So...it's almost been a year since my last update. Sorry about that. I swear I don't mean to keep you waiting this long each time. It just happens. I also keep meaning to finish this particular story arc with each chapter, but that doesn't happen either. Next chapter for sure should see the end of it, and then we'll move on.

As far as real-life updates, for those of you who don't follow me on Tumblr, I do have some upsetting news- and that news is something that killed a lot of my writing motivation for some time.

Lilo's got cancer. Hemangiosarcoma, to be precise.

It's advanced enough that it's not a matter of if, but when, and surgery wouldn't really do anything at this stage. The vet couldn't give me an estimate on how long she has, but he said that typically, dogs only last half a year or so. She's been hanging in there so far, but she really could go at any time.

It hurts to see how much weight she's lost and how she went from a super energetic dog to hardly leaving her dog-house, but I will love her until her last moments. No matter how painful it's going to be to say goodbye for real rather than in a story.

By now, I've had a few months to work through some of my feelings on the matter, so I'm okay for the moment. No doubt I'll still be a wreck when it actually happens, but I'm functional for the time being.

So let's move on to more lighthearted things.

I've ventured into the world of streaming, and am currently doing a playthrough of Brilliant Diamond. It's honestly been so long since I've played this generation of Pokemon that I've forgotten most of what happens (I've even forgotten most of the gym leader types). So if you ever feel up to watching me fumble about, you're welcome to drop by and hang out. My user name's the same as this one, and I'll usually post on Tumblr when I'm about to start. I'll probably be doing one later today actually (it's one in the morning as I'm writing this), so...yeah.

The shipping poll's been pretty set for a while now, with no significant changes since I posted the last chapter. Vincent is solidly in first place, followed by Reno in second and Sephiroth in third.

Let's see...what else...? Oh yeah.

Sorry for the cliffhanger.

OoOoOoOoOoOoOo

Act 1: The Unknown Journey

Scene 2: Nine, Two, Six

OoOoOoOoOoOoOo

Tuesday, August 17th, [ μ ] - εуλ 1999

"Wait. Something's been following us?"

Vincent and I were sitting in the dining area of the inn, the room still pretty dark as the sky was just barely starting to lighten from the rising sun. The two of us had woken up early in order to get some headway in our respective tasks- him on his trek up the mountain, and me on synthesizing some items for the chocobos. Of course, then Vincent had to drop the figurative bombshell that we'd been stalked pretty much since we left Nibelheim.

Which, not going to lie, was actually freaking me out quite a bit.

"...Do you have any idea what it could be?" Vincent asked, the only tell of his concern being the slight furrow of his brows. "From what you knew before?"

And that was the crux of the matter, wasn't it?

"No," I admitted with a shake of my head. "The only thing I can think of that could be so good at hiding while making someone with senses like yours feel unnerved are the failed Sephiroth clones. The problem with that is that Hojo didn't make those until after the Nibelheim incident...at least, I don't think he did? But even on the off chance he did, there's no way he could know to send them after us, right?"

"Other than a brief few minutes after his arrival to the manor, and another moment during the attack, Hojo did not show any interest in anything in the basement," Vincent said with a slight frown. "I doubt he was even aware that I was awake."

"Which leaves us with no clue," I sighed, before running a hand through my hair. "What a mess. Is this why you were so hesitant about leaving when I suggested it?"

"You get too absorbed in what you're doing when you're synthesizing," Vincent explained in lieu of agreement. "It would be far too easy for whatever is following us to target you while you work."

I winced. "Yeah, that's fair."

It was a habit I still hadn't been able to shake, but in my defense alchemy was one of those things where you kind of had to give it your complete attention unless you wanted something blowing up in your face. It hadn't been a problem in Nibelheim, but it could easily turn into a real liability anywhere else.

Like here.

"It's not like I can just back out of helping, though. And I really do think you should go check out that cave. You said that whatever it is has been gone since we got here?"

"Which is suspicious in itself."

"Yeah. Ugh, there's really no right way to go about this, is there? I feel like no matter what we do, something is going to happen...Though I suppose...if that's the case, then you should just go to the cave."

"Castalia-"

"I'm serious, Vincent. It's like I said yesterday, you can travel pretty fast when you don't have to take me into account. It's not going to be too much of a problem if you go since you can come back just as quickly if the need arises. As for me, I'll just do my work here instead of in the room. Since Maurice and his kids will be probably pass through often, I shouldn't get too caught up in synthesizing and can keep something of a lookout. It's not ideal, I know, but we can't just sit around and wait either. Besides, you already agreed last night despite knowing all of this. That means you think there's a chance of this working."

"Or it means I know you're going to be stubborn about it."

"There's that too," I conceded, a bit amused that he'd said that despite the seriousness of the conversation. "But all that aside, you need this, Vin. What if Lucrecia is up in that cave? Don't let this be the thing that keeps you from seeing her again."

Vincent was silent for a long moment as he thought it over. Finally, he let out an almost inaudible sigh. "Be careful."

"I'll do my best, but you be careful too, alright? I mean, you have less to worry about than me, but who knows what could happen."

I had to admit that when Vincent left about half an hour after that discussion, it did leave me more than a bit nervous. I really hadn't heard of anything like this happening in the games, which meant that this was either something that was never mentioned or a completely new development directly caused by me being here. If it was the former, it made sense given how limited the games of the time had been, but if it was the latter, it had the potential to be quite the serious issue.

It was one thing to cause ripples- there was no avoiding those and I knew I would run into some major ones eventually. However, the worrying part was that those ripples had been so quick to focus on us the moment we'd left Nibelheim, with no clue as to their origin.

