Full Body Immersion

The water of the tarn was surprisingly comfortable for an autumn evening. Far from feeling a chilling shock, my first reaction was relief that I could finally wash away the embarrassing reek of vomit. What an impression I must have made on the Cyans! Even Vincent didn't want me near.

Seems I would never get over a real physical fear of heights, no matter how safe the Glow made me. As the cleansing waters covered my head, I thought: It would be a very good idea to experiment wi
th dropping from various levels of buildings or trees.

A new theory was beginning to form: once I felt any fear of injury or death, the Glow would light, cushioning the fall. Just not back
wards--even today I still remember the painful surprise after bouncing up from jumping into the Lifestream.

Falling face down, I was protected. Falling back, I was not. Were visual clues necessary, or did I simply need some practice? How would I get it, except by accident? Landing backwards just hurt too much to allow for any deliberate experimentation. Besides, one wrong theory taken a tad too far could kill the test subject--me. Furthermore, the Glow did not simply ignite when I wished; it had to be triggered by danger or anxiety.

Okay, I admit it: that was a lot of thinking for someone w
ho was chucked into a pond in the middle of the night. My mind often races in some pretty odd situations. So many unique thoughts occur to me in stressful or strange circumstances, I have to send myself messages on the PHS afterwards, just to keep track of new ideas when I'm out and about.

The water got colder as I sank. The tarn was probably fed by an underground spring, so I began to kick my feet; there would be no
bottom. My eyes opened as soon as I began to rise again. The moon played on the surface, yet penetrated even to where I was paddling upwards, on my way to breathe. Bright, sparkling moonbeams filtered through crystal clear water, making the experience seem almost mystical! Those green hills remained untainted by the filthy reach of Shinra, Incorporated, even though they were not far from the reactor-polluted ocean off Junon. The unsullied water in the wooded valley welcomed me as surely as if it were my native habitat. Only my clothes prevented me from feeling completely one with my environment.

Barely a moment before, when Vincent had tossed me into the water, I could hear the usual sounds rushing past and filling my ears. The sensation on my skin was something like a wet version of crawling into a cool, clean bed, freshly dressed in silken linens. Full-body immersion has always been a delight for me, especially in wilderness waters. I can become one with a pond, river or especially the sea, allowing it to overwhelm me. A skinny-dip in the ocean is an all-encompassing experience for my senses, especially through sound, what with the crashing waves resonating both above and below the water.

That night I allowed the pond to swallow me whole, leaving me completely surrounded by fluid, bubbly noises. They came from all directions, and could be felt as well as heard. I slowly worked my way back to the surface, enjoying them as I ascended.

My idyll was interrupted well before I broke the surface. I ran out of breath, and panicked.

From that moment, the air seemed unreachable, and I scissor-kicked my legs in tiny, frantic movements, with one hand pointed to the moon and the other clamped firmly over my mouth and nose. I watched and felt as the Glow enveloped my body. At once, the entire pond became my sounding board, amplifying and transmitting every little creature motion, ping or splatter back to me.

All underwater noise registers as musical notes to my ear, even if the melody is somewhat atonal. That night, however, the music was very gentle, a subdued version of the usual daytime concert of busy underwater activity. All so very natural; at that moment not even air-hunger prevented
me from marveling at my liquid environment.

So even though I knew that Vincent’s toss could not have dropped me very deep, it seemed an eternity before I broke the top of the water, my newly-ignited aura and all. Once I surfaced, the world returned to normal, and I listened to the water rush off and splash all around me, as Vincent’s harsh whisper--not at all musical!--came to me over the night air. I ignored him for the moment and dove back under, eager to further explore my newfound element.

When I returned below the surface, the Glow changed even the dive, and I was surrounded in a bubble of air that matched my shape. The water was buffered a good inch or so away from my skin. If any passed through the field, it came in microscopically, like fog or mist. It was breathabl
e; the wetness did not choke me. At the moment I was intrigued, but not brave enough to inhale in large gulps.

My defensive, semi-osmotic barrier was holding back the pond, radiating just a little in all directions. From the looks of it, I was protecting a small circle of water. Why not the whole spring? Or why any of it, for that matter? I rose to breathe and immediately dove to just directly below the top of the water, and found that again, a very small skin of air came along, forming a sort of coating around me. Opening my mouth just a tiny bit more, with my tongue back against my throat, I could feel that air, and took in a mouthful.

Just like inhaling a dense fog, the breath was both water and air. I could taste the moisture on my tongue, and again shut my mouth against it. Nevertheless, it felt as if that damp air was in my nose when I resurfaced, in contrast to the dusty, autumnal atmosphere of the little valley.

Theoretically, if the Glow lit before I hit the water, then my body wouldn't even get wet. I made a mental note: when safe, dry--and calm!--it would be instructive to try this at home. But where? In Nibelheim, nobody indulged in swimming anywhere, not even at the nearby seashore. What's more, whenever I felt safe and calm, the Glow wouldn’t ignite!

That was enough speculation for the night: it was time to return to reality, so I frog-kicked towards Vincent.

“Josephine, what in the name of Holy are you doing?” He wasn’t shouting, but there was that tight, metallic edge to his question. Not really a whisper, but not spoken normally, either.

Vincent was visibly irritated until I answered, dismissing his tone with a wet wave of my hand, splashing in his direction.

“Just checking the possibilities of the Glow. What’s wrong?” I swam up to him, whereupon he took my arm and lifted me straight up out of the water and onto the bank, in one almost effortless move. We were left facing each other, he a warm, dark form almost hidden in the night, and me soaking wet, the water beads reflecting the moonlight as the Glow faded. Vincent was already pulling my top over my head before he responded.

“Nothing, now. What did you discover?” He dropped the wet shirt in the grass and began to fiddle with my jeans, trying to yank them down off my hips.

“Vincent! I think there may be a way to manipulate the Glow. Underwater, it keeps a little layer of air around me; it may be breathable. My own private diving bell. I have to make a note to myself to investigate it further. Where’s my phone?”

And at that moment, I did not have any personal devise at hand. It was in my kit, back on the corral fence, along with my change of clothes. We’d had just stripped the sopping stuff when I decided to retrieve the PHS.

It would be necessary to sneak naked in the dark to get them. What if I roused the chocobos and they alerted the Cyans? They would find me wearing nothing, not even my Damascene band. As unfair as it was, I was peeved at Vincent for putting me in such a touchy situation. What was he thinking? Any noise at all could awaken the high-strung birds. Naturally, even the dry grass crackled loudly under my bare feet, as I tried to move silently along the shore.

"Josephine. Where are you going?" His harsh whisper actually sounded disappointed, or maybe just impatient with me.

"To the corral. The wet clothes can hang on the fence. Beside
s, my dry things are in the kit, with my PHS."

"Ahh, always thinking ahead. Fine, but please hurry back. Here, catch! Wear my pullover. Just leave the other clothes there, too. We won't need them for a while." His shirt caught the back of my head, and I fumbled with it to find the openings. From the darkness behind me came the sound of feet being forcibly yanked from shoons, the heavily armored boots Vincent always wore on the road.

Weehee! I chortled under my breath, grinning to myself as I wiggled into the shirt. All was forgiven in that instant. I crept as quietly as possible into the corral, arranged the wet things over the split-rail fence and then hurried back to the tarn, feeling my way along the bank. The phone, and all my fancy speculation was forgotten.

Over here, Josephine. Watch for the armor." No problem: it gave off a dull glow in the moonlight. I wandered closer, but was still unable to pick out my playmate.

Then his heavy broadcloth cape enveloped me
. I was lifted off my feet and lowered to the earth, where I could feel something cushioning me from the grass and gravel. After a few seconds I realized that Vincent had set out his trousers to use as a bedroll. The black pullover soon joined them, and we rolled around, quietly chuckling and kissing at the same time, our subdued hilarity muffled by the voluminous military cape that easily covered us both.

My lover then set about warming my damp skin. He vigorously rubbed my hands and feet, before paying similar attention to my arms and legs and, lastly, my body’s core. Eventually, I returned the favor, even though Vincent decidedly did not need it. After a while we no longer wanted to find ways to warm ourselves; the fire deep inside me matched his. It became more to the point not to betray our activity with our merry-making noises: his teasing purrs and murmuring, along with, of course, my intermittent cooing and giggling. In no time we lost any awareness of the ranch or our woodsy surroundings, conscious only of one another’s pleasure.

Our separation made the reunion celebration at once a little fiercer, rougher and more satisfying. We became one body moving about under a woolen mantle, oblivious to the cool night air and surrounding trees. Not even the bright, full moon sparkling off the rippled water could distract us, while we found comfort and enjoyment in the dark grasses on the edge of the forest.

Nothing more was said all night. We didn't need to rehash past hurts and domestic troubles. We were always able, even from the beginning of our relationship, to excel in this one shared activity: physical intimacy came easily to my man of few words and seemingly less emotion. As for me, it was often like a game of cuddles and tickles, one we played in many ways, each variation spurring us to try to create new pleasure for one another. Words were no longer a part of our repertory; we were all action, sometimes gentle and slow, other times rough and ready for anything.

That night, high in the hills outside Junon, Vincent enjoyed me, with kisses and caresses from my ears down to my toes, and I him, purring and nuzzling and burying my face in his long silky hair, until the moon moved from behind the corral. It paused a while over our lusty abandon by the tarn, then finally dipped behind the hilltops. At last, satisfied that our reunion was properly consummated, we snuggled until we slept, luxuriating in the cool night air and the sounds of the surrounding woodland.

