Chapter 6

It was the first time Denzel had been to Wutai, though he'd seen tons of pictures. They'd been planning to go visit Yuffie instead of the other way around for years, but Tifa just couldn't afford a lot of vacation time.

He watched the town from the ship's bridge, high above, as the crew gathered packages to send down. The view should have been pretty, but the gray light of early morning leeched all warmth from the red walls and gold accents, and those white-clothed people drifting through the paved streets made it sinister, like a ghost town. All pennants and flags were tied down.

"Gloomy, huh," Barret said, his flesh hand falling heavy on Denzel's shoulder and giving a couple of manly pats before retreating.

"Yeah," Denzel agreed quietly. "Time to go?"

"Yep." Barret threw the rope ladder overboard, watched it unroll, and gave a couple of testing tugs. "I'm goin' first. There's no wind, so it shouldn't swing around much," he added.

"I'm not gonna fall," Denzel replied with a little huff. He picked up his backpack and put it on, tightening the straps, before Barret could offer to carry it down. Sometimes he forgot Denzel wasn't a kid anymore. Then again, in Barret's head Denzel was only just above Marlene's age, and Marlene would stay a little kid forever if he had anything to say about it.

"You better not fall, Tifa'll have my hide," Barret replied with a little smirk, and swung over the guardrail. "Sure you don't want me to carry you down, shrimp?"

Denzel glared at him, half-serious only. "Sure you don't want me to undo that big knot and see what happens?"

Barret chuckled his deep, quiet laugh, the indulgent kind he didn't use much around adults, except maybe Tifa. "Brat. I should throw ya over my shoulder, that'd teach ya."

"Hey!" Denzel protested. Barret snorted, still smirking faintly, and started climbing down. Grumbling uncomplimentary things under his breath, Denzel straddled the guardrail and -- uh. Well. They were kind of high. But he didn't want anyone to laugh at him, so he grabbed a good hold and started down, pretending he hadn't seen Barret watching him, ready to snatch him out of the air if Denzel fumbled it.

The town must be really pretty in summer, he thought, watching the mountains half-ringing the city, the slanted roofs. They were building something on one of the town squares, but even when he squinted he couldn't make it out.

The novelty of climbing down a rope ladder wore down a long time before he landed on the paved stones; by the end it was just tedious. He jumped over the last rungs and waved at Cid, who stood beside Barret.

"Hey, kid."

"I'm fourteen, not a kid," he grumbled. Well, almost fourteen. It counted. "I'm gonna call you old man if you keep it up."

"Who ya calling old, punk?" Cid replied, mock-cuffing him when he went to join them.

Denzel shoved back halfheartedly. Playing around was alright, but it didn't make the town any less depressing. When Barret draped an arm across his shoulders and dragged him between the two men, he didn't protest.

They walked away from the ship, crossing paths with strangely dressed people who didn't even look at them as they shuffled along the walls. It was like Denzel and Cid and Barret were the ones who were ghosts, for all the 'can't see you!' the locals were doing. Brr.

The guards at Yuffie's house... palace thing... saw them, though, but they seemed to know Cid and waved them through without even changing their expression.

"Is everyone here doing a Vincent or what?" Denzel couldn't help but ask in a whisper.

Cid snorted. "If Vince was from here, that would explain things 'bout him..." he muttered under his breath. "I don't have a clue, kid. They're probably just depressed. It's noisier usually."

Denzel gave him an unconvinced look. "If you say so."

They were met by an old, stooped servant and guided through long, boring corridors, and gardens, and -- "Nanaki!"

Grinning, Denzel waved, and then fell silent, a little embarrassed by his outburst. The servant had given him a look.

Nanaki ambled to them through the garden, crossed a curved little bridge and leapt easily up on the gallery, big paws touching down in almost perfect silence. The servant paled a little. Denzel went from embarrassment at his own reaction to annoyance. Nanaki was the coolest person ever, even if he was beast-shaped. Especially because he was beast-shaped, said the corner of his brain that was still nine-year-old and amazed by his new guardians' strange friends. Denzel was a bit too old to be so shallow, though, so instead of giving the red-furred beast a full-body hug and trying to ride him, he just waved. "Er. Hey."

"Hello, my friends," Nanaki said, smiling. The expression was mostly in his eyes -- he did lift his lips at the corners in an imitation of a human smile, but really it just showed a lot of teeth. Denzel smiled back anyway.

"Long time no see, Red," Cid greeted.

