooper emptied their rifles into the cloud of flying men, nowhere near either her or Vincent. Fair continued to lie on his face. But as the jagged crown of Mount Nibel fell away below them, a line of blue-white light came scything from the tip of Masamune and passed directly over Vincent’s head, decapitating all four of his bearers.

He dropped sharply, expressionless, between the corpses, toward the distant stone, until two more Genesises swept in a hundred feet down and plucked him from the air.

Tifa breathed again. A few seconds after that they were out of range for most long-range attacks including casting, and soon after that dropping behind an adjacent peak to get out of sight.

“Is this a rescue or a kidnapping?” she called across to the mind controlling the swarm.

“We can negotiate that at my local base of operations.”

Oh, excellent.


His ‘base of operations’ turned out to be one of the many caves dotting the range—not one Tifa had explored before. The entrance they were brought through was most of the way up a cliff face, not completely unreachable to a determined mountaineer but certainly well out of anyone’s way.

The tunnel mouth was barely wide enough for two adult humans, and twisted sharply enough to keep out the worst of the wind, but some way in it broadened out into a sizable cavern, studded with veins and spires of materia crystal that would probably have looked even more gorgeous in brighter light, rather than lit only from within. Several shadowy patches of wall looked like they could be alternate exits.

The place showed signs of habitation. There was a small brazier with a kettle balanced over it near the entrance, placed close so most of the smoke drifted out through it, and a large stack of small sealed parcels Tifa recognized as Shinra’s old mass-produced rations, which they’d issued to their troops in the field.

The expired ones got traded below-plate a lot, and a surviving company stockpile had kept a lot of the Meteor survivors alive those first weeks. They’d been notorious for causing constipation.

Most of the far walls lost themselves in darkness, except where patches of crystalized mako marked themselves out with inner light. Several patches of complete darkness might be the mouths of other tunnels.

One corner particularly rich in faintly glowing Independent-colored crystals had been furnished with a thick rug and, absurdly, heaps of cushions, ranging from very fine brocade articles to, peeking from the bottom of the stack, something that looked like it had come off somebody’s tatty sofa. “Please, make yourselves comfortable,” Genesis invited, sinking with slightly stiff elegance into the largest heap and gesturing hospitably around his magenta-lit nest. The wing had disappeared at some point after they reached the caves, as he followed Tifa and Vincent up the narrow entrance shaft, but it almost seemed for a moment like it was still there.

Maybe Shinra had thrown some bird cells in too, while they were having their fun.

Tifa lowered herself onto the nearest unoccupied cushion, out of arm’s reach of their host, her back by necessity toward the exit and the congregation of most of the Copies near it, but Vincent remained standing. So did nearly a half-dozen blank-faced duplicates that had followed them over, thronging mostly behind and beside the original Genesis; Tifa wasn’t sure she liked the parallel but somebody should keep an eye on the things, and she could entrust that to Vincent. “Thanks,” she said as she settled herself. “Nice place.”

“I do my best to make do,” the strange bird-man demurred. “Now, let me hear your story.”

As if. They were supposed to be negotiating whether she’d been kidnapped, and he expected her to lay all her cards on the table? “Sephiroth and I had a difference of opinion.”

“A difference of opinion,” Genesis repeated.

“I’m not really in the mood for story time,” Tifa shrugged. “Look at me, I’m getting blood all over your cushion.”

“Well, that won’t do.” Green sparked near his right elbow, where he must have some sort of bangle under his coat, and a hefty Cura rippled over her, wiping away the aftermath of battle. Hm. She felt pretty much fully restored. Even a lot of the fatigue had cleared up. He wasn’t bad.

Not as good as Aerith had been, but better than she’d expected.

She had noticed his casting earlier, of course, but not everyone who was good at battle magic was good with healing. Everyone in the last Avalanche had been an accomplished caster by the end of their journey, but everyone’s specialties were different, and they’d all focused a little more on power than on precision.

“Thanks,” she said, and rubbed some of the blood off her forearm to examine the skin underneath. No scar, nice.

“Now,” said Genesis, and suddenly one of his helmeted Copies loomed up over them, holding—a teapot. Another, in SOLDIER gear but barefaced, blandly distributed cups, including to Vincent. The cups did not match. But they were all proper, delicate teacups, rather than mugs. Genesis himself kept talking as the Copy in the helmet deftly poured into the one in his hand. “Your story.”

“Do they have minds of their own?” Tifa asked, obligingly making her new teacup (no saucer) available to the thing with the tea, which filled it very neatly almost to the brim.

“Not really,” said Genesis. “Sugar?”

“No thanks,” said Tifa, who wasn’t dumb enough to actually be planning to drink it.

Genesis glanced up at Vincent, who was standing with the handle of the delicate cup pinched between two golden claws, and shook his head. No sugar, thank you.

Their disquieting host resettled himself amidst his cushions, confirming her earlier vague impression that he was favoring his left shoulder in spite of his healing abilities. Old wound? Sipped daintily at his own steaming cup. Tifa blew on hers. It did smell nice. Familiar. The hearty stuff they shipped in bricks from Gongaga-way out to points west. He’d bought or stolen it locally.

“Come, don’t leave me in suspense.”

Tifa faked a sip of tea. “Weren’t we going to discuss whether I’ve been kidnapped or not?”

“…ah. Why don’t we settle it that as long as we speak as friends, I cannot possibly have kidnapped you?”

So it was like that, then. Well, it wasn’t like she was surprised. Suspecting she might actually have been better off surrendering to Sephiroth, considering that at present he had fewer subordinates available and limited places to stash a prisoner, but not surprised.

“That’s not really the most friendly sentiment.”

Genesis frowned a little, not enough to distort his face unattractively, and cast a second Cura, this time on Vincent, with an elegant but somewhat pettish wave of his left hand, as if to say, I’ve helped you so far haven’t I? “Is there anything else I can do for you to prove my friendly intentions?”

“Fire materia, if you’ve got any to spare.” He raised his eyebrows questioningly. Tifa explained, “I’ve got something to burn.”

Genesis quirked his eyebrows. “If you tell me what, perhaps I can oblige,” he said. “And what your role is in this little drama, of course.”

Back to that again. Well, of course they were. The only cards she had were what she knew. “I know some things about the Jenova Project,” Tifa said slowly, one hand cupped under her tea to feel the heat of it sinking into her bones. “I’ve been trying to get Sephiroth to listen to me about it, instead of trusting what the scientists want him to think.”

“Hm.” This clearly didn’t satisfy him, but he didn’t push immediately. “And what do you know about…Project G?” he asked instead, looking up at Vincent again more piercingly this time as he directed the question at him.

Vincent avoided his eyes in favor of staring into the darkness that hid the far wall of the cavern. Was there something there for his low-light vision to pick up? If so, it probably wasn’t too alarming, because he hadn’t commented.

“Not much,” he answered blandly. “I didn’t even know it was a part of the Jenova Project. Just that Hojo wanted to show the project lead up.”

“Hm.”

“It has to do with why you’re going grey?” Tifa hazarded. You could get away with a lot of very intrusive questions if you held your teacup properly and used the right detached tea-time sort of tone, or at least you’d been able to at the ladies’ tea parties her mother’s old friends used to invite her to out of pity. “You aren’t thirty yet, are you?” It was hard to tell, between the physical deterioration and the affected manner, but if she relied on the voice…

The man’s rosebud lips pressed together sharply and for an instant he looked murderous, before he sunk back into his cushions and passed his empty cup up to the minion with the teapot, which filled it again.

The one beside it added a small amount of sugar. Tifa suspected that there was no milk because living in a cave above ground level made it hard to keep a proper cold storage, but maybe Genesis was just a purist. He seemed like the type who would prefer to invest in high-quality tea and then avoid concealing the delicate flavor with condiments.

“The end is nigh,” he agreed, with a lofty sort of melancholy. The blank-eyed thing at his shoulder handed his cup back, with a tiny spoon in it, and he gave it a brisk counterclockwise stir. “It has everything to do with it. Hence my interest in your expertise.”

He was going to be disappointed. Maybe the Geostigma cure would have worked for him, but Tifa didn’t have it, or the knack of summoning it, and she was no scientist. She swirled her tea and tried to sound technical.

“Jenova is a monster that fell from outer space about two thousand years ago. Her traits include psychic manipulation and genetic contagion. She brought about the destruction of the Cetra. The survivors sealed her away, until Shinra dug her up about…twenty-seven years ago.”

She hadn’t told Sephiroth nearly this much, but Sephiroth was a definite enemy she needed every possible advantage against. Genesis was a tentative ally, and whatever else she might think of him there was no reason to think he was at imminent risk of wiping out Nibelheim. And knowing more about Jenova wasn’t likely to make him more vulnerable to any manipulations that might be in the works.

It wasn’t necessarily likely to make Sephiroth more vulnerable either, but it might make him jump more rapidly to Planet-killing and would definitely give her less control over his actions, and under the circumstances that was a perfectly reasonable resource to be hoarding.

“Gast Faremis mistook her for an Ancient,” she told one of Jenova’s creatures, “and the Jenova Project was set up to try to recreate the Ancients, at least enough to use their powers to enrich Shinra. Based on the results of that, they created SOLDIER.”

Ah,” said Genesis, very knowingly.

“You knew that much?” Tifa asked.

“More or less. Do go on.”

Tifa shrugged. That was about as much as she had, for the science part. “The problem is, the corpse is conscious. And psychic. And malicious.”

“…ah,” said Genesis again. Less knowingly, but also less like he was sure he should believe her. That was fine, she didn’t need him to. She just needed him not to get in her way.

“You were in SOLDIER?” Tifa asked. She couldn’t imagine how else he’d have met Sephiroth, and there was no mistaking the uniform under that peculiar faded coat, but.

“I was. SOLDIER First Class. Army Commander.” Again he turned away to show off his face at an angle, half-bowed over his cup. “But that’s all in the past.”

Part of Tifa felt she knew this story. The rogue ex-SOLDIER in his personalized blacks, who had wanted to be a hero, with his grudge against Sephiroth and his blue eyes and his powerful magic. But there was a blank-faced Copy standing beside him, and Cloud…

Cloud had never really been in SOLDIER.

“That’s how you know Sephiroth, then,” she said.

His face darkened. “And so we return to the subject of our illustrious General.”

“I am mostly worried about protecting my hometown from him.”

“…all that awaits you a somber morrow, no matter where the winds may blow.”

“I’m not giving up.” Tifa settled her tea on one knee. “I can’t count on being able to kill him, so I have to stabilize him. At least long enough to get him away from here.

Genesis’ eyebrows arched high. “How refreshingly unsentimental.”

Tifa shrugged. It would take even Sephiroth a while to destroy the world once he decided on it, giving her time to come up with a better plan to stop him, and she’d made her peace with being selfish enough that her first prayer when darkness came was always not here, not mine, not them. If all the difference she made to the timeline was that Nibelheim did not burn, Cloud was never placed under Hojo’s power, and Aerith lived to have a happy ending, then as long as the Planet still survived in the end, she could be content with that much.

She’d rather save everybody, of course. But the difference between her and Cloud was, she knew how to live with failing to do that.

(It wasn’t his fault. The years she’d spent healing and learning and growing up, after Nibelheim, he’d spent being tortured and having his mind pried apart. She reminded herself of that sometimes, when he seemed so childish she wanted to shake him. Of course, now he really was a child.)

“You’re so certain he’s a danger to the public,” Genesis mused. “Just because of what he is?”

“…and what he’s done.” Awkward, unclear. So far as Tifa knew, until Sephiroth murdered everyone she knew and vanished into the Lifestream, he’d been known for exquisite self-control.

Genesis only snorted, delicately. “Hmph. I suppose you’re one of those who would call him the Demon of Wutai, rather than the Hero.”

Tifa shrugged. “That’s what the Wutai called him, isn’t it?”

Genesis nodded, a slightly sharper gesture than his pattern had been so far, as though this subject excited him to impatience as nothing else had. “‘Hair the color of death,’ and all that nonsense. I used to think that was where it all started—his overmarketing, I mean.” For someone who had been so irritated to have Sephiroth brought up, he seemed eager enough to talk about him. “I know better now, but even so.

“They call him a hero, for what he did in the war—sometimes, Shinra gave him credit for things he hadn’t done, to bolster his legend. Including some of my achievements. I should have been the hero.”

Tifa fell back on her bartending skills and made a sympathetic noise. Like most men with grievances to air, Genesis took this as sufficient encouragement.

“He’s complacent. The fact is that Sephiroth has always been given power and respect without having to try for it. When,” and here he seemed to catch himself, smoothed the breakaway emotions back under a skin of smooth perfectly-dictated lyricism, “he is really just like me…born a monster.”

The way he said it was so strange. Woeful but not really sad. The corners of his mouth curled up after the word monster; there was something to him that was almost smug.

“That’s a harsh thing to say about yourself,” Tifa said quietly. She settled her teacup in the join between two cushions, which should keep it upright.

Genesis seemed mildly taken aback by this observation. “I suppose,” he allowed. Gave a sigh. “Yet how can we control our fates, if we cannot accept the truth?”

“Monsters are for killing,” Tifa pointed out, watching him intently. “Monsters don’t serve you tea and gossip.”

A bitter, lovely curve of the lips. “Do you tell a monster by its teeth, or by the biting?”

That was a southeastern expression, one Tifa had first heard in Midgar during an argument about somebody’s misbehaving child but was given to understand came originally from dog-breeding circles, where daring breeders would often introduce canid monsters to their bloodlines, or even just ordinary wolves, in the effort to bring in more strength and ferocity, and then ruthlessly weed out again any offspring that were vicious or could not be tamed—and usually also any that showed distinct physical traits that had definitely come from the monster, rather than the dog.

It was rather too apropos for his situation.

Especially because, if she was to take Shinra’s word for it, you could judge him by the wing and by the killing.

“Why,” Tifa said, searching this absurd creature’s face. “Why did you do it?” A bend to his eyebrows like he wasn’t sure what crime she might be asking about. Which he might not be; ‘we’ve all killed a lot of people’ could cover a lot of ground, and Tifa wouldn’t know what particular mistake she’d made in her life would be meant by ‘it’ if someone were to ask her the same question.

She leaned in, blood rushing in her ears. “Why did you kill the townspeople?”

Sephiroth had never explained, in her timeline, beyond a general hatred of humanity. This man was like him enough to compare. The more she understood what had happened then, the more chance she had of keeping it from happening again. Right? Knowledge had to make the difference, because it was all she had. Right?

Tifa blinked the flames of Nibelheim from her eyes and clarified, “Your hometown,” because he still hadn’t answered and for all she knew it wasn’t even the only town he had destroyed. It could be a lie, of course, that he’d done it even the once, but if so it was one Fair had believed. She would give the man a chance to deny, or justify it.

Genesis shrugged. Finished his tea again. Denied nothing. “I hated them.”

Tifa leaned forward further, up onto her knees, so her toes could grip the floor—except it was more cushions, oh well. “…what did they do to you?”

Nibelheim had never been particularly fond of Cloud, that was all, and that had been bad enough really, but she knew some places could be much crueler. Genesis did not particularly act like a lifelong victim, but you never knew for certain what people were hiding behind their facades. Especially such dramatic ones.

“Oh, nothing. They were merely…” A small shrug. “Worthless. The people who called themselves my parents…” And now the real hate slid in, a faint bitterness like cyanide in water but entirely distinct from the way he’d spoken of his other victims.

She slapped him.

There was a time when her backhand could block bullets and kill rampaging monsters in one stroke. Today it just snapped the mutant SOLDIER’s head around, and he turned back to face her with his mouth pulled into a moue of affront. One gloved hand stole up to press against the spot, though there was no mark.

“I know about making sacrifices for a cause,” Tifa bit out, settling back onto her heels. “Your personal feelings aren’t a cause.”

Maybe he’d had good reasons to kill his parents. Some parents were that bad. But spreading it out across a whole town, just because he’d decided their lives were worthless, just because he needed an outlet for his hate—she had no sympathy for that. That was the last thing she would ever forgive.

“What other cause is there?” he asked. Anger was snapping in his eyes and she should care but she didn’t. “Dreams of the morrow hath the shattered soul.

Loveless again. “Pride is lost, wings stripped away…you have wings enough to fly with!” Tifa’s fists closed, even as she sank back onto her heels. She picked up her tea again to keep her hands busy, so he wouldn’t think she was about to hit him some more and take defensive action. The warmth against her palms was steadying. “What have you lost, that you didn’t destroy yourself?”

Unreal fire licked in the man’s eyes. He looked on the verge of real madness for a moment, beyond his own control. “I am dying.”

“So? So what? Everyone dies. Why are you special?”

Tifa had seen how heroes died. Cloud, watching it come slowly from within his own corrupted flesh and walling himself away alone, as if he thought losing him sooner could make it hurt less; Aerith kneeling with a smile on her lips as she saved the world, falling with her hands still clasped together. Even Jessie and the others lying bleeding out onto steel steps over Sector Seven.

Bugenhagen’s last words. The statue that had once been Nanaki’s father.

This, this outraged scrabbling, this martyred air without cause or self-sacrifice—this was disgusting. This was Shinra, every inch their philosophy of acquisition, entitlement, and resource exploitation, only applied to such abstract attainments as heroism. She hadn’t thought the word could be made dirtier than in Sephiroth’s old title, but here a way had been found.

The black wing was there again, suddenly, shed feathers wafting out in a fluttering cloud, as the phantom limb curved a velvet-dark flourish that almost brushed Tifa’s cheek. The monster-SOLDIER’s eyes gleamed remote and terrible.

“You cannot possibly understand,” he bit out in that voice like silk. “What it is to learn your life has been a lie, and your days numbered by the men who turned you into something inhuman, and then cast you aside.”

Tifa sat still a moment. Thinking of the look on Cloud’s face when he broke, at the Northern Crater, in the grotto where Sephiroth and Weapon had both lain waiting. The way he had apologized to her, cringed toward Hojo…lifted into the air and gone at least partly of his own mangled will to give Sephiroth the tool he needed to unmake all life.

The way the pain that had wracked him so long, pain that she had ignored because she did not know how to help and was afraid of what answers might come if she asked too closely, had fallen away into a distant sorrow, as he accepted that he had no right to make choices anymore, as he let their enemies convince him he had never truly had even the ability.

And she thought of Aerith and Nanaki, who had lived as victims of Shinra’s science and escaped again, and given so much of themselves to guard others.

And she felt Vincent standing silent at her back.

“You’re right,” she said. “I don’t understand.” She looked up into those deep blue eyes. “I don’t understand how anyone can go through something like that, and turn around and treat other people like things.”

These negotiations had gone south. Just like the last ones, and the ones before those. Probably Tifa should get better at compromising.

But there were some things she could not compromise.

She threw her tea in his eyes and bolted.

Chapter Text

After what must have been nearly ten minutes not being drunk by Tifa, in the chill of the cave, the tea was not very hot.

It was still an attack her host was in no way prepared for, and gave her the opportunity to get onto her feet, out of arm’s reach of the man himself or  his flanking Copies, turn, and sprint away across the cavern floor.

Vincent—who hadn’t needed to stand, had already been in the direction she was running, and was objectively faster than she could hope for in this body—could probably have been halfway across the cave by now, but he fell in at her shoulder instead. Covering her. She didn’t even need to look to know he had his weapon in hand.

The way they’d come in wasn’t actually useful to her, since she didn’t have wings, but it was possible the cliff face was rough enough to climb—and anyway, heading for it had made her point, if not exactly served her goals.

But Genesis had a point to make as well, obviously, because his copies that hadn’t been serving as waiters had filed together and were blocking the mouth to that tunnel, three and four deep.

Almost certainly, these copies were weaker than the original, but Tifa had seen him fighting Sephiroth and knew that wasn’t necessarily saying much. Even if they were a fraction of his strength, as she was now—as Vincent was now, even—it would be purest foolhardiness to wade into the center of the swarm. It probably wouldn’t even have been smart in the future, but she’d probably have done it, mad as she was now.

The ones toward the middle of the pack were the ones in gear that matched their master’s, with a little less deadness behind the eyes, though what expression there was suggested nothing but nightmares. She strongly suspected these of being the most dangerous ones. They were also the most in her way.

“Tifa,” said Genesis, who had gotten her name from Zack Fair just as she had gotten his from Sephiroth. She kept going. The name had issued from back among the cushions. He wasn’t giving chase.

She was more than halfway to the blocked exit. Vincent was right there guarding her back.

Tifa,” called the monster-SOLDIER, having overcome the tea. “Don’t make a worse fool of yourself!”

Just before they came to grips with the horde Tifa swung left, put on a burst of speed, and blew past the one clone nonchalantly blocking the mysterious shadowed tunnel that had been drawing off a thin stream of smoke from the brazier all this time. Did he think she was stupid.

“Tifa!” Genesis shouted somewhere behind her, but Vincent was right at her heels and they were running pell-mell down dim and unfamiliar tunnels, and she had no more time for him.


The tunnels were studded with materia crystals—further apart than in the great cavern, but enough to see your feet striking the ground better than half the time. If she tripped, so be it. Genesis had been hospitable enough to heal her completely, she could handle skinned knees.

She hoped they didn’t meet a dragon. For winged creatures, they spent most of their time underground, and she was not up for handling a dragon right now.

Though if they did have to fight one hopefully she could score a bangle. Not having proper gear was driving her nuts.

A masked Copy loomed up out of the gloom, crescent shortsword in each hand. Either it had gotten around ahead of them through superior knowledge of the tunnel system, or it had been placed here beforehand as a second-string guard, but either way it sunk into a menacing ready stance as it saw them, weapons raised.

Neither Tifa nor Vincent broke stride, and the monster-without-a-mind-of-its-own didn’t adjust to this reality fast enough to leave more than a thin line of blood up Tifa’s bicep, as she crashed elbow-first into its chest. Vincent’s gun went off under its chin and it occurred to Tifa that here was an extra reason for her to miss Cloud—sharp edges killed just as efficiently as guns, but much more quietly. They could use a swordsman right about now.

They ran on.

Whenever there was a choice, they took the path leading down. Of course it didn’t always continue leading down, but in the event they did find an outlet, lower was better. They’d started out a long way up the mountain.

Tifa tripped twice—the second time, Vincent got his clawed hand around her bicep before she could fall, and she swallowed her reflexive hiss at the pinch, turned it into a whispered thanks, because he didn’t need any more reasons for uncertainty.

After what felt like an eternity of running through dim tunnels listening for enemy movement and looking for signs of an exit, and trying to make sure they weren’t going in circles, the tunnel abruptly broadened out again.

They’d reached a small cavern, a tenth the size of Genesis’ eyrie, this one clearly worn by water. The space was split by a great, jagged rock formation, taking up most of the center and leaving a path large enough for two to go abreast on each side.

Bright light, from huge collections of crystal oozing through cracks in the stone, splashed across a few surfaces, left most of the space in twilight, and cast particularly dark patches of shadow where it was blocked. A great place for an ambush—on either side.

She turned to Vincent, didn’t even need to wait for him to turn to face her in return. They were syncing up nicely, excellent. Smacked her own chest gently and pointed left, then jabbed his arm and pointed right. He nodded understanding, and ghosted away around the right-hand passage.

Tifa hunched low and hugged the curve of the central rock formation as she worked her way left, until the faded black-leather curve of a shoulder came into sight. Sure enough, Genesis had set up a trap here. Fortunately, his pawns seemed to be only slightly brighter than non-materia rocks without his direct supervision, because as far as she could tell the owner of the shoulder was just standing mechanically in place, not scanning its periphery at all. Tifa fell back out of line of sight again.

She squinted up at the slope of the central upthrust of boulder a moment, then dug her fingers into a crack and started to climb. Edged her way along, above head height, until she was directly over the waiting Copy.

This was one of the more expressive ones, admittedly, in a long leathery coat, wielding some sort of electricity baton similar to Reno’s. As she dropped like a bolt from above it dodged, at the last possible moment, just as she hit, so that part of the down-driving force of her heels was lost and the copy didn't crumple under her, and instead in the next instant lashed out with a sheet of fire.

It wasn’t nearly as delicate a use of magic as she’d seen from the original, unsurprisingly, but it was Fire. Tifa felt a grin breaking over her teeth as she recovered and her feet found secure places on stone. Well.

She ducked forward, inside the copy’s reach; once more it seemed taken off-guard, and she rammed a fist into the underside of its jaw. That threw its balance back, which Tifa used to sweep out its feet, and then followed it down with an arm-bar to the throat.

It was a foot taller than her and the muscle felt dense, never mind the Jenova factor; she shouldn’t risk a wrestling match even if its fellows weren’t likely to come upon them soon, and she couldn’t count on this creature having a safely normal response to choking, even if its eyes were wide in animal alarm right now.

Her left hand she took from reinforcing the arm-bar to grab a fistful of auburn hair, which she used to drag its head up into the curve of her shoulder, and then with the strength of her whole upper body, slam it down into the stone.

The blankness in its gaze was joined by dizziness. She slammed it again, and a third time, and then as soon as it went limp tore its coat back to reveal—yes! On the left bicep, a Gold Armlet (she would bet gil Genesis had taken it from a local dragon) with three full slots. Two green Magic materia, and one the pink-purple of Independent.

The Armlet would be good to have, but would take too long to remove; she’d have to wrestle the full sleeve off before she could slide it over the wrist. She went for the nearest green orb first. One of these two was Fire. How kind of Genesis to honor her request.

Footsteps closed in as she popped the second Magic free—seven Copies on their way at least… She left the Independent; she had what was important.

The faint impact sounds of Vincent fighting hand-to-hand not far away were replaced by a single resonating gunshot, and he met her at the outlet point of the cavern, which had been hidden behind the tall rock, at a soundless full run. They fell into step without discussion. Even if the Copies didn’t share a hive mind and Genesis couldn’t see through their eyes, the noise would still have given them away.


They killed two more Copies in close, brutal skirmishes before they broke out into a slightly wider tunnel thronging with at least a dozen of the things. Vincent shot the nearest one, and both of them dashed with everything they had for the slightly upward-slanting narrow shaft that opened on the far side of the wide tunnel.

The one that ended in the yellow-white glow of the sun.

Tifa focused on reaching that flash of daylight, not the Copies hot on their heels. Not that being outside this cave system would altogether help them, since it would in fact make them easier to surround, but at least it would open the possibility of getting away. It would get them off Genesis’ home ground, and back onto hers.

This was her mountain, she’d been brought up on it. No one else should have the home ground advantage here.

They broke into the daylight and had to pull up, because (Tifa was less than shocked) they had run out onto a cliff, and the sudden brightness left Tifa at least blinking back tears in the face of the sudden reappearance of one o’clock in the afternoon.

A vault of stone fell away above; the lip they’d run out onto protruded a little way beyond this shelter, before falling away in the opposite direction. They’d trapped themselves in a cup dipped into the mountainside, with nowhere left to run. This tunnel opened closer to the ground than the last one, but still much too high to survive the fall by anything but inhumanity or miracles. And the Genesis horde wasn’t going to give them the leisure to see if the rock face was scalable.

Tifa rounded on the tunnel. At least she could avoid offering them her back.

At least until any came at her from the air.

“Tifa,” came Genesis’ voice up the tunnel, a superior smile drenching both syllables. “This is the only way out. You don’t have any other options but to talk reasonably with me.”

It was probably true that there were no entrances accessible from ground level, or Tifa would have visited these caves before. Someone would have found them by now, anyway, if they could be stumbled across without flying, and she'd have heard. She knew all the old smuggling routes.

“We saw how well that went,” she said.

“It went very well for you,” Genesis argued. He was drawing closer. “Because I refrained from attacking in the midst of a friendly discussion.”

“Kidnapping,” Tifa corrected him. “As soon as I decided we can’t be friends, this became a kidnapping.”

Those had been the terms he set, after all. Maybe he’d meant to create plausible deniability by leaving that threat implicit, but that was a Shinra game Tifa was long past being willing to play.

“…infinite in mystery is the gift of the Goddess.” The voice had stopped coming closer. She’d seen him stand against Sephiroth not an hour ago; Sephiroth might not yet be the Nightmare and he might not have been trying his hardest, but no one who’d just taken on that should be hesitant to approach her and Vincent at their current level of strength.

Unless he didn’t really think Sephiroth would hurt him.

That seemed like a popular opinion to have, at Shinra. Fair trusted him, until Nibelheim. The President definitely hadn’t expected to be skewered by him.

She didn’t have time to think about Sephiroth right now.

“What is it you don’t want to tell me?” Genesis asked from inside the tunnel. The helmed head of a trooper-style Copy sorted itself out of the shadows. Was he speaking through it? No. Watching, possibly. Tifa hardened her glare, just in case. “What secret is so vital it drives you to reject my hospitality?”

“It’s not about keeping secrets,” Tifa answered. Because he didn’t even know the right questions to ask, to get at the things she really didn’t want to tell him; hadn’t gotten to the point of pressuring her on subjects she would prefer to avoid.

Though she expected they would have reached that point, if she’d let them keep going the way they had been. Because even if he really was against Sephiroth, and not playing games, he wasn’t a person she could trust at her back, let alone with her secrets.

“No?” The Copy tipped its head, slowly, a little further than humans normally would. Its mouth didn’t move. The voice coming up the tunnel was calm and liquid, with just a faint hitch betraying some sort of pain or emotion buried inside it.

“You know it’s not. I don’t work with murderers.”

She understood the need for half-random violence, sometimes, against a monolith like Shinra, and that there would be collateral damage and no matter how you tried you couldn’t ensure that none of it would be innocent. The world forced harsh decisions on everyone. But aiming for collateral damage first and foremost, turning on your own people, and worst of all perhaps doing both those when you had your own army, and unlike Tifa’s old terrorist group stood a reasonable chance of accomplishing something by confronting Shinra forces directly…that was another thing altogether.

