Elena paced the floor, pausing near the doorway each time she came near to scan the passing faces outside. At one point, she walked across the threshold and stood beside the sentries, gazing hopefully in the direction of the nearest passage to Sector 6. Still no sign of Reno. She fisted her hands against her legs. She should be with him instead of cooling her heels here. She was a Turk, not a babysitter. He’d been gone for hours and each passing hour seemed longer than the last. She huffed impatiently, and wheeled around to reenter the crowded room.
Her mind in turmoil, she floated aimlessly around the group of men at the makeshift table, hovering behind one, and then another, as she tried to see the city plat between them, but they weren’t being very cooperative in providing her a clear view. Finally, she gave up and pressed her way between the tall engineer, Jack, and the even taller and bulkier Lt. Sand. At her insistent invasion of their space, they each absently stepped to the side to give her room. She coolly smiled her gratitude and dropped to a neglected crate. Though her brain burned with several questions, one pertinent matter in particular, she decided to keep her mouth shut for the moment. Content to just listen, she leaned in on her elbows to examine the plat that nearly covered the entire surface of the tabletop.
“Now, what about the water situation?” Reeve looked up when he received no answer to his query. His eyes met Jack’s. The engineer merely shrugged his ignorance.
“You’ll have to ask Perry. He’s on top of water management.”
Reeve scanned the faces around the table, frowning slightly when he didn’t immediately spot the water manager. “Well? Where is he?”
“Don’t know. He said he’d be here.”
Irritated, Reeve tapped his pencil against the edge of the table. “Well, then, how about food distribution?” He looked up at Niles. “How are we holding up there?”
“We’re okay there. Probably have enough to hold out for a month as long as we continue the rationing.”
Reeve nodded. “Good. We’ll need it even after we get these people out of here.”
“Alexander, I really need to get back.”
Reeve’s eyes shot to the haggard face of Dr. Minkin. “I apologize Doctor. I didn’t see you come in.”
“Not a problem. You do seem to have a full platter.”
Reeve smiled wryly. Maybe he did have plenty to keep him busy, but he knew he didn’t want Minkin’s responsibilities. “What is the status of the recovery effort?”
“I’m sorry to say, we are not finding any injured now. All of the victims we’ve pulled out in the last day are deceased.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Well, we have nearly reached a point where we can’t go any further due to the impediment of the fallen plate.”
“Do you think we should call off the search then?” Reeve eyed the doctor speculatively. He could definitely make better use of the medical recovery team elsewhere. Cadaver recovery didn’t require a first responder team.
Minkin immediately started shaking his head. “No. In my opinion, I think we need to find a way into the deeper sections of the uncollapsed portion of Sector 5. My colleagues and I all feel that it’s likely that there may be pockets of survivors in that area.”
Reeve turned his attention to the portion of the plat that represented Sector 5. “The Dead Zone borders most of Sector 5 on that side. The barrier wall stands between.” His pencil tapped as he tried to recall the sewage system and pipe tunnels in that area. “Hmm…any of the maintenance managers around?”
Jack nodded. “Sure. Morris. He’s been helping Timothy keep the lights up and running. And I think Frederick is over working with Perry.”
Reeve’s eyes narrowed. “And where is Perry again?”
“Right here, Reeve.” The Shinra executive leveled a pair of chilly brown eyes on the gray haired water manager as he slipped into the circle beside Jack. Perry squirmed slightly beneath the hard stare. “Uh, sorry I’m late. I was shifting water.”
Reeve turned his eyes back to the plat. “Good. You were able to access the Sector 4 storage tank then.”
“Yes, but it took some creative rigging to do.”
The Shinra executive knew that was true. The unruptured water storage tank, located on the edge of Sector 4 and saved from destruction by a five-foot thick steel wall, had been virtually impossible to access beneath the edge of the plate. His face relaxed into an approving smile. “I imagine so. Good work.”
Reeve bent to make a notation on the margin of the plat. “Okay, we have to give Dr. Minkin priority. I need Frederick or Morris to find the recovery team a route into Sector 5 via the tunnels.”
Perry started shaking his head. “There’s no way, Reeve. Access hatches to the tunnels in Sector 5 are all near the center. The debris behind the plate was undoubtedly pushed back well behind the center.”
“I know you’re probably right. But we have to try. Perry, have Frederick report to Dr. Minkin at recovery headquarters within the hour, along with Morris and any other maintenance people and volunteers that he will need to cover all the access tunnels in as short a time as possible.”
Reeve returned his attention to Dr. Minkin. “What about identification?”
Minkin’s face twisted in a grimace. “Well, Frances is working her heart out on that. Her team is making progress, but it’s slow going. The setup is not ideal for that purpose.”
Reeve sighed heavily. “I know, but under the circumstances, it will have to do for now.” The pencil started tapping again as the Shinra executive looked over his notes. “Well, I believe that’s it.” He straightened and met the doctor’s steady gaze. “Thank you for taking the time to come, Dr. Minkin.”
“Not a problem, Alexander.” Minkin curtly nodded his goodbye and detached himself from the group. As he left, Reeve again scanned all the faces crowded around the table, his eyes pausing briefly on Elena’s rapt face before he moved on.
“Okay, we’re pretty much done here for now. Everyone can go, except for you, Jack.” The engineer inclined his head in agreement, and Reeve slid his gaze to the Shinra officer. “I’ll need you to stay for a few minutes too.”
Sand succinctly nodded. “Do you want a full report, sir?”
Reeve shook his head in refusal. “No, not right now. I just have a couple of issues I want to address.”
Elena watched Reeve jot down a few notes in a tiny notebook as she listened to the group file out behind her. Then, when the last one had gone, she propped her chin on her hand and smiled coolly.
“I have an issue I want to address.”
Although Jack and Lt. Sand looked at her in mild surprise, Reeve didn’t even look up from his notes. “What is it, Elena?”
Elena stood and leaned in on her hands. “I want to know where Reno is.”
Reeve straightened and glanced across the room to find Caitlin still sitting quietly on the bench, her hands folded in her lap and her vacant eyes locked on his face. Uneasily, he turned back to meet Elena’s flinty perusal.
“You know he’s investigating.”
Elena’s eyes narrowed. “He’s been gone for…what now…about 42 hours? 43 maybe? Without a word. That’s not standard procedure, and you know it. He should have checked in with me by now.”
“I believe he’s been in touch with the military.” Reeve glanced at Sand and returned to his notes.
Elena straightened and rotated in place to glare up at Lt. Sand. Discomfited, the bulky military officer unconsciously shifted from one foot to another beneath the Turk’s demanding stare.
“Well has he?”
Sand nodded hesitantly. “Well yes..and no.”
“I can only tell you what I know. He has been in contact off and on. He’s questioned all the troopers that were posted on guard in the pumping station on two separate occasions that I know of. He has questioned all the military personnel stationed in Wall Market as well as the guards that escorted the woman and her child back to Sector 2. As you know, the three guards that were posted to remain with the woman were murdered, but Reno has questioned the other sentries stationed in that Sector as well as any civilians that would actually admit to being in the immediate vicinity when the incident occurred. Oh yes, he has also talked to the medical personnel in Wall Market in regard to any bullet wounds they might have treated, and visited the morgue, and, ah…the last I heard, he had decided to search the sewage tunnels and the pipe chases leading from Sector 2 himself.” The officer’s words had poured out in a great rush, and he drew in a much needed breath at the end, giving the Turk a hesitant smile that wavered beneath the weight of her unrelenting hazel eyes.
“When was that?” Elena snapped.
“About twelve hours ago, I’d say.”
“Did he go alone?”
Sand nervously tugged his jacket straight. “I don’t really know.”
“Reno is on the trail of a homicidal psychopath, and you don’t really know?!”
Sand flinched at the shrillness in Elena’s voice. He wanted to inform the Turk that she had nothing to worry about in that regard, since Reno himself was also a homicidal psychopath, but he almost shuddered that the thought had even entered his mind so that he might accidentally say it. He shuttered his eyes and answered with more than a little exasperation.
“I didn’t say that no one knows. Just that I don’t know.”
Reeve finally looked up from his notes. “Lt. Sand, why don’t you see if anyone knows Reno’s current location and pass on my request that he check in to report his progress. We’ll finish our discussion later this evening.”
Grateful at his release, Lt. Sand smartly saluted and immediately made good his escape.
Elena turned the brunt of her displeasure on Reeve. “That’s not good enough, Reeve. I’m going to go look for him myself.”
Reeve planted his hands on the table and leaned in to lock flinty-eyed glares with her. “I need you here, Elena.”
“I am not a babysitter, Reeve,” Elena hissed.
“You are not babysitting, Elena. You are doing your sworn duty as a Shinra Turk. At this point in time, you have the most vital job in the Shinra Corporation. Do you understand that?”
Elena shot a glance toward the silent woman on the bench, and she let out a long breath to release her anger. “Yes. I guess I do know.”
Reeve leaned in closer and lowered his voice. “Your only concern right now is to protect her, no matter what.”
“I know. I will.”
“And I will locate Reno. I am rather concerned about his whereabouts myself.”
Elena abruptly straightened and stepped away from the table. Reeve straightened too, and she graciously inclined her head. “I appreciate that, Reeve. Thank you. I’ll just leave you to your business now.” Unconsciously, she started to reach for her gun, just to touch the grip, for reassurance, but then she remembered her shoulder holster was gone. Her jacket was gone. She now sported a military sidearm that Reeve had appropriated from Captain Gellner, and she now wore an oversized red sweater that had been included in a neat bundle of clothing a military aide had delivered to the HQ along with some bottles of water and a crate of military rations.
Reeve watched her cautiously as she slid her hand beneath the hem of her sweater to touch the pistol at her side. With a slight smile, she moved away, and he silently expelled his pent breath.
“Okay, Jack. Let’s talk about grid shutdowns.”
Jack’s interested gaze traveled from Elena to Caitlin and back to Reeve before he bent to plant a finger on the city plat. “Sure, Reeve. I think we better look at shutting down here…and…here…and maybe…here. Of course, it will mean moving some people further in, but…”
Elena shut out the men’s voices as she meandered across the room. She sneered down at the slumbering Cloud as she passed. Stifling a sudden urge to accidentally stumble across his stomach, she moved on to pause in front of the comatose Caitlin. She bent slightly to peer into her wide eyes, and thought about poking her nose to see if the woman would react, but she decided to leave her alone. Maybe she’d found a place more interesting than the deadly dull interior of this old building. Inexorably drawn to the outer doorway again, Elena moved off and left Caitlin Shinra to her reverie. Caitlin never even noticed her. She’d sank so far beneath the surface of her waking mind, so deeply in the seemingly bottomless depths of her memory, that she had no desire to return. Nothing happening around her could compete with the bittersweet cinema of her past.
Caitlin’s eyes glittered mischievously as she wrapped her slim arms loosely around Reeve’s neck and leaned forward to peer curiously over his shoulder at the unrolled blueprint pinned down to the glossy table in front of him. Pursing her lips in a pretense of deep contemplation, she studied the cleanly drawn lines and angles, the scattering of notations. Her feathered hair slid softly against her cheekbones as she turned her head slightly to watch him tap one finger swiftly over the calculator keypad, totally oblivious to her presence. The device had so many buttons, she didn’t know how he found the correct ones so quickly anyway.
Quickly bored with the unfathomable diagrams, she turned her head to stare at his still profile, noting the eyes squinted in intense concentration and the lips moving silently with his thoughts as he measured and calculated. Her delicate features drew into a tiny frown of displeasure at his dedication to his figures to the exclusion of all else, most especially to her, but the moment of irritation passed. She had promised to let him finish first, and now she seemed to be having difficulty keeping up her end of the deal. She tipped her head against his, and he absently shrugged one shoulder as a warm whisper of a sigh feathered his cheek. She had tried. She really had, but the inactivity had her on edge. She hated the inane drivel on the television, and she hadn’t seen him in three days. She could remain quiet no longer.
“Are you about finished?” She was careful to keep any hint of petulance from her tone.
Dissatisfied with his detached response, she tightened her arms slightly around his neck. “How much longer do you think?”
“Just another minute…or so…”
“You mean another hour or so?”
“Uh huh.” She echoed.
Mischievously, she turned her lips against his ear, and smiled as she felt his shoulders twitch in her embrace, clear evidence of the shiver that had raced down his spine at her play.
“Let’s run away.” The breathy whisper of her suggestion brought his eyelids down as another fleeting shiver coursed through him. Purposefully, he laid his pencil and compass down and drew the corner of the blueprint forward.
“Where do you want to go?” Reeve moved the books that held the stiff paper flat and lifted the blueprint into his hands. After one last cursory glance at his work, he meticulously rolled the paper into a tight tube.
“Costa del Sol.”
At her whispered words, Reeve paused and swiveled his head to look at her in mild surprise. She knew that he had expected her to specify perhaps the isolated outer reaches of Mystic Park where she loved to walk despite the chilly winter mist in the air, or maybe the winding road that cut through the wide, grassy fields outside the city gate where the bright city lights faded into insignificance beneath a pallet of pristine stars, or maybe even the narrow stretch of sandy beach a short drive away, somewhere…anyhere…that they wouldn’t be seen together. Certainly, he hadn’t expected the answer she’d given him or the touch of seriousness in her voice. All thought of the blueprint he’d been toiling over for hours faded beneath the force of her wavering smile, and he tossed the roll of paper onto the table and turned sideways in his chair as she drew away to stand beside him.
The last vestige of playfulness fell away as Caitlin stared into his intrigued brown eyes. Suddenly, butterflies of uncertainty invaded her stomach, and she turned her eyes to the details of a print hanging on the wall across the room, her unseeing gaze skimming the flowing lines of the skyscraper depicted within the ebony metal frame.
With a tiny shrug of her shoulders, she continued. “Well, we could go dancing or lay around on the beach and get totally roasted.” She forced a lightness to her voice that she didn’t feel, and a quick glance at Reeve’s upturned face revealed a pair of eyes active with keen speculation. “….And we could…you know…ah…have a candlelit dinner at that romantic terrace café…I can’t remember what it’s called…right now…and maybe even…” Caitlin took a deep breath and reached her fingers to brush his cheek. “…And maybe even get…married.”
Reeve blinked, the only perceptible reaction to her suggestion. Her breath stilled as she let her hand fall helplessly to her side and attempted to arrange her face into a blank mask, although she knew the effort would probably be a waste of energy as the anxiety in her eyes would put paid to any illusion of indifference on her part. Several interminable seconds elapsed, and Caitlin started to wonder if she had even spoken the words aloud. Maybe she’d only said them wistfully in her mind. If that were the case, then she had to make a decision as to whether she wanted to say the words after all.
Suddenly, Reeve smiled and reached for her small hand. “Did I hear accurately? Was that a proposal I just heard?”
Mutely, she nodded, her voice locked away somewhere in the hollow dungeon of her tight chest, her hopes and fears so tangled together that she could hardly sort out what to feel. Then Reeve chuckled, and a tiny wrinkle of displeasure deranged her smooth brow.
Reeve hardly noticed. “Any and all proposals of that nature should be presented on one knee, Ms. Shinra.” He raised one eyebrow playfully. “Should they not?”
Caitlin’s lips thinned as she fought to douse the spark of ire that his teasing had unwittingly ignited deep inside as well as stem the tears that burned in her throat. Her fingers closed into a fist inside his light clasp. At the motion, Reeve finally took note of the watery glint in her blue irises, and the grin slowly slid from his face.
“You are serious, aren’t you?”
Her fingers tightened further as she bit out her reply. “Why would you think otherwise?”
“I…I…don’t know…I guess I just…” Reeve’s uncertain words stuttered to a halt to teeter on the brim of the well of Caitlin’s hurt silence. Woodenly, he reached for her other hand and tentatively drew her forward to stand between his knees as he lifted a beseeching gaze to her face, his warm brown eyes solemn as he cautiously studied her shuttered, tight-lipped expression.
“I’m sorry, Cait.” He squeezed her hands reassuringly. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
She let her eyelashes fall to block the pained earnestness in his face and slowly nodded. “I know you didn’t. I’m sorry too.”
“Just the way I sort of sprang that…on you…like that…”
He tilted his head to the side. “What about your father?”
“What about him?”
“Don’t you think he might have something to say about this?”
“I don’t care what my father has to say about anything, especially this.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
“Well, I see what your answer would have been.”
“Don’t presume to know what I would say, Caitlin.”
“I already knew the second you injected my father into this discussion.”
“I have to worry about how your father will react, Caitlin. He is my employer.”
“Is your job more important than me then, more important than us?”
“Sweetheart, I’ve been with the company for almost five years now. I can’t throw all that away on a whim.”
“A whim!?” Caitlin literally choked on the word. “Is that all I am? A whim?” She flung herself away and pointedly presented her back to him as she huddled into her arms and struggled to hold back the stinging tears. He slowly stood and took a careful step toward her.
“Cait, you aren’t just a whim to me. That was an unfortunate choice of words.”
“An unfortunate choice indeed.” Despite the fist in her throat, she spoke smoothly, her voice brittle with ice.
“Please, Cait. You’re asking me to jeopardize everything I’ve worked toward. You must understand that.”
He took another step and gingerly laid his hand on her shoulder. Angrily, she jerked away from him and moved across the room to pause before the framed print of the building that represented Reeve’s concept for the new Shinra Corporate Headquarters currently being erected on the third plate. Regrettably, her father had chosen a different design, a colossal metal and glass tower of sixty plus floors that would dwarf the twelve-story office building currently in use. She smiled grimly. Erection was an apt term for that monstrosity. She lifted her head to glare into the glass as he moved in behind her, the reflection of his pleading face superimposed over the elongated structure.
“Tell me Reeve, what do you think will happen to the city when my father’s aims are realized?”
Her matter-of-fact question put him off balance, an abrupt right turn in the conversation as it were, and he folded his arms as he mentally switched his thoughts onto the new track.
“Well, Caitlin, you surely realize that your father’s vision is nothing short of genius. A city in the sky. Clean electrical power for everyone. No more coal plants. No more pollution. You’ll be able to look out your window and see for miles, out across the ocean, or all the way to Kalm Town. The structures will be designed for optimum utility as well as aesthetic value. Everyone in the world will long to live in Midgar, the only city of its kind, a dynamic metropolis that will be the definitive center of robust commerce, intellectual creativity, and fine art on the entire planet.”
“My, you certainly have the company literature down pat,” Caitlin responded dryly.
He sighed heavily. “Maybe so, but it’s all true. You’ve been up there, Cait. Can’t you see how it will be when the construction is complete?”
“Oh, I can see how it will be, every time I happen to look up.”
He ignored the sarcastic edge to her tone. “Soon we’ll have the fourth plate up and the fourth reactor online shortly after. Even more businesses and residents will relocate there and…”
“What about the business owners that can’t afford to relocate there, Reeve? What about the people that couldn’t make the money in a whole lifetime to purchase property on the plate?” She rounded on him, her eyes flashing with her anger. “What about them?”
“Well, they will stay where they are.”
“And then what!? You’ll build the city over them and around them and then…and then…they’ll finally be out of sight. Right? Entomb them. Forget them. Right?”
“Caitlin, anyone can live on the plate if they want. They just have to work for it. Any person who wants something badly enough, can achieve it.
“What about the ones that just want to live on their own land and grow flowers in the sunshine? The ones that just want to sit out on their porches and look at the stars at night?”
Reeve threw his hands out in despair. “Please, Cait. We’ve been all through this before. They will keep their land. Except for the areas required to set the support pillars and run the railroad routes, no one’s had to surrender their land, and the ones who have were amply rewarded. The people will not be enclosed. You’ve seen the plans for the expansive skylights in the upper plate and the open grounds below. The public gardens and the outdoor market. The people will finally have access to public transportation. More jobs will be created. City services will be expanded across the whole population. The new University will finally be constructed. This diverse hodgepodge of overgrown villages will be unified into one community to which all can belong. Yes, some things will change, but the benefits will be so great, that people will gladly adjust.”
“And what’s wrong with diversity?”
Reeve swept an agitated hand through his hair. “Nothing. Please, Cait. Let’s not fight about this again.” He stepped close and slipped his arms around her. “I don’t want to fight with you.”
Purposefully, she broke from his embrace and crossed the room to put the overstuffed leather sofa between them. Dropping her hands to the sofa back, her overly bright eyes pinned him in place as her fingers pressed deep into the upholstery.
Slowly, she shook her head. “I knew it. I knew it would never work.”
Reeve stretched a pleading hand toward her. “Cait, I don’t understand why you hate my work so.”
Caitlin laughed bitterly. “I don’t hate your work, Reeve. I hate the Shinra Corporation and all its self-serving, destructive policies. If you would ever listen to me, instead of just pretending to listen, you would know that.”
“What’s so wrong with wanting to give people a better life?”
Caitlin actually smiled at his words. “Nothing Reeve. But if you think my Father plans to give anyone anything, you are so very naïve. When he is finished, there will be no skylights. He’d have to give up too much valuable pseudo real estate. And there will be walls. My father will not leave the underbelly of his precious city unprotected. He won’t care what happens to those people below, and he won’t spend one paltry gil making their lives better.”
“I think you’re wrong, Sweetheart. You’ve got a chip on your shoulder where your father’s concerned.” He paused as the smile, chilly though it was, abruptly disappeared and blue flames ignited inside her eyes. He watched her carefully as he cleared his throat to continue his argument. “Your father wants to provide every person a nice place to live, and he wants to offer the means to bring every household into the modern age as well as…”
He paused again as Caitlin shoved herself away from the couch and strode purposefully across the plush gray carpet to retrieve her coat from the ornate wrought iron coat rack beside the door. She whirled to face him as she struggled to jam one arm into the suddenly recalcitrant garment. Reeve moved to help her, but the warning look she shot him stayed him in place. He remained silent until she had managed to fight the coat into place and had wrapped her hand around the doorknob.
She froze with the doorknob half-turned at the sound of his dull voice. Sadly, she bowed her head and spoke, her voice that of a weary, old woman.
“Reeve, my father doesn’t want to help anyone. He only wants to make money. He wants to fill his coffers with more gil than he could possibly ever need in a hundred lifetimes, and he’ll do whatever it takes.” She raised her head slightly and turned to look at him. “How many companies has the Shinra Corporation already gorged itself on? How many war machines have been manufactured by Shinra and sold to all sides in the name of another Shinra excursion of financial conquest? How many people across the planet have suddenly found themselves living beneath the benevolent and suffocating umbrella of the Shinra Corporation? How many people have vanished into Hojo’s laboratories, Reeve? How many?”
Mutely, Reeve shook his head in denial. “I can’t believe…”
Unhearing, Caitlin interrupted him. “And now he wants to suck the very life from the planet and parcel it out to the grateful population for a price. And he wants to build a ‘great’ city over the land, the homes that belong to the people, and sell his city piece by piece to the highest bidder while the property beneath falls into ruin.” She lifted a finger and pointed at him. “So don’t try to convince me that he wants to help people. Because I’m the one person that will never buy the line he’s trying to sell.”
Her voice broke as a single tear traced the gentle curve of her cheek. “Why can’t we lift everyone up, Reeve? Why?”
“Cait, please stay.”
She shook her head vehemently. “No, it’s over Reeve. We’ll never view the world the same way. I realize now that you are too brainwashed by Shinra propaganda to ever see the truth, or maybe the truth really is that you just don’t care.” Quietly, she opened the door and slipped through without a backward look. He made no effort to stop her. After all, he had no reason to take her seriously. She voiced similar impassioned words every time they argued about the Shinra Corporation, but she always came back. He was in her blood after all. But he was wrong. She wasn’t coming back. Not this time…
Caitlin blinked dazedly as the pink-tipped fingers sharply snapped just beyond the end of her nose.
A pair of hands clapped together in front of her eyes, and her mind broke completely free of the past and shot to the surface like a bobber suddenly released from the end of a severed fishing line. She blinked again as the hands disappeared, leaving her view unobstructed. Her eyes came into focus on the form of Reeve bent over the city plat on the table, shoulders hunched as his finger traveled a path across the paper, the familiar scene that had plucked her from her fretful thoughts and dumped her into that December night over ten years ago.
She’d been worrying over her response to Reeve’s request regarding the fate of the company, arguing back and forth in her mind. She hadn’t yet found the words to say what she had to say to him, and he’d been too busy to pursue the subject further. In fact, he’d been gone a good portion of the time, along with Cloud Strife, leaving her behind where he thought she’d be safe, with Elena and the military guards outside the door to watch over her. She felt like she might go mad with the inactivity, especially when she wanted to do something to help. Reeve wouldn’t hear of it though. He thought the situation beneath the plate too fraught with the potential for disaster that he didn’t want to take a chance with her safety.
Even the meeting, the fourth one in two days, had failed to engage her interest this time. An idle mind was a wayward mind. No wonder she kept slipping into her memories of the past. She sat back on the narrow bench and leaned her head against the wall behind, her eyes falling closed as she drew in a weary breath. Eventually, she raised her head to meet Elena’s narrowed hazel eyes.
“Please don’t call me that.”
“Sorry, I forgot.” Elena’s offhand apology indicated that she wasn’t unduly concerned at having forgotten, and that she would probably ‘forget’ again.
“Was there something you wanted?”
Elena’s attention had already shifted away, her distant eyes focused on the outer doorway yet again. She responded absently. “Uh uh. Just wondered if you were still alive in there.” Without waiting for a reply, the Turk moved away.
Caitlin shifted on the hard seat to ease the stiffness from her back as she let her eyes travel across the room. Her gaze paused on the sight of Cloud sleeping flat on his back on his bedroll with his hands crossed over the hilt of his sword, his mouth agape in a silent snore. Her lips twitched in amusement. If not for the less than noble expression on his slack face and the wild disarray of his spiky hair, he might resemble the portrait of a fallen warrior lying in state. Instead, he seemed a child that had dropped from exhaustion during his war play, an image not far from the truth actually. At Reeve’s request, he’d been walking the sectors for the better part of a day, checking out the conditions and temperament of the entrapped populace, at the same time keeping a keen eye out for any potential trouble that might be averted; the task that Reeve had originally intended for Reno. When the Soldier had returned, he’d given Reeve his report, and then his steps had traced a direct path to the nearest bedroll where he’d stretched out fully clothed. The fact that he could sleep clad in the heavy, armor-plated shoulder guard and the thick, metal-studded gloves attested to the level of his exhaustion. Although, she suspected he might be accustomed to sleeping that way, especially in light of what she’d learned from Elena.
