The Last Gangster

There were still several bodies that needed proper destruction: those of our defeated enemies. We untied the last gangster and impressed him into undertaker services, forcing him to help us return his allies to the Planet. This he did willingly, and with silent dignity, bowing his head in a last g
oodbye to each of his fallen comrades. Again I was struck with his comportment: he could not be an evil man. When the grim task was completed, he stood in our midst and began to explain himself.

Before MeteorFall, he had been a member of Shinra’s peace-keeping force; nearly all of the gangsters had been Shinra employees. The breakup of the corporation left them with their weapons, a ready-made hierarchy, and the discipline that allowed immediate aherence to whatever rules they decided among themselves. They were out of work, so they roamed first the ruined city, then the countryside, looking for whatever jobs they could find.
Unfortunately, armed gangs were regarded as vectors of crime or at least violence, and they were soon hounded out of the population centers by Reeve and his deputies. Over the next few months they gradually lost their initial sense of purpose and began to steal and act more and more lawlessly, as their numbers grew.

Our captive would only give his first name, Kain, saying that he didn’t want his family to suffer any repercussions. He had children, some quite small, and a wife who was still not aware of the chocobo rustling. She believed he was jobbing for ranchers, as an itinerant who sought work wherever he could get it.

His rustling confederates refused to accept him back after our encounter at El Francisco. In their opinion, we should have been eliminated, one after the other, as we exited the restaurant. For all they knew we would recruit a posse to destroy them, after he had so clumsily botched his intelligence gathering.

They would keep him close at hand, and make him prove he wasn’t a turncoat. They plan
ned to kill him at the vaguest hint of collusion; the Old Guard Corral would be the acid test.

Yeah, well, we pretty much decided that it sounded like a load of guano. We needed some proof of Kain’s assertions. After all, it was easy to guess who had directed them to the Old Guard.

After a short discussion amongst ourselves, it was decided. He could take us to those comrades who had escaped. Kain balked, looking down at his feet and speaking slowly.
“You guys got nearly all of them, at least any who were worth their salt in battle. Just a few cowards who hid in the woods es
caped. You gonna hunt them down, too?” He sounded defiant and resolute; he would not rat out the deserters.

“How else can we secure the ranch?” With that query, Duane spoke for all of us. It would be best to eliminate the few escapees, to prevent them from trying to regroup and attack again.

“Then just get it over with. Kill me now, because if they see me leading you, I may be dead anyhow.” Actually, it seemed to me that the suggestion had some merit, but it would be less than honorable to execute an unarmed man, regardl
ess of his past sins.

On the other hand, to leave him at the Old Guard was not really an option. The Cyans were preparing to make their sad visit to the Brantford’s home, and there was no secure area to use as a prison cell. Besides, why would they want to keep a criminal jailed on the premises?

It was a real quandary, but Duane again surprised us by speaking up.

e him to me. Aika could remain with the kids, if I had someone else along for the road trip. After we deliver the bad news, he can take me to his family to verify his story. There will be three people to guard the ranch against the stragglers, if there are any.

“Kain, if you’re willing to prove that you really have a family, then we may be able to work up a deal. Right now you are my prisoner; we can’t promise you much more than a full belly and enough hard work to make you sleep at night. Later, well, we shall see.”

Kain smiled shyly and nodded his consent: it was the best he could have expect

After all, highwaymen have always existed, long before the fall of Shinra, even in the times before the Great Cataclysm. In small numbers, Aika, Sebastian and Kulloden could deal with intruders, and reinforcements would be as close as the PHS. Ranch workers were hard to find, so if Kain wanted to continue to support his family, then he could work for it. He would start with the sober task of escorting our friend to Rocky’s parents.

In the aftermath of the battle, we remembered to gather all the loot droppe
d by the rustlers. Among the usual motley collection of firearms, we acquired a couple of small rocket launchers, both still loaded, and some wicked-looking hand-carved daggers. All spoils were offered to the Cyans, who, this time, gleefully accepted the whole lot for their arsenal. We were happy to relinquish them; they were well earned. Except for Adrianna, our own people were already heavily armed. Furthermore, we would always be welcome to collect whatever we needed on our way through the wooded hills.

That evening only a few of us gave in to the luxury of sleep. Our mopping up complete, we directed the expectant mothers to take the bedrooms in the up
stairs of the chalet, while the rest of us passed a few hours around the kitchen table, reliving the battle and its consequences. Aika and Duane also spent a great deal of time getting to know, and visiting with, our saurian air service providers. They had not seen a dragon in more than forty years, and were enchanted to find them literally in their own front yard.

