Caitlin stood captured in still life, just shy of the door, stopped there by the curtly negative jerk of Rude’s chin, his silent denial of permission for her to leave, and held there by the implacable dead stare of the soulless shades and the hard set to his jaw. Motionless despite the fact that every cell in her body urged her to run after the rapid footsteps already fading away down the hallway outside.
Even as she contemplated making a dash for it anyway, as she knew arguing with Rude would have zero effect, she heard Elena walk up behind her. Reinforcements. What would they do? Shoot her? No. Of course not. Rude would simply place his formidably large frame square in the doorway and turn to stone there, and even though she knew she could exert an unusual level of strength, especially for her small stature and slight limbs, she realized she would be no match for him. He would not be moved.
“Come on, Caitlin…” Elena grasped her elbow in light fingers that would no doubt tighten into a vise if she so much as blinked. “…You have to come away from the door.”
Realizing a lost cause when she saw one, Caitlin graciously conceded defeat with a simple nod of her head and turned away. In the old days, she might have devised a distraction to draw the Turks’ attention elsewhere so she could escape, but she didn’t think she could come up with any tactics that Rude hadn’t been well versed in a long time ago, especially on the spur of the moment and in such a close space. Besides she was just too worried to think that hard.
Disheartened, Caitlin wearily crossed through the center of the large room that had once been the main part of her father’s executive office suite, the only unobstructed space not completely stacked with boxes and discarded office furniture. She pulled herself up onto a large box that had been pushed back against a particularly large stack of several heavy cardboard cartons. She settled down with a great sigh, lifting her head to find Elena standing tall, virtually at military attention with her hands clasped behind her back, flinty eyes focused on Caitlin’s face and well shaped eyebrows lowered in a vaguely threatening frown. Caitlin had made no attempt to hide the troubled expression on her face, and Elena, seeing the anxiety in the smaller woman’s eyes, softened her stance. Purposefully, she strode across the room to stop in front of the small woman, and Caitlin lowered her eyes to her hands. She really didn’t want to engage in the conversation she knew was coming, because she knew it wouldn’t change a thing.
“You know we can’t let you go out there, Caitlin. It isn’t safe.”
Caitlin shrugged slightly, feeling a bit like a child being reprimanded by her mother. “What about Reeve? Who’s looking out for him?”
Elena studied her silently for a long moment before answering slowly. “He has an armed escort. He’ll be okay.”
Caitlin raised her head to spear Elena with cool eyes. “What if those men come back? Do you think his armed guards can protect him?”
Elena pursed her lips in thought. “Well, I could lie to you, but there’s no point. You know as well as I do that they can’t.”
“I wish one of you had gone with him.” Caitlin drew her legs up and hugged them to her chest, mournfully laying her cheek against one knee.
“You heard Reeve. He ordered the Turks to look out for you. Until someone tells me otherwise, he is the highest ranking executive in the Shinra Corporation today.”
“Yet, no one looks out for him….” Caitlin remarked softly.
Elena took a step closer and leaned a hip into the carton. “Look Caitlin. Whoever those guys are, wherever they came from, wherever they went, they don’t want Reeve. They didn’t come for Reeve. They came for you. And they came for that little girl.” Elena inclined her head toward the far corner where the sleeping child was hidden from her view by another stack of cardboard boxes. “The Turks, we have to protect you. It’s our job. Even if Reeve hadn’t ordered us to do so, we would protect you. As a member of the Shinra family, your safety supercedes any order.”
Caitlin sighed wearily. “I know that.”
“Then you do understand.”
“I’m not the one holding this whole mess together. I’m not the important one here.”
“Caitlin…” The blonde Turk’s tone carried a warning.
“I understand, Elena.” Caitlin straightened up and put her back to the wall of boxes behind her. Leveling a steady azure gaze on Elena’s face, she gave the Turk the obligatory nod of acceptance she awaited.
Seemingly satisfied that she’d convinced the Shinra heiress, Elena shoved away from the crate and strolled across the room to Rude’s side. Caitlin watched as Elena spoke at length to Rude, the big Turk nodding shortly at periodic intervals during the exchange. Elena spoke quietly, but Caitlin could have heard her if she wanted. She just didn’t want to listen.
She understood all right. The substance of what Elena had told her, she’d come to understand a long time ago, but nothing Elena had said soothed her trepidation. No one looked out for Reeve. She wasn’t really worried that those men would come back and attack him. She knew intuitively that they didn’t want Reeve. Just like she knew that they hadn’t come for her because she was a Shinra. They knew. She had no idea how they knew, but they did. Just like Reeve knew. But as long as they didn’t know about Heidi, she didn’t care. And no one knew about Heidi.
Her daughter was safe, but Reeve wasn’t. Not even with his armed guards. The mysterious intruders notwithstanding, there had been too much going on in the last few hours. First of all, the planes hadn’t arrived. Reeve had expected them shortly after sunrise, but they had yet to appear, and his attempts to raise the command center at Junon had gone unrewarded. Reeve had grown more edgy with each passing hour that the planes were delayed, and numerous reports of increasing confrontations between the people and the military had only increased his stress level. Although there hadn’t been a single incident that had required force thus far, the reports demonstrated the growing unrest, and she had no doubt that people would eventually turn the brunt of their anger upon the head of the Shinra Corporation. If people didn’t see some progress soon, Reeve might well become the target of the population’s displeasure, and she fully expected some would become violent. It was inevitable.
Then, on top of everything else, Jack, panic barely constrained, had come and summoned Reeve away. Obviously, something was going down somewhere, and Reeve had only the military guards to protect him. If only Cloud had gone with him. He certainly seemed unusually talented with his strange luminous sword. Caitlin darted a glance toward the walls of boxes that lined the back wall. The soldier slept somewhere amidst the stacks. She wasn’t sure where. If only Reeve had wakened Cloud as she’d suggested, to go with him, she might have felt a little better about the whole situation, but he’d refused, suggesting that everyone should grab some sleep while they still could.
Frustrated, Caitlin let her head fall back against the box with a quiet huff. If only they could all leave this place, walk away and put this dying city behind them, then Reeve would be safe, but she knew that Reeve wouldn’t go. He wouldn’t leave Midgar until he was positive that no one remained behind. And neither could she. They would all leave together or no one would leave at all. Wearily, she closed her eyes.
She wished that she had the power to will the planes into the air. Where in the world could Cid Highwind be?
“Hey, Cid! I’m hungry. I’m goin’ to the store. You got some gil I can borrow?”
Cid slammed to a stop in mid pace across the plush carpet and spun to face Yuffie where she reclined on the overstuffed sofa with her arms behind her head and one sneakered foot thrown up on the back. He jabbed his cigarette in the air. “You’re not goin’ anywhere! We’ll be leavin’ soon. Any minute now.”
Yuffie sniffed disdainfully. “Yeah, you said that four hours ago and then three hours ago and then…”
“How can you be hungry anyway? You ate every damn thing in the fridge.”
“Yeah well, my sweet tooth is actin’ up now.”
“I can take care of that for ya.”
“What? You got a chocolate bar stashed in your jacket?”
“Nah, but I got a pair of pliers.”
In the blink of an eye,Yuffie exploded from the sofa to land on her feet, raising her closed fists in front of her. “Bring em on, old man. I’ll take those pliers away and teach ya a new use for ‘em.” Energetically bouncing from one foot to the other in front of him like the world’s smallest prize fighter, she jabbed the air with one fist, and then the other.
Unconcerned, Cid took a long drag on his cigarette before he answered, slowing letting the smoke out through his nostrils as he glared at her. “Ya know, someone oughta take you over their knee and…” He took a threatening step toward her, and she jumped onto the cushions of the sofa, vaulting over the back to put the oversized piece of furniture between them, her black eyes dancing mischievously as she smirked a dare at him.
Tired of her endless games, he waved a hand in weary dismissal and dropped heavily into the opposite chair, stubbing his cigarette out in the already overflowing crystal ashtray on the elegant end table beside him as he raised his irritated gaze to the arched doorway on the opposite side of the room. He thought he’d heard the distant sound of a door closing. Shortly, Barrett proved him right when he stepped through from the side hallway, fighting the huge yawn that had captured his whole face.
Cid hunched down into the chair. “Sleep well?”
Barrett scrubbed a hand across his scruffy beard. “Okay, I guess.” He glanced around the quiet room, his eyes pausing on Yuffie who leaned demurely against the back of the sofa, looking so innocent he knew she’d been up so something. His gaze ended up on Cid’s disgruntled face. “Looks like I coulda kept on sleepin’. Not much shakin’ around here.”
Cid shrugged. “Waitin’ on a phone call.”
“When we leavin’?”
“Soon’s that phone rings.”
“Thought we were s’posed to be leavin’ a long time ago…”
“Well, the phone hasn’t rang.”
“Don’t ask me. I don’t know anything. Feel like a mushroom. Fed shit and kept in the dark.”
“Yuffie. She tripped over him twice and stomped on his tail three times.”
The ninja girl whirled around to glare at the Captain. “I did not!”
He shrugged. “Whatever. I’m not gonna argue with you anymore. Too damn tired to keep up.”
Yuffie turned beseeching eyes on Barrett. “Just to set the record straight. He’s hidin’ from him.” She jabbed an accusing finger in Cid’s direction. “He’s been nothin’ but a cranky old fart since we left Rockettown.”
Barrett looked from one sullen face to the other and judiciously decided to change the subject. “Uh…why don’t we try to find out what’s causing the hold up?”
Cid hunched lower in the plump chair and stretched his legs out in front of him. “Done did. Went down to the airbase while Yuffie and Red listened for the phone. Couldn’t get anywhere’s near it. The clueless guards said I wasn’t authorized personnel.”
“How about your crew? Where are they?”
“Still at the hotel.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Maybe I’m bein’ paranoid, but do ya think something’s goin’ on here?”
Cid shook his head. “Hell no. Just typical Shinra incompetence. Be lucky if we leave before next week.”
Barrett couldn’t think of a word to say to lighten the mood, so he decided he’d best not say anything, letting the heavy silence in the room take over once more. Then, he nearly jumped out of his boots when the phone rang shrilly behind him.
Before Barrett could even get his sleep-dazed mind to think about moving out of the way, Cid agilely leapt from the chair and dashed across the room, squeezing past between Barrett’s considerable bulk and the thick doorframe to snatch the designer phone receiver into his hand.
Yuffie moved up beside Barrett’s elbow to listen.
“What caused the delay?”
“Uh huh. Uh huh.”
“What about gettin’ onto the airbase?”
“Good. See ya in five minutes.”
Cid jabbed the button down to cut the connection and immediately began punching numbers. “About time.” He muttered to no one in particular.
“Well?” Barrett asked impatiently. “What was the hold up?”
“Uh…something about bringing a crane up from the sub base. Had some problems.”
“So, we’re goin’ now?” Yuffie prompted.
“Yep, get your stuff and roust Red outta the kitchen. We’re good to go.”
Phone pressed to his ear, Cid turned around as he waited for Jimmie to answer only to find the two of them still standing, dumbly watching him.
“Well, ya goin’ or not?!” He snapped at them. “Countdown’s started! Yer either on board or ya ain’t.”
Purposefully, he put his back to them as the two of them brushed past him into the adjacent hallway, heading to their respective bedrooms to get their belongings. “Jimmie? That you? Get everybody down to the plane. It’s time to go.”
“Yep. Yep. And light a damn fire under it. We got a city full of people waiting.”
Reeve held up a placating hand. “Please, Dr. Anastasio. There’s no need to become excited. All I’m talking about here is moving all non-essential personnel, along with your ambulatory patients and the refugees, to Sector 2 in anticipation of evacuation from the city. We’ll discuss any subsequent transfers when the need arises.
The red-faced doctor shook a long, thin finger in Reeve’s face. “I know what you’re up to, Alexander. You want to move people here and then move them there! First of all, you say you cannot guarantee me the same level of resources in Sector 2 that you can here. And secondly, you want me to move these patients, many of whom are barely holding on to their lives, into the old Valencia Medical Center. That building is about to fall down and their equipment is older than I am! I won’t permit it!”
Reeve straightened up from his seat on the edge of the desk and rose to his full height, almost coming nose to nose with the tall, lanky surgeon. “Dr. Anastasio, let me make myself clear. If I deem it necessary to relocate every person in Wall Market to Sector 2, there is nothing you can do to stop me. I will order a military evacuation of this area, and my order will be carried out.”
“Alexander, you just can’t…”
“Let me finish,” Reeve cut in sharply, waiting until Anatasio pressed his lips into a thin line and defiantly crossed his arms, apparently deciding to hear him out, albeit in sulky silence. “That being said, I assure that I will not take so serious a measure without substantial cause. I appreciate your concern for your patients, and I have no desire to undermine your tireless efforts here. I do not intend to move any of your critical patients before our planned airlift to Junon is in place unless I find I have no choice, and in that event I hope I can expect your full cooperation. Can I count on you, Dr. Anastasio?”
Anastasio glared at the executive for a long moment as Reeve gazed steadily back. “Hmph. I have some requests.”
“I want to oversee the transfers,” the doctor stated defiantly.
