Caitlin stumbled alongside Reno as he propelled her between a pair of armed, stony-faced sentries and through the doorway of a decrepit shack. Once inside, she jerked her elbow from his tight grip and purposefully stepped away from him. The lanky Turk narrowed his green eyes on her face as he took in her angry glare.
“Forgive my ill manners, but I’ve no time for socially acceptable pleasantries.” True to his word, Reno whirled away from her and strode through the door. She had no intention of staying behind despite what Mr. Reeve Alexander or the Leader of the Turks thought about it, and she stalked after him. However, she came to an abrupt halt when Elena stepped into the doorway. Her determination withered away beneath the hard glint in the blonde Turk’s hazel eyes.
Elena took a step forward as she slipped her hand inside her jacket, and Caitlin took a hesitant step back. “I suggest you make yourself comfortable.” Elena sent a speculative look around the seedy, sparsely furnished room and sniffed with disdain. “If that’s possible.” She withdrew a small compact from her inside pocket and popped the abalone lid up with one well-manicured thumbnail. Caitlin watched her as she carefully examined her face in the tiny mirror.
“So I’m to be a prisoner now, is that it?”
Elena gingerly patted her hair into place and closed the compact with a sharp snap. “Of course not.” She speared Caitlin with an irritated look, and then she turned her back on her and pointedly planted herself in the doorway. “Just consider it protective supervision.”
On cue, angry shouts erupted outside, and Caitlin resisted the urge to move up behind Elena to look over her shoulder. She didn’t think the Turk would react favorably to the intrusion, so she stood her ground and settled for a simple inquiry as she carefully scanned the room for another exit.
“So, what’s going on out there?”
Elena shrugged indifferently. “I don’t know.”
Caitlin immediately spotted the grimy window several feet to the left of the door, obviously a less than ideal means of escape. If she climbed out, she would land a few feet to the left of the armed sentries and smack in the middle of the ruckus outside, with Reno, Rude and Reeve too close for comfort. So much for her backup plan. Disappointed, she propped her hands on her hips and pinned her annoyed glare on the back of Elena’s perfectly coifed head.
“Well, what does it look like is going on out there?”
“Hmmm…could be a conflict of interest.” Elena tilted her head to one side as she appraised the situation. “Or maybe just a difference of opinion.” She tilted her head the other way. “Or it could be the start of some serious trouble.”
The vague and unsatisfactory commentary only served to pique Caitlin’s curiosity, and she stealthily sidled toward the window, her eyes on Elena at all times. However, the Turk seemed wholly focused on the business outside. Careful not to make any sound, she rubbed the soot and grime from the windowpane with two fingers. She shot another quick glance at Elena as she wiped her soiled fingers against her sweatshirt. The blonde Turk appeared the portrait of nonchalance as she leaned in the crooked doorway with her arms crossed and her shoulder against the splintered doorframe, but Caitlin knew better. She knew very well what kind of training one endured to become a Turk, and she also knew that most trainees didn’t make it. Despite her deceptively casual posture, Elena would be one deadly young woman. Fortunately, she didn’t think the Turks would harm her. Reno had made the Turk’s stance crystal clear down in the sewers, to her utter astonishment. However, she’d been beneath the protective thumb of the Turks more times than she could count and found the experience stifling. In fact, she had slipped her tether on several occasions. A tiny smile touched her lips. Tseng had not appreciated her escapades. But then, Tseng had outsmarted her in the end. Her smile fell away. Annoyed at where her thoughts had taken her, she silently rested her hand against the unpainted sill and leaned forward to peer through the smudged peephole. Her insides churned at what she saw outside, and she unconsciously pressed a hand against her chest as she watched.
Reeve warily studied the angry faces of a motley group of people standing shoulder to shoulder to confront an unbroken line of armed Shinra soldiers. At first glance, the upraised rifles seemed to be the only thing keeping the crowd at bay, and more people pressed forward to fill in the spaces behind as Reeve swept troubled eyes across the growing number of faces. However, most of the newcomers seemed to him to be merely curious rather than involved, probably most of them with nothing else to do. Even so, he knew how easily the whole situation could blow up in his face. He had to stop this before a crisis developed that would destroy all his efforts to keep these people safe. He took a deep breath to calm his jumping nerves and walked up to lay a hand on the shoulder of the commanding officer.
“Captain…” Reeve quickly glanced at the man’s nametag as the officer turned toward him before leveling his quiet eyes on the officer’s stony face. “…Gellner.
“Mr. Alexander.” Sullenly, Gellner acknowledged him with a short nod.
“What has happened here, Captain? Why have you ordered your soldiers to raise their weapons to this group of civilians?” Despite his annoyance at the military’s response to these unarmed refugees, Reeve quietly voiced his question with circumspection, careful to leave any hint of recrimination out of his tone. Besides, the captain might be privy to information that he was not.
“This group marched up here and demanded to speak to you, and when you did not appear, they became angry and made threatening gestures.” The captain stood stiffly before him as he spoke, his voice filled with a hint of disdain.
Reeve swept an encompassing glance across the disheveled but well-dressed assemblage of people the captain had indicated. Most of the members of the group met his regard with censorious glares and frowns of disapproval. Reeve crossed his arms and bowed his head in thought. He let a few moments slip past in silence while the captain studied his pensive face, and then he lifted his head and nodded sagely.
“Well, I’m here now. I’ll talk to them. Please order your men to lower their rifles.”
The captain’s bushy brows drew together in consternation. “I think that would be ill-advised.”
Reeve’s affable gaze suddenly shifted to an inscrutable stare. “Nevertheless, I must ask you to order your men to lower their rifles.”
“Mr. Alexander, I think I know better what to do in this sort of situation than you do.” The captain smiled contemptuously into the executive’s stolid face.
Reeve dropped his hands to his hips and took a step closer as he let his mouth curve in a tight-lipped smile. At sight of the cold glint in the executive’s dark eyes, the officer’s smug expression wavered, and despite his resolve not to retreat, the officer took a compulsive step back.
“Hmm…despite your expertise in such matters, Captain Gellner, I expect you to order your soldiers to lower their weapons when I say so. Not when you believe it feasible. Do you understand?”
The officer lifted his chin in defiance. “Mr. Alexander, if I do as you ask, I will be opening all of us up to attack. I simply will not comply. Furthermore, I find myself in serious doubt as to the legality of your authority over this military, or for that matter, over anything at all.”
Reeve stared into the man’s belligerent eyes for several seconds as he listened to the swell of hushed murmurs that rose around him. He knew the question would come up sometime. After all, he’d been escorted from the Shinra building by military guards at the behest of the power hungry duo, Heidegger and Scarlet, and although nothing had become official before the pair had been killed, gossip tended to fly through the ranks like a herd of Grand Horns before a raging prairie fire. Still, he could not permit his authority to be undermined at this juncture. Not until these people were out of the city and safe from danger.
After depositing Caitlin into the care of Elena, Reno had positioned himself several feet behind Reeve, and he now absently tapped his metal rod against his leg while he watched and listened. With one hand stuffed in his trousers pocket, his casual stance belied the sharp attentiveness in his constantly moving eyes as he evaluated the potential threat in each angry face and every sudden movement in the throng. Rude stood stiffly to his left with his arms folded tightly over his chest, his eyes hidden behind the impenetrable shades. The big Turk had not moved a single muscle since he’d planted himself in that place, halfway between the tense confrontation and the doorway into the shack. Reno well knew that Caitlin was Rude’s primary concern, but at the recalcitrant officer’s words to Reeve, Rude immediately dropped his arms and started forward.
“No.” Reno spoke quietly, the one word audible only to Rude. The big Turk turned his head slightly, and Reno could feel his eyes on his face. The redheaded Turk answered the unspoken question in a low voice as he continued his intent appraisal of the crowd, ready to respond to any challenge that might arise.
“Let Reeve answer for himself. The good Captain has raised a valid point.”
Rude lifted one shoulder in an indifferent shrug and returned to his previous stance. Reno darted a surreptitious look over his shoulder at Cloud. The blonde Soldier leaned against the splintered exterior of the dilapidated building with one boot flat to the wall. The fierce light in the warrior’s eyes revealed the deceptiveness of his relaxed demeanor. However, Reno suspected that Cloud would also wait to hear Reeve’s response before he made any move to defend the executive.
The excited whispers at the officer’s challenge had traveled through the crowd and subsequently died away into a prolonged hush as the congregants waited with bated breath to see what the Shinra executive would say. Even though only those nearest would even be able to hear his words, Reeve knew that he would have to form his response carefully. With a soft sigh, Reeve shifted casually to one foot and again folded his arms across his chest. Although the executive retained his flinty-eyed hold on the officer’s stubborn stare, he tilted his head slightly and let his lips relax into a sad half-smile. Finally he spoke, his tone quiet and congenial.
“Captain Gellner…” He started, and then paused for a moment in thought. “Er…correct me if I’m wrong. You do still consider yourself to be a Captain in the Shinra Regular army, yes?” Reeve raised his eyebrows in question.
Gellner eyed him warily, then hesitantly nodded in agreement. “Yes.”
“Good. Keeping in mind the hierarchal structure of authority within the Shinra Corporation as well as the recent and regrettable losses in our upper level management team, could you tell me, to the best of your knowledge, who the highest ranking corporate officer of record would now be.”
Reeve watched the scornful smirk slip from the man’s face as he mentally worked his way through the executive’s request and then began to move the fingers of his right hand as he silently enumerated the respective fates of each Shinra executive, his lips silently forming the name of each person he marked in his mind. President Shinra, New Age President Rufus Shinra, General Heidegger, Scarlet, Professor Hojo…all deceased…leaving…Mr. Alexander…and…Mr. Palmer… The man absently shook his head. Palmer had disappeared, and no one knew where he’d gotten off too. No one really wanted to find him either. The man was nuttier than a pecan pie, and he couldn’t lead himself out of an open-ended cardboard box much less take charge of all these people. The captain looked up into Reeve’s face in reluctant acknowledgement. The executive nodded his head slightly at the tacit acceptance in the captain’s eyes.
“My authority otherwise is predicated on my intimate knowledge of this city and what can and cannot be accomplished to support this population for a given period of time. If you know of any person more capable in this situation, I’ll happily relinquish command to that individual.” Reeve raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “Do you?”
“Do I…?” The captain wrinkled his brow in puzzlement.
“Know of someone who can take charge in my place.” Reeve prompted the bewildered officer. “The Mayor perhaps?”
The officer shook his head vehemently. “Oh no! Not the mayor!” Everyone knew the mayor had been nothing but a Shinra puppet, as were most of the duly elected political officials. “Er…he hasn’t turned up anyway.” The captain added lamely.
“I see.” Reeve turned his head slightly to sweep an appraising glance across the faces in the crowd. Most seemed temporarily entertained by the ongoing confrontation between Reeve and the Captain as they watched and waited for the outcome. He knew that wouldn’t last. The time had come to end this. “Then I may conclude that my authority is no longer in question?” Reeve turned his attention to the officer once again.
The captain straightened his back. “No. Sir.”
“No?” The Shinra executive frowned.
“Er…I mean…yes sir.”
“Good.” Reeve smiled agreeably. “Please order your troops to stand down.”
“But…” Reeve’s brown eyes narrowed in irritation at the officer’s inclination to argue. Deliberately, he leaned in closer and crooked his finger to beckon the captain nearer. Nervously, the officer complied.
“Captain Gellner.” Reeve drew him even closer with his low voice. “I don’t believe these people to be a threat. None of them appear to be armed with anything more than an ink pen or a handbag. Of course, my untrained eyes may have missed something crucial that you might have spied immediately, with your militarily expert powers of observation. Is that the case then?”
His eyes glued on Reeve’s face, the captain hesitantly shook his head. “No sir.”
“I thought not.” Reeve bent towards the officer’s ear. “Before we go any further with this discussion, I would like to point out, in the event that you were not aware, that the trooper on your right now has his rifle pointed in the face of Evelyn Domino, the wife of the mayor, and the man standing just on the other side of her, Dr. Clement Minkin, was head of surgery at Midgar General Hospital, and the woman on her other…”
“Okay, Mr. Alexander.” The red-faced officer interrupted him in a loud hiss. “I get the picture. You win.” Reeve straightened to his full height and spoke in a normal voice. “We all win.” The officer nodded abruptly and lifted his whistle to his mouth, only to choke on his own breath at the sight of the two blue-suited men who strolled up to stand on either side of the Shinra executive.
“Trouble, Boss?” Reno pinned the officer with narrow eyes and smiled slightly as he watched the color drain from the man’s face.
“Not at all.” Reeve kept his unruffled gaze on the officer’s face. “Captain Gellner has the situation well in hand.” The executive inclined his head toward the armed soldiers, and the captain snapped to attention and whirled away. Reeve followed the officer with his eyes until the man stopped beside his men and gave the order to stand down. Only then did he nod shortly at the motionless Turk on his left before shifting his attention to Reno.
“Reinforcements?” he inquired blandly.
“No, merely punctuation.” Reno smiled playfully. “You almost managed to convince me.”
“Almost?” Reeve stroked his beard with forced nonchalance as he attempted to read past Reno’s falsely cheerful demeanor.
The redheaded Turk chuckled. “Well, I’ll agree that you’re the best man to be in charge of this mess. Anything else remains to be seen.” The Turk’s green eyes gleamed with fierce purpose even as he grinned into the executive’s face.
“Fair enough.” Reeve forced a smile to his lips and pointedly raised his eyes toward the old building. “As soon as I’ve addressed this situation, I’ll meet with Caitlin. Then we’ll talk.”
“You will meet with Caitlin only if she agrees.” Reno’s eyes narrowed on the executive’s face, but Reeve didn’t notice. A movement in the grimy window had captured his attention.
“Of course…” He responded absently. His smile slid away as he stared intently at the partially concealed face in the smeared glass. One blue eye froze on his face and flew wide in surprise. Before he could react in any way, Reno tapped his nightstick lightly against his chest, and distracted, he jerked his head around to level an irritated glare on the Turk’s face.
“Will you please not do that?” Reeve’s sharply voiced request fell on deaf ears. Reno merely smiled and gave the executive’s sternum another sharp tap for good measure before he drew the weapon away and tucked it beneath his arm. “Sure Boss. Just wanted to make sure you heard me.”
“I heard you, and I agree.” Reeve’s brown eyes darkened as he locked gazes with the irreverent Turk. “I won’t do anything against Caitlin’s will. If she will not speak to me alone, then so be it.” A sudden feeling of uncertainty assailed the executive, and he started to turn away, but Reno grabbed his elbow in a tight grip, effectively stopping him in place. “What is it?” Reeve fought to keep his irritation from his voice and almost succeeded. Anyone else might have been fooled.
Reno threw up his hands in innocence. “Hey Boss, I just wanted to point out that your fans sound a bit overanxious. Do you want an escort?”
Now that Reno had pointed out the increased level of chatter around them, Reeve realized the voices in the crowd had grown louder and more perturbed. He heard someone shout his name, and he stepped sideways to sweep a pensive gaze across the stormy faces. His reprieve had ended. Obviously, he’d ignored them too long. He turned his back on Reno and shot a cursory glance back over his shoulder at him.
“I don’t believe an escort is necessary.” Without waiting for a response he strode away. Reno shrugged. “Have it your way. Boss.” With a short jerk of his head at Rude, he retraced his steps toward the building. Coming to a halt at his previous position, he turned and loosely flexed his fingers as he shifted his weight to one foot to watch the proceedings. Silently, Rude moved to stand beside him. Despite all that had transpired so far, the big Turk had nothing to say on that matter or any other, as usual. Reno didn’t expect anything else.
“Who is this Caitlin?”
Slowly, Reno swiveled his head around to find Cloud standing to his left, a wary expression in his glowing eyes. Reno knew the Avalanche warrior would get around to asking about her eventually. After all, her striking appearance tended to catch the eye, and her arrival in Midgar at this time, with full Turk escort, fairly rang with significance. If that had not been enough to delineate her importance to even the most thick headed of persons, he had no doubt whatsoever that Strife had not missed a single word of his recent discussion about her with Reeve. Still, he hadn’t expected Strife to ask him, as though the soldier expected him to impart any information on the subject.
“She’s married, Strife. Forget about her.” Reno smiled tightly as he returned to his surveillance. He noticed that the crowd had closed in around the Shinra executive, effectively imprisoning him in a small circle of space as they fired some rather heated questions in his direction. So far he seemed unthreatened, his body language open and relaxed as he responded at length, despite the throng of people around him. Reno wasn’t about to relax though. The whole screwy scene, all the homeless people crammed down in the slums, many of them some of the richest, most well connected people in Midgar, the slum residents crowded out of their homes, the armed military tensely watching, a single Shinra manager with his finger in the crack of the dam, and a deceased member of the Shinra family standing alive and well beyond the splintered wall behind him, all of it had his nerves on the edge. If things went sour here, there wouldn’t be anything the Turks could do, except go down fighting to protect Caitlin in the midst of a bloodbath.
“That’s not why I’m asking, and you know it.” Cloud’s stilted remark brought Reno’s attention back to the blonde soldier’s question, although he didn’t bother to look at him this time. “I want to know why you brought her here.”
Reno nodded agreeably. “Your good friend Reeve requested her presence here.” The redheaded Turk tensed as a tall man stepped forward to shake a finger in Reeve’s face, but the executive merely held up a hand and spoke for a few moments. Whatever he said apparently smoothed his ruffled feathers, because the man suddenly nodded and stepped up beside Reeve as the executive dragged a notepad from his trousers pocket. Reno shook his head in amazement. The Shinra executive seemed to know how to handle people.
“Why?” Cloud turned to watch the executive in action as he pondered the reason Reeve might have wanted the mysterious woman here, but without any information he wasn’t likely to arrive at an answer.
“A very good question.” Reno didn’t really know the answer himself, not entirely, but he would know before the day was out, and that wasn’t very far away.
“A question you don’t plan to answer.” Cloud pointed out the obvious.
“I don’t know the answer, actually.” Reno admitted somewhat truthfully. What he did know, Strife didn’t need to know.
Cloud turned a disbelieving stare on the Turk’s sharp profile. “Somehow I doubt you would tell me if you did know the answer.”
“Most likely not.” Reno let his breath out in an exaggerated sigh. “Why don’t you ask your good friend? Maybe he’ll even introduce the two of you.”
Cloud didn’t respond to his suggestion, and when Reno glanced over to gauge his reaction, the blonde soldier had gone. With an indifferent shrug, Reno turned an appraising eye on Rude’s solemn face.
“So. What did you and Caitlin talk about in the chopper?”
Reno noticed the slight tightening of the big Turk’s mouth, the only discernible movement anywhere on his person. Several tense moments elapsed before Rude finally replied to his impertinent query.
Reno studied his inscrutable face with narrow-eyed suspicion. He knew very well that they’d talked, but obviously Rude had no intention of divulging a word of it. Apparently Rude didn’t trust him where Caitlin was concerned, perhaps with good reason. Reno’s lips curved in a mirthless smile as he swung his gaze back to find Reeve forging a path toward them through the quietly dispersing crowd.
“Look’s like the party’s breaking up.” Reno let the rod fall into his hand. “Time to get down to business.”
Caitlin drew away from the window and fell back against the rough board wall, an unconscious groan slipping from her lips as she squeezed her eyes tightly shut, as though to close herself away from her own thoughts as well as from the sight of the man that now approached the building. She wanted to run, but she had nowhere to go. She’d been a fool to come here. Had she really thought she could maneuver this man out of her life with a brief meeting and a timely escape back to her self-imposed isolation? She had made her decision to come partially based on her knowledge of the man Reeve had been ten years ago, but the man she’d watched through the windowpane was a stranger to her. The Reeve she’d known, the one she’d married, had been a handsome young man with a keen sense of humor and a ready smile, a somewhat shy architectural engineer with a fascination for electronics and a tendency toward clumsiness, mostly because his mind was typically engaged in the act of creation no matter what else he might be doing. From what she’d just witnessed and the little bit that she’d been able to overhear, she could see that this man was self-confident, purposeful and shrewd, with an apparent facility for bending people to his will. What had she expected? She knew very well that he’d been in the top echelons of the company for several years now. She had often wondered how he had managed to attain and keep a position of that level in the corrupt corporation. Now she was starting to see.
Caitlin let her face fall into her hand at the memory of how she would tease him when he’d talk about his ambitions to climb the company ladder. She’d never quite been able to see him there despite the fact that he’d been dedicated to his career. If she had ever believed it possible then, she probably wouldn’t have given him the time of day despite their mutual attraction. She despised her father’s company, and Reeve’s devotion to the Shinra Corporation had been the only bone of contention between them.
“Problem?” Caitlin raised her head to find Elena studying her with interest, and she straightened from the wall and put a stiff back to the blonde Turk.
“No.” She hoped her terse response would dissuade the Turk from further conversation, but Elena wouldn’t be so easily dismissed.
“Well, I just wondered. You look positively ill.”
Caitlin leaned forward slightly to peer through the window again. Reeve had moved away from the building and now stood with the Turks and the Soldier guy with the spiky hair. Whatever he was saying to them, Reno didn’t like. He was vehemently shaking his head. The Soldier spoke then, and Reno shook his head again. Reeve said something else and pointed to his right. Visibly annoyed, Reno sharply lifted his shoulders in a shrug and turned to look at Rude. The muscle-bound Turk inclined his head and walked away. Uneasily, Caitlin watched Rude until he disappeared from her view. When she turned her gaze back to the small group, Reno stood stiffly with his arms tightly folded and his face averted from the other two, obviously displeased with the outcome of their discussion. Apparently, Reeve had come out on top there too. Her stomach churned as she wondered where Rude had gone. She prayed he wouldn’t be long.
“You really should move away from that window.”
Caitlin silently ignored Elena’s offhand suggestion, until Reeve suddenly raised his eyes toward the building. Startled, Caitlin jumped backwards, out of his sight. Shakily, she whirled and walked across the small room to drop down on a crate beside the slatted tabletop. She started to rest her hands on the table until she noticed her trembling fingers and curled her hands in her lap instead. She looked up to meet Elena’s smug gaze and lifted her chin in response. Elena could think she’d won if she wanted. She wasn’t about to tell the blonde Turk that she had moved from the window because she couldn’t bear to lock eyes with him again. Not yet. Not after that last look had punched directly into her solar plexus and left her struggling for a breath. She’d thought that after ten years he wouldn’t have that impact on her anymore. She’d been wrong. So damn wrong. He had changed. She had changed. That had not changed. Not in the least.
The very first time they’d met, literally crashing into each other in the corridors of the Shinra Corporate Offices, his flustered brown eyes and her annoyed blue ones had collided and locked as they’d knelt on the shiny marble floor amidst a sea of scattered blueprint rolls and the eclectic contents of her handbag. That wild spark had leapt between them then, an instant visceral connection that had slammed the world to a standstill for the space of several heartbeats, for both of them. She’d been livid at her father, and he’d been stressed because he was late to a planning meeting, but all else had ceased to exist except for the two of them. Then time had snapped back into place, and their minds had broken free. Somewhat befuddled, they’d gathered up their things, mumbled their apologies, and continued on their way. That day.
If only she hadn’t gone back the next day despite her resolve to avoid the building and her father in future, hadn’t nosed her way around until she had discovered his name and department, hadn’t arranged to inadvertently run across him in the documents library, if only she’d never known him, never loved him, she wouldn’t be sitting here now, quaking inside at the thought of talking to him. She hadn’t expected to feel this way. She had come all this way just to talk to him, because he’d asked her to come. What had he said to persuade her so easily? He’d told her about the dire situation in Midgar, the result of a catastrophe she could hardly understand. He had expressed his condolences and informed her of her brother’s will. He’d impressed upon her the importance of her personal attention to the people of Midgar as the current owner of the Shinra Corporation, or what was left of it rather, and he had promised her their meeting would not go beyond business. He had also promised her that whatever the outcome of their meeting, he would abide by her wishes. In retrospect, that string of words on a computer screen seemed a ridiculously tenuous reason to have agreed to his request, especially when she knew that if their roles were reversed and she were in his shoes, she would demand answers, and she would get them come hell or high water. She would be so humiliated and angry that she wouldn’t be able to shove her feelings aside. But then, ten years was a long time. How long had he known? When did he find out? Caitlin mauled the hem of her sweatshirt in anxious fingers. Certainly, he’d found out somehow. Maybe he’d always known. What if he’d found out everything? No, that was not possible. Not a single soul on the planet had known everything. However, if someone were to take the time to look for all the pieces, that person might be able to put everything together…
Her name, spoken in his quiet and familiar voice, seized her troubled thoughts in vengeful fingers and pulverized them to dust. Frozen in her seat with her hands twisted in the material of her shirt, she stared at the rough burl of the wood slats beneath her eyes as she searched for the will to lift her head and look into his face despite her fear of him. No, not fear of him. Fear that he would see her weakness. Fear that he would somehow see into her mind and know the truth.
“I think she’s ill.”
A bright spark of anger flared into vibrant life, and she slowly tilted her head back to glare at Elena on the other side of the table. Elena blinked at the azure fire that burned in Caitlin’s eyes.
“I am not ill.” Deliberately, she lifted her hands to the table and stood, partially to prove the truth of her sharply voiced statement and partly to gain a little more of a height advantage than she currently possessed.
“Well, sorry.” Elena shrugged indifferently and lifted her hand to inspect her perfectly painted fingernails. “You looked a little green around the gills earlier.”
“I’m fine.” Somehow, the butterflies fluttering wildly inside her stomach didn’t affect the firmness of the words.
“Are you sure?”
At Reno’s solicitous query, she tipped her head to look up at him, and her eyes narrowed at the barely suppressed laughter gleaming in his eyes. Why had she been so foolish as to tell this irritating man anything. That lapse would probably come back to bite her eventually, if she managed to survive the huge mistake of coming to Midgar at all.
“I am positive.” At her clipped words, the corner of the Turk’s mouth lifted in a smirk. Gritting her teeth, she steeled her nerves and turned her eyes toward Reeve, but her uneasy gaze stopped on the unfamiliar face of the man standing next to Reno. The Soldier studied her closely, mild curiosity in his radiant blue eyes. She knitted her brow in wonder. Who was this guy anyway? He’d apparently accompanied Reeve into the Dead Zone. First Class Soldiers didn’t typically run with Shinra management types, but then the whole population of Midgar didn’t typically hang out in the slums with the Shinra Army in charge of law enforcement either. In the absence of the Turks, the young soldier had probably been drafted into service as Reeve’s bodyguard. However, that didn’t explain why he was here now, included in a meeting of a sensitive nature. Unless Reeve thought he needed protection from the Turks or maybe even…from her. The soldier nodded his head politely, his eyes now rife with intense interest and a hint of puzzlement. With a start, she realized she’d been staring at him the entire time she’d been buried in her thoughts. Nervously, she nodded in return and dropped her eyes to the table, wholly aware that Reeve stood to the soldier’s right. She could not put off the inevitable forever. She had to look at him. If she didn’t, then she had already awarded him the upper hand, and she was not willing to concede so easily.
Slowly, she lifted her head in his direction, her eyes sliding upwards as she searched within for a piece of solid ground on which to climb, a place inside her mind to stand tall against the chaotic winds of emotion that shook her. Just when she thought she wouldn’t find it, her brain suddenly recognized the tiny figures passing beneath her preoccupied gaze. Startled at the sight, her wildly racing thoughts stilled.
The Reeve she had known would never have worn a tie like that. Not into the office. She should know. She’d given it to him as a joke a long time ago. Or one just like it. Abruptly, she tilted her head back and looked directly into his impassive brown eyes, and although the sudden urge came over her to clamber on top of the crate behind her, to gain equal footing with him, the jolt she’d expected didn’t come this time. Maybe because she did expect it, had prepared herself for it, or maybe because that feeling had been something her brain coughed up from the past, a reflection of her anxiety at meeting with him. Whatever the reason, her senses remained on an even keel. Feeling as cool as he looked, she inclined her head stiffly in acknowledgement.
Reeve tersely nodded his head in response, and wasted no time in getting to the point. “Are you ready to talk with me?”
