Happy Monday! I hope you all had a good start to your week :)

So I outlined the rest of the story (it's a very rough outline), and we may be halfway done? Maybe? TBD, but I'm cautiously optimistic.

As always, big thank you to silver-doe287 for beta'ing this chapter :) she also recently posted an amazing kunsel fic which i highly recommend! 10/10.

Enjoy the chapter!

As the stars tumbled across the sky and the dawn bled into the clouds, Tifa kept her eyes closed and hoped that her erratic heart rate hadn't alerted her captives that she was awake. Her wrists and ankles were bound with dry rope, her skin rubbed raw by the tight binds. A dirty cloth was drawn over her mouth. Her head throbbed from the earlier blow, and her shoulder and neck also ached from her awkward position, but she paid her discomfort no mind; instead, she strained to pick up pieces of the conversation occurring behind her.

"...ot a leaky mouth, an' you shouldn't have told 'em all that," said the silver-haired rider, who Tifa had recently learned was named Yazoo. "They had no right ta know all that. Sephiroth specifically said-"

The campfire suddenly popped, a shrill sound that made her raw nerves spark.

"Ah, lay off yer hen'n," came Loz's voice a moment later. "I know what I was doin'."

"Did you? Did you truly?" the other man shot back.

"Course I did. I had the situation under control jus' fine."

Yazoo snorted. "That's what it sure as 'ell looked like," he replied, his voice twisted with sarcasm. "You, tied up to the tree like a dog, covered in wounds, an' lookin' like you had been tied to the back of a pissed off bull for most of the day. Yeah, you sure had it all under control, all right. My mistake."

Loz made an impatient sound and said something that Tifa did not catch, because at that moment Aerith's eyes fluttered open and their gazes met beneath the dark sky. Like Tifa, Aerith was similarly bound; unlike Tifa, cloth had been stuffed beneath the rope to keep it from chaffing her skin, and she had been placed onto the ground with some modicum of care. Firelight danced across her face in shades of red and orange, the only color on her otherwise pale skin. Fear flickered in her eyes.

"-nd what are we gonna do 'bout boss' kid brother?" Loz poked at the fire with a stick, and sparks exploded towards the fading stars before winking out, one by one. "Heard that after he ratted out th' boss to the feds, he's been livin' the prim n' proper life. Hell, you even saw the wife, the pretty thing o'er there?"

"The one that shot you? Or the one that stabbed you an' tied you to a tree?"

Loz spat on the ground. "You're a real ass, you know that?"

"You've might have mentioned it before."

"I sure as hell have. But anyway," Loz continued, "the brother might have been somethin' to behold back in the day, but he's no good to us now. Not with the cheery way he's been livin'."

Tifa's wide eyes flicked towards Aerith, the horror plain on her face. They're talking about Cloud, she thought, and then: No, they can't be. She squeezed her eyes shut. I won't believe it. I won't.

"Dunno," the other man replied. His boot tapped on the ground in a stiff, off-beat rhythm. "Boss was pretty certain he'll be able to convince him. Said that he's gotta plan – that he's gonna make certain that his kid brother won't be able ta say no, that he won't have a choice in th' matter."

"He tells you all that?"

Yazoo sounded smug as he replied, "He sure does, and maybe he'd tell you too, if you weren't so dumb."

"Ey, I ain't dumb."

"You're so dumb," Yazoo enunciated, "that you couldn't teach a hen to cluck."

There was a harsh scuff as Loz shot to his feet, enraged. "Yeah? Well, yer so dumb that you can't hit the ground wit yer hat in three throws."

"Who told you that? Yer mother?"

A harsh sound, then: "We have the same mother!" which was immediately followed by:

"And we know that she loved me most."

Silence dragged out for a beat, then two. Heavy tension drew out like an over-stretched rubber band. Tifa dared a glance back at Aerith, but the other woman's eyes were screwed shut and her arms – bound behind her – moved in tight, choppy jerks.

Finally, Loz said, "Yeah, 'til yah killed her, dipshit."

"That wasn't my fault."

"Was too -" Loz began, but was cut off as Yazoo loudly Shh'ed him.

"Did ya hear that?" Yazoo asked.