It was good to be a couple again.

The Morning After/The Day Before

“Josephine, get up and dress yourself. The Cyans invited us to eat breakfast with them.”

Vincent stood above me, fully clothed except for his mantle. His long hair hung over me, shiny in the sunlight, and he reached down to help me to my feet. I was tempted to drag him down to my level for one more romp in the dew-softened grass, but he looked too serious for fun. Once on my feet, I buried my face in his shoulder, just to steady myself and to buy a little more time alone with him. If not for his presence, waking on the ground would have been a painfully disorienting experience.

After a bit, I remembered our morning's plan, and looked up into his face.

“Is it time to search for the missing birds?” My eyes couldn't focus in the bright glare of the low-hanging sun. The tarn was perfectly situated to receive the day's first rays; our cozy clearing was already nicely warm and dry, even though the long shadows of surrounding trees suggested a very early hour still.

“Josephine, we have already rounded up the last of the stolen chocobos. They were grazing not very far from here, and are now safely corralled. The Cyans returned to their cottage and are preparing our meal.”

I backed away and looked around, clutching the cape closer to me. “Mother of Pearl! All those people buzzing about, with me lying here in the altogether?”

He reached over and teasingly tugged on the fabric.

“Covered in my mantle, yes. All your wet or soiled clothes have been laundered, and are hanging on the fence. You slept very hard, as usual, little one. Perhaps it was not a good idea to dunk you in the pond last night. Are you well?” The early sun played on his face, making him appear timeless, a golden angel under a mass of black tangles, and turning his eyes into deep, glittering rubies. It would have been charming, were it not for his mournful expression. My reaction was automatic.

“Pffffttt! Stop already. We had a lovely time. At least, I did, and I slept very well because of it. Give the guilt thing a rest, will you?" I meant to flash a smile at him through the sunbeams, but instead it turned into a huge, dragged-out yawn. I felt sheepish
and covered my mouth. Vincent waited, watching with an indulgent smirk. Another, briefer yawn, and I tried again.

“Can’t believe I slept through it all. Any reason you didn’t wake me?” Vincent shrugged, then tilted his head toward me, and spoke sotto voce, as if divulging a secret.

“You couldn’t come with us; Mrs. Cyan had already collected your things for the wash. She didn't seem to take into account that you might need them. We left you to sleep under the watchful eye of their wrangler, with orders not to wake you.”

I glanced towards the corral, where my clothes hung on the sunlit fence. Behind them, a man in a wide-brimmed hat was running a large flock around the track, slowly rotating on one heel, chocobo-fashion, as he followed their progress.

There were birds of every color, most usually only seen at the Gold Saucer's Chocobo Square. Last year, in all those months of breeding, racing and culling birds, we were never able to produce any of the pretty pink, orange and lavender shades that were well represented on the Cyan’s ranch. In the end, we concluded that our pursuit of the legendary Gold Chocobo was limiting the outcome to only yellow, blue, green, and black. While Golds are excellent racers, the other colors are always in huge demand for their amenable temperaments and iridescent, almost other-wordly beauty. Theoretically, a Gold is worth a fortune (it certainly costs that to breed for it), but the prettier birds regularly bring in handsome prices, especially among the wealthy elite, who order theirs in custom colors.

Amidst the rainbow riot, I could still pick out my Gold and their Black, closest to the fence. Ignoring the exercises, Glitter and Jet were striking up what seemed to be a sort of friendly rivalry, warking loudly and poking playfully at one anothers' neck.

“Maybe he should keep an eye on those two birds. We are not fully ready to breed Glitter, though I doubt he shares our views. There’s a really wonderful Yellow that caught my eye last year, instead, outside Corelle. She’s the one I hope to mate with him.” My dark knight frowned at that.

“You would object to his union with Jet, when you haven’t yet captured the other? Remember, that Yellow would be better mated to a Black, and even then we would still need the proper Zeio nut, to hope for a Gold.

"At any rate, Josephine, the Cyans are waiting for us, maybe even delaying their own breakfast. I will collect your clothes, if you prefer.”

“Um, I really don't want to dress out here. What about the wrangler?”

“Ah, Josephine. Always thinking ahead, or maybe always thinking about sex? The Cyans tell me the wrangler has shown a great deal more interest in me than you. Perhaps you can change his mind.” He opened the mantle, while I tried ineffectually to stop him. He smirked at my efforts to protect my modesty from strangers.

Including ones who weren’t in the market, so to speak. I gave up and spread my hands, sighing.

“Seriously, if that’s the case, then I doubt it. He’s a little young for me, anyway.”

“I’ve heard that before, and I’m still here.” He mocked my usual comeback, and watched intently to see if I might react. Rather than give him the satisfaction of watching me rise to the bait, I slipped my arms around his waist and warmed myself against his body. Vincent was never chilled, even when everyone around him was shivering.

After a short cuddling session that restored my core heat (and then some), we walked together to the corral to gather the clothes. The wrangler was a tall, solid fellow who first waved to us, then began to lead the chocobos into the stables. Several remained behind, including our stars from the night before. As we approached, my Glitter warked sweetly at his newfound friend, not even giving me the time of day. I collected my clothes, drawing them inside the mantle as quickly as I could without exposing myself unnecessarily.

Almost immediately, the young man exited the stable and approached us with his hat in one hand and the other outstretched.

“Are you friends of Sebastian?” He was brightly handsome, with curly hair just about the same color as mine, only sandier, somewhat blonder in the sunlight. That brought to mind Lady Shinju Kameko’s memories of the early Shinra raids. “A lot of people died, but many survived.” We never heard from the survivors around Junon; I wondered if he were some distant relative. We shook his hand, and Vincent began introductions.

“Josephine Lindorm and Vincent Valentine. Yes, we know him well. Young Cyan is also our comrade in the militia.” The wrangler beamed.

“Rocky Brantford. Sebastian and I worked together here. We could use him again. The Cyans called right after the rustlers’ first raid, but it takes a few hours to come in from the other side of Junon. My home's on the southwestern shore, not far from Fort Condor. We’ll have to see if we can find some local help to guard the stock." He paused a moment, looking thoughtful, then recollected himself and indicated the main buildings.

“Please, come. Let‘s go inside. I‘m famished.” He held the door to the A-frame, and for the first time since I came upon the ranch in the dell, I saw the inside of the cottage. Rather than the bore of a rifle, we were welcomed by the smell of homemade muffins, and liqueur-laced coffee. It immediately felt like home, or more to the point, my mother's kitchen.

Breakfast with Aika and Duane

Rocky quickly rinsed his hands, then threw himself into a chair with a contented sigh, while reaching for a muffin. Yes: all three simultaneously, accomplished in a way that indicated it was his normal introduction to the breakfast board. Vincent followed suit in silence, watching me with a quizzical expression. I snorted and tried to put my discomfiture into words, addressing the lady of the kitchen.

“You'll have to excuse my sloth, Mrs. Cyan. This lovely valley is warm and peaceful--perfect for sleeping on a sunny morning.” I wanted to apologize for my disarray, in hopes of dressing in a private room. I was cut short by the lady, with a quick wave of the towel she was using to wipe a pan. She was all blue eyes and bright blonde hair and cheerful, busy mannerisms.

“Aika! Call me Aika, please. And Cyan's dad, here, is Duane. We are friends, now, aren’t we, I hope? Anyway, you will probably want to change into your things, now that they are clean and dry.” I could only nod a little bit before she swept me back to some spiral stairs. She then shooed me up with her hands, as if I were a chocobo chick. “Go on, now. Get clean and comfortable. We’ll keep the coffee hot and the muffins warm.”

The room was spare and pleasant, with a big bed completely smothered in a huge, puffy comforter. It looked heavenly after a night out on the edge of the woods. I didn’t dare sit on it, fearing it would put me back to sleep, and instead looked for a chair. As it was, the only other features of the room were a window looking out over the tarn and a doorway to an adjacent bathroom. I turned the tap and stared wistfully as the tub filled with warm water. A long, hot bath was offered the night before, but Vincent had proposed something better. At the moment I settled for a quick rinse before I dressed, still wishing for an hour's soak. Then, I dried and began to dress myself, seated on the edge of the tub. Freshly laundered jeans soon hugged my hips, while I dried my hair.

The cleanliness felt heavenly and I luxuriated in the warm towel. One might almost hear me purring! Could never get enough of washing in hot water and soap; on the road it was a very rare treat and sorely missed.

Good thing my hair was still relatively short. Shaking was all that was necessary to separate the strands into some sort of respectable, attractive disorder. I ran my fingers through it to pull out any snarls. Soon it would be time to chop it all off again, maybe in Midgar.

Then again, maybe not. Vincent played with the locks around my face each time he wanted to initiate a kiss, or rather, some serious kissing. It had become a sort of make-out signal. One mustn’t do away with erotic cues. Still, a cutter, if I could find one, could keep the shagginess out of my eyes.

I wondered if such civilized niceties had been restored in the city. Surely people would want to return to their routines and jobs. Mega-corporations do not run the necessary minutiae of daily life; individual people and their talents do. Even if the Shinra-based economy did not survive, real gil, especially hard, golden cash would always be good. Besides, simple manpower--menial work--was always available for barter.