"No use stressing out too much about it now, I guess," I sighed before reaching into my pack for a few more supplies. "What's done is done, and we'll just have to figure this out as we go."

Maurice was the first to greet me as he came into the room just as I was setting up.

"Morning, Miss. You're up early."

"Got to make the most of the day," I replied, offering up a smile as well. "Remedies take a few hours to set properly, not to mention there are a few extra steps I need to take to make them safe for livestock."

"Well, don't let me keep you. I'll tell the girls to stay out of your way as well."

"Ah, no, it's fine. They're free to watch if they want, I promise it won't bother me. In fact, having one of them here will probably help remind me to take a break once in a while."

"If you're sure...I'd be lying if I said they weren't curious, so they'll be happy to hear you won't mind."

"Just as long as they promise not to touch anything, they can watch as long as they want."

"You don't have to worry about that, they know better than to mess with stuff that ain't theirs. Oh, before I forget. Got a call from someone over in Nibelheim a bit ago- said he's your Pa. I wasn't sure if you were up and about yet, so I let him know you'd call'm back."

"Thanks. I'll give him a call now."

OoOoOoOoOoOoOo

Somehow, Cloud should have known that Castalia would still manage to keep things interesting even if she wasn't physically present.

"Honestly, have you forgotten everything you learned on the farm?! You can't just give any old potion or healing item to a chocobo- not only do they need to be made more concentrated in order to work right, but others should be avoided completely!"

"Well excuse me for forgetting! I kind of had other things I was more interested in. Besides, I would have thought you'd be glad I'm coming to you for help."

"Ecstatic, but that still doesn't excuse you."

"Why are you even here?"

"What was that?! I came all this way to visit and you have the nerve-!"

"You didn't even let us know you were coming! I had to hear it from one of your friends!"

"It's called a surprise visit! I know the idea of people wanting to visit is foreign to you-"

"Hey!"

Aunt Rio was...definitely a strong personality, he decided. Appearance-wise, she had a gentle face- all round edges and wide, blue eyes, complemented by a deceivingly soft smile. With that and her bright blonde hair, it would be easy for a lot of people to think she was the mild-mannered, shy sort...until she started talking.

It was actually more than a bit weird to see Da so annoyed as well. He'd seen him face down monsters and townsfolk alike with less agitation than this. He knew that the two had had a bit of a rough patch some years back, but he was told it had been fixed.

"You dirty son of a malboro! Take that back!"

"Never, you little brat."

That...didn't seem like it was fixed. Or maybe he'd been spoiled more than he'd thought when it came to having Castalia for a sister.

Was this how normal siblings were supposed to act?

"Don't mind it, kid. They haven't seen each other in a few years, so they need to get all the stupid out," a low, quiet voice murmured, as if in response to his thoughts. "It's pretty par for the course with those two."

If Rio was the lively, outspoken type, then her husband was the complete opposite. Like her, Neil sported bright blond hair, but his eyes were a catching shade of red.

Red. He'd only ever seen that eye color on Vincent, although Tifa's did come a bit close. It made him wonder if there was some kind of distant, familial connection between him and the gunman, given that Mrs. Lockhart had shared her daughter's eye color. Wait, had Vincent's eyes even been red before the experiments, or were they that way as a result of them?

...Well, either way, his step-uncle's eyes were red, and he really doubted the man had ever met Hojo.

"I think he's a bit shellshocked," Ma laughed from beside him. "Matt hardly ever gets this worked up for no reason, and he also gets along so well with Cassie. It's probably a bit strange to see them act like this, isn't that right?"

"A little bit," he admitted, although he was more taken aback that his Ma had pretty much hit the nail on the head.

"You'll get used to it," Neil replied before frowning a bit. "This is nothing compared to how they were before Skye and I set them straight. As they are now, they'll probably fling insults at each other for a few more minutes then settle down."

"Would you like some coffee in the meantime, Neil? Cassie gave us a bag of Tierra Del Sol as an anniversary present a few months ago, and I've been meaning to try it."

"Isn't that Costa Del Sol's specialty mix? Ha, she's got an eye for quality, I'll give her that."

"You've had it before?"

"Once, back when I was traveling around more. Good stuff."

"Now I'm even more excited to try it. I'll have it out in a moment. Cloud, why don't you get to know your uncle a bit more while I'm gone? You probably don't remember much, do you?"

It was more like he didn't remember anything, but going by the understanding smile his Ma gave him, she probably knew that.

"That's what I thought. I'll be right back, you two."

Silence.

Cloud could feel himself fidgeting slightly after it continued for a while. Exactly what was he supposed to say here? Thankfully, Neil seemed just as uncomfortable with the situation as he was, and chose to speak first.

"'M not really one for socializing," he said, rubbing the back of his neck. "I know your mom well, so that helps, but it's a lot easier to talk when you've got someone like Rio to push the conversation forward. People like her...they just make you open up, you know?"

He thought of long trips on the road, where he would go for weeks at a time without saying a word, and the slight smile that would always find its way onto his face whenever Tifa called- even if all that awaited him was a half-hearted lecture over not keeping in touch.

He thought of Zack, and how he had always seemed to be able to draw him into conversation. Always pushing him forward with words of encouragement.

He thought of bright, childish laughter as Marlene chattered away a mile a minute about whatever she'd been up to that day.

He thought of Castalia's grins and Da's easy-going smile- and how the two of them always livened up the table at dinnertime.

It really was amazing...just how many people like them he'd been lucky enough to have in his life.

"Yeah...I know."

