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Our heroic party just arrived at Wutai for the first time. With Yuffie in tow, the unthinkable just happened. She stole all of the materia. Just realizing what has happened the party is trying to regroup.

?All right, everyone listen up!? Cloud begins. ?We have got to find Yuffie and get our materia back!?

General murmurs of assent ripple through the group.

?We have to split into teams if we want to find her quickly. The teams are as follows: Aeris, Cait Sith, and Red XIII you are with Vincent. Cid and Barret, then Tifa and I.?

?Why don?t we team up?? Aeris asks.

?Because I?m capable in the woods and need to check out there.? Cloud replies.

?Why does my team have four people??

?Isn?t it obvious? Because you are a magic caster without materia. You are also physically inept.? Runs through Cloud?s mind. ?I thought you knew that.?
?Because your party is in town. Since this has to be familiar turf for Yuffie we?ll need to comb it quickly.? Cloud turns to Barret and Cid. ?You two go outside of town. Tifa and I will go back the way we came and check.?

?That?s a lotta area, you sure?? Barret asks uncertainly.

?Yeah. We probably won?t be the ones finding her. This excursion?s sole purpose is to give her the impression that she is being pursued. Then she will probably retreat with all ninja swiftness to an area outside of town.? Cloud nods at Barret. ?Or into town.? Cloud nods at Aeris who smiles back.
?Anyone who finds her should contact the others via PHS. I have mine. Barret and Cid have theirs?Barret you should give yours to Vincent. Now each team has one.? Cloud looks at everyone. ?You have your orders.?

Everybody walks off to get prepared.

?Since we don?t have any materia,? Cloud remarks to himself. ?Might as well try this thing.? Cloud examines a weapon he received in Rocket Town recently.
?Seems to be a very good katana. Though old fashioned, it looks pretty sharp.? Cloud thinks to himself. ?Only two slots and those aren?t even linked. Not like slots mean much now anyway.? Cloud equips it. ?Yoshiyuki.? Cloud says, reading the name. ?There?s an inscription too.? Cloud examines the side of the blade. ?In the name of the fallen.? Cloud considers it for a moment. ?That is pretty cool.? He decides.
* * *
Tifa waits outside, anxious to begin her journey with Cloud. He is still in town buying supplies while she begins to pace.
?How will I ever tell him?? She wonders. ?He hasn?t figured it out and certainly has not let on if he has?I?ve been waiting so long I-?

?Are you ready to go?? Cloud asks, walking up.

Tifa nods.

?Good, then let?s divide the supplies.? Tifa hands Cloud her bag. ?Sorry, they were out of Remedy and just about every other status healing item except Eye Drops and Echo Grass. One of those we won?t be needing.? Cloud zips the bags. ?All set.?

They walk out of town.

?So, Cloud?? Tifa begins after a while. ?How do you-?

?Tifa! Look out!? Cloud yells drawing the Yoshiyuki and cutting an enemy in two that would have liked to do the same to Tifa.

Tifa slides into fighting stance quickly and high kicks an enemy out of the air, and then delivers several heavy blows with her Grand Gloves.
?How?s that?? She asks, turning towards Cloud.

?You?ve got to be more alert.? Cloud admonishes sheathing the sword. ?Now, which way??

?Doesn?t he ever think about anything other than fighting?? Tifa wonders to herself reaching for her waist where the compass hung. ?We are facing east now, south is to our right. Are we still going south??

Cloud nods. They begin to walk again.

?All he ever thinks about is the mission.? Tifa thinks to herself. ?Doesn?t he remember how close we used to be??

Meanwhile Cloud is on a totally different wavelength. ?I think we actually stumbled onto her trail!? Cloud thinks to himself. ?There is no way that I can tell how old it is but if she doesn?t know she is being followed; we just might be able to catch her!?
Tifa sits down suddenly on a log. Cloud, encapsulated in his own thoughts, continues on.

?He isn?t even paying attention to me?? Tifa thinks, as Cloud is about seventy-five feet away. ?Why? Doesn?t he even care?? Tifa then calls out to him.

Cloud does a fast 180-degree turn, sword drawn. Seeing Tifa thirty yards off he dashes back.
?What?s wrong?? Cloud asks urgently. ?Are you hurt??

?No, I want to rest.? Tifa replies.

?Well, don?t yell so loud!? Cloud hisses sharply. ?Do you want Yuffie to know we?re following her??

?I thought-?

?Or we could just catch her ourselves.? Cloud states. ?And save a lot of time!?

Tifa hangs her head in shame.

?I?m sorry I mean-? Cloud stumbles verbally a bit. ?Here is as good a place as any to set up camp. Sun?s almost down anyway. Can?t track a ninja in the dark.?

?Suppose not?? Tifa replies still looking down.

?You set up the tent. I?ll check the area.? Cloud walks off.

?When Aeris talks too loud or is caught off-guard he doesn?t reprimand her. Why does she get special treatment?? Tifa wonders putting tent stakes into the ground. ?What makes him give her leeway?? Tifa ponders just a moment and comes up with an answer just as Cloud returns.

?All clear.? Cloud states. ?Should be a quiet night.?

Tifa doesn?t respond. Instead, she starts the campfire.

Cloud stares up at the sky, looking at the first stars of the evening. ?Beautiful?just think, everyone on the Planet sees these same stars?? Cloud whispers.

?Those stars aren?t that interesting.? Tifa thinks pensively, not bothering to look up. ?Unless you compare them to me.?

It?s quiet for a while. The flames crackle and dance while the food cooks.

?The food?s done.? Tifa says suddenly reaching into her pack for the bowl and spoon she would need.

?Oh, okay.? Cloud replies, rummaging through his bag. ?What?s this?? Cloud pulls out a bag. He opens it. ?Sandwiches? She must?ve slipped them in here. Isn?t Aeris just a little angel??

Tifa grimaces slightly.

?You want one?? Cloud asks with his mouth full.

?No, thank you.? Tifa replies scooping beans out of the pot.

?More for me.?

They eat in silence. Cloud happily scarfing down the sandwiches Aeris left him. While Tifa eats what are now slightly burned beans with a bit of distaste. In no time they finish eating. Tifa begins to clean up, picking up the dishes and eating utensils. While Cloud is back to inspecting the heavens.

?He hasn?t glanced at me once.? Tifa thinks, putting out the fire. ?I could be on fire for all he cares.? She turns to Cloud. ?Ready to turn in?? She asks putting her sleeping bag in the tent.

?Sure.? Cloud says absent-mindedly rolling out his sleeping bag right there.

?You?re sleeping outside?? Tifa asks, somewhat shocked. ?That is what a tent is for!?
?Never know what could come upon you in the night.? Cloud says, still staring at the sky.

?And sleeping out in the open will help it come upon you!? Tifa protests

?Somebody should watch for Yuffie. Never know what can happen.?

?For goodness sake Cloud! She is a teenage materia thief not an expert assassin!? Tifa says, exasperated.

Cloud doesn?t reply.

Tifa sighs heavily then goes into the tent.
* * *

Barret and Cid are having an argument.

?Look here you, this tent is mine.? Cid declares. ?I bought the damn thing!?

?I don? care who bought the #@$^%$& tent! It was in my bag so I?m sleeping in it!? Barret yells back. ?Stick that up yo? pipe and smoke it, pops!?

?Listen you big, stupid %$#@*&$ I?m not sleeping outside!?

?Well you got me all kinds of messed up if you think I?m sleeping out here! Just ?cause you bought it don?t mean no hill o beans to me!?

?It should if ya know what?s good for ya?? Cid says grabbing his spear.

?Is that so?? Barret replies cocking the Heavy Vulcan attachment.

Just then they hear a rustling in the trees. Followed by familiar laughter.

?Hey you @#$%^&* thief! Get back here with my damn materia!? Barret demands. ?She?s gone?now back to what I was saying!? Barret turns back to a snickering tent. He stares at it a moment.

Smoke rings come out of the flap, which is then promptly zipped up.

?Aw hell naw!? Barret comments.
* * *

In a tent in the wilderness, Tifa contemplates something.
?Why won?t he sleep in the tent?? Tifa wonders, ?It is made for two people. It?s not like I asked him to sleep in my sleeping bag. He can sleep in a tent with Aeris or just about anybody else but not me. What am I contagious or something? I must be pretty scary. Yeah, that?s it.
Never mind that Cloud is willing to face Sephiroth the greatest SOLDEIR there ever was. No greater danger walks the Planet today?except for me.? Tifa has a sour chuckle at her own expense.
?He?s supposed to be my big hero but he?s petrified of me. He promised to save me if I ever got in trouble. Well I?m in trouble now. I?m dying of loneliness and you?re just a few feet away.
I just want to talk, is that so wrong??

Outside, under the night sky, Cloud is thinking as well.
?I fell over one hundred feet into her flowerbed. I thought THAT was luck that I didn?t die instantly. But, as the wonders never cease, I also arrived just in time to save her. Luck on her part, I suppose. We?re lucky to be together. Ever since I?ve met her I have been happier than I can remember.
But she doesn?t seem to be serious. She just seems to like people in general. Her mother says she met someone like me before; maybe she is treating me like this other SOLDIER. At first I thought she liked me for me, I guess I was wrong. At least she likes me though?? Cloud glances at the tent.
?She was off today. Not as aware as she normally is, not as cautious, she even burned the beans. She seemed preoccupied most of the time. When I tried to talk to her she seemed angry about something. I didn?t want to disturb her too much, but it was apparent that something was burning her up inside.? Cloud continues to stare at the tent.
?She wanted me to sleep in there. With her.? Cloud shifts uncomfortably in his sleeping bag. ?Not that I?m afraid of anything happening?? Cloud tries to convince himself. ?But she doesn?t understand how I feel. I still fault myself for that scar she has. I couldn?t stop him, I wasn?t there, and I wasn?t fast enough. I don?t remember much of my childhood but I remember the promise. I broke the promise. I didn?t save her. I won?t let it happen again. If something wants who is in that tent, they?ll have to go through me first!
It doesn?t matter how she feels about me, she probably hates me if today is any indication, I owe her that much!?
* * *

The sun rises and birds begin to sing. As dawn breaks one man is not too happy about it.
?Shut up, you @#$%^&*(!@# birds!? yells a large dark-skinned man. ?I said shut up!? Shots are fired.
The birds fly off, the morning is silent.
?That?s better.? Barret glances at the tent. ?Still sleeping like an old fart. Thinks he slick don?t he?? Barret walks over to the canvas shelter. ?What if I jus? pull up them stakes?? Barret thinks about it. ?Naw, that would be plain wrong.
But someone does have to call Spikehead an? tell him we seen Yuffie. Cid got the PHS though. He?s still sleepin?.? Barret comes to a conclusion. ?I?ll tell him to call Cloud when he gets up.? Barret lies back down. ?When I get up...?
* * *

Tifa wakes up groggily to light shining through the tent. She crawls out.

?Good morning, sleepyhead.? Cloud says by way of greeting, frying up some eggs. ?Didn?t have the heart to wake you.?

?Where did you get those eggs?? Tifa mumbles, rubbing her eyes.

?Rustled them up while you were sleeping. Lots of nests around here.? Cloud looks at the pan. ?So how do you want them??

?Scrambled.? Tifa replies, getting a plate.

?Me too.?

They eat in silence for a short while. Tifa trying hard to rouse herself halfway while Cloud just sits, enjoying his food still in the pan.

?Cloud; there is something I have been meaning to ask you?? Tifa begins.

?Shoot.? Cloud replies still chewing.

?How exactly do-?

The PHS rings. Cloud answers it.

?Mmm, hello.? Cloud says, hastily swallowing food. ?Don?t call me Spikehead.? Tifa laughs a bit at that.
?What? Where? Which direction?? Cloud asks insistently. ?How long ago? Thanks.? Cloud hangs up.