What work would trade for a haircut? For the moment it would not be necessary to provide physical labor in trade, not that I would ever shy from it. Between the two of us, Vincent and I were worth several million. The various Nibelheim enterprises insured that we could expect that to increase as the Planet economy stabilized.

My reverie was interrupted by Vincent’s harsh rasp.

“Josephine, are you bathing yet another time?” I craned my neck so quickly that it cracked. He was standing right at my shoulder, a huge imp in red and black, leering at my bare back. Then he actually chuckled, deep in his throat; the jerk was teasing me! I coyly, but candidly, let him have it.

“You scare me like that again, and I’ll not only need another bath, but Aika will have to re-wash my jeans. You should signal when you intend to suddenly appear. Maybe a whisper, or low whistle or something.” He shook his head, unconvinced but amused.

“And miss the opportunity to see my wife’s lovely eyes wide and astonished? I don’t think so. Your every movement fascinates me, even (or perhaps especially) from behind, all the more so when you play with your hair.” He faced me, his eyes betraying fond tenderness even beyond his words. I shook my hair at him.

“Not playing, Vincent. I should at least comb it, but there’s nothing in my kit for personal care.” He looked mildly surprised, then resolute.

“You should have your toiletries. All ladies must. We can purchase some on our way back, in Junon.” At that, I spoke right up; it seemed clear to me that he was ready to preempt any plans I might have to reunite with family.

“Thanks, but not just yet. My family is the next stop. I intend to visit my parents’ house first, and then hunt down my daughters. It’s been over six months since they disappeared.” My heart contracted hard, just once, but painfully, as I spoke.

“Since you disappeared, Josephine.” He nodded thoughtfully. “Yes. You could probably approach them now without undue repercussion. That is, unless your father intends to continue to hold a grudge against you for joining Avalanche.” That hit home. The room around us seemed less bright, even in the morning sunshine. My father was another one to greet us with weapons at the door, refusing entry, unforgiving. I sighed.

“One can only hope. In any event, Vincent, I need to try to reopen those lines. We’ve lost enough family as it is. It is time to recoup.” He nodded, as convinced as I that this was something necessary.

“Then we will separate?" He frowned and thought a moment. "No, perhaps it's not necessary. Our family in Nibelheim will be very unhappy if I return without you, even if I tell them it’s temporary. Can’t we work out a compromise?” He sounded as though he were practically pleading.

Of course, Vincent would never beg, except very ceremoniously, all form and little intent. Still, my curiosity was piqued by his manner. He seemed iffy, even a little agitated, unwilling to let me go alone.

“What do you have in mind? You know it would be counter-productive to bring you to my parents’ house. One thing at a time, Vincent. First we need to see if they can accept me.”

He interrupted, very impatient, almost exploding. “Accept you? The fools!” I stroked his hair and face, as if he were a little boy. Then I tried again to reason with him, my mind racing, to find some sort of opening.

“Please, let’s be patient. If they remain adamant, then well, it will be their loss. But, Vincent, I want my parents back. Let me do this first. Alone.” He studied my face, slowly shaking his head.

“I don’t want you hurt again. Do you hope to reunite with your ex?” His mention of my first husband surprised me. He had always dismissed the man, without ever knowing him personally. We never discussed him.

“No. That’s done. Kaput. Over.” No lie; no doubt my ex-husband had his hands full with a new baby. The new wife was a relatively unknown factor for me. I had occasionally encountered her before I disappeared, but without much personal interaction. She always seemed pleasant enough to me, often hovering about when I stopped in to visit my husband's workplace. My mind had classified her as his office-wife; after all, he spent eight to ten hours a day with her. She saw to all his needs during the work-shift, and he was mine in the evenings.

Vincent, for his part, was beginning to relax, visibly regaining his earlier good humor.

“Excellent. As long as your reunions do not include him, I will bring Glitter to ChocoBill’s Ranch, at Billy's request. One of their birds is indeed ready for mating with him. One of our birds, that is.

"You can begin your search without me, and I will join you as soon as possible. We can reconnoiter while you visit your girls. They may be open-minded enough to reconcile with us both, I hope. You should remain connected after that; there's no reason they can’t come to Nibelheim. We've plenty of work in both the militia and the ranch. And, Josephine,perhaps we will have some more dragon ladies?”

I had to smile at that; it was exactly what I hoped, too. He walked out the door to the stairwell railing, then turned and held out his hand, dangling my travel shirt.

“Come. We mustn’t let the Cyans think we are having a private party up here. At least not yet. Not before breakfast.”

“Agreed. Besides, I’m starving. Everything smells so good from up here! Do I detect scrambled eggs? Geez, I hope not! Eat unborn chocobo chicks? Not me!”

“I doubt it, Josephine. They are far too valuable. More likely from the nests of local lizards or wild ground fowl.” He flipped my top at me. I caught it in midair and began to pull it over my damp hair. Then Vincent was back at my side, helping me smooth it down over my torso. After a little bit, I stopped his hands, trying to stifle a nervous giggle.

“Nope. Don’t get me going again, buddy. My wet hair is making me chilly, and your hands are toasty warm. Time for breakfast, not love-play.”

Never thought I’d see the day when I would say something like that.

The Cyans' Story

Once back to the ground level, the aroma of fresh-made breakfast sharpened my appetite. Muffins and coffee, especially coffee laced with liqueur, were my signals to eat ravenously; who could know when I would dine again with friends?

There were indeed eggs and salted meat. Duane and Rocky hunted the local game fowl for relaxation. They initiated plans for a new foray even as they described the various dishes to us. Duane was somewhat taciturn, occasionally interjecting short bursts of information whenever he saw fit. Rocky carried the bulk of the conversation with the Missus and us.

"The local populations of water fowl and small animals have already begun to recover from the pollution. Or maybe they simply adapted. Anyway, there are plenty for the taking, and they are easily hunted.

"We can no longer fish for breakfast kippers; the seashore is still tainted. Duane and I go for the small game and larger ground birds and we salt their meat, instead. To me, there is practically an overabundance of variety for the morning, but he tells me there was much, much more in his youth." That was the signal for the older man to talk.

"Breakfast used to be one hell of a meal when I was a young hand." Duane smiled as he remembered the old days. "My mum used to cook enough for an army, and we'd stuff ourselves full, before we dispersed either to work the ranch or hunt the woods. Aika's family also worked the land, and her cooking is about all that has sustained me through the years." Then he stopped talking and tucked his arm around his wife, nodding to her to finish the story. She began her recital.

"When Shinra decided to build Junon into the fortress it now is, their armies and workers pretty much cleared the entire area of building materials and wildlife. After a short while the majority of ranches fell before the needs of the Corporation. Why, for a couple of seasons, the local game species were considered delicacies back in Midgar. These very woods became death traps for civilians; professionals were scouring them for ground fowl and small edible animals.

"Nothing was safe, as they stripped the area bare, leaving only the forests that grew on the hillsides. The flatlands were easy pickings and soon became treeless prairie, like you see nowadays. It didn't matter much to the other ranchers, as one by one they closed. Shinra was putting us out of business with their cars, trucks and motorbikes. We specialized in racing chocobos, and that saved our livelihoods.

"Duane and I have kept in contact with ChocoBill's, east of Midgar, although lately even that is intermittent. With the fall of Shinra, communication has become spotty. And remember, the Weapons tore a huge gap in the Network when they attacked Junon and Midgar."

She turned towards the western window. "We lost workers in the local battle. Some of our people were reserve soldiers, the weekend warriors who were called in for Rufus Shinra's stay, just before Sapphire Weapon showed itself. So many died! One good thing it did, though; there were going to be executions when it hit, and they didn't happen."

"Tell me about it, already. Darned Weapon saved my life. Junon is not my favorite town."

Rocky spoke up, his eyes wide. "Ms. Lindorm? You're that Lindorm?"

"Geez, call me Fini or Josey or anything else." The shock of being addressed so formally was like a flash of old age going right through me. The honorific "Commander" was okay because it served a purpose, but Missus or Miz was just too much. The young man was now nodding, a little sheepish.

"Damn, lady. Never made the connection. We thought those Avalanche members were goners."

"Well, kid, it's going to take more than Shinra: much, much more. Actually, between Weapon and a local elite Soldier named Jim Ryu, I was able to escape and rejoin my companions."

It seemed necessary to mention Vincent's part, so I reached my arm over to his, for emphasis. "My own personal hero arrived, deus ex machina, in time to lift me out of the base onto an airship. Aika and Duane have already seen his unusual aerial skills. Let's hope we won't need any more specialized battle abilities again soon."

Everyone said, "Amen!" and we fell on our bountiful breakfast with gusto.

It would seem that soldiers and ranchers have a lot in common. No white rolls and milk for us. A person can't march on an empty stomach, neither can anyone raise racing birds on biscuits. The eggs were light and fluffy and filled with cheese, and the meat complemented them well. It had the added effect of requiring sufficient liquids to counteract the saltiness, and we dove again into our alcohol-laced coffee.

Make mine chocolate. Always chocolate. Besides, the scent mixes well with the amaretto or whiskeys favored by most of the men in my life. Between the hot beverages and the warm muffins, we were soon feeling mellow and chatty.