Neil looked at him a moment longer, his gaze softening a bit as a slight smile slipped onto his face. "Somehow, I knew you would."

And just like that, the silence wasn't uncomfortable anymore.

"I'm glad to see you doing alright, too," Neil continued quietly. "Rio was just about ready to come stormin' over when she heard about your accident, then with Cassie-" He shook his head. "How is she? Her back giving her any trouble?"

He blinked, honestly surprised that the man knew so much about what had been going on. Neil must have noticed because he chuckled under his breath.

"Your grandparents are forces to be reckoned with. You couldn't keep anything from them even if you wanted to. And while they'll respect your privacy well enough, they have no qualms over informin' the rest of the family if they think it's important." He sent him a knowing look. "That includes telling us about that amnesia of yours."

Cloud couldn't quite hold back a wince.

"Don't feel guilty you can't remember. None of us care. What matters is that you're still here- a fall like that could have ended a lot worse than some memory loss."

Cloud was just about ready to reply that he'd had worse but reminded himself that those other times he was thinking of had both not happened yet and had happened to him when he'd been mako-enhanced. For a young boy, Neil was absolutely right in saying it could have ended badly. The fall from the bridge he'd gone through in his original childhood was proof enough of that.

"Cassie's doing okay," he said, grateful that his uncle was willing to go along the change in subject. "She struggled a lot the first couple of weeks, but she's better now."

"That's good. Of course, Rio's probably going to let her hear it for not being here now, so her ears might be ringing for a while."

Cloud snorted softly, and Neil smirked.

"Here we are," Ma happily proclaimed as she came back from the kitchen, setting down two mugs of coffee and some juice. "What did I miss?"

"Nothing much," Neil brushed away with a casual sort of shrug before picking up his mug and taking a sip.

"You mean you didn't talk at all?"

"We did, a bit."

"I suppose that's as much as I can ask for," she said with a laugh. "Both of you can be so quiet."

"'S not a bad thing, sometimes."

"True enough...Are they still at it?"

"I'd give it about another minute."

Sure enough, about a minute later, the two of them were staring each other down, neither willing to be the first to relent.

Then, the phone rang.

It was like a switch had been flipped. Cloud could see the way Rio blinked in bemusement as a wide grin spread across Da's face before he broke the staredown in order to rush to the phone.

"Hello? Sweetpea! Good morning! Did you sleep well? The innkeeper didn't wake you up just to tell you I called, did he? And now that I think about it, it's kind of early. Have you had breakfast yet?"

"Put her on speaker, Matt," Ma said, shaking her head with a fond smile. "You can't just hog Cassie's time all to yourself."

"I mean, I could if I wanted to..."

"Matt."

"Oh, alright," Da sighed dramatically before pressing a button on the phone.

The tail end of Cassie's laughter filled the room the next moment.

"Was Da hogging the phone again, Ma?" she asked teasingly.

"Worse than a teenage girl."

"Hey."

"Hear that, Da? You're worse than me."

"Ruthless, the both of you," Da chuckled before he sobered a bit. "Anyway, Cassie, your Aunt Rio was already on her way over to visit when you called yesterday. She's here right now."

"Aww, man, really? Sorry, Auntie! Wish I could be there. Did Uncle Neil come with you?"

"Hey, kid," the man in question greeted in response.

"Hi, Uncle Neil!"

"Anyway, if you want to go ahead and let Rio know what's going on, I'm sure she can give you some insight."

"Sure, but lemme just say something real quick. Is Cloud there?"

"I'm here."

"Great! I wanted to say happy birthday. I know it's kind of late and that I forgot to mention it yesterday, but I hope it was good!"

He couldn't quite stop a pleased smile from slipping onto his face at the words and tried to hide it with a shake of his head. "Honestly. You'd forget your own head if it wasn't attached," he joked.

"Rude...but probably true," she laughed.

"Now that we've gotten that out of the way, how about you tell me about these chocobos, Cassie."

Cloud listened as Castalia explained the state of the Chocobo farm she'd come across in Eiketre Village, as well as some of the livestock's symptoms. Throughout it all, he tried to recall if he'd ever heard of this happening in his last life but kept coming up blank. It was possible that this had happened before, but as his memories of his original childhood were murky at best, there was no real way of knowing. And wasn't that an alarming realization to be suddenly hit with- the fact that there might be problems and threats he didn't remember that were very relevant to the current time.

So help him, he was going to find a way to tie Castalia down when she came to visit and keep her here. He didn't need this kind of stress, thanks.

"Where did you say this village is again?"

"About two weeks travel Southeast from Nibelheim. As in, if I kept going in this direction, I'd reach Corel in another couple of weeks, easy. Why?"

"Because I know what this sounds like, but your current location doesn't fit."

"Disease, right?" Neil chimed in, his overall demeanor somehow even more solemn, if such a thing were possible.

"Disease? So, the chocobo just caught the equivalent of a really bad case of the flu or something?"

"I'm afraid it's more complicated than that, kiddo," Rio sighed. "It's more like a status effect."

Cloud barely held back a jerk as it suddenly came back to him.

Disease, or Virus as some had taken to calling it, had been a relatively new status condition- one that had been discovered closer to the point in time he'd come back from than now. Much like now, farmers had been the first to see cases of it, the first handful of which hadn't been given much attention from the world at large because most thought it was just a regular livestock illness. When it started affecting people, however...

But why was it emerging now? Or had it always been around- some grim secret that only a select few knew about until it began to spread?

"I've never heard of a Disease effect," Castalia pointed out, sounding concerned. "Even my alchemy studies never mentioned it, and you would think those would at least give a bit of a heads-up."