Vincent and I wanted to completely debrief our two departing soldiers, but with Kulloden taking a much-needed rest, we talked at length only with Sebastian. He made it plain that he didn’t want to sever from us. We could consid
er the Old Guard a new outpost of the Nibel military. In effect, we were setting up a permanent alliance that, once verified by our generals, would become the first step towards extending the reach of our militia to two continents.

Once that business was settled to everyone’s satisfaction, preparations were made for our respective journeys. In the half-light of the very early morning hours, all available hands dispersed throughout the ranch to secure the borders. Not a criminal in sight, but nothing could be left to chance, with only three people to guard the place. Brush was cleared and trees
were limbed for improved visibility.

Never before had the corral seemed so vulnerable. Even Shinra had respected the sanctity of such Mom and Pop businesses, choosing to drive them out by overpowering them on a business level, and ultimately absorbing them. Now violence became an everyday possibility. It was good to have disciplined soldiers to set up proper procedures for security, and a lifeline to a full waiting army.

Sad Partings

Adrianna and Desiree took Buddy away to the southeast just as the sun rose over the continental ridge. The women did not even want breakfast before they left. The Great Northern Blue had passed the night in the shelter of the dark woods, and was restive and ready to return to the skies.

A few hours later, directly after breakfast, Duane and Kain set out on foot; the lengthy journey would give the two men time to learn about one another.

One more
surprise: Kain, too, would go armed; the roads were not safe for pedestrians. He somewhat awkwardly accepted a shotgun, mentioning that he was much better with a lance, when he could get or make one. Duane simply intoned a noncommittal, “We shall see,” and they both slipped into the woods. That left us time to make arrangements for our own trip home.

At the top of my list was a hot, soaking bath, and I repaired to the second storey bathroom to luxuriate--and to work the PHS, to scout our route before we left. There was someone who might want to meet my glittering girlfrien
d. The owner/bartender of The Dive reported--his voice audibly shaken--that the hamlet was still vibrating from the screaming formation that had passed overhead the previous day. Yes, he thought Lovelock would very much like to visit with our dragons.

After changing into my cleaner, fancier clothes, I swept down the stairs and announced that we had an appointment with our allies from the tavern. It seemed important that we establish the link between those people and the Old Guard. It wouldn’t hurt to keep a finger on the collector;
he had already proved to be a useful source of information and arms. Aika, too, could offer their newly-acquired weaponry as a stockpile to be available when needed by the larger community. With the network re-established as in the old days before Shinra, the towns and ranchers would rely on one another for news and emergency aid. I promised to relay the proposal.

A light lunch was eschewed in favor of catching some bar food on the way. Only our steeds were in immediate need of fueling. We walked the dragons through the nearby woods, hunting the wild birds and gathering whate
ver greens appealed to them before their flight.

Satisfied that everyone was prepared for the trip, Vincent and I took leave of Kulloden and the remaining Cyans. We approached our battle dragon for permission to climb aboard and head for The Dive, then home. This she graciously granted, moving slowly around the clearing, encouraging her dragonet to follow her example.

We watched the low-keyed parade a few moments before we caught on: this was an impromptu training session! We were the students being lured into a game of "catch us if you can." Esmerelda wanted to show us something.

Once we understood their offer, the great lizards became easy targets for us as riders. First Sheol walked up to Spike and swung easily onto his back with one arm around his neck. It looked as if mounting the little stinker were nearly involuntary!

I wandered over to Esmerelda and reached for her in the same way, and felt my body drawn to exactly where I wanted to sit. Vincent followed suit, only he kept both his claw and his unprotected hand at his sides, to protect our friend from possible injury. Amazingly, he lifted easily into place behind me, then
wrapped his arms around my waist.

Somehow our Mr. Valentine always seemed to know just what was needed. His ability to roll with the punches and land on his feet proved itself over and over again. In this instance he simply made himself available, fully trusting in the draconic power, and passively accepting her actions. It was dream-like, wish-fulfillment in action: we wanted to ride, and it became so.

Then we all lifted as one over the forest canopy, aiming for the port of Junon.

The Collector’s Gift

As we passed beyond the foothills, and into the sight of the little settlement that included The Dive, we could see a small crowd standing close to the entry of the bar. I scanned the people’s faces and was rewarded with waves from the friendly patrons I met a few days earlier.

“Esmerelda, you sure you don’t mind if we visit?” I had hardly spoken the words
when I could feel the dragon slowing and sinking. We landed a short distance from the buildings, still snug against the forest. Sheol dismounted her little steed and came over to me, impatience written on her face.