?Well?? Tifa asks expectantly.

?Barret says he saw Yuffie last night heading this direction, he isn?t sure. Lets clean up anyway she could be here any minute.?

Tifa nods and begins picking up dishes. Cloud starts taking down the tent. The PHS rings again.

?Hello.? Cloud says, phone on his shoulder. ?Good morning Angel.? Tifa grimaces a bit at that. Cloud doesn?t notice.
?I?m alright. Could you call back later, kind of busy.? Cloud hangs up. ?Aeris.? He explains, shrugging. ?Wanted to say hi.? Cloud finishes breaking down the tent, which he then hands to Tifa.

?I?ve got the pots, pans and the tent.? Tifa states. ?You get the sleeping bags.? Cloud nods.

The trees rustle.

?Yuffie!? Cloud hisses.

?I?ve got her, you catch up!? Tifa yells, sprinting away.

?Got it!? Cloud yells back finishing packing.

Tifa is running quickly through the brush. The trees above are still rustling so she is hot on the trail. She can hear Yuffie laughing.
?The whole thing?s a laugh riot, huh? I?m going to catch you and we?ll see who?s laughing then.? Tifa thinks.
The rustling above shifts to the right. Tifa looks up and loses her footing as she falls down a steep embankment. She screams then blacks out.

While behind Tifa, Cloud is running quickly to catch up. He can?t even hear Yuffie for all the noise he is making.
?So close, we?ve almost got her?? Cloud thinks zigzagging through the forest. He sees Tifa disappear for a moment then hears a scream.

?Aaaah!? Tifa cries, falling from sight.

?Tifa!? Cloud yells, sliding down the embankment. He begins to apply potion to her arms and legs immediately but is set upon by a large group of enemies. With a roar, feeling a rush of power, Cloud draws his sword and unleashes an explosive Blade Beam attack on them that rips the ground asunder with its force. One of the hapless monsters fires a beam that strikes Cloud in the chest before being completely annihilated.
Cloud passes out.

Tifa wakes up a short time later. She looks around. Near her is a half used hi-potion.
?Where would Cloud have gotten to that quickly??? Tifa muses to herself, picking up the bottle. She spots him a little ways off on the ground sword next to him. She calls out to him.

Cloud springs up, looks around and sheathes his sword. ?Tifa!? He exclaims running over to her. ?Are you hurt?!?

?No, I don?t think so?? Tifa begins, looking Cloud over. ?Cloud??

?Can you stand?? Cloud continues, worried. ?You took a nasty fall.?

?I think so.? Tifa tries to stand. She cries out and falls. ?No, it hurts too much right now. Cloud-?

?I?ll help you walk.? Cloud decides. ?Where is the PHS? Must?ve lost it, probably fell and broke?.?

?Cloud, you-?

?Where is the compass??

?Right here. It?s fine but-?

?Which way?? Cloud inquires, grabbing Tifa?s hand and pulling. ?Have you put on weight??

Tifa laughs. ?Doesn?t something seem different to you??

?You weigh a ton!? Cloud declares.

?You?re half my height.? Tifa counters.

?What??

?Look at me. I?m sitting on the ground, yet we see eye to eye.? Tifa explains. ?That?s what I have been trying to tell you.?

?You do seem?bigger.? Cloud admits.

?Now what should we do? Should we continue to track Yuffie or detour back to the plane we used to get here to see if we have Cornucopia, the stuff that fixes this condition??

?I don?t know. Can?t we go back to town and regroup??

?Not with my foot like this. I can?t risk climbing like this.?

?Then it is a good question.?
* * *

In Wutai, Aeris wanders around. ?I wonder what Cloud is doing?? Aeris thinks to herself. ?It has got to be more interesting than interrogating townspeople.? Aeris stops and looks around. ?My best guess from what I?ve heard is this is Yuffie?s hometown. There have got to be a million hidey holes in this town she could use.?

?Look.? Red XIII says, interrupting her thoughts. ?The gate.?

?Don?t sneak up on me?? Aeris mumbles looking at the gate to the town. She does a double take.

The Turks stroll through the entrance. With casual glances about, they walk into the tavern.

?What do we do?? Aeris asks slightly pale. ?You don?t suppose they?re after me??

?I do not know. I shall fetch the others.? Red says simply. ?We?ll meet here at the base of this cliff.?

?Okay.? Aeris replies shakily.

Red XIII turns to leave but looks back. ?Stay aware.? He mentions, and then runs off.
* * *

?Are you sure this is going to work?? Tifa asks unsteadily. ?Those branches tied to my ankle will help me walk??

?Yes.? Cloud replies. ?And it?s a splint for the fourth time. Now grit your teeth, I have to tighten it.? Tifa yelps as Cloud tightens the splint. ?Now it?s still going to hurt some, but you should be able to manage walking. No kicking though, as much as you may want to. It?ll break the splint and no telling what will happen to your foot.?

?Thanks, Dr. Strife.? Tifa says, smiling. She tries to stand and succeeds.

?Are you all right?? Cloud asks looking up at Tifa.

?You?re right; it does still hurt some still.? Tifa replies. ?But I should be able to bear it.? She looks down at Cloud. ?You know what, though?? She asks

?What??

?You?re really short!? Tifa laughs.

?Yes, I am. And while we are on the subject, you are kinda tall.? Cloud remarks sarcastically. ?Now, could you tell me which way??

?You look for yourself. The compass is right there, shorty!?

Cloud examines the compass then the surrounding area. Then again. And is almost ready to decide on a direction when he hears her snickering.
?What is it now?? Cloud asks, exasperated.

?You look like a little kid tugging on my skirt like that!? Tifa laughs again at Cloud?s expense.

?I am not a little kid and I am not tugging on your skirt.? Cloud replies calmly. ?I?m TRYING to read a compass so we don?t get lost!? Cloud finishes more loudly.

Tifa laughs some more.

?What now?? Cloud almost screams.

?You sound so funny!? Tifa says between giggles. Cloud glares up at her. ?I?m sorry.? She says, quieting down. ?Which way??

?Just follow me.? Cloud says stiffly.

They walk in silence for a while. Cloud walking rather quickly for his height with Tifa limping along but managing to keep up him.

?So Cloud,? Tifa asks, breaking the silence. ?Where did you learn how to make a splint??

?SOLDIER.? Cloud says flatly. ?They teach you a lot in SOLDIER. How to swim, first aid, all sorts of things.?

?You did a good job.?

?Thanks.? Cloud looks at the foot. ?Even with the splint you?re making good time over these rocks. You want to take a rest??

?No, I?m alright. I can handle it.? Tifa replies continuing on.

Suddenly there is a squawk and as quick as can be a large flock of local fauna has gathered in the air. None of them look very pleased to see them.

?You may have stepped into a nest there, Miss Lockhart.? Cloud mentions slowing his pace carefully as not to attract attention. ?Perhaps it would be best if we left this area??

?I do believe you are right.? Tifa agrees turning around as casually as one can while surrounded. ?An expedient exit would be very practical at this point.? Tifa tries to run. ?Ouch, this won?t do.? Tifa says, as her foot isn?t cooperating.

The airborne monsters begin their assault. Lightning begins to strike the ground, making black marks in the rocks. Cloud being smaller and more nimble, manages to dodge much of the electricity. Tifa on the other hand isn?t as lucky. As it turns out most of the attacks were focused on her. She is swinging at the mob violently with her fists, but there were just too many. To swing at one, three pecked her in the back. As the lightning begins to take its toll, her movements begin to slow.

Cloud having just looked back to check on Tifa is surprised to see her taking the worst of it. This glance was to cost him as one of the impetuous birds took Cloud for a meal. Abruptly Cloud was being carried away high into the sky. From where he is, he can see her. She falls. For Cloud this is the last straw. He feels a surge of energy and takes action.
?No!? Cloud screams, drawing the Yoshiyuki and cutting the talons from him. With a cry Cloud unleashes a furious Finishing Touch limit break in the middle of the air. The tornado makes short work of the birds.
As Cloud touches down, he can see Tifa bleeding heavily. He runs over to the bag and fishes out a Phoenix Down. She snaps back to consciousness hazily.
?Are you all right?!? Cloud asks, worriedly.

Tifa looks around, and then her eyes focus on him. ?Cloud?? Tifa asks unevenly as her vision clears. ?What happened??

?You stepped on a bird?s nest-?

Tifa shifts to a sitting position.

?Then the whole flock attacked you?? Cloud says to her mid-section
* * *

At the base of the cliff Aeris?s party convenes.

?So, what are we going to do about the Turks?? Aeris asks, starting the discussion. ?Any ideas??

?If we knew what they were after, we would be better able to formulate a plan.? Red XIII mentions.

?Is confronting them out of the question?? Cait Sith asks. ?They don?t look so tough.?

?If we confront them, count me in.? Aeris declares. ?I can fight, too.?

?No.? Red admonishes, ?They have captured you before.?

?How can you fight without any healing magic?? Aeris asks innocently. ?How can you fight without aid??

?That does not seem wise?? Red concurs.

?I just so happen to have the market cornered on support spells today.? Aeris smiles. ?Isn?t that a coincidence??

?So, are we fighting them or what?? Cait Sith asks.

?No.? Vincent says suddenly. ?Let me handle it.?

?What are you going to do, Vincent?? Red inquires.

?You can?t take them by yourself.? Aeris says dubiously.

?I?m going to try something else.? Vincent states.

?What?s that?? Cait Sith squeaks.

?Asking.? Vincent says flatly.

A few minutes, just outside the bar Vincent and party are gathered.

?I told you to stay outside.? Vincent says monotone. ?I can handle it.?

?One of us should go in with you.? Aeris reminds him.

?It is only prudent.? Red agrees.

?If you must come in, do it on my signal.? Vincent says, relenting a little. ?A single gunshot.?

All nod as Vincent?s face didn?t leave much room for negotiation. Vincent walks in. Three minutes pass, then five. Still no gunshot. They can?t hear anything at all from within the tavern. Seven minutes have elapsed; the party begins to become jumpy. At the ten-minute mark they all stand and, checking their weapons, begin to walk towards the door. They open it and Vincent is on the threshold staring at them. He walks out.

?What took you?? Cait Sith demands.

Vincent doesn?t dignify that with a response. He looks at Aeris. She glares up at him indignantly.

?Well?? Aeris says impatiently.

?They?re on vacation.? Vincent says simply.

?I am curious as to why they spoke to you.? Red XIII wonders aloud. ?Are we not enemies??

?It is simple.? Vincent begins. ?I?ve joined your group rather recently. I was a Turk in good standing. They were my comrades and friends. They didn?t know that is no longer true so there was no problem sitting down and having a drink with old friends.
You all and myself are not connected in their minds as of yet and that was all that mattered. We can cross swords with them another day.?
* * *

?So, you?re telling me that you using your Limit techniques is why you can see up my skirt?? Tifa says incredulously. ?How odd.?

?I may be a quarter of your height but I am not looking up your skirt!? Cloud says hurriedly.

?I didn?t say you were I said you can. Is someone guilty?? Tifa says chidingly. Cloud turns red in the face and she laughs.
?Which way do we go, my vertically challenged peeping friend?? Tifa inquires still chuckling.

Cloud says nothing, and remains the same color.

?I?m kidding!? Tifa says good-naturedly. ?Your buttons are too easy to push!?

?According to my calculations and this compass east of here lies the Tiny Bronco.? Cloud declares cheeks still hot with embarrassment.
?But that is a pretty hefty walk for someone in your condition to make after a rough day. I think we should rest.? Cloud decides reasonably.

?Next to the spring isn?t a bad place.? Tifa points out beginning to set up camp.

?I?ll just go scout the-? Cloud begins.