"It's more of a tall tale mixed with some evidence," Rio admitted. "But all that evidence is so rare and scattered that it's hard to get enough documentation to report it. All but one or two instances of it seem to have occurred in the North, though. That's why most ranchers tend to avoid setting up there now."

"Is there a cure?"

Cloud closed his eyes as a heavy silence fell over the room, already knowing the answer. The WRO had still been looking for one in his previous life, after all.

Now he was wishing he'd been more involved.

"No," Rio replied quietly after a moment. "I'm sorry, Cassie, but the best thing for your rancher friend to do would be to put those chocobo out of their misery and go somewhere else. If they can't do that, then they should at least wait a few months before starting over. Hopefully by then whatever caused the disease in the first place will be gone."

"...Do you know if and how it spreads?"

Cloud took what little comfort he could in the fact that everyone stiffened at the question.

"Castalia," Da spoke for the first time since the conversation began, a warning tone in his voice. It was severe enough that could clearly picture her wince when she heard it.

"I'm a Master Alchemist, Da," she said despite that. "What's the point of everything I've learned if I can't-...and everyone here has been kind to me. I have to try."

Have to try...

...

Cloud looked into the dimly lit room, brows furrowing in concern as he saw mountains of papers stacked on various desks and a shadowed figure hunched over next to a computer.

"Reeve?"

No response.

He stepped closer, a sliver of worry going through him until he realized his old friend had merely fallen asleep. With a quiet sigh of relief, he reached over and carefully began to shake him.

"Reeve. Wake up."

The older man did so, though not without a groan of discomfort once he was awake enough to realize his sleeping position probably hadn't been the best.

"Cloud?"

"How long have you been here?"

"What's the date?"

"Not funny, Reeve."

"And I'm not joking," Reeve shot back, although there was still a slight, amused tilt of his lips as he said it. "So, to what do I owe the pleasure? I don't think I've heard of any trouble needing all of us to get together..."

"Vincent said you haven't been calling to bother him recently."

Reeve blinked, then laughed. "What a way of admitting he's worried."

"Might not want to tell him that."

"No, I suppose not. Anyway, it's actually a bit fortunate that you're here. You have some experience raising chocobo thanks to your racing stint at the Gold Saucer, don't you? Do you happen to be familiar with their illnesses as well?"

"Illnesses? Not really. All the chocobo I've raised have always been healthy."

"I see..."

"Is something the matter?"

"You could say that...Recently, there's been some sort of disease affecting groups of livestock on multiple farms across the continents. The only thing is that all the usual treatments have proven ineffective. Further research into the matter has shown it to be more of a status effect than natural infection. While concerning when it was just affecting animals, it now seems to have spread to people as well. It's not to the level that Geostigma was, but I worry about what could happen if left alone."

"Have you tried the spring water?"

"It's one of the first things I did. While it did seem to ease the severity of the symptoms, it didn't cure them, and the effects would wear off after a while. I have people looking into what could be causing it, but we need to come up with a treatment as well."

"And you're doing that by yourself?"

"No, I've got a few others working on this part with me. I'm just the only one who stayed here late enough to fall asleep," Reeve joked, but Cloud frowned when he saw the flash of exhaustion in his expression.

"Reeve."

Reeve looked at him a moment, then sighed, tiredly rubbing his forehead. "I must admit, however, that most of us are vastly out of our depths. But as it stands, we're the only ones left who have even the slightest chance of figuring this out. We have to try."

...

'Those two really were meant to be friends,' he thought in a mix of amusement, worry, and exasperation as he pulled himself out of the memory. 'Altruistic to the point of recklessness...but I guess none of us can really talk, can we?'

"I suppose there's no real way to stop you if you plan to do this," Da relented, breaking the tension that had formed, though he still looked somewhat upset. "But...just be careful, okay?"

"I will. I'll be sure to call around this time every morning too. That way I can keep you updated."

"I'd appreciate that, Cassie, thanks."

"...I guess I should get started then. Bye for now, everyone! Love you!"

Castalia waited long enough for all of them to respond before a slight click echoed through the room, signaling the end of the call.

"Definitely your kid," Rio huffed out a breath of laughter after a moment. "I swear the two of you are as attracted to trouble as flies are to manure."

"Great analogy there, sis," Da snarked halfheartedly, with an equally mild roll of his eyes. "What a lovely mental image you've given me."

"Oh, stop moping," she shot back. "It's for that same reason she'll pull through. You'll see. She's got your stubbornness too, after all."

"Like you're one to talk."

"Now listen here, Cactuar-brain-!"

Cloud couldn't help but sigh as the two of them fell into another argument, noticing with some amusement that his ma and Neil did the same.

"I've been trying out a few different recipes since we last spoke a few weeks ago," Ma told him after briefly shaking her head. "Would you like to try one? In this heat, I think you'd enjoy some coffee ice cream."

"Sure."

"Cloud?"

"Coming."

He followed the two of them into the kitchen, thoughts moving back and forth between past/future and present. He was still worried about what the outcome to this would be, but as Da said, there wasn't much any of them could do from here.

He'd just have to pray for the best and trust in Castalia's knowledge and skill.

OoOoOoOoOoOoOo

"Okay, so, status effects...what do I know about status effects?" I asked myself while preparing the Remedies. "Part biological, part magic based. Can be cured either through a magic stronger than the effect, or an item that neutralizes the specific way it attacks the body...Which doesn't really help me right now since this is apparently something so new that it hasn't even been properly documented yet."

"What are you making?"

I blinked when I noticed two young girls staring at the various items on the table in open curiosity. These two must be Maurice's girls, then.