Nanaki nodded, flame-tipped tail swishing. "Much too long indeed. I regret that it took such a sad event to make it happen."

Barret grunted an agreement.

The servant couldn't leave fast enough once she had led them to Cloud's room, but Denzel didn't care much. He just stared at Cloud, standing in the doorway wrapped in thick white cloth.

"Man, you look awful."

Cloud blinked at him. "Thanks. Glad to see you too."

"Kid's right," Cid agreed, watching Cloud doubtfully. "You got piss-holes for eyes. When's the last time you slept?"

Groaning quietly, Cloud stepped aside to let them come in. "I don't even know anymore... Just sit down wherever. Reeve left kimonos for you guys to put on, let me get them."

"I'm not wearing a friggin' bathrobe in public," Barret rumbled, crossing his arms.

Cloud nodded slowly like he couldn't care less. "Alright, I'll just tell Reeve he spent five hours shaking down every shop on the continent to find one your size for nothing, then?"

Barret's eyelid twitched. Denzel swallowed a snicker.

"Real kimono too. All silk. I don't even want to know how much it--"

"All right, fine, shut up, I'll wear the friggin' bathrobe!"

"Aw, I'm sure you'll look pretty," Cid commented with a chuckle. Barret shook a clenched fist at him.

Cloud's lips quirked up in a little smile, but it didn't look very convincing to Denzel. He drifted closer, peering up at his guardian. "Uh, Cloud -- you're gonna be okay?" he asked quietly. "You look kinda... um. Yeah."

"Tired. I'll crash afterwards." He smiled at Denzel but it wasn't any more convincing than the first.

"Listen, Cloud, back home--"

Cloud shoved a package in his arms before he could finish the sentence. "Here's yours. We'll go to Tifa's room, you can change there. Guys..." He gestured vaguely at the other two packages on his bed. "I'm sure you can figure it out."

He herded Denzel toward a door in the wall, knocking briefly before he slid it open. Behind them Denzel heard Cid ask Nanaki if he wanted them to find him a pretty white ribbon for his neck or something. Cloud slid the door closed, muffling Nanaki's answer -- but even through the panel he didn't sound very impressed by Cid's thoughtfulness.

"Err -- Cloud?" Denzel questioned.

Tifa emerged from behind a folding screen, hair wet. She looked tired too, though not as much as Cloud did. But she looked sadder, and that was worse.


He let himself be hugged, closing his eyes when he was sure neither of them would see. Of course he had known they were fine for a while now -- sort of, Cid's men telling Cid telling Elmyra -- but... He just hadn't been sure.

He leaned back to look up at her face, threw Cloud a frown. "So what the hell was that? Back home," he clarified, though from the way their expressions shifted he didn't need to. Tifa had gone tense; Cloud's eyes were almost closed, exhausted.

"It's a long story and we can't talk about it here and now," he said quietly. "After the last ceremony, I'll tell everyone. Can you wait that long?"

Tifa gave Cloud a worried frown. Denzel puffed up in offense. It was the 'are you sure he's old enough to hear that' look. He hated that look!

Cloud could read it as well, apparently. "Tifa, when I was about eight months older than he is, I left Nibelheim to go enroll in the army. He's not too young to hear it. He'll have to live with it too."

Tifa gave Cloud a strange look. "That ... depends on what we decide," she said cautiously, like she was reminding him.

Cloud's shoulders tensed up. He turned away to look through the window. "... Of course."

Denzel's eyes flitted from one to the other. He didn't like the silence between them. It seemed he hadn't been completely stupid to worry.

He busied himself with unfolding his kimono. It really did look like a bathrobe to him, and he couldn't help but smile a little at the thought of Barret wearing one. The smile didn't last, though. Cloud and Tifa were still carefully not looking at each other, and that made him feel weird. Uneasy.

"So, er. Who's that Zack guy anyway?"

From the corner of his eye he could see Tifa freeze, the comb in her hair stopped mid-stroke. Uh oh. He quickly looked up at Cloud, who was ... also staring at him. Crap. Denzel tried to hide a wince, feeling the tension in the room rocket back up. Maybe that hadn't been the best way to change the topic, damn his too-quick tongue.

"I mean. Ex-colleague? Enemy? Random bar buddy? 'Cause he's good at playing nice, but I didn't know if he meant it, you know?"

"He's an old army friend," Cloud eventually said, after a long pause that made Denzel wish for some way to go back in time and kick himself before he let anything slip out. "A good guy. He wouldn't have hurt you."

