A searing flash of lightning lit up the rain-shrouded gloom, and Reno nearly choked at the fleeting sight of the jagged rock face superimposed on the windscreen, the brilliant flare of white light burning the image into his mind. Reacting on reflex alone, he jerked the cyclic stick to the left and swept the chopper sideways, barely avoiding a collision with the mountain by what seemed mere inches, but was probably several feet.
"Well, that's not supposed to be there..." He muttered irritably. His shoulders tight with tension, he took a breath and forced himself to relax, deliberately loosening his fingers around each control stick. He swept a glance across the instrument panel and shot a very brief look at Rude’s face, noting the big Turk’s intent focus on the readouts in front of him. Turning forward again, Reno squinted through the windscreen in a fruitless attempt to see, visibility nearly nonexistent in the driving rain and intermittent flashes of blinding lightning.
“Do those numbers make any sense to you, Rude?” His voice remained calm; a barely perceptible clip of his words the only sign of his mental strain.
Rude shook his head as he spoke. “No, the readings have to be off…” He ran a finger across the monitor as he scanned the digits another time in the hope that something would change. He shook his head again. “According to the data, we should be over the ocean, just a few miles off the northwestern shoreline of Midgar.”
As Rude spoke, Elena impatiently unclipped her harness and leaned forward to take a look at the monitor for herself. “Well, where are we then?” Her sharp words, spoken in a higher pitch than usual, clearly reflected her heightened level of anxiety. Rude merely shrugged in response, and she barely fought back a sudden urge to grab him by the collar and shake him until his teeth rattled. Instead, she redirected her attention to Reno's face, taking in his tight-lipped regard of the wipers relentlessly sweeping the rain from the windscreen in front of him.
“Reno?” She prompted him for an acceptable answer.
“Well, I’m not sure…” He mused aloud. “…But I think we’re playing tag with the mountain tops. Probably the Midgar Mountain tops. Could be over the Corel Range, though. Or maybe the Northern Continent. Although I don’t think my sense of direction sucks that bad...”
“Well, what’s wrong with the instruments? Why aren’t they working right?” She questioned sharply, her voice overloud in the headphones. Reno winced at the strident tone in his ears.
“I don’t know. I skipped the aviation electronics course," he retorted. “Maybe it’s my magnetic personality. Just be grateful that I passed the autorotation lessons. Finally...”
Elena grabbed his shoulder in a tight grip. “How can you joke about this, Reno?! You have to land this thing now!”
“Point out a parking place, sweetheart, and I’ll set her down nice and pretty.”
Elena automatically lifted her anxious eyes to the windscreen at his words and screamed. An immense pinnacle of rock, washed black with rain, loomed right in her face. She dug her nails into Reno’s tense shoulder just as he moved to sweep the chopper away from a certain, and probably spectacular, crash against the mountain.
“Hand off the ponytail!” Reno snapped without looking at her. He gave a sharp jerk of his shoulder, and Elena released her tight grip, shaking away several strands of his red hair as she drew her hand away. Biting her lip, she slumped back into her seat and folded her arms tightly across her queasy stomach.
“I’m sorry…” She muttered into the mouthpiece.
“Forget it.” Reno answered her tersely as he concentrated on bringing the helicopter to a higher altitude. She nodded silently to herself and drew in a quavery breath, closing her eyes as she worked to regain her composure. She had to maintain her professional demeanor despite the situation. Turks did not lose their cool, no matter what.
Caitlin studied the blonde woman’s ashen face, her dainty features nearly indiscernible in the gloomy interior of the cabin. Impulsively, she reached out and touched Elena’s arm, her fingers barely grasping the dark blue material of the Turk’s jacket sleeve. Elena’s eyes flew open, and she whipped her head around to level a hard glare on Caitlin’s concerned face. Hesitantly, the smaller woman let her hand fall, but she didn’t look away, her soft, azure gaze highlighted in the diffuse glow from the instrument panel as she sat forward in her seat.
Caitlin wanted to reassure her, tell her everything would be okay, that they would make it through the storm, but of course she couldn’t know that. She didn’t think the Turk would welcome her encouragement anyway, especially since every ear in the cockpit would overhear her words through the headset.
She turned her eyes away from Elena’s icy perusal and sat back in her seat. Leaning her head against the headrest, she peered out into the rain, the rhythmic throb of the blades and constant buffeting of the helicopter lulling her into drowsiness as she slipped into a trance-like solitude and wondered at her own total absence of fear. Certainly, she did not want to die, but she wasn’t afraid to die. Once you’ve touched the other side, no matter how briefly, the knowledge gained from that contact renders death’s vicious bite harmless; the voracious, sharp-fanged maw of the beast turned into the slack-mouthed, toothless grin of an old man. No, she wasn’t afraid. She just didn’t want to go. The thought of never seeing Heidi again, of leaving her daughter all alone without her mother, left a hollow ache in her heart. All she wanted, in that moment, was to return to her home on the island, hug Heidi to her, and lock out the rest of the world, just as she’d done for the last ten years.
“Rude, wasn’t that Locke’s Pillar?” Reno suddenly asked.
“Where?” Rude squinted through the window.
“Back there. That chunk of rock that tried to get in my way.”
Rude shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Reno felt the weight of three pairs of eyes as he brought the chopper around.
“What are you doing now?!” Elena exclaimed.
“If that was Locke’s Pillar, Midgar is northeast, just beyond the Front Range.”
“But you don’t know! You can hardly see anything up here!” Elena pointed out, an edge of hysteria in her voice.
“Well, I’m tired of fighting these crosswinds, and I say it was Locke’s Pillar.” The corners of his mouth lifted in a tight smile. “Time to get off the scenic route.”
Elena looked wildly around the cockpit, her wide eyes settling on Rude’s still face.
“Rude?” The silent Turk didn’t respond to her unspoken plea, and she huffed in exasperation when he lifted his hand to slide his sunglasses over his eyes.
“You should buckle your harness.” Elena turned at the soft voice beside her. Her brows drew together when her hard stare collided with Caitlin’s quiet blue eyes.
“What did you say?!” Elena snapped, her temper flaring in the face of the petite woman’s calm mien.
“Your harness is not secured.” Caitlin lifted a slim finger to point.
Without a word, Elena tore her angry eyes away and snapped the buckles together. Then she folded her hands in her lap to still her trembling fingers and leaned her head against the headrest in resignation.
“You know you’re taking an unacceptable risk with our lives, don’t you?” She whispered into her mouthpiece.
“I guess you’ve forgotten, Elena.” Reno responded in a low voice. “Unacceptable is my middle name.” With that he sent the chopper into a hard descent, and she tightly closed her eyes as her stomach swooped into her throat.
Cloud sat astride the antsy chocobo as she shifted from one foot to the other. Draping his hand over the pommel, he slumped tiredly in the saddle and slowly scanned the entire length of the toppled radio tower. He’d ridden nearly three-quarters of the way around the city, cautiously guiding the chocobo along as they wended their way in and around piles of debris and scattered wreckage. The twisted metal framework of the communications tower hung crookedly from the edge of the top plate, several hundred feet of narrow rungs forming the support on the exposed side of its length, the first potential means of entrance to Midgar that he’d yet found.
He studied the top of the tower, which now rested against a pile of jagged metal and broken concrete slabs, what looked like the remains of one of the municipal buildings from above. A dozen or more antennae fanned delicate tentacles into the rubble, most of them broken off at the base. Speculatively, he eyed one pronounced bend in the structure about halfway up the side of the city wall, and then slid his gaze upward to the top where the base of the tower seemed tangled in a mass of cables and wires. The whole mess looked extremely unstable, and he knew the climb would be tricky, even for him.
Suddenly, he straightened in the saddle, and the chocobo danced sideways. “Easy…” Cloud spoke in a soothing tone as he gathered the reins in his fingers. Grabbing the saddle horn with both hands, he dismounted and jumped to the ground. The bird shied away when his boots crunched down into the tiny fragments of shattered concrete that covered the ground there, but Cloud’s tight hold on the reins brought her back around. The bird had become increasingly uneasy since their arrival outside Midgar, and Cloud could easily understand why. It was much too quiet for a city with the population of Midgar. Although, he’d traveled most of the way around the city, he hadn’t seen or heard any sign of human life. He felt as jumpy as a skeeskee, as though he might leap out of his own skin at any moment.
“Well, girl. I guess I’m going in.” The bird nervously tossed her head at the sound of his voice. “At least, it’s not raining. For now...”
At the thought of trying to climb the tower in the rain, he decided he’d wasted enough time. Quickly, he removed the rain slicker and gave it a hard shake to shed some of the moisture, and then he wadded it up and stuffed it into the saddlebag. Choking up on the reins to hold the chocobo steady, he dragged the saddlebags off the bird’s back and tossed them over his shoulder. He settled the bags in place with a sharp jerk, and leaning in, he loosely tied the leather reins together around the horn. Then he moved to the chocobo’s head, reaching up to scratch under her chin, his fingers digging deep into the thick outer layer of blue feathers. She lifted her head to give him better access, and Cloud smiled at the soft chittering sound that rose from her throat, her expression of approval at his ministrations.
“Okay, girl.” Cloud dropped his hand and stepped back. “I’m going to be a while. You need to head on home.” He reached over his right shoulder and resettled his sword in its sheath, and then he deliberately turned his back to her. With careful steps, he crossed the littered ground and came to a halt before the immense heap of debris. With his eyes, he traced out a likely route across the busted slabs and mangled sheets of metal, one he thought would bring him within reach of the communications tower. Without a doubt, he would have to exercise the utmost caution. There would be no one but a jittery chocobo to come to his rescue should he fall. So, he wouldn’t fall.
Without further hesitation, he set his foot against the first slanted chunk of concrete and leaned in, setting his hands flat against the damp stone. The bird squawked loudly behind him, and he paused to look over his shoulder. She cocked her head and blinked her huge, saucer-shaped eyes, apparently bewildered by her rider’s actions.
Cloud swept his hand toward the horizon. “Go on.” The bird lifted her head sharply at his hard tone. “Go home.” She tilted her head to the other side. Cloud shook his head dismissively and turned his attention back to the task ahead. He knew she would get hungry eventually and make for her food trough back in Kalm. Obviously, she knew the way. He closed his mind to all else and started into his climb.
Behind him, the blue-feathered bird turned her head down and raised one huge three-toed claw to scratch anxiously in the dirt. She pushed her beak into the freshly disturbed soil, and then scratched a few minutes more. Eventually, she stopped her clawing and walked a tight circle around the torn up ground. Abruptly, she sent a soft squawk into the heavy silence and folding her legs beneath her, dropped into the dirt. With a wriggle and a fluff of her wings, she made herself comfortable. Then drawing her beak tightly against her plump breast, she closed her round eyes and settled down to wait.
Reeve closed the cover with a sharp click and automatically moved to slip the compad into his jacket pocket, until he remembered that he’d given his jacket away. He’d left the expensively tailored coat draped over the trembling shoulders of a young, copper-haired girl who’d been looking for her family, to no avail. He’d found her huddled against the back wall of a dilapidated shanty, alone despite the sea of humanity that moved all around her. She’d said she couldn’t get warm, and she had refused any offer of assistance other than to gratefully accept his coat.
Reeve sighed and shoved the hand-sized computer into his trousers pocket instead. There were so many who needed assistance, so many who couldn’t find their friends and family members. He’d enlisted every willing and able body to dig people out of the wreckage along the edges of the fallen plate. There was absolutely no way to get to those further in, if anyone had survived. There had been no warning that the sector 4 plate would fall, and few had time to get out of the way. The Sector 5 plate had fallen as well, but not completely. The heavy slab of iron remained partially attached overhead, some of the pillar supports still holding. For now. He had no doubt that the explosion in Reactor 5 had weakened the structural supports underneath. After all, he’d had a team of engineers assess the damage and determine the needed repairs. He’d been looking the report over when he'd received word that Rufus was about to order the firing of the Sister Ray. He'd tossed the papers down on his desk to go into the meeting and had subsequently been taken into custody and forcibly ejected from the building. The report probably still littered the top of his expansive desk in the Shinra Tower.
His dark head fell in exhaustion as the weight of all his responsibility suddenly became more that he could bear at that moment. He knew the city, his city was lost. He’d witnessed the destruction of the top plate, not only through the video feeds from above before the cameras were devoured by the hungry tempest, but also through the eyes of Cait Sith onboard the Highwind. He knew the Shinra Building still stood, but the immense edifice had been mortally wounded, and the remainder of the city had been reduced to rubble. Even before Meteor had struck, Shinra had ordered the destruction of the Sector 7 plate and had denied him the resources to rebuild. Sector 8 still remained uncompleted, which hardly mattered now, and Sector 4 and Sector 5 were gone, the wreckage on top dumped into the slums below. His cybernetic cat had faithfully recorded every gut wrenching moment.
The great metropolis of Midgar had become nothing more or less than an exorbitantly expensive mountain of junk; a hellish monument to one man’s shortsighted lust for power and his ruthless and inhumane plans to acquire it; and the blood-washed tomb of thousands. His executive position as Head of Urban Development had been more than a job; it had been his life. He’d poured his heart and soul into Midgar, and now – he had to let her go.
He wouldn’t let his job go though. The slums were packed with people, all those he’d persuaded to evacuate the top plate as well as the residents that lived below. The rich and the poor, the young and the old, people from all walks of life, a cross-cut of the whole population of Midgar all crammed together without the resources to support them for very long, and every one of them looking to him for direction. Every one of them trapped inside the heavy retaining walls of the city.
Reeve lifted his head and set his feet into motion. He didn’t have time to rest. He had to oversee the rescue efforts, try to fulfill the needs of the emergency triage center that the Shinra hospital staff had set up in Wall Market, stay on top of the technicians’ efforts to keep the secondary power generators up, confer with the engineers to devise a viable means of egress from the city, ramrod the military leaders’ efforts to keep the frightened populace under control, and compose intelligent answers to hundreds of questions from anyone who had an inkling of who he was, questions that, for the most part, he had no real answers.
He squared his shoulders and lifted his chin as the daunting prospect of all the demands that he faced hung ponderously over his head. He would do it. He would do it because he had to. Besides, he had yet to face the most difficult task of all. He still had to see her and speak to her. No, not just speak to her. He had to convince her. He had to convince her despite the fact that she had absolutely no reason to listen to him and even less reason to trust him.
Not only that, he had to bring that redheaded psychopath down on his side too. Somehow. Otherwise, he doubted he’d live long enough to worry about tomorrow.
Reeve turned his attention to the owner of the nervous voice, another of the many young faces in the Shinra Army, the majority of them barely old enough to shave.
“Yes?” He raised his eyebrows in question, almost dreading what might come out of the soldier’s mouth.
“Ah…Sergeant Dickerson…Sir…he asked me to come get you. That blinky thing is making a weird sound.”
Reeve tilted his head in puzzlement. “What…blinky thing…?” He asked slowly as he ran through all the possible ‘blinky things’ to which the young man might be referring.
“I…in the…b…box…s…sir.” The soldier started to stammer in his desire to deliver his message and withdraw from the presence of this Shinra executive. “Your e...e...electronic…e…e…qu…qui…stuff.” The young man stopped and took a deep breath. “The Sarge says something’s about to blow.”
“About to blow?!” Reeve’s startled words jumped from his lips, and the soldier took a step back at the sharpness in his tone.
“Oh!” Reeve’s eyes suddenly lit up as he finally realized what the young man was talking about. “You mean my telemetric equipment!”
The soldier smiled with relief and nodded even though he had no idea what Mr. Alexander meant. However, the executive was smiling, so things must be cool.
“Thanks, son.” Reeve sprang into motion, hurriedly retracing his path to the field operations office he’d set up on the fly. The weird sound that had Dickerson concerned could only be the insistent beep of the alert that indicated some form of incoming data, and since that beep came from the equipment in the crate, he knew exactly what it would be. His internal batteries now fully charged, Cait Sith had awakened, and he wanted to phone home.
Yuffie threw the cards down in disgust. “Jeez Granny, you took all my toothpicks again! I’m gonna be broke soon!” The ninja girl suspiciously narrowed her dark eyes on the old lady’s toothless grin as she watched her draw the neat pile towards her with gnarled hands “Did you used to be a card shark in your wilder days?”
The woman vehemently shook her head, setting her gray curls to dancing. “Nah, ah wus ah ‘eacha’.”
“A what? An etcher? You mean like in glass? Or in counterfeit gil plates?”
