Central Defense

After enjoying a good, long laugh at the notion that Vincent might teach me how to be a proper wife, I concluded that he would probably not return to finish the conversation. Guess I would never learn the correct way to make a home for my husband and children. Wonder how I managed for almost twenty years?

The morning was one of those gorgeous early Summer gifts: the air was perfectly clear, just warm enough to let me stand a while without becoming chilled. I thought a bit about what it all meant.

First, an ugly thought crept in. Was it possible, were I a properly submissive, homebody-housekeeper lady, that my daughters’ father would have searched for me? Or maybe avenged my “death?” Certainly I would still be home, watching my girls enter adulthood. After all, I harbored no illusions about my portion in the defeat of Sephiroth and the subsequent prevention of Meteorfall. And I would still have my girls to myself. Just wouldn’t have had a life outside the home.

After a short period of feeling sorry for myself, I mentally slapped myself upside the head. How stupid to wonder “what if!” My short trip through the LifeStream had shown me that nothing fits neatly together in this world. I helped, a little, to destroy the alien Jenova. It cost me my cozy family life and upwardly-mobile job in the Shinra Labs, and a good portion of personal memory.

Maybe. Life is always just a maybe. So maybe it would be a good thing not to over-plan for our unborn baby.

It seemed obvious that we should make a home for the child, but he or she would still spend most of the time in the communal creche. After all, even if we collected the kid after the work day, some fifteen or sixteen hours were dedicated to the militia. That meant indoctrination into the local lifestyle was assured.

If I let it happen. All in all, life in Nibelheim was no more or less militarized than that of Wutai, to the west, or Fort Condor, to the east. Or any place where children were exposed to the Disciplines. So that wasn’t the problem.

Raising and educating children is more than a full-time job, and needn’t be left in the hands of parents. I’m not nuts about home-schooling, because that atmosphere doesn‘t reflect the real world. Most people create their own little Eden apart from the battlefield and the marketplace, and return there to escape.

So what was my problem?

Just seemed to me that I should not be included in the indoctrination process, especially skewed by a die-hard, Alpha anachronism.

In short, Vincent Valentine was not going to tell me what to do.

Returning to the Keep, I went upstairs, removed the Damascene ring and left it on the dresser across from the richly-carved four-poster. It seemed to belong to those surroundings, much more than I ever would. The place could use some pillows and a few plants, but I was pretty certain that Vincent wouldn‘t like to watch it turn girlie-girl. Or even comfortably homey.

Just before leaving for good, I looked around one more time, lingering in front of the dragon tapestry. There were some repairs that were woven into the original, with little effort made to disguise the damage. The weaving was done only to maintain the integrity of the entire piece.

Each hole had a different character. One was a burn, others were cleanly cut, or maybe pierced. The corrective work did not hide anything that had happened to the original work. It looked as if the Lady deliberately left the damage for all to see.

Surely Shinju Kameko could tell me more about the piece. The dragon more closely resembled Buddy, the Great Northern Blue Lindworm, than it did Esmerelda, the local Lesser Green Dragon. Sex linked differences or local adaptations? My Grampa Lindorm had only said that all dragons were related, regardless of shape and form. A visit to our tapestry-maker was in order, indeed.

I went directly to the Quartermaster, who beamed when I asked about his Nana. He immediately pointed out that Shinju Kameko was grandmother or great-grandmother to many of the soldiers of the militia.

“Nana was a beauty and an adventuress, as we like to say these days. The old girl’s been married a few times, but she outlived them all, one by one.”

We joked a bit regarding how rough and ready she was, and his reaction was again one of pride and pleasure. He knew his Nana was one of a kind, and all the kids were real characters, too.

He gave me instructions to the Lady’s home workshop, on the other side of town, opposite from the base. It would be a pleasant stop, a place to get away from the military for a while. I did have one question more for Sonny.

“How did Shinju Kameko survive the burning of Nibelheim?”

“You should ask her yourself: she’ll be happy to tell you. Make sure you have plenty of time for the whole story. You‘ll like it.” He winked.

“I believe you. In that case, today is not the day.

“Mr. Quartermaster, give me a quick rundown on the radar system.” He picked up his PHS, punched a code and handed it to me. Onscreen was a layout of the base. Here and there were moving dots, some single and others in groups. There was a lot of movement in the chocobo corral, and even a little on its periphery.

“Can’t really see much in detail on this.” The relief was beginning to flood through me, starting at my hairline and working its way through my face. Our naughty secret was safe: one couldn’t tell anything from those little blips!

“Sorry, Commander. I thought you’d like an overview.” Sonny tapped a toggle as I watched and enlarged the center of the display. I could see a yellow butterfly lighting on the gate of the corral. After fiddling with the arrow keys I was able to zoom in on Leprechaun and another chocobo, a Blue. They seemed to be squabbling, wrestling or engaging in some other contact activity. After about half a minute, I felt like a voyeur and handed it back to Sonny. He snickered.

“Those two again? You’d think there’d be plenty of Greens and Blues by now, and at least one Black, anyway. Well, we can always hope.” He snorted, punched a button, returning it to scanning mode.

“Do you zoom in often?” I thanked my lucky stars that Sonny himself was a day-side watchman: couldn’t face him otherwise, after that.

“Only when we don’t recognize the activity. In fact, I watched Commander Valentine and you walk along the river bank yesterday afternoon. How do you like the Keep?”

“Never noticed a thing going on before he showed me. I thought the area was woodland, waste acreage lost to the foothills.” I was blushing furiously, unable to stop the heat from rising to my face. Sonny smiled at my reaction, most likely misinterpreting it. Or so I hoped.

“The Keep is considered an antique treasure. We are all very happy to have it occupied again after so long. And, forgive me if I overstep my bounds, but the place could use a woman’s touch.” I gave him a vague smile, and signed for my armor and weapon, nodded again and waved, unable to think of anything else to say without getting redder.

It wouldn’t be long before the gossips started.

Gold, Black and Wonderful

Chocobos, that is. Billy was true to his word: I’d hardly stepped away from the Armory when the Highwind hovered above the corral, then moved to the area between it and Mt. Nibel. It dropped into a perfect, silent landing, barely moving the grasses as it came to rest.

The engines went quiet as I walked over to the ship. I’d forgotten how big it was in relation to the town. The airship was practically a town in itself; only the mountains gave it any perspective. And from a human standpoint, the craft was simply huge, making me feel tiny as I peered up the access ramp into the metallic hull.

I stood under the bay and shouted as loud as I could.

“Cid! You stopping in or not?” At first there was no response. Then the prettiest little Black chocobo in the world sauntered down the ramp and nuzzled me, melting away any bad feelings left from the morning.

“Ebony, sweetie! Good girl. My lovely little angel.” She continued to nuzzle as I stroked her feathers and murmured all the things I knew she loved to hear. I told her she was the most beautiful bird on the Planet. She warbled and warked. “I missed you, too, baby bird.”

Right on cue, WonderBoy approached, ready to demand his share of attention. He was tethered to Billy, who also led Glitter, my prize Gold.

“We’re en route to visiting the Sage up behind the Icicle Village. He will be our next stop. Shall I take him a scrip or propose a swap?”

“Hard cash only with that fellow, though, I must say, I can’t imagine what he does with his money. No, wait: let’s see what you can work out. Meantime, I’ll transfer you the gil.” I punched a few buttons on the PHS, frowning. “All business, Billy? You don’t even say Hi?”

“Hey, Fini, give me a break, and some time to stop shaking. I hate flying machines! They are noisy, and they upset the birds. I’ll take a decent chocobo to ride any day, like Nature intended.” He was visibly agitated. Didn’t look to me like the birds were bothered a bit by the short hop.

“Sorry, Billy, I should have guessed you wouldn’t enjoy the trip. Where’s Captain Cid?” I peered up the ramp again, but Cid had already emerged.

“Hey, Sweetstuff! Where’s your husband?” He stomped down the ramp just as if he owned the place, base, corral and all.