"Alright then," Denzel said, and pretended it was. He smoothed the folds of his kimono and picked it up by the shoulders. Now to the folding screen to change...


Tifa's voice brought him to a stop, one step away from the very relative safety of the screen. He made a noise of acknowledgement.

"How did you meet Zack?"

His stomach dropped down to his shoes. Oh, this was bad. This was so bad. Tifa was doing her 'I am Very Calm, listen to how Calm I am' voice, and she never used it when it was true.

"He was at the bar," Denzel said, trying for nonchalance. Aw, shit, the guy had warned him Tifa would flip, but--

"You went to the bar," she repeated, voice gone strangely restrained.

Denzel scowled, knowing he looked like a sulky kid and not able to stop himself. "...Yeah. So what?"

He resisted the urge to steal a glance at Cloud. Cloud might play referee if it went bad, but his primary caregiver, the one with her name on his adoption paperwork, the disciplinarian -- that was Tifa. Denzel had learned early on that it was really hard to play them against each other.

"The last you knew, you were told to stay hidden because the situation was unstable. And then you went to the bar."

"I didn't go to the bar," he replied, scowling, feeling cornered and hating it. "-- Well okay I kind of did, but not right away. I just wanted to get a look from a block away, it was safe!"

"Safe?! How did you know that?" The sudden outburst startled him, but she wasn't done. "And then you just, what -- walked up to him?"

Denzel couldn't find an answer for that, because -- yes. That was exactly what he'd done. He'd seen a stranger behind the bar where Tifa or Cloud should have been and the next thing he knew he was stalking across the street for an explanation, because -- because...

Tifa threw her brush on the bed and raked both hands in her hair, starting to pace, agitated. She stared at him in accusation and Denzel clenched his fists, trying to brace for her anger.

Instead she went all restrained again, tense almost to the point of snapping, and she turned away.

It hurt, but not as much as the words that came next, quiet, clipped.

"I assumed you were mature enough for me to trust you. Trust you'd do the smart thing. Follow instructions. Keep yourself safe. All right -- I was wrong."

And she sounded so disappointed, because what she really meant was 'you let me down'. So then it just, he just--

"I thought you were dead!"

Denzel's hands were trembling. He clenched them into fists, tried to stuff away that second of terror when he saw a stranger where Cloud or Tifa should have stood, that fear he'd buried in outrage as swiftly as possible because the thought of them actually being dead -- his ... tutors, his adoptive --

His parents. His parents, dead again.

"I had no news! None at all. You could have gotten killed for all I knew! And I just -- I --"

"What do you think you could have done except get killed as well!?" Tifa threw her hands up in the air in frustration. "Do you think that would have helped? Do you think we would have wanted this? We're the adults here -- it's not your job to protect us, Denzel, it's ours to protect you! Do you think it would feel good to have failed?"

"Tifa," Cloud intervened, glancing meaningfully toward the communicating door. But the words were already out of Denzel's mouth.

"If it was so important to protect me, why did you leave without me?!"

A callused hand caught his arm. Denzel whirled around, purely by reflex; the look on Cloud's face killed his anger on the spot, deflating him and leaving him empty and hurt, guilty. He bit the inside of his cheek; he didn't want to let the tears rise to his eyes.

Tifa was staring at him and she didn't look angry anymore -- she looked stricken, like he'd managed to aim just right where it hurt. He felt the farthest thing from proud. He opened his mouth, not sure what to say.

"Okay, what's going on?" demanded Cid as he pushed the sliding door open. He glared at them all in turn, suspicious and displeased. Tifa twitched and turned away, busying herself with clothes left on the bed. Denzel bowed his head.

"Nothing," Cloud retorted. "We'll sort it out."

Cid didn't look anywhere close to convinced, and his loud snort made that clear.

"Later, Cid. We're going to be late at this rate."

Denzel wasn't sure what face Cloud was making, or how Cid took it, but after a meaningful pause the door snapped closed again. Cloud sighed and let go of Denzel's arm with a little pat that didn't reassure him at all.

"... I didn't mean that," he said, voice quiet.

Tifa didn't turn to look at him. "We'll talk about it later," she said with a quiet, careful voice.

Denzel cringed and went behind the screen to change, not saying another word.


Zack had been right after all; she was a bad mother.

Not that he'd actually said so. But he'd kind of implied it, hadn't he? With that surprised look when she admitted she didn't know where Denzel was spending the night, and...