?No, no, stay put.? Tifa commands gently. ?Keep me company while I put the camp to rights.?

Cloud nods and takes a seat. He watches Tifa set up camp marveling at the simple things he could no longer do himself.
?I can?t even lift a hammer; much less drive spikes my size into the ground. Hell, I doubt unrolling my sleeping bag will be an easy task, lifting it is certainly out of the question. It makes me feel like a burden.? Cloud thinks darkly.
?Man is it strange to have to look up to her. She?s so big she takes up my entire field of vision when she is nearby. She has to bend over or stoop down to talk to me because I can?t see her face from down here. Sure is pretty though. Just wish she smiled more often.?

Tifa is lost in her own thoughts.
?I owned a bar in Sector 7.? Tifa reflects to herself. ?All kinds came and went through there. They all had one thing in common. They liked to stare.
Maybe it was the novelty of a woman owning a bar in such a rough area?? Tifa gives it some thought. ?Probably not though.? She decides, dismissing the thought. ?But Cloud never stared. Nope. I wonder if I interest him at all, I can?t tell?? She glances in his direction.
?He?s staring now.? Tifa thinks to herself. ?But that?s most likely because I?m enormous in comparison to him. That doesn?t happen everyday. I suppose I?m an amazing sight. I may even merit a second glance today.
What did they do to him in SOLDIER? He doesn?t stare like most people male or female. Heck, I?ve never heard him laugh either. Maybe Aeris makes him laugh?? Tifa walks over to Cloud.
?Hey, Cloud.? Tifa says, sitting next to him. ?How do you and Aeris get along??

?Hmm?? Cloud replies quizzically.

?Well, I was just curious?? Tifa trails off sheepishly.

?Her and I,? Cloud begins, standing. ?We get along alright.? He leans on Tifa?s arm. ?Why??

?I was just wondering?does she make you laugh??

Cloud looks up at the sky, thinking. ?I can?t imagine why this is important??Cloud mentions offhandedly.

?Humor me.? Tifa says stiffly.

Cloud rubs his chin and reminisces. ?There was the one time I found this pretty funny.? Cloud pauses. ??Maybe they think I have what it takes to join SOLDIER!? Aeris said that when the Turks came after her when we first met when I explained what they do. I still do think that is very funny.? Cloud says, chuckling to himself.

?That is pretty funny.? Tifa admits slightly envious. ?I never could make you laugh?? Tifa thinks to herself.

?Why do you ask??

?I?ve never heard you laugh, that?s all??

?Oh?? There is silence for a while. The fire burns steadily.

?Cloud?? Tifa asks, suddenly. ?Are you and Aeris??? Tifa trails off.

?Hmm?? Cloud says distracted. ?Didn?t quite catch that.?

?Are you and Aeris?close??

?Yes.? Cloud says. ?No!? Cloud quickly counters. ?I don?t know!? Cloud claims, words tumbling. ?I don?t think so! How am I supposed to know?!?

Tifa is startled by these outbursts; she had expected a definite answer.

?To answer your question,? Cloud says more evenly, ?I?m not really sure. Yeah, I?ll go with that.? Tifa laughs a bit at that response.

?So, what kind of girl do you like?? Tifa asks standing and tending to the beans. ?I?m just curious.?

?I don?t know??

?Would she have long hair?? Tifa asks.

?Yeah.? Cloud affirms. ?And a pretty smile.?

?Is that so??

Cloud nods. ?Beautiful eyes too,? Cloud adds dreamily. ?Can?t forget beautiful eyes??

?And big breasts?? Tifa asks, smiling.

?Definitely a plus.? Cloud agrees.

There is a pause. Then a giggle. Then Cloud turns as red as a tomato.

?Is there something wrong?? Tifa asks innocently, placing the beans in the spring to cool. ?You do like large breasts?? Tifa giggles again. ?Don?t you??

?Y-yes! No!? Cloud stammers out. ?I mean yes, but-? Cloud suddenly stops as she is giggling again.
Cloud, cheeks almost aflame, stares at the ground.

Tifa looks at Cloud. She can?t help but laugh. ?He tripping over his words is so funny.? She thinks to herself. ?Especially since most of the time he?s so sure of himself.? She sits down next to him.
?Cloud, did I say something wrong?? Tifa asks, looking down at him.

Cloud shakes his head.

?I don?t think you said anything bad?? Tifa continues. ?Matter of fact I enjoyed what you said a great deal. I got a special kick out of it, that?s all. No need to be embarrassed.?

?I can?t believe you got me to say that.? Cloud says after a while.

?What is so hard to believe?? Tifa asks amiably. ?That you said it or that it is true?? Tifa thinks a moment. ?It?s true, isn?t it?? Tifa asks nervously.

Cloud nods.

?Good thing too.? Tifa says relieved. ?I was getting a little worried. Wall Market-?

?Not this again?? Cloud gripes. ?I did what I had to-?

?You dressed up as a girl and got a guy?s attention!? Tifa declares incredulously. ?Ahead of me and Aeris!?

??? Cloud shakes his head.

?He picked you!? Tifa says accusingly.

?I don?t know, maybe you were all ugly?? Cloud smiles up at her.

?Cloud!?

?Either that or I?m just too beautiful.?

?You?re going to get it?? Tifa stands.
?It?s a curse, really.? Cloud continues. ?Don?t envy me.?

?What do you have to say for yourself?? Tifa, demands looming over him.

?Hmm?? Cloud replies, looking Tifa over.

?Any last words?? Tifa asks glaring down at him.

?You were right earlier about what you said.?

?What??

?I can see up-?

?Humph!? Tifa snorts fetching the beans from the stream. ?That was rude of you.?

?It?s not my fault you were right?? Cloud laughs.

?Very funny.? Tifa remarks, setting down the beans. ?Now, sit on my lap.?

?What?? Cloud stops laughing.

?Sit on my lap. I can?t have your eyes roaming everywhere.? She pats her thigh and smiles.

??? Cloud sits down gingerly.

?Take it easy!? Tifa says jovially. ?I don?t bite!?

?But your foot??

?You don?t weigh that much and I am not made of glass.? Tifa says as though it is obvious.

??? Cloud shifts a bit.

?Here, eat.? Tifa commands, handing Cloud the cup. ?And sit back, for crying out loud. It may feel awkward at first but you can?t sit hunched forward and eat while balancing on my lap. Sit back and get comfortable or you?ll drop your food.?

They eat in silence for a while. The beans aren?t burned this time and Tifa finishes first. She watches Cloud eat. He is using his hands and is not even close to finishing the contents of the cup.

?He makes me think of a little kid. Using his hands and making a mess.? Tifa thinks to herself. ?He looks so funny-?

?I?m finished.? Cloud says suddenly interrupting her thoughts. ?I can?t eat anymore.?
?What is it like?? Tifa asks dumping the cup.

?I feel like I am going to burst. I?m full.? Cloud replies flatly, giving Tifa a funny look.

?No, I mean the size change.? Tifa clarifies. ?What is that like??

?It?s disconcerting to say the least. Things look way different.? Cloud says. ?I?ve been thinking about it all day.? Cloud pauses.
My capabilities are limited. When I made that splint for you I left my pack behind. I couldn?t see myself carrying it much farther. Watching you set up the tent I couldn?t help. Can?t lift a hammer, too short to spread the tarp. Not even tall enough to see your face without craning my neck up.? Cloud leans back and looks up. ?Even then you have to bend over for me to lock eyes with you.
Makes it difficult to converse, you know.?

?I imagine.?

?Even now, sitting on you like an easy chair, I have to lean back to see your face. But it?s worth it.? Tifa beams down at him.
?The most amazing thing about this is you, though.? Cloud says reflectively.

?Really??

?You take up so much of my line of vision it awes me. I can?t really fight in this condition. That falls on you, my protector.?

?You took care of those birds.? Tifa reminds him gently.

?With a Limit skill. This puts me further into this condition it seems. At this rate how long will the Limit skills keep working?? Cloud replies broodingly. Tifa is speechless.
?You put up the tent, you cooked the food, and you will roll out the sleeping bags. You are my chief means of interaction with this oversized world. This amazes and humbles me most.?

?I had no idea?? Tifa begins ?I-?

?Don?t worry your mind about it.?

?But I-?

?Don?t worry.? Cloud says firmly, hopping off of Tifa?s lap. ?Let?s turn in.?

Tifa grabs the bags and walks toward the tent.

?Hold on?? Cloud says hesitantly.

?What, you can sleep in a bag still I know.? Tifa says entering the tent. ?You can?t be too small for a sleeping bag!? Tifa chides.

?Yeah?? Cloud stands outside uncomfortably.

?What are you waiting for? Get in here.?

?You should-?

?I?ll do the dishes tomorrow. Come on now!?

?Move my bag outside.? Cloud finishes weakly.

?What? I didn?t hear.? Tifa comes out of the tent. ?What is it?? Tifa squats down.

?Move my bag outside.? Cloud says sheepishly.

?Are you serious?? Tifa asks, smiling.

Cloud nods and Tifa?s smile fades.

?You do realize how stupid that sounds, right?? Tifa asks reasonably.

?Yes, please move the bag.?

?What possible reason could your have for sleeping outside in this state?? Tifa yells suddenly, towering over him.

???

?Do you know how many things can injure and kill small animals? How many of these creatures roam the darkness??

??? Cloud looks at the ground.

?Good question isn?t it?! Well you should worry, you?re a small animal!?

??are you going to move the bag?? Cloud asks not meeting Tifa?s eyes.
?Yes!? Tifa jumps back into the tent. She reappears with the sleeping bag in hand. With nary a glance anywhere, she heaves it into the brook. ?There you go.? Tifa says spitefully. ?Enjoy!? She flounces back into the tent.
* * *
Outside of Wutai two men contemplate.

?I been thinking.? Cid muses aloud. ?Numbskull never did call us back an? tell us nothin?; wonder if he?s alright?

?He had betta? be alright!? Barret replies. ?He took Tifa with him!?

?Sure is suspicious??

?You know what else is suspect? The Turks! When Vincent called I was already to go bust some heads!?

?Me too, @#$%^&& Shinra bastards!? Cid agrees.

?Ya know what though?? Even mo? suspicious is Vincent say Spikehead ain?t been answering his PHS.?

?Suppose we should look for him??

?Sun?s going down, won?t be able to find him in the dark. Might as well call?? Barret gives the PHS a go. ?No answer.?

?Did ya expect one?? Cid retorts practically. ?I say we start looking for him tomorrow. Go see the rest of them jarheads and get it together.?

?Good ?nough.? Barret concurs, heading for the tent.

?Not so fast, bub!? Cid interjects. ?That is my tent!?

?Look here flyboy, I say we take turns.?

?No, it?s my tent!? Cid insists, voice raised.

?Well, you ain?t in it?? Barret replies, cocking the Heavy Vulcan.

?This again?? Cid grumbles, readying his spear.

?Naw?? Barret says, sighing. He aims at the tent.

?Oh.?

?I say we take turns or there ain?t no tent.? Barret says point blank. ?You dig??

?Roger.?

?Now tonight I think it is my turn.? Barret says creeping into the tent.
* * *

Cloud lies outside on the ground. Contemplating, he stares up at the stars mindlessly, mulling over the day?s events for a while.
?Tifa is mad at me.? Cloud realizes. ?I suppose I understand but I just can?t bear the thought of something happening to her. I do not honestly believe I could live with myself if something did??