At the question, Reno pointedly rounded the table to stand beside her. She looked up at him and a shiver coursed up her spine. With watchful, predatory green eyes pinned on the executive’s face, he rhythmically bumped his stick against the side of his leg and silently waited. At some point, he'd lost the rubber band completely from his hair, and the fine copper strands straggled loosely down his back and over his shoulders. The smeared bloodstain that ran from the corner of his mouth to the crest of one scarred cheekbone stood out starkly against his pale skin. He wore an affable smile on his face, but there was nothing friendly about it. Reno looked hungry. Uneasily, she turned back to gauge Reeve’s reaction to the Turk’s succinctly expressed albeit nonverbal message.
With hooded eyes on Reno’s face, Reeve lifted his hands to his hips and shifted his weight to one foot. “I had hoped that we could speak alone, Caitlin.” He shifted his gaze to her face. “However, if you are not comfortable with that, then I’ll respect your wishes.”
Caitlin looked around at the other faces in the small room. She wanted Rude with her, but he hadn’t returned. She noticed Elena watching her closely, a slight hint of displeasure in her hazel eyes. For some reason, the blonde Turk didn’t seem to care for her much, not that the woman’s opinion of her really mattered, but she certainly didn’t want her listening in on this meeting. Caitlin didn’t want Reno there either. He seemed protective of her now, but she didn’t trust him. Although well spoken and intelligent, he possessed a capricious and callous nature that made her edgy despite the fact that she had been accustomed to the company of Turks in her younger days. Rude and Tseng had always performed their jobs as required, and did so with seeming coldness, but she knew that some of the duties foisted upon them as Turks didn’t rest easily on their minds. Jaz, her most frequent Turk escort, had been a bit of a clown who often had her in stitches with his antics. He tended to laugh off his stresses. This Turk, Reno, seemed to enjoy the sort of duties inherent in his job entirely too much.
She noticed that the spiky-haired soldier had moved around to Reeve’s other side and had wrapped his gloved hand around the hilt of the sword attached to his back, obviously a guarded response to Reno’s assertive stance. The Soldier dared the Turk with luminous eyes full of promise, making his readiness to engage in conflict quite clear. As far as she was concerned, the Soldier could go too. She didn’t know him, and his role seemed a mystery to her.
She looked toward the doorway again, hoping that Rude would walk through. A soldier clad in the uniform of a regular army private now stood just inside the room, his fingers restlessly fumbling with the strap of his rifle. The doorway remained empty. With a mental shake of her head, she tipped her head back to look up at Reno.
Reno dropped his gaze to her face, and his smile widened. “Gone.” Fascinated, she studied the feral gleam in his eyes. Despite his nonchalant posture and agreeable expression, the redheaded Turk virtually burned with anger. Wherever Rude had gone, Reno didn’t like it one bit.
“I asked him to take the chopper and go for help.” Caitlin turned in surprise at Reeve’s response to her query.
“Please tell me you didn’t send him out in that storm!”
“I had no choice, Caitlin. We have to get crews and equipment here to open the outer doors, and he is the best man for the job. Rude can practically fly a chopper with his eyes closed.”
“You could have sent Reno!” Reeve raised his eyebrows at her sharp tone, but declined to comment.
“Gee, thanks.” Reno’s low drawl next to her ear brought heat flooding into her cheeks.
“Well…I…mean…you can fly. You brought us in.” Flustered, Caitlin dropped her gaze to the tabletop.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence. I’m flattered. Unfortunately, Reeve is afraid I will damage the cargo.”
“That’s not the case, Reno. I simply believe that your presence here is more imperative. As you’ve already seen, people are getting edgy. It would take very little for this situation to turn into a bloody melee.”
“You seem to have them eating out of your hand.”
“No, I’ve just given them empty assurances and redirection. Some of them just needed something to do. Most of them just want out. Everything is riding on Rude’s success. If we don’t produce a concrete solution soon, nothing I can say will matter. If you think that these people haven’t thought about the extent of Shinra’s culpability in this mess, you are dead wrong. The only reason the company isn’t being blamed outright thus far is because Rufus manipulated the media to his advantage. But there are people who know the truth. Word gets around. Especially when people are afraid. Everything could turn on us just like that.” Reeve snapped his fingers to emphasize his point.
Reno tilted his head in question. “And what exactly do you expect from the Turks?”
“I want you to do what you do best. Watch and listen. You, in particular, possess a finely honed talent for sniffing out potential trouble.”
“I assume you don’t want me to take care of these potential troubles, personally.”
“You assume correctly. You are to provide intelligence only.”
“How boring.” Elena chimed in her opinion on the whole matter, but no one paid her any mind. Reno turned to face Caitlin who had been listening intently to the conversation between the two, her eyes switching back and forth as each spoke. At Reno’s movement, she looked up at him.
“Do you have an answer?”
Her mind floundered for a couple of seconds as she tried to remember the question before she realized that he had returned to the issue of whether she wanted to speak with Reeve alone or not. There could only be one answer, under the circumstances.
A high-pitched beep erupted from beneath the table, and Caitlin dropped her puzzled gaze to the splintered tabletop.
“Cait? Cait! Are you awake?” Caitlin’s eyes flew wide at the sound of her own name spoken in a shrill female voice from beneath the table, Reeve’s version of her name anyway. No one else had called her that. Curious, she bent to look underneath the table.
“Cait! Will you get your fuzzy rear in gear!”
“What is that…?” Caitlin stared in fascination at the blinking red light that flashed from the dim interior of the box as she tried to sort out what or who could be inside the wooden crate calling her by name.
“Excuse me.” Caitlin looked up to find Reeve towering beside her. Startled, she jumped to her feet and stumbled backwards only to step on Reno’s loafered toes. She lost her balance and fell against him. Chuckling softly, he closed his hands around her waist and set her back on her feet. Awkwardly, she mumbled an apology and took one large step away from both of them, all the while watching as Reeve bent down to drag the crate into the open.
“Cait Sith! Talk to me! Look…Reeve…I didn’t mean to like…run out on ya…you know…it was like an emergency…a sudden thing…ah, come on and…”
Reeve lifted the control gauntlet and punched a button, cutting the voice off in mid-sentence. Then he flipped a metal switch, tossed the glove back into the box and reached into his shirt pocket to retrieve his earphone. As he turned away from the table, he hooked the tiny wire over his ear and set the earpiece in place. With the tap of one finger against his tie, he activated the hidden transmitter.
He swept a glance across Cloud’s questioning eyes, Reno’s smirk, and Elena’s glower. His appraising gaze halted on Caitlin’s bewildered frown.
“Please excuse me. I have to take care of this, then we’ll talk.” At her hesitant nod, he turned his back to them and walked several paces across the room, the spiky-haired Soldier right on his heels. For several minutes, she studied Reeve’s hunched shoulders and attempted to hear what he was saying into his tie, but he spoke in such a soft, low-pitched voice that she could only make out a mumbled word here and there. Finally, she sank down on one of the upended crates and laid her head down on crossed arms to wait. The long day was beginning to catch up with her, and her eyelids grew heavy as she passively listened to the murmur of low voices in the room. She noticed that Reno had moved around the table to talk to Elena, and she watched them wearily through her eyelashes. Reno bent down to whisper in Elena’s ear, and she nodded agreeably. Then he said something else, and her eyes flew wide in outrage. She threw her hand up against his sternum and shoved hard, only managing to turn him halfway around.
“Why don’t you mind your own business?!” He shrugged at her irritated question. She rounded on him and poked a long pink nail into his chest. “In fact, why don’t you get away from me?! Go clean up your face! You look like a lazy, glutted bandersnatch full of helpless chocobo chicks with your mouth awash in their blood.”
Reno looked at her in mock surprise. “That was very…poetic. In a macabre sort of way.”
Elena flashed him a cool smile. “Thank you. You just bring out the best in me, I guess.” She folded her arms and sent a searching gaze around the room. Her eyes drilled a hole in the back of Reeve’s head as she watched him huddle with Cloud Strife. She knew quite well that the executive was currently in communication with Avalanche via his electronic spy equipment.
“Reno, where did Rude go?”
“He took the chopper to retrieve Highwind and his entourage from a farmhouse south-southeast of Kalm. He will then fly the illustrious Captain to Junon to acquire a Gelnika from the airbase. Said Captain, if amenable to the plan, will then fly to Rocket Town and gather his technicians along with any pertinent equipment and return here, picking up additional assistance along the way.”
Elena sniffed. “That seems rather convoluted. Why doesn’t Reeve just contact Junon?”
“Think about it, Elena. Didn’t the command center seem rather devoid of personnel to you?”
“Oh. True. Well then, why didn’t he just have us pass on the request when we were there?”
Reno sighed wearily. “I don’t know, Elena. Maybe he hadn’t realized that he needed help then or maybe it’s a case of 20/20 hindsight or maybe he had bigger fish to fry first.”
Elena chewed her lip in thought for a moment, and Reno resigned himself to her next question. He knew there would be one. Suddenly, she lifted her head and speared him with steel-hardened eyes. “Are we really going to take orders from that traitor?”
Reno sighed. He’d wondered that she hadn’t voiced that question yet. “For the moment.”
“But they killed Tseng!”
Reno abruptly snatched a fistful of her jacket and dragged her closer, bringing his thin nose to within an inch of hers to hiss into her face. “You are certainly a stubborn woman with a one track mind. Although, I do recall another discussion on just this subject, it’s apparent that I haven’t made that clear enough to you as yet. Disabuse yourself of that notion now. Avalanche did not kill Tseng. Reeve did not kill Tseng. Sephiroth killed Tseng. Your compulsive need to accuse them of his murder is only undermining the Turks’ credibility.”
“I don’t believe you!” Elena’s petulant voice broke beneath the weight of her emotions. “How would you know anyway?!”
“Tseng made that clear in his last…communiqué…to me.” Reno’s eyes fell away from the pain in Elena’s face, and he abruptly released her. “Besides, Reeve wouldn’t have had a hand in killing Tseng. They were friends if you’ll recall. That’s how he got mixed up with Avalanche in the first place. He was doing a favor for Tseng.”
Caitlin had lifted her head at Elena’s shrill accusation, and she had heard every word of Reno’s response, despite his effort to keep his voice low. Obviously distressed, the blonde Turk turned her back on Reno and sent a scathing glare around the room. She couldn’t help but notice Caitlin’s rapt interest in their business. She speared her with eyes full of angry tears. Caitlin stared blandly back. With a huff of annoyance at her inability to intimidate the petite woman, Elena suddenly spun around and grabbed Reno by the elbow. Digging her nails in, she dragged him around to face the wall. Startled by her behavior, he didn’t think to put up any resistance.
“There’s a washbasin and a jug of water right over there. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
“I don’t need any help to…” Elena ignored his protest as she steered him across the floor.
“I don’t believe I appointed you my mother.”
“Believe me, I wouldn’t take the job.”
Caitlin straightened on the crate, tuning out the Turks’ argument as she pondered Reno’s words. Reeve and Tseng friends? That was a complete irony in light of the fact that she had begged Tseng not to kill him…that last day. Of course, Tseng hadn’t known the identity of the person she was protecting. Thank the stars in the heavens, because he might have carried out her father’s directive if he had known. Tseng himself killed by Sephiroth’s hand? Did they mean General Sephiroth? But he’d been killed over five years ago. Then again, that shouldn’t surprise her, of all people. When a company had a policy of playing God, anything was conceivable. But Reeve a traitor? To Shinra? How could that be? Reeve had dedicated his whole life to the corporation. He was probably the only Shinra manager who had actually worked hard to earn his position at the top. Scarlet had manipulated, cajoled and blackmailed herself into a position of power. For that matter, there were probably a few dead bodies beneath the legs of her ladder. Heidegger had leveraged his Wutai War experience into the job and then brown-nosed his way to the top. Palmer, poor addle-pated man, had once been her father’s brother-in-law, the only sibling of Dania, his first wife. Hojo… She gritted her teeth as the wasted image of Professor Hojo popped into her head. Her father had been mesmerized by Hojo’s scientific prowess, or rather, by his insane and morally questionable projects. The inimical professor had no patience for proper scientific method and neither did her father. Of all the Shinra personnel, she despised Hojo the most, despite the fact that he was the man responsible for her escape from death. At her father’s behest, he had snatched her back across that dark threshold when conventional medicine had failed. One might think she should be grateful, but the price had been too high.
“Does the word ‘insubordination’ mean anything to you?” Reno’s threatening voice drew Caitlin back into the present. She lifted her troubled gaze to see Reno snatch a handful of tissues from Elena’s fingers. “I can wash my own face.” Elena shrugged. “Whatever. Just see that you do. You look disgusting. Well, more than usual anyway.” She tossed her head and walked away toward the entrance. Caitlin saw her nod to the soldier who still stood to the side. For his part, he smiled nervously and cautiously watched her position herself in the center of the doorway as though she were a snake that might turn and strike. Only after Elena pointedly turned her back to the whole room and leaned against the doorframe with forced casualness did the soldier return his attention to Reeve.
Caitlin realized that the solider had kept his eyes on Reeve most of the time he’d been standing there, his face drawn with anxiety. She returned her speculative blue eyes to Reeve’s back. Suddenly, she stood and quietly crossed the floor to stop a few feet behind him, out of sight but well within earshot of his low voice. Usually she frowned on eavesdropping, but she needed to get a handle on the man’s agenda. The more she overheard, the more adrift she became. She turned to watch Reno work a small comb through his tangled hair as she listened to Reeve’s words.
“Where is Cait’s mog? I can’t leave him up and running without his main power source. His internal batteries are too rundown.”
“Well, that’s where Cid is too, right? I need to talk to him ASAP.”
Reeve sighed wearily. “I know it’s raining, Yuffie, but this is very important. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, this is literally a matter of life and death.”
“Your conformer? No. No. Ssssh. Listen to me.”
“Yes, look. I’m sorry about your conformer, but I’m sure it will turn up…”
“I know. Yes, I know. YUFFIE! I don’t have much time here. I want you to take a message to Cid immediately, rain or shine.”
“Are you listening?”
“Good, here is what I want you to tell him. Within the hour, a chopper will be landing there. Rude will be flying it…”
“Yes, Rude the Turk. You do remember him?”
“Yes, I know he was the one who untied you on Dachau…”
“Yes, I’m sure it was a terrible experience…but…but…”
“YUFFIE! WILL YOU LISTEN TO ME?!”
Caitlin choked as a willful giggle tried to escape her throat at the exasperation in Reeve’s voice. This Yuffie person seemed a less than committed courier. And what was this about Rude?
“Okay, I’m sorry. Just listen. Please.”
“You are listening now?”
“Good, tell Cid that Rude is coming to pick all of you up. I need Cid to get as many engineers and technicians as he can persuade and bring them to Midgar. Rude will give him the details when he gets there.”
“Yuffie? Are you still there?”
Reeve caught the grin on Cloud’s face and rolled his eyes in response.
“There you are. Where did you go? Did you hear what I said?”
“Who is Lizbet?”
“No, I cannot tell her fortune right now. Maybe later.”
“Did you get the message?”
“Will you repeat it back to me please?”
“Okay, good. Just take Cait out to the airship with you and return him to his Mog. Then if Cid needs to communicate with me, he can. I’ll stay connected to Cait so if you need to talk to me, I’ll hear you.”
At a tap on his shoulder, Reeve looked up at Cloud. The blonde warrior tipped his head behind him, and the executive glanced over his shoulder to see Caitlin standing a few feet beyond. He shrugged and idly scanned the room as he listened to Yuffie’s complaints about the weather. When his gaze fell on Coakley, the young soldier crooked a finger at him. Silently, Reeve nodded and held up one finger in response.
“Yuffie, I have to go now.”
“Yes, go tell Cid right away because Rude will be there shortly. Even with the storm, the trip won’t take long.”
“You will not melt. You will dry. Better yet, think umbrella.”
“Yes, I thank you in advance for your efforts on my behalf.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Reeve tapped a finger against his tie to close the transmission. Turning toward Coakley, he froze at the expression on Cloud’s face, the amused grin now replaced with a tight frown.
“What is it?”
“I want to talk to you about her.” Cloud inclined his head in Caitlin’s direction.
“Can this wait?” Reeve shot a glance at Coakley’s tense face.
“I think I’ve just figured it out, Reeve, although I can hardly believe it. The name. The Turk escort. Her presence here now. That is Caitlin Shinra, isn’t it?” Cloud swung his intense Mako eyes in her direction. Caitlin had slowly turned around at his first words about her, and she met his stare head on. The blood in Reeve’s veins turned to ice at Cloud’s question. He had hoped to find a way to broach the subject with Cloud earlier, but there hadn’t been an opportunity. Careful to keep any hint of nervousness from his face, Reeve’s eyes skimmed over her worried blue eyes before he met Cloud’s accusatory glare head on.
“Yep, I knew it.” Cloud looked her over from head to toe. “She even looks like Rufus.”
Reeve folded his arms and bowed his head as he waited for the inevitable.
“So, she’s not dead.”
“All of it was a lie.”
The executive drew in a long breath before he spoke. “If you mean the reports of her death and subsequent funeral, as well as all the media surrounding that event, yes. It was a fabrication. Most of it anyway. It was a lie, but it was not my lie. If you are referring to the promise I made to you, no. That was not a lie.”
Cloud whipped his head back to pin Reeve with a hard stare. “I only have your word for that.”
“My word is all I have to give you, Cloud.”
“I don’t know you well enough to determine if that’s worth anything or not.”
“Look, just let me see what Mr. Coakley needs over there, and allow me to meet with Caitlin, then we’ll all sit down and discuss this situation.”
“I only have one thing to say to you right now. Then I’ll wait.”
“I want you to know now that if Aeris died to save this planet just so you can help crank the Shinra Corporation back into gear and take up where Rufus Shinra left off, I’ll personally see that you join her.”
Reeve shook his head sadly. “I suppose I would expect no less. However, that’s not going to happen. Not because of me anyway. A lot of things are up in the air right now, but that point is not debatable. I will do everything in my power to see things set right. You will see.”
“I better. I want to believe you, so I will. For the time being.” Cloud shot a pointed look at Caitlin. “As long as things become clear to me soon. Clear as glass.”
“Mr. Alexander?” Reeve turned at Coakley’s tight voice beside him. “I’m sorry to intrude, but Dr. Anas…Anasto…”
“Yes, that’s it!”
“What about him, Andy?”
“He asked that you come to Wall Market as soon as you can. There’s some sort of problem.”
“Did he happen to elaborate on the problem?”
“No, sir. He just said you need to come, the sooner the better.”
Reeve rubbed his forehead wearily and nodded to the young soldier. “Yes, okay. Would you relay a message that I’m headed that way, please?”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Coakley trotted away, inclining his head politely in Caitlin’s direction as he passed.
Caitlin absently moved away from the three men, so deep in her thoughts that everyone else around her faded away into the background. So far, everything she had overhead and observed had steered her into a deeper morass of confusion. She just didn’t know enough to put everything together. She gathered that the Soldier, Cloud, played a much greater role in the scheme of things than she had first thought. Like her, he had no choice but to trust a person that might not be worthy of that trust, someone who might harbor a hidden agenda. Obviously, Cloud did not like her, because she was a Shinra, because of the company. She couldn’t blame him. But why was he here with the Turks and a Shinra manager? Why were the Turks here with a Shinra manager they believed to be a traitor? Why was this young man who obviously belonged to the Soldier Special Service, First Class level no less…why was he even questioning Reeve, much less threatening him? Why did Reeve think he had to answer to him? Who was Aeris? Who was Yuffie? She’d recognized Cid Highwind’s name. He’d been with the company for years. His imagination and expertise had gone into the design of many of Shinra’s flying machines. Apparently, Highwind must be the cargo Reno mentioned earlier. Why would Reno want to ‘damage’ him? Or why would Reeve think that rather? Would Reeve let her go as he’d promised? How long had he known? How did he feel about it? The ‘lie’.
…It was a lie, but it was not my lie...
“A gil for your thoughts.”
Caitlin visibly jumped at Reno’s low voice just behind her. He walked around to look down at her. His face now scrubbed clean and his hair again restrained in a ponytail, he’d returned his appearance to as close a semblance of civility as he could manage. His copper brows drew together at her silent appraisal.
Caitlin shrugged slightly, her mind still centered on her mental questions. “Reno? Do you think I should be…? She stopped in mid-sentence and peered around Reno’s arm to see Reeve still engaged in serious conversation with the Soldier called Cloud. “Should be what?” Reno tapped his finger against his lips as he studied her worried face. She looked down at her sneakers. “Should I be…afraid…of him?” Reno leaned closer at her whispered question. “Not while I’m around.” Caitlin turned beseeching eyes upwards. She really didn’t want to ask these questions of Reno, but she was helpless to stop herself. Besides, she’d already been foolish enough to admit to Reno that she was afraid of Reeve. She had to know the answers, if nothing else but to quell her uncertainty and tame the butterflies inside her stomach. “Seriously, even if you aren’t around. Should I be afraid? Can I trust his word? What kind of man is he?”
Reno snorted derisively. “Why are you asking me? You married the guy.”
Her brow wrinkled in an irritated frown. Indeed, she was a fool to ask this contrary individual anything. However, she’d already begun. She might as well finish. “I’m asking you because you would know. Turks know about people, and I suspect you know things about people they’d rather you didn’t. It’s been ten years since I’ve seen him. People change. Sometimes they aren’t even the people you thought they were to begin with. I only know what kind of a man he seemed to be then.”
“Hmmm….well…it seems I didn’t know as much about him as I thought.” Reno idly twirled his rod through his fingers.
Caitlin huffed in exasperation. “You must know something about him.”
Reno pursed his lips in thought. “Well…I don’t know about back then, but I can tell you that you should be very, very leery of the type of man he is now.”
Caitlin’s eyes flew wide in alarm. Had she made a mistake in trusting his word after all? She lowered her lashes, hiding her anxiety from the Turk.
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, if you get too close to him, you will literally drop dead from boredom in no time. He’s dangerously dull. The biggest goody two shoes you ever saw. How he ever managed to worm his way to the top of the Shinra Corporation is beyond me. Maybe you had something to do with that?” Reno chuckled at the flash of fire in her blue eyes. “Obviously, he was much more exciting when you married him. He must have been to bag the beautiful and rich Caitlin Shinra. Or were your requirements rather…er…minimal?” Reno turned slightly and pointedly appraised the subject in question with scornful eyes.
Flabbergasted, Caitlin stared at the smug expression on the redheaded Turk’s face as he then idly scanned the room, seemingly oblivious or, more likely, totally indifferent to the effect of his words. Anger swelled within her chest the longer she stared at him until suddenly her foot flew out, almost of its own accord, and she barked Reno soundly against one bare anklebone with the toe of her sneaker.
“OW!” Reno hopped to one foot and grabbed his ankle, his face twisted in pain. “That hurt!” He glanced up to see her draw back her fist, and he threw up his hand just as she let fly with a wild roundhouse swing. He just barely managed to block her punch with his open hand. She pulled back for another swing, but he wrapped his fingers around her tiny wrist and held on. Caitlin snarled and jerked back hard against his tight grip, easily breaking free. Startled, Reno’s eyes flew to her face, and he froze at the strange glow that lit her blue irises like a pair of xenon torches. Caitlin would have landed a stunning blow smack in the middle of the Turk’s stomach, so mesmerized by the sight was he, but another person captured her fist in the palm of his hand with a pained wince.
Reeve’s quiet voice caught her attention where a shout would have only enraged her further. Her eyes shot to his troubled face as her anger rapidly ebbed away beneath his silent perusal, replaced by a deep sense of shame. Her face red with embarrassment, she tugged against his grasp, and he promptly released her. She let her hand fall limply to her side as she skimmed the faces of the people that now surrounded her. Cloud, Soldier First Class, studied her with guarded interest and bemusement. An openmouthed Elena stood beside Reno with a tight grip on his elbow. For his part, Reno seemed to have shaken himself from his trance, and he arched one devilish eyebrow as he inclined his head respectfully. The army soldier, Coakley, had apparently returned from relaying his message and now peered at her with round eyes from a safe position a few steps behind Reeve, who stood with crossed arms and watched her with a mixture of wariness and concern.
“Are you all right?” At his low-voiced query, Caitlin guiltily dropped her head and stared at the ground with unfocused eyes. Wordlessly, she nodded. Truthfully, she could hardly remember the last few seconds, but she could guess what had happened. She’d lost her temper, something she’d not let herself do in a very long time, with good reason.
“You know, don’t you?” Her strained whisper barely reached Reeve’s ears. He took in all the attentive faces that circled them and put his back to them. Looking down sadly at her bowed head, he answered under his breath.
Although gratified and encouraged by his discretion she didn’t respond to his simple answer. Nor could she bring herself to lift her eyes, not wanting to see the expression on his face, whether it be disgust or pity, or worse, nothing. So she turned away from him and looked up at Reno instead. She met his stolid gaze squarely.
“I’m sorry. I don’t usually…behave…like that.”
Reno shrugged indifferently. “There’s no need to apologize to me.” He averted his eyes from her imploring face.
“Nevertheless, I do apologize…”
“Sure. Okay. I absolve you of all blame, and I promise not to litigate. Just don’t expect me to sign anything.” Pointedly, he averted his narrow-eyed gaze to the back of Reeve’s head. “So, Boss. How about we deal out those cards now?”
Reeve drew away from his careful appraisal of Caitlin, who still wouldn’t meet his gaze. “Unfortunately, our discussion will have to wait. My presence has been requested at Wall Market, and I need to address that issue first.”
“That’s convenient.” Reno spun away from the group and strode across the room to stand in the open doorway. Reeve glanced down at Caitlin again. “Caitlin, you can stay here if you’d like. You’ll be safe here.” He paused for a response, but when she didn’t answer, he continued. “I wouldn’t advise wandering around, especially…”
Abruptly, she looked up at him, and he stopped talking. “I don’t want to stay here. I’ll go with you.” She tilted her head in question at the surprise in his eyes. “If that’s all right?”
Reeve nodded shortly. “Certainly, if you want to go. However, I should warn you that the situation in Wall Market is pretty grim.”
“So, what’s new?” Elena interjected, studying her fingernails in her boredom. Reeve ignored Elena’s rhetorical question. “The medical personnel have set up a makeshift hospital and a morgue there.”
Caitlin held his gaze. “I understand. I want to go.”
“Where she goes, we go. Boss.” Reno informed him from the doorway without bothering to look around.
Reeve nodded even though Reno wasn’t looking. “Under the circumstances, I believe that would be best.”
Silence fell over the small group, and Reeve cleared his throat nervously. “Well, let’s not waste any more time.” Abruptly, he turned on heel and headed for the door. Reno stepped aside to let him pass. Caitlin followed right behind him. Elena didn’t need a signal from Reno to know her position, and she slipped through the doorway and fell into step on Caitlin’s left. Reno came up to walk beside her on the right, giving Cloud a pointed look over his shoulder as the warrior trailed quietly behind.
Cloud raised one golden eyebrow in response. He didn’t care what Reno thought about him bringing up the rear. He wasn’t letting any of them out of his sight. He knew very well that he was the odd man out here. A fifth wheel. If Reeve wasn’t being straight with him, he wouldn’t have much of a chance in the middle of the Shinra Army. Still, he wanted to trust the executive, and he would until he had a reason not to, although the sudden resurrection of Caitlin Shinra certainly gave him good cause for disbelief.
Yet, there seemed to be…something… going on between Reeve and Caitlin Shinra, but he couldn’t get a take on what. He’d never been very good at reading people. He just knew that despite Reeve’s solicitous manner toward the woman, as well as their coolly polite demeanor toward each other, there were clues that even he couldn’t miss. For one thing, Reeve had just called her Cait, certainly a nickname that rang with familiarity. Come to think of it, did that have any connection to their companion Cait Sith? An interesting question. Also, he hadn’t missed the way she’d planted her feet at sight of the three of them in the Dead Zone. At sight of Reeve, that is. She’d come with Elena, and she didn’t know him. Caitlin Shinra wouldn’t be startled at the sight of someone in the uniform of a Soldier First Class. So, it had to be Reeve. In the sewers, she’d been careful to stay several feet behind him, leaving Reeve to lead the way in a space of isolation until he himself had moved up to walk alongside.