The campfire popped again, and a flurry of glowing-red embers billowed towards the brightening sky. Tifa strained her ears, but she heard nothing but the usual sounds of the backcountry: song-birds singing towards a rising sun, the horses' kicking gravel as they grazed, and the trees rustling in a dry breeze. There was certainly nothing unusual, and she shifted her focus back to Aerith with concern bright in her carmine eyes. Aerith opened her eyes and, meeting her gaze with a tight expression, slowly lifted one of her arms to show Tifa that it was untied. Then she quickly hid it again before the two men could notice.

Though Aerith's mouth was still covered with fabric, Tifa understood her as clear as day: We're escaping.

Tifa nodded, a sharp jerk of her chin, and then returned her attention back to Loz and Yazoo.

"-as nuthin'," Loz drawled. There was the sound of boots scuffing the dirt, which was then followed by the sharp, hollow sound of a tin can being kicked. Tifa could hear it bouncing across the ground before going still. "Yer jus' paranoid."

"No, I'm not," Yazoo insisted. "I heard sumthin' out there. Sounded like… a horse, maybe two."

"There's no one out here but us."

"An' them."

Tifa went cold when she realized that 'them' referred to her and Aerith.

There was a pause before Loz said, "True. Speakin' of them..." There was a harsh groan as he got to his feet, and then Tifa heard heavy footsteps scraping the dirt. Her heart rate spiked at the sound, and her breath warmed her cloth gag as she struggled to control her fear. She closed her eyes and, pretending that she was still unconscious, did not react when he rolled her onto her back, or when his rough fingers yanked her chin upright, or when his unforgiving hand forced her head side-to-side.

"She's still out," Loz reported, his voice stunningly loud against her ringing ears, and Tifa nearly went faint with relief. Her act was working.

"Still?" Yazoo called over the popping fire.

"Still," Loz replied. "Same with the mother."

In an instant, Tifa realized that if Loz inspected Aerith like he was inspecting her, then he would notice that her hands were unbound and that she was awake. And if that happened… well, then there would be no escaping after that. This was their only chance.

So Tifa told herself to be brave and, with only the briefest pause, fluttered open her eyes as if she was just waking up. She then moaned, as if she was just regaining her bearings and finding them lacking, and Loz's attention snapped back towards her as planned.

And away from Aerith, Tifa thought with some satisfaction, but her satisfaction quickly withered when Loz's lips twitched upward in a crude impersonation of a smile.

"Mornin', buttercup," said Loz. His knuckles brushed her cheek in an almost loving gesture, one that sent a shiver hissing down her spine, before his finger hooked her gag and ripped it off. She gasped at the sudden rush of cool air against her face. "Didja miss me?"

Tifa lifted her eyes, and there was a dark glow to their amber. She thought about replying - to tell him how deeply her hate for him ran, how he spoke nothing but lies about her husband, how he had gotten everything wrong - but words failed against her intense emotions. So instead she spit at his face.

Time seemed to slow as spittle dripped down his cheek, and a myriad of expressions flickered across his face: surprise, disbelief, shock, disgust. Slowly, he wiped the spot with the back of his hand before he turned to her, furious.

"Bitch," he hissed and immediately backhanded her. She knew it had been coming and had clenched her jaw in anticipation, yet the intensity of the blow still caught her off guard. White exploded in her vision as the taste of metal flooded her mouth. Her lip split, and warmth trickled down her chin. Only his hand clenched around her dress' collar kept her from collapsing.

"Tifa!" Aerith cried, forgetting that she was supposed to be unconscious still.

But thankfully, Loz was too enraged to notice. "An' there's another one if you try that again," he ground out, but Tifa hardly heard him past the ringing in her ears. Wordlessly she nodded her agreement, and he made a disgusted noise before letting her fall. The cool earth felt wonderful against her feverish cheek.

"Loz!" Yazoo's shrill voice rose from somewhere behind her. "Loz! I'm telling' ya, I hear somethin'! Git yer rifle!"

Loz, who was beginning to walk back towards the campfire, shouted back, "I heard ya the first time! An' I'm tellin' ya, there's no -"

A single gunshot rang through the air, and Tifa snapped her eyes open just in time to see Loz collapsing to his knees. Blood misted the air behind him.