A hissing noise interrupts his thoughts.
* * *

Meanwhile inside the tent, Tifa thinks staring up at canvas.
?Cloud is such an idiot!? Tifa thinks. ?How can he not see that it is NOT safe for him outside? Did his brain go with the rest of him? I just don?t understand what could be that pressing out there. Unless he is actually scared of me?? Tifa think about it.
?I did yell at him and fling his sleeping bag in a creek because he insisted on defying me. That may be frightening for a really short guy. He may well be wary around me from now on. Even so he should remember I would never hurt him.? Tifa turns over on her side.
?He needs to understand that what I did was for his own good! I?m his sole means of interaction with the world and his guardian he said it himself! How can I protect him while he is out there? If something happens to him the one time I could do something about it I?d go crazy. The thought of him dying and not knowing how I feel about him saddens me.
I should?ve went ahead and told him dozens of times. Maybe then he?d understand-?

A clatter outside interrupts her thoughts.
* * *

Cloud springs up and draws the Yoshiyuki. The snake barely misses his strike. ?A snake.? Cloud remarks to himself. ?Oh boy.?

The snake circles Cloud and prepares to strike again. He barely misses again but Cloud managed to nick it on the fly that time.

?If I can do that a couple more times maybe I?ll make it??

The snake strikes again. Cloud leaps aside preemptively as planned and lands another blow with the Yoshiyuki. But this time Cloud crashes into the pot with the dishes in it and falls.

?Wish she had done the dishes before bed?? Cloud thinks, getting up.

With this delay the snake has already prepared for another strike. He strikes while Cloud is still regrouping. Cloud with no chance of evasion raises his sword in defense. He manages to parry the attack but the snake has wrenched the sword from his hands. It lands a few feet away, respectively.

?I guess I?m done for.? Cloud thinks. ?Tifa seems to have been right again.?

The snake strikes. Cloud?s eyes open wide. Then he is knocked from his feet as a foot slams into the snake?s head fractions of an inch from him.

?Ouch!? Tifa yelps. ?My bad foot.?

Cloud looks up at Tifa. Her face is a mixture of relief and irritation. He retrieves his sword and places it on his back.
?I-? Cloud tries to speak but her glare stops him cold.

Tifa sits on her heels and looks at Cloud. His face bespeaks of fear and shame. She moves to touch him but he shies away slightly.
?He really and truly is afraid. Of me. Of all people.? Tifa realizes. ?I was right.? She rises to her full height and turns toward the tent.
?Cloud, please come into the tent. Please.? Tifa says evenly, eyes tearing. She disappears into the tent.

Cloud stares after her unsure what to think. ?She looked so angry but not at the same time. I don?t know what she is thinking.? Cloud looks around. ?But one thing I can be certain of is it is not safe out here. She asked me to go into the tent. This time I think I?ll take her advice.? Cloud heads in the direction of the tent.

Inside of the cloth shelter Tifa is crying quietly, knees drawn to face. ?I nearly smashed Cloud trying to save him. He probably thought I wanted to hurt him when I reached for him.? Tifa lies on her side.
?He can?t possibly understand how wrong he is! I just wish he knew how much I cared for him. Then maybe he could understand.?

?Tifa...?? Cloud says tentatively walking in.

?Cloud?? Tifa chokes out looking at the tent flap.

?Are you all right??

?No!? Tifa snaps, looking away. ?You jerk!?

?Please let me explain.? Cloud asks plaintively. ?I sleep outside the tent for your sake.? Cloud says evenly. Tifa looks back at him.

?Do you remember way back when Nibelhiem burned?? Tifa nods. ?I was too late.? Cloud says walking towards her face. ?I couldn?t stop Sephiroth from slashing you. I broke the promise. It was my fault. I failed.?

?Cloud??

?That?s why I sleep outside. I owe it to you. I won?t let anything else happen to you. Whatever wants to harm you has to go through me first. It doesn?t matter what happens to me.? Cloud concludes sitting.

?It matters to me!? Tifa exclaims. ?I care!?

Cloud is dumbfounded. ?What? I thought-?

?You have no idea do you?? Tifa says scathingly. ?You have no idea how much I care for you! All this time and you still don?t know?? Tifa stops a moment.
?Just think of all you?ve done for me. All the times you?ve helped me. Back in Sector 7, Wall Market, countless random encounters, all those times Cloud the ex-SOLDIER saves the day.
I want to help you but you seem to be invincible. Always the on guard, knowledgeable, leader. Nothing fazes you. Except today something happened even you couldn?t handle. You shrunk and there was nothing to be done about it.
So you tell me that I?m all you?ve got. Only I can help you. Only I can protect you and what do you do? Sleep outside where I can?t help you! Do you know how that makes me feel??

Cloud shakes his head. ?I-?

?Like you?re afraid of me.? Tifa continues not minding Cloud. ?Like I?m a monster. You have the choice of a tent with your guardian or the cold wilderness where the animals roam! How do you think that struck me??

Cloud doesn?t answer.

?Next I can?t sleep. I?m worrying about someone very dear to me. Concerned about how he?s faring outside because I threw his sleeping bag in a creek when I hear a clatter. I get up and out of the tent to investigate and what do I find?
Someone who trusted me to protect him for once appears to be in mortal combat with a venomous snake! For that reason I act quickly, killing the reptile and nearly doing the same to this person. I wonder if he?s okay.
So I sit down and look him over and he looks back with terror in his eyes! I reach for him, just to touch him and know he is all right, when he draws back away from me!? Tifa begins to tear up again. ?Just when I want to hold him close because I nearly lost him! Then I plead with him to come into the tent just so he is safe from another snake feeling like the bad guy!?

?Tifa please-?

?So I slink back into the tent and cry, wishing he could understand how I felt and what he means to me! Or how I would feel if the snake had killed him!? Tifa burst out crying again.

Cloud just stares a while at Tifa. ?I really had no idea?? He whispers knowing she can?t hear him. He looks her over.

Tifa?s entire body is wracked with sobs. She just whimpers and coughs tears almost pouring from her face.

?I think I understand now?? Cloud says softly. ?I?m sorry.?

Tifa shows no signs of having heard. Cloud touches her face. Her eyes open and she quiets down.

?Can you forgive me?? Tifa implores.

?Why? What have you done wrong? As I recall, I was the idiot.? Cloud stands. ?I don?t deserve your tears.? Cloud says, shaking his head.

?I-?

?Did everything in your power to protect me. You warned me the idea was stupid. You told me not to do it. You threw my bag in the water to discourage it but I did it anyway.
So you sat awake just so you could save me from what you had warned me about. That doesn?t need forgiveness, that deserves a hug!? Cloud takes off his sword.

??are you sure?? Tifa asks sitting up.

?Of course! You look like you need one.? Cloud smiles.

?But-?

?About before? I thought you needed some space because you seemed angry. That?s all.?

?I would never hurt you.?

?I know. That?s why I am not afraid.? Cloud looks up expectantly.

Tifa picks Cloud up in both hands. Their eyes meet, he nods and she holds him close to her.

For Tifa the experience is like holding a baby. It reminds her of what Cloud meant when he said she protects him. It also brings to mind the feelings she has for him so she smiles and squeezes him a bit more.

From Cloud?s point of view the experience is like a roller coaster, one new sensation after the other. When Tifa lifts him he is newly struck by her strength and can understand why she may have thought him to be apprehensive. As their eyes meet, he considers how easily she could hurt him, and then dismisses it as he is suddenly pressed into softness. Cloud gasps as it occurs to him that he can?t breathe. He is just about to call out when sweet air comes to his lungs.
?I forgot to breathe.? Cloud realizes inhaling Tifa?s scent. ?She took my breath away?? Cloud cuddles up as she presses him closer.

?Cloud?? Tifa asks, jolting Cloud from his reverie. ?Are you all right? I-?

?Just fine,? Cloud drawls. ?Just fine?? Cloud trails off.

?Oh?? Tifa slides into her sleeping bag. ?Good night.? Tifa drifts off to sleep.

?Hmm?? Cloud hums as Tifa?s heartbeat vibrates through his whole body. Her breathing making him rise and fall. He descends into slumber thinking of her.
?If Sephiroth wants to try that on her again, he?ll have to cut me in half.?
* * *

In town Aeris is just waking up. ?Sleeping on mats is hard!? Aeris whines.

?You did it yesterday.? Vincent states.

?You would think the guy would have some beds, though!?

?It is enough that he extended his hospitality to us.? Red XIII affirms. ?You should be grateful.?

?I don?t have to like it!? Aeris protests.

?It beats the floor.? Red says. ?Inns don?t allow animals on beds.? Red grimaces.

?Try a coffin for five years.? Vincent says. ?Not made for comfort.?

Aeris glares at them both.

?We speak plainly.? Red says simply.

?It is the truth.? Vincent says frankly.

The PHS rings.

?Phone?s ringing.? Cait Sith says irately. ?Stop yakking about bedding and pick up!?

?Vincent.? Vincent says into the phone. ?Not answering is cause for suspicion. We can meet immediately. At the gate of the town.? Vincent hangs up.

?Is there news?? Red XIII asks.

?Yes.? Vincent replies. ?Cloud hasn?t answered his PHS since yesterday morning. Cid and Barret fear the worst.?

?Something?s wrong?? Aeris asks, sounding naive. ?What has happened??

?We don?t know. We are meeting Cid and Barret to discuss a course of action. Let?s depart.?
* * *

Cloud wakes up slowly. He looks around. ?Where? am I?? Cloud rolls over. Or tries to. A pliable softness holds him in place. Cloud begins to kick to get loose. He hears a giggle.

?You?re lying on a pair of ?pluses? to quote you.? Tifa says teasingly.

?What?? Cloud asks looking back at the smirking countenance of Tifa. For a moment he is clueless and doesn?t understand, as he is still quite groggy. He opens his mouth as though to speak then realization dawns on him. His color begins to change like a thermometer in an oven as he remembers both his comment and location.

Tifa watches his rising flush with glee. It couldn?t be any funnier to her. ?Did you sleep well? I hope I was comfortable.? Cloud?s color reminds her of Summon materia. ?It certainly appeared that way.? Tifa giggles. ?You must?ve meant what you said yesterday.?

By this time Cloud had reached a color closer to magenta. ?I, well, you-? Cloud stops. Tifa?s hundred watt grin makes him feel very awkward.

?You were saying something?? Tifa taunts.

?Yes, I was.? Cloud replies, reclaiming a bit of lost composure. ?You were right, I was comfortable. So if you don?t mind, I?ll be going back to sleep.?

?Be my guest.? Tifa says, astonished at the candidness of the response. ?Make yourself at home.? True to his word, Cloud is soon fast asleep again.
?I was just looking forward to teasing you some more?? Tifa thinks sullenly looking at Cloud. ?That?s all?? She goes back to sleep as well.
* * *

Just outside the border of Wutai the group is convening.

?All right, everybody here?? Cid says loudly, looking around. ?Vinnie?? He points at Vincent. Who nods. ?Nanaki?? Points at Red XIII.

?Red will be fine.? Red XIII says.

?Flower Girl?? Cid points at Aeris.

?Aeris, please.? Aeris replies.

?Cat-somethin??? Points at Cait Sith.

?Cait Sith!? Cait Sith screams. ?Get it right!?

?And you, tent-thief?? Points at Barret.

Barret laughs. ?Tha?s me!?

?It ain?t funny.? Cid mutters. ?Anyway,? Cid continues loudly. ?We are all here to do something because Numbskull#1 and Tifa are unaccounted for. What do we know so far??

?I called Spikehead an? tol? him we seen Yuffie yesterday ?round this time.? Tent thief begins.

?I called around this time yesterday too.? Flower Girl adds. ?He said he was busy.?

?He ain?t answered since then.? Cid continues.

?The Turks are in town.? Nanaki mentions.

?On vacation I might add.? Vinnie states.

?And Yuffie still got our materia.? Cat-Somethin? concludes.

?We have to add this up.? Cid begins. ?Numbskull and Tifa are missing. No contact since yesterday. Turks don?t seem to matter?and Yuffie still too slippery to catch.?