Rocky discussed the upcoming mating of Glitter with the Black from ChocoBill's. He was especially interested in acquiring the Zeio nuts that provided the proper nutrient for increasing the possibility of breeding a Gold. Duane also voiced a desire to trade for them. In no time, they had made arrangements for Vincent to set up a deal with Billy. Around that time I lost interest in the conversation and turned to Aika. For her part, she had already returned to her kitchen work and motioned me to help her with the dishes.

Frankly, I had no desire to throw my hand to "woman's" work, but I joined her in hopes of escaping the tedious details of the upcoming transactions. My work with Billy was done; only my Golds interested me. Aika leaned toward me, speaking in a low tone.

"Vincent spoke briefly about the loot culled from the bodies last night. Would you mind leaving the Electric Rod when you go? We could use another weapon around here. Rocky can take my rifle, and I'm familiar with Rods."

That caught my attention. I nodded and reached for a towel. She resumed wiping and spoke while staring out the window at the corral.

"Tell me, Lady, what you know about the Rod." The big pots and the grill were really a two-person cleaning job, and we worked as we talked.

"Aika, I honestly don't know much about them, myself. Only what we ourselves have experienced in battle.

"When used properly the rod not only stuns, but also creates an impenetrable field, much like the Glow you saw around me. The difference would be--and this is only in my experience--that the field prevents the target from taking any physical action."

"My experience, too, Fini." She looked sad and intrigued at the same time. "My rods have only been for Ice magic, so this will be something new for me."

I nodded while we both applied scrubbers to the grill. "Yeah, but if you already know how to wield a rod or wand, then that would be half the battle right there! Take it and welcome. We really meant for you to have the loot anyway; some of it was probably yours."

She shook her head, smiling. "No. All they took were the birds."

I was about to say "Great," but my heart sank as I remembered the PHS. "You aren't missing a phone, are you? We destroyed one after the battle."

"No. Like I said; they weren't interested in anything but the chocobos." Once again I worried about the meaning of the gangsters' PHS.

"Aika, you, Rocky and Duane have personal devices, right? Each of you? We are very concerned about the possibility that there may be other crooks floating around here, maybe even looking for their comrades." Her face turned grim.

"Everyone has a phone, but you can see for yourself that we are rather secluded out here. Gone are the days of a whole chain or network of ranches. Shinra put them all out of business.

"No, Fini. We have to rely only on ourselves; that's why I want the Rod. On the other hand, we have guns and we have armor. Plenty of both: all are stowed away from any random visitors. In fact, you are more than welcome to see it all. Maybe we can talk you into some for the road." I laughed a little at that.

"My armor is the Glow, and you've seen Vincent's claw. He wears the other pieces under his shirt. We are well protected."

We'd reached an impasse. The men were listening to our conversation, and we all stared quietly at one another. I thought about all the resources back in Nibelheim, and slapped the side of my forehead.

"Good Lord, Vincent! I'm so dumb! Of course we have backup!

"Aika, when you feel you are threatened by outsiders, you call Sebastian. Tell him to ride Esmerelda, or to bring Time Mage Adrianna and Ken--and Buddy. Between the time mage and the dragons, someone should be able to arrive quickly enough to help."

"Dragons? You have dragons in Nibelheim?" Duane looked spooked.

"Not fully trained to battle, but at least they are transportation. Rapid Transport, to be specific. A local Green and a Great Northern Blue. They are already tuned in to our people. They can recognize when there is trouble. I can't promise anything, but we can provide some sort of backup. Right now you don't seem to have much."

Aika nodded at Duane. We took out our personal devises and exchanged all the necessary codes. For the first time that morning, there was a real feeling that something was accomplished for that couple. I reviewed all the numbers in my list; it now included everyone from the Highwind, my Nibelheim contacts, and a few new ones from Junon area. I chortled.

"Our network is really growing now. Hey, guys, does your ranch have a name? I want to input it."

Duane spoke up. "In the pre-Shinra times we were simply called the Guard House. Aika and I come from a long line of armor-makers and stable masters, always connected to a local militia. At one time, long, long ago, the place actually was a guard house. The old dungeon was still here thirty years ago. All the military buildings were destroyed in the reprisals, and Shinra carted away most of the masonry. After that, the place was called the Old Guard House, even though the stone building is gone."

"We ourselves don't call it anything. It's just the Ranch, but Old Guard is good, too." Aika looked somber, as if she were processing the name for the first time.

"It's appropriate we should keep something from the past. Old Guard it is, then. That would make you the Old Guard, Duane." Aika was smiling at her husband. "Not me, of course. Just the old man here." We were all chuckling by then. No one in the place could possibly be over sixty. It did not seem necessary to mention that Vincent Valentine was by far the eldest at that table; it was such a long story.

All proper arrangements made for their future security, we finished our breakfast in congenial silence, polishing off the muffins, and draining the last drop of coffee.

It would be a long workday at Old Guard Ranch, and Vincent and I would soon set out for the Midgar area. We could not count on a family style-meal anytime in the near future.

Maybe we couldn't count on any friendly encounters on the road at all.

Darkness on the Edge of Midgar

Wrapping Up Our Visit

Lord, I love breakfast! It was impressed on me from infancy that breakfast was too important to miss. In my parents' house, we could count on that one meal to always be bountiful and delicious. Even in my teens, when I was expected to haul myself out of bed before dawn to catch the public transit to the Academy, I dutifully rose even earlier and headed straight for the kitchen.

Eating breakfast has a
lways been good for my love life, too. It's funny how gluttony gave me an "in" with most men; while women usually worry about their weight, men simply love to eat. Guess they just knew what I knew: without the stomach's input, the heart couldn't pump!

My Dad used to tell me I ate like a bird: three times my weight daily, starting at first light. Even today, I have to agree. There are so many breakfasts that I know how to prepare; I am never at a loss to make it anywhere on the Planet, with anyone's local crops or game.

And so, Aika's kitchen felt like my own special Midheaven, full of food, men and good conversation, properly coordinated with liberal amounts of distilled spirits and strict regimentation. She ran the place like an officer's mess: well-prepared dishes and plenty of them,
semi-casual seating and, finally, everyone out to work or whatever, as soon as the plates were empty.

Naturally, we couldn't help but protest when, all too soon, the breakfast was done and it was time to continue to our respective business: a full day of ranching for them and the open road for us. Accordingly, I gathered up my kit and turned to Aika and Duane. I intended to mouth a simple thank you/good bye but came to an abrupt stop. Cyan's message was never delivered!

"Fini! What's wrong?" Aika laid a hand on my arm and tried to make me take a seat.

I demurred, feeling a little like a drama queen caught in her own histrionics. "No, I'm fine. It's just that I nearly forgot to tell you. You have to contact Sebastian: he's very happy now in Nibelheim. He
has a lovely woman at his side, and the two of them are expecting a baby!

"I'm so sorry I forgot, but what with the rustlers and the arrival of Vincent here..."
He raised an eyebrow in my direction that frankly said "Don't pin this one on me!"

As usual, my hormones got the best of me, making me forget any competing business, until well after the fun was done. A night of romance nearly cost our hosts some very important information. My face flushed warm.

While I was searching for more words to pile on my apologies, Aika held up a small note in Sebastian's writing, suspiciously similar to the map and directions he gave me.

"Fini, we have Sebby's note from the box of irradiant chitons. We already know; we just haven't gotten
around to contacting him. 'What with the rustlers and all,' as you say. Middle of the morning should be an excellent time to call."

Aika flashed a huge smile at me, and then at Duane, and begged to take her leave. She picked up her personal device and searched for Sebastian's code. In no time at all, she was chattering at her uniformed son, and giving him a real earful.

"Sebby, I hear we're going to be grandparents! We haven't even met your girl. When are you coming back to Junon? When is the baby's due date? Can you put our new daughter-in-law on to talk with us? You must bring her here to visit soon! You look good, but maybe a little skinny. Aren't you eating well? You'd better be feeding our expectant mommy!" She wasn't going to give Sebastian a word in edgewise.

Duane and R
ocky eyed each other and grinned conspiratorially. Things were returning to normal; all was right again in their world. At that, Vincent took my arm, and waving his claw at the men, led me out the door, back into the late morning sunshine.

"Nice closure, Josephine. We leave them on a high note."

"I forgot all about it. What they must think of me!" What was wrong with my memory? Too many plans, too many details, too many new faces, too little time. I was about to appeal to Vincent for some sort of suggestion or solace, but he was already at the gate of the corral, where he let out a piercing whistle. Glitter was at his side in an instant; it was time to ride. He helped me mount, muttering almost to himself, while keeping an eye turned to the A frame.

"Josephine, forget about it. They've already forgotten us. Let's hope they remember to call if there's trou
ble." He looked a little doubtful; with us gone, the Cyan ranch became even more vulnerable than before.

I nodded agreement. "And let's just hope we are close enough to help if they need it. Telecommunications are no substitute for extra weapons and people who can use them. The Cyans have already been run through the wringer once by rustlers; a successful raid could shut down their ranch entirely." We decided to keep our phones on our persons, and cranked up the volume on their signals.

Glitter t
ook us quickly over the central mountains, right up past Sleeper's Cave. We did not visit the man who lived there, as we often did during our quest. He had been a fount of data when we needed it on the way to the Northern Crater, but that day would have only delayed our trip. Like most hermits, the sleeper would visit just long enough to pass on cryptic information. He would then ignore us, returning to his pastime, which seemed to be cultivating a prodigious capacity for slumber. Our bird had never been to the cave and pressed upward at full speed, only slowing as we crested the ridge. There we stopped to look over Midgar, stretching out in the distance and still visibly battered.