"Loz!" Yazoo screamed as he threw himself behind a scraggly tree, his rifle clutched to his chest. A second bullet slammed into the dirt; a third ripped a chunk of bark off the tree. "Loz!"

But Loz didn't reply - he couldn't. He had fallen backwards and now stared sightlessly at the pastel sky above, the slits of his eyes blown out, their black swallowing the surrounding green. A fresh shade of red seeped over the rusty stains on his shirt.

He's dead. Some part of Tifa recognized that, and yet a much larger part of her continued to stare in disbelief. Loz, dead from a single bullet? After Aerith's two shotgun blasts had only rendered him unconscious? She shakily inhaled. What sort of bullets…

Suddenly hands grabbing her wrists snapped her back to the present moment, but before she could tear her arms away, Aerith harshly whispered, "Don't move so much! I'm almost done."

"Aerith!" Tifa could have cried she was so relieved, but forced herself to relax despite Yazoo's yelling, the horses' screaming, and the gunshots echoing all around. An unfamiliar male voice rose up from somewhere nearby. "Aerith," she said urgently, "are you okay? Did they hurt you?"

Tifa could feel Aerith's fingers trembling against the rope bindings. "I'm okay," she promised as she worked out the binding's knot. "They didn't tie me as tightly as you. And they didn't knock me out. I… I fainted when you were hit."

Tifa slowly exhaled. "Probably for the best. The baby -"

"We're fine, I promise," Aerith insisted. "And we'll be better just as soon… There." The ropes fell away from Tifa's wrists, and she rubbed the blood back into her numb hands as Aerith immediately began working on her ankles. "We need to get some… some bandages, too. And boil them in water to prevent infection -"

"Later," Tifa hissed as soon as the rope fell away. "We need to go."

Aerith's expression was pale but determined. "Steal the horses?" she offered.

Tifa nodded and then they were running for the horses, with Tifa doing her best to help the heavily pregnant woman. The horses had been tied up to a nearby tree. They nervously pawed and whinnied as the two women approached, and they snorted anxiously when Aerith held her hand up to the one closest to her - a pretty thing with a gray coat and large, soulful eyes.

"It's okay, sweetheart," Aerith murmured to the horse. "We won't hurt you."

Tifa could practically feel her heart beating in her temple. "Hurry, hurry, hurry," she muttered under her breath as she helped Aerith into the stallion's saddle. Loz's dead body flashed before her eyes. "We need to get out of here."

Aerith managed to get one of her shoes into the stirrup, and then gracelessly swung her other leg around so that she was fully seated. The horse was comically large for her, but she managed to look somewhat dignified on the stallion's back, if a bit dwarfed.

Tifa peered up at her. "Good?"

"Good," Aerith promised.

Tifa nodded before hurrying to the second horse - a chocolate mare that shied away when she approached. She tried Aerith's technique and held out her hand as she murmured kind words, but the mare didn't seem to care. It snorted and pawed the ground, and its ears flicked anxiously with every nearby shout, gunshot, and scream.

Tifa's heart hurt for the creature. "Sorry," she whispered -


- and glanced over her shoulder, one arm outstretched for its reins, as a hand wrapped around her wrist.

Tifa reacted. She grabbed the wrist and twisted, which earned her a pained, surprised gasp, and then immediately sent her knee into the man's gut. He doubled over, and she slammed her fist into the back of his skull. He went down. She followed him with a kick to his side and sent him skidding across the dirt, all within the span of a breath.

"Gods damned," the man shouted as he rolled to a stop. He squinted at her through hands lifted in surrender. "Quit that!"

Tifa blinked, as if seeing him for the first time. His eyes aren't slitted, she noted dumbly, but she did not lower her hands.

The man, seeing that she wasn't going to strike again, spit red into the dirt and rose shakily to his feet. He continued to hold his hands up, which gave her the perfect opportunity to scrutinize him. He looked to be in his thirties, and had sun-tanned skin, cropped blond hair, and a naturally irritable look about him. Stubble dusted his chin.