“Commander, do you really think we need to rest already? I’m pretty certain that Spike can cross the ocean nonstop. He’s a strong flier, at least when he wants to follow Esme.”

“Sheol, these people were very helpful in my search for the Cyans. I want to tha
nk them and show them our dragons. Some bragging rights, you know? I think we earned them. Oh, my!” There stood Youshun Lovelock, right by the doorway to the tavern, carrying the beautifully crafted shield, with my Grampa’s battle dragon insignia. Vincent and I dismounted and walked up to my new acquaintance.

“I assume you’ve already met, gentlemen?”

“Sure did, just the other day.” He stuck out a hand that was immediately grasped by Vincent, and held the shield out to me. Slowly and reverently, I took pos
session of the treasure, and bowed. Beaming, he returned the courtesy.

“I’m glad you’ve decided to accept my offer.”

“How could I refuse the Shield? My family is forever in your debt, Youshun Lovelock.”

It was massive, almost too heavy for me to carry. I turned it so I could show Esmerelda.

“Hey, Girl, loo
k familiar?” Her response was immediate; I was filled with a sense of recognition. Esmerelda didn't just recognize the emblem, she seemed to know that very shield. Could she possibly be old enough to remember the dragon riders of Nibelheim?

“You have some tales to tell, Lady. We will need to talk.”

“You can talk to the dragons?” The collector was intrigued, almost incredulous. “You didn’t mention knowing the ancient language.” And I hadn’t. Talking with the dragons had been an almost religious experience for me, and
wasn’t really for public consumption.

“My dragon has privileged me with her confidences; I am only just learning.” I left it at that, and Youshun did not challenge me further. He had already moved in toward Esmerelda and her baby Spike, slowly raising his hands to touch the scales. He murmured a few words that I couldn’t hear.
My dragon responded by lowering her head to be stroked. I laughed out loud.

“Youshun, you son of a gun! You didn’t tell me that you knew the language, either.” Of course, there wasn’t a language at all. A dragon reads a person
and responds accordingly. Youshun’s reverence couldn’t fail to impress my green lady, and she allowed him to touch her, and even approach her chick.

“You weren’t just weaving a story about the dragonet. Amazing! We haven’t seen real dragons around here in decades. And a Lesser Green, never.

“Miss Lindorm, did we or did we not see a Great Blue Northern Lindworm yeste
rday? It was impossible to miss; there were three separate flyovers. First a few villagers spotted the Lesser, then we all got to watch the larger one, both flying high over head. Then the smallest came through, a tiny Green, shrieking horribly." At this, Sheol rolled her eyes. "We knew they were headed to battle, because we could see puffs of smoke up in the hills.

“We had wondered if there was trouble and discussed the possibility of sending scouts up to check. Once we saw the dragons, I figured that you were going to get the best of whatever was attacking. Must be I was right.” He smiled at me and continued to inspect Spike, who was loving every little bit of it.

The crowd was moving in on the great lizards. Esmerelda easily accepted the loving curiosity; they were often the center of attention in Nibelheim. In fact, it was my specific goal to see an end to the novelty by increasing their numbers.

As people often will when visiting with a large, apparently docile creature, the locals began to offer them handfuls of grass. At that, Youshun Lovelock himself brusquely intervened.

“None of that!
These are not ruminants or cattle, they are battle dragons. Their diet is specialized. If you’ve got insects or crustaceans, fine. Just don’t give them grass. What a bunch of rubes!” He’d obviously done his homework. Or maybe it was just another collectible: dragon lore.

For the local citizenry, though, Lovelock’s word was law: he was the expert. The bartender ducked into the tavern, and emerged carrying an armload of seafood. Knowing that the local shores were polluted and barren, I felt I ought to try to graciously decline.

“Hey, Captain, that stuff looks expensive! They’ve been pretty well fed this morning…” He ignored my protests.

“It’s not every day we get to feed battle dragons, Ma’am. Our pleasure.” I let it go, especially since Esmerelda and Spike were zeroing in on the proffered delicacies. The man barely escaped with his arms, and backed away, just as the two lizards vacuumed up the seafood.

“Hey, hey! Don’t eat me!” He fairly shrieked the words, but was grinning immedi
ately afterwards, although somewhat shaken. No doubt it was a story he would tell for weeks.

After the first excitement began to wind down, I watched the villagers gawking at the great lizards, while the bartender organized an almost impromptu picnic, complete with beer and sandwiches. Then I set the shield against a tree, so we could study it in the sunlight.