“Nah nah, ah eacha.” The old woman gestured over her shoulder, and Yuffie examined the contents of the room behind her, letting her eyes travel over a couple of landscape paintings, a tall shelf full of books, the heavily draped window, a set of wall sconces and a small writing desk, its scarred surface empty except for a cup full of pencils and a watchful yellow tabby cat. Her brow wrinkled in bewilderment as she sought out anything in the room that would indicate the woman’s prior profession. A loud knock at the front door sharply drew her attention away from the problem, and she rose from her chair.
“I’ll get the door.” Yuffie spoke firmly as the old lady shoved her chair back. “You put your teeth back in, and we’ll take up this discussion again. Just as soon as I dispatch our visitor.”
The old lady nodded and reached for the dentures resting beside her elbow. Satisfied that the woman would stay put, Yuffie slipped quietly to the door and raised on tiptoe to peer one-eyed through the peephole. A largely magnified brown eye peered back at her from the other side, and she grinned. Quickly, she turned the latch and pulled the door back against the chain, peering out with one dark eye.
“Whatcha want, Bear?”
Barrett shifted to one foot and uncrossed his arms to press his huge hand against the door, already impatient with the teenager’s playful resistance. He wasn’t in the mood for it.
“I wantcha to open the door.” The words came out in a low growl as he scowled back at her. “That’s what I want.”
She removed her eye and put her mouth to the crack instead. “What for?” She yelled loudly, as though she thought Barrett had gone deaf.
“Never you mind what for.” He replied bluntly, fighting down the compulsion to yell in response. “You jus’ open the door and I’ll tell ya what for.”
“Well, where’s the dweeb?” She asked suspiciously, her voice a conspiratorial whisper this time.
“Where’s what?” Barrett drew his brows together in consternation.
“You, know…” She hissed through the crack as she brought one eye back into view, peering around as though she thought the young man might be lurking behind one of Barrett’s muscular arms. “The dork.”
“Well hell if I know!” Barrett barked loudly, his small store of patience all used up. “Just open the damn door! I got better things to do than stand out here all day!”
“Okay…all right…hold your water…man, what a grump…” Barrett rolled his eyes at her muttered criticism. Although several apt responses floated around in his brain, he held his tongue as he waited for her to unhook the door chain. She pulled the door wide open and beckoned him inside, bowing with exaggerated humility as he entered.
“How may I serve you, oh holy royalness?” Yuffie straightened and humbly clasped her hands together in front of her, deliberately oblivious to his annoyed frown.
“Will you cut it out?!” He snapped. “I just came to tell ya that Cid wants ya to come out ta the ship.”
“And what does his sovereign smokeliness want with me?” She smirked at the deep lines that formed on Barrett’s heavy brow.
Barrett tightened his jaw and forced back the yell that nearly exploded from his throat. Instead, he focused his mind on the pleasant thought of picking the scrawny teenager up by her belt loops and shaking some sense into her. She was being irritating even for her. Or maybe his frustration at being stuck out in the sticks had knocked his tolerance level down a few notches. Come to think of it, maybe that was her problem too. Maybe this was her way of dealing with their forced inactivity, specifically their inability to organize a search for Tifa. There was no doubt in Barrett’s mind that Tifa’s loss had hit the girl harder than she let on. The only member of the team with the patience to deal with the irascible young member of the royal house of Wutai, Tifa had taken the girl under her wing, and although Yuffie would never admit it, she had come to depend on her. This was probably her way of dealing with that, and he should bear that in mind. With a heavy sigh, he crossed his arms and let his anger go.
“Listen to me, Yuffie…” The quiet seriousness in Barrett’s tone caught Yuffie’s attention, and her eyes grew still on the big man’s face, though her crooked smirk faded only slightly. She folded her arms behind her back and tapped one sneakered foot impatiently against the wooden floor while she waited for him to continue.
“The rain finally stopped, and we…ah…buried Lt. Keith out in the field…” Barrett paused when Yuffie suddenly spun away from him, bringing her arms around to cross over her stomach as she put her back to him.
“Yes…well…Cid wants to say some words…for him…and thought everybody oughta be there.” Barrett fell silent and stared down at her hunched back and the dark crown of her bowed head. He shuffled his big feet as he waited for a response.
“Look, if you don’t want to, it’s okay.” She showed no intention to respond, so he finally turned to the open doorway. “Well, I gotta go find Red. Come if you want.”
Yuffie finally looked up when the door clicked shut behind Barrett. “Yeah…I’ll come…” Angrily, she dashed the tears from her cheeks and whirled away from the entrance, coming to an abrupt stop when she spied the old woman standing in her path.
“Say, Lizbet?” Yuffie forced a lightness she didn’t feel into her voice. “Wanna go to a funeral with me?”
Yuffie smiled broadly as the woman slowly nodded. Yuffie reached for Lizbet’s limp hand. “Well, let’s go get you dressed then. You can’t go in that old thing.”
The old woman quietly followed behind as the teenager towed her down the long hallway to the back of the big house. “Your room is this way, right?”
“Hey, you put your teeth in.” Yuffie noted happily. “Now what did you say you did in your wilder days? You were an etcher?”
“I was a teacher.” Lizbet answered slowly.
“Really? What did you teach? Reading? Writing? Music? I can see you as a music teacher. Sure can. Teaching the little kiddies to sing all the old ballads in their little screechy voices. Or maybe one of those social studies teachers, talking about all those different cultures all over the world…” Yuffie didn’t really expect an answer as she rambled on, mostly just talking to shut out her somber thoughts, but the old woman suddenly stopped in the hallway, breaking away from the light hold the girl had on her hand. Yuffie brought her questioning gaze around, only to find her eyes effectively captured by the bright intelligence in the rheumy gray eyes.
“No, I taught astronomy to advanced students of Planetary Sciences at the University of Cosmo Canyon.”
The old woman brushed past the slight girl in the narrow hallway. Her mouth frozen open as she worked to reengage her brain, Yuffie slumped against the wall to let her pass. She knew the woman was a nutcase, and her statement probably rose from another of her fantasies, but the cool confidence in Lizbet’s eyes at that moment tended to support her claim in Yuffie’s mind. But then, crazy people were confident in their own delusions, weren’t they? Look at Cloud when he was running around leaving a trail of loose screws. The solid thunk of a closing door further down the hall brought her head around.
“Wait!” Yuffie hurried down the dim corridor. She turned the knob only to find the door had been locked, so she rapped her knuckles sharply against the scarred panel. “Lizbet! Can I come in?”
“I can dress myself.” Lizbet’s irritated voice floated clearly through the heavy door.
“Well…okay…I’ll just wait out here…then.” Yuffie yelled back so the woman would hear her, but she received no reply. With a shrug, the teenager returned down the hall and paused in the entryway. “Astronomy, eh?” Absently, she ran her fingers through her short hair as she tried to visualize a younger Lizbet teaching astronomy in Cosmo. “Nah. No way.” Dismissing the idea out of hand, she pointedly turned toward the stairway with the idea of snooping around on the second floor, something she hadn’t managed to squeeze into her agenda yet, but a soft knock at the front door stopped her in her tracks.
“Well well, who might this be?” She smiled with relish at the chance for another opportunity to torment the lanky, tangled hair dork. Keeping company with his grandma, though unnerving at times, had been dull for the most part, and she needed some more excitement right about now.
The soft knock came again, and she stretched to see through the peephole. Her smile grew broader at the unimpeded view of the front yard. The games were afoot. She had to admit, he had a lot of nerve to try again. Very slowly, she slid the chain from its slot, catching the links in her fingers so they wouldn’t rattle against the hard frame. Stepping to the side, she released the deadbolt lock with an imperceptible click and deliberately turned the knob by slow degrees, until she felt the latch slip silently from the metal plate. She stood in place for a moment as she pondered the idea of retrieving her weapon from beside the chair where she’d left it, but decided not to waste her time. She could deliver some major damage without a weapon at all, and minor injuries would suffice this time.
With a banshee screech, she threw the door wide and sprang through, landing lightly on one foot with her fists in guard, ready to kick out her sneakered foot at the startled figure she knew would be crouched there. Except…he wasn’t there. She whirled to the right, then back to the left, ready to decisively prevent his entrance with foot and fist, teeth and nails, but there was simply no one there to assault.
Disappointed, she straightened and dropped her hands to her hips with a derisive huff. Her face pinched in a tight scowl, she sent a threatening glare around the wide lawn, carefully examining every bush and tree, every twisted or splintered hunk of junk, all the spaces behind the picket fence and any shadow expansive enough to hide a skulking, six foot tall, noisome dweeb. Her intense gaze paused on the open gate, and she tried to remember if it had been latched earlier. Although, Barrett had probably left it open.
“Ran huh?” She smirked at the sparse bushes that lined the outside of the fence. “Cowardly…but smart.” With a carefree laugh, she stepped back and nearly stumbled in surprise as something brushed against her bare leg.
“HUH!” In a lightning fast move, she leapt into the entryway and landed in a crouch, her hands up to take on whatever creature had the audacity to sneak past, but nothing moved in the deserted space. Puzzled, she stood to her full diminutive height and slowly turned in place as she peered through each doorway and up the stairs. A series of clicks came from her right, and she whipped her head around to zero in on the kitchen doorway. She started down the short hall, but stopped when it suddenly occurred to her what she’d heard, totally in line with the soft touch against her calf.
“Hey…dog.” Yuffie softened her tone and took a careful step toward the vacant doorway. “Did I scare you? Come on out. No one’s gonna chase you now.” The brown canine didn’t appear, and another slow step brought her within view of a large portion of the linoleum floor and the end of the table, the closest chair still overturned from the mad exit from the kitchen earlier. “What was your name? Soldier wasn’t it?” She moved a couple of feet further as she spoke. “Come on out. I have some more prime jerky in my possession. Maybe even a chocolate granola bar…”
An irresistible smile spread over her thin face when the shaggy brown head appeared around the edge of the doorframe. She could hear his tail thumping against the cabinet just inside. “I knew the idea of food would get you out.”
She held her hand out as she walked toward the dog, dropping to her knees in front of him while he happily licked her fingers. As she tugged on the dog’s silky ears, she heard a distant door creak open and the sound of approaching footsteps from the side hallway behind her. Quickly, she gave the dog a pat on the top of his head and stood to face the old woman as she emerged into the entryway. Lizbet halted in the middle of the hardwood floor and turned to gaze curiously in the teenager’s direction.
Yuffie looked her over, from the top of the little felt pillbox hat on the crown of her silver head, down the length of her smartly tailored black dress, to the tips of her polished black dress pumps. “Well, Lizbet! I am impressed!” The woman frowned in her direction, and the smile faded from Yuffie’s face.
“What is that thing?” The teenager’s dark eyes narrowed at the disapproval in the woman’s tone, and she sent a puzzled look around, wondering what Lizbet was talking about. She didn’t see anything out of the ordinary in the sparsely furnished passageway.
“What thing?” She finally had to ask.
“That thing behind you.” Lizbet responded, dropping her voice to a loud whisper. Yuffie noted that she appeared to be more worried than disapproving now.
“You mean…the dog?” Yuffie spoke in a normal tone, and she blinked when the old woman suddenly ducked behind the massive newel post at the base of the stairs. “Surely, you know about the…dog…by…now...” Her voice faltered as Lizbet completely vanished into the adjacent hallway.
Very slowly, Yuffie rotated in place, drawing a deep breath to suppress the rising tension in her chest. At the last moment, she jerked her head around and came eyeball to eyeball with a pair of saucer-shaped golden eyes. She might have screamed if her heart hadn’t jumped into her throat and choked off her air.
"Hey, Yuffie!” The lyrical voice sang into her ears and stayed the reflexive swing she’d halfway executed. She swallowed hard and leveled a hard glare on the black and white face.
“Hey, Cait.” She snapped. “What are you doing skulking around?”
“I was trying to avoid the dog.” The little mechanical cat sang out.
Yuffie bent to look closer. “Are you in there, Reeve? Or are you just Cait right now?”
The cat threw its mittened hands out to the side. “Yes, I’m here. Is everybody alright?”
Yuffie averted her eyes at his question. “Well…not everybody…but mostly…I guess.” She blinked her eyes as the tears threatened to well again.
“I need to speak to Cid. Right away. It’s important.” The little cat danced from one foot to the other as he spoke in his musical singsong voice, his whole demeanor negating the seriousness of his words. “We have a dire situation here in Midgar. I need Cid to bring the Highwind. Where are you anyway?”
“I wouldn’t count on the Highwind if I were you…” Yuffie answered gruffly as she shifted uneasily and wrapped her arms tightly around her narrow waist.
“What happened?!” The loud shrillness of Cait’s voice made her wince, and she knew that Reeve had spoken sharply on the other end. She sadly shook her head.
“Look, I’ll just take you to Cid…” She drew in a long breath to steady her voice. “He can tell you more than I can.”
“My word, what is that thing?!”
Yuffie turned her head to find Lizbet peering nervously over her shoulder.
“Er…my…ah…pet…no…toy cat.” Yuffie stumbled over her explanation, desperately hoping the encounter with Cait Sith wouldn’t send the old lady over the edge again. She’d been pretty manageable for the most part. Well, there had been the little incident with the umbrella, but she’d quelled that uprising decisively.
“He talks?” Lizbet wrinkled her brow as she moved in for a closer look. Cait tilted his head and leaned slightly to look back at her, swishing his tail to and fro as he stared into the unfamiliar face.
“Yeah, he dances too and tells fortunes.”
“Really? Fortunes?” Lizbet smiled in delight. “Can he tell mine?”
“Well yeah, he can, but we don’t have time for that right now.” Impatiently, Yuffie wrapped her fingers around Cait Sith’s neck and snatched him off the countertop. Carelessly, she stuffed him under her arm. “His fortunes pretty much suck anyway.”
“OW!” Cait protested loudly.
“That did not hurt.” She retorted, looking down at his dangling head as she traversed the short corridor. “Circuits don’t have pain receptors. Now, we have a funeral to go to, so shut up.”
“Funeral?” Cait Sith squeaked. “Whose?”
Yuffie yanked open the front door and glared into the front yard. “Yours if you don’t quit wriggling.”
Cait Sith went limp, his body falling loosely over her arm. She smiled down at the little crown on the top of his bent head. “Much better.” With a glance over her shoulder, she confirmed that the elderly woman followed close behind, and she stepped onto the front step, her stomach churning with dread at the thought that she would be standing beside the grave of Lieutenant Keith in just a few short moments. “Come on, Lizbet. Let’s get this thing over with.”
Reeve quickly set aside Cait’s equipment and whirled to face the same young soldier that had approached him earlier. He’d known very well that he wouldn’t be able to spend much time in his attempt to communicate with Avalanche before the demands of his real world would drag him back. He glanced impatiently at his watch. Certainly, he’d taken more time than he’d planned already, but the cybernetic cat had been under the blasted house. It had taken much too long to scope things out around the farmhouse, while avoiding the nosy dog at the same time. An annoyed frown on his lips, he straightened his back and raised shuttered eyes to the young man’s face.
“What is it?” He asked sharply. The soldier stared silently for a long moment, and Reeve crossed his arms over his chest and lifted an eyebrow.
“Well?” He prompted. “You wanted to tell me something?”
The soldier visibly jerked and forced himself to speak, lifting his own uniform-clad shoulders in unconscious imitation of the Shinra executive.
“Er…Sergeant Dickerson sent me to tell you that Lt. Sand’s sentries have detected someone coming through the Sector 3 train tunnels. The perimeter sentry there let him pass, but noted that the man is armed. Lt. Sand wants to know if you want him detained?”
“He let him pass without challenge?” Reeve spoke carefully, hiding his astonishment from his voice. “Why?”
“Er…well…the man is dressed in the uniform of Soldier, and he’s carrying a…large…sword. The sentry didn’t feel that he should attempt to detain the man alone, in case he was a hostile. If not…well…he is a member of the Shinra military.”
“Well, what does he look like?” Reeve raised one hand to stroke his beard as he pondered the likelihood that the Soldier could be Cloud as well as the fact that he’d found a way into the city. Where there is a way in, there could be a way out. On the other hand, it could be someone who had been in the tunnels all along; someone who had ridden out the storm in the heavily reinforced subways.
“What does he look like?” The soldier nervously repeated the executive’s question.
“Yes, what does the man look like, physically? Hair, eyes, distinguishing features, etcetera.”
“Well…I don’t know…sir.” The soldier replied slowly. “Sergeant Dickerson didn’t say.”