“I thought you might have a good reason,” she said, when Genesis didn’t answer right away. “But you didn’t. Let us go.”

Nothing.

Please let us go.”

“…I think not.” Something in the way he said that made Tifa think he’d paired it with a dramatic pose, but if so there was no one to appreciate it but himselves, because he still hadn’t come into view.

“Why not?”

“Because I still have questions for you.”

“I already told you more than I have Sephiroth.” Mostly because she feared him less, but she didn’t think it would help anything to add that.

“…infinite in mystery is the gift of the Goddess.”

He sounded like he was trying to sound gently mournful, but enjoyed the opportunity for drama a little too much to nail it. “Thanks?” Tifa hazarded.

This conversation was clearly leading nowhere. “I don’t actually want to be your enemy,” she said, because she didn’t, she didn’t need extra enemies and she couldn’t kill every murderous asshole in the world even if she were twice as powerful as she’d ever been. She had responsibilities, and also her own life to live. “I appreciate the lift and the healing, since you scuttled my negotiations earlier, but if you keep getting in our way I can’t afford to go easy on you.”

The silence following this only-sort-of-a-bluff seemed to be the incredulous kind. Vincent was raising his eyebrows at her. Tifa ignored them both; if they wanted her to acknowledge their opinions they would have to vocalize them.

She pulled her two captured materia out of her bra, weighing one in each hand, trying to feel the spark of fire in one of them. Yes. The left. She tucked the unidentified Magic back under the seam of her left breast, and focused on the orb in her hand. Yes. Natural materia. Elemental. It felt right.

“Stand back,” she warned Vincent, and then channeled her energy into materia for the first time in this timeline.

When the brilliant burst of Fira didn’t tap her flat, she knew her magic reserves were something else she’d brought with her from the future, like her memories and her Limit.

Okay, then. This materia didn’t feel mastered but it had at least second level spells, which meant she could deal a lot of damage over a long time, with the kind of reserves that had once let her cast multiple rounds of Ultima between Ethers.

She filled the upper end of the tunnel with Fire, and every time a Copy showed its helmeted head brought down another Fira, and Vincent tapped. After three failed to make it to her or Vincent alive, they stopped coming. His forces weren’t infinite, it seemed.

Vincent’s supply of ammunition wasn’t infinite either, and neither was Tifa’s casting strength, and they no longer had any element of surprise. Even with a choke point to defend, even if Genesis was much stupider than he seemed and didn’t have units circling behind them to split their focus, this couldn’t last forever, and it wasn’t getting them out.

“Vincent,” she said, “how close are you to your Limit?”

He stole a look down at her, and she might have been the only person alive who could have read the dread in his expression as he said flatly, “Close.”

“Okay. As soon as you feel yourself reach it, disengage. I’ll cover you. Make for the edge. Limit Break there, focusing on getting down.”

Gallian Beast was stupid, and like all Vincent’s monsters goal-oriented. If he activated his Limit in combat it would fight until it went down, overwhelmed by Genesis’ numbers. If he activated it running away, it would run away like there was no other activity in the world to do, until its enemies were vanished or dead.

Concern etched itself between Vincent’s eyebrows, very faintly. “What will you do?”

“I’ll be holding on.”

Vincent’s head turned a few degrees, though his eyes stayed on her. That was his startle reaction. “You,” he said, and alarm and uncertainty and an irrational amount of guilt were all there in his voice. It always had been more expressive than his face.

“I know what I’m doing,” Tifa said. “I trust you. Just trust me a little longer, and we’ll be fine.”

So Tifa pretended to have run out of magic. This was easy; she’d already cast more than a girl her age should have been able to manage. It just took stepping down to Fires staggered further and further apart, and then a half-summoned plume of cool yellow flame, and then nothing.

She shoved the Fire materia back into her bra. She could use it from there if she needed to, now that she had a feel for it, even if it would take extra concentration, and she was going to need both hands.

Vincent moving forward to block the tunnel with his body wasn’t a much harder sell. He just had to put his gun away, as though it was no longer any use. His punches were devastating, though less than deadly, especially with the prosthetic-sheathed hand, and it was obvious he was getting used to his new body—faster than he had the first time, Tifa thought, since it hadn’t even been a full day. The speed of his movements was picking up.

Every so often he whipped his gun from its holster to deliver a one-hit kill, furthering the impression that he was almost out of ammo. Switching tactics before he was entirely out was probably more believable from an ex-Turk, anyway.

Tifa stood a step back, darting in beside him or under his arms to deal damage when she saw an opening, but always falling immediately back behind her human shield. After all, if she passed out before Vincent got his Limit what would they do? Other than hope the materia that wasn’t Fire was Restore, she guess, but realistically he wouldn’t have time to experiment.

It was just like one party member equipping Cover, she told herself, regardless of the fact that she always hated anybody besides herself or Cait Sith equipping that, and that usually that wasn’t something done on the basis of her asking them to trust her. (Also, it was usually bad tactics to equip Cover in a two-man party.)

Then Vincent’s shooting hand wavered, and instead of firing again or delivering another punch he turned and fled, taking a scimitar-cut to the back of the shoulder as he went, past Tifa, away from the enemy, and she held her position with bare knuckles seeking out weak places on armored clones for just a few seconds longer and then fell back a few steps, dropped a Fira on the tunnel mouth, and bolted.

Caught up with Vincent at the rim of the cliff just as the hunch of his shoulders burst out of his cloak and hulked up into the crouching Gallian Beast. Flung herself against his back and tangled her fingers in his mane just in time, before he leapt out into thin air, roaring, as fire burst around them in every direction.

That hadn't been her.

She looked over her shoulder to see the real Genesis reaching the cliff’s edge, looking mildly scorched by her goodbye present, a look of fury on his face and in the curve of his black wing, as he sent another quartet of fireballs after them.

They hit the ground, a great collision that almost knocked Tifa loose, and all but one of the fireballs earthed themselves harmlessly. The remaining one struck Gallian Beast on the head, catching Tifa only in the splashback, and she was briefly afraid the Limit would refocus on the enemy that had attacked it and try to climb the cliff again to confront him. But apparently Vincent’s focus had been strong enough, because it merely howled in outrage and started to run.

Genesis dropped another set of fireballs

He didn’t give chase, though. Only sent a couple of Copies to dog them, presumably so he could catch up at his leisure. They’d cost him over a dozen bodies, though, and Tifa wasn’t sure what the overhead was for replacing them but it was obvious he relied much more heavily on being an army in his own person than Sephiroth appeared ever to have considered. She guessed he’d decided they were more trouble to contain than they were worth, at least for now.

She took Fira potshots at both scouts whenever she caught sight of them, until one dropped out of the sky, smoking, and the other stopped appearing. She didn’t know whether it had gone back to Genesis to report or was just being more circumspect about its tailing, but either way there was nothing she could do about it.

She buried her face in the shaggy mane that never existed long enough to be anything but clean, and breathed.

Vincent ran for a long time. Tifa hung on grimly, fiercely—not only did she risk injury and (if she was unlucky enough) unconsciousness if she hit the ground at this speed, she’d be damned if she left herself exposed alone to the Copies after all this trouble, and she’d be twice damned if she left Vincent to wake up alone from his first voluntary Limit Break since Hojo had done this to him.

They hadn’t been terribly supportive, the first first-time, her and Cloud. They hadn’t known him yet, hadn’t realized how new this body really was to him, hadn’t known what the starker silence and almost invisible tremor in his gun-hand had meant, and had been much too annoyed about the Gallian Beast’s repeated counterproductive setting-a-dragon-on-fire to figure any of it out.

She’d do better this time. It was a small regret, on the scale that measured her life, but she’d resolved to seize every opportunity this restart offered with both hands, hadn’t she?

Which, for this bit, meant very literally holding onto a very annoyed monster like grim death, until her knuckles ached like she’d beat up several trees and a robot barehanded, and her inner thighs trembled like she’d been riding an incredibly poorly-tamed chocobo bareback across a few hundred miles of rough ground.

It hadn’t been a few hundred miles, more like sixty or seventy, but you didn’t have to cling to the back of a chocobo vertically, either.

She was getting a crick in her neck from keeping an eye on the sky. She hadn’t seen a Genesis since she’d taken down that scout. The original hadn’t seemed too badly injured. It occurred to her the Copies might have a…distance limitation from him. Maybe? The Sephiroth copies hadn’t, in spite of their compulsive desire to draw closer, but these very transparently did not work quite the same way.

Trying to picture Sephiroth commanding some of his constantly rocking, mumbling black-shrouded gene-splice clones to set their broken minds to catering a tea party beggared imagination.

And not just because the breadth of Sephiroth’s social skills in her experience consisted of silence, interrogation, and deranged monologue, but because of what she’d seen of the copies themselves. He obviously could use them to do complex tasks—one had apparently coherently asked Dio for information once, after all, leaving no impression on the entrepreneur’s rubbery mind but the hand tattoo—but Tifa had always assumed this was accomplished more via direct possession than…whatever Genesis was doing.

One of the things that tended to happen at AVALANCHE reunion parties, once everyone was thoroughly drunk, was debating which of the Sephiroths they’d encountered might have been possessed Copies, rather than possessed fragments of the original Jenova body. And whether Jenova itself had ever spoken to them at all, or if the conversation had all been from Sephiroth. The balance of opinion was that the tentacle fight on Rufus’ boat, the first time they left Junon, had been Jenova in everything but appearance, but not everyone agreed.

Everyone who bothered to get in on the debates had different ideas about how Sephiroth’s ghostly consciousness worked, especially since the Remnant incident. It had always been a mostly-academic exercise with a tiny thread of this might matter someday behind it, but she’d never expected it to matter like this.

Cloud almost never joined in, but when he did have an opinion everyone listened, for obvious reasons. Tifa had worried after the first few times the subject came up (between Barret and Reeve, with Yuffie providing color commentary) that the subject would be too fraught for him to bear, but he said he liked the discussion, really. That it made the whole monstrous mess seem more normal, and reminded him he hadn’t gone through it alone.

And that was all she wanted to be able to give him, so she’d stopped trying to shield him from their friends’ insensitivity.

But now it came down to it, she still knew nothing decisive about how any of Jenova’s Reunion abilities worked, beyond the fact that they had definitely let Sephiroth into Cloud’s head.

Gallian Beast and its ridealong blundered their way south down through the foothills of the Nibel range without any further visible pursuit, and all the way out onto the plains east of Nibelheim before they encountered some extremely foolhardy Nibel wolves who thought the Gallian Beast looked like either a challenger for their territory, or a good square meal. Vincent had to kill each of them several times as their packmates kept reviving the fallen, but finally the fight ended and instead of going back to running, his whole body sagged.

Tifa leapt free in time to avoid potentially squashing Vincent, as he melted back into himself, and staggered, and fell to one knee. Yuffie was tiny and shameless enough to get away with that sort of thing; she wasn’t.

“Vincent,” she said over his ragged breathing, and he jerked to look over his shoulder like he hadn’t realized she was there. His memory of the transformation would be very fragmentary at this point, and Gallian Beast had been pretty thoroughly ignoring her (as Vincent’s monsters generally did their allies), so it was possible he actually hadn’t.

She gave him her biggest smile, and moved around so he could look at her without having to twist. “I knew you could do it.”

His breath came out in a gust. He was fingering the place on his left bicep where a Copy’s blade had left a particularly nasty gash. Not only had the wound vanished once his Limit activated, his cloak and coat were whole again as well, as usual. That didn’t seem like something Hojo would have done. Tifa wondered how Dr. Crescent had managed it. “We…got away?”

Tifa checked the sky again. Still clear. “We got away.”

Vincent sagged over the knee not braced against the ground supporting his weight. “That…was….”

“My fault,” said Tifa, because she’d made a whole string of reckless, emotional decisions and Vincent had had to pay for them. “Sorry.”

He raised his head enough to give her a very flat look. “I was hardly forced to join you.”

No, but possibly bullied a little. Still, she could give him the dignity of his choices. “Well, thanks then. Great job. I’ll try to lead us into fewer desperate last stands in the future.”

“I won’t hold my breath,” said Vincent, and Tifa laughed, louder than she probably should have, startled by the familiarity of Vincent’s grouchy sense of humor and buoyed by the way his breath was coming normally again, the way he was no longer hunching forward as if around a death-wound.

“Yeah,” she said. “As long as we keep getting out, I guess.”

“As long as,” Vincent agreed drily, and got up.

Tifa patted the nearest elbow, and surveyed the sky again. The distant outline of a hunting Zuu, but nothing humanoid.

“Well,” she said. “I guess it’s time to start work on Plan…” Plan B she guessed had been catching the troopers falling off the bridge, and it had technically resolved successfully, or maybe Plan B had been confronting Sephiroth outside the reactor, which made leaving with Genesis the improvised Plan C. “D,” she decided.

Looked around at the open sward. Once, long before she was born, you’d be able to spot signs of at least one farm from almost anywhere on the plain, especially this near a town like Nibelheim, which used to get all the overland trade through the pass. But these days Nibel agriculture had mostly moved to the south and west, where it was cheaper and easier to get the crop onto the water, to transport in bulk to the world’s cities, mostly to Midgar via Shinra’s vast shipping fleet.

It was mostly big corporate farms worked by hired labor, too. (And the employment contracts, Tifa had heard, weren’t kind.) The modern economy couldn’t support independent farmers very well—or at least, it didn’t want to, so it didn’t. Monster attacks had been going up in the northern part of the plain since the Reactor went in, too, though of course no one could ever prove anything, and that made living spread-out more dangerous.

Tifa remembered when freeholding farmers were making a comeback, ten years from now. When so many of the people who’d lived through the long weeks of Meteor’s burning presence in the sky and the succeeding collapse of the intercontinental economy had begun to value sustainability and self-sufficiency over convenience, and the few stubborn holdouts of each area’s traditional farming communities had suddenly been treated as bastions of wisdom.

But now there was no sign of human life to be seen, except the broken huddled remnant of what had once been a small house, or perhaps a barn, the splintered leaning timbers bleached grey. A few times a year, one drover or another came through grazing their cows or chocobos, willing to risk the depredations of monsters for free pasturage.

Tifa liked wilderness well enough, but this wasn’t wilderness exactly. This had been the hinterland of her community, once.

Shinra had begun destroying Nibelheim long before Sephiroth came back to it with fire.

“Step one,” she said, turning her face toward her town, even though it was invisible from here, too far away and low behind the spur of the hill. She laced her fingers behind her and arched her spine until it popped. “Reassess the risks.”

Chapter Text

Step One was actually testing their new materia.

Tifa had managed to identify the Fire by feel, because she’d known what to look for, but all she could say about the other was it didn’t feel like it did elemental damage, which left a range of possibilities. While she might have eventually pinned it down by concentrating hard enough, she’d still have wanted to then test it to be sure, so they flushed a vole out of hiding in the nearest patch of longer grass, and Tifa nailed it with the only spell that was available so far in their mystery Magic.

The rodent collapsed under the gentle sparkle of Sleep, so this was a Seal. Not very practical—it did no damage, only worked or didn’t, and the more you needed it to work the less likely it was to do so—but on the other hand it could be incredibly practical, since Tifa didn’t actually want to kill anyone. Toad and Stop were more fun, but Sleep was probably the subtlest way to get people out of your way non-lethally. Not that anyone Tifa knew was very subtle.

Too bad Silence wasn’t unlocked yet; it would be so much fun to cast that on the SOLDIERs so they had to shut up and listen, and incidentally couldn’t cast anything back.

Not, unfortunately, that that limited Sephiroth to melee range. Could Fair do any of those mid-range energy-beam sword attacks? She recalled it as a common technique in SOLDIERs she’d fought when raiding Shinra, but she didn’t know if it was compulsory.

After some further discussion, in which Vincent actually made verbal contributions which was always nice to see, especially when he’d had a shock, she gave him the Fire materia, since of the two of them he was more likely to be able to carry out the mission alone and had actual pockets to keep it in, and they split up.

It was a sign of how competent she’d managed to pass herself off as being, in spite of everything, that Vincent didn’t even try to argue that he was the more capable sneak in the party and thus he should go reassess the current threats while she hid out in the hills.

Or maybe he just wanted to be alone with the mountain monsters for a while, without a mission to focus on. Tifa didn’t understand needing lots of alone time, but she had grudgingly learned to respect it.


It was maybe three in the afternoon when Tifa slipped back into Nibelheim to reconnoiter, and hit up her limited contacts.

She scaled the old-fashioned stone chimney on the Rockwing’s house on the southeastern edge of town, and made her way toward the town center over the rooftops—luckily, unlike a lot of rural communities, Nibelheimers had always been inclined (by the cold, and the wildlife, and the narrow press of Nibel Pass) to build their homes in tight. Wall to wall, quite often.

There were a few places there was open space between buildings and she needed to jump, but nowhere there was gap enough to block her. Long jumps were important to the Zangan style, after all.

The tricky thing was landing softly enough nobody came out to see if a bird had died on their roof, or something. Several times, she had to throw herself flat while someone passed by below. She didn’t look to see who, after the first time.

The chimney-pots and steam pipes helped a lot, with keeping hidden. Fortunately it was too early in the year for the boilers to be running, and the pipes were safe to touch. Tifa absently blessed the ancestors that had come up with the scheme of centralizing piped-steam heating to the whole town, even if they hadn’t managed to figure out how to pipe water for any other reason.

The groundwater in Nibelheim always tended to have too much mako to be safe for extended bathing or drinking; it was why so many dragons liked the area, but it was also why the wolves were so much stronger and less sane than anywhere else, and meant the size of the human population had always been limited by how much rainwater and meltwater they could collect, and store in sterile conditions. The water tower was the central fixture of the community infrastructure for very good reason.

(This was also why everyone drank a lot of beer from a young age, and why it was so hard to get Cloud to shower regularly. For all the ways he’d shaken the dust and then the ash of Nibelheim off his boots, water hoarding seemed to be sunk into his bones.)

Sometimes, when they cleaned out the heating boilers every ten years, materia had formed, but usually it was just rough crystals. One of the town’s few exports in the old days, when overland caravans had still been important to trade and the Nibel Pass saw a lot of use despite the narrow squeeze at the end, had been raw-mako-crystal jewelry, though it was out of fashion in the Shinra era of smooth synthetic everything. (And, on the other political wing, an era of increasing general suspicion of the health effects of anything involving mako.) The crystals formed a lot slower than they used to nowadays, anyway. Because of the reactor.

Tifa was now certain there had to be a way to get flush toilets to work on the groundwater without eventually filling the outflow pipe with crystals, backing up, and bursting disgustingly, but after that had been the result reaped by the first adopter decades ago, everyone had collectively agreed that trekking out to the outhouses was a completely acceptable and traditional way of addressing the problem and that putting shit through pipes was just asking for trouble.

Even her family wasn’t well-off enough to waste drinking water on flushing toilets, though, or to pay someone to clean the crystals out of their effluent outflow, so there it was. Outhouses. Even the slums in Midgar had sewer access, although actual bathrooms were rare. Urban Planning had been a valuable Department with regard to sanitation, at least.

If Nibelheim still existed a few weeks from now, maybe she’d get the opportunity someday to put that engineering problem to someone who might be able to solve it. She thought Reeve would have fun trying, if he didn’t consider toilets below his dignity. He’d probably propose and design a filtration system for the water, heading off the problem at the source, but maybe he’d do something fiendishly complicated that would never occur to Tifa or any sane person. You never knew, with Reeve.

Tifa couldn’t make it to the roof of the inn without a long jump that would definitely end in too much noise even if she made it, with this body's abilities, but then she didn’t entirely want to. If Sephiroth was in there, there were good odds he’d sense her lurking directly above him no matter how stealthy she managed to be. Not a risk she was willing to take.

Instead, she settled on the Balehardts' roof, that being the highest one overlooking the square, and settled in to wait for her moment.

There was one Shinra trooper guarding, apparently, the town square. It was the one who hadn’t come up the mountain this morning—she knew because it wasn’t Cloud, but there was none of the damage to the uniform done by Vincent’s claws. Though it was conceivable that guy had had a spare, so she supposed all she knew was it wasn’t Cloud.

Whoever the guard was, he was either near the end of a shift that had begun before Sephiroth’s party left, some five or six hours ago, or at the beginning of a new one. She hoped the former, but either way, he was no use to her just now.

It took the better part of an hour for her wait to come to anything, but eventually Zack Fair emerged from the Mansion. He seemed healthy enough, from what she could tell at this distance.

She’d been sort of hoping for visible bruising, at least. But of course he wasn’t stupid enough to have such a reckless fighting style and not carry healing items, even if neither he or his commander had equipped a Restore. And if he hadn’t had enough on him, SOLDIERs were paid enough he could have bought out the shop’s stock of Potions. Of course he was fine.

Fair stretched hugely, standing in the grass just beside the Manor path, and did about three dozen squats; spent a while evidently contemplating the sky, possibly for signs of flying SOLDIERs; and went back inside with the attitude of a man returning to a toilsome duty.

Since it was completely laughable to imagine Sephiroth had delegated sifting through the library to Fair, this meant he was back down there, researching. Ominous, but at least it got him out of the way for now. Hopefully he’d stay there all night.

Strength-building exercises weren’t a bad idea, but squats were too full of motion that might attract someone’s eye. Instead she balanced all her crouching weight on the ball of one foot.

Eventually she switched feet.

It was late summer, and even in the valley where Nibelheim nestled, sunset wasn’t until after seven at night, and true dark not for nearly an hour after that. She still had hours ahead of her before her meetup with Vincent.

Watching the townspeople come and go was—nice, in some ways. Soothing, in its normality; bracing, with its reminder of what she was fighting for. Unsettling, when she failed to recognize a face that she knew she must have known at least in passing as a child, but had lost with the passage of ten years.

Creepy, sometimes, when she saw someone she did know. As though she was crouching in the midst of a single vast ghost.

But no. The other, false Nibelheim had been a shambling imitation. This was alive. This was real.

Those children were going to grow up.

The Balehardt’s three-year-old, whose name Tifa was no longer entirely sure she knew—Melody, she thought, but it could be Melanie, toddled through the door directly beneath her feet to play with her blue rubber ball on the cobblestones, and Tifa had to fight down a sudden urge to vomit.

She didn’t actually know that Melody-or-Melanie Balehardt had been the child who survived the burning and the experimentation to appear swathed in black and chanting Sephiroth’s name, but that half-sized Copy had existed, and appeared upstairs in the Balehardt house.

Tifa would regret for life having followed Cloud as he searched through every building fronting the square for clues, and having therefore been there to find two full-sized Copies and the tiny one inside the house on the opposite side of hers from Cloud’s. And having been therefore unable to escape the suspicion that the Balehardts had come home.

At least, she had thought, finding her own home just as haunted by the shades of what had once been people, she knew her father hadn’t survived.


Tifa kept the largest part of her attention on the Mansion as the afternoon slid by, only keeping half an eye on the square and the doors and windows she could see, in case her primary target showed his face.

Shortly before five, or maybe at five on the dot, the current guard’s shift finally ended.

Cloud replaced him.

It was sort of nice to know she really could identify Cloud at a distance, with his face covered, even now, when he didn’t move quite the same way as the Cloud she knew best—none of Fair’s little movement tics that had still lingered even ten years from now, and none of that coiled power and stance like a mountain. But still Cloud, if she looked.

Once he was in his place and the other trooper had vanished into the inn, Tifa looped around the square, keeping low to the rooftops, until she reached the place where the road into town hit the square. Climbed down, and then dashed across the road into the cover of the inn.

There was no window on this side of the building at ground level, because of the ovens, and the spur of the mountainside gave her cover from downhill, so she was only visible from a very small number of angles.

One of these, unfortunately, was by leaning out the second-floor window in the room where the Shinra were staying and looking straight down, but Sephiroth and Fair were both underground at the Manor, so if she was seen, by the time their troops could fetch them she could be out of town, if she had to.

Cloud, however, could hardly have missed her running straight past him.

She waited a second, wondering whether a ‘psst!’ of encouragement would carry to the second floor, but then it didn’t matter because Cloud took the six steps around the corner of the building, away from his guard post and into a moderate amount of cover with her.

“Tifa?”

She grinned, already feeling three times as powerful for hearing Cloud’s voice. “Yes, of course it’s me. I’m not the one hiding my face, honestly!”

“You…”

“I got away.” Tifa raised both her hands to show how unbound they were. “It was quite a fight, but overall I think it was still a better bet than trying to fight Sephiroth.

"Hey,” she continued after a second, feeling her way forward, when Cloud didn’t say anything. “I saw Fair, earlier. Looks like he’s okay.”

“Yeah, he was fine.” Cloud nodded. His face ended up tipped forward at the end of the nod, and Tifa craned her neck trying to see the little of it that showed under the helmet. His mouth made a line.

“You okay?” she asked, starting to worry. If the problem wasn’t her beating up his other friend, what was it?

Cloud nodded again, but he wasn’t looking right at her. The set of his shoulders was unhappy.

“Did you get in trouble?” she guessed.

Shrug. “Not really.” He hesitated a second, then cleared his throat a little and went on, “Sephiroth had a lot of questions. So did Zack. A lot of them they already asked last night, but…” he trailed off.

Tifa huffed out a breath. But they were reexamining their trust in his answers, after she’d gotten him alone this afternoon. “Sorry about that.”

Probably it would have been better to drop the bridge and make them go around—she wouldn’t have had to sit and wait for them in that case, she could have made off with Jenova and figured out what to do with her on the run, while Zeke navigated the Shinra through the tunnel system to the reactor. It was an even longer trip if you started on the far side of the ravine, rather than at the bottom.

It really had just…never occurred to her. She’d never been good at—the proactive kind of terrorism. Forcing action out of inaction, rather than just sending a message about what was wrong. She knew she could be a violent person, but violent solutions to problems didn’t tend to occur to her unless the problem was already violent.

Cloud’s shoulders squared, and he reached up to pull the helmet off. “It’s okay.”

He looked at her, now, head-on, and there was something keen in his eyes that reminded her simultaneously that this was Cloud still, young and uncertain as he might be, with a spirit deeper than the sky, and yet also that this was a Cloud who had never been broken—the certainty in him wasn’t fire-forged deep and strong out of pain one link at a time, but neither was his doubt a network of fissures, running through him everywhere that the mosaic of his self had been pieced together from fragments.

Assessing, sort of amazed, he said: “You aren’t angry.”

“Why would I be angry?” Cloud hadn’t done anything wrong.

He shook his head. Disbelief. “Why did you tell me anything, if you don’t want my help? Or is it more like, there isn’t anything you think I can do to help you?”

“That’s—” Not completely wrong, but. “I just didn’t want to ask you to do anything you felt was wrong.” Not unless she had to. Or more realistically, until she had to. “Or get you killed,” she admitted after a second. If she had to watch Sephiroth kill Cloud like an insect because she’d thought she was smart enough to change the course of history, she would…probably not cope very well. At all. Ever again.

Cloud was exasperated. “So what do you want?”

“Information, for now.” Tifa settled back into herself. She hunkered down into a crouch again, to get more of the benefit of the cover from the low ridge and make a less obvious human figure against the inn wall. It took only a small beckoning gesture to get Cloud to come a little closer and join her, though he didn’t squat down as far. His helmet he settled under one knee. They’d look more suspicious, now, if anyone noticed them. Conspiratorial. But they were a little harder to notice, or overhear.

“Sephiroth and Fair have been in the Manor most of the afternoon, as far as I can tell,” she said quietly. “They’re going through the library some more?”

“Yeah. Zack was complaining about it….” Cloud trailed off, that conflicted look at the back of his eyes again.

“Only if you don’t think it’s wrong,” said Tifa, over her own mental urging to push him, to demand everything he could give her right now, to scrape out any advantage she could get because the enemy was so strong and she was so alone and if she got this wrong everyone was going to die again.

Raising children really had taught her a lot of self-control.

His eyes caught hers. “He really died for me?”

“…that’s what you said,” Tifa hedged.

Regretting now having told him. His attachment to Fair in this time hadn’t been nearly as strong as she’d expected. “I wasn’t there,” she qualified. “I never saw him again, after Nibelheim burned. The paperwork we found later just said he was ‘shot for resisting.’ But apparently he hid you first, and the Turks said it took an infantry regiment, a SOLDIER battalion, and two helicopters to put him down.”

No helicopters and maybe we coulda snuck him out from under the Army’s nose, Reno had said one night in the new Seventh Heaven, and Tifa had never been sure whether he’d been referring to a rescue or to returning Fair to Hojo’s custody—she was inclined to think the latter, but then why the sneaking? Then again, why a rescue?

But, she realized, she had an answer now: Zack Fair had, in life, counted as a friend one Tseng of the Turks.

It was probably irony that she now found herself wishing she’d been a little less determined to focus on the future, back home in her own time, and had asked more questions about everyone’s pasts. But then, how much would someone like Tseng realistically have shared?

Maybe a lot, if it had been Cloud asking, about Zack and about Aerith. But of course he’d never known to ask Tseng about Zack, and it would have felt invasive to all of them, to ask Tseng to tell them more than Aerith had decided to share with them in life, now that she was dead.

Also, no one expected to get good news from Tseng. It had been bad enough when Yuffie provoked him into talking about himself.

“That guy,” Cloud said. “The…ex-Turk.”

“Vincent?”

“Yeah. What’s he doing for you?”

“Right now, he’s staying out of sight.” Tifa shrugged. “He’s stronger than either of us at this point, so I’m glad I could get him to listen. What do Sephiroth and Fair think I’m doing?”

Cloud shrugged. “They aren’t sure. Sephiroth keeps trying to say Genesis was behind everything but Zack’s pretty sure you really didn’t know who he was.”

“I really didn’t. He’s a dick, by the way.”

That familiar twitch-grin, not as wide as it had been starting to grow before Aerith died, but wider than she’d ever seen it since. “I could have told you that.”