She didn’t care for the Turks much either. In fact, she almost seemed as uncomfortable at being here as he was. She didn’t want to be here. He’d lay a wager on that. For whatever reason she had come to Midgar, obviously she hadn’t taken over, content to leave Reeve in charge. He just couldn’t get a handle on the situation.
Cloud watched her for several minutes as she trudged along between the Turks with her arms folded tightly around her middle and her head lowered as though to watch the ground pass beneath her feet. Faces turned and eyes stared as the crowd parted at sight of Reeve and the Turks to let them pass, but she hardly took notice. She reminded him of a prisoner being led to her execution.
Reeve produced his flashlight and disappeared into a narrow space between two heavily riveted panels, apparently the entrance to another of the executive’s endless shortcuts. Cloud shook off his thoughts and bent his mind to the task at hand as he turned into the dark passage. For now, he would watch and listen, until the hammer came down on one side or the other. Only then would he know what to do.
Nanaki lifted his muzzle from between his paws to see Yuffie peering around the doorframe. At her beckoning gesture, he stood up from the rug as a great yawn overtook his face, and he lazily stretched each limb before he sauntered through the doorway to face her.
She peered down at him curiously. “What are you doing?”
“Just resting by the fire and watching Lizbet cook supper.”
“Uh oh, how’s she doing?”
“I can’t really tell. She’s been ignoring me for the most part, just humming and stirring.”
“Oh well, I have to go out to the ship to deliver a message. Since you’re just hangin’ around, you wanna come too. Or better yet, you can take the message for me.”
“It’s raining out, Yuffie.”
“Well, yeah, but I think it’s slacked off some.”
Red peered up at her with one skeptical eye. “Actually, I was hoping to talk to Lizbet about Cosmo Canyon, but I’m not sure that I should. I wouldn’t want to upset her when she’s got spoons in her hand.”
“Nah, she loves talking about Cosmo Canyon. Just start asking her questions. That seems to draw her mind into focus. If she spends too much time inside her own head, the gears start to slip. But if you’re gonna talk to her, you better hurry. Reeve sent a chopper for us out of Midgar.”
“So you were able to talk to him and tell him where we are?”
“Uh huh and uh uh.”
“Could you clarify that, please?”
“Yes, I was able to talk to him. No, I didn’t tell him where we are. Cloud did. He’s in Midgar with Reeve.”
Nanaki pondered her answer as he watched her swing Cait Sith to and fro in one hand, but before he could inquire further, a shadow fell across the floor.
“There you are, Pharan. I was wondering where you went.”
Nanaki’s heart sank at her words. He had hoped she might remain lucid.
Yuffie bent to hiss into his ear. “You let her hum too long.” With a reassuring pat on the beast’s head, she hugged Cait Sith to her and turned toward the door.
“Where do you think you’re going, young lady?”
Yuffie pasted a bright smile on her face and whirled around. “Why, I was going to get…er….Pa…for dinner. And…what’s his name…Ralph.”
“Oh, good idea. Tell Terrin supper’s on, too.” Yuffie nodded happily and halfway turned onto her escape route again.
“What about that ill-mannered boy? Is he coming to supper?”
Yuffie froze in her tracks. “You mean…?”
Lizbet propped her hands on her hips. Nanaki’s alert gaze traveled from the wooden spoon fisted in one hand to the bright glint of displeasure in her rheumy gray eyes as she glared at Yuffie.
“I mean that boyfriend of yours. What was his name?”
Yuffie rolled Cait Sith’s gloved hand through her fingers as her mind frantically worked to come up with the correct answer. The ninja girl was never at a loss for long. She let the smile fall from her face and bowed her head sorrowfully.
“Oh him. He’s off pouting somewhere. We had a big ole fight, and I told him he could find himself another girl. Soon as I see him again, I’m sendin’ him on home.”
Lizbet nodded sagely. “Just as well. That boy needs an attitude adjustment. Just hurry it up. Supper’s almost ready.” The old woman stepped back through the kitchen door as she spoke.
“Yes ma’am, I’m already gone.” Before Lizbet’s mind could dive down a different rabbit hole, Yuffie darted for the door. She paused with her hand on the doorknob and glanced back at Nanaki.
“Remember what I said. Questions.” Then she dove through the doorway, slinging the wooden door shut behind her with a loud bang.
Nanaki reluctantly retraced his route back into the kitchen and dropped onto the woven rug again. He nervously switched his tail to and fro as he watched Lizbet stir her various pots and tried to concoct an appropriate question for a Protector named Pharan. When the old lady started to hum, Nanaki seized on the first thing that came to mind.
“Er…Lizbet…how have you been?”
“Fine, just fine. I’ve no complaints. But my life isn’t nearly as exciting as yours. Why don’t you tell me about your travels?”
Nanaki floundered in silence, wondering what he could say about places he’d never been. How could he describe the travels of someone he didn’t know. Still, he had been places. In fact, he’d been in places no one had ever seen before. Places like the inside of the Northern Crater. And the temple beneath the Forgotten City. He’d traversed the sea floor, and even rocketed into outer space. Come to think of it, his travels were probably much more exciting than any this Pharan had been on. Why did that name seem familiar anyway? He’d heard it somewhere. Or seen it maybe.
“Was your father happy to see you when you returned? I remember he was quite upset that you were leaving in the first place. But then Seto is all about honor and duty. I know he viewed your planned adventure as frivolous.”
“Seto?” Nanaki almost choked on the name.
“You must have gotten your sense of adventure from your mother. I never could figure out how Kaelima and Seto managed to get along so well. I guess it’s true that opposites attract, although there’s no scientific evidence of that premise, only anecdotal reports, hardly conclusive. Ah well, some things can’t be measured. I remember Kaelima didn’t want your sister to go, not when she was expecting again.”
“My sister?” Nanaki felt as though his mind had disengaged and slid away into Lizbet’s fantasy world.
“No, silly. Your mother.”
“I left before her little ones were born that spring. And just in time too, since the Gi raids started that summer. How many new brothers and sisters did you end up with?”
Are you talking about…me?
“Your mother was so worried about the Gi, but I guess the six of you managed to avoid their encampments. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be sitting here talking to me.” Lizbet suddenly turned away from her pots, her eyes dancing with girlish excitement.
“Did you find what you were looking for? That was so amazing! Did you find it? Loi Ilos du loi Allors? Did you?”
Nanaki rose to his feet in shock, and stared speechlessly up into her shining face. Of course, Bugenhagen had taught him the words of the old language of the Protectors. His grandfather had neglected little in his education. He knew of the place she referred to as well. A mythical place without form or substance. The legendary origin of the Protectors. Most believed it to be a simple creation story. A land that didn’t truly exist. The land that lay beyond the portal called The Eyes of the Others. Loi Ilos du loi Allors.
Numbly, Nanaki shook his head. “No, we didn’t.”
The light faded from Lizbet’s eyes, and she turned her back to him again. “Oh, that’s too bad. You were so optimistic when you found the map in the archives.”
Map? What map?
Nanaki didn’t dare ask her aloud. He wanted to learn more, but he didn’t know how to go about prying more out of her as Pharan. He just couldn’t think. Too many questions tumbled one over the other inside his head. Was this woman, Lizbet, spinning a tapestry of confused memories from her own past or did his father and mother actually have offspring before he’d been born. Certainly, it was possible. Even probable. His mother had just entered her middle years when she died suddenly and prematurely, leaving him alone as a half-grown cub still. But why wouldn’t his mother have told him? Maybe she’d thought him too young. But Grandfather. He would have told him. Wouldn’t he? Unless, he thought it pointless because all the Protectors were dead. All but him.
“Did your sister ever make up her mind?”
Nanaki pulled himself from his thoughts at Lizbet’s question. “About what?”
“You know, did she finally choose Baroni or Ramo? I always figured Parna would decide to mate with Ramo, even though she thought Baroni more handsome with that thick black mane, but Ramo’s calm nature appealed to her as well.”
When Nanaki failed to respond, Lizbet turned around and propped her hands on her hips, the spoon in her hand dribbling gravy down her faded skirt. “Well? Which one did she pick?”
Nanaki looked down at his huge paws in dismay. “Would you excuse me, Lizbet? I…ah…need to go outside.”
“Certainly Pharan. I understand.” Lizbet nodded happily and turned back to her bubbling pots. “Hurry back though. It’s about done.”
A few short moments later, Nanaki pulled the front door to with his teeth and slipped down the steps and into the rain. A curious inertia had overtaken his thoughts, and he ambled across the yard, unconsciously skirting anything in his path. When he came to the wooden gate, he halted and stood in place as though he believed the fragile, rickety gate to be an impassable mountain ridge in disguise. He squinted into the cold rain as he minutely studied the rivulets of water tracing the tiny curls of peeling paint and a jagged crack in one of the weathered slats. Nanaki realized that Lizbet’s discussion about Pharan and company, his father and mother, the Eyes of the Others…all of it…was most likely part of a tangled mix of the old woman’s past stirred with a generous measure of fantasy. But what if it wasn’t? What if it was true? What if she had just introduced Nanaki to a family he’d never known…a family he would never know. A blanket of desolation, denser than the churning cloud cover overhead, descended heavily in the beast’s mind, and Nanaki bowed his head so low that his braids nearly touched the ground. He couldn’t know the truth for sure, but the woman’s words echoed with a strange familiarity in his mind, and he suddenly felt utterly alone, more alone than he’d ever felt in Hojo’s lab, more alone than when Grandfather had passed on, more alone than he’d felt his whole life long.
Why couldn’t you tell me the truth, Grandfather? Why?
Yuffie smirked up into Barrett’s glowering eyes. “I gotta say it again? Rude the Turk, the one with the shaved head and all the earrings…”
“I know who he is by now!”
“Then why’d ya ask?”
“I didn’t ask!”
“You did too ask.”
“No, I did not ask!”
“Hold it!” Cid paused in his sweeping and leaned against the broom to drop a hand on Yuffie’s shoulder. “I’m askin’. What was that again?”
“All right! I’m only sayin’ it once more, cuz I have business to finish before I leave, so ya better be listenin’.”
Cid nodded. “I’m listenin’. Speak, girl.”
Yuffie dragged in a long, noisy breath. “Reeve says he’s sending a chopper to get us and Rude the Turk is flying and he wants you to go to Rockettown in a Gelnika and get your people, your workers or whatever, and bring them to Midgar cuz Reeve is locked in with all those people and can’t get out and Cloud’s there too and oh yeah he says he talked to Marlene and she’s a-ok in Kalm with Aeris’s Mom and Rude will give you the details when he gets here. Got that?”
Cid scratched his head. “Yeah, most of it. I think…”
“Good. I’m gone.” Yuffie sprang away, then suddenly slammed to a stop. “Oh yeah, here.” She flung Cait Sith into the air towards Cid who almost didn’t get his hand up in time to catch the flying robotic cat.
“What the hell? You almost broke my cigarette.”
“Well sor-ree. I’m in a hurry. Reeve says hook ‘em up and talk to him if you want. Bye.”
Yuffie bounded through the hatchway and disappeared before either man could get another word out.
Barrett glared at the empty doorway. “I think that girl needs to cut back on her caffeine.”
“Hmph. You gonna start tryin’ to change her now too?”
The huge man shrugged. “Look, sorry ‘bout that earlier. Do whatcha want.”
“Usually do.” Cid crunched across the broken glass and set Cait aside on the bench to reach for the capsized Mog. With a mighty heave he righted the inert machine and eyed it skeptically. “I’m not sure this thing’s gonna work.”
Barrett tramped up behind the pilot and studied the immobile mog over his shoulder. “So what’re we gonna do?”
“Plug him in if I could figure out where? I never noticed that Cait Sith was all that tied down to this thing, dancin’ all over the place and all.”
“No, I mean what’re we gonna do about the Turk?”
Cid turned a speculative eye on Barrett as he chewed on the butt of his unlit cigarette. “Go with ‘im, of course.”
Barrett’s wide brow creased into heavy folds. “Why the hell ya wanna do that!?”
“Hey, I ain’t deaf. Tone it down. Can’t ya see I’m tryin’ to think here?” The grizzled pilot picked up Cait Sith and lifted the cat to his face. He stared hard into the lifeless round eyes, looking for even a spark of electronic life. “I wonder if the Cat Man can hear me…”
“Are ya gonna answer my damn question!?” At Barrett’s low growl, Cid glanced up over his shoulder into the smoldering chocolate eyes and nodded absently before he returned his attention to the cybernetic feline. “Reason one: I’m bored. Reason two: I don’t feel like staying here, and I don’t like to walk. Reason three: I’d rather fly a million miles with Rude than take the chance of runnin’ into Psycho Granny again. Reason four: If folks are locked in under the plates, then we need to get ‘em out. And Reason five…”
“I’ve heard enough.”
Cid whirled around and wagged a finger in the bigger man’s face. “Oh no you don’t. You wanted my answer, so you’re gonna hear all of it by the Gods in heaven or my name ain’t Cid Highwind.”
“Fine.” Barrett pointedly crossed his arms and feigned an expression of great interest. “Go ahead.”
“Reason five: I wanna go to Rockettown. And that’s that.”
Barrett nodded in understanding. “You want to see Shera. I get that.”
Cid glared up at him. “No, I do not wanna see Shera.”
“I just wanna see my mechanics faces when I tell them they got work.”
“I just wanna see my own house again, even if it’s only for a couple of minutes.”
“I just want a decent cup of goddamn tea.”
“Will you stop that, Barrett?! I’m standing right here.”
“Hey, ain’t me. It’s the cat.”
“Can you hear me, Cid?”
“Yeah, I can hear ya. Your cat ain’t lookin’ too lively here.”
“Yes, I know. I deactivated most of his functions to preserve power. I’m away from my equipment right now, so you’ll have to turn him on manually.”
“Well, tell me where his ‘on’ button is, and I’ll punch it.”
“Look…ah…I have to go. There’s…something…going on here. Just…there’s a flat rectangular button…down inside Cait’s right ear…that’ll boot up his autonomic functions. He’ll take it from there. I’ll try to contact you later.”
“Reeve, about the chopper…”
“Just…please…come, Cid. Okay?”
However Reeve was managing to communicate with them, when his own PHS phone wouldn’t work, the equipment conveyed the repressed strain in the executive’s hushed voice faithfully.
“Yeah, sure Cat. I’ll be there. You can count on us.”
“Speak for yourself, Highwind.” Cid tuned out Barrett’s muttered remark as he waited for Reeve to reply. After a long moment of silence, Cid gave the cat a little shake. “Reeve?” He shook the limp creature harder. “Reeve!” With a shake of his head, he lifted the cat to peer into his ear. “I don’t think he’s there anymore.” Cid wasn’t even sure he’d heard his promise, but he hoped so. The guy sounded stressed.
“So you’re goin’.”
Cid tentatively pushed a finger into the robotic cat’s ear. “I already said so, didn’t I?”
A tense silence fell between them, and Cid looked up into Barrett’s disgruntled face. “Look, I know ya don’t like Shinra, but hell, half of Avalanche worked for Shinra at some point, including you. Reeve’s been with Shinra almost as long as me. Maybe I ain’t known him well, but I’ve known him for a lot of years. I ain’t about to leave him hangin’ out in the wind, not after we’ve come all this way together. Maybe he wasn’t there in person, but he was with us in spirit.”
Barrett looked at the glass-littered floor. “You’re right. It’s not even that. The Shinra thing I mean. I’m just…wanting to do something about finding Tifa…and this Midgar thing…it’s gonna take some time.”
“Well, I can tell ya right now, Tifa Lockheart will kick your ass if she gets wind that you didn’t go, so I reckon you better go before you find her.”
Barrett almost smiled despite his worry. “Guess you do have a point, Highwind. I probably better go.”
“Yeah, you better, cuz if you don’t, that’s the first thing I’m tellin’ her when I see her.” Cid returned to his fruitless poking inside Cait Sith’s ear. “I sure hope there’s no live wires inside here. He did say the right ear, didn’t he?”
Barrett just shrugged and stared pensively into the rain through the wide fissure in the glass.
“Aha, there it is.” With a triumphant grin, Cid stabbed a callused finger against the button deep in Cait’s synthetic ear. Immediately, the round eyes blinked into life, followed seconds later by arms and legs. Finding himself held tightly by the neck in Cid Highwind’s fist, Cait kicked his booted feet against the Captain’s belly.
“Hey, cut that out!” Cid held the cat out at arm’s length.
“Lemme go!” Cait sang in response.
Before Cid could comply, Cait wrapped his legs around Cid’s outstretched arm and pried at the pilot’s fingers with mittened paws.
“Oh yeah, sorry.” Cid released the cat’s neck, but Cait locked his paws down on Cid’s wrist. With an agile backward flip, the cybernetic cat landed on Cid’s shoulder and whipped the still unlit cigarette from his mouth and waved it in the air as though he were the smallest and weirdest orchestra director on the planet.
“Hey, give that back.” Cid tried to snatch his smoke back, but Cait stuck the soggy cigarette behind the Captain’s ear and messed up his hair into a wild mat with both his hands. Cid made a grab for him, but the cat dropped down his back, snagging the hem of Cid’s leather jacket. Barrett laughed out loud as the robotic cat swung two and fro while Cid twisted one way or the other in an attempt to reach around and dislodge the creature. Cait Sith abruptly let go, landing lightly on the floor. He darted between Cid’s legs just as the pilot moved, nearly upending the man when his legs became tangled. The pilot fought to regain his balance as strangled curses poured off his lips, and then he snatched at the unrepentant creature that now danced from one foot to the other in front of him. The cat evaded the wild grab and sprang into the air, his little red cape fluttering behind him as he flew. Landing on the head of his Mog, Cait Sith settled himself into place. He waved jauntily at Cid as the Mog whirred into life beneath him. “Hey, Cid! Want me to tell your fortune?”
Cid ignored the playful black and white feline face as he pointedly smoothed his hair back into place and returned the cigarette to his mouth. Then he turned his back on Cait and glared at the repressed hilarity dancing in Barrett’s shining eyes. Cid ripped the cigarette from between his lips and jabbed it toward Barrett as he growled. “You know what!? That damn Reeve has a mean streak a mile wide, and this is starting to look like it’s gonna be a long, long day. In fact, this might just turn out to be the longest day ever in thirty-two years of long, long, long, long days.” Cid stalked off the bridge to the baritone rumble of Barrett’s uncontrolled laughter.
Yuffie sauntered through the pouring rain with the huge umbrella close over her head, casually looking about as though she were merely out on a Sunday afternoon stroll. She let her eyes travel over the trees and shrubs, the idle farm equipment scattered about the farmyard, one canted shed that looked as though it were held up by the fence behind it, and an open pole barn with an old pickup inside. The rust plagued vehicle rested on four flat tires.
The truck sparked her interest, and she meandered in that direction, eventually reaching the shed to peer through the dirty windows at the bare springs jutting through the tattered upholstery. She wrinkled her nose in distaste at the thick odor of grease in the air as she rounded the abandoned truck. When she didn’t find what she was looking for after one complete circuit, she moved away to stop just beneath the edge of the tin roof and listen to the hard patter of raindrops against the metal. Idly spinning the open umbrella behind her back, she studied the blurred silhouette of the big farmhouse through the cascade of rain from the roof.
There weren’t many places left to hide. She knew he wasn’t on the Highwind. She’d taken the time to search every accessible area of the airship while she was there. Before that, she’d overturned every stray dust bunny and examined every possible space that a six-foot tall dweeb could squeeze himself into. She’d even detected a door set into the floor beneath the kitchen rug. She’d tromped down the stairs to discover an old fruit cellar, the walls lined with wooden shelves full of jars of various preserved substances. A pile of wood filled one gloomy corner beneath a narrow window set at ceiling level, and an intricately woven spider web festooned the opposite corner. Other than the spider, she’d found nothing alive but a multi-legged centipede sniffing around her shoe. She’d kicked some dirt up at the nosy creature to hurry it on its way. If only she could figure out where larger specimens of vermin might hide.
Yuffie lifted her borrowed umbrella and took a step into the rain, squinting in the direction of the barn. She hadn’t investigated the large structure yet, since she’d been sidetracked by Reeve’s request. Now, as she stood rooted to the muddy ground, she was suddenly gripped by the conviction that he was inside that barn, hiding in some dark corner with the purloined Conformer. Convulsively, she tightened her hand around the umbrella handle at the idea that he’d had the gall to steal it from her in the first place, and a small smile of anticipation touched her lips as she splashed out across the sodden ground, every mushy step filled with purpose. Perhaps she would allow him to live just long enough to regret his ill-conceived act.
Avian stood just inside the loft window and watched her come, the gaily-colored red umbrella clearly marking her progress. Strangely, he felt calm now that she’d finally appeared. For well over an hour he’d waited, his guts churning with trepidation and his heart leaping wildly at every sound. He’d half expected her to find another way in, sneak up silently behind him to take him by surprise, despite his well-laid scheme. Several times as the minutes had slipped away toward evening, he’d wrapped his hand around his throat, the memory of the blade against his carotid artery in the forefront of his thoughts.
He knew the moment he’d impulsively lifted the weapon from beside the chair that he would become number one on her hit list. He probably shouldn’t have taken it, but he had no choice. He hadn’t been able to locate her two pouches, and he’d run out of time. True, angering a member of the royal warrior house of Wutai was most likely not the smartest move he’d ever made, but he wanted his dagger back, and he couldn’t think up any other way. If his plan worked, he would have the dragon dagger in hand shortly.
Yuffie disappeared from his line of sight, and he stepped forward to peer over the edge at his feet. He leaned one hand against the worn frame and smiled as he watched her shove against the door. The time had come to light the fuse.
Yuffie gave the sturdy door one final kick. She wouldn’t get in that way. He’d bolted the heavy door from the inside. Although momentarily thwarted, she was mollified by the fact that she now knew, without a doubt, that the creepazoid had gone to ground here. Soon she’d have his throat firmly beneath her foot, right after she found a way in.
She tilted her head back to examine the loft overhead. The loft door stood ajar, and a tattered rope dangled from a beam that jutted out several feet beyond the roof overhang, most likely a device used at some time to hoist hay bales or some other manner of farm type things onto the second floor of the barn. Very convenient. With her well-honed ninja skills, she could easily gain access.
With a mighty jab, she sank the tip of the umbrella into the soft ground and sprang onto a hitching post that stood a foot out from the wall. Balancing carefully on the crossbeam, she looked up to gauge the distance. She rubbed her hands together with relish as she prepared to jump. This was just too easy. Suddenly, she froze. Maybe, it was too easy. Too convenient. Could it be she was being set up? Surely not. She was dealing with the dork here. She’d probably find him huddled behind a stack of hay bales, shivering in fear with the Conformer clutched awkwardly in his trembling fingers. If he could manage to wield the Conformer, he might have a chance, a very tiny one, of deterring her from making him woefully regret ever putting one grimy fingerprint on the sleek blades. She dismissed the possibility of subterfuge, and crouched to jump.
“Hey! Need some help down there?”
Yuffie eyes shot up into Avian’s grinning face.
“You’re slower than a one-legged chocobo.” Avian covered a huge yawn with his hand. “Come on. I’m about to go to sleep waitin’ on ya.”
Avian forced his grin to widen against a sudden urge to run as Yuffie glared up at him, her dark brown eyes coalescing into hot obsidian coals.
“You are so dead.” She bit the words out succinctly in an emotionless monotone that doused his whole body in a rain of ice, and then she sprang for the rope, snagging the end with one hand. Kicking her feet, she swung to and fro, widening the arc on each pass. Avian swallowed down the gasp that nearly escaped his throat when she suddenly flipped her body upwards and caught the rope between her knees. Hanging upside down now, she smiled icily into his startled eyes. He could clearly see the time had come to go.
“Hey, I’m just going to go catch some z’s. So go ahead and take your time. I don’t mind.” He gave her a flippant wave. She curved her body and grabbed the rope above her knees with one hand. Without another word in response, she dropped her legs and started climbing rapidly, hand over hand, as easily as though she were a spider on a web. With one last look, Avian bounded away from the edge and plunged into the dim interior of the loft.
Cid dumped his gear on the deck at his feet and leaned his elbows against the rail. He estimated that less than an hour remained of the last feeble light of the dreary day. He drew a cigarette from the pack in his goggle strap and lit it as he scanned the heavy cloud cover overhead. No sign of a chopper yet. A splash of color caught his eye, and he looked over the rail to see Nanaki sitting on his haunches far below, his dripping mane plastered down over his neck and jowls from the pouring rain, although that weird flame on the end of his tail burned as brightly as ever. Cid straightened and placed his hands on the rail to lean further out. The beast seemed to be staring off toward the horizon, in the direction of the sea.
“HEY! RED!” Nanaki slowly rose to his feet and peered upwards into the falling droplets at the Captain’s boisterous shout, but he didn’t respond. “WHATCHA LOOKIN’ AT?” Nanaki turned his eyes to the ground at Cid’s query and moved away, down along the side of the airship, slogging through the rain soaked grass as though his paws had turned to lead. Puzzled, Cid puffed on his cigarette and watched Nanaki until he disappeared from his view beneath the expansive wing, then he turned his gaze to the distant bluffs that towered above the beach along the seashore. For the life of him, he couldn’t find anything of interest in the featureless, gloomy landscape.
“What are you lookin’ at?”
Cid glanced around when Barrett stepped up to the rail beside him. With a shrug of his shoulders, he flicked his cigarette far out into the rain. “Nothin’ really. Just lookin’ for that whirlybird.”
Barrett remained silent, and Cid turned away from the railing. He noticed the knapsack slung across Barrett’s wide shoulder. “So, you’re going.”
“Don’t think you left me any choice.” Barrett’s eyes shone with amusement even though his stern countenance spoke otherwise.
“Good. You got everything you’re gonna take?”
“Well, just take whatcha need. Jerol’s gonna stay with the ship and keep an eye on her ‘til we get back. After this Midgar thing, we’ll just come on back here with the crew and see if we can get this gal going again.”
Barrett nodded in silent acknowledgement, too weary to reply.
“Well, I guess I better round up the rest of the gang. I just saw Nanaki below, so I’m gonna go steer ‘im in the right direction. Why doncha get a rope on Yuffie and reel her on in.”
Barrett inclined his head and shoved himself from the railing. “Wouldn’t happen to know where she is would ya?”
“Dunno. Takin’ care of her business, whatever that is.”
Barrett sighed as he started across the deck. “Probably don’t wanna know what it is. I just hope she’s done.”
Yuffie moved stealthily and soundlessly through the thick carpet of hay, her eyes narrowed as she strained to make out the contents of the darkly shadowed loft. As she walked forward, a lopsided stack of hay bales loomed against the wall on her right. She stopped and carefully listened as she glared upwards suspiciously. He could be lurking inside the barn anywhere, but he was a clumsy oaf. She would hear him before she saw him.
Several minutes later, she’d worked her way to the far end and come face to face with the back wall of the loft. Annoyed, she whirled around to head back the way she’d come. Obviously, he’d climbed down to the level below. She would just jump, but the contents of the first level were indistinguishable in the dark. She had no desire to impale herself on a hayfork or break a bone landing awkwardly. Anyhow, there should be a ladder around.
She moved back the way she’d come, sidling towards the unpainted and age worn railing that marked the loft’s edge. A soft chuckle touched her ears, and she froze in place, her eyes shooting forward to see the dark shape silhouetted against the soft light from the square opening behind him. How had he gotten around her? Her temper flared at his games.
“Why don’t you just come here, and we’ll discuss the matter of my stolen property?” Her sharply voiced challenge echoed all through the huge barn.
Avian smiled tightly at her demand and tossed his hair defiantly out of his face. “Why don’t you come over here, and we’ll discuss my stolen property?”
Yuffie took a step forward. “I can’t imagine what you might be talking about.” The feigned innocence in her voice didn’t deter him in the slightest. He decided to get right to the point.
“Look, you can deny it all you want to, but I know, and you know, that you stole my stuff. As far as I’m concerned, you can keep the materia. Take it all if it makes you feel better. I can get more anytime I want. But I want my knife, and I’m going to get it. I don’t care if you are a spoiled princess from Wutai.”