Or maybe he hadn't implied it at all and she was the one who had read too much into the conversation. Except it wasn't too much at all, now was it? Maybe she'd pretended Zack was the one who had the thought because some part of her had known better and she hadn't wanted to hear it.

Denzel was so mature most of the time, so wary, so street-savvy. He had this way of looking at people and guessing which ones were going to be trouble, which ones were unsafe to be around. Oh, not always -- he liked Reno of all people, proof that his bad guys radar had a few glitches. But he was just... he...

She'd forgotten he was a teenager, and barely at that. He was impulsive, and that was because he wasn't yet old enough to know how to restrain himself in all occasions. It was her job to watch out for that -- to trust him to try his best, yes, but to be there to catch him anyway, just in case.

Instead she'd up and left the continent.

She couldn't get over it.

"Hey, Tifa."

Cid fell into step with her. She grimaced, then tried to hide it; but seeing the way his eyes narrowed, she could tell he had noticed. At the head of the group Cloud walked with the old councilor's aide, Leuang; Barret and Nanaki bracketed Denzel. (Vincent of course was nowhere to be seen.) She'd been walking at the back, to avoid having to talk to anyone, but it meant if she tried to avoid Cid it would be much too obvious. And Cid wasn't Nanaki, who would see her avoidance but politely let her get away with it, or Barret who wouldn't even notice.


Cid's voice was quiet, so the others wouldn't hear, but that was as tactful as he went. "Wanna explain why the kid assumed you'd kicked the bucket?"

Because Sephiroth was here and it was a reasonable assumption to make. She crossed her arms tight, hiding her hands far up her wide sleeves, stared ahead. "Not really, no."

Denzel didn't know about Sephiroth, but he'd known enough to assume danger, assume foul play. How it must have scared him to suddenly have no more news...

She should never have left him. Yuffie might not have understood, not right away, but...

Yuffie was the baby of the group, the little sister. They were responsible for her in a way... Except they weren't, Yuffie was brave and headstrong and she always landed back on her feet somehow. She was almost twenty-one and an adult. Yuffie wasn't Tifa's little sister, she was everyone's, and there were always others to care for her. Denzel was her son, and he had no one else.

Yuffie needed moral support. Denzel needed someone to keep him from getting slaughtered by Sephiroth. What had she been thinking?

"Tifa. Oi."

She closed her eyes briefly, aware that her hands were shaking. She still couldn't look at Cid straight on, at his piercing, suspicious squint. "Sorry. I can't tell you."

"Trouble back home, huh?"

She glanced his way, quick, surprised.

Tifa didn't know how Cid managed to make a perfectly good funeral kimono look so disreputable; even with Reeve around to make sure it hung properly, he looked more like a bandit from an old samurai movie than a well-dressed gentleman, and it wasn't only the blond hair and scruffy chin. The way he kept pushing his sleeves up to his elbows didn't help. He was chewing on a toothpick, Reeve having politely forbidden him to pull out his cigarettes earlier as they left the building.

"Vince told me."

"Oh." A sigh. "I can't tell you, you'll have to wait." Her fingers crawled higher up her sleeves, clenching on her upper arms too tightly.

"It's bad, huh?"

Tifa hesitated. She didn't want to scare him, but someone needed to know. "Yes. Not --"

She bit her lip, sneaked a glance at Cloud, who'd convinced her it would be alright to come here, that there would be no incidents. She had deferred to his judgment, but...

"--Not immediate. It can probably wait," she allowed, knowing she didn't sound convinced enough and unable to fake it. "Yuffie -- Yuffie comes first." Now that they were all there, at least, now that Denzel was safe.

"Huh." Cid's toothpick moved from one corner of his mouth to the other as he thought. "A hint?"

She shook her head. "I'm sorry."

Cid let out a short sigh and adjusted his kimono where it gaped open on his chest, tugged on the belt with irritation. It was black, like her wide obi and her kimono's under-layer, because as friends instead of family it wasn't appropriate for them to wear nothing but mourning whites. Yuffie had been pristine all over, dark hair hidden behind a silver-embroidered headpiece, nails shining like snow and a dusting of moon-pale eye shadow making her face look fey, look not-Yuffie.

"Please stop fussing with your clothes," Reeve commented as he appeared beside them, making Tifa jump. She hadn't seen him coming. "You'll scandalize a lot of grandmothers if you let your top gape so much, Cid."