Speculatively, she sought out the woman’s still form in the doorway. Elena stood tensely just beyond the doorsill, flanked by the guards on either side, peering intently into the milling crowd with her arms clasped closely around her middle, her rolled up sleeves falling over her hands. Absent the trademark blue suit and black tie, Elena didn’t look much like a Turk anymore in her borrowed clothes. Even the pistol that Caitlin knew she carried at her waistline hardly made a bump beneath the thick sweater. In fact, clad in the rumpled, blue Turk trousers, the clunky high-heeled dress shoes and the oversized red pullover sweater, she could be any woman. An anxious mother waiting for her overdue child to return from school, caught in the teeth of a dilemma. Go search or risk being gone when the child returned to an empty house. Too, she could be a young college coed, waiting for a boyfriend, late for a prearranged assignation, struggling to strike a middle ground between anticipation and irritation.
Suddenly, Caitlin wished she had her sketchbook with her. Her fingers itched to capture the woman’s expression in pencil. The pensive frown on the dainty-featured face of the Turk, the wistfulness in her gaze as she waited, out of uniform, out of her element, for her partner to return, a prisoner caught in the shackles of her orders to remain. Caitlin’s artistic eye shifted to Cloud Strife. After Elena, she would sketch the boyishly guileless face of the warrior-soldier; his blonde lashes falling lightly against his cheek in his dream sleep, his gloved fingers entwined protectively around the hilt of his double-edged sword. Her gaze eagerly traveled to the table. And then, she would move to the man bent studiously over his work. Worried. Driven. His weary face pinched in concentration. A wayward lock of his dark hair straying into his face. His tie loosened and his shirtsleeves rolled to the elbow.
Reeve. How many times had she drawn him? Obsessively. In love. Too many times to count. Too many times in just this pose. Weary. Intense. Always driven. His face different now, yet achingly familiar. Clean-shaven then. The slight cleft in his chin and clean planes of his jawbones now hidden beneath the neat beard. The smooth brow now permanently lined with the mark of his age and responsibility. The tiny bird’s feet at the corners of his eyes proof of his innate tendency to smile. She’d drawn him other ways too. Other times over the years. From newspaper articles and television broadcasts. Photographed with her father, the President, on the front of the Midgar Times. Speaking in a televised public forum regarding some controversial public issue or another. And many times, she’d drawn him from memory, all memories closely guarded, never forgotten. In laughter at her antics. In pained despair in the face of her temper. Lost in thought as he peered through the window at the distant shoreline. Crosslegged on the checkerboard of the kitchen linoleum as he proudly exhibited his latest mechanical robot, every one of them his offspring. No matter if the machine would only run in reverse or only spin in circles or worse, seemed prone to chase Maynard the cat into the drapes. And yes, she’d drawn him curled fast asleep on the sofa in his socked feet with Maynard draped over his head like a bizarre black and white toupee. And too, his haggard face, full of dejection and humility, snowflakes melting on his dark lashes and in his hair as he stood outside her door, hoping for invitation, expecting only rejection.
She hadn’t come back after all.
No matter that her heart twisted in the face of his pain. No matter that every cell in her body yearned to be inside him, wrapped in his embrace, buried in his warmth. No matter. She wouldn’t cave. She wouldn’t surrender. After all, she’d triple locked her emotions away hadn’t she? Barricaded them behind frosted steel plate. Wrapped ‘round and ‘round with wickedly sharp razor wire. Draped in heavy chains and bolt locked into a hopelessly tangled knot. How indifferently she’d sat by the phone willing the stubborn thing to ring. How easily and coolly and silently she’d reseated the phone into the cradle every time he’d called. How dispassionately she’d listened for the doorbell to chime, then how impatiently, and then fearfully, and then hopelessly.
Then finally, he’d stood there, huddled in his calf-length black overcoat flecked with damp snow dander, his tie askew, his sad canine brown eyes maintaining a steady gaze beneath the narrowed, singularly chilly azure iris just visible through the barely cracked door, the frigid air of Shinra-bred disdain seeping from inside colder than the flake-spattered air around him. She would not relent. Could not relent. She would just shut the door. Quietly. Pointedly. Irrevocably. Chain latch. Deadbolt. All done.
“Cait…please…I can’t…” He laid his hand against the door. No pressure. No insistence. Just reassurance. “I can’t go on…like this…I can’t live like this…” His husky voice broke. “…Without you...”
And of course, that was all it took to undo her. Not even his words that resonated in her heart, just that little hitch in his voice. Such a tiny thing with the force of a Mako explosion, splintering all her heavily reinforced defenses in an instant. And in the next instant, she’d found his arms and in that moment, and for many moments after, she’d been content just to hold him, and be held, her tear wet cheek pressed against his shirt, her ear tuned into the comforting beat of his heart.
“…Don’t ever let me go…” She’d breathed on the whisper of a breath, and he’d heard her, answered with a whispered plea of his own.
“…Don’t ever leave me…”
And after an eternity in the snowfall, he’d spoken into her hair, his voice stronger, but still hesitant.
“Will you…go to Costa del Sol with me?”
Stunned, her breath at bay, carefully still against him, she dared to offer him escape.
“Reeve, you don’t have to.”
“I want to.”
Her aching breath escaped. “Tomorrow?”
Then she had to ask, even as she recognized the irony of her query. “What about your job? My father?”
Then he’d pulled away to look into her bright gaze, a tremulous smile on his lips, and a twinkle in his eye.
“None of that matters does it?”
Mutely, she shook her head.
“Besides, what would your father do? It’s not as though he’d kill me. Anything else, I can handle as long as I have you with me.” Then he’d paused and tilted his head. “I mean…we can handle…as long as we’re together. Right?”
The insanely happy smile spread across her lips until she thought her face would shatter and break in half. She wanted to say that yes they could do anything together. Everything together. Even save the world. But in the end, she couldn’t find her voice. So she simply nodded. Madly. Until he lifted her off her feet, and she blindly raised her lips to meet his kiss.
She would never forget…that kiss…in a flurry of windswept snowflakes…a lifeline…a vow…she wondered…did he remember…
Her father wouldn’t have killed him either. He’d been right about that. Her father had ordered Tseng to kill him.
“You’re gone again!”
Caitlin looked up at the accusatory voice to find Elena pacing the floor in front of her. She watched her in silence as she surreptitiously dashed away a stray tear left over from her reverie. The Turk was anything if not precise. Even in her restless pacing. Six steps forward. Spin. Six steps back. Six forward. Spin. Six back. Forward. Back. Spin. Forward. Back. Over and over. Again and again. Caitlin decided to interrupt the dizzying motion.
Halfway through her course, Elena whirled to face the petite woman. “What?”
“Did you want to talk to me?”
She recommenced her pacing.
Elena stopped again.
“Would you talk to me? I’m…thinking too much.”
Elena nodded curtly and sank down on the bench beside her. “This inactivity is driving me nuts!” Shortly, her foot began to tap against the dingy wooden floor. Eventually, she turned a questioning gaze to the silent Caitlin. “So, what were you thinking about?”
Caitlin smiled wryly. “Hmm…just that one can view oneself so much more clearly from the advantageous viewpoint of several years later.”
Elena grimaced. “Personally, I’d rather forget.”
Caitlin thought about her response for a moment, musing on the circumstances that would bring a young, sophisticated woman like Elena into the Turks. Perhaps she would simply ask her. Maybe Elena would even tell her. Despite the Turk’s earlier animosity toward her, Elena’s attitude had softened a great deal since the events in the tunnel. Either their endless hours spent together in forced proximity had softened Elena’s attitude toward her or, more likely, the change rose from the fact of Reno’s prolonged absence. Caitlin had recognized early on that Elena didn’t care for Reeve or Cloud, and with Reno gone, she had no one else to talk to, and the blonde Turk liked to talk. A lot. And she didn’t seem very circumspect in her choice of topic, her conversation tending to follow where her thoughts took her, an unusual tendency to find in a Turk. To her surprise, Elena had readily answered almost all of Caitlin’s questions at length so that she now had gained a fairly good grasp on the chain of events that had played out to bring them all to this place, although she suspected some bias in the Turk’s tale. Certainly, her commentary regarding Cloud and the rest of Avalanche had not been wholly complimentary despite her reluctant admission that without Avalanche, everyone would most likely be a scattered cloud of space particles now. So far, Elena had not yet refused to discuss any topic that Caitlin had introduced, except for her question about the death of Tseng. Like Rude, she didn’t want to talk about it, but Caitlin suspected a slightly different reason accounted for Elena’s reticence regarding the late Leader of the Turks.
Caitlin tilted her head inquisitively. “Hmm…but don’t you think that an examination of one’s past behavior can guide one’s future decisions?”
Elena lifted her hand to inspect her fingernails, a slight pout forming on her lips at sight of the deteriorating condition of her nail polish. “Seems like a good idea in theory. But I’ve observed that most people don’t tend to be that self-aware. Most simply continue to follow the same old behaviors, letting most decisions be made by default, so caught up in the process of living that they totally disregard the fact that the same actions tend to lead to similar consequences. It takes constant attention to break from deeply entrenched habits.”
Caitlin studied her with interest. “That’s a very astute observation.”
Elena dropped her hand into her lap, looking up to catch a glimpse of Caitlin’s keen gaze. She smiled wryly. “Yes, and I include myself in that assessment.”
A wisp of a smile touched Caitlin’s lips at Elena’s admission but faded away as she felt the weight of someone’s intent regard. She turned her head to meet Jack’s curious gaze, not for the first time. He’d been watching her surreptitiously throughout the last couple of hours while he and Reeve had discussed the fissure in the Sector 6 pillar, putting together a potential evacuation plan for the refugees in Wall Market before the last meeting convened. Now, he was watching her again.
She wasn’t surprised at his puzzled interest. She had met Jack all those years ago. After all, the engineer had joined the company about the same time as Reeve, and they had worked together from the beginning, Reeve always bringing him along as he moved up the corporate ladder, not that Jack hadn’t been more than qualified. She suspected that Jack was very proficient at his job. Back in those days, Jack had no doubt seen her hovering around the engineering department more than once, trying to steal a quiet moment with Reeve out of sight of prying eyes. However, she wasn’t sure if he’d recognized her yet. He probably had. She hadn’t changed all that much other than for the length of her hair, and engineering types tended to have a long memory for detail, at least the ones she’d known. She tilted her head in a slight nod at the bedraggled engineer, and he sheepishly looked away. Briefly, she wondered how people would likely react when her resurrection became common knowledge. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be around to find out.
Jack leaned across the table to whisper to Reeve who broke from his work to look up at her. With an impatient shake of his head, he turned away and took up his pencil to make a notation somewhere on the city plat. Her heart ached at how easily Reeve could dismiss her. He’d grown more and more distant toward her over the last couple of days. Most of the time, he hadn’t been all that personable to begin with. Just very polite. Since that night, though, when the little girl had gone missing again, he’d been even more standoffish. She wasn’t sure if his coolness arose from the fact that he was indeed covered up to his ears in his responsibilities or if perhaps her mental collapse at hearing of the death of the little girl’s mother had disturbed him. Neither had mentioned the matter since. She turned her eyes to the toes of her sneakers. She was deluding herself anyway. He was not the same man. She could not expect him to feel the same way. How long could the man be expected to have feelings for her? He would have stopped grieving for her long ago, would have stopped loving her.
Caitlin Shinra Alexander, I will love you forever…
Ten years was an eternity.
“I am bored out of my mind.” Elena huffed as she slumped in place.
Caitlin swiveled her head to study the Turk’s petulant profile. “Have you heard from Reno yet?”
Elena started to remind Caitlin of the discussion just past, but then she realized that the woman had been totally zoned out through the whole conversation so she simply shook her head. “Nope. Not a word.”
“I don’t suppose he’ll find her after all this time…”
Caitlin’s heart twisted as the image of the frightened, raven-haired girl filled her mind. Almost two days had passed since Reno had shot his cigarette into the dirt and disappeared into the throng of people that crowded Sector Three. She knew that the chances of finding the girl in the city were greatly diminished as time passed. The kidnapper had probably already found a way out. Her blood chilled at the mental picture of that sweet child being carried up a narrow ladder in the arms of the man who had so coolly gunned down Elena.
Elena pressed her hands to the bench on either side of her, and pushed herself upright. “Don’t underestimate Reno. If that girl is still in the city, he’ll find her. Obviously, he hasn’t given up or he’d already be back.”
“Well, I hope nothing’s happened to him…”
“Huh, Reno?” Elena smiled smugly. “Not likely.”
“You sound so sure. I pray you’re right.”
Elena’s elegantly shaped brows lowered. “I know what you’re thinking.” She turned to catch Caitlin’s inquisitive look. “Yes, I do. You’re thinking that if he could take me out, then he could get Reno too.” Elena raised an eyebrow in question.
Caitlin slowly nodded. “Yes, I suppose I was thinking something like that, I’m afraid. After all, you are well trained for such situations.”
“Yes, well, I was careless. I should have checked the pumping station more closely.”
“He wasn’t in the pumping station.”
“He was hiding in the unlighted tunnel beyond the doorway. Just beyond the light. We would never have seen him there.”
“How do you know he came from there?”
“I heard him.”
“Well, I did too, when he loaded his clip. In the doorway.”
“Just before that. I heard his footfalls.”
“You heard his…?” Elena gave her head a hard shake. “Never mind. Whatever. Back to my point. About Reno, I mean. I am well trained. Unquestionably. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here. A Turk, I mean. But I’m green. I’m still learning. He’s been a Turk a long time. Almost ten years. And before that, well, he grew up on the streets. Alone. I could never hope to be as good as he is in the field. I’m not sure anyone could. Not even…”
Elena paused, leaving her thoughts unspoken, but Caitlin knew what she would have said. Not even Tseng.
The two women sat in companionable silence for a moment. Then Elena started speaking again, her eyes faraway as she put voice to her reverie.
“For one thing, you know, I think Tseng taught him everything he knew. I know he’d planned for Reno to take his place someday. He just didn’t expect that it would be…so soon.” Elena fell silent as her memories took her to a place she hadn’t wanted to go. Caitlin curled her hands in her lap and waited patiently for Elena to gather her thoughts, her own mind taken over as the reality of his death sank sharp claws into her mind yet again. She looked up from her entwined fingers when Elena began to speak, her voice slightly gruff. “Um…anyway…then you throw in all Reno’s native talent, and well, you know what I mean. He’s pretty formidable.” Elena suddenly smiled. “You know, Tseng used to say that…ah…Reno was like one-eighth cur dog and one-eighth alley cat…um…one-eighth chameleon, one-eighth poisonous snake, and…ah…one-eighth hungry and one-eight joker…or something like that. Oh yeah…and two-eighths juvenile delinquent.”
Musical laughter spontaneously tumbled over Caitlin’s lips. Elena looked at her suspiciously.
“What’s so funny?”
Caitlin’s eyes danced. “You really do like him. I had the impression that you didn’t care for him much.”
“Who?” Elena demanded.
Caitlin grinned. “Reno.”
Elena’s eyes widened in horror. “I do not!”
Caitlin lifted one shoulder in a nonchalant shrug. “There’s no need to get upset. I didn’t mean that you like him like that. You know, just as a fellow…er…Turk.”
Caitlin bit her lip to still her mirth as Elena’s face flushed a lovely shade of rose. The Turk pointedly averted her eyes. “Oh,” she muttered.
Caitlin wasn’t sure if she’d embarrassed Elena or just plain made her mad. She certainly realized that she’d better talk about something else or risk losing Elena from the conversation altogether.
“So he’s one-eighth hungry? For what?”
Elena shot her a disgusted look. “Not hungry. One-eighth a hungry. Have you ever seen a hungry?”
Caitlin hesitantly shook her head.
“Well, it’s an obnoxious creature with an amiable face that shrinks you down to a bite sized morsel before you hardly have time to move, and then it gobbles you up with great relish.”
Caitlin chewed her lip in thought. She could certainly see how that comparison might be apt, in a figurative sense anyway, but she didn’t speak her thoughts aloud. “And the joker? A wild card? Unpredictable?”
Elena shrugged. “Um…yes, there is that, but I think that Reno is like the joker in that the joker is never really known. He can be anyone he wants to be, anytime he chooses. He’s very versatile. Just like the joker.”
“Well then, how do you know who he really is?”
The blonde Turk tossed her head. “You don’t. Not with Reno. Or maybe that is Reno. He can show you whatever he wants. Or maybe what he thinks you want. Whatever plays the best in any given situation. The same with emotions. He will show you whatever emotion he pleases, but all his emotions are parody. Appropriations. Unreal. A mockery.”
Caitlin’s eyebrows rose. “That’s a fairly cynical analysis. Have you considered that perhaps he’s just very adept at hiding his true feelings? I’ve discovered that those in your line of work tend to keep a great deal buried.”
…Like Tseng, whose deepest unspoken desire had been to fly free…
Elena snorted derisively. “Who knows? I don’t even care. I don’t know how we got onto this ridiculous subject anyway.”
”Hmm…Tseng…you don’t really want to be a Turk do you?”
His warm chuckle echoed distantly in her mind. For a second, she even thought she could smell the rich aroma of his slender cigarillo.
Oh, Tseng…I can’t believe you’re…gone…
“There you go again! Off into your own little world!” Elena sniffed disdainfully and ran her fingers through her bangs.
Caitlin looked around, realizing she’d missed what Elena had said. “Excuse me, what did you say again?”
“I said I don’t want to talk about Reno anymore. He’s a boring subject. Besides, he’d get entirely too much pleasure out of it if he knew that he was the center of our conversation.”
Caitlin studied the blonde’s stiffly indifferent face carefully and decided to concede to her wish, steering the conversation into another channel. “Hmm…well then, what about you, Elena. Are you from Midgar?”
Elena drew her compact from her pocket and flipped the lid open. Peering stolidly into the cracked mirror, she shook her head. “No, Costa del Sol.”
“I’ll bet Costa del Sol would be an exciting place to grow up.”
The Turk shrugged and meticulously rearranged a few strands of silken hair. “I guess. Have you been there?”
I was married there once.
“Yeah, I guess you would have, being a Shinra. Your father’s summer home has been the showplace of the village for many years. Of course, Rufus put the place on the market.”
The pain that filled her heart at mention of her brother didn’t show on her face or in her voice. “That doesn’t surprise me. My brother preferred the ski slopes of the Northern Continent to the heat of Costa del Sol.”
“And you preferred the beach?”
“Actually, I preferred solitude.”
“So, what did your family do there? Run one of the local shops? One of the inns, perhaps?”
“No, my father owns and operates the Midnight Star Cruise Line.”
Caitlin’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Your father is Edgar Taylor-Martin?”
“I met your father at a Winter Festival Ball once.”
Elena abruptly snapped her compact closed. “Lucky you.”
“And your mother too. I thought her to be a very lovely woman.”
Elena jammed the compact into her trousers pocket and stood, her eyes turned again to the door. “My mother didn’t go to balls. My father didn’t like dancing with a partner in a wheelchair.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize…I shouldn’t have assumed…”
“There’s no need to apologize. She’s been dead a long time.”
The blonde Turk walked away, leaving Caitlin alone with her thoughts once more. Elena presented more of a puzzle now than before. The woman loved to talk, but not about herself. She could only imagine what had driven a wealthy young woman like Elena Taylor-Martin to apply for employment in the Shinra Department of Administrative Research.
Still deep in thought, Caitlin absently turned her regard to the two men at the table, and her gaze collided with Reeve’s. Impulsively, she waved, and her breath caught in her throat when his sternly drawn mouth suddenly relaxed into a ghost of a smile. Caitlin responded with a very hesitant smile of her own. Then Jack spoke, and the contact was broken, so brief she might even have imagined it.
Disappointed, Caitlin laid her head back against the wall and let her eyes drift shut. She wanted to laugh at herself. Maybe she should just admit the truth. She could try to convince herself all she wanted that she’d come to Midgar to help the beleaguered population in any way she could, or to preempt him from coming to her island sanctuary, or because she felt that she owed him for cheating him out of the life they would have shared together, or all of those reasons rolled into one. But the absolute truth was that she simply wanted to see him. Not in a newspaper clipping. Not on the television screen. In person. Where she could hear his voice in a normal conversation when he might speak her name again. Where she might even touch him again. An exercise in futility. They could never go back. Even if he were so inclined, which he was not, she could not stay, and he could not come to her island. In order for that to happen, he’d have to know about Heidi. She wouldn’t even begin to know how to tell him. He couldn’t know. No one could know. She would not open her daughter up to exploitation.
Inevitably, Heidi’s sweet face filled her mind, bright blue eyes full of curiosity, long dark hair pulled up in barrettes. Her heart aching with loneliness, Caitlin sent her thoughts traveling across the miles, hoping maybe Heidi would hear them, letting her mind meander through the normal events in her daughter’s life. Painting beside the beach…walking in the flower gardens…reading in the library…playing tag in the yard with Gerald and Katie…baking brownies with Mary…doing her lessons at her desk…tinkering on broken things with George…and she knew quite well where that tendency came from…all so normal…so mundane…but then there were the other pursuits…the extraordinary ones…the ones she dare not discourage…
Several minutes elapsed as Caitlin visited her daughter in her mind, the low rumble of the two executives’ voices and an occasional indecipherable murmur from the sleeping Cloud not intrusive enough to disturb her thoughts. Then a huge sigh emanated from beside her, and her lips tipped in a smile.
“Something wrong?” She cracked her eyelashes to peer at Elena where she leaned against the wall at the end of the bench.
Elena shrugged. “I don’t know. Not really, I guess. I was just thinking about what you said…”
“What? About liking Reno?”
“No! No, I meant about something happening to him. I hope he’s okay…” Elena’s brows drew together in a worried frown.
Smiling, Caitlin closed her eyes again and responded dryly. “Well, you convinced me, at least on that score. I imagine the entire city could fall, and your Reno will stroll from the debris unscathed.
“He’s not my Reno!”
“Okay, I apologize. My mistake.” Caitlin’s lips twitched.
“I want to make sure we are clear on that,” Elena anxiously pursued.
“I assure you, I have a clear picture now. Crystal clear.”
“Good. I just wanted to make sure you realize your error.”
“Oh, I do.”
“I mean it’s not like he’s….”
Caitlin’s eyes slid languidly open at the aborted remark, and she turned her head to peer at Elena through her lashes.
“No, he’s definitely not,” Caitlin readily agreed.
“I just hope he hasn’t gotten himself into some trouble.”
“I’m sure he’s fine, Elena. Like you said, he can take care of himself. I bet you’ll hear from him any minute.”
“You’re right.” Seemingly reassured, Elena dropped her arms and walked across to the window, touching the bulge of the pistol at her waist as she moved.
Caitlin let her eyes droop closed as she again sought to immerse herself in her comforting thoughts of her daughter, but Elena suddenly spoke, and the excited interest in her voice brought Caitlin to her feet.
“Something’s going on out there.”
Caitlin moved to join the Turk at the window, but Elena saw her and threw her hand up. “No. Stay there. Don’t come near the window.”
Reeve looked up from his work with a preoccupied frown. “What is it, Elena?”
“I’m not sure, but it doesn’t look good. A man…he’s looks injured…beat up…he’s talking to Captain Gellner.”
Jack turned away from the table, his curious eyes on Elena’s rapt face. “I wonder what happened?”
Elena shook her head absently, all her attention on the scene outside, a welcome break from the long boring hours. “Who knows? Hmm…looks like Gellner’s lining up his guards.”
Reeve threw down his pencil and purposefully walked toward the door. He didn’t know what was afoot, but he didn’t want a repeat of the incident a few days past.
Elena shifted uneasily. “Uh, Reeve, Gellner and his guards seem to be leaving.”
“What the…” Reeve dashed the rest of the way to the open doorway. Jack moved to join him, somewhat alarmed himself.
“Wait. I’ll go with you.” Elena reached under her sweater for the gun.
Reeve paused with his fingers clasped around the doorframe. “No, Elena. You stay here. With Caitlin.”
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this, Reeve.”
“All the more reason to stay.”
Caitlin knew exactly what Elena was talking about. Her stomach was tight with premonition. She didn’t want Reeve to go. Unconsciously, she stepped toward him, drawn there by her need to keep him with her.
He saw her from the corner of his eye and shook his head. “That goes for you too, Caitlin. You will stay here.”
But he didn’t wait. Her words fell into empty air. He was already gone.
A door slammed somewhere close by, and boisterous voices exploded into the space around him.
“Man, I am dog-assed tired!”
“You ain’t as tired as I am, you lazy-assed slacker! I’ve had to walk the whole Sector. You’ve just been guardin’ one damn entrance.”
“Ow! That hurt! You jes’ try and do that agin, see what happens!”
“Shit! Ya got me shakin’ in my boots! I’m so skeered I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep now!”
Reno groaned in despair and rolled over on his back. A boot thunked into the wall just past the end of his cot, and his eyes popped wide open. Deliberately, he turned his head to discover the two soldiers across the aisle, apparently stripping down to their skivvies for bed, still jabbering on about their day like a couple of drunken teenagers. For that matter, they did look like teenagers.
Twisting around on the cot, he reached a hand over the edge and tiredly fumbled around for the boot. Finally, his fingers encountered a trailing shoelace, and with a mighty heave, he yanked the offensive footwear from the floor and sent it into a high arc to sail past one soldier’s nose and bang into the opposite wall before it fell against a metal footlocker with a loud clunk.
Both troopers fell silent and swiveled their heads in unison to peer at the indistinguishable form stretched out on the shadowed cot against the wall.
“Why the hell’d ya do that for?”
Reno released an exaggerated sigh of irritation. “To make the point that you are not alone.”
“Look, excuse me, but I’m attempting to sleep here. I’d appreciate it if you’d both stuff a dirty sock in it, which shouldn’t be a problem for you to handle as you’ve already removed your boots.”
The soldier who’d thrown his boot, the taller of the two, squinted his eyes as he stared into the dim light. He couldn’t tell much about the person lying there, but he could see the man was wearing a suit jacket of some kind. He was not a member of his troop.
“Oh yeah? Well, I don’t think you belong here, pal, so I don’t think you need to be tellin’ me what to do. That’s what I think.”
Reno rolled onto one elbow, a move that brought his face into a beam of dim light from the distant entrance. He heaved another sigh, this one genuinely born of weariness, and he pushed himself up to drop his feet to the floor. He looked down curiously as he felt the gritty floor against one bare sole. He’d been so exhausted that he’d fallen onto the cot fully dressed, and he’d apparently lost one of his shoes somewhere in the rumpled army blankets. He was tired all the way to the bone. He was certainly too damn tired to argue effectively. He couldn’t even find the words to engage in witty repartee or vaguely ominous threats. He shook his head. “Figures that’s what you’d think.”