?We gotta look fo? them!? Tent thief exclaims.
?I know. I?m deciding the parties.? Cid says pondering. ?Someone has to stay in town??
?Who wouldn?t the Turks bother if left alone?? Nanaki asks thoughtfully.

?They are on vacation. It shouldn?t matter.? Vinnie counters.

?That?s what I?m thinking.?? Cid says lost in thought.

?If you are going into the wilderness without materia you?ll need me.? Flower Girl says resolutely. ?I?m the only one with healing talents.?

?You?ll need able fighters in the field with no back up.? Cat-Somethin? declares.

?I know, let me think.?

Everyone waits a little while.

?Eureka!? Cid yells.

?Who?s goin?? Tent thief asks.

?Me, Cat-Somethin? and Nanaki.? Cid says gesturing at them. ?You and Vinnie
are partners this time. See how he takes your tent thieving.? Tent thief grunts.

?Why aren?t I going?? Flower Girl objects. ?I?m telling you I can fight!?

?Cat Creature there said we?ll need capable fighters out there and I agree. You would be an asset and a liability.?

?But the Turks?? Flower Girl protests. ?They could-?

?Not likely.? Cid says, cutting her off. ?Vinnie here says they?re on vacation, didn?t you?? Vinnie nods. ?Vacation means what I think it means, don?t it??

Vincent nods again. ?I?m certain. I?ve seen them.?

?So they won?t be doing anything to anybody for a while. You?ll be fine.?

?What if-? Flower girl tries again.

?They?re wasted.? Cid says looking at Vinnie. ?Right??

?Past that.? Vinnie affirms. ?They?re heading towards alcohol poisoning.?

?They won?t be able to see straight for a few days, much less catch you.? Cid says.

?But-?
?Case closed. Now here.? Cid hands her a PHS. ?If you see Numbskull, Tifa, or Yuffie, call me. Take care of this thing, we?re running short on them.?

?We ready?? Tent thief asks.

?Yeah. Three days people. That is how long before we meet back here.? Cid declares. ?Don?t be late!?
* * *

Cloud wakes suddenly. Something is wrong. ?What the hell?? Cloud wonders grumpily. ?What woke me?? Tifa shudders under him. ?Oh, her?wait she can?t possibly be cold.? Cloud struggles to free himself. Eventually success is granted and he slips out of the sleeping bag.
?She is burning up!? Cloud says, feeling her forehead. ?What could be wrong? Tifa! Wake up!?

?What?? Tifa asks sleepily eyes still closes

?Are you all right?? Cloud asks, concerned.

?I was.? Tifa replies sitting up. ?Until SOMEONE woke me!?

?Are you certain?? Cloud demands. ?You were shivering and your forehead is on fire!?

Tifa thinks a moment. ?My foot hurts.? She says finally.

?Your foot hurts!? Cloud exclaims. ?Tifa be serious!?

?It does hurt!? Tifa replies angrily.

?Fine, I?ll look.? Cloud says. ?Climb out of the bag.?

Tifa slides out of the bag and Cloud examines her foot. ?Well??

?Oh no.? Cloud says, staring at Tifa?s right foot. ?This is bad.? He goes to fetch his sword.

?I don?t like the sound of that.? Tifa says uneasily. ?What?s wrong? Hey, what you going to do with that?!? She demands in a high-pitched squeal.

?Hold still.? Cloud commands, staring at the foot.

?What are you doing?? Tifa inquires, slightly more calm.

?I am preparing to remove a snake fang.? Cloud says evenly.

?Snake fang??

?The snake you saw last night.? Cloud explains. ?You smashed its head with your foot and a fang must?ve penetrated. Now, be still.?
Cloud takes the katana and slides it in beside the fang. He works the blade like a needle. Tifa gasps as the ribbon of steel wiggles inside her foot. Cloud handles it as one would a splinter and three painstaking minutes later the venomous tooth is removed.

?That?s what is making me feel like crap?? Tifa asks as Cloud shows it to her.

?Yes, it was.? Cloud affirms. ?Now, it doesn?t matter though. It has done its work, you are poisoned. If we could?ve caught it before you went to be it wouldn?t be this bad.?

?I didn?t know. I thought it was the foot I hurt acting up again. I didn?t think a snake fang was in it.?

?No matter.? Cloud says. ?What is important now is the antidote. I have to get you some or you?re in bad shape.?

?How bad??

?Towards the end of the day the poison will have taken full effect. It could cause heart or respiratory failure.?

?Okay?? Tifa says uncertainly. ?Let?s go.? She moves to get up.

?You are staying here.? Cloud states flatly. ?In the condition you?re in you could faint at any moment. If you passed out while we were walking there wouldn?t be anything I could do. At least in the tent is some vestige of safety.?

?Where are you going to get antidote?? Tifa queries. ?You wouldn?t know what to pick and mix.?

?I?m no pharmacist but I know there?s antidote in the plane we took here.?

?You have got to let me help you!?

?No way.? Cloud asserts. ?You would deplete your energy and harm yourself. Don?t venture out of this campsite, much less follow me.? Cloud takes his leave. ?I?ll right be back! I promise!? He calls over his shoulder.
* * *

In town Aeris sits on a cliff. ?They have only been gone a few hours but I am already bored out of my skull.? She thinks to herself. ?It isn?t fair. I wonder what Cloud is doing?? She dials up Cloud. ?Still no answer. Wonder what Cid is up to?? Aeris toys with the idea of calling Cid. ?No, I had better not. It would probably serve only to infuriate him.? She gazes over the cliff.

A beautiful view of Wutai is presented.

?Nice view. Can?t really kill the whole day up here, though?? Aeris thinks continuing to gaze over the landscape.
?Now there is a sight you don?t see everyday?? Aeris says glancing down towards town.

Reno staggers out of the bar with Rude close behind. Suddenly Reno flips out the Mag Rod and cracks Rude with it. Rude falls back, grasping his head. Then he stumbles toward the laughing Reno and punches him in the gut. Reno vomits and they both tumble down and laugh.

?Or maybe I can?? Aeris says, laughing to herself.
* * *

Cloud looks at the compass one last time. ?East is that way.? Cloud says decisively. ?I can?t take this with me, it?ll be too cumbersome. I can take my direction from the sun as soon as it isn?t noon?? Cloud walks off. ?But I don?t have much time.?
Cloud walks for a few hours. He?s been studiously avoiding combat but now he is nervous. ?Is this the right way?? Cloud speculates. ?I thought I would be there by now. The sun is in its setting cycle and it is behind me but?? Cloud dives under a bush.

Monsters fly overhead and stomp by. Cloud breathes a sigh of relief as they pass through.

?That is what?s putting me off schedule.? Cloud realizes. ?Having to hide every few minutes. I can?t change it though; in this condition I am no match for them.
In that case have I underestimated the amount of time it will take for me to reach the plane?? Cloud looks around, the coast is clear. ?It doesn?t matter.? Cloud concludes. ?I cannot fail.? Cloud plods on.
* * *

Outside of Wutai a pair treks on.

?Vincent.? Barret says while walking.

?Yes?? Vincent replies.

?Why you let Cid call you Vinnie? What gives??

?I don?t mind.?

?Why not??

?It has been a long time since anyone called me Vinnie. I liked the nickname.?

?Oh. Who called you that? Your mother??

?My former friends the Turks.

?So ya?ll were close.?

?Comrades in arms. That?s all.?

?So what?s it like bein? a Turk?? Barret inquires. ?Always wondered what exactly ya?ll stiffs do.?

?The subject does not interest me as I am no longer a Turk.? Vincent states flatly. ?Drop it.?

?Okay, sorry. Don? bite my head off.?

?It appears we have stumbled onto a campsite.? Vincent says, ignoring Barret. ?Doesn?t appear too old??

?Do you think this was their campsite??

?There is a good chance if they took the route we took. Cloud started his expedition around the same time of day as we did and right about now is when I would make camp??

?So, we makin? camp??

Vincent nods. ?Here is as good a place as any.?

?I?ll set up the site.? Barret volunteers.

?I?ll check the area nearby.? Vincent walks off.

?Yeah, you do that??

Off by himself, Vincent searches the area. ?I am completely certain that we found their campsite.? Vincent thinks to himself. ?I just have a feeling I?m overlooking som-?
Underfoot something goes crack. Vincent examines it. ?A PHS. Stepping on it can?t be good for it. It should still work. I?ll try it back at the site.?
Vincent walks back.
?Find somethin?? Barret asks.

Vincent holds up the PHS. ?Looks like he dropped it?

?Good thing you found it. Does it work??

?Probably so. Let?s see.?

?Oh yeah!? Barret says, remembering something. ?I got somethin? to ask you.?

Vincent stares at him.

?I looked through my bag and yours and couldn?t find a tent nowhere. Where is it??

?That is pretty obvious.?

?Where??

?There isn?t one.?
* * *

In the wilderness an odd trio comes to a standstill.

?Still no sign of them?? Cid asks.

?No Cid.? Red XIII replies tiredly. ?Asking more often does not change the fact.?

?I thought hounds could track people.?

?I am not a ?hound?. I do not see how many times I have to say that.?

?You said you could track ?em.? Cid says pensively. ?So where are they??

?I said I could give you an idea. Errant whiffs of a scent that could be days old on the wind are not accurate at all.? Red explains.

?You?ve been smelling it all day! Come on now!?

?Just because you smell something does not make it magically appear. Or did you need someone to inform you of that??

The PHS rings.

?Phone?s ringing.? Cait Sith mentions. ?Shut ya traps an? answer it!?
?The Captain.? Cid says answering the phone. ?Oh Vinnie, you found his phone? Trailing him? Good. We?re on a wild goose chase over here. Turns out Nanaki can?t track to save his life.? Red XIII growls at him. ?And Cat creature ain?t doing nothing but be cranky.? Cait Sith glares at him. ?We?ll turn in too. Maybe tomorrow these numbskulls will pull it together.? Cid hangs up and looks around.

His comrades don?t appear too pleased.

?Hey, what?s wrong? Did I say something??
* * *

Cloud sneaks from behind a rock. Cautiously checking the area he moves on.
?That is the fifteenth time I have had to hide!? Cloud thinks to himself. ?Night travel is quite tiresome. I walk ten paces then I have to take cover. This is unreal.?
Monsters pass by. Cloud quickly dives under a bush. He bumps his head on something. ?Sixteen times I?ve had to- what?s this?? Cloud looks at what he bumped into. ?A Remedy! This fixes all my problems!? Cloud opens it. ?All I have to do is use it on myself and I can get to the plane in no time!? Cloud is on the verge of using the Remedy but stops.
?Tifa needs help too. I don?t know how much longer she can hold on.? Cloud considers carefully then makes his decision.
* * *

Back at the campsite, Tifa is having a rough time. ?This poison sure has got me whipped.? Tifa thinks sipping some water. ?Sweating, shaking, can?t barely stand and having nothing to chew on but old jerky, my idea of fun.? She looks outside.
?I hope Cloud is alright. He said he would be right back. It has been a long time; I don?t know how much longer I can take it?? Tifa lies back down.
?I shouldn?t worry so much, Cloud will be back. If I rest some the time will pass quicker and maybe I?ll feel a little better.? Tifa goes to sleep.
* * *

In a hurry, Cloud has been running for some time. ?Got to hurry, don?t know how long she?ll last.? Cloud thinks clutching the Remedy. ?It?s my fault she got poisoned, she has top priority. Honestly, I don?t understand why I considered wasting this lucky break on myself.? Cloud dives into the shadows and continues running.
?Can?t even waste time hiding did too much of that already. If I run fast as I can I might make it in time.?