“You know I don‘t have a husband, any more than you have a wife. Call Vincent on your PHS, if you really need to talk to him.

“Cid, what sort of lingering interest do you have in the racers? Never mind: forget all that. We’ve got a new sport to pursue: chocobo wrestling! Come into the corral: one of the wranglers plays very rough with her bird and it’s tons of fun to watch.”

We three humans and three birds walked up to the gate. The handlers and breeders were gathering there to stare at the Highwind. Out of the small crowd, Desirée ran up and scrambled over the fence.

“Cid! You coming to wrangle birds?” She punched him in the shoulder, knocking him off balance. He punched her right back.

“I should have known. She’s the wrestler, right, Jo?” I nodded. Of course they were related! Same looks, same spirit. It was as if I knew it all along. Soon I would have to move away from them both, so the cigarette smoke wouldn’t pollute my baby-making system.

“Guys, you want to ease up on the cigarettes a bit? At least until we’re done here?” Desirée smiled and backed away, not wanting to extinguish her newly-lit smoke. Cid removed his and cocked an eye at me.

“Since when, Jo?” Flustered, I wondered how long I could keep the secret from him. Even so, my hand went right over my growing middle.

“Since she’s got a creepy-crawler inside her!” His cousin grinned wickedly.

“A crawler? Jo?” I shot mental daggers at Desirée, who trotted away, laughing and wagging a finger at me. Cid looked at the uniform and mail vest, and then at my hand. I stared back in glum defiance, determined not to say anything.

Hoo, boy! Already, guys?” I didn’t know if he meant the pregnancy or if he guessed the separation. If he wasn’t openly asking, I wasn’t answering.

Cid wasn’t asking, so we got right down to business. I rang up Eleanora and the four of us began to make plans for Expedition Chocobo Wrestling. Just as I suspected, she said it was already an informal sport among the wranglers, with them betting among themselves. Billy was enthralled, his eyes glowing like golden gil in the sunshine.

Later he turned to me, just agog with anticipation.

“It’s easy to see where we can make the most profit: gambling, in the long run. For starters, though, the wrestlers need strength and stamina above all. You’ll be wanting Gysahl greens, and I just happen to be able to provide them in large lots!

“Rather than only set up the sport, lets create our leagues while we’re at it. We’ll need to fine tune our knowledge of the various birds and their related strengths. This is new to me, but it looks like a winner!

“Wonder if we can interest the Wutai breeders?” Right on cue, Sebastian Cyan walked over, and we began introductions all around. Then the discussion got technical, with each ranch chipping in their knowledge and concerns. Golds could be introduced later, after their numbers increased, but Blues and Greens would be the early draw. The kids batted ideas back and forth regarding the human players. After a while, the discussion petered out and it was time for the air ship to go. I turned to Billy.

“Give us a while to talk to other local players. You should begin to train your birds. Although I‘ve only watched Desirée Sunset with her Green, maybe we can send someone to get it started in the Midgar area. Your ranch can be the main attraction. That sort of thing doesn‘t belong on a military base, certainly not if it’s open to the general public.”

And that was that. I knew Billy and his Grandpa Bill would simply grab the concept and run with it. They might even turn it into something entirely different by the time I could stop by. Couldn’t wait to see their version. We sealed our deal over the Sylkis greens and made arrangements for breeder swaps between Nora’s Pride and ChocoBill’s. Sebastian would contact Wutai, to feel out their interest in the enterprise.

Cid came up from behind, ear to the PHS, and tapped my shoulder.

“Hey, Sugarfoot, gotta go.” The Captain snapped the device shut, and taking my arm, pulled me aside. “Vinny’s not talking, either. That’s okay by me, but what do I tell Shera? Is this a big secret?” I shook my head; obviously, babies don’t make well-kept secrets.

“Tell her that the two of us don’t share the same sense of humor.” No one’s gets to see my dirty laundry snapping in the breeze, if I have any say.

Cid gave me the fish eye. “He doesn’t have a sense of humor.”

“Exactly. But I do. Too bad for him if he can’t take a joke.”

“Dammit, Jo! Watch it; he’s going to kick your butt one of these days. Or maybe paddle it.” He added the last with a snicker. Geez, I thought, another old-style Central Continent kook. The hell with that crap.

“Pfft! I’d love to see him try.” Bravado is my specialty. In fact, I really wasn’t so sanguine, but Cid wouldn‘t understand. “No one runs my show.”

“Doesn’t look like it’s only your show any more, kid. Think ahead. Creepy-crawlers need their daddies.”

“Geez, Cid, when did you become so domesticated? You two expecting?” He shook his head, then smiled conspiratorially.

“You never can tell. Shera can be tenacious and very single-minded!”

He spoke proudly of the little lady who stood by him enough to be there when he needed her most. It‘s more than I would have done for him; Cid can easily be a first-class jerk, and then some.

He looked thoughtful a moment. “We can get her interested in the sports-medicine aspect of this wrestling. It would give her something to fuss over while I run the air ships.” He meant the sort of minutiae involved in the human part of wrestling, or maybe just brawling, that needed strict attention to detail. Sounded like her, all right: if anyone could pin down the specifics, it would be Shera.

Cid was hooked, spinning out ideas from the top of his head. Between the racing, the wrestling, and his airships, they were sure to be set for life. The joint venture lessened the risk, increased the possibilities for networking, and encouraged contact and fellowship between the continents. He talked at me until my head began to hurt, so I pushed him up the ramp, telling him to give my best to Shera.

I, too, was beginning to feel like an entrepreneur. Shares in Fruitland’s Finest were offered early on, when the Randolphs saw my interest. They knew I would jump at the chance to be a part of my favorite beverages. After that, every drink I took made me feel like I was contributing to the cause. Between the ranches and the winery, my investments would provide a nice little future for the kid and maybe my own retirement.

Retirement from what? I mused. The militia probably held no long-term future for me; I chafed under all the responsibility and constant surveillance. And as yet, I had not re-connected with my family scattered around Midgar. Shinra was gone for good, so research work was out of the question, at least in the laboratory. Besides my last stint hadn’t turned out too well. Still recovering from that.

All these minor projects were stopgaps, to allow me to enjoy some time with my as-yet unborn child, and to keep me busy until I hit the road to regain my lost daughters. The accelerated pregnancy would last a couple more months, but much of that time I could be somewhat disabled. "Quickening" was taking on a whole new meaning during this gestation: no time to get used to any changes, physical or otherwise. And I was swelling up like a poisoned sow.

On top of that, I needed to figure out my next move, now that cohabitation seemed unfeasible. Never was much for shacking up, anyway; seems silly to play house once a person had a contract marriage, kids and all. All relationships were messy things, in my experience, so why bother? Furthermore, one husband had been enough: at least he didn’t try to tell me what to do.

On the other hand, there were so many “death do us part“ love stories in my family, that it was a shame I didn‘t carry on the fine tradition. Still, I could be one scratchy lady when faced with difficult men; best to avoid them, for all concerned.

What a mess of contradictions!

Guess I was just hoping that some day I could return alone to the little seaside hut outside Wutai, and listen to the tide go out.

Lady Kameko's Baby

The next few weeks we followed a rather boring routine, as we made preparations to release the dragons from the caves. I continued to eat lunch with Eleanora in the mess hall, but slept in my room at the inn, being my own boss and keeping my own hours.

Did I say boring? What a liar I am! The dragonet was growing bigger before our eyes. Almost a half kilo some days. No kidding. We developed the habit of weighing and measuring the little stinker when we arrived in the early part of the day. Not even a month had passed before the little guy was up to our waists. Esmerelda stopped disgorging dinners after about ten days, and Baby was usually roaming around, hunting out of sight, when we came to look for them. Then Mommy would make that lovely purring-hiss that would bring her darling running to us.

At the same time, our Great Blue Buddy, almost fully recovered, was beginning to show a little more zest for life. He was still confined to the caverns but encouraged to forage about under supervision. Three weeks before his release, Shinju Kameko came by to check on his progress. It was Shinju who insisted we set a date for Buddy’s release. It was almost as if he specifically asked her to intervene.