Reeve threw his hands out in impatience. “Well, get on the radio and find out!” He barked. The soldier’s hand flew up in a reflexive salute, and he dove for the doorway. Wearily, Reeve rubbed the bridge of his nose with two fingers and thought about the interlacing train tunnels beneath the plate, tracing the familiar routes out in his mind. For an instant, he entertained the idea of locating the closest access tunnel and turning his back on everything, disappearing into anonymity in some distant locale. With a bone weary sigh, he dropped his hand and lifted his head when the eager young soldier reappeared in the splintered doorway. No, he couldn’t leave. As a top-level Shinra executive, he’d been privy to most of the machinations that had brought the City and the people to this state of despair, although he’d discovered a great many astonishing and reprehensible manipulations from which he’d been deliberately excluded; matters that were remarkably easy for him to uncover once he’d put his mind to it, once the impetus of the President’s order to destroy the supports beneath the Sector 7 plate had compelled him to exercise his particular brand of technical skill to access a bevy of hidden files scattered throughout the private computer records of certain Shinra department heads.
“Sir?” Reeve dragged his mind back to the young soldier who was again standing at attention before him, quietly awaiting his acknowledgement until he’d apparently reached the point where he felt he should speak.
“Did you acquire the information I requested?” Though he spoke softly, the steely edge in his voice reflected the fact that he would not welcome disappointment.
The soldier nodded happily. “Yes sir! The intruder is definitely dressed in the uniform of a Soldier 1st Class with standard battle gear, although…one of his shoulder guards is missing. His right one. He’s carrying a non-regulation sword and a pair of saddlebags. His eyes are blue and have the Mako glow of an elite Soldier. He has to be with the special Soldier force, sir.” The young man fell silent and nervously examined Reeve’s pensive face as he awaited further orders.
Reeve again raised his hand to stroke his beard as his thoughts tumbled in his head. So far, the description of the man in the subway system did fit. However, the man could also be any member of Soldier.
“What about his hair?” He asked quietly. Despite his outward calm, his whole body coiled in tension as he pinned purposeful brown eyes on the young man’s face in anticipation of his response.
“Oh yeah, I forgot about that.” The soldier fought an impulse to duck his head as he felt his cheeks flush in embarrassment. “Ah…his hair is yellow…ah…blonde…and Lt. Sand said it was…was…ah…you know…wild…looking and…no, that wasn’t it…”
“Clumpy?” The soldier’s eyes darted across the executive’s still face at the softly voiced suggestion. He shook his head. “No, that wasn’t the word, sir.”
“Pointy?” Reeve kept his tone carefully indifferent as he prompted the soldier further.
The young man shook his head hesitantly. “No, that wasn’t the word.”
The soldier’s face brightened. “That was it! Spiky! Lt. Sand said it was spiky like a rooster’s tail. Some hanging down and some standing straight up. Spiky and blonde.”
An irrepressible smile spread across Reeve’s face, and the young soldier grinned in response, his eyes filling with relief at the Shinra executive’s positive reaction.
“What’s your name, soldier?” Reeve suddenly inquired as he tightened his lips in a half-hearted attempt to quell his smile.
“Private Coakley, sir.” The young man’s grin faltered slightly as a slight case of paranoia assailed him at the executive’s request for his name. He prayed that he hadn’t screwed up somehow, and the VIP wanted his name for the record.
“And your first name?”
Startled, the young private hesitated. “Er...my first name?” He closely examined Mr. Alexander’s face as the city manager nodded. Low ranked military personnel in the Shinra Regular Army rarely heard their own first name, much less be asked to give it.
“Okay, Andrew, I want you to bring this Soldier here. To me.” Reeve frowned slightly at the blank incomprehension in the young man’s face.
“Me sir? Not Lt. Sand…or someone else?” The thought of attempting to detain a Soldier 1st Class didn’t appeal to him at all.
“Yes. You. And tell him Reeve sent you.” The soldier half-turned toward the door and paused.
“You do know where he was last spotted don’t you?” Reeve inquired bluntly, the first trace of impatience only slightly evident in his tone.
Coakley nodded and straightened his back. “Yes sir. I’ll bring him right away.” With a quick salute, he turned and headed for the door. He’d barely crossed the threshold when a hand on his arm dragged him to a stop. Bewildered, he shot a glance over his shoulder, and his eyes froze on the stern visage of the taller man.
“I’ve changed my mind. I’m coming with you.” Reeve informed him. The executive turned to the armed sentry just outside the door. “I’ll return shortly.” The sentry nodded indifferently and gave him an automatic salute. “Yes sir.”
Reeve shook his head and turned to grab Coakley by the elbow, his determination evident as he dragged the surprised young soldier in the direction of the entrance to the nearest access tunnel, slipping easily through the milling crowd with his captive stumbling in tow. They hadn’t gone far when Reeve suddenly veered off and led the private through a long vertical fissure in a riveted steel support wall. The executive finally released the breathless soldier as they entered a narrow passage between towering heaps of junk, drawing a small flashlight from his trousers pocket as he peered into the deep darkness ahead. He touched the button and a brilliant beam of light bathed the dirt-packed trail beneath his wing-tip shoes, the energy output generous for an instrument of such a compact size.
“Come on. Follow me.” Reeve set off at a fast pace, and the soldier fell in behind, following quickly as the Shinra executive hurried down the sinuous pathway. His forward view obstructed by the dark silhouette of the taller man, the soldier diligently kept pace with the bouncing light as he walked in the surreal world of shadow behind.
Occasionally, a fork would appear in their trail, and Reeve chose each new direction without hesitation. After the fifth such deviation, Coakley grew concerned that the man had gotten them hopelessly lost in this maze of refuse. After all, he was basically a pencil pusher or rather, a keyboard jockey. An idea guy. And he had lived in a fancy penthouse apartment in the upper city. He was bound to get them lost. Just when he’d almost choked up the nerve to ask him if he knew where he was going, the executive abruptly halted and wheeled to face him. Coakley skidded to a stop and straightened to attention before him.
“This is where we go in.” Reeve indicated the ladder behind him with a slight nod of his head. The soldier examined the open hatchway at the top of the ladder, the oval doorway lit inside and out by the emergency lighting system installed throughout the entire tunnel structure. “I want you to get Sand on the radio.” Reeve added. “I believe you can reach him from here. There shouldn’t be anything to impede your signal.” Coakley mirrored Reeve’s upward glance, his eyes widening at the vast expanse of empty space above his head, the underbelly of the intact plate hundreds of feet above not even visible in the heavy darkness of the unlit upper reaches of the city. Coakley slowly nodded. “Yes sir. I believe I can.” He drew the radiophone from his belt and lifted it to his face.
Reeve moved a few feet away as the soldier radioed his commanding officer, who would have to be persuaded to patch the lowly private directly through to Sand, a process that he figured would take several minutes. Curiously, he slipped into the tight walkway between the tunnel bulkhead and the encroaching mountain of discarded junk. With appraising eyes, he slowly moved the beam of light across the myriad pieces of wood, metal, broken concrete and various objects, some recognizable, some not, that largely comprised the impenetrable barrier. A crimped tin street sign caught his eye, and he reached out to sweep away a thin layer of grime with his fingers. Though the letters remained partially obliterated, he could extrapolate the street name from what he’d uncovered as well as from his knowledge of Old Midgar. Peary Boulevard. Next, the bright beam picked out a segment of rusty decorative wrought iron, what probably had been one of the legs to a park bench or part of an ornate fence. He swept the light a few feet further, and he immediately recognized the tangled remains of a baby carriage and a badly bent pole with a flattened black and gold-accented metal square on the end, a delicately ornate street lamp, the light chamber crushed and the glass no doubt shattered out decades ago.
Sadly, he shook his head and turned away. One of his grand schemes as Head of Urban Development had been to clean up the slums, clear out the debris and create an environment beneath the plates that would be more habitable for the people who resided there. Despite the fact that Shinra wouldn’t approve the plan and refused to allocate barely enough resources to keep the upper city in good repair much less the dingy settlements below, the dream had always burned brightly in the back of Reeve’s mind. That is, it had until the President had indifferently dictated the destruction of Sector 7, at the cost of millions of gil and hundreds of lives. Then the flickering flame of his dream had been snuffed out and only the acrid smoke remained. After witnessing Meteor reduce the upper city to rubble, not unlike what lay here below, he knew there were no matches left to relight it.
The time had come to breathe life into a different dream, one that had been engendered in the greedy mind of another man, but one that he would now make his own. NeoMidgar.
The frustrated voice of Private Coakley floated to his ears, and he started back down the claustrophobic corridor, still examining the detritus of Old Midgar as he walked. A few feet from the open lane where Coakley still argued into the radio, the flashlight beam delineated a long sliver of soft blue, and Reeve bent to look closer, closing out the sound of Coakley’s raised voice as he knelt on one knee to investigate the curious splash of bright color, out of place in the pile of debris. The object now at eyelevel, he held the light in one hand and stretched his fingers into the narrow opening between two thick rafters and a coil of frayed cable. He slipped his hand along the cool azure surface, his fingers able to see much more in the close space than could his eyes. The smooth, unbroken surface curved in slightly, flowing into a vertical line of what felt like glass beads, then flowing out again into another subtle curve. He trailed his fingers another few inches before he came up against a jagged piece of sheet metal. Disappointed, he drew his hand away and peered into the opening, holding the light beside his head with the beam pointed into the close space. He could see an expanse of soft blue glass, although he decided it was probably crystal from the way the flashlight beam refracted across the surface. The object curved down about three feet and across about the same distance. He could see no more. The rest had been covered up in the debris. For a moment, he thought wildly about attempting to move some of it, but he knew he’d have to move a mountain of junk above to get to anything below.
“Mr. Alexander!” Reeve looked up at the dark figure that stood in the opening at the head of the narrow passageway, and he brought his light around to shine on a pair of anxious eyes. Coakley blinked in the bright beam and raised his hand to block out the light. “Sir, you need to come out and talk to Sergeant Dickerson yourself. He won’t listen to me.” Reeve nodded and shoved himself to his feet. As he exited into the wide illuminated opening in front of the hatchway, he snatched the radiophone Coakley held out to him and handed Coakley the flashlight in trade.
“Sergeant Dickerson?” Coakley winced at the icy disdain in Reeve’s tone. “This is Reeve Alexander, and it is imperative that I speak to Lt. Sand immediately.” Reeve tapped his foot as he listened to the response. “I do not want to listen to your excuses. I don’t care. Patch me through now. And for future reference, Private 1st Class Andrew Coakley is my personal liaison, and I expect you to pay heed to all instructions relayed by him.” Coakley blinked owlishly in astonishment and chewed his lower lip as he watched Reeve’s brows draw together at whatever Dickerson said. “Well, make him one then!” The executive snapped. “Now, get me Lt. Sand.”
Cloud moved quietly through the dimly lit tunnel, the muted thump of his boots against the grimy concrete and the incessant drip of condensation from the dank walls the only sounds he heard. Other than a slight rustle of movement in a shadowy access corridor several hundred feet behind him now, he’d seen or heard no sound of life. He’d been positive that someone had been lurking in the dark passage back there, but when he had hailed the unseen person, no one answered, and the movement hadn’t been repeated.
He didn’t know how much time had passed since he’d left the chocobo below, but it seemed like he’d been on a journey that had lasted days. He’d scrambled easily up the antenna, the skeletal structure more stable than it had appeared from below, but when he’d reached the top, he’d collapsed weakly in disbelief on top of the high retaining wall around the top edge of the city. He didn’t know how long he’d sat there as the enormity of the complete destruction of the busy metropolis that had only yesterday held vital sway atop the plate had set his body atremble and his mind stumbling to retain a hold on his senses. Then anger had slowly gained a toehold as his eyes had traveled across the only structures that remained standing, the Shinra Tower and the eight Mako reactors spaced around the edge of the city, the ones on the far side barely visible in the misty distance, but the structures still quite distinctive along the outside wall.
His anger had grown as he’d studied the wide gaps in the circular expanse of the city floor, the glaring holes left by the fallen plates. Sector 7. His eyes glittering, he recalled the battle for the Sector 7 pillar; one they had lost at the cost of half the members of Avalanche as well as hundreds below. He slipped a shaky hand through his spiky hair at the memory of the last words he’d exchanged with Jesse before she died. What he’d said seemed so…shallow…now. Sector 4 was gone too. And Sector 5…
The anger and pain had erupted full-blown in his mind at the sudden vision of Aeris’s church crushed beneath the wreckage from the partially fallen plate. And the quaint house with the beautiful gardens of bright flowers she’d managed to grow amidst the squalor of the slums. It seemed the planet had decided to wipe all trace of her from his world. He had nowhere left to revisit her memory. Only the pale shadow of her left in his own mind.
Abruptly, he’d launched himself from the top of the wall, leaping into space to land lightly on a section of canted roof ten feet down. From there he’d run down the slope to a tall light pole that was bowed against the discarded roof, and shinned down to set foot on a patch of bare plate. After that, he couldn’t really say where he’d wandered as his anger faded away. He’d moved mechanically across the plate, following the path of least resistance, and looking for a relatively safe way to get below. The first body he’d discovered had been that of a young woman, half buried beneath the rubble of a stone wall, her blonde curls stained red with her blood, one green eye staring obliviously into the overcast sky, the other gone along with half her face. He’d swallowed the bitter bile that rose in his throat and quickly moved on. As he’d walked, he’d noticed others, too many others, in the wreckage, but he didn’t look too closely after that.
Eventually, he’d found an unobstructed manhole and lifted the heavy cover aside to find an undamaged platform below. From there, he’d descended several hundred feet, sliding down pipes and crawling through vents to access other platforms or scaffolding, until finally he’d climbed through a narrow hatchway to find himself in the train tunnels deep in the bowels of Sector 3. Since then, he’d been walking endlessly, staying with the main spur, hoping to see another human being, one that could still communicate. Despite the fact that a couple of times he’d sensed someone watching him, so far he’d only managed to introduce himself to a dozen fearless rats and about a thousand black beetles, their clicking pincers the source of a ceaseless buzzing sound that he’d become inured to after awhile. Apparently, the automatic defense system had ceased to function as he hadn’t come up against a single mobile rocket launcher or shadow chaser, and the resident monsters seemed to be scarce as well, which suited him just fine. Although he could dispatch them easily enough, he didn’t want to expend his time in endless skirmishes with one pesky creature after another.
As he rounded the next long curve in the tunnel, he noticed another access entrance coming up on his right, a large number “1” shining ghostly white in the dim lighting. He paused at the fork in the tunnel where the access spur split away as he considered whether he should continue on into Sector 8 or exit into Sector 1 now. He wouldn’t be able to go much further as the mainline would be crushed under the Sector 7 plate. As he stood silently in indecision, the echo of distant footsteps reached his ears. Slowly, he lifted his head and peered toward the next bend in the mainline tunnel as he sorted out the arrhythmic footfalls. At least two people, probably no more. Coming his way. Instinctively, he slipped into the deep shadow of a wide support beam and lifted his right hand over his shoulder to close his fingers tightly around the haft of his sword. He eased the weapon slightly out of its sheath as he watched the empty passageway with one shuttered eye barely visible around the riveted iron beam.
The moments seemed to passed with excruciating slowness as the footsteps grew nearer, accompanied by muted voices, the words indistinguishable in the poor acoustics of the long, curving tunnel. Obviously, the interlopers were making no attempt to be stealthy, which probably meant he had nothing to be concerned about even if they were up to mischief. Still, he figured he’d slip in behind them before he made his presence known. He leaned back into the shadows, ducked his head to hide his glowing eyes, and waited for them to pass.
Reeve stopped in the center of the tracks, turning his head to peer into the access tunnel. Then he returned his puzzled eyes to the empty passage ahead. “We should have met up with him by now.” He mused aloud. “Sand said he’d already passed the sentry at the Sector 2 access…”
“Maybe he took one of the side tunnels.” Coakley suggested helpfully.
Reeve shook his head in response. “No, Sand has his orders. His people know what to do if he attempts to leave the main track.”
“Well, maybe they couldn’t detain him.” The private pointed out. “Maybe he evaded capture.”
Reeve’s brows drew together in irritation, and he set off down the tracks again. Coakley fell into step beside him, his fingers wrapped around the strap of his carbine. “They aren’t to capture him.” Reeve reminded the young soldier. “Just approach him and…”
“Lookin’ for me?” The words reverberated inside the tunnel, spoken with a sarcastic edge that filled them with challenge.