“Josephine, it’s a beauty. A lance and bow and arrows, eh?” Vincent ran his fingers over the artwork.

“Looks familiar? My Grammy was an archer: my Mum, too. Comes down from both
sides. We believe archery teaches discipline and discretion. Guess I still need to work on the second, one, though.” My love was polite enough to simply shake his head with a tiny smile.

We were interrupted by two chiming phones. Vincent casually lifted his to his ear. Mine went silent as soon as he did. Men seem to have a way of raising the PHS, as if out of nowhere and answering, as if on an afterthought. His eyes narrowed for an instant, then he spoke quietly.

“Yes, I suppose we can rendezvous right here. We will wait.” He snapped it shut.
Great Blue will arrive shortly. The ladies want company on the rest of the journey home.” It was an announcement. He seemed a little put out, so I drew him aside.

“Something wrong?” He shook his head and grimaced ironically. Then he whispered to me alone.

“I had wanted to make an exit soon. It was my plan to arrive home before dark.”

“Pffft! Is that all? You forget that our featherless friends can achieve breathtaking speeds. In fact, I’m not sure there is actually a limit to how fast they can go. It’s almost as if dragons fly just because they want to, not because they need to.”

“Josephine, that doesn’t make much sense, but if you say so…”

“Don’t be dense, Vincent. You sound like you could use a dose of Akasha yourself.” I waggled my head at him, and he sighed.

“Just th
e same, let’s plan of being back in Nibelheim before dinner.”

“Copy that, Commander! A glass of wine would be perfect before I return to feed Aerith G.” I ached for my little one as only a nursing mother could. It was fortunate that we lived communally, because that made me only a part-time mother. Our little one did not hunger in my absence. Nevertheless, the guilt suddenly washed over me again.

“Yeah, we really need to get back to her.”

Our Shy Gu

While we waited for Desiree and Adrianna, Vincent and I went over the proposal with the townspeople. They readily accepted the idea and promised to follow up with the Cyans before the week was out. Everyone agreed that it was high time for the network to be revived among the ranchers and villages. Just as we finished nailing the details, Youshun shaded his eyes and pointed to the south. A small speck was rapidly growing on the horizon.

The arrival of the Great Blue Northern Lindworm created almost as big a stir as ours had. Buddy was immense, even in comparison with Esmerelda, and especially against our little Spike. At that point, all the villagers moved directly in his direction, reaching up to help its riders down.

Adrianna did not move to dismount. Neither did she pay much attention to the proceedings in the little hamlet. At times she petted the great dragon’s neck, and sp
oke softly to him. I wondered if he were communicating with her, offering some solace to the widow. It was almost a shame they couldn’t take some time alone.

Buddy was not accustomed to crowds, even those few sightseers. He began to back away, and a rumbling hiss emanated from deep inside him. The townspeople sobered up instantly and ran to give him space. Esmerelda moved in a short, quick glide to his side and the two touched necks. That had a calming effect on Buddy and he seemed to visibly deflate and relax. Just two brave souls slowly returned to help the riders dismount. This time the festive mood was gone; they were being gentlemen, despite their fear. The rest watched, holding their collective breath.

A low whist
le broke the silence. Desiree balanced herself against the proffered hands, using them to bounce into a flip over their heads. She landed gracefully feet-first, dropping into her usual four-point resting pose in the grass. The milling townspeople gave her plenty of room, duly impressed with her calisthenics, and respectful of her weapons. She pretended to ignore them, calling out to no one in particular.

“Whoa, that was close. How the frig were we going to explain a deep-frozen village to the Generals? We’re in enough trouble already!” Desiree then sauntered over to us, lighting a cigarette. I turned on her.

“I sincerely hope you weren’t smoking around Adrianna!” I couldn’t help myself; I remembered how difficult it was to be around the wranglers when I was pregnant. Desiree was indignant.

“C‘mon, Fini. Uh, Commander, give me a little credit. I would never do anything to hurt her; we’ve been friends since we were tiny.” Then she lowered her voice, and her eyes sparkled.

“I don’t think Buddy will ever allow me a smoke on his back, anyway. It‘s his way
or the highway, and I don‘t want to get out and walk.” Her good humor was catching. Our union, as it were, of dragon riders, all understood one another: the dragons were the ones in control. We were only along for the ride.