All three of our charges immediately adored her. Later, we could say “Nana” when she wasn’t even with us, and they would perk up and look around for her. She seemed able to read their minds, and was undeniably reading their somas. It was through her impromptu teaching that we learned the sex of our growing Baby.

The very first day, Shinju even surprised us all with her strength. When she was introduced to Baby, she grabbed his shriveled wings and lifted the little guy right off the cavern floor! He was hanging there, like a kitten in its mother’s mouth, not at all uncomfortable or upset, just blissfully submissive. Then she called me over to see his belly.

“Here, girlie. Look at this!” At the base of the tail the softness was swollen, just a bit. “That is his future virility, only you will never see it. The males develop scales to cover their bellies and to protect their genitalia, same as Buddy.”

Weeks before, Buddy gave away his sex when he came to court Esmerelda. She was not in the mood, and nearly killed him, driving him away from her unhatched eggs.

I carefully felt Baby’s bottom, which was still soft and suede-like, rather like a soft foam infant‘s toy. Then I lifted his front into my arms for a quick cuddle, and lowered him to the floor. At 20 kilos, he was no longer a lap pet, and scampered away like a hyper puppy. At least he no longer stank, now that he could chew and swallow his own meals. I watched him, feeling like a proud Grammy. My heart overflowed, and I spoke without first thinking.

“I wondered about that. We weren’t sure what was sex related and what would be signs of the separate breed.” Even as I said it, my Grampa Lindorm‘s disapproving voice sounded at the back of my head. I knew Lady Kameko would cut me off, and I was right. She spoke readily, the consummate Teacher at that moment.

“Not many breeds! Just one. Dragons adapt to their environments: different colors, just like humans; massive dragons for the cold northern countries, smaller ones for the south; serpentine for ocean, water caves and other fresh waters. They all can fly, and they all can swim, and don’t need wings or fins or gills to do it.” I sighed, still watching our little bundle of miracles, darting here and there, pretending to hunt.

“Well, Lady. Then this is a red letter day. It looks like we can finally name our baby boy.”

“No! That’s not your place. The rider names the dragon. It just happens: that’s part of the Akasha. The dragon tells its name to the rider.”

We all stared at her, stunned. Even now, I don’t remember exactly when the name came to me, but it seems she was Esmerelda from the moment I began to heal her.

Ken gave me a sidelong look, then walked up to Lady Kameko and spoke quietly, his voice shaky.

“You know the Great Blue’s name is Buddy. Is that okay?”

“If that’s what he told you, yes.”

“He didn’t tell me anything. We were just becoming buddies.”

“Don’t you kids know anything? Buddy told you his name. He loves you already. You do intend to ride him, don’t you?” She almost threatened the young warrior, poking her index finger into his sternum. He backed up just a hair, a little uncertain.

“If he’ll have me, and if he’s strong enough to fight…”

She mimicked him, “Strong enough to fight? Are you kidding? Right now, he’s capable of clearing out the caverns, critters, soldiers, limestone formations and all. You didn’t cure him—he let you attend to his wounds! He isn’t ailing; he’s waiting for your next move.

“And don’t you ever anaesthetize another dragon! As far as they are concerned, that’s attack magic: status disorders only make them angry. You’re lucky he didn’t kill you all afterwards.”

Adrianna would not be happy to hear of that conversation. We all were dismayed that we may have upset our charges, or accidentally committed a breach of trust. Then I thought of Shinju's weaving work on the wings.

“Lady Kameko, then why does the Great Blue seem to love you, too? Does he know you were working to heal him, even though he was unconscious?” She nodded, but was still frowning, thinking. She spoke slowly.

“Dragons are much more intelligent than you think. More likely smarter than us. They are not chocobos, to be led about on a leash. Your Buddy has forgiven your foolishness because he knew we all wanted to help. He knows each of us now.”

“Then Esmerelda can read my mind?” This new information was upsetting; I had a hand in killing many dragons on the road to the Northern Crater. Could she sense my guilt?

“Not your mind, girlie. Your dragon reads you. I can’t explain it; you‘re not ready. You will learn, you will know the magic. Your Baby will teach you little by little, as he grows and as his link to Akasha blossoms. He will become more dragonish everyday, and you will come to know all the others through him.”

“Lady, will Esmerelda impart a share of Akasha to me?” The crone shook her head, again frowning with deep thought.

“No, girlie, the Green’s magic is a little different. It may be Akasha, but right now I don’t feel it in her or the infant. By the way, what is your element?”

The stupidity must have shown in my face. “I only know how to heal and draw life-force….” But she was already nodding and smiling, as if she were reading something written in the air around my head.

“Oho! That’s the problem. You don’t know. Don’t worry, Esmerelda will teach you.”

“She’ll give me her magic?” The familiar excitement was gripping me as we spoke. Again the Lady frowned in thought.

“No. You may already have her magic. Or your own was quite strong beforehand. No matter. When you are together, you will share. You must be sharing by now, if you healed her.

“And, girlie, she already knows your unborn baby. She feels it more than you do. She may even know your little one‘s name.” Shinju patted my belly.

What a concept! Her meaning suddenly became clear. The dragon and I were beginning to know one another, and we were drawing on each other’s strengths. Vincent was doing that for me also, when he wasn’t busy trying to run my life. Was he drawing from me, too? I had not thought of Akasha as being rather like mako, containing the wisdom and life experiences of the ages. The new paradigm was more than I was ready to absorb. My head was hurting again, and I excused myself from the Lady and the other soldiers, and returned to rest at the inn. It would be at least a week before I felt up to another visit with the Lady Kameko.

My Mum used to tell me: “You should learn something new every day.” I could only hope that my mind was still able to expand and accept all the new information.

Shinju's Story

The afternoon before the releases were planned, I gathered all my energies together and wandered across town to the small, unmarked shop where Shinju Kameko wove her tapestries. There were no signs whatsoever that the tiny residence housed an artisan. Not even the smallest engraved plate that could alert Shinra to a survivor of the disaster some six years back. I knocked very timidly on the door, hoping I had the right home.

For a full minute I heard shuffling sounds, but the door did not open. Concluding that I had the wrong house, I turned to leave. The little lady was peering through the blinds at the window, so I moved directly in front of her, patting my swollen belly. The door crashed open.

“You! How’d you get so big so fast? You are not toxic are you? Doesn’t your husband take you to the doctor to watch that stuff?” She dragged me into the front room. Her tone seemed almost belligerent, beyond scolding. Had she suddenly gone senile? Or did I actually look poisonous?

“What the hell, woman? How would I be toxic?” Was I glowing again? Didn’t think I was even floating. She answered with a dismissive wave.

“Not you: your blood, the baby‘s lifeline. Whatever happened to all the teachers? You kids don’t know anything anymore. The only way you could be that size by now would be Toxemia. What have you been eating? Too many sweets, likely. It’s the craving for them that’s the danger sign. Who’s your doctor?” She looked sincerely distressed, and I was feeling guilty that I had yelled back. After calming way down, I spoke as quietly as I could muster.

“Lady Kameko, this is not a normal pregnancy, but the baby is not in danger. When I worked for Shinra, they experimented on me, so pregnancies would take less time. We don‘t really know when we‘ll deliver, but everything else is right on track.” She gave me a look of wary disgust, then dry-spat at the door.

“I’m not surprise you would mention Shinra. Those bastards foul everything they touch! They are the reason I don’t like to answer my door. The last time I almost did…” She shuddered and swore under her breath. Then she pointed at me, accusingly. “How could you let them experiment on you?”

“Yeah, well, it wasn’t my idea. I didn’t let them: old Professor Hojo did what he wanted with me. I’m only able to be here because I escaped from him and all his other, more willing lab rats.” The thought that anyone would think I voluntarily complied left me depressed, almost teary. But the old lady immediately began to soothe me, petting my belly as she spoke.

“There, now, girlie. Of course you did. I remember now: your husband was another victim of that Hojo guy. Between you and me, I think there were lots of local people who took their turns in the Mansion, but didn’t survive to talk about it.”