Reeve whirled around, nearly stumbling as he caught the toe of his shoe against the embedded track rail. Catching himself, he straightened and stared into the wary eyes of Cloud Strife. A wide grin claimed Reeve’s face at the sight of his Avalanche teammate alive and well, but started to fade when the glowing Mako eyes narrowed in a hard stare that shifted from his own face to that of Private Coakley.
The smile fell completely from the executive’s face when Cloud lifted the luminous sword from guard to attack position and took a careful step in his direction. Reeve took a hasty step back and threw his hands out in front of him in a staying gesture. Coakley moved to bring his carbine into position, but Reeve caught the movement from the corner of his eye. He twisted to grab the young soldier’s forearm in painfully tight fingers and vehemently shook his head as he mouthed the word, “No.” Wide-eyed, Coakley nodded slowly, and Reeve released him to face Cloud and his gleaming sword once again. The battle-hardened warrior hadn’t relaxed his stance in the slightest.
“Cloud, it’s me. Reeve.” The nervous executive held his hands open at his sides to make sure Cloud realized he was unarmed. The corner of his eye twitched when Cloud took another forward step. Fighting the compulsion to step backward again, Reeve stood his ground.
“Reeve?” Cloud took another step, but made no move to lower his weapon. He meticulously examined the executive’s face, his eyes traveling from the neatly trimmed beard to the backcombed, collar length brown hair. His gaze froze on Reeve’s wide brown eyes, and he slowly shook his head in denial. “You were going to have me arrested.”
Reeve’s eyebrows flew up in alarm. “No!” He cried out in protest. “Not arrested!” Cloud’s eyes narrowed menacingly, and Reeve drew in a slow breath to calm his jumpy nerves. “Not arrested.” He repeated in a steadier voice. “Just approached. To give you a message. But only if you left the tunnel. I was coming to meet you, and I didn’t want you to turn off somewhere.”
Cloud didn’t speak as he took another step in Reeve’s direction, his close appraisal now extending to the scuffed wing-tip shoes, the rumpled trousers, the expensive leather belt, and the darkly stained white dress shirt. The gleaming eyes paused on the silk tie, loosened around an unbuttoned collar.
Suddenly, Reeve remembered that although he knew all the members of Avalanche by sight, none of them, except perhaps Cid Highwind, had any idea what he looked like. “Look Cloud, I know you haven’t seen me before, but I am Reeve. I swear it.”
Cloud nodded. “Chocobos.” He muttered, absently lowering his sword as he stared.
“What?” Reeve frowned in bewilderment. He wondered briefly if Cloud’s brain had slipped a gear.
Cloud lifted his eyes to Reeve’s face. “Your tie. It has tiny gold chocobos on it.” The executive automatically looked down to confirm his words, still puzzled as to the great interest in his tie. “And I have seen you before.” Cloud continued in a quiet voice. “Once. And you were wearing that tie. It’s a very distinctive pattern.”
Reeve let out a silent sigh of relief. “You have seen me before. Good.” His curiosity made him ask. “When?”
The corner of Cloud’s mouth lifted in a wry smile. “In a top-level executive meeting of Shinra management.”
“Sure you did.” Reeve didn’t bother to hide his disbelief. “I may get absorbed in my work sometimes, but I think I would have noticed you there.”
Cloud smirked as he sheathed his sword. “Yeah, you’d think.”
Reeve opened his mouth to question him further, but Cloud interrupted him. “So, what now?” The blonde warrior crossed his arms over his chest and shifted to one foot as he waited for the executive to speak.
Pursing his lips in thought, Reeve shifted mental gears and shot a glance at Coakley. “Andy, why don’t you head back and wait for me outside the hatchway?” Although posed as a request, the private took it as the order it was. With a quick salute, he sprang into motion and scurried away as both men watched him go. Within seconds, he’d disappeared from view.
Reeve started to speak again, but a slight movement from the corner of his eye brought his attention to the access tunnel on his right. He noticed Cloud looking too, and catching the soldier’s eye, he nodded his head toward the direction Coakley had taken and started walking. Without hesitation, Cloud fell into step beside him, and they set an easy pace as they walked companionably along the tracks. Reeve let a hundred feet of flat crossties pass beneath his shoes before he broke the silence.
“As I’m sure you may have realized, the situation here is unstable.” Reeve dropped his eyes to the tracks in front of him. “I have thousands of people crammed into the slums, and thousands more are dead. People who refused to come below before Meteor hit. And people who were crushed beneath the plates.” He shot a glance at Cloud’s pensive face before he continued. “Martial law is currently in effect, but the natives are getting restless. I have to move these people out of here. The resources are not here to support them for very long, and as supplies run short, things will get out of hand. The problem is that we can’t get out. We’ve tried all the outer exits that can still be reached, and all of them are blocked by debris.” Cloud didn’t respond, so Reeve took a deep breath and continued his monologue. “I was hoping to communicate with Cid. Have him take the Highwind to Rocket Town and gather his engineers as well as any able-bodied people he can find that would be willing to come here and help clear one of the outer doors, and maybe transport manpower and equipment in from Junon. However, I was only able to talk briefly with Yuffie. She said something about going to a funeral, and she indicated that something had happened to the Highwind. I’m assuming the airship crashed…” Reeve fell silent, and he lifted his head to stare blindly into the dimly lit tunnel as he waited for Cloud to speak.
Cloud froze in his tracks and turned to face Reeve as the executive followed suit. Their gazes locked for a long moment, and then Cloud pulled his eyes away to stare at the graffiti painted wall across the tracks. Absently, he swept the hair from his face with one gloved hand, then crossing his arms tightly across his chest, he finally spoke.
“The Highwind didn’t crash, but she was heavily damaged in the explosion when Meteor was destroyed. Flying debris shredded the jet engine, and we lost all power and most of the controls. Cid still managed to bring her down under glide and land safely.” Cloud returned his gaze to Reeve’s face, and the intense pain in the glowing irises seized the executive’s heart in merciless fingers. Dreading what Cloud would say next, Reeve folded his arms across his chest.
“Go on.” Reeve prompted gruffly. Cloud uneasily shifted his feet.
“We lost…Tifa. And Vincent. Somewhere over the mountains. Lt. Keith was killed when he fell from the catwalk into the machinery. I don’t know what the funeral is that Yuffie referred to unless Cid is doing something for Lt. Keith. It’s hard to say what that girl might be talking about. All of them are stuck on a farm about 15 miles southeast of Kalm with a senile old lady, her grandson, and a dog. The Highwind is grounded in an adjacent field, and she’ll need a lot of repairs before she’ll ever fly again.”
“What do you mean by ‘lost’?” Reeve kept his tone even as he prompted Cloud for clarification despite the fact that he had a fairly good idea. Although, he simply was not going to accept that they were dead unless Cloud confirmed his supposition, but an examination of the Soldier’s sorrowful face set his stomach to churning, and he wished he hadn’t left his bottle of antacid in his desk drawer.
Cloud dropped his head and watched a large black beetle scuttle across the concrete to pause near his left foot, its long antennae twitching as the insect seemed to be studying the large obstacle in its path. With his attention focused on the antics of the beetle, he finally responded, his voice heavy as he repeated the words he’d said more than once that day, words that only seemed to grow harder to say the more he had to say them. “Tifa fell overboard. Vincent jumped, probably in an attempt to catch her. Cid thinks they went out over the mountains, but we’re not sure.”
“I see.” Reeve nodded in acknowledgement and turned his troubled gaze down to join Cloud in his intent perusal of the black beetle’s brave attempt to scale the soldier’s boot as he calculated the odds of Vincent’s success. Reeve had liberated some hidden files from Hojo’s database that concerned Vincent, and the little bit he’d managed to read led the executive to suspect the man capable of some amazing feats. However, from what he’d discovered so far, he knew the transformations were an unknown factor, probably even to Vincent himself. Reeve realized that Vincent’s altruistic act could very well have led to his death, and even if he had transformed and survived the jump, if he had failed to save Tifa they might never know for sure. If Tifa had fallen to her death because of his failure, he had no doubt that Vincent Valentine would effectively disappear, never to be seen again, and Reeve didn’t want to see that happen. He had plans for the ex-Turk.
“Let’s head back.” Reeve suddenly spoke, his firm voice reverberating in the quiet hum that filled the train tunnel. Cloud’s head shot up at his words, and Reeve met his questioning gaze with steady eyes. “We have a lot of planning to do. I may be able to arrange a pickup for our friends at the farm as well as a search for Tifa and Vincent, but I’ve some pressing matters to handle first.” Reeve spun on his heel and set off at a brisk pace. Cloud sprang into motion and drew abreast of him, questions burning in his mind as he hurried alongside the purposeful executive.
“How in the name of Odin are you going to manage that?” Cloud exclaimed. “You can’t even get yourself out of Midgar.”
“There’s a chopper coming in.” Reeve replied evenly. “We’ll use that.”
“Who is crazy enough to be flying a chopper here now?” Reeve didn’t answer immediately, and Cloud tried to catch Reeve’s eye, but the executive wouldn’t look at him.
“Reeve, are you going to answer me?” At his lack of response, Cloud grabbed Reeve’s shirtsleeve and dragged him to a stop.
“Well?” Cloud persisted, his edgy tone clearly reflecting his irritation with Reeve’s reticence.
“The Turks.” Reeve bit out. He pulled his sleeve from Cloud’s grasp and turned to face him.
“The Turks!?” Cloud exclaimed in astonishment. “Why?”
“Because I need them, that’s why.” Reeve started walking, but Cloud jumped in front of him and forced him to stop.
“But the Turks are Shinra.” He protested testily. “We don’t need them. Reno is going to be trouble. You know that.”
Reeve crossed his arms and sighed in exasperation. “Cloud, I am Shinra.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Cloud propped his hands on his hips and leaned in to glare into the taller man’s face. Reeve drew back at the fierce glow in his eyes.
“Look, I’m going to need everyone available if I’m to rebuild. Everyone. You, Cid, Barrett, every Shinra employee, the military, anybody who is willing and able. I have to restore order as soon as possible, and the Turks, in particular, will be instrumental in that task.” Reeve tried to step around Cloud, but the soldier merely shifted into his path again.
“Rebuild what?” Cloud’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Rebuild Midgar? Or rebuild Shinra?”
Reeve stared speechlessly as he wondered how much to tell him. He really didn’t have time to tell him much of anything right now. Finally, the executive lifted his hands beseechingly. “Please, just trust me. Okay? As the leader of Avalanche, you will be apprised of every step I make, I assure you. I want you to work right alongside me, if you are willing.”
Reeve and Cloud stared at each other for several long moments. Reeve didn’t blink as Cloud studied him closely, burning Mako eyes stabbing into wide brown ones. Cloud could see nothing but sincerity there, and he finally relented. “Okay.” He nodded his head slowly. “I’ll trust you, and I’ll work with you.” Reeve hooded his eyes, hiding the relief that filled him at Cloud’s words. “But you better not give me a reason to regret my decision.” Reeve shook his head at the soldier’s implied threat. “You have my word that won’t happen,” the executive promised. Cloud nodded again. “Good.” He finally relaxed his intimidating stance and stood aside. Reeve let out a slow breath and moved away. Cloud joined him as he headed down the tracks again.
“Don’t know if your Turks can make it, though.” Cloud idly remarked.
“Why do you say that?” Reeve asked carefully.
“Well, the storm’s pretty bad. Take some creative flying to bring a chopper in.”
“Storm?” Reeve’s eyes flew to Cloud’s face.
“Yeah, didn’t you know? Didn’t you notice the rain coming in through the great big holes in the plate? Although, it’s not that bad directly over Midgar, but further out the lightning and rain are pretty radical. Sometimes the wind too. Heavy black cloud cover over most of the area. Meteor probably caused it, or maybe the explosion…”
“Damn it!” Cloud’s words were abruptly cut off when Reeve grabbed his elbow and picked up the pace to a rapid walk, tugging Cloud along behind him. “Come on.” Reeve commanded impatiently. “Damn it all, hurry up! I have to bring them in!”
Suddenly, the harried executive released Cloud and burst into a full run. The blonde soldier watched in awe as he moved his own pace up to a trot, until Reeve disappeared around the next bend in the line. Then Cloud shook off his stupor and exploded into fluid motion, his boots pounding hard against the concrete as he finally set out after the Shinra executive in earnest.
“What the hell?” Cid glared at the pair crossing the field toward him. “Would ya look at that! Yuffie’s bringin' that crazy old woman with her!”
Barrett half-heartedly lifted his head to look toward the house, noted with mild interest that the old lady appeared overdressed for the occasion, at least by the current standards, and then he wearily let his chin fall to his chest once again. He felt so tired he thought he could sleep for about a week. When the rain had stopped, Cid had changed his mind about taking a nap, having determined that the optimum time to bury the fallen officer had arrived. So, the three of them had expended over an hour digging in the waterlogged earth without a break, and he had spent what little energy he’d recovered from the short snooze in the house. From behind barely cracked eyelids, he glanced at Jerol, who stood swaying in place beside him, obviously done in too. Cid, on the other hand, looked ready to run a race, bouncing nervously from one foot to the other.
“I hope she doesn’t mistake me for her dead old man again.” Cid muttered as he lifted a cigarette to his mouth and lit it with a match. Barrett just grunted in response. The grizzled Captain took a deep drag and held it in for a long moment before releasing the noxious vapor into the fresh, rain-scented air. Barrett’s eyebrows drew together in irritation as the smoky cloud drifted across his face. In his next breath, he inhaled the toxic substance into his lungs, and inevitably started coughing. He brought his hand up to wave the smoke away as he worked to bring his spasmodic coughing under control.
“Man, you better take something for that cold.” Cid absently suggested. “Before you get any sicker. You sound terrible.”
Barrett brought his hand up to cover his nose and glared at the oblivious pilot. “I am not sick. You’re choking me to death with those cancer sticks. As usual.”
Cid turned to look at the big man, scanning his distressed face with appraising eyes as a few stray coughs sputtered from his mouth. “That so? Well, you could always move.” Having provided an adequate solution, Cid turned his attention back to the approaching party, noticing that Red had joined up with them at some point.
“Move?” Outraged at the offhand suggestion, Barrett literally choked as he fought to keep his red-hot temper from gaining a toehold in his exhausted brain. “No matter where I stand, I always end up downwind from you!”
Cid shrugged. “Then move!” He retorted. “Just pick up those great big feet and move over there.” With his cigarette clenched between two fingers, he gestured across the freshly covered grave, his movement sending more acrid smoke swirling into the air.
A strangled sound tore from Barrett’s throat as he felt the bare grasp on his temper slipping away. “Why don’t YOU MOVE!” He bellowed. “Why do I have to move?!”
“Cuz they’re botherin’ you, not me. I don’t have a problem.” Cid gave a brisk nod of his head at the reasonableness of his answer.
Barrett paused and counted to ten as he pressed his fist tightly against his leg. “I have a better idea.” He continued in a slighter calmer vein. “Why don’t you just quit smoking, before you drop dead from a stroke or turn into a vegetable from lack of oxygen.”
“Cuz I don’t wanna quit.” Cid replied indifferently. “Besides, I wouldn’t mind bein’ a couch potato.”
Barrett felt his temper go, and this time he didn’t exert himself to contain it. “HOW ABOUT I TURN YOU INTO A SQUASH?!” He yelled at the top of his lungs. He threw out his ham-sized fist and yanked Cid toward him by the collar of his jacket. In a lightning move, he released the jacket and snatched the half-burned cigarette from the startled pilot’s hand. With a grunt of disgust, he shot it into the grass and stomped on it. While Cid watched with mild interest, Barrett ground the butt into the grass beneath his boot sole. He lifted his foot to look, and then stomped down to grind some more. The next time he looked, the cigarette had almost been completely obliterated, embedded in dirt and abused grass blades.
“Hmph! There!” Barrett raised triumphant eyes to Cid’s puzzled face. Unfazed, the unrepentant Captain merely shrugged and lifted his hand to draw another cigarette from the pack tucked behind his goggle strap. “I think you’re the one that’s about to stroke out.” Cid observed casually as he lifted the cigarette to his lips, completely disregarding the big man’s thunderstruck expression.
“Don’t you light that cigarette, Highwind.” Barrett growled threateningly.
“Why? Whatcha gonna do about it?” With a jerk of his wrist, the pilot struck a match against the side of his boot. Barrett shot out his hand and snatched the cigarette from Cid’s lips just as he raised the lit match. He snapped it in half between two fingers. Not satisfied with that, he moved in to stand toe to toe with the Captain, glowering down into his upturned face. Despite Barrett’s superior size, Cid stood his ground, idly flicking the match to the ground as he glared back. “Well? What now?” The Captain challenged. “You gonna pulp me? Hammer me into the ground? Rip off my lips? Huh?” Cid poked a hard finger into the bigger man’s broad chest. “Go ahead. Give it a shot. See just how far ya get.”