“Hmph. I’m not just a spoiled princess from Wutai. I am a fully trained Wutaian ninja who has passed all five trials of the Royal Pagoda of Wutai.”
“Pretty impressive. Now hand over my knife.”
“What do you mean, ‘uh uh’”?
“What I mean is…make me.”
“Thought you wanted your pinwheel back.”
“Oh, I’ll get it back. I’ll just take it off your dismembered body.”
“Well, that’s all well and good, but it isn’t on my body. It’s hidden. Well hidden in a place you’ll never find.”
“I found your knife didn’t I?”
“Oh, it’s in a much better hiding place than that. And as I recall, it’s chock full of expensive lookin’ materia, much more rare than anything you kyped out of my closet. That summon materia, could that be the fabled Wutaian Water God, Leviathan?”
Yuffie didn’t bother to respond to his rhetorical question, careful not to exhibit her surprise. Apparently, the scuzzwad knew something about materia. “You might as well save yourself some pain and tell me where it is, because I will get it in the end.”
Avian had been paying close attention to her words as she moved forward, judging the distance by her voice. The time had come to initiate Phase 2 of his probably futile scheme to regain possession of his knife. He propped his hands on his hips and smirked, even though she couldn’t see his face. The forced expression was more to bolster his faltering confidence than to send any message to her. He closed his eyes for just a second and pictured himself in the garb of the black-hearted pirate, Avian Wulfe, his boots planted firmly on the deck of his ship, thumbing his nose at Fate. He laughed softly.
“I tire of your idle threats, dismemberment here, pain there, promises of death everywhere. I think you’re afraid to come and get it.”
“Afraid!?” Yuffie’s voice rose shrilly in astonishment that he’d have the nerve to say it. “Afraid of you!?” Yuffie snickered. “Oh, I get it. You now realize that you’ve bitten off more than you can possibly handle, and you are trying to incapacitate me with laughter so you can get away while I’m rolling on the floor.”
“Damn, caught me. I’m gone.” Avian dove behind the haystack along the wall, leaving Yuffie blinking in momentary bewilderment at the now unblocked square of gray sky. She exploded into motion, dashing the last few feet to where he’d been standing just seconds before. Not foolish enough to chase him into the shadows, she skidded to a halt and assessed the dark space between the stack and the wall, letting her eyes adjust as best they could. On her life, she couldn’t see anything there, alive or inanimate. She brought her hands up in guard and cautiously started forward. Shortly, she came up against the wall. Bewildered, she spun one way, and then the other, her eyes wildly searching for him. Where did he go? She jerked her eyes upward. Up. He had to go up, over the top of the hay. That’s probably where he’d been hiding before too. She smiled slyly. She had him now.
Peering intently overhead, she unconsciously took a step backward, hoping to make out his dark shape atop the haystack. All of her attention focused forward, she took a second step back, wondering just how far into the shadows he’d slithered, the snake. She slid her sneaker back yet another step as she struggled to see even further, but that time the sole of her foot touched nothing by empty space. With a shriek, she toppled backwards, frantically grabbing at the air as she tried to gain purchase, but she only managed to slam her elbow into the edge of the floor as she fell through the rectangular opening, the loud crack clearly audible in the cavernous barn. A couple of seconds later her breath whooshed out of her lungs when she hit the hay padded floor on her back.
Instantly, Yuffie rolled to her side despite the pain in her arm and the numbness in her whole body. She knew she had to get up and move, no matter what. She stumbled to her feet and stood swaying in place as she stared into the dense gloom all around. Tentatively, she took a step forward, and gasped when her face encountered a gossamer mesh. Ugh! A spider web! She scrambled backwards to get away from the creepy crawly that probably resided in the web. Suddenly, a dark figure loomed up on her left, and she gasped. Before she could move, the mesh settled on her head. Wildly, she tried to throw the thing off, but only managed to entangle herself further. It was then, as she tore blindly at the web, her fingers snagging up in the intertwined strands, that she realized she’d been caught in a net.
She hardly had time to react to that realization when her feet were abruptly swept from under her, and she found herself huddled upside down in the bottom of the net, her face scrunched against the string mesh, as the whole thing was hauled upwards. Yuffie choked down the urge to vent her displeasure, preferably at the top of her lungs, and started counting instead. As she tried to claw her way into a more comfortable position, with little success, she turned her mental energy from thoughts of mayhem to an exercise in problem solving. Her retribution could wait until later. She had to turn this situation around first.
Avian supposed he should be pleased, even triumphant, that his scheme had worked at all, certainly better than he’d hoped for, but he just felt guilty. For one thing, he didn’t gain any pleasure from his treatment of the ninja girl. Actually, he thought hanging her up in a net was a pretty mean thing to do. Too, he hadn’t thought that she might fall through the opened trapdoor. He figured she’d just find the ladder and climb down. She hadn’t made a sound since she’d hit the floor. He prayed he hadn’t hurt her.
Hurriedly, he dragged the lantern across the worktable with a loud scrape that reverberated inside the quiet barn. With capable fingers, he raised the globe and struck a match to light the mantle. He adjusted the screw until the flame burned to his satisfaction, and then lifting the lantern by the wire bale, he turned and raised it up beside his head.
At first sight of the girl, her face pressed into the bottom of the fishing net, blinking owlishly in the lamplight, a guffaw burst from his throat. He immediately clamped his free hand over his mouth and hiccupped as he tried to swallow the inopportune laughter.
“Hey! Slime bucket! You better stop your snickering and let me down if you know what’s good for you.”
Avian dragged in a noisy breath through his fingers and waited for a moment until he knew he could talk normally without laughing. Still, he struggled to keep the smile from his lips as he peered up at her.
“Ah…are you all right?” He walked forward until he stood just beneath her. “Are you hurt?”
She glared down at him with murderous eyes, and the last traces of his amusement fled. Soberly, he walked around her, looking for blood or broken limbs. “Seriously, are you…all right?”
“I’m just fine, but you aren’t.” She smiled evilly. “At least, you won’t be shortly.”
“Look, Yuffie, I’m really sorry about all…this...” Avian swept his hand over his head with a chagrined face. “…But I just want what’s mine. Just tell me where my knife is, and I’ll go get it. Then I’ll come back and let you go. And I’ll tell you where I hid your pinwheel…er…thing…and we’ll go our own ways. That’s all.”
“No, that’s not all. For one thing, I’m not inclined to give the knife back. Obviously, that knife is a Wutaian artifact that belongs in Wutai.”
“I don’t care where the knife came from, originally. It’s mine, and I want it.”
“Look…er…what was your name? Alien? Look, Alien, you apparently do not comprehend the gravity of what you have done. You have dishonored me, the next ruler of Wutai, and when my father finds out, you will not be able to set foot in Wutai, ever, because he will put a death sentence on your head. If you release me now, I will forget this ever happened.”
Avian narrowed his eyes on her face. “My name is Avian, your royal sacredness, so be sure and get it right on that death warrant. I wouldn’t want ya to do in the wrong guy. About all that you just said, I figure that you are already dishonoring yourself and your homeland when you go around stealing other people’s stuff. Now, maybe your pops would go along with that, I don’t know, but I’d certainly expect more from someone who will be a leader someday, from someone who helped stop Meteor, than to…”
Yuffie pressed her hands against her ears. “Oh please, spare me the sermon. It lacks credibility, comin’ from you.”
“Well, I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. I’m just a product of my environment. You. Well, you should be setting an example. What’s the world comin’ too when the leaders are petty thieves and liars?” Avian paused in thought. “Well, actually…now that I think about it, the leaders have been…”
“Stop! Stop! You win. I’ll tell you where your damn knife is, just so I don’t have to look at your ugly face anymore, but you better come right back and let me down.”
Avian smiled with relief. “It’s a deal.”
“Deal, nothing. Just get the knife and my stuff, and get back here. My head is splitting, and my feet are goin’ numb.”
Avian nodded. “Where is it?”
“I hid it in the library, behind the drapes.”
Avian frowned. He could have sworn he’d looked behind the drapes. In fact, he knew he’d looked there. “I looked behind the drapes. I didn’t see anything.” He eyed her suspiciously.
“No, no, no. Behind the drapes hanging up. I tied my bags to the rod, behind the valance. I know you didn’t look there.”
Avian had to admit that he hadn’t thought to look up.” He slowly nodded. “Okay, thanks, I’ll be right back.”
Yuffie smirked and worked her hand around to her shorts pocket as he walked away. As soon as he drew the wide barn door closed behind him, she wormed her way around until she could stretch her legs up and wiggle her fingers deep enough into her pocket to touch one of the tiny throwing stars she’d stuck in there earlier. She managed to draw one out with the very tips of two fingers, almost dropping it before she could gain a better grip. Finally, she maneuvered the star through her fingers until she had adequate leverage. At that point, she wasted no time setting to work.
Reaching as high as she could, she deftly cut through the string, pulling the sharp point downwards until she had cut a slit long enough to fit her lithe body through. Dropping the star through the net, she watched it fall into the hay, where the shiny metal gleamed a warm gold in the lamplight. Then she stretched her arms through the slashed net, and reaching as high as she could on the outside, she tangled her fingers in the string and eased herself out headfirst, like a child slipping from the womb. She kicked her legs free of the clinging string and dangled there for a few seconds before dropping lightly to the floor below. She snatched up her throwing star, and carefully returning it to her pocket, she slipped into the deep shadows in the back of the barn. She searched until she discovered another stack of hay, completely cloaked in darkness and with an excellent view of the barn entrance. She climbed to the top of the stack, and pulling her long legs up under her, she laid her arms across her knees and settled in to wait. A happy smile stretched across Yuffie’s lips. There was nothing she loved more than a good surprise.
Barrett grumbled under his breath as he headed for the house. The interior lights had been turned on, and the windows glowed invitingly, especially to someone standing out in the rain, but he had zero desire to go inside. He swept the rain from his face for what seemed the hundredth time. Stopping beneath the lush branches of an old tree just outside the picket fence, he studied the front door and tried to come up with a plan to retrieve Yuffie without encountering the old woman. He supposed if he just knocked on the door like he did before, the girl might answer again. He hoped so, because if he found himself confronted with Grandma, he would definitely have to wing it. More likely, he’d just run.
He’d almost worked up the gumption to start out into the rain again, when the front door flew back and the kid burst through. He slammed the door behind him and sprang off the side of the stoop into the unkempt flowerbed that rimmed the front of the house, any flowers long choked out by weeds. Barrett followed the kid’s erratic course through the yard as he leapt like a gazelle over the fallen debris in his path. Without breaking stride, the tall youth grabbed the top of the rickety fence and threw himself over. He splashed down into a shallow puddle on the other side and raced away, disappearing from Barrett’s view on the far side of the hedge. Barrett shook his head as he wondered where the kid was off to in such a tear. Wherever it was, he didn’t have time to think about it. Time was awastin’. He forced himself to start for the house.
Avian slammed to a stop in front of the barn doors and fought back the compulsion to fling them wide and race inside. She’d lied to him, knowing he would find out. In her position, that wouldn’t be a wise thing to do. So, he had to consider that she had a reason for her lie. Either she didn’t find him to be much of a threat, which was probably true. Or she knew something he didn’t. Whatever the reason, there was no point in trying to sneak around. He shoved the door ajar with the toe of his boot and slipped inside. His eyes immediately sought out the empty net, swaying gently in the draft from outside. He wasn’t surprised. Truthfully, he’d entertained that possibility since he’d failed to find the knife. Staring apprehensively into the dark recesses of the barn, he stood there for a long moment as he tried to decide whether to look for her inside the huge, shadowy barn or turn tail and run.
“You know. I’d hoped for more of a reaction.” The girl’s voice echoed hollowly in the vast interior, making her location difficult to pinpoint. Still, he turned slowly and pointedly stared toward the back of the barn where the lantern light didn’t reach. “You’re takin’ all the fun out of it.”
Avian shrugged nonchalantly. “I expected no less of someone so self-exalted.”
“Hmph. Whatever. You have two options open to you now.”
When her derisive voice rang out again, Avian realized that she had changed location, but he couldn’t pinpoint where. “And they are?”
“Give me the Conformer or die. Which do you choose oh dimwitted one?”
Avian shook his head sorrowfully. “You are the most supercilious person I’ve ever met.”
Light laughter danced through the upper recesses of the structure. “My, that’s a big word coming from you.”
“Oh really? I thought all those books were covering holes in the floor.”
I’ve got another word for you. Nefarious.”
She laughed again. “Both arrogant and wicked. I’ve outdone myself.”
Avian turned his eyes upwards. Her last remark had come from somewhere overhead. Had she climbed back into the loft? He just couldn’t tell.
“You know what? You can just keep your so-called Wutaian artifact. And I’ll keep your Confessor or whatever you call it. I can become independently wealthy just off that one summon materia, and I noticed several others almost as valuable. What do you say to that?”
Silence filled the vast spaces, and Avian nervously shifted his feet as he waited for her to speak again. A board creaked, and his heart skipped a beat. He almost picked up his foot to step back, but he refused to give in to his fear. No matter what happened, he would not back down. Besides, she couldn’t approach him without passing through the lamplight, and the loft was too far away for her drop down on him.
Avian crossed his arms and lifted his chin to peer up into the gloomy loft. “Since this conversation seems to be over, I’ll just be going now. I’ve got better things to do than hang out in a barn.” He dropped his arms and halfway turned towards the door behind him, but her voice stayed his movement.
“I only have two words for you. Two words I think even a tedious imbecile like yourself can understand.”
Avian started. She was very close. Closer than the loft? He surreptitiously swept his eyes overhead as he responded. “You’re getting’ pretty boring yourself.” He yawned hugely to illustrate his point. “So enlighten me. What are the two words? You bet?”
Yuffie’s reply came immediately. “The two words are…” She crouched slightly as she eyed the distance. “Terminal. Event.” Without waiting for his reply, she launched her body into space.
Avian suddenly remembered the massive rafter that spanned the entire width of the barn, floor support for the loft on one side, but on this side the wooden beam remained unencumbered by anything other than a jutting nail here and there. That was too far for her to jump though. He automatically took a step back anyway as he raised his eyes to look, just in time to see her swoop from the shadows into the light. His mouth fell open as she just barely managed to capture a fistful of net, and his stunned eyes followed her as the momentum of her leap sent the dangling net into a wide arc. Gracefully, she shoved her feet against a passing support post and sent the net swinging toward him. Finally, he shook off his stupor and erupted into motion, only to stumble over his own big feet and crash heavily to the floor. He flipped onto his back just in time to see her release the net to drop toward him, feet first. “Oh, shi….”
Barrett sharply rapped his knuckles against the door for the third time. No one seemed inclined to answer. He finally stepped off the front stoop and paused in the yard to look around. He wiped the rivulets from his eyes again and peered at the picket fence that girded the side of the house. Maybe that kid knew where Yuffie had gone. Might as well see where he went. He couldn’t come up with any better ideas right now. Besides, the kid could go into the house and look for her if he didn’t know her whereabouts, saving him the hassle. Too weary and unmotivated to cross the yard as the kid had, he headed for the small gate set halfway down the fence line, wending as direct a path as he could through the fallen debris.
When he reached the gate, he struggled with the rusted latch for several moments, finally jerking it free with a loud curse. He shut the gate and splashed through the standing water to stop beside a muddy track leading straight to a huge barn that stood well back of the house. Although the muted evening light had faded to the extent that he had to squint his eyes to make out any detail, he easily recognized the bright red umbrella that Yuffie had carried onto the ship, now sitting upside down on the ground with the canopy open to the rain like a colorful birdbath, with its hooked handle up in the air. Just to the left of the discarded umbrella, one of the barn doors stood ajar, the thin slice of visible space that he could see illuminated by an aura of golden light that barely penetrated the deepening, rainy gloom outside.
Everything considered, the barn appeared to be a likely place to look for the elusive girl. He set out along the grassy verge of the track and had only walked a few paces when an agonized shriek tore through the quiet rural atmosphere and brought him up short. Before he could react, the open barn door slammed back into its frame with a loud crash, punctuated by a shrill screech. Barrett sprang into motion, racing across the muddy lane in a beeline for the distant structure. His bone-deep exhaustion ebbed away beneath the rush of adrenaline and, once in motion, the evidence of his fine physical condition jumped to the forefront as he easily sprinted, agilely vaulting the wide puddles that stood in his way. He didn’t know what in damnation was going on in that barn, but he would and could put a stop to it before someone got hurt.
Yuffie leaned over Avian with her hands propped on her hips and an exultant smile on her face. Still stunned from his impact with the wooden door, he weakly flopped over on his belly and shakily pushed himself up on hands and knees. With a hard shake of his head, he tried to clear the fog from his brain, but the sudden motion sent the floor spinning beneath him, and he reflexively dug his fingers into the straw to hold on.
“Do you surrender?”
Ignoring her, Avian flattened his hand against the barn door for balance as he slowly sat back on his heels. He bowed his head for a moment to gather strength before he tried to stand. His sandy hair, adorned with several pieces of straw, fell forward and hid his face from Yuffie’s view. Dropping her hands to her knees, she bent closer and rearranged her face into a threatening mask to drive home his defeat with the force of her icy stare, but he refused to look up at her.
Thwarted in her attempt at intimidation, Yuffie straightened and studied the pathetic creature. Briefly, she wondered if she should feel guilty. Tentatively, she touched the tip of her tongue to her split lip and decided regret was not warranted in this situation. With a snort of disdain, she folded her arms and lifted her chin to look down her nose at his huddled form. “You know, I can do this all day and not break a sweat. So, why don’t you just tell me where you hid my Conformer and maybe I’ll let you live to see another sunrise.”
Avian inclined his head to glare silently up through the tangled strands of his hair, one eye glittering with anger, the other eye swollen shut. However, he didn’t bother to respond to her threat.
The gloating smile returned to spread across her face. “Huh, I’ll pull your ears again. You know, I really loved the sound you made when I did that. I think you actually invented a new high note.”
Deliberately, Avian raised his head to look her full in the face, and he held her amused gaze with one eye as he sluggishly rose to his feet, his hand still pressed against the barn door for support. He turned to her slightly, and the corner of his mouth lifted.
“You can do whatever you want.”
Yuffie’s smile wavered at the matter-of-fact tone of his words. “What did you say?”
“You can pull my ears, kick me in the ribs, stomp on my head, adorn my carcass with your nasty little stars, throw me against each and every wall in this barn, and yes, you can even kill me, if you actually plan to. Personally, I think you’re full of hot air with all your death threats, your ‘terminal events’ and what have you, but if you want to kill me then fine. Go ahead. Because I will gladly go to my grave knowing that you will never, ever find your materia studded pinwheel, not in this lifetime or the next.”
His words wiped the smile from her face. “You think I’m bluffing.”
He studied her cold, unblinking eyes uneasily before he nodded confidently. “Yep, that’s exactly what I think…ulp!”
The barn door hit Avian solidly in the back and knocked him off his feet. He flew forward to collide with the wide-eyed girl. Yuffie threw her hands up, but helpless to stand firm before the force of his momentum and larger size, she toppled over backward and ended up flat on her back beneath him. She pressed her hands firmly against his chest and shoved ineffectually against his bulk as he struggled to regain the ability to actually breathe until he realized that his face was buried in the thick matting of straw beside her cheek. Despite Yuffie’s frantic squirming beneath him, he could barely find the strength to lift his head, until a momentous roar shook the rafters overhead.
“WHAT IN THE NAME OF ODIN IS GOING ON HERE!?”
Barrett planted himself in the open doorway and folded his arms as he suspiciously watched the two of them scramble apart. Yuffie managed to gain her feet first, turning to smile nervously at Barrett with a flushed face, at the same time pointedly ignoring Avian who had just managed to get one knee under him.
“Well, I can tell you it’s not what you think. Not even. Ugh. Yuck. No way.” Yuffie vehemently shook her head to emphasize her point.
“You got no idea what I’m thinkin’ girl.” Yuffie dropped her head to commence a detailed examination of her shoelaces while Barrett’s eyes turned to follow Avian as he weakly pushed himself to his feet to stand swaying in place beside Yuffie. The big man pursed his lips in thought as he studied the kid’s black eye, a sliver of amber iris barely visible behind the fatly swollen eyelids. He shook his head and switched his appraising gaze to the girl’s split lower lip and downcast eyes.
“What I think is you two have been fighting. Did he hurt you?” Yuffie darted a surreptitious glance at Barrett’s stony face and looked away as her lips twitched in a tiny smirk.
“He split your lip?” Barrett shot a hard look at Avian, his lowered brows signaling his displeasure. Avian swallowed painfully past the knot in his throat and turned one imploring eye on Yuffie, his stomach tightening at the smug look on her face. He knew at that moment that she would lie and let Barrett kill him instead.
“Nope, sure didn’t.” From beneath her lowered lashes, she witnessed Avian’s mouth fall loosely open in stunned bewilderment and her eyes danced with amusement.
“…And I s’pose he blacked his own eye…” Barrett returned his attention to the subject in question and pursed his lips knowingly as Avian slammed his mouth shut and fruitlessly attempted to appear innocent.
Yuffie shook her head. “Nope. Table did it.” Barrett raised a skeptical eyebrow, and she lifted a finger to point toward a nearby support post. “Lip. Pole.” She swept her hand toward the worktable that held the lantern. “Eye. Table.”
Barrett threw his hands in the air. “Fine. Have it your way. I’m not even gonna ask what all the ruckus was about. Too tired to sort out all the nuances. Besides…” Barrett tilted his head to one side. “…Sounds like our ride’s here.”
“Ride?” Bewildered, Avian lifted his eyes to Yuffie’s face.
“Yep, Turk’s here to get us.”
“Turks! But I thought…aren’t you guys enemies?”
“Nah, we’re sorta buds now.” Yuffie shrugged, a smile touching her lips as she watched the blood rush from his face.
“Hmph. I wouldn’t go that far.” Barrett stepped out of the doorway and reached for the girl. With his hand on her elbow, he steered her around him and gave her a gentle shove. “Get goin’. Get yer stuff gathered. We’re leavin’.”
“Okay, okay, don’t get your drawers all in a tangle.” She tossed her head and stalked across the threshold.
Barrett rounded on the nervous youth. “You too. Get on out.”
“Okay…just let me get the…” He hesitantly lifted a hand to indicate the dying lantern. He didn’t want to burn the barn down.
“I’ll get it. Just beat it before I decide I got the time to get to the bottom of this whole business.”
Avian didn’t miss the intent behind the implied threat. He jumped for the open door, stumbling in his haste. He yelped when he cracked his elbow against the jutting metal bolt on his way out. Barrett heaved a weary sigh and rolled his eyes toward the darkened rafters. “Thank the gods we’re leavin’.”
Cid hefted his gear bag higher up his back and rested the shaft of the Venus Gospel across his shoulder. Nanaki plodded down the cargo ramp and settled to his haunches beside him and dropped his head, his sorrowful face barely discernable in the soft glow of the lantern sitting just inside the entrance to the cargo bay behind them.
“Ready, Red?” Nanaki nodded silently, and Cid’s brows drew together in concern at his companion’s somber demeanor. “Something buggin’ ya?” Nanaki slowly shook his head from side to side, his beaded braids swinging with the movement. Cid shrugged and looked out across the dark sky, his eyes tracking the chopper’s progress by the brilliant spotlight that slid back and forth across the distant terrain. He could see that if Rude kept the bird on its current flight path, he would miss them completely.
The tap of Jerol’s shoes sounded on the plank behind him, and Cid glanced up as the junior officer halted alongside. “There you are! Thought you fell in.”
“Fell in?” Jerol queried with a slight frown as he held the flare gun out to the Captain grip first.
“Never mind.” He stabbed a gloved finger at the sky. “Go ahead and shoot. Snappy like!”
Quickly, Jerol spun the gun in his hand and complied, and they all followed the blinding phosphorus trail as the flare punched up through the night and exploded with a muted pop against the swollen clouds.
Cid rolled his unlit cigarette between his lips. “Hope he’s lookin’ this way…”
Avian stood inside the dark shed, absently listening to the muted thrum of the distant chopper blades as he muddled through his options, of which there were few. She was leaving, with his knife, and he was helpless to stop her. His plan hadn’t worked. Once she’d escaped the net, the whole scheme was blown. He’d lost his leverage, and even if he’d forced himself to actually hit her, which he just couldn’t bring himself to do, he knew that the meager street fighting skills he could bring to bear couldn’t remotely compete with her Wutaian martial arts training. In fact, Barrett had probably saved him grievous physical injury.
His mind teased over the idea of returning her weapon in the hope that she would reciprocate and give back his knife, but he seriously doubted that would happen. That girl was the most obnoxious, stubborn, arrogant and self-serving creature he’d ever met. A light breeze touched his hair, and he folded his arms against the nighttime chill as he watched that uniformed officer guy run out across the grassy meadow swinging a lantern, the circle of the spotlight sweeping across the boggy ground behind him. The rain had given way to a light drizzle, and the brilliant swathe of the chopper’s searchlight set the moisture in the air aglitter.
Still, she’d told the truth when she could have told Barrett he’d busted her lip. Come to think of it, she’d saved his hide with his Grandma too. Plus, Soldier liked her. A lot. Maybe it was worth a try. Besides, if he didn’t give the thing back, she might tell her father, and he did not want to face Lord Godo. Or worse, she might send the Turk. His whole body shivered at that thought. He didn’t want a Turk knowing he even existed much less come hunting for him on her behalf. He nervously chewed his lip as he watched the chopper slowly descend. He could see the Captain and his officer standing side by side, the white light washing over them as the circle widened. Barrett strode from the darkness with a knapsack strapped to his back. The red beast walked alongside. A sorrowful sigh slipped off his lips, and he bowed his head as a suffocating blanket of depression settled over him. For a little while there, he’d almost felt like he belonged with them, maybe just a little bit anyway, even though he knew he never could. Not really. Now they were leaving.
They were leaving, and he still didn’t know what to do about Yuffie. At the thought, his head shot up in time to see the pilot expertly settle the chopper to the ground. His melancholy already forgotten, Avian stepped forward a couple of paces and leaned his shoulder into the center pole to closely study the assemblage of Avalanche members as they waited en masse for the chopper blades to stop spinning. A giant Mog bounced into view, and Avian stared curiously at the animated creature that rode on top, little red boots planted on the Mog’s shoulders and mittened paws waving in the air. A small red cape, fluttering softly in the light breeze, caught his attention, and suddenly he recognized the cat thing that Cloud had carried off the ship, the cat his dog had hauled beneath the house. What in the world? Apparently, they’d recovered the machine…or robot…or whatever…and repaired it.
Cid broke off from the rest of the group and walked toward the chopper, the others content to wait. Avian searched again for a glimpse of Yuffie’s slight figure, but she had yet to appear. He chewed his lip anxiously. Where was that girl anyway?
Yuffie skipped down the stairway, the dog bounding along at her heels. She jumped over the last three risers to land flatfooted on the hardwood floor. One long step brought her to the door, and she had just wrapped her hand around the old doorknob, when the tinkly notes of a light-hearted melody floated into her ears. She looked down the hallway into the library to see Lizbet sitting at the little writing desk, her silvery head bent as her gnarled hands shuffled through a pile of papers, the tabby cat curled at her slippered feet. Purposefully, Yuffie shut the door.
Lizbet looked up at the click of the dog’s claws against the wooden floor. Yuffie stood uncertainly in the doorway. With one hand, she beckoned the girl inside and pushed her spectacles back up her nose as she turned back to her shuffling. Yuffie moved up behind the woman to peer over her shoulder and realized that the old woman was looking through a pile of photographs that she’d apparently dumped from a small wooden chest that now stood empty at her elbow. The pristine notes of the song emanated from a brightly colored carousel with tiny, feathered chocobos of every conceivable shade prancing beneath a canopy of stained glass and gold tassels. Yuffie reached out with a reverent finger to lightly stroke one silky black bird as it spun past.
“That’s really a beautiful music box…”
Lizbet looked up from her photos with a wistful smile. “Isn’t it? Orlen bought it for me on our honeymoon in Costa del Sol.”