“True enough, Lady. We saw many dried out bodies stuffed into a room in the basement.” Then I felt a small panic. “Are you missing someone who went in and didn’t come out?” Shinju looked terribly sad, but she shook her head.

“Not any more. After your group cleared out most of the unclean creatures in the basement, the militia went in a few times to scout for family members. A few of our own were still there: dead, of course. Mummified! All we ever got from Shinra were mummies.

“And a visit from the Great Sephiroth.” She looked far away, so I found a comfortable chair, and after insisting she sit first, I grabbed another and settled in to hear her story. Didn’t even have to ask.

“The little blond Strife kid—one of yours—from a couple houses down hadn’t been gone very long, before a small Shinra detachment came into town. The word was that they were sent to clear out the monsters coming from around the reactor. We wondered if the kid would return with them. What was his name?” The old woman was very sharp, not senile at all, regardless of her protestations that she couldn’t remember. I played along.

“That would be Cloud Strife, Ma’am. Our leader. He was part of the detachment.”

She nodded gravely, and spoke sadly. “We didn’t know. We didn’t see him until after the whole disaster. That was when Shinra recovered him and his friend from the reactor; they both looked dead. Our Tifa also was taken away, but her Teacher wouldn’t let Shinra find her. I was very unhappy to see Cloud and his friend taken into the Mansion.” At that, I stopped her.

“Wait. How could you watch all that? Wasn’t the town burned to ashes?” This promised to be more informative than Cloud’s muddled version.

“I’m getting to that. Don’t interrupt my stream of thought. Just let me remember.

“That first day, they all walked to the reactor and after a few hours came back. Word was they had simply plowed down mutants as they went. With Sephiroth as their leader, nothing could stand in their way. Then they returned to the Mansion for the night. We were grateful that they could stay and clear out more monsters. Sephiroth, though, he went berserk that night.

“He came out of the Mansion hollering something about us people being the real monsters. He started by killing the Shinra soldiers that stood guard, then he came through the streets, murdering everyone in his path. We ran to our houses and locked the doors.

“I can still hear the screams of my neighbors as he chopped right through them. Then he started with the Strife home, entering and leaving very quietly; poor lady never even had a chance to hide. When he came out, the place was on fire. He ran from one house to another, throwing flames.

“He was very systematic. When he got to my shop, the monster kicked in the door and began wrecking the place. He even slashed and stabbed my handiwork, cursing me all the while. I was hiding behind a rack of tapestries as he poked it with that huge sword. He damaged each and every one of them, but never got through to me. Then he set the room on fire and left. I wrapped myself in a few of the hangings and escaped through the blaze.

“Our army had come in by then, and began to fight with him. That’s when we were able to run; they kept him too busy to kill us. I peeled away the tapestries and threw them at everyone I met, so they could protect themselves from the fires and search for other survivors.

“The Blue Lindworm your husband bought—it was my cover. I went into the battle to do my part. There was so much fire, it was work enough to simply beat out flames wherever I could, especially from the bodies. When I finally stopped to look around, most of the kids were taken away to safety, but their parents were still fighting.

“After we collected every person we could, the militia fell back. A few of us returned for another go-around, but by then, Sephiroth was simply running through anyone he could, with that sword, his Masamune. I whipped the tapestry at him, and the others who had them saw me and did the same. But then he simply stood there, glaring at us, the whole town in flames around him. When we ran out to the base, Sephiroth did not follow; he just wanted to destroy Nibelheim and return to the reactor.

“Lots of people died, but many survived: same as any other war. Our scouts watched the town to make sure Sephiroth was done, but they never saw him again. After Shinra collected your Cloud and his buddy from the reactor, I came around to see what was left. The houses were burned to the ground, and only the tapestries remained in the square. Most of them were ruined. But the Blue Dragon survived, along with a few others. I’ve been repairing them ever since, not to hide the damage but to preserve them, for everyone to remember. None are really very old, but each tells an important story, now more than before. Yoshikuni’s Blue Dragon was the one I used to fight back Sephiroth.”

“That was my Grampa’s tapestry?” I was almost incredulous; we kids had never seen it.

“He didn’t commission it; I made it in tribute to him. We worked together off and on for many years. My job was weaving the light armor, and making fastenings for the heavier stuff. Back then we worked right with the dragons, to fit the pieces properly. It‘s why I lived so long: they imparted their Akasha to me. When your grandfather lost his Great Blue, he never fought again. He returned to the Eastern Continent to retire. He said it hurt to look at that hanging. I had made it to help ease his grief, but he told me that he couldn‘t accept it.” She shook her head sadly, clearly pained by the memory.

Shinju Kameko then talked a while longer about the aftermath of the burning of Nibelheim. Scouts had stationed themselves all around the area, immediately after Sephiroth returned to the reactor. Earlier, some of her neighbors had seen Cloud run back to the town and enter his mother’s burning home, before he ran to the reactor. The town’s people collected what little remained of their belongings and sought shelter from the militia.

"Shinra also sent a cleanup crew, after they had returned to the Mansion with the two critically wounded men. A short while later, word got out that Sephiroth had been killed in the reactor, by whom or what was never revealed.” Then Shinju Kameko became furiously angry, throwing her hands up in frustration.

“After a few months, those idiots began to rebuild the town! Just as it was, only not for us. The new residents were all spies, every one of them. Not very good ones, either. Amateurs. That was a signal for some of us. We began to move back into the new homes, those of us that were left. Sometimes the spies simply let us, other times they joined us. Shinra didn’t seem to care; they were already busy with something else. In time, the place began to fill up, little by little, with zombies in black robes. They were all real people, or used to be. The base doctor said they were suffering from mako overdose. All harmless, and kind of pathetic: more victims of that Hojo guy.”

Then Shinju Kameko sat with her hands folded on her lap; her narrative had spun itself out. At that point, I knew the rest of the story. We traded details back and forth, to fill in any gaps. The Lady offered me lunch and we ate a light meal in silence. Then she told me I looked tired and should get some rest.

Weird to be constantly told to go to bed, at my age. All the same, I returned to the Inn, avoiding the host more than ever, and went straight to sleep. Again the Lady had exhausted me, physically and emotionally. I didn’t even rise for dinner, instead calling my regrets to Eleanora, lest she worry about my absence.

That night was filled with dreams of tiny people battling an enormous Sephiroth, slapping at him with wall hangings, led by the Lady. At one point, he came after me, stabbing at my belly. My nightclothes were soaked with sweat when I woke with a gasp. The unborn baby kicked at my womb, and I petted and spoke soothingly to it, to calm myself enough to return to sleep.

The whole episode left me filled with wonder. It is often said that when Life is ready to teach us something, the right Teacher will come to us. I had never doubted that the Lady worked with the dragons’ armorer, back when parts were woven for the coverings worn by both dragon and riders. Still the connection was eerie--and undeniable. Shinju could tell us exactly what we would need to train and protect our newest allies.

Exhausting as it was, it wasn’t my last meeting with Lady Kameko. It’s only now, years later, that I’ve come to recognize that she was the only real hero, through and through, that I met outside Avalanche.

Bless her scrappy old soul, she would hate to hear me say that.


The Blue Dragon’s Release

Buddy’s release was a salute to his recovery, with Ken, Time Mage Adrianna and me ceremoniously leading him through the caverns, out a wide opening. We thought that that entryway might have been the one he used to find Esmerelda. He wandered slowly behind, eventually floating right over us, to just in front, and began to lead the small parade, spreading his wings and sniffing the air. Then he turned his muzzle towards Ken, staring for a solid five seconds. He swung away from us again in a magnificent
motion that lifted him right off the ground and straight upwards, practically out of sight. He looked every bit the battle dragon on the tapestry.

The three of us watched as he flew away. Tears were clouding Adrianna’s usually bright eyes, but she smiled all the while, moving her head as she followed Buddy’s ascent. He circled twice and shot out over the northern horizon, none the slower for the damaged wings.

We watched and waited for a while, then turned back towards the cavern.