He reached out a hand and patted the blankets until he finally found his worn loafer against the wall next to the flat pillow, only briefly wondering how the shoe had managed to work its way up there. He’d found his garments in stranger places upon awakening, but usually only after an arduous binge. He deemed himself mostly intact to only discover one shoe missing.
He tossed the shoe to the floor where it landed on its side like an overturned boat. Impatiently, he flipped it upright with his big toe and shoved his foot in as he looked up to find two pairs of round eyes frozen on his face. Reno gained some slight satisfaction at sight of the horror of recognition in their faces. Pushing the sleeve of his jacket up, he glanced at his watch only to rediscover its absence. He kept forgetting that he’d lost it in Junon. He looked up again to find the soldier’s expressions unchanged.
“What time is it?”
At his question, the taller one shook off his trance and nervously moved a step closer. “Uh…Mr. Reno…sir…I’m sorry about what I said. Corey and me, we’ll be quiet if you wanna go back to sleep. I swear.”
The redheaded Turk’s lips curved in a tight smile at the tremor in the soldier’s voice. He shot a scathing look around at all the empty bunks. “What’s the point? I’m sure there will soon be a dozen more of you slamming through that door any minute, vomiting similar moronic jabber from their flapping mouths as well.”
Tossing his wayward hair out of his face, Reno reached for his sunglasses and discovered they were gone. After another protracted search of the bed, he unearthed them in the tangled sheet. Shoving them onto his head, he wearily straightened to find both the soldiers standing in the aisle.
“Look, we’re really sorry.” The taller of the two soldiers, the apparent appointed spokesperson, held his hands out in a plea while the other, Corey, vehemently nodded his head in punctuation. “We didn’t mean anything. I swear we didn’t. We were just, you know, being stupid. Blowing off some steam.”
Reno withdrew the collapsed mag rod from his coat pocket and snapped his wrist to fully extend the weapon. Then he tugged his rumpled jacket into place and purposefully walked forward to halt directly in front of the speaker. With a good four inches on the taller of the two, Reno cut an intimidating figure as he glared down into the kid’s anxious face, his hooded green eyes glittering with annoyance, his rod tapping noiselessly against his leg. Happily, the Turk noted the tremble in the soldier’s lower lip. Suddenly, Reno smiled widely, and both members of his captive audience winced at the abrupt change in expression. He clapped a hand against the taller soldier’s shoulder, and they both visibly flinched.
“Hey guys, it’s okay. There’s no need to get uptight. I’m just cranky. You’d be cranky too if you’ve only had a couple of hours sleep in three days. Right.”
The two soldiers stood transfixed.
Reno started nodding his head, and they parroted in unison, their heads bobbing in time with Reno’s.
“Right then. What time is it?”
Before either solider could come to his senses enough to look at a watch, the door to the barracks slammed back into the wall. The man darkly silhouetted in the doorframe showed no inclination to move further. “Reno, are you still in here?”
Reno moved to walk around the two young soldiers even as they cleared the aisle with great alacrity. “Maybe. Who wants to know?”
The sergeant waited in the doorway until Reno came abreast of him. “HQ wants you to check in, sir”
“Hmm…what time is it?”
“Can you get me a radio?”
“Oh, and a cup of coffee?”
“Sure. Will do. Do you want cream or sugar?”
“Nope. Just make it black as sin and 90 proof.”
Without a pause, the sergeant saluted his acknowledgement and strode off in the direction of the mess tent. Reno started to follow, but abruptly stopped in his tracks as though he’d just remembered that he had unfinished business. Which he did. Smiling broadly, he whipped his head around to locate the soldiers who stood huddled together between their cots. Lifting a hand, he playfully pointed at them, his finger and thumb creating a shadow gun that was clearly silhouetted against the bright light shining through the doorway behind him. “Hey, I’ll see you guys later.” Then, with a click of his tongue against his teeth, he fired off a haphazard salute and disappeared.
Both young men stared at the open door for a long moment, and then Corey broke away and snatched up his shirt. Skip followed on his heels. “What are you doing?” Corey turned wild eyes on the taller man. “If you think I’m waiting for him to come back, you’re nuts. I’m going back to work. Or I’ll help out somewhere. Anything but stay here. I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway. Too afraid I wouldn’t wake up.” Skip watched him frantically button up his shirt. “I think you’re overreacting. He doesn’t have time to mess with us.” Corey nodded in agreement as he tugged on his boots. “Maybe so, but I’m not taking the chance.” He grabbed his cap and rifle, and brushed past his friend as he hurried to the door. Skip held out a placating hand. “Come on, Corey. You need your sleep. We gotta go back on duty in a few hours. That guy wouldn’t come back…would he?” Skip chewed the inside of his mouth in thought and suddenly decided that maybe he would. “Hey Corey! Hey, Wait for me!” He dropped to his knees to look for his discarded boots.
“Is this the place?” Yuffie poked a finger at the door.
“Yep. That’s what the man said.”
The ninja girl rapped smartly against the wood.
Cid leaned tiredly into the wall. “It’s just a saying, Yuffie.”
“Well, what man is the saying about?”
“I don’t know,” Cid bit out.
“Then why say it?”
“Look, just forget it. I’m sorry I said it already.”
“Man, you sure are grumpy. Who threw a wrench in your engine?”
“Nobody,” Cid growled through his clenched teeth.
Yuffie smirked. “Oh yeah, that’s right. The engine wasn’t broken.”
Cid thought about informing her that the engine had indeed been malfunctioning, that he had discovered the problem during pre-flight, and that he had repaired it while she was in the cockpit devouring most of the food she’d purchased with his gil, but he decided it wasn’t worth the effort. The door finally opened just then anyway, and Barrett’s grim face appeared. Ominously silent, he left the door standing ajar and moved away.
Yuffie’s greeting froze on her lips. With a heavy heart, she quietly entered the room, looking around to see Rude sitting at a massive conference table with a notebook computer, and Red curled up at the end of a sofa. The beast opened his eye when she hesitantly stepped across the threshold into the richly decorated Shinra suite.
“Hello, Yuffie. Cid. I hope the flight went well.”
Cid inclined his head and tersely replied to Red’s greeting as he closed the door. "We landed in one piece.”
Yuffie gingerly perched on the end of the sofa beside Barrett’s huddled form. She opened her mouth to ask the thing that was paramount in her mind, but the words wouldn’t form. Instead, she tipped her chin toward the occupied Turk. “What’s he doing?”
Barrett shrugged. “Tryin’ to get ahold of Reeve.”
“Oh.” Her troubled eyes fell to her shoes. “So…how did your…day…go?”
Barrett held his tongue, his eyes following Cid as the pilot leaned his lance against the marble fireplace mantle and walked across the room to stand in front of him. Shifting his weight to one foot, Cid crossed his arms over his chest and looked down into the tired brown eyes. He wasn’t sure he would like the answer, but he meant to ask. He had to know.
“What about it, Barrett. Did ya find ‘em?”
Barrett turned his eyes away from Cid’s searching gaze. “No. We didn’t.”
Cid started to open his mouth to point out that not finding them was probably a good sign, but then he realized that it didn’t mean anything other than they hadn’t found them. Period. The whole day was really starting to suck. Dejected, he sank into the wingback chair behind him and hunkered down, letting his grizzled chin drop to his chest as he stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets.
“So, are you going out again tomorrow?”
Barrett’s face fell. “No, we aren’t.”
“We’re going with you. To help you.”
“Well, I can manage without ya if you wanna go look.”
Barrett shrugged his huge shoulders.
Yuffie abruptly stood and whirled to glare down at the top of Barrett’s bowed head. “I’ll go look if you don’t want to,” she snapped angrily.
Stunned, Nanaki raised his head. “You know better than that Yuffie,” he admonished. “We are not going again tomorrow because we have accomplished all we can for now. Any further search is fruitless.”
Yuffie had the good grace to look shamefaced. “But I don’t understand. They’re still out there.”
Nanaki shot a concerned look at Barrett. He had seemed so full of hope when they’d flown from the valley, so sure that Tifa and Vincent were okay. Now, he had fallen into a morass of depression, and there hadn’t been anything Nanaki could say that would bring him out of it. Nanaki suspected that the reality of their fruitless search had set toxic fangs into his mind. He had to admit that keeping his own level of optimism up was becoming increasingly difficult, especially in the face of Barrett’s sorrow.
“Yuffie, we were able to locate the approximate area that they went overboard. We searched there for hours, but we didn’t find any sign of them. The entire valley below is flooded and infested with poisonous serpents. We thought they might have taken refuge with the Sleeping Man, but when we went there, we found the cave entrance had collapsed. There is simply nothing else we can do right now. Not until the floodwaters recede. We can’t even begin to excavate the cave until then, and of course, if they are under the floodwaters….somewhere…or even in the cave…well, time probably isn’t a factor…anyway...”
The reality of their helplessness came home to roost in Nanaki’s heart once again, and he dejectedly laid his muzzle across his paw, averting his gaze from the stricken eyes of the ninja girl. Now he knew why Barrett had been taken over by depression again. All the idle hours in the luxurious Shinra suite had given him too much time to think about it.
A profound silence grew between the members of the diminished Avalanche team as each one reacted to Nanaki’s words. Yuffie dropped heavily to the floor to sit cross-legged, huddling into her arms as she fought back her unwanted tears. Cid mentally cursed at the futility of it all, and unconsciously slid his fingers across the crinkled surface of the folded letter in his jacket pocket. Nanaki curled himself more tightly into a comforting ball against the plush carpet and tried to draw the reluctant mantle of sleep around him. Barrett slumped lower into the overstuffed sofa and jutted his lower lip in defiance, stubbornly diving back into his memories of the Seventh Heaven and Marlene running to throw chubby arms around his neck when he’d finally come back, and the way Tifa would cross her arms and tap her foot in a pretense of irritation at his tardiness, and then the way she would relent and give up the game with an exasperated shake of her head and a flash of her easy smile.
Rude carefully closed the cover of the computer and sat quietly for a moment. Then, he pointedly stood and crossed the room to stand in their midst. No one noticed him until he cleared his throat. Even then, only Cid looked up.
“All of you should get some sleep. We will depart before sunrise.”
Cid wearily nodded. “Sure Rude, guess we better. We’ll just head back to the hotel.”
Rude slowly shook his head. “No, this time you will all stay here in order to expedite our departure in the morning.”
Cid’s eyes narrowed speculatively. “Did you get a hold of Reeve?”
At the unspoken question in the pilot’s eyes, Rude expanded on his answer.
“I haven’t been able to reach him yet. I expect to soon.”
Cid nodded and rose from the chair, crossing the room to retrieve the Venus Gospel. He noticed Rude didn’t seem perturbed by Reeve’s failure to respond. He wasn’t bothered by it much either. He imagined that Reeve was pretty overwhelmed with his responsibilities beneath the city. He knew the Turk would raise him eventually.
“Okay, where’s the rack?”
Rude inclined his head toward an arched doorway. Two incandescent wall sconces flanked a framed portrait of New Age President Rufus Shinra, and a fancy telephone overshadowed by a monstrous, overgrown ivy of some kind graced the small, elegantly designed table beneath the painting.
“There are several bedroom suites down that hall. You may select any one of them.”
Cid’s stomach suddenly growled, and he sent a speculative look around, recalling how little Yuffie had left him to eat. “Hey, is there any food around here?”
Rude curtly nodded toward another arched doorway. “There’s a fully stocked kitchen in there. Eat whatever you like.”
Cid didn’t waste any time heading that way. “Got any tea?”
“I’m sure there is,” Rude responded as he crossed to the main door.
Cid stopped in his tracks. “Hey, where ya goin’?”
Rude didn’t even look at him as he opened the door. “I’m going to check on the preparations,” he responded coolly. “I’ll return shortly.” He closed the door softly behind him.
Cid turned around to see if anyone else wanted to join him only to find the sitting area empty. His eyes shot to the passageway to the bedrooms just in time to see Red’s flame-tipped tail disappear in one direction and Barrett’s broad back turn in the other. He was so tired that he almost decided to follow in their footsteps, but his stomach rumbled again. He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep on an empty stomach, and when he finally went to bed, he wanted to sleep. He did not want to spend hours staring at the dark ceiling and thinking. With a jaw-popping yawn, he pushed open the kitchen door.
Reno leaned against a lamppost outside the dilapidated Regency Hotel across from the mess tent. The ten-story structure, once the most prestigious and luxurious hostelry in all of Old Midgar, was now nothing more than a dingy apartment house with laundry hanging from the rusted iron railings of its many balconies. If Reno had put any thought to where he stood, he might just barely remember a time when he’d clutched his mother’s fingers and watched the wealthy and well-connected guests come and go, clad in their tuxes and gowns, his green eyes filled with awe at the sights and sounds emanating from the brilliantly lighted entrance of the magical place, a beautiful palace to which he or his mother would never be granted entrance, but Reno rarely thought of those times, and even if he were so inclined to expend any thought on a memory so far removed from the lonely reality that had been most of his life, he didn’t have time. The gears in his mind were turning; his thoughts engaged on the problem at hand while he studied the scene around him, his lazy gaze taking in every detail of the passing faces even as he analyzed the results of two days of relentless investigation.
Absently, he stroked the scar on his cheek as he replayed the more relevant issues in his mind. One of those involved the pumping station. The station, with its central access to the plate overhead, was the only viable exit from the city available to the killer unless he had the stomach to dive into the sludge of the sewers and swim all the way to where the sewage entered the treatment plant or had the nerve to climb hundreds of feet of scaffolding and dangling, disjointed pipes after managing to slip past every sentry posted the entire length of the railway tunnels. Reno didn’t doubt that a man sufficiently motivated would choose either of those alternatives, but he didn’t think it was possible to accomplish either venture while carrying a child, and he surely would have left a noticeable trail of corpses along the way. Reno had interrogated the guards and personally searched the pumping station twice. None of the guards that had been assigned to the station since the first incident had seen anything out of the ordinary or been accosted by anyone, until he appeared on the scene.
Inevitably, Reno had reached the conclusion that the killer had not only survived his gunshot wounds long enough to leave the pumping station, murder three guards and the mother, and abduct the child again, all without being seen by anyone, but that the killer then had not been able to leave the city. Working on the premise that the man might need medical treatment, the Turk had visited the hospital and talked to the medical staff. That had taken hours as the people were harried and overworked, unwilling to waste precious time on his questions. However, he’d managed to talk to them all, and he had discovered that there had been three individuals treated for gunshot. Two were hospitalized in one of the makeshift wards in Wall Market. He had readily dismissed the two young men who had shot each other in an argument. Both had almost missed, leaving painful injuries in non-vital parts of their bodies. The last he tracked down to a barracks in Sector 1, to a soldier who had accidentally discharged his rifle into the toe of his boot. All dead ends.
Next he’d questioned people. Everywhere it seemed. Wall Market. Sector 2. All parts in between. Although the military personnel had readily answered his questions, lacking any choice in the matter, the civilians had been wary and reluctant to respond. If any of them had seen anything, they weren’t talking.
Early on, Reno had visited the morgue to ‘talk’ to the decedents. Of course, he’d enlisted the aid of Dr. Frances Spiner, the head pathologist of Midgar General, to translate, a task which had not proven difficult for her, although he’d found the content a bit surprising. Despite his remarks to Reeve that he believed the crime to be of a domestic nature, he had actually been harboring a different theory on the matter, based on the type of weapon the assailant had used to shoot Elena. Only an angry spouse or lover currently enlisted in the military would be likely to carry an automatic rifle. Then he’d altered his theory yet again when he discovered that no one had heard gunfire or the cries of the victims. At that time, he’d started to think that the perpetrator might be a professional killer after all. At that point, he’d expanded his expectations of cause of death to include perhaps a silenced gun or a length of piano wire. In the end, he hadn’t needed the learned pathologist to tell him the cause of death. It was impossible to continue to draw breath when your head had been mostly detached from your body and unlikely your heart would manage to function with a hole through your chest. However, when the pathologist indicated that the wounds were consistent with those that would be made with a sword, definitely one with a long, slender blade, probably a katana, his conclusions had foundered in stunned disbelief. He had no basis on which to question her statement, however. The good pathologist had definitely seen katana wounds before. After all, her department had handled all the victims from the Shinra Tower, and the katana had still been lodged in President Shinra’s body when he’d been found at his desk.
In the end, he had searched miles of maintenance and sewage tunnels himself, partly in desperation at the paucity of clues, and partly because he thought the kidnapper might be holed up down below. He’d found nothing.
Now, as he mentally rifled through all that he’d learned, he realized that he’d reached a point in his investigation where he really had nowhere to go. He knew, without a doubt, that the killer remained in the city with the child. The man could not leave. Not without slaying a couple of dozen guards first. He no longer believed that the killer had been a psychopathic father snatching his child back from his ex. More importantly, he had to admit that he no longer believed that the killer had acted alone. A killer who dispatched people with an automatic rifle did not have the discipline or finesse to lethally wield a katana. Few people did.
Unconsciously twirling the mag rod through his fingers, Reno narrowed his eyes in deep thought. He’d come to a point where he was left with really only two questions to answer. Where were the killers hiding with the child and what motivated them? He pondered the idea that the second question might well be more important than the first. However, he couldn’t answer the second without answering the first. He would have to find them.
The sergeant suddenly appeared in front of him, and Reno fisted the rod and straightened from the lamppost to take the cup of coffee offered. With one quick move, he tossed the entire contents down his throat and handed the empty cup back to the man.
“Do you have the radio?”
“Yessir, right here.” The man unclipped the radiophone from his utility belt and held it out to the Turk.
Reno shook his head. “No, you do it. Radio HQ for me. Get Reeve on the horn.”
The sergeant simply nodded in tacit acknowledgement and lifted the radio to his mouth. Reno only half listened to the sergeant’s conversation on this end. He’d already turned his mind back to his current problem, sifting through an endless list of possible hiding places as he idly watched the people moving along the broken pavement of the long neglected street in front of him. Suddenly, Reno’s thoughts froze as a child cried out shrilly just to his right. Annoyed that the obnoxious noise had disturbed his mental analysis, he turned his incisive eyes in that direction and immediately discovered the source. The small boy, no older than four or five, had apparently fallen and skinned his knee royally. A young man, most likely his father, knelt beside him, talking to him, drawing him close as he attempted to soothe the boy’s tears. Screaming in his pain, the boy tried to twist away.
“Mama! I want mama!”
“She’s not here right now. Come on. Let me look at it.”
“No! No! I want mama! I want Mama!”
Reno rolled his eyes in exasperation as the child began to scream louder, if that were possible. He doubted the sergeant could even hear over the radio. Children should be illegal. The Turk smirked at the idea. It was certainly pleasant to think about however impossible it might be.
“Sir, Reeve isn’t available right now.”
Reno pinned the sergeant with a hard stare. “What? Where is he?”
“Private Coakley says he’s talking to Captain Gellner right now.”
“Is Elena nearby?”
Reno’s eyes were drawn back to the scene as the child’s screams dissolved into whimpers. A woman had appeared to scoop the little boy up into her arms. At last, all the child’s problems were solved. For the moment. Children always had one problem or another. Demanding, self-centered creatures.
“Good grief, Joan, he’s such a mama’s boy.”
The woman smiled serenely into the man’s face. “All little boy’s are mama’s boys, sweetheart.” The man chuckled and drew them both into the circle of his arms. “Do you think so?” The woman smiled, and the little boy giggled.
“Coakley says she’s inside the HQ, sir. Do you want to talk to her?”
Unaccountably irritated, Reno turned his attention back to the sergeant. “No, just deliver a message.”
“Yessir, when you are ready.”
“Tell her I’m going shopping. I need some new underwear. And tell her to meet me for dinner at the usual place. I’ll be waiting”
The sergeant looked at the Turk uncertainly. Reno impatiently waved a hand toward the radio. “Just send the message. And I want acknowledgement.”
Reno listened to the sergeant duly convey the message as he picked out another child in the passing crowd, this time a little girl with silky platinum hair pulled into a long ponytail. She hugged a doll to her as she skipped alongside an elderly woman, her small hand fisted around the woman’s full skirt. Then he spotted another girl with nut-brown curls, a little boy with a cap over his own closely cut brunette hair held tightly in tow as he scrambled to keep up with his sister. They appeared to be alone at first, until an officer hailed them from the mess tent. Reno’s lips curved into a chilly smile. The creatures were everywhere.
“I have a response sir.”
Reno turned his mirthless smile on the soldier. “Well? What did she say?”
The man gulped. Didn’t the messenger of bad news often wind up dead? He opened his mouth, but nothing came out but a squeak.
Reno’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Well, spit it out. I don’t have all day to stand here decorating the street corner.”
“Er…Coakley said…” Maybe he could put it off on Coakley. But no, he was the one pinned in the Turk’s piercing green-eyed stare. “…ah…he said…she said…to….”
Reno tapped the rod against one shoulder as he waited, his reptilian gaze unwavering. “I’m getting annoyed.”
“Ah…yes…of course…” The sergeant drew in a deep breath and exhaled the words in a paroxysm of speech. “Stick it in your ear.”
Reno’s eyebrow shot up. “What did you say?”
The sergeant huffed. “I didn’t say it. She said it. Stick it in your ear.”
The Turk shook his head in wonder. “Women.”
Reno spun on heel and walked away, the smug smile on his face unseen by the sergeant, who let out a long, slow exhalation in relief as the Turk moved off.
Reno strolled nonchalantly along the curb for three blocks before he turned the corner and paused in front of low, flat-roofed building that used to be a school. He studied a group of children ranging in age from about four to ten or eleven. They were kicking a ball back and forth. He sent his searching gaze further afield and identified several people as probable parents sitting on the curb proudly watching as they talked amongst themselves. A faint smile touched his lips again as he turned and shoved his way through the door into a huge room full of boxes and tables laden with foodstuffs, clothing, medicine, toys and bottles of water. His smile widened as he recognized two of the people in the room. Treading silently across the linoleum, he crossed the entire floor unseen to come to a stop directly in front of them. He let a minute tick past as he watched them build up the pot on a hand of poker. Then he spoke.
“Thought you boys were going to bed.”
He was amply rewarded for his stealth when the taller one audibly choked and threw his cards into the air to flutter down around his feet. The one named Corey just stared in mute acceptance of his fate, a sentenced man looking down the barrel of a gun.
“We…we…w…were…but…we…decided…to help out down…here…” Skip coughed out.
Reno slapped his hands down on the table and watched them jump in their chairs. “Well, well. This is fortuitous indeed. What did you say your name was?”
“Well friends, I do believe you are in a position to help me out.” Reno shot a glance around the room before he brought his affable gaze back to their wary faces.
“How’s that?” Skip inquired suspiciously.
“Well, I need some new duds, and I’d like to acquire them discreetly. Looks like you guys have plenty here.”
“What for?” Corey asked impulsively. He yelped when Skip kicked him under that table.
Reno just shrugged. “I’ve been wearing these clothes for three days.” He opened his coat and leaned in. “Wanna smell?”
The two soldiers leaned away, both shaking their heads emphatically. “No, man. We’ll take your word for it. Help yourself. Take what you want. We won’t tell a soul.”
“Where can I change?”
“There’s the showers in the gym. People are using those to clean up and change.”
Reno tilted his head in thought. “Um…actually, I need a place more private.”
“Well, there is the maintenance closet. And it has a sink.”
“Sounds perfect. Show me.”
Thirty minutes later, Reno slipped through a back door and into the street. His best friend wouldn’t have recognized him. His own mother wouldn’t recognize him, if he had one. Reno had known that he couldn’t answer the first question in the guise of a Shinra Turk. A Turk could not discover what he needed to know. He had to become one of them, the people in the street. And so he had. Now, he was just another homeless man, an anonymous face in the crowd, but a face that would be watching for that one child, hidden in plain sight amongst a veritable bevy of children, that one child that seemed different from all the others, that one silent in her solitude, her mind crouched in a far, dark corner, hiding from a newfound pain. That one who has just lost her mother forever and knows it. Even at the age of five, there are just some things that you know. And who better to find her than he. After all, he had once been made to learn what that little girl had just come to know. If that child remained inside the city, he would find her. With a grim smile, he idly fiddled with the gold stud in his ear, and then he ducked his head low and melted into the crowd.
Coakley had delivered the message and taken note of the reply with flushed cheeks, and he had paused for a moment as though he thought Elena the Turk might take back her response, but she merely shooed him out the door. He left with dragging feet, and one last hopeful look over his shoulder before he finally disappeared.
Elena looked over to find Caitlin frozen in mid-step about four feet closer to the window than before Coakley had drawn Elena away. The blonde Turk opened her mouth to reprimand the petite woman, but emitted a great sigh of exasperation instead.
“You know, Caitlin, I only tell you to stay away from the window for your own good.”
Caitlin met Elena’s gaze with steady eyes. “I know.”
Elena strolled to the bench and waved an inviting hand toward the wooden seat. “Come on. Over here.”
Caitlin complied without argument. She didn’t have the will to concoct an argument. Her mind had been completely consumed with worry about Reeve who had not yet returned. Unconsciously, she dropped to the seat and slumped against the wall, anxiously chewing her lower lip as her gaze returned to the empty door.
Elena sat down on the edge of the bench beside her, hazel eyes on the door as well, but for a different reason. “Er…I hope you don’t think that message from Reno was evidence of your earlier…er…statement…regarding…you know…”
Caitlin’s lips tipped in a mischievous smile despite her tightly knotted stomach. “You mean about liking Reno?”
“No worries on that score. I know it was code.”
“Sure, Elena. I was under the constant surveillance of Turks from the age of 15 until I finally celebrated my 18th birthday, and probably even after that if I were to know the truth. I picked up a few things here and there. Probably more than they would have liked.”
“So you know what he said?”
“Not really, just that he’s gone under.”
Elena nodded. “Yes, he’s gone under to look for the little girl. And he will report back in four hours no matter what happens.”
Caitlin pursed her lips. “And you reminded him to turn on his tracker beacon.”
“Yes, I did. I should get my wire.”
Elena rose and crossed to a wooden shelf where she’d meticulously folded her ruined coat and blouse among the other spare articles of clothing. She heard a huge yawn behind her as she dragged her coat down and shook it out. Reaching into the pocket, she drew out the wire and stuffed it down into her trousers pocket as she tossed the jacket back onto the pile of clothes. Then she turned to see Cloud Strife sitting up on his bedroll, his sword laid across his lap as he stretched his arms over his head.
He looked from Elena to Caitlin with sleepy-eyed interest. He couldn’t see the door from where he sat, but he could see that no one was at the table.