As if on cue the tent comes into view. Cloud puts on a burst of speed and would?ve gone careening into the side of the tent had a bit of movement not caught his attention. Only a swift reaction on Cloud?s part stops a snake from making a meal of him.

?What?? Cloud thinks, drawing the Yoshiyuki. ?Another one?? Cloud drops the Remedy.
The snake recoils and circles Cloud. Cloud is completely focused on it.

?Is this the mate of the snake Tifa killed? That would explain why it would be around.? Cloud considers.

The snake strikes. Cloud eludes the attack easily. He attempts a counter but the snake is far from reach at this time.

?This won?t work??

The snake draws back and strikes again. Cloud evades and attempts the counter. No chance.

?I have it!? Cloud thinks suddenly.

The snake strikes again. Cloud dodges and instead of countering waits for the snake?s retreat. Then he pursues it. Cloud strikes and scores a hit but the snake is more enraged than hurt. The return strike leaves a rip in his SOLDIER suit.

?I don?t have time for this!? Cloud snarls, feeling a burst of strength.

The snake and Cloud strike at the same time. Cloud uses a flawless Braver limit break and the snake falls in two pieces never to strike again.

?I did it?? Cloud wheezes, sheathing the Yoshiyuki. ?Oh.? Cloud remembers as the shrinking effect takes place. ?No matter.? Cloud says, now eight inches tall. He picks up the Remedy in both hands and walks into the tent.
?Tifa!? Cloud calls out. ?I got a Remedy!? Cloud looks at her face. ?She?s sleeping.? Cloud checks the foot. ?Swollen and discolored. This should fix it.? Cloud applies the Remedy.

The Remedy works its magic and the foot looks good as new. It looks as though the poison has left her body.

?Tifa wake up!? Cloud yells. ?Tifa?!? Cloud looks her over. ?She?s not breathing!? He dives into the knapsack and snatches two Phoenix Downs. He applies them. ?Please don?t let me be too late??

Tifa does not stir. Her eyes remain closed.

?No?? Cloud whispers. ?Not again?not again!? Cloud screams. ?Not this, anything but this!? Cloud cries out to the heavens with his miniscule voice. ?Why?!?
Cloud feels a familiar pressure building. ?What good will this do?? Cloud draws the sword. ?This is worthless! I would give anything to bring her back!? Cloud falls to his knees and pounds the ground.
The sword flashes bright. It gleams along its engraving, ?IN THE NAME OF THE FALLEN.? Cloud hears a voice.
?Will you pay my price?? The mystery voice asks.

?There is no price too great!? Cloud shrieks, blinded by the light.

?Will you risk both body and soul??

?Anything!?

?Then go quickly because she is waiting but remember this: you paid willingly.?
* * *

Tifa sits in darkness. ?Where is Cloud?? Tifa wonders impatiently. ?He should?ve been back by now. What I want to do now is wake up, I?m thirsty.?

The scene changes. A serene pool appears nearby. The whole setting is like sunset on the plains.

?It figures that a dream world would contour to my every whim.? Tifa thinks, slightly irritated. ?Now if only the water were real.? She sits down near the pool. ?I wish Cloud would hurry up. I?m getting tired of waiting.?

?Are you really, dear?? Says a familiar voice.

Tifa looks over next to her. ?Mom!? Tifa embraces her.

?Because we have been waiting a long time.? Says another voice.

?Dad!? Tifa yells, hugging him as well. ?What are you doing here??

?Waiting?for you.? Tifa?s dad explains.

?In a dream world?? Tifa questions.

?No, at the entrance to the Lifestream.? Tifa?s mom replies. ?We wanted to see you one last time.?

?Lifestream??? Tifa looks up. ?This can?t be real?? A green portal glows above them.

?Yes, Angel. We?ve been waiting for you to come with us.? Tifa?s parents look at here expectantly.

?I was waiting for Cloud?? Tifa says softly.

?He isn?t coming.? Tifa?s mom says. ?It?s not his time.?

?But he promised?? Tifa protests.

?He can?t come here.? Tifa?s dad cautions her. ?Otherwise that would me he too is ready to return to the Planet. Is that what you want??

?No?? Tifa says hesitantly.

?Didn?t you say you were tired of waiting?? Tifa?s mom reminds her.

?Yes, but-?

?We?ve been waiting so long, too. We just wanted to do one last thing as a family.?

?I wanted him to know how I felt about him before I?? Tifa trails off. She sits, knees drawn to her face.

?It?s okay honey.? Tifa?s mom says, sitting next to her.

?We can wait.? Tifa?s dad affirms putting a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

??no.? Tifa says quietly. ?No, that isn?t right.? Tifa stands. ?You?ve waited long enough. We can go.? They begin to ascend.

?No, Tifa don?t!? Cries out a small voice.

?What?? Tifa stops rising.

?What?s wrong, dear??

?We?re almost there.?

?Please don?t go!? Pleads the tiny voice.

?Cloud?? Tifa ventures unsteadily.

?I need you, Tifa please don?t go!? Cloud implores.

?Cloud I can?t see you. Where are you??

?I?m down here. Please come back.?

?I can barely hear you. Please come closer.?

?I can?t. Or else I?ll be swept away. Please return to me!?

?They have been waiting so long, I can?t do this to them.? Tifa looks up at her parents. They smile wanly.

?I can?t survive without your help! I beg you please!?

?I?m sorry.?

?I can?t go on without you!?

?You can. Go back with my love. I have always wanted to tell you that I love you.? Tifa looks up. ?Farewell.?

?No!? Cloud yells. ?Then I?m going, too!? Cloud begins to float away.

?Cloud?? Tifa gasps looking back.

?I just can?t go on without you.? Cloud soars past Tifa quickly.

Tifa?s parents watch the event unfold with growing concern. Their eyes meet.

?It isn?t his time.? Tifa?s father says.

?No, not hers either if he came for her.? Tifa?s mother agrees. She catches Cloud with one hand. ?Tifa.? She says, floating down to Tifa?s level. ?Take him and go back.? She hands Tifa Cloud.

?But mom??

?It?s okay. We got to see you once more. It was worth the wait.?

?Dad??

?Hold him tight and go with our blessings.? Tifa?s mom calls. ?You make a cute couple!?

?Goodbye Angel.?

Tifa?s parents disappear as Tifa and Cloud drift to the ground. An old man awaits them there.

?Thank you, young fighter.? He begins, bowing. ?You have released my soul.?

?Your voice, then it was you?? Cloud whispers. ?It was your sword??

The old man nods. ?Yes, I have always fought for and honored the fallen. By allowing me to do that once more, with your help I was freed.? The warrior fades away. Cloud gazes after him. Then he wakes up.

Cloud gazes at the sword. Along the engraving it flashes once more then turns to dust. Cloud takes another perspective change, and then turns his attention to Tifa, whose eyes have just opened. Their gazes lock.
Cloud rises to his full four inch height. ?I love you Tifa.? He says solemnly.

?I love you, too.? Tifa replies, holding Cloud tight.
* * *

Barret and Vincent wake early.

?What the?? Barret mumbles noting Vincent leaning on the tree next to him. ?How long you been up??

?The question is whether I still sleep at all.? Vincent replies.

?What?? Barret asks, confused.

?Never mind.? Vincent says, standing. ?I have something to show you.? He walks off.

?Wait a sec?let me get up!? Barret calls after him. ?Damn vampire?? He mutters to himself hustling off. He catches up to Vincent.
?What the hell is so damn important??

Vincent points at a cliff.

?A cliff, big deal.?

?Look over it.? Vincent says patiently.

Barret walks over to it. ?It looks pretty steep.? He says checking it out. ?Your point??

?Look closer. Can you see something at the bottom of it?? Vincent asked exasperatedly.

?Yeah, looks like a backpack or sumthin??wait you think it?s one of theirs??

?That is extremely likely.? Vincent affirms. ?It bears investigation.? He sets his bag down and bounds over the side.

?What the $%@*? You stupid *@#$^&($#@+$!? Barret yells.
?Come down here.?

?You can?t be serious! You got to be out of yo? mind!?

Vincent does not respond.

?What about the camp??

?You have the bags. What else was there??

Barret thinks back. Camp wasn?t much more than packed sandwiches and sleeping on rocks. He rolls the bags down the embankment.
?You don? expect me to hop on down there, do you??

?Whatever it takes. Don?t be all day.?

Barret thinks about it. He looks down and then he backs up. ?Can?t use no rope or handhold?? He considers. ?Damn this gun-arm!? He runs forward and takes a blind leap. ?Aaahhh!? Barret hits the ground with considerable force.
?#$%@, that hurt!?

?What did you expect?? Vincent asks. ?More to the point, I thought you weren?t jumping??

?What did you think I was gonna do?? Barret demands. ?Use a rope? Maybe climb on down by hand?? Barret points to his gun-arm angrily.

?Not much choice I see.?

?Cloud makes this look so damn easy?? Barret gripes standing. Or trying to. ?&*#$!?

?Ankle damaged?? Vincent asks.

?Best guess.? Barret affirms.

Vincent draws the Quicksilver.

?Hey, take it easy!? Barret responds anxiously.

Vincent fires. A monster falls behind Barret. He fires again and again at what appears to be a large group. Barret, catching on, lets Heavy Vulcan fire shower the enemies at Vincent?s back. The lead spewing duo ultimately eradicates the horde after a long battle.

?What the hell was that all about?? Barret yells, lying back on the ground.

?It is a part of my hypothesis.? Vincent replies.

?What? Huh??

?About what exactly happened here before.? Vincent says by way of explanation. ?When I jumped down here I noticed a large number of monster carcasses. They were mostly obliterated. I also noticed empty potion bottles useful in treating injuries from a fall. Scrapes and bruises and the like.
Do you follow so far??

?Naw, not quite.? Barret admits.

?You came off the cliff with a running start?? Vincent asks. ?And landed down here? Somewhat bruised up, right??

?Yeah??

?If I had immediately moved to aid you, the monsters would have surprised us. Correct??

?I guess.?

?Surprised angry or hurt a Limit Break could occur, right? Like the one that obliterated such a group as the one I see.?

?The ones that came before.? Barret says, catching on.

?Yes. Now your ankle is hurt. What do you do to treat an injured ankle in the field??

?Make a splint.? Barret says with confidence.

?What would you use for that??

?Something solid. Sticks or something and some kind of something to bind it with, a rope or strap or something.?

?Like this one?? Vincent holds up the knapsack with the missing strap.

?Yeah!?

?Injured party leaves bag behind and limps off with noticeable tracks.?

?Now, we got somethin?!? Barret exclaims. ?Nice work!?

?All a part of being a Turk.?
?Now, I think I will need a splint.?
* * *

Cid and his party are in a furious battle.

?You said they went this way!? Cid yells. ?Real smart. So busy trying to track them ya didn?t notice ya walked into a monster nest!?

?They did pass through here! I know that much!? Red XIII counters. ?It is not my fault!? Red yells, avoiding lightning.

?Who cares?? Cait Sith laughs gleefully. ?It beats boredom!?

?Stupid mutt?? Cid mutters stabbing at a flock of birds. Lightning hits the spear. ?Aaah!?

?What did you say?? Red growls angrily.

?Called you a stupid mutt?? Cid grumbles, prone on the ground.

Red XIII roars and a powerful Stardust Ray limit break destroys all the monsters in sight.

?Aww, I was just getting started?? Cait Sith whines.

?You were saying something?? Red snarls at Cid, mane bristling.

?No, nothing!? Cid says hastily. ?I took a real bad shock; I?m not sure what I said!?

Red XIII advances on Cid. The PHS rings.

?Let him answer the phone.? Cait Sith says reasonably. ?Rend him later.?

?The Captain.? Cid says, answering the phone. ?Oh, ya have? I don?t think that means much. Though that might mean something. Could be better. We ended up in a monster nest. We might stumble onto something, though. Keep me posted.?