“That’s nice.” Yuffie nodded and eyed her cautiously. She had yet to determine Lizbet’s frame of mind. “I’ll bet Costa del Sol was a really nice place for a honeymoon.”
Lizbet shrugged. “Well, it’s such a tourist trap nowadays. Back then…well…Costa del Sol was so romantic. The beach stretched for miles, white sand as far as the eye could see. No concrete docks. No giant ships. Just the sea and the moon and the stars.” Lizbet held out a sepia tinted snapshot. “Here we are on the beach.”
Yuffie gingerly took the aged, untinted photo between two fingers. A willowy young woman with waist length hair, flaming red if she were going to guess, clad in a calf-length sundress, leaned into the arms of a tall, black haired man. Both of them stood barefoot in the sand, smiling hugely into the camera. Yuffie glanced dubiously between the old woman at the desk and the young beauty in the photo. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t find any point of similarity. “Uh…you look very…happy.” Lizbet nodded and eagerly held another photo out to her.
“Uh…look…Lizbet…I have to go…” Even as she half-heartedly protested, she took the photo and turned it in her hands. A long legged young man, with a crooked grin pasted on his face, sat on a sleek motorcycle, one boot planted on the ground. Thick black hair tumbled to his shoulders, and his eyes glowed an eerie shade of silver. A boy stood to the side with a fat, brown puppy clutched in his arms, glaring at the photographer with angry, tear-filled amber eyes. She easily recognized Avian despite the fact that his long sandy bangs dangled in his face, and he’d obviously shot up several feet since then. The farmhouse in the background looked the same though.
“That’s my son, Terrin. And my grandson. I took that the day Terrin left. He’d been assigned another tour of duty, and he had to report. He’d hardly been home a week, and Avian wasn’t happy that he was leaving again, because his birthday was the next day, and his father would miss it.”
“Is that…” Yuffie peered into the brown eyes of the dog now lying across her feet. “…Soldier?”
“Yes, yes. Terrin gave him the puppy for his birthday that year.”
“He sure doesn’t look happy.”
Lizbet dragged a tissue from her dress pocket and daubed beneath her eyes. With a great sniff, she crumpled it in her hand. “I’m sorry. I just get a little misty…you know…that was the last time…I…ever…saw…you see…Terrin never came back.”
Yuffie chewed her lip and glanced toward the door. That chopper had to be down by now. She turned back to Lizbet and pasted a sorrowful expression on her face. “I’m really sorry to hear that. That’s very sad.”
“We never could find out anything. Those Shinra zipped their lips on the matter. That jerk Heidegger was insincerely apologetic and patronizing. We still don’t know what…happened…Orlen…he…he…was never the same after that. I guess…none of us were…”
Yuffie shot a look over her shoulder again. She didn’t want to get left, but she didn’t want to just walk out on Lizbet either. She turned back to find Lizbet peering at her over the rim of her spectacles, the reddened gray eyes sharp with intelligence.
“I know. You have to go.”
Relieved, Yuffie smiled gratefully and gently placed the photos she’d been holding back atop the scrambled pile.
“I saw the helicopter coming in….” Lizbet looked down at her pictures and moved them around with one finger. “You and your friends are leaving then?”
Yuffie shuffled her feet to shake the dog awake. “Yes, we have to get back.” Soldier stirred and rose to his four paws, his tail wagging wildly and tongue lolling as he grinned up at the ninja girl. Yuffie caught one of his long ears between her fingers and gently rubbed the soft fur.
Lizbet drew an envelope from a desk drawer and slipped a photograph inside. Clumsily, she tucked the flap inside the envelope and picked it up from the desk. “Would you take this to your friend please?”
Yuffie glanced up to see the white envelope Lizbet extended toward her. Her eyes widened in question. “Which friend?”
“Your friend, the Protector. What is his name?”
With a curious glance at the woman, Yuffie took the envelope in her hand. “Oh, you mean Red.”
“Red?” Lizbet appeared a bit disturbed about the name.
“I mean…well that’s what we call him. His name is Nanaki.”
“Nanaki…a strong name…he reminds me so much of Pharan…”
Yuffie tucked the envelope into her bag and impulsively leaned forward to give the old lady a quick hug. “I really do have to go now, Lizbet. You take care of yourself.”
Lizbet patted her hand. “Come back and visit when you get a chance.”
“I will. I promise.” With a little wave, Yuffie trotted toward the door. Her hand on the knob, she paused and looked back to see Lizbet watching her.
“Ah, Avian showed me a knife he has, with a dragon on it. Do you know it?”
Lizbet nodded. “Of course. His grandfather left it to him when he died. The Laughing Dragon dagger has passed down through several generations.” The old woman looked down at her photographs again. “It should have gone to Terrin next…”
Yuffie chewed her lip again. “I see. It…er…looks Wutaian…”
Lizbet lifted the music box and began to rewind the key. “Oh, it is. Orlen’s great grandmother was from a noble Wutaian family, or so he used to say anyway.”
Oh.” Suddenly, Yuffie felt approximately three inches tall, and she didn’t like feeling that way.
Lizbet set the music box down and leaned forward on her elbows to watch the tinted chocobos go around. The lilting tune filled the silent hall, and after a moment, Lizbet began to hum. Without making a sound, Yuffie opened the door and slipped through.
Rude climbed out of the chopper and folded his arms as he studied Cid’s upturned face through his dark shades.
“You got the message.”
Cid nodded in acknowledgement of the Turk’s flat statement.
Rude glanced at his watch. “We should go.”
“Where are we going anyways?”
“Junon. Can you fly a Gelnika?”
“Does it got wings?”
Rude inclined his head, his amused eyes hidden behind his shades. The Captain knew quite well that the Gelnika had wings.
“There’s yer answer then.”
“You are ready then.”
“Well…” Cid scratched his head and looked around. “…Not quite. A member of our party seems to be missing.”
Rude inclined his head again. He leaned back against the nose of the chopper and crossed one ankle over the other. He eyed the muddy soles of his polished shoes with distaste. Then he lifted his head to peer off into the distance. “I’ll wait.”
Cid frowned at the Turk’s abrupt dismissal, but he crossed to the huddled group.
“Well?” Barrett demanded.
“He’s ready to go. Where’s Yuffie?”
Barrett shrugged. “Dunno. She knows we’re leavin’.”
“Okay, who wants to volunteer to look for her?”
Barrett vehemently shook his head. “Uh uh, I’m not going up to that house again. Whyn’t you go?”
Cid glowered at Barrett. “Not no, but hell no.” The grizzled pilot looked down at the red beast lying curled on the wet grass.
“How about you, Red?”
Nanaki didn’t respond, but climbed heavily to his feet.
“I’ll go! I’ll go! I love a good scavenger hunt!”
Cid rolled his eyes. “Cait, you just have to find Yuffie.”
The cat winked at Cid. “Well, she’ll probably be scavenging, right?”
Cid sighed in despair. “I hope not. Okay, you’re elected. Get goin’.”
Cait waved a mittened hand as the Mog bounced off into the darkness.
Barrett watched him go, and then turned to look at the chopper skeptically. “Where we puttin’ Cait?”
Cid sighed again. “We ain’t puttin’ Cait. He won’t fit. At least the Mog won’t fit. He’s gonna stay with Jerol.”
Jerol lifted his head in surprise. “He is!?”
“Yeah, he is. I’m sure he’ll be happy when you tell ‘im.”
Avian reached up under the truck fender and felt around until his fingers touched the end of the baling wire. With his cheek pressed against the rusted side panel, he held the weapon in place with one hand and untwisted the wire with the other. Finally, the wire came free, and he gingerly drew the multi-bladed weapon into the open, careful not to scratch the gleaming blades against the truck. He held the Conformer in one hand and started to rise, but before he could climb to his feet, something cold touched his face, and he nearly dropped a blade into the dirt.
“Soldier. You ‘bout gave me a heart attack.” The dog nuzzled through the hair at Avian’s ear, and he finally stood and scratched the dog’s head, the Conformer held fast in his fingers. He could barely see his dog inside the dark shed, so when Soldier suddenly darted away, he didn’t see where he went, although he could hear him snuffling around somewhere close by. The youth raised his eyes to the distant chopper. He supposed he should get on out there if he was going to give the girl back her pinwheel before she left. He just hoped that the Turk didn’t shoot him. He took a deep breath to bolster his nerves, and took a tentative step forward.
“I just have one thing to ask you.”
Her voice came from behind him, and Avian whirled around, his breath catching in his lungs. Slowly, he backed away until he came up against the post. Warily, he stared into the depths of the shed, a pointless endeavor as the girl would be cloaked in the deep gloom near the back wall. He stiffened at the sudden realization that he probably cut a nice silhouette against the helicopter’s lights. Cautiously, he pressed the Conformer flat against his stomach.
“So, what’s the question?” He was careful to keep any hint of challenge from his voice.
“Can you…like…actually use this thing? Because you really don’t seem like the dagger type.”
Slowly, Avian stood away from the post and took a step into the shed, his eyes blindly roving the area near the front bumper of the truck, estimating her position from the sound of her voice.
“Yes, I can use it.” He filled his words with confidence despite the fact that many would question his assertion. Tiko, in point of fact, might wish to remind him of the broken window that cost him a week’s wages. He certainly wouldn’t inform her of that incident.
“Well…in that case…here ya go.” Before he could move, he heard the blade sing through the air, and he froze in place, too stunned to even close his eyes, but he winced when the blade sank home with a solid thunk in the post behind him. He swallowed hard and struggled to find his voice.
“Well, you got yer knife back. Now hand over my Conformer. I gotta make like a tree and leave before the forest takes off without me.”
“I have it right here.” Avian made his words firm despite the fact that his heart still bumped wildly against his breastbone. “Come get it.”
“Is that a challenge?” Yuffie’s words rang with potential mayhem.
“No, I just can’t see you. So you’ll have to come over here.”
She didn’t answer, and he waited tensely for her response, a fine sheen of sweat breaking out on his forehead as the seconds ticked past. Suddenly, she stood there, right in front of him, her eyes glittering in the distant illumination from outside. Unconsciously, he took a step back before he stopped himself.
“Okay, where is it?”
Gingerly, he lifted the weapon away from his body and held it up against the backlight so she could see the shape of it. “Right here.”
Instantly, she reached out for it and slipped her fingers into the nexus of the four blades, her hand brushing against his as he released the weapon to her. Suddenly, his heart rate seemed to double, even picking up an erratic beat that left him inexplicably breathless.
Yuffie watched him closely for any sudden moves on his part as she slid her fingers over the materia slots, insuring that all her precious materia remained in place. She smiled as the familiar and comforting presence of Leviathan swirled through her mind. Satisfied, she reached around and dropped the Conformer into the empty sling and settled the weapon in place.
“Hold out your hand.” Reluctant to concede to her sudden demand, Avian didn’t move.
“You aren’t going to spit in it are you?”
“Come on. Come on. I don’t have all night.” Abruptly, she reached out and grabbed his wrist. Lifting his hand, she plopped his drawstring bag into his palm and closed his fingers around it.
“There. I’m gone.” Before he could get his mouth unhinged to speak, she’d brushed past him. Soldier nudged his leg and shook him out of his stupor. He closed the small bag tightly in his fist and darted after her.
Yuffie stopped and half-turned, her slim figure darkly visible against the wash of white light beyond her. Avian halted just out of her reach. Impatiently, she propped her hands on her hips and tilted her head in question though her features were cloaked in darkness.
“I…uh…just wanted to…”
He paused in thought. He thought he’d wanted to ask her why she’d changed her mind, but what he really wanted to ask was if she would be coming back. He couldn’t ask her that. Besides, he figured she’d probably be going home to Wutai. He realized that it was unlikely he’d ever see her again, and he was somewhat surprised at himself that he even wanted to. But things had certainly been…interesting…for a while.
Tired of his prolonged silence, Yuffie threw a hand out in dismissal and continued on her way. This time he just watched her go.
“Thanks!” He hollered after her. Without even a glance back, she merely responded with a brief wave as she walked away. Soldier whined, and he glanced down to find the dog sitting on his haunches beside him. “Hey, boy. Looks like the fun’s all over.” He absently scratched behind the dog’s ear. “Guess we better head to the house and see what Grandma’s been up to.” The dog yipped at his words, but he wasn’t sure if Soldier was agreeing or protesting, and despite his intent, he found his steps drawn along Yuffie’s path toward the circle of light, like a moth lured to a flame.
Rude straightened when Yuffie strolled from the darkness to join the loosely clustered group. Without a word, he levered himself into the pilot’s seat and commenced his pre-flight procedures.
Cid noticed the Turk’s actions and turned to glare at the ninja girl as she sauntered up behind him. “About time.”
“Got that right. Can we get this show on the road?” With an imperious toss of her head, she headed for the chopper, and Nanaki rose to follow her.
Cid bit back the expletive that hovered on the tip of his tongue, and turned to Jerol who stood stiffly beside him. “Okay Jerol, looks like you’re in charge.” At his words, Jerol came to attention and succinctly nodded. Cid glanced around. “Dunno where Cait went, but he’ll turn up. Tell him he’s in charge of defense and…er…entertainment.” Jerol blinked owlishly, too polite to question the Captain’s strange order, and again nodded his acknowledgement, more slowly this time. Cid scrubbed a gloved hand against his grizzled face and turned to look longingly at the crippled airship. “Well okay then, we’ll be back to fix the Lady Luck in a few days. I wancha to take damn good care of her ‘til I get back.” Jerol bobbed his head again. “You can count on me, Captain.” Cid glanced up to see Rude intently studying his watch. “I know I can, Jerol. Didn’t have any doubts about that. Guess we better head out.” Jerol smartly saluted as the Captain turned away. “Be careful, Captain.” Cid absently touched one finger to his forehead in return and caught Barrett’s eye. “Let’s go.” He strode away, and Barrett fell into step beside him, his heavy brow wrinkling at sight of the rusty pail hanging on the Captain’s wrist. He’d noticed it earlier, but had been sidetracked before he could ask about it.
“Whatcha got that bucket for? Gonna collect acorns before ya leave?”
Cid’s eyes widened in surprise. “Forgot about that. It’s for you.” Cid tugged the bucket off over his thick glove and shoved the tin pail into Barrett’s reluctant hands.
Barrett stared at the pail in bewilderment as he turned the handle in his fingers. “For me? What for?”
“Well, thought ya might need it since you’re riding in back with Yuffie.”
Barrett stared at him blankly until his meaning sank in, then he stopped in his tracks. “Now wait a damn minute!”
Cid continued on, drawing a cigarette from behind his ear as he plodded across the soft ground. He could feel Barrett’s angry eyes boring holes in his back as he rounded the nose of the chopper. His lips curved in a satisfied smile as he stuffed his bag into the cockpit and clambered in, settling down with the Venus Gospel beside him before he pulled the door shut.
With a brief glance in Barrett’s direction, Rude lifted one shoulder in a slight shrug and set the rotors in motion. Finally, Barrett stomped forward, his huge feet splashing noisily through the standing puddles as he ducked his head low under the spinning blades and yanked the door open to climb in, rocking the chopper as he dropped heavily into his seat. He tossed his gear behind the seat and turned back to encounter Nanaki’s golden eye as the beast raised his head inquisitively from between the seats where he’d curled up. Barrett huffed and looked up to find Yuffie’s brightly curious eyes on him as well. Abruptly, he tossed the pail into her lap. The container nearly rolled off her knees, and she scrambled to catch it before it hit the floor.
“That’s for you. Use it.”
Yuffie carefully set the pail at her feet and folded her arms around her slight waist, turning grateful eyes to his frowning face. “Thanks, Bear. I owe you one.”
Surprised, Barrett glanced sheepishly at her. “Uh…you’re welcome.” She grinned at the embarrassed gruffness in his voice. Barrett felt like maybe he should apologize too, but he narrowed his eyes on the back of the pilot seat instead.
“So what’s the plan?” Barrett didn’t bother to soften the irritation in his rough voice.
Rude halfway turned in his seat to answer, undisturbed by the hint of animosity. “I have been assigned two mission objectives. One: To deliver Highwind to Junon Airbase. Two: To search for Lockheart and Valentine. Due to inclement weather, the second will have to wait. The instruments are unreliable, thus I will be flying visually until they can be recalibrated at the airbase. As I plan to skirt the worst of the storm and fly directly up the western coastline into Junon, I anticipate no problems.”
Stung by the Turk’s indifferent reference to Tifa and Vincent, Yuffie glowered at the big Turk as he returned his attention to his controls. Impulsively, she lunged forward in her seat and grabbed a fistful of his suit coat.
“You wouldn’t look for them right now even if you could, would you?!” She spat the challenging words without thought of repercussion.
Rude stiffened in his seat. Slowly, he rotated his head to look at her through his shades. She swallowed hard at his tight-lipped regard. Even though she didn’t think a Turk would be foolish enough to harm her, at least not where there were witnesses, his silent perusal sent a shard of pure fear straight through her heart. Abruptly, she released him to huddle back into her own seat though she refused to turn her defiant eyes from his dark lenses.
Rude came to a decision, and he reached up to pull the sunglasses from his face, baring his brown eyes to Yuffie’s startled gaze. Then he inclined his head. “You are correct. Due to the unstable situation in Midgar, my first order of business is to get Cid to a Gelnika so that he can bring his aerospace team to the city. However, I can assure you, Miss Kisaragi, that beyond that point, I will be searching for Tifa as soon as humanly possible.”
Captivated by the strange intensity in the Turk’s eyes, Yuffie gazed mutely back at him for a long moment before a feeling of uncharacteristic shyness overcame her, and she lowered her gaze to her knees. “Vincent too.”
Rude nodded at her softly voiced admonition. “Yes, Vincent too. Both of them. I will look for them, and I will find them.” Avoiding Cid’s intrigued gaze, Rude meticulously folded his sunglasses and tucked them away into an inside pocket of his jacket. He looked at his watch and flicked a tiny piece of lint from his coat sleeve. Then he buckled his harness and switched on the wipers to clear the rain-spackled windscreen.
Cid shot a questioning glance at Barrett, who merely shrugged in response before turning his face to stare through his own faint reflection in the glass. Then Rude killed the interior lights, plunging the chopper cabin into electronic-tinted gloom. Nobody spoke another word as the Turk settled his hands on the controls and easily lifted the chopper into the night sky.
Avian craned his neck, his eyes following the chopper until the machine swept away into the rainy mist. He watched until the last trace of the searchlight’s glow was devoured by the swollen clouds, and even after he could see nothing but dark sky and rain, he gazed into the heavens for several minutes more in the hope of getting one last glimpse.
“Guess I’ll see you in another life.” He let his head fall and exhaled a long, shaky breath. “Maybe…”
Soldier whined plaintively at the sadness in Avian’s whisper, and the young man bent to pat the dog’s domed head reassuringly. “Nah, it’s okay buddy. I just…I don’t know….” He shook his head in confusion. “Hey, she was really mean, ya know?” The dog snuffled at his hand. “Nah, guess you wouldn’t know. You kinda liked her, didn’t ya?” The dog kept his own counsel on that score, merely swishing his tail across the ground in response. “Oh well, like her if you want. All I got to say is ‘good riddance’. Things can get back to normal around here, finally. Well, depending on your definition of ‘normal’…I mean with Grandma…well…and there is that broken airship out in the fields…” Gingerly, he touched a finger to his swollen eye. “…At least I don’t have to worry about…being…beat up…tortured…dismembered…”
Avian lifted his eyes to the heavens again as his rambling monologue trailed off into silence. There wasn’t a star or a streak of lighting or even the illumination of any strange flying objects to break the ponderous darkness of the ceiling above. Absently, he shrugged and started for the house. Soldier barked once and jumped to his feet to follow, breaking into a trot alongside his young master. “And you, I never would have believed you could be had so cheaply. For the price of a hard, stale biscuit.” Sinking back into his thoughts, Avian obliviously slogged undeterred through the extensive mud holes, hardly noticing the water that seeped into the soles of his boots. He didn’t even realize that the front gate had been left ajar, a criminal offense that could incite his Grandma to voice her annoyance in her best invective, depending on her mood. He merely walked through and worked his way around the debris in the yard, using the faint light shining through the curtained windows to guide him.
He climbed the steps and smiled at the sound of the familiar tune that drifted through the open library window. Grandma was reminiscing again with her music box and old photos, an activity that, for some reason, tended to ground her to the real world. Maybe it would be a good night.
He opened the door and let Soldier inside. The dog made a beeline for the kitchen and his food bowl, and Avian wearily tugged off his muddy boots and headed down the hall toward the lighted doorway, shuffling along the glossy floor in his socked feet. Suddenly, it occurred to him that less than twenty-four hours ago, he’d embarked on his rooftop vigil with Soldier, knowing that they probably wouldn’t see the sun rise on another day. But the sun did come up, just like always, and he’d just survived the most interesting day of his whole life. What was the likelihood of that happening again? But then, the Captain was coming back. If his Aunt Jae would just come back soon, maybe he could help him rebuild his airship…but…nah…what did he know about airships? Still, nobody could ever guess what the future might bring.
A noisy rattle drew Avian from his reverie, and he lifted his head as he passed through the doorway. His Grandma shrieked with laughter, and the young man froze in his tracks at the sight before him. His Grandma tossed the dice out across the table again and looked up with a huge toothless grin as the cat threw his little gloved hands into the air.
“You win again! This is your LUCKY NIGHT!”
Avian’s eyes grew round as the cat danced around on top of his Mog, kicking up one red boot into the air, and then the other as a black tail switched back and forth. His mouth worked as he tried to think of something to say, a strangled grunt the only thing he could manage thus far. The cat suddenly came to a standstill on one leg, a paw on the edge of his crown and the other in the air, his tail curved in the shape of a backwards question mark. In the blink of an eye, the head swiveled and the bright golden eyes were focused on him. A sudden urge to bolt became almost too powerful to resist, but the amiable feline face and the musical singsong voice stayed his retreat.
“Well hullo there! My name is Cait Sith. Who are you!?”
Numbly, the young man forced his jaw to close. “Uh…Avian?”
“Wow! Avian! Hey, Avian, that’s some shiner you got! Hey, how about I tell your fortune? Whatcha say to that?”
Caitlin huddled on the plush cushion of a bench with her small hands clasped tightly in her lap. Elena sat close beside her, studying the milling crowd with deceptive disinterest as she fiddled with an ornate ring on her finger, for the most part ignoring Caitlin. Reno leaned against the wall on her other side, one hand crammed in his trousers pocket, the other wrapped around his ever-present stick, which he was tapping against the wall behind him at the moment. He’d pulled his shades down over his eyes when they’d first entered the brightly lit mansion, and he now appeared so relaxed that if it weren’t for the incessant rap, she might believe he was asleep.
She raised her eyes to track the constant flow of traffic on the ornate stairway, searching for a glimpse of Reeve. Before, she’d been dreading their upcoming conversation. Now, she just wanted to get it over with and get out of the brilliant illumination and the suffocating press of people. Certainly, the lighting here was several degrees brighter than anywhere else she’d traveled beneath the plates so far, and although there were hordes of people, as well as scores of rescued pets, throughout all the viable slum areas, nothing had prepared her for the crowding inside the lushly decorated mansion that now housed the headquarters of the emergency medical effort; a mansion that, according to a smirking Reno, used to belong to a lecherous slumlord called Don Corneo, now deceased.
She touched her fingers to her brow as a wave of dizziness swept through her head. Thankfully, the lightheadedness passed as quickly as it came, and she looked around to find that Reno had turned his head to watch her. She could the feel the weight of his gaze despite the fact that she couldn’t even remotely see his eyes through the opaque shades. The Turk was no doubt concerned that she would experience a repeat of her fainting episode outside. Under the circumstances, she didn’t think the spell would recur, but she wasn’t sure. She was treading new territory here.
When the spell had come on, she’d been walking between the two Turks as they’d plowed a path through the human tide that ebbed and flowed between the various buildings, structures that used to be places of business, like the hotel and the clothing store, and had been hastily converted to hospital wards filled with injured patients less critical than the ones inside the lush rooms of the mansion. Eventually, they had nearly traversed the whole of Wall Market and had walked up on a huddled group of people sitting on the ground just outside the entrance of the mansion, many of them with untreated injuries who were waiting for someone to treat them.
One young man sitting cross-legged near the pathway had caught her eye as they passed through. He held a small boy cradled in one arm as he pressed a discarded cotton shirt against a seeping head wound. The man’s forehead and left cheek glittered with tiny flecks of pinkly tinted glass, and his shoulder length, corn silk hair had been streaked dark red with blood. Perhaps sensing her interest, the young man had turned one blue eye up to study her in return, a hesitant smile slipping across his lips despite his injuries, and that was when the dizziness had swooped in out of the blue, along with the images that exploded into her mind, as though her brain had suddenly turned itself inside out to dump out unwanted memories she had stuffed far down into the bottom. She hardly felt her knees go out from under her, didn’t even realize she was falling. She would have crumpled to the ground if Reno hadn’t caught her. Elena reached down to help him lift her, but she didn’t really notice that either. She only vaguely heard Reno call her name, but she couldn’t respond, not until the vision played out, in vibrant Technicolor and perfect audio reproduction.
All of it had happened in a handful of seconds, but the pictures and sounds slid through her mind with excruciating slowness, a series of film frames jerking haltingly past one by one. Jaz’s faltering smile in the hollow well of her anger-filled silence, unrelenting despite his humorous depiction of the reserved Tseng attempting to guard her obstreperous twelve year old brother. Then, the ear piercing screech of car tires, and the blatant shock on his face, the futility in his wide blue eyes when he’d thrown back his hand. The searing pain when her bare knees scraped against the pavement, the dull thud of metal against flesh and bone, a crumpled bumper and shattered headlight racing straight for her, rapidly swelling into her field of vision to obstruct her view of the limply twisted, blue-suited rag doll with bright red ribbons in a fan of blond hair, the pristine tread of a brand-new tire, and then…nothing. There’d been no more because there was nothing else after that. Her life had ended then, and all her memories after that were of another person’s life, an existence she would never have chosen, one she would have shuffled off long ago had it not been for Heidi.
“Are you all right?”
Reno’s lowly voiced question drew her from her reverie, and she looked away. She’d been staring at him the entire time, taken prisoner by her thoughts again.
“I’m fine. It’s just…I’m not used to all the people and the noise...”
Reno nodded mutely and studied her for a moment longer before he returned to his vigilant observation of the people coming and going through the colorful main lobby of the decadent mansion. She unconsciously raised her eyes to watch the stairway again. At least Reeve hadn’t noticed her little spell outside. The episode had passed so quickly that no one had really noticed but the Turks, and both seemed to believe that she’d been overcome by a bout of squeamishness. She was happy to let them think that, and her subsequent painstaking effort to keep her eyes averted from the young man with the silky blonde hair and one pain-filled blue eye, as well as any of the other injured people in the group, only reinforced the misconception.
Abruptly, Caitlin stood, and both Turks straightened, Reno standing away from his comfortable and hard won spot against the wall and Elena uncrossing her legs to half rise from the bench. Caitlin lifted her chin and pinned Reno with uncompromising eyes.
“I cannot sit here any longer. I’m going for a walk.” Her announcement made, she slipped between a couple of medical types and stalked away through the exit before Reno could voice a reasoned protest, so he settled for the less mannerly version as he dove after here, almost knocking over a young woman with a stethoscope and clipboard.
“Damn it, Caitlin! Come back here!” His narrow green eyes filled with fierce determination, he squeezed his way through the congested doorway. Elena rolled her eyes and strode after him, stepping on several toes as she aggressively followed him out. Though she’d fallen behind at first, she found him easily enough, as he’d stopped just a few feet beyond the mansion’s common area and his lanky build and mop of red hair marked his position clearly. She strolled up beside him, and scanned the milling crowd as she listened to his muttered imprecations. Elena knew that tracking a petite woman through the overpopulated marketplace turned refugee camp would be nearly impossible.
“Surely, she’ll come back in a few minutes.”
Reno snorted derisively at Elena’s suggestion. “I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.”
“Well, she has nowhere to go does she?”