"Who are you?" Tifa demanded, but with her fat lip it sounded more like, Who ahh yoo?

"Cid, occupation bounty hunter," the man said stiffly as he rubbed his nose. "You?"

"Tifa Strife," she replied. "Occupation: housewife."

"Housewife? You sure you ain't military?"

Tifa's spine straightened. "Yes. I used to own a saloon."

The man, Cid, nodded as if that made perfect sense. "A saloon, eh? Vicious places for sure. But anyways," he continued in a drawl, "we ain't gonna hurt you. We've been tracking Sephiroth's gang for a while, 'til they split up, that is. My partner Yuffie an' I have been-"

But at that moment, he was cut off an indignant shriek from behind the overgrown shrubs. "What in the blazes!" cried a feminine voice. "Why are they all… Corn sarn it, Cid!" The bushes rustled before a woman pushed herself out of the brambles, with a frown on her face and leaves tangled in her cropped hair. Tifa was caught off guard by how young she looked - just barely older than a child. "We weren't s'posed ta kill 'em! Just take 'em in!"

"Well, they were shootin' at me!" Cid shouted back, indignant.

"So?!" The young woman, whom Tifa assumed was Yuffie, placed her hands matter-of-factly on her hips, and metal gleamed from beneath her tan poncho. "People shoot at you all the time, an' you don't kill them!"

Cid spit on the ground. "Well, they ain't from the Simmel gang, now are they? And 'sides, the reward notice said deadoralive!So who cares if they're pushin' daisies?"

"I care!" Yuffie wailed. "We get more gil if they're livin'!"

"Too bad! Go cry to that tree o're there!"

"Prickly asshole!"

"Ankle biter!"

As the two of them bickered, Aerith guided her stallion closer to Tifa and slowly leaned down. "I don't think they're dangerous," she whispered as she watched Cid snag Yuffie in a headlock and muse her hair, her screaming all the while. She amended, "Well, dangerous to us, at any rate."

Tifa pursed her lips, uncertain, but nodded her agreement regardless. She wasn't entirely sure what was going on, and she certainly had no idea how the two of them had managed to kill Loz and Yazoo with simple bullets, but she did know one thing:

They knew something about all of this.

And, dangerous or not, she wanted to know what.

"I thought you were dead," said Barret.

Zack gave Barret a curious, albeit glazed, stare. He was lying on the bed in Barret's spare bedroom,= with his back resting against a pile of cushions and his right leg lifted and wrapped in bandages. He wasn't sure how he had gotten here. His mind felt fuzzy, his mouth tasted vaguely of alcohol, and his tongue felt fat. Nothing made sense.

"Dead?" he echoed.

Barret jerked his chin towards Zack's mummified leg. "Lost a lotta blood," he said simply. Of course, he had lost plenty of blood himself; his shoulder was currently wrapped in a thick layer of gauze, and his arm hung limp in a crude sling. He'd likely never be able to use his hand the same way again.

Zack's chest tightened, and he turned his head towards the window. Lacy curtains pillowed in the morning breeze. "It… wasn't that bad."

"It wasn't that bad?" Barret repeated, incredulous. "Boy, I know bad when I see it, and that was bad." He shuddered, only to immediately wince as the subtle movement jostled his shoulder. Shifting slightly, he continued, "When you passed out, I thought for sure you'd cashed in."

Zack's expression dimmed at the memory. He had been reliving that particular moment since he had woken up, and yet no matter how many times the scene played out in his mind, it always ended the same way: Cloud had shot him. It hadn't even been a warning shot, either; now he'd likely never be able to run again.

As if on cue, pain thrummed up his leg like a plucked guitar string, and Zack's eyes pricked as he continued staring out the window. Gods damned it. His hand formed a fist around the sheets. Gods damned it.

"Well," Barret said after a lengthy pause, "at least yer alive."

Zack knew that to be true, but in the same way he knew that the sun still shined during a storm; factually he knew there was sunshine somewhere above the clouds, but right now, all he could feel was the rain. He was drowning in the rain.

"How's your arm?" he asked without turning around.