“Too bad I didn’t know to ask.”

“I mean, I did shoot at him.”

“That was a hint,” Tifa admitted. One she probably should have taken more seriously, at that. “But I really didn’t want to surrender to Sephiroth, or die.

“And I was hoping Pinky and I could make terms, which…well, we couldn’t. Vincent and I had a task and a half fighting our way out of his hideout—by the way, how did he make that many Copies? It took Hojo four years to make about twenty of Sephiroth, and they weren’t nearly that, uh…coherent.”

If that was the right word. It actually wasn’t the right word, but considering what she’d already told Cloud about his averted future as a test subject, she didn’t really want to be more accurate, and it was close enough.

“…I don’t know the details?” said Cloud. “But uh, around the time I joined up, it sounds like a whole chunk of SOLDIER disappeared along with that guy. There’s a rogue scientist from the Science Department involved too, called Hollander. I was on a mission to capture him about a year ago. I heard a rumor he escaped again though.”

Tifa laced her fingers together and stretched them thoughtfully up over her head. Her Cloud…hadn’t retained this, she was pretty sure. “Huh. How many SOLDIERs?”

“I’m not sure, but more than a couple hundred. They decided not to replace them all, because the war was winding down anyway and a lot of the deserters were new recruits and a huge financial loss, so only the very top guys in my class got in.”

Tifa blinked. And there it was, laid out all casually by Cloud’s own past self—a perfectly understandable reason he hadn’t made SOLDIER. Oh, he clearly felt disgusted with himself already for not making the cut, but it was still…a surprise, and not a surprise at all, to learn that SOLDIER had changed its recruitment practices around the time he applied. Tifa had always assumed they’d rejected him on the basis of his height, or his unreliable ability to follow orders, or just because Shinra couldn’t tell shit from gold when it came to people.

And they probably had passed him over in favor of someone else for one of those reasons, but still. When he’d decided to join SOLDIER, he’d actually had a shot. “You’re lucky,” she said.

She could almost thank Genesis for this effect he’d had on history without her knowledge, if it hadn’t been clear he’d done it by abusing the trust of people Shinra had already taken advantage of. Except maybe Cloud joining SOLDIER would have led to a better future after all, what did she know?

Cloud looked at the ground. “Zack said that too.”

Huh. And him so proud of being SOLDIER. “Do you know what happened at the reactor after we, uh, left? Zack got healed up, obviously.”

Cloud shrugged again. “Yeah. They made me and Baener stand guard outside, with Zeke after he came back up the trail. Normally we have the clearance for reactors, but….”

“Yeah, there’s extra-evil science in this one. Did they stay inside long?”

“No.”

And obviously Sephiroth hadn’t gone on a murderous rampage so far. “What did they look like coming out?”

Cloud’s eyes went distant and slightly narrow as he thought. “Tense? Sephiroth didn’t really talk on the way down the mountain, even though Zack kept trying. He gave up and talked to me and Baener eventually.”

“Not Zeke?”

“Sephiroth yelled at him for distracting our guide.”

It was true Zeke’s job of getting them back to town would have been a lot more complicated with the bridge out, but not that much. So, Sephiroth was in a bad mood. But not so much as to forbid his soldiers from talking to one another as they walked. That would be…more useful knowledge if she had a better idea of what his sense of proportion had been like before he declared himself the destined ruler of the Planet and tried to kill and eat it, but it wasn’t nothing.

She’d made that downhill trip with him once before, right? It hadn’t been a particularly intense experience, to make the details survive ten years, but she must know something. He’d been…quiet, she thought. She didn’t remember him saying anything much, at least, and she would have done. Sephiroth was hard to ignore, and his melodrama on the way up the mountain had been fairly unforgettable.

He hadn’t yelled at anyone, that she recalled. Definitely hadn’t forbidden anyone from talking to her, though she didn't recall much conversation either.

Did that mean…she’d made it worse?

“Thanks,” she said, and chewed her tongue thoughtfully. Did she still have days before he snapped? She’d utterly disrupted the process of his assimilating information about his origins, she definitely shouldn’t assume she had days; look what she’d done by assuming the bridge falling with people on it had to happen.

It had taken everything she had to put Zack Fair down for what sounded like it hadn’t been more than a matter of minutes. Of course that was definitely with the benefit of healing magic, which a rampaging Sephiroth might very well not bother with, but then again he might—his three-faced monster form had hit itself with Curaga with frustrating regularity.

Either way, though. She’d known all along she couldn’t do this alone, but this trial threw that fact into sharp relief.

If she wanted to save Nibelheim, she still needed to find a way to change something.

Chapter Text

Tifa braced the splayed fingertips of her right hand against the dirt, more for grounding than for physical balance.

Heading up the mountain right now in broad daylight would be stupid, but all her muscles hummed with urgency anyway, to go go go. Would even burning really shut Jenova’s voice away entirely, though? Could anything.

Death was only a path into the Lifestream, and lacking a body had limited but not stopped the Calamity. She was all through SOLDIER. Especially its General. Even killing them all might just start up the Geostigma with their contaminated life energy.

There was nothing Tifa could do about Jenova’s power in the Lifestream. That was Aerith’s problem to resolve. Break it down. Do what’s before you. Breathe.

“Have we fixed it?” Cloud whispered. It was a good sort of hope she could hear in the question, one that ached a little but had a sharp edge you could use to climb a cliff, not something frail that had to be held within cupped hands. “Is he….”

“I don’t know,” Tifa said, honestly. “It might be better. He’s been warned, at least. That…” If he were a reasonable, decent person that should make all the difference, but Tifa had no faith at all that he ever been either of those things.

“We’ve helped his odds, anyway. By letting him know.” She found a smile. “I noticed you didn’t tell him everything I said.”

Cloud shrugged, almost his old jaunty refusal of concern, from their early days with AVALANCHE. “He wouldn’t have believed me.”

Tifa muffled a laugh with her hand. “Good call.”

Even if Sephiroth did for some reason accept that she was a time traveler, the news that she was claiming to be a time-traveling terrorist here to stop him from destroying the world wouldn’t exactly encourage him to trust her judgment. And most likely, he’d just dismiss the whole thing as playing on Cloud’s credulousness, and be twice as suspicious that she represented some convoluted Shinra scheme.

Or was it just Fair who thought the Company was rotten?

No. There was no way Sephiroth actually trusted Shinra. He’d have been an easier archenemy to have if he’d been that stupid.

“So,” said Cloud. “What’s next?”

Tifa turned the question in her mind like a stone. “Technically, I think your mission here is over.” Cloud’s copy of Fair’s memory of the reactor visit suggested Sephiroth had pretty much just opened (or possibly closed) a valve and declared the problem solved. (Why was there no resident technician. Seriously.)

“But if my past is any clue, the mission leader isn’t going to want to leave tomorrow. Do you know what either of them is planning?”

“They’ve just been in the creepy book lab all day.” Cloud shrugged. “I’ve been asleep for the last few hours. They want a 24 hour watch kept, and with only three of us that means staggering rack time. I kind of don’t expect Sephiroth to come out tonight at all, but I guess we’ll see.”

“I guess,” said Tifa. That was…not promising overall, but hopeful for her plans of burning Jenova under cover of dark. Genesis was a problem, but if he and the wildlife could be her only problems, this might work out.

Cloud shifted, and she realized he was still uncomfortable.

“Worried?” she asked. Anyone would be. It was Sephiroth.

“No,” said Cloud, with perfect teenage absurdity.

Not that he was much better as an adult, when it came to talking about his feelings before they brought him to his breaking point, but at least he’d lost the unconvincing bravado at some point. While operating under the delusion he was Zack, possibly. Or maybe somewhere in the four and a half years of continual trauma under Hojo, which had probably made embarrassment seem like a much less serious problem in comparison.

Tifa tried another smile. “It’s fine to be worried. This is a crazy situation.”

“I know. And I’m okay.”

Hm. This…was more than just embarrassment about nerves.

She reached up and cupped his face with the hand that didn't have fresh dirt on it. “Cloud,” she said. “Are you really okay?”

He nodded furiously and dropped her gaze, hard. The cheek under her palm was pinking up—blushing. Cloud was blushing. Even leaving aside everything that had changed over the years, she knew he wasn’t the type. He was—oh no. Belatedly, she pulled her hand away. He had a crush on her. Still.

Shit.

Tifa’s feelings about Cloud were very very complicated, but she’d more or less resigned herself to her Cloud not being interested in that way, even though he did love her as much as he could, and this one was…

Was closer to Denzel’s age than hers. Ugh. He’d be so insulted by the comparison if he knew who Denzel was.

The pink was lasting, but it was going sort of humiliated. He’d noticed her noticing, then. Crap.

“Cloud,” she said. Moved the hand to his shoulder instead. “I wasn’t lying when I said I can’t do this without you.”

“I don’t see why.”

Tifa bit her lip. How could she make him believe how much he mattered? Cloud wanted to matter, more than anything, but he wasn’t like her, wasn’t afraid that people would never love him for himself. He didn’t expect them to. He didn’t entirely think they should.

He thought he had to earn it, by doing or being something worth appreciating.

It wouldn’t be enough to say, I need you to be Cloud for me, I need you like a sailor needs the stars. Either he wouldn’t believe her, or he’d think it was…even if she made it clear they weren’t together in the future, it wasn’t fair to…she couldn’t….

“We help each other remember who we are.”

She squeezed his shoulder a little—careful, though she didn’t have to be, though there wasn’t strength enough in her hands now to create a need for care. And let go. “I know it isn’t the same, in this time." Knew he didn't need her the same way, even if he did need someone to believe in him and had not too long ago wanted it to be a version of her. "But…I need you to help me save everyone. Just me and Vincent isn’t a full party.”

“Hah,” Cloud said, as if that had been a joke.

“You should’ve seen the three of us tearing across the world,” Tifa told him, folding her arms over her knees. She’d always liked that party composition; it was good to have someone along with range to their physical attacks, and she, Vincent, and Cloud could split casting duties fairly evenly without depriving anyone of their favored spells. They balanced.

Also Vincent required minimal managing and didn’t constantly demand attention, so when he was their third she and Cloud had gotten to hang out together properly. Barret and Yuffie tended to dominate conversation, it would be positively criminal to ignore Nanaki, Cid was Cid, Cait Sith was Reeve and also an enormous clown, and Aerith had been. Well. Aerith.

She’d liked that party composition too, because she adored Aerith, but it had cut into her Cloud time. Vincent was much simpler company. And of course he’d…been around longer, in the end. To the end, and past it. “We were unstoppable.”

She shook her head to get it out of the clouds, but let the smile stay. “But we’re not there yet, so right now, we need to be sneaky, and work around the edges. Which means having a man on the inside is great. You’ll…be the first one on our team that knows if conditions change.”

"And then what?" He wasn't exactly happy, wasn't the clean-eyed blade-edge Cloud she liked to see, but that was understandable. This wasn't a clean situation. He seemed to be over the embarrassment, at least.

"Come let me know. Or Vincent."

"And if that doesn't work?"

There were plenty of reasons it might not. If she was dead, or he didn't know where to find her, or Vincent. If there was no way to slip away unnoticed.

She rubbed the back of her neck, thinking about it. "I don't know. Tell Fair some of what I told you, I guess, if you think it will motivate him. He's SOLDIER but I don't think he's bad...you know him better than I do. You should make that call."

Cloud sighed. "Why won't you talk to them?"

"I was talking to them. Pinky interrupted."

"Yeah," Cloud said. "That's true."

Not that she'd been entirely straightforward, but she couldn't afford to be.

She rubbed the hard bone of her knee with the fingertips that had braced her in the dirt, the acutely real texture of sand grains grating and softer earth smearing over her skin comforting. Grounding. “I’ve been avoiding telling them too much because I don’t think they’ll believe me, and they’re more likely to listen to advice from some mystery source than from someone they’ve decided for sure is mad or a liar."

"So if you thought they'd listen..."

Tifa shrugged. "They're not Vincent, or you. I don't know them." Except she did know Sephiroth. But not this one, not enough to predict him reliably outside what it would look like when he went mad. "But I was trying to talk, in the Manor and up the mountain. I want to get through to them. I have to stop Sephiroth, and I can't kill him, as things are. Vincent and I have something we have to get done at the reactor tonight, but I don't know how Sephiroth will react, and he's the most dangerous thing right now."

"So...you just want me to be your eyes, for now."

"Yeah. It's really important." She hesitated, studied Cloud’s face. They couldn’t afford to take much more time. Someone was going to notice Cloud was away from his post. There was a shadow there still, and she didn’t know what to do about it. “Okay?” she asked.

Cloud nodded. His eyes remained troubled, but she guessed that was to be expected. He no longer seemed like he was holding back words he didn’t know how to shape. That was something.

“I like having an inside source, but the invitation to desert and join up with us is always open, okay? You’re more important. If they suspect you, get out. I don’t want you taking risks without backup.”

Cloud nodded again.

“Be safe,” she told him, because a hug would be too forward, because I can’t lose you would be presumptuous in the extreme, and he didn’t know any of their inside jokes.

“You too,” he said, and slipped back around the corner, to be seen keeping Shinra’s eyes on Nibelheim.

Tifa dashed back across the road and scrambled up onto the roofs again. That was the most important part of her to-do list taken care of. She still had a few hours until dark, and there was no way she’d be able to slip off and take a nap with all this tension running through her, so she’d hold out here a while longer.

She took up a place that let her see in the direction Cloud wasn’t looking, west from the flat roof of the Himrings’ house that faced the inn. Sat down in the cover of the Himrings' two boiler heads, the storage chest they kept up there, and the low retaining wall. Splayed her legs out as much as the narrow space would allow, and bent forward to stretch out her hamstrings.

Every other second she glanced up to check on the Manor, but it remained lifeless. Occasionally she made out what might have been the shadow of a monster through a window, but she never saw any sign of Sephiroth. Fair didn’t come out again, either. The sun dwindled on toward the mountains and got more and more into her eyes, as shadow stretched its fingers over the square.

Eventually, Master Zangan came strolling out of the inn, passed Cloud without either of them really acknowledging one another, and headed across the square and east through town—hm, to the butcher, maybe? Master Zangan liked to do most of his own cooking, but he didn’t insist on hunting his own meat if there was tender beef or chocobo to buy. Monsters were rarely very good eating.

She’d kind of thought he’d have left Nibelheim already, ahead of schedule. There was no way the Shinra hadn’t found out he was the one who’d taught her to fight, if they’d asked around about her at all, and this was exactly the kind of mess he liked to avoid getting roped into.

And yet here he was. Staying in the same inn as the SOLDIERs, no less.

Maybe Sephiroth had warned him not to try skipping town.

She waited a while, following her teacher along the narrow Nibel streets at roof-height, to make sure he wasn’t being tailed by anyone else who might be using him as bait in a Tifa-trap. Then, as he approached one of the few actual alleys in town, a spot where the houses weren’t built wall to wall even though they ran nearly parallel, she knelt, gripped the edge of the roof, and dangled.

It was only about four meters to the ground. She dropped.

Landed much better than she really would have at sixteen; some of what she’d learned from Yuffie had stuck, even without the muscle memory. “Master Zangan.”

He turned, not terribly startled, but not necessarily like he’d known she was there before she spoke. He smiled. His pale eyes were warm over the bristle of his faded moustache. “Tifa,” he said. Walked up to the mouth of the alley, not that this meant going far on the narrow Nibel street. “There you are, my favorite student.”

It had always made her feel so warm when he called her that. Master Zangan had always been so free with affection, so full of encouragement, when all she ever seemed to hear from her father was lists of things she shouldn’t or couldn’t do, or risk, or trust, or be. The few weeks Zangan came to town to teach her had been the highlight of every year, and she had practiced ferociously to please him.

She nodded a greeting. “I’m glad you’re still in town.”

He was her master. She owed him her life—he’d carried her out of the reactor just in time to save her from sharing Cloud’s fate under Hojo, or worse; he’d kept her alive long enough to get her to a doctor; he’d taught her the skills that she’d used ever since to make her way through this dangerous world. He’d hidden a letter and the Final Heaven in the false Nibelheim, for her to find and unlock her final Limit. Loving him, and owing him, that would never change.

But he’d left her. After everything, she’d woken up alone in the clinic he’d found for her, bills fully paid and bandages thick around her chest where the cruel wound of the Masamune resisted healing. With nothing but a note goodbye.

When Nibelheim burned, all he’d done was search for survivors.

Fighting Sephiroth was impossible, so he hadn’t tried. Fighting Shinra was impossible, so he hadn’t tried.

He had one hundred and twenty-seven students aside from her, and he didn’t have the right kind of courage to be a hero. Tifa had no illusions about her master, not anymore—he cared for her, but she couldn’t expect him to put himself on the line for her sake.

He stroked his beard, eyebrows high. Amusement, and no real signs of surprise. “Oho? What do you need from an old man?”

“I need some gloves,” she said. “My punches aren’t strong enough.”

“Strong enough…to fight Shinra? Hoho! I think that would take more than any gloves I have.”

Tifa’s fists clenched and unclenched again. “I need any edge I can get. I took the younger SOLDIER down with a Limit Break earlier, but that just means they won’t go easy on me again.”

Master Zangan’s eyebrows went up. “Took him down, hm?” He squinted, suddenly not laughing anymore, which was very rare. “What’s going on? Really?”

Tifa shook her hair back, left her chin up when she was done. Shoulders back. She was missing every millimeter of height she’d lost. “There’s a threat to the town.” It wasn’t his town, not really, but he claimed to be fond of it, and of her.

And he was the one who’d taught her that a martial artist’s duty was to use her strength for her community.

“Okay,” Master Zangan said, after a long pause. He ran a thumb over the metal knuckles of the basic gauntlets he had on, which she knew weren’t the best he had, just the sort of thing you could wear inside a town, to train a kid, without scaring or hurting anyone. “Okay, Tifa. You’ve always had your feet on the ground. I’ll see what I can do.”


Once Master Zangan had gone, on to whatever errand he had in town, Tifa waited again until the street was clear, and climbed back up amongst the chimneypots and boiler-pipes. She had to stop several times as she worked her way back to the square, lying flat and waiting for people to pass. It wasn’t that her neighbors were the enemy, but they didn’t have any reason not to ask at a shout what she was doing up there, and ruin her cover entirely.

When she got back to her perch overlooking the square, it was busier than it had been all afternoon, full of people getting home from the fields and quarries and building sites, or running last-minute errands before dark. Nibelheim wasn’t the kind of community that had street lights, and the moon wouldn’t be up for hours, and would be a bare waxing crescent even then.

Good for stealth. Bad for going three doors down for a cup of sugar. Fortunately Tifa was living the former kind of life, now.

Okay. Last order of business, saved because it was the least important, and if she’d been caught doing this and needed to run, or abandoned vigilance because of it, and missed her contact opportunities, that would have been a problem: Tifa used gaps in sightlines to work her way carefully around the square, and then when no one was below but Cloud, in his Shinra uniform, standing perfectly still at attention, she swung herself down over the edge of the roof, and climbed in her own bedroom window.

Once again the accuracy smacked into her—Shinra had done creepily well at reproducing the space, but this was a step further. Because this was either real, or her own memory. And she was banking very hard on real.

No time to downgather. She grabbed the rucksack from the floor under her dresser and started filling it.

Canteen first of all—it had been incredibly disabling not to have that. The crackers that she kept in her desk, which it was a struggle not to eat a few of on the spot, damn the attention she might draw with the sound of crunching. Her small stash of gil. Pocket knife.

Clean socks and underwear. She’d done without those before, for weeks at a time if necessary, but she’d long since resolved not to do it again if she didn’t have to.

No sounds of anyone downstairs. It seemed like she was fine. Tifa hesitated a few seconds, then started digging through her wardrobe.

This outfit had been chosen to make a statement—to herself, mostly. The statement was now obsolete; she had made too many choices to be at risk of being swallowed up by a past self. That girl was gone.

The black boots were fine, but the brown ones got better traction, and fit better. This body was weak; she grabbed the brown skirt and then a grey shirt with long sleeves, in case they needed to improvise bandages. Planet, not having Restore magic on-hand was terrible. Her other good vest, a dull olive green that should vanish in low light.

Hurriedly, she skinned out of the rich blue and green outfit that had been adequate camouflage down on the plains but made her stand out up on the barren mountainside. Clean underpants on first. What the hell, she swapped the bra too—that was the most comfortable one, she thought she remembered. She transferred the Seal materia to the new bra; the vest had pockets but it would be easier to lose the orb by accident out of them, and besides, without any gear where you could properly equip materia the next best way to cast was by direct touch. Usually with your hands, but she could hardly spare those.

Pulled on the brown skirt because it had been her favorite for a reason, and she was making new memories now; she refused to fear the old ones. New socks; boots, shirt, vest, great.

She kicked the dirty clothes under the bed. If Sephiroth came and searched her room and figured out from that that she’d been back, whatever. If he brought the proof of her presence up later, she could mock him for pawing through a teenage girl’s dirty underwear.

He’d probably make a subordinate do it, of course.

She grabbed her smallest blanket, one really meant to throw decoratively over the foot of the bed and maybe provide some extra insulation for the toes, rolled it up and crammed it in the bag. There, perfect. Heist complete.

Tifa hesitated just short of the window, scanned the room in the fading daylight in case something she had forgotten she might need should leap out at her, and froze, her hand coming up to cover her mouth, as though she didn’t trust herself not to make a noise.

She’d been so focused on her task she hadn’t even noticed something sitting here in her room in plain sight, entirely out of place.

On top of the piano, one of the good willow-patterned plates had been carefully balanced. It held a small pile of packages wrapped carefully in waxed paper, tied with cotton string. If Tifa wasn’t mistaken, it looked to be every small item of nonperishable food in the house.

Toward the front was a neat cylinder that was obviously all the remaining cookies from—Planet. From yesterday morning. It had been a busy couple of days.

There was a piece of card propped between two of the packages, when she went over to look. She tugged it free. In her dad’s cramped, angular writing—he always held the pen too tight and pressed down too hard—it read, You promised you’d be careful around the soldiers, sweetheart.

Tifa caught her breath, and then let it in and out very deliberately several times, pressing the thick square of paper over her lower face, until she no longer had to work at steadiness.

Her dad. Had left food for her. Her dad. Who was alive, and a person, capable of…of making decisions, of surprising her, of—her papa was alive. She’d eaten dinner with him a day ago, and somehow failed to really take that truth on board.

He was alive. He cared. And she would not let him die again.

Bursting back into motion, she slid the note into her bag and pressed the packages one by one in on top of the rolled fabric, slightly concerned she might have to discard the blanket to make room, but though the knapsack bulged a little by the end, and she wiggled the cookies into place with the certainty they’d be rather badly crushed inside their wrappings by the time she got back to them, it all fit.

The smell of the cookies leaking through the waxed paper made her mouth water, but she’d eaten the snack from Cloud’s mother only about six hours ago, she could wait until she was somewhere secure to dig into this. Her childhood bedroom hadn’t been a safe place in a long time, and the fact that Dad had anticipated she might slip back in made it hard to forget that Sephiroth might be lying in wait for the same thing.

She doubted it. Even with as much melodrama as she’d stirred, she wasn’t that interesting. He had a whole library about himself to consult, after all, and he’d been down there all day. He shouldn't have any way to know she was even in town instead of off conspiring with Genesis Rhapsodos.

But he could.

She swung the bag over her shoulders and crossed back to the open window.

And did a double take, because Cloud was crossing the otherwise empty town square.

This was noteworthy because the guard posted beside the inn didn’t seem to have moved, and she had thought that it was still Cloud. Couldn’t tell it wasn’t even now, except for the fact that the one crossing the square had his helmet off, and was most definitely her blondest friend.

Apparently she couldn’t tell him from a distance if he didn’t move. When had the switch happened? Just now, while she was inside? Earlier, while she was gone tailing Master Zangan?

He could have been off-duty for over an hour by now, which was different from the schedule she thought he'd outlined. Why?

He wasn’t headed for his mom’s. Probably going out to pick up food, then—Old Man Hilgrid at the inn did good stew and good bread and good beer (bread and beer were his main income when there weren’t visitors in town, which there usually weren’t) and good morning porridge and that was, more or less, his whole repertoire.

His wife used to use the nice ovens in the inn to bake less essential things than bread, such as really adorable tiny cakes Tifa vaguely remembered loving as a small child, but old Mrs. Hilgrid was nine years in the ground, and while the granddaughter could come around to cook for the SOLDIERs, along with the other things she helped her grandfather with day to day, that didn’t mean she would—the woman was six years older than Tifa so they weren’t well acquainted, but she recalled her as well-off by Nibel standards, and never particularly fond of Shinra.

Cloud would know who to go to with the offer of gil for home cooking, so it would make sense to send him out to get dinner. City people, Tifa knew from experience, rapidly got bored eating the same two meals repeatedly with only minor variations. (Well, so did small-town people, but not nearly as fast.)

There were lots of houses Cloud could confidently visit to trade gil in the quantities Plate-dweller Sephiroth would consider a reasonable dinner budget in exchange for a fresh pie, or some vegetables, or something grilled or steamed or pot-roasted.

But he was heading straight across the square, not toward the street leading east the way Zangan had done, which was a bit odd. And then, as he reached the houses opposite the inn, he stopped. Turned, scanned the rooftops for her. It took him a second to spot her lower down, in her window, watching, but he did. She was failing to hide herself in the slightest.

Cloud waited a second to make sure she’d noticed him noticing her noticing him, then jerked his head in the direction he was going.

And disappeared into the gap between the Himring and the Breezebalm family homes.

Tifa stood framed in her window another second, entirely obvious to anyone who might come outside or glance out a window of their own and see her, she was so puzzled.

The notable things about that space were, firstly that it existed at all—space between houses that wasn’t an intentional throughfare wasn’t much in keeping with Nibel building tradition, especially this close to the town center—and secondly, that it was very nearly a dead end.

The back of the Yeager family storage shed cut it off, which had apparently threatened to start an actual feud about fifteen years before Tifa was born. There was a door leading into the shed from inside the alleyway, now, as part of a peace agreement that had been hashed out with the input of half the town, in a way that had given her father a slight grudge against Cloud’s father, one whose details she had never inquired into. She should do that, when she got a chance, now that Dad was alive again to ask.

Occasionally fistfights still broke out between the Himrings and the Yeagars over accusations of making a mess of the shed while passing through, or of leaving the shed such a mess no one could pass through.

It was the only truly blind alley in all of Nibelheim; even the dead end she'd used to talk to Zangan had one window looking into it. What did Cloud need to tell her that required that much privacy, but wasn’t big or urgent enough to go fully AWOL and meet up more safely outside of town? Did it have something to do with how he’d apparently gotten off duty early? Tifa climbed out her window, onto the roof, and took the necessary leap up onto the Balehardt’s spindly tall place, and worked her way around onto the Breezebalms’ shingles.

The twilight had grown too deep for her to see properly into the gap, and she squinted, trying to evaluate her footing. The bright yellow smudge of Cloud’s hair and the slightly duller one of his upturned face showed in the gloom.

“Do I have a clear landing in front of you?” she whispered down.

It took him a second, even though he didn’t lower his head to look. “…yeah.”

Tifa dropped. The packed earth was clear, and she landed without trouble at Cloud’s feet, but her sense of foreboding was still only growing. She straightened up, peering at Cloud through the dimness, backlit against the slightly brighter square. It was still so odd that his eyes didn’t carry their own light to read his expression by.

“Tifa…” Cloud’s shadowed eyes were huge and miserable in a way they hadn’t been when they spoke earlier. He bit his lip. His voice was barely above a whisper. “Tifa, there’s….”

She bent close, thinking maybe he was afraid to be overheard. He flinched back.

Tifa's heart felt like it was punching her from the inside. “Cloud?”

He closed his big blue eyes. “I’m so sorry.”

A cool draft hit the back of Tifa's neck.

Chapter Text

Tifa knew, without thinking or looking, or knowing how she knew it, that Sephiroth was behind her.

Whether he’d been lurking there all along with his hair covered, or had lain hidden in the storage shed and somehow swung open silently a door that normally creaked, or pulled some other trick, he was behind her now.

For a fraction of a second she was frozen in indecision, because she was between Cloud and Sephiroth and it went against the grain to abandon that position.

But Cloud...wasn’t in danger from Sephiroth right now.

She dropped flat, under the keen slice of Masamune that passed two feet short of Cloud’s belly, and then launched herself forward from a crouch, past Cloud and out of the alley between houses, through the narrow squeak out into the middle of town square, because keeping hidden was suddenly no longer an option.

Zack Fair was waiting for her there, of course, the other jaw of the trap.

He’d obviously been meant to block off the alley entirely but hadn’t had time to make it into position from wherever he’d been waiting in hiding before she ran; had the Buster Sword out, raised to one side of him as though he meant to make a fence of it, and his face was set and grim, and only a little bit twisted with an emotion she could not name.

Tifa was strangely glad she’d given the Fire to Vincent. She wouldn’t have been able to use it, here, in this place, and she could afford hesitation much less than she could afford to be unarmed. She gritted her teeth and kept running toward Fair as the Seal warmed against the side of her breast. Casting, casting…

She had to time it just right.

As soon as the Sleep came down and Fair’s head dipped she was on him, a wild flying kick that sent the Buster Sword pinwheeling out of his hand and left him waking in startlement sprawled on the ground—she dropped a second Sleep over him as she ran by, counting on him to be too disoriented to dodge. Success. And since he was already flat on his back, he wouldn’t hit the ground and wake up again from the impact.

That still only put him out of the fight until somebody shook him awake, but even the seconds it would take Cloud to get to his side could count for everything right now.

Tifa juked left as she approached the inn. South onto the plains gave her fewer hiding places than up into the hills, but it would get her out of town faster and she could loop around and climb from the south, which would keep her from being in line of sight from the village.