Reeve nodded politely at the other group he'd just left -- business-suit-wearing, all of them, likely diplomatic envoys from other continents -- and turned back to Cid and Tifa. Cid was rolling his eyes, muttering under his breath, but he tucked his thumb in his belt and stopped trying to rearrange his kimono. "Yeah, yeah, Mom."

Reeve chuckled but declined to respond, leaning forward to take part in Barret and Denzel's conversation. Tifa let her gaze drop to the paved street.

The wake had been awful. A beautifully sterile, oppressive room, no voice higher than a whisper, the depressing notes of a strange little guitar. Animated, spitfire Yuffie sat with the body on a dais like a porcelain doll, the kind you never touched because you'd just get them dirty and they weren't for playing with anyway. Tifa almost hadn't recognized her there, expression cold and dead, staring ahead at nothing in particular. Surrounded as she was by grim-faced guards, Cloud and Tifa hadn't been allowed to move close or say a word to her. They'd just sat all night watching the corpse, not even sure Yuffie had noticed them.

Denzel's voice caught her attention; she shook her head, tried to banish her thoughts.

"...died just yesterday, right? Isn't that kind of quick?"

"Eh," Barret said. "Between the time they found him and the doctor said he was dead, and the time differences, it's probably closer to three days..." He scratched his hair. "Two and a half?"

"No, Denzel is right," Reeve said. "The local religion believes that the soul is tethered to the body until it's done, ah, returning to dust."

Nanaki tilted his head, curious. "You mean rotting?"

Tifa couldn't help but grimace.

"Hm, I can see why they would wish to do away with the ceremony fast, then. Decomposition does take a long time."

Reeve nodded almost ponderously, though his eyes sparkled in amusement behind his proper expression. "It's rather unsightly, as well."

"But, if they bury him...?" Denzel looked a little disturbed now. "Wouldn't the soul be kinda... buried alive? That's -- I mean, it takes longer underground, doesn't it?"

Tifa didn't like thinking about the reason why Denzel even knew so much about dead bodies and decomposition.

Leuang threw Denzel an unreadable look over his shoulder, and he swept out his thin, long-fingered hand toward the town square just ahead. The square was filled with other mourners in drab colors. Even so, they could see a tall platform, and in front of it a great pile of dry wood.

"We do not bury our dead," he said, each word carefully weighed and enunciated. "We cremate them. Shall I explain what cremation is?"

"No, I know that," Denzel replied, expression going shuttered as if Leuang had ended that sentence with a 'you ignorant child'. "Thanks."

Tifa hesitated, hand lifted to rest it on his shoulder. She hadn't heard it like that, more in a 'I am unsure how to make something I've always known clear to you' way. Denzel didn't react well to being thought stupid or uncultured -- he'd lost two years' worth of school teaching after Meteor and she knew being inferior to his peers bothered him, even though several of his classmates were in the same boat.

But he'd been polite. She didn't want to correct him on what she assumed he thought, instead of what he acted on. She dropped her hand again without him noticing.

She'd have more serious things to correct him about afterwards. He was right though, she had failed to uphold her responsibilities more than he had his, but that didn't mean that, as his parent, she didn't have to punish him. It was going to be unpleasant.

She pulled herself out of her thoughts as they reached the square. The crowd parted before them. They did attract some suspicious looks, but most people just looked toward the waiting pyre, heartbreak and worry clear in their eyes. "Friggin' depressing," muttered Barret. Tifa nodded.

Leuang led them to a spot off to the side, where they would be close to the pyre and Yuffie's dais without being right at the front of the crowd, and then he left with a little bow, without saying another word. Tifa barely noticed, watching instead as the crowd parted again and fell to their knees to bow low to the ground.

"It's alright," said Reeve quietly. "We weren't his vassals. We're not expected to kowtow."

They watched as eight men carried the body on a litter on their shoulders, as they climbed a few stairs and deposited it on top of the pyre. Yuffie came next, trailing too many layers of cloth behind her on the paved ground, flanked by bodyguards and attendants.

Cloud stepped beside her, arched a questioning eyebrow. Tifa shook her head and leaned her shoulder against his, just a bit.

Tifa didn't want to think of anything but Yuffie at this instant, climbing the platform to be of height with her father's body on the pyre, but the silver-threaded ribbons on her headpiece, despite not looking like hair much, still managed to remind her of Sephiroth.

Sephiroth in her attic. A part of her was horrified just with the name, the weight of their history, wanted nothing but to attack. Another part... she couldn't wrap her mind around the man as he had appeared in her bar -- dusty, hair tied back on his nape in a rough knot, irritated and making reluctant concessions -- temporarily neutered -- and so she floundered, because she didn't have the first clue what to think.