"My arm?" Barret sounded startled, as if he had already forgotten all about getting shot. "Er, not bad, I s'pose. Could be worse." He paused, then added with a hint of humor: "If the healin' goes south, I reckon I could just get another prosthetic and have myself a matchin' set."

Zack scoffed. "That's your solution?"

"No, but it's an option," Barret replied smoothly, which had Zack going quiet. "It's better than no options at all. An' speakin' of…" There was a rustle of fabric as he leaned forward, then said, "What about you? If yer leg doesn't pull through -"

"It will," Zack growled out, if only because he couldn't imagine the alternative.

"- but if it doesn't," Barret continued as if Zack hadn't spoken, "I know a guy that can fit you with a real good artificial leg. Not one of 'em peg legs either, but something proper. Something fit to ride with."

Something fit to… Zack gaze slid down to his bandaged leg. The wound throbbed beneath the layers of gauze, and he tried to imagine what it would be like to have something other attached to him, something cold and detached and unfeeling, but he couldn't. His imagination didn't stretch that far.

Feeling somewhat sick, he leaned back into the pillows and changed the subject to something more palatable. "So how did we get back to Corel, anyway?"

"You mean after we both got shot?" asked Barret. There was a dark undercurrent to his tone, and his foot - which had been steadily tapping on the floor - went still. "Or after your friend Strife robbed me blind, an' then handed all my gil to Sephiroth Simmel?"

Zack's gut soured, and he subtly flinched at the memory: Cloud, face-to-face with one of the most notorious bandits in recent history, admitting he stole Barret's gil before handing it all over per some 'deal' they had. I'm making a deal; I'm not in trouble; I want to be here, Cloud had told him. But Zack knew better; Cloud's eyes hadn't been the eyes of a free man, but the eyes of someone trapped, scared, and desperate. They had been the eyes of someone begging for help.

Of course, Cloud then shot him in the leg, so Zack wasn't entirely sure what to think.

Without turning to Barret, he answered, "After we both got shot."

"…I see. Well, that's a bit of a funny story." Barret leaned back into his chair, his demeanor completely nonchalant while Zack's expression pinched in confusion. "While we were both bleedin' out on the ridge, a man and his flame-tailed dog appeared out of nowhere."

Zack's expression darkened. "I'm wounded, Barret. Not daft."

Barret raised his prosthetic hand into the air as if pledging an oath. "By the Mortal, that's what happened," he swore. "We was on the ridge, you passed out and me tryin'a drag yer ass to yer horse, when -"

"Spirit!" Zack shot upright, only to immediately regret it when pain flared through his leg. He gingerly leaned back down, wincing, before he continued, "What happened to Spirit? Is he -"

But Barret waved off his concern. "The beast is fine. The man an' the dog I'm tryin'a tell you about took yer Spirit to the stable 'bout… I dunno, thirty minutes or so ago? In fact, I reckon that he'll be back any second now."

"Good, good." Zack slowly exhaled his relief. "So, the man? And the dog?"

"Strange folk, I tell you. The man rode a pitch-black stallion and only wore black himself, with the exception of a red poncho. A dog - well, I call it a dog, but it was more like some sort of wild wolf-beast - was runnin' beside him, all the while waggin' its flame-tipped tail."

"Flame-tipped, as in…?"

"Fire," Barret stated matter-of-factly. "The tip of the dog's tail was on fire."

Zack's gaze narrowed. "Wallace, if you're pullin' my leg…"

"I ain't, I swear! I know what it sounds like but I swear on my honor," he said, "I ain't fibbin' a single word."

Zack gaze narrowed further. He wasn't convinced, but he nodded anyway and gestured for the other to proceed.

Barret cleared his throat. "Anyways, as it turned out, the man was a travelin' doctor of some sort. He can tell you more 'bout himself when he returns," he said with a half-shrug, "but he managed to stabilize you back on the ridge and then helped me haul you back to my place. Normally I'd do it myself, but, well… I wasn't in prime condition."

Zack licked his chapped lips. "Is he the one who also patched us up?"

"The very one," Barret replied with a nod. "Took most of the damn night too, but that was only because yer damn horse was making a ruckus outside."