“Of course. I expect you to be in charge.”
“I want all my equipment moved as well.”
“I don’t foresee a problem. We moved everything here. We can move it to Sector 2 just as easily.”
“You will apprise me of any major action beforehand.”
“You’ll be the very first to know.”
“You will just be moving refugees and ambulatory patients right now.”
“And nonessential personnel.”
Finally, Anastasio tersely nodded his reluctant agreement even as he tried to maintain his angry expression despite Reeve’s easy capitulation. Uneasily, he glanced down at his watch, and then lifted his thin nose into the air. “Well, if you’ll excuse me, I have patients I must attend.”
Reeve inclined his head respectfully. “Of course. Thank you for taking valuable time to speak with me about this matter.”
Anastasio sniffed his disdain and gave Reeve another curt nod before spinning on heel and striding from the room, his surgical coat flapping behind him.
Once the surgeon had gone, Reeve turned his head to catch Jack’s eye. “Let’s go.” Without another word, Reeve crossed the floor and shoved the door open to find Coakley leaning casually against the brightly painted railing of the balustrade with his back to them.
“Andy, please get me Sand on the radio.”
The soldier whirled around and jumped to attention, snatching the radio from his utility belt and almost dropping the device in his eagerness. “Yessir, right away sir!” With a quick smile, he dashed down the wide staircase and across the foyer, nearly toppling a couple of nurses on his way out the door.
Setting a more reasonable pace, Reeve started down the staircase with Jack alongside. “Coakley is a little on the hyper side. He must’ve had too much of that black tar they were serving this morning under the guise of coffee,” Jack remarked.
“Actually, I think it had more to do with that pretty young woman he was talking to over the railing,” Reeve corrected him.
“You aren’t terribly observant are you?”
“I guess not.”
Reeve reached the bottom of the stairs and headed across the foyer as he nodded respectfully at the young raven-haired woman watching them from her seat on the bench beside the staircase. Jack leaned in toward Reeve. “That one?”
Reeve nodded. “That’s the one.”
“She sure is a pretty one,” Jack blatantly eyed her as he walked past.
The executive didn’t bother to answer, deciding to ignore Jack’s behavior, although a vacant smile of amusement touched his lips, his mind already turning over all the things he had yet to do before he could return to the Shinra Building in Sector 2. Then Jack suddenly grabbed his elbow and pulled him to a stop.
“Hey….speaking of women…what’s the deal with Caitlin Shinra?” The engineer asked in a low voice
Reeve’s face stiffened noticeably. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you know, I’d been wanting to talk to you about her…but hadn’t really got around to it…and I couldn’t help but notice her around. I must say…I was quite astonished when I recognized her…and now curiosity has grabbed me firmly in hand. So what’s the deal?”
“I don’t want to talk about her right now, Jack.” To emphasize his point, Reeve simply walked away, but Jack quickly fell into pace alongside, matching him step for step.
“Well…I mean…you two used to be pretty tight as I recall…I mean I know you were keeping it all on the down and down, but it’s not like I didn’t know all that…”
“Well, I was just wondering, now that she’s resurrected and all…”
“She wasn’t deceased.”
“Yeah, I kinda figured that out on my own.”
“I’m impressed,” Reeve responded dryly.
“You know how insufferably nosy I am.”
“I’d forgotten. How remiss of me.”
“Come on, Reeve. Are you and she…er…you and her…still…you know…”
Reeve halted in the doorway and scanned through the shifting people in the common area for Coakley. He immediately spotted him standing near the entrance, talking into the radio. He looked up and caught Reeve’s eye, nodding to him. The Shinra executive headed that way, the engineer right on his heels, apparently not finished with his questions despite Reeve’s discouragement.
“So…Reeve…you tryin’ to tell me that all that…with Caitlin and you…it’s all over with?”
Reeve shrugged noncommittally. “Ten years is a long time, Jack.”
Jack wrinkled his brow in puzzlement. “So…in all that time…you didn’t know? Never saw her?”
“I don’t have time for this right now, Jack. When this is all over, I’ll quell your rampant curiosity over a couple of beers and a game of eight ball. Will that satisfy you?”
Jack shrugged. “Yeah, sure Reeve. Guess so. You know, she sure hasn’t changed a bit. She’s still as beautiful as ever, doncha think?”
“Well then, if you aren’t interested anymore, you won’t mind if I get to know her a little better?”
Reeve turned a dark-eyed glare on Jack.
“Oho, I think someone isn’t being wholly honest here,” Jack chortled.
Reeve squared his jaw and halted in front of Coakley. “Jack, why don’t you put your vivid imagination to work on relevant solutions rather than your adolescent fantasies.”
Jack just grinned at him, and Reeve rolled his eyes as he reached for the radiophone Coakley held out.
Ignoring Jack and Coakley, the executive turned his back on the pair and spoke into the phone. “Sand? Reeve here. Commence the operation. Yes, exactly as we discussed. Right. Any word on those planes? I see. Please inform me when you’ve finished.” Grimfaced, he returned the radiophone to Coakley.
“No planes, huh?” Jack asked quietly, all the earlier humor gone from his now sober face.
Reeve shook his head mutely. “I guess we might as well head back. I want to go over the potential evacuation routes again.”
“Mr. Alexander, sir…” Coakley ventured.
“What is it, Andy?”
“Dr. Minkin was looking for you a few minutes ago. I told him you were in with Dr. Anastasio, and he just asked if you would meet him when you were done.”
Reeve’s shoulders slumped in exhaustion. “Where?”
“He said he’d be meeting with Dr. Spiner. You know…at the Honeybee…er…the…ah…morgue…”
With a concerted effort, Reeve straightened his shoulders and turned away. “Well, I guess we better go see what he’s found out.”
Reeve blew out a silent breath as he made his feet move, absently noting that Coakley and Jack fell in behind, along with the four guards who joined them a little further on as they passed through into Wall Market proper. He hoped that Minkin had good news to impart, but with the way things had been going in the last few hours, he definitely wasn’t confident that would be the case. He could theorize that the fact that Dr. Minkin had sought out Dr. Spiner didn’t bode well, but that wasn’t necessarily so, and he decided that he was just borrowing trouble. He decided that he was long overdue for some good news today.
She opened her eyes to find Rude standing to the side. Quickly, she glanced around the room, but could find nothing amiss, except that no one else seemed to be about. Even Elena must have scoped out a comfortable spot amidst the walls of boxes and gone to sleep, something Caitlin hadn’t been able to do herself. Too many thoughts running rampant in her mind…
“Something wrong, Rude?”
He silently indicated there wasn’t with the slightest shake of his head. Then he raised his hand to offer her the large notepad he held. With an uncertain smile, she took it from him. “What’s this, Rude?”
“I thought it would help you pass the time.” Then he reached into his inside pocket and withdrew a couple of pencils, mutely offering those to her as well. Her smile grew. “Thank you, Rude. You’ve found just the thing to take my mind off things.”
He acknowledged her gratitude with a barely perceptible nod and half-turned away, but then he looked back to find her staring down at the blank cover of the notepad. “I realize you are probably accustomed to more esoteric material, but I remember a time when you would draw on any stationary surface available.”
She almost laughed as Rude’s statement immediately sparked an image of one Turk’s annoyed face in her mind. At least, Tseng had tried to appear annoyed when he held out the open Turk logbook to confront her, the violated pages at the forefront, with the Turks depicted in interesting activities and alternate modes of dress. Chafing at the restrictions they’d placed on her that particular day, holding her in virtual captivity in their offices while they took care of some administrative business, she’d poured her teenage frustration at the lot of them into her artistic doodlings and bent the accepted role and gender rules considerably in a few of them. Still, she wasn’t too worried. She’d seen the inkling of a smile that he fought to keep off his tight-lipped mouth at the same time that the entirety of his stern demeanor was showing some holes. And of course she had pasted an angelic look on her face, leveled wide blue eyes on his dark ones, and audaciously lied.
”Don’t know anything about it. Wasn’t me.” Then she’d blown a gigantic bubble and popped it noisily to punctuate her indifference at the blatant falsehood.
He’d pursed his lips in thought for a long moment, and then decided not to play her game, quietly closing the cover of the logbook and sliding it into a desk drawer. Then he’d fixed expressionless eyes on her expectant face as he’d pointedly turned the lock with a tiny click and dropped the key into his jacket pocket. “Well, if you do see anyone suspicious about, especially someone who seems uniquely creative with an ink pen, please notify me so I may handle the matter accordingly.”
Before she could ask him what he planned to do, thinking he was just biding his time and would seek his retribution later, he’d straightened from the desk and walked away. Of course, he’d never done anything about it, and she’d never seen that logbook again, but she’d gained a great deal of satisfaction from the knowledge that the Administrative Research Department secretaries randomly pulled specially decorated envelopes and sheets of stationary paper from the boxes in the supply room for perhaps a month or so afterward, until the entire stock had been confiscated and replaced at the strangled order of the Leader of the Turks.
She actually happened to be in the office again that day, waiting for her father to take her home, and she could still remember the way Hodge looked with his carotid artery straining to burst through his skin and his pasty face turned fiery red with his ire. She might have laughed if he hadn’t looked positively demonic. She shuddered slightly as she recalled their confrontation then, a petite sixteen year old standing tall in the face of his barely contained rage, towering over her with shaking frame as she lifted her chin to stare him down despite her fear of him.
Despicable man. Though she would never wish anyone ill, even him, she’d performed a happy dance on her bed the day that man vanished without a trace when his private plane crashed into the sea, leaving a surprised Tseng to be promoted to Leader of the Turks at the unprecedented age of twenty-one.
Lewis Hodge, who had wholly resented the President assigning his elite Turks to what he considered nothing more than babysitting duties, had teetered on the edge of losing his temper with her many times before, but he’d never said or done anything, other than to refer to her on occasion as ‘that Shinra brat’. Of course, that was before Rufus had grown brattier than she’d ever dreamed of being. Certainly, the man knew better than to retaliate against the daughter of President Shinra, but that day…that day…she knew he had truly lost it, that he would hit her despite the Shinra blood coursing in her veins, despite potential retribution from her father, but she refused to cower before him, and he had raised his fist, pulling his arm back in unconscious preparation for his punch. Then, Tseng had inserted himself between them and stood motionless there, and though she could only see his broad back, she suspected that a promise of mayhem radiated from his dark eyes and stopped the Leader of the Turks dead in his tracks, because the man, the most powerful individual in the Shinra Corporation but for one, largely by virtue of his bloody, underhanded methods – indeed, some reverently whispered that he’d even engineered the assassination of Jonas Ashe to gain an early promotion - turned tail and left the room without another word about it, then or ever.
Tseng had risked his job, and his life, for her. But then, he’d always looked out for her. No matter what. And now, amidst the Turks again, she missed him. Terribly.
She looked up to find Rude watching her closely, and she realized her thoughts had erased her smile from her face and filled her eyes with profound sorrow. She lowered her gaze to the notepad in her hands and forced the smile to return to her lips before she responded to the teasing remark Rude had soberly spoken only seconds ago, but now seemed like an hour.
“Well Rude, I did give up Turk logbooks and office envelopes a long time ago, but this will work admirably under the circumstances.”
She glanced surreptitiously through her lowered lashes to see Rude’s lips twitch in a near semblance of a smile just before he turned away to return to his post beside the door. Still, the memory of Tseng lingered in her mind, and suddenly, she realized that she had to know.
In mid-step, he paused at her soft voice, and perhaps sensing from her tone what she would ask, kept his back to her as he replied.
“Rude…would you tell me about Tseng? About what happened to him?”
She held her breath as she waited for him to answer, but he stood silently so long that she had almost decided that he wasn’t going to tell her when he finally spoke.
“I’d rather not, Caitlin.”
She wasn’t inclined to let it go this time. “Please, Rude. I have to know.”
Finally, Rude spun around and took the two steps required to bring him right up to the side of the box she was sitting on. Then he drew in a long breath and glanced around as though making sure no one else listened before he drew his shades from his face and studied her with quiet eyes. “Caitlin…you…don’t want to know. I assure you.”
“I already know that General Sephiroth…killed…him, but I don’t know how…where…why…” She faltered to silence.
Rude mutinously crossed his arms, clutching his folded shades in one white knuckled hand, and raised his eyes to the room beyond her, and then he started speaking as though reciting a dull report by rote with little interest in conveying nothing more than simple information. “Tseng died at an archaeological ruin called The Temple of the Ancients. Sephiroth was already inside when he arrived and fatally injured him with his sword. He, Tseng, was there to acquire an artifact that your brother thought would meet his ends. Sephiroth wanted the artifact for himself. Tseng…his death was neither…” Rude closed his eyes. “…Swift…or painless…” The big Turk paused for a moment as though to gather his thoughts or maybe his equilibrium. Then he opened his eyes to the room again and continued in a quieter tone than before. “He actually talked to…Reno…on his phone before the Temple…ah…disappeared. But I…we…never saw him again. We couldn’t recover his…him.”