During our short conversation, our glittering green lady had convinced the Great Blue to approach the villagers again. A deferential hush fell over the entire company. There was a certain feeling of insignificance one felt standing next to the immense lizard. Buddy left everyone speechless, ourselves included.
Even Desiree eventually worked her way in silence through the
little mob and again mounted her steed. This time it was obvious that the dragon itself effected the action, and the crowd gasped. Pleased with the reaction, our scrappy friend was in her element and raised her voice to the skies.

“All right, Buddy! Time to go home; we want to be back before dark. Take us to Nibelheim!” The crowd cheered its approval as the blue behemoth rose straight up into the clouds, then hovered, waiting for us.

One final round of handshakes, and we, too, made our escape. Everyone was glad to move

The trip high over the ocean promised to be a beautiful ending to an event-filled afternoon.

Nibelheim at night

For most of us, soaring far above the water removed any sense of leftover sadness we may have felt. At least for the duration of our trip, we could simply enjoy owning the skies. The Central Continent, as always, was breathtaking in the fading light of late afternoon. The grasslands were brown and the woods were showing the same colors we had left behind in Junon.

“Why don’t we move faster, Vincent? These babies can go at lightning speeds!” But my partner just grunted, and Esmerelda seemed to agree with him.

“We are in no hurry, Josephine. The darkness should be very pretty, don’t you think?” Pretty? Since when did pretty ever affect Vincent?

“But the others are all moving a lot faster; they’re nearly out of sight.” Esmerelda was dropping lower to the ground as we passed over the Corelle area. She was deliberately allowing us to take in the landscape below.

“You guys are doing this on purpose! Have to admit it: it’s all gorgeous from up here.” By the light of the setting sun, the moisture in the air over Lucrecia’s waterfall became prisms, just as they had right after the Last Battle of the Northern Crater. This time we were not inside an airship, and we were nearly alone, Vincent and I. He pulled me closer as we shot through the rainbows, the air becoming noticeable cooler with the dampness.

Once we passed the rising mists of Lucrecia’s waterfall, the sun set in earnest; we would arrive in the dark.
Esmerelda kept her lazy pace and low altitude as we passed over the foothills east of Nibelheim. Then I felt a small panic as I detected the growing scent of gunpowder. What’s more, I could see a brightly colored explosion in the air over the town.

"Vincent! What the…? What is this?"
But already I could feel his laughter rumbling through his chest. Esmerelda, too, was screeching with glee, not at all afraid of the smoke. "Fireworks!"

The town below was completely lit with party lanterns, and colorfully-clad people were dancing in the square around the water tower. It, too, was festooned with lights, surrounded by wandering musicians who played their instruments while skillfully skirting tables that were heaped with food and rimmed with place settings and chairs.

“Josephine, have you forgotten?” Only then did I remember. The harvest festival, specifically, the introduction of the Beaujolais Nouveau, was in full swing. Everyone was gathered around Buddy and Spike, celebrating the arrival of the remaining heroes.
It was so much more than I could have hoped for, many months ago. Far from being objects of hate or dread, our dragons were honored guests, allowed to come into the town, or not, as they pleased. It was a homecoming for all of us, a wonderful bash comprised of eating, drinking, singing and dancing.

We landed on the edge of the festivities, carefully skirting the fireworks staging area. Once we dismounted, though, all our sparkling rides simply aimed for the hills, to escape the merriment. The larger ones moved ahead, with Sheol and the baby in tow. He was past his bed time, as pronounced by the squire, and she would return when he was safely asleep. Dragons are not famous for enjoying our noisy, rowdy parties, even if their riders might still be.

Adrianna, too, begged away from the crowds, slipping off as soon as they began to lose interest. We did not try to dissuade her. There would be plenty of time to sorrow tomorrow, as they say.

This night was dedicated to celebrating First Tastes, the fruits of the harvest.

First Tastes

Vincent was fully prepared to party with everyone, but I was not. I had known there would be a celebration, but I had not imagined the magnitude of it. No one was excluded, from the extremely aged to the very youngest.

Even my little Aerith G was placed into my arms as soon as I dismounted. Nora laughed at my nonplussed expression, and disappeared into the crowd. It was the last I saw of her that evening.

My heart swelled to overflowing when I looked into our baby's dark eyes, all alight with the many lanterns and colorful fireworks. She was just a little afraid of the loud explosions and buried her face in my shoulder from time to time, eventually falling asleep, murmuring with the sound of each firecracker. Vincent led me to one of the long tables and we settled in for one of the largest picnics I ever attended. And certainly the only one taking place at nighttime.