"Spirit?" Zack's brow furrowed. That didn't seem right; Spirit was one of the most docile stallions he's ever had. "Whatever for?"

"Probably 'cause his rider was a bloody mess inside the house." A shadow passed across Barret's face. "An' I don't blame him, neither. The beast refused to leave until you woke up."

He refused to… Zack's heart both warmed and crumpled all at once. He had always known that Spirit was loyal, but he hadn't realized just how loyal until this moment. To stay by his side until he had woken up…

"And then the… stranger… took Spirit to the stables?" he asked.

Barret nodded. "That's right."

"An' this stranger have a name?"

Barret opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment, an unfamiliar voice by the door replied, "Name's Vincent." Zack whirled to face the newcomer, caught completely off guard - something that seemed to be happening more and more frequently, he realized bitterly. The man fit Barret's description well: he was dressed entirely in black, with the exception of a scarlet poncho, and his long, dark hair had been tied at the nape of his neck. His riding boots echoed hollow on the floor as he straightened. "How you feelin'?"

"Better, thank you," said Zack with a dip of his head. "I've heard that you're the one who found us on that ridge an' patched us up."

"That I am," Vincent replied. His voice was surprisingly soft-spoken; given his attire, Zack had been expecting his voice to be far more gruff.

Zack shifted uncomfortably on the bed, his leg aching. "So," he continued after a moment's pause, "how much do we owe you? Unless," he added with a glance towards Barret, "the compensation's already been takin' care of?"

Barret shook his head, which had Zack looking back at the other man. Vincent glanced out the window, his eyes shadowed by his brimmed hat, before saying, "I seek information." He turned back to them, first looking at Zack and then Barret. "I don't require coin, but I have a few questions that I'd like answered."

Confusion flickered across Zack's features. "What?"

"You saw Sephiroth Simmel, didn't you?" Vincent took a step closer, and Zack caught a glimpse of a pistol strapped to his belt. "He came to meet someone. Who?"

Cloud, Zack knew. But he could never say such a thing out loud; if he did that would make it true, and he wasn't ready to accept it just yet. Everything was too damn raw right now. Dropping his gaze, he replied, "Dunno."

Surprise flickered across Barret's face, even as Vincent's expression hardened. "Do not lie to me, boy," Vincent said, his voice deceptively calm. "I can tell when you lie."

Zack's hands, lying limp on the covers, formed tight fists. "I ain't lyin'," he ground out, his gaze on the sheets. "I… I don't know who Sephiroth met, but it wasn't… it wasn't anyone I knew." It wasn't a lie, not truly. The Cloud he knew would have never met Sephiroth, let alone known him personally.

Vincent hummed, then turned to Barret and said, "Well, Sheriff Wallace?"

Zack's chest tightened. Don't tell him, he silently begged. Don't…

Barret, after a lengthy pause, sighed and fished something out of his trouser pockets. It was a piece of paper, and on closer inspection, Zack realized it was the note Barret had shown him earlier. Graceful letters were scrawled across the page.

Barret handed the note to Vincent. "Here," he said simply.

Vincent took the paper and read it quickly, his eyes darting across the lines. There wasn't much to read however, because all too quickly he lifted his head and asked, "Who is C. S.?"

"Cloud Strife," Barret replied. "Stole all my gil, too."

But Vincent hadn't seem to have heard Barret's last line, for his eyes widened a fraction and he repeated, "Cloud Strife?" His gaze dropped back to the note, perplexed. "So he's not… Are you certain?"

Barret went to answer, but Zack interrupted with a hard, "No." Vincent's hard gaze swiveled to him, his expression burning with questions, and Zack pushed himself a little more upright before explaining, "I took a look at the note myself, and that ain't Cloud's handwriting. It's far too neat."

Vincent's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"

"Well, you see, Cloud didn't have any proper schooling, so his handwriting is more…" Zack fumbled for the right words before settling on: "Well, more like chicken scratch, to be honest. None of those words are misspelled, either."

"They aren't very big words," Vincent replied.

"No offense, but you don't know Cloud like I do." Did, Zack almost said, and his throat tightened painfully as he forced himself to continue. "He would've found some way to butcher the spelling, I assure you."