Despite his expressionless face, Rude almost seemed on the verge of tears, a level of emotional duress Caitlin could never have imagined seeing him reach, and she felt a keen sense of shame for making him remember. She reached up and touched his fisted hand. “I’m sorry, Rude. I shouldn’t have asked you. I know how much I…miss him. I can only imagine how painful it must be for you.”
Rude shrugged tightly. “You wanted to know.”
“Well, thank you for telling me…” Caitlin felt like she should say more, but all she could think about was how right Rude had been. Now, she didn’t want to know. Because knowing had not given her comfort or made her feel one bit better or more enlightened. If anything, Rude’s account had only raised more questions and made her angry. At her brother. No, not Rufus. He’d been victimized too. No, at Shinra. The company that devoured people’s lives and…souls. But she couldn’t step back now. She couldn’t put the words back in Rude’s mouth. She couldn’t unhear them. And now she had a picture of Tseng in her mind she didn’t think she would ever be able to erase. And Reno, too.
What had it been like for him to talk to Tseng, on a phone, as he lay dying? Had he cared? Or had he secretly celebrated his impending promotion? What had Tseng thought important to say in his final moments? Maybe she would ask Reno. Someday. Maybe he would even tell her. But right now, she really didn’t want to know. Partly because she’d heard enough to last her for quite awhile and partly because she’d just remembered how cold he’d been that last time, how angry she’d been with him the very last time she’d seen him. The day before Jaz died…before her…own life ended. Her last morning in Costa del Sol. The morning he’d come for her. A place in her memories she didn’t wish to revisit, but her mind betrayed her anyway and dumped her squarely into the past…to the point in time when she’d left Reeve behind and stepped out into the predawn light…
She marveled at the empty streets as she walked through the village and along the seawall to reach the fieldstone steps that would take her to an equally vacant stretch of public beach. She was hardly surprised as she well knew that most visitors and residents alike tended to play long into the evening hours and, in turn, venture out late in the morning.
There were fewer people around this time of year too, with the huge Midgar Winter Festival due to begin next week. Tourists that might otherwise visit Costa del Sol flocked to Midgar in droves for the grand celebration. Still, there were quite a few people in the seaside tourist town, and she was most grateful that everyone had opted to leave the beach all to her. Especially as she had awakened just past midnight and tortured the bedcovers for hours as she’d tossed and turned beneath the troubled thoughts that refused to relinquish her mind. Frustrated, she’d finally conceded defeat and decided to get dressed and watch the sun come up over the ocean with the hope of sending her worries packing, if only for a little while.
She kicked off her thongs and walked barefoot through the sand until she reached the edge of the water, and she stood there with the skirt of her sundress drifting against her bare calves as she dug her toes into the wet sand and watched the sea gulls, some gliding low over the surface to skitter noisily into the sea, some darting away and flying way up in a wild swirl of bird wings, calling raucously as they danced high in the air, the only sound to grace her peaceful dawn solitude.
For a few precious moments, her mind took wing as well and soared with the breeze, far out over the sea, to ride with the rising sun on the far horizon, free of thought and worry and regret, until the warm water lapped over her feet and compelled her return. Blinking slowly, she dropped her eyes to the brackish wash of tide, already receding to leave her skin chilled in the morning air.
Suddenly, she wanted Reeve with her, wanted nothing more than to walk with him on the beach, to share the beautiful morning with him, and she thought about returning to the hotel to wake him, but the thought lasted only a moment. She wouldn’t disturb him. She would let him sleep. Obliviously. For now. Because when he did wake, she planned to plead her case. She would ask him not to go back to Midgar. She would ask him to start a new life somewhere far away from Shinra, and she knew he wouldn’t agree. He wouldn’t agree, and she wouldn’t fight with him. Still, she had to try. For his sake.
Three short days ago, standing close beside him, her head not even reaching his shoulder even with the flowers woven through the short, silky tresses of her golden hair, with butterflies fluttering nonstop inside her stomach, she’d spoken her vows to him in a near whisper, the best she could manage, at the prompting of the cherub faced marriage official. Reeve had bowed his head to better hear her, and then gathering one trembling hand in both of his, he’d responded with his own vows in a voice quiet but firm with conviction. So strange that she would be the one filled with uncertainty when he’d been the one to come to this decision under duress, but then, when he kissed her, her nerves stilled and everything had turned right again. Because she loved him more than life, and the two of them belonged together. The wedding ritual was simply an affirmation of that fact.
So she had floated through the days and nights with her head in the clouds, days and nights full of blissful oblivion and confession and sweet revelation. Then she’d awakened in his arms just this morning to stare wide-eyed into the darkness because she’d just remembered. The fairy tale days were over. They had to go back. To Midgar. Today. She had to go back and tell her father that she’d married Reeve Alexander without his knowledge or consent. Not that she needed his permission. Or wanted it. But she knew…yes…she knew that he would not be pleased. In fact, the more she thought about how her father would react, the greater grew her fear for her husband.
Reeve had told her not to worry, that her father would accept him. Their vows were spoken, their promises made, their marriage…a done deal. She’d outwardly agreed with him then, but during those long hours when she’d lain awake, snuggled close against his warm body with his fingers clasped in her hand, she’d realized how wrong they were. Reeve didn’t know her father like she did, because if he did, he would leave the company and do anything else with his life, anything that didn’t advance the purposes of the Shinra Corporation. But she did know her father, very well, and today she would have to convince her ambitious, upwardly mobile husband to leave his old life, all he’d gained through his hard work and dedication, behind him. She just had to figure out how to convince him, because the only other option would be to keep their marriage secret, like their whole relationship had been, and she realized the damage that would do to their lives. To their commitment. And she also knew that all her plans and fretting would make no difference. He wouldn’t listen to her. He would go back, and she would go with him.
That’s where he found her. Standing on the beach, water lapping over her bare feet, calmly watching the seagulls play, distantly, while inside her thoughts jerked her back and forth from hope to gut wrenching fear to utter futility and back again, but it just so happened that her mind had finally landed her in a place of impending doom when she first smelled the rich aroma of his cigarillo, and she realized that he’d silently crossed the sand and now stood there on the beach, just behind her.
Suddenly, the morning breeze seemed leached of all warmth, and she folded her arms against the chill she felt inside and out. “What do you want, Tseng?” Her voice reflected the wintry icicles that had formed inside her heart.
He didn’t answer her, and she finally turned around, half hoping that he wouldn’t be there, that her beleaguered brain had imagined his presence, bringing all her terrible fears to fruition.
Or course, he was there. Silently watching her through impenetrable shades as he released another slow exhalation of fragrant smoke, the ends of his long black hair stirring in a breath of wind, the creases in his blue Turk slacks knife edge sharp, highly polished black shoes half-buried in white sand. He hadn’t come for the sun.
Seconds slipped by as they stared at each other, wordlessly, the incessant call of the seagulls, the soft wash of the relentless tide, and the distant bark of an excited dog the only sounds to touch the heavy silence between them.
Suddenly, he moved, shooting the slender cigarillo out into the water with an economic flick of his wrist. She flinched. Clasping his hands together in front of him, he squared his shoulders to straighten to his full height.
“I’ve come to take you home,” he finally answered her. His words, as hard as pebbles falling on concrete told her he would tolerate no resistance.
“I don’t want to go home,” she snapped back.
“I have my orders,” he replied coolly.
“I’m not a child.”
“Tell your father.”
She noticed he hadn’t once said her name, and she knew exactly why. Tseng had been ordered to a task he found distasteful, so he’d detached himself. She’d seen him in that mode more than once. They all did it. All the Turks. In order to protect their humanity. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to function in the real world. So they compartmentalized their emotions and their deeds, transforming themselves into unquestioning automatons when required. She just had to get through to him. To find the friend inside. The man who had once stood up to his murderous boss for her.
“Tseng, please. Just go back to Midgar and tell him you didn’t find me. Just go and leave me alone. Please. For me.” She held her breath, hoping beyond hope that he would listen, that he would agree, that he would leave. Then she and Reeve could disappear. Reeve would have no choice now. She had no doubt what Tseng’s orders entailed.
“I can’t do that.”
“Tseng, please. I thought you were…you are…my friend…”
The cold-faced Turk, eyes hidden behind his shades, reached into his jacket and retrieved his pistol as she watched with still eyes and strangled breath.
“Where is he?”
“Who?” She choked out. Certainly, she knew exactly whom he meant.
“The man who brought you here.”
Her eyes widened in surprise, and her heart filled with hope. Could it be that Tseng didn’t really know? Her eyes fell to her left hand. She’d left the ring Reeve had given her on the back of the sink last night. She raised her eyes to meet the Turk’s full measure and steeled herself to carry off what she would say.
She waved a nonchalant hand in the air. “Don’t worry about him, Tseng. He’s just someone I met. No more. He won’t remember my name tomorrow.”
She could feel his eyes on her as he studied her face. Then he lowered his head to the gun in his hands and popped out the clip to check the load.
“I doubt that,” he replied blandly.
“Well, you might not want to believe it, but it’s the truth.”
Suddenly, Tseng slammed the clip home, the sound loud on the quiet beach and as sharply startling as his movement. She flinched again. Wordlessly, Tseng slipped the gun back into his shoulder holster. Her pulse pounded in her temple as she waited with pent breath for him to speak, to see if she’d convinced him.
He turned his head and scanned the beachfront street until he found the hotel. His intent gaze focused on the heavy wooden entrance door set in the white stone façade, he spoke without looking at her.
“Go to the chopper, Caitlin.”
Her heart soared. Surely this meant that he would go, as long as she went with him. And she would go just to get Tseng away from Reeve. She just wished that she could tell Reeve. He wouldn’t know what had happened. He’d be worried. Maybe there was a way.
“Why don’t I meet you there, Tseng. I’ll just go gather my things and come right back.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she knew she’d probably pushed her luck too far, said the wrong thing. She couldn’t go back to the hotel. Tseng would go with her. He wouldn’t trust her for a second. She’d just have to find a way to call Reeve at the hotel once she was back in Midgar.
She tossed her head and forced a smile. “Never mind. There isn’t anything I can’t replace. Let’s just go. This tourist trap has lost its attraction anyway. It was a fun weekend, but it’s gotten old, you know.” She knew she was talking too much, babbling even, but she couldn’t seem to stop her tongue. It was as though she believed that the more words she spoke, the more convinced he would be. After all, she didn’t want him coming back after they’d left. Forcing a casualness she didn’t feel, she let her arms fall to her side and walked past him. A glance over her shoulder told her that he silently followed. She stopped just short of the steps to slip her thongs on her feet while he waited. “Wait until you see the dress I bought for Winter Festival, Tseng. It’s absolutely gorgeous.” Her words came out strained despite the lightness she’d tried and failed to interject into the one-sided conversation. She should just shut up. She was talking about things that Tseng well knew she didn’t normally care about anyway. Silently, she climbed the stone steps and headed in the direction of the helipad. Until she realized that he’d stopped at the top of the steps. She turned back with the question in her eyes.
“What’s wrong, Tseng? Let’s go.”
Again, he stared toward the hotel. “Go to the chopper. I’ll join you in a few moments.”
“Why? What are you going to do?” Oh, she knew what he meant to do, and she knew he wasn’t going to purchase refreshments for the trip or seek out the men’s room.
“Go, Caitlin. Now. I’ll come as soon as I’ve finished my business.”
She wanted to scream. To pound her fists against his chest. To slap his shades off his face and give him a good hard kick right in the shin. She hadn’t convinced him at all, and the sad truth was that she could do all those things and cry her eyes out besides, and the Leader of the Turks would not relent. He had his job to do after all. She floundered as he turned away from her. She didn’t know what to do to stop him. In desperation, she threw her hand up and grabbed a fistful of his sleeve.
“Tseng, please! Let’s just go!”
Purposefully, Tseng pried her fingers from his coat. “Go to the chopper. Now.” His voice had turned frigidly cold.
Suddenly, it hit her. There was something she could do. The only thing. Tseng had two orders. She just had to make him choose between them. For whatever reason, Tseng had come on this little mission alone. He really should have known better.
She propped her hands on her hips and threw her head back to better glare up at him. “Sure Tseng, go on and do your thing, but don’t expect me to be waiting breathlessly in the chopper for your return.” The Turk leveled his hidden gaze on her face. Her insides trembling, she coolly took two steps back. She had to make this work. “In fact, I think I’ve other places to go. To hell with Winter Festival. I can think of nothing more dismal than Midgar in the wintertime. I know there’s a seaplane down there, and I suspect I could get the pilot of that plane to take me anywhere I want. After all, I know the magic word. Shinra.” She raised an eyebrow at him and stepped back again as he unconsciously raised his hand to reach for her. He took another step toward her, and she started walking backwards. Immediately, he set off after her, relentlessly shadowing her steps. Abruptly, she whirled and broke into a fast walk, her thongs slapping against the cobblestones, the hard soles of his shoes tapping along right behind her, although at a slower pace, because his long legs didn’t require as many steps to cover the same distance as her much shorter ones did. She wondered what he would do if she ran.