“Reeve off on another city tour?” He asked affably, mostly just to start a conversation in the quiet room rather than to acquire any information.
Elena idly glanced toward the door as she opened her mouth to answer. Then her mouth froze halfway ajar as though a Cosmo Canyon elder had just managed to stop time in its tracks. Cloud studied her comical expression with curious wonder. Then the Turk erupted into motion, scrambling to drag her gun from beneath the sweater as she sprang away.
Cloud whipped his head around as he gripped the hilt of the sword and swept the blade in a wide arc across the floor as he spun around to crouch on one knee. Warily, he bent low to peer around the end of the table.
Elena planted herself squarely in front of Caitlin. With her gun clasped in both hands, she deliberately sighted the barrel in on the center of the intruder’s forehead. “Who are you?! What do you want?!”
Caitlin leaned out slightly to peep around the taller woman’s shoulder. The man had paused in the doorframe when Elena had leveled the gun at him, her aim true and unwavering. Caitlin’s eyes widened at sight of him. She let her eyes travel from the woven sandals on his feet to the white leg wrappings to the red knee-length tunic that was gathered at the waist with a colorfully beaded belt adorned with long strands of ivory beads. His finely muscled arms were bare, but he wore a heavy metal bracelet at each wrist. A finely etched blue stone hung from his neck on a leather thong, and his long ebony hair fell in a cascade from a headpiece of bone and feather at the crown of his head. At least as tall as Rude, and just as broad-shouldered, the man filled the entire doorway. Obsidian eyes glittered from his bronze, high-cheek boned face.
Ignoring Elena’s firmly voiced command, the man purposefully took a step into the room.
He took another step, and Elena moved the gun slightly and pulled the trigger. The bullet thwacked firmly into the doorframe next to the man’s ear, but the mysterious stranger didn’t even flinch. He reached over his shoulder as he took another determined step.
“Just relinquish Ms. Shinra to me, and I may agree to let you live.” The man spoke softly with no hint of an accent.
Elena raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know a Ms. Shinra,” she responded coolly.
“Hmm…have it your way then. You will give me the woman who stands behind you or you will die.”
At the overt threat, Elena didn’t hesitate any longer. Wordlessly, she fired dead center at the intruder’s unprotected chest, but he merely spun away in a move so blindingly swift she could hardly follow him. Leaping toward her, he cleanly drew the katana from its sheath even as Elena fired and missed again when he simply twisted sideways in another lightning move. Fisting the tightly wrapped hilt of the katana in both hands, he swept the blade around in a level, flatly executed maneuver clearly intended to take the Turk’s head from her body. Elena convulsively fired twice more as her horrified eyes locked in on the subtle glide of light along the keen edge of the blade. Frigid ice exploded into her bloodstream and seeped numbingly into tendon and muscle. Even if she could have moved, she would not have. She didn’t even try. Her job required that she stand. The katana blade whispered through the air as time almost slowed to a standstill in her stunned mind. Her eyes frozen wide, she let the gun tumble from her fingers in the hope that Caitlin might have time to snatch it from the ground, to save herself, although the weapon hadn’t seemed to do her much good.
Through her blurring field of vision, a flash of spectral blue fell, and she blinked at the startling clang of metal against metal. Instantly, her mind snapped into focus, and she whirled away even as she bent to snatch her gun into nerveless fingers. She wrapped a viselike grip around the elbow of the motionless woman standing behind her.
“Come on,” Elena growled.
Caitlin stumbled along beside the Turk, her head twisting to see over her shoulder, her eyes unerringly zeroed in on the pair of swordsmen describing a dizzying whirl of movement around the room as their blades passionately met and parted in a mesmerizing and violent confrontation of sparking light and elegant motion.
Elena roughly shoved Caitlin into the tiny bathroom and put her back to the small woman, planting herself in the doorway to block access to her as best she could. Caitlin promptly climbed onto the toilet seat to see over the Turk’s blonde head, her mouth drifting ajar in awe as she watched.
Elena squeezed the release and dropped the partially empty clip to clatter at her feet, the sound completely drowned in the din of the rhythmic metallic clanging that filled the room from wall to floor to rafter. Fumbling in her trousers pocket, she found a full clip and slammed it into the grip. Leveling her gun, she tried to find a target to fell their assailant, but she couldn’t get a clear shot without hitting Cloud. The combatants were all over the place. Surrendering to her helplessness, she let her hands fall to point the pistol at the floor. Almost as an afterthought, she switched the gun to her right hand, and with her left, she rotated the decorative edge of her Turk ring a half-turn, automatically activating a signal that would generate a tiny, intermittent flash on the intricately designed facet of her partners’ rings respectively, her first ever Turk alert. A wry smile touched her lips at her futile action. Reno, if he were already under, would not be wearing his, and even if the signal were to reach Rude, he was too far away to help her. With a deprecating shake of her head, she turned it off. If Cloud failed, she was on her own.
The door opened silently on well-oiled hinges, and a shadow fell long across the table, stretching steadily across the stone tile floor as the intruder crossed the wide expanse of room, taking care to make no sound that would disturb the man whose cheek was glued to the otherwise pristine tabletop, stentorian snores emanating from his gaping mouth that could probably rattle the silverware in the drawers and could more than rival any sound she could make. Yuffie decided, at that point, that she could forego her stealthy approach.
Pausing beside the oblivious pilot, she studied the dark cavern of his wide maw and briefly toyed with the idea of finding some obnoxious substance to squirt into his mouth that would sufficiently pay him back for the trick he’d played on her earlier. Although, anything that would be nasty enough to exact her revenge would probably bring him snorting to his feet with the sharp bladed Venus Gospel in his hand. He’d probably skewer her to the cabinet doors like a bug on a pin before he roused enough to even know what was happening.
Her eyes traveled over the half empty mug that the Captain clutched in one hand and the neatly arranged napkin holder with a set of bell-shaped glass salt and pepper shakers alongside. Her speculative gaze landed on the matching toothpick dispenser. In the blink of an eye, she had the small glass jar in her hand and had dumped out several of the wooden toothpicks onto the table.
Bending low to set an elbow on the table, she rested her chin in one slender hand and watched the grizzled pilot for a few moments, eventually deciding that he was indeed asleep enough for her malevolent purposes. With her other hand, she picked up a toothpick between two fingers and, with the careful steadiness of a surgeon wielding a suture needle, she meticulously positioned the thin sliver of wood into one flaring nostril. A small frown of annoyance touched the pilot’s brow, and Yuffie cautiously watched the slack face for the slightest sign of waking. Then, smiling approvingly at her handiwork, she slid her hand over to retrieve a second toothpick. Her eyes focused unerringly on the sleeping man’s face, she wasn’t looking where her fingers were going, and she inadvertently knocked the rest of the toothpicks onto the floor. Irritated at the interruption in her delicate operation, she peered under the table to find them scattered across the glossy tile, but she instantly lost all interest in decorating Cid’s fuzzy nasal passages at the sight of a folded sheet of crinkled paper trapped beneath the heel of his boot.
Happily, she snatched the paper into her hand and dropped into a chair beside the snoring pilot. She’d seen Cid turning a folded sheet of paper just like this one in his big hands just before their takeoff from Rockettown. He’d noticed her bright-eyed interest and had pointedly stuffed it into his jacket pocket. Now, she would find out what it said. With gentle fingers, she spread the note out and leaned in on her elbows to read.
Yuffie smiled at the endearment. She’d known it hadn’t she. So what if everyone started out a letter that way. She just knew it was a love letter. Only the slightest niggling of guilt flitted through her mind and away. After all, she had every right to read the note if he was going to be so careless as to leave it lying around. She darted another quick glance at him, and then bent again to the words, written in lines of neat, almost blocky cursive.
Well, I guess you have probably realized by now that I’ve left. I really don’t know how you will feel about it, but I would guess you would feel a great sense of relief.
“You are so wrong about that, lady.” Yuffie jumped at the sound of her own voice, and she pressed a finger to her lips. “Sssssh,” she reprimanded the sleeping pilot.
The boat is waiting at the dock for me, so I’ll make this brief. In the weeks you’ve been gone, I’ve had too many hours to think, and I finally realized that it’s time I got on with my life. I need to live life for myself for a change. I can only say, that the way I feel about you will never change, and I believe that the way you feel will never change either. So there is simply no reason to stay any longer. Maybe we’ll meet again someday, and you’ll feel differently. I’m sorry. I have to go. Take care of yourself.
All my love,
Yuffie slowly sat back in her chair as she tried to dismiss a sudden attack of conscience. It had been different when she thought she’d be reading a love letter, but now that she knew it was a goodbye letter, she just felt bad. She felt bad that she’d read it, and she felt bad that she’d stuck a toothpick in Cid’s nose and had planned to plant a few more, and she just plain felt bad for him. No wonder he’d been such a bear since they’d hit Rockettown.
Shera sounded so cool in the letter too, despite her discussion of feelings and the ‘all my love’ stuff and what have you. The words were stilted and almost curt. In fact, she sounded pretty piqued.
Yuffie picked up the letter and meticulously refolded the paper back the way she’d found it. Then she adroitly slid the crinkled square beneath his scruffy chin. Folding her arms on the table, she laid her cheek against her forearm and studied the pilot’s closed eyelids.
“This is your fault you know.” Yuffie sighed noisily. “You really should have told her. Now she thinks you don’t love her. Dim bulb.” She wagged a finger at the inattentive Captain. “If you were smart, which you probably aren’t, you’d go find her. I don’t know what she sees in you anyway. You look ridiculous with that toothpick poking out of your nose. If I had a camera, I’d take a picture for posterity.”
Suddenly, Yuffie sat up straight. “Ulp…I forgot. Red.” Cid’s love life completely forgotten, the ninja girl flung the chair back with a loud scrape and slammed through the portal, leaving the door flapping wildly in her wake.
The stranger smirked down into Cloud’s face as their blades locked in a deadly embrace. Muscles mightily straining, Cloud struggled to break free even as the larger man pressed his advantage, steadily forcing the soldier to give ground.
Cloud stumbled back another step and felt the edge of the table against the back of his legs. His opponent gave a powerful heave, and Cloud fell backwards into the tabletop, just barely managing to keep his sword held up between them. Unexpectedly, the makeshift table collapsed beneath him, and he threw himself into a roll just as the katana bit deep into the wood where he’d just been.
Cloud landed on his feet as the enemy swordsman jerked his weapon from the tabletop with an annoyed frown. Cloud didn’t give him time to get set. Swinging the great Ultima sword over his head as he sprang, he grabbed the hilt in both hands to bring the edge of the blade slicing down on the man’s ebony head, but the katana met his blade full measure.
Spinning away, Cloud brought the Ultima sword around in a sweeping arc only to clash with the ever-present katana. Blades locked again, the mysterious warrior forced Cloud back a step, and then another. The soldier’s boot encountered his bedroll, and he almost tripped. Then, he stepped on the saddlebags, and his foot went out from under him, landing him on one knee. He instantly spun away, swinging his sword around him as he regained his feet.
Back in the fray, Cloud kicked the saddlebags away from him and crouched with his sword lightly held in front him, ready to unleash a flurry of thrusts that he hoped would overwhelm his enemy. However, the man had backed away, holding his katana in guard. Confused, Cloud hesitated, and the mysterious intruder took the opportunity to dash through the open doorway.
Immediately, Cloud gave chase, following hot on his heels, but when he ran out into the open, the man had seemingly vanished.
“The roof!” Someone yelled.
Cloud whirled around, sure that the katana would pierce his body before he could get turned, but when he did come around, there was no one there. He turned and sprinted toward the corner of the building. Reeve called to him, and the soldier skidded to a stop just past the edge of the building, his sharp eyes roving over the wall of debris behind. Then he dashed away.
Puzzled, Reeve strode to the end of the building to see where the soldier had gone. He started when Cloud jumped down from the roof to land in a crouch beside him. Reeve frowned in irritation. “What is going on here? Where are the guards?”
Cloud looked around. “I don’t know. We were attacked.”
The blood rushed from Reeve’s face. “Where’s Caitlin?”
Just then, she emerged from the door with Elena just behind. Her anxious eyes sought him out. “Reeve?”
For a breathless moment, he drank in the sight of her face, his heart pounding in his chest at the thought of what might have happened.
“Reeve, what’s going on? Where did you go?”
Elena touched her shoulder. “Come back inside, Caitlin. It’s too dangerous to be out here.” Having no desire to protest, the smaller woman nodded in agreement and let Elena draw her away, her troubled gaze still locked on Reeve’s face even as she disappeared inside.”
“Mr. Alexander! I found the guards.”
Stomach churning with acid, Reeve swiveled his head toward the speaker only to see a pair of boots jutting out beyond the end of the building. Woodenly, he turned away and headed through the door. “Come on, Cloud. We have to talk.”
Once inside, Reeve didn’t waste any time. “I want all of you to get your stuff together. You’re leaving.” He looked back at the open door and took two long steps to carry him across the threshold. He glared around at the scattered group of soldiers until he found the one he wanted.
“Gellner, get over here!”
The Captain hurried over and came to a halt in front of Reeve. Snapping to attention, he smartly saluted him. Impatiently, the Shinra manager grabbed him by the elbow and dragged the startled officer into the doorway.
“Stand in this door until I tell you to move,” Reeve curtly commanded.
“L…look, Mr. Alexander…I…I’m…sorry…” the officer stammered.
Reeve shook his head in irritation. “Forget it. Turn around.”
“Face forward. Put your back to the room. And keep your eyes open.”
“Do it now,” Reeve glared his displeasure.
His mouth working speechlessly, the officer hesitantly complied.
Reeve whirled away to find Cloud, Caitlin and Elena standing in a silent huddle watching him. He threw out his hands in exasperation. “Well, come on! Let’s get moving!”
“What happened, Reeve?” Cloud laid his blade flat against his shoulder as he warily watched the door and waited for the executive’s answer.
“Someone tricked us, that’s what happened. Someone dressed as an injured Shinra trooper told Gellner that his battalion was needed to quell a riot over at the northern edge of the sector.” Not willing to waste the time to stand still and talk to Cloud, Reeve stalked over to the back wall and started frantically kicking bedrolls aside. “Apparently giving that…swordsman…time to come…for me.”
His glowing eyes locked unwavering on the door, Cloud responded grimly. “He didn’t want you, Reeve. He wanted Caitlin. He knows who she is.”
Reeve spun around in surprise. “What?! But how could anyone know…?”
“I can’t answer that. All I can say is that if you and your army hadn’t shown up when you did, he might have taken her.” Cloud finally looked around at the bewildered executive with veiled eyes. “I’m not sure I would have defeated him.”
The admission left Reeve speechless. He well knew how skillfully Cloud could wield his sword. He turned his stunned face to Elena. The Turk spoke before he could ask. “I couldn’t protect her, Reeve. Not with this gun. I couldn’t even hit him. I’d be dead now if Cloud hadn’t…” At the memory of the blade sweeping toward her, a shudder shook her whole body, and she lost her voice. Crossing her arms protectively around her middle, she squared her shoulders, and forced herself to continue. “I’ve never seen anyone like that man before, Reeve. He moved like…like…”
“Quicksilver...” Caitlin offered in a small voice.
Elena wordlessly nodded her agreement.
Tearing his eyes away from Caitlin’s pale face, Reeve dropped to one knee and fumbled in his pocket. “Have you heard from Reno?”
“Yes, he’s gone under to look for the girl.” Elena crossed the room to retrieve her coat as she replied. Quickly, she stuffed the contents of her jacket into the pockets of her trousers.
“Under?” Reeve finally found his penknife, and he worked to pry the blade out, dropping the knife once before he finally succeeded. “Into the tunnels?”
“No, he’s gone into the streets to look. He will have taken measures to ensure no one mistakes him for a Turk.” Elena carelessly tossed the coat onto the shelf and turned to watch Reeve with actively inquisitive eyes. Caitlin walked over to stand behind him, also intrigued by his activities.
“Where?” Reeve slid the blade beneath the head of a nail in a floorboard and feverishly pried to break it loose.
Finally, Reeve managed to work the nail out far enough that he could grasp it with his fingers. He tossed the penknife aside and plucked the nail from its hole. A muted thunk reverberated through the floor beneath their feet, and a small section of the worn floor suddenly dislodged, leaving a gap of about an inch. He slipped his fingers into the breach and tried to raise the panel further. Despite his straining muscles, he could only move the panel another few inches.
“Help me with this,” Reeve bit out through clenched teeth.
Caitlin and Elena both dropped down beside him to help. Reluctantly, Cloud gave up his intense surveillance of the open doorway, and sheathing his sword, he joined them.
With the four of them lifting, the section of flooring easily came away, and Reeve flipped it aside to reveal the hardpacked earth about three feet below the floor.
Reeve jumped down into the hole and again fell to one knee. Cloud and Caitlin looked at Elena with questioning eyes. The Turk shrugged her ignorance. “I don’t know what he’s doing…” She mouthed.
Cloud decided to ask. “What’s up, Reeve? You got a secret weapon buried down there?”
The executive nodded absently as he ran his hands over a section of the brick foundation wall. “In a manner of speaking.” One of the bricks gave beneath his questing fingers, and Reeve pushed against one end to loosen it further. With a grim smile, he suddenly yanked the brick free to reveal the numeric keypad hidden behind.
“Well, I’ll be damned…” Elena breathed.
“Just pray someone higher up than me hasn’t changed the code in the last five years.” Reeve held his breath as he leaned down and carefully depressed the ‘0’ button eleven times as his lips moved in silent count.
The keypad softly beeped three times, and Reeve slowly exhaled as a sharp clank sounded beneath the dirt. Quickly, he climbed out of the hole to watch as a slab of ground suddenly moved and broke free. Loose soil fell away from the edges as the metal hatch beneath slowly trundled back with a low rumble to reveal a metal stairway spiraling down into darkness.
“Well, now I know why you set up office in this hovel.” Elena sarcastically remarked. “I guess there is method in your madness.”
“Yes, there usually is.” His mouth curved in a tight smile, and he looked around at the others, noticing that Caitlin studied him with a hint of uneasy suspicion in her eyes. He shifted his attention to Elena and beckoned her close as he began to give her instructions in a low whisper. “A subterranean tunnel runs from this underground bunker to Sector 2. The exit is clearly marked and will open out into the basement of the old Shinra office building. I want you to join up with Reno. I have no clue what’s happening here, but if someone is after Caitlin, then your top priority must be to keep her safe. Tell Reno to forget about the investigation for now. This has to come first.”
Caitlin immediately protested. “Reeve, we can’t just forget about her.”
The Shinra manager simply ignored her. “Do you understand, Elena?”
The blonde Turk inclined her head. “Yes, but I want an automatic rifle.”
Reeve walked away, leaving the soldier and the Turk to wait in stoic silence while the Shinra heir stared down into the open hatchway and chewed her lip, her worried face almost hidden by the long, golden waves of hair that fell over her shoulders as she leaned in. She didn’t look up until Reeve returned a few minutes later, awkwardly carrying a military rifle. Elena took the weapon from him and efficiently checked it over before slinging it to her back.
“You need to go now,” Reeve urged. “Do you have everything?”
Cloud crossed his arms and shifted to one foot. “Guess so.”
Elena curtly nodded, and Caitlin shrugged. Her stuff was still on the chopper.
“Well, then…” The executive gestured toward the opening. “Get going.”
Caitlin didn’t want to go without Reeve. Although the mysterious swordsman seemed only interested in her specifically, she was terrified that he would come back looking for Reeve. Stubbornly, she remained in place. “Come with us, Reeve.”
He smiled slightly. “I can’t. I have to secure this bunker. For your safety.”
“He might come back, Reeve.” Her voice was tight with tension.
“Yes, he might. But I won’t be here. Coakley and I will gather up my equipment, and I’ll meet you at the old Shinra building as soon as I can. Now will you go?”
She studied his earnest face for a long moment, and then gave him a small nod. “Okay.”
Reeve drew out his krypton flashlight and offered it to Cloud. “You’ll need this. The lighting system down there has been shut down.” The warrior unfolded his arms to take the flashlight in one gloved hand, and he jumped down onto the hard-parked ground beside the hatch.
“Wait, Cloud.” Caitlin quickly crossed the floor and bent down to retrieve the saddlebags from the floor where he’d kicked them. “You forgot this.”
He looked around. “Just leave them. I don’t need them.” He’d eaten the sandwiches, and the cookies were probably hard as a rock by now.
Caitlin noticed that the contents of the bag had dumped out onto the dusty floor. “But what about your things?” She gathered the items in her hands.
Cloud suddenly remembered Marlene’s gift. He couldn’t leave that here. “Sure, bring that little package. That’s all I need.”
Caitlin brushed the dirt from the oddly shaped parcel and loosely retied the pink ribbon around it.
“Come on, Cait.” Reeve quietly urged. “You have to go now.”
“I know.” She walked over and held the small gift out to the warrior. “The ribbon came off. I tried to fix it, but it’s really too big…” Her voice trailed away as she noted the thunderstruck expression on Cloud’s face. “Er…really…I tried…”
“Where did you get that ribbon?” He asked dully.
“Well, it fell out of your bags.”
Cloud just stared at the parcel in her hand, and Caitlin shifted uneasily. “I’ll just keep it for you, if you like.” When she didn’t receive an answer, she moved to put the ribbon and gift into her jeans pocket.
“No.” Cloud protested a bit too loudly. Then he added more softly. “I’ll take it.”
Silently, he took the small, ribbon-wrapped parcel and immediately tucked it away in his trousers. Then he held out his hand to help Caitlin step down beside him. He switched on the slender flashlight and planted a boot on the top step, pausing to look back at Reeve.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to stay?”
“I’m positive. I want you to make sure Caitlin stays safe.”
Without another word, Cloud descended the stairs. Elena urged Caitlin to follow the soldier and crowded close behind her to urge her on the way since she seemed to have a tendency to lag.
Reeve watched them go with folded arms, and as soon as Elena’s blonde head disappeared from sight, he stepped down into the opening and stooped to reach the keypad. He punched the ‘1’ key, and he turned his head to look down the steps as the hatch began to close. Thinking the trio would have already moved out of his view, he was somewhat startled to see Caitlin peering up at him from below, her azure eyes filled with sadness. Before he could react, Elena reached out and pulled her away. Then the metal hatch locked into place with a heavy thud, and though he couldn’t see her face anymore, her sad eyes still burned in his mind. And her eyes haunted him for a long time after, even after he’d spread the soil back over the metal plate with his bare hands, even after he’d replaced the brick and hammered the panel back into place, even while he salvaged his plat and his crate of equipment from beneath the collapsed table, even as he stood silently in the center of the room clutching the crate in both arms.
He didn’t notice when Coakley and Jack appeared in the doorway, didn’t see the way the engineer’s brow creased in a deep frown at Reeve’s trancelike state, until Jack spoke hesitantly in a voice filled with confusion.
“Are we leaving?”
The faraway look in Reeve’s eyes abruptly cleared as his head snapped around to find them there. He nodded curtly.
“Yes. Let’s go.”
Still perplexed, Jack looked around the empty room as he followed the executive through the doorway. “Where’d everybody go?”
Almost asleep, Nanaki’s whole body jerked at the flurry of maniacal raps on his door.
“Who is it?”
Nanaki’s head flopped back onto the comforter. He couldn’t imagine what she wanted with him at this hour. “Come in,” he replied tiredly.
He squinted an eye at her as she sprang through the door with entirely too much energy. “What are you doing up so late?”
“Huh? Oh! Too much chocolate I guess.”
“Well, I recommend you cut chocolate from your diet for the sake of others who wish to sleep.”
Yuffie waved a hand in dismissal. “Oh Red, you are so funny. Har dee har har.”
“What do you want, Yuffie?”
“Man, is everybody cranky tonight?”
“It’s two in the morning, Yuffie. We have to leave in four hours.”
“Oh well, I’m sorry. I just had this envelope for you, but…well, I’ll just bring it back later.” She grabbed the doorknob and yanked the door open.
Suddenly wide awake, Nanaki rolled onto his belly. “Wait! What envelope? What are you talking about?”
“The one that Lizbet gave me to give you.”
“Lizbet?! What’s in it?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Yuffie answered in a piqued voice. “I wouldn’t read other people’s stuff.”
“Really?” A hint of sarcasm touched Nanaki’s voice. Yuffie eyed him suspiciously. Then she decided he couldn’t know.
“Yes, really.” She huffed back. “It’s a photo anyways.”
“How do you know if you didn’t look in the envelope?”
“Look, if I’d known I was going to get the third degree…”
Nanaki rose and leapt to the floor with a heavy thud to drop to his haunches in front of the offended girl. “I apologize, Yuffie. I’m just a bit…overwhelmed…and tired.”
“Would you show it to me, please?”
“Sure, fur face.” Dropping to the floor at Nanaki’s feet, she crossed her legs and wriggled herself comfortably into the plush carpet. With a wink at the serious Nanaki, she drew a throwing star from her shorts pocket and slipped it beneath the envelope flap, slitting the envelope with one quick stroke.
Sticking the star between her teeth, she gingerly removed the photograph and tossed the empty envelope over her shoulder as her eyes widened on the scene depicted in the picture.
Almost overcome with curiosity, Nanaki craned his neck to see around the edge of the photo, but Yuffie shook her head and pulled it closer to her chest.
“Yuffie, it’s my photograph,” Nanaki wearily pointed out.
The ninja girl spoke to him around the metal star in her mouth, her finger traveling across the surface of the snapshot as she discussed the content, but he couldn’t understand a single garbled word that emanated from her mouth.
Shaking his head in exasperation, he dropped heavily to his belly, stretching out his paws to lay his muzzle across one leg, rolling his good eye up to watch her, knowing he’d have to outwait her.
Eventually, Yuffie paused in her indecipherable monologue and looked up at the lack of response from her silent companion. She took the star out of her mouth. “Red? Don’t you want to see?”
“Whenever you’re through with it, Yuffie,” Nanaki responded evenly.
She recognized the falsity of his forced patience, and she realized that in her excitement, she’d been hogging the photo. Carefully, she laid the glossy black and white tinted photograph on the carpet and sat back. “Sorry, Red. It’s just so cool.” She leaned back on her hands at his hesitation. “Go ahead and look at it.”
Nanaki rolled to his belly again and scooted forward on the carpet until he had the photo framed between his front legs, his beaded locks sliding across his jowls as he bent his head to look. He closed his eye and gave his head a hard shake before he popped the golden orb wide as if he thought he could catch the trick out, only to find the scene unchanged. “Is it real?” He breathed in wonder.