Barrett reached over the top of Cid’s head with his left hand and plucked the half-empty pack from behind the goggles. Holding the pack before the pilot’s nose, he slowly crushed it between his fingers, rolling the package around until he’d worked it into a tightly wadded ball. A cold smile formed on his face as he tucked it back behind the goggles. “Didn’t you say that was your last pack?” Barrett asked silkily. Cid brought gloved fists to his hips, his glittering blue eyes narrowing on Barrett’s smug face. “Now you are startin’ to piss me off.”
“Can we dispense with the testosterone games and get this over with?” Yuffie urged impatiently. Barrett and Cid both turned angry eyes on the girl’s frowning face. “If you guys feel the need to persist, I’m going back to the house.” Neither of the combatants responded, and her frown deepened. “You should be ashamed of yourself, Cid. Fighting over Lt. Keith’s grave when we are supposed to be here to honor him.”
Although Cid thought the statement ironic coming from the most shameless person he’d ever known, he knew she was right. Guiltily, he dropped his eyes from her accusatory stare and uneasily shuffled his feet.
“And you, Bear, are wasting your time.” Yuffie informed him. “Cid has a stash on board the Highwind that will last him for a couple of lifetimes. So give it up.”
“But…but he said it was his last pack!” Barrett argued as he turned toward Yuffie.
Yuffie threw her hands up in despair. “Think about it, Barrett. He always says it’s his last pack.” She raised her eyebrows in mute question. “Like is it ever?”
“She does have a point, Barrett.” Nanaki moved alongside Yuffie in tacit support of her argument. “Cid...” He shifted his eyes from one to the other, his disapproval evident in his expression.
Jerol moved up to stand beside Nanaki. “Captain, can we please begin?” The junior officer’s voice carried the sharp edge of his impatience, a tone rarely heard in the normally soft-spoken man, especially when addressing the Captain.
“Yeah, let’s do it.” Cid said gruffly. “Enough of this nonsense. Come on.” The Captain turned his back on Barrett and walked over to stand at the foot of the grave. Barrett straightened his wide shoulders and moved over to stand on Cid’s right. Nanaki and Jerol joined him there, the officer standing stiffly at attention, and the red beast settling to his haunches beside him. Yuffie drew the old woman along by the elbow as they stepped up to stand on Cid’s left. When she stopped at his side, Cid noticed the limp form of Cait Sith dangling over Yuffie’s arm.
“I see you got Cait back.” He tilted his head toward the robotic cat. “Dog bring him out?”
“No, he brought himself out...” Yuffie replied in a subdued voice. “…And he wants to talk to you.”
Cid eyed the lifeless machine skeptically. “He doesn’t look very talkative right now.”
“Yeah, I think he’s having a hard time.” Yuffie gazed sympathetically at the back of Cait’s head. “Oh well, I guess he’ll talk when he can.”
Cid lifted his shoulders in a dismissive shrug and turned his attention to the freshly turned soil that marked the final resting place of Lt. Brady Keith. On his cue, everyone else turned to look too.
For several moments, each of them gazed at the makeshift grave marker that Cid had fashioned from a displaced bulkhead section from the Highwind. A blanket of silence descended over the huddled group as the solemnity of the occasion took hold of each one’s mind. Cid studied the letters that Jerol had pressed into the metal plate, and the weight of his responsibility settled heavily in his heart. He dragged his eyes away to glance around the half-circle of still faces, every single one of them under his charge. His gaze paused on the already tear-streaked face of the old woman who pressed a lacy handkerchief against her trembling mouth. Well, every one except for one. He wrinkled his forehead in bewilderment at her presence. Then he forced his thoughts to the matter at hand. Clasping his hands together over his stomach, he drew in a long breath and cleared his throat.
“Well, I guess I’ll start…”
Avian stood at the gate and chewed the inside of his mouth as he watched the distant group beneath the big oak in the field and contemplated walking out to join them. Then he turned his head to glance over his shoulder at the front door of the farmhouse.
The Captain’s voice floated across the wide expanse and drew his attention back to the congregation around the makeshift grave. He strained his ears to hear the Captain’s words, but he could only make out a few here and there. Rampant curiosity drew him through the gate, and he took a few tentative steps across the hardpacked earth of the road. He paused again and listened. Now he could hear Barrett’s deep voice, all the words lost in his low rumble. Reluctantly, he looked back at the house again. He knew he might not find another opportunity like this one to retrieve his knife. With a start, he realized that Barrett had finished, and he could now hear the mellow voice of Nanaki, the even tone of the beast’s words incongruous with the sharp fanged visage that filled Avian’s mind.
Although he’d moved close enough now that he could hear most of what Nanaki said, he shut out the words. Necessity won out over curiosity. He just could not let this chance go. He whirled around and headed for the front door, his pace moving from a fast walk to a trot as he passed through the gate into the front yard. Leaping nimbly over the objects in his path, he made short work of the distance between the gate and the front stoop. He took the steps in one long jump and paused with his fingers on the doorknob.
His body stiff with tension, he turned his eyes to the group once more, this time with a particular interest in the ninja girl. As far as he could tell, all her attention remained focused on the proceedings, and she hadn’t noticed him at all. With a start, he realized that Nanaki had already finished, and the young lieutenant had taken up the reins, his voice so quiet that Avian could barely hear him speak at all. Obviously, the impromptu memorial service was moving right along. He didn’t have any more time to waste. With one watchful eye focused on the distant figure of the ninja girl, he pushed the door open and quickly slipped through.
“…And he didn’t even bat an eye when I threw up all over his spotless uniform…and he told really corny jokes, but he had a contagious laugh…” Yuffie ducked her head and surreptitiously dashed away a wayward tear with a quick swipe of her hand. “…And I think it’s really sad that he never had a chance to climb Dachau like he wanted…” She looked down at Cait’s dangling head and drew in a shaky breath. “May you rest in peace, Brady Keith.”
Hushed murmurs of assent rose around her, and Yuffie blinked the tears from her eyes as she took in all the down-turned faces. All except for the Captain, who met her gaze squarely, a look of approval in his blue eyes. Cid cleared his throat and opened his mouth to finish with his planned conclusion, but another voice intervened. At first, irritation compelled him to protest, but as he listened to the old woman’s words, spoken with quiet confidence, he squelched the urge and settled for watching her with wary eyes.
“…Though sadness may lie heavily in your hearts and a futile sense of guilt in your minds at the untimely passing of one so young, be comforted in the knowledge that the Lifestream will embrace and cradle the spirit energy of one so valiant and pure of heart, especially one who has selflessly given his life to preserve all existence on this planet…”
By this time, five pairs of eyes were focused in rapt attention on the old woman’s serene face. “What the…?” Cid’s lips moved imperceptibly as he mouthed the words, his intense blue eyes wide with astonishment.
“…Spirit energy flows throughout all eternity, moving in the great cycle that is life, all souls transcendent, moving in ever-turning circles, always linked to those who have gone before and those who remain. Know that this one’s spirit will ever be with you, all around you, and in a distant moment, you will know him again. Now, may his soul be released to return peacefully to the Planet.”
No one drew a breath, much less voiced a single word, when Lizbet finally fell silent, her oration at an end. Her final words fell into a well of profound silence, and the moments stretched long as each one watched her gaze solemnly at the marker of Brady Keith, someone she’d never met and couldn’t know.
Finally Nanaki bowed his head in humble homage. “So be it.” He spoke in acknowledgement, effectively breaking the deep quietude despite his soft voice. At his words, Lizbet looked up to find all eyes on her. Her fist flew to her mouth in surprise and tears welled in her frightened eyes. In the next moment, anguished wails erupted from her throat, and she fled, her pace an ungainly run as her wide heels kept catching in the muddy ground.
“Wait, Lizbet!” Yuffie took off after her, catching up quickly on her coltish legs, despite the added burden of the bouncing Cait Sith. The rest of the group watched as the old woman allowed the girl to take her elbow and lead her away, her sobs still rending the still air, underscored by Yuffie’s soothing voice as they moved toward the gate. Cid scratched his head in bewilderment and reached a hand to his breast pocket.
“There better not be another pack in there…” Barrett growled lowly.
Cid glared at him. “Will you give it a rest?” With two fingers, he drew a small object from his jacket pocket and closed it from view in a tight fist. Dragging his narrowed eyes from Barrett’s frowning face, he slowly stepped around the exposed soil of the fresh gravesite and knelt on one knee beside the burnished steel marker. Completely ignoring the puzzled faces around him, he carefully pressed the object into the mud at the foot of the metal plate. With an affirmative nod, he pushed himself up, straightening his shoulders when he reached his full height. Absently wiping his muddy fingers against his trousers leg, he shot a baleful glare across the questioning faces of the small group and lifted his grizzled chin. “It’s done.” Before anyone could respond to his terse remark, he turned on his heel and walked away, setting a brisk pace as he moved off toward the Highwind.
Nanaki drew his attention from Cid’s swiftly diminishing form and covered the few feet to the grave marker, crossing the mushy ground on four stealthy paws. He dropped his nose to examine the object with an appraising amber eye.
“It’s a medal!” Barrett commented as he peered over Nanaki’s feather bedecked head. “A pretty fancy one too.”
Nanaki nodded silently as he studied the tiny shield ornamented with a cluster of leaves and a pair of crossed swords, all attached to a tattered red and black ribbon gathered beneath a set of widespread silver wings.
“It’s the Medallion of Supreme Valor!” Lt. Jerol exclaimed, his wide eyes filling with awe as he gazed down. “He gave Brady his Medal of Valor!”
“Medal of Valor?” Nanaki raised his head to peer into Jerol’s stunned face.
“Don’t you know?” Jerol shifted his round eyes from the question-filled feline face to the puzzled visage of the man that towered alongside him. He shook his head sadly at their ignorance. “Captain Highwind was awarded the Medallion of Supreme Valor after he was shot down by enemy fire during the Adamantine Valley Campaign. He managed to cover over thirty miles despite serious injuries to deliver a communiqué that saved an entire troop from ambush.” Jerol sighed at the incomprehension in his two companions' eyes. “Well…it’s in the history books. The military history books anyway. You should read about it sometime.” He lifted one shoulder in a dismissive shrug and walked away, his smart step carrying him quickly across the soft ground as he traced the Captain’s path to the distant airship.
Nanaki and Barrett eyed each other. “Did you know that?” Nanaki asked curiously. Barrett slowly shook his head. “Nope. Sure didn’t.” He tilted his head in thought. “Hell, I was workin’ in the coal mines back then. Didn’t have time to worry about the war.” Nanaki nodded absently as his thoughts shuffled through all the information he knew about the Shinra-Wutai War.
“So…what now?” Barrett queried as he stared into the distance, his mind turning to Tifa again as he traced the sharp mountain ridge with sad, brown eyes.
“I’m going to the house.” Nanaki announced in a firm voice.
“What?!” Barrett brought his startled gaze to bear on the beast’s determined face. “What for?”
“I want to talk to that woman.” His beaded locks swung wildly around his face as he swept a narrow eye toward the farmhouse. “I believe there is much I can learn from her. Particularly in regards to the fate of the Protectors…” Nanaki’s voice faded as he slipped away, Barrett’s presence already forgotten as he single-mindedly sought out his goal, padding across the ground on wide paws.
“Have fun then!” Barrett called out. “I hope ya make it out alive!” Nanaki paid him no mind, and Barrett crossed his arms as he watched the beast go. “I think I’ll just head for Kalm.” He informed no one in particular, especially as no one was around to hear anymore. “Yep, think that’s what I’m gonna do. Go to Kalm. Right now.” He dropped his arms back to his side and set off with a firm step. “Gonna go see Marlene. Make sure she’s okay…”
Ten feet into his journey, hard splatters of cold rain pelted against his head and arms. Another ten feet passed beneath his boots, and the shower became a deluge, soaking his clothes through in a few seconds. Still determined, he picked up his pace, squinting his eyes as the rivulets of water ran from his hair into his face. He made it ten more feet, and a string of colorful words erupted from his mouth. Abruptly, he wheeled from his path and veered off toward the Highwind.
High and dry beneath the superstructure, Cid leaned on the deck rail and watched him come, wondering if the man had lost his senses, stomping around in the pouring rain like that. Absently, he drew a cigarette from the fresh pack tucked behind his goggles as he watched Barrett Wallace tromp up the lowered cargo ramp. He struck the match sharply against the rail and lifted it. He paused with his eyes locked on the dancing flame and actually thought about not lighting up, remembering the argument with Barrett about his smoking. The corners of his mouth lifted in a smirk, and he touched the flame to the end of his cigarette, drawing the smoke deep into his lungs. “Well hell…” He muttered as he released the noxious cloud along with his words. “…Everyone's gotta go sometime.”
An unladylike curse exploded from Elena’s pink-tinted lips as another hard gust of rain-driven wind slammed into the hapless chopper, sending the machine sideways before Reno could compensate. She tightened her already white-knuckled fists even tighter around the straps of her harness and dragged in a ragged breath in an attempt to settle her churning stomach. If they remained airborne in the storm much longer, she was going to be sick.
“Hmmm…maybe that wasn’t Locke’s Pillar…” Reno pondered aloud, his calm voice grating on Elena’s tangled nerves.
“Admit it, Reno.” Elena spat into the mouthpiece. “You have no earthly clue where we are.”
“Trust me, Elena.” Reno reassured her. “I know right where we are.”
“Is that right?” The sarcasm dripped from her voice. “And where is that?”
A cold smile touched Reno’s lips at the strangled gurgle transmitted through the headpiece, but the satisfaction at having rendered Elena speechless did little to relieve the tension that held his body taut in his seat as he constantly struggled with the controls to keep the chopper in stable flight.
He reviewed his memory of the pinnacle of rock he’d barely missed. His gut instinct told him that he was right, but if that was the case, they should have reached Midgar by now, unless he’d totally miscalculated the direction. Already, he was flying as low as he dared and had yet to drop beneath the heavy cloud cover. In truth, he could possibly have flown over the city and be headed out over the ocean again. With the instruments malfunctioning, there was no way to know for sure. He didn’t want to admit it, not to himself and especially not to his passengers, but he had to consider the fact that they were completely lost inside the rain-engorged clouds. He pursed his thin lips in serious contemplation, and stubbornly decided that he wasn’t ready to concede.
He settled deeper into his seat and looked over his shoulder at the serene face of the alleged Caitlin Shinra. She noticed his regard and met his casual gaze squarely; her blue eyes steady on his face, eyes so like her brother’s that a chill touched his spine. The demands of flight drew his attention back to the front, but he could still feel the weight of her stare.
“So Ms. Shinra, would you care to elaborate on our mysterious mission to Midgar?” Reno’s light tone didn’t project his intense interest in the answer or his tightly focused concentration on flying the helicopter through the storm.
Reno smiled agreeably. “Caitlin, then.”
The woman didn’t respond, and the redheaded Turk let several moments pass as he steered the chopper toward a distant rift in the dark clouds.
“Well, Caitlin?” He finally prompted.
Caitlin stirred in her seat, pulling her attention from the sharp lines of the Turk’s face to stare out her window. “I don’t really know anything.” She shot a surreptitious glance from the corner of her eye to find his inscrutable green eyes studying her face, and she chose to ignore him this time, closely examining the intermittent flashes of lightning that lit up the whole sky around.
Reno turned to face the windscreen again, the corner of his mouth lifting in amusement. “Why is it that I think you do?”
Caitlin sighed and crossed her arms protectively over her stomach. “Look, Mr. Reno...”
“Just Reno, please.”
“Okay then…Reno…” She started again. “I’m a nobody. I don’t know anything. I’m just an artist and a m…” Caitlin clamped her mouth shut in alarm. She’d almost given herself away and nearly exposed Heidi’s existence to this calculating man. Deceit didn’t come easily to her, especially after being removed from the machinations of the Shinra empire for so long, but she would have to be more careful. She couldn’t put Heidi at risk, no matter what else occurred.
“And a what?” Reno pursued in his silky voice.
She lifted her head. “And a…” Thoughts raced through her mind as she scrambled for something to say. Something that would fit, knowing all the while that he could see straight through her. “…A…a…” Well aware that she was as transparent as glass, she stopped talking and lifted her chin, forcing herself to bring narrowed eyes to bear on the Turk’s smug face. “Look Reno, I’ve been out of things for awhile, and quite frankly, I would prefer to remain that way. But as it happens, my past has come back to claim its due. So whatever this is about, I plan to get it behind me and go home, as soon as possible.”