Of course, she knew that he could end this game too. He could easily catch her. She could never outrun him. He could catch her and drag her along to watch while he did what he’d been ordered to do, but she didn’t think he would. She didn’t think he would let her see him do such a thing. He wouldn’t want her to see, and she would hope he wouldn’t put her through that. Besides, whether he knew it or not, he’d have to kill her first. She wouldn’t just stand by and let him murder her husband.
Suddenly, his feet fell silent. Startled, she whirled around to see why he’d stopped. Had she overplayed her hand? Would he just allow her to leave to parts unknown? Or maybe he was calling her bluff. Ten feet apart, they stared at each other. Then the corner of Tseng’s mouth lifted ever so slightly, and he graced her with an equally slight nod. Though she couldn’t see his eyes, she sensed the smile there. “You win, Caitlin Shinra. Let’s go home.”
So they’d flown home, but she’d been so angry and disgusted with him that she hadn’t said a single word to him the whole way. She’d sat in the back of the chopper behind him where she wouldn’t even have to look at him. He’d radioed ahead and had that armed clown, Jaz, waiting to imprison her in her own apartment until the time that her father had set aside the following day, just for the purpose of trying to subjugate her to his twisted, autocratic will.
As Jaz had escorted her away from the chopper that morning, she’d craned her neck to watch Tseng as he stood there. She’d wanted to know if he climbed back in that chopper and flew away, because she planned to pull out every trick in her repertoire to contact Reeve if he did. Tseng noticed her anxious gaze, and he simply nodded to her and walked away. That was the last time she ever laid eyes on the Leader of the Turks.
Jaz had watched her too closely for her to make a phone call. In fact, he wouldn’t let her move from one room to another without him. Thankfully, the bathroom had no window and no phone or he would have trailed her in there too. He had his orders after all. So she never called Reeve, and it broke her heart. She couldn’t even imagine what he’d been thinking or feeling, and she knew he’d understand once she could explain, but she never got the chance. She never spoke to him again, and she never saw him again, except on television…in the newspapers. Until that night in the alley…in the Dead Zone.
She never found out what her father thought he knew either, and it was a very long time before she would ever be aware of seeing him again, and even longer before she would see her brother. Less than twenty-four hours after Tseng had come for her, Jaz and Caitlin had ceased to exist. One more permanently than the other. She still didn’t know what terrible thoughts had gone through Reeve’s mind when he woke to find her gone, still didn’t know what exactly he knew, but at least she’d known that he’d survived Costa del Sol. As soon as she’d recovered enough to remember, she’d made sure of that. And she had only Tseng to thank for that, for walking away from his orders. Still, she’d gone to her death on the sidewalk in front of the Shinra Corporate Headquarters so very angry with him.
Caitlin blinked and dragged her mind back to the present, feeling as though she’d awakened from a deep dream. Sensing Rude still beside her, she glanced up to find him watching her curiously. She was mildly surprised to find him still there. She felt like she’d been gone for hours as the poignant memories had replayed in her mind, but only moments had passed. She bent her head to look down at the notepad in her hands.
“I would have liked to see him again…talk to him…Tseng I mean. I was so mad at him…the last time…I saw him…after he made me come back…” Caitlin fell silent at that point. She really didn’t even know how much Rude knew. Probably not even as much as Reno now did, thanks to her loose tongue. She couldn’t even look at Rude. She felt guilty, and she didn’t even know why. Maybe because it all had been such a waste. All those years ago. And she’d been the one to set things in motion.
“Caitlin, I think you should know that Tseng deeply regretted bringing you back from Costa del Sol.”
Her eyes shot up in surprise, not really at what he’d said, but mostly that Rude had admitted it, because she had pretty much figured that Tseng would consider himself culpable, just as she’d known that Rude would blame himself. One for doing his job, an act that indirectly caused her death. The other for falling down on his job and failing to protect her. A fault in each one’s mind. But not in hers.
She looked down at her notepad again. “Thank you for telling me, Rude.”
Rude merely nodded.
“Um…so you knew about Costa del Sol…”
“Did you know that I went to Costa del Sol to get married?”
Rude didn’t answer, so she looked back up at him to find him studying her with intense interest.
“You didn’t know,” Caitlin pointed out needlessly.
Rude shook his head almost absently. The gears in his mind seemed to be turning.
“Well, I just figured if you didn’t know, you should. Since Reno already knows. Well…no…I mean about who I married, not about Costa del Sol…”
“I…see…” Rude responded somewhat dryly.
“Aren’t you going to ask me?” She lifted an eyebrow in question.
“No, I already know.” He lifted one shoulder in a shrug of dismissal.
“You know about Reeve?” Her surprise was evident in her voice this time.
“All the Turks knew about Reeve, Caitlin. You didn’t really think that would slip beneath our notice did you? I can clearly deduce that he’s the man you married as he went there with you.”
This time she sat silently as the gears turned in her own mind. “Are you telling me that Tseng knew about Reeve before he came to Costa del Sol to get me?”
Rude shrugged dismissively once again. “Of course.”
“But…wait a minute…I don’t…” She lifted a hand to rub her forehead as though the gesture would help her clear her mind. “…Understand…”
“You two certainly look way too serious. What’s going on?”
Caitlin looked through her fingers to see Elena standing in the doorway with an oversized box balanced in her arms. So she hadn’t been sleeping after all.
“Nothing,” Rude informed her coolly. He pointedly replaced his sunglasses over his eyes and languidly crossed the room to take the box from her.
She gladly relinquished it to him. “Well, things are certainly getting shaky downstairs.”
“What do you mean?” Caitlin asked apprehensively.
“Well, first of all, Gellner almost started a riot in Sector 3 with his heavy handed methods of dealing with the mildest civil disorder. Apparently, Reeve deemed him lacking in people skills and had him reassigned to perimeter duty. Hopefully, his replacement will have more common sense.” Elena reached into the box and drew out a bottle of water and a wrapped sandwich. She held the sandwich up for Caitlin to see. “Hungry?”
Preoccupied, Caitlin nodded as her brow wrinkled in a slight frown. “That’s probably for the best, but I’m surprised he didn’t invoke the ‘military chain of command’ argument.”
“Oh, he did, but Reeve got annoyed with the whole military mess and promoted Sand to General to replace Heidegger, and ordered him to relocate Gellner. Which he gladly did. No love lost there.”
Since Caitlin showed no sign of moving from her spot, Elena crossed the room and deposited the bottle and sandwich on the edge of the carton. Caitlin nodded her thanks as she chewed her lip. “Didn’t Gellner outrank Sand?”
“Used to.” Elena smirked. “Doesn’t any more. He might have due cause for a formal complaint, but no one in the military really cares. No one likes him. Who could he appeal to anyway? Reeve?”
Caitlin nodded her understanding. “Is that all that’s happened?”
“Not hardly.” Elena replied wryly. “One of the major electrical grids blew, and part of one sector is without power now. A whole bunch of people had to be relocated. On top of that, for some reason Reeve has ordered the military to move people out of Wall Market. Everybody except for the most seriously injured and the medical personnel. He’s leaving them there, in the mansion. But that situation is apparently fluid. As far as I’m concerned, something’s going on there. More than meets the eye.”
“I wonder what…” Caitlin unconsciously chewed one side of her lip as she pondered Reeve’s motives.
“Don’t know. The officer I talked to claims it’s to facilitate eventual evacuation from the City, but under the circumstances, the remaining sectors are becoming seriously overcrowded. The docile hordes are getting irritable.” Elena glanced at Rude. She pointed into the box. “Rude, eat something.” He silently shook his head. “I think they put some apple pie in there…” The big Turk turned to look.
“Things don’t sound good…” Caitlin said softly.
Elena took a bite of her sandwich and chewed quickly, chasing it down with a swig of water. “Um…yeah…and that’s not all…”
“What else?” Caitlin asked carefully. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know any more.
“The planes still haven’t arrived, and Reeve still can’t contact anyone in Junon to find out if they’ve even left, much less what’s causing the delay.”
“I wish they would come…” Caitlin responded softly.
“Me too. I have a feeling that if they don’t come soon, all hell’s gonna break loose, so to speak.” Elena took another bite of her sandwich.
“That’s what I’m afraid of…” Caitlin whispered.
Elena lifted a finger to point at Caitlin’s untouched sandwich. “Eat, Caitlin. While you can.”
Mechanically, Caitlin unwrapped the sandwich, but took only one bite and set it aside. She couldn’t eat with her stomach tied in knots.
Where in the world could those planes be?”
“Is it time to go yet?” Yuffie whined as Cid passed by. The Captain absently glanced at the petulant girl where she sat slumped in the shadow of the plane’s belly, her back to one oversized tire, her legs stretched out across the tarmac. Mentally, he ran through the inventory of things he’d checked, to see if he’d forgotten anything. Anything at all.
“Well? You gonna answer me old man?”
“How many times ya gonna ask me?” Cid shot back.
“As many times as it takes to get the answer I want,” she replied sullenly, tapping a metal throwing star against the pavement.
“Well, yer in luck. It’s so close to time to go that you better move your skinny butt out from under that wheel. Don’t want you gumming up the wheel bearings.”
She stuck her tongue out at him. “I love you too.”
“Knew it,” he smirked.
“Well, don’t get your hopes up. There’re other people I love more.”
“Thank the stars.”
Yuffie sprang to her feet and stretched her arms over her head. Then she looked around with interest. “So who’s flying the other plane? Maybe I’ll ride with them ‘stead of you.”
“Dunno. Some Shinra pilot. Supposed to check in with me any minute now.” Cid looked around for his new head engineer and spotted him down by the cargo bay. “HEY! JIMBO! COME HERE!” Jimmie held up one finger and pointed toward the other plane. Cid looked over to see the Base Commander headed his way.
“Well, I’ve heard that from you before…”
“Huh? What?” The Captain shot a searching glance around, visually locating all the members of his crew still on the ground as well as Barrett who was helping a trooper carry a metal box across toward the plane, a heavy box if their ponderous steps were any indication.
“Any minute now. You say that all the time. Usually means hours, remember?”
“Whatever.” Cid looked around again. “Yuffie, do you know where Red went?”
“Hmph…probably hiding again. Or off pondering his ancestry.”
“Well, find him! Here comes the commander now. Soon’s I check out this other pilot, we’re outta here. Way past time too. It’s nearly noon.”
“Yeah, and I’m hungry.”
“Well, that’s breaking news.” Cid strode away across the pavement to meet the commander halfway. Yuffie followed right behind.
The commander and the captain came to a stop facing each other. The expression on the commander’s face didn’t bode well.
“Got some bad news, Highwind.”
“Spill it,” Cid bit out.
“The other pilot isn’t available. Seems he became violently ill. He’s been admitted to the hospital.”
“Who else ya got?”
“Whadya mean nobody?! Standard procedure calls for four Gelnika pilots to be on base at any given time. Where’s the other three?”
“Piper went to Midgar a week ago. Went to get his daughter before Meteor hit. Haven’t heard from him since. Collins is in the Psych Ward. Had a nervous breakdown after that Weapon thing attacked the base. And Mason’s AWOL.”
“So you’re tellin’ me there’s nobody at all that can fly that other plane!?”
“Not on base.”
“What about civilian pilots?”
“None that I know of. Except for maybe Derry. Though I’m not sure you could call him a pilot anymore since the bank repossessed his plane. He might be in Junon, but he comes and goes. Haven’t seen him in awhile.”
“He can fly one of these?”
“Yeah, but not legally.”
“He’s not Shinra military and he’s never been certified on one. Plus he’s not old enough to be certified on one even if he was military.”
Cid dug his fingers into his hair in frustration.
“What about your crew?” The commander suggested. “Surely you have a pilot or two in the bunch.”
“Just Jimbo there.” Cid nodded at the head engineer who had finally walked over to join the discussion. “Can you fly that Gelnika over there, Jim?”
Jimmie’s eyes grew wide. “Me!? I’ve never flown one of those monsters! You know I’ve never flown anything bigger than the Bronco.”
“Yeah, hell, that’s what I thought.”
“Shera could fly it,” Jimmie added helpfully. “She flew the prototype of the Gelnika before she joined the rocket program.”
Jimmie quailed under the scathing look the Cap sent his way. “What? What’d I say?”
Cid threw his arms out and yelled, “Do you see Shera around here anywhere?!”
“Do you personally know that she’s in Junon right now?!” He poked a hard finger into Jimmie’s chest.
“Then shut the hell up about her, James!”
Cid stomped off a few feet and paced back and forth, muttering to himself and waving his arms about.
“I didn’t mean to make him mad. Sheesh.” Jimmie watched the Captain pace with some trepidation.
Yuffie walked over to stand at his elbow. “Hey, Jimmie. Just don’t say the word ‘Shera’. Not in any context. Not under any circumstances. And you’ll be okay.”
Jimmie frowned. “Why not?”
“Cuz he’s mad at her, you idiot.”
“Oh right! Right!” He frowned in bewilderment. “You mean, cuz she left?”
“Uh huh, among other things.”
“What things? Uh oh…ssssssh…here he comes.”
Cid stalked back to halt in front of the bemused commander.
“So, this Derry kid, he can fly that plane.”
“Yeah, his Dad was a Gelnika pilot. Used to take him up and let him fly. Against regulations of course.”