Yuffie suddenly leapt to her feet. “I think it is,” she answered indifferently. She left Nanaki to his own devices as she crossed to the large window. Drawing the drape aside, she glanced back over her shoulder. “By the way, the young woman in the picture is Lizbet.”
“It is?” He barely noticed the young woman kneeling on the ground so intently was his mind focused on the others in the picture. The Protectors. A group of them gathered around the eternal flame. Six in all. The young Lizbet sat among them.
“The moon’s full tonight.” Yuffie commented happily, as her eyes brightened on the luminous, pearly globe just visible in the sky above the highest reaches of Junon Base. Curiously, she dropped her eyes to the moon washed street below. Nanaki had chosen a room that faced on the inside street that ran through the the center of the base rather than one that fronted on the oceanside, and she idly studied both sides of the street, looking for something of interest. She didn’t receive an answer to her comment, but she hardly noticed as her eyes picked out a couple that had just moved into the circle of illumination from the tall lamppost directly below. Her interest aroused, she leaned in on the wide sill to get a better view. “Hmm…a romantic tryst? Hope so, then maybe I’ll get to see some smooching.”
Two of the males rested on their bellies near Lizbet, their attention turned to something that the young woman held in her hands. He decided right away that the one on her right had to be Pharan. The resemblance was, indeed, uncanny. No wonder the befuddled Lizbet thought he was another Protector. Nanaki’s thoughts slammed to a stop. No, not just another protector. His brother. Lizbet had handed him the proof of her words. There would be no more doubt in his mind on that score. And he had a sister too. Hungrily, he closely examined the others. The second male near Pharan seemed to be lighter colored, and his mane seemed to be clipped shorter along his neck, the strands of hair almost white in the photo. Another male with a darker hide and black mane stood on all fours near them, but his head seemed turned toward a female sitting on her haunches beside him. This then would be the Baroni that Lizbet had mentioned, and the female had to be Parna. She was the spitting image of his mother. Then the other male could be Ramo. The remaining two protectors, both females, seemed to be playing, one with her paw up as though to bat at the other, neither at all interested in the study at hand. The larger of the two had darker striations running through her coat, and the other young Protector looked to be brindle.
Yuffie tensed at the window as the man below gave the woman a hard shove. “Oh no, looks like a fight.”
The camera had capture the images of more protectors wandering in the background, and his eyes found one with full headdress sitting near the very edge of the photo. He wasn’t positive, but he thought that could be his father. Seto. And that might even be his mother, Kaelima, stretched out beside him. They were so small in the background, he couldn’t really tell. Still, they could be…his mother and father.
“Yuffie, this photograph is…amazing…” Nanaki said softly as he drank in even more detail. He suddenly remembered what Lizbet had said about a map, and he wondered if the unfolded piece of paper or cloth she held in her hand might be it. Certainly, he couldn’t tell from the small photo.
The ninja girl gasped out loud when the man backhanded the woman and knocked her to the ground. “Hey!” She hit the window with her fist. “Hey you…you…” She hit the window again, but she was too high up to get his attention. Now the woman was on her feet holding her face in one hand. Yuffie dug her fingers beneath the lip of the window and heaved, but it wouldn’t budge from the sash. Frustrated, she looked down again and saw the man advancing with a raised fist as the woman backed away. “You bastard! Uh uh, there’s no way this is happening.” Irate, the girl whirled away and raced across the room, flinging the door wide and barreling through. The door swung softly closed behind her.
Nanaki finally lifted his head. “I must travel to Cosmo Canyon. To speak with the Elders. They will surely know something about this. If I ask them straight out, they’ll tell me. Don’t you think so, Yuffie?” When the girl didn’t respond, Nanaki looked around the empty room. Then he stared at the closed door in puzzlement.
After a moment, he settled back down to see what else he could find in the picture. “Hmm...guess she went to bed,” he absently informed the room at large. “Oh well, I’ll thank her in the morning.”
Rude walked soundlessly along the sidewalk, glancing at his watch as he passed through a square of light cast through a plate glass window. Just less than four hours remained before his scheduled time of departure, and although the loading continued without interruption, it would take every bit of that time for the soldiers to finish. He turned into the dimly lit side street, and as he passed the club, the neon sign beckoned to him. The thought of putting his gil down on a game or two mightily tempted him, but he knew that he needed every bit of that time to catch up on his sleep. The next day would be an endless one. He still had to check the computer for Reeve’s acknowledgement of his message too. So he passed on. Another time.
He’d almost reached the next street when he became aware of the loud voices from around the corner. Rude stopped just short of the end of the brick building to listen for a moment.
“Look you, creep! You wanna knock somebody around, then just take on me. Come on! Come on!”
“Whyn’t ya mind yer own business, little girl. ‘Fore ya get hurt.”
“Only one’s gonna get hurt is you, ya fat-headed slob!”
Rude moved forward one step to get a look at the two parties in the disagreement. A big man clad in the uniform of the regular army doubled up his fist and took a wide swing at the girl. She easily dodged, and gave him a kick in the shin.
“You little bitch!” He swung again. She simply danced away, and booted him in the rear. With a roar of rage, he charged her.
Rude rolled his eyes. He should have known that girl would get into the middle of trouble.
The soles of his shoes didn’t make a sound against the sidewalk as he casually strolled toward them. As he neared, he noticed the woman huddled against the side of the building with her palm pressed to her tear streaked face, watching the ongoing altercation in a state of shock. Ignoring her for the moment, he came to a precise halt behind the enraged soldier just as he made another ponderously slow and fruitless swing at the agile girl. Yuffie simply twisted sideways, and he missed. At sight of Rude, she leapt back out of the soldier’s reach and gave the Turk a little wave of greeting, which gave him his cue to speak.
“Is there a problem?”
The soldier whirled around with a nasty retort on his lips, but he almost bit his tongue off in his haste to slam his mouth shut, his bowels loosening at the cold expression on the face of Rude of the Turks. Frantically, he looked in both directions for a place to hide, although he knew that if he ran, he wouldn’t get far. Surrendering to the inevitable, he stood shivering in place, a trapped animal frozen in its terror in the face of a seasoned hunter.
Yuffie jabbed an accusing finger toward the hulking man. “This cowardly bucket of vomitus slime hit her.” Crossing her arms, she inclined her head toward the injured woman. “He knocked her into the street.”
“Well, the stupid bitch lost our kid,” the soldier impulsively blurted out, secure in his own rightness, and then he flinched when Rude suddenly took a step closer. The Turk noted the name and rank on the soldier’s tag before lifting deadly brown eyes to collide with the man’s faltering gaze.
“Don’t you believe your time would be better spent searching for your child?” Rude inquired evenly. Deliberately, he slipped his hand into his jacket.
His horrified eyes locked on Rude’s movements, the soldier half-turned as though to run, knowing full well what those Turks kept hidden beneath their jackets. He almost yelped when Rude drew out a notepad. Retrieving a pen from his other inside pocket, Rude pulled off the cap with his teeth and started writing.
“I take it you are off duty?”
“Uh, no.” The soldier looked bewildered.
Rude studied him from beneath his brows. “Is this your duty post?”
Rude silently nodded.
“Well, no. Of course not.” He knitted his brow. Surely, the Turk knew that soldiers weren’t stationed street side.
Rude bent to his notes again. “I suggest you return to your duty post now.”
“So I can go?” The soldier asked hopefully.
The Turk merely nodded, all his attention seemingly focused on his writing.
The soldier wasn’t about to waste any time. He beckoned to his wife. “Come on, Porsha. Let’s go.” The teary-eyed woman hesitantly moved away from the wall.
The soldier shot a look at Rude to find him still writing. “What?”
“She isn’t going with you.”
“But…she’s my wife…”
Purposefully, Rude capped his pen and slid both notepad and pen into an inside jacket pocket. Then he clasped his hands in front of him and leveled a coolly incisive stare on the soldier’s face. For his part, the man wished that he’d had the good sense to already be gone, but he didn’t want to leave his wife behind to state her case to the Turk. Yuffie moved to stand beside the woman, taking an elbow in her capable hand. The soldier tore his eyes away from the Turk’s so that he could glare at the obnoxious slip of a girl who’d accosted him from behind. Yuffie stuck out her tongue at him. He nearly uttered a particularly foul word, but Rude’s soft voice brought his attention to the forefront again, sharply reminding him what might happen if he did.
“Corporal Stone, you are in violation of several military regulations, and you also appear to be in violation of Junon’s criminal code, the most serious counts of which relate to your assault of two civilians…”
“What? But wait…that’s my wife…and…and…that crazy girl assaulted me!”
Rude continued as though the man hadn’t spoken. “…One of which is a member of Wutai’s royal family. If I had time to deal with you, I can guarantee you that you would not be leaving here on foot.”
The man shot a wild look at Yuffie who was frozen in astonishment to hear so many words come from Rude’s mouth.
“However, I don’t have the time, and I am compelled to respect the military chain of command. Therefore, I will be referring the details of this incident to your superior officer with a recommendation for court martial.”
“Also, a full accounting of this incident will be messaged to Lord Godo of Wutai with a request for his recommendation regarding your abuse of his daughter.”
Finally, the man fell into horrified speechlessness. His insides quaked at the thought that Lord Godo might suggest something awful like execution. Didn’t they used to behead people in Wutai? Did they still? Certainly, Shinra didn’t have any reservations about performing executions.
Rude, who had yet to move any part of his body but his mouth, finally inclined his head toward the street. “I suggest you return to your duty post before I decide to handle this matter personally.”
Corporal Stone wheeled and ran without a backward look. Within seconds he’d turned into the street leading to the main part of the base. Rude closely watched him go. Then he redirected his attention to the woman called Porsha. Nervously, she wrapped a strand of blonde hair around one finger, her china blue eyes huge in her pale, bruised face.
Rude’s hard eyes softened imperceptibly. “You do realize that the main part of the base is off limits to unauthorized civilians?”
Slowly, she nodded. “Yes, I’m sorry. I just…my little boy…he’s gone…and I thought he might have come onto the base to see him. To see Richard I mean. Although, he really doesn’t like…him…that much…”
“So the boy has run away,” Rude flatly stated.
“Well, I guessed that he had. I don’t really know for sure. I put him to bed, and when I got ready to go to bed, I looked in to check on him, and he was gone.”
“How old is he?”
Tears started in the woman’s eyes again. “Well…he…he’s…six and a half…and…and…I’m so…worried…” She cleared her throat. “I looked for him everywhere before I went to find Richard at his duty post.”
“Could his stepfather have harmed him?”
Momentarily startled at Rude’s accurate conclusion about the family relationship, Porsha blinked. Then she shook her head again. “No, he had already left for duty before I tucked my son in. He wouldn’t have…any way…” Her voice trailed away as she realized she wasn’t entirely convinced of that.
“You should inform the military police. They will search for him.”
“Yes…I…I should…I just…feel so…foolish…”
“I’ll escort you there.”
With a curt inclination of his head, Rude spun on heel and walked away. Yuffie urged the hesitant woman to follow. “Come on, the police will find him, I’ll bet.”
With Yuffie almost dragging the stunned woman behind, they caught up to Rude and fell into step beside him. Less than a block away, he stood aside and held open the glass door into the police station for Porsha and Yuffie to pass through.
Fewer than five minutes later, he’d thoroughly motivated the sleepy desk officer to become wholly committed to the search for the small child, and he’d departed after assuring himself that Porsha’s needs would be satisfactorily met. He ignored her grateful smile as he passed her on the way out.
Striding down the sidewalk in the direction of the Shinra Corporate Offices, Rude tried to think as Yuffie skipped along beside him, a pesky gnat buzzing around in his space.
“You were really something, Rude,” she praised effusively. “You ‘bout made that cowardly jerk wet his britches.”
The Turk chose not to respond to the girl’s remarks.
“Especially that part about…” Yuffie lowered her voice to its deepest range for effect. “…Lord Godo.” Then she giggled as she pirouetted in the street.
Rude still did not reply.
Then Yuffie suddenly stopped in her tracks when it came to her that maybe Rude hadn’t been simply posturing when he’d said that. After all, he usually didn’t say much, and what he did say seemed pretty much straightforward. He wasn’t the type to joke either. She looked up to find he’d almost reached the main door.
“Hey Rude! Wait up!” She dove after him, snatching a handful of his jacket to pull him to a stop.
Solemnly, he turned to confront her, crossing his arms as he waited for her to speak.
“Rude, you aren’t really going to tell my father about this are you?”
Rude lifted one shoulder in a slight shrug.
“Rude! You can’t! He’ll make me go home! Please say you aren’t going to tell him!”
The Turk dropped his arms and turned away, the corner of his mouth lifting as he reached for the door. “I rarely fail to follow through on my word, Yuffie.”
Her shoulders slumped in dejection as her gaze fell to her shoes. “Oh man…”
Suddenly, she brightened. “Maybe she could bribe him. Surely, she could bribe a Turk. Surely there was something she had that a Turk would need.”
A grin spreading across her face, she sprang after him, slipping through just before the door closed.
“Hey, Rude! How you fixed for materia?”
Cradling the rifle in her arms, Elena eased the door at the top of the stairwell ajar. The main lobby of the defunct Shinra office building was crawling with people. She had known that the lower floors had been thrown open to the refugees, but she’d been hoping they might pass unseen. No hope of that now. She pulled the door closed and turned halfway around on the landing to look down at Caitlin and Cloud who stood further down the concrete stairway.
“I’m not comfortable with this. I don’t think Caitlin should go out there.”
“No one will notice me in the crowd,” Caitlin instantly interjected.
Cloud merely pursed his lips in thought.
Elena vehemently shook her head. “I don’t agree. Someone knows who you are, and they are surely still here in the city. We just can’t take a chance.”
“So what am I supposed to do?”
“Stay here,” Cloud suggested.
“What? In the basement?” Caitlin didn’t like the idea of having to sit around doing nothing. She needed to do something. Her active mind had already about driven her insane worrying about all the things that could happen to Reeve while the three of them had hiked miles through the dark tunnel with only the krypton beam to guide them.
Elena slowly nodded her agreement. “Yes, here in the basement. Cloud will stay with you. All the exits can be secured. No one will be able to get in without making a lot of noise. I’ll go look for Reno and bring him back here. I’ll…ah…rap twice, and then three times, so you’ll know it’s me.” Caitlin stewed in reluctant silence, refusing to meet Elena’s eyes. She knew the Turk was dead right, though. Finally, she relented, her eyes meeting Elena’s as she nodded in concession.
The blonde Turk shifted the rifle in her hands. “I can’t take this out there.” She raised her eyes to Cloud. “I guess you would know how to use this if you needed to.”
Cloud inclined his head in acknowledgement, but Caitlin reached for the weapon. “I know how to use it.”
Uncertainly, Elena relinquished the gun to the petite woman. “You do?”
Caitlin curtly nodded. “Oh yes.”
Elena gave her a searching look, and then she reached for the doorknob. “Be careful then. And bolt this thing behind me.” Swiftly, she sidled through the door and pushed it shut behind her.
Caitlin climbed the three steps to the landing and dropped the bolt into place. Then swinging her head to look down at Cloud, she slipped her arm through the gun strap and smiled grimly. “You got any cards?”
Cloud shrugged. “I’m afraid not.”
An impish smile spread across Caitlin’s face. “Well then, I guess you’ll just have to tell me all about yourself, because I don’t want any room left to think. I don’t want to think about anything. Not the past. Not the present. Not the future. Nothing.”
The warrior scratched his head in bewilderment as she dropped heavily down the stairs, crowding past his unmoving form before she spoke again.
“In fact, why don’t you tell me all about that pink ribbon? I sense a story behind that.”
She completely missed the look of dismay that filled his Mako eyes.
Startled, Rude looked up from the notebook computer when the kitchen door flew open and banged into the wall. He watched warily as Cid Highwind shambled into the room, his hand planted flat against the doorframe as though to hold himself upright. Rude figured that the pilot had gone to bed hours ago. Apparently not.
Cid chewed on a toothpick as he swayed in place, raking a hand through his hair. He yawned widely as he stood away from the door and shuffled into the room. Halfway across, he became aware of Rude’s presence at the conference table, feeling the weight of his stare, but he made his way to the sofa and fell lengthwise onto the cushions, his mouth cracking wide in a second huge yawn, before he addressed the Turk.
“Did ya get ahold of Reeve?”
Rude stared at the scruffy face of the pilot for a long moment in silence, and then he reached a decision, the only one he could reach under the circumstances. He could not let anything happen to Caitlin. All those years ago, he hadn’t been able to save her from the speeding car, but this time, tonight, he would be there for her. He would give his life for her if it came down to that.
“Yes, he has responded to my message, and I’ll be leaving for Junon immediately.”
Surprised, Cid grabbed the back of the sofa and pulled himself upright. “What are you talking about? Thought we were leaving at 6 o’clock.”
“You are. As soon as both the Gelnikas are fully loaded, the Commanding Officer of Junon Air Base will inform you. You will then be given command of the operation, and you will follow me to Midgar.”
Cid examined the Turk’s unrevealing face with suspicious eyes. “What’s going on?”
“There have been some developments that require my attention.”
“What kind of developments?”
“Nothing that concerns you.”
Cid frowned at the Turk’s secretiveness. “Did something happen to Reeve?”
Rude closed the computer lid and stood, tucking the computer beneath his arm. “No.”
Avoiding the pilot’s questioning gaze, he crossed the room to the door. His hand on the ornate handle, he glanced back over his shoulder. “I’ll see you in Midgar.”
Cid opened his mouth to protest, but wound up yawning instead. By the time he got his mouth closed again, the door had seated into the doorframe with Rude on the other side. Did he really care what Rude was up to? He decided no. Kicking his unlaced boots off his feet, he stretched out on the sofa with his head propped on one overstuffed arm and his socked feet on the other. Still chewing idly on the toothpick, he closed his tired eyes and waited for the fancy phone to ring.
The frequency of the soft beep in her ear came so rapidly now that it almost seemed one tone, and yet she hadn’t been able to pick Reno from the throng of people, some sitting on the curb, some passing up and down the street, some standing in clusters chatting. Not one of them immediately suggested ‘Reno’ to her. She had hoped that he would notice her wandering around and approach her, but no one had even leveled a significant look her way. She realized that she didn’t immediately stand out as a Turk either, but anyone that knew her would be sure to recognize her, especially Reno.
She watched a lanky man with a cap and wispy blonde hair saunter past, a pair of sunglasses covering his eyes. Could Reno have dyed his hair? Somehow the idea made her a bit sad. Frowning in irritation at her silliness, she fell into step behind the guy, following him for a short distance up the street until she realized that the beep in her ear had slowed almost imperceptibly, likely unnoticeable to an untrained ear, but a definitive sign to her that she had left her target behind.
Elena started back the other way, strolling casually along until the beacon had regained its steady, monotonous tone. Halting, she rotated in place in the middle of the street as people jostled past her, looking for any individuals that seemed stationary. There were so many. An elderly couple sitting on a bench. A man garbed in the hooded robes of one of the more obscure religious establishments in Midgar. Her eyes came back to him. Her interest piqued, she took a step closer, but he suddenly turned and met her gaze. She smiled and nodded. No way Reno could make his face that pudgy. Four children sat on the sidewalk drawing pictures with pieces of chalk, two women standing over them in animated conversation. Another child sat huddled against the wall a few feet away, her arms wrapped around her knees, her eyes lightly closed as though she were asleep. She seemed alone, but Elena surmised that she belonged with the others but had perhaps been overcome by exhaustion.
She turned in the other direction, her searching gaze pausing on a couple of guys huddled together in the space between two buildings. Dressed in faded, moth-eaten overcoats and layers of rags, their feet bound in strips of cloth, they seemed to be playing a game with a hunting knife, throwing it toward a target drawn on a cardboard box. She watched them closely for several minutes before dismissing them. They appeared to be members of the permanent street population that wandered the slums on a normal day. The two definitely seemed to be together, and both were equally poor at hitting the box. Probably the reason people gave them a wide berth. Or maybe they smelled. She wrinkled her nose at the thought.
Her eyes fell on a bright head of flaming hair, and she perked up with interest. Certainly, the woman seemed tall enough to be Reno, so close in height she couldn’t tell the difference anyway. With some strategic stuffing and a little makeup, he just might have pulled it off. Elena closely examined the sharp profile. Actually, he’d need a lot of makeup. The woman did look like a painted doll with lashes so long they threatened to put out the eyes of her shorter male companion. Her speculative gaze slid down to the long length of bare leg visible beneath the brief skirt. Nope. No way. She’d never seen Reno’s bare legs, unshaven or otherwise, but she doubted his calves would be so shapely.
“What are you lookin’ at, honey?”
Elena’s eyes shot to the woman’s frown. “Ah…I was just admiring your lovely…er…strappy little shoes.” Well, maybe not that little… “I just…love them.” She gushed convincingly. “Where’d you find them?”
A sad smile touched the woman’s face. “Clearance sale at Bayley’s.” The red-haired woman’s diminutive companion impatiently touched her hand, and she turned away.
The name of the store slammed into Elena’s brain, and she stared blindly at the woman’s profile. She’d shopped many times at Bayley’s. In the upper city. She had little doubt that the shop had been reduced to rubble along with the exclusive apartment complex that held all her worldly belongings. Her air ferns, her designer furniture, her satin comforter, her complete set of Chavron china, her…cat…”
The image of the longhaired white cat released a flood of sadness that momentarily overcame her, and she dropped her gaze to the cracked pavement beneath her shoes. Not her cat. Fritz hadn’t been her cat. She couldn’t keep a cat, because her job required she be gone for long periods of time. He’d belonged to the Shinra executive secretary who lived next door. The woman tended to avoid Elena if they met in the corridor, not surprisingly, but her cat regularly visited when Elena was home, leaping the space between the balconies to slip through the sliding glass doors to seek her out and twine around her ankles with a vociferous purr. She hadn’t realized how much she missed Fritz until now. She unconsciously shook her head in mild amusement at herself. What kind of life did she have when her only attachment had been to someone else’s pet?
“Hey, sad little girl…” A low whisper hissed into her ear. “How about a kiss to make it all better?”
Elena froze in alarm. That he could sneak up on her like that spoke to her mental preoccupation. Fighting the smile that sought to possess her whole face, she gathered her composure and slowly brought chilly eyes around to find one of the bums from the alley lurking at her elbow, his face almost completely hidden behind the upturned lapels of his overcoat and the low brim of a worn gray fedora. A pair of heavy black glasses perched on his nose, green eyes monstrously huge through the pop bottle lenses. Not a strand of red hair peeped out anywhere. Uncertainly, she took a step away. He sidled closer.
“Did you miss me?” He hissed again. He raised one finger and tugged his glasses down his nose to pin her with narrowed green eyes, active with speculation.
“I think you need to get off the street…” Elena sniffed disdainfully, putting another step of space between them. “…And away from me.”
He held up a partially smashed paper cup in trembling fingers, his hand wrapped in strips of rag. “Do you have a gil or two to spare a sick man?”
Elena pursed her lips thoughtfully. “You’d just spend it on alcohol.” She wrinkled her nose at him. “Why don’t you find a place to clean up?”
“Well, holier than thou one, where would an alcoholic loser such as I be admitted shelter?”
If she’d had any doubts before, which she didn’t, the silky drawl drenched in sarcasm would have tipped her off.
“You should find your family.” She bit out impatiently. “Maybe they really need you right now.” Pointedly, she took a sideways step away from him.
“Alas, I have no family.” He bowed his head in humility. “Would you know where I might find a comfortable place to lay my head where the rats won’t chew my toes?”
She smiled grimly at the image his words drew in her mind. “I’ve heard there is room at the old Shinra building.” She tilted her nose to a haughty angle. “They might allow you to curl up in the corner of the basement.”
He politely inclined his head. “Thank you for your kindness.”
She drew a hand from her trousers pocket and dropped something into the cup that made a sharp plink when it hit the single gil coins in the bottom. “Don’t approach me again.” With a toss of her blonde head, she turned on heel and strode away.
Reno surreptitiously pulled the glasses down his nose to peer at the spent cartridge in the cup. Then he turned slightly to study the little girl alone against the wall. He had been watching for an hour, and he had yet to identify a single person that might be accompanying her. Her proximity to the other children didn’t fool him. She wasn’t with them. Her platinum curls didn’t deter him. Her hair might have been bleached. She appeared to be asleep now, but he knew that she watched the playing children through her slightly parted eyelashes. His gut told him she could be the one, but he just wasn’t sure. He certainly didn’t want to surrender his surveillance of her at this crucial juncture, but he didn’t have a choice. Elena had just made it very clear to him that there had been serious trouble and apparently had reason to expect more of the same. He would have to find out what was going on first. After that, he would seek out the girl again. His lips curved in a tight smile behind the collar of the coat. Perhaps that would be the time to stir the stew a little.
Ducking his head, he shoved the glasses into place and hunched his shoulders beneath the shabby coat. With a last look around, he shambled in the approximate direction of the Shinra building. Destination: Basement.
Caitlin sat on the long metal table swinging her legs, her keen azure gaze steady on the soldier’s face despite the tendency for his luminous eyes to shift away. Although she’d threatened to ask about the pink ribbon, she hadn’t yet broached the subject. The spiky haired man had resisted her attempts to draw him out even with the most innocuous of questions. She had found out that he had grown up in Nibelheim, which had led her to talk about the one time she’d been there and how beautiful the tree-lined mountains had looked in a new fallen snow. He had merely shrugged and flatly stated that the reactor had killed all the trees.
A question about his Soldier 1st class status had led him to shift the conversation to her with a question about what she’d been doing the last ten years of her life. She had thrown the ball back in his court with an offhand reply that she’d been painting and a subsequent query about the reason he’d joined Avalanche, a matter which interested her intensely in light of the rebel group’s environmental, anti-Shinra leanings.
He’d been leaning against the wall, the sole of his boot flat against the cinderblocks, but at her question he straightened and moved away to wander around the room.
“I guess you don’t want to talk about that either…” Caitlin mused aloud.
Cloud closely examined a gutted radio receiver shoved back on a dusty shelf. Then he lifted one shoulder in a nonchalant shrug. “It’s just a long story, that’s all.”
“Well, I know all about long stories,” She conceded agreeably. “Sometimes such tales are better left unspoken.”
Cloud suddenly turned to meet her sympathetic gaze. “Let’s just say that I joined up for the wrong reasons, but somewhere along the line decided I wanted to fight for the right ones.”
“And the pink ribbon?” Caitlin smiled mischievously. Surprisingly, Cloud’s steady eyes remained on her face this time. He smiled in return. “What if I said it was mine?”