"Ah, I'm making some Remedies for the chocobos. I'm not sure what's wrong with them just yet, but hopefully, this should help them a bit."

"What do you make them with?"

"Hmm? Well, Rice flour for the dough, and this instead of water," I said, gesturing to the bottle in my hands.

"What is it?"

"Well, since Remedy is supposed to cure a lot of things, it has bits of ingredients that I use for other items like Softs or Antidotes. I put them in a pot along with a bit of potion and let it all slowly simmer for about a day, making sure to stir it enough to keep from burning and keeping an eye on it just in case some of the ingredients don't mix properly. It can be a bit tricky since there are so many of them, but I've found that it helps if I have a lightning materia equipped. When it's almost done I add some soured milk-"

"Spoiled milk?! Gross!"

"Soured milk, not spoiled," I clarified, smiling a bit at their disgusted expressions. "I'll agree the taste isn't the greatest, but it has a few benefits that make it worth adding. Anyway, once it's done, I bottle it up in these special containers so that it can stay fresh until I need it."

By the end of my explanation, both of them were wide-eyed, making me laugh.

"Honestly, it feels like I'm cooking a lot of the time," I admitted. "Only with this, there's more magic and more of a chance of things blowing up."

"Cool."

"Melanie!"

"What? It's true!"

"...Yeah, I guess it is."

"Well, if either of you is ever interested in being an alchemist, feel free to write to the Gaian Craftsman's Guild. They'll tell you all you need to do and learn in order to be one."

"We'll keep that in mind, Miss Allen. Thank you," Lillie said before poking her younger sister in the shoulder. "But we should get going."

"Do we have to?"

"Yes. We don't want to bother her while she works, and we've got chores to do, remember?"

"As long as you don't touch anything, I don't mind you watching," I told them, smiling when Melanie brightened. "But if you have chores, you should probably do those first."

"Aww!"

I laughed to myself as Melanie dejectedly followed after Lillie, reminded of the times Cloud had done much the same whenever I dragged him away from his model planes when he was younger. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss it, especially since he seemed to have matured so much in the years since.

I sighed as I was reminded he was now thirteen years old. I already knew there was just as much chance of him staying in Nibelheim as there'd been for me, but hopefully what had happened there would keep him from wanting to join SOLDIER. Who knows, maybe the idea of being a big brother to Cirrus and Rinan would delay him for a few more years.

I could only be so lucky.

Once the dough was ready, I sectioned it and set it aside. It didn't need to rise like traditional dough, but the ingredients did need some time to settle and bind. During that time, I figured I may as well take another look at the chocobos. Now that I had a better idea of what was wrong, I might be able to find something I'd missed before or maybe even some similarities to other status conditions. It was better than sitting around worrying over Vincent and wondering if he'd run into our mysterious stalkers, at any rate.

'Which you just did,' I mentally groaned, grabbing my hammerpouch and hastily leaving the inn. 'Gotta stop letting my mind wander like that.'

...I hoped he was doing okay.

OoOoOoOoOoOoOo

So far, the trek up the mountain had been completely uneventful. He could hear the local wildlife moving about, he hadn't wandered into any monsters, and he didn't feel the strange pressure of being watched as he darted up an overgrown path.

He didn't like it.

Perhaps it was paranoia leftover from his time as a Turk, or perhaps just some sort of innate sense that was a result of his time with Hojo, but Vincent was almost positive that this was merely the calm before the storm. The near certainty of it made him feel on edge and eager to get to the mountain cave as soon as possible, if only so that he could start making his way back. But...if Lucrecia was there as Castalia was so sure she'd be...

Well, he'd figure out what to do then. There was no point in thinking about it if this cave ended up being like the others.

The sun was high above when he finally reached the top of the mountain. Before him was a massive lake, with a runoff that went somewhere to the south. What really grabbed his attention, however, was the small river that fed into the lake from the north...and the waterfall it provided.

"I don't remember much about it, to be honest. Just that it was in a cave behind a waterfall. Sorry I can't tell you more."

Suddenly, Castalia's claims of this being the right one didn't seem so improbable.

Anticipation and trepidation both began to rise up as he ventured closer to the waterfall and noticed that there did seem to be a cave behind the rushing water. Could this really be the right location? Could Lucrecia really be somewhere in there? What state would he find her in if she was? And what could have brought her all the way here to begin with?

...Did she feel the same regret as he did...to have not pursued their feelings all those years ago?

He took a breath to calm his racing thoughts, only to have it leave him once more in an appreciative breath when he stepped inside the cave and was met with countless crystals- all seeming to glow as they reflected light from a softly shining mako pool towards the back.

He struggled to regain it when he noticed an achingly familiar figure in front of said mako pool, standing with her back to him.

"Lucrecia..."

She was here.

OoOoOoOoOoOoOo

"Sorry girl," I soothed Mama Chocobo as I gently pet her beak. "I know this has been uncomfortable, but I just gotta see what symptoms you all share."

She just blinked slowly, a flash of understanding in her dulled eyes as she gave a weak cry and didn't struggle as Annie and I continued looking her over.

I'd stopped by the woman's farm on my way to Marielle's, knowing that- despite the time I'd spent at Gramma and Gramps's ranch -I was far from an expert in livestock. She'd agreed to help me out readily enough, though she seemed grim when I'd told her Aunt Rio and Uncle Neil's suspicions. Turns out she had considered the admittedly slim possibility but hadn't wanted it to be true. Her checking with her farming contacts had been an effort to see if there was anything else it could have been because Disease was pretty much a death sentence for the flock.