Even in the bright midday sun, the city appeared as a huge dark stain on the northeastern plains, ringed by wasteland in an otherwise verdant landscape. One could pick out damaged sky scrapers and not a few flattened neighborhoods. Meteor had not fallen, but its proximity had created several memorably destructive tornados.

The Lifestream had stopped the ultimate attack intended by Sephiroth, but did nothing to prevent the devastation caused by battling gravitational fields. I remembered the beautiful phosphorescent mists, shooting directly up the many funnel clouds that were visibly full of swirling debris, to completely envelope the monster. Our Planet was safe once more, but the city and people were left in a terrible mess.

Our friend Reeve Tuesti, Midgar's architect and top level Shinra manager, had not permitted me to move there immediately after the disaster. He was afraid of roving bands of lawless survivors. Seeing the damage made me very glad that my sons and daughters were kept safe through it all. As it stood, it probably wouldn't be necessary to venture into the city. My parents had harbored the girls when my ex-husband found a new woman. And Reeve had seen to the safety of my other children.


I pointed to a cluster of streets, parks and buildings just Southeast of the city, directly below us. We were close enough to make out separate neighborhoods and even individual houses. In fact, I could see my parent's place, closest to the mountainside, yet set slightly apart from the others and lit by the sun high over our heads. Decades earlier, the new home had been built far off by itself, a lone, expansive spread with an impressive view of the city being built. Unfortunately, the distant neighborhoods had grown in closer with time.

Not all city folk enjoyed Midgar year-round; Mum and Dad loathed it in any season, distastefully calling it the company town. They did not trust Shinra Incorporated, and seemed personally affronted when I had announced my intention to join its workforce, several years ago. It would seem they were right in the end, but then they were furious at me, disowning the daughter that joined Avalanche to fight the corporate titan.

"Vincent, see the compound set among the trees in the foothills? My parents live in that community. I can easily walk from here." At that, I dismounted and gathered my things.

He grunted; his disapproval evident. "Josephine, let me accompany you at least to the outskirts of their hamlet. Then if they reject you again, you can come with me to ChocoBill's Ranch. You will need backup if they greet you with that semi-automatic." The same rifle they aimed in his face when he was looking for me in the city, months and months ago.

"Nice try, my darling. You are a sweetheart to care, but this is my show, and I have all the advantage. If my parents toss me on my butt again, then I may have to camp out on their doorstep. I go nowhere until I can see my girls. You have to meet with Billy, anyway, don't you?"

He nodded and sighed. "You are so stubborn that I do not doubt you will outlast them. Go give it your best. You have a communicator; call if you need me." He kissed and hugged me, then left me facing my parent's neighborhood at the bottom of the hill.

He made a fine figure, sitting tall in black and red, his hair flowing behind as he rode our steed of shining gold. Glitter took him completely from my sight in less than five seconds. I braced myself for the upcoming encounter with my parents, mulling over how life had played some truly capricious tricks on me.

The Homestead

Identical twins run in both sides of my daughters' family tree, with twin uncles and great-grandparents. Millicent and Trinidad are mirror-twins; that is, for example, they each have a beauty mark above their upper lip, same as mine, only Millie's is on the right side and Trini's is on the left. Or is it the other way around?

Can't always remember, but I intended to double check my facts soon against the originals.

My parents home in Foothills, southeast of Midgar, was situated almost exactly opposite from Kalm in the Northwest, where my older brothers and I were born. We later took a place near the center of Midgar; a compact condominium that allowed us to attend the newly-built schools.

My husband and I eventually took part ownership of it, time-share style, and raised our daughters in the same tradition. The folks had begun to retire to their little town shortly after we married, while the younger kids were still with them. Their new home was spacious and had plenty of land; they hoped to entice us to build nearby. My ex preferred to commission a small vacation cottage near the coast just northwest of Kalm.

The younger siblings responded to their offer, instead, absolving him of the unwanted responsibility of watching over my parents year round.

When I had first visited my folks, it was in the high rise in the center of Midgar. My father had welcomed me with joyous excitement, relieved to see me among the living, then disowned me for associating with terrorists. Unknown to me, my daughters were with them, were in fact inside their home while I stood in the lobby.

We had rarely visited my family during my marriage; my husband did not really enjoy their company. The girls later echoed his sentiment and largely ignored their maternal grandparents. And so I was surprised to learn from Vincent that my Mum and Dad were guarding my twins after their father found a new partner. The girls did not approve of his new happily-ever-after; both of us come from long (previously uninterrupted!) lines of unbreakable marriages. We set the unhappy precedent, not through divorce, but as a result of Hojo's experimentation and amoral acquisition of me as a test subject. A faked "fatal" fire in the laboratories left my first love a very eligible bachelor with an excellent settlement from Shinra. My ex-husband had not lasted long as a widower before he was snapped up by a much younger coworker-in-waiting.

While the city looked peaceful enough, I did not aim for the condominium in upper Midgar. The majority of citizens had evacuated the city, or at least its exposed levels, at the urging of Reeve Tuesti, to escape the inevitable disaster. No doubt my parents could easily pick up and transplant outside the borders, for a front-row seat of the impending catastrophe.

The Lindorms would surely have remained at their homestead in Foothills, and their house. The facade looked cheery in the warmth of the autumn sun. The hills were a welcome relief from the mugginess I found around Junon, and the dry dustiness of the woods.
My parents took some time answering the door, no doubt checking through the side windows before opening for me. Dad looked shrunken and Mum appeared even smaller; both seemed somewhat feeble.

The old man spoke first. "What do you want, Josephine?"

"What kind of greeting is that for your daughter? I'm still a pariah? Well, sir, even a pariah wants to know and visit with her family. Shall I leave and face the cold, cruel world alone?" May as well keep it light at first. My father ignored the sarcasm.

"No. You are welcome here." He opened the door to admit me, but I remained on the stoop. If I entered, I would be their daughter, and we needed to keep ourselves on equal footing. After all, I was there on business.

"Actually, I'm looking for Millie and Trini. Are they here?" Dad looked confused and Mum was watching him, very unhappy.

"Your father threw them out." She began to say more, but Dad silenced her with a quick look.

"Seems to be a lot of that going around with you two." I regretted saying it, but I still hurt from their rejection, back when I really could have used their support. "What did they do, join some terrorists?" Now it was Dad's turn to look hurt and sad.

"Your daughters left to join their boyfriends. We don't approve of their lifestyles, but we are still friendly."

"You don't approve of a lot of things. Am I allowed to know where I might find them?" Now he looked defiant.

"If we don't tell, will you send your goons to threaten us again?" He looked so angry, but his hostile pose was defanged by decline and loss. I felt sorry for him. They were obviously alone in the house, two aging people living in sight of the ruined city.

"That was just Vincent, looking for me, and he never threatened you. I had gone missing and he was worried." Actually I had hoped they would tell me more about their meeting, but Dad always played his cards close to the vest. Like someone else I know.

"And Vincent is...?"

"My husband." It slipped out; I hadn't meant to call him that, but I wouldn't correct it. It felt good to spite them, even in such a tiny way. Then my father just about broke my heart, and I had to remind myself that they didn't just lose a daughter. They also lost a son-in-law. Not their dearest family member, but theirs just the same.

"Your second husband. We figured you wouldn't remain alone for long. Your ex has a new baby boy with that gold-digging underling. It's strange to keep reminding ourselves that he is not our grandson. We miss you both, you know. We don't get along as well as we'd like with the twins. And your siblings are busy helping to rebuild Midgar. We rarely see family out here." My Mum began to drip tears, so I impulsively grabbed her into a quick embrace. Dad reached out and we made it a group hug. I, too, started to mist over; then I remembered another detail.

"Mum, Dad, you are grandparents again. We have a little girl in Nibelheim." They both pulled back, astounded, their mouths open. I spoke before they could.

"Yeah, I know; it's impossible, but the experiments in Professor Hojo's Jenova Project undid my infertility. It's hard to explain, but he used me as a lab rat, after he had me killed, in quotation marks, so to speak. In fact, you have twin grandsons, too. Just can't see them, any more than I can." At that, I realized there was way too much to tell, and no energy left to discuss it. How does one go about explaining to her parents that their daughter is a Jenova mutant?

"Mum, Dad, we can reconnect later. I am trying to rearrange my life, and once I do, we can meet again and take it slow." Dad stopped me, looking sad again.

"Your girls live not far from here, pretty close to the city. There is a small town growing on the closest edge of Midgar. They just call it Edge.

"We are still not thrilled with your associates, Little Lady. And your daughters are following in your footsteps. They insist the boys are there to protect them."

"They'd better, or I will take care of them, personally. That's a promise." I could feel my face harden as I spoke, and Mum began to look worried. "Relax, you two. Right now there is nothing but time. Let me find the girls, and we can talk later, even if it's only on the phone. Life is too short for you to cut off everyone who loves you." Then I stopped, because it felt like I was preaching, and that was not acceptable behavior for a daughter. At least I was not the only one left unhappy by the separation. Dad interrupted my musing.

“We can’t phone anyone. The landlines were cut when Diamond Weapon fired on the city.” He almost looked helpless, and I came back impatiently.