Caitlin raised her eyebrows in mock surprise. “What?! A strapping soldier like yourself?! Forgive me if I don’t buy it.”
Cloud’s grin widened. “You might be surprised.”
She laughed. “Well, not much surprises me anymore, but I don’t believe it.”
The smile slowly faded from his face as he returned his attention to the radio, idly fiddling with the dead knobs as his thoughts turned inward. “Actually, the ribbon belonged to a girl named…Aeris.”
The smile faded from Caitlin’s face as well. She bowed her head to stare at the floor, letting her hair fall forward to shadow her face, unable to watch the soldier anymore. Elena had told her about Aeris, the Cetra girl that General Sephiroth had slain. The fact that he carried the ribbon spoke to the depth of his feelings for the dead girl. “I’m…sorry…”
Cloud shrugged again. “It’s okay.” His words were nonchalant, but his voice was tight.
Caitlin sifted through her head for something else to talk about, but then realized that he might want to talk about Aeris. She knew that people often wanted to talk about a deceased loved one only to be closed out by friends and family members who were afraid of saying the wrong thing. Sometimes talking to an objective party proved an easier proposition. She lifted her head and pushed her long tresses behind one ear.
“Do you want to talk about her?” She inquired softly
Cloud looked around at her, his hand falling from the radio dial. “I…yes…I think maybe I…would…”
Two loud raps sounded on the stairwell door, and Caitlin’s heart leapt into her throat in alarm. Three more knocks followed, and Caitlin realized that Elena had returned. Quickly, she recovered her scattered senses and slid off the table, but Cloud held up a hand as he crossed the room in front of her. “Stay put. I’ll let her in.”
Leaping up the stairs, Cloud unbolted the door, and Elena slipped through, closing it quickly behind her. Her eyes sought out Caitlin where she stood at the bottom of the stairs.
“Everything okay I see.”
Caitlin nodded. “Did you find Reno?”
Elena cracked the door and peered out with one eye. “Yes, he should be here any minute.”
“What are we going to do?”
“We’ll work something out when he gets here.”
Elena eased the door ajar again. This time she caught sight of the overcoat clad beggar from the street, ambling haphazardly through the people in the lobby, slowly but surely coming their way. “Here he comes now.”
Cloud descended the stairs to stand protectively beside Caitlin. Silently, they waited until Elena finally pulled the door wide to let Reno the transient slip through. Caitlin and Cloud stared in respectful awe as the Leader of the Turks removed the heavy framed glasses and came down the steps. Elena bolted the door again, and followed behind.
Reno walked to the table as all eyes followed him. He ripped the fedora off his head and tossed it to the table. Then he tugged the hairnet off and shook his red hair free before he turned to study the silent faces around him with an annoyed glare.
His green eyes landed on Elena. “Okay, what’s going on?”
Elena didn’t waste any time. Settling back against the railing with folded arms, she started to give report, her voice low and matter-of-fact. “An unknown party, dressed as a soldier who, to all appearances, had been beaten, lured Gellner and his guards away, citing a mob riot on the outer reaches of the Sector. Reeve and Jack left to see what had happened, leaving Cloud, Caitlin and myself inside the HQ. A strangely garbed man killed the door sentries and entered unimpeded. He demanded I turn Caitlin over to him under threat of death. I refused and fired. He…dodged…the bullet.” Elena noted the skeptical rise of Reno’s eyebrows. “Never mind. You had to be there. Anyway, he reacted by attacking with a sword, and he would have killed me if Cloud had not engaged him. They battled until the army returned, and the man fled, disappearing into a wall of debris.”
Reno silently mulled over her account. Then, he leaned against the table and began to unwind the strips of cloth from his hands. “How did you get here?”
“Through the underground bunker system.”
Reno looked up sharply. Then he smiled deprecatingly. “I’d forgotten about that.” He returned to his unwinding. “He wanted Caitlin? Specifically?”
“Yes, he identified her by name.”
Reno balled up the wrappings from one hand and tossed them into the hat to start on the other hand. Absently, he gave his head a slight shake as he thought about the implications. “Someone recognized her apparently.”
“But why does someone want to take her? Who?”
Reno shrugged his ignorance and tossed the second wad of wrapping aside. Then he bent to his feet, quickly pulling away the rag strips to reveal the black leather boot beneath. “The sword?”
“A katana,” Cloud curtly responded.
Reno smiled coldly. “Why am I not surprised?”
“What?” Elena straightened from the railing.
“The guards and the mother of the little girl were probably killed with a katana, according to Dr. Spiner.”
Stunned at his flatly spoken words, Caitlin’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh no,” she whispered against her palm.
One boot and jean-clad leg finally exposed, Reno discarded the strips and bent to the other. “Reeve?”
“He said he’d get his stuff and meet us here,” Elena promptly responded. “He’s with Coakley and Jack.”
“We need to bring him in.”
Caitlin unconsciously nodded along with Elena. “I know we do,” the blonde Turk readily agreed.
Reno lifted questioning eyes to Elena’s face. “Ah…he stayed behind to secure the bunker entrance. Under the circumstances, I thought that best.”
The redheaded Turk threw aside the last handful of loose wrappings and stood. “Perhaps.” Caitlin’s stomach churned at the skepticism in Reno’s face.
Apprehensively, she watched him retrieve his heavy Turk ring from a pocket of the overcoat and twist it deftly onto his right hand. “Do you think he’s in danger,” she finally asked in a strained voice.
Reno shrugged as he withdrew his wire, a silver cigarette case and a lighter from another pocket. He laid the articles aside on the table and withdrew his mag rod and his shades from a third pocket “My guess is no. Not from these guys anyway. But nothing about this situation is safe for someone in his position.”
“What do you mean by ‘these guys’?” Cloud inquired with interest. “What do you know?”
Reno held up one finger as he deposited his collapsed rod on the table beside the cigarettes and shoved the sunglasses onto the top of his head. Then he swiftly unbuttoned the heavy overcoat and shrugged the garment off his shoulders. Rolling it up, he added it to the pile of wrappings scattered across the tabletop. Now clad in black from head to toe, Reno picked up the wire and slipped it into the pocket of his black t-shirt. Then he jammed his mag rod into a back pocket of his snug black denim jeans.
He made them wait a few seconds longer as he shook a cigarette from the case and lit it with a click of his lighter. Only then did he drop to the edge of the table, his green eyes crinkling in amusement at Elena’s rapt stare.
“Close your mouth, Elena,” he exhaled on a breath of smoke.
Elena could feel the heat rising in her face, but she refused to look away from him. “Where’s your gun?”
“Hmm…I stashed it in a safe place.”
“Hmph. Don’t you think you’ll need it?”
“Don’t worry, Elena. I’ll pick it up on the way.”
“About ‘these guys’…” Cloud prompted, completely uninterested in Reno’s change of attire or his weaponry.
Reno nodded and crossed one ankle over a knee. He took another drag off the cigarette before he spoke, again replying on an exhalation of smoke. “Okay, we have an unknown player who has acted, at great risk, to take the child, a failed attempt thanks to us. Then we have another unknown player who slips unseen into a Sector crammed to the gills with refugees, after curfew it should be noted, and soundlessly murders four people with a katana in order to reacquire the same seemingly unimportant child.” Reno paused in thought for a moment.
“And?” Cloud again prompted.
“And…well…we now have another unknown with a katana, most likely the same unknown from earlier, who has made an attempt to take Caitlin. If he had not mentioned her name, we might suspect that their motivation might rise from the possession of the child…maybe they saw the way she handled the child earlier and thought she could settle the kid down or something along those lines…hmm...but now we know…that’s…not…the…case…”
“What about the little girl?” Caitlin asked sharply. “Did you find her?”
Reno tapped the butt of the cigarette against his lips as he turned over the known facts. “Maybe. I think so,” he replied absently.
“Well, where is she? We have to get her! And Reeve too!” A tinge of hysteria in Caitlin’s voice drew Reno from his speculation. He studied her distressed face, noted the quivering chin.
“You’re right, of course,” he solemnly agreed. “We can sit her speculating all day, and we will not arrive at their motivation. We don’t have enough information. So let’s go with what we know. We have three objectives right now.”
“And they are?” Cloud knew what two of them would be, but he wasn’t sure about the third.
“Explain, Elena.” Reno shot the cigarette to the ground and stood to grind it out against the concrete floor. Then he turned to gather his cigarette case and lighter, shoving them deep into his other back pocket.
Elena’s thoughts floundered in bewilderment as Cloud and Caitlin turned mutually attentive eyes on her, one azure pair intently curious, and the other pair rife with anxiety. Then she realized suddenly that of course she knew. “Well, first of all, we have to keep Caitlin safe. We’ll have to guard her…no…we’ll…have to hide her. Then we make sure Reeve gets here in one piece and keep him safe. Then we…we…” She shook her head as her mind turned over all the options. No matter how hard she thought about it, she just couldn’t figure out what the third objective would be. She threw her hands out and looked at Reno. “We…what?”
“Reacquire the child.”
“Is that so important right now?” Elena raised a sculptured eyebrow in question.
“Of course, it’s important!” Caitlin glared her displeasure at the blonde Turk.
Reno tapped a finger against his lips as he closely studied the annoyed woman. He really didn’t want her to lose her temper again. He also didn’t want her acting on her own again.
“Well, she is important,” he drawled. “Not only because she’s important to Caitlin Shinra…” Reno paused to emphasize that point. “…But also because she’s important to them.”
“Okay, I’ll concede that. But Caitlin is the first priority here.” Elena pointed a finger at the small woman. “We have to protect her.”
Caitlin vehemently shook her head. “No! No! I’m not the most important one here. The little girl and…and… Reeve…everything will fall apart without him!”
“Settle down, Caitlin,” Reno spoke in a soothing voice. “All of our goals are interconnected here.”
“What does that mean?”
“Just that we are going to achieve all of our goals at once.”
“And how are we going to do that without splitting up?” Elena demanded.
“We aren’t.” Reno tilted his head and smiled disarmingly at her. She glared back at him. He shrugged in the face of her irritation. “You, Elena, will locate Reeve and make sure he gets here, at which point you will stay with him and watch everybody in the vicinity like a hawk.” He shot a glance around the silent faces, waiting for comment. All eyes were wholly attentive, but no one spoke.
“I am going to take custody of the child, with extreme prejudice.”
“No” Caitlin held out a beseeching hand. “You can’t.”
He narrowed his green eyes on her face. “I’m not letting anyone get in my way, Caitlin. Do you understand?”
Slowly, she shook her head, not willing to agree to what she thought he had planned.
He sighed. “Do you want me to allow the individuals who would have killed Elena to come back another day?” She just stared at him with wide blue eyes. “To take the child? To take you?” Hesitantly, she shook her head. “Then don’t question my methods.”
Impatiently, Reno interrupted her. “I’m not a villain, Caitlin. I don’t want to hurt innocents any more than you do. You’ll have to trust me.”
Caitlin couldn’t take her eyes off him. She didn’t trust him for one second about anything, especially where innocents were concerned, but she didn’t have any other option but to trust him. Inevitably, she dropped her eyes and nodded her agreement.
Reno turned to Cloud. “I’d like you to keep an eye on Caitlin, if you’re willing.”
Cloud promptly inclined his head. “I’m in, but where do you intend to hide her?”
Reno picked up the heavy glasses from the table and walked over to tower over Caitlin. Wondering, she tipped her chin up to search his eyes. Smirking, he slid the glasses onto her face, carefully hooking the arms over her ears. She blinked owlishly up at him in astonishment, her wide azure eyes tripled in size.
“Why, in plain sight, of course.” He chuckled at the ludicrous effect of the black-framed, pop bottle glasses on the delicately featured face. “Where else?”
Caitlin looked up from her book and casually glanced through the plate glass window. Over the top of the glasses, she could see Cloud still sprawled out on the steps of the building across the street, his sword unsheathed beside him. As she looked, he sat up and propped his elbows on his knees to idly watch the people pass up and down the street. She dropped her eyes back to the book. She’d already looked at him too long. She had to be more careful.
Nervously, she let her fingers touch the automatic rifle hidden beneath the huge overcoat. After she had demonstrated to Reno that she could handle the weapon, he had let her keep it. Just in case all hell broke loose. Worst came to worst, she could protect herself. At home, she had a gun hidden in every room of her house, to protect her daughter, and her staff, because she knew they would come one day, because of the nightmares, she knew they would come for Heidi, and she could not let that happen. And if needed, she would protect Reeve too. If worse came to worse. With extreme prejudice. She smiled wryly. Perhaps she could see Reno’s point after all.
“Hey kid, whatcha reading?” Caitlin shrank back into the corner when a gray headed man with glasses almost as heavy as hers suddenly dropped down to sit next to her. She knew that she looked like a lost waif with her bright hair tucked into the hairnet beneath the beaten hat and her petite but womanly figure bundled out of sight in the oversized coat. The glasses that dwarfed her face only added to the illusion. Of course, that was the effect that Reno had intended. “Um…Shiva’s Tale.” The man visibly brightened. “Really? Can I read a little? I’m about to go nuts with nothin’ to read.” Caitlin tightened her fingers around the book. She really didn’t want to give it up. The book seemed almost an amulet to her. Still, she couldn’t find any harm in letting the man read for a bit. “Um…sure…okay…just ‘til my…er…Mum comes back though.” Hesitantly, she held the book to him. “Thanks, kid. You saved my life.” The man flipped the book to the first page and settled down to read.
A glance over the glasses found Cloud sitting up attentively, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword, surreptitiously watching from beneath his brows. As prearranged, she rubbed a finger across her forehead, the signal that all was clear. The soldier swept a hand through his spiky hair and idly turned his gaze to the street.
Caitlin softly sighed. How much longer would this go on? Would her life ever return to normal? Well, as close to normal as her life could ever be.
Elena paced in front of the communications officer outside the Sector 2 army headquarters as the man tried in vain to raise someone on the radio who knew the location of Reeve Alexander. Unconsciously chewing on a manicured nail, she stopped in front of him as he signed off on the latest radio call.
Nervously, he shook his head. Lt. Sand hasn’t seen him. Gellner says he left Sector 3.
Elena glared at him. “Didn’t Coakley have a radio? Can’t you reach him? Huh?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ve been trying. My guess is that they have entered an area that kills the signal. There are several places under the plate like..that…”
He fell silent as the Turk stomped away, flinging her arms around her waist. On her next pass, she noticed him holding the radio limply in his hand. She flung her arms out in agitation. “Well, keep trying. Did I say you could stop?”
“No, ma’am.” He lifted the radiophone to his mouth.
Elena huffed in exasperation and stalked out to the curb. She peered anxiously up the street in the direction she knew Reno had gone. Truthfully, she wasn’t worried about Reeve so much as about Reno. She felt that his decision to go after the child alone was ill conceived. In her opinion, he was in more danger than anybody else. She didn’t often get a premonition, but when she did, her stomach would sit heavily in her body as though a load of rocks had been dumped into her guts, and every time she felt like that, something bad always happened. She tapped her foot against the pavement, her thoughts in such turmoil that the soft touch at her shoulder startled her so much that she almost fell into the street. She whipped her head around to level the officer with a murderous glare. “What do you want?”
“Er…I got them…er…Coakley I mean.”
Elena’s interest sharpened. “Reeve is with him?”
“Yes, ma’am. Would you like to speak to him?”
“Without a doubt.” She held her hand out for the radio. The communications officer stood by to listen until she turned her cold hazel eyes on him again. “Er…I’ll just wait inside. Let me know when you’re finished.”
Elena waited until the man left before she lifted the radio to her mouth. “Reeve?”
“Speaking.” She easily recognized Reeve’s voice in her ear.
“Elena, here. Any problems?”
“No sign of anything so far.”
“Good. Good. Everything’s under control on our end. Simply proceed to the location as planned.” She opened her mouth to add the rest, the part about meeting him there, but at just that second she decided that she wouldn’t be there. “Wait inside the lobby until you receive further contact. You may see a familiar face, but you are not to approach. Do you understand? Do not approach.”
For a moment, only staticky silence met her ear. “Reeve? You there?”
“Yes…I understand. What about Cait?”
“She’s fine Reeve. She’s in a safe place. Go straight to the location and don’t leave. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I will do as you say.”
“Good. See you there. Just be careful.”
“Okay, I’m out.”
She turned the radiophone off and opened the door. The officer looked up from his desk and almost got hit in the head when she tossed the radio to him, but he just barely managed to throw his hand up in time to catch it.
“Thanks for the help.” She smiled coolly and let the door fall shut. Without a second thought, Elena stepped off the curb into the street and deliberately turned toward the area of Sector 2 where Reno thought he’d find the child. She knew he would chew on her rear for this breach of orders, but she was consumed by the fear that Reno would find himself in over his head. She smiled grimly as she walked faster, her heels clunking against the road. She didn’t care what Reno said. Orders be damned. Unconsciously, she touched the gun at her waist. She just hoped that Reno didn’t shoot her on sight.
Reno leaned back against the brick wall behind him, studying the child that still sat alone a few yards from him. He really didn’t care if his absent quarry recognized him. In fact, he hoped that they would, his whole point in standing in the open. He had speculated that his presence near the girl would instigate some action on their part, but so far nothing had happened. He could be mistaken. In fact, he might have to admit at some point that he’d miscalculated, but he wasn’t ready to concede yet.
He drew out his cigarette case and opened it to remove a cigarette. Idly tamping the cigarette against the silver lid, he pretended not to notice the pretty woman who sinuously sidled up along the wall toward him until she stopped at his elbow. Then he turned his most charming smile in her direction.
She smiled coyly, fluttering her lashes at him. His smile widened, and he held the case out to her. “Want one?”
“Oh, yes. Thank you.” She drew a cigarette out with two wickedly long nails and placed it between her brightly colored lips. With a toss of her feathered blonde hair, she leaned closer as he touched the lighter to the end. Then he settled back against the wall and lit his own, turning a casual gaze to the street scene at large.
“Um…you look familiar. Have I seen you somewhere before?”
Reno raised an eyebrow. “Is that a line or what?”
“Oh no, you really do look familiar. Are you from the upper city?”
Reno just nodded.
She pointed her cigarette at him. “I know. I’ve seen you at the Golden Chocobo Club, I’ll bet.”
Reno shook his head. “Nope, don’t go there. Bit too fast for me.”
She moved a step closer so that her shoulder brushed his arm. “Well, you look pretty fast to me.”
He looked at her in astonishment. “What me? Don’t think so. I’m just a homebody. I like my couch and my tv.”
“Uh uh. I don’t think so.” She leaned against him and blew a cloud of smoke around his head.
“Think what you like.” He shrugged indifferently. He took a drag on his cigarette and blew out his own cloud of smoke.
“Married?” She examined the bare ring finger on his left hand. She couldn’t detect so much as a ring line.
“Actually…” He thought for a minute. “…Yes.”
She studied him hesitantly, and then she shook her head. “I don’t believe you.”
“Well, I am. Got two kids and a dog, too. A big bruiser, with spots, about this high.” Reno held his hand out at waist level. “He fetches like a pro and eats mailmen for appetizers. Old lady’s a mean one, too. Pistol whips me at least once a week.”
“Oh really?” The woman’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “I’m beginning to think you’re toying with me, telling such stories. Don’t you like me?”
Reno turned to look her over from the top of her head to the tips of her toes and back, his eyes pausing on the length of thigh visible beneath the hem of her miniskirt on both passes. He smiled amiably. “What’s not to like?”
She smiled ingratiatingly. “So where is the old lady?”
Again, he shrugged, drawing the smoke deep into his lungs. “Around.” He released the smoke through his nostrils. Then he gestured toward the little girl. “I see you got a kid.”
Startled, the woman looked at the little girl. “Oh no, that’s not my kid. I don’t have any kids, sugar.” She leaned her head against Reno’s shoulder. “I don’t have a husband either.”
Reno’s brow wrinkled in concern. “Really? I just figured she was yours since she’s been sittin’ there all alone for so long.”
The woman nodded in agreement. “She has been there for awhile. At least three hours.”
“You’ve been here the whole time?”
“Well, no. I’ve been back and forth. I thought she belonged with those other kids…” She glanced around uneasily. “…But they’re gone now.”
“So you’ve seen no one with her?”
She frowned as she tried to remember. Shaking her head, she grimaced. “No, she’s been alone when I’ve seen her, poor child.”
“Perhaps I should take her to the authorities.” Reno mused. “Someone’s probably looking for her.”
The woman brightened. “Sure, I’ll go with you, sugar. We can get better acquainted.”
Reno bent to stub his cigarette out against the bricks, his loosened hair falling over his shoulder to hide his face as he rolled his eyes. Raising his head, his eyes froze on an approaching figure clad in a bright red sweater. He blinked to clear his eyes, but she still came on.
“Uh…that’s probably not a good idea…”
She wrapped a hand around his elbow. “Why not?” She pouted.
“Er…because here comes…the old ball and chain now. And she looks pissed.” Elena did look pissed. He narrowed his eyes in irritation. What was she doing here?
The woman immediately jerked her hand away and crossed her arms, rearranging her face into one of complete innocence. “Where?” Then she spotted Elena stomping across the street like a fully stoked steam engine. She took a step away. “Um…she looks a bit too classy for you, pal.”
Reno shook his head sadly. “What can I say? Low self-esteem. She’s insecure too. That’s why she’s so mean to me.”
Elena slammed to a halt in front of him, her eyes burning with fire. “What do you think you’re doing?” She demanded.
He looked around. “Who me?”
Elena lifted a finger to point at the woman who had already sidled another few feet away. “What do you think you’re doing out here flirting when you’re supposed to be looking…”
“Sssssh!” Reno hissed with his finger against his lips.
“Don’t you shush me!” She snapped. “Do you ever think with anything but your…”
Reno snatched Elena to him and clapped his hand over her mouth. “Now, come on baby, you’re lettin’ your jealousy get the better of you. Settle down now. Let’s talk about this.”
Elena growled out several indistinguishable words against his palm. He thought maybe she’d said, “Get your filthy hand off my face, you imbecile,” but he wasn’t sure.
“Sweetheart, you’re overreacting. What’s gotten into you? You know you’re the only one that makes my heart go pitter patter.” His wheedling tone only made her madder. She completely missed his emphasis on the key word.
Elena stomped her foot, and shrieked against his hand, trying to twist her face from beneath his tight grip. At the inarguable sound of her rage, the other woman finally fled, stumbling on her high heels as she ran. When Reno thought her out of earshot, he moved to release Elena, but not before she managed to chomp down on the fleshy part of his thumb.
“Ow, son of a bitch!” He examined the injury before he glared down at her. Her hot eyes glared back. “What in the hell are you doing here?” His words were dangerously soft.
“I came because I thought you might need some help,” Elena snarled. “But no! I find you hitting on some sleezy woman. Why aren’t you doing what you’re supposed to be?”
“Why aren’t you?” He bit back. “You know where you’re supposed to be, and it’s not here. Is it?”
She opened her mouth to retort, but her mind suddenly snapped back into sync. What in the world was she doing? Not only had she come at Reno screeching like a banshee, but she’d bitten him. She was already here in violation of his orders, an ideal way to get his redheaded temper stoked. And now that their verbal exchange replayed in her head, she realized that she’d almost blown whatever he’d been working, and it wasn’t a date. She bowed her head as color flooded her face. She supposed she’d been so sure that something had happened to him, that when she’d seen that floozy draped all over him, she’d just lost it.
“Look, Reno. I’m sorry.”
He studied her with suspicion. “Why are you here?”
“I just had this feeling…” She couldn’t meet his eyes. “I get them sometimes…but I guess…I was wrong…” Except the feeling hadn’t gone away.
His eyes narrowed speculatively on the top of her blonde head. “Well, okay. Sometimes you should act on your feelings, but I’m fine. I’ll be fine. So turn around and head back to where you came from. You’ve got another job to do.”
Avoiding his searching gaze, she spun on heel and walked away.
“And we’ll be discussing this matter at an appropriate time,” he shot at her departing back. She hunched her shoulders at his words.
He watched her leave until he was sure she was well on her way, and then he examined the lovely dental imprint on his hand, a red circle of perfectly formed teeth marks. He knew it would bruise. Thoughtfully, he touched a finger to the bite mark. “Hmm...maybe I should get the name of her dentist,” he commented to no one in particular. Dropping his hand to rub against his thigh, he swiveled his head to seek out the girl. It was time to snatch her and leave. He almost swallowed his tongue at sight of the vacant sidewalk. She was gone. Running out to the curb, he craned his neck in both directions, looking for her.
Then, he did see her. Peering sadly over the shoulder of a broad shouldered man who carried her quickly away down the street, shoving his way through as he walked hurriedly through the crowd. Reno dove into the street, elbowing his way through a huddle of people standing in the middle of the thoroughfare. Someone cried out behind him, but he didn’t bother to look. Yanking the mag rod from his jeans pocket as he ran, he snapped it out to full length. Silently cursing his lapse with every foul word he’d ever heard in his life, plus a few that he invented, he broke into open space and poured on the fuel, stretching his long legs out as he raced down the pavement, slowly gaining on the kidnapper even as the man broke into a run, trying to make ground with the child in his arms.
Walking away with heavy feet, Elena heard someone yelp in pain. Buried in her embarrassment, she almost didn’t look, but she was trained to look. So she did. She immediately spotted the man struggling to get up out of the street. Then, she looked further and saw Reno running beyond, his flying red hair marking his course. Her breath stuck in her throat as she caught sight of the man with the child far ahead in the crowd. She snatched the gun from beneath her sweater, and broke into a run. Reno couldn’t fault her for joining an ongoing pursuit, could he? Besides, how much more trouble could she get into with him? He couldn’t kill her twice. Could he?
Reeve peered around the edge of a slab of iron, searching the street in front of the old Shinra building for anyone suspicious. Everyone seemed like an average, run of the mill person, but he wasn’t sure he’d recognize a miscreant if he saw one.
“What do you think Jack?”
The engineer poked his head out behind Reeve and watched the people passing by. “Looks good to me, Reeve. But what do I know?”
Reeve shrugged uneasily. “Well, we haven’t had any trouble so far. I’d guess we don’t have anything to worry about.”
“You’re probably right, Reeve.”
“Well, let’s do it.” Clutching the crate to him, he emerged from the safety of the debris tunnel and turned into the street, Jack and Coakley trailing behind in his shadow, their eyes darting nervously in every direction.
For his part, Reeve had decided not to worry. He figured if they were going to come for him, they would have, whoever they were. As long as they didn’t come for Cait again. That’s all that mattered.