“Where’s his Dad?”
“Died last year.”
“Is the kid big enough to see out the damn windscreen?”
“Of course, but he’s not certified to fly the Gelnika.”
“Who cares? This is an emergency situation. All I care is that he can get it to Midgar without cartwheelin’ it into the ocean.”
“Well, I’m not going to guarantee that…”
“Where can I find this kid?”
“Like I said, I haven’t seen him in awhile, but that doesn’t mean he’s not in Junon. He doesn’t come on base much anymore. Not since his Dad died.”
“Okay, we’re gonna look for him. For one hour. You better call Reeve and tell him we’ll be delayed a little longer.”
“You mean Mr. Alexander? I haven’t been in touch with him.”
“What? Didn’t you tell him we’d be delayed?”
“I can’t. The communications center is fried. We think it happened when Meteor exploded. We’ve been carrying out Rude’s instructions up until now. We can’t contact Midgar at all.”
“Well, ain’t that just grand?!” Cid bellowed. “All this time I thought he knew about the delays!”
The commander shifted his feet uneasily. “I’m sorry. I thought you knew. We can’t even get parts for the thing because the components are manufactured in Midgar.”
Cid glared his displeasure at the commander. Barrett walked up to stand beside him, having heard most of the conversation from where he stood a few feet back. “Cid, forget all that. Let’s go find that pilot.”
Cid sighed. “Yeah, okay.” He gestured to the small group of crewmembers and his two Avalanche teammates. “Okay, let’s look for this guy. Ask everyone. See what you can find out. Then get back here in one hour. No later. Cause I’m leaving with one plane if I have to.”
“We need the equipment on both planes,” Jimbo pointed out.
“I know that, Jimmie. That’s why we’re wastin’ time lookin’ for that kid. But if we have to we have enough on this one to get started.” Cid gestured toward the Gelnika he’d flown to Rockettown and back. “I’ll just have to figure out how to get back to get the other one.”
Cid rounded on the commander. “You think you can get your MPs on this too?!”
“Sure, Highwind.” The base commander agreed affably. “I’ll go alert them now.” He threw off a haphazard salute and strolled away.
Cid whirled around to glare at all the troubled faces. “What?! You’re still standin’ here?! Alla ya, get gone! He jabbed a finger toward the base entrance. “Get to the elevator! Now!”
“So that’s all we know ‘bout this guy?” Yuffie asked incredulously. “We just ask around for a ‘Derry’?”
“Improvise, Kisaragi!” Cid stalked off across the tarmac. “That’s what yer best at!” He glared back over his shoulder at her as she trotted after him, along with Barrett, Jimmie and the rest of the Rockettown crew. “Just ask for Derry the pilot! Or Derry, the kid who can fly! Or anyone who can fly a Gelnika! Doesn’t even have to be this Derry!”
Yuffie shook her head ruefully as she stepped onto the elevator pad alongside Barrett. “Can he get any crankier?”
Barrett shrugged indifferently. “Probably. But give ‘im a break. Lotta folks countin’ on him to get those planes there in one piece.”
Uncharacteristically mute, Yuffie turned expressionless, black eyes toward the grounded Gelnikas as Cid activated the platform mechanism, and she intently studied the awkwardly designed, overloaded planes resting low on their tires like a pair of pregnant guppies as the elevator lowered with a loud hum. Unconsciously chewing her lip, she watched them until the edge of the airpad crossed her line of sight and blocked the planes from her view. Only then did she reply to Barrett’s admonitory remark. For once, she didn’t have a single querulous thing to say. Her heart just wasn’t in. “Yeah, Bear…guess you’re right…gotta a lot on his mind…”
In her mind, she tried to tell herself that Cid would pull it off just like he always did, but her heart wasn’t in that either. Suddenly, all she could think about were all the things that had gone wrong, and not just that day, but every day since the night of Meteor when Tifa had fallen from the Highwind. Tifa and Vincent. She had to admit, she was having trouble hanging on to any hope that they’d survived. Not after what Nanaki had said about the flooded valley, the collapsed cave, and the poisonous snakes, and she didn’t like feeling hopeless. She had joined up with Avalanche because of the opportunity to add to her materia collection. Then, she had stayed because it seemed a great adventure. And then, they’d become more of a family to her than her own, all enjoined in a desperate mission to save the world.
Once there had been nine. Now there were six. And Cloud was in Midgar. Reeve too, if she were to count him as an Avalanche member. She decided that, under the circumstances, she would. If nothing else had been made clear to her, she knew one thing for certain. Despite the great victory Avalanche had pulled off against the great General Sephiroth, she knew that not one of them, not a single one of them was invincible.
Barrett glanced around at all the huddled faces, all of them grimly serious. Even Yuffie’s. He looked around again, a bit more intently this time.
The preoccupied girl looked up with vacant eyes at the sound of her name “What?”
Yuffie’s eyes sharpened, and she shot a quick glance around too, and then looked back over her shoulder as though she could still see the airpad. Her worried eyes came back to Barrett’s face.
“You know, Bear…that’s a very good question. I really don’t know.”
Reeve pushed open the door to the Honeybee, and held it for Jack and Coakley to pass. Jack slowly shook his head. “I think I’ll wait right here for you.” Reeve nodded his acknowledgment even as he pondered the likelihood that under no other circumstances would Jack have refused to enter this particular establishment. He turned an eye on Coakley.
Coakley pointed to the radiophone on his belt. “I’m on the radio. Er…sir.”
“Of course.” Reeve conceded to the fact that he’d have to go in alone. Squaring his shoulders, he stepped through and let the door fall shut behind him. Although a dim light glowed just to each side of the doorway, the main room lights had been turned down so low that he could hardly see the interior of the room itself. Hesitantly, he walked forward a couple of paces and stopped just beyond the entrance, at the very edge of the light’s reach. The air conditioning seemed to be running full blast, and the cool temperature in the room raised goose bumps on his arms as he stood there waiting for his eyes to adjust to the murky darkness further in. For the first time, he missed his coat and wished, if only for a second, that he hadn’t given it away, no matter how badly someone else had needed it.
Reeve quickly rolled one sleeve down to button the cuff at his wrist, and then the other, but the fine material of his expensive shirt provided little relief. Shivering, he crossed his arms against the chill and ventured into the darkness, looking around as he moved several feet toward the center. Out of the light now, his pupils adapted further, and he paused again, somewhat in alarm, as ghostly faces seemed to swim in from the gloom.
Suddenly, white light flared in the room, and Reeve covered his eyes with one hand as he tried to see through squinted eyes. “I thought I heard the door.” A woman’s voice came from his left, and he turned that way, dropping his hand as his eyes adjusted the bright glare down to a more tolerable level.
Reeve instantly recognized the tall, middle aged woman clad in a white medical coat with her silver streaked brown hair pulled into a haphazard ponytail. “Hello, Frances.” Reeve smiled ruefully. “I was beginning to wonder if anyone was home.”
She studied him serenely over the top of her reading glasses. “Yes well, we’ve been keeping the lights out when we’ve no one in looking for their loved ones. Doing our part to conserve what we can.”
“I appreciate that,” Reeve answered somewhat absently as his attention had already been captured by a wall of photographs just to his right. “Er…I hope everything is going well here.” He turned his eyes to another wall of photos to his left. Beyond those he could see several more such partition walls, the type usually set up to create cubicle office spaces, all completely covered from top to bottom, edge to edge, with photos of faces, seemingly organized by gender and approximate age, all stark portraits of people, obviously deceased, all with numbers under them. These were the ghostly faces that had floated around him in the near darkness.
Frances noted his intent interest. “This is our public identification room. Everyone who is searching for someone starts here. If they recognize a photograph, we then take them to the basement where the bodies are stored so they can attempt to confirm their initial identification.”
Reeve unconsciously nodded. “I see…so the numbers correspond to…the…”
“Yes. All the bodies we’ve recovered are washed, fingerprinted, photographed and tagged with corresponding i.d. numbers. All of the photographs you are looking at have yet to be identified by anyone, and it’s looking doubtful whether they will be identified.” She waved a hand toward the room at large. “As you can see, we aren’t exactly doing a booming business.”
“…But there are so many…still…”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. It’s very likely that those photos represent families and neighbors. There’s simply no one left to i.d. them.”
A hard knot formed in Reeve’s throat. Suddenly, he felt wholly responsible for every one of the faces in front of him. Intellectually, he knew that he wasn’t directly culpable for their deaths, but as the current senior executive of Shinra, Inc., he represented the company that had not only made their daily lives miserable, but had also brought all of these people to this horrible and final end. Suddenly, he found he couldn’t even speak, and to make matters worse, Cait’s angry voice reawakened in his head.
…You’ll build the city over them and around them…forget them…entomb them…they just want to live on their own land…grow flowers in the sunshine…sit on their porches…look at the stars…breathe the night air…play in the rain…
How right she’d been about Shinra. About him. Neither the company or Reeve Alexander had given them anything but pain. And she’d never let him forget. Through the years, as he’d seen each and every one of her predictions come to pass, her voice had increasingly plagued him. Not the sweet lover’s voice that had kept him awake long, tortuous nights in the beginning, when he had to learn to live his life without her, but the dissentious, accusatory voice, the voice that became the spokesperson for his deeply sublimated conscience. That was the voice that had led to the creation of Cait Sith. Named after her, his shrine to her increasingly insistent voice in his mind, the embodiment of the unrepentant rebel inside the corporate machine, the white sheep in a black family, modeled in memory of the kitten she’d given him all those years ago, the cat that had relentlessly rubbed against his legs in a feline attempt at comfort when he’d sat in the dark living room listening to her music with silent tears running down his cheeks, the same cat that had greeted him every night when he came home, until just over a year ago when Maynard became so ill he had to have him put down. Maynard had slipped from his life with little fanfare, passing away into peaceful sleep. Slipping away from him just as quietly as Caitlin had returned to him again. Almost a non-event, in fact.
That night, when he’d discovered her, he’d been locked away in his office in the darkness of the wee hours with all the lights off but his desk lamp and his computer monitor, one ear half-cocked into the thick silence broken only by the muted tap of the keys beneath his fingers, listening for the security guard’s key to turn in the lock of the outer office door. Methodically, he’d broken one electronic security key code after another, subsequently skimming over file after file, saving most unread for later, for the sake of time. However, a few of them that seemed to apply to the questions in his mind, he read more thoroughly.
Hojo’s secret files, surprisingly easy to break into once he put his mind to it, provided the most fodder for his curiosity. Then his curiosity had turned to horror as he read through a sampling of the scientist’s standard experiments, all signed off on by the President himself, he duly noted. Caitlin had been right about that too. Sadly, he thought she’d been taken in by the ever-present fringe group of conspiracy theorists on that one, susceptible to a different sort of propaganda that validated her hatred for the Shinra Corporation. He simply couldn’t believe that Shinra was experimenting on humans, but she’d known. And he hadn’t even tried to listen.
Even the files he inadvertently stumbled across regarding Vincent were illuminative of that fact. The President had seemingly approved of the scheme to dispose of Vincent Valentine and exploit his body in experimental exploration. Just not in the way that Hojo had wound up doing it. Apparently, no one had foreseen that Vincent would try to stop the Jenova Project. Hojo had been taken by surprise, and he’d reacted, jumping the gun on the plan, so to speak.
Unfortunately, things hadn’t gone well for Professor Hojo in his subsequent dealings with Vincent. The scientist’s own notes showed his growing dismay at some of the more startling results. According to his own words, Hojo had even tried to reverse some of the more troubling effects in a couple of areas, only to make matters worse. The President had apparently been disturbed too and had eventually ordered Vincent’s destruction, but Hojo had opted for an alternate course, for whatever reason. Vincent Valentine had come back to haunt the inimical doctor.
He hadn’t been looking specifically for anything pertaining to Vincent and hadn’t really expected to find anything about the ex-Turk in Hojo’s files, because Hojo's experimentation with Vincent would have predated the advent of the company computer system, but apparently the scientist couldn’t resist chronicling every detail of his work, no matter how reprehensible, and Hojo certainly hadn’t had to worry about censure from the President. Most of the scanned documents regarding Vincent, Reeve couldn’t comprehend, but the more he learned, the more he thought there might come a time when he would offer them to Vincent at some point in the future. So he set out to ensure that he obtained every possible reference to Vincent Valentine that resided in the company database.
That in mind, he’d started cross-referencing, plugging various keywords into the search function in the computer database, quickly locating and unlocking a cascade of additional secured files to capture everything he could. He’d also proceeded in the same manner with all references to Sephiroth. He’d even managed to access military and Turk files that he promptly copied over unread.
That was how he’d found her, even as his memories of her weighed heavily in his mind. He found her, not in Hojo’s files, but in the deepest, darkest, most secured domain in the President’s personal database. Relentlessly, he’d worked to break several layers of code, and repeatedly he got the ‘access denied’ message box. But he was a driven man. He wasn’t about to quit, and his efforts finally paid off hours later when he broke the final code just before dawn. Bleary eyed, he’d opened the file that had brought him there. The Valentine Protocol - Modified The detailed description of one experimental procedure used on a subject in a larger project. One of many subfiles in the folder referred to as The Phoenix Project.