“Well, what about wireless personal devices? No other receiver anywhere in this place?” Now I couldn’t help but sound like the instructor. “The Network is still there and beginning to thrive again, only this time through people power. Get over your dislike of technology! Here, you’ll have to take mine. No, I can pick up another; money I’ve got. Connections to you both are much more important. I’ll call and we can transfer the data files when I re-equip. Any idea of a good starting point?”

At that, my Dad looked much happier. "Your girls have a restaurant they visit often, or maybe they work there sometimes. El Francisco. Check there; their boyfriends (he said the word with distaste) work the place with their family. A pair of brothers, though not twins." He smiled, enjoying the joke life was playing with the continuity of his descendants' lines.

"You seem to know a lot about them for being estranged." I was smiling, too. Had the old man softened in the last few years?

"We keep tabs on everyone. As you said yourself: life is too short." And then they were relaxed and chuckling. We exchanged a few more noises about how we would catch up on all the latest after I saw the girls. One last round of hugs, and I left without looking back.

Business awaited me in Edge.

The Meeting at El Francisco

What the hell? I stood in the square and said the words right out loud. Why in the name of Holy would anyone be building a statue to commemorate Meteor? There they were, several workmen busily putting in the massive base that would support a huge structure. A large, painted sign ringed the working area and partly obscured their progress from view, all the while announcing the man-made monumental wonder that was to come. There was a picture of a cast-metal sculpture to memorialize the day that Meteor nearly flattened Midgar.

Why wasn't the money being completely funneled into restoration of peoples homes and hamlets? Had Meteor addled everyone's brains? It made no sense to me.

What was needed was a memorial to the Lifestream, for neutralizing and eliminating the threat. Or maybe the brave little band of adventurers who released the Lifestream by destroying Sephiroth? Why build a statue to the horror that hung over the city all those weeks? Why wasn't there a startup university dedicated to further study of the Planet, the Lifestream and other wonders?

Obviously, nothing of value was learned by the local populace. Well, why should that surprise me, since nothing was learned from the previous apocalypse, thousands of years earlier? To this day, very little is ever said about the demise of the earlier civilization. Only that it destroyed itself, and we became the heirs to a nearly empty Planet.

After marvelling a few minutes at the stupidity of Modern Man, I simply shrugged and moved on. Mustn't occupy too many brain cells with such nonsense.

The first order of business when I entered Edge was a new PHS. The town was every bit as lively as the Sector Seven slums had been, and they looked about the same. There were little businesses everywhere, already springing up among all the fragments of Midgar. The inhabitants of the slums were always able to cobble together a lifestyle from the rubble of others' prosperity. After Meteorfall, everyone else would be trying to emulate them, as they picked up the pieces of a nearly destroyed metropolis.

PHS stores were everywhere, same as before. I understood. People would want to connect with one another more than before Meteorfall. My new phone was the standard-issue model in Nibelheim, because I hope to regulate it shortly to simple on-base communication.

While in Midgar, my first act was to message all my contacts and give them my new code. Then I called my old number. It took a long time for my parents to answer, and they seemed uncertain of their new, relatively simple device. With some coaching, though, they were soon chatting away, at ease with the latest electronic development in their lives. We transferred my data files and removed them from their phone. Dad, especially, wanted to start with a clean slate. Knowing him, he would soon discover many features that I had never bothered to learn on that thing. Mum, too, would probably take possession of the device, using it to repair the tattered web of her family connections.

One final detail: a three-way conference with Eleanora, and the formal introduction to their youngest grandchild. Much oooohing and aaaahing and some pretty silly sounds were coming from my august old parents. Fortunately, Aerith was so at ease with visiting via the PHS that she accepted the transmission with no tears or playing strange.

Already she was bigger than during our last call. Nora bluntly laid the blame on me for tearing out of there without waiting to talk to anyone. It was true, I had to admit; as bad as I felt about Vincent’s rejection, there were still plenty of family and friends to console me. Those people were disappointed when I hadn’t seen fit to turn to them in my troubles. I let her scold a little while, then I reluctantly signed off the call; let them finish the conversation together. The grandparents would want as much face-time as they could manage in their first encounter with the baby.

And I could barely contain my excitement as I prepared for my next stop.

I called
El Francisco, and spoke with Millie and Trini, in that order, arranging to meet them at their restaurant. The conversation was kept short and to the point. No use wasting our emotions on the airwaves; we could talk and touch at El Francisco, over some really decent guacamole and tortilla crisps. Or so I was assured.

It was no surprise that the girls had found mates who ran a restaurant. We had all been frequent visitors of different places where we could find a great variety of foods. Personally, I enjoyed meat and fish, but they always had their own ideas. One loved meat and vegetables, including many items that I don't especially like, and the other was vegan. Although they were identical, mirror twins, they were always very separate personalities to me. We did not dress them alike, and allowed them to make their own choices for nearly everything they required.

Other parents of twins often told us we were missing out on the economy of purchasing and making things in twos, but we felt differently. My ability to bear children came to an end at their birth, and I wanted two daughters, not one pair of girls. It was impossible to discourage all the usual twin-ness about them, and we let them savor that. It was simply easier for me to enjoy each for herself, and not just as part of a twosome.

Another non-surprise: our girls also chose non-twins. The kicker, so to speak, was that they were brothers. History was repeating itself, just as their great-grandmother had married the brother of her twin's husband. Now they were all inseparable, and clung together after Meteorfall, rebuilding their new home and running a prospering business. Surely their grandfather could appreciate their industry and need for autonomy. I resolved to prod all parties into a meeting in the near future.

El Francisco was on the main road through Edge, and I was there just minutes after purchasing the PHS. While the girls had not grown in height, they were much more mature, two young ladies standing with their hands at their sides, and their eyes sad.

We stared at one another for what seemed a very long time, while I waited for the accusation that I knew was coming. It came in stereo.

"How could you desert us?" Ah, of course. The very words I was expecting.

"I didn't. I was kept against my will. And I was part of the reason we are all here." Dammit, I was a hero, not a deserter! "And I am here, am I not? Just came from visiting your grandparents in Foothills." At that they both sighed and took me to a table laden with tapas, chips and dips.

"So talk." "Where did you go?" "Why did you stay away?" "And who were those guys that scared Grammy and Grampa?" "We heard you were going to be executed just before that Weapon attacked!" One right after another, just like before. They did not share the same thoughts; they completed one another's paragraphs.

Mimicking their shotgun style of grilling, I answered their questions one by one, allowing no interruption. At least, for as long as I could manage. The girls were no more shy than I am in conversation.

"Hojo essentially imprisoned me, using me as an experimental guinea pig. Likely, they never took me out of the main Shinra building in the middle of town, so I was really close all along. At least until I was able to escape, when the entire R & D department went to Gold Coast, a few months before Sephiroth called down Meteor. Later, I tried to visit, but was chased away from my folks' place. Those guys were Vincent, and maybe Captain Cid, looking for me, while I was looking for you. I never connected because your Dad was busy making a new baby. He would not divulge your location, and it looked to me like they had enough on their plates. They didn't need more trouble." The scowls they gave me said it all.

"Don't get us started about her." " She couldn't wait to get her hands on the insurance money." "We told Dad he would never see us again if he married her." "Then she got pregnant!" At that, I cut them off; something needed to be said.

"Your father was certainly entitled to the insurance settlement, and it‘s his business alone however he intended to use it. As for his new family: nobody 'gets pregnant' by herself, you know. Your Dad knew I wouldn't want him to be alone after I died.”

"But so soon, Mom!" Millie sounded disgusted.

"By my count, it must have been well over a year, even two. Remember your uncle, and all his wives? They are marrying men, even your cousins on that side never stay alone for long. Be reasonable. What's more, I told him he should remarry if anything ever happened to me." They were implacable.

"He'd better not!" Trini nearly shouted the words. "If she gets your money..."

"They didn't get married?" That was intriguing news.

"Better not have." That was Millie.

"Let's change the subject. Suffice to say I don't care what he does. Besides, they have to think of your half-brother." Their looks were identically outraged.

"Did you ever love Dad?" "Didn't you sleep apart?" Oh, boy, I wasn't ready for their scrutiny, not that deep.

"Girls, girls! Your Dad is too ticklish to sleep with anybody. We shared the same bedroom, you know that. We love you, loved each other, and this whole situation has been difficult for us both. That's enough about your Dad and me. What about you and your guys?" They told me nothing new, except for some names. We exchanged our codes so we could keep in touch. Then I dropped the bomb.

"You will want to meet your half-sister, too." The silence was immediate and heavy. "Yeah, I know." But I didn't know how they would react to the full truth, so I decided to feel my way through the next conversation. At that point, two young men appeared and proffered pitchers of beer. Each sat down next to my girls and looked defiantly at me. Once again I was the outsider; I took a deep breath, and started from scratch.

"Gentlemen (and ladies), I am Josephine Lindorm, dragon rider from Nibelheim." There was a lot to explain, so I took it from the top. My girls were in good hands; the Bravo family was positively venerable, with records that reputedly went back to the Great Cataclysm. Many families claim to originate before the Cataclysm, but very, very few have documentation to prove it. The Bravos showed their pride in a beautiful private exhibition of papers and arms from the Ancient World, at the back of the cafe. A locker displayed them under the most secure, shatterproof material available--the same substance used to fortify the Highwind when it was commandeered by Rufus Shinra. The most convincing evidence was a lovely pair of Damascus swords, incredibly antique and still obviously as deadly as the day they were crafted in Ancient Iberia.