?What is it?? Cait Sith asks.

?They found one of their backpacks and have some kooky theory on how things may have happened. More importantly they found the trail so maybe we can end this excursion early.?
* * *

Cloud wakes up slowly, looking around. Tifa?s hand lies across his chest keeping him pinned to hers.

?Somebody is stuck on me.? Cloud thinks to himself, trying to contort his way free. ?Rather I?m a bit stuck on somebody.? He realizes unable to liberate himself.

?Hmm?? Tifa hums, shifting under Cloud. Her eyes open. ?Morning.? She says, eyes focusing.

?Good morning.? Cloud replies. ?Can?t really get up?? He mentions, trying to budge Tifa?s hand.

?Oh.? Tifa giggles. ?Sorry.? She releases him. ?You?re so cute!? Cloud blushes. ?I could just eat you up.? Cloud blanches visibly at that thought.
?Just kidding.? Tifa says easily. ?Too cute to eat.?

?No matter what you say, compliments or not, you still have to get up.? Cloud says firmly.

?Aww?? Tifa pouts. ?Really??

?Yes. Now come on.? Cloud cajoles. ?Get up.?

Tifa sits upright. ?Is this enough??

?No, let?s get up and get ready to go.? Cloud says, leaving the tent and going outside.

A few minutes later Tifa emerges from the tent. She stands up and stretches; arching her back until audible pops are heard then stops suddenly and resumes normal posture. All while yawning loudly.
Cloud just watches in awe at the display. It is his first time seeing her at full height since his reductions and his mouth has fallen open.

?I?m up.? Tifa says aloud. ?Where are- there you are.? Tifa glances down next to her. ?My, aren?t we rude today?? She says, noting Cloud?s gaping jaw. She takes a closer look.
?You?re filthy!? Tifa says accusingly. ?What is all this crud all over you? Your suit is torn too, what have you been doing??

?Well I-? Cloud tries to explain.

?Doesn?t matter! Someone needs a bath!? Tifa snatches Cloud up in one hand and begins to rummage through the bag with the other.

?Tifa, I can do it myself.? Cloud says, trying to squirm free.
?Then, why didn?t you??

?I was-? Cloud begins.

?Cloud. You are coated in crap.? Tifa says forcefully interrupting him. ?There is no excuse.? She finds what she is looking for. ?Here we go! Soap!? She holds up a container of liquid soap triumphantly.

?Thanks, I?ll take it from here.? Cloud says nonchalantly. ?Just put me down-?

?No, I can handle it.? Tifa reassures him, walking toward the spring.

?Really I would prefer to blb blub!? Cloud tries to say as he is thrust into the water.

?Now for lather.? Tifa applies soap directly to Cloud and rubs it on.

?That is very cold wa-? Cloud takes another dunking.

?What the hell is this stuff?? Tifa remarks, scrubbing. ?Dirt, twigs, blood?blood! Cloud, are you all right??

?I?m cold!? Cloud says emphatically. ?But I?m okay, it isn?t mine.?

?See, it isn?t so bad is it?? Tifa says, applying more soap.

Cloud harrumphs. He is actually beginning to enjoy the feeling of Tifa?s fingertips on him, but he isn?t letting on. Though it is soothing, he resents the little kid treatment.

?Even in your hair?? Tifa murmurs to herself. ?That is simply atrocious.? She applies even more soap.

Cloud is relaxing and losing touch with reality until he feels something. At first it doesn?t bother him, but gradually it brings him out of his trance. He is suspicious and Tifa?s muttering is slightly in his ear. Then he feels pressure on his head and now danger is apparent. Cloud begins to violently thrash about.

?What the?? Tifa says, taken by surprise.

?MY HAIR!? Cloud screeches, slipping out of Tifa?s hands.

?Oh no you don?t!? Tifa lunges for the loose SOLDIER. She catches him but falls into the brook. She is now soaking wet.

?No, no, no, stop please!? Cloud screams lamenting. ?Anything but the hair, anything but the hair!?

?You?re going to get it.? Tifa says with a quiet fury. ?If it is the last thing I do.? Tifa pulls herself out of the creek.

Cloud resists but it is useless now. Tifa has him in a vice-grip and is not letting go. He can only bewail his cool hairstyle as she angrily destroys it.
He beholds his dripping wet captor with a wry grin though. Her T-shirt is wet. He doesn?t mention it and staring so intently at it he gets soap in the eye.

?Done.? Tifa declares releasing him. ?How could you go on covered in all that mess??

Cloud says nothing. He walks over to the stream and looks into it. He wipes his eyes and looks again. Indeed his hair is ruined. A low moan escapes him and he covers his face.
* * *

Vincent and Barret take it slow following Cloud and Tifa?s trail.

?Thanks for splintin? my ankle.? Barret says.

?It was nothing.? Vincent replies.

?How much longer do you s?pose the trail lasts??

?Can?t be sure. There is no way to tell.

Barret nods and they walk in silence for a bit longer. Until Vincent breaks it.

?I thought this might happen.? Vincent says suddenly.

?What? What?s happenin??? Barret asks hurriedly.

?There Cid and the others are, ahead.?

?What does that mean??

?They are tracking backwards along the trail without realizing it.?

?Well, when you go somewhere there is usually only one right way.? Barret says matter-of-factly.

?This is going to be an awkward moment. I hope he won?t dispute too much about it.? Vincent dials Cid on the PHS. ?Stay where you are. Do not move.? Vincent instructs them.
Vincent and Barret hurry as quickly as possible and try to explain.

?So you?re telling me that ever since we caught the trail, we been bass ackwards?? Cid says slowly. ?Do you know what that means??

Vincent is fully prepared for an outburst, hand not far from holster. Barret looks uneasy as well.

?That our tracker made a wrong turn!? Cid says, laughing. ?Do you know how bad Nanaki is at this? I bet Cat creature could follow a scent better than that and it don?t even have a nose!? Cid laughs again while Red XIII growls.

?You believe us?? Vincent asks dubiously.

?Of course!? Cid replies. ?Ya?ll found the phone and the backpack. An? I wouldn?t put it past Nanaki here to track backwards as unsure he was of the way. I?m amazed he found the trail at all, backwards or not!?

?It is harder than it appears to be!? Red XIII objects.

?So we?s givin? it a go together?? Barret asks.

?Yeah.? Cid affirms. ?Let?s take a break then back to the trail. The right way this time!? Cid looks at Red.

?I do not recall seeing you strain your nose?? Red thinks to himself. ?Ingrate.?
* * *

?Ready to go?? Cloud asks morosely as he fiddles with his wreck of a hairstyle.

?Yeah. We?re all packed up.? Tifa scrutinizes Cloud. ?The only thing left is to figure out how to carry you??

?I can?t walk?? Cloud feigns surprise.

?No, we?d never get anywhere.? Tifa replies. ?I don?t have any pockets and the backpack is out of the question??

?How about your ear?? Cloud suggests. ?I could hold onto your hair and you could still hear me.?

?Not a bad idea.? Tifa places Cloud on her outer ear. ?Hold on.? And she begins to walk. ?You all right up there??
?Yeah.? Cloud replies swallowing hard and looking down at the ground with a sinking feeling. ?How is the ankle?? He says trying to wrench his eyes away from the terrain. ?Still hurts?? Tifa nods and Cloud is treated to a bit of turbulence and his breakfast expressing a want of fresh air.

?Not so much now, though. I don?t think I injured it too badly.? Tifa finishes.

?Good to hear.? Cloud thinks, holding his stomach with one hand and his safety line with the other.

They walk for a time in silence. Cloud debating with his stomach about how it shouldn?t lurch about and should keep quiet. Tifa simply cogitates about something that has the source of much mystery to her for the last few days.

?Cloud.? Tifa says. ?I have a question.?

?Shoot.?

?Did you ever figure out why you? shrunk??

?I have been trying to piece it together.?

?Come up with something??

?Yes. I believe it had something to do with the sword I was equipping.?

?The sword?? Tifa thinks a moment. ?Where is it? I haven?t seen it since-?

?I?ll explain.? Cloud interrupts. ?Mostly it seems to be because of you.?

?Me??

?Yes. The sword would react whenever an ally had fallen, giving power to its wielder. The first time I used it I would?ve surely been overcome if I hadn?t.?

?When was that??

?When you fell and hurt your ankle. When I tried to help you I was swarmed by enemies. I became filled with a righteous rage and used a limit skill. The sword reacted to your down status and gave me additional power.
It did not come without cost.?

?Your size change?? Tifa says comprehending.

?It seems that the sword drew power from inside me greater that the limit skill itself. I believe that is because it knew that the technique alone would not be enough.?
?Because I was down it did this.?

?Yes.? Cloud verifies. ?Because you were down it converted my inner strength into destructive force to protect you.?

?How would it know when I was down?? Tifa asks skeptically. ?It?s just a sword.?

?Untrue.? Cloud counters. ?It was the final resting place of a great warrior?s spirit. He was bound by his desire to fight again for those who had fallen.?

?I don?t know??

?Then how did I defeat those birds? I would?ve had a hard time full size with a group of that volume. Much more at half! The limit skill wouldn?t have even ruffled their feathers without his help!? Cloud yells.

Tifa says nothing.

?Then answer me this. Have you ever seen me shrink??

???

?Tell me. I know you have been around to see that.? Cloud says smugly. ?It is pretty noticeable.?

?Because?? Tifa hedges.

?You haven?t seen it happen, have you?? Cloud says flatly

??no.? Tifa confesses.

?Each time it has happened you woke up and noticed, correct??

?Yes.?

?Leaving it to have happened while you were incapacitated, fair assumption??

?Yes.?

?I also add that it was why it happened. The only common factor is usually the deciding one in my opinion.?

?Well?I just didn?t want to believe it was my fault. That?s all.?

?Be that as it may that is why it happened.? Cloud says grimly. ?But even though it was because of you, it isn?t your fault. There was nothing more you could have done. One can only be at fault when an action they took was the problem.
Besides, I was happy to help.?

?But it must be so uncomfortable-?

?And you?ve been great about it!? Cloud says brightly. ?There is no one else I would rather go through this with.?

?Really??

?You knew that.? Cloud says, as though it is obvious.
* * *

Aeris is sitting on her favorite spot on a ledge looking to kill some time.
?Sure is boring in this town.? Aeris thinks to herself. ?Does anything happen here? How could this be Yuffie?s hometown?? She stares at the topography of the village for the umpteenth time.

Down below, the tavern door flies open. Reno staggers out.

?They?re at it again?? Aeris wonders, watching.

Reno slumps against the building and looks to be bothering passers-by.

?What, is he yelling at them?? Aeris squints at the scene. ?Because he must have said something that guy didn?t like??

A burly looking guy walks near the inebriated Shinra agent and looks back. Then turns around and advances on Reno. Reno seems to notice and attempts to stand. An exercise in failure as our tough guy is lifted from his feet and flung into a wastebasket.
Then the tavern door swings open again and Elena walks out. She points and throws her head back and appears to be laughing.

On the face of the cliff Aeris joins Elena in her mirth. ?Ah, hahaha, ha, ha, ahh!? She nearly falls from the ledge. She composes herself and moves from the edge but one look at Reno?s legs sticking up sets her off again.
* * *

Cid and crew trek through the underbrush still on the trail of Cloud and Tifa. Significantly slowed by Barret?s ankle injury, they seem to be making bad time. Having been on the move all day makes things no better and Barret is tired.

?Man, I?m beat!? Barret says. ?Can?t we take a breather??

?No, an? I?m tired of hearing ya ask!? Cid replies angrily. ?It ain?t our fault you jumped off a cliff like some fool lemming! Tough it out!?