"… I see." Vincent reread the note, frowning all the while. "Cloud Strife." He rolled the name around on his tongue, as if he was checking its texture, before he shook his head and handed the note back to Barret, who slipped it back into his pocket. "Truth be told, I didn't think Cloud Strife was still alive. Though," Vincent added after a thoughtful pause, "I knew him far better as Cloud Simmel."

Zack's heart plummeted to his stomach.

"A Simmel?" Barret echoed. "I… The kid's a thief and a punk, sure, but a Simmel…" He whistled, long and low. "I've only heard about Sephiroth Simmel. So you tellin' me," he continued, "that that snuggle-toothed, burnt-boot-lookin', no-good, crooked-ass outlaw had a brother this entire time?"

Vincent's lips twitched at the creative insult, but he calmly replied, "I'm not lying, I promise."

"And why should we believe you?" Zack retorted.

For a long while, Vincent didn't have a response for that. Instead, he turned his attention back out the window, his arms crossed over his chest and his gaze distant, and silently observed the distant mountain range. Emotions flickered across his expression as if in firm debate before finally, after what felt like an eternity of silence, Vincent turned back to the two other men and said, "It's a lengthy story but I'm willin' to share it, if y'all are willin' to listen."

Zack's resolve withered within him, and he couldn't help but wonder, Do I even want to know?

But it was Barret who, without hesitating, replied, "We're willing. Take a seat wherever you like. Want coffee? I got some brewin' now - tastes like dirt, mind you, but it gets the job done."

Vincent nodded and said, "I'd appreciate it." He then started to follow Barret out of the room as if he was going to help, but Barret waved him off with the statement that he was perfectly capable of pouring a cup of coffee with one hand, thank you very much. Meanwhile, Zack just leaned back on the pillows and tilted his gaze towards the creamy popcorn ceiling, icy dread pooling deep within him all the while.

Cloud, he thought dismally, I really hope you know what you're doing.

South of Corel was a nameless desert, one that seemed to stretch endlessly in all directions. It was a brutal, timeless place; the only thing that ever changed were the sand dunes, and even that was just a few feet per decade - a leisurely migration that traveled with the wind. Everything else remained composed and still, trapped in their habits that spanned millennia. Heat wavered against the golden sand; a cloudless sky hung pale and sickly above the landscape; gusts of hot wind sent sand tumbling down steep dunes, just as they had for the past thousand years, and would continue to do so for another thousand years. It was the sort of place where people went to disappear - where people went to die.

Cloud Strife coughed as he slowly regained consciousness. Sand crusted the corners of his eyes, and his mouth tasted gritty and bitter as he spit into the ground. The sands greedily drank the tiny amount of liquid as he lifted his head, blinking into the sunlight, and wondered if this is what hell was supposed to look like. It certainly was hot enough, though he had imagined less sand and more fire and brimstone. Maybe some salt pillars, too. There was also a distinct lack of horned demons wielding pitchforks, which had him slowly turning his head left and right in search of them.

It was then that pain thrummed through his temple, intense and shrill and blinding. It was as if he had been shot all over again, and a strangled gasp clawed out of his throat as his hands flew to his head; his fingers curled into his hair, which was matted with both sand and dried blood, and he curled in on himself as he tried to control his breathing. His chapped lips cracked further and then he could taste copper. Lights danced in his vision. His head swam and the ground seemed to roll beneath him, a ship trapped in a storm he could not see, and he vomited helplessly into the sand. It remained only a moment before sinking beneath the golden grains, with only a dark patch to indicate where it had been.

"You've looked better." A familiar voice sounded from somewhere above him, and it took Cloud a moment to steel himself and brave a glance. Sephiroth stood over him; his long hair spilled over his shoulders as he looked down, and his expression was a cross between disgust and amusement. "And before you ask, no. You're not dead."

Cloud's brow furrowed. Now that didn't make one gods-damned bit of sense.

"You shot me in the head," he accused, his voice little more than a rasping croak.

A hint of a smile curved Sephiroth's lips. "That I did."

"Then… Then how…?"

"Think of it as a baptism," said Sephiroth. He straightened, and his shadow draped across the rolling sands. His slitted eyes were as thin as the edge of a knife. "You've been reborn, my little brother. You've been remade into something more."