“Well, that’s that, I guess. Now what?” Ken looked devastated.

“Now you wait. Leave everything the way it is inside the cave. Don’t even clean out the non-perishables in the food lockers. Clear away the
fresh stuff, though, because it could be a while.

“Ken, we can’t keep the dragons captive. Their service must be voluntary. You established a real bond with Buddy; he will be back for you. There’s more to him than just flight, and you’ve surely been touched by his magic.

“When Buddy comes back, you both have a big job ahead. Go see the Quartermaster about a bridle, saddle, and armor for him. Sonny‘s probably on it already; see what he‘s got.” The pep talk worked; Ken instantly brightened and left in the direction of the base.

I could only hope I was right. The thought of losing either Buddy or Esmerelda saddened me and I was surprised to noticed that I, too, was tearing up. Adrianna and I looked at one another and laughed away the

“Time will heal,” she said with certainty.

“Absolutely. Meanwhile, take him for visits up into the hills, while they are still warmed by the Summer sun. Tell him you are going to watch for Buddy.” Then I shooed her in Ken’s direction, thinking, “Maybe they will find something to do while waiting. Maybe not. Adrianna’s pretty and primed for action, but our handsome Ken is a little thick.” I watched as she disappeared into the shadows.

At that moment, I had my first doubts about the purpose of our mission. Why were we bringing dragons back into battle? Considering their depleted numbers, did they even belong in war? New technology could
easily wipe them from the face of the Planet. The two adults we were cultivating would surely be our allies, but what about the rest of them? We hardly handed them the peace pipe on our way to the Northern Crater.

The vision of Midgar, overwhelmed by tropical forest and seemingly bereft of all human occupation, came to mind. It would be best to simply allow Mankind to fade away, as if the Planet had no more use for us. The thought troubled me, especially when I thought of Buddy, rising gloriously above and leaving for parts unknown. No people there, I hoped.

Esmerelda, too, might decide that we would be of no use to them, or the Planet. She could also opt for desertion, and return—to where?—I wondered. Couldn’t blame her for not wanting to be part of our feeble efforts to keep peace around Nibel. I could only hope she would miss me, as I already missed her whenever we were apart.

I swallowed hard: at least we would have Baby.

Maybe we couldn’t even count on keeping him.

Exercising Esmerelda

Then it was my turn to voluntarily suffer loss. We led the dragonet through the entrance we’d been using, past the chamber that had been Buddy’s recovery room. After a tentative squeak of panic from her little stinker, Esmerelda began to follow us, showing placid interest in our little parade.

“That’s right, girl. Come with your Baby, outside with us. We are going to the corral. A nice outing for the two of you.” Frankly, I still had no idea how I was supposed to speak to dragons. She’d been something of a project for me, becoming a beloved dependent. I continued on as a loving pet owner.

Wonder if she was doing the same?

Esmerelda, come. We need some fresh air. Time to test your wings again.” The pang again went through my chest. Poor Ken Woods had lost his dragon just this way. At least my girl had Baby to keep her here. For now. I stared at the shriveled wings on his back.

Just as soon as we stepped out into the light, our girl lifted up into the air, with a joyful shriek. She, too, shot straight away, nearly out of sight. Then we watched her circle twice and shoot back, gracefully lighting right in front of me.

“That’s beautiful, Esmerelda.” I could hardly speak: she must have barely heard me. I couldn’t think of too much else to say, I was so overcome with the splendor of her short flight and the magic of her movements.

“You are so beautiful.” Reaching over the little chick, I petted the big lizard’s neck and then pulled up onto her and hugged her. “You are one awesome lady.”

It happened while I was watching my feet to be sure I didn’t accidentally kick the little one. Without any warning, I felt her lifting me. It was too late to prevent our test flight; we’d already left the ground.

“Whoops! Let me down, Esmerelda. This is too soon!” Fearful that she would want to show off again, I tried to let myself slip from her neck. But Esmerelda twisted her body around, so that I found myself seated just above her wings. She again shot straight upwards, with me clutching her neck as tightly as I could with both arms and legs. I could only hope I didn’t hurt her. Nevertheless, my grip felt secure enough to allow one look down, just to see if I would panic.

While my perch felt totally safe, the sights below did not. The world spun beneath us; it would take a lot of practice for me to learn to properly track our course. Never felt any panic, just a sort of roller coaster thrill, knowing there was no real danger involved.

After a few minutes, Esmerelda decided I had had enough. We circled the corral, and she returned to her little dragonet. By then the both of us were enveloped by the Glow. Baby Boy bounded up to his mother, with Sheol right behind. I shimmied right up to her head and spoke in an admiring whisper.

“Damn, Esmerelda. You are amazing! Good thing you know what you are doing, because I sure as hell don’t!” I slipped from her neck. The dragon watched me, silent and unblinking, and backed away, leaving behind the Glow. Baby moved right to her side as soon as the brightness left, and Sheol came over in a panic.

Fini, what are you doing? You could have fallen to your death!” It took me a few seconds to realize that I had dropped to all fours. No matter. I picked myself up and tried to look casual.

“Not me. Esmerelda is just getting ahead of herself.” But the adult dragon was already well overhead again, screeching and swooping. Her chick cried piteously at her latest departure.

Sheol scolded me. “You have to be more careful. You could hurt your own baby!” She was right. No one should take a chance without the proper harness, and I said so, trying to look properly ashamed of myself.

The truth seemed impossible, so I kept it a secret. At no time during the flight was I in danger of falling off my dragon. On top of that, once the Glow had ignited—and that was due only to my ignorance of the situation—I knew I was protected, as was my unborn baby, from any injurious impact in a fall. So was Esmerelda, if ever she were wounded.

And it was as if we both knew--I couldn’t for the life of me guess how--that I could not fall off the dragon. She wouldn’t allow it, or the Glow wouldn’t allow it: something wouldn’t allow it. I had a new question for Lady Shinju Kameko: was there really a need for harness and saddle? Or was it simply ceremonial, for the purpose of carrying insignia into battle? In our specific case, we might not even need any sort of armor at all!

In the meantime, there was definitely a problem presented by our success. How could I take advantage of her willingness to please, and still protect my unborn child? We decided that Sheol would need to be fitted for protective wear as soon as possible.

“Let’s not break out the champagne just yet. Put the baby through whatever it is you guys do with chocobo chicks.” Sheol immediately began to walk the dragonet around the corral, teasing it along with a dead cave crab. The baby would reach for the tidbit, and she rewarded him with a little piece of shell or meat. Watching the little one race after her, I had an idea.

“Sheol, try to entice it with some Gysahl greens! If they strengthen chocobos, they may work for dragons, too.” Sheol dragged out a healthy handful from her side pack, and the baby stopped to sniff it.

“Now move along, before he finds out they’re not stinky crustaceans.” The soldier took a few steps and the chick followed her out of curiosity.

Sheol was not impressed. “We usually go for whatever excites them most, Fini. Esmé doesn’t really like greens, why should her Baby Boy?”

“Because sooner or later, they will gather nearly all their own foodstuffs. The crustaceans won’t need to be harvested, and we can simply bring on the greens.” I really wanted her to feed greens to the animals, so they would have all their proper nutrients, and maybe even raise their performance levels, same as chocobos. The little soldier rolled her eyes and sniffed.

“Eh, Fini. We can gather greens or we can gather crustaceans. I don’t think either is better or worse for them.” Her attitude gave me pause. After all, she was the chocobo maven; I wasn’t an expert on anything. So I decided to let her be the know-it-all for a change.

“You just bought yourself a research project.” She looked crestfallen. “Dig me up some facts supporting your theory and I’ll let go. Otherwise, work with both greens and crabs for now.”

Our conversation was interrupted by the big lizard’s return to earth, right next to the dragonet. She, too, was interested in the greens, or rather, the possibility that they might be something better. After a few sniffs, she contented herself with following her little one’ s progress. Sheol cooed at her.