He stopped in mid-step at the sight of Cloud Strife sitting casually on the wide steps of the old City Hall. He started to turn in his direction, but Cloud suddenly shook his head although Reeve hadn’t thought the soldier had noticed him yet. Then he remembered what Elena said. He was to ignore any familiar faces. With a slight nod of his head in Cloud’s direction, he continued across the street.
Caitlin covered her face with both hands to hide the bright smile that erupted at sight of Reeve and his box full of stuff with rolls of paper sticking up at every angle and electronic leads trailing over the sides. Shadowing the executive, Jack huddled into his folded arms with his shoulders hunched in an attempt to make his tall frame smaller, darting nervous glances all around as though he thought he had a target painted on his face, and Coakley cradled his rifle in his arms, crowding so closely behind Jack that he couldn’t have brought the gun into play if he had to. Suddenly, Coakley stepped on the heel of Jack’s shoe and it came partway off. The engineer yelped and skipped on one foot a couple of times as he tried to work it back on. Reeve slowed his steps to look behind, and the corners of his eyes crinkled as a smile captured his face at sight of the hopping Jack. “Will you guys quit fooling around?” The engineer suddenly stumbled forward and fell against Reeve who threw out a hand to drag him upright, laughing out loud at the comical expression on the engineer’s face.
Giggles sputtered from behind Caitlin’s hands, and the man reading her book beside her looked at her curiously. “What’s so funny?” She just shook her head as she choked back the laughter that threatened to erupt full force. “Are you all right?” She quickly nodded her head. The man watched her warily, and Caitlin drew in a long breath to quell her levity. Then she dropped her hands from her face. “I was just thinking, you see, about the time…last week…when I locked my little brother in the closet and fed him crackers under the door.” The man eyed her with amused skepticism. “Well, that’s not a very nice thing to do.” Caitlin grinned at him. “You don’t know how rotten my little brother can be.”
“And how long did you keep him locked up?”
“Oh, for about an hour. Until he worked the bolts out of the hinges and escaped.”
“How old is your brother?”
Caitlin chewed her lip in thought. “Oh, we’d just celebrated his sixth birthday. He was insufferable. Spoiled rotten…”
Caitlin’s lingering humor abruptly gave way to melancholia. Oh…Rufus…you could have been so much more than our father envisioned…
She caught sight of the man’s wary perusal and realized that her explanation for her laughter may have backfired. She flashed the man a toothy grin and peered at him directly through the thick lenses, her blue eyes hugely round. “Are you through with my book yet? I’d like to read some more.”
The man glanced down at the open book. “Oh yeah, sure.” Reluctantly, he closed the cover and handed it to her. “I gotta go anyway. Thanks for letting me read.” He stood and gave her a backhanded wave. “Take care of yourself. And don’t be so mean to your little brother.”
“I won’t,” she sang out. She watched the man disappear into the crowd, and then she drew the glasses down her small nose and lifted the open book. Her blue eyes barely visible over the top, she watched as Reeve cautiously sat down on the rim of the wide sill that spanned the entire length of the plate glass window. Carefully, he sat the wooden box down on the marble floor at his feet as he scanned the expansive lobby. When he turned his eyes her way, she lowered her gaze to the book, and when she dared to look up again, he’d folded his arms and twisted sideways to stare out the window, his foot already tapping at his forced idleness. She smiled into the book. Some things never change. Purposefully, she let her fingers slide beneath the coat to touch the smooth rifle barrel, just for reassurance…just in case…
Rude sent the chopper swooping down from the Midgar Ridge. A soft glow emanating from deep within the city, barely radiating through the gaps in the massive plate, provided the only visible indication that Midgar lay dead ahead. All the lights that once glittered all across the upper city like diamonds encrusted in draped velvet were dead. Killed by Meteor. Along with the city.
Coolly, he swept the responsive machine out over the plate, the cityscape of ragged, torn and twisted debris softened by a wash of pale light from the full moon high overhead. Bringing the chopper to hover, he looked down into the cavity of Sector 7, but wavered in indecision at actually repeating the original route to a landing in the Dead Zone. That would place him too far from Sector 2 and Caitlin. She could be harmed in the time it took him to travel the miles of sewage tunnels and pathways to get there.
With a tilt of his head in the direction of Sector 4, he sent the chopper that way. He knew that flying into the curtain of mangled debris that no doubt draped the rim of the Sector 3 plate afforded a much riskier proposition, but if he could make it through into the undamaged space beneath, he could be with Caitlin in a matter of minutes. His mouth tightened in resignation at his dangerous decision as he flipped on the brilliant forward beams as well as the belly spotlight. Easing the chopper into the rift that would drop him into the mangled guts of the city, he closed off all thought but for that required to navigate the gauntlet that awaited him.
Reno hovered in the obliterating shadow of a tall stanchion, his eyes skipping around the vast chamber that surrounded the lowest reaches of the Sector 2 Mako Reactor housing. With pipes and hoses, stairs and ladders, tanks and access hatches everywhere, the kidnapper could have gone to ground anywhere.
Cautiously, Reno eased out into the lighted walkway and made a sudden dash to the relative shelter of a huge pipe that ran along the concrete floor. A bullet ricocheted against the dense metal with an angry whine, embedding itself into a control panel behind him as the gunshot echoed hollowly from floor to ceiling. Ducking his head low, Reno studied the sparking box with hooded eyes. That had been too damn close. He’d be smart to keep his head lower. Still, he had to figure out where the shooter had holed up, but then, if it were him, he’d have fired and moved.
Bending at the waist, the redheaded Turk eased his way on silent feet until he’d reached the lip of the pipe opening. Carefully, he peeped around the edge. The gun reported again, and the bullet thwacked into the solidly exposed curve of pipe just inside the pipe inlet. Reno dropped back on his heels and unconsciously stroked the scar on his cheek as he pondered his options. He knew one thing. This was not going as planned.
A door creaked open behind him, and he looked over his shoulder to see a familiar silhouette outlined in the golden glow from outside. His stomach sank. Elena. And the stubborn woman was standing right in the line of fire, completely unaware. Without thinking, he leapt to his feet and darted across the wide walkway, toward a flared stanchion that rose to a catwalk above, the best promise of shelter closer in.
The gun fired again, the shot pinging off the concrete floor just behind him, lending his feet wings. Then once more, tearing a gash in the pavement just in front of him. His heart pounding, he fell against the iron pillar and reached around to drag his pistol from beneath his shirt. He almost hadn’t retrieved the weapon from beneath the sink in the maintenance closet since he only had part of one clip left for it, and that clip he’d borrowed from Elena. He had to admit she’d been right though. He couldn’t attack with his electro-mag rod from this distance, especially when he couldn’t see the enemy. A few bullets were better then none. He’d just have to make them count.
Risking his neck, he leaned out to look for Elena. He didn’t see a sign of her. The gunfire had alerted her as he’d hoped, and she’d taken refuge, probably behind the huge metal boxes just inside the entrance. At just that moment, the shooter fired again and the bullet pinged off a metal I-beam above his head as Reno ducked out of sight. Springing to the other side of the stanchion, he stared up into the darkness toward the top of a long stairway. He thought the shot had come from there. A second later, he was rewarded when the shooter fired yet again, and the barrel flash seared the shadows overhead.
Reno smiled coldly and threw himself across the wide walkway, laying down a methodical line of shots across the compact space. He thought he heard a sharp cry, but if he did, the sound was immediately obliterated by the sharp report of the gun from overhead. A second later, even as he dove for the barrier of a tall tank, the bullet seared a path into his back and exploded out his chest. In the next instant, Reno fell gracelessly against the concrete floor, rolling once to crash painfully into the metal tank.
Gasping at the agony that resonated through his whole body and shattered every rational thought, he curled into a ball and squeezed his eyes shut against the tears that burned behind his lashes, unconsciously pressing his hand against the rush of warm blood that welled from the wound. A few minutes ticked past as his senses faded along with the blood that dripped around his fingers. Then a distant scream rang in his mind.
His breath tearing his throat in ragged gasps, he forced his mind to focus, and cracked his eyelids open as he rolled onto his back, blinking his green eyes against the haze in his visual field. Finally, his eyes sharpened at sight of the man and the little girl high atop a catwalk. The man, obviously injured, limped along the metal walkway, levering himself along with a hand on the railing. He had the little girl’s arm clamped in his other hand, but she was fighting him every step of the way, kicking and hitting with her doubled fist, probably not making much more impact than a mosquito on the back of a behemoth, yet knowing that luck had finally turned her way. “You go girl,” he whispered harshly into the chilly air.
Suddenly, his temper flared, and he compulsively kicked out with his foot, the boot sole making solid contact with an exposed piece of pipe. The impact reignited the pain, but this time the hot brand served to bring his mind into sharper focus. “Goddamit! I’m not going out this way!” Not flat on his back. Hell, they’d find him sprawled out like a drunk with his eyes staring comically into the sky. Nope, he wasn’t doing that. Rolling to his uninjured side, he lifted himself up on one arm to sit back against the cool steel of the tank. Drawing his hand away from his chest, he studied his scarlet stained hand, smiling in bemusement as the blood dripped steadily against his leg. “Looks like you’ve really landed yourself in a fix this time, Reno, you old rascal you.” He knew he wouldn’t make it. The bullet had undoubtedly torn through vital tissue, although apparently missing his lung, for which he was most grateful. He knew he was losing too much blood. Soon he would lose so much, he wouldn’t be able to think anymore, and then he would just go out like a burned out light. Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. He could just wrap his last thoughts around a fantasy and wait. Or. He could go out on his feet. He was going to die anyway. He might as well do something productive with the time he had left. Certainly, his latter plan would hurt a lot more. He’d probably die a lot faster. It wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. But hey, maybe he’d die a hero. What a change of pace that would be.
With a wry smile, he reached up with his right hand and wrapped his trembling bloody fingers around the lower rung of the tank ladder. Then with a mighty and horribly painful heave, he lifted himself to his feet in one move. Not wanting to waste any time now that he’d made his decision, he pressed his right hand against his oozing wound, and cradling his other arm around his waist, he took a couple of tentative steps away from the security of the tank. Pleasantly surprised that his legs still seemed pretty steady, he hunched into his arms and dashed across the pavement toward the long stairway, gasping as the agony flared exponentially inside his chest with each slap of his boot against the concrete.
With a great deal of relief, he fell against the metal railing and leaned there for a moment as he purposefully forced his ragged breath into a near facsimile of normal respiration. Then he firmly planted his back into the railing and started to climb, moving sideways up the long endless staircase, his steady eyes locked on the last step at the top. It’s never a good idea to take your focus off your goals. An hour later it seemed, though he knew it had only been minutes, he set his foot on the wide platform many feet above the floor below. Just like the man before him, he used the railing of the catwalk for support, leaning his hip against the metal bar as he stubbornly worked his way to the other end. Once there, he stood swaying in place as he pondered where the pair might have gone next. Holding his meager breath, he listened for any sound that might tip him off, but all he heard was a distant echo of footsteps. Intrigued, he turned his head see Elena far below, cautiously treading the concrete walkway just inside the marching row of stanchions, her gun held at ready in both hands. She hadn’t seen him.
His lips curved in a happy smile, a rare smile for him, one that actually reached the deepest recesses of his eyes and filled the green irises with sparkles.
Little rich girl…
Too classy for the likes of Reno all right…
I must admit, Tseng would have been perfect for you.
A slum kid too, but a rough stone all polished up into smooth onyx; handsome, urbane, suave, self-educated, diplomatic, disgustingly well-dressed.
Guess I’m just attached to my rough edges…
You should give up this life, Elena. The Turks are done for anyway…
No place in Reeve and Caitlin’s company for the likes of us…
Settle down into high society and get that kitty you always wanted…
That goldfish too…
Although…I wouldn’t lay a wager on the goldfish being around long…
Reno sighed and looked down at his feet. His thoughts froze in mild astonishment at the amount of blood that had dripped off his boot and runneled into a small pool in the little bit of time that he’d been standing there. Damn, he was just wasting his life away. His eyes narrowed as he noticed the trail leading away from the pool of blood. He twisted slightly to study the trail behind. Then he faced forward again, letting his eyes track the trail of blood to an open hatchway across the wide deck. He had his sign.
He glanced down one more time to see Elena peering from around the curve of a concrete pillar, the gun held next to her cheek. He smiled again and lifted his bloodied fingers away from his chest to wave.
See ya around…
Tell Rude bye for me…
Reluctantly, he dragged his gaze away and deliberately pushed himself away from the rail to set a foot on the glistening trail of blood. Without a backwards look, he forced his unsteady legs to move.
Confused, Elena moved further into the immense chamber, keeping to the shadows, her gun held ready in sweaty hands. She had expected to be engaging in gun battle after the flurry of gunshots rang around the upper recesses of the high ceiling. Now, only her soft footfalls echoed in her ears. She chewed her lip anxiously as her stomach ached with dread. That awful feeling of premonition that had never gone away now gnawed at her insides with a vengeance.
She paused behind another of the tall pillars, tempted to just walk out in the open. She hadn’t heard a sound for several minutes now. Still, making herself a blatant target would be the height of stupidity. Tilting her head, she let her eyes travel the upper reaches of the interior, across the upper platform, along a high catwalk, and down the long staircase that climbed to the floor above. Her eyes paused curiously on a dark, wavy line that lead away from the bottom step. Carefully, she crept forward, keeping to the shadows, until that point when the realization of what she was seeing slammed into her brain.
Heart in her throat, she walked out to the center of the wide concrete pathway and halted at the edge of a wild splatter of red. She stared down at the spray of what could only be rapidly drying blood, her brain numb with denial, all care for her own safety completely forgotten.
Woodenly, she tracked the blood trail to the space behind the tank where she found much more blood than she wanted. Compressing her lips into a thin line, mostly to stop them quivering, she bent and retrieved the pistol from the edge of a pool of congealing blood. Meticulously wiping the chrome surface with the hem of her sweater, she raised her eyes to the bloody handprint on the ladder rung and another on the surface of the silver tank. Tucking the gun in her waistband beneath her sweater, she shifted her eyes to the trail of blood splatter that led to the stairway.
“That had better not be your blood, Reno…”
She moved away from the tank, following alongside the trail, walking slowly at first, then faster.
“Because if you were careless enough to get yourself shot, then…well…that would just be pretty careless of you…a really poor example for the Leader of the T...Turks...to be making.”
She stopped at the foot of the stairs where another small pool of blood trickled off the lowest step.
“If you were stupid enough to get in the way of a bullet, I think I'd have to kill you...myself...”
Wondrously, she shook her head at herself and her silly talk. She was not making sense. She didn’t want to make sense, because the world didn’t make sense. But she knew, didn’t she? Of course, she knew. She’d known from the first second that her brain had recognized that the firework splatter of bright red was blood. Reno was hit. It was his blood. A lot of it. Everywhere.
With a little hiccup of fear, Elena burst from her trance and tore up the stairway, her mind screaming in denial the whole way. She had to find him. She had to help him. She’d find a way. There was always a way. Wasn’t there? She caught her foot and fell to one knee on the landing. Back up in an instant, she ignored the sting beneath the cloth of her trousers, and stumbled onto the catwalk. Breaking into an all out run, her feet pounded clamorously against the metal grid, her eyes locked on the blood trail, every thought focused on willing him to wait.
Reno hang on…I’m coming…I’ll be there…just please…hang on…don't...don't...just...don't.
Reno swayed in the middle of the narrow access corridor at the bottom of a steep stairway, one he’d mostly slid painfully down on his hip to land in a puddle of limp bones at the bottom. He had eventually gathered enough strength to climb to his feet where he now stood. He wasn’t sure where he’d wound up, but he thought the low-ceilinged hallway led to some vital reactor controls of some sort or another.
The man and child who stood a few feet away split into two, and he gave his head a hard shake to bring them back into focus. Ponderously, he lifted his mag rod and pointed it at the panting man. Reno could at least be gratified that the man suffered at least as much pain as he did, although, come to think of it, he was starting to feel much better, a little numb perhaps. Reno had plugged him twice, arm and thigh. Too bad he hadn’t hit the femoral artery. All the little girl’s troubles would be over now.
Reno tried to clear the gritty sand from his throat to speak, but it just wouldn’t go. Some water would be nice. Cool, clear, ice cubes, tall glass. Vaguely acknowledging that dehydration from extreme blood loss was the cause of his thirst, he stumbled a step forward. Then he managed to stumble another. The man still had his hand fisted around the girl’s slender arm, and he dragged her back a few steps with him, the gun pointed at Reno’s head.
Back off or I’ll shoot,” the man growled, his voice tight with pain.
Reno’s eyes fuzzed over and he blinked rapidly to clear them. Then he laughed, although a bit ineffectually. “So shoot already. I’m dead anyway.” He unsteadily slid his foot along the pavement, managing to gain yet another few inches of concrete.
“Hand the girl over or I’ll shoot,” he promised weakly.
“You can’t discharge that thing at me without hitting the girl,” the man sneered.
"Then I’ll just come over there…and…”
Reno almost gagged as a wave of intense nausea hit him.
“And what? You’re a goner. Just give it up. Just die.”
The redheaded Turk tried to suck in a huge breath to stave off the sudden urge to vomit up his guts. Unfortunately, one of his legs folded up under him and he fell to one knee, choking on the inhalation that had caught in his throat, an exercise that sent that now familiar hot brand stabbing through his chest. When he finally stopped gagging and choking, he worked on catching his breath, and then he leveled cloudy green eyes on the blurred shape in front of him. He tried his threat again.
“I’ll just…come over…there…and choke…you…with my…bare…bloody…hands…”
He gave his head another shake, and the view in front of him cleared considerably. He could see the man laughing at him, but strangely, he couldn’t hear him. In fact, he couldn’t really hear anything anymore. Not the laughter, not the machinery, nothing. He saw the man’s finger squeeze the trigger, but he didn’t hear the shot. But then, he didn’t feel it either.
He wanted to laugh when the man looked at the pistol with a shocked expression, but he only managed to fall to one hand, his head sinking so low that his hair slid into his face, the wispy ends coiling against the floor. The pistol clattered into his diminishing field of vision, a sound heard in his mind rather than his ear. The gun came spinning to rest just short of his splayed fingers. A mirthless guffaw broke from his throat. What irony. Elena’s gun. He’d been shot with Elena’s gun. Wasn’t that rich? Wasn’t that just…just…a bitch?
He tried to reach for it, but when he lifted his hand from the concrete, he simply toppled onto his side, a crippled ship keeling over, a stack of cans slowly collapsing, a train folding up on itself and derailing off the track. End of the line.
He didn’t even try to rise. He knew that he couldn’t. He just turned his cheek against the cool pavement to bring the girl into the tunnel of his narrowing sight. In his waking dream, she kicked the man, and then…she bit him…sank her teeth into his hand…guess they learned that trick early on…
He dreamily noted that the girl had slipped away and now stood a few feet away, looking down on him with sorrowful eyes. He wanted to complain as a blur of motion blocked his view of the girl. He blinked his eyes thinking he could make the obstruction go away, but he only managed to bring Elena’s distressed face into focus.
He drew in a gasping breath at sight of her. “Go…get…him…’Lena…”
“What?” Elena asked him, her voice hoarse with unshed tears. She tried to lift his shirt, to see how badly he’d been shot, even though she already knew it was too bad for her to fix. She could see it in his bloodless face, in his cloudy eyes, all over his blood caked shirt and jeans, and pooled all over the floor.
Somehow, he found the strength to brush at her hand with boneless fingers. “What Reno?!”
He dragged in another breath and exhaled the words. “Go…get…him…kill…him…” Reno gestured weakly toward the corridor that stretched into gloom. “…Dead…end…get…him…”
Elena shook her head in disbelief. “No! No! I’m not going to leave you. I have to get you help.”
Reno narrowed his eyes in irritation. He dredged up the strength from somewhere to steady his voice. “I’ll be…fine.”
“You will not be fine,” she snapped as a tear spilled from one eye.
He smiled tremulously. “Thanks for the…reassurance…now…go…get…him.”
“No.” She didn’t know why she was arguing with him now. Her breath caught in her throat as her watery eyes locked gazes with his glittering ones. Even now, he could manage that cold look.
“Be a Turk…’Lena…do…your…job…don’t…embarasssss...meee…”
Tears flowed freely down her cheeks now. “Fine,” she bit out in her pain. “Have it your way.” Snatching up her gun, she sprang to her feet and raced down the hallway as if all the demons of hell were nipping at her heels, knowing that Reno would probably not be alive when she returned, but helpless to deny him his dying order. His last wish.
A rage, rich and powerful in its purity welled within her until she thought her brain would explode from the pressure and her heart from the pain. She rode that rage all the way to the end of that long, dark corridor, lifting her gun to the ready, her shoes pounding against the pavement as she ran, echoing the throb of blood in her temples, until finally the crippled, trapped man came into the center of her gunsight, black hat, black cloak, not smiling now. Her turn to wreak havoc. Her finger tightened on the trigger.
Suddenly, a brilliant explosion of white light seared her eyes all the way to the retina, and she convulsively fired even as she stumbled to a stop. Falling to her knees, she let her gun fall from her fingers and covered her burning eyes with both hands to block the toxic light, but it still seeped around her fingers, radiated through her hands. Seconds later, everything went dark. Hesitantly, she drew her hands away to find herself staring into total blackness. Her heart, already pounding painfully in her chest from her mad rush, picked up speed. Had the light blinded her. But no, the dimly lit details of the hallway began to seep into her vision.
Scrambling to her feet, she retrieved her gun and slowly walked the rest of the way down the hall to stand in front of a control panel of dials and gauges and switches, all attached to the steel bulkhead of the reactor wall. Confused, Elena whirled back the other way, lifting her gun as she spun. There was no one waiting to shoot her. There was no one at all. She turned slowly in a circle, her eyes scanning the walls, the low ceiling, the control panel again. There was no explanation for what had just happened. The man had vanished in that violent flash of starlight. Awkwardly holstering her gun with quaking fingers, she listlessly started down the hallway to retrace her steps. She didn’t want to see what she knew she would find at the other end. She didn’t want to know. At least, Reno would never know that she’d failed. Then she burst into tears. Some consolation. No consolation at all.
A hand touched his shoulder, and Reno opened his eyes to find the little girl’s wide brown eyes looking into his, a mere inch or so away. She eased him onto his back despite his choked attempt at protest. He didn’t want to die on his back, but he couldn’t get the words out to tell her. He gasped in pain as she pushed a hand into his side. Then he felt her draw something from beneath his hip. His gun? His mag rod? His cigarettes?
She stooped down in front of him, and he almost choked again when he saw the shape of the gun in her hand. “…H…hon…p…p…put…that…d…down…” He could hardly get the words out for his chattering teeth. “…Y…you’ll…j…just…end up…like…me…”
She carefully laid the gun on the pavement near his nose and smiled the sweetest smile he’d ever seen. Then she touched a single finger to the luminous green orb in the grip and closed her eyes. His eyes widened in wonder as a dance of iridescent sparkles coalesced around him.
“Who…are…you…” The words slipped brokenly off his cracked lips in a reverent whisper.
She bowed her small bleached blonde head as she held the spell for much longer than he’d ever seen anyone manage before. Already, he was starting to notice the effects. His vision began to clear, the encroaching darkness sliding away. His nerves twanged into life, not an altogether good thing as the pain awakened with a vengeance. Then even that ebbed away into a dull ache, and then into an itchy tingle, then into nothing at all.
Gingerly, he pushed himself up on one hand and slowly drew in a whole breath as the life-giving spell gave way to a twinkly mist, and then vanished into thin air when she finally drew her hand away and opened her eyes. His teeth chattered as every part of him began to shiver in reaction. He wasn’t quite sure why. He’d never in his life been so close to death. Perhaps the abrupt reversal in his condition had triggered the intense shaking that he now fought to bring under control. He clenched his jaw to keep his teeth from clacking, but wasn’t entirely successful.
The little girl tilted her head and smiled again. “Rachel.”
“You asked who I am. My name is Rachel. I’m nobody. I’m just a slum kid.”
A jerky laugh sputtered from Reno’s mouth. “R…r…really…m…m…me…t…t…too.”
She covered her mouth and giggled. “You’re the biggest slum kid I’ve ever seen.”
Then the laughter sputtered unimpeded between his clattering teeth, and he hugged his arms tightly around himself as his insides quaked uncontrollably with laughter, with reaction, with relief, and with unadulterated joy.
Reeve sighed impatiently and stood to stretch his legs. Turning to the plate glass window, he lifted his hands in a gesture of query in Cloud’s direction. The soldier, looking right at him, shrugged. The executive propped his hands on his hips, and inclined his head at Cloud, indicating he should join them. Inadvertently, Cloud let his gaze drift to the far side of the window, but realized his mistake and stubbornly turned his head the other way.
The executive didn’t miss the look however, and he turned in that direction to see what Cloud had been looking at. The only person of note in that particular location seemed to be a half-grown child, maybe, with a book. The person was strange looking to say the least, with a huge pair of unstylish glasses and a battered hat pulled down low. He didn’t even know if the small person was male or female.
Caitlin glanced over the top of her book to see if Reeve were still looking. She couldn’t begin to imagine what he might think. She smiled and turned a page.
Elena’s ponderously slow steps fell to a stop and her wrenching sobs choked off into ragged respirations when she spotted the magical but familiar iridescent glow at the end of corridor. Entranced by the impossible, she pressed a hand against her tortured throat and fell into motion again, raising the hem of her sweater to scrub at her wet cheeks and swollen eyes as she sluggishly walked the rest of the way.
She paused just short of the entryway, her fingers numbly smoothing her sweater back into place as Reno’s low laughter and the girl’s high-pitched giggles filled the silence all around her. Surely, she was dreaming. Another step brought them into view. Reno sat with one knee drawn up, his arms clutched around his stomach as his laughter gave way to an occasional guffaw, the little girl sitting beside his leg with her hand pressed over her mouth. She blinked. She had to be dreaming. For one thing, she’d never heard Reno laugh before. Not that way, anyway. Not as an expression of…happiness.
As though he sensed her standing there, Reno suddenly turned his head and found her. “H…h…hey…L…Lena. Did you g…get that guy?” Another spate of laugher burst from his mouth.
A smile trembled on her lips. “No, I didn’t. He got away.”
Reno looked at the little girl and wiggled his eyebrows. “That’s a t…true b…blonde for ya. C…can’t c…catch a bad guy in a d…dead end hallway.” The girl giggled at his conspiratorial and overloud whisper. The little girl looked at her and giggled again, but opted to mitigate the humorous but derogatory remark. “But her hair’s really pretty.”
Still shivering, Reno turned back to appraise the color with an air of speculation. He nodded his head. “Y..yeah, y…you’re right. B…being b…blonde does have s…some advantages.”