Though by the time she got that high, the night would be dark enough it probably wouldn’t matter.

A shining crescent of energy screaming across the square forced her to throw herself back sharply, momentum lost, or lose half her torso, even though slowing down cost her her sole advantage over Sephiroth, which was her lead time.

More than a little to Tifa’s surprise, he didn’t run Masamune through her like a pin through a beetle. Maybe he still wanted her alive after all, because he sent another ranged attack from the end of his sword, herding her to his right, trying to box her into the town square, and then made the ground leap up under her feet like knives with a curt gesture.

She leapt over the worst of it, but her ankle stung worryingly. Tifa couldn’t afford to look down and assess the damage. She could still feel her toes, it couldn’t be too bad.

Fuck, he was a dual-fighter. Normally when someone relied on both melee and magic you could carve out an opening in the moment of transition, but of course Sephiroth had to have ridiculous weapon range and smoothly cast with his off hand

Light gathered again around his fingers. Earth wasn’t a well-regarded attack element, because it affected nothing that flew, and could be jumped over even by some humans, but it also did not advertise its own path through the air the way most casting did, so it was good for surprise attacks.

Long experience told Tifa where he was aiming instants before he let the spell loose. She dodged, back along the front of the inn toward its entrance, thinking maybe she could still make it around behind the general store, up the rockface, and behind the cover of the stand of fir trees without being caught.

And though it had probably been too late for her already, that choice of dodge was her fatal mistake.

Sephiroth’s spell had never been aimed at her. It had been aimed behind her, at one of the giant stone jugs where Mr. Hilgrid collected rainwater. At the base of the mostly-empty half-ton cistern near the front corner of the inn. Which had been launched into the air by the abrupt upthrust of stone from beneath it, and.

Right.

Into.

Her.

Leg.

Tifa understood what had happened from a slight distance, as though she had a hundred years to understand before she had the chance to do anything again, or even to hurt. The stone jug had struck the inside of her trailing right leg as she leapt, and crushed the whole thing—all the way from just above the knee down to the knob of the ankle—around its curve, against the wall, which gave as easily as her bones under the mighty force of the blow.

Tifa hit the ground just barely not under the weight of the ballistic vessel, time rushing past her again at twice its speed as though to catch up with itself, and used both arms and her left leg to throw her body forward, out of the way of the jug rolling back for a second crushing.

She made it. Her stomach was rebelling furiously as she crashed gracelessly chest-first, just managing not to bark her chin so badly it was a threat to her teeth, but she turned her head and gagged and brought nothing up, because she hadn’t eaten recently.

The door to the inn was a few feet away, the left panel gaping beside the bashed-in wall, which looked like it was threatening to crumble, and maybe bring the whole place down. Structural instability was the least of her worries. Tifa belly-crawled her way toward it, using the dust of the broken wall and ground as cover. Maybe Sephiroth would think she’d made her escape into the hills again after all, if she was gone when the dust settled. Maybe someone in Nibelheim would believe in her enough to feed her potions and hide her until she could move again. This was her town, after all.

She couldn’t be stopped here.

She had too much left to do.


Tifa hitched herself successfully over the doorsill into the inn before her cover of dust failed, without being bisected. Mr. Hilgrid wasn’t at his desk. The room didn’t seem to be actively collapsing, but she wouldn’t be shocked if the ceiling came down. Doggedly, she put her right elbow forward, and kept going.

It was a little easier on the smooth floor, only a little broken up by rubble; her leg was a little easier to ignore when it wasn’t being dragged over the edges of cobblestones. The bulging knapsack on her back seemed to weigh ten times what Cloud's bulkiest swords ever had, but she couldn't afford the time or motion to stop and struggle free of it.

Odds were, Sephiroth would know there was nowhere she could have gone but into the inn. She was bleeding heavily, so there was probably a trail forming behind her. It would be obvious.

Even if he looked for her inside, though, if she could just get across the foyer and through the door to the kitchen in time, she might be overlooked. The blood trail might camouflage with the carpet. There was dust everywhere from the buckling front wall, that would confuse things.

The front of the building might still collapse; if she was in the kitchen by then maybe….

Level with the check-in desk and still over a meter short of the kitchen entrance, Tifa heard the double door swing open again behind her. Felt breath gust out of her in a sigh. Almost flopped boneless on her face, but something—pride—held her up.

It had been a long shot, she knew, hiding at all, but now she’d been caught out in the open so, that was that.

She hoisted herself around, with her arms, ignoring the heightened screaming agony at the splintered ruin of her bones being rotated, until she could put the back of her shoulders to the registration desk, and let it prop her up enough to keep her face turned toward the door. She could at least look him in the eye and try casting Sleep, she thought as she made it happen; it was better than nothing….

And then.

It wasn’t who she expected, framed in the doorway amid the old gold of the settling dust, with the last warm rays of day behind him.

Sephiroth, she knew, was coming after her.

But apparently Cloud was coming first.

He’d picked up Fair’s sword at some point, just like last time. But unlike last time, Tifa was the one who’d sent it flying. And it was Tifa he was walking toward, with sword in hand.

She almost gave up, right there. There was a moment she could feel it coming, a collapse inside her heart to which the spoken surrender that would inevitably follow, when Cloud pointed his borrowed weapon at her face and demanded it, would be just an afterthought.

It didn’t matter that he had good reasons, or that really expecting someone to throw their entire future away on the strength of a childhood crush and a fairytale had been stupid all along. It was Cloud. She and Cloud relied on one another to know how to go on. If Cloud wanted her to stop, then….

Then.

But.

But there were more important things than how much pain she was in. Believing that had kept Tifa on her feet a dozen times when her world fell down around her. It didn’t mean she could always function through the pain, or that her feelings didn’t matter. But they weren’t the most important thing.

She focused her will, and felt the Seal materia warming up again. Putting Cloud to Sleep probably wouldn’t matter, wouldn’t help her any, when she knew Sephiroth was right behind him, but it was the task in front of her, and so she—

Cloud turned his back on her.

And lifted the sword that wasn’t his.

And stared up at along its length at Sephiroth as the Silver General appeared in the entryway, Masamune trailing out behind him in a tail guard. Shoulders under sturdy blue uniform canvas set in that familiar square. That stubborn, uncompromising stance that had looked up toward dragons and Weapons and Shinra's pieced-together monsters, and Jenova and all the Sephiroths, and his own fears.

No further.

Sephiroth could have killed him, of course. Easily. But he paused, taken aback at being met by the unexpected sight of a blade leveled at his face, where he had expected no opposition.

And then, for an endless moment, nobody moved.

It might have been only the delirium of pain and steady bleeding, but Tifa could almost see the string drawn between them. Taut from Cloud’s spine along his arms, out through the blade and straight between Sephiroth’s narrow reptilian eyes. Even now, before the advent of that hideous bond she had watched Sephiroth manipulate to bring her hero to his knees, before there was anything in Cloud drawing him ever after the Nightmare. Something in him yearned already toward Sephiroth.

He wanted to be near Sephiroth. He wanted to be approved of by Sephiroth. He wanted to be Sephiroth.

That was the dream he’d walked away towards, when he left this place.

It was sort of amazing he had resisted the self-erasing drag of Reunion as well as he had.

But then, by the time that had gotten its hooks into him, he’d had a far more powerful reason to resist and reject and refuse.

That was what he’d held onto, after all, wasn’t it? When he might not have remembered even his own name, if she hadn’t called him by it in the train station; when he had forgotten his place in the story and the pattern of his life and Tifa herself, until reminded, and every moment of the past five years: he had remembered the fall of Nibelheim. He had remembered Sephiroth’s betrayal. He had remembered his hate.

He must have been clinging to that one small truth with all his might.

Maybe that was what had made the difference for him, compared to Hojo’s other victims. That part of him that still remembered looking up to a silver hero had probably leapt to answer the Calamity’s call, the way he had once crossed a continent and an ocean to become SOLDIER, even as all the rest of him writhed away in rejection.

Probably most of the Copies they’d met had never seen Sephiroth, in the few minutes it had taken him to obliterate Nibelheim; had no idea they had any reason to hate him particularly. Or weren’t very good at hate. Or didn’t know that the thing consuming their wills was one and the same with the figure that had brought the fire, not soon enough at least to put up a resistance.

Or even they just…weren’t very stubborn.

(Tifa did not want to say, weak, the way Cloud did when talking about himself; did not want to cast blame where it could not possibly belong. One of them had been a child.)

The ones who'd been stubborn enough not to crack at all, if there were any, had probably died.

And then there was Cloud, with a single crack betraying him, caught halfway between being erased and being destroyed.

There was Zack Fair, too, who had broken them both out and run. Neither dead, nor swallowed up.

She wondered if Zack Fair had really been trying to get back to Midgar for Aerith, or if he had been following the pull of Reunion without knowing it. Unless he broke after all in this new time, and proved he was not immune, she supposed she never would know.

Even if he broke this time around, she probably wouldn’t know. She’d played her hand out. And Cloud’s remaining cards weren’t strong enough to turn the game again.

The situation assessed to his satisfaction, Sephiroth commanded: “Put that down. And stand aside.”

Muscles in Cloud’s back and shoulders flexed, but he didn’t move. “No.”

“Corporal.”

General.” Cloud bit the title off, aggravated more than flatly menacing. It made him sound as young as he was, the open grievance of one who could still find outrage in his chest rather than a flare of old low-burning hate. “I did what you wanted. You said you just wanted to talk to her.”

Oh, Cloud.

The long thin blade couldn't be brought around in front of Sephiroth without slicing through the entire front wall, at which point it really would collapse on his head. Sephiroth's hand worked very gently on the hilt, but he showed no other sign of feeling vulnerable. Cloud probably wasn't fast enough to hit him yet, not from the front. “If she would answer questions and stop running away like startled chocobo, none of this would be necessary.”

Tifa wasn’t used to being the one compared to a chocobo, but she guessed it wasn’t the worst thing to be called. When you pissed off a chocobo they had a pretty nasty kick, after all.

Cloud’s arms refused to sag at all. He was speaking through his teeth. “I was told you might not be in your right mind, but I listened to you anyway. I trusted you. I…I can’t let you hurt Tifa any more.”

“You. Let me.”

“Yes, sir.”

Sephiroth loomed. Cloud had only grown a little more after this, really, in size, but the trooper uniform made him look smaller than he was, and the sword pulled heavy at his arms in a way Tifa knew it shouldn’t.

Except of course it should. Because he was only a boy, a normal if never really ordinary boy, and he had enough will to cut through a mountain when he let go of doubt, but he did not have a SOLDIER’s monstrous power.

Sephiroth, absurdly, sounded mildly exasperated. It was a tone out of place like a flat note in the middle of a familiar song, against the bright ring of Cloud’s determination, the roaring red background of Tifa’s pain.

“What do you imagine I am going to do once I’m past you, Corporal? She can’t answer questions if she’s dead.” A great inspiration to tell him what he wanted to know, truly. “Torture?” Sephiroth asked, and Cloud’s expression must have shifted in a confirmatory sort of way, because Sephiroth’s glare sharpened and he let out a sniff of disdain. “I’m not even trained in interrogation techniques,” he said, dismissively.

Cloud didn’t move. Tifa wondered if he already knew as well as she did that you didn’t need to be, if you had a Restore and a decent magic pool. As long as you could stop short of killing them outright, it was possible to hurt someone endlessly for days, without the damage stacking until they expired, or even ceased to feel the new pain through the old.

Tifa was…fairly confident of her ability to hold up under torture. But if it got to that point, she didn’t think she could expect to accomplish anything further, and the world was still far too close to lost.

She had to believe she’d told Vincent enough that he’d be able to make a difference. That he’d hold firm and keep fighting without her there to guide him. That Cloud would survive, and find him, and help.

Sephiroth was still talking. Masamune had vanished while her eyes were out of focus. That only made him more dangerous, in this narrow space. “Your friend has trespassed on company property, attempted major acts of vandalism, assaulted company personnel, and conspired with a wanted murderer. You have assisted in our efforts to take her into custody. It is much too late for you to be loyal to her.” His eyes narrowed, and had death in them. “Stand aside.

“I can’t.

That decision was tormenting him, even someone who knew Cloud less well than Tifa could easily have known that. Sephiroth could probably see that.

The air was choking-thick with dust, and Cloud was terrified both that he was doing and that he had done the wrong thing, but his shoulders were straight and his chin was high. Her chest was full of warmth even though everything else was growing cold.

“Way to go, Cloud,” Tifa said. She should probably be alarmed by the way her words tried to slur themselves. “But…don’t.”

This Cloud had fought this Sephiroth before, her kind of before, and won. But then he’d gotten his first blow in from behind, when the Nightmare had no attention to spare for anything but Calamity, and delivered the killing strike through a feat of self-sacrifice so astonishing the addled Sephiroth had again failed to do anything to defend himself.

This wasn’t that situation.

This Sephiroth was in full command of himself and his awareness.

And Tifa might burn a small town herself, before she let Cloud die for her. (She wouldn’t really. Unless everyone had evacuated. Or almost everyone. She’d burn down an otherwise empty town full of Turks for Cloud without a blink.)

She managed to sit all the way up, almost blacked out from the spike of pain that brought, and once she got her first clear look at her leg she saw why. Ugh, no wonder the shock was hitting harder than usual, her leg had three right angles in it. And bone splinters sticking out in several gory directions.

Tifa raised her head and looked Sephiroth in the eye over Cloud’s shoulder. “I’ll tell you what you want to know. In return, you stop terrorizing my hometown.”

She didn’t say anything about Cloud. He was already in enough trouble.

Sephiroth was six and a half feet of finely-smithed disdain. “Am I the terrorist here?”

“You’re the one who smashed up the inn.” And burned everything, burned it all, left me dreaming of fire for five years and then dragged Cloud and I into your memory of the burning, and made us watch it happen all over again.

But this one hadn’t, yet, and wouldn’t understand it if she accused him.

Sephiroth’s nostrils flared slightly, which was…a new look? She was pretty sure? She wasn’t really used to seeing him look angry; he spent most of his time in her experience gloating. He’d pinched his mouth like that yesterday and probably ten years ago too, and at the top of the mountain. Was pissing him off an ideal survival strategy?

Well, no. But surviving had never had an easy time remaining her top priority. Even before Nibelheim burned.

“Corporal,” he said, without looking away from Tifa. “We have an accord. Stand down.”

Cloud’s whole body had sagged. He lowered the Buster Sword to the floor. Bent, to set it down without a bang. “Yes sir,” he said quietly.

The defeat in him hurt to watch. Tifa had done this. He’d found his courage for her sake and she had taken it away.

But…it was better than letting him die.

Almost anything would be.

And she’d bought Nibelheim’s parole with her promise. She didn’t imagine it would hold if Sephiroth slid off the rails again, but for now…for at least a little while…it should keep him in check.

A pair of boots, crunching hastily over the mess of the front wall and up to the doorway; Tifa wasn’t surprised when they turned out to belong to Fair, whose Sleep had probably broken when she admitted aloud the fight was over. She wasn’t nearly centered enough right now to filter out distractions enough to feel whether a given spell was still active; Aerith might be good enough to manage that kind of thing in the middle of battle while injured, but Tifa would always be a knucklehead.

Fair had come bursting through the door onto the messy scene, taking in Tifa’s semi-prone position and Cloud’s dejection and the presence of his missing sword with slightly wild eyes.

“She’s surrendered,” Sephiroth informed Fair, who didn’t look very happy at this news. “And the Corporal has thought better of his insubordination.” He shot Cloud a poisonous look at this which struck Tifa as oddly nostalgic. The tendons in Cloud’s neck stood out but he glowered at the floor instead of Sephiroth. He didn’t look exactly ashamed, though. That was good.

“Surrendered, huh.” Fair looked her leg up and down in all its shattered leaking glory. Looked mildly disgusted. Probably by the ugly wound, but potentially by Tifa. “So you’re gonna come clean?”

“I have nothing to confess,” Tifa corrected. The pain in her voice came through as anger, which she didn’t care enough to soften. She was pretty angry. “But yes. Fine. You win.” They weren’t going to like her answers. But at least after going through so much to get them, they’d be more likely to believe her than if she’d volunteered the information.

That might not be enough.

She didn’t care to be tortured or see Cloud held hostage again to get the real truth after she told them, so what…aha. Why had that been so hard to think of. She let all her weight slump back against the base of Old Man Hilgrid's desk.

“Get a helicopter,” she told Sephiroth. “Get someone to fly a helicopter here. So I can show you.” Her blink felt heavy and slow in a way she was pretty sure it shouldn’t. “Can you get a helicopter without Hojo knowing about it?”

The uncertain way Sephiroth squinted at this question told her a lot more about him than she’d ever really wanted to know. “Perhaps.” His tone filled nobody with confidence.

Fair spoke up. “I’ve got a way that might work.” He fiddled with his phone, which had at some point left his pocket. “Would you say the Turks like Hojo?”

“Nn? No, they hate him.” Had that question been meant for Sephiroth? Oh well. She’d stopped trying to hold up her head so most of her range of vision was now ceiling. “Why…?”

“I’m gonna call a friend of mine,” Zack explained. “Yes, that friend. Cloud, don’t look like that, he crashed the one time.”

“A Turk?” That was Sephiroth. Bastard.

“Mm,” Tifa agreed. Blackness was feathering in from the corners of her vision, like Genesis had come up behind her and started sticking his wing in her face from both directions at once. Never a good sign. “Good idea. Tseng’s good at that. Keeping cards close and. Plaus’ble deniability. Thing. Jus’ gotta give ‘im a reason. To bother.”

Fair’s oversized arm was behind her head for some reason. The heat of his wrist on her shoulder was kind of nice. “Okay, two questions,” his voice said from right above her. She made her eyes squint open. This gave her a great view of the scar on his jaw. It was a pretty cool scar. “One, are you dying right now?”

“Don’t think so?” It felt mostly like just passing out, but who knew how much blood she was losing internally. She might be heading for a mild case of death, the kind you could fix if you got there in a hurry. “Got Phoenix Down?”

“No, which is why I’m asking. I’d rather not have to break your leg again but I can heal you now if I have to, to keep you alive.”

“Ugh no,” said Tifa. Not just because having your bones systematically rebroken after careless or rushed healing was the worst, but because sometimes you never could get it to heal quite right again; your body just sort of forgot what the actual healthy limb was like.

“Okay, second question. You think I should mention Aerith when I’m calling Tseng? To motivate him?”

“Nngh, no. Not by name.” Why was he asking her to have opinions at a time like this. She had no opinions. She had a shitty fucked-up right leg. “Jus’ in case.” What would she do, if she wanted Tseng to meet her somewhere and not tell Rufus? “Be m’sterious.”

“Tifa.” It was Sephiroth’s voice, dark and cold, and she bared her teeth reflexively at him before remembering she was supposed to be trying to get along.

“Tifa,” And this time it was Cloud, crouching on the opposite side of her from Fair. He swallowed, and Tifa forced her eyes open for a second again. He looked so young and so scared. She wanted to reach up and brush his hair back from his forehead, rub her thumb over his cheek, but her hand didn’t really care to move.

“What is the helicopter for,” demanded Sephiroth, from somewhere out of sight.

She snorted. “So I can introduce you to the expert.”

“Expert in what?”

Tifa snorted again. Kept asking dumb questions. “You,” she managed to retort, before the black reached up and took her.

It wasn’t her favorite way to get out of a conversation, but she’d take it.

Chapter Text

She woke up again with her left ankle tied to a bedpost.

It was the upstairs room in the inn, the bed further from the door, which at least let her know the building probably wasn’t in imminent danger of collapse from Sephiroth throwing half-ton jugs at it. The lamp on the side table had fallen over, but the floor wasn’t slanting, so the structure must be more or less okay.

No hint of daylight was showing through the curtains, so she’d been out at least two hours, but less than twelve. She felt remarkably, ridiculously alert for having passed out from injury—like she’d had a ten-hour nap on top of the healing, which her body was informing her emphatically had not happened, and it would really like to get a great deal more rest now please.

But she knew, without having to try, that she couldn’t. Getting back to sleep was not happening in the near future.

Ah, and she recognized that taste at the back of her tongue. Someone had used a Hyper on her to get her moving.

She checked around the room, and there was the Someone. To very little surprise, it was Fair, seated at the round table down past the foot of the bed she was tied to. She’d have known immediately if it was Cloud or Sephiroth in the room with her, but as expansive a personality as Fair was, he wasn’t a glaringly obvious presence when he was sitting quietly.

Come to think of it, was Cloud still like that? Or was that something he’d…gotten from Sephiroth? Ugh, bad thoughts.

Fair raised his head, sensing her looking, or more likely hearing the rustle of her hair against the pillow they’d been generous enough to leave her. His smile was a little strained as he stood. He placed his Buster Sword on his back in the same motion, like a reflex. “Hey there. Feeling any better?”

“It would be hard not to,” said Tifa. She’d had temporary deaths less physically traumatic than the combination of shock and blood loss that had made her pass out.

“Point. So, here we are.”

Tifa sat up as the SOLDIER approached her, even though she’d rather not. Her head throbbed once, then subsided to a low, steady ache. Sitting up did let her get out a little of the buzzing nervous energy from the stimulant, which was good, and it put the two of them a little more at a level.

More so, as Fair rounded the end of her bed and sunk down on the other one, facing her. The sword was left leaning against the foot of the bed, only barely in his reach and not quite in hers, even if she crawled to the limit of her rope and stretched her body across the gap between the begs.

He let his knees splay apart, propped his elbows on them and laced his hands together, sitting forward attentively but not enough that his elbows or shoulders bowed in, or his neck took a predatory angle. Disarming. Friendly.

Between her and the door.

“I’m not mad,” he said. “Just so you know. You really pack a punch for such a little thing!”

“I’m not short,” Tifa grouched. She was taller than Cloud! And Cloud was only sort of small for a man. It wasn’t their fault they’d made friends with a bunch of giants. “You’re just enormous. But I’m glad you’re not holding a grudge about me beating you twice.”

“I was going easy on you!” he protested, which to be fair was true, especially the first time. And he hadn’t been expecting her to have materia, the second.

“A win’s a win.”

“Anyway,” Fair said, brushing the whole question of who had beaten whom aside like cobwebs, “I know you don’t like Shinra, but now that you’re stuck working with us can we try to get along? I’m a pretty likeable guy. And Sephiroth…isn’t that bad. He healed you up himself!”

Tifa grimaced. “I can tell.”

“Huh?”

“The bone’s not quite mended. Everything’s in the right place and sticking, and the bleed’s all sorted, but if I strain the leg it’ll come apart again. Very neat work.”

You had to have extremely precise control and understanding of your magic, and probably also of bones, to manage something like that. On purpose, at least. Tifa recognized the feeling because it was much less hard to do by mistake, or because you ran out of energy or potions before the fix was done.

Greenstick healing, Aerith used to call it. Better than nothing by a long shot, but.

“Ah.” Fair winced. Tifa could see he was disappointed by the news that his general had passed up the opportunity to show he could be trustworthy in favor of guaranteeing his power over her, but not really surprised.

Tifa certainly wasn’t. It wasn’t as if either of them could claim Sephiroth was wrong—in fact, that he bothered to take this precaution showed he was either taking Tifa seriously, or not entirely caught up in his own ego, or both. It was encouraging, as a sign of not being too crazy. It was discouraging, as a sign of his being less likely to make the kinds of overconfident gloating mistakes that had opened him up to losing the first time.

Somewhat belatedly she checked her gear, such as it was. It didn’t feel like she’d been stripped while unconscious. Boots were gone. Bag was gone. Someone had fished the Seal out of her bra. She was doubly glad now she’d given Vincent the much more important Fire.

“Who took my materia?”

Fair’s expression barely changed. “Sephiroth ordered Cloud to do it.” Oh, Planet. “But I stepped in instead and let him off. Sorry about that.”

“It’s fine.” Expecting them to leave her armed because of her decision about where to store her weapon would have been unreasonable.

They could have gotten one of the village women to do it, but they probably weren’t sure who was in on her conspiracy. It was sort of a surprise Sephiroth hadn’t switched over to operating out of the Manor instead of the inn. Maybe he’d commandeered this whole building.

She wasn’t sure what still another unfollowed command would mean for Cloud’s undoubtedly precarious future with Shinra, but it wasn’t like she really wanted him to have one anyway. And she would much rather Fair had his hands down her shirt than any of the others—the two troopers were unknowns, Cloud would probably be mildly scarred by being coerced into taking liberties, and like hell she would accept Sephiroth touching her, no matter how clinical he was about it.

Fair wasn’t clinical at all, but she trusted he’d have extracted the materia efficiently, and not felt the need to build up his ego from the drubbing she’d given him by taking advantage of her helplessness, or anything like that.

Her hands lay slack in her lap. She’d surrendered, but she hadn’t necessarily lost. Not yet.

Fair leaned forward just a hair. “Where’d you get the materia?”

No good reason not to answer that, especially considering Shinra’s probable suspicion of everyone in Nibelheim at this point. “I bashed a Genesis copy’s head into the ground until it passed out, then stripped its gear.”

Eyebrows shot up, but not to challenge her truthfulness. “He’s been giving ‘em materia? Damn, I never even thought to check.”

“Didn’t they ever cast at you?”

“Yeah, but lots of monsters get spells as special abilities.”

Fair didn’t follow up this sentence with anything; he’d said it with confidence but then seemed to become uncomfortable with his own logic, and Tifa let it sit there without comment between them for a while.

Studied Fair’s face, and the conflict under the skin she still didn’t know him enough to read. “Do you think he’s a monster?”

“He acts enough like one,” Fair said, almost sulkily. “What’s the difference?”

“He’s not that different from Sephiroth,” Tifa pointed out. “He’s not even that different from you.”

“We aren’t monsters!” the words burst out of Fair, young and broken in a way she’d never heard him, and he snatched up his sword, muscles tensing as if to stand, and Tifa went very, very still.

Fair realized in the next second what it meant to a bound prisoner to have a sword waved over her, and let it fall flat beside him on the surface of the mattress, his hand slack over the hilt.

Tifa...knew that questions of responsibility became blurred, a little, when people had Jenova in their heads. She also knew it didn’t matter to argue or parse apart the fragments of responsibility in guilt, if you weren’t doing anything to make up for what you’d done.

That was why Cloud had never hesitated again, except for the stumbling-point that had been Geostigma, after she’d helped him extract a core of certainty in his own existence from inside the Lifestream. Once he knew who he was.

Because as long as they kept going forward together, he was proving he was not the broken creature Hojo and Sephiroth had tried to make him. And he was taking responsibility for the choices they’d pushed him into, and being strong.

Tifa didn’t think he needed to take nearly as much responsibility as he had, because Sephiroth had never really needed his help. At least not the second time, when he had made a choice at all, instead of having control of his limbs taken away from him entirely, in the place where the Temple of the Ancients had stood. Everything after that had just been…some sort of convoluted torture.

Sephiroth could have delivered the Black Materia to himself while they were trekking to Gongaga and losing track of Aerith to begin with, and could have called Meteor even before they’d found their way to the city where Aerith had summoned Holy and died.

Let alone before they crossed the mountains after him and briefly got the Black Materia back.

But that was Cloud. And too much responsibility taken for the world was always more heroic than too little.

And this, here in this inn in Nibelheim…violet blue eyes and immaculately styled dark hair, this was the terribly young man who had smiled in a photograph, and fought Sephiroth to avenge her home, and died under Shinra’s bullets protecting Cloud. That was all she’d really known of him a few days ago, even though they’d met and climbed a mountain together once before, and it was almost hard to connect those facts to this Shinra-loyalist boy before her, except that he obviously cared so much.

And was just a little bit afraid of what Shinra had made of him, already.

“You’re not,” she agreed softly into the smothered silence, meaning just him. He wasn’t a monster. The others could make their decisions in their own time.

Fair shook his head, hard, like a dog with water in its ears. “Anyway,” he said, taking his hand away from the weapon at his side and linking them across his lap again, “our itinerary. I did call Tseng, while you were out, and he should be here pretty soon, which is why I woke you up.”

“Great,” said Tifa, who had to admit this was a better reason than interrogation to deny her the chance to finish sleeping off a major healing.

“So now would be a good time to give us the flight plan.”

“We’ll head east,” Tifa said. “And south. Past where the southern spur of the Nibel range turns into the Concaussus. I’ll point. Who’s coming?”

“You, me, Sephiroth,” Fair answered easily. “Cloud, I think mostly cuz the General wants to keep an eye on him. The other two guys will be keeping an eye on the town. We called out to your ex-Turk buddy that we had you and you’d surrendered but he didn’t come in, so either he didn’t hear us or he doesn’t care.”

“Did you threaten me? To get him in line?” Tifa asked, more curious than anything.

“…it was more sort of implied.”

Tifa nodded. “It would take more than that to get him to take you seriously. Besides. He just met me the day before yesterday. I doubt he’s eager to give up his freedom for me.”

She honestly didn’t know what he would do. The only time she’d seen him react to a hostage situation as-such was that time with Yuffie and Don Corneo—he hadn’t cared much, or said he didn’t, but they’d all been furious with Yuffie, at the time.

He’d rescued Marlene from the Remnants, but Cloud had already been committed to that operation. Besides, that was Marlene.

On the one hand, it was good to have Vincent free. On the other, it wasn’t going to be that much use having Vincent running around on his own near Nibelheim if the rest of them were two hundred miles away on the opposite side of impassable mountains. Or, it might, if he managed to destroy Jenova while they were gone, but she didn’t like the thought of leaving him to the Genesis army alone.

And it would be wrong, probably, not to give him the chance to visit Lucrecia. Like with killing Fair a day ago, if she’d known for sure it would work to solve everything she’d do it, but for only a maybe…

“…tell him where we’re going. He’ll come.”

“You haven’t told us where we’re going.”

“East,” Tifa reiterated. “Over the mountains. In a helicopter.”