“I see.” Reno’s tone conveyed the fact that he did see, quite clearly. “Well, since you’ve no additional information to offer on that matter, perhaps you can tell me how someone who has died quite publicly, like yourself, could then turn up alive a decade later on a cleverly isolated island.”
“Actually, I’d rather not.” Caitlin responded smoothly, despite the fact that butterflies had taken up residence in her stomach. “And I wish you’d stop asking questions for which I have no answers.” His gaze returned to her face, and Caitlin’s heart quailed in fear at the dangerous glint in the depths of his dark pupils, but she refused to let it show, lifting her chin to an imperious angle and letting her eyes fill with icy disdain. She wasn’t afraid of him anyway. She was afraid of what he could find out.
Reno pinned her with a reptilian stare despite the fact that he could sense Rude’s icy disapproval. Caitlin Shinra seemed as cool as a cucumber, but he could almost smell her fear of him, a weakness that he could easily detect from well-honed instincts developed as a child fighting for survival on the streets of the Midgar slums, a weakness he could readily exploit if need be. He smiled and turned away, letting his gaze slide across the black shades of Rude’s sunglasses, noting the big Turk’s tight-lipped appraisal of him before he faced forward again.
“Your wish is my command…Caitlin…” He responded laconically. He’d bide his time for now, but he would get his answers, one way or another, whether Rude liked it or not. Then he would make his decision. Until then, it was his job to protect Caitlin Shinra and deliver her safely to the traitorous Mr. Phoenix, who by virtue of his status as the only Shinra executive still breathing, put him in charge. In charge of the Turks. In charge of the military. In charge of Shinra, Inc. In charge of every damn thing. What part Caitlin Shinra would play remained to be seen.
“Any sign of Midgar, Rude?” Reno peered through the rain-splattered window on his left. Although the lightning still flashed occasionally, the rain had stopped for the moment, and he could see the misty silhouette of the Midgar range looming alongside. As long as he continued to fly the chopper on its current heading, the chances of a collision were slim even at this altitude. The tall antennae of the city were the only potential hazard at this point, and he kept a keen eye out for the first sign of one.
“No.” Although the one word reply was typical of Rude, the clipped tone in his terse answer conveyed his irritation with Reno. The red-haired Turk raised an eyebrow and glanced in Rude’s direction. The big Turk studiously ignored him. Reno shrugged and started to inquire about the current condition of the instrumentation, but he became aware of a muted beeping sound that he realized he’d been hearing for at least a minute or so. He let his eyes slide across the panel, looking for the source of the unfamiliar beep.
“Do you hear that?” He absently questioned as he fruitlessly searched.
“Hear what?” Elena snapped into the mouthpiece.
“That beeping…” He looked up from the panel and looked at Rude who shook his head in response. They both returned bewildered eyes to the instruments.
“It’s your compad.” Elena pointed out irritably. “Under your seat.”
Reno listened for a moment. “So it is. Can you reach it, Elena?” He knew he didn’t dare relinquish control of the chopper for even the few seconds it would take to retrieve the machine.
Elena rolled her eyes and unfastened her harness. Bending down, she reached beneath Reno’s seat and wrapped her slim fingers around the edge of the black box, biting her lip as she carefully wriggled it from the tight space. A sudden movement of the helicopter sent the crown of her head into the metal seatback, and she cursed as she nearly dropped the small computer, the edge of the plastic case banging noisily against the floor.
“Careful with that thing.” Reno admonished.
She didn’t bother to reply as she lifted the computer to her lap and lifted the lid. The beeping immediately ceased. The computer had already been activated and a patterned grid filled the flat monitor screen. Two green blips winked in the middle of the grid, one of them dead center, the other just offset.
“Well?” Reno asked impatiently. “What is it?”
“It’s a coordinate grid.” She answered happily, a smile stretching across her face as she leaned forward to hand the computer over to Rude who had turned in his seat to watch her.
Reno glanced at the monitor as Rude settled the machine on his lap. “Looks like Mr. Phoenix was kind enough to send us his position.” He commented wryly. “And ours as well.”
Rude nodded. “Yes.” He lifted his eyes. “We are almost on top of it. Less than a mile.”
Reno straightened in his seat and tightened his fingers on the controls. He leaned forward slightly as he strained to see through the thick cloud cover. A tense silence filled the helicopter cabin as the seconds ticked past, all eyes staring out the window for a sign of the huge city. The seconds stretched into long minutes, and Reno contemplated the possibility that the entire planet had become shrouded in the thick mist. He was seriously wondering if he would even be able to see Midgar from overhead when the chopper abruptly burst into open air.
“Watch out!” Elena screamed, her shrill words searing into Reno’s brain even as he lifted the chopper over the crest of the savaged Shinra Tower.
“Ah…guess I was lower than I thought…” Reno’s voice faded into the stunned silence as the chopper swept out over the ravaged cityscape. He slumped weakly in his harness at the incomprehensible destruction that lay before his eyes.
The chopper passed over the edge of the circular plate, soaring out over the Midgar Plain, and he mechanically brought the machine around for another pass, dropping in altitude and airspeed to skim the surface as he searched for a clear place to set down. With three sections caved in and the remainder of the top plate virtually covered in wreckage, no viable landing spot immediately presented itself. Eyeing the wedge-shaped gap where the Sector 7 plate had once been, an idea came to him, and he slowed the chopper to a standstill, hovering over the dark abyss that was all that remained of the once vital Sector beneath.
He glanced around the cabin at his captive passengers, his eyes pausing first on Rude whose calm mien and relaxed posture revealed nothing but cool indifference. However, the sight of his big hands tightly clasped to his knees betrayed his level of stress. Reno turned his head, and his gaze collided with Caitlin Shinra’s wide blue eyes, vibrant in a face drained of all color. Uneasy beneath the unwanted attention, she shifted in her seat and unclasped her white-knuckled hands to fold her arms around her waist, a violent shudder visibly coursing through her body as she dragged her eyes away from his and returned her regard to the city below. Elena he couldn’t see, but he could hear her rapid breaths in his ear as she fought back her tears, uncharacteristically silent in her distress. He knew that would end soon.
“I’m going in.” He announced as he turned his eyes front again. He hunched his shoulders against the attack he knew would come, although it did take a few moments for the reaction to set in.
“W…what?!” Elena exclaimed, her voice hoarse with unshed tears. “You can’t mean you are going to fly this chopper in there!”
He shrugged nonchalantly. “I’ve done it before.”
“Not with the city all torn up!” She leaned forward to peer around the back of his seat. “You’ll get the blades tangled!” Her thoughts grew frantic at his seeming indifference, and she grabbed his shoulder. “We’ll crash! You can’t go in there!”
“Well, I am. So buckle up.” His adamant words left no room for argument, but she tried anyway.
“Just land somewhere! We’ll find another way in! Please don’t go down there!” She dug her manicured nails into his thin shoulder as she pleaded with him.
He turned a glittering eye on her tearful face. “Elena, do not embarrass me. Be a Turk.” Her face froze in shock at his icy words, his admonition a literal slap in the face. She jerked her hand away as though she’d been scalded and released him to fall limply back into her seat.
Elena’s face flushed with shame, and she looked askance at Caitlin, only to find her staring intently out the side window. A glance at Rude found him facing forward, expressionless as usual. What was the matter with her? She had to admit that the sight of the city had shaken her much more than she’d expected. Still, she had to get a grip on herself. Setting her jaw in determination, she yanked the harness straps around her and snapped them together with smart efficiency. Schooling her face into a mask of cold calmness that she didn’t feel, she leaned back into her seat and nodded her head.
“Yessir.” Though her chin trembled as she spoke, she kept her voice firm. “I’m ready.”
“Good.” Reno replied tersely. Without another word to anyone, he sent the chopper into a slow descent, flipping on the exterior lights as the machine slowly dropped straight down into the huge rift. Elena crossed her arms over her stomach when the helicopter sank completely below the upper plate level, and she bit the inside of her lip when Reno eased into forward motion.
Almost immediately, the partially collapsed framework of several stories of maintenance platforms loomed into view as the headlight beam cut a wide swathe through the darkness. Reno swept the chopper out around the twisted mess, only to be confronted with a curtain of dangling electrical wires and hoses. He dove beneath those to clear them, and then pulled up sharply to skim over the top of a high retaining wall. The redheaded Turk increased the forward velocity as the chopper shot out in the open space beneath the upper plate, the bright beams of the chopper lights the only thing that kept the deep darkness at bay.
Elena nearly screamed when a long expanse of train track and wires suddenly appeared in their path, but Reno merely dove down into the well of light, following the dangling length of tangled steel and cable until he could swoop beneath. Elena wanted to scream at him to slow down, tear out his red hair by the fistfuls, and call him all the aptly descriptive names that hovered on the tip of her tongue, but she didn’t. She did the next best thing. She squeezed her eyes tightly closed and imagined herself on the roller coaster at The Gold Saucer, picking off a couple of hundred balloons, stars, UFOs, and Renos with her pistol. The pleasant images made her smile despite her fear. Just like the wild ride at the amusement park, this trip would soon be over. One way or another.
Cloud watched silently as Reeve slipped the palm-sized computer into his trousers and reached for the telemetric gear that would allow him to control Cait Sith. He dropped onto one of the nearby crates and spoke as the blonde soldier moved up behind him. “The chopper will be here shortly.” He informed him in a matter-of-fact voice. “I’m going to attempt to contact Cid again before the Turks arrive.”
Reeve glanced up to find Cloud peering curiously over his shoulder, the glowing blue eyes traveling over the various electronic gadgets spread across the slatted tabletop. With a slight smile, the executive lifted the headpiece and fitted it to his head, flipping the opaque visor down over his eyes. He settled the whole contraption into place and pushed the microphone closer to his lips. Then he drew a pair of plastic and cloth gloves over each hand, the exterior of each one lined with indicators and buttons.
“So that’s how you make Cait move?” Cloud lifted a finger toward Reeve’s hands. The executive tilted his head. “Well yes and no.” Lifting the gloves, he looked up into Cloud’s face, his eyes hidden from view though he could still see through the deactivated lenses. “Cait operates mostly from basic internal programming. The dancing, the fortune-telling, simple conversational responses, battle movements, etcetera. However, I can override any of his functions at any time as well as upload alterations in programming as the situation might demand.”
“I see…” Cloud’s eyes narrowed on Reeve’s upturned face. “So…sometimes you were watching and sometimes you weren’t.”
“Most of the time, I wasn’t.” Reeve examined Cloud’s face carefully, the slight hint of disdain in the soldier’s voice setting his nerves on edge. “My normal duties typically kept me busy. Cait records all video and audio input for review at a later time. That’s how I kept abreast of events. Of course, there were situations that I had to handle, like the retrieval of the Black Materia at the Temple of the Ancients…which turned out to be rather strange…on my end that is…” Reeve paused in thought. “…And, as you know, I used Cait to keep you informed as to Shinra’s movements…” Reeve fell silent as he waited apprehensively for the soldier’s response.
One corner of Cloud’s mouth lifted in a wry smile. “Yeah, you did.” He uncrossed his arms to sweep a hand toward the executive’s gloved hands. “Well, let’s get on with it. I want to see how it works.”
Relieved, Reeve nodded and turned his attention to the controls. “Yes, we haven’t much time.” With one gloved finger, he punched the button on the opposite glove that would bring the cybernetic cat online and back to life.
“Wait, Lizbet! Don’t go! I want to tell…” The reverberating slam of the bedroom door effectively cut off her words. The girl shrugged her slight shoulders indifferently. “Oh well, guess it’s been kind of a long day already...”
Yuffie kicked the front door closed with the toe of her sneaker and headed down the hall to the library, the idea of stacking the deck for the next round of games foremost in her mind. She might even slip a couple of cards into her socks. She needed to gain an advantage somewhere. As she entered the room, she tossed the inanimate Cait Sith over the back of the overstuffed sofa and crossed over to the heavy library table. Dropping into the chair, she gathered the cards in her hands and started flipping through them, completely oblivious to the fact that the robotic cat had hit the sofa cushion, bounced once to clatter to the floor, and then nimbly jumped to his feet.
“Hey, Yuffie!” The cat sang out. “Where’s Cid?”
Yuffie lifted her eyes to glare at the comical feline face that peered at her over the back of the sofa, the little chin resting on clasped mittened hands. “He’s on the Highwind. Where else?”
“Would you take me to him, please?” The cat implored in his singsong voice.
Yuffie sniffed disdainfully. “Hey, I took you to Cid once already, and you didn’t have a thing to say.”
“Yes, I know, I really appreciate that, but some pressing matters came up. Could you take me now?”
Yuffie slipped a Golden Chocobo card from the deck and slid it into the top of her sock. “Nope.”
Cait Sith jumped up to sit on the back of the sofa, throwing his hands out as he spoke. “Why not? I need to speak to him.”
“Because it’s raining cats and dogs outside, and I’m not going out there if I don’t have to.”
Cait sat silently for several moments as Yuffie carefully dog-eared a Silver Shiva card. She slid it back into the deck and looked up at him, lifting an eyebrow at his uncharacteristic stillness.
“Well? You still there Reeve?” She finally asked.
At the lack of response, she rolled her eyes and bent to shove a Black Joker into her other sock, but the card slipped from her fingers. She leaned down and stretched to retrieve it just as the cat suddenly sprang into motion, jumping down from the sofa to scamper across the floor. She paused with her fingertips on the edge of the card and raised her eyes to look into his whiskered face as he swayed in front of her.
“I have to go now. Would you give Cid a message for me?”
Yuffie nodded. “Yeah, sure. No problem.” She lifted the card to slide it into her sock, but froze as she stared at the bare floor.
“Tell him I’m sending a chopper to bring you all here, but he should know that the pilot will be…”
“Well, that son of a guttersnipe!” The loud exclamation overrode Cait’s musical voice. She sprang to her feet.
“Yuffie, are you listening?” Cait waved his hands in the air to regain her attention.”
She glared around the room. “Oh yeah, I’m listening…” She retorted. “Somebody stole my Conformer.”
“Yuffie…tell Cid…that one of the Turks…”
“Somebody with a death wish.”
The girl suddenly erupted into motion and dashed from the room.
“Yuffie? Did you hear me?” Cait called out as he skipped through the doorway into the empty hall. “Blast it, where did she go?” Cait folded his hands together and crumpled to the floor.
Mr. Alexander!” Coakley poked his head in the door for the third time. “That chopper’s down now.”
Reeve impatiently ripped the gloves from his hands and tossed them aside, followed by the headpiece, which hit the splintered tabletop with a clatter.
“Okay okay, we’re coming.” He jumped to his feet and stalked toward the open doorway, Cloud falling in just behind.
“Problems?” He inquired cautiously.
“Yeah, Yuffie.” Reeve huffed. “She’s off on a tangent. Who knows if she’ll even remember to talk to Cid?”
Cloud grinned. “Depends on what she’s up to.”
“Well, I have no clue. Something about a stolen Conformer. Whatever it is, I don’t have time to worry about it now.” Reeve turned to Coakley. “Where did you say they landed?”
“Sector 6, east of Wall Market. You know…in the Dead Zone…”
Reeve nodded and looked off in the direction indicated, craning his neck to see through the milling crowd. “Hmm…might be tricky to get to from here.” He absently raked his fingers through his neatly trimmed beard as he pondered the problem. Suddenly, he turned and set off in another direction, glancing at the two soldiers as he strode away. “Come on, Cloud. This way. I know a shortcut.”
Cloud and Coakley looked at each other. “Guess he knows his way around pretty good.” Coakley commented as he turned back toward the ramshackle headquarters of Shinra, Inc., his duty to keep a close eye on Reeve’s stuff.
“Yeah, seems so…” Cloud muttered to himself with the quirk of one blonde eyebrow. He shrugged and strode out after the fast moving executive.
Reno shut down the chopper and killed the exterior lights. He looked around at his silent passengers, their still faces barely visible in the ambient internal glow from the digital instruments. He suspected that the fact that they were safely on the ground hadn’t quite caught up to them yet. He stared through the windscreen, but he couldn’t make out anything in the thick darkness. He found the same view through his side window. Some light would have been helpful, but this part of Sector 6 had never been well lit anyway. Besides, he knew the area like the back of his hand. After all, he’d spent his formative years among the squalid tenements and back alleys here. It wouldn’t take him long to find what he was looking for.