This was a harvest feast, every bit as sumptuous as our welcoming dinner in the Spring.
Right away I was practically forced to make an impossible choice. There was wild fowl roasted with fruit, dripping with a thick, wine-based onion gravy. I knew I had to have some of that, but there was also fin-fish kebabs breaded in beer batter, and served with plenty of white wine. All along the tables were large bowls full of beer-steamed crustaceans in a spicy sauce.

The air was heavy with the scents of beer and wine; obviously the revelers had been sampling long before they sat down to eat in earnest.

Other dishes were scattered here and there, with beer soaked slaw, pleasantly warm and tangy. Naturally there were many platters brimming with fresh mixed greens, including my favorite stir-fry, in red wine vinaigrette. A huge vegetarian shepherd's pie sat in the very middle of each spread, already cut into sections, along with the usual ridiculously enormous selection from the local fields and orchards.
Finally, a side board was covered with seeded rolls, raisin loaf with locally dried grapes, and sweet bread topped with Rum Raisin sauce.

And the alcoholic beverages flowed freely! Not a cork or bottle cap in sight; First Tastes featured only the freshest of drink offered in pitchers and flasks. The main attraction was the Beaujolais Nouveau. It made me smile to think we had lost an entire day of drinking: no wonder Vincent was irked. People constantly mentioned that I would want to save room for dessert, and that it would accompany the Beaujolais mulled with local wild berries.

The biggest surprise for me was the inclusion of various beers and ales. Nibelheimers brewed year-round, so they are not restricted to any special season. Keeping with the spirit of the festival, however, they prepare a special variety of their beer every year. This time around the specialties were Lager Lindorm, crisp and cold, perfect for the hot Nibel summer, along with Vincent's Best Bitters, robust and cool.

Vincent sampled the bitters and then held his glass high over his head. The crowd responded with a loud "Prost!" Then they left him to make short work of the shepherd's pie and spicy crustaceans. We had avoided the food offered at the tavern, mostly because we were overseeing the town's visit with our dragons, so we were famished. He ate in serene silence, packing away an impressive two portions before reaching for the vegetables and more bitters.

For my part, once I had settled the baby to nap in my lap, I started with mixed fresh greens, then attacked a small wild fowl in gravy. This time it wouldn't matter if the dish were gone way too soon: people were well in their cups and left us to enjoy our meal.

At least until they saw me reach for the lager. I was slowly savoring just a half-glass, when I realized all eyes were on me, waiting. Following Vincent's lead, I raised the glass to the crowd, and pronounced it excellent. Once again they shouted a toast, finished their own drinks, and erupted in a wild cheer, celebrating the success of our new namesakes. After that, they again resumed their own eating with gusto.

Relieved to no longer be the center of attention, I quietly handed the rest of the lager to Vincent. He responded somewhat reluctantly, having already drained a tankard.

"Again? Josephine, do I have to slam your drinks tonight, too?"

"Please? It’s just a small glass and I want to try the mulled Beaujolais for dessert."
At that, Vincent drank the beer in his signature one-gulp. He later saw to it that I was given only a very small portion of the thick, warm drink made with my favored Beaujolais. That, barely a sip, and some lovely seeded bread with preserves, comprised a very sweet dessert, and left me sleepy and ready for bed.

We watched the proceedings for a few more hours, sort of out of noblesse oblige. Frankly, I wanted nothing more than a mattress and a comforter, and could have conked out right there amidst all the noise and bustle.

Late Night Celebration

The fireworks began again at the first stroke of midnight. The party-goers had gotten more exuberant and even noisier as the evening progressed, and the bands seemed to crank up the volume in self-defence. This in turn sparked a new round of almost frantic folk song and dance, followed by some plain old rowdy rocking. Pretty soon only those sufficiently lubricated with the local potables could put up with all the overload of sound and physical energy. The rest of us would need to ramp up the alcohol if we wanted to continue the celebration.

We returned home before that could happen. Aerith had dozed off and on the entire evening; we felt that being out all night couldn't be good for her sleep patterns, especially in the middle of that bacchanalia. Besides, I wanted to be able to feed and bathe her, maybe give her a solid few hours of uninterrupted slumber in a quiet environment.

Vincent? Well, Vincent wanted what men usually want after a few drinks.

And I heartily seconded that idea, shepherding both my loves out of the colorful chaos and on the path to the Keep. Our walk through the woods was accompanied by the sounds of leaves rustling at our ankles, and the occasional muted explosions echoing over the plaza behind us. Little by little, the raucous partying receded into the background.