And so she had tried not to.

She wanted this week to be over already. She lifted her chin and stared at Yuffie.

There was no speech, no last words, last blessings. Yuffie stared down at her father's face for a second -- neatly-groomed and expressionless, he looked so much more like a nobleman than he had when they first met him, cynical and weary and a little drunk, worried for his child despite their disagreements but too emotionally clumsy to know how to let her see.

Yuffie took a burning torch from an assistant's hands and thrust it into the pile of wood.

They watched the body burn.

There must have been some Fire materia in there, Tifa thought vaguely, to speed up the process, because the fire burned hot and fast, until the body was hidden behind a curtain of hazy blue flames. Even from their spot a dozen yards away she could still feel the sweltering heat. She didn't know how Yuffie could stand it without fainting, even closer on her platform.

It must have been a half-hour later, or perhaps more, when the pile of wood was just ashes and a couple of charred trunks, that an attendant waved the smoke away and Yuffie said, blunt and to the point, "Godo Kisaragi is dead."

That was when the arrows started raining.

Struck stupid by surprise, muscles aching after so long spent standing motionless, Tifa needed a couple of seconds to realize, to recognize the threat. She saw a swirl of red, Vincent leaping into the fray, catching arrows with his cape, attendants fighting to shield Yuffie with their bodies.

Tifa caught Denzel by the shoulders and thrust him at Reeve -- he was a non-combatant, he'd get them out -- then yanked open the bottom of her kimono and started running.

Nanaki and Cloud were already racing through the square toward the points of origin of the arrows, Cid following on their heels with gritted teeth after grabbing a bit of wood for a staff. Tifa saw another flurry of bolts fly, jumped forward and snatched a couple out of the air; they wouldn't have gotten anywhere close to Yuffie but there was still the crowd standing there. "Run!" she yelled at them; they were in range and didn't even seem to notice, in shock, only a few already screaming.

Vincent perched on the edge of the platform, but wide as his cape was, it was frayed, weighted down by the arrows, and he couldn't block from all angles. There were people trying to drag Yuffie down to shelter; Tifa yelled a protest when Yuffie resisted them, tugged her arm free.

None of the arrows would have touched Yuffie in her usual garb, quick as she was, but she was wrapped in too many layers to dodge anything. Tifa leapt over the still-smoking pyre, feeling heat rush across her bare legs. One attendant -- bodyguard maybe -- saw her coming but she didn't have the time to tell him she wasn't an enemy; she dodged, planted her foot on a wooden beam, used her momentum to fling herself up. She swatted another arrow down before she'd even really landed on the platform.

"Yuffie!" she yelled, already moving to cover a hole in her defenses that Vincent and her ninjas couldn't get to. "Yuffie, get down from there--"

It was all rushing by so fast, so fast, but she could see Yuffie's face, alive again with some strange, powerful emotion Tifa didn't have any time to name, because at her right hand was a scared-looking attendant, and between his fingers gleamed a thin needle aimed right at Yuffie's unprotected neck.

Tifa's fist caught him in the ribs like a hammer blow, flung him straight off the platform. Tifa came to a stop a step past Yuffie's side, glanced back to look at her. No blood, no prickle on her skin.

"Oh, good," Tifa said when Yuffie stared at her. She smiled at the girl, and her forearm started burning.

She blinked and then she was on her knees, leaning heavily on the arm Yuffie had wrapped around her ribs, Yuffie who leaned over her as she tried to keep Tifa's heavier, taller body up; she was talking, only it was so noisy, Tifa couldn't hear. Tifa tried to tug on a long white sleeve to get her down but her fingers wouldn't close properly.

She blinked and then she was stretched out on her back on the platform and Yuffie was still staring at her through a haze of ... smoke maybe. One of the ninjas was saying something about -- traitors, poison -- but she couldn't catch much more. She closed her eyes again. Tired...

...No, no, Yuffie wasn't safe, Yuffie wasn't...

She fought to turn her head. Yuffie was standing on the edge of the platform, and a red stone shone from her headdress, and water rushed across the courtyard before the dragon god.

Dark smoke filled Tifa's vision. She hoped vaguely that Reeve had taken Denzel far enough that they wouldn't be bowled over by Leviathan's flash-flood strike, and then the burn reached her shoulder and beyond and she was falling and falling forever.