?We been walkin? all damn day! The sun?s going down! If we ain?t making camp we can sit for a few minutes at least!?

?Nothing doing!? Cid yells.

Vincent stops walking. He looks around.

?I ain?t goin? no further!? Barret declares, sitting down. ?Whew, that hurts?? He rubs his ankle.

?You had better get up.? Cid says threateningly.

?I can?t make out anything else.? Vincent remarks calmly. ?I can?t follow the trail past this point.

?Are you certain?? Red XIII asks.

?You?re going to have to make me!? Barret states loudly.

?With pleasure!? Cid fires back.

?I can?t tell which way to go. They appear to be leaving less of a trail.? Vincent continues. ?I can only make out one set of prints going any direction.?

?I do not think they have long left the site.? Red XIII says contemplatively. ?As recent as this morning. Scent almost fresh.?

?Can you follow it??

?Maybe tomorrow, after I get some rest.?

Vincent nods.

Cid brandishes his spear, while Barret cocks the gun-arm. But a burst of noise distracts them both.

?HEY!? Cait Sith yells into a megaphone. ?IDIOTS! CALM DOWN!?

Cid and Barret stare at the toyasaurus.

?PAY ATTENTION. VINCENT AND RED HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY!?

?Thank you.? Vincent says. Cait Sith nods and turns off the megaphone.
?I can?t follow the trail any further.? Vincent continues. ?I cannot make heads or tails of it.?

?I can try to follow the trail.? Red XIII mentions. ?But I too am fatigued. It would be best if we rest.?

?Oh no!? Cid wails. ?Can?t you make up some crazy theory or something??

?There are two dead snakes and a sleeping bag in a creek.? Vincent remarks dryly. ?What do you get from it??

?But he can?t track his way out of a paper bag!? Cid whines. ?He?ll find a way further in!?

?We have no choice.? Vincent says point blank.

?I resent that.? Red pipes in.

?That means we rest!? Barret says triumphantly. ?Ha!?
* * *

Tifa and Cloud still strolling towards Wutai stop and confirm their heading.

?So, what exactly happened to the sword?? Tifa queries.

?It turned to dust.? Cloud replies. ?It fulfilled its purpose.?

?Why?? Tifa asks, deciding on a direction.

?I may as well explain what happened the last time you were ...?down? for lack of a better term.? Cloud pauses, and then takes a deep breath.
?You remember when you were poisoned, right?? Tifa nods and Cloud has to hang tight. ?I left and was on the way to the plane. I was avoiding confrontations and wasting time. When hiding for the umpteenth time I found a Remedy under a bush.?

?Why didn?t you use it on yourself??

?I would take too long fighting my way to the plane.? Cloud replies, ?I didn?t know how long you could last.?

?Oh.?

?I hurried back as fast as possible for a dwarf and got back to the site. I was running headlong for the tent but had to stop.?

?Hmm??
?The mate to the snake you killed was skulking around and I had to deal with it. Using a limit skill I defeated it and I shrank.
So I rush into the tent and apply the Remedy. The swelling goes down and the poison leaves your body-?

?And I wake up, right?? Tifa finishes.

?No.? Cloud says with a note of melancholy in his voice. ?You didn?t.?

?What? Then how-? Tifa says, stopping. She plucks Cloud from her ear. ?What happened??

?I was frantic.? Cloud continues. ?I dove into the knapsack and threw two phoenix down on you. You didn?t respond. Your eyes stayed closed.? Cloud looks at Tifa?s face. ?I screamed and screamed because I had failed, again. I was too late. I fell to my knees and cried.?

?But-? Tifa says, dismayed.

?Then I felt a surge of power. My anger at myself had reached its limits. I yelled about that too. I drew the sword and damned it. What good was destructive power? I would give anything to bring you back.?

?Cloud??

?That?s when the sword flashed along the engraving. ?IN THE NAME OF THE FALLEN? on the side of the blade. Blinded, I heard a voice. It asked if I would pay its price. I agreed and it allowed me to go to the Lifestream. You were floating away-?

?Then that was real?!? Tifa exclaims, eyes widening. ?I remember!? Tifa says as though a revelation has come upon her. ?I said good bye to my parents?they had been waiting.?

??I didn?t see them.? Cloud says. ?All I saw was you, leaving me behind.?

?Surely you remember that something stopped you being sucked into the Lifestream!? Tifa says, slightly perturbed.

?I do.? Cloud affirms. ?I couldn?t see it though. I don?t know what it was. It brought me to you that is all I know.?

?My mother?? Tifa says quietly. ?Only I could see them, they were waiting for me??

?When we landed, an old man wearing the same sword I had greeted me. He explained what had happened to me then thanked me for freeing him and returned to the Planet.
When I woke up, the sword flashed once more then turned to dust.?

Tifa says nothing at first. She just stares at Cloud a while. ?Thank you for explaining it.? She says after a long wait. She places Cloud back on her ear and they continue to walk.

Not ten steps taken yet and monsters appear.

Tifa switches to fighting stance. ?Hold on!?

?I?ve got it!? Cloud replies hanging on to the brown lock.

Tifa begins to attack. She advances quickly, fists flying. One enemy falls. An enemy tries to attack from behind. She does a backwards somersault and lands on its head.

Cloud becomes dislodged from his perch on Tifa?s ear and dangles by a few strands of hair.

Tifa doesn?t notice and continues her offensive. She jumps aside and sweep kicks the last enemy heavily, crushing its skull.

Cloud begins sliding down the hair like a firefighter pole from the centrifugal force. He slips off the strand and lands behind her.

Tifa stands. ?Think maybe we should make camp.? Tifa decides sitting down on Cloud.

Cloud dives forward and narrowly avoids becoming the resting place of Tifa?s posterior. He breathes a sigh of relief.

?Cloud?? Tifa says, not finding him on her ear. ?Cloud??

?What?? Cloud replies crawling out from under her skirt.

?Aren?t you a little cretin?? Tifa says scornfully.

?Not for my health!? Cloud shouts back.

As the meaning of what Cloud just said sinks in, Tifa?s irked expression changes to a sad, apologetic one. ?Cloud, I?m so-? Tifa is interrupted though.

Cloud is laughing fit to split.
?I don?t see what is so funny!? Tifa says worriedly. ?You could?ve been crushed!?

?Oh, give it a rest!? Cloud replies, laughing.

?This is serious!? Tifa insists.

?So you?re telling me that you think I came all this way to get into an argument with your butt about who goes where?? Cloud laughs some more.

Tifa laughs a bit.

?Wait, let me try it.? Cloud walks over beside Tifa. ?Excuse me that is my spot.? Cloud says, formally addressing Tifa?s behind. ?Oh, not moving huh? You asked for it!? Cloud gives Tifa?s rear a hearty shove. He bounces off and falls.

Tifa begins to laugh. Cloud joins her and they laugh for a while. Tifa stops first and looks at Cloud.

?Don?t think it worked.? Cloud says lightly. But noting her serious expression he sobers up some.
?How about this?? Cloud says easily. ?I keep my wits about me and you just take it easy. I won?t walk in front of you and you won?t walk on me. Fair??

Tifa nods and begins setting up camp.
* * *

Aeris wakes up feeling refreshed. ?Sleeping on mats can really grow on you.? She thinks to herself. ?Who would?ve thought it?? She walks outside.

A beautiful day greets her eyes. People smile as she walks by.

?Ah, another lovely boring day.? Aeris thinks walking by the bar. ?I doubt they will be around today.? She considers, thinking back. ?They got pretty drunk, they may need to recover.?

The man who stuffed Reno in a trash can walks by. Aeris smiles at him.

?That was pretty funny.? Aeris remembers. ?Elena thought it was pretty funny too.? Aeris begins to climb the cliff to her favorite spot.
?Almost there?? Aeris settles onto her perch.

No sooner does she do that than who should wander into town but Yuffie.

?Well, if it isn?t the materia thief herself!? Aeris remarks, looking at Yuffie. What is she up to?? She watches as Yuffie goes in and out of a certain house. ?That house has always been locked, strange.?

Yuffie continues to run about town. Aeris blinks then has lost sight of her.

?Darn that!? Aeris says petulantly. ?Where?s Cid?? She dials him on the PHS. She doesn?t get an answer.
?Well if that is the case, I?ll catch her myself!? Aeris decides leaving her post.

After three hours straight of searching the entire town and the cliffs twice over Aeris gives up.
?Couldn?t find her, nobody is telling where she is, what am I supposed to do?? She tries Cid again with no results. ?What is the point of having a phone if you won?t answer it? I wouldn?t call if you weren?t going to answer. I just-?

?Aeris.? Says a voice interrupting her thoughts.

?For goodness? sake stop sneaking up on me!? Aeris retorts spinning on her heel to confront this person. ?Tifa! They?re looking for you, you know??

?Are they really?? Tifa remarks dryly.

?Yeah. Where is Cloud by the way??

?About that?? Tifa fiddles with her ear.

?Well?? Aeris persists. ?Where is-?

?Hi.? Cloud says from the palm of Tifa?s hand.

?What?? Aeris yelps in surprise. ?How??

With that question Tifa and Cloud try to relate their adventures. Leaving out really emotional and awkward moments as much as possible, Aeris is somewhat informed.

?So,? Aeris asks at length, ?Can I hold him??

?It?s up to him.? Tifa looks at Cloud.

He nods and Tifa presents Cloud to Aeris. She holds him up to her eyes and examines him.

?He?s so little.? Aeris whispers. ?I can?t believe it. I can only imagine how we look to him.? Aeris stares into Cloud?s eyes. ?Are you scared??
?Of course not!? Cloud replies with characteristic ease. ?I?m in good hands, right??

?He?s so cute!? Aeris gushes, nuzzling Cloud to her cheek. He falls over. ?Are you alright??

?I?m fine. I?m a SOLDIER not a figurine, geez!? Cloud replies, standing again.

?How do you deal with it?? Aeris wonders looking at Tifa.

?By taking it easy.? Tifa says smiling.

?How can you do that?? Aeris asks incredulously. ?He could be accidentally crushed so many ways. What if I sat on him?? Tifa looks uncomfortable at that remark.

?I was there when the Sector 7 plate fell.? Cloud mentions offhandedly. ?I think I know what to do if you want to sit down.?

?Are you comparing me to the plate?? Aeris asks.

?If the shoe fits??

?That is not very nice. How do you deal with that?? Aeris addresses Tifa again.

?Take it easy.? Tifa replies smiling again. ?Like I said before.?

?Hello?? Cloud calls upwards. ?How about something to fix me??

?Sure is a rude one, isn?t he?? Aeris asks.

?You don?t know the half of it.? Tifa agrees.

?Are you going to help me??

?Should I?? Aeris asks uncertainly.

?I guess.?

Aeris focuses her anger at not finding Yuffie, Cid not answering the phone and being compared to the Sector 7 plate. ?Breath of Earth!? Aeris shouts.
Nothing happens.

?What?s wrong?? Tifa asks. ?I feel better.?

?It didn?t work?? Aeris says puzzled. ?It was supposed to?.?

Cloud begins to grow. Slowly at first then faster. Aeris sets him down.

?For a second I thought I had failed.?

Tifa just watches wordless.

Cloud shoots past their knees, waists, mid sections, shoulders, but that is where it stops.

?It must not have worked correctly!? Aeris exclaims. ?I know he is taller than me! Hold on I?ll-?

?Thanks Aeris.? Cloud interrupts. ?But I don?t think it?ll work.? Cloud turns away. ?I understand now.? He walks off.

?The price?? Tifa asks falling in step.

?Yep.?

?You know you can?t be taller than five feet.? Tifa says looking over Cloud?s head. ?Might be shorter than that.?

?I know.? Cloud replies. ?But it was worth it for my little angel.? He smiles up at Tifa. She beams down at him.

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