The woods were a welcome sanctuary from the barely controlled pandemonium in the town square. We could always expect a complete return to nature on the way home. The attitude adjustment was a welcome relief; I actually began to muse on the time of year. Soon there would be frost everywhere. For tonight, we could expect to find a chilly castle waiting for us; we would want to set a cozy, romantic tone.

Immediately on arrival, we dedicated ourselves to building a comfortably small fire on the living room hearth. The warmth would rise into the bedrooms, keeping them cozy long after the flames themselves died. We could set the central heat for the morning time, and escape the intermediate coolness under our comforters.

Aerith woke as we worked and visited a bit before I carried her upstairs for a quick shower, during which time we made silly noises at one another. This culminated with the inevitable blowing on the baby’s flabby stomach to produce rude sounds. Vincent was attracted by the laughter, and joined us for a quick rinse. Then we dried ourselves and settled in for one last feeding before bed time.

As often happened with my previous babies, she began to coo and nod as soon as she was sated, her eyes rolling contentedly up under heavy lids. I handed her to Vincent for some quality time before she could drop off for the night, and the two of them brushed noses and murmured little nothings. It was a sight few people would ever see, that proud and grumpy warrior, cooing at and cuddling his little daughter.

We diapered her temporarily dry bottom, then wrapped her in a feathered bunting and lay her down in her crib. For a few minutes we simply watched our little miracle as she slept. I was comparing the two darker and hairier heads of my family, looking back and forth between them. After a bit, Vincent caught me at it, locking eyes with me and smiling; it was good to be home. As silently as we could, we sneaked down the stairs for a little fun and games in front of the fireplace.

We stoked the fire, just a little; no sense in setting up new work to be done. Then we settled on the carpeting, moving as close as we dared, to keep our bodies warm. It had been days since we last had time alone in a truly private spot. From where we lay, the fire lit up the wall hangings and made the room feel intimate and safe and undeniably ours.

So unusual to find ourselves in a fully secured area! There we had no enemies, no unpleasant surprises that could await us. Even if we wanted to take our lovemaking outdoors, we would be watched by the defense system. That thought made me shudder, though, since even our private activity could be monitored by the watchman. No, best to appreciate the warmth of our little fire inside the security and privacy of The Keep.

And appreciate it we did! As usual, my lover began by ensuring that I was not chilled. Vincent himself was never cold. Even in the frigid blizzard-blown wastes of the Ice Cliffs on the Northern Continent, he stoically wore his short-sleeved uniform of the Nibel Militia. Actually I was the only one who opted to wear a parka; the rest just toughed it out, including Yuffie, our petite teenage ninja. Even then, long before he would let me know his romantic intentions, Vincent solicitously offered his cape to me, despite my heavy outerwear.

That evening in front of the fire, we didn't need anything at all. We were warm and fed, happy to be away from the crowded square. The sounds of fireworks and the bands occasionally came to us through the intervening woodland. Even those noises died out eventually, leaving us to play in the quiet of our castle.

During our late-night romp, I heard nothing except the velvet purring of Vincent in full seduction mode. He never said much out loud, just making a suggestion here and there, muttering words I could barely decipher. Occasionally he would grunt or sigh with pleasure. In return, I had long ago learned to silently accept his adoration, and our lovemaking usually progressed with very little dialog.

His warm hands running over me, gently caressing me, made me feel as if he were many lovers, all there just for my pleasure. While the food and drinks had left me nearly in a stupor, our lovemaking aroused me enough to respond in kind.

It seemed so natural to lie with him again, finding new ways to surprise and delight him. We never ran out of ideas when we were together, and that night was no exception. Should that ever occur, we could always fall back on the tried and true. In the middle of all our private celebration, Vincent seemed almost jovial, even good-natured. Our little excursion back on the road had relit a feeling of companionship. We were again comrades that had faced down danger together, and that seemed quite the aphrodisiac.

In a nod to our night out under the stars, Vincent worked my limbs first, ensuring that I would be more than eager for us to get down the real deal. Pretty soon, though, I was in control and decided to take the lead. He seemed a little reluctant to give it up, until I forcibly pushed him down onto the carpet and fairly smothered him in a heated attack. When he tried to object, I stifled any complaints with a kiss that would have given him a whisker burn, if I had any, and left my own cheeks a little rosy from his.

He pointed, chiding me for being a flushed little hussy. Deep, decidedly masculine laughter echoed in the spartan living room. Such a rare occurrence, even in these, the best of times. I poked him and told him not to be such a sexist. Who wouldn’t be a wanton with Vincent in her bed?