We visited for hours, eating and drinking, with the men and I trying to talk over the twins' mutual soliloquies. Their world was entirely devoted to simple survival after Meteorfall. The boys and their family ran the restaurant. It had been a very slow start, but little by little, people were ready to resume normal lives. A fully functional restaurant could now be found in nearly every neighborhood, and tobacco shops and cafes were on every corner. The citizens picked up from the mess, and needed a place to meet and share their troubles. The older generation tended the kitchen, the boys handled the business and trade details, while my daughters hosted what was becoming a very popular meeting place.

The Bravo Family Feast

Their corner of Edge was neatly contained in one building, with tenants in the upper apartments and their restaurant in the storefront. All the couples, old and young, shared one home in the back, occupying two stories, keeping the entire two flats in the family, with the business facing the street.

During our conversations, we enjoyed hot tapas, as well as guacamole, tortilla crisps, fresh chili with beans, all grown in their garden outside Edge, along with root vegetables, fresh greens and newly-made pasta. Then the boys hauled in a huge, sizzling steak, covered in onions and reeking of garlic, enough for everyone. On top of that, there was cold beer and fruit from the recent harvest. We were going to get along very well, indeed.

The elders of the Bravo family, not to be outdone, brought out some very decent wines: robust reds that went perfectly with the thick steak. I heartily approved of the family that had incorporated my darling twins. The Bravos, in turn, were anxious for stories of the road and begged for full, detailed descriptions of the major battles. It was during this conversation that I finally realized that I was sick of traveling, weary from all the battles and just plain hoarse from too much talking. Time for someone else to go questing and battling and storytelling.

At that point, I insisted on a blow-by-blow account of their experiences during the catastrophe of Meteorfall's desintegration. Reeve had instructed all citizens to evacuate to the slums. For many of them, that was their first taste of life outside the elite world of the upper levels. My girls had left for Foothills with my parents, returning to pick up with the rest of my siblings. Edge was one of many communities to either spring up again from the rubble or grow out into the sunlight surrounding the city. They were not up to speed on the other parts of Midgar; it was enough to stay alive and rebuild their own world. And it certainly looked as if they had done just that. Most utilities were restored, thanks to Reeve and his people, and the rest of the population simply did what was necessary to carry on with their lives. I listened with pride and wonder to my daughters and their partners: a new world and new promise of new life awaited us all.

Many hours later, I remembered to call Vincent, appraised him of my whereabouts, and described to him the route to Edge. He would join us in the morning; I was to remain at El Francisco until his arrival.

I was invited to stay overnight on the sofa in the living room of their Spartan apartment. Our first connection looked quite promising; the girls were very forgiving. The rift was sure to heal, but it would take a long time to tie up all the loose ends. And I didn't try to introduce the other half-brothers they should eventually know. We needed to take smaller steps in that direction.

Meeting Vincent would be plenty to cap this first visit.

Midnight glow

The darkness wasn't penetrable, and the silence was eerie. No cave is ever completely silent, but where was the sound of water dripping or wind moving through cracks in the surface? I was as comfortable as I would ever be on the road, so we must have made camp somewhere. I began to reach around for the others. The space was properly cushioned but very cramped, and I fit rather tightly into my bed.

"Vincent..., Yuffie...? Reddie? Hey, where is everyone?" No one was with me, and I began to panic in the dead silence. Reaching further around, I tipped myself off the bedroll and fell a very short distance to the floor. Not expecting any fall at all, I collapsed with a little shreik. The Glow began to ignite and gradually I could see my surroundings. Soon I ascertained that I was unhurt and in no imminent danger.

In the growing light it became obvious that I was actually inside a building, and had just fallen off a bed. Or rather the sofa, as my brain began to clear and I remembered the space around me was my daughters' living room, and not some pitched tent. The apartment was very, very dark and absolutely silent; it hardly seemed possible I was on the edge of Midgar!

"Yo? Mom? You okay? What the hell?? Trini, come see this!!!" Millie was moving down the stairs and her voice was rising nearly an octave with each step. At that, I could hear the others begin to stir from their beds, too. Soon four faces peered at me through the railing of the landing, with the older generation coming in from behind.

Oh Hell, may as well make it a public party, why don't we?

"Mom, what is wrong with you???" Now I felt trapped by the situation and the Glow burned a bit brighter. I was already floating a tad off the floor, as a result of the fall from my bed. For a few seconds I let them process the new information without explanation, while I thought of a fairly casual answer. All six people remained stock-still on the stairs, their eyes and mouths wide open, silent.

"Uh, guys? Remember I told you about the experiments? Well, this is part of that."

"Then there's danger?" Trini began to look around the room in fear.

"No, silly. Just a nightmare. I'm disoriented, sleeping inside and all. It's just nerves; I'll get over it in a little bit. Go back to bed." Of course they wouldn't go back to bed until the Glow dissipated, and I'd sunk back to the floor. By then, we'd lit a small lamp, and decided it would be best to leave it alight, in case I woke again. In retrospect, it was a very good thing no one decided to sneak down and wake me.

For what? Who knows? It may be someone would check on me if I talked in my sleep. Or fought in my sleep, or attacked Sephiroth in my dreams. Even the victors in wartime experience disturbances while sleeping, or are otherwise addled. Vincent's episode in the Forbidden Falls Glen was a very good example of that.

Anyone who approached me while I was disoriented could receive a very nasty, and possibly fatal surprise. It was necessary to explain Chastity Belt to the whole family, without specifically giving it that name. That little bit of randiness was Captain Cid's idea, especially after that time in the noisy nightclub. It was excellent for discouraging unwanted attention from the opposite sex.

I did make it very clear that they should not approach me unbidden when I was in the Glow. Then I ordered everyone back to bed, so that I could rest before the next day's journey.

The kids returned to their rooms, whispering among themselves. It was clear they had some adjusting to do, now that Momma wasn't quite as they remembered her.

Morning on Edge

Before that week, I had never noticed the tiny hamlet of Edge. Of course, whatever we passed on the way to the North Crater and our final battle with Sephiroth was colored by our grim quest. It was easy to forget that the Planet could be a lovely, lively place. Even the small towns growing on the rim of the metropolis all had their own personalities.

This one, for instance, took full advantage of the space available. Had to hand it to Reeve: not every part of the city looked inward to Shinra. Some parts were already developing a distinct local flavor. What we called the slums were really just places that refused to retain the antiseptic, futuristic "floating city" aspect found on the upper plate. And they had survived, nearly intact. Unfinished, but unbroken.

No doubt Edge was already under construction, at least as an extension of the city of Midgar, long before Meteorfall. All the buildings were stacked together, as if to prepare for future onslaughts of urban renewal, and to allow as many people to live in the neighborhoods as possible.

Reeve had planned a densely packed metropolis: he would be thinking of all the future residents. Unfortunately, the result was that Midgar sucked the very life out of its environs, as well as the color out of its population. Every home in Edge seemed to remember that it was part of a much greater urban area, and the outside, natural world found little representation there. It saddened me to note that, if it were not for the inclusion of a patio, there would not be much access to the outside air, except through the storefront of their little home.

I remembered a conversation between Cloud, our leader, and Barrett Wallace, the head of Avalanche. They were noting the lack of sky available to slum dwellers. No matter how ugly and polluted a place could become, its people would continue to love it as their homeland. Both men had lost the towns they knew to the brutal machinations of Shinra Incorporated or its agents. And while Kalm, my birthplace, was the same, the Midgar of my youth, and that of my daughters, was in ruins. Our Planet was intact, but our homes had all changed. At least my girls were able to adapt and move on.

Same as their old lady, it would seem.

The Bravo house was still very quiet when morning arrived. At least, I believed it was early; I was all slept out. Nevertheless, there was very little light filtering down into the courtyard outside the French doors of the living room. I stretched my limbs and began to think about breakfast. The smell of hot beverages and toasted grains filled the house, calling me to start the day.

I wandered into the tiny kitchen adjacent to the parlor. Everything looked brand new, but it was obvious the room was rarely used. Still, coffee was already brewed and appeared to have been sampled. I poured a small cup and rummaged through the refrigerator for creamer, my stomach a little queasy at the thought of black coffee after a night of too much food and drink. Once the beverage was to my liking, I roamed through the rooms, out into the storefront, wandering by the restaurant’s industrial-sized kitchen on the way. Ah, that was the source of the delicious baking smells.

Breakfast was in full swing at El Francisco. My girls were bustling between the tables, and their men were tending the cash register and greeting patrons. The older Bravos were working the morning shift in the kitchen, at least from what I could see in passing. I moved up to the front counter, squinting in the morning sunshine that was streaming in from the street.

Edge was already a beehive of activity, with people going at a fair trot in both directions on the main road. What could keep so many so very busy, so soon after Meteorfall? I could only hope that all that industry was aimed at rebuilding.

"Mom." Trini sidled up to me, her arms full of trays and tableware. “Vincent Valentine called here about an hour ago, and is on the way to collect you. He sounded put off, and wanted to know what had happened to you. Where is your PHS?”

The phone was right in my pocket. I retrieved it and stared at the listing of all the missed calls. There were six of them, the first occurring right at dawn. Vincent would be rightly irritated; we had coordinated our devices right before we parted, setting the ringers on high. Of course, my PHS was newly purchased and therefore not fully programmed.