Or it would be if I didn't manage to come up with a cure.

"That clinches it," Annie sighed, setting some sort of large, old-school scanner to the side.

Apparently, it was what professional chocobo racers used to judge their health and quality. I honestly couldn't make out half of what had been displayed on the screen, so I'd stopped trying after a few moments.

"What is it?"

"It's definitely a status condition," she frowned. "If the scanner is right, then every single chocobo- no matter the color, age, or previous health -had their stats cut by the exact same amount. The physical illness we're seeing is more a result of whatever's been stressing them out, but it does seem to be keeping their bodies from properly fighting it off as well."

"That scanner told you all that?"

"Most of it," Annie smiled wanly.

"That's-...Why doesn't everyone have one of those?" I asked incredulously.

I could see it being super useful to anyone who raised chocobos, so it honestly baffled me that I'd never even heard of it before.

"Mostly because chocobo racers don't want people to know about it- gets rid of their advantage, y'know? Other reason is that they're worth more than most farmers are willing to spend in one go. Only reason I've got mine is because an old friend gave it to me when they stopped racing."

"Well, that sucks."

"You're not wrong," she said while jotting down a few more things in a notebook she'd brought along. "But there's not much we can do about it right now. Anyway," she continued, snapping the notebook shut with a sigh. "Do you think you have enough to go on for your cure?"

"Honestly? No," I admitted, fidgeting with my shirt as I considered everything Annie had pointed out. "I've never come across a status effect that affects, well, stats. It's always a more physical state sort of thing like paralysis or blindness. I-...I don't even know where to start with this."

I looked back at Mama Chocobo, feeling my heart lurch when I noticed she was staring at her chick. When she looked back at me with exhausted resignation, as if she understood what I was saying and was expecting the worst, my fists clenched tightly.

"But I'm still going to do my best."

Annie's smile became less forced. "I'll leave you to it then. I'm going to start getting our findings all typed and organized- it's high time we started some official documentation for this, no matter how rare cases of it may be. There's no way I'm letting my friend's struggles be for nothing, and if we can help even one person with what we found here today, then that's all the better."

"Right. I'll keep you updated on the cure."

"You do that. See you later, kid."

My smile stayed in place right up until Annie was gone, where it was quickly replaced with an anxious frown. Immediately, I shook my head.

"You've got this," I told myself, gathering my things and starting my trek back to the inn. "You're a Master Alchemist. You've actually put all your effort into learning and didn't slack off in your studies like before. You have all the knowledge you need to synthesize a cure. You can do this."

I closed my eyes, my tongue feeling heavy in my throat as I swallowed.

"I can do this."

OoOoOoOoOoOoOo

"Lucrecia..."

Her gasp echoed in the cave as she whirled around, and Vincent was struck with the sudden realization that she looked exactly the same as the last time he'd seen her.

So...it seemed the Jenova cells hadn't just affected Sephiroth.

"V-...Vincent?" Lucrecia took half a step forward before aborting the movement. "Is-...Is it really you?"

"It is."

Her hand came up to cover her mouth, and her eyes grew glassy with tears. "Why-...? W-What are you doing here?"

"Searching for you. I-" He froze when she took a step back the moment he tried walking toward her.

"Don't. Please. I-...I'm- I don't..."

"Lucrecia?"

"You shouldn't be here," she shook her head as she took another step back. "Why are you here?"

Hearing her say that hurt more than he would admit, but he continued forward nonetheless. "What do you mean?"

"You should still be asleep in the manor."

He felt cold.

"You-...You knew I was there?"

He could see the pain in her eyes as tears began flowing down her face. He could see how upset she was...but...

"I'm so sorry."

She'd known.

"I don't-...I don't understand," he began weakly. "If you knew I was there, why-...Why did you-?"

Why did she leave him there, drowning in his regrets, thinking that she had died? That he had failed her and her child? If she had just approached him, he was sure they could have started working towards fixing things. If she'd done that, then maybe the future he was working to prevent would never even have had a chance of happening...but she hadn't.

Lucrecia had always known where he was, but had still left him there.

"Lucrecia also made her own choices- ones that no one forced her to make..."

Castalia's voice seemed to echo in his mind, making his heart ache painfully.

"I'm so sorry, Vincent."

He-...He didn't want sorry, he realized with another pang. He wanted to know-

"Why?" he asked her quietly. "You had to have seen the kind of man Hojo was, so why...? Did I-...Did you truly wish not to be with me so much that you would turn to him?"

"I-...I felt like I-...didn't deserve you," she confessed. "After what happened to your father. I blamed myself."

"But I never did. How could I?"

Lucrecia flinched and looked away.

"I'm so sorry...Gods, this is all so wrong. This-...This isn't how it was supposed to be."

"How-...How was it supposed to be then?"

"W-What?"

"...-you shouldn't think it was only your fault. Whatever part you think you may have had wouldn't have been enough to cause that disaster on its own."

"Hojo...the experiments...everything. When I asked you all those years ago if you were sure, I didn't question it when you said you were. Now I am. Why did you do it? Why did you agree to experiment on your child?"

"Lucrecia's just as much to blame for what happened, if not more so since it was her child she was experimenting on."

"It-...Jenova was-...He was going to bring about the rebirth of the Ancients..."

"...I don't know about you, but I could be approached by the nicest man in the world, told that I would birth the next Minerva, and I still wouldn't agree to have someone conduct experiments on my child. It's all kinds of messed up."

The cold spread.

"If we don't do anything, Sephiroth will only bring death and destruction."

Now it was his turn to step back as Lucrecia's head suddenly snapped back to face him, her eyes wide and almost manic.