“…that’s it?”

“He’ll know what I mean. If he’s still close enough to hear, he’ll come.”

Or he wouldn’t. It seemed unlikely, but she left it to his discretion.


Zack Fair had food for her, which was unusually considerate for Shinra—the last two times they’d taken her prisoner she definitely hadn’t been fed, and the second time she’d just come out of a week-long coma and been ravenous.

Of course they hadn’t wanted to feed her then, because that might give her strength to fight her way free, and possibly also because if she died on an empty stomach it would be harder for her to vomit on live TV in the late stages of poisoning.

They’d chosen her over Barret to gas to death for aesthetic reasons, after all. She wasn’t sure whether that was Rufus’ taste or Scarlet’s.

The lack of anything to eat had been yet another discourtesy on Rufus’ part, either way, heaped on top of the flagrant petty evil of killing her before the eyes of the world, a scapegoat for all Shinra’s decisions that had led up to the summoning of Meteor, in hopes it would keep the people cowed and loyal to him in the time remaining.

The condemned were meant to be entitled to a final meal.

But that was then, five years in the future, and this was now. What Fair had gotten her was a thick, meaty stew, loaded with carrots and parsnips cooked down into the broth, still warm though not hot, and she ate carefully, because she’d been on somewhat short commons recently and gone into shock a few hours ago. There was a tall cup of milk, too, which Tifa probably needed even more than protein, between the blood lost and the calcium needed to knit bone even as much as Sephiroth had bothered to do.

The bowl was wooden, and the cup heavy crockery—she probably could break it and get a sharp edge to cut the rope tying her to the bed, if left unsupervised, but it would be much harder to weaponize than glass. Might be able to leave some bruises, if she threw it hard enough.

“Thank you,” she said at last, scraping the bowl. This was worth having been woken up sooner than absolutely necessary. She didn’t look at Fair as she said it, though. Something in her rebelled against thanking anyone who had her tied to a bed, even for a thing she honestly appreciated.

But she knew Fair wanting to help her was probably the best resource she had right now. It could be like Reeve. He’d chosen them over Shinra for a lot of reasons, some of which Tifa thought stupid, but it never could have happened if he hadn’t gotten to know them so well first, and see them as people.

Of course, it was Tifa who was embedded in a Shinra cell now, wasn’t it, not the other way around. Superspy Tifa Lockheart, that was her.

“No problem,” said Fair. “I got some for both of us at the same time and didn’t tell the innkeeper which was which, so unless he wants us both dead it’s probably not poisoned.”

Tifa looked up from her bowl in astonishment. Mostly at the idea of old man Hilgrid poisoning anybody, even someone involved in smashing up his building, but also at this level of deviousness.

“Don’t look like that! I didn’t just feed you because of that, it just occurred to me it could help. And I don’t know who you actually trust, so I thought you might have been worried too.”

Right. Fair was taking seriously the possibility that the entirety of Nibelheim was involved in one or more complicated schemes to mess somehow with Sephiroth. “The…townspeople don’t know anything,” she said. Didn’t like how that had come out. “I mean. They’re not involved. Really. It’s just me.”

“And are you ever going to tell us how you got involved, missy?”

Tifa snorted and rolled her eyes, which gave her good cover for looking away. “Maybe sometime. My dad doesn’t know anything either,” she added, just in case he didn’t think immediate family was included in ‘the townspeople.’

“That’s pretty obvious.”

There was a sardonic burr to that that made Tifa look back around at the SOLDIER. What?

“He kept coming around railing at us for abducting his innocent young daughter in the dead of night. Wouldn’t believe you’d run off on your own. Since your really public, uh, fight in the town square earlier he’s been out of his mind mad at us. Insisting on seeing proof we didn’t murder you, which with that amount of blood I guess is fair.”

Tifa winced. “Did you let him see me?”

“No, but we brought in a lady he said he’d trust, the local herbalist.”

“Madam Breezebalm?”

“Yeah. So he knows you’re not dead. Or he knows you weren’t dead an hour and a half ago, anyway.”

Tifa was surprised he was telling her all this. Of course she wasn’t about to say so. He might think better of it.

“He’s been having an amazing number of guests over this evening,” Fair continued with patently false cheer. “Luckily your house fronts on the square so we can track comings and goings from here. Sephiroth thinks he’s plotting an insurrection.”

“We can’t have an insurrection,” Tifa’s voice snapped out, sharp with anger before she had time to reflect on whether it was tactically advisable. “You don’t rule us.”

Fair blinked at her in evident astonishment.

“This isn’t Midgar,” Tifa pushed on, since having started she might as well carry the point to its end. “Shinra doesn’t own anything here, except the reactor. And the manor building. You don’t have any authority in Nibelheim.”

Of course, the richest people in town had long had the implicit right to push everyone else around and make decisions about the direction of the town as a whole, so Rufus’ maternal grandmother’s family had been leading citizens once and had a lot of effective authority, but that wasn’t an official position heritable through a bloodline, and owning land here didn’t make the Shinras into Nibelheimers.

What they did have was the sort of authority that came out of the barrel of a gun. And the sort at the bottom of a wallet. That was enough, for most purposes, in most parts of the Planet, and while Nibelheimers were individually stubborn they hadn’t had a lot of spirit as a community for a long time.

But still. Shinra had power here, like they did everywhere. But no legitimate authority.

“Uh…fine, then,” said Fair, still seeming really taken aback by this really pretty basic political concept. “Sephiroth thinks he’s planning an attack.”

Tifa sagged a little, wishing the rope at her ankle had the slack to let her lean against the wall at the head of the bed. “Planet I hope not.”

“Well I mean, if all Nibelheimers are as surprising as you…”

Tifa didn’t bother to look less annoyed than she was. “I told you they aren’t. And anyway, do you really think even fifty of me could do anything against Sephiroth?”

There’d be a dignity to dying charging at him to rescue a captured damsel that her people hadn’t gotten the first time around, but dead was still dead, and dead for her sake would cut her to the bone.

(She'd given herself up to protect the town. Not that she'd had much choice, but Sephiroth had agreed. They couldn't get out of here fast enough to suit her.)

Fair shrugged. “I mean, you got me pretty good.”

“That was Limit Break.” That wasn’t giving anything away he didn’t already know. She wasn’t going to bring up how long and how much damage it took to build up to a fourth-level Limit. He was probably already taking that into account.

“Well, enough of those, then sure. I hear they grow them tough in these little mountain towns.”

The way he said it made a smile pull at Tifa’s mouth, even in spite of her certain knowledge that if all of Nibelheim tried to fight Sephiroth they’d mostly be cut down before they even had the chance to try for their Limits. “Cloud’s pretty special,” she agreed.

“Special like Aerith?”

Something a little sharp had entered his voice, not angry but keen, and this was…actually a really smooth interrogation she was undergoing, wasn’t it. “I told you, you should talk to her. But no. Not special like Aerith. Just…like Cloud.”

Fair drew in a breath, and let it out. “It wasn’t easy, you know,” he said quietly. “Convincing him to trick you like that.”

Tifa narrowed her eyes. “You mean it wasn’t easy because he didn’t want to, or because you didn’t want to?”

“Well, I meant because of him, but I guess…I did feel bad.” His eyes had dropped away, and the keenness was gone. Good. She could work with shame.

“How did you convince him?”

“Seph and me double-teamed him. Duty, protecting the town, if we got you in custody we wouldn’t need to fight you again so you’d be safe, we just wanted you to stay put and talk to us. I told him you were stressing Seph out so bad with all this hinting I didn’t know how much longer he could take it. Sephiroth said getting you into custody before we had any official orders about you would put you in less danger.

“I dunno what finally made the difference. Cloud got me to promise I wouldn’t let Hojo get his hands on you if he helped, though, so if you’re still worried about that you can stop.”

Sephiroth had told Cloud he only wanted to talk to her, and Cloud had trusted that.

She admitted she considered Fair the more trustworthy of the pair of Firsts by some way, but he was Shinra first and foremost.

“If you would ever hand over a person to Hojo, I don’t trust you not to do it just because you made a promise,” she informed him.

Fair looked honestly hurt, but mostly offended. “Hey. Even if you don’t think so, I have my honor as a SOLDIER.”

“As a SOLDIER,” Tifa repeated. Didn’t put a derisive twist in it, but really? SOLDIER was something Shinra had made, something they bestowed. He couldn’t use SOLDIER as a protective layer between himself and the things he did and facilitated as Shinra employee.

“Yes. As SOLDIER.” He seemed to be daring her to make something of it, but…she knew he didn’t have any certainty left to destroy. He was afraid he was a monster, and that…well. She respected that more than Genesis’ gleeful sublimation of himself into that identity. Fair was conflicted, halting. Troubled. Making excuses, trying to find a way to live with himself, within what Shinra made of its people.

All of that was annoying, but it was better than not caring at all, the way someone like Reno or Scarlet or Rufus or Hojo did, or than deciding that everything was so corrupt it should burn.

(She and Barret and the others could have hurt Shinra a lot worse, if they’d ever been willing to stop caring about the people caught in the middle, and throw themselves into their hate with total purity of purpose. But Tifa knew what that looked like, that decision, that purity. That looked like Sephiroth, walking away from humanity through the embers of her home town.)

So instead of running the question of Fair’s honor down, and gnawing it to the bone, she just said, “Would you give me to Hojo? If you hadn’t promised Cloud?”

The young man sighed, his broad shoulders sagging slightly. “Not…now.”

Tifa decided that was good enough. If she blamed people for who they used to be, she’d have no friends and few customers.

“You’re sixteen,” Fair announced, inanely, in the direction of the back wall rather than to her face. “Like Cloud. We checked.” Tifa shrugged. All evidence would in fact agree that she was sixteen. “Did someone experiment on you?” He asked it unhappily, but he looked toward her to ask, didn’t let his eyes fall away in discomfort.

Tifa blinked.

“What you did on top of the mountain,” Fair continued, eyes excessively deep blue and more urgent than his husky voice. “It wasn’t normal. You’ve got connections and history with Shinra no one knows about. Last person Seph met who was stronger than she should have been had been enhanced by AVALANCHE. She was better than you,” he added, not apparently intending to offend. “They meant her to fight Sephiroth.”

AVALANCHE had made its own super soldiers? At least one that had impressed Sephiroth with her strength? Tifa knew a bit about the schism that had happened before her time, that had opened AVALANCHE up to Shinra attack and left only sad stubborn cells like hers and Barret’s operation, but she’d just known it had been disagreements about ethics, which were pretty inevitable in their line of work.

“…no,” she said, a little too slowly to be entirely believable. “Some people I care about were…by Shinra, but. Not me.”

It wasn’t impossible, what she’d done, fighting him. It wasn’t even entirely absurd. People didn’t always unlock their Limits at the same speed as the rest of their strength. You had to survive a lot of pain to get there, and you had to win a lot of fights, and you had to use your Limits, to break through them and reach new ones.

But those qualifications didn’t have to happen all at once. A kid could get beaten up by his parents every day and then sneak off and hunt normal frogs with a pocket knife each evening, and break through two limits in a matter of weeks, if he was determined enough.

To get your final Limit by Tifa’s apparent age you would have to have either the fantastically bad luck to be constantly facing mortal peril throughout childhood matched with the fantastically good luck to repeatedly survive it, and locate your key artifact easily. Or else be an absolute lunatic with no regard for your own wellbeing.

Tifa didn’t see why Fair was having trouble accepting the latter scenario as fact, considering her behavior since he’d met her. Maybe it was her entirely sane tendency to repeatedly run away?

Maybe he intuited that her base strength should be higher, if she’d been throwing herself into fights with the regularity her Limit and skill level suggested. This guy wasn’t actually stupid, Tifa reminded herself. Or maybe he was kind of stupid, but made up for it with good instincts.

“You sure?” he asked quietly.

She stared down into her lap. Her hands had twisted together. “I’m sure. There are…a lot of things. But that’s not it.” It would be easier, maybe, to let him believe that. He’d stop digging. At least for now. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t claim that suffering for herself, it was too immense a thing in the lives of too many people she respected, to use as just…a shield for her own intentions.

Fair let that rest in silence. It might be an expectant silence, but if so it wasn’t working on her. “Okay,” he said at last. “Do you…”

The doorknob turned, and Tifa’s eyes shot over Fair’s shoulder to it as it opened on—Sephiroth, PHS in hand.

“Time, Zack.”

Chapter Text

“Huh?” Fair asked, twisting around. “Already? Wow.”

Tifa agreed, a bit. Tseng must have been stationed somewhere a lot closer than Midgar, to get here even by air in less than half a day.

But then, Hojo had gotten people in in time to pick up the pieces of the Massacre before Cloud could bleed out. It made sense that there were Shinra people in range.

“Already,” affirmed Sephiroth, and tossed the PHS underhand.

Fair snatched it out of the air, glanced at the screen, snorted, and pocketed it, even as Sephiroth advanced into the room. “Why didn’t we just give Cloud my phone?” Zack asked.

Sephiroth’s eyebrows said that he should know why, but Tifa was distracted from caring about the fact that Cloud was apparently off somewhere with Sephiroth’s phone, as the man himself loomed at the foot of her bed.

When he stretched out both hands in her direction it was a struggle not to throw herself back to the limit of her bonds and bare her teeth. She curled one hand around the corner of the pillow, because a buffet around the head with that would give him less pause than a punch, but the pillow would extend her reach, which made it a little more likely to actually land.

But then he snapped the rope between her ankle and the bedpost between pinched fingers, as though it was a mere length of cotton string, and stood there for a second longer, looking down on her, expressionless.

Tifa scowled at him and drew her legs up, carefully, a palm flat on the bad one. He’d fixed almost all the damage to the actual knee, at least, so she should be able to walk. It would just hurt, especially on the hidden fractures running through the femur and shinbone. She rubbed at the loop of rope still around her ankle rather than the deep ache. That would be showing weakness. “Where are my things?”

Fair produced her knapsack and shoes, slinging the one over his own shoulder but passing the latter back to her. There was no sign of the Seal.

She hadn’t expected to get her materia back, but she’d been hoping to get some actual benefit out of that belatedly packed bag.

But of course they didn’t want to gear their prisoner up, and make it easier to run away. At least she got shoes.

Her first impulse was to fiercely not-limp down the stairs, presenting a strong front no matter what it took, the way she had every other time she’d been captured by Shinra. But they’d be less likely to be ready for her to sprint for freedom if she made a point of the broken leg. So she babied it, taking the stairs in a careful pattern of descent that put all the responsibility for work and tension on her good left leg, and required the right to hold her only long enough to bring the left down to join it.

This was less than half as fast as descending the stairs normally, and Zack Fair was already at the bottom, waiting with her bag over one bulging shoulder and visible impatience all over his face, before she got to the landing. But she wasn’t the reason she had a broken leg, now was she.

“This will take all night at this rate,” Sephiroth said from behind her, as she did reach the halfway point and paused a moment to take in the sight of the room below—the front wall patched up with a few strong timbers for structure but nothing to keep the wind out, and the debris swept up into a large untidy pile but not cleared away. Her blood was still staining the floor, though there seemed to have been some effort to mop up the puddle by the desk. There was nobody here.

She wondered where Mr. Hilgrim was staying, because she really doubted it was in the inn, which had clearly been taken over by Shinra. With his daughter, hopefully.

So busy was she evaluating the room and thinking about long-dead neighbors who were probably alive that she completely missed any signs leading up to the tree-sized man behind her stooping, wrapping an arm around the back of her skirt, lifting her off her feet, and sailing the rest of the way down the steps in three long strides.

It only took her a split second to realize what had happened, that she was being held in the crook of Sephiroth’s arm like a toddler, pain shooting through her bad leg, one oversized hand pressed firmly over her wrists to keep her fists out of play, and in a truly magnificent display of mature self-control, Tifa let out a cry of outrage and attempted to bite him.

There was leather in the way, which after her first incandescent seconds of fury faded she was grateful for—successfully getting her teeth into Sephiroth and having him bleed into her mouth sounded like a crowning glory of terrible ideas. Jenova’s cells were wildly opportunistic, and she doubted Sephiroth’s version were much better, and she did not need to offer herself up as a new host for the virus that destroyed the Cetra, especially with no idea what the outcome would be without horrible Hojo and endless mako infusions.

The best case scenario was ‘nothing,’ but Tifa wasn’t so opposed to science as to be careless about infection risk.

Everyone in Edge had gotten a thorough grounding in all major infection vectors, back right after Meteor, when Reeve was throwing everything he had into imposing basic hygiene and waste-management protocols on what had been trying to become a shantytown in the style of the old Midgar slums, only without a functioning city infrastructure to piggy-back off of.

They’d all gone over it again, more intensely, after Geostigma started to show up, before finally realizing it wasn’t a contagion at all, but an attack of the body on itself.

(On the seeds of Jenova inherited through the contaminated Lifestream, and Jenova in turn trying to kill the sufferer off just as their pain and despair crescendoed, and gave her the greatest opportunity to infect their hearts, and return more tainted life energy to the Planet than had come out.)

That it wasn’t catching, except in the way despair could be.

Not that everyone had accepted that. The rate at which stigma-bearers had been thrown out of their homes or murdered out of fear of contagion had only made the plague worse day by day. There was no surviving, after all, until the appearance of Aerith’s magic fountain. Only enduring a little longer, in a world that sometimes seemed to have run out of hope.

“Put me down,” she demanded coldly as they emerged into the town square.

“No.”

She gritted her teeth and didn’t struggle, because she knew how that would turn out in this sixteen-year-old injured body, and wanted to keep a little dignity.

Most of her weight was on her hips, in the bend of his right elbow, but the broken right leg was deriving absolutely no benefit from being dangled like this, one of the fractures halfway up the femur under constant strain as it was near the pivot point, where the support of Sephiroth’s forearm ran out and the full weight of the lower limb became suspended.

The fragile barely-mended fractures in her knee were also taking more weight than they could afford. The least he could have done was picked her up from the other side, where the damaged bone would get some support from his body. From his stomach covered in its stupid high-waisted pants, and this huge ugly belt buckle.

But that would have tied up his dominant arm with carrying her, and of course he wanted that free for his sword. Ugh.

If anything attacked them, Tifa resolved to punch him somewhere vulnerable the second the weight of his left hand vanished from her wrists and gave her the chance.

The chin was the obvious target, perfectly placed above her for a single uppercut to stagger him, but there was some temptation to go for the diaphragm sitting naked about five inches above her lap.

(She respected the need for his continued cooperation enough, at least, to discard the possibility of going for the throat. She couldn’t kill him that way even if she got extraordinarily lucky, after all. Not in one shot.

Even if his body couldn’t take that hit without breaking, which was actually possible since he was supposed to be mostly human at this point and the human windpipe was extraordinarily fragile, there was at least one Restore in the party, and Fair who was pacing beside them would undoubtedly be able to patch up a simple tube of cartilage before the man could suffocate. SOLDIERs were tough.)

In the meantime, with several false starts, she managed to get the heel of her right leg hooked into his pants pocket, which relieved the strain a bit even if it put more torque on her knee. Bastard.

At least he hadn’t pressed her directly against any of that bare skin. The idea of going through this without an insulating layer of coat made her flesh crawl. Was that an instinctive revulsion against what he was, or just her personal hatred? Did it matter?

There were lights burning in a surprising number of windows, considering the smell of the air and the position of the stars told her it was definitely well past midnight by now. Every visible window in Tifa’s house except her own was lit up with steady Shinra Electric light, and Cloud’s house didn’t have a window but the flicker of an oil lamp danced from under the door, so Mrs. Strife was awake too, and might have company.

Tifa wondered which side she was on, if she was involved in whatever plotting was ongoing. Cloud couldn’t be making it easy for her.

No one came charging out of any doors to rescue her from this latest, supremely undignified round of kidnapping, mostly to her relief and only slightly to her disappointment, and Sephiroth carried her down the path and out of town without any complications arising. The sound of Fair’s boots behind them crunching gravel gave way to the softer sound of boots on turf, and then Sephiroth turned a sharp left and Tifa saw their destination, the spiky form of the vehicle like a waiting monster, in a circle of grass garishly lit up by great fluorescent floodlights affixed to the frame.

Tseng had brought his helicopter down a decent distance outside town, where the valley finished opening up and the plain grew level. It wouldn’t have fit in the town square, of course, because of the water tower, but he could have managed nearer.

She wondered if he hadn’t bothered to do that because the SOLDIERs had warned him the natives were restless, or just because he preferred a safer, flatter landing zone over attending to other people’s convenience.

“Put me down,” Tifa said again, as they drew close enough to see Cloud’s silhouette at the near edge of the pool of light, waiting for them. His helmet was gone, so his hair showed. There was tension in his lightly armored shoulders, but not fear or hostility, and not so much shame that it was killing him. That was good, at least, though she knew now that she didn’t know him as well as she’d thought she did. Couldn’t make any assumptions about what he’d decided, since pointing the Buster Sword at Sephiroth.

Without responding, Sephiroth tipped her obligingly out of his grasp and onto the ground. Tifa managed to get her heel unhooked from his pocket and her good leg under her in time to jolt onto the turf without turning any of the greenstick breaks into open ones, and crouched there for a second, right leg outstretched and left doubled up under her. Sephiroth stepped over her ankle and kept walking.

Zack Fair stopped, instead, and offered her a hand up. Tifa took it, because he wasn’t a monster, and that mattered. She didn’t thank him. She let the hand go, once she was standing. Her leg throbbed. The worst break remaining was near the bottom of the femur, just above the knob of the joint, where her leg had turned its sharpest curve around the shape of the stone vessel.

Sephiroth reached Cloud, held his hand out, and received what had to be his own PHS. Cloud’s body language was closed, but not openly hostile. It was still weird to see. Sephiroth turned and spoke a few words to the other trooper, who’d hung back closer to the chopper.

The man saluted, glanced at the approaching Tifa and Fair in a way she couldn’t read under the helmet, and then jogged off past them, back toward Nibelheim.

That left only one member of the Shinra party unaccounted-for.

She dropped the useless question of where the final trooper was as the helicopter’s passenger-side cockpit door swung open, and Tseng of the Turks appeared, bleached almost as pale as Sephiroth by proximity to the floodlights. There was no one else with him—he’d come alone, or else his partner was hiding.

Tifa found herself staring, a bit, because she was feeling the unraveling of time all over again, more sharply than she would have expected. Tseng was the first person since Cloud she’d seen in the past whom she’d known looking older, since Vincent hadn’t noticeably aged and everyone else she’d run into so far had been dead.

He was already a grown man in this time, unlike Cloud, so the difference was slighter, but his thirties had seen his face assume much flatter planes than he had now, in his twenties. Even with the flat glare reducing him to patches of brightness and shadow.

And the ghosts in his eyes weren’t nearly as pronounced, yet.

“First of all.” Sephiroth interposed himself slightly between them as she approached, incidentally providing Tifa with some relief from the brightness of the fluorescent floodlamps. The fierce backlight made the edges of his long pale hair look like they were made of lightning, which would have been unsettling if Tifa weren’t much too far past unsettled to care about such details. “Tseng. Do you recognize this woman?”

Tseng’s eyes tracked over her rapidly, totaling up traits.

Tifa was fairly ordinary-looking, so perhaps he was allowing for the possibility that he had at some point met and forgotten her when he said, “Not at all. Why?”

“She speaks as if familiar with you.”

Tseng blinked. “Ah. What exactly did she say?”

What had she said? She remembered Tseng had come up before she passed out, hadn’t been surprised when Zack said he was coming, but the details were gone. She’d mentioned him earlier, too, in the underground lab-library.

Zack had said he’d promised to protect Aerith for him, before he left Midgar for what would have been the final time. And might still be yet.

“That you have a knack for plausible deniability," Sephiroth reported, "when properly motivated. And you are not a friend of the Science Department.”

Tseng blinked again, and looked at Tifa past the SOLDIER General. “Hm.”

“Can you confirm or deny either of these points?”

“I would say those are both requisite traits for succeeding in Administrative Research,” replied Tseng blandly. A pause just a second too long. “Favoritism toward any department would prejudice our results, after all.”

Tifa didn’t really care about whatever Shinra dance of departmental politics was going on here, but she was not happy to see the considering and, in Fair’s case, suspicious looks she was getting now, as though the idea that she might have successfully faked them out was settling in, as the most likely case for her Tseng-related data.

And, thus, for anything else she’d said.

That wouldn’t do. That was absolutely the opposite of a good outcome. What did she have that she could use to disarm Tseng? Not a lot. He wasn’t a friend, and technically he wasn’t an enemy anymore, and she’d never cared about him when he was. He was just around, and…he’d known Aerith.

She didn’t want to bring Aerith up in front of Sephiroth, any more than she already had. Certainly not as explicitly as she would need to, to make an impression on Tseng.

Which left her with only one tack to take. Straight into the wind.

“When you were six years old,” she announced, a little too loud, speaking up across the inadequate barrier of Sephiroth’s shoulders. “You became the only known survivor of the bombardment of Gua Do.”

Tseng didn’t move. Neither did Sephiroth. Fair’s mouth had dropped very slightly open and he seemed to be groping for something to say, looking back and forth from her to his Turk friend, and back.

Cloud was squinting; she didn’t think he knew what that meant, any more than she would have at his age. It was sort of surprising Fair did, but then SOLDIER had higher clearance, and he’d almost definitely joined up before the war was over, so he’d have had more reason to recognize the place-name, even if the battle would have been long before his time.

Gua Do had been the first location the Shinra managed to conquer in their war on Wutai—had become their staging ground at the far southern tip of the long crescent island, from which the rest of their campaign had been based. They had taken it after a week of stalemate, by resolving that they did not require the buildings intact to make use of the town, and wiping it out almost entirely with a combination of shipboard cannon and airborne artillery.

It had set the tone for the rest of the war.

Tseng had volunteered this fact about his origins tonelessly, without expression, one evening not quite two years ago—eight years, now, into the future. After he had most unwisely entered the Seventh Heaven on the anniversary of Aerith’s death and Yuffie, more than half drunk, had called him a traitor to his nation.

(Tifa had never assumed Tseng was Wutaian at all—his name was, along with his looks, but he could easily have been born in Midgar to emigrant parents, or even grandparents—the metropolitan region was fairly old, even if the Plate had been newer. She wondered later if there was something in his voice or the way he moved that marked him as Wutai-born, if you knew what to look for, but had never asked.

Probably there was no difference, and the ethnicity was enough to claim him by and condemn him for, in the White Rose’s eyes.)

Yuffie’s face had twisted in uncertainty and rage at this reply before she’d thrown a drink to one side of his head—even very tipsy there was no question she’d missed on purpose, glass shattering behind his left ear—and stormed upstairs to sulk with Cloud on the roof.

(Tifa had gotten what Tseng’s answer meant off Reeve, at the cost of a few questions, a double scotch, and enduring his discomfort at having the explanation. Reeve had had nothing to do with the war, personally, had taken over his entirely domestic department when it was halfway done with, but he had always made a habit of hoarding information in himself, and was therefore her best source for Shinra history.

It wasn’t like there were any Shinra archives left, after Meteor, to look that kind of thing up. It wasn’t like Shinra would have been wholly honest about the battle of Gua Do even if there had been.)

Tifa had only Tseng’s word in the face of a drunken princess to go on, and just had to hope it was true.

Even if it was true, she couldn’t be sure what had happened, back then, after Tseng survived the bombing and Shinra moved in.

Part of her imagined that he had been spotted trying to flee the wreckage of his home, seized roughly, accused of spying, handed over to the Turks like an object and forcibly made over into something Shinra could use. The way they had tried to do to Cloud. (To Nanaki and to Aerith and—)

But the rest of her knew this was unlikely. That was Hojo’s way of doing things, and briefly it might have been Rufus’, before his power was broken, before Weapon and Meteor taught him his hubris. That was Hojo’s way of doing things, and it didn’t very much work.

More likely was this: the Shinra forces had landed to take control of the strategically situated ruins. Someone had found a child huddled in the remains of a cellar. Poor little thing, someone had said, some perfectly decent Midgar citizen who thought this war was a necessary and heroic endeavor with unfortunate side effects. Let’s get him warmed up.

Probably the regiment that killed his family had made a pet of him. Probably he had been noticed by the Turks, taken back to Midgar, trained. Given the suit and tie eventually as a reward. A paycheck. Sent up against any threat to Shinra that wasn’t Wutai, rewarded in small ways for his loyalty, until…a Turk was all he was, and all he ever would be.

Tifa liked Tseng best, of the Turks that remained after Meteor. She would never forgive him for his role in dropping the Plate, but Tifa could tolerate many things without accepting them.

He would have to have been no more than sixteen, when he first tracked Aerith down, and chose to accept her bald-faced lie about who and what she was, and not dragged her back to Shinra. Tifa had felt that single sentence he’d shared of his origin had told her all she needed to know, to finally understand why.

Tseng was loyal to Shinra. Or at least, incapable of betraying them. But he knew very well that belonging to them was no kind of life, if you had a chance at anything better.

His expression was still utterly bland, but in the several strained seconds since she repeated what he’d claimed eight years from now, he’d gone a ghastly white that had nothing to do with lighting.

“You’re a loyal Turk,” Tifa said. Maybe loyal to the Turks, the way Fair had said Sephiroth was loyal to SOLDIER? She had never understood the relationship between the Turks and Rufus, so she couldn’t guess whether it went this far back. “But Shinra stole you, and you know it.”

Without expression or comment, Tseng turned around and climbed back into the helicopter, shutting the door behind him.

Sephiroth, Zack, and Cloud were all staring at her. Well, so what if she wasn’t a cunning person? She had slapped Tseng in the face with his own personal information like a live trout. This was where her skills lay. This was what she had. She’d certainly gotten his attention, that was the important thing, right?