Ignoring her question, Reno shoved his sunglasses into his hair and started moving, carefully studying the shifting collage of bodies, looking for that one familiar glimpse that would reveal her whereabouts, but by the time he’d reached the mountain of scrap near the Weapon Shop, he still hadn’t spotted her. He turned to Elena and spun his rod through his fingers to offer it to her handle end first.
“Here. Take this.”
Elena complied, holding the unfamiliar weapon stiffly at her side as she watched Reno scramble several feet up the length of a salvaged cannon barrel with the ease of a playful child. He wrapped one hand around a huge metal sight and set his feet firmly against the pitted surface to lean out over the throng on the main thoroughfare. Already tired of being jostled, Elena sidled closer to the junk pile to get out of the flow of traffic, watching the changing expressions on Reno’s face with tepid interest as he meticulously searched for several interminable minutes. Finally, boredom got the best of her, and she called up to him.
“Maybe she entered one of the shops.”
He shook his head impatiently. “Nope, she didn’t.”
“Do you see her?”
“Then how do you…?”
“Sssssssssh! You’re distracting me!"
Elena petulantly clamped her lips shut at Reno’s reprimand. She couldn’t begin to see how she might be distracting him in the noise and bustle of Wall Market, but she decided not to argue with him and settled for a pointed glare to speak her displeasure. Of course, he wouldn’t see it as he was otherwise occupied, but perhaps he might feel her eyes burning a hole through his skin.
Reno didn’t think Caitlin would go far, but he really had no way of knowing what motivation drove her to leave. All he really knew was that earlier she had indicated that she was afraid of Reeve despite the fact that she had come all the way to a city that she knew to be in turmoil at the executive’s behest. No, at her husband’s behest. She had said that. Her husband. Present tense. That the two of them were married had to be the best kept secret on the planet, an amazing accomplishment considering the difficulty in keeping anything from the electronic eyes and ears of the Shinra Electric Corporation. He wondered if Tseng had known that Caitlin Shinra was alive and living in seclusion on a posh island, and if he’d known about Reeve. Obviously, Rude hadn’t known. In fact, Rude still didn’t know about Reeve, and he also knew that Caitlin hadn’t intended to tell him. In fact, he could almost guarantee that if Caitlin Shinra had it to do over, she would have bitten off her tongue and spit it into the dirt before she would’ve told him.
He swept the ever-shifting crowd for possibly the hundredth time. She had to be here. Elena was right. Caitlin had nowhere to go but into the dark and dangerous maze of pathways that twisted through and under the huge mountains of scrap composed of the detritus from the upper plate and the remains of Old Midgar. He didn’t believe she harbored a death wish, at least, he hoped she didn’t.
A piercing shriek ripped through the hubbub of chatter and movement, and for a second all of Wall Market froze into stillness, only to slip seamlessly back into motion in the next breath. A sound like that really wasn’t all that rare in this place, but an uneasy feeling crept over him as he probed the area around the gym where he thought the scream came from. The space along the wall of the makeshift structure seemed to clear as people sidled away, pointedly moving around the body sprawled on the ground. He narrowed his eyes to scrutinize the scatter of sable hair and nondescript cotton dress. A woman. Not Caitlin. Relieved, he exhaled his pent breath and scanned the crowd for a possible assailant, but he couldn’t detect anyone behaving suspiciously. Perhaps the woman had suffered a seizure. Whatever had happened, the problem didn’t fall under his purview. A trio of blue-uniformed troopers already rushed importantly in the woman’s direction even as the passersby veered further away.
“What’s going on, Reno?!” Elena looked up at him with rabidly curious eyes. She had heard the scream, but couldn’t see a thing from where she stood. He scanned the crowd again as he absently answered her, somewhat worried that Caitlin hadn’t appeared as yet. Maybe Elena was right about that too. Maybe she’d ducked into the bar to utilize the bathroom facilities or toss down a cold one.
“Don’t know for sure…looks like a woman fell…or fainted maybe…or…”
As he mused out loud, his gaze came back to the woman in question and his capacity for speech momentarily vanished. She was kneeling on the ground, one arm around the woman’s shoulders as she struggled to rise. He watched for a moment longer as the golden-haired Caitlin stood along with the taller woman and held her hand as the woman talked to her, her agitated face streaked with tears. He thought he could almost hear the woman’s distressed voice, although the distance was too far to make out any of her words. The woman frantically pointed into the crowd beyond the gymnasium, and Caitlin turned her head to look.
“Figures…” Another goodie two shoes. He was beginning to see the draw. Rufus Shinra would have looked down his nose with a disdainful sniff and imperiously gestured for someone to come drag the woman from his path, but this Shinra, clad in her black sweatshirt, faded jeans and grass-stained sneakers, had thrown herself into the middle of something that might very well turn into trouble. He’d better intervene. Before he could move a muscle to follow through on his thought, Caitlin suddenly looked over her shoulder at him, her azure gaze resting pointedly on his face for several seconds, and then she turned back to the woman. She’d just made it damned clear that she’d seen him, and she had probably known he was there all along. The question would now be whether she planned to disappear again. He released the metal ring and jumped.
Elena looked up to see Reno dropping toward her with his ponytail flying, and his blue coat and untucked shirttails flapping. She barely had time to jump away before he landed beside her, going down on one knee only to bound right back up. Snatching his rod from her hand, he sprang away. Not missing a beat, she threw herself into the oncoming foot traffic after him, determined not to fall behind.
Reno kept his gaze glued on the entrance of the gym as he plowed his way inexorably forward. Elena trailed doggedly behind, striding effortlessly in his wake as people moved aside at the sight of the resolute set to the Turk’s jaw as well as his steamroller mode of progress. He could just barely see the taller woman’s dark head, but the diminutive Caitlin wasn’t visible from the ground yet. He just hoped she remained occupied with the distressed woman until he reached her.
Only a few yards shy of his target, some people moved, and Reno could finally see the back of Caitlin’s head, identifiable by the now lopsided bun and several escaped strands of gold-spun hair straggling to her waist. His quarry nearly in hand, Reno virtually bulldozed through a huddle of men chatting, the tactical deployment of his bony elbows clearing his way. He ignored the slanderous expletives as he swiftly crossed to Caitlin, not even bothering to level his protest-killing Turk glare at his vociferous victims. Lightly, he grasped Caitlin’s elbow in long fingers, ready to latch down if she tried to make a run for it.
At his touch, she looked up at him with eyes full of concern. “There you are. I didn’t think you were ever going to get here.”
He raised an eyebrow in amusement. “I’m sorry we kept you waiting, but we were unavoidably detained.”
“Never mind that. We have to help her.” The woman’s hand still held tightly in her own, Caitlin drew the reluctant and obviously distraught woman forward.
A couple of the Shinra soldiers finally arrived on the scene and skidded to a halt at sight of Reno and Elena. Reno nodded curtly at them and turned his attention to the woman.
He looked the woman over, his harshly critical eyes noting the worn sandals and faded housedress. Tears streaked her red cheeks, and her body shook with the silent sobs that she fought to hold at bay in the presence of the Turks, one white-knuckled fist pressed against her mouth. She wore no rings or jewelry of any kind and her sable hair tumbled lifelessly over her shoulders, the fine braids woven into the long tresses the only adornment anywhere on her. A resident of the slums most probably. At any rate, she appeared uninjured, and he couldn’t determine the reason for which Caitlin sought his help. His keen gaze locked with the unknown woman’s anxious eyes, and she half-turned beneath his scorching appraisal, as though she might suddenly bolt into the crowd, but instead she stood her ground and refused to look away despite the fact that she stood trembling before him.
“With what, may I ask?”
Reno’s query, posed as it were in a lazy drawl with the barest trace of sarcasm, set Caitlin’s temper on the rise. She rounded on him even as he tightened his grip on her elbow. Her eyes fairly danced with fire as she glared up at him.
“Someone just stole her little girl!”
Reno shrugged. “…And this is our problem because…?”
“Because I say it is.” Caitlin took a step closer to drive home her point, but as the top of her head barely reached his chest, the difference in their heights rendered her threatening gesture a bit ludicrous. He smirked down into her angry eyes.
“Stolen, Caitlin? That seems rather melodramatic. The kid probably just wandered off or maybe its father came along and took it.”
She shook her head vehemently. “No! No! A man came out of the crowd and tried to snatch the girl, but her mother held on. He was dressed all in black, in a cloak, with a hat pulled down. He just knocked her flat and ripped the little girl from her arms. She started crying! I saw it!”
“The melodramatic plot thickens.”
Despite his amused comment, Reno’s eyes narrowed in contemplation as he turned Caitlin’s account over in his mind. Certainly, the story explained how the woman ended up on the ground, but he couldn’t fathom why a stranger would want to risk kidnapping a slum kid right out in public, from a crowded marketplace when ultimately he had nowhere to go with her.
Suddenly, Reno whipped his head around to level an accusatory stare on the woman’s face. She quailed at the uncompromising hardness in his eyes.
“Who was it?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“No! I said I didn’t know!”
Despite the demanding, rapid-fire nature of Reno’s questions and the intimidating glare of Elena who stood in tandem with the redheaded Turk, the woman didn’t falter.
Caitlin gave Reno’s jacket a sharp tug. “We are wasting time here!”
He finally broke eye contact with the woman and looked down at her. “The military can handle this, Caitlin. That’s why they’re here. This isn’t a Turk matter.”
Realizing that Reno probably wouldn’t involve them in the woman’s plight, certainly not without a lot of time burning argument and cajoling on her part, Caitlin lowered her eyes to the ground, the picture of demure submission despite the hot anger fulminating inside her. She drew in a slow breath and started counting even as she calculated just how hard she could stomp down on Reno’s foot. She stifled the smile that crossed her lips at the thought and lifted a resigned gaze to the Turk’s unyielding green eyes.
“Of course, you’re right. I’m being silly. The army should handle this.” Caitlin cringed inside at her own words. She knew Reeve would have been tipped off immediately at her characterization of herself as ‘silly’. Tseng wouldn’t have bought into any of it. Not for a second. She’d burned him once, and once had been enough for him, but Reno didn’t know her at all, so maybe…
Reno eyed her suspiciously, untrusting of her easy capitulation, but he didn’t see any sign of defiance or duplicity in her blue eyes. Finally, he relented and looked up to locate the three soldiers listening nearly. He raised a finger and sharply beckoned the higher-ranking soldier to his side. He turned slightly to confront the nervous man.
“You heard?” Reno didn’t want to waste time with a retelling of the incident unless he had to.
“Take care of it.”
Uncertainly, the soldier wrinkled his brow. “How, sir?”
His responsibility discharged as far as he was concerned, Reno had already turned away, but the soldier’s bewildered voice brought him back around.
“How, sir?!” Astonished disbelief filled the Turk’s voice as he repeated the soldier’s question.
The soldier nervously shifted his rifle at the irritation in the redheaded Turk’s eyes.
Reno pointed his finger in the soldier’s face. “How?! I’ll tell you how! Investigate! Search! Notify the exit guards! Call your C.O.!”
“Investigate?” The soldier weakly squeaked out his question, and he shrank back at the murderous light that rose in the Turk’s green eyes. A muscle in Reno’s cheek jerked convulsively as he clenched his jaw. Abruptly, Reno released Caitlin and stepped up to the unfortunate soldier, waving his arms as he snapped out instructions through gritted teeth.
“Obtain a description of the assailant and the abducted child! Apprise the exit guards to detain anyone remotely fitting such description! Organize and execute an exhaustive search!”
The soldier nodded vacantly, but made no move to act on Reno’s words.
“Do it now!” Reno’s snarled command lit a fire under the soldier’s heels, and he sprang into action and snatched his radiophone from his utility belt, more to appease the irate Turk than from any desire to carry out his orders. Reno listened for a moment to insure that the soldier was, at the very least, informing the guards, and then he wheeled to glare at Elena for no particular reason other than that she happened to be examining her eyelashes in her compact mirror. Again. He pressed his lips together to stifle the crude curse that itched to depart his tongue and instead turned to Caitlin to ask her if she was duly satisfied with his efforts, intending to escort her back to the mansion. Of course, she wasn’t there.
His hands closed convulsively into fists, which he slammed against his legs as the curse exploded from his mouth anyway.
Elena almost dropped her mirror at the uncharacteristic bellow and jerked her head around to see what had Reno frothing at the mouth. She immediately noted the absence of Caitlin and dropped her compact into her jacket pocket, already moving even before Reno emphatically jabbed his stick toward the crowd, his silent command for her to get on the trail.
Flinging himself into an about-face, Reno stalked over to the three soldiers who were now in a huddle, the first one still talking on the radiophone. He should have known. He did know, but he’d allowed himself to be lulled by her innocent and insincerely sincere big blue eyes. Damn it all! The soldiers looked up at his approach, and three pairs of apprehensive eyes flew wide at the Turk’s thunderous face. They all might have run as one, but he didn’t give them time. He slammed to a stop and glowered at the soldier with the phone.
"Who the hell are you talking to?”
The confused soldier drew back at the suppressed fury in Reno’s voice. “Well…I…I’m…talking to the guards just like you…”
“Gimme that thing!” Reno snatched the phone from his hand, effectively cutting him off. Then he swept his stick toward the weeping woman who still stood huddled off to the side.
“Detain her for questioning!”
The soldiers looked at each other, and then hesitantly moved to form a loose circle around the woman as Reno barked into the radiophone.
“This is Reno of the Turks. Wall Market is closed until I say otherwise. No one comes in. No one goes out. I’m taking charge of this operation.”
Reeve scanned the crowded foyer below as he descended the wide staircase with Cloud alongside.
“You know, I really didn’t think you were going to settle that doc down.”
The executive sighed heavily at Cloud’s comment. “Dr. Anastasio is a brilliant surgeon, but he’s an arrogant jerk. I’d prefer to have Minkin in charge down here, but he’s heading up the recovery team.”
“So can you give him what you promised?”
“Only to a certain extent. I can divert some power this way from less essential areas, but ultimately the whole city is now running on stored power. The reactors are non-functional. The water system is the same. We are drawing off the storage tanks. It’s only a matter of time until we start running out of resources, and truthfully, the power will be exhausted long before water and food.”
Halfway down, Reeve suddenly stopped. He swept his eyes across the room again, this time studying the faces more intently. “Do you see them?”
Cloud looked toward the entrance where the ornate bench stood against the whitewashed wall just to the right of the propped double doors. An elderly couple occupied the bench along with a small boy sleeping across their laps. “Well, they aren’t where we left them.”
The warrior looked around the room for Reno, knowing the disheveled Turk would stand out with his better than average height and head of wild red hair, but he didn’t see him. “Maybe they stepped out…”
Reeve wrinkled his brow at Cloud’s tentative suggestion and started down the steps again, turning worried eyes toward the entrance. “Maybe so…” He finally responded.
At his vague tone, Cloud looked closer at the executive, noting the lines of weariness in his face and the heaviness of his footsteps. Reeve looked like he was running on a stored power supply that had almost dwindled away. The executive was trying his hardest to hold everything together, and he could see that the effort was taking its toll. He dropped his head as the words he’d said earlier to Reeve replayed in his mind, and he winced at the harshness of them. Still, he’d meant what he said, but maybe he’d voiced them prematurely.
“Look Reeve, what I said earlier, you know, about Caitlin Shinra…”
Reeve stepped off the bottom riser onto the footprint smudged parquet floor and placed a hand on Cloud’s forearm to bring him to a stop. Cloud brought his eyes up to meet Reeve’s, and his voice died in his throat at the unconcealed pain in the executive’s eyes. Then Reeve looked away across the room for a moment, and when he looked back, the intense emotion he thought he’d seen was gone, replaced by a touch of uncertainty. Cloud held his tongue and waited for him to speak. Reeve stared at him for a moment, and then drew him to the side, out of the jostling stairway traffic that flowed around them. Halting alongside the banister, he released Cloud’s arm and swept a hand uneasily through his hair. Then he rested his hand against a wide railing post and leaned in closer to speak to Cloud in a hushed voice.
“Look, I understand your position, Cloud. I know I don’t really have any credibility where you’re concerned. My actions with Avalanche at the outset were wholly dishonest and, in a couple of instances, reprehensible. I can only hope that you will appreciate that my perspective has changed. Or perhaps it would be better to say, that I have been reacquainted with my ideals, which I packed away along with my principles somewhere about halfway up the corporate ladder.” Reeve looked up to study Cloud’s reticent gaze. “However, I want you to know this. These people that live in this city never ceased to matter to me. I had plans to…well…try to fix things…” Reeve’s voice faltered, and his mouth worked silently for a moment as he mentally struggled with the regret of all the things he’d left undone. He hooded his eyes and continued on a different tack.
“About Caitlin. We will have to talk about her. There are some things you need to know, but that will have to wait. For now, I just want you to be aware that she is not the person you might think.” Reeve paused to clear his throat, looking up with a raised eyebrow to elicit a nod from Cloud. Turning a blind gaze to the parquet floor, he delved into his memories for a moment before he went on, his voice gruff as he verbalized his thoughts. “She despised the Shinra Electric Corporation. She publicly decried her father’s unfriendly environmental policies, and she privately fought with him tooth and nail over human rights issues. She was angry, and she was effective. She might even have taken Shinra down, given half a chance. Heaven knows, she almost managed to subvert the Turks to her cause, if you can believe that. Certainly, she could have guided her brother down a different road.” Reeve broke off his soliloquy to look Cloud directly in the eye. “In fact, you might even say that she was the spirit of Avalanche before Avalanche was ever conceived. Just because she is a Shinra is not a reason to view her presence here as evidence of a scheme to rebuild the company as it was.” Reeve studied Cloud’s impassive face for a sign of understanding. “I guess what I’m trying to say is just don’t condemn her without even knowing her. Please. She doesn’t deserve it.”
Reeve fell silent and waited for Cloud to respond, one way or another. Cloud, for his part, grew uncomfortable beneath Reeve’s hopeful gaze as the moments passed. Suddenly, he looked away, his eyes falling on a red enamel framed silk screen against the wall across the room. His eyes roved absently over the delicate painting as he replayed Reeve’s words in his mind. He didn’t know what to think, but he surely recognized that what Reeve was asking of him was only fair. Still, he found Caitlin Shinra’s presence here at this time to be ominous. Then again, maybe Reeve would tell him and set his mind at ease, if he simply asked. He turned to find Reeve scanning the faces in the room again, but as soon as Cloud spoke, the executive looked at him.
“Okay, Reeve. I guess I can see your point. There’s just one thing I want to know.”
Reeve eyed him warily. “Go ahead.”
“I want to know why you brought her to Midgar now.”
Reeve studied him for a moment as he pondered how much to tell him. He had every intention of telling him eventually, but this wasn’t the time or place. On the other hand, there was no reason not to tell him the gist of his plan.
“Reeve! There you are!” Reeve’s eyes jumped to the harried man as he squeezed his way through a knot of people to come to a halt before him. Reeve wanted to tell the man to get lost, to leave him be for a few minutes longer, but the deep concern on the man’s face and the anxiety in his eyes didn’t bode well, and Reeve’s stomach started to churn. He didn’t like it one bit when the head of the engineering department looked so distraught.
“What is it, Jack?”
Jack noticed Cloud standing close by. “What about him?”
“You can talk. What is it?”
Jack shot a surreptitious look around, and then leaned close.
“I need you to come look at something right away. I think we have a problem.”
“Where?!” Reeve’s sharp tone caught the attention of a couple walking by, and Jack smiled widely at them. They smiled hesitantly in return and walked on. Only then, did the engineer respond.
“Sector 6, Pillar 1.”
“The pillar?” Reeve lowered his voice to a whisper, his stomach burning in earnest now.
Jack merely nodded. “But I’m not…sure. I want your opinion.”
“Mr. Alexander!” Feeling a bit dazed, Reeve absently watched the soldier approach him, his mind wrapped around the solid knowledge that if Jack thought something was so, he might as well consider it to be fact and start figuring out what to do about it.
The soldier offered Reeve his radiophone. “Dr. Minkin wants to talk to you.”
Reeve automatically took the phone and forced himself to speak into the thing. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know what had happened now, especially in regard to victim recovery.
“Yes, this is Reeve.”
Reeve’s brows shot up in surprise. “What in the world…?! Put the guard on.”
Jack stepped close. “What’s going on?”
Reeve shook his head irritably at Jack’s query as another voice rasped into his ear.
“I want to know why Wall Market is closed.”
“Well, let the medical team through. We can’t refuse injured people entrance.”
“Yes, I’ll take responsibility. Just don’t let anyone else in or out without verification from Reno or myself.”
Reeve handed the radiophone back to the soldier and shifted his troubled gaze from one man to the other. Cloud and Jack waited expectantly, lively interest in both pairs of eyes. Reeve scrubbed a hand across his forehead and took a deep breath.
“Something’s going on, but I don’t know what. Reno has ordered Wall Market closed.”
“What could have prompted that?” Jack directed his question to Reeve, but a voice behind him answered.
“It was the lady, sir.”
The sudden attention of all three men brought the soldier’s thoughts to a standstill, and he gulped as he stared back in wide-eyed trepidation.
“What lady?” Impatiently, Reeve took a step closer. “What are you talking about?”
“Uh…the lady with the Turks. Reno wanted us to handle the situation until the lady ran off.”
“The stolen kid. He wanted us to look for her.”
“Look for who?”
“The kid. And the guy who stole her.”
Reeve gave his head a hard shake as though the movement might awaken his comprehension, but it didn’t work. He decided to address the important issue.
“ The lady, she was blonde, about this tall?” Reeve held his hand out at chest level.
“Yes sir. Reno called her Caitlin.”
“Where did she go?”
“Into the crowd. Personally, I think she spotted the guy. The kidnapper. And she was pissed that the Turks wouldn’t go after him. So she took it on herself to…”
Reeve didn’t need to hear any more. He strode out across the floor, roughly shouldering his way through the room. Jack hurried after him, dodging people as he tried to catch up. Cloud trailed just behind, keeping pace with long strides.
“Wait Reeve! What about the pillar?!” Jack managed to pull up on Reeve’s right, his anxious eyes locked on the executive’s determined face. “It really shouldn’t wait, man! You need to come!”
Reeve vehemently nodded his acknowledgement. “I know. I will. But I can’t right this minute. Just go! I’ll meet you there! I’ll meet you there in…” Reeve lifted his wrist to stare blindly at his watch. “Ah...just as soon as I can.”
Jack grabbed a fistful of Reeve’s shirtsleeve and pulled him to a stop. “Look, Reeve. I don’t know what’s going on with this lady, but…” Jack lowered his voice. “This could be a catastrophe, man. Do you understand what I’m saying?!”
Reeve tore his arm from Jack’s desperate grasp. “I said to wait for me at Pillar 6-1.” Then he stalked through the door. Frozen in place by the executive’s frigid tone, Jack let him go.
Cloud shot Jack an apologetic look as he squeezed past him to catch up with Reeve, matching his pace as he fell into step. Their progress was hardly impeded as people scampered to get out of the way at sight of the hard expression on the familiar face of the Shinra Head of Urban Development, walking in tandem with a Soldier 1st Class.
Cloud kept his own counsel as the two of them swiftly covered the entire length of Wall Market. They’d nearly reached the guards stationed at the entrance when Reeve spotted the distinctive red head of Reno hurrying in another direction, radiophone to his ear. The executive veered off toward him so quickly that Cloud, who had been scanning the faces on his right, almost lost him in the crowd. By the time Cloud caught up to him again, he’d jumped in front of Reno and stood nose to nose with the annoyed Turk.
“Where is she?”
Reno shrugged nonchalantly despite Reeve’s icy glare and sharp tone.
“I’m working on that problem just now.” He tried to step around Reeve, but the executive moved over to block his way.
“You were supposed to stay with her. Protect her.” Reeve jabbed a finger into Reno’s chest.
“Yeah, well. You didn’t bother to tell me that your wife was a sneaky, headstrong little she-devil. A little more pertinent information might have prevented this whole fiasco.” Reno forcefully swept the executive’s hand aside.
“How did you find out?!”
Reno smirked into the startled executive’s face.
“Pillow talk, Boss.”
“Did he just say ‘your wife’!?”
Reeve and Reno both shot a glance at Cloud who stood rooted to the ground, looking as though someone had just whacked him upside the head with a wooden beam.
“Ooops! I guess I let that slinky ole cat out of the bag.” Reno chuckled at the Avalanche soldier’s stunned expression.
Infuriated, Reeve jerked his head back to spear the Turk with hot eyes, and he shot out an arm and fisted a handful of the Turk’s coat lapel. With a hard yank, he snatched him close.
“You better find her, and you better find her now!”
Reno jabbed his rod into Reeve’s gut and hit the charge switch. The executive froze, his eyes locked into Reno’s calm regard.
“I think you’ve forgotten who you’re dealing with here.” Reno commented casually, a slight smile on his face. Reeve slowly released the Turk’s coat as he listened to the electronic whine of the stick charging, his anger dissipating in opposite correlation to the increase in pitch. Suddenly, Reno’s face twisted in a snarl, and he shoved the end of the rod hard into Reeve’s stomach. “Now back off.”
His guts churning, Reeve immediately lifted his hands in surrender, and he took a step back. “Okay, fine. I’m sorry. Can we just go look for her now, please?”
Reno tucked the rod beneath his arm and pointedly smoothed his rumpled lapel as he studied the executive’s face, a knowing smile on his lips. “Sure thing. Boss. If you’re finished with me now.”
Reeve sighed wearily at Reno’s insolent form of address. Perhaps, he was just becoming more sensitive as the evening wore on into night, but the Turk’s appellation for him seemed to be more sarcastic with each subsequent use. He thought about asking him to stop calling him that, but he figured that Reno would just come up with something worse. Besides, such a trivial matter paled in comparison with discovering the whereabouts of his missing wife.
“Do we have any idea where she’s gone?”
“Actually, we do. I was just in the middle of talking to one of the guards at the Honeybee when you accosted me. He relayed a message to me from Elena. She managed to acquire a visual on your vigilante spouse, and she’s now tailing her.”
Reeve’s brows drew together as he tried to visualize where Caitlin could be headed from that area. The Honeybee stood in a dead end section of Wall Market. Even if she could breach the lofty barrier wall, an impossible feat without climbing equipment, the Dead Zone lay beyond.
Reeve peered off in that direction. “Show me.”
Reno spun away to continue on his previous course toward the Honeybee Inn. Reeve started to follow, but paused to shoot an uneasy look at Cloud who stood quietly to the side. He hadn’t said a word since his startled question, and he hadn’t made a move to physically or verbally intervene in the confrontation between the Shinra manager and the Leader of the Turks. For now, Reeve decided to avoid any discussion about Caitlin unless Cloud broached the subject first. First of all, he really didn’t want to talk about it, and the fact that Caitlin was his wife had nothing to do with why he’d brought her here. More importantly, he didn’t want the distraction.
Cloud nodded once and uncrossed his arms. “I wouldn’t miss this for all the tea in Wutai.”
Cloud’s bland comment didn’t reveal a clue as to his state of mind, but he didn’t seem inclined to force a confrontation on the subject at that time. Thanking his good fortune, Reeve turned away. Silently, Cloud followed.
Caitlin ran the length of the section of curved tunnel, her waterlogged feet splashing noisily into the inch-deep accumulation of a myriad of drips and thin runnels from the huge water pipe suspended overhead. At the other end, she emerged into a square chamber that served as a hub for the convergence of four of the main arteries. She came to a halt in the very center, the dank air tearing into her lungs as she struggled to catch her breath. She could still hear the little girl, her terrified wails traveling hollowly through the network of pipe channels to float in the air all around her as though torn from their source to take on a life of their own.
Her breathing more even, Caitlin slowly walked the perimeter of the room, cocking her head to listen down each passage. She returned to the second entrance and paused. The screams definitely emanated from that tunnel. Carefully, she stepped over the foot high sill that marked the pipe join, and placing her hand against the slimy surface for balance, she turned her head to look behind her, back down the tunnel opposite, the one she’d just exited.