“Is your Baby as smart as you, Esmé? When will he follow you into the air?” As stretched out as Baby was in the pasture, he looked a bit more like the classic dragon, more like the mommy. The little wings, though, remained crumpled on his back. We could pull at them, even flatten them out to measure wingspread, but the little guy didn’t seem to know how to make them work.

Baby just wasn’t ready to think about flying, and the mommy dragon kept to his side the entire time we were out. She seemed to agree that the corral was enough for the first day.

We enjoyed the minor success of their introduction to our corral, passing the rest of the time testing Baby Boy’s ability to respond to our commands. He did not distinguish himself either way. Esmerelda, on the other hand, seemed to relish answering our every desire. It certainly seemed as if she understood our language. We discussed a growing suspicion that the chick must have been behaving like a contrary toddler.

Baby Boy played all afternoon with Sheol, much of the time chasing her along the edge of the fencing. At other times he walked away to nonchalantly follow a butterfly or other vermin. Sheol would call and call, becoming exasperated and giving up. When she turned her attention to Esmerelda or me, the little one would run right back to her, nudging her middle, looking for snacks.

We passed several hours in pleasant play and observation, then returned them to the cavern. Since we had never confined them in any way, we simply left them to return to our homes.

On the way back to the Inn, I remembered what I had forgotten to check during my exhilarating introduction to dragon aviation. We had risen straight upwards on takeoff and landed in the same manner. My mount could spin herself in a continuous roll while aloft. All the while, she was a very graceful, silent glider. At no time do I recall hearing any flapping sounds, although I certainly heard the whistling of the air currents. I remembered the worlds of Shinju Kameko.

Did Esmerelda even use her wings at all during flight?

Dragon Snack?

The following day I returned to see if we could answer my question, and to explore the next level. We would introduce the dragons to the feathered stock. We could easily count on the mommy to guard her little one from the chocobos, but what about vice versa?

The birds were in the corral, grubbing for food, and they seemed to be dancing with one another.

“Dancing” may be the best way to distinguish the sparring behavior from the more serious sort of wrestling that they would practice later. And the movements were entirely different. Battle birds are extremely aggressive, even with one another, often inflicting damage during their play. That sort of belligerence was entirely aimed at chasing away any competition. And the higher level birds personified belligerence.

Keep in mind the sort of squabbling the racers encounter and multiply it many times over. Chocobos are brawlers from way back; it’s just their nature. Put a flock of them in an enclosure and they immediately fight for what they think are the best spots.

I suspected that our dragons would have something to say about that. In fact, I hoped that we could count on Esmerelda to keep some peace out there.

However, when she arrived, Sheol had a different surprise ready for me. Her gloating caught my attention: she grinned impishly—and smiling just wasn‘t ever her long suit. She even seemed to snicker as she spoke.

Fini, I did as you ordered, but you aren’t going to like my findings.”

“Ordered? What now?” Then I remembered our argument. “Word for word, no embellishment.” She quoted the monograph at me, and yes, fowl was definitely at the top of the list.

Gysahl greens were the least of our worries. Protein was needed above all. Fortunately we had already exploited a decided taste for the crabs and other cave vermin. We could only hope that our new allies would simply prefer feral fowl over our chocobo chums.

And why not? We humans eat plenty of game birds, too. It’s always been easy enough to collect what we need and keep ourselves emotionally separated from the more edible fowl. Chocobos are simply too intelligent and full of personality to consider as food. Besides having no meat around the wings and tough, stringy stuff around the legs and breast, our birds usually mean too much to us emotionally.

Anyway, who wants to farm the animals we eat? Why care for them almost as family? They are gathered by professionals who don’t bond with them, any more than we bond with our garden plants. The Disciplines are strictly obeyed in most human communities: we eat nothing even remotely sentient, with no suffering permitted at any time. That means stealthy hunting, no chasing, and only lone adults. The old religions still apply to animal husbandry. Don’t know how anyone could stand to kill them, otherwise, except to keep down the numbers of feral, dangerous birds.

In addition, if dragons were as smart as Shinju Kameko said, then we need not separate our allies. My impression was growing that they were much more intelligent than we imagined. Maybe even more than we were capable of imagining.

It seemed to me that the feeding battle was not worth fighting. For now. Bring on the arthropods, I thought wryly; it’s not my job to collect them.

“Okay, Sheol, you win as far as training is concerned. Lots of stinky crabs. But plenty of greens to be made available, too. We can keep them in hoppers and mangers inside the caves and shelters.” I felt a little silly insisting on keeping anything in the caves. Who knows if dragons need shelter from the elements? They are part of the elements, aren’t they? We are the only above ground animals who prefer shelter.

The two of us had been walking towards the reactor, when a hand came from behind and reached around my waist to caress my belly. I nearly fainted, but instead I turned on the person, furious at the surprise intimacy.

“Who the hell?” But then I knew. Apart from Lady Shinju Kameko, no one would dare even touch me, let alone pat me on the stomach. I twisted around into the arms of Vincent Valentine, who whispered seriously at me.

“You had better know who. Who else would embrace you?” His eyes were deep chocolate brown. He snorted, “Lately, would anyone think to try? I can scarcely get my arms around all the bulk.”

“Seems like Lady Kameko wrote her own ticket for that privilege, mister. Bulk, huh? You have some nerve!

“Long time no see, Grumpus.” Not really grumpy. He looked great, same as always. He ignored the dig, and got right to the point of his visit.

“Word is going around that you are riding dragons out here.”

“Just once. My Esmerelda got a little ahead of our schedule.”

“Can’t riding wait until after our baby is born?”

“Actually, that was what I was thinking, too. I was just giving her a hug, and she took off with me on her neck. Vincent, I was never in danger of falling, I swear.” I looked around, but Sheol was already out of sight, and I kept my voice low.

“Between you and me and the birds, I don’t think it’s possible. I tried to drop down, and she wouldn’t allow it. Just sort of rolled me back up onto her. The rest of the time I felt magnetized to her neck. And the Glow eased my acrophobia!” He raised his eyebrows, then relaxed.

“Just don’t take her off to wage war, or on any road trips, just yet. How’s the little one? Our baby, that is.” He nodded down at the mail-covered belly.

“Kicking up a storm, and waking me every night.” I gently tapped my middle and giggled, but Vincent looked very serious.

“Josephine. Come home and stay with me, now. I want you with me, and to be there for you.” I hesitated before slowly countering.

“Because the baby is almost due?” He answered without missing a beat.

“Because my wife is about to give birth.”

“I don’t think so, Vincent. The twins were delivered Caesarean. You don’t need to bother; you won’t miss a thing.”

“I am missing most of the pregnancy, Josephine. It is understandable that you need your space, but the baby is also mine.”

“Yeah, yeah. I don’t disagree.” A lie. In fact I disagreed completely. Didn’t matter that I was wrong; it felt like my kid, and my kid alone. Already had four children I couldn’t own. This one belonged to me, and even though I would never say so aloud, no one would take it without a fight.

“That’s not true, Josephine. It’s written all over your face, and in your manner. No one can touch you, and you live by yourself, coming and going at your own discretion.

“I accept responsibility for my part in it, but regardless, the child is also mine. He or she should not be kept from me even now.

“You may not know this, but it’s there in your eyes for all to see: you can’t hide it. Like a feral cat waiting to give birth, away from the rest of the world, where she’ll raise her litter in safety.

“Josephine, that place of safety is right here, with me. Return with me to the Keep. I need to see you every morning and night, to assure myself that you’ve not suddenly become a dragon snack.

“You have nothing to fear from me, ever. You have my word, regardless of that ill-advised history lesson.” He spoke ruefully, almost mournfully, enough to make me smile. Just a little.

Because, whether I knew it or not, that was what I wanted to hear. It was as close to an apology as anyone was going to get from Vincent Valentine. He regretted his silly rant at the edge of the northeastern woodlands.

“Vincent, you know I don’t fear you. It’s just that we would not make a very good marriage. You must see that now. We are two different worlds, two separate times, and universes apart in experience.

“Besides, could you stand to fight like that on a regular basis?” His eyes flashed bright ruby red, then he narrowed them.