Elena crossed her arms and rearranged her face into a picture of disdain, although her shining eyes gave lie to her pretense. Her heels clacking against the pavement, she strolled over and peered haughtily down her nose at him. “You know what Reno? I would slap your face for that remark,” she sniffed. “If I weren’t so glad to see you.” Then she let the smile she’d been struggling to hold back free to spread across her face.
Reno grinned back. “I’m g…glad to s…s…see me too. C..come s…sit with us.” He patted the pavement beside him with a trembling hand.
Her smile faltered. “But we need to get back, if you’re up to it, that is.” Her smooth brow wrinkled in confusion. “Don’t we? I mean…Caitlin…Reeve…you know…”
Reno slowly shook his head. “W…we…c…can’t.”
“Why not?” Uncertainly, she looked from Reno to the little girl and back.
“Because the door closed,” the little girl offered with a smile.
“But we can just open…” Elena turned as she spoke and fell silent when she recognized what type of door closed the access way to the reactor controls. “Oh, I guess not,” she added. Carefully, Elena let herself down onto the concrete, a highly unusual place for her to sit. Crossing her legs, she leaned back on her hands.
“Well, what now?” She inquired archly.
“We could play twenty questions,” Rachel suggested brightly.
Reno raised an eyebrow at Elena.
Slowly, she shook her head. “I don’t guess I know how.”
“W…well, your education is l…lacking. It’s t…time you learned. Every T…turk should know how to p…play twenty questions”
Elena sighed in mock resignation. “This may turn into the longest captivity ever.”
Reno’s green eyes twinkled. “It very well might.”
Her brow wrinkled in a frown. Inside, she smiled.
Reeve lifted his chin from his chest as a new sound introduced itself into his boring environment. He listened with interest for a moment as the strange sound grew. Then dropping his crossed arms, he stood up from the window ledge and peered out the window.
“What is that?”
Jack rose from the floor where he’d been sitting with is back to the marble wall between the entrance and the window. “What is what?”
“That sound? Don’t you hear it?”
Jack came to stand beside him. He tilted his head. “Yeah, I do hear it, but I don’t know…”
“It’s a chopper,” Coakley informed them.
Reeve turned to look at him curiously. He couldn’t tell it was a chopper. “Are you sure?”
“Uh huh. Gellner just radioed me. Said a Shinra chopper had just flown through the Sector 3 inner air space.”
“Really?” A tinge of excitement touched Reeve’s voice.
“Yep, and there it is,” Jack jabbed a finger toward the window.
Reeve pressed his hand against the glass as he craned his neck upwards to watch the chopper sink slowly toward the ground almost a block away, the brilliant spotlight illuminating the ground beneath as people scrambled to get out its way.
“Impressive,” Reeve breathed. “I knew that man could fly, but he’s outdone even himself.”
Caitlin had drowsed off behind her book, but at the sudden increase in chatter in the room, her eyes drifted open sleepily. Apprehensively, she felt for her gun as her worried eyes sought out Reeve. He was fine, though. Just staring out the window at something of great interest, apparently, if his rapt expression were any indication. Then she recognized the distant thrum of chopper blades.
Jumping to her feet, she yanked the glasses off and pressed her face to the glass. She watched with hope in her heart as the chopper blades slowed to a stop. Then a beautiful smile lit her face as she recognized the blue-suited figure climbing down out of the chopper. She almost laughed with joy when he checked his watch on cue before turning into the street that would bring him to the Shinra Building. Thank the stars, Rude was back. Now everything would be fine.”
“One out of four is not going to cut it,” the computer composite face glaring from the huge screen remarked.
The huge, broad-shouldered man with the katana strapped to his back threw out his hands in disgust. “We didn’t expect such opposition, boss. You said it would be simple with everything in disarray.”
“I did not hear you call me boss, did I?”
“What do you call me? Hmm? I’m waiting.”
The huge man ducked his head. “Do I have to?”
The computer-generated image slammed a massive fist down on an imaginary desk with rattling sound effect through the speaker. “You had better if you know what’s good for you. You’ve already betrayed your own tribe. Do you think you can go home? Hmm? Do you?”
The face smiled. “That’s better. I like that. Master. Yesssss.”
“And you! Look at you. You’re a mess! Shot all over the place! I didn’t realize you were so slow and clumsy!”
The man drew his black cloak around him and glared at the image from beneath the brim of his hat. “I was up against a Turk for crying out loud. Two of them in fact. Give me a break. Besides, one’s pretty much dead now.”
The image perked up with interest. “Which one?”
“Reno, the Leader of the Turks,” the man proclaimed proudly.
“Well now, that is something to brag about.”
Suddenly a piece of paper swelled to cover the screen, the words on the page hugely visible.
“Do you guys remember this,” The voice demanded harshly. “This is my shopping list of 25 names of 25 very special persons. Count them. Twen-tee-five. Now if you guys continue to shop at this pace, it will take you years to complete my list. And I won’t let it take years. I have a project to finish. I will replace you. Got that?”
The two men nodded nervously. They knew what ‘replace’ meant.
The man with the katana ventured to speak. “Er…Kendo is still in the process of acquiring the fourth target as we speak.”
“Well I hope that dolt can handle him,” the computer face, now different, sneered. “Since he proved so difficult to locate.”
“Well, he’s just a shop clerk,” Black Hat shrugged. “What trouble can he be?”
A huge finger jabbed at them on the screen. They both jumped in alarm. “Don’t make that mistake. Ever. With these people, you can expect anything.”
The list reappeared in place of the giant fingertip. Now a huge fingernail touched the name at the top of the list. “Do you see this name?” The name expanded across the screen.
Both men nodded uncertainly. “This name is at the top of the list because of its importance, obviously. If the list were alphabetical, it would be at the bottom. But it’s not. It. Is. At. The. Top.”
“We know that boss…er…Master.”
“Well, where is he!?” Both men covered their ears as the voice roared from the huge speakers on either side of the screen.
“We don’t know. He wasn’t where you said he’d be. We’ll have to find him.”
“Shit! He’s loose!?”
Katana and Black Hat drew together in alarm. “He must be I guess,” Katana ventured. The pair stared wondrously at the abject fear that formed on the computer generated face. Then the face changed and the expression was bland. A large finger appeared and wagged at them.
“Well I can tell you now that you will have to be very careful when you find him. You’ll never take him straight on. You’ll have to be very very crafty. Got that?”
The two nodded.
“Can you be crafty?”
Black Hat spoke. “If we can’t, Vendra can. She can be unbelievably crafty.”
The shifting face grinned happily. “True. True. Vendra. Yes. Well, things are looking up.”
Two huge hands waved them away. “Well, get going boys. You’ve things to do.”
With great relief, the two turned away from the screen. They’d almost made it to the exit of the audience chamber when the voice roared from the speakers. “Wait!”
With an apprehensive look at each other, they turned.
The giant hands clasped together on an invisible desk. “What about the video feed you sent me. Did you confirm that woman was Caitlin Shinra?”
Katana shook his head. “No, the female Turk denied it, but she could be. She is certainly important. The Turk would have taken my blade before giving her up.”
“Hmm…it’s been ten years since I’ve seen her, but I would just bet my life that’s her.”
The hands slapped down with a loud clap. “Well, if it is her, we’ll take her, but we’ll wait. If it’s her, she’ll fly back to her nest, and there, my loyal peons, is a treasure of inestimable value. Where she flys, we will follow.”
The two dipped their heads in acknowledgement.
The hands impatiently waved again. “Well, get out of here. I have things to do. Global things. Bye.”
Katana and Black Hat raced each other for the door. Black Hat almost won despite the bullet hole in his leg.
Rude stood face to face with Reeve, his cold eyes unrelenting on the executive’s face.
Rattled, Reeve held up a placating hand. “I don’t know where she is. I wish I did know. Elena said they were hiding her.”
“Where is Elena?”
“I don’t know that either. She told me to stay put.”
Reeve shook his head helplessly. “Maybe Cloud knows.”
“Is he still across the street?” Rude demanded.
“What is he doing there?”
“I don’t…” Reeve stared across the street at the soldier in bewilderment. “…really know?”
Rude relaxed his posture.
“Shall I get him?”
The Turk shook his head. “No, it’s not really necessary.”
Even more puzzled by the Turk’s abrupt change in demeanor, Reeve threw out his hands in despair. “What then?”
Rude turned and slowly scanned the faces of all the people in view of the window. He unerringly found Caitlin’s face despite her disguise, and he nodded respectfully. Happily, she sprang to her feet and flew toward him, barely dodging people as she covered the space between them. Without reservation, she joyfully threw her arms around his waist, hugging him as tightly as she could in her exuberation. “I am soooo glad that you are back.”
Smiling slightly, he patted her back. “Missed me?”
“Yes, I did. Don’t leave again, okay?” She leveled serious azure eyes on his face, huge behind the fat lenses.
“I’ll try not.” Gently, he freed himself from her embrace, coaxing her aside. Then he held out his hand. “Give me the rifle.”
She grinned. “Sure. I’m tired of carrying it, anyway.” She unhooked the gun strap and withdrew the automatic rifle from beneath her overcoat.
As Rude slung the rifle to his back, she sought out Reeve’s face. His bewilderment was complete.
She laughed happily. “Yes, it’s me.” She reached to pull the hat from her head, but Rude grabbed her wrist. “Not yet.”
She sighed. “Can I at least lose the glasses? They are making me blind.”
Rude curtly nodded, carefully watching Cloud as he crossed the street toward the building, his assigned task rendered unnecessary. He waited for the soldier to join them before he proceeded with his questions.
“Now, where can I find Reno and Elena?”
His question was met by silence, and Rude closely examined each face. Reeve shrugged. Jack shook his head. Coakley shyly ducked behind Reeve. Cloud spoke when he came to him.
“I don’t really know specifically where they are. All I know is that the plan was for Elena to return here after contacting Reeve via radio. She never arrived. Reno was going to get the little girl. We haven’t seen him since he left either.”
Rude swung his cool gaze back to Reeve. “Did she?”
“Did she…? He worked to get his thoughts straight. “Oh yes, she did. Radio me. That is.”
Rude looked at Caitlin. Worried, she frowned. “That’s all I know, too. What Cloud said.”
Rude inclined his head and reached into his coat pocket. Drawing out his wire, he deftly hooked it over his ear and positioned the tiny earphone. He listened for a moment. “I have one signal.”
“Okay, what now?” Reeve asked wearily.
“We track the signal to its source.”
“What do you want us to do?”
“All of you will come with me.”
Reeve looked around in surprise. “Everybody.”
Rude silently nodded. “We will all travel through the sector together in a group with you and Caitlin in the center.”
“Good idea,” Reeve responded in approval.
Rude kept Caitlin beside him as they all filed out to the street. Reeve shot her an amused glance as he bent to pick up his crate. Then he turned his back to her and left.
“Come on, Caitlin.” Rude put a hand lightly against her back and urged her toward the door.
Her eyes fell on the man from earlier, sitting against the far wall. “Wait.” She reached into her coat pocket as she darted away despite Rude’s sharp protest.
The man looked up as Caitlin halted in front of him. She held out the book. Hesitantly, he reached for it. She smiled. “I’m through with it. You can have it.”
He smiled with delight. “Thank you. I’ll take good care of it.”
“I know you will. I have to go now. Bye Bye.”
As she walked way, he called out, “Don’t forget what I said about your brother.”
She waved. “I won’t. I’ll be nice.”
Rude shook his head in wonder as she breezed past him. His lips lifted in a wry smile as he followed her out. Some things never changed. He still had his work cut out when it came to Caitlin Shinra. He briefly wondered how Reno had fared.
Avian watched the light move slowly across the plains. He’d been watching it for awhile. From the deck of the Highwind he could see for miles it seemed.
“Hmm…what do you think it is?” Jerol asked curiously. “Do you think we should be concerned?”
“Concerned?” Avian shook his head with a smile. “Nothing exciting ever happens out here, except for you guys.”
Jerol leaned into the rail beside him. “I guess we did impose in a big way.”
“No way. I needed you guys to come along. I was about to go insane with no one to talk to but Grandma.”
“I suppose I can understand that,” the officer responded tactfully. “Your Grandmother certainly is keeping Cait Sith entertained.”
“He’s keeping her entertained, too. She’s lucid more of the time than not with him around.”
“Hmm…maybe it’s his repertoire of games. Amusements of chance do tend to focus the mind.”
Suddenly, Avian straightened. “You know. I think that’s a chocobo cart.”
Jerol straightened beside the young man with interest. “Really? Do you think it’s coming here?”
“Gotta be. There’s nothing else out this way.”
“I imagine we’ll know soon,” Jerol pointed out.
“Hmm…in about fifteen minutes I’d say.”
“Fifteen minutes is a long time when you’ve nothing to do.”
A bright flash touched the edge of Avian’s peripheral vision, and he whipped his head toward the farmyard. He couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. The farmscape remained unaltered. Nothing crossed the sky. The lights were still off in the house. The moon still hung fat and bright just above the rim of the mountain range. He must have imagined it. His tired eyes were seeing things. He’d stayed up too late and gotten up too early. The officer rose before dawn everyday, and Avian liked to bring him a cup of coffee and keep him company.
“Did you see that, Avian?” Jerol stared off into the night sky.
“I thought I saw something. What did you see?”
“An explosion of light.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, it had to be a falling star or something like that. A meteor burning up in the atmosphere maybe. Sometimes they flare like that.”
Jerol looked skeptical at Avian’s explanation. “Maybe.” He’d stood night watch on the airship many times, and he’d never seen anything flash that brightly in the night sky.
They both turned back to watch the lantern light coming on, both uneasily dismissing the strange phenomenon.
“Maybe Cait Sith is performing light shows now.” Avian grinned at the thought.
Jerol chuckled. “Yeah, shows at 7 pm and 5 am.”
“Where is Cait Sith anyway?” Avian had noticed the cat on his Mog bouncing out to the airship just after dusk last night.
“Ah…he’s been working on electrical wiring all night. He does that while he’s keeping watch. Then he shuts down for a while when I get up. Then a couple of hours later, he’s at it again.”
“Wow! He knows how to fix wiring too?”
“He knows unbelievable things. You know, I think he must have every database on the planet programmed into him. I thought he’d be nothing but trouble, but he’s really amazing. I think his ongoing road show is a cleverly devised cover to disguise what he really is.”
“What is he really?”
“Just the highest tech computer I’ve ever seen.”
Just then, Cait Sith on his Mog bounced down the ramp of the Highwind.
“Hey, there he goes. Where’s he going at this hour?”
Jerol shrugged. Avian leaned out over the wooden railing. “Hey Cait Sith! Where are you going?”
Cait turned to jump up and down on top of the Mog. “Trouble! Trouble! Trouble!”
Avian watched in incomprehension. Then an enraged shriek rent the quiet fabric of the night.
“Get out of my house! Who are you?! Get out! Get out!”
“Can you open this?” Rude asked grimly. Silence met his question, and he looked up from the heavy, riveted hatch to scan all the pale faces around. Not one of them had missed the significance of the trail of coagulated blood or failed to make the connection between that and the signal. Every face looked as sick as he felt inside. The tears in Caitlin’s eyes would have undone another man, but he stiffened his resolve. Whatever he found, he’d take care of it. He had a job to do.
“Where’s Reeve?” Rude scanned the faces a little more intently this time around.
“He’s over there.” Jack inclined his head.
Rude swiveled his head to find the Shinra executive working at a small control panel. Reeve looked up and met Rude’s appraisal. Then the door hissed and fell slowly inward.
Rude listened intently for a long moment but no sound came from within. He drew his gun. “Everyone wait here.”
Not one of them had any desire to argue. Not one of them wanted to be the first to see. Hell, he didn’t want to be the first to see, but he was the one who should. To him, this was a family matter. Reno and Elena…they belonged…with him...
Despite his apparent equanimity, an unmerciful fist closed around his heart as he ducked his head through the hatchway and traversed the short catwalk to stand at the head of the steep metal stairs. His eyes were immediately drawn to the alarmingly large pool of congealed blood in the middle of the small room. He swallowed hard and started down the steps, looking around as he cautiously and silently navigated the precipitous descent. He didn’t need a grand tour to see that no one occupied the small entry room or the long hallway that ended at a u-shaped control panel.
Rude paused on the last step. He wasn’t about to leave despite what his eyes told him. He knew one of them was here. The tone in his ear sounded loudly and steadily without the slightest interruption. Reluctantly, he stepped down off the step and rounded the railing. His hand locked down on the square metal rail as his eyes fell on the scene he hoped not to see.
In the space between the stairs and the wall, Reno sat hunched in the corner, his legs stretched straight out, his bloodstained hands limply curled against his thighs, and his head resting lifelessly against the metal bulkhead, his stringy red hair draping half of his pale face. Congealed blood covered the entire length of his left side from chest to toe, and a long smear of red stained the visible part of his cheek, bisecting his scar, as though he had stroked his cheek with one bloody finger.
Mechanically, Rude walked forward, and he almost imagined he could see the rise and fall of Reno’s chest, but he knew it wasn’t true. He knew that was what his mind wanted to see, hoped to see, but no one could lose that much blood and live. Not without a hell of a miracle.
“He’s okay, Rude.”
At first, he thought he’d heard Elena’s voice in his head, a quirky mental manifestation to deny what he knew to be true, until he realized that he’d been so focused on Reno that he hadn’t noticed the blonde head that rested against Reno’s left shoulder, but she had most certainly noticed him and the stricken look on his face. Rude dropped to one knee to peer into the dim space under the stairs. Elena sat with her feet up under her, and a little girl slept on her lap. She lifted her head and smiled.
“I sure am glad to see you. I thought we’d be here for months.”
Rude shook his head. “I doubt it. Reno left quite a trail to follow.”
Elena’s smile faded away as she turned her cheek into the little girl’s hair. “He was almost gone, Rude. Another minute or two and…” She couldn’t finish that thought. The memory of how he’d looked from the head of the stairs when she’d first seen him, like a loose bag of bones tossed into the floor, his thin limbs sprawled, his fingers curled lifelessly into the concrete, his one visible eye wide and staring, it was all still too painful to recall. “…He’s still not…all the way…back.”
Rude turned his eyes back to Reno, hiding the intense feeling of relief behind shuttered eyelids. “Fortunately, you were able to find him in time to heal him.”
Elena straightened up to scoot back against the wall, drawing the sleeping girl closer into her arms.
“I don’t have the skill with materia to pull that off, Rude.” She tightened her arms around the girl. “Rachel did it.”
“This little girl. This child. She did it.”
If Rude had looked stricken before, his shock showed on his face now. “How in the world…?”
“Will you two shut up? I’m trying to sleep. I haven’t slept in days. Why won’t anyone let me sleep? Is it too much to ask? Is it?”
Rude swiveled his head to meet Reno’s baleful one-eyed glare. His lips moved into a near smile. “You look like you ran into some trouble, buddy.” Rude put the emphasis on Reno’s favorite appellation for him.
The red-haired Turk slowly lifted his head, pinning Rude with both green eyes as his hair slid away from his face. “Er…actually…just an all day drunk and the mother of all bar fights.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet. I’d hate to see the other guy. Can you get up?”
“Well then, get up. We have to go.”
“Okay.” Reno didn’t move.
The little girl stirred in Elena’s lap and sleepily opened her eyes. The sight of the huge, bald man with several gold hoops in his ear, hovering just above her, brought her scrambling up in Elena’s lap. “Ssssh. It’s okay. He’s a friend.”
Rude watched Reno’s eyes slide closed. “Reno! You need to get up.”
“I can’t,” he sighed.
Rude didn’t bother talking anymore. He stood and bent to grab Reno under the arms and hefted him to his feet. Draping one of Reno’s boneless arms over his shoulder, he wrapped an arm around his waist and lifted him off his feet to carry him out of the corner.
“Hey, I can walk!” Reno loudly protested.
Rude set one foot on the stair. “I’m not going to wait for you to get around to it.”
“What’s your hurry anyway?” Reno managed to get one boot planted on a step, and Rude eased him down to let Reno take some of his own weight. Rude looked around to see Elena standing up from the crawlspace with the little girl in her arms. Satisfied that she meant to follow, Rude started moving up the stairs, half supporting and half carrying Reno the whole way. Once he made it to the top, he set him on his own feet, watching him stand unsteadily for a few seconds before he answered. “I think we need to load Caitlin up in the chopper and get her out of here. Immediately.”
Reno shook his head. “No. There’s no point.” He turned and laid his hand against the catwalk railing, carefully testing his strength as he picked up one boot to walk forward.
Rude sidled alongside as he tried another step, ready to catch him if he fell. “I don’t understand. Someone knows Caitlin is alive. They know she is here. And they want her. We have to take her someplace safe.”
“She’s safest here. With us, Rude.” Reno trailed his hand along the metal alcove wall leading to the hatch. “Whoever these people are they can come and go as they please.”
“I think you’re wrong. Wouldn’t she be safer away from here? Away from Midgar?”
The fact that Rude was even arguing against his decision signified to Reno the depth of his feeling about protecting Caitlin. “We don’t know that she will be safe away from Midgar.”
“Rude,” Elena spoke behind him. “That man that shot Reno, I chased him and he vanished in a flash of light.”
Rude rounded on her, his astonishment again visible on his face. “Have you lost your mind, Elena?”
“It’s true, whether you believe it or not. We are dealing with something here that we’ve never seen before.” She brushed past him and stepped through the hatchway.
Unbelieving, Rude met Reno’s implacable eyes. “Do you believe that?”
Reno stopped and leaned weakly against the wall. “Sure I believe it. I don’t have to take Elena’s word for it. I know what I know. Elena chased the man down the hall. She came back. The man didn’t. She didn’t come back with him. He vanished. He had to go somewhere. That’s why I know that until we find out more, there is no point in taking Caitlin away. Maybe they have some way of knowing where she is no matter where we take her. We are not going to go off half-cocked. We are going to find out who they are, why they want Caitlin, and why they want that little girl. No one is going to go it alone. We will all stay together, all of us, until we know more. Period. End of subject.”
Rude knew he shouldn’t say another word, but he felt compelled to argue. “Reno, they can’t know. They didn’t bother her on the island.”
Reno narrowed his eyes on Rude’s face. “Rude, have I been terminated as Leader of the Turks?”
Rude’s face closed. “No.”
“Then, shut the hell up, buddy.”
Caitlin stroked the little girl’s hair as she held her in her arms, anxiously watching the doorway for Rude and Reno to appear. She’d removed the hat and the net to let her hair down, and Rachel was running her fingers through the long, silky waves. Elena stood solemnly at her elbow, uncharacteristically quiet.
“Are you sure he’s alright?” She asked Elena for the third time.
The blonde Turk opened her mouth to answer her yet again, but Reno finally emerged to stand shakily in the opening. Caitlin watched him closely as he forced himself to let go of the doorframe and take his first step unsupported.
His eyes found her standing there, and he started forward, walking unsteadily across the platform, slowly covering the space between them. Rude trailed close behind, staying near even though he knew Reno wanted to go it alone.
After an excruciatingly long time, he halted in front of her and peered down into her upturned face with serious eyes. “Are you the person I talk to about filling out an accident report? I have suffered an on the job injury.” He dropped his eyes to the dried blood beneath his boots.
Caitlin tilted her head to the side. “Hmm…so you have. You probably better talk to Reeve, though.”
“Later, I'm going to drink a gallon of water, and then I’m going to find a bed, and I’m going to shoot the first person who tries to wake me up.” He turned and slowly shuffled away.
“Thank you, Reno.” She called after him.
He waved a bloodstained hand dismissively in the air. “Don’t mention it. Ever again.”
Avian almost fell into the foyer when the doorknob finally opened beneath his frantic fingers. He could still hear his Grandma shrieking from the kitchen, and he could hear Soldier yelping as though he were in terrible pain. He tried to dart down the hallway, but Jerol grabbed a handful of his coat and yanked him back. “Don’t just fly in there, Avian. Be circumspect.”
His eyes wild, Avian jerked away from the officer and simply turned and ran. Jerol clutched his small pistol in a shaking hand and quickly followed.
The first sight that met Avian's horror filled eyes was the small furry body of Cait Sith carelessly tossed against the wall just inside the door. The golden eyes were dead. All the lights out. The Mog stood motionless just beyond. Heart in his throat, he skidded to a stop. He was beginning to see Jerol’s point.
He took a cautious step even though every nerve in his body screamed at him to just bolt through that door. Then his Grandma’s shriek choked off, and he ran through anyway. He halted dead in his tracks at the sight of the huge, muscle bound man with his large hands wrapped tightly around his Grandma’s fragile throat. Slowly, the man lifted her off the floor as she kicked against his shins. The heavy cast iron skillet she'd been wielding to little effect fell from her hand and clanged against the man’s steel-toed boot. The clangorous sound snapped Avian from his trance.
Even as Jerol ran past him to position himself for a clear shot, Avian’s hand slipped into his pocket and his fingers wrapped around the haft of the knife, and without a single lucid thought, no awareness of his own intent, he lifted the knife from his coat pocket and sent it spinning into the air before he even realized that he’d ever touched it, and just as Jerol fired his gun, the knife flew true and sank into the man’s chest as though it had found it’s way home.
The man gasped and his hands relaxed around his Lizbet's neck, and the man sank to his knees as Lizbet tumbled to the floor, and just as the man clutched the laughing dragon in both hands, choking on the dark blood that welled from his mouth and nose, Avian’s legs folded beneath him. He landed on his hands, and he hung his head low as tears filled his eyes. Then an acidic gorge seared a path all the way up, and he gagged and gagged until finally everything came up, and still he gagged, dry heaves tearing his throat, ripping through his chest. Whimpering through his nose, Soldier nudged Avian's face.
Jerol dropped to his knees beside Lizbet and helped her sit up as she gasped for air. The marks of her attacker’s fingers were already turning blue against her pale skin. She clutched Jerol’s uniform with clawlike hands. “Avian?” She begged.
“He’s alright, Grandma,” Jerol reassured. “His fine. He’s right over there.”
In all the turmoil, no one heard the door slam. Nor did they hear the sharp tap of heels in the hall. And they certainly didn’t notice the woman who appeared in the door to stand in tall, willowy splendor. Her eyes grew as round as saucers at what she saw. She walked woodenly forward to stand over Avian's bent form.
”Is that man dead?” She marveled.
At the sound of the familiar voice, Avian sat back on his heels with his hand clasped over his mouth, his eyes sweeping up in disbelief.
“Aunt Jae,” he mumbled against his palm. “You’re home.”
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