Caitlin couldn’t see her yet, but she could hear the soft swish of her feet as she tried to move stealthily through the water. Thank goodness she hadn’t lost the Turk, but then she’d counted on Elena’s skills to keep track of her. She would need Elena and her gun when she finally caught up to the kidnapper as she’d left her own pistol in her bag on the chopper. She waited for a few more seconds as she listened to the quiet footsteps grow nearer, until Elena’s shadow finally appeared, cast long in the yellow illumination of the row of low wattage, wire caged light bulbs overhead. Satisfied that the female Turk remained on task, Caitlin smiled with satisfaction and dove into the new passageway.
With Cloud beside him, Reeve strode past the guards into the cul-de-sac dominated by the Honeybee Inn. The neon lights and seductive music normally associated with the private club had been shut down and the area cleared of all civilians, leaving behind a dimly lit oasis of peace and quiet in the chaotic marketplace. He scanned the dim enclosure for Reno, but he didn’t see a sign of him initially. Cloud touched his shoulder and silently pointed toward the shadowy recesses near the barrier wall. Squinting, Reeve could barely make out the hazy outlines of Reno and another person huddled together with heads bent. Before the executive could hail the Turk, Reno flipped on his flashlight and waved them over.
Quickly crossing the small clearing, Reeve halted beside the Turk and frowned down into the open manhole at the Turk’s feet. “Please don’t tell me she went in there.”
“Afraid so, Boss. Guard says that’s where Elena went.”
Reeve wearily rubbed his fingers against his forehead. “That’s not good.”
Reno studied the executive’s drawn face as he deftly fitted a tiny device into his right ear. “Why? What’s the problem?”
“This is one of the access tunnels for the water main. It’s nothing but a maze down there.”
“Yes, there’s emergency lighting throughout, but the system is past due for maintenance. You can count on there being several blacked out sections.”
Reno peered down the rust pitted ladder at the damp concrete floor of the pipe tunnel. He dragged in a huge whiff of dank, moldy air. “Hmmm…my kind of place.” In truth, the Turk had roamed the access tunnels in his younger days so he wasn’t overly worried about finding his way around. However, he well knew how confusing the network of intersecting passages could be. He would have to proceed with caution as well as haste. He really didn’t think Caitlin would catch up to her target, but he couldn’t dismiss the possibility, and he’d wasted too much time already getting on their trail. Even though he believed Elena more than capable of dealing with the situation, he didn’t want to leave her without backup in the event of unforeseen complications. Purposefully, Reno stuck the telescoped shaft of the metal rod between his teeth and started down the slippery rungs. He looked up as Reeve moved to follow him. Pausing, he removed the rod to speak. “Uh uh. You two cover the exit. Too many people down here already.”
Reeve’s eyes were rife with displeasure as he watched Reno descend halfway down, and then splash down into the water to dash out of sight. Frustrated, he swept his hand through his hair and stood back to find Cloud watching him. Reeve looked off across the clearing, pursing his lips as he idly studied the darkened Honeybee Inn sign, his attempt to obviate potential questions on Cloud’s part. Unfortunately, his ploy didn’t work.
“So, Caitlin Shinra is your wife.”
Reeve stiffened at the blonde warrior’s question. With a lift of his chin, he brought his eyes around to meet Cloud’s unblinking gaze.
“How do you mean…’technically’?”
Wearily, Reeve closed his eyes and dropped his head. When he opened them again, he’d returned his attention to the open manhole.
“It’s a long, extremely complicated tale.”
Cloud crossed his arms and leaned out to stare down into the empty depths of the pipe chase. “Looks like we have time.”
Reeve started shaking his head, his eyes intent on the top rung of the ladder. “No, we don’t.”
Cloud straightened to stare at the executive. He had a pretty good idea what the man would say next. “We don’t?”
“I’m going down there.”
Cloud almost smiled. In this case, he had hoped to be right. He hated to wait, and he could address his questions just as easily on the move. He took a step back and swept a hand toward the opening.
The tunnel in front of her stretched into a well of darkness with no light at the other end. Caitlin did not want to go in there, but she didn’t have a choice. She could hear the child’s hiccupping sobs resonating from somewhere inside the curved passage. She glanced over her shoulder to glimpse the fall of blonde hair and one hazel eye barely visible at the rim of the access tunnel she’d just left. Elena pulled back out of sight, and Caitlin let her gaze slide past as though she hadn’t seen her. She hoped the Turk carried a flashlight. Stiffening her resolve, she forced herself to step up into the narrower culvert. Ducking her head beneath the low-hanging water pipes, she moved carefully down the center, one hand trailing along a cool copper pipe overhead. Another glance back revealed Elena’s slim silhouette poised at the tunnel entrance. Relieved that the Turk still followed, Caitlin picked up the pace.
Elena stood with one foot on the lip of the iron sill. Tentatively, she touched one pink nail to the delicate gold stud in her earlobe. She prayed that the tiny tracker beacon had been activated properly and was dutifully broadcasting her whereabouts to Reno, who should be on her trail by now. She had become thoroughly disoriented at about the seventh or eighth intersection, especially after that huge warty frog had startled her with a deep, throaty croak. She just had to trust that he would show up soon. Right now, her objective was to keep up with Caitlin and intervene if the woman should actually manage to catch up with the kidnapper.
Elena reached up to grab the metal edge, curling her lip with repugnance when her fingers slipped across the slimy, mildewed surface. Quickly, she pulled herself up and started after Caitlin, irritably wiping her hand against her leg as she bent low and carefully stepped down the center of the circular tube. A few feet in, she heard a wavering, high-pitched wail, and she paused to listen, but the sound had already faded away. The distant echo of Caitlin’s wet sneakers squeaking against the metal surface up ahead was the only sound to rival the constant drip of water and the occasional groan of the pipes. Just when she thought the sound wouldn’t reoccur, the wail rose again, and she realized that she was hearing the distressed cries of a child. Elena reached inside her jacket for her gun as she moved down the tunnel with renewed purpose. She had to catch up with Caitlin before she plunged headlong into trouble. Reno would nail her hide to the wall if she screwed this up.
Reno kept his head down as he sprinted through one tunnel after another, his long legs easily devouring the distance as he closed in on Elena’s position. He stopped only at each hub of intersecting passages to determine which route to choose, his decision based on the subtle changes in timbre and rate of the intermittent beeping in his ear.
Based on previous experience with the miniature device, he could tell that Elena was still on the move, but he was covering a lot of territory quickly. He’d catch up to her shortly. He emerged into another stone-lined room where six more arteries converged. Slowly he moved past each one, intently listening as he turned his head back and forth in an attempt to get a read on which to choose. He eliminated all but two entrances, so close together that he couldn’t distinguish a difference in the tone. He’d just have to take a chance and pick one. He wished that he could recall which pipe tunnel went toward the lofty pumping station, because he knew the multi-storied stone tower, with hundreds of pipes shooting up toward the suspended plate overhead, would provide the only exit out of the maze, presupposing that Caitlin’s quarry was privy to that information, a foregone conclusion as far as Reno was concerned.
Reno shifted his appraising gaze from one opening to the other. Based on what he could remember about the layout, the access tunnel on the right should take him to the pumping station. His decision made, he started forward. A tiny movement just inside the entrance drew his attention, and he slowed his steps when he spotted a rat balefully glaring at him with fiery red eyes. The rodent probably measured a foot from tail to whiskered nose tip, but Reno had seen bigger ones in the slums, and this one happened to be in his way. Reno lifted his rod over his head and took a threatening step forward. At the human’s bold move, the fearless rat stood up on hind legs and hissed at the Turk. With a wild battle cry, Reno sprang over the rim to definitively address the gutsy creature’s challenge, but the banshee shriek sent the rat scurrying into the tunnel. The redheaded Turk madly pursued, hot on the rat’s hairless tail until the unnerved rodent discovered a jagged crack in the wall mortar. Frantically, the repulsive creature squeezed through to disappear from sight, and Reno slowed to a more moderate lope. Two hundred or more feet of dank concrete had passed beneath the Turk’s scuffed loafers in his berserk rush. His heart pounding at the exertion, he fell to a walk to listen to the steady beeping. Abruptly, he stopped in his tracks, and his thin face tightened in a tense frown. He listened for a moment to be certain. The quiet but insistent beep in his ear had slowed. He’d gone the wrong way.
The narrow access tube finally opened on a larger tunnel, a single dingy light bulb barely illuminating a passageway so wide that it seemed cavernous by comparison. Relieved, she straightened and pressed a hand to her cramping back as she passed into the darkness beyond. For several minutes she walked, the black space around her seeming to grow more dense with each cautious step. She’d been treading blindly for so long, that when the darkness suddenly seemed lighter, she thought her eyes were playing tricks on her. She squinted into the distance as she covered the next few feet. Then, she rounded a long curve in the tunnel and finally detected the barely perceptible blur in the distance that swiftly resolved into a soft pool of light, cast across the passage from a side tunnel. Eager to escape the stultifying darkness, she broke into a trot, and then an easy jog as she grew nearer. The soft glow radiated against the walls of the curved tunnel and painted the trail of water down the center into an arrow of liquid gold, precisely pointing her toward her destination.
A few feet shy of the outlet, the realization came to her that the desolate sobs of the little girl now seemed quite close, even stationary, as though the kidnapper had stopped. Uneasy, Caitlin fell to a walk and cautiously edged closer, placing her feet carefully in the pooled water so as not to make the slightest sound. Halting just short of the flood of warm light, she bent slowly forward until she could just see around the edge, all but the curve of her cheek and one blue eye hidden in shadow.
To her disbelief, the little girl stood only a few feet away with both tiny fists pressed against her mouth, her teary eyes so huge and forlorn that Caitlin couldn’t leave her there a moment longer. Throwing any thought of precaution to the four winds, she stepped into full view, completely ignoring the warning hiss from the darkness behind her.
Fear flooded the child’s face at the sight of the unfamiliar person walking toward her, but her hiccups trailed away when Caitlin went down on one knee in front of her and started to speak, her voice soft and cajoling.
“Hi there. My name is Caitlin. What’s your name?”
The little girl peered silently at Caitlin through a tumble of raven curls, her round eyes full of wariness.
“Would you like me to take you to your mommy?”
The child solemnly studied Caitlin’s reassuring smile, holding herself still as the woman carefully stretched out her hand to lightly stroke the dark, silky hair. Suddenly, the girl threw herself against Caitlin’s body and wrapped her chubby arms around the woman’s neck, clinging desperately as though she planned to stay there for life. Caitlin drew the child against her and lifted her in her arms as she pushed herself to her feet. Turning to retrace her steps, she found Elena standing solidly in her path, gun clasped tightly in her slender hands as she held the weapon pointed toward the ground.
Elena tensely scanned the interior of the pumping station. Pipes and cables of various sizes and colors ran up from the floor and across the ceiling, interlacing and intersecting to shoot up into total darkness overhead. Junction boxes and huge valves, as well as the crazy network of pipes, created striations of light and shadow that distorted the view and provided a hundred places to hide. She didn’t believe for a second that the kidnapper had gone to all that effort just to abandon the child and make good his escape. There could only be one reason he would leave the child alone, to sucker them into showing themselves, so he could take them out and safely recover the kid. Then he would simply leave with no worries about anyone following.
“Head for the door.”
The worry in Elena’s eyes more than her tense command compelled Caitlin to immediately comply. Holding the child tightly, she slipped around the blonde Turk and hurried across the concrete floor to the entrance of the unlit exterior tunnel.
Her nerves on edge, Elena slowly backed away, step by step, her eyes darting from one shadow to the next and back. She knew he was here. Somewhere. But where? Where? A chilly fingernail ran the length of her spine, and her breath caught in her throat. She darted a glance over her shoulder to see the exit only a few feet away. Tensely, she brought her eyes forward again to find the view virtually unchanged. She whirled and sprang for the door.
Halting just out of the aura of light, she strained her eyes to find Caitlin in the dark. The smaller woman could easily see the Turk’s silhouette, stark against the golden light behind her, and she reached out to brush her sleeve. Elena was so edgy she nearly jumped out of her skin at the light touch.
“It’s me.” Caitlin whispered in the darkness, her own pulse rate picking up as a bad feeling crept over her, setting her nerves tingling with dread.
Caitlin nodded even though Elena wouldn’t see her and, pressing the little girl’s head into her shoulder, she started back the way she’d come. Elena fell in behind her, easily tracking the smaller woman’s progress as her quiet steps echoed in the hollow passageway with no other sound but the incessant drip of water to compete. Even the child hadn’t uttered a sound since Caitlin had gathered her up.
After a couple of glances over her shoulder to insure that the passage remained empty behind her, Elena moved forward and was just on the verge of breathing a well-earned sigh of relief when a soft snick behind her brought her up short. Her heart jumped into her throat, and she spun in place, lifting her gun as she came around. The dark figure stood in the pool of light, like a phantom actor in a stage light, his cloak thrown back over one shoulder. He wore a wide-brimmed hat pulled low, and she couldn’t see his eyes, but she did see his lips curve in a cold smile. He chuckled softly and lifted the rifle he held in both gloved hands.
Elena screamed the warning as she jumped forward and squeezed the trigger of her clip-fed pistol. She managed to get off two shots before the volley of deafening automatic weapon fire slammed into her, stitching a searing path across her chest and tossing her backwards as though she were little more than someone’s castoff shirt.
The child’s terrified shrieks tore through her head as she fell, even as the echo of the shots still reverberated around the nooks and crannies inside her head. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as, still falling, one disquieting thought gelled in her mind to hold her fading consciousness chained. Reno was going to be so damn mad at her when he found out how badly she’d screwed up. He would smile that cold, humorless smile and then… and then…her head cracked against the wet concrete, and the worrisome thought spiraled into a bottomless well of suffocating pitch.
“Do you know where you’re going?”
Reeve looked around to encounter Cloud’s skeptical gaze.
He nodded his head. “Generally.”
“How come I’m not reassured by that?”
Reeve gestured overhead with the flashlight. “See that plastic conduit up there?”
Cloud squinted upwards and scratched his head. “Yeah, what about it?”
“It carries the power to Wall Market. That pipe originates from a centrally located power terminal and travels directly through the pumping station. Unlike the network of water pipes, which split off every which way, that power conduit is unique. If we continue to follow its course, we will eventually arrive at the pumping station.”
“What’s in the pumping station?”
“A way up top for anyone who is physically and mentally capable of climbing several hundred feet of narrow ladder rungs. All other exits from the access tunnels open into slum areas, many of which are now buried beneath several tons of wreckage.”
Cloud shot a glance at the executive’s determined face as they hurried along. “So you figure that’s where the guy’s probably headed.”
Reeve didn’t verbally respond to Cloud’s observation, but merely lengthened his stride.
“Well, as long as we don’t get lost…”
“You do seem to know your way around…”
“So…I’m a bit confused…”
“It’s simple, Cloud. It’s just part of my job to know.”
“No, I didn’t mean I was confused about that.”
“How is it that you’re ‘technically’ married to Caitlin Shinra?”
The blonde warrior smiled grimly at the warning in Reeve’s voice. He decided he wouldn’t be deterred this time.
“How about the short version?”
Reeve suddenly whirled and grabbed Cloud by the elbow, stopping them both in their tracks. Cloud narrowed his eyes on the executive’s angry gaze.
“You want the short version? Is that it?”
Warily, Cloud nodded his head.
“Well, if you have to know this minute, here it is. We met. We got married. She left. She died. Are you satisfied now?”
Reeve didn’t wait for an answer before he abruptly released Cloud and stalked away, leaving a bewildered Cloud in his wake. The soldier finally dashed after the taller man, catching up to him and walking fast to keep up with his longer strides.
“Actually…no. That was pretty cut and dried there, Reeve. You left quite a bit out, I think. For instance, that ‘died’ part…well…I was just a kid then…but there wasn’t a person on the planet who didn’t hear…didn’t know about that…but…now…well…she looks pretty…ah…healthy to me…”
Reeve squeezed his eyes closed in despair. “Look Cloud, I appreciate that you feel you need to know, but I don’t want to talk about it right now. It’s a complicated story. I’ve only found out most of it a short time ago, and I’m still trying to sort it all out.” He turned an imploring gaze on Cloud’s rapt face. “So why don’t we let it rest for now.”
Cloud held his tongue even though his thoughts churned in his head as he tried to fill in the blanks and make sense of what he did know. Obviously, Reeve wasn’t inclined to tell him. Maybe he couldn’t tell him. Maybe all of it was too difficult to talk about. Suddenly, his mind backtracked over Reeve’s words. I’ve only found out a short time ago…. Even though the conversation had replayed in his mind several times already, those particular words finally sank into his thick head, leading to one inconceivable and sad realization.
“All that time…you didn’t know she wasn’t dead.”
Reeve refused to look at Cloud or reply to his incredulous remark.
“When did you find out?” The executive stubbornly kept silent.
“Reeve. Tell me. When did you find out? How?” Cloud persisted, determined to understand the executive’s motivations.
“Fine, Cloud. Have it your way. I hacked Shinra Corporation. All the personal files of all the top people in the company as well as the so-called “Top Secret” operations files. Five weeks ago. You were missing. Avalanche was stuck in Junon with Barrett and Tifa under “protective custody”. I had some time on my hands, and I was uneasy at all the hidden information suddenly coming to light. Things I hadn’t known. So I went looking for more, for whatever I could find, anything that might help us stop Sephiroth. That’s when I found out, and that’s all I have to say about it for now.” Reeve emphatically sliced a hand through the air in punctuation. “Period. End of subject.”
“Sure, Reeve. But what are you…”
Cloud slammed his mouth shut when Reeve rounded on him, his brown eyes glittering with his anger.
“No, Cloud. You are not going to…”
A distant popping sound floated down the tunnel, and the executive paused with his mouth open. He knew what that sound meant, but his mind didn’t want to accept it. His irritation at Cloud completely forgotten, he widened his eyes uncertainly on the blonde warrior’s startled face.
Cloud interrupted the executive’s tentative words. “That was gunfire.”
“No…” Reeve breathed the word of denial under his breath even as his mind grasped the truth. Before he even thought about it, he was racing full-out, water spraying up beneath his expensive leather shoes as he pounded like a madman down the length of the access tunnel with Cloud sprinting behind, hard pressed to keep up despite his superior physical capabilities.
The word kept repeating in Reeve’s mind as he ran. He wanted to blank out his mind, shut out the images that persistently played in his thoughts. Bitterly, he castigated himself for even bringing her here in the first place. He’d made a mistake. An irretrievable one. No, he wouldn’t believe that. He couldn’t believe it. She had to be all right. Nothing could happen to her. Nothing. If she was…gone… then…
…All was lost.
Heart pounding viciously in her chest, Caitlin stood frozen in arctic ice as she numbly watched the shadow enshrouded shooter advance. She tried to force her feet to move or her lips to make a sound, a scream or a protest, even a plea, but she couldn’t get any part of her body to work.
He would kill her. There was no doubt about that. He would kill her and take the child. She would die this time. There would be no miracles. No second chances. She didn’t fear death. Not anymore. But she feared dying with the guilt that closed a punishing fist around her already overworked heart. Not only had she failed to save the little girl from this psychopath, but she had also cost Elena her life. The splatter of the woman’s blood still dripped warmly down her cheek, another Turk dead because of her willfulness. Heidi would be left all alone too. She would never touch her sweet face again. A strangled sob caught painfully in her throat, only to slip out in a startled cry when a hand closed tightly around her shoulder. Then white light seared her eyes.
“Get down.” Reno emphasized his harsh tone with a sharp downward push. Caitlin let her knees fold beneath her, and she slumped onto her side into the water, the wailing child’s arms still glued around her neck. Carefully, she held the child out of the shallow puddle and raised her head to watch Reno’s tall silhouette move away, the brilliant beam of the flashlight blazing a trail before him as he walked. She looked for their assailant in the wash of illumination, but to her astonishment, the man had vanished as though he’d been nothing but a figment of her imagination.
The flashlight in one hand and his gun in the other, Reno swept the light over every surface of the tunnel, ensuring that no other threat currently existed. The gunman had thrown his hands over his face to block the glare when Reno had first activated the blinding light, and then he’d cowardly turned tail and run. The Turk carefully kept his eyes forward as he skirted Elena’s motionless body and purposefully strode up to the entrance of the side tunnel. The mysterious assailant ran across the cavernous pumping station with an occasional hitch in his gait. A cold smile on his face, fueled by the burning anger in his heart, Reno leveled his pistol sight on the man’s fleeing back and squeezed the trigger once, and again. The darkly cloaked figure disappeared into the distant shadows, but he thought he heard the man cry out. He pursed his lips and lowered his glittering eyes to the thin blood trail at his feet. Under normal circumstances, he would have pursued. Instead, he swiftly returned down the access tunnel to stop beside the crumpled form in his path. Reluctantly, he lowered the flashlight beam to slide over her still body. He swallowed hard as the white light starkly highlighted the line of bullet holes across her rumpled blue jacket as well as the crimson blood streaked through her blonde hair and spattered across the smooth curve of her cheek.
Tears started in Caitlin’s eyes as she watched Reno kneel on one knee beside the fallen woman. The Turk slid his gun into his jacket and shoved his sunglasses into his hair. Several moments passed as he just looked into Elena’s face with the flashlight beam held low. Then he stretched out his hand to touch her hair. At that point, Caitlin couldn’t watch any longer. Her throat closing painfully as she refused to vent her grief, she let her cheek slide into the cold water and closed her eyes to shut out the sight, gently stroking the little girl’s silky locks to soothe both herself and the sobbing child
Reno gently pushed the hair from her face and slid his fingers beneath the stiff, blood-encrusted tresses to probe the seeping gash just above her left temple. Like most scalp injuries, the wound had bled profusely, but the damage seemed minimal. The bullet had merely grazed her skin. Holding his breath, he laid his palm against Elena’s bullet-riddled chest, and the corner of his mouth tipped at the feel of the rigid, inflexible surface beneath her clothing. Unlike himself, she conformed to the strict policy of donning her bulletproof vest when on the job, but then she did everything by the book. Thankfully.
Elena stirred at the sound of his low voice, a soft moan slipping off her lips as her eyelashes fluttered. Reno leaned down, bringing his face to within a few inches of hers.
“I’ve heard that sometimes a beautiful woman requires a kiss to fully awaken her.”
At the intimate tone in Reno’s voice, as well as the actual content of his words, Elena’s eyes popped open in alarm. She threw her hands up against his chest with the intention of shoving him on his butt, but intense pain exploded inside her ribcage and across her breastbone at the movement. Convulsively, she dug her nails in, closing the material of his jacket in her fists even as she bit back the cry that almost escaped her throat. She drew in a long breath and released the spent air slowly as the pain eased off, and then she opened her eyes wide to glare at him.
“Son of a bitch that hurts!”
Reno grinned into her face with a great deal of satisfaction. “Doesn’t it?” He leaned closer. “About that kiss…”
“Ugh! No!” She pushed weakly against his chest. “Only in your pathetic dreams, Reno.”
Reno heard Caitlin’s step behind him and sat back on his heels as Elena struggled to rise through the pain. He laid the flashlight aside and, sliding an arm beneath her back, he gathered one flailing hand in his and pulled her to a sitting position. Once upright, dizziness assailed her, and she dropped her head into her hand.
“Look Elena, you didn’t break a single nail.” Still holding her other hand in his, Reno turned her fingers up for her to see. With a snarl, she snatched her hand from his light grip. “Get away from me.”
Reno peered up at Caitlin’s shell-shocked face and shrugged. “She just doesn’t love me anymore.”
Elena’s head shot up at his remark, but the sudden stab of pain between her temples turned her planned epithet into a groan.
“Is she going to be all right?” Caitlin cradled the little girl’s head in one hand as she studied Elena’s huddled form with teary blue irises, still distrusting of her own eyes and ears.
“Oh sure. She probably has a concussion, and she certainly has bruising from the impact of the bullets. She’ll be just fine in a few days, unless…” Reno lifted the flashlight and swept it around the floor of the passageway. “Where’s your gun, Elena?”
Elena slowly shook her head against her palm. “I don’t know. I had it in my hand…”
Reno walked past her toward the lighted entrance, and then paced back the other way to stop beside Caitlin. “Well, I don’t see it unless you’re sitting on it.”
“That man picked up it up…I think…” Caitlin paused when Reno looked around at her. He pursed his lips in thought.
“Of course. He would have.” He crossed the floor and stopped in front of Elena. He tapped one finger against his lips as he looked down on her bent head with sympathetic eyes. “I don’t have a ‘restore’ slotted, Elena. I’m afraid you’ll have to heal the old fashioned way.”
She waved a dismissive hand in the air. “It doesn’t matter. I deserve it anyway. I’m such a screw-up.”
At her self-derogatory words, Reno stooped and took her chin in his hand, tightening his grasp as she tried to jerk her face away. Purposefully, he tipped her chin until her eyes reluctantly met his steady gaze before he spoke. “No, Elena. You are not a screw-up. You actually did well under the circumstances. This was your first time to face a situation like this one, and I trust you learned a valuable lesson. Didn’t you?”
Elena just blankly stared at him, too startled at his words to move. A slight smile touched his lips. “Next time you’ll check your back as well as your front, won’t you?”
“Gods, yes!” She nodded against his fingers, and he released her.
He bent his head closer to speak quietly. “Make no mistake, this could have turned out badly, but don’t beat yourself up over it. Next time we’ll both be more diligent.”
Elena stared in fascination at him, her eyes following him up as he stood. The redheaded Turk had just admitted culpability in this situation, at least he’d come as close to accepting fault as he ever had in any situation, or ever would again she’d vouch.
Reno swung his gaze to Caitlin, who had finally managed to calm the child. She stood silently with the little girl’s head to one shoulder, her face turned to look back over her other shoulder. Her anxious expression instantly put Reno on guard. He slipped the flashlight into his jacket pocket and drew the collapsed rod from an inside coat pocket. With a sharp flick of his wrist, he extended the metal rod to its full length as he slid his other hand into his jacket to touch the butt of his gun.
“What is it?” He spoke lowly as he peered into the darkness. “Someone’s coming.” She responded tensely. “I hear footsteps.”
Reno stepped past her and planted himself between the small woman and the lightless stretch of tunnel, straining his ears to hear what she did, but he only heard water dripping. He knew they stood silhouetted against the backlight, in full view of anyone approaching from that end. Careful to keep Caitlin just behind him, he took a couple of steps forward and paused to listen again. Now he could hear the soft, irregular footfalls of a couple of people walking stealthily toward them, but he could also see a swath of blue luminescence swirling in the darkness, an ethereal and eerie glow that he’d seen not so long ago. Cloud’s sword. He relaxed his stance.
“It’s Reeve and his sidekick.”
At his words, Elena tried again to rise, actually making it to one knee before the resultant pain took her breath away. Caitlin saw her difficulty and moved to extend one hand in aid. Elena opened her mouth to snap, but stopped herself. Instead, she reached up and took the smaller woman’s hand. With a steady tug, Caitlin raised her to her feet, where the blonde Turk stood swaying in front of her.
Caitlin studied her face for a long moment before she spoke. “I’m glad you’re all right.”
An impertinent remark formed in Elena’s mind again, but one look into the woman’s intensely sorrowful blue eyes shut down the urge to speak it. Strangely embarrassed, she looked away and barely nodded. “Thanks.”
A wash of bright light spotlighted the two women, and Caitlin turned to blink owlishly into the glare.
“Cait? Are you okay?” Reeve examined the bedraggled woman in the krypton beam. She clutched the quiet child protectively against her chest as she stared blindly into the light, her cheek streaked with blood. Most of her golden hair had worked free and now curled damply to her waist, and half of her clothing was soaked through and caked with a thin layer of mud. However, he couldn’t see any sign of serious injury, and she confirmed his assessment with a brief nod of her head.
“I’m fine, but Elena’s hurt. She needs a doctor.” Caitlin looked toward the blonde woman, and Reeve moved the flashlight slightly to better illuminate Elena’s bloody head and face. Inevitably, his eyes dropped to the obvious bullet holes that riddled her jacket, and his heart did a complete back flip in his chest. He could feel the blood draining from his face even as Cloud stepped up beside him and planted the tip of his sword against the concrete with a brittle chink. Smiling slightly at the executive’s dumbfounded expression, Cloud touched a finger to the green orb in the hilt of his sword and concentrated. Seconds later, the characteristic mist of sparkly iridescence inherent to the high level cure spell enveloped Elena and healed her injuries before Reeve could even find his voice. Of course, the spell couldn’t do anything about her jacket or the bullets embedded in her vest beneath. So the evidence remained.