“Hand me that flashlight.” He reached his hand over his shoulder, and Elena finally stirred in her seat, forcing her stupefied mind to life at the sound of his voice, the curt words quite loud in the muffled interior of the cockpit. Before she could react to his command, he impatiently snapped his fingers, and she frowned in irritation.
“Get a move on, Elena.” He half-turned to look over his shoulder even though he couldn’t see her. “We can’t stay here long.”
Elena unbuckled her harness and twisted around to reach behind Caitlin’s seat. Flipping the lid up on the metal compartment, she retrieved the flashlight from its usual place and shoved it into his open hand.
“Thank you.” He flipped the light on and then off again. Satisfied that the light operated and held a full charge, he turned to Rude. The big Turk had removed his sunglasses and now watched him with wary brown eyes.
“Rude, you and…Caitlin…stay put.” Rude nodded in acknowledgement and Reno pinned his narrow-eyed gaze on Caitlin’s pale face. “That means inside the chopper. With the doors secured.” He stared at her until she dutifully inclined her head in assent. Reno stared at her for a moment longer, and then shifted in his seat to swing the door open.
“Elena, you’re with me.” He tucked his nightstick under his arm and jumped to the ground. As he waited for her to join him, he flipped on the light and swept it around, taking in the dank concrete retaining wall alongside, every square inch covered with the arcane symbols of gang graffiti. He turned to shine the light on the open area before him. The damp concrete beneath his feet stretched away into darkness, the oily surface of a large puddle gleaming in the flashlight’s beam. Something skittered just beyond the circle of illumination, and he jerked the light in that direction, only to catch a blur of movement as a creature of some sort dodged into a stack of old tires and car hoods.
Elena stepped up beside him, drawing her gun from the shoulder holster beneath her jacket to hold it in both hands, the barrel pointed to the ground. “Where are we anyway?” Her voice echoed off the high walls on either side of them.
Reno started walking across the littered pavement, the brilliant beam barely making inroads in the deep gloom. She kept pace with him, her shoes hardly making a sound as she glided alongside, her senses alert to the darkness surrounding them.
“The Dead Zone.” Her eyes flew to his face, his features ghostly pale in the glow of the flashlight. His offhand tone didn’t mask the seriousness of his response in Elena’s mind.
“The Dead Zone!” Reno didn’t bother to look around at her exclamation. “Have you lost your mind!?”
“There’s nothing to worry about, Elena...” A rueful smile touched his face. “…As long as you keep your eyes open.”
“It’s just a bit further.” Reeve spoke over his shoulder. “At least, I think it is. It’s been awhile since I checked out this part of the system…”
Cloud skeptically eyed the odorous sludge that oozed against the cracked concrete ledge at his feet. He wrinkled his nose at the fruity stench and wondered just how far Reeve’s shortcut actually stretched. Already, they’d passed through at least six different levels of the underground sewage system, and although he’d made use of the crumbling tunnels beneath the slums once before, however unwillingly, he was more than ready to reach the exit, even if it did dump him out into the backside of Sector 6.
“Isn’t it a bit dangerous to be knocking around in that area, Reeve?” Cloud idly queried. The blonde warrior wasn’t too worried about himself. He could cut a wide path with his sword, but if the scurrilous residents of The Dead Zone were lying in ambush, Reeve wouldn’t fare too well with his flashlight and compad. “Maybe you better let me go first.”
“No, it’s fine. The military has cleared the entire area of people due to the unavailability of emergency lighting sources, and of course, because of the potential threat to the evacuees. There should be no one in there but a small patrol detail.”
Cloud retained serious doubts that the Shinra military had managed to completely remove the resourceful denizens of The Dead Zone. “Man, I hope you’re right…” Cloud muttered dubiously
“Me too…” Reeve’s murmured response floated back.
Something scampered across Cloud’s boot, and he looked down, unable to see much of anything in the shadow cast backward by Reeve’s light. Probably just a rat. Nothing to concern him. He’d encountered much worse down here.
Reeve suddenly stopped in his tracks and swept the flashlight beam across the low concrete ceiling overhead. Cloud stopped beside him and let his eyes track the row of rust-pitted metal rungs that led to an equally rusted hatch overhead.
“I think this is the one.” Reeve frowned as he scanned the wall for the long obliterated markings. “Used to be numbers here…”
Cloud lifted his shoulders. “Guess there’s only one way to find out.” Reeve nodded in agreement and slipped his flashlight into his pocket.
“Okay, let’s do it.” His jaw set with determination, he started climbing.
Reno turned into a long, narrow alleyway, his flashlight beam sliding over the glistening mildewed brick walls. Elena followed just behind, stepping up to walk alongside, her weapon still held ready. She had yet to see anything that posed a threat, but that didn’t mean that she wouldn’t.
“Through here.” Reno slipped between the tight space where the two dilapidated buildings on each side nearly touched. She sniffed in disgust when her jacket brushed one grimy wall as she passed. A child of the sunny climes of Costa del Sol, she couldn’t even imagine how someone would want to come here, much less live here.
Reno came to a halt at the edge of a metal rectangle set in the pavement in the dark corner of the claustrophobic triangular space where they’d ended up.
“So, what are we doing…”
Reno threw out a hand as she moved closer, interrupting her petulant query and staying her in place. “Ssssh. Listen.” He whispered.
In the silence, the metallic clangs rose quite clearly to street level. Elena jerked her head up to lock eyes with Reno. He inclined his head toward the narrow gap behind them. She nodded and dove for the exit, Reno right on her heels. Elena slid through and flattened her back against the nasty wall with a grimace. Reno clicked off the flashlight and settled himself into position on the opposite side just as the steel door banged back against the brick wall with a reverberating clank. A chilly smile of anticipation curved across Reno’s face as the sound of a muted voice reached his ears.
“Yes, this is the right place.” Reeve reported happily, lifting himself onto the pavement to get out of Cloud’s way. The blonde soldier shoved himself out of the hatchway and sprang to his feet as the executive drew out his light and moved away.
“Over here.” He called back as he sidled through the narrow gap. “The chopper should be just beyond these tenements in a…eeeep…”
Cloud froze in his tracks at Reeve’s startled cry, and slowly stepped out of sight as he reached over his shoulder to unsheathe his sword. He wanted to call out, but he didn’t’ dare reveal himself on the possibility that he hadn’t been noticed.
Reeve threw his hands in the air, his flashlight beam swinging wildly across the wall with the movement. The gun barrel pressed hard against his temple, and he cried out when someone tore the small flashlight from his numb fingers.
Abruptly, the light erupted into his face, and he squinted his eyes against the painful brightness of the krypton bulb. He started at the touch of a hard object against the underside of his chin. His assailant exerted upward pressure and lifted his chin to an uncomfortable angle. Reeve didn’t dare resist with the gun pointed at his head.
“Well well…looks like we’ve bagged ourselves a Shinra executive…” The low voice drawled. “The only one left in fact…wonder what that’s worth…”
Suddenly, the light clicked off, and Reeve opened his eyes to darkness. Pensively, he listened to the momentary silence and waited for his pupils to adjust as he fought to keep from trembling, all the while wondering how long Cloud would wait to rescue him.
Just as abruptly as it had vanished, the light clicked back on. Reeve gasped at the sight of the gauntly shadowed, scarred face and feral green eyes illuminated in the beam.
Reno grinned wickedly at the abject terror on the urban manager’s face. “But then I guess that makes you…the boss…doesn’t it?”
The gun barrel and nightstick were withdrawn, and Reeve slumped weakly against the wall as he fought to maintain some semblance of decorum despite his wildly pounding heart.
“So who you travelin’ with? Avalanche?” Reno inquired in his silky voice as he pressed the small flashlight into Reeve’s limp hand.
Reeve pushed himself away from the wall and turned to face the narrow gap. Momentarily, Cloud appeared and paused in the opening as he pointedly resheathed his sword.
“Indeed.” Reno remarked, letting his gaze slide insolently from the toes of Cloud’s boots to the top of his spiky head. “This does not speak well to your credibility, Mr. Alexander. Or shall I call you…Mr. Phoenix?” With an arch of an eyebrow, he turned his attention to Reeve.
Reeve chose to get to the point and hopefully circumvent the Leader of the Turk’s sharp gibes. He squared his shoulders and took a step toward Reno. Although, he couldn’t see her, he knew Elena lurked in the shadows to his right. He had caught the scent of the heady aroma of an expensive perfume that he doubted Rude would wear. He decided to ignore her presence for the moment.
“Did you bring her?” The executive inquired in a firm tone. He propped his hands on his hips and stood his ground when Reno took a step toward him, although he nearly flinched when the redheaded Turk tapped his nightstick against his chest.
“Well, Boss, you know quite well I brought her.” The corner of Reno’s mouth lifted in a smirk. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be landing in this hellhole of a city.”
Reeve eyed him cautiously. “Where is she?”
“In a safe place.”
“Well, let’s go get her. There are important matters that must be discussed, and we need to get back.”
“I’ll go get her. You wait here. With Elena.” Reno gave Reeve’s shirtfront a final tap with the nightstick and whirled away, lifting the flashlight to illuminate his way as he strode purposefully toward the entrance of the alley. The redheaded Turk gave a flippant wave as he disappeared around the front of the building.
Reeve impulsively open his mouth to make a pointed observation about the obnoxious Turk, but he clamped his mouth shut when Elena emerged from the shadows, a cool hazel-eyed stare focused unwaveringly on his face. Irritated, he crossed his arms and leaned against the wall to wait.
Caitlin lifted her head. Several long moments had passed in complete silence but for the soft respiration of the two occupants of the locked cockpit. Rude hadn’t shown any inclination to make conversation, and she hadn’t made any attempt to start one. Suddenly, she unsnapped her harness with a sharp click and left her seat to climb over into the pilot seat.
Rude turned to look at her curiously as she settled herself into place, but when she lifted her eyes to his face, he looked away. She reached over to touch his sleeve, but paused when she noticed the gun he held across his knee. She drew away and leaned back into the seat with a deep sigh.
“I suppose you’d like an explanation…” He didn’t move a muscle to acknowledge her hesitant words.
“Not really.” He responded softly.
She studied his expressionless face dubiously.
“I’ll tell you if you want me to.” She offered in a low murmur, her voice barely audible to his ears.
Rude lifted his shoulders in seeming indifference.
“Your business.” He pointed out tersely.
“You don’t want to know why I’m alive when I’m supposed to be dead?” She queried sharply in surprise.
“I can guess.” He replied wryly.
“You might be surprised…” She murmured.
“I doubt it.” He replied bluntly.
She bowed her head sorrowfully. “You are angry at me…”
Rude turned his brown eyes to her face, his steely expression softening as he looked at her.
“No, Caitlin. I’m not angry.” She lifted her eyes to meet his warm gaze. “It’s just that the less you tell me, the better off we’ll both be, and I doubt I could discover anything that has occurred within the Shinra organization that could surprise me anymore. It is enough for me to know that you are alive.”
Caitlin nodded in understanding and lowered her eyes when Rude broke their gaze and faced forward again.
She stared at her clasped hands. “I’m sorry about Tseng.”
“Thank you.” He replied gruffly.
“Do you want to talk about what happened?” She held her breath as she waited for his reply.
“I’d rather not.”
She nodded sadly and remained silent as she wondered at Tseng’s fate and let her thoughts roam through her memories of the soft-spoken, cultured man she had known, a man who never failed to do his job as Leader of the Turks, but whose duties often rested uneasily on his mind.
A loud rap cracked against the window next to her ear, and she compulsively cried out in alarm.
“Open up.” Reno pulled the nightstick away and brought his nose next to the glass.
With fumbling fingers, she shakily turned the latch and opened the door. Reno held his hand out to her, and she stared vacantly at his scarred fingers.
“Come on, let’s go.” He prodded in an irritated voice. “Mr. Phoenix awaits.”
She hesitantly placed her hand in his and let him draw her from the pilot seat, stumbling against his tall frame as she slid to the ground. She hastily straightened away from and looked up as Rude rounded the chopper’s nose to come to a stop beside her.
Reno grabbed her elbow and started walking, his long legs towing her at an ungodly pace as she scrambled to keep up. Rude strode alongside her, apparently oblivious to her plight.
Annoyed, she planted her feet and jerked her arm free from Reno’s grasp. The redheaded Turk whirled around to glare down at her. She folded her arms and tilted her head back to more effectively return the glare.
“What is your problem now?” Reno demanded in a tone rife with impatience.
“You are walking too fast for me.” She snapped. “I can’t keep up.
He tapped a finger against his pursed lips as he looked her up and down. “Guess you are fairly…diminutive…” He drawled.
“Glad to see your powers of observation are not in question.” Caitlin drawled back.
Reno smiled coolly, and taking her elbow in a light grasp, he set off, shortening his steps considerably so she could walk easily alongside. “I shall endeavor not to overtax your physical limitations.” He remarked smoothly.
Her temper flared at his patronizing remark. “And I shall endeavor not to overtax your mental limitations in return.” She bit out.
Reno smirked down at her. “Don’t concern yourself about that. It can’t be done.”
Before she could devise a cutting retort, Reno froze in his tracks and jerked the flashlight beam away to let it slide across the front of the building across the street. Alarmed, Caitlin stood close beside him, wincing slightly as his long fingers tightened around her elbow. With bated breath, she mirrored the Turk’s meticulous appraisal of each broken-out window, noticing the jagged glass that jutted up like crooked fangs in some frames and what looked like a tattered sheet dangling across a splintered sash. No sign of anyone though. She wrinkled her brow in bewilderment as he studied one hollow-eyed window for long moments.
“What is it?” She asked in a hushed voice.
She glanced up at Rude to find him scanning the rows of vacant windows as well. She strained her ears into the silence, but she couldn’t hear anything other than the constant sound of dripping water and a incessant hum that seemed to permeate the entire area.
Reno abruptly brought the light back down to the pavement and stepped up on the uneven sidewalk, dragging her along with him. She nearly missed the step in the bouncing light beam and stumbled. With an irritated glance, he jerked her up beside him, his tight grip preventing her fall.
“Come on, let’s go.” He set a faster pace than before, and she bit back her protest and trotted to keep up, deciding not to resist this time. She could see that something had him concerned, and she wasn’t about to do anything to impede their progress.
Her resolve lasted until they rounded the corner into the alley. At her first sight of the three people waiting in the diffuse light of a flashlight beam, she pulled back against Reno’s hold. She couldn’t see them well from where she stood, but she could hear them talking, and she recognized his voice. Even after 10 years, she still knew his voice.
Reno spun to glare down at her when she wrenched her elbow free and stopped in her tracks. “Now what?” He shot an impatient glance over his shoulder and brought his narrow glare back to her face. “We have to go.”
“I…I…don’t know if I…can…” She stammered.
“Can what?” With a pointed look at Rude, he slipped his free hand into his trousers pocket and shifted to one foot, bending his head to listen as though he had all night to hear her out, even though he knew he only had a few minutes at best. Caitlin unconsciously looked up when Rude drew his gun and stepped back a few paces to watch the street. Then she dragged her eyes to the rear of the alley to watch the tall man in the middle suddenly straighten in their direction. Though she couldn’t see his face, she could feel his eyes on her.
Why hadn’t she thought about this before? Maybe because she didn’t want to think about it until she had to? Maybe because she hadn’t really believed in her mind that it was him? Now the immediate prospect of a confrontation after all this time sent her mind racing in panic. What would he say to her? What in the world could she say to him? She had never thought he would find out, but he had, and now she had to wonder how much he actually knew. She knew quite well that despite the fact that what had happened back then had been largely out of her hands, she still had little to no defense for her own actions.
“Well?” Reno’s annoyed query brought her wide, frightened eyes to his hovering face, and his own eyes narrowed suspiciously on hers.
“What are you scared of?” He demanded in a low voice. “Him?” He inclined his head toward the back of the alley. Reluctantly, she looked in the direction he’d indicated and slowly nodded.
“Then why did you come?” Reno only asked to see what she would say as he believed that he had a fairly accurate grasp of all the murky undercurrents and hidden agendas.
She mechanically shook her head in denial as she stood locked into his blandly inquisitive gaze. Why did she come? She came because she had to. If she hadn’t come, he might have come there, now that he knew. And he had promised her if she would come and meet with him, he would let her go, no questions asked. But could she really trust him? The green eyes burned into her own, and her thoughts slammed to a standstill. She didn’t know about Reeve, but she knew damn well that she shouldn’t confide in this one or show him any weakness. Lowering her eyes, she carefully gathered her thoughts together, reminding herself that none of them could know about Heidi. Anything else that came up she could and would deal with, including Reeve Alexander and all of his questions. When she looked up into Reno’s face again, her eyes were filled with firm resolve. Reno sighed and straightened to his full intimidating height.