“We simply won’t allow it, Josephine.”

“You mean you won’t allow it. I’m not wired that way. My parents hashed out everything, point by point.”

“And you are damaged by it, Josephine. You think it made you strong, but in fact it left you vulnerable and fearful. You hate the conflict and you run away from me to escape.

“Are you so afraid I will win once in a while?” At his last question, I could fee l my temper snap. Okay, enough was enough: I was out of patience.

“Vincent. We are working here, so you have me at a disadvantage.”

“You still don’t want to work it out, even now. Yes, you are at a disadvantage, Commander. Report to the Keep at sixteen hundred hours for a cocktail before dinner at the lodge.”

“Is that an order? I had thought we were equals, both commanders.”

“Josephine. This is a request from the man who misses being part of the couple that we were—briefly—in the Spring.” His eyes were yummy chocolate again. I thought about how good he looked, and how bulky I must seem. For the first time in four months, I regretted the pregnancy, and turned away, unable to escape my huge belly. Vincent lowered his voice still further, into a deep growl. Or was it a purr?

“Don’t go. Please stay with me. We can face it together.

“Don’t you at least miss me a little?” I couldn’t answer, fretful that I no longer wanted to be pregnant, if only for the night. Vincent reached again for my waist, but I shrank from his touch. He kept me from backing away by holding both side openings of the mail.

“Josephine. Stop.” He gently ran his arms around my middle, locking his fingers behind my back, under the vest. “I’m sorry you have to carry the burden of the pregnancy alone; no one else can. And it’s a shame I ever mentioned your size; its amazing, almost magical to watch you grow. Even from a distance.”

Especially from a distance, I thought wryly. He wouldn’t want to miss the whale sighting. Nothing he was saying was helping, but he tried again.

“No. Stay with me on this. It’s not fair that the pregnancy is moving ahead so fast that you don’t even have the comfort of watching for the normal signs of gestation. Did you even know that you will be delivering soon? Matthew sent me here to announce it to you.”

“He sent you to tell me?” Despite my fleeting outrage, I knew only too well why Dr. Johan didn’t tell me. We hadn’t had a visit in weeks. Laboratories and medical offices are not my favorite places. Never were.

“Josephine, forgive my speculation, but I would guess that you are being dense with everyone. Nora’s mentioned it to me several times: you don’t discuss the pregnancy. With anyone.” At that moment he looked sad.

“That might be my fault, Josephine. It’s very difficult to separate the trauma caused by Hojo’s experiments from your anger at me, and from what may be a reaction to your own childhood, or could simply be your own obstinacy.”

“Vincent? Seriously?” Didn’t know if I was amused or infuriated.

“You are very pregnant, to understate your condition: on the verge of childbirth. At this very moment, whether you accept it or not, you could go into labor. Matthew and Nora are convinced it would be very, very hard, dangerous even. Your doctors from Shinra say that early in the history of the Jenova experiments, women succumbed to the difficult childbirth brought on by the enhancements. As rapidly as your body is changing, it is not enough to accommodate the acceleration.

“You could die if you hide from us now.” At that, I shook my head.

“I don’t think anything could kill me anymore. Esmerelda’s Akasha made me strong.”

“You can’t prove that, and we can’t take the chance.” He sounded almost anxious. Then he flatly demanded, “Meet me tonight, and we can begin to plan our baby’s arrival together.”

“Still sounds like an order to me, mister.” He looked irritated for a few seconds, drew a deep breath and spoke formally.

“Very well, Miss Lindorm. I request the honor of your presence for a pre-dinner drink this afternoon at four. Where can I meet you?”

“I’ll call.”

“Josephine. Are you coming?” He looked directly into my eyes, obviously concerned, so I relented.

“Yes, thank you, Mr. Valentine; I accept. Why don’t I ring you when we are finished here? Or would you prefer I return immediately to the Inn to wash and change?”

“A call from here when you are finished work would be excellent. I’ll be waiting.” He gave me a quick peck on the forehead and released me. Then he bowed, turned and left without another word or even so much as a wave. I watched him as he walked all the way back to the armory.

My PHS chimed.

“Fini, are you coming?” I sighed. Time for a command decision.

“Sheol, call the breeders and Desirée to help you today. I’ve got some business that needs immediate attention.”

“They are already here. Actually, I’m already there.” I turned around and looked back towards the gate. Sheol waved from among the wranglers, breeders, and birds. “Do you still want to introduce the two species today?” Frankly the thought left me tired, and aching for my bed and some solitude.

“Not me, not today. Oh, hell. Why don’t you see if Esmerelda is interested? If she’s willing to come out with just you guys there, maybe we can set up a routine that needn’t include me for the next few weeks.

“Good luck with the experiment; you all can compile me a full report on the details.

“I hope to see everyone tomorrow.” I shut the PHS and walked back to the clinic. Interesting. She hadn’t seemed the least surprised. Perhaps these dire predictions of imminent delivery were common knowledge. I could be blind when I wanted. Or so Vincent said.

May as well face the music. Our baby was probably due any day.

One Last Go-Around

I wasn’t ready, not for resuming a damaged relationship, not for childbirth, certainly not when I was expecting a few more weeks’ gestation, and not for motherhood. Again. I mentally sighed, nothing is ever simple, anymore. What sort of family could we provide for our little one, when there would be no grandparents or siblings or even happily married parents?

The trip back to the armory barely gave me time to rehearse what I would say to Vincent. We couldn’t simply pick up where we left off, not after that scene on the edge of the northeastern woodlands. We would need to sort it out and precisely determine the status quo, if only for my own peace of mind.

So I marched right up to the central buildings, peeling off the mail vest as I entered the armory. Before it was completely over my head, an unseen pair of hands was assisting me.

“Soon it will not be so difficult to work with this. I hadn’t realized how trying the transition has been for you, Josephine.” I stared at Vincent, not saying anything at all, somewhat shaken by the ambush. He’d been watching from the window, and I was so wrapped up in my mental preparations, I hadn‘t seen him. He was right: no one was allowed to come near my person. As Commander, this was respected unconditionally. It surprised the very breath out of me every time he materialized to touch me.

We walked in silence to the edge of the woodlands. There was a newly-laid pathway set into the forest floor with paving stones, gleaming as the afternoon light filtered through the canopy of newly-thinned trees. That must have been quite the project, I thought wryly. Was it all for the baby and me?

Then I sighed out loud. It was just as well that we would be alone on the way to the Keep. I was about to start another argument.

“Did you want an apology?” That was me. I wanted to make an offer, and see how he countered. Earlier, none was given, but none was expected, since he‘d surprised me.

“Not if you don’t require one yourself.” He stepped in front of me, and took both my hands, an otherwise comforting gesture that only succeeding in making me feel trapped by a discussion I still hadn’t fully formed.

“No.” I already had my apology in his statement earlier, although I didn‘t dare say so. He had an impish look in his eyes, and it intrigued me. What was so funny?

“Josephine, I really did mean it about stealing a bride and turning her into a wife. In fact, I am still working on it.” My reaction surprised even me; I looked right back into his eyes and began to giggle.

“And I really did mean it about the whole concept being funny.” His answer came slowly back.

“The discussion was… instructive.” He turned towards the Keep and began to lead me by the hand. That in itself was different: he usually steered me by the upper arm into the direction he chose.

“I thought so, too.”

The new walkway led all the way to the door of the Keep. Once inside, Vincent took me directly upstairs to the “nursery.” He had already furnished it with a crib, dresser and rocking chair. There were even a few little decorative touches on the walls.

“Eleanora provided the hangings. She was afraid you would not return, and didn’t want the baby to come into a completely masculine world.” He smiled ruefully, as if he knew exactly what she meant.

“Maybe she was afraid you wouldn’t invite me back.” In that room the echo of my voice sounded timid, and a little sad, making me feel doubtful about our reunion. Saying nothing, Vincent again took my hand and led me downstairs to the first level, out back to the kitchen. Inside the refrigerator, a small snack tray waited with two wine glasses, some crudités and cheese.