He’d skimmed through the copious number of files, picking up information here and there. Hojo was project leader. He had one assistant. A Dr. Mallory Byrd. The project had been given unlimited funds, top laboratory priority, and the highest level of secrecy. Although he couldn’t immediately discern the purpose of the project, he noticed the acknowledgement that the project had resulted in ‘mixed success’. Reeve wondered why the President had possession of the project files rather than Hojo as he read through the project notes. Until he reached the description of the subject. Then he began to understand. Not right away, but the realization had crept over him slowly as each puzzle piece fell into place, and his final conclusion left him in utter disbelief.
…Healthy Caucasian female. 20 years old. DOA at Dania Shinra Memorial Hospital after fatal trauma resulting from a vehicular hit and run accident….
…A long list enumerating and describing the many injuries sustained by the victim…
…A subject identification designation of PP – SCA – 1A
Phoenix Project – Shinra Case Assignment…maybe…dash 1 alpha? Or just plain old ‘A’?
Of course, the words brought Caitlin’s death instantly to mind, but the ramifications of what he read were so far out there, so incomprehensible, that it didn’t hit him just then. He didn’t even make the connection regarding the presence of the files in the President’s personal database even then. Partly because he was exhausted and preoccupied with the Avalanche problem, and partly because the acknowledgement of the tiny suspicions darting around in the shadows inside his brain meant he would have to confront some painful questions with answers he would most likely not wish to entertain.
However, when he eventually skipped through all the scientific jargon to reach the ‘results’ and ‘final conclusion’ sections of the research report compiled by Dr. Byrd, the full import of what he was reading hit him, and the revelation nearly took his breath away, setting his heart pounding and his skin crawling as he sat there in the dark office.
The section clearly described a guarded success in pursuing the main goal of the project. The resurrection of the subject. Resurrection. The word reverberated in his brain. Then he’d jumped back to the description. Then he’d frantically scrolled through the files, looking for a date. A name. But any such reference had not been included. Then he returned to the subject designation. And the letters SCA finally penetrated his brain. Shinra. Caitlin. Ariel. Who else would the President pull all stops out to save but the daughter he dearly loved despite the man’s self-centered nature and despite their contentious relationship?
He could still clearly remember how he’d sat there in his office chair, completely motionless, ramrod straight, staring at the computer monitor, his mind a sea of blank numbness. He’d stared at the word ‘resurrection’ until the word burned permanently into his brain. He’d lost all sense of time as he’d stared, oblivious to the lightening of the morning sky beyond the heavy drapes and the soft pong of the antique clock on his wall.
He might have sat there forever if he hadn’t heard the outer office door lock disengage with a loud chock. Acting mostly on reflex, he’d jumped to his task, copying the whole of the Phoenix Project files over into his laptop before quickly disconnecting from the company network. Just in time too, because his secretary walked through the door with a stack of papers she meant to drop into his inbox, only to find him there poring over a raft of scattered notes instead.
”Another long night, Mr. Alexander?”
He’d packed up his laptop and escaped to the safety of his penthouse apartment where he spent the day poring over the ‘Phoenix’ files. The things he read made him physically ill, and he finally had to stop, falling into bed only to toss and turn, savaging his covers until they’d fled to the carpet and left him shivering in the air conditioned room.
Later, he’d gone back into the office after the building closed and reconnected to the network, scanning Shinra family financial and legal records until he pinpointed her probable source of support and her likely current location. In the end, he hadn’t a clue what he would do with his knowledge, if anything, until Rufus died and Midgar fell. Then he had acted. Compulsively. Perhaps erroneously. Now he had to ask himself if he’d done the right thing.
Caitlin had called him naïve. All those years ago. Maybe he still labored under his naivety. Maybe he was a fool to think he could change anything. A clueless optimist to thing he could make one thing better. There was so much that was broken, so little time, so far to go. In unconscious despair, his head fell, and he buried his face in his hand as he stood before the wall of slack, empty faces.
Seeing his apparent distress, Frances crossed the room and stood just behind him. Then she reached out and touched his arm. Startled, he looked around, seemingly surprised to find her there, as though he’d forgotten he wasn’t alone.
“You’re tired, Reeve.” She gave him an almost maternal smile. “You should get some sleep.”
He nodded vaguely. “I…will…soon…”
“You know, Reeve. I’m glad you’re in charge here.”
Reeve blankly stared at her.
“Because if you weren’t, I truly believe that what remains of civilization in Midgar would have already fallen into anarchy, and many, many more people would be dead.”
The Shinra executive slowly nodded. “Thank you…for that…Frances.”
She nodded sagely. “Well, I think you came to talk to Clement.” She inclined her head back the way she’d come. “He’s in there. I’ll go get him for you.”
Reeve mutely nodded again, strangely having trouble finding his voice. Nervously, he swept a gaze around him as he ran a hand through his beard. Unfortunately, his troubled gaze fell on another of the many wallboards of photos. He froze in shock.
He’d found the children.
His eyes shot back to the pathologist’s face as his gut clenched and acid burned all the way up his throat. He couldn’t stay there another moment. “Ah…Frances…please have…Dr. Minkin meet me…outside. I’ve just…remembered something…I have to do…”
“Of course, Reeve.”
He whirled away without another word and no pretense at decorum. Frances watched him retreat until the door flapped shut behind him.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Reeve Alexander. You’ll do just fine,” she told no one in particular. Then she went to collect her colleague.
Cid was standing in the middle of the street scratching his head when Barrett spotted him. He stepped off the curb and crossed the pavement to halt next to the obviously bewildered pilot. Barrett watched the Captain as he swiveled his head in one direction and then the other, eventually completing a full rotation in place before he gave an exaggerated sigh and pinned annoyed eyes on Barrett’s face.
“You didn’t find that guy,” Cid stated flatly.
“Nope. Guess you didn’t either,” Barrett responded in kind.
“Did you get a solid description on him?”
“Sure did. About fifty different ones.”
Stony-faced, Cid dragged a cigarette from his pack and stuck it between his lips. “Yeah, me too. Plus about fifty different places he’d just been seen,” he said with disgust. He struck a match against his boot heel and lit his smoke.
“Guy gets around,” Barrett remarked sarcastically.
“In more ways than one," Cid added dryly.
Barrett inclined his head toward the street. “So he s’posed to be out here?”
“Lady in the drugstore said he passes this way about now.”
“So you seen anyone that looks like him?”
“Maybe there’s more than one ‘Derry’ in Junon…” Barrett pointed out reasonably.
“Yeah, ‘cept the one I’m lookin’ for.”
Cid suddenly perked up. He pointed the end of his burning cigarette at a passing youth with a black bandana around a mop of brown hair and a chain tattoo around each wrist. “Hey kid!” The young man stopped and warily eyed the disgruntled looking Captain. He pointed a finger at himself.
“You talkin’ to me?”
“Yeah, your name Derry?”
“Nope.” He turned and started on his way.
Cid yelled after him. “Hey, ya know Derry?”
The young man stopped and looked back speculatively. “Why you wanna know?”
“Gotta job for him.”
The youth shook his head approvingly. “Derry’ll like that.”
“You know where I can find him?” Cid asked hopefully.
“Hmmm…last I heard he had a gig at The Fat Cat Club.”
“Huh? Gig? You mean like in playin’ music?” Cid blew out a cloud of smoke.
“Nah. Dishes.” The kid pointed a finger at the Captain. “But, hey. If I see him, I’ll tell him you’re lookin’ for him.”
Cid waved him off. “Yeah, you do that. Thanks.”
Barrett spoke before Cid could open his mouth. “Don’t bother with the Fat Cat Club. Done been there.”
Cid shrugged. “Doesn’t surprise me. Let me guess, he quit last week and split for the Northern Continent.”
“Nope. He got a better job at the foundry.”
“Been there too.”
Cid took a long, noisy drag off his cigarette, and then shot it to the ground half smoked. Purposefully, he ground it into the pavement a bit more forcefully than usual.
“That’s it. I’m done.” He wheeled and headed off in the direction of the air base.
Barrett slowly followed in his wake. “Where ya goin’?”
“I’m goin’ to check things over one more time. Then soon’s everybody gets back, we’re leavin’.”
“So we’re done?”
“Yep, we’re done. I never was big on conspiracy theories, but I think we’re bein’ jerked around. By this whole damn town.”
Barrett didn’t answer, but he silently agreed. In fact, he didn’t believe the kid even existed.
“So, it’s confirmed.” The gears in Reeve’s mind were already turning, all his earlier self-doubt forgotten under the demand for his guidance.
“Without a doubt.” Dr. Minkin nodded his gray head. “Your maintenance people could clearly hear what could only be someone banging against a pipe somewhere in that area.”
“But they weren’t able to gain access to any part of Sector Five,” Reeve stated flatly.
“They are still trying. So far every access door they’ve tried has been blocked.”
Reeve merely nodded his understanding. Perry had already indicated the likelihood of that, an assessment that he’d already made himself. He’d thought it unlikely that anyone could get into Sector Five that way, but now that he knew for certain that people were trapped there, he had to find a way. He knitted his brow in concentration.
“Were they able to form an opinion about the approximate location of the sound’s origin?”
“No. Your Mr. Morris said it could be coming from anywhere.”
Reeve had suspected that too. “Survivors are more likely along the barrier wall dividing Sectors 5 and 6.”
“Going into the Dead Zone is risky.” Jack pointed out. “As you well know, the indigent population has proven difficult to remove.”
Deep in thought, Reeve absently shook his head in disagreement. “The locals could be an asset, with the right incentive.”
“You’re nuts, Reeve.”
“It’s not a first option anyway, Jack.” Reeve finally looked up at the Head of the Engineering Department. “We can’t breach the barrier wall without endangering any survivors on the other side and without risking the integrity of the plate supports. You know that. I don’t think we possess the means to break through at this time anyway.”
Jack bowed his head wearily. “Yeah, I know. You’re right.”
Minkin threw out his hands in despair. “Then what can we do?”
“Well, we aren’t without options,” Reeve mused aloud. “I do have a couple of ideas.”
“And they are…” Jack prompted.
Reeve’s eyes sharpened on Jack’s face. “There are only two remote possibilities of entering Sector Five. Access from the outer wall or access from the Dead Zone.”
“We can’t gain access to the Outer Wall. We’re stuck in here, remember?”
“If the outer entrance into Sector Five isn’t badly blocked, we could send out a small crew in the chopper to attempt to clear a path inside. However, I don’t want to risk the chopper pilot or the crew if it’s not feasible. Exiting through Sector Four will be very dangerous.”
“Sounds pretty thin, Reeve.” Jack said sadly. “And what’s with the Dead Zone? You already said it wasn’t really an option.”
“I said we can’t breach the wall, but we could talk to the residents. Those people are extremely resourceful. They might know something we don’t.”
“You’re just going to waltz in there and talk to them?!” Jack exclaimed in disbelief.
“No, not me. I wouldn’t last two minutes in there.”
“What about going in from above?” Minkin suggested helpfully.
Reeve and Jack both spoke at once.
“But…you just have to go over the wall, right?”
“Not that wall,” Jack explained. “That wall is solid steel and extends all the way to the top. The President ordered its construction to provide added support to the Sector 6 plate since the bulk of the Shinra Complex would be located on that side. In fact, we used that wall as support to make temporary reinforcement to the Sector Five plate after the explosion, and, in my opinion, that wall is the reason the plate didn’t fall on that side despite the markedly weakened structure.
Dr. Minkin held up a hand to halt Jack’s soliloquy. “Okay, okay. I admit my ignorance. Forgive me. I just assumed all the walls were the same.”
“Don’t worry about it, Dr. Minkin,” Reeve interjected smoothly. “Any suggestion is helpful right now.”
Jack turned his head to address Reeve. “So you’re thinking the Outer Wall is our best bet right now.”
“Yes, I believe so.”
“Well, how are you going to find out if it’s an option worth pursuing?”
“I’m going to ask Cloud. He first tried to enter the city through Sector Five.”
“But he failed,” Jack pointed out a bit irritably.
“Yes, he did, and I admit it’s a long shot, but it’s worth a try.”
Jack raised a skeptical brow. “Yes, I suppose you’re right.”
Reeve looked around to find Coakley sitting on the steps of the Honeybee with his chin in his hand. “Andy, get me Cloud Strife on the radio, please.”
Yuffie put the noisy arcade with its bells and whistles and chimes and laser blasts and explosions and gunfire all behind her and stepped out onto the sunny sidewalk, pausing to look up and down the street for any sign of someone who could be, might be, would admit to being, Derry.
She’d managed to obtain so many different descriptions of the guy that she knew people were lying to her. She was tired of it, and she was sick to death of being played for a fool, sent all around Junon Base on a wild goose chase. She’d even taken the elevator down to Junon Town on the word of one adamant lady in an alley café.
Her black eyes sharpened as she noticed Jimmie and three of the Rockettown bunch passing by on the street. She thought about hailing him, but decided it was a waste of her breath. She knew they were heading back, obviously empty-handed and she decided she might as well head back too. The hour was nearly up. Besides, she was worried about Red.
