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.
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.
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?”
“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.”
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.
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.