"You've seen him?!"

"You...haven't?"

"Hojo took him from me right after he was born, and no matter what I do, I can't get close!" she cried. "I've tried everything, and if it's not him, than it's those Goddess forsaken Whispers blocking me at every turn!"

"Whispers?"

She stared. "...You don't know."

"Know what?"

"How can you not know if you're here now? When we shouldn't have met again until much later? Could it be that they..."

Her words were sending a jolt of unease up his spine.

"I began having visions while pregnant with Sephiroth," she suddenly switched topics. "They showed me glimpses of the future- of the very destruction you mentioned. But...they also gave me the ability to see...things I never saw before."

He was getting a bad feeling about this.

"Lucrecia, what are you talking about?"

She continued to ignore him, seemingly lost in thought. "Perhaps it's because it's you, but you really shouldn't be here right now. They should have kept you from reaching this place at this time. Much like they've been keeping me away from my son."

"You're not making any sense."

"Has anything strange happened on your trip here? Or maybe you've felt like you were being followed?"

He froze. "How...do you know that?"

"So they are there..."

"What is? Lucrecia, please. Just tell me what you're talking about."

Her expression fell, turning into something sorrowful and almost hopeless. "They are enforcers of Destiny- determined to keep certain events in place...and they will stop anything and anyone who threatens what should be."

Enforcers of...Destiny?

The unease of before suddenly went from a vague feeling to ominous certainty.

Castalia.

Vincent whirled around, ready to run back to the village, only to notice the passageway blocked with a veritable wall of dark, wraith-like creatures.

OoOoOoOoOoOoOo

It had taken a bit of back and forth, but the Remedies had been distributed to all the chocobo. Hopefully, there would be some improvements in their condition by tomorrow morning. In the meantime, it was starting to get a bit late, so I was going to call it a day and start experimenting for a cure tomorrow.

"I guess that really was the cave if Vincent's not back yet," I sighed before smiling. "At least one good thing came out of this mess. I'm sure he's over the moon right now."

I allowed myself a nice long stretch, trying to work out some of the nerves that hadn't gone away yet, only to cut it short at the sound of a distant bleat. Looking around, I saw a lone sheep (or was it a ram? I think I saw some horns) wandering around on the stretch of field near the base of the mountain outside of town.

Huh. Pretty sure Vincent had said something about seeing one yesterday too. It might have even been the same one. It was weird that they hadn't caught it yet.

I took a step forward to do just that, then stopped myself.

"Ohohoho, no," I laughed sarcastically. "I know this movie. Nope. Sorry, little sheep, but you're not worth getting brutally murdered over. If you've survived this long, then all the power to you. Good luck, and good night."

I took another step towards the inn, only to yelp in shock when I found myself suddenly lifted up.

"The hell?! What-?! W-Woah!"

When I started to get dragged in that direction anyway, I began struggling to get myself loose. But whatever this was, it was holding on tight.

Despite how my heart was quickly beating against my chest in fear of this frightening new development, I couldn't help but find it morbidly amusing that there wasn't anyone around to see this happen.

Figured, really.

It seemed like in no time at all, I was in that barren field, dropped right next to the sheep. I looked around in confusion, because really? The mysterious kidnappers just wanted me to see a-

"You are not a sheep!" I yelped when it finally turned around, revealing an eerily humanoid face on a rather unassuming ram's body. "Oh jeez, what the fuck are you?!"

It wasn't any monster I was familiar with, which was probably one of the most concerning things. I may not have known every monster by name or location, but I could confidently say I knew a fair amount. Either way, I definitely knew that I'd never heard of one that looked anything like this.

I scrambled backward when it opened its mouth, revealing a set of sharp, pointed teeth.

I tried running back to town, only to hiss a curse when I hit some sort of invisible wall. Really?! Ridiculous game mechanics chose now to suddenly spring into existence?! Turning back, I hastily adjusted my materia bangle and reached for my gun the moment the sky turned dark too quickly to be anything other than a spell.

The panic really set in when, with another bleat, a freaking comet started falling out of the sky.

OoOoOoOoOoOoOo

Cloud lay back on his bed, the setting sun adding a sort of tranquil lighting to his room. He could hear his family speaking downstairs, and the muffled conversation lulled him back into his earlier memory.

...

"Who else is working on this?"

"We've hired some doctors and veterinarians to aid us in our research, but I fear what we really need are alchemists."

"There aren't any you can hire?"

Reeve shook his head. "Alchemy became a dying art once ShinRa began figuring out how to manufacture their own products. There are some who managed to make a living in other towns and villages, but if they're still around none of them have responded to the requests for aid we've sent out."

"Can it be learned?"

"Almost all knowledge on item synthesis was lost when Sephiroth attacked the Gaian Craftsman's Guild and destroyed their headquarters. And since we're trying not to harm the planet any more than we already have, all of ShinRa's artificial synthesis methods are out as well. To be frank, all we really have to go on at this point are what the doctors we've hired were taught- which they themselves have admitted is quite limited in comparison to what a Master Alchemist would know. I suppose it's better than starting completely from scratch, but situations like these do tend to make the loss all the more striking..."

"Does anyone know? Why he attacked them, I mean."

"From a strategic standpoint, it was a brilliant maneuver," Reeve sighed. "I'm not sure how much you remember, but the Guild was famous for its creations. If one was in need of quality items, they couldn't be beaten. So he would have been foolish to allow them to remain when there was every chance they would help us. Did you know rumor even had it that Sephiroth and his companions' swords were their work? Granted, no one was ever able to prove it, but I've yet to see anything compare to them. Well, apart from yours, that is."