Her pain magically swept away along with the gash above her temple, the goose egg on the back of her head, and the bruising across her chest, Elena straightened and brusquely inclined her head in gratitude toward the blonde warrior. Reeve lowered the flashlight beam to the ground and half-turned toward Reno who stood to his right.
“You did catch the man who did that I hope?”
Reno idly twirled the metal rod through his fingers and shook his head.
“Nope, he got away. Not without a case of lead poisoning though. He’s carrying at least one of Elena’s bullets for sure, and probably one of mine.”
“So he’s still on the loose?”
“Yep, but he conveniently left a trail. Would you like me to finish him?”
Reeve didn’t have to think it over. He had only one overriding concern right now, and he couldn’t take care of it himself. Pillar 6-1 couldn’t wait any longer.
“No, I want you to take Caitlin back to headquarters immediately. Go straight there and nowhere else. No side ventures. No detours.”
Caitlin stepped forward in protest at his proclamation. “No! I have to return the girl to her mother! I want to make sure she gets there myself. I don’t want to go back yet.”
“Nevertheless, you will.” Reeve replied harshly. “I’ll take the girl. I have to go that way anyway.”
“No buts.” Reeve returned his uncompromising gaze to Reno’s face. “It’s after curfew now. The soldiers will stop anyone roaming about, but you won’t have any problem of course. Do you remember the way?”
“I know ways you haven’t even dreamed up yet.”
“Glad to hear it. There should be no problem then.”
Reno studied Caitlin’s tense face. “What do you say, Caitlin?”
She shifted her troubled gaze from Reeve’s hard-set jaw to Reno’s crooked smile. The Turk was leaving it up to her, and she wanted nothing more than to go back to Wall Market, but she also didn’t want to get into a battle of wills with Reeve right now nor did she wish to undermine his authority at this juncture, even though she knew Reno would abide by her wishes. She turned her quiet azure gaze back to collide with Reeve’s stern regard. Slowly, she nodded, and meeting the tempered steel in his eyes with a touch of granite in her own, she drove home the point that she was making the decision despite his autocratic demand.
Hiding his immense relief behind a stiff mask, Reeve unfolded his arms and raised his light. “I suggest that we get going then.” Pointedly, he spun on heel and started back up the access tunnel, the brilliant beam marking the route nearly to the exit. Wordlessly, Caitlin stepped out to follow, but Reno held out a hand to stop her. He inclined his head toward Elena, and the blonde Turk went first. Only then did he indicate that Caitlin could go ahead. Reno looked at Cloud, who hadn’t said a word since the pair had arrived on the scene. The redheaded Turk withdrew his flashlight and flipped the switch on. Courteously, he stepped back and swept the hand with the flashlight toward Caitlin’s rapidly departing back. Cloud just smiled. “After you.”
Reno’s mouth lifted in a wry smile, and with one last look toward the entrance to the pumping station, he darted down the tunnel to catch up with Caitlin, falling into step behind her.
Cloud too turned his gaze toward the lighted entranceway, stepping backwards as he watched. Finally, he faced forward, returning his sword to his back as he turned. Whoever the assailant was, he had probably either died from his wounds in the pumping station or managed to escape up the ladder to the top plate. Still, Cloud glanced back every few feet to make sure that he was still the last one in line.
Reeve’s steady pace and sure sense of direction swiftly brought them to a wide junction where eight tunnels forked off. Caitlin thought the circular room resembled nothing so much as a railroad terminus, but with pipes instead of trains. Reeve came to a stop and turned to face her.
“This is where we part company.” He lifted a finger to point down the passageway just to the left. “Take that tunnel and keep left until you come to a crossway. Go right there. That passage should dead end at a ladder that will dump you out in Sector 3 near the HQ.” Reeve focused his attention on the redheaded Turk. “Got that?”
Reno raised one eyebrow. “Of course, but where are you going, Boss?”
Reeve readily indicated the access tunnel to his right. “I’m taking that shortcut to Wall Market to return the child to her mother. Subsequently, I will be meeting my head engineer at Pillar 6-1. Then I will return to headquarters.” The executive walked over to stand in front of Caitlin and held his hands out. “I’ll take her now.”
Caitlin shivered at the cool indifference in Reeve’s voice. Unconsciously tightening her arms, she glanced down into the sleeping child’s peaceful face, before lifting her head to stare at Reeve’s outstretched hands. Carefully, so as not to wake her, she cradled the girl in her arms and reluctantly stepped closer to let Reeve gather her up. The executive awkwardly lifted the little girl against his chest, and though she didn’t notice, his brown eyes softened as he looked down into Caitlin’s sorrowful face.
“Don’t worry Caitlin, I’ll see that she gets to her mother.”
Caitlin wrapped her empty arms around her waist and looked at the floor as she inclined her head. She couldn’t bring herself to look into his eyes. She felt on the verge of tears as it was.
Reeve studied the top of her bowed head. “Caitlin, you’re tired and it’s late. I’ll be awhile I think. You can wait for me if you want, but I suggest you grab one of those bedrolls stacked in the corner at the H.Q. and sleep. We can talk tomorrow. Nobody’s going anywhere for a few days I’m afraid.”
She lifted her shoulders in a tight shrug, but didn’t reply, so he included the rest of the group in his regard.
“That goes for all of you.” His eyes landed on the Avalanche warrior’s face. “You too, Cloud. Everybody. Get some sleep.”
As Reeve strode away, the girl stirred restlessly in his arms, her bow-shaped mouth twisting in a sleepy whimper. Concerned at hearing the tiny expression of displeasure, Caitlin lifted her eyes to watch him walk away. Reno touched her elbow, but she ignored him, unable to tear her gaze away until Reeve disappeared around a curve in the tunnel. Only then did she allow Reno to steer her towards the passage to Sector 3. Her foot on the high sill, she paused as a sound floated back to her, softly echoing in the hollow tunnel, and her breath caught in her throat when she suddenly recognized the words of a lullaby crooned in a voice so low that only she could hear. Reeve was singing to the little girl. Caitlin’s face erupted in a smile so bright that when she looked around to reach for Reno’s waiting hand, the redheaded Turk’s jaw slowly fell ajar at the beauty of it. She laughed happily at the dazed look on his face and grabbed his suddenly lifeless hand to pull herself up.
“Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s get going!”
Reeve trudged through the door into the darkened room. Wearily, he pushed up his shirt cuff and lit the glow dial on his watch. Thirty minutes to midnight. Almost two hours had elapsed since he’d left Caitlin in the care of Cloud and the Turks. Since then, he’d personally returned the little girl to her mother despite a nurse’s offer to do so. He knew he had to do it himself, because she would ask. That task accomplished, he’d then informed Lt. Sand about the armed intruder so that he put his surveillance people on alert and initiate a search for the man, who was most likely wounded or dead, only to discover that Reno had already done so. Then he’d finally forced himself to go to pillar 6-1. The extensive fissure Jack showed him was every bit the problem the engineer thought. Unfortunately, there was nothing they could do to bolster the pillar without the risk of furthering the damage. They didn’t have access to the resources to complete major repairs. He would have to keep an eagle eye on that situation. If the pillar deteriorated any further, he would have to evacuate all the refugees in Sector 6 to the remaining sectors, already packed to the gills with people. The makeshift hospital with all its patients and medical personnel would have to be relocated too. His stomach burning, Reeve slumped onto the crate and propped his elbows on the table. Exhausted, he let his face sag into his hands even as he struggled to keep his eyes open. He did not have time to sleep just yet.
A match flared across the room, and Reeve lifted his head to see Reno’s thin face gauntly shadowed by the orange flame as he lit a cigarette. He should have known the Turk wouldn’t be asleep. Straightening on the crate, he dragged a small battery operated lantern across the table and hit the switch to cast a pool of white light on the makeshift table. Then, he reached into his pants pocket and drew out his compad. Powering up the small computer, he quickly accessed the GPS data on the chopper. The tiny digital marker blipped steadily in the center of the gridded screen, stationary at the coordinates of Junon Airbase. Relieved, the executive swept a weary hand over his face and set the compad aside on the rough-hewn tabletop. At least they were one step closer to getting out of here.
“What does that mean?”
Startled by the soft whisper, Reeve looked up to see Caitlin standing across the table from him, her blue eyes vivid in the lantern’s halo as she leaned down to study the small monitor.
“I thought you were asleep.”
“I couldn’t sleep. What is that?”
“It’s my handheld computer.”
Caitlin reached out and bumped the small device around with one finger. “You always did like this kind of stuff.”
Reeve propped his chin on his hand and silently watched her as she frowned down at the red blip. “What does this mean here?”
“That means that Rude has arrived in Junon, presumably in one piece.”
Her eyes shot to his face. “Really?! That’s certainly good news.”
“Very good news.”
Caitlin turned the small computer back around and sank onto a crate to prop her elbows on the table. She rested her chin on steepled hands and studied his drawn face.
Growing uncomfortable under her perusal, he sat back and cleared his throat. “I delivered the little girl to her mother.”
Caitlin smiled slightly. “I know you did.”
“They were very happy to see each other.”
Caitlin nodded. “We need to talk, Reeve.”
He raised his eyebrows in surprise. “You want to talk now?”
“No time like the present. I’m awake. You’re awake.”
Reeve glanced toward the silent Turk in the dark corner, his presence visible only by the lit cigarette. “This can wait until tomorrow, Caitlin.”
She shook her head. “No, it can’t. I want to get this settled. Tonight. Then we’ll go from there.”
Reeve sighed and picked up his handheld computer. Swiftly punching the tiny keys, he accessed a documents file and brought up the first of several legal briefs. He read the first few lines to insure that he’d pulled up the correct file, and then he placed the device on the table and shoved it across. “Before we begin, I’d like you to take a few moments to look over your brother’s will. Of course, that is only an electronic scan of the actual document which has been secured in a safe location.”
Caitlin hesitantly brought the device up and read the first few lines, but when she reached the bottom, she didn’t know how to view the remainder. Purposefully, she set the handheld computer side. “Look Reeve, I don’t have to read this. You basically told me what it says. I just can’t believe that Rufus left me everything, and even so, there can’t be much left after this…” She waved her hand toward the door. “…this…disaster…”
Reeve reached across and retrieved his handheld. “Caitlin, there are documents in here that you need to read, documents which detail every…”
“No, Reeve. You tell me. Just summarize them for me. I’ll read them later.”
With a sigh, he exited the program and shut down the device to slip it back into his pocket. “Your family was rich when you…ah…left…ten years ago, Caitlin. You know that. And their wealth has grown exponentially with each passing year. Certainly, the physical plant of the Shinra Corporation here in Midgar has sustained substantial damage. You may recoup some of those losses once we commence salvage operations in the Shinra Tower, but even if all of Shinra’s assets in Midgar are lost, you must know that the holdings here in the city are only the tip of the iceberg. Your brother shrewdly liquidated every available asset and transferred all the monies to offshore accounts in Costa del Sol. He retained only enough capitol to continue operations. I can safely say that your inheritance totals in the billions, not including your trust fund, which you’ve hardly touched.
Reeve paused to offer her an opportunity to respond, but she just gazed into his face with her chin on her hands. “Do you understand what I’m saying, Caitlin?”
“Just cut to the chase, Reeve.”
Reeve folded his hands on the table as he held her gaze. “I suppose you want the short version.”
Caitlin quirked an eyebrow at the dryness in his voice. “That would be preferable.”
Reeve sat back and lifted a hand to stroke his beard. “Fine. The short version. The Shinra Corporation is yours. Lock, stock and barrel. With all of its wealth and every single wart attached. Now the question is, what do you intend to do with it?”
Of course, she’d already known the company was hers. He’d told her in their initial electronic communication, but his question suddenly carried her from the realm of abstract theory to dump her whole body in a bucket of ice-cubed reality. Blankly, Caitlin stared into her husband’s dark eyes as several emotions assailed her all at once, most slipping into insignificance as a panicky feeling set her heart jumping into high gear, until she realized the irony that she of all people would be stuck with her father’s corrupt company. Then the anger that stirred somewhere deep inside violently flared to dominance, overriding all reason to explode with a vengeance on Reeve’s unsuspecting head. The executive blinked at the fire that ignited deep within her pupils. He half-rose, but realizing from experience the futility of escaping her wrath, he weakly dropped back onto the crate when she suddenly flew to her feet, slamming her palms flat against the table as she leaned toward him.
“I don’t intend to do anything with it! I do not want it! Not any of it! This company was built on a rotting foundation of the bodies of all those people unwittingly sacrificed to further my father’s greedy aims. It‘s blood money, every single gil, steeped in the agony of countless victims as well as the very life of this planet.” She threw up her hand to shake a finger in his still face. “You! I warned you, but you wouldn’t listen! You didn’t want to listen! You were more interested in the money! The prestige! Well, you can have it, Reeve! You always were an ambitious bastard! It’s yours! I’ll give it to you! That’s why I’m here anyway, isn’t it?! Just give me the papers! I’ll sign it all over! Lock, stock and barrel!” Her voice broke at the end, and she sagged into her seat to cover her face with both hands.
“Caitlin, don’t be hasty.” Reno walked out of the shadows to stand behind her.
“Keep out of this, Reno!”
Reno threw his hands up. “Fine, Caitlin. I’ll just go back to my assigned corner.” Contrary to his words, he remained in place and directed a reptilian stare at the executive.
Reeve clasped his hands together on the table and carefully schooled his thoughts into a coherent response as he waited for her to compose herself. An idle glance around the darkened room revealed a pair of luminous blue eyes near floor level where Cloud had stretched out on a bedroll. Either Caitlin’s rant had awakened him or he’d been awake all along. Closer in, he noticed Elena curled on another bedroll just inside the circle of light cast from the lamp. With her arm thrown over her eyes and her mouth gracelessly agape, she appeared to be the only person in the room actually sleeping. He brought his attention back to Caitlin to find her guilty blue eyes focused on his face. When he met her gaze head on, she shifted uneasily on the crate and spoke.
“Reeve, I want to apologize…”
Reeve shook his head, and she paused.
“You don’t need to apologize for expressing your feelings or for speaking the truth. No one here will fault you for that, least of all me. However, if you wish to give your inheritance away, you’ll have to find someone else to give it to. I don’t want it.” Reeve pushed his hands against the table to rise. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I believe I’ll retire for the night.”
“Wait a minute, Reeve.” Caitlin stood to face him across the table. “I don’t understand why you brought me here. I thought you…” She fell silent. She’d already stated quite vehemently what she’d thought. She could still be right too. He could be playing with her head.
Almost as though he’d read her mind, Reeve leaned forward on his hands to bring his eyes level with hers. “I won’t lie to you, Caitlin. I never have, and I’m not going to start now. I don’t want your company. There is something I want you to think about though. From this moment forward, the Shinra Corporation can be whatever you desire. You now have the power to make real all your high-flown ideals. Ten years ago you argued with your father, you lectured me, and you preached to the Turks. You demanded change, but your words seemed to fall on deaf ears. Now you are in a position to affect drastic change, to better people’s lives, to do all those things you begged your father to do, and I stand ready to help you in any capacity that you wish. No more. No less. You see, I was listening to you then, and I never forgot, Caitlin. I never did.
“No, please let me finish. The Shinra Corporation cannot fall. Too many people depend on the company for their livelihood, for leadership, for organization. Midgar is finished, and all these people will need a new city in which to live. Your father brought them to despair, and you can lift them out. I will help you. The Turks, if they are willing can help you. Avalanche can help you. You have engineers, scientists, doctors, and a staff that numbers in the thousands. You have an army. All on your payroll. There’s nothing you can’t do. You just have to decide to do it.”
“I…I don’t know if I can…”
“Just think about it, Caitlin. At the very least, allocate the funds to make reparation to these people and give me the authority to manage those resources so that I can build a new city for them. That’s the least we can do.”
Reeve straightened as Caitlin sank dazedly onto the crate. Silence held reign for the space of a full minute as the executive waited for some hint of a reply from her and examined the faces around them. Reno stood beside Caitlin with his metal rod laid across one shoulder, his eyes hooded as he reran Reeve’s speech through his head. Cloud had joined them at some point, standing a few feet behind Reno in his undershirt and trousers. A huge yawn overtook his face, but he nodded when he caught Reeve’s eye, his mouth tipping in a hesitant smile of approval.
Reeve brought his attention back to Caitlin who still had yet to reply. The silence had grown so deep that he jumped when a sharp rap sounded at the door. He looked around to see Coakley standing nervously in the doorway. “Mr. Alexander. Mr. Reno. I have a message for you from Lt. Sand.”
Reeve stood up from the crate to face the private. “Come on in.”
“No, sir. I…er…think it would better if you stepped out here.” Reeve lifted his eyebrows in surprise, a question forming on his lips until he realized that the private’s troubled gaze was directed behind him. He turned to look at the object of Coakley’s interest, but she had laid her head atop her folded arms, a blank stare focused on the rough burl of the wooden tabletop.
Caitlin hardly noticed when Reno and Reeve left, so deep in her thoughts that she appeared catatonic. Cloud glanced down at her vacant face as he padded toward the door on bare feet, determined to be included in the whispered huddle just outside.
Caitlin wanted to curl up in a quiet place somewhere, with no one else around, and cry her eyes out. She knew that place didn’t exist here, unless she slipped off to lose herself in the access tunnels or the sewers, or maybe the Honeybee Inn where they’d set up the morgue. Fitting to be in the mutely tolerant company of the dead. With only his simple words, Reeve had reignited within her heart the burning desire to do as he suggested, take the helm of the company and make it her own, to move the business in a new direction, one that would improve people’s lives rather than destroy them, working every day with her husband beside her. Wasn’t that her dream so long ago? It had been an impossible dream then. His vision hadn’t been hers, and there’d been no hope of her ever gaining a position within the corporation that would have enabled her to make a difference. Now he was offering to help make her dream real, and she wanted nothing more than to grab the opportunity with both hands, but she couldn’t. Her dream was just as impossible now as it had been then, maybe more so. She had Heidi. The island was their life. No other options existed. Heidi could not leave the island, and she could not leave Heidi. She’d already left her longer than she wanted even now. Her throat ached at all the unshed tears caught there. Her course had been set in stone the day she died. She had no choice. She would have to tell Reeve no, despite the fact that every single ounce of being in her soul wanted to say yes. She would have to lie, and she would have to be convincing, because she couldn’t tell him the truth. No one could know about Heidi.
A lonely prisoner of her own tangled thoughts and the unbearable ache in her heart, Caitlin paid no mind to the low voices of the four men outside the shack, even though she could have heard every word had she wanted. Right then, the whole world could have traipsed past her, and she wouldn’t have taken notice, but when Reeve suddenly cursed out loud, the astonishment in his voice forcibly dragged her from her stupor. Disheartened, she halfway lifted her head from the warm pillow of her folded arms.
“What in the hell is going on here?!” Reeve’s voice reverberated with anger.
“Where were the guards?” Reno’s low-voiced question brought her head up all the way.
“They were found…ah…” Coakley noisily cleared his throat. “…killed…sir…”
“Sssssh! Lower your voice.”
Reeve’s hushed admonition sent her stomach into a tailspin. She shot to her feet and rounded the table to walk silently toward the door. She halted in the middle of the room as Reeve and Reno came into view where they were standing several feet beyond the door, both with their backs to the building. She wasn’t entirely certain that she wanted to hear what they were talking about, but at the same time she was compelled to know, even though she was afraid that she already knew.
As she stood watching from the darkness, Reeve turned to confront Reno, his dark brows drawn in a tight frown. “I want you to get to the bottom of this. ASAP.”
Reno looked at him for a long moment as he bounced the end of his rod against the top of his shoulder. Then he responded with an acerbic tone. “Do you really think this situation requires my attention? What’s another slum kid here or there?”
Reeve propped his hands on his hips and stared at the indifferent Turk in disbelief. “You were a slum kid.”
“My point exactly.”
Reeve scrubbed his hand across his careworn face as he tried to sort out exactly what Reno’s point was. He opted to ignore the Turk’s observation as being immaterial.
“We are wasting time. Head down there and get a handle on what went wrong. Find out everything you can. We have to know who is behind this heinous act.”
“Now?! I was just about to hit the sack!”
“Yes now. Before the trail gets cold.”
“C’mon Reeve. There are other people who can investigate this. My talents can be better utilized elsewhere. This is not a Turk matter. I think in the end you’ll find this is, at the root, a domestic situation with a psycho ex-boyfriend or husband tossed in the mix.
“We are responsible, Reno. We should have protected them.”
Caitlin woodenly walked the remaining distance to the door and stopped in the doorway with one hand against the frame for support.
“We had the whole damn army on the lookout, searching, watching. What more could we have done?”
Reeve opened his mouth to voice his next argument, but he caught a glimpse of Caitlin from the corner of his eye. His words stuck on the end of his tongue. Seeing his distraction, Reno turned to look too. He released a long breath through pursed lips. “Oh boy…”
Her hands trembling, Caitlin weakly shoved herself out of the doorway to come to a halt between Reno and Reeve. She let her anxious gaze travel across Coakley’s pinched mouth and Cloud’s downcast eyes before landing squarely on Reeve’s guarded face.
“Tell me right now, Reeve.” Despite her uncompromising command, her voice wavered as she demanded that which she didn’t really want to hear.
His mouth worked helplessly as he tried to conjure the words to answer her, a difficult task at best, but doubly so when pinned beneath her apprehensive azure gaze.
Reno answered for him, slowly turning his head to look down at the small woman. He didn’t mince his words. “The kid’s gone again, Caitlin.”
Of course, she knew it already. She just needed it confirmed. With a small nod, she turned her gaze on Reno. “You have to go look for her.” The Turk lifted an eyebrow and touched his finger to his chest. “What? Me?”
Reno’s shoulders slumped. “Okay…” Shaking his head in bemusement at his own easy capitulation, he avoided Caitlin’s grateful eyes to turn to Coakley. “Radio your C.O. and inform him that I’ll want to talk to the mother immediately. I want her available when I arrive.”
“Uh…you can’t do that, sir.”
Reno’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “There’s nothing I can’t do.”
“Uh…I…I…mean it’s impossible. The mother…she was…” Coakley glanced nervously at Caitlin.
Spit it out!” Dog tired and wanting to do nothing but curl up in his bedroll and sleep for about a year, Reno’s patience had nearly reached the end of its tether.
Caitlin could feel the blood draining from her face. “She’s dead, isn’t she? He killed her this time.”
Coakley bowed his head sorrowfully at the dawning horror in her eyes. “Yes, ma’am.”
Reno and Reeve both spoke at once, but her ears had ceased to hear and her eyes couldn’t see, all external stimuli cut off by the roar inside her head and the images that whirled through her mind. This was it. This was her nightmare. Her own recurring nightmare visited on the head of some other unfortunate woman. Oh yes, they always came for her in the night, slipping like shadows through the foyer and up the stairs while everyone slept blissfully unaware, diseased shades invading her child’s room to steal her innocent daughter from her bed. Always, her daughter’s screams brought her straight up out of deep sleep, heart racing madly in her chest. Always…always…she ran to stop them…her feet bogged down by some irresistible force…reaching for her little girl…hitting…screaming…and always a…a knife would slip into her heart and she would fall…and falling she would know that there was no one who could stop them…and dying…that no one would ever know…and dead…that no one would ever follow…and her daughter would be taken down to hell. Her grasp on reality slipped inexorably away as her mind folded beneath the weight of her pain.
Reeve caught her as she fell. She clawed at his shirt as he gathered her up like a child in his arms. Her roving, terrified gaze discovered his drawn face bent close, so blessedly familiar, an eye of calm within her mental tempest. Still locked deep within her nightmare, her beleaguered mind coalesced around one coherent thought as she captured his worried brown eyes in her narrowly focused regard.
Reeve. Reeve would stop them. Reeve wouldn’t let them take their daughter.
“Reeve…Reeve. Don’t let them…don’t let them take her…” Her teeth chattered wildly as she shivered in his arms.
Grimly, Reeve looked over the top of her head to snap at Reno. “Get going.”
Dragging shuttered eyes from Caitlin’s terror-stricken face, Reno complied without arguing for a change, striding away with his jaw set in bulldog determination.
Satisfied that Reno was well on his way, now wholly committed to his mission, Reeve peered down into her face only to find that her expression had gone blank. His mind froze at the apathetic distance in her eyes. The lack of emotion or will in her wide-eyed gaze scared him in a way that her terror hadn’t. Unconsciously, he tightened his arms around her as he wondered at the reason for her condition. He had no idea what had brought her to this state, especially over a child she didn’t even know and a woman she’d only exchanged a few words with, but whatever the reason there was only one thing he could do for her now.
“We’ll find her, Cait. We won’t let them take her. I promise you that.”
At his determined words, Caitlin sighed and closed her eyes, tiredly pressing her face into his shirt. Encouraged by her response, he looked up to find Cloud standing just in front of him, peering down into Caitlin’s face with mild apprehension in his glowing eyes.
He looked up into Reeve’s troubled face. “She gonna be all right?”
“I hope so.”
A smile touched Reeve’s lips at Cloud’s expression of concern, an about face from his earlier ill will. He might believe that his words had changed the warrior’s mind, but he knew better. Caitlin always had a way of drawing people to her.
He looked up at the sound of a distant chime. Somewhere in this crazy new world beneath the plates, a clock still kept the time, and people still managed to sleep. With a start, he realized that the faraway clock bell had just struck twelve times. The midnight hour. He looked up to see Cloud hiding a huge yawn. He inclined his head and turned for the door.
“Let’s go, Cloud. It’s well past time for bed. Tomorrow will be here before we want it to be.”
Smothering another yawn, Cloud merely nodded and shambled wearily through the door, making a beeline for his bedroll. He hunkered down and pulled the blanket over his head as Reeve stepped over a lightly snoring Elena to stoop down beside Caitlin’s rumpled covers. Gently, he settled the sleeping Caitlin down onto the bedroll and pulled her blanket from beneath her to drag it over her curled body.
For a long moment, he knelt beside her and studied her lovely face, serene in sleep, wispy tendrils of gold curled against her cheek. Suddenly, he felt the urge to touch her hair, to trail his fingers along the line of her delicate jaw, but instead he closed his hand in a tight fist and drew away. No matter how much he might want to, he knew that he couldn’t turn back the clock. The past, those days before her accident, that was a place he could never go again, and he'd buried those feelings long ago. Better to leave well enough alone. Standing, he again stepped over Elena and walked to the table to drop onto a crate. He started to retrieve the handheld computer from his pocket, but he forced himself to reach for the lantern instead. With the tap of a finger, he killed the light, leaving the interior in darkness.
Laying his head down on crossed arms, he revisited Caitlin’s strange collapse outside, and the promise he’d made her, a promise she’d grabbed onto, a promise he might not be able to keep. Acid burned in his stomach as he thought about the little raven-haired girl and her dead mother. Why would someone do that? Was Reno right about the assailant being the child’s father or the woman’s lover? Whatever had happened, he fervently hoped that Reno could find the child, because if Reno couldn’t, no one could, and if the wily Turk failed, then his promise had been made in vain. His promise became a lie, and he didn’t think he could live with that lie. In all the time he’d known her, he’d never once lied to Caitlin Shinra, and he didn’t want to start here with a broken promise…when the promise meant everything to her…it seemed…so strange…that she would be…so upset…did the things…what Hojo did…must be….
Reeve’s thoughts spiraled into a collage of fragmented pieces, swirling down into the nebulous realm of sleep as his eyes drooped closed despite every effort to keep them open. Relenting, he let his mind slide into the blessed comfort of slumber, the first rest he’d had in…days…
Within minutes he'd fallen so soundly asleep that he never even felt the weight of the blanket across his shoulders or the gentle fingers that swept a stray lock of hair from his face or the single tear that touched his cheek.
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