She moved to step off the curb when a hand closed around her elbow. “Where ya goin’ cutie?”
“Get lost, perv.” She didn’t even bother to look at the obviously brainless moron. He couldn’t have exerted very much analytical thought before choosing to slink from the arcade doorway behind her, and then to actually touch her. Such temerity. She simply jerked her arm free and stepped into the street, quickly walking away towards the cross alley that would carry her base side.
Unfortunately, the guy stupidly chose to follow. Yuffie could see she would have to deal with him now rather than later. Although, she could let him follow her back to the base where she could introduce him to Red. That is…if she could find Red. She whirled around and planted her hands on her hips. “What do you want?" she demanded, as she disdainfully looked him up and down.
Certainly, he wasn’t much to look at. Old, worn blue jeans hanging loosely on a lean frame. Equally worn sneakers. Faded, oversized blue t-shirt that hung below his jean pockets. Pretty run of the mill, except for the startling length of fine, silky blonde hair that fell over one shoulder, so pale it was almost white, a left ear adorned with three small studs and a fine loop of chain that dangled a couple of inches, and a pair of twinkling blue eyes. She decided maybe he wasn’t all that average looking after all. In fact, now that she really thought about it, she hadn’t seen this guy inside. She would have remembered him. She glared at him.
He shifted to one foot and stuffed his hands in his back pockets, his good-natured grin unceasing beneath the full brunt of the lethal dark eyes pinned on his face.
Although he was tempted to give her a slow look over of his own, just for payback, he carefully kept his gaze on her face. “You know, Miss Prickly, I just wanted to talk to you.”
“Maybe I don’t want to talk to you,” she sneered.
He shrugged. “You’re the one askin’ around for Derry. Thought you wanted some info, but if ya don’t, I’ll just go.”
Yuffie narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “You know where I can find this Derry?”
“Sure do. But I have to know some things first.”
“Well, what?” She snapped out impatiently.
The young man raised an eyebrow at her tone. “You know, you could be nicer,” he chided her. “Haven’t you ever heard that you catch more flies with sugar?”
“Hmph. I think I already caught one great big ole fly. Without even tryin’. That must be the pesky buzz I keep hearing in my ear.”
“You’re not very nice are you?”
“Look, Mr. Fly or whoever you are, I’m tired of bein’ jerked around by the people in this smelly, Shinra infested town. So if you have somethin’ to say then say it.”
“Look, you wanna know where Derry is you’re gonna have to explain why a mob of people, including a bunch of MPs seem to be scouring Junon looking for him.”
“Well, it’s hard to explain to someone you can’t find. Why should he be worried anyway? He a criminal or somethin’?”
“No, but wouldn’t you be worried if the authorities were askin’ all around for you?”
“Why would I be worried?” Yuffie frowned. She knew she’d be worried. For good reason. “Never mind. I have to get back. Just inform your so-called friend, Derry, that if he wants a lucrative job flyin’ a Gelnika to Midgar to get to the airbase right now. I mean, like five minutes ago. We’re leavin’ with or without him, so you better hurry or he’s out of the loop.”
“Hey, I can fly a Gelnika. Can I go?”
She gazed at him suspiciously. “You can fly a Gelnika? You know I’m talkin’ about a real Gelnika here, not a video game Gelnika, right?”
“Sure, I can fly it.” He smiled disarmingly at her.
“Fine. Whatever. You can talk to Cid.” She spun away from him and headed for the cross alley. He pulled his hands from his pocket and tossing his long hair down his back, set off after the diminutive, fast walking girl, easily falling into step with her.
“So what’s your name?” he asked affably.
“Yuffie Kisaragi,” she bit out.
She shot an irritable look at him. “Kisaragi. Haven’t you heard that name?”
“Hmm…can’t say I have.”
“Lord Godo? Does that name ring a bell?”
Yuffie just rolled her eyes in despair. “Were you born under a rock?”
Her companion chose to ignore her rhetorical question. “So this flyin’ job, just how lucrative are we talkin’?”
Yuffie smirked at him. “Lucrative enough to get your airplane back, Derry.
He sighed loudly. “Busted.”
She ignored the satisfied grin that spread across his face. “You were busted a long time ago, Mr. Derry the Fly.”
Elena looked up from her paper plate of half-eaten apple pie and turned hard eyes on the sentry who stood nervously in the door. Immediately, she set the plate aside and stood. Rude moved up beside her. “What’s the matter?” she demanded.
“Er…nothing…just…I have a message for Mr. Cloud Strife from Mr. Alexander…”
She glared her displeasure. “Is that right?” She swept a dismissive hand toward the cluttered room. “He’s asleep somewhere.” She reached for her pie again while the befuddled sentry held his position in the door and looked over the numerous stacks and bundles of cartons and scattered office furniture.
“Er…do you know where?”
She set the plate aside again and glared at him. “I suppose you want me to find him for you,” she snapped.
“Well, no. I’ll go find him if…if…you don’t care if I come in…”
“Elena…” Rude warned, leaving most of his admonishment unspoken, but Elena didn’t need to hear another word to know what he meant. He was right of course. They shouldn’t admit anyone, no matter how innocuous a person might look. Besides, the sentry would probably stumble around, making all kinds of noise, and wake up Reno. Everyone would be a lot better off if Reno got his sleep out.
“Okay, stay right there,” she sniffed. “I’ll find him for you.”
Rude went back to his apple pie as he watched her walk out into the uncluttered eye in the center of the room. She propped her hands on her hips and looked around. She couldn’t remember where she’d seen him last, and she couldn’t see so much as a boot or sword tip jutting out anywhere. Unfortunately, she would just have to investigate every nook and cranny in the maze created by the stored Shinra office junk. After all, she couldn’t exactly shout. She had no desire to experience the raging redheaded wrath of Reno.
She smiled at her silly alliteration and disappeared into the stacks.
The soft humming drew him, a song so sweet that it made his heart ache, and so tantalizing that it kept him moving onward through the darkness, helpless to resist the guileful summons of the siren’s voice or the beckoning glow of virginal white light spilling into the narrow alley just ahead.
His steps, at first hesitant, and then more hurried, quickly carried him toward the light where he turned a corner to find himself standing before a whitewashed gate, an incongruous obstacle to find just beyond an alley entrance, to be certain. He squinted his eyes as his keen gaze tried to cut through the strange, thick mist that filled the area beyond even as warm sunlight and the heady scent of thousands of flowers swelled around him. His eyes sought out the source of the song and found her, a nearly indistinguishable figure kneeling in the lush green grass, and his thoughts stilled to inertia as he shoved the gate open and purposefully strode through despite the fear in his heart.
His step faltered when she suddenly fell silent and lifted her head. She must have sensed him behind her, for he hadn’t made a sound. His heart pounding, he started forward again, walking slowly but steadily, until the vision of her came completely clear. Then he unconsciously walked faster, his disbelieving eyes drinking in the soft auburn waves of her unbound hair against the snowy white of her blouse and the azure bell of her skirt against the verdant lawn. He knew she wasn’t real despite the hope that filled him. She could only be a ghost. Or an angel. Or maybe his most fervent wish. But no, she was only a dream, a whisper in his sleeping mind, and just then, she turned her brilliant green eyes up to his face and smiled, and he spoke a silent vow, fruitless despite his earnestness, an impassioned oath never to wake.
He stopped beside her and stared speechlessly down. Her name echoed in his mind, but his frozen lips wouldn’t move to speak the precious word. Aeris.
“Well, here you are.” She noted happily. “I’d almost given up on finding you.”
He managed to open his mouth, but his voice stuck in his throat.
She patted the patch of grass beside her. “Will you sit by me?”
Numbly, he nodded, settling down beside her to stretch out his legs, his wide eyes loathe to release her from his view. “Er…you were…looking for me?”
Still smiling, she nodded vehemently. “Oh yes, I’ve been looking everywhere.”
“I suspect you wouldn’t have known how to find me.” With a tiny shrug, she turned back to her flowers.
He watched her tend them for several minutes in silence, until he found that he couldn’t stay with her a moment longer without asking, even if he most likely already knew the truth and wouldn’t like the answer. “Are you…real?”
She heaved a sorrowful sigh, and primly bowed her head as she sat back on her heels. “Um…I don’t really know.” Then she suddenly pinned him with hopeful eyes. “I thought maybe you could tell me.”
Unconsciously, he shook his head even as he wished with all his heart that he could make her real. “I…I don’t know…”
Her smile turned bittersweet as disappointment flooded her beautiful eyes with bright tears.
He couldn’t look at her anymore, knowing that he’d caused her pain, and he dropped his eyes to the place where his fingers had torn into the grass and soil beside him. “I’m…sorry…I don’t know…but…I…wish…I…wish…” His words failed him as his throat closed in sorrow.
She gently touched his hand, and his eyes shot back to her face. “It’s okay. I really wanted to know about you anyway.” She smiled through her tears. “Who are you, Cloud?”
Startled, he stared again for several seconds until her eyes fell from his face, and she drew her hand away. “Ah…I don’t know what you mean. I’m just me…Cloud.” He slid his hand a few inches through the soft grass until the tips of his fingers touched the hem of her skirt.
She tilted her head. “Yes, I know your name. I remembered your name, but I don’t know who you are. So tell me who you are.”
His thoughts churned in his head at her strange request. What did she mean by she ‘remembered’ his name? Had she forgotten it? Then he remembered their conversation in the gondola high above the Gold Saucer. “I finally found myself, if that’s what you mean. I’m the…real…Cloud…now. I mean…I always was I guess. I’m just not pretending…anymore…”
She daintily wrinkled her brow. “What do you mean? You weren’t real before?”
“Uh…you said you wanted to meet me.” He gave his head a little shake. “The real me…I mean. Don’t you remember?”
Slowly, she shook her head. “No, I don’t. I just remember fighting funny faces.”
“…And I think…did we dance together once?”
Completely confused, Cloud drew his hand from the soft cotton of her skirt and sat back, numbly shaking his head. “No, we never danced together. There wasn’t a time when we…could…have…really…”
“Were you the one in the garden at the President’s Manor?”
He crossed his arms over his chest as his eyes fell. Who was she thinking about? Zack? Had she danced with Zack? Met him in the garden? Certainly not him. “I’ve never been to the President’s Manor.”
“Oh.” She turned contemplative eyes to the blossom in her fingers. “Maybe I dreamed you. Maybe I’m dreaming you now.” Suddenly, she lifted her head.
“Who are you? Is your name really Cloud?”
Bemused, he nodded. “Yes, I’m Cloud. Cloud Strife. The real one. The one and only.”
“But am I real?” She mused aloud. “Am I alive?”
His eyes fell as he twirled a blade of grass through nervous fingers. “Truthfully, I wish you were, but I think I’m only dreaming you, and I don’t really want to wake up.”
“It isn’t over, Cloud.”
His head shot up at the hardness in her tone, a complete transformation from the soft wistfulness of before.
“What do you mean?” He asked sharply. “What isn’t over?”
A bird’s challenging screech rent the air apart and abruptly shattered his bittersweet meeting with Aeris in the garden. Throat tight with disappointment, he now found himself standing in a desolate place, on the very edge of a jutting precipice, high above a roiling, tempestuous sea. A raw wind tore at his hair and clothes so that he could hardly maintain his balance. He squinted into the wind, but there was nothing to see except for a world of gray: a gray expanse of cloud overhead and a gray expanse of water below and a palisade of gray rock behind. And there was nothing to hear but the mournful howling of the wind. She’d gone from his dream, and he stood alone in his despair.
Then almost as though his pain drew her back, she stood there. Just beside him. He stared as the wind whipped the thick strands of her hair around her and molded the loose blouse and full skirt to her body. She gently closed her fingers around his wrist, and moved close to his side, raising her lips to his ear.
“It isn’t over, Cloud.” Her warm breath tickled his ear. “You have to be ready.”
He tried to find his voice, but could only produce a bewildered shake of his head. What was she talking about? What wasn’t over? What did this have to do with being real or not? And why did he even care when all he wanted to do right then was pull her into his arms and hold her so tightly that she’d never leave again. Not from his dreams. Not from his life.
A shrill screech traveled to his ears on the wind, and he reluctantly dragged his captive gaze from her face to see a strange looking white bird ride in on the gale with great silver tipped wings stretched wide and silver plumed tail outspread. To his utter astonishment, Aeris raised her arm to receive the creature, seemingly undeterred by the bird’s sharp talons.
Cloud’s eyes widened as the bird lightly settled to her forearm, apparently careful to refrain from causing her injury. Then it hopped to her shoulder where it almost seemed to huddle in on itself as it ducked its head to turn a predatory beak into her hair even as it fixed him with one baleful black eye. Aeris merely smiled into Cloud’s worried eyes. Then her face filled with sadness. “Remember what I said, Cloud. It isn’t over. She released his wrist to point into the distance, to some place his eye couldn’t see no matter how hard he concentrated. “It’s out there. Over the sea. Waiting.” Her hand fell limply to her side as she took one step away from him. “That’s where it will end, Cloud.” She took another tentative step, and then turned away.