At Cloud's confused stare, Sephiroth reached for something in his pocket - a woman's pocket mirror, Cloud realized after a moment. An elegant carving of a flower had been traced into its silver shell, and Sephiroth tossed it to him with hardly a glance. It landed silently into the sand.

"Take a look," Sephiroth ordered. "See what has become of you."

Cloud really, really didn't want to look. Dread curled in the pit of his stomach and lingered there, a heavy weight that made him feel sick all over again, but eventually he forced himself to reach for the mirror. His fingers faintly trembled as he undid the clasp, and it popped open on its own. He found himself face-to-face with his own reflection.

Sephiroth was right: he really did look awful, but not nearly as awful as one would expect after getting shot in the head. In the middle of his forehead was a deep violet bruise; its edges were sickly green and beyond that, a ring of dried blood flaked on his sunburnt skin. His hair was matted. The pallor of his skin made the flush of his fever all the more striking, but none of that was what had Cloud's breath catching in his throat.

His eyes were no longer blue but a startling shade of green, and they were slitted - like a scalpel had slashed them from eyebrows to cheeks, and though he wanted to tear his gaze away, he found that he could not. Horror kept his gaze pinned onto the mirror. After a moment he tried closing his eyes before reopening them, hoping against hope that this was all a nightmare and his eyes would revert to their normal shade, but they didn't. Those slitted eyes continued to stare at him with terror building in their strange light.

He had been right earlier: this place was hell.

"Well?" Sephiroth's voice rumbled over him like a storm heard from a long way off. "How do you like your gift?"

Cloud's mouth worked. Gift? his mind echoed, and the mirror tumbled out of his grasp only to fall heavily in the sand, forgotten. No, no, no, this wasn't a gift. This was… "What did you do?" Cloud demanded, turning to face Sephiroth directly. Pain split through his temple, but he gritted his teeth and was determined to ignore it. "Look at me. Look. I'm not… I can't…" He fumbled for the right words but, coming up empty handed, could only helplessly repeat, "What did you do?"

Sephiroth arched a delicate eyebrow. "Why are you so upset?" he asked. "This is a rare gift, and you will come to appreciate it."

Anger flared hot through Cloud's veins, and he began the painful ordeal of sitting upright. "N - No," he gasped as he pushed himself onto his elbows. His vision swam with the effort. "This isn't… It's not…"

"And besides, didn't I tell you before?" Sephiroth's eyes flashed with dark light. "Didn't I say that I'd consider saving your life, if only you'd repent for what you did to me? You speak as if I betrayed you, but you forget that it is you that betrayed me. Did you also forget that it was I who protected you? That I was the one who that kept us alive and sheltered when we had nowhere to go? And yet, what did you do? What, exactly, did you do?" When Cloud didn't immediately reply, Sephiroth's hand snapped out without warning and, grabbing Cloud's ruined collar, dragged him onto his knees. "Answer me."

Cloud's gaze fell to the ground, and he remained silent.

Sephiroth jostled him. "Answer me," he hissed.

A stray gust of wind sent sand tumbling down one of the dunes, and Cloud licked his dry lips. He could taste blood from where they had cracked. "I… I turned you in to the bounty hunters," he said brokenly, and then: "I left you to die."

For a long while the words lingered in the air between them, suspended there as if by wires, before Sephiroth's lips slashed upward in a harsh, joyless smile. "That's right," he replied curtly, and let Cloud's collar fall from his grasp. Without the support Cloud collapsed heavily to his knees, his bloody head bowed and breathing ragged, as Sephiroth's shadow draped over him like a dark blanket.

"And now," Sephiroth finished triumphantly, "you're nothing but my puppet."

I cannot tell you all just how thrilled I am to write Vincent in a poncho. That's my favorite part of the story so far lol

Anyway, if you enjoy story updates or chapter previews, feel free to follow my twitter at Rand0mSmil3z - everything gets posted there first! Links to my Ko-Fi page can also be found there if you'd like to support my writing, but there's absolutely no pressure to do so - if you're enjoying the story, then I'm happy :)