“He’s not going to think I just tricked you by being mysterious now, is he?” she said, and walked forward, onto the ramp that led up into the belly of the vehicle with confident assurance, as if she was absolutely not the prisoner of her worst enemy.

She only limped a little bit.

Chapter Text

Climbing aboard, Tifa found the helicopter Tseng had brought was fairly large, with four seats—one each for pilot and copilot, and two at the far rear for passengers. The belly of the thing between these two sets of seats was open, flat; adaptable for cargo or troop transport.

It could probably carry a dozen SOLDIERs, if they crammed in like canned fish.

She’d assumed that as navigator she would take the copilot’s seat, and turned to do so once she'd gained the ramp, but Fair hurried up behind, caught her arm, and steered her back toward the rear set instead. Specifically to the place on the far side from the pilot.

Tseng had by now reinstalled himself in that place, apparently resolved to ignore her entirely. Nobody got into the copilot’s seat, to Tifa’s surprise—somehow she’d assumed Sephiroth would, once she was denied—so it wasn’t that it had been reserved to the actual copilot, either.

They didn’t want her near the controls, it would seem. Stupid. It wasn’t like she could fly the thing; she’d picked up a few flight basics from Cid but none of it in a helicopter.

But they didn’t know that, and she supposed they couldn’t even be sure she wouldn’t be willing to sabotage a vehicle she was in and die in a pile of flaming wreckage if it meant she could take Sephiroth down with her.

(Maybe that was why they had brought Cloud. They knew she wasn’t willing to see him dead, though they probably weren’t sure she wouldn’t trade his life in exchange for taking out Sephiroth. Probably she ought to. But she wouldn’t.)

No one took the other back seat, either. Sephiroth stood near the front of the open space between the two sets of seating intended to fit either cargo or a crowd of troops, looking oddly both taller and smaller than usual in a space that only gave him a couple of inches’ clearance over his head.

He was watching her out of the corner of his eye. There wasn’t much light, just what spilled in the front windscreen from the helicopter's external high beams and two dull strips over the doors on each side. These latter were dim enough that even though he stood directly beneath one, the gleam of mako in his eyes stood out, green glints against the gloom. But he had cat’s pupils, so he could probably see her as well as she could see him, if not better. Annoying.

There was still no sign of the Masamune, suggesting he really could summon it to his side at will, even now as a living, primarily physical being. She had wondered. Or maybe he couldn’t, and it was back in Nibelheim, and he was planning to get by without it. It wouldn’t have fit inside the helicopter.

Maybe that was why he’d come all the way out here by truck, she thought, and had to swallow a laugh.

The other, friendlier SOLDIER First had dumped Tifa’s knapsack in a corner behind Tseng’s seat, well out of her reach, and was now dragging Cloud into a scheme to use a size-small Shinra Company hoodie, a plastic bag, and a big stack of paper napkins he’d pulled from somewhere to try to stabilize her sore leg against turbulence.

Zack Fair was making a noticeable, active effort to make her comfortable; she wasn’t sure if it was to be ingratiating, in hopes of making her accommodating in return, or because he felt bad about the sabotage job Sephiroth had done on her healing. Or as a passive-aggressive way of letting Sephiroth know he disapproved of said sabotage job.

Or even just mostly to keep Cloud looking and feeling useful.

But the vibration of an operational helicopter was going to be hell on the damaged bones, and any cushioning would cut the pain a bit, and no one had proposed tying her down again. Tifa wasn’t complaining.

She did point out that the fact that her feet couldn’t touch the floor in a chair proportioned for big men was going to put a lot more strain on her knee than the helicopter's rattle, and Fair grabbed her bag from the corner again and wedged it under her foot, for support.

Sephiroth let him do this. Promising.

They were, however, both uncompromising on the subject of the safety harness, despite the fact that both of them and Cloud were standing up entirely unrestrained. Tifa tested the release mechanism, a button in the middle of her chest, and when it worked, submitted to the restriction without further argument. It wasn't worth it.

She was in a small vehicle with Sephiroth. That made her infinitely unwilling to be strapped down, but realistically as long as he was here it didn’t make that much difference whether she was restrained or not. There wasn’t much she could do against him unarmed, in a confined space, with a bad leg. This logic wasn’t helpful, but it was persuasive.

“Okay,” she said, once she was settled, as comfortable as she was likely to get. “Let’s go.”

A pause. “Don’t you want to wait for your friend? Vincent?” asked Fair.

Tifa shrugged. She wasn’t sure what Fair’s game was, but she wasn’t going to play into it. He wasn’t suggesting they call out to Vincent, just wait for him; she didn’t know if that meant Sephiroth had passed on her instructions to Fair about what Vincent should be told and they’d already been carried out, or that they weren’t going to be, but asking would show weakness. “He’ll come or he won’t. Waiting now won’t make a difference either way.”

Dubiously, Fair told Tseng to take them up, and Sephiroth didn’t countermand the instruction. The rotors spun up. Dust spread in a circle. The frame of the vehicle trembled.

The helicopter lurched slightly as its feet lost contact with the ground. Tifa could feel Fair fretting. She craned her head to look at Cloud, who gave her a faint smile. His eyes were clouded, but in this poor light Tifa couldn’t begin to tell by what. It almost didn’t feel strange that they didn’t give their own light. She must be getting used to this new Cloud.

At the front, Tseng took one hand off the maneuvering yoke thing to pull a lever that evidently closed the door ramp.

The helicopter was eight feet up and the ear-splitting whirr had just changed pitch, which Tifa assumed to be a sign they were about to accelerate rather than explode, when a red streak detached itself from the nearby mountainside, ran down it like water, launched itself through the air, and somersaulted through the three square feet of space left open at the top of the closing door, to land neatly in the open patch of floor before Tifa's seat in a clink of golden sabatons.

Tifa beamed at him. He was adjusting to his body so well. “Hey, Vincent!”

She’d half shouted, to be heard over the rotors, and he raised his voice too, but kept his tone extremely bland, as if pretending very hard this was a normal speaking volume. “Hello.” He swept his eyes over the entire population of the helicopter. “We’re flying east?”

“Yes!”

He nodded, swept his eyes around the space. Zack Fair was recovering from the surprise, Sephiroth was looking stoic, and Cloud smiled awkwardly, only for the expression to fade when Vincent didn’t reciprocate.

Tifa wondered if he knew about Cloud’s role in the trap. It wasn’t like he smiled pretty much ever, regardless.

Vincent took a step toward the cockpit, and Sephiroth blocked him. Very unambiguously, a shoulder with the elbow turned out shoved into his path, cutting him off from pilot and controls.

Vincent couldn’t actually fly, either. He’d been shot and left in a coffin years before Shinra had amassed an entire private fleet of aircraft that they expected their security forces to be able to handle.

He was the second-tallest person here, if you didn’t count Zack Fair’s hair, but still had to tip his head back to look Sephiroth in the face from this distance.

He proceeded to do so for several seconds longer than could possibly be considered polite, until Sephiroth looked away first. Vincent’s eyebrows crept up slightly at this, and then he turned aside and gave Sephiroth his space back.

That was unusually aggressive, for Vincent. Normally he didn’t have much middle ground between non-interaction and homicide, unless he liked you or had a speech he especially wanted to make. Had Sephiroth managed to piss him off somehow? They hadn’t really spoken, up on Mount Nibel.

“Everything okay?” Tifa asked loudly.

“No,” said Vincent.

“…I’m glad you caught this flight,” she said. She was. She would have felt guilty forever, taking other people to see Lucrecia before she brought him.

Strategically, it wasn’t a great move hemming him in with Sephiroth, too. But she was the one who’d gotten herself captured, putting them in a poor strategic situation to begin with, so it would hardly be fair to make Vincent suffer for her mistake.

Half her tension had melted as soon as he arrived. That still didn’t leave her terribly relaxed, but it was easier to think now. Vincent would have her back, at least against Shinra. Not that Cloud wouldn’t, she didn’t expect him to make the same mistake twice, but she’d had it violently brought home that he made a better hostage against her than a protector, right now.

“You need anything more filled in?” she asked. It wasn’t that the arrival of a helicopter was exactly subtle, even if he hadn’t been scoping around for why she’d missed their rendezvous. But he wasn’t treating this as a rescue mission, so he must have gotten some kind of update.

“Your little friend shouted about it.”

“Uh,” Cloud said, when he found himself most unwillingly the focus of everyone’s attention. “Sephiroth texted what you said to say.” A jolt of anxiety at the back of his eyes, the fear that he might have been played for a fool again, but Tifa smiled a little to let him know Sephiroth had, in fact, been passing on her instructions. Even if he hadn't been the one she'd given them to. Cloud relaxed a little.

Sephiroth really had been lurking in the upstairs hallway at the inn, listening to every word she and Zack Fair exchanged. Probably staring out the window at the square, monitoring her house and everyone’s comings and goings.

She shot him a narrow look; he looked blandly back.

Awful man. Though she supposed it was Fair she was annoyed with, really, for drawing her out like that with faked intimacy. It was just easier to aim it all at Sephiroth, whom she owed nothing. Not even vengeance anymore, really, under the circumstances.

She adjusted her shoulders in the harness, feeling resentful and sore and miserable and thirsty and trapped, though overall still better than before Vincent showed up.

The Hyper was definitely wearing off. Tifa debated the wisdom of asking for another one.

Leaving aside the reactions her captors might have if she came across as a stimulant addict, though, Hypers helped with exhaustion but tended to have bad effects on the judgment, especially if you stacked them. She needed to keep her head on straight. She should probably just power through it.

“Anyone have any water?” she asked.

Cloud fumbled into a pocket immediately and held out a flat canteen stamped with the Shinra logo. Tifa reached for it.

Fair interposed a hand.

Tifa turned to look up at him. “Seriously?” she asked.

He smiled, charming and awkward, pushed Cloud’s hand holding the water back toward his chest. “Hey, I mean, he did just point a weapon at a superior officer earlier tonight, let us be jumpy, huh?”

Tifa narrowed her eyes. What do you expect him to give me, she could have asked, except it was obvious, and having it said out loud wouldn’t help anything. Especially not Cloud, who was looking sort of wilted as he stowed his water away again. Fair might not approve of what Sephiroth had done to her, but he would enforce it anyway.

With somewhat more rummaging than it had taken Cloud, Fair produced his own identical canteen, and held it up triumphantly.

“Here.” He bent over her as he held it out, close enough she could have broken his nose with a well-placed headbutt.

Tifa looked across the canteen up at him. “They don’t deserve it, you know,” she told him. It came out almost gentle, barely audible over the noise of the helicopter. For his ears alone.

It wasn’t fair—he was a grown man, blooded and more than capable of being cruel. She’d killed Shinra employees his age and probably younger just for being in her way; it wasn’t fair that something about him kept telling her heart she was looking at a child, telling her to be kind. This version of him had never died for Cloud. She didn’t owe him gratitude any more or less than she owed Sephiroth revenge. But that didn’t change how she felt. The impulse to be kind in saying, “They’ll never repay this loyalty.”

His other hand came up to rub the back of his neck as the canteen sank a little, and he heaved a sigh, staring at the floor. “I know,” he said finally.

It was a shock, to hear aloud, and it wasn’t. What else could he have said, here in this space full of people stolen and created and betrayed by Shinra. Could he really have argued for Shinra’s sake in the face of Tseng and Vincent’s histories, of Sephiroth’s origins, of what he himself had done to Cloud just this past day and what he suspected had been done to Tifa?

He meant it, though. That defeated edge told it. He really did know that. That they didn’t deserve him.

“But—” He looked up, across the close, dim, shuddering space of the helicopter belly, toward the tall ribbon of black and silver lurking against the far bulkhead, pretending to be uninvolved. Tifa followed his look.

“Oh,” she said. Her heart broke a little. He’d known, even the first time, that Shinra wasn’t good, even if he hadn’t felt it was bad enough to stop fighting for. But he thought Sephiroth deserved not to be betrayed.

It was after Sephiroth betrayed him that Shinra followed suit, and everything fell down for him, until he died within sight of his goal, surrounded by the bodies of his peers. Shinra was like that.

She wondered for the first time if any of the SOLDIERs who had come to take him down had been his friends. If he’d died because he couldn’t bring himself to kill them. Or if he’d killed them, and then died anyway.

But this wasn’t that man. The one shaped by five years in hell. With Cloud. This was who he’d been right before it all shattered. And that, probably, was why she kept looking at him and seeing a child. Or maybe it was the way the corners of his eyes had crinkled when her words hit home, pain flitting out into the open from behind his slipshod but persistent defenses. The way the canteen kept sinking, slowly, out of the air between them.

Probably it was just that Cloud and Aerith had loved him, in another time, and she knew his death, as the story of a hero’s tragedy, and that made him one of hers. It would be so hard to kill him, if she had to.

She reached out and took the water. “Thanks,” she said, and drank.

She could almost hate Zack Fair for making it hard to hate him. In the end, if he chose the wrong side…she’d have to try to anyway. She'd never learned the comfort with murder it took, to approach it dispassionately.

They rode in silence except for the pounding of the helicopter’s blades against the sky, for another thirty or forty minutes, after Tifa returned Fair’s canteen half empty. Cloud shifted from one foot to another a few times, going in and out of parade rest, then leaned his back against the wall.

That wall was also a door that unfolded down into a ramp, so this was daring of him. Maybe he was too busy fighting nausea to worry about falling to his death.

Fair took the sword off his back, a little after that, and started doing squats. There was just enough space in the helicopter's belly for this to be only a mildly insane course of action, rather than an appallingly rude one.

Sephiroth and Vincent held their positions just behind the pilot and copilot’s seats, doing a great deal of pretending not to be watching each other. It would have been funny under other circumstances.

Tseng broke the silence twice, not raising his voice to be heard but using his headset to speak through the helicopter’s intercom system. Both times it was tonelessly to check his bearing with Tifa, who had to yell back. She didn’t normally navigate by the sort of mathematical formulae used by aircraft, but thanks again to Cid and his constant training of new pilots she understood them, at least well enough for this. It wasn’t exactly a small target.

The caldera always felt as though it stretched over nearly a quarter of the continent, when you were right over it. It wasn’t that big, not really—probably only about the size of Midgar, which was large enough to see from space but only as a blot of black, like a scorched thumbprint, in the middle of the brown wastes that were its hinterland.

Even under no light but the crescent moon, the great valley stretched unmistakeable below them, a deeper, softer print from the same great hand. The mountains crumpled up around it, wrinkles of stone tracing the dark circle of the lake in less perfect iterations of the same circle.

When Tseng folded down the door Cloud wasn’t leaning against, to give them all a view, even Sephiroth seemed impressed. Vincent didn’t, but it was Vincent. Cloud came halfway across the ‘copter for a better look. “Here?” Tseng asked.

“That’s it!” Tifa confirmed.

Fair whistled. “I see why you wanted the helicopter.” Fearless, he looped one hand casually around one of the handles over the door, and leaned out a little to get a better look at the ground. “Looks like about the only way to get in.”

“A sure-footed enough chocobo can get right over,” Tifa said absently, stretching and squinting from her strapped-down position to get a look at the valley below. She’d only come here twice, and it had been years ago. Even if that was actually much more recently than she’d visited most of the trails over Nibelheim, she didn’t know this place nearly as well. It had never been home. “A human could manage the climb too, with the right equipment, but it would take a long while.”

“Is that how you got in?” Fair asked cheerfully, neatly ignoring the hypothetical way she’d phrased that.

“Take us down on the northwest side,” Tifa told Tseng, ignoring the question. “Up near the waterfall.” She was sure he raised an eyebrow, but he complied without comment, hovering them along the curve of the lake to make up for having gone a bit too far south, then carefully downward toward the smooth green sward.

“Jump?” Fair asked Sephiroth when they were still a few hundred feet up, outrageously and with complete calm. Sephiroth shook his head, so she didn’t get to see what had apparently been a standard use of the SOLDIER resilience, back in the day. Which was now.

Flatness was apparently the most important criterion for landing a helicopter, just as it was an airship, only the space needed was smaller, and so they wound up low beside the shore where the slope was gentlest, looking up at the bowl from inside. Very like how Tifa first remembered seeing it, when they'd surfaced in their stolen submarine and gaped out at this hidden valley, with no idea it held anything important.

“And you didn’t even crash a little bit!” Fair congratulated Tseng once the rotors began to spin down again. “See, Cloud? Nothing to worry about.”

“Hah,” Cloud muttered. “Yeah.”

Sephiroth and Tseng were both pretty obviously prepared for an ambush. Which only made sense. Cloud looked about ready to jump out of his skin, but she wasn’t sure if that was the same thing or just a reaction to the excruciating social situation.

Vincent looked like he was dying of emotions, but only if you knew him well. He still managed to continue contributing to the general tension with his silence.

“Looks like a nice place!” enthused Fair, apparently mood-blind, bending over Tifa to unfasten the safety webbing, as the ramp-door unfolded to her right.

“Quiet,” said Sephiroth tonelessly.

It took Tifa a moment to recognize this as commentary on the hidden valley, and not a command to his excessively exuberant subordinate. There was the sound of the waterfall, surprisingly soft for how much water it was, but noisy enough at this end of the valley, so strictly speaking it was not true, but she knew what he meant.

“I’ve never seen a monster here.” She’d rarely seen any kind of animal, even, though there were fish in the lagoon. Even those might all have swum up from the ocean through the hidden tunnel, rather than living in the lake. Though the lake was freshwater, and she wasn’t sure which species could handle both. “It’s…peaceful.”

That comforted Vincent, a little. Peaceful was better than most things you could say about someone having locked themselves up in a cave for over twenty years.

Peaceful, but sad, too, of course. Tifa couldn’t be sure, but she thought it had been a sad place even before Lucrecia Crescent came here in her sorrow. It had been a holy place of the Ancients, and they were so long gone. The remote altar didn’t scream its emptiness the way the abandoned city in the North did, but the loss was still there. Still loud.

“So perhaps there is some peace to be sought for,” Vincent murmured, just loud enough to hear even with ears still mildly deafened by prolonged exposure to the sound of helicopter rotors, and over the noise of falling water. “Even at the end, in the dark, after all is lost.”

This remark further disconcerted the Shinra contingent, including Cloud. Sephiroth in particular looked annoyed, which in turn annoyed Tifa. Yes, Vincent took some getting used to, and she’d been embarrassed by his intensity a time or two herself, but Sephiroth had no business censuring others for melodrama.

“Is the party we’re meeting another rogue element?” he asked sourly.

Tifa shrugged her way fully free of the safety webbing, chivying Fair back out of her personal space both because she didn’t need his help and to give her some space to stand into. He took her bag with him, dammit, and she was glowering half-heartedly after him when she answered, “Not really.”

“But they do have a history with Shinra,” Sephiroth said, as if this conclusion were an admission on her part, as though having left Shinra, under any circumstances, was as fully a condemnation in his eyes as having ever been Shinra at all had once been in Barret’s.

If he was judging all deserters by Genesis the Clone Army that made a little sense, but Tifa still felt her lips wanting to draw back, not into a smile but into the menacing expression just short of a snarl that usually only burst out of her when she was battered half to death, with her Limit gauge almost full and one healing potion left. But without the edge of exultation that usually came with that sort of combat high.

She suppressed it into just the shadow of a sneer, and then sent that away too, and sighed, and leaned back a little in the seat she had yet to leave, and asked: “Don’t you ever wonder what it would take for Shinra to throw you away, too?”

Sephiroth had. That was interesting, and promising. He mastered his face after only about a second. Looked bored and faintly pissy, which Tifa vaguely recalled as his neutral expression the first time she’d lived through this week. “I am an employee in good standing.”

“Don’t be more stupid than you can help,” Tifa said wearily, levering herself up out of the seat and absorbing the very slight drop to the floor on her good leg. Wishing intensely for more healing and sleep and food and time. Why was there never enough time. Time ought to be what she had the most of, now. “There’s no way you don’t know Shinra sees you more as a product than a person.”

She stepped out onto the helicopter ramp, leaning the bulk of her weight on the hand grasping the door frame for as long as she could, and only gingerly transferring it to the bad leg. Definitely worse now. Dammit. “And in some ways, I bet that’s better. They value people less than things they own. But nothing’s irreplaceable.”

She thought of the Tsviets, shaped in the dark around (as best she could tell) the frankly idiotic idea that the problem with Sephiroth had been that he was too normal and sane.

None of the men following her out of the helicopter replied to what she could admit was an incendiary statement, and she glanced back. Fair looked pained, like he had earlier when admitting Shinra didn’t deserve him. Sephiroth’s face was forbiddingly closed.

Cloud’s was an absolute study in complicated microexpressions; if she didn’t know him as well as she did she’d have no idea what he was thinking at all.

As it was, she could pick up worried (probably that Sephiroth would react badly), astounded (likely by her lack of delicacy), embarrassed (on whose behalf?), and vaguely sick—the last one might be because he was still adjusting to having a bleak view of Shinra, though maybe it was lingering motion sickness, or about something more specific, like the idea that it was safer to be property than an employee.

(Tifa wasn’t making that up, either—it wasn’t just that the executive summary of the consequences of dropping the Plate had been given in gil of property damage, as she lurked in the ceiling and seethed. Reeve had confirmed that it was actual policy.

Employees were an ongoing expense, needing paying as they did, so the most replacing one cost the company was a little lost productivity in training time. But a thing owned outright and destroyed was a loss of its whole value; thus a battalion of troops or unit of workers were always a preferable loss over combat materiel like helicopters, or the equipment on a factory floor. They could be replaced at only the additional cost needed to train them. Lives could not be measured by a bank balance and thus, to Shinra, they did not exist in any way that mattered.

And that was why, if they were not stopped, they would end the world.)

Vincent, at least, was well past being shocked or offended at the idea that Shinra was a shithole working environment, with a shithole sense of loyalty. He looked the kind of bland that might be at everyone else’s expense.

She sighed. There were still Shinra loyalists in her future, of course—people who remembered the flow of gil and the shine of lights as prosperity and ached to have it back; people who had trickled back to work for Rufus, and how could you complain when the things he was investing in rebuilding were all things people needed?

(Profiteer. Trading in dependency and the power of human need. No matter what anyone said, he was no different from or better than his father, though as long as his power was kept in check at least he’d never be worse.)

“Look,” she said, when the awkwardness had drawn on for several seconds, enough that she had to conclude Fair and Sephiroth weren’t going to get past her latest fit of bluntness on their own. “I don’t have the energy to be nice about Shinra right now. It’s a disaster. You know that. I know you know that. But I can try to avoid talking politics if it’s making you guys this uncomfortable.”

‘Try’ being the important word, though. Sephiroth was a strategic asset, his existence was political. Even without the secondary existential threat of Jenova.

And politics were the worst thing ever and Tifa didn’t want to think about them, let alone be responsible for solving them, but here she was. Nowhere to go but forward. If she let herself pause, doubt, hesitate, she might never move again.

Sephiroth said, “I am aware of the level of emphasis the company places on retaining the services of certain individuals.” Which was a sort of impressive feat of heavily weighted neutrality, as sentences went, had he gone to the same school of diplomacy as Tseng?

…actually that seemed pretty likely. Hm.

“Now," Sephiroth continued, his voice sharpening into an almost physical force to push them on from the subject, "why are we here?”

Tifa nodded to the towering waterfall, uphill and east of them. “This way.”

Chapter Text

She led the way up and along the gentle slope toward the rockface and the waterfall, hobbling only slightly, while the rest of the mismatched party finished disembarking.

Vincent caught up with her first, and she smiled up at him. His eyebrows asked a question over distressed red eyes, and she nodded.

Reached up and patted his forearm, through the gauntlet, then stumbled, as her bad leg hit a dip in the dirt that had lain hidden under the grass. Vincent smoothly held the arm in place under her hand, effortless support.

“Thanks,” she said, only a little shortly, instead of swearing, because she was a lady, even if she defined that word more weirdly the older she got. She kept hanging onto his arm. It helped, and it wasn’t going to slow either of them down significantly in the event of an attack.

Cloud caught up then, with the general faint disarray of someone who had thrown dignity aside to jog up a hill. Tifa grinned at him. There was something reassuring about having them on either side of her—more than the boost of being around friends, or the relative security of being flanked by allies while injured. It felt right. This was how they had come here the first time, together, walking three abreast.

Cloud broke that formation almost at once, though, and got in her way somewhat, jogging another few steps up hill to twist around and walk backwards, frowning down at her. Not an angry look—it was, again, his problem-solving frown; he used it on malfunctioning motorbikes and unfamiliar materia.

It was even cuter on him at this age. Even printed with stark shadows by the colorless floodlights coming off the helicopter—she had seen his face in too many darknesses for that alone to make it look alien or strange.

Tifa hoped he wasn’t going to try to fit the conversation they badly needed to have into the approximately forty seconds it was probably going to take Sephiroth to catch up.

Hidden from the sight of everyone downhill by the interposition of Tifa’s body, Cloud opened his hand to reveal the gleam of a Potion.

Just an ordinary one, the kind you could get in any specialty shop for about the cost of a week’s groceries. It wouldn’t fully heal mortal wounds, except maybe on a small child. But.

Tifa lifted her hand away from Vincent’s arm, using the motion as cover for lifting the little bottle out of Cloud’s palm as her hand went past, and brought both her arms in, as though crossing them, though the X her wrists formed across her cleavage wasn’t any natural gesture in any culture she knew of. Never mind, from the rear she could be clasping her hands together, the way Aerith liked to. “I’m okay, I’m okay,” she said, and winked, and tucked the medicine down out of sight between her breasts. There was no way to drink it right now without being obvious, and thereby wasting Cloud’s efforts at stealth, but now she had it.

Honestly the way things were going so far, she might need it to get someone back from the brink of death before she found a chance to fix her leg. Either way, this was an improvement on no gear at all.

She really missed having storage options other than her bra. She was getting that knapsack back before they left this valley, even if she had to grab it out of the helicopter at a dead run, while everybody tried to kill her.

Maybe she should plan to knock Tseng out and steal the helicopter, if this went badly. How hard could it really be to fly on a spinning eggbeater? Scarlet used to make really moronic robots that could do it. Mostly.

Once she got close enough she found the cavern with no trouble, even in the dark of night, at the very edge of the helicopter’s range of illumination. The tunnel mouth was wide and obvious, if you slipped up to the waterfall at the right angle—not overgrown, for little grew here but the grass, and not hidden away, because its makers had had no need to make it subtle, when it was so hard to come to this place at all.

Tifa had looked down on this lake from the air, with better lighting and more leisure than the helicopter had afforded today. It was round, almost perfectly, and the mountains encircled it. It must be a crater. Had Meteor fallen here, that dark day depicted in the murals at the Temple, when the Ancients had called it upon themselves, and locked the Black Materia away afterward, regretting?

Reeve thought not. He said the underwater tunnel that led to this place seemed to be some sort of former lava tube, that this was not a place where the sky had fallen, but where a mountain had exploded. Reeve had consulted scientists whose specialty was the movement of the earth to reach this conclusion, but Tifa didn’t trust the opinions of scientists terribly much.

After all, they were awfully authoritative about lava tubes for being baffled by the existence of a strange lake well above sea level that never emptied, even though everything about fluid dynamics—as Reeve had once taken great and drunken pains to demonstrate with a lot of straws and pewter cups one night at the Heaven—dictated that it should have drained out into the ocean as soon as the underwater passage opened, leaving too little water to fill the lake to its brim, let alone to spill over the caldera's southern lip, in the second waterfall that made the main source of both the River Ripple and the River Running.

One of the entries on Reeve’s long, long list of things for the WRO scientists to look into once the world stopped trying to end and gave them some breathing room was the source of the waterfall above the cavern entrance, that fed the lake. That was a lot of water, after all. Tifa found the whole volcano story very suspicious.

It wasn’t like this was the only crater on the Planet, though. Even besides Jenova’s old landing site in the North. The Bottomless Pit near Junon was pretty weird, too. Maybe that was where the first Meteorfall had happened.

Sephiroth’s long legs had eaten up the grassy slope easily, and he joined Tifa's party just within range of the waterfall’s spray only moments after they halted. Zack Fair jogged up seconds after that, not out of breath but faintly aggrieved at having been left behind and forced to rush.

Tifa glanced away behind him; Tseng waited beside the helicopter. Probably for the best.

The SOLDIERs studied the shadowed, spray-slick opening with disfavor. You had to duck in close beside the waterfall to reach the entryway, and the last few steps were a narrow path of wet stone over a long drop, before the tunnel closed in. The barest grey edge of the helicopter’s lights reached them here, supplementing the faint dusting of the narrow moon and stars from overhead, and making the tunnel mouth yawn all the more with inky black by contrast.

“Someone lives here?” Fair asked.

Tifa tucked her hair behind one ear. “Sort of.”

She didn’t actually know even that, she was realizing uncomfortably. The main evidence she had that Dr. Crescent was here now was that the woman didn’t seem to have aged since she was thirty, and hadn’t been reported anywhere else on the Planet in the years since her last known act, which was giving birth. It was possible she’d only retired here some time later, after Nibelheim burned.

Not likely, the way she’d spoken of Sephiroth—as though he were still the infant she’d left behind and seen only in dreams, when at Shinra’s height there had been no one on the Planet who didn’t know his name.

But maybe she’d just been a normal hermit until near the end, and there would be nothing in this cave to justify their journey.

If that happened, she’d deal with it then. There were still options.

There were always options.

She turned to Sephiroth and gestured grandly toward the entrance. She raised her voice to be heard over the thundering of the falls. “After you!”

Sephiroth’s expression was very flat.

“See, now he thinks it’s a trap,” said Zack Fair, after a few seconds passed. Not quite as loudly as Tifa had, but loud enough to make out over the waterfall.

“Ladies first,” asserted Sephiroth, as blandly as he could while projecting over the noise. Which was actually very bland, but with an edge to it that she suspected wasn't all volume.