They both paused then, almost as one, turned to look at where First Tsurugi was propped up against the wall.

"Where did you say you got your sword again?"

"An old man in the slums forged it for me- had me running around all over the place for materials, though. You think he was-...?"

"It's likely, yes."

"Huh..."

"Is there any chance he could still be there? Maybe he might know if there are any alchemists left who could help us."

"Dunno. He said he didn't like staying in one place for too long, and he never showed his face so I can't say what he looked like."

"How curious...and stranger still that he would make a sword for you despite seeming to not want to draw attention to himself."

"To be fair, we'd already beaten Sephiroth by then, so he probably knew who I was and what I'd done. Maybe he felt he owed me when he saw me without the Buster Sword?" he shrugged before he snorted lightly. "Not that he seemed the type, to be honest. Old man could curse worse than Cid and he didn't have any problems bossing me around- something about not wanting me to get a big head."

Reeve smiled slightly. "Sounds nice."

"...It kind of was."

...

Cloud sighed, turning over on his side as he allowed his mind to wander.

While he'd been chasing Sephiroth, he'd never really thought about the bigger picture, or even the repercussions of what the man had done after he'd lost himself to Jenova.

Calamity almost seemed like too kind a word to describe her now.

He could see now how Jenova had slowly been crippling or eliminating any and all threats to her existence. First with the Cetra, then by inserting herself into ShinRa- the most powerful company in the world, and then by commanding Sephiroth to destroy the only group that could have rivaled them. By getting rid of the Guild, she also kept anyone who wished to fight back from getting items and equipment that could greatly help in that task.

Even before that situation, he could think of a few instances where it would have helped to have someone around who knew how to synthesize. Then when you added some of the other factions like the blacksmiths, the tailors, and the enchanters-

Yeah, he could see why Jenova would have wanted the Guild out of the picture.

The very Guild that Castalia was a member of.

He groaned and ran a hand over his face.

"You're worrying over nothing," he told himself. "Tomorrow morning, Castalia's going to call, and nothing's going to be any different than today."

It was ridiculous to think that she would be targeted for her skill in alchemy- much less that it would put her at risk years before Jenova even came into play. He was just being paranoid. Still...it did bring a lot of things into perspective, didn't it? For one thing, he knew for a fact that he didn't enjoy sitting around when any member of his family wasn't safe at home. The need to do something had skyrocketed ever since Castalia left, leaving him anxious and antsy.

"I guess I could pull a Zack and just leave," he snorted. "He left Gongaga when he was thirteen, right?"

He paused.

"No," he shook his head. "You're going to think about this very carefully before doing anything."

Oh, who was he kidding?

"Ma's gonna kill me for this," he sighed. "Right after Tifa pummels me to the ground."

And yet, he felt oddly at ease now that he had a course of action. He'd been scrambling a bit once he'd realized Vincent was gone, but now that there were the beginnings of a plan...

It was better than waiting around, that was for sure.

He smiled a bit as he turned back around, trying to commit the feeling of home and comfort as deeply into himself as possible. If he went through with this, then soon his memories of his time here would be all he had to fall back on once he was back in ShinRa.

He knew better than anyone how easy it was to lose yourself within those walls, after all.

Maybe this was even for the best. Last time, it felt like he'd barely gotten any time to get to know Zack before everything had happened. If he left sooner, then he might even be able to figure out how things had gotten so out of control in the first place. It was worth a shot, wasn't it? Besides, what use was knowledge of the future if he didn't do something differently?

He basically had Minerva's blessing in this. It would be fine.

Castalia would be fine.

Feeling drowsy now that his mind and some of his worries had settled, he decided to turn in early. He had a lot to do if he was going to make it to Midgar on his own, so he should take advantage of the chance to rest while he still could.

As his eyes started closing, he couldn't help but think about how pretty the wood paneling of his ceiling looked in the last rays of sunlight. Bright red and vibrant, like the flame of Nanaki's tail...

Nothing at all like the dark, unnerving blood red of his nightmares.

~Chapter End~ OoOoOoOoOoOoOo ~Chapter End~

Yup. We've got Whispers.

The remake implied that they were present in all timelines, not just that particular one, and I did say I was going to use some elements from the remake in this fic. Granted, my version of them might be somewhat different than in canon, but we honestly don't know too much about them at the moment to be sure. For now, I'm operating solely on the enforcers of destiny bit.

And Castalia does not fit with their pretty little picture at all.

Since Vincent is important to their version of events, however, they didn't want to do anything permanent or damaging to him. So they waited until the two of them separated before striking, and their plan is to keep them separated until the threat to the timeline has been eliminated.

Even if it means bending the rules of space-time a bit, because they definitely did that too.

But if they could create giant monsters based on Kadaj, Loz, and Yazoo and have the group fight them in a weird, in-between pocket dimension, I honestly don't see why they couldn't pull a monster that's known to be notoriously difficult to defeat from another Final Fantasy game. Just so that there's even less chance of her surviving.

Nine, two, and six spells "Yan" on those old telephone keypads, by the way. I just thought it was a nice tidbit to add.

We also got a bit of flashback from Cloud's past/future. Yes, it is my headcanon that his sword was made by a Guild survivor. The quality speaks for itself.

Uh, what else, what else...

I'm honestly drawing a bit of a blank now, so I think I'll stop here. Feel free to ask me anything, and I'll do my best to answer so long as it isn't spoiling too much. That aside, I hope you enjoyed the chapter. I'll do my best to not keep you waiting on this cliff for too long.

For now, take care, and until next time!