After a while we were both rolling around again like little kids, laughing and using up the rest of our second wind, finally quietly drowsing in front of the dying embers. Before we could drop off to sleep, we silently picked our way up to the master bedroom. There, we tucked ourselves under the coverlet, barely hitting the sheets before I lost consciousness.

Rude awakening

I couldn’t help the peevish tone in my voice as I spoke up in the dark room.

“Vincent, why did you bring her to me? She’s absolutely soaked!” I hated to sound shrill, but the wet baby on my chest was an unwelcome invitation to extra work. The coverlet was already absorbing the dampness and would need to be laundered.

First there was a heartbeat of silence. Then Vincent answered very slowly and in an uncharacteristically subdued tone.

“Josephine. I did not bring her down here.” It was as if he were spooked. I sat straight up, pulling the kid to my chest protectively.

“Then what the hell? Am I walking in my sleep?” I had done so as a child, and I dreaded the possibility. The answer came back with snapping certainty.

“No. You did not. I’ve been awake, eyes closed. You couldn’t leave the bed without my taking notice. I actually felt the baby settling in atop you.” He had turned on the bedstead light and rose straight up. He quickly moved to the stairways, first checking the upper levels and even the roof-way, then downstairs.

As soon as he had inspected the upstairs, I took Aerith to her room and changed her diaper and bunting. Quiet and content; she surely wanted the change and seemed grateful for it. I could hear Vincent speaking to the Quartermaster on his PHS, and felt reassured that they could detect whoever it was that infiltrated our home. I then stripped our bed and lay our little one in the very middle, while we waited for him to return. He came back looking very, very thoughtfully at Aerith.

“Nothing. There is no one else in the castle, and they tell me the radar is clear." He hesitated.
“What just happened?”

I shook my head in silence; there was nothing to say.
At that point, my own personal device chimed, making me jump almost into Vincent’s arms. The baby cooed and turned in the direction of the sound. I stared at her as I reached to answer it.

“Fini? This is Adrianna. Are you in trouble?”
Her question astounded me. Then I remembered Vincent’s call to the Quartermaster.

“We don’t know yet. Are you at the base?”

“No, silly. I’m in bed, where I belong. There was a sudden discontinuity here in the valley. It was abrupt enough that I could feel it even as I slept; it woke me. It’s the main disadvantage of being so tightly in tune with the time-space continuum.”

“Um, if you say so.” What else could I answer?

Her reaction was uncharacteristic. She was laughing at me, a giggly but throaty chuckle that caught even Aerith’s attention. Now the baby and her father were watching me intently, listening to Adrianna’s voice coming from the PHS. I held it away from my ear, so they could listen.

“You dummy. You should have known, both of you. We’ve been watching several weeks for something like this. When I called him, Sonny told me that things have been quiet since the festival; there is no one moving about at all. Not a soul. Then he told me that Vincent had called about a possible disturbance in the Keep. Let me guess: it’s Aerith.”

“Goddammit, Adrianna! Enough with the riddles! You tell me what just happened to Aerith!” Then the answer hit me. I hadn’t seen it because I didn’t want to know the obvious. Did Vincent guess what I had missed? I lowered my voice.

“Never mind, kid. Sorry I yelled at you. She’s right here, watching our every move, and listening in on the conversation. I don't know how she managed, but she wished herself into our bed, apparently looking for a diaper change.

“Guess you will have a very small apprentice: very soon, because I don‘t think I‘m ready to handle a tiny time mage. She will make good company for your own unborn baby wizard. And we are going to be a couple of absolutely frazzled mommies.”
At that point, Adrianna was chortling right into the PHS. Then she spoke quietly and very seriously.

“That’s what you think, Commander. I’m not taking on two of them by myself. You’d better make time to accompany her to classes, at least until we can awaken some of your own latent skills.

“In the meantime, you need to learn all you can about containing the little imp. Your first assignment will be to talk with the Lady Kameko--and my parents--about how it’s done.

“You can get some sleep tonight after you stretch a net across the top of the crib. I will be by to inspect it in the morning, ten o’clock sharp. Now get back to bed; tomorrow’s going to be a very long day. Got all that?”

My reluctant answer was automatic. Still reluctant, though.

“Yes, Ma’am. See you here tomorrow at ten.” The PHS went silent, so I replaced it on the night stand and stared at Vincent. We looked at each other for a few seconds, then we both looked at Aerith.

Of course, she never said anything, staring serenely back at us. Slowly, she raised her hand over her face. She moved her fingers a little bit, studying the action intently, and just as slowly inserted her thumb into her mouth.

Then Aerith G fell asleep.
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