Tifa snorted, and then glared at Sephiroth for making her nearly laugh. It had even been something like an intentional joke. “I don’t mind going first,” she said, because there’d never been anything dangerous in this cave before, and Sephiroth could stab her almost as easily from the front as from behind, assuming he could magically summon his sword to him at all, “but I sort of thought you’d want to be sure I didn’t get access to the place before you did.”

Sephiroth frowned, and now she half wished she hadn’t said anything, because she’d obviously made him conflicted.

At this rate they’d still be standing here at dawn. Which at least would make the whole thing seem slightly less spooky to the scaredy-SOLDIERs, she hoped.

“Vincent,” she suggested, twisting to look up at him, “why don’t you go first?” He deserved to be the first to set foot inside here, after all. Crescent might be Sephiroth’s mother, but Vincent still had more personal stake in this visit than anyone.

“No,” interjected Sephiroth firmly, certain of this as he had not been about Tifa; apparently considering Vincent a more dangerous unknown quantity than herself, though Tifa didn’t know whether that was because he hadn’t been broadcasting his opinions and goals the way she had and was therefore less predictable, or for some more insulting reason.

Like thinking Vincent might be able to set an actually dangerous ambush.

She squinted, running numbers. Personnel management was closer to her wheelhouse than grand strategy. She could make this work. “Okay…”

“I’ll go!” volunteered Fair.

“No,” said Sephiroth again, in an even weirder tone than before.

Fair rolled his eyes. “General, it’s not a trap. Why would it be a trap, after all this?”

“‘All this’ could have been to draw us to this very specific trap,” Sephiroth replied drily.

Tifa sighed. She could point out that she honestly wasn’t that complicated, but they’d only have her word for it so it wouldn’t help. “Look,” she said, with a throat already getting tired of half-shouting, “if we’re going to debate this, let’s not do it standing around here.” Someone was going to call Sephiroth by name any second now, and then Lucrecia might overhear and have an aneurysm and die before they could talk to her.

She jerked a hand at the waterfall. “It’s loud. And my leg hurts,” she said, looking judgmentally at Sephiroth, who had chosen to leave giant cracks through every bone in it after splintering them horribly, because he was a terrible person. “If we’re going to have a protracted argument about…cave entering etiquette, I demand a chair.”

“That’s fair,” declared Zack Fair, scooped her up in his arms, and folded her over his shoulder.

Luckily for her she was conscious, so she could make a point of straightening up by bracing her hands against his shoulder blade, right below his stupid bulky SOLDIER pauldron around which her stomach was currently being bent, so her bum wasn’t left sticking straight up in the air with the skirt riding up, as he bounded back down the hill again.

It was a shorter trip downhill, on longer, unbroken legs, and without the limited amount of meandering Tifa had indulged in on the way up.

She put up with being manhandled, mostly because he actually managed to successfully baby her aching leg, well supported against the solidity of his chest, and also because, as she watched, everyone but Vincent trailed the two of them back toward the helicopter, so she was getting what she’d asked for.

And maybe a little bit because he’d picked her up like a fellow soldier, the way Barret would have done, rather than like a princess or a child. That deserved not being elbowed in the ear.

Tifa waved at the receding cluster of everyone else over Zack’s shoulder. Cloud waved back.

Why was he so cute. Not fair.

SOLDIER Fair carried her into the circle of the helicopter’s lights, and stretched up to set her carefully in the copilot’s seat, sideways, facing out at him through the open door. Not much harm she could do from here when the machine wasn’t in flight, she guessed. And it kept her out of reach of wherever he’d stowed her knapsack. Tseng behind her made her neck prickle. She tried to ignore it.

She dragged her eyes across them, as the hideously mismatched non-team gathered below her on the grass, and ended on Sephiroth.

“Alright. Debate. You don’t trust Vincent not to set an ambush, apparently?”

Sephiroth shrugged. It was the tiniest motion, but amplified by the great silver bulk of his left pauldron so it was easy to see.

“Okay, you don’t trust anyone with anything.”

He shrugged again, this time Tifa thought more agreeably. Or she might just be imagining things.

“Do you want to go first? Assuming there’s not an ambush?”

“I don’t actually care. I just want to ascertain the existence of this supposed expert, and I assure you if no useful revelations are forthcoming I will have reached the end of my patience with your games, Miss Lockhart.”

Expert. Right. Well, she hadn’t lied. There was that.

“Maybe I really should go in first,” Tifa reflected. “Alone. I’ll call you in when it’s a good time.”

Sephiroth shot her a deeply unimpressed look. “And give you the chance to arrange whatever you like, and conspire with anyone who happens to be there? I think not.”

And yes, if she got the opportunity to contaminate the source before he got to her, Lucrecia would read as less trustworthy to him. But she wasn’t sure that wasn’t worth it. “I just don’t want either of you shocked to death,” she said. “If the other SOLDIER and the Turk come in to vouch that I didn’t conspire or set booby traps and you wait outside—”

“No,” Sephiroth cut her off. Tifa scowled at the lack of manners—even the crazy bird-horde man living in a cave hadn’t interrupted her, and yes her friends interrupted her all the time, especially Yuffie and Barret, but that was different, because of friendship.

But she couldn’t exactly blame the dratted man for being sick of being left out of things. Fair had said that no one telling anyone anything was half of the problem with Shinra, and that was certainly an overstatement—secrecy was a sliver of the problem with Shinra—but for him to have gotten that impression it must be a pretty large and evident problem from the inside. And there was Hojo.

“Fine,” she acceded, because she was technically his prisoner and couldn’t stop him anyway. “We’ll go in first together, then. You and me. Boots on the ground. But…put on a mask or something, so you’re less immediately recognizable?”

Not that she was sure that would help. Sephiroth had probably come across as different from other SOLDIERs on whatever weird psychic bandwidth Jenova tapped into, even when he was still alive, and considering the weird dreams she’d referenced while rambling the last time Tifa personally had been here, his actual mother might possibly have some kind of special psychic bond to him. Via his evil alien monster mother.

This was such a bad idea. Too bad she had no better ones.

Sephiroth stared at her for a second, then dipped his head very slightly in agreement and turned in wordless expectation to Tseng, who swung himself up out of the pilot’s seat to rummage in an overhead compartment for a few seconds, and produced a long quilted cloak with a deep hood, all thickly insulated fluorescent orange synthetics, clearly intended as survival gear in case of a crash.

He slid between the two seats out of the cockpit and waked down the ramp, rather than opening the small door beside the pilot’s seat and coming around the nose, which was interesting. It gave Tifa slightly less of a window alone in the helicopter in which to hypothetically lunge over and steal it, though personally she doubted even someone who knew what they were doing could get the thing airborne before the SOLDIERs could pile in again to restrain her.

And they had ranged attacks, anyway.

Sephiroth contemplated the survival garment for just under two seconds before reaching out—his arms were absurdly long; she’d unconsciously expected him to need to step closer to Tseng to reach—taking the thing, and whipping it around his shoulders, where it settled across the sheer bulk of his stupid armor to produce an absolute wall of orange.

The hem would probably have hung around knee level on him if not for the pauldrons, proving one size never could fit all, but due to those it came a few inches short of them. The coat dropped out past that, dark and narrow. His entire body above was a mass of orange fluff, all the way up until a few inches above the cloak closure at his throat, where the fluffy piles of the hood fell away and sleek silver hair abruptly began.

Tifa had to turn away to hold in a fit of giggles, and unfortunately her eyes met Zack Fair’s over the hand he had pressed over his mouth, and both of them simultaneously lost control. She doubled up in the softness of her Shinra Company helicopter seat. It felt strange. She’d never laughed all that much, even in the happy times—that was more Aerith’s thing. Aerith always had brought out her sense of humor, though—maybe it was Zack reminding her of Aerith?

Or maybe she was just hysterical. “Put,” Tifa managed after a few seconds, the violence of her own laughter sending spikes all up and down her bad leg, “put the hood up, Planet, it’s not a mask if it only covers you from shoulder to knee.”

Sephiroth did not. “Are you quite finished?”

He was asking Fair, mainly, and the SOLDIER mopped his spikes back even though they hadn’t actually fallen into his face, and straightened up with his expression stiffly schooled almost serious and said, “Yeah, General. I’m done. Sorry.”

Tifa unfolded from her ball of amusement to find Cloud looking somewhat anxious (though whether over Sephiroth’s reaction or her sanity she wasn’t certain), their mismatched pair of Turks being conspicuously bland, and Sephiroth giving her a very odd look.

“Sorry,” she tried, but as it was chased by another giggle she doubted it helped any.

“I cannot decide,” said Sephiroth, or rather Sephiroth’s head poking out of a giant orange marshmallow, “whether you are afraid of me or not.”

“Not when you’re wearing that,” Tifa decided, and brushed at the front of her skirt even though it hadn’t had a chance to get dirty. “It does make for the perfect disguise.”

Blandly, he pulled the quilted orange hood up, throwing his face into shadow. This of course failed to make him any more menacing.

Of course, it hadn’t actually made him less dangerous.

Tifa felt the laughter die in her, as she looked at him.

She wasn’t afraid. Not of him. That was the truth. And that wasn’t really because of the orange emergency mantle, or the fact that he’d put it on at her suggestion. Or because he was seemingly human, and to all appearances mostly sane, and had passed up multiple opportunities to murder and torture over the past few days.

She wasn’t afraid because fear of monsters had burned out of her a long time ago.

There was nothing left in her that could fear Sephiroth, who was only a worn-out nightmare. All she feared was failing. Was letting everyone down.

All she feared was being left alone in the wreckage again.

“Come on,” she said, and dropped, out of her seat and the helicopter at once, took all the weight on her good leg in a maneuver that was already becoming habit, and ignored the pain shivering through the bad one.

She should have taken Tseng’s route, she realized, now that it was too late. It would have given her a chance to grab her knapsack. But she needed to keep up her momentum. She couldn't afford to get lost in her doubts, and she couldn't afford to lose the initiative to Sephiroth again.

“Grab my bag?” she asked Cloud, and he nodded and headed up the ramp to do it without glancing at either SOLDIER for permission. Tifa didn’t wait for their opinions, either, but once again started up the hill toward the rush of the waterfall under her own power.

Sephiroth paced her, this time, as though concerned she was trying to get away with something. He didn’t seem to suspect about the Potion, so he was probably just being generally paranoid. He was less unsettling in the corner of her vision, swathed in orange quilting, less obviously himself, but she still knew it was him, and still disliked it.

Tifa stopped halfway up the hill to rest her bad leg and let the others catch up, and to see if Sephiroth waited for her. He did.

This was slightly annoying, because she’d wanted to resent his not making allowances for the disability he’d caused her, and had been hoping to get out of his line of sight long enough to take her Potion. If this didn’t heal right she would find a way to make him pay, no matter what decisions he made about the future of the world, even if it took replicating some of Yuffie’s dirtier tricks.

The ones with Poison would only work if he was human enough not to absorb it as healing, of course. Last time Tifa had seen him poisoned, he hadn’t been.

“Hey Sephiroth,” she said, standing carefully on one foot on the soft sloping grass under the star-studded sky, as the waterfall roared just ahead. “What’s your Elemental affinity?”

He peered down at the top of her head. “Are you a teen magazine reporter now?”

Tifa squinted back up at him. Looking up while standing on one foot always made balancing a little trickier, she’d never been able to figure out why. She couldn’t make out much expression by the glow of his eyes, but was fairly sure he didn’t make jokes, or at least that if he did, they weren’t imaginative enough for this to be one of them.

“Do they actually ask that?”

She’d read exactly one article about the man that wasn’t a report of his death (which she’d read all of, somewhat obsessively) and that one had been when she was fifteen, because it was supposed to be an article about SOLDIER and she’d been hoping to see Cloud featured.

They didn’t get a lot of news in Nibelheim, and of course by the time she was living in Midgar Sephiroth was dead. She might have destroyed a couple of old newspapers for having his face printed on them, even so. “I’d have guessed they’d stick to the hair.”

“There are only so many questions they can ask about…the hair.” He sounded vaguely gloomy, which was at least better than overtly self-pitying, or outright derisive. Tifa wasn’t sure whether he agreed that his hair was ridiculous or was ignoring her insinuation to that effect. “And even fewer answers that aren’t approved advertisements. They have to move on to astrology and other rubbish eventually.”

Tifa felt a certain morbid curiosity about Sephiroth’s relationship with teen magazines, suddenly, but not enough to pursue that line of conversation. “Elemental affinities aren’t all rubbish, though,” she argued. “I mean, they’re hardly as pronounced for humans as they are for some monsters, but lots of people have a knack for a particular type of magic, things like that.”

Aerith, being a casting genius, was best with Restore and Heal magic of course and also Holy and water, which didn’t have a lot of application normally, but amazing at everything, while Cloud was a great all-rounder but a natural with Lightning. (And, on the incredibly rare occasions a human could harness it such as through certain Summons, Wind.) Nanaki was less human than either of them so his knack for Fire probably didn’t count, but Barret was very good with Earth. Yuffie was a very solid caster with all the Elements, but amazing with Command materia.

“Hm. Well. Fire, then,” allowed Sephiroth, and Tifa grimaced, the image of him walking away through a wall of flame painting itself over her vision. She might have guessed.

She had always found herself drawn to Ice and Earth, as an adult who handled materia regularly enough to have patterns, and never been sure whether that was an inborn alignment or an emotional bias toward things that were good for stopping burning.

“But not Poison?” she checked, putting her bad leg back on the ground.

“Of course not Poison.”

He sounded annoyed. Tifa was pretty sure if Hojo had an elemental specialty it would be Poison, but Hojo was probably the one who’d taught Sephiroth that Elemental affinities were imaginary unless you were a Marlboro.

“Jenova’s elemental affinity is for Poison,” she said, starting to walk again. “It’s a strong one, because she’s not human. If you Poison her it only makes her stronger.” And hadn’t that been fun to find out.

She didn’t check behind her to see what Sephiroth made of this information.

Chapter Text

Tifa led the party the rest of the way back to the cliffs at a brisk march, this time, defying her injury, in a combination fit of stubbornness and hope that she could get far enough ahead to buy time to take the Potion Cloud had slipped her.

In this she failed; Sephiroth remained close on her tail even as the rest of the party strung out along the dark hillside.

“But seriously why didn’t you tell me we had that cloak thing, Tseng,” Fair was complaining somewhere behind her, almost drowned out by the roar of the falls, as she finally ducked through the slick opening in the rock.

It wasn’t actually low enough that she strictly needed to duck, but the instinct was a good one to keep in the habit of following, just in case, and if Sephiroth brained himself following her lead she would start laughing again, and that would unfortunately not be productive.

Also he might fall into the waterfall and drown, and while she couldn’t say she’d be sorry it would be a bit of an anticlimax at this point.

“You were doing fine,” Tseng answered tonelessly, voice muffled by the rock.

“Paper napkins!” Zack Fair exclaimed. Oh. This was about the effort to cushion her leg during the flight.

Of course Tseng hadn’t helped keep her comfortable, Zack. She’d made him uncomfortable, and he had no reason to trust her. That man could barely manage to care in any useful way for people he actually liked outside the bounds of duty, why would he help her? But she already knew Zack was the kind of person who thought everyone was as good as he was, until they gave him a reason to not think that, and even afterward.

However good he actually was.

“It was—” Tseng’s voice and the thundering of the waterfall cut out entirely, both at once.

She’d remembered that, the silence of the cavern, but they hadn’t been talking on their way in, any other time, so she’d somehow missed that it cut in like a knife.

In the sudden echoing stillness of the tunnel, a single drop of water fell.

The effect was too abrupt to be anything but magic, and Sephiroth had stopped short when it struck, something Tifa became aware of only a second later when Zack Fair walked straight into his back with a “gmph!” and a “Hey, Seph, warn a guy!”

By the ensuing general noise there had been a bit of a pile-up, only partly on this side of the sound barrier, but when Tifa looked back the passageway was too narrow for her to see anything but the large, quilted figure of Sephiroth several paces behind, and that barely. The brilliance of the orange cloak was faded out to nothing, in the low blue suggestion of light. His hair showed up a little better, and the pale green smudges that were his eyes.

(For a moment she thought he had, improbably, less mako glow than Cloud had had, in the future, but she squinted and realized no, it wasn’t that. The vertical lines of his pupils had unfolded in the darkness like the cat’s eyes they resembled, and become black pools that swallowed the green of the iris down to a thin ring.)

“Coming?” she asked. It came out hushed. Something about the sudden silence brought it on.

He paused another second, but then he came. “Hm,” he said as he caught up with her, which clearly meant I thought the trap had sprung. Tifa couldn’t even fairly fault his paranoia. She’d have warned about the silence, if she’d remembered.

“Put your hood up,” she whispered, and moved on.

This tunnel was much straighter and smoother than the ones where she and Vincent had staged their running battle with the pink mutants, and it wasn’t much further to go until she emerged, without further incident, into a slightly brighter twilight than that of the starlit valley outside.

The cavern was as she remembered it, too round and the earth-glow too evenly distributed to be mistaken for natural. The inset floor was filled by a pool that would have been perfectly still, far more so than the water outside ever managed even at the farthest point from the waterfalls, troubled as it was by the wind…but for the faint spreading ripples still running out from where a stalactite had dripped that one drop.

There was a hint of nacreous sheen to the nearly-smooth walls, over their faint inner light, as though they had stepped within a great seashell left here so long ago that it had had time to develop mineral deposits from the long, slow drip of groundwater, and the walls and water reflected one another endlessly, pearl suffusing the whole dark.

The plinth that stood opposite the tunnel mouth, across the pool, was covered in a riot of vast up-thrust crystal, lit from within not quite the color of Support materia, and this was the main light source in the cavern. The soft glow of it was just a little too bright for Tifa’s dark-adjusted eyes to make out whether there was a human figure currently inside.

If there wasn’t, this whole stack of cards fell apart.

She glanced at Sephiroth again and found he was withdrawn inside his quilted hood and had a hand up in front of his face, palm out, shielding his vision as if looking at the sun.

So, eyes that could handle dark better suffered worse glare-blindness, too. She was glad he had some prosaic weaknesses to go with his ridiculous powers.

The emergency cloak looked a little less ridiculous in here, the resolvedly blue light continuing to wash the glare out of the orange. Tifa set her forefinger to her lips. She didn’t know how this was going to play out, but anything Sephiroth said now was going to make dealing with Doctor Crescent harder.

Vincent…

The voice that murmured out from nowhere and everywhere sounded like crystal. Faceted, sweet and high. Tifa didn’t know how much of that was because it had to pass through crystal to be heard, but had always imagined the voice was one of the things Vincent had loved first and best about the woman. Could so easily picture him sitting beside her in silence while she talked, happy simply to listen.

She’d never asked. Anything about the two of them. Hadn’t wanted to press Vincent on topics that hurt, when there was no need—he always volunteered the things he was ready to say, after all. Hadn’t wanted to discourage him from moving on by encouraging him to dwell on what he had lost.

Sephiroth was now squinting at her, acknowledging her gesture for silence but apparently resenting it in the face of sourceless crystal murmurs, as he was frowning. He opened his mouth as though about to speak, possibly to demand to meet her ‘expert’—

The altar glowed up, sharply, blinding. Then the light sank, and there she was, the lovely Doctor Lucrecia Crescent, entombed like a fly in amber. Every hair and ribbon of her frozen in time. If Tifa hadn’t known better, she’d be certain the woman was dead.

Sephiroth stepped back, either from the glare or the sight. Tifa had foolishly looked toward Lucrecia even though she knew what to expect, and missed the first instants of his reaction; she turned back now just in time to see Zack Fair walk straight into his general’s back again, not expecting it to have gotten closer, and rebound.

Vincent, hesitating in the mouth of the dark entry tunnel at the sound of his name, caught the rebounding SOLDIER by both shoulders and steadied him back onto his feet, even as the crystal voice sighed from all around them: “Sephiroth…

That man, under his blanket of orange fluff, went rigid.

Well. If the sight of her ‘expert’ hadn’t convinced him she’d led him to something more dramatic and relevant than a hole in the ground, that must have. Tifa cleared her throat. “Lucrecia? Doctor Crescent?”

Crystal silence reigned.

Then long eyelashes flicked up, inside the pillar. Sephiroth drew a sharp breath.

Vincent?” The voice was no less diffuse and chiming, and it matched the open eyes that stared vacantly and did not focus, but there was a little more alertness to it now. Confusion, a hint of dismay, not merely endless sighing regret. “I thought…but why would you be here. No.

In the mouth of the tunnel Vincent’s mouth came half open, and everything in him tensed as if to step forward, but he did not. Just stood in place, silent, yearning.

Needing more time, Tifa thought.

It was so much more abrupt a thing for him, coming here now, like this, even if he did come this time more warned of her presence and so less shocked. He’d slept away the years so well that in some ways it must feel like only days since their last parting, and yet all was changed.

He hadn’t had the time to adjust he’d gotten, last time, and even then he’d barely known what to say. He needed a little more time.

Everyone always did.

And of course Lucrecia had sensed him entering her place. She had last time too, hadn’t she? The cave had stood silent and dim, when they entered while Vincent wasn’t with them. An abandoned chapel, featureless. Tifa hadn’t even considered…she’d assumed Sephiroth would do just as well as a goad, attract her attention as automatically.

A good thing, maybe, she’d gotten sentimental on Vincent’s behalf, and not asked him to stay behind, and go after Jenova while she was gone. 

“Doctor Crescent,” Tifa repeated firmly, before the woman’s attention could fade out and risk wasting this chance. “We need to speak to you, urgently, about your work on the Jenova Project. About…about your son.”

Sephiroth?” The air sang a silent note that was somehow still high and taut, a thin wire on the verge of breaking, not chiming now but ringing the same endless frequency, without swell or fade. “Do you have…news? I think sometimes I…dream of him. I’m afraid sometimes…they’re true.

Tifa opened her mouth, and found she had nothing to say. It would have been one thing if she’d been here alone—not as easy as rousing Vincent, because she knew Doctor Crescent hardly at all, but doable.

She could have simply told the truth, the one Vincent had hidden last time Tifa came here to spare her the final heartbreak of knowing what her child had become. Could have explained the risk, and that it was not yet too late. Asked the doctor to come out of her strange exile and save the world from her son, by saving him first. If that wouldn’t work, especially with Vincent here, nothing would.

But in front of the man himself?

She couldn’t be sure this would work at all. Because even though she knew Sephiroth better than she wanted to, she also didn’t know him. Only knew what he had done and said, not what he’d been thinking. If it was love and the promise of truth Jenova had hooked him with, this could work, was what it came down to.

But if it was mostly the hatred, flame, and blood, and the promise of being the most important living being on the Planet, or even simply the promise of a truth that made it all mean something, made it all matter and gave him a mission that ennobled his stupid scientific disaster of an existence—then no. Then this had all been a waste of time, except for the way it had gotten him out of her town.

But that was okay. Because that was enough. It had to be enough.

“He’s…grown,” Tifa said at last, just as she’d told Vincent. It was the most decidedly true news she could share. Sephiroth was larger than an infant, so he must have grown. “It’s been a long time.”

Yes,” whispered the crystal. “Long…long…what do you know?

Tifa glanced back again. Sephiroth’s expression was closed, Fair’s astonished, Tseng’s incredulous, Vincent’s agonized but clearly making progress. Cloud had squeezed in past Vincent at some point, while Tifa was focused on the far side of the cave, and was taking all of this in with a wide-eyed wonder that made Tifa’s heart ache.

He’d never really been a cheerful child, or particularly prone to strong displays of emotion, she didn’t think—she remembered him blank and distant, often unfriendly especially as they got older, but rarely outright hostile; often accused of sullenness by adults. At sixteen and nearly grown, he wasn’t much more demonstrative than he’d been at eight, and if it hadn’t been Cloud she wouldn’t have found this expression anything but a natural and fairly restrained response to this absurd situation.

But suffering, and the pressure they’d all been under as the world tried to end, had burned this innocence out of him over the years since he’d first been this age, made fairytale adventures into something almost quotidian apart from their danger, not worth stopping to marvel at when stopping might come with a cost, and the Cloud she knew was unfazed by wonders.

She’d never seen his mouth drop gently open like this before, simply because he was too amazed to think of keeping it shut.

Tell me,” whispered the shimmering walls. “My baby….

“Your son is…healthy,” Tifa told Crescent, surprised by a rush of feeling for the woman and her absurd, impotent worry for the Demon of Wutai, for the man who would end the world for sheer gluttonous hate of it. “He’s…fine right now, but…”

How to be reassuring while still holding her attention? How to ask for what she needed?

Tifa should have planned this out on the flight, once she’d known they were coming here. Or should have spent the flight watching Sephiroth less for murder and more for whatever it was Zack Fair saw in him, that made him seem worth following, worth protecting.

She thought of the disgust in his voice at the mention of Hojo, the way he clearly knew Shinra was a hellhole even if he didn’t approve of saying it out loud. Common ground. That would have to do. “He’s not…safe. He needs your help.”

I…” Such longing. “I can’t help anyone. No. I couldn’t even help…Vincent….

Vincent broke his silence at this, abruptly and without ceremony. “Lucrecia.”

Vincent.” The eyes inside the pillar of crystal blinked again and focused, suddenly, taking them all in, picked Vincent out among their number, lurking against the wall, half screened by the bulk of the SOLDIERs.

Still no other part of her moved. Her lips remained perfectly pressed together as her voice resounded, “It is you. You’re alive.

“So are you.” He was whispering, almost, but he moved forward. Tifa stepped aside to let him past, so he could go up to the lip of the pool, toward the person he respected most in the world. Was it good or bad, to let the focus slide away from Sephiroth? Would it—

Stay back!” Lucrecia shouted, and the crystal lighting flashed wild with her horror. Just as it had in another time, when he moved to approach the same way. Of course.

And of course Vincent stopped short of the water, nearly stumbling to a halt in spite of all his grace. Every long limb reeling as if he’d been struck.

Last time this had played out, Tifa hadn’t known what to think, of any of it. Had stood silent, thinking she had no right to interfere in Vincent’s relationship and utterly bewildered at Vincent’s admired woman being Sephiroth’s mother, and also for some reason alive on a stone altar in an inaccessible cavern deep in the hills.

Now she felt she knew enough to have an opinion, and she found that she was livid.

“No!” Tifa limped forward, past Vincent’s frozen form, ripples crazing outward from her feet as she trespassed into the stillness of the pool, “No ‘stay back!’ We were all within ten meters of Jenova yesterday, what makes you think you’re more dangerous?”

Jenova…” the woman murmured, clearly stunned even across her strange mako crystal distance at hearing that name.

“You have a piece of something horrible inside you, so what?” Tifa chopped her hand through the air, a motion that could have killed nightmares once, and could still knock down a grown man. “So have a lot of people!” Thanks to you, she could have said, but didn’t. Failing to feel guilt was not Crescent’s problem. “That doesn’t make you a danger. It doesn’t make you…”

She saw Cloud in her mind again, her Cloud, broad shoulders and mako eyes and the black they both wore in eternal mourning, even as they looked toward the new day. She saw the curl of Genesis Rhapsodos’ mouth, as he gloried in his own bitterness. “It doesn’t make you a monster.”

Tifa shook her head, swallowing. No. This wasn’t something she could ride her anger through. That was what made it so hard. “I told you, Doctor Crescent,” she said. “You’re needed. Please. Wake up.”

She stood in the shimmering coolness of a magic cave, feeling the water soaking into her socks, and wondered exactly when she had unlearned a child’s wonder.

Not when Nibelheim burned, not quite. When she took an impossible stair down into a magical city too sick with fear for her friend to appreciate any of it, she thought, and then watched her die. So much had died in all of them, that day.

“You can’t hide forever.”

She waded forward a few more steps, the sloshing against her ankles very ordinary and unmystical. The water grew no deeper. Lucrecia wasn’t answering. This wasn’t like with Vincent. She didn’t know this woman well enough, and she didn’t dare punch the crystal to pieces. It might kill her. She looked up into the glow and thought at least Lucrecia was seeing her. Those lovely eyes were still open, and had fallen to her face.

“If you regret not being able to help before,” Tifa said, “the solution is to help now. You understand that, don’t you?” Nothing. Not even from behind her, outside the pool, except for a long indrawn breath she thought was Zack Fair. “Isn’t that your duty as a mother?”

Tifa barely remembered having a mother of her own. She had missed it, all the more fiercely for its vagueness, all her life, until she’d had too many other things to miss to think about it. Being the closest thing Marlene and Denzel had anymore to a mother—the closest thing Marlene had ever had, since she was a tiny infant—had been a matter of trial and error and taking her lessons wherever she could find them, and telling herself that she had to be better than nothing at all.

The one thing she knew for sure about motherhood was that it meant taking responsibility.

A mother…” Crescent whispered from the walls. “Oh, my child…

“You’re sorry you left him,” Tifa pressed. It was important for Sephiroth to know, and it was clearly a point that got a reaction. She didn’t know exactly why the woman had left, and couldn’t afford to ask right now, when the answer might be something the man in question couldn’t stand to hear.

The crystal whispered as it had before: “I’m so sorry.

“And you’re sorry about Vincent.” Tifa glanced back at him. He was still at the rim of the pool, sunken onto one knee with his long gold claws gripping the edge of the rock as he leaned forward.

Cloud stood behind him, pale in the dimness, forming with Fair and Tseng a staggered line along the wall. Sephiroth stood a little closer, enigmatic under his stupid cloak, which had been the point but now made her nervous. “Have you...apologized? To him, personally? While he was awake?”

I’m so sorry. Vincent. I’m so sorry.

Right, of course she’d fixate on that. “Okay, having apologized,” Tifa said, realizing very belatedly she’d now put herself in the middle of this when she’d intended to lurk in the background as much as she could manage, and only speak up to steer the conversation in necessary directions if it came to that. “What comes next? Because…I think you were always only going to get more sorry, hiding here. That’s what happens, when you let time get away from you.