It didn’t matter that I had messaged all my contacts with the new code. Even the new numbers wouldn’t wake me if the device were preset to low tones. I had not bothered to customize the sounds and alarms, because it was much more important for me to hurry along to my meeting with the girls at El Francisco. Vincent would doubtless demand an accounting of my unavailability when we reconnected. Well, let him, I had nothing to hide but my forgetfulness.

Nevertheless, I finally took a few minutes to recalibrate the tones, especially as I didn't want to disturb the diners. Still, I was skeptical that anything could wake me after a night of beer and wine and talking. In fact, I was still droopy, and sipped constantly while I worked. The cup was never empty, as my girls and sons-in-law refilled it at every pass.

Soon I was presented with the daily breakfast special: waffles and pan-fried potatoes, and of course, more coffee. My daughters understood that their mother wouldn’t tolerate a simple roll and beverage, or even scones and fruit preserves. Lately my middle was beginning to, let’s say, look a little prosperous, so I eschewed a demand for meat or other animal proteins. Most of the surrounding patrons were nibbling their rolls and muffins, and I thought, looking surreptitiously over to my hearty helpings.

Isn’t it always like that? So many people barely eat breakfast, not a few skip it entirely. They poke at their meal, and enviously watch the rest of us chow down on our feasts. While it is understood that many unfortunates cannot stomach anything early in the day, the world would be better off if it stopped to eat first thing before any work.

There in Edge, most cafes weren’t even open until close to noon, so El Francisco did a very brisk business each morning, beginning at sunup. The earliest customers would return for lunch, while the later ones might stop by before heading home for the night. Conversation flowed from counter to table and back through the servers; no one was excluded. Immediately I was tapped for contribution, so I smiled and mentioned simply that I came from outside. This afforded a few seconds of peace, just before an onslaught of questions interrupted my meal.

“What’s new at Junon?” A burly man raised his voice over the general hum of talking diners.

“Rustlers looking to steal chocobos. You’ll want to watch yourself on the roads out there. They struck a ranch on the other side of the Foothills. Everything is okay, now, though.”

That was the wrong thing to say for anyone who needed to eat in peace. The questions came slowly but steadily, because the other wanted to hear the answers, and stopped eating to listen. In the end, I described the two attacks in as few words as possible, because I wasn’t there for the earlier raid. For the later one, it seemed best not to go into detail, especially given the nature of my embarrassing experience in the Glow. Besides, just remembering the spinning and jostling made my stomach lurch again. No need to pass along that little tidbit.

In the end, I announced that the gangsters returned to the ranch hoping to mop up, and got their clocks cleaned instead. Telling the story made me anxious that the wrong people might hear it, but the news would have traveled anyway. I shook my head slightly at my girls, to squelch anything else they might add.

“Any chance they will try out this way?” The place was buzzing in low tones; the news isn’t so much fun when it might strike locally.

“I would guess. Chocobos are valuable, maybe more so than any gil, until production resumes on automobiles.” Everyone was nodding at that. Edge was nearly bereft of cars and trucks, and public transit was not back in use just yet. People hiked everywhere and missed their Shinra-supported rides.

“You got chocobos?” I looked again at the questioner and shook my head. It would be dangerous for him to know too much.

“No. Arrived on foot, after I hitched a ride over the Central Ridge.” It was probably obvious that a lone person was not likely to cross the mountains on foot. Lord, would he just please accept that answer and shut up?

No such luck.

“Who’s taking riders over the mountains?” The man was trying unsuccessfully to look casual, but I could see greed in his eyes. They were hard, and challenged me, even though he shrugged his shoulders and tried to look casual. At that moment, I decided to provide no more information and tried to ignore him. I returned to my coffee.

“Hey, lady, who’s taking riders? C'mon, I’m interested.” Then the place got much quieter; he didn’t sound just interested; he sounded insistent and louder. My reply came as quietly as I could manage, as I was trying not to get excited.

“It wouldn’t matter, because that person didn’t come to Midgar, or he would be here with me. Don‘t you think?”

The hairs were rising on the back of my neck. I heard the man push back from his table. My curiosity got the better of me, and I turned slowly towards him, standing as I did so. Some of the patrons dropped cash on their tables and edged towards the door.

Lord, it was too early for this nonsense. I shook my head in silence and spread my arm in mute appeal for his cooperation. He practically spat his answer at me.

“C’mon, lady, tell me the name and whereabouts of the service; I may want to use it. Who’s taking riders over the mountains?” There could be no doubting the aggression in his voice. The jerk was moving closer to me, and the room fell completely silent.

I took a very deep breath, because I didn’t want to ignite the Glow. There would be no telling what sort of damage would result to the cafĂ©, if things got physical. Why in the world did it have to happen at my daughters' place? In an effort to diffuse the situation, I smiled and scanned the faces around me. The diners did not return the good humor, instead anxiously looking towards the door. That’s where I wanted to be, too. At the very least, we would need to take the belligerent gentleman outside. His demeanor was disturbing the diners, even though it was directed only towards me.

I began to back away from the fellow, hoping that we were aiming for the entryway. Both of us almost levitated when the next voice chimed in, answering the man’s previous question.

“If you are my wife, I am. Otherwise, you’ll need to find your own transportation. Would you like to take this conversation outside?” The man nodded--glumly, I thought!--and moved to the door.

"Wait! What about the tab?" No way would I allow him to leave without paying my daughters. He actually blushed, and returned to the table and left a few gil.

"Sorry. Wouldn't want to stiff the kids." He muttered the words to us as he passed. I began to wonder if I was wrong about the man. Vincent followed him out to the street.

My daughters came right over to me as soon as he left. Millie whistled aloud.

"Wow! That was scary!" Trini was visibly shaking, so I reached out to soothe her. Then she shrugged, her eyes smiling.

"You were great! I can't believe how you stood up to him." She took my hands, and it just about killed me to feel her tremors.

"Baby girl, I'm so sorry to have caused you any pain or fear. Trouble just seems to follow me around." Millie shook her head.

"No, Mom. It's like that everywhere now. Only thing is, he's always been a regular. Not every day, all the time, and not usually alone like today."

"He's got friends?" Vincent would want to know. I moved to the swinging doors. "They could be outside waiting for him." But my hero was already standing on the other side. He entered and walked straight up to the Bravo boys.

"He probably won't be back. I'm very sorry if we cost you any patronage." They shook their heads amiably and stuck out their hands." Then Trini spoke over the returning buzz of the other customers.

"If he's going to harass the other diners, then we don't need his business. He wasn't very nice to Mom here."

Trini sounded indignant, oblivious to any gaffes I may have made in the exchange. Mentally, I was reviewing the conversation, feeling guilty that I may have caused an uproar where none was warranted. To chase away customers from the cafe was not the worst I could have done, but the possibility that the man was innocent was beginning to gnaw at me.

Generally people are friendly and civilized to strangers all over the planet. Even the ones who don't trust strangers are coldly polite, following universal custom. On the other hand, there are plenty of rough-edged loners who lack ordinary social graces. Perhaps he was one of them. It was time to add my own apologies, and move on before we could do any permanent damage.

"Well, kids, looks like you can't take me anywhere nice, doesn't it? Trini and Millie, this is Vincent Valentine, a commander in the Nibelheim militia and one of my companions."

I was startled by the sudden burst of laughter that met my introduction. My daughters each took one of my arms and drew me behind the counter. The two Bravos were standing on either side of Vincent, too. Everyone was laughing. Vincent shook his head, and spoke, kindly and fondly.

"Josephine, we have just finished our introduction, and thought we included you. Obviously, you were elsewhere. And you failed to mention that we are somewhat more than companions." The look of hurt reproof surprised me. He could be very insistent on having things his way, I thought. It was irritating to be boxed into his idea of my role in life. What made him think I would hang on his every word?

The girls looked at one another and then to the men. "Hey, guys, why don't we turn the place over to the folks? We can visit a while before you go back to Nibelheim."

Vincent broke in. "Sorry, but I'm not convinced that we've seen the last of that diner. Josephine, we should go directly to the Old Guard Ranch, and warn them that there are other troublemakers who are interested in chocobos."

"But, Vincent, maybe he wasn't a bad guy. It could be he was just crude."

"No, Josephine; it's a fair bet they'll be waiting for us when we hit the road. I want to be still fresh and on the alert when we travel. Party's over, little one. Kiss your daughters and invite them to Nibelheim." He turned to the Bravos. "You are all welcome in our home. My wife misses her family every day you are apart. Surely, it is important to maintain close ties while we can." I thought about his family and how he worked to regain their hearts. Now it was my turn to do the same.

"Vincent's right. This is just the beginning. We can visit again on the other side of the ocean. Let's just make sure this rustler situation doesn't destroy our friends' ranch.

"I expect to see you soon. All of you." It felt good to really hug the girls. And as an added bonus, the boys dutifully presented themselves for an embrace.

Before I could get tearful, I nodded to Vincent.We marched to the kitchen for quick introductions and even faster goodbyes with the Bravo elders.

Then we stepped out into the late morning sunshine and mounted our steed, a very large and sleek Black. The chocobo readily accepted the extra weight and raced across the barren plain to the foothills.

We watched the entire way, expecting to be ambushed. This time, however our trip was uneventful, and we traveled alone up into the mountains.

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