“Eleanora suggested the snacks. We’d better drink now before our comrades deny us alcohol with our meal. Table red sound appropriate?”

“Vincent, are they waiting for us at the lodge?”

“Not yet. We expected you to work the afternoon before coming here. And, Josephine, I really didn’t know if you would come back. That’s why I remained at the armory, watching. Thank you for not keeping me waiting.” He handed me the half-filled wineglass, and we saluted one another silently.

Loving Light

Once we had refreshed ourselves, we cuddled in front of the empty fireplace, discussing how relaxing our solitude felt. The Keep was a perfect place to escape the constant hubbub of the militia. Except when I was engrossed in my work, I felt somewhat overwhelmed by the crowds and constant activity. It did not surprise me that Vincent also mentioned his longing for time to himself.

“You know, Vincent, it’s not as if we are contractually obliged to serve here.”

“You are not, Josephine, but remember that I am a co-founder of this base. Much is expected of me, especially after my long absence. My family now wishes to make up for lost time.” He looked resigned.

“Don’t they need to consider your feelings, too?” He guffawed, then turned serious.

“They believe they are doing so, and it serves my purposes for the present.”

“Which are?” It amazed me to hear him talk about purposes. “You have ulterior motives in your dealings with them?”

“Yes, I do. I wish to normalize our relationship first. Now, don’t get angry, but we must be able to rely on one another before we can provide a stable lifestyle for our child. My son and grandchildren already have that stability in their lives. It may take some practice before we manage it ourselves.”

He was right, of course. We hadn’t taken the time to practice domesticity. It looked to me like we both needed lessons, and I said as much.

“We have a few hours to practice right here, this afternoon.” He smiled indulgently and began to kiss my hands. I caressed his face and hair in return, staring with wonder into his lovely ruby eyes. Can never get enough of the rich, deep color.

And all I could think was, “How did we make it through that discussion without fighting?”

We laughed and played away the rest of the time before dinner. I called it Loving Light, and we gently enjoyed one another, enough to work up an appetite before returning to the Lodge. At the same time, we skirted our usually raucous activity, in favor of a more relaxing sort of pleasure hunt. We stayed on the sofa, acting like naughty teenagers while the adults were away.

In the midst of that subdued fever, I again began to acquire a heightened awareness of Vincent’s body. No, not the usual erotic reaction: I had that too, as always. It’s just that one more note suggested itself for my growing database of concerns.

Vincent never smelled of anything sour or soiled. No body odor, not even the sort of sweaty aroma I could associate with our adult fun. Just the usual sort of dust and grit acquired in a normal day of tramping the Planet.

“Geez, Vincent, don’t you ever get sweaty?” I whispered after we were both completely satisfied, damp and audibly breathing.

“Josephine, I am drenched in perspiration, just the same as you. What do you mean?” He was staring directly into my eyes, and that always makes it difficult for me to formulate a coherent sentence.

“Um, just that you never smell of sweat.” His eyebrows went up into his hairline.

“Don’t I? I can certainly smell the sexy scent of your perspiration. Am I to understand I don’t reciprocate?” He was teasing, but I insisted.

“No, Vincent. I mean, yes! You are infinitely attractive in every way possible.

“You are not sloughing dead cells; you simply do not seem to show any decay.” Well, that didn’t come out right! We were not in a laboratory. There had to be a better way to say it in neutral, layman‘s terms. But Vincent had a different idea.

“You little worry-wart. Neither do you.” He was laughing at me, obviously relieved. Maybe he didn’t get it, so I tried again.

“Doesn’t that make you think? It’s not normal: people shed dead cells.”

“Josephine, nothing is ever normal with you. Just let it go, for now. We are both quite healthy and are expecting an equally fit and vigorous child.

“We have the rest of our lives to deal with the consequences of our times in the Shinra Laboratories. And we are hardly likely to be alone; there will be others. We can compare data and experiences when we find them. Right now you and I are alone, and at least we are safe. Let’s just try to be happy when we are together.”

“Vincent, you are always so accepting of the strange circumstances we are in!”

“What else is there? You wish to fight your way out of them?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“Until you do, let’s just take it day by day. Now shall we try one more time to work our way around all that bulk…?” He ducked my automatically thrown right hook, reaching back to grab my fist, and began to tickle me. Then he stopped, and for the first time since we met, looked amazed.

“You are not ticklish?” He was prodding me even as he asked.

“No, I am not. Growing up with so many older brothers, it was necessary to unlearn the tickle response. No one ever said it was possible, but it sure saved me a lot of agony at the hands of sometimes sadistic siblings.” I have always been proud of that strange little accomplishment. At the moment, it didn’t seem like such a wonderful thing. I wanted to giggle with my lover.

As always, Vincent knew what to do. He simply switched over to gentle, teasing caresses, and we were back to our earlier fun and games.

Afterwards, I pushed him up the stairs and into the shower, where we finished by amusing ourselves with warm water and suds. Then I offered Vincent a rain check on some heavier activity after the birth of our baby.

Playtime was over: we needed to be presentable for the evening meal at the Lodge. It wouldn’t seem right to waltz into dinner bringing an “aura of amorous activity” with us, especially considering the serious topic that awaited us.

Last Meal at the Lodge

Nora’s teasing question was unexpected. Would we care for a glass of wine with our dinner?

Vincent blinked and quickly turned his head to look me in the eyes. This time I ignored him, and serenely turned down the offer with a little shake of my head. It seemed so gracious that they were willing to concede a glass with my meal.

“No, Matthew, no wine with this dinner, thanks. I was under the impression we were here to discuss the impending delivery of our baby.” Dr. Johan raised an eyebrow, looking from Nora to Vincent and back to me.

“Is that how it is? Walter said that Vincent always makes his own rules. Would you please keep it to just one, then? Unless you’ve already drained a cask between the two of you.”

“Certainly not! So, do we seem pickled?” Inside, I bristled at the suggestion that we would endanger the baby with undue amounts of alcohol, but Vincent put his hand on mine. He spoke softly.

“Just enough to enjoy our afternoon at the Keep.” He said no more, and Nora waggled a finger at me where our doctor friend couldn’t see her.

That shut down any further discussions outside our prearranged agenda.

First off, Matthew insisted I get in the habit of fasting after dinner. I’d forgotten about that aspect of surgery. It surely wouldn’t have been an issue at Shinra. If Hojo felt there wasn’t time for lunch or a coffee break, it simply didn’t happen. Any laboratory specimens were treated as non-humans, with all meals and exercise at his discretion, and only the minimum needed to sustain health and prevent the needless loss of a test subject through death.

On the other hand, his suggestion caught me off guard, pointing up an important concern. I simply wasn’t ready, in my own mind. Could we get a couple more days to allow me to get used to the idea and make preparations at the Keep?

“We really should begin to outfit the nursery.” At that, Vincent gave me the inquiring eye that I was beginning expect whenever I talked about the future. Irked that he doubted my motives, I hastily added an explanation.

“Well, Vincent has already begun preparations. We have some simple furniture and decorations for the nursery. Thank you, Eleanora, they help. But, guys, we need safeguards for the arms lockers. And probably a little more attention to everyday things that may pose a minor threat to the kid’s safety, as we go along.” Nora piped up.

“And a little more of the feminine point of view, especially that of a mother.” And that was that. We had her blessing and, I hoped, her assistance in the last item. She would surely know what we could purchase and place without overdoing the girlie thing around Vincent.

Dr. Johan then said that we could select any day we liked, but the sooner the better; in his professional opinion, we were already overdue. Nora agreed, they were eager to start preparations. Besides hoping to enjoy the obvious medical advantages of a non-hurried delivery, she felt inspired by the imminent arrival of another Valentine. We settled on the end of the workweek, to give everyone some free time to enjoy the newborn.

I was enthused, too. Excited. Or maybe agitated. So much so that I could barely eat supper before we returned to the Keep, where I dropped onto the bed and slept like a dead thing.

It was nearly noon before I washed and dressed for work.

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