"Because things keep happening, even if they aren’t happening to you. You’ll look back and be sorry that you didn’t do something. You should always do something. Sometimes that’s fighting. Sometimes it’s being there for the people you care about. But you’ll always regret doing nothing.”

She’d told herself, after Nibelheim, that that was one regret she’d never let herself feel again.

And then she’d been faced with the potential consequences of telling Cloud she thought his memories were wrong—of losing him, or losing herself, or or or—and said nothing, and at last watched Sephiroth use her silence to chip her friend apart like a raw egg. Until the thin shell of narrative holding him together gave way all at once and he sank into a puddle of formless ooze. Full of protein.

The egg metaphor pretty much stopped working after that, but the point was she knew. She knew what came of not acting. She knew not choosing was a choice. She’d known enough to lecture Vincent, and she was not letting this woman damn the world with her confidence issues. At least when Tifa had taken her week off in the face of the apocalypse, she’d been watching over someone she loved.

(If you ignored her indirect responsibility for Meteor then technically, by turning Vincent into a countermeasure against Omega, this overwrought mad scientist had probably done more for the Planet than Tifa, who’d only ever fought as one in a company of improbable heroes, ever had. But that hadn’t happened anymore and might not be useful again so it didn’t count.

And turning someone who loved you into a weapon wasn’t something Tifa was going to praise anyone for, no matter how many lives it saved.)

I’m so sorry,” Lucrecia whispered, a useless echo of herself.

Tifa bit her tongue. It had been so—not easy, but natural, with Vincent. She’d known the things to say, the places to press, how to get him to sit up and open his eyes and look at her, how to show him what hope felt like in your mouth, even if you couldn’t yet get it to melt onto your tongue and give you the taste of its sweetness.

But that was because she knew him. She knew where his hurts were, and how they had healed once before.

Doctor Crescent was a stranger. And she…wasn’t even as okay as Vincent had been.

She had more to be guilty about.

Why are you sorry,” Tifa asked, trying for kindness, trying for as little uncertainty as you could put into such a question, because Sephiroth was here and evaluating every second and he had to break right on this, and she couldn’t even turn around and see how he was reacting. “For how you failed? Or for what you chose?”

I’m sorry,” Lucrecia repeated, crystalline. “I’m sorry.

This wasn’t getting them anywhere.

Maybe she was past waking. Tifa had seen her outside the crystal, once, for just a few minutes, to speak a little, rambling and disjointed, and produce for Vincent the gifts of a fantastically strong gun and the key item for the Chaos Limit, which had turned out to be part of the contingency plot for Omega that it would have been very useful if the woman could have found the courage to explain.

She could come out. But she had gone back.

Tifa had assumed the first step today was to get her to come out, to meet the people she’d abandoned face to face, but maybe that was asking too much. Lucrecia wasn’t Vincent, no matter how similar they sometimes seemed. Even if, for Vincent’s sake, Tifa had wanted so badly to change the woman’s fate. Maybe she should just have focused on getting the truth out of her in a palatable form from the start, and planned to leave her here.

Hadn’t Crescent done something useful from her position entombed in crystal, anyway, during the Omega crisis? Vincent and Shelke had both hinted as much, though it could have been some kind of metaphor. Neither of them was much for detailed explanations. So it might be important to leave Dr. Crescent here.

Except Tifa had no intention of letting things deteriorate to the point that an emergency Chaos beacon was necessary, this time.

Of course, what you intended and what really happened weren’t even usually the same thing.

Sephiroth was still silent. Hopefully, that meant she hadn’t run out of chances or time. One more try.

“I know. You made one mistake, and it cost you everything. But you didn’t lose everything,” Tifa told Lucrecia. “You lost the one thing you couldn’t bear to lose. I know that feels the same. But it’s not.”

She remembered the feeling of losing everything. Remembered home and dreams all ashes and nothing left but her scars and her rage, dragging herself to Midgar and learning, inch by inch, to live again.

Remembered it again, waking in Junon weak as a kitten from a week in a poisoned coma, to find herself under Rufus Shinra’s power, the world doomed and Cloud lost and worse than lost, and her heart beating every second with my fault, my fault, my fault.

Because she had been selfish. Because she’d let his impossible falsehoods stand, afraid of what might lie under them, too afraid of losing him, too unwilling to hurt him, too selfish to help him. Because when Sephiroth had said, ha ha ha Tifa, why are you so scared by those words she had only stood there, because when Cloud had asked if Sephiroth’s lies were true she hadn’t been able to tell him no. Hadn’t been able to believe in him, even though she’d been too much of a coward to confront her doubt until Sephiroth had them cornered.

Please don’t think right now, she’d said. As if that was the kind of strength he needed. Don’t blame Tifa, said Sephiroth, the cruelest pretense of kindness.

It had made it so hard, waking up knowing what she’d done, how she’d failed; so hard to think of doing anything, so hard to fight, so hard to breathe.

But she had held her breath and reached the key and escaped her bonds and seized her moment and slapped the bitch down and run, forged a path forward for the sake of even a splinter of hope. Run for the sake of being able to keep on running. It wasn’t until they’d tracked Cloud down in Mideel that she’d allowed herself to break. That she’d fallen at his feet and wept and said I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’ll stay here with you until we can both walk out or both burn here, together.

The others had gone on without them. She’d known they would. That was what had made it okay to fall. That if there was another shiny golden wire of hope out there, she knew Barret would find it, that Yuffie and Nanaki wouldn’t lose the heart to climb up it, no matter what.

(She’d had less faith in Vincent and Cid, who’d both given up before and stayed that way a long time; even less in Reeve who had so recently been the enemy. But all of them had held the line and kept fighting, until she and Cloud were on their feet again and they could all move forward together.)

Still. If she had found this woman at the foot of Vincent’s coffin, she’d have understood. Not agreed, maybe, because in her opinion Sephiroth had been a situation Lucrecia should have involved herself in, one where she’d had obligation and could have been of unique use, but understood.

This…she didn’t understand at all. And that was clearly an obstacle to helping.

Cloud would have, she thought. Cloud who turned inward when he broke, who needed time to mourn and mend, time Tifa had always had such a hard time giving him—time the world never seemed to offer. Cloud would know what to say. Her Cloud. Her fragile, unstoppable hero. But he wasn’t here now. He never would be again.

Tifa turned. Cloud was solemn and sixteen. Sephiroth was lurking against the wall to one side of the entryway, now, near Zack Fair, with his hood pulled low, and she could read nothing on him. “Vincent,” she said. “Tell her.”

He drew an uneven breath. The claws of his left hand scraped at the stone. “I,” he said, as if words were suddenly unfamiliar on his tongue. “I forgive you. Lucretia. I forgive you. And I…”

He hesitated. They were so alike, caught up in their regrets, but Dr. Crescent said my sin and said over and over that she was sorry, while Vincent said my punishment and had never, Tifa thought, learned to apologize. Only to accept and to atone. “I’m…sorry I failed you.”

He said it like he knew it wasn’t quite what was needed, but still it was what he had to give. He nodded, very slightly, a dip of his chin inside the high collar of that bright cloak. “I forgive you. I’m sorry.”

That’s everything. That’s all.

Chapter Text

None of that had been what Tifa wanted Vincent to say. He didn’t even understand what his beloved had really done to him, it was far too early to forgive.

She’d wanted him to help her explain, to use his greater knowledge of the woman to prick her into action.

But of course that wasn’t where his focus had been. And maybe, hopefully, this was what Lucrecia needed to hear.

Vincent…” the figure frozen in crystal whispered. She sounded…not just sad. She sounded like someone standing on the other side of a window pane from something she wanted but had given up on ever having, and Tifa…softened toward her, a little, for that.

She’d always suspected, honestly, that Vincent’s Lucrecia had never really cared for him in return.

And maybe it shouldn’t make it better that she evidently had, at least a little, because she’d still done what she’d done, and to someone who mattered to her—it certainly didn’t make her more trustworthy. But it made her seem…well. It seemed to exclude some of the worst things Tifa had thought of her, in cynical moments.

But her relationship with Vincent wasn’t, bluntly, the one that really mattered right now.

“…you’re forgiven,” Tifa said softly, into the silence that had closed ringing after Lucrecia did not quite accept what Vincent said, because apparently she was going to have to facilitate everything around here. “Even if you don’t think you deserve it. Do you think you can let that go? A little?”

“…why?

Tifa swallowed. Well, she was certainly being paid attention to, anyway. “Well. Like I said. We need your help.”

I can’t help. I can’t do anything. I left. I had to go. I’m so sorry.”

Tifa wanted nothing more than to snap at her to get over it already. Brooding and mooning over things that had gone wrong never helped anybody ever, and if you were the thing that was wrong it was twice needful to do better.

But she thought of Cloud. Of how when he sank into himself it was always because he thought he was what was wrong, and all he could think to do was keep himself out of it, away from everyone and everything that could be hurt, because he could only make things worse.

Of how, even if it was important that he get up and try again eventually, and not spend decades rusting away like Cid in his rocket or Vincent in his coffin, pushing him into it while the poison was still dammed up inside his head had never really helped. He only got better when he found a way to move through the fear toward something.

When it was Vincent, the thing he’d needed most, or first, was to see he didn’t have to be so scared of himself, but…

When it had been Cid, he’d been dragged out of his pit by spite more than anything, but only fulfilling his dream at last had brought him real peace.

It wasn’t enough to simply accept, unhappily, that she couldn’t kill Sephiroth or drag Lucrecia out by force, and resolve to make do with words as a substitute. Doing the best she could wasn't enough. She had to make this work.

She breathed in. She breathed out. People had many different ways of thinking. This had been, in some ways, the hardest lesson of her life. She’d been brought up to believe everyone was the same, really. In their hearts.

“Alright,” Tifa said, trying to be gentle. “Let’s get it off your chest. Try to be specific,” she added, feeling suddenly like she was on her own doorstep in Edge again, talking Denzel through making up with the kids from up the street properly after having wiped mud in their hair for saying something rude about Cloud. “You want to apologize about Sephiroth?”

…yes.

“What about him?” Don’t say sorry he was born, don’t say it, I agree completely but don’t say it….

The frozen vision of a woman in the crystal did not move, but her voice murmured, “You can’t call me his mother. I never got to hold him, even once.

Okay, good. Important choice of words. “But you wanted to.”

Yes, I…” She wavered, a note like a wet finger wobbling along the edge of a fine blown glass, and then plunged forward into words. “Hojo said…he knew about my family history, that I hadn’t been quite right for so long…I couldn’t be trusted with him. I couldn’t hold him. I couldn’t save Vincent. I couldn’t… I’ve never been able to protect anyone I loved.

Tifa drew in a breath, shuddering. That cut too near, those words as sharp as freshly shattered glass from a woman she was not sure she was willing to forgive. “If he asked me about you,” she said carefully. “What message would you want me to share? Besides the apology.”

Crystal rang again. “What else is there? I cannot…I didn’t…you can’t call me his mother. That is my sin. I…

“Nothing else?” Tifa asked. Please, she thought. Please, lady, offer him something better than regret, you don’t know it but you’re in a popularity contest against a psychic space monster and all you have to offer is that you’re human so act like it.

Tell him I loved him.

Got him.

Well. If they were very lucky.

“Yeah?” Tifa prompted.

Tell him…tell him…

In a flat voice like rock grinding over rock came the words, “Tell me yourself.”

A gasp. An odd one, because it wasn’t the simple, inadvertent noise of lungs filling too rapidly—the outline of Crescent’s chest within the stone continued not to move—but the idea of one, resonating through the chamber, off every facet and curve of stone, and the water’s surface.

Sephiroth?” The directionless voice filled the word with a sort of terrified tenderness, a whisper that very nearly bled. “Baby?

In a clean motion that leapt from long stillness like a sharp blade out the far side of a victim, Sephiroth swiped the orange cloak off his shoulders to pile at his feet, and raised his chin a little further than was needed just to aim his face toward the woman on the dais. Lofty pride. “Not for some time now.”

Irony laced the remark, bitter humor, metal on the tongue like blood, and that sort of response was just what Tifa had feared—that a mother inconvenienced by being a corpse in a mako processing tank was easier to forgive for her absence than one who had been hiding, all the while, in a hole in the ground. One who had left.

The air chimed wordless again and kept chiming until the note was as if a bell could scream, and the light rose until it blinded, until Tifa had to duck her head and compromise between covering her ears and covering her eyes even though eyelids existed and earlids did not and so it ought to have been an easy choice.

But the light was just as bright inside her head as it was out in the world, and her forearm over her face was useless to block it out.

Then the noise and the light both cut out, and when Tifa lowered her arm and raised her streaming eyes a living woman stood above them, where there had been only a shape within crystal. As though the crystal had never existed at all.

She looked just as she had last time Tifa had seen her like this, yellow hair ribbon and delicate hands and designer shoes that were probably long out of fashion, white skirt and white coat and smooth features that did not seem like they could belong to the mother of a grown man. “You’re okay,” Lucrecia Crescent breathed, already taking half a step forward when Tifa’s vision returned, and then hesitating, catching herself with one high heel delicately placed on the highest step.

More or less, Tifa could already hear Sephiroth saying in that bitter, sardonic tone, but he stood silent. No one drew breath.

Mother.” It was almost but not quite a question, it tried for dignity it did not quite muster, and it ached.

This now was exactly the reaction Tifa had hoped for, supplanting Jenova with what had to be at least a slightly better influence. And yet it made her whole body flash cold and sick, as every hair on her stood upright, prickling. The memory was too strong, of that word in that voice, layered with murder and self-satisfaction.

I’m here now. Mother.

Lucrecia winced, still poised on the steps. “I don’t have the right to call myself that,” she repeated. “I left you.”

“You say you didn’t wish it.” Sephiroth tilted his head, hair whispering against the synthetic fabric. “But…you did not fight.”

Why didn’t you fight for me, he meant, but for some reason did not ask. Too proud, Tifa thought. Too damn arrogant.

Lucrecia ducked her head as if to look away in shame, but seemingly could not actually tear her eyes from her son now that she had seen him, so that the result looked more like a strange slow-motion flinching from a threatened blow that didn’t exist, a magnification of the first wince. Her hands wrung together, once only. “I’ve only ever been trouble to know. I was afraid they were right. That I was mad, broken…mad. That I would hurt you.”

“Madness runs in your family, you said?” Sephiroth asked it softly, his voice modulated now to be like velvet wrapped around a sword-blade. It was a voice to make death threats in. Tifa had heard it used that way, before.

Was he turning? Would Lucrecia Crescent die in another few seconds, for her betrayal?

Tifa wished for her materia. Her gauntlets. Her adult body. Any weapon at all, although she’d learned the folly of attacking Sephiroth with something she couldn’t properly use.

He didn’t have his sword; as long as that stayed true she could at least hope to survive long enough to build and release another Limit, which should inconvenience even him. Fair would side against him if he killed his own mother after her warnings, surely. There was Rhapsodos as precedent, and all. If they could keep him contained in here…

Doctor Crescent closed her eyes. “…my aunt. Three weeks after my cousin was born, when I was still a child, she smothered him. It was hushed up, but I knew. I knew. She didn’t live long, after. I was…heavy with grief and having visions, I couldn’t…trust myself. Not with something so precious. I’m so sorry.”

“It was real though,” Tifa put in, because they couldn’t afford to linger on the madness theory and let it solidify in Sephiroth’s mind and ruin the credibility of her expert witness. “Wasn’t it? What you were seeing. The thing you used for experimental material was still conscious, even though it was dead. You put it into your body and it got into your head. You figured out later it was real after all. Didn’t you.”

“I jumped,” Lucrecia admitted, the words dragged out of her.

There were flaws in her speech, now that it was coming from her mouth instead of the facets of crystal; the slide of a real tongue, the imprecision of real lips moving from one sound to another, shaving gently away at the corners of each crisp syllable; a hint of roughness from a tight throat. “I went up beside the reactor, where I thought I could feel…well, I went out to the edge and I fell, but she wouldn’t let me go.

“I struck the ground a thousand feet below light as a feather, unharmed. I tried to drown, but my lungs closed against the water, and when I woke up I was on the river’s bank again. My hand would go limp on the knife.”

In the present, her hand came up over her face, as though to hide her expression even though it had barely changed, a smooth mask of tragedy with a faint wrinkle between the eyes, and all the sympathy Tifa had not been feeling boiled up against her will.

Suicide was a coward’s escape, she had always believed. It was never something she had considered, even in her darkest days. Would never have permitted herself the possibility. But she had already known Crescent was a coward in far worse ways than that, and the kind of pain that must lie behind that, to trying again and again to escape from having to bear existence, and then having your own body betray you in the attempt, as Cloud’s had betrayed him at the Temple of the Ancients—

Well. Tifa couldn’t say she didn’t understand this part of the story.

“She wouldn’t let you go,” she echoed, gently, to show her understanding.

Crescent nodded, sharp and almost convulsive behind her mask of hand. “I tried to reason with her,” she whispered, and only the amazing acoustics of the watery cave meant the words made it further than Tifa in the middle of the pool. “I told her you were already born,” she said, louder now for her son’s ears. “I told her she didn’t need me anymore. But she said I was…a failsafe, in case the children died or never listened to her. To try again.”

“In those words?” Tifa wondered aloud, because she wasn’t sure she’d ever heard Jenova speak, but it still somehow didn’t sound like her.

Lucrecia looked up, roused a little from her remembered misery by surprise. “…I think she usually left it to me to supply the words,” she admitted. “That was part of why it took so long to be sure she was real.”

Tifa nodded. “So you came here?” she asked, and Lucrecia nodded. Looked up past Tifa at her son and at her former lover, watching her with such similar solemn faces.

But Tifa could see the sorrow and pity and love in Vincent without even trying, while Sephiroth—all she could be sure of, even now, was that he was displeased. And who wouldn’t be?

“I didn’t want to let her…” Doctor Crescent pleaded, with the two members of her audience that really mattered. “I couldn’t go to either of you. I didn’t deserve to, and it wasn’t safe. You were both too vulnerable, and I…” She closed her eyes and let out a little huff of air, like she was weathering a very small kick in the stomach, by far the most human sound Tifa had heard her make yet. “I came here in hopes this ancient place could contain her, even if she ate me away from the inside. That’s why I left you. I’m so sorry.”

The echoes of this apology faded, until the cavern was nearly as silent as it had been before they came, although the sounds of seven people breathing, the slight shifting of muscles that the more human half of their party constantly required to stay upright, and the way Tifa’s presence troubled the water all made the rocky chamber much noisier than it should have been.

Another drip fell from the growing stalactite, and over the soft redoubling crystal sound of it Sephiroth said,

“I understand.”

It was not warm or laden with absolution, the way Vincent’s acceptance had been. But it did not sting with cold either, and for the first time since they’d come here Tifa felt something in her chest unknot, with a certain conviction that Sephiroth was not going to kill his mother. At least not right away. And if he was going to kill anyone at the moment he would start with her, so for now…

She had definitely bought time.

“Is the voice still there, in your head?” Sephiroth asked, his voice still giving nothing away. There was barely enough intonation to mark the question. “Do you still hear her?”

“Sometimes,” Lucrecia murmured. They were locked on one another now, like the parties to a duel, but without the same flickering threat of violence about to clash. This didn’t relieve the tension. It just meant there was no obvious outlet for it. “She’s one of the things I’ve felt when I dream, all these years. Her. You. And shadows.”

“Do you expect to become a…puppet, if you leave this place?”

Tifa shivered. It was another word she hated hearing in Sephiroth’s voice, and a possibility she’d been trying to ignore. If she turned out to have gone to all this trouble just to create an extra Jenova…

“I don’t know,” Lucrecia whispered. “It doesn’t feel as inevitable as it did…how long has it been?”

“Twenty-five years,” Sephiroth told her.

“I’m sorry,” she said again.

“Stop telling me that,” Sephiroth said. Still with that odd detached tonelessness.

Tifa wished she was behind Sephiroth, with Cloud, so she had the leisure and modicum of privacy to fully experience the sheer terror of this discussion now going on over her head, outside her power to control, without worrying about disrupting it.

Sephiroth added, “You had your reasons.”

The tremulous expression only hinted in the direction of a smile. “You believe me, then?”

“It does seem mad,” Sephiroth admitted. He had folded his arms. Tseng and Fair lurking behind him, flanking the door, were still impossible to make out enough to read them, but Cloud’s face just past Vincent’s crouching figure was set, intent; the way Cloud always looked sizing up a serious opponent but without the confidence of many victories that Tifa was used to see backing that posture.

He was staring at Lucrecia, rather than at Sephiroth’s back.

“But,” said Sephiroth, “I can sense…” He shook his head slightly. “Tell me everything you know,” he said, suddenly crisp, “about Project G.”

“Gillian and Hollander’s branch of the Project?” Lucrecia asked, sounding more like an ordinary person than Tifa had ever heard her. Shocked, perhaps, back into her old everyday persona for a moment, by the reminder of the world of coworkers and project codes. “I’d need…charts.”

“A synopsis, then.”

“Alright,” said Lucrecia, with the unmistakeable overtones of a woman accustomed to humoring people wanting her to explain something complicated in sixty words or less, though a faint spasm crossed her face an instant later, only to be smothered. She folded her hands together.

With a flat professionalism that reminded Tifa of her son but was not quite so annoying, she began: “Project G was the other methodological fork of Professor Gast’s proposal for the JENOVA Revitalization Project. Project Lead Gillian Thorsby had been conducting animal grafting tests for over a year by the time Project S was submitted for approval, and then moved on to using herself as one of the human test subjects, to save time and funding.”

“It was her Project?” Sephiroth asked intently. Tifa wondered why this of all things was what he cared about, but…the intensely intimate way Genesis had spoken to him, mocking, outside the reactor, reminded her of Sephiroth haunting Cloud. But the way Sephiroth hadn’t really tried to hurt the pink creature in the ensuing fight…there was history there she didn’t know. And now he knew they were the same as one another.

Maybe that was the interest. A monster like me, Rhapsodos had said.

Or maybe Sephiroth already knew all about this Project G that Vincent had barely heard of, and Tifa never had before yesterday, but which Zack Fair had known about, and was testing Lucrecia’s knowledge. He asked, “Not Hollander’s?”

Dr. Crescent shook her head. “She brought him on as co-lead in case the process killed her. They started rushing their work once Hojo recruited me for his Project, based on their data.” She faltered, the professionalism she’d pulled over herself to cope with the subject clearly beginning to fail her. “Do you want me to explain it without reference to…us?”

“Don’t bother.”

She nodded a little, cleared her throat. Tifa turned and began sloshing back toward dry land; Sephiroth’s gaze hardly wavered. “Their other human test subject,” said the pretty, careful voice now coming from behind her, “was recruited from Lower Midgar for a certain sum of their research budget. Her malnutrition made her a suboptimal specimen but, as I said, Hojo had made the Project into a race.

“Direct infusions of cultured cells from the primary research subject had tended to cause miscarriage and death in their animal specimens, but allowing the cells to colonize a host organism, then infusing cells harvested from that subject directly into the embryos of the same species during gestation, had yielded a much higher rate of toleration.”

Why was Tifa surprised to hear there were a bunch of Jenova hamsters or something somewhere in the Shinra labs. She wondered if they’d escaped after Meteor and infested the ruins or Edge, or if Hojo had dissected them long since.

“The plan,” Lucrecia continued, holding Sephiroth’s complete attention despite somehow making creepy and world-threatening mad science sound spectacularly boring, as Vincent reached down to offer Tifa a hand up and she slogged up out of the pool, “was to use Gillian as a cellular incubator, to increase the primary subject’s chances of surviving to parturition. Hojo thought the Project G leads were being too cautious. He had a scheme laid out to take the concept further and faster, without need for the intermediate step of incubation.

“They weren’t,” she added, with a faint bite, and Tifa, discretely shaking loose water off her feet and wishing the atmosphere of the moment allowed for taking her boots off to tip them out, looked for Cloud before remembering that this Cloud had no personal grudge against Shinra’s Science Head, to appreciate hearing his opinion dismissed. He caught her eye anyway, and offered an encouraging smile.

Lucrecia said, “His process was flawed, but I could see how to make it work. Or I thought I could.” Her mouth twitched, slightly, to one side. “I’ve wondered whether Hojo came to me because he knew getting energy fields to synchronize was one of my specialties, or just because he sensed weakness.”

“You were weak?”

“Always have been.” The smile’s shadow now was bitter, but then her eyes found Vincent and it was nothing at all. 

Again with that cultivated flat distance, the scientist went on, “I started having fainting spells toward the end of the first trimester, but by then Gillian’s subject had already needed an oxygen mask twice. Gillian then abruptly tendered her resignation and moved in with a local near her Project staging ground. I found out she’d gotten pregnant only when Hojo had me put under guard to prevent any imitation, and had Vincent banned from the premises.

“Vincent came in anyway, to argue with Hojo, and was shot. I…didn’t find out until Hojo had had him in the lab nearly a week. I spent the next month and a half getting him…stabilized, and the two months after that repeatedly stabilizing you. I had some access to Project G’s data for that. He was a boy. The mother didn’t make it.” She swallowed, and the tonelessness had fallen apart enough for her to sound fragile as she told her son: “You were born a month premature, and as soon as I could walk again, Hojo had me barred from the premises as well.

“I don’t know anything further about what became of Gillian’s project. I’m sorry.”

She had wound up telling him more about Project S than Project G, but that was…probably a good thing.

Apparently disagreeing, Sephiroth said, “So there was only intended to be one subject of Project G.”

Lucrecia’s brow furrowed. “Yes.”

“Do you know why his body would have begun to deteriorate?”

Lucrecia shook her head. “I could only theorize. My data was limited to the gestation. I know Hollander was preoccupied with genetic profiling, as if a catalogue of genetic sequences is at all useful or informative, without context for what any of them mean when expressed. Gillian’s focus was on cell behavior.

“It might be a genetic incompatibility between one of his parents and Her.” Lucrecia shrugged. “Or him and Gillian. It might be something in my specialty. It might be something subtler.”

She frowned, and took another half step down the stairs that led into the pool. “Did he die? Are you…” Her eyes skittered to find Tifa, for the first time since Sephiroth had spoken. “She said you were alright.”

“I’m fine,” said Sephiroth. “And he isn’t dead. Yet.” It was hard to tell from the heavy-edged way he enunciated that last word whether it should be heard as referring to the implacable march of disease or as a personal death threat. Though Tifa didn’t see what in this conversation could have made Sephiroth more willing to fight his ex-friend seriously. Maybe he was just fronting.

Heh. An empty death threat from Sephiroth.

“Did you…want me to work on the problem?” Lucrecia asked. It was tentative, but very encouraging, in that an offer to help with something practical was more than Tifa had seriously expected to get.

“…no,” Sephiroth said. “It doesn’t matter now. Let him decay.”

Lucrecia’s mouth pulled into a concerned moue. She really was very beautiful. No wonder Vincent had fallen so hard.

Sephiroth took the single step he could forward without getting his boots in the wet. Not that he had any reason to worry about that; they went up past the knee, Tifa certainly hoped the damn things were waterproofed or what was the point. “You’re not mentioned in any of the documentation down at the lab.”

Lucrecia’s face raced through overlapping expressions—surprise, alarm, confusion and fear, understanding, before finally settling on a weary annoyance. “Of course I’m not,” she said.

“You mean to imply Hojo removed you from the documentation,” Sephiroth said, and Lucrecia nodded. “There are discrepancies,” he went on. “In the data. That make this seem. Plausible.”

Lucrecia’s mouth essayed a nervous twitch that might have had a family resemblance to a smile.

“I believe where your activities remain in the documentation, you are recorded as Assistant C.”

The frown there was pure professional offense. No one with a Doctor in front of their name had the humility to take being Assistant C in good humor.

Sephiroth folded his arms. The fingers of his left hand—his sword hand—flexed. “Why did you commit to the S Project?” he asked. “Don’t say it was Hojo. He can’t have forced you into it.”

Men had forced women into enough pregnancies, but the level of scientific work she claimed to have done suggested actual intellectual engagement. She’d chosen to experiment on her own child for a reason. It was a good question. A necessary question. One Tifa couldn’t have afforded to ask.

Lucrecia took a small, steadying gulp of air. “My mentor,” she said carefully, “Grimoire Valentine, was killed in a research accident involving volatile historical materials.” She closed her eyes for a moment, taking a beat for yet another regret, which Tifa appreciated since Valentine couldn’t be a coincidence and she needed the moment to fit that unexpected piece into place.

Lucrecia rallied. “When I presented the research he’d died for a few years later, it was rejected by the scientific community, particularly within Shinra. Too many of my conclusions rested on suppositions drawn from archeological data—fairy tales, they called it.”

She was still bitter about this, more than twenty-five years and a number of serious traumas later. Interesting.

Now she sighed, a different flavor of regret. “We thought she was an Ancient. Some of the animal testing showed promising psychometric results. If we could have recreated the Ancients, brought back their powers, demonstrated…” Her left hand made an elegant, impractical fist at her side.

“Your previous line of research would have been vindicated,” finished Sephiroth.

Lucrecia nodded, and left her chin down, staring into the pool. “I’m sorry. It was never that I didn’t want you. Please believe that. It was only after I realized how afraid I was to lose you that I also realized I—that it hadn’t been fair to you. That we didn’t have the right to…”

Tifa realized she was holding her breath again. Everyone was. The stalactite dripped another drop.

Sephiroth said, “Mother,” and stepped into the water.

She’d done it.

Planet only knew how much difference it would make, if it would save anyone, if the future she’d made would even be better for it, but it was done. Sephiroth was nothing if not singleminded. If he was wading across an Ancient cavern to one mother, he wasn’t going to be interested in another.

Lucrecia had finally managed to apologize for the right thing. It was going to be okay.

Motion caught at the corner of her eye.