“So…want me to take him out for you?” He whispered conspiratorially. “I’d be more than happy to do the job myself.” He smiled mirthlessly when Caitlin’s eyes flew open in alarm.
“What!? No!” She cried out before she caught herself, immediately recognizing his ploy. She took a deep breath and lifted her chin to a haughty angle, giving him the full force of her blue Shinra eyes.
“As I’m sure you’ve been informed, I am the sole heir to the Shinra fortune and all assets thereof, effectively making me your employer as long as you remain with the company, and as your employer, I want to make it quite clear that I will not condone murder. Not now. Not ever. Do you understand me?” “Sure do, Ms. Shinra.” Reno responded with a respectful nod of his head, although she didn’t miss the insolent light in his shuttered eyes.
“And for your information, I agreed to come here, so let’s get the show on the road.”
“Sure thing. Why didn’t I think of that?” He rolled his eyes and spun away from her, his wispy ponytail flying across her face as he turned. He set off, and she hurried after him to catch up, but when she came abreast of him, he suddenly stopped and grabbed her arm to bring her to an abrupt halt.
“So what’s this guy got on you that you would agree to leave your cushy little island and come here, despite the fact that it’s taking every reserve you can drum up to force yourself to face him?”
The blunt question took her by surprise, and she scrambled for a response, her cool facade suddenly slipping away. “I…I…just haven’t…seen him…in a long time…” She shivered beneath the determined glint in the Turk’s green eyes. She just wasn’t any good at all the head games and posturing anymore. Who was she kidding? She’d never been very good at it in the first place.
“So why see him now?” Reno growled in a low voice intended only for her ears.
“I…I…” Caitlin’s uncertain gaze suddenly turned into a glare, and Reno blinked at the abrupt change. With a hard jerk of her arm, she freed herself from his tight grip once again and rounded around to face him toe to toe. “Because he’s my husband. That’s why. I owe it to him.” Dismay filled her mind at her impulsive admission, but her lips stretched in a satisfied smile at the blatant shock in the Turk’s eyes, which he quickly masked, but not before she received full benefit of his startled expression. Without another word, she whirled away and strode down the long alley alone.
Frozen in place by the sudden admission, Reno rearranged his thoughts and watched her go, one long finger stroking the scar on his right cheek. “Well…well…the clock spins ‘round the other way…”
“Reno!” The redheaded Turk turned as Rude strode to his side. Rude inclined his shaven head toward the open street beyond the alley entrance. “At least three, probably more.” He reported in a low voice. Reno shoved the flashlight into Rude’s hand and yanked the nightstick from beneath his right arm, at the same time jerking his gun from its holster beneath his jacket.
“Protect her.” He snapped out over his shoulder as he tore off toward the street. Rude wanted to refuse, wanted to back his leader up, but he didn’t dare question the order, and he knew that Caitlin’s safety was the first priority. Besides, Reno could hold his own better than any of them in a street fight.
Caitlin looked around at the sound of pounding feet behind her. Without breaking stride, Rude swept his arm around her waist and lifted her off her feet, covering the last fifty feet in seconds.
At the sudden burst of activity, Reeve strode forward to meet Rude as he skidded to a stop. “What’s the matter?!” His sharp demand went unanswered by Rude, who grabbed the executive’s upper arm and pushed him toward the opening at the end of the alley.
“Just go!” Rude ordered. “Now!” He set Caitlin on her feet and gave her a gentle shove in the same direction. The seriousness in Rude’s brown eyes immediately froze the questions on the tip of her tongue, and she darted through the gap, only to crash into Reeve who’d stopped just the other side, knocking the small flashlight from his hand. The light hit the pavement and spun away, the elongated aura from the bright beam dancing wildly around in a stroboscopic whirl across the littered ground. Caitlin dove for the light and snatched it up, instantly bringing the blinding ray to bear on Reeve’s face. He lifted one hand to block the glare and grabbed her wrist with the other, swinging her hand with the flashlight toward the metal hatchway. “Over there.” He said sharply. She sprang the few feet to the opening and shined the light inside, Reeve literally breathing down her neck.
The grotesque stench hit her full in the face, and she gagged. “Give me the light.” Reeve demanded. She complied and covered her mouth and nose with both hands. The executive angled the light to illuminate the ladder. “Start down. I’ll be right behind you.” Caitlin didn’t know whether to be reassured or apprehensive, so she settled for a little of both as she set her sneakered feet on the rungs and started down. Reeve turned back to listen to the angry voice on the other side of the opening.
“I’m going to go help him!” Elena whirled away to make true her words, but Rude jerked her back around. He brought his nose a few inches from her own. “No.” He growled. “You are going to do your job and protect these people.” Elena’s mouth moved as she stared speechlessly into the frigid depths of Rude’s eyes.
“I’ll go.” The quiet voice brought both Turks around to stare at the glowing irises, vividly blue in the darkness where Cloud stood just beyond the periphery of Rude’s flashlight beam.
“Do it.” Rude bit out and dragged Elena toward the narrow gap.
“No!” Elena cried out, planting her hands on either side of the opening. “He’ll run that sword through his back. You can’t let him go!”
Dismissing the ongoing battle of wills at hand, Cloud leapt away into total darkness, drawing his sword as he raced full tilt down the alley, depending on his memory and the meager amount of night vision he could gain from the luminous internal glow of his blade. What he wouldn’t give to have Vincent’s visual acuity right now. With that man’s ability to see in virtually no light, he could clean up this mess in the wink of an eye and get on down the road.
Rude gathered Elena’s tiny hands in one huge fist and shoved her through the gap, squeezing his bulky body through just behind her. “Do you really think Reno will turn his back on that guy?” He hissed in her ear as he released her. She gazed at him for a moment, and then purposefully drew her gun. “No, I don’t.” She stated flatly. "Let’s work.”
Reno planted his back against the front of the tenement building, and he lowered his head to gaze at the ground as he breathed soundlessly and waited for his eyes to adjust to the stygian gloom. Raising one gloved finger, he slightly uncovered the green light on his nightstick. Full charge. His lips lifted in a tight smile. Time to get on with the entertainment.
Something moved in the darkness, and he instinctively stabbed out with his nightstick. He felt the end of the stick connect solidly to the sound of a muffled grunt. The charge automatically released, lighting up the area for a fleeting moment, not long enough to see how many, but long enough to get a glimpse of what he thought were infrared goggles on the man that lay writhing at his feet. Which normally might work to his disadvantage, except that the electrical charge of his nightstick would disable their goggles for much longer than his catlike eyes.
Already, he could hear the clumsy oafs moving in his direction, and he silently sprang into their midst, immediately setting off the newly charged nightstick. He spun the discharged weapon in his left hand as he fired repeatedly into the blinded and stumbling assailants, appropriately rewarded with several cries of pain. He jumped away, moving position before they could get oriented.
He ducked down on the far side of a cracked stoop and popped out his empty clip, reaching into his jacket pocket for a fresh one. His brows drew together in bewilderment at the absence of his spare ammo, and then he froze in consternation. He’d lost the jacket with his extra clips, and he’d neglected to replace them. “How careless of me…” He murmured to himself. “Oh well, it’s probably an unfair advantage anyway.” He holstered his gun and raised to a half-crouch behind the steps.
He bit back a yelp when a hand grabbed him from behind, taking the back of his jacket and a generous handful of his tail. In a lightning move, Reno dropped the nightstick and reached back to wrap his two fists in his attacker’s coat, dropping to one knee as he flipped him effortlessly over his shoulder. Mildly annoyed, the Turk picked up his nightstick and stalked over to stare down at the shadowy form huddled at his feet. He swung his scuffed loafer back for a direct kick in the side. “That’s for touching my jacket.” He bent to jab the man painfully in the gut with his stick and smiled wickedly when the charge released. “…And that’s for touching my hair.”
Reno looked up at the sound of running feet. He’d given his position away and lingered too long. Immediately, he sprang into the middle of the street as several bulky bodies converged on him from all sides. He let his long legs fold beneath him, and he crumpled to the street with the intent of slipping away in the confusion. Unfortunately, the attackers recognized his ploy and dog-piled him, but he was prepared for that eventuality as well. Fueled by his adamant distaste of the claustrophobic press, he went berserk, and the melee was joined. With stabbing fingers and pistoning knees, tearing teeth and intermittent discharges of his nightstick, he made his presence felt. Fighting tooth and nail, he inched his way to the edge, wriggling from beneath one smelly attacker after another, and with one gratifying slash of his fingernail, warm blood splattered across his face, and he was free.
Reno stood panting, and slowly backed away as he tried to wipe the blood from his face with equally bloody hands, succeeding only in smearing the sticky substance across his cheek.
“Yuck, biohazard.” He muttered under his breath as he dragged a rumpled handkerchief from his pocket to better mop up the mess.
A footstep sounded behind him, and he whirled, his nightstick fully charged and held at ready. The assailant lifted a luminous sword in preparation for a downward swing, a pair of glowing blue eyes glaring over the doubled fists on the haft of the blade. They both froze for several tense moments, and then Reno smiled.
“Friend or foe?” He inquired in a hushed voice.
“Friend…for the moment.” Cloud responded slowly. How about you?”
Reno lowered his nightstick. “Friend for now. As long as it’s expedient…” He turned back to listen to the thrashing bodies as Cloud lowered his sword to guard and strolled forward to stand beside the panting Turk.
“Where’d you learn to fight like that?” Cloud asked curiously. “In the Turks?”
Reno shook his head. “Nah, my mother…” Startled, Cloud turned his head sharply in a fruitless attempt to see the Turk’s shadowed face.
“Your Mother?” He couldn't quite reconcile the memory of his own loving, quietly firm mother with the picture of one that would fight...like that...
“Yeah…” Reno absently rubbed the handkerchief across his cheek. “Too bad she didn’t hang around longer. I was only five when she split.”
The wriggling bodies on the pavement started scrambling noisily to their feet, and Reno stuffed the sodden handkerchief back into his jacket. Side by side, he and Cloud stepped lightly backwards to gain space and lifted their respective weapons in attack stance.
At sight of the luminous sword and glowing Mako eyes as well as the tall shadowy form with the wildly arcing, overcharged rod, the acting leader of the band froze in place. One of his anxious compatriots made a move to attack, but the leader snatched him back by the hair on his head. “Don’t anybody move.” He growled out. “Or I’ll kill you myself.”
He took a nervous step closer. “Who the hell are you people?”
Without relaxing his posture, Reno lifted a hand to his chest. “Well, let me just introduce myself…” He spoke smoothly, no trace of fear in his voice. “Reno of the Turks, at your disposal.” The redheaded Turk smiled coldly at the collective gasps that rose from the battered group. He swept his hand over to include Cloud.
“…And this is Cloud Strife, formerly of Soldier…sort of…” Cloud gave Reno a disgusted look, not that he wished to be dishonest about it, but under these circumstances, he would be willing to let some information slide.
“…And more recently, a member of Avalanche.”
“Avalanche!” The man stepped toward Cloud, and the blonde soldier lifted his sword. The man skidded to a stop. “Hey man, I just wanted to shake your hand. You guys saved everybody’s ass.” Reno rolled his eyes at the brawny man’s words.
“That may well be, but you guys stay back.” Cloud snapped out. “And we didn’t really do it anyway. You can thank a flower girl from Sector 5 for that feat.”
Reno sighed wearily. “Can we dispense with the credits and go?” He inquired irritably. “I have a prior engagement, and I really don’t want to keep her waiting.”
Several murmured assents rose from the scattered group. “Sure, man. No problem.” The leader of the gang stepped back.
Reno nodded and wheeled for the alleyway, Cloud reluctantly lowering his sword as he fell into step behind him.
At the entrance, Reno paused and looked back, sweeping a casual hand through the air. “Oh yes, that chopper out there? It’s mine. And I expect to find it in the same condition that I left it in when I return.” Reno wrinkled his brow at the grumbling that arose from the group. “…And if you are tempted, I should inform you that any attempt to pry the door will result in your immediate electrocution.”
Cloud leaned closer to Reno as the grumbles commenced again. “That true?”
“Nope.” Reno muttered under his breath.
“So I have your assurances that my bird won’t be bothered?” Reno asked aloud. The leader of the gang finally answered. “Yeah man, we’ll even keep an eye on it for you.”
Reno grinned pleasantly and lifted an admonishing finger. “Just an eye now…and hey…clean up this mess, wouldja? Can’t have The Zone looking like this. What would your mothers say?”
The two warriors disappeared into the narrow lane, one of them with a chilly smile on his face, the other shaking his head slowly as he fought back the reluctant smile that threatened to erupt on his own face. Nothing but stunned silence permeated the entire area behind them.
“Where the hell are they?” Elena asked impatiently for the tenth time. “I’m going to go look for him.”
“No, you’re not.” Rude responded for the tenth time, and for the same number of times, she pointedly tossed her head and muttered indistinquishable deprecations beneath her breath.
Rude held the flashlight pointed down at his polished shoes, the very tips of Elena’s smart broughams visible in the circle of light. Both had their gun barrels pointed up. Reeve and Caitlin stood silently apart in darkness, one on each side of the Turks.
Suddenly, a loud clatter of noise exploded over their heads, and Caitlin instinctively jumped backward, almost stepping off the concrete ledge before she caught herself.
Reeve noted the two Turks' lack of reaction to the clamor. “What is that?” He raised his voice to be heard over the loud noise.
Rude climbed the ladder and reached for the latch.
“It’s Reno’s inept imitation of a Mideelian tap dancer.” Elena commented idly.
“Oh.” Reeve stroked his beard as he took in that information, wondering if Cloud had made it back as well.
A moment later, Cloud answered his unspoken question when he jumped from the edge, landing lightly on his feet. Not to be outdone, Reno followed suit, biting back a cry of pain but unable to prevent a little hop at the sharp sting as his loafer slammed into the concrete.
Rude flipped the light up, and Elena gasped at the sight spotlighted in the brilliant beam. Reno had blood smeared all across his face, and cake-dried blood adorned the corners of his mouth. His hair had partially been torn from its rubberband, some hanging loosely down his back and several wispy strands floating over his slumped shoulders. His clothes looked rumpled as usual, although she could see his white shirt gleaming through the rent where his jacket sleeve had been halfway torn from its seam. A bloodstained handkerchief fluttered from his breast pocket.
She turned to take in Cloud’s mostly pristine appearance, and her face twisted in anger.
“Where were you when he was getting beat up?” She snarled at Cloud as she reached for her gun.
Cloud threw his hands protectively in the air. “Hey, he was done when I got there. Mostly…”
Elena leveled her gun at Cloud’s midsection. “Cool it Elena.” Reno drawled as he moved to stand beside Caitlin, drawing his shades from his inside jacket pocket as he came to a stop beside her. At his move, Reeve snapped on his light to shine on the redheaded Turk’s bloody countenance. “I had fun. A very nostalgic experience.” He grinned wolfishly, the lines of his gums tinted pink with residual blood. With one hand, he shoved his glasses onto the top of his head. “You should join me sometime.”
Elena shook her head numbly. “I think I’ll pass…on that…” Reno tilted his head and blinked twice, slowly, as thought he had become very drowsy. “Guess all that exercise is catching up to me.” He murmured into the tension-filled silence. “Can we get the party underway?”
At Reno's signal, Elena holstered her gun and fell in between Caitlin and Reeve at the same time Rude stepped up to flank the perplexed woman on the opposite side from where Reno slouched casually beside her.
Reeve stared at them for a long moment, his gut burning as Reno clearly made the facts aware to him. If Caitlin chose not to side with him, then the Turks would not be siding with him. How quickly she had won their allegiance, and probably without even trying. Now, the only question that remained was whether she would trust him, and without knowing precisely why she’d let him think she had died, he couldn’t even make an educated guess. He had an idea, but he simply wouldn’t know until they spoke. Alone. A meeting he might not be allowed.
Briskly, Reeve nodded his head. “Yes, let’s get going.” He lifted his light and stepped out to lead the way, his manner efficient and businesslike.
“It’s time we put our cards on the table.” He remarked flatly over his shoulder, a tingle developing between his shoulder blades as the bloody-faced Reno soundlessly shadowed his step.
“All the cards.”
Caitlin shivered at his words.
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