In his alarm at her departure, he finally found his voice. “Wait! Don’t leave! I don’t want you to go!”
Her sandaled feet fell still, and she spoke, her voice raised into the wind, although she didn’t look at him no matter how much he silently bade her to turn around, just so he could see her sparkling emerald eyes one more time. “Keep your blade sharp, Cloud Strife, and be ready.” Then she vanished as though she’d been no more substantial than a vaporous wisp of cloud, subsequently torn asunder in the savage gale.
He threw his head back and yelled her name, the one word expelled from his throat in pain and anger, only to be choked into silence by the relentless wind, as completely as the beautiful vision of her had been erased. And inside his heart, nothing could be found but gray clouds, gray sea and gray rock, desolation finely honed by the cry of the mournful wind….
“Hey, Strife! Wake up!” Elena jabbed him, not all that gently either, with the toe of her shoe. Cloud jerked awake and stared up into the down turned face of the blonde Turk in a bewildered daze even as his gloved hand convulsively gripped the hilt of the sword that lay close to his fingers.
Elena noted his movement and pressed one foot firmly against the tip of the blade. “Come on, Strife! Wake up! I’m tired of listening to you moan.”
Cloud slowly blinked and gave his head a little shake. “Huh?”
“Besides, Reeve wants you.” Her message delivered, she deliberately put her back to him and walked away, leaving him alone to push himself up from his bedroll between two tall stacks of cardboard boxes. Rounding a wide palette of neatly cornered cartons, Elena curtly nodded to the expectant sentry where he still waited just inside the doorway of the storeroom, shifting nervously from one foot to the other while darting surreptitious glances at the stolidly watchful Rude who now towered beside him with arms crossed.
Deciding to forego the rest of the sugar-laden pie, an unusual indulgence on her part anyway, she crossed to another wooden pallet that held only a couple of boxes at one end. Dropping down onto the bare wooden slats, she leaned back on her hands as she watched Cloud step into view with a huge yawn. Of course, a yawn instantly captured her own mouth, and she discreetly raised a hand to hide it as Cloud sheathed his sword and scanned the room until his vibrant Mako eyes found her. He swept a hand through his spiky hair, and with the lift of one shoulder and a quirk of a blonde eyebrow, silently questioned her. She simply nodded her head toward the sentry, who hesitantly took a couple of steps in Cloud’s direction, until Rude’s big hand fell onto his shoulder and turned him to stone. Unconsciously, the sentry gave Cloud a beseeching look, and the Avalanche warrior moved to meet him.
Elena dismissed Cloud Strife from her mind with a disdainful sniff. She really didn’t care what Reeve wanted with him. The executive had left with Jack and four armed guards a long time ago, ostensibly to inspect some damage somewhere – she didn’t really know where and really didn’t care – leaving all of them in the claustrophobic, stuffy storeroom that took up most of the twelfth floor of the old Shinra Building. For some reason, Reeve had decided that they would all be safer there, that the room could be easily defended, but she didn’t agree, even though Rude had apparently concurred, and Reno, arriving there on his last coherent thought, hadn’t been in any condition to discuss the matter or veto the idea. The room, with its one door and row of decorative leaded windows and stacks upon stacks of stored boxes, made her feel trapped.
The short trip down to the mess tent and the nearby clothing distribution center had blown the cobwebs from her mind, and talking to the openly admiring military officer outside had let her forget, if just for a few minutes, the burden of responsibility she carried. For a little while, she managed to pull off the pretense that she could be just another pretty woman being chatted up by a besotted, good-looking, sharply dressed male. Then the officer despoiled her little oasis of unreality when he mentioned the rumor he’d heard about Reno during his spiel about all the things that seemed to be going wrong. Immediately, Reno’s bloodless face had revisited her mind, and the respite ended there. Not even answering the officer’s question about whether Reno had died or not, she abruptly excused herself and left him standing beside the tent entrance, completely bewildered. And now that she’d returned to the airless, claustrophobic, disorganized, erstwhile office/storage room, her mildly depressed, trapped, bored mood had returned with a vengeance.
Restless and uneasy, Elena forced her thoughts from the persistent pictures that tried to slide into her tired mind and pointedly turned her attention to the woman sitting across the room, on her own self-designated stack of boxes, busily scrawling away on the oversized notepad that she’d apparently appropriated from the open carton she’d noticed close to the doorway, a box that contained several articles of office type paraphernalia, most likely the remnants of some long ago secretary’s desk, also the likely source of the pencil she now held in her nimble fingers. She noticed that Caitlin had left the sandwich mostly untouched and the water bottle unopened.
Elena had noticed her activities earlier, just before the sentry had interrupted her unusual, and completely blissful indulgence in the forbidden pie, but she hadn’t thought about it much. She’d presumed that Caitlin must have been writing something. Who knew what? Who cared? She hadn’t wanted to expend any effort on the matter then, especially since her mind seemed prone to wander away down unaccustomed roads that made her fitful, but now, utterly consumed by boredom, she watched her at length, her idle mind running through a host of possibilities, mostly derived from her wayward imagination, mostly nonsensical.
First, she mused that maybe the last remaining member of the Shinra family might be notating the details of her plan for world domination once she took full control over the company. Unconsciously, Elena shook her head at that ridiculous thought, although the idea filled her with satisfaction. Somehow, she didn’t think global empire building was in this woman’s plans. She seemed too…nice. Still, Shinra blood ran in her veins. Maybe she would surprise them all. Which could only bode well for the continuation of the Turks.
More probably, though, Caitlin Shinra was simply penning something totally mundane, such as a letter back home, to that remote island mansion, for that time when she might actually find a way to post it. Maybe even a sappy love letter to that clueless idiot who had erroneously thought he might be successful sneaking up behind her, a Shinra Turk, on the island, only to be introduced to a new level of pain. Elena smirked. Certainly, Caitlin had been protective of him. The dolt’s name escaped her right now, and was hardly important enough to command much thought on her part. Besides, the guy didn’t seem Caitlin’s type anyway. Elena saw her with a more intelligent or contemplative type. Still, there didn’t seem to be a huge selection to choose from in that isolated place. Maybe ole Cait couldn’t afford to be choosy. She knew for a fact that being alone was greatly beneficial to one’s peace of mind, but for the most part, loneliness sucked. Sometimes, one just…compromised.
Disturbed at where her musings had taken her, Elena shrugged away that avenue of thought, instead deciding that Caitlin was probably just composing something totally inane, like a shopping list. After all, Winter Festival wasn’t that far off. Just a few short months.
At thought of the winter holiday, Elena smiled happily. Winter Festival was her favorite holiday, the only one that interested her, in fact. A holiday that involved all her favorite things. Shopping. Dancing. Decorating. Dressing to stop hearts at the office party to end all office parties. She hadn’t been promoted to the Turks yet when the last office party had been thrown. She’d still been in Security. Still, she’d prepared for that party with him in mind. And she had turned his head too. If only for a moment…
The smile bled from Elena’s face. How could she have forgotten, even for a second? There would be no more office parties. And no Winter Festival this year. No great city draped from bow to stern in sparkling, gaily colored lights. No apartment balcony to decorate. No Shinra Winterfest Gala Ball to provide a venue for her collection of shimmering ball gowns that was probably buried beneath tons of rubble now. No more dancing the night away across the expansive marble floor beneath the glimmering lights. No more sipping from glasses of expensive wine while scanning the milling crowd for a glimpse of him. No more…anything. The upper floors of the building were all but obliterated. She’d seen the destruction with her own eyes. And Midgar was finished. She’d overheard enough from Reeve’s various informal meetings and discussions to have well absorbed that fact.
…And maybe that was as it should be…because the Shinra Winterfest Gala would never be the same for her again. Without Tseng. Nothing would ever be the same again. Maybe she should just forget about Winterfest and Midgar as well as her apartment and Fritz too. She should just forget about Tseng. Let him go. Maybe it was time she moved on…in more ways that one…
The blonde Turk’s head snapped up, and she glared across the room at Caitlin Shinra. “What is it?” she bit out.
Caitlin eyed her warily for a long moment before she mutely turned her attention back to her page, leaving whatever she might have said unspoken. The depth of sorrow in the blonde Turk’s face had drawn Caitlin to speak her name, partly to ask her what troubled her and partly just to bring her away from whatever thought or memory brought her such sadness, but she could clearly see that Elena didn’t welcome her intrusion into her private reverie, and so she let it go.
Besides, she had much weighing on her own mind. The events of the last few hours; the strangely garbed man seeking to abduct her, the thwarted kidnapping of the little girl and subsequent otherworldly disappearance of her kidnapper, along with the miracle of Reno’s retrieval from the edge of death through the power of a small child who shouldn’t be capable of wielding such power. Plus, the planes still hadn’t arrived yet. Delayed by several hours for some unknown reason. And Reeve. She still had to tell him of her decision. Which she’d finally made through the long hours of waiting as she’d entertained the little girl, Rachel, and replayed the strange and troubling events over and over in her mind. Still, she wasn’t altogether comfortable with that decision. Despite the fact that she could see much of the man she once loved…still loved…had always loved…there was another part of him, that sharp edged Shinra executive part that left her wary. She wanted to trust him, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to that point. And she knew why. So much had been left unspoken between them. Undiscussed events which left a vacuum, a giant gulf over which she could not reach. There was only one remedy. She would have to talk to him. About the past. About what he knew. About what he felt. About her…
But even then, she could build only a partial bridge between them, because, there was still the lie. A lie of omission perhaps, but still a lie. And the lie would remain. She could not risk the truth. For Heidi’s sake…
Her deep frustration overwhelmed her so suddenly, took her so unaware, that her fingers tightened spastically and snapped the pencil in two. Stunned, she stared at the two splintered pieces in her hand for long moments, and then she carefully set them aside on the top of the box beside her outstretched leg even as her eyes focused in on the pad in her hands, at the face she’d dutifully portrayed in plain old number two pencil while her mind traveled on, totally in absentia. She swallowed hard and carefully lifted her eyes, only to meet Elena’s rampantly curious gaze. She forced her tense face into the semblance of a smile. Elena’s hazel eyes narrowed.
With feigned casualness, Caitlin dropped her eyes to the pad and, with numb fingers, flipped the page over to reveal a fresh untouched page, tucking the finished sketch of her daughter away. Stiffly, knowing her tenseness must, no doubt, be noticeable to the trained eyes of the Turk, she reached for the second pencil Rude had brought her. With a slightly annoyed, barely perceptible, shake of her head, she set the pencil to paper, deciding that this time she would sketch something within the room and keep the contents of her mind shut away from the lead tip of the pencil. She looked around, only barely managing to avoid Elena’s eyes, which she could feel on her yet.
Her searching gaze fell on the utterly still and expressionless face of Rude, who stood motionless just beside the door leading into the hall, his arms crossed just as they’d been the last several times she’d looked. He reminded her of a figure she’d seen once, in a painting that hung in the Midgar National Museum. The artist had depicted a scene of great antiquity and nobility. The petrified, statuesque Rude reminded her of a guard of old, standing just to the side, just to the back, of his queen. Maybe she would draw Rude this time. Yes, she would draw Rude. Just like that, except with bronzed skin, crossed curving swords, woven sandals, and loincloth. The very picture of the staid Rude in such scanty attire brought a chortle to her lips, which she instantly choked off, though her entire face shone with the delighted smile that captured her lips.
“You’re drawing aren’t you?” The blonde Turk suddenly asked in a much friendlier tone than had been her last words to her.
Caitlin raised her sparkling eyes to Elena’s face, her smile fading only slightly as she took in Elena’s noncommittal expression. “Um…yes. It helps me while away the time.”
Elena unconsciously nodded in agreement, thinking she should come up with something equally distracting, before she went completely nuts with her own thoughts. She just didn’t know what it would be. She lifted a shoulder in a dismissive shrug. “I can’t draw. Well…stick people maybe. And ferocious stick dogs. Skinny stick trees. Just a whole stick world in the end. All in all, pretty thin on content.” Her lips curved in a tight smile. “Pun intended, by the way.”
Caitlin tilted her head, amusement dancing in her azure eyes. “Well, everyone has to start somewhere you know.”
“A start you say?” Elena rearranged her face into an exaggerated frown. “And just when I thought I’d reached the height of my artistic genius.”
Caitlin returned her eyes to the paper as she began to sketch out the rough outline of Rude’s face. “Well, I’m hardly one to judge. The right art critic might well deem your stick drawings genius.”
“But isn’t that what you do?”
Caitlin glanced up from under her eyebrows. “What’s that?”
“Draw or paint. Whatever. I mean, you had that paint-daubed smock on when we met you. So, that’s what you do, isn’t it?”
Caitlin slowly nodded as she turned her attention back to her sketch. “Yes, that’s what I do.”
“Well, what do you paint?” Elena pressed.
“Um…this and that.” Caitlin suddenly raised her head. “Places. People. Things.”
“That pretty much covers everything.”
Caitlin nodded slightly. “Yes, I suppose it does.”
“So, have you ever sold anything?”
Caitlin absently nodded again as she deftly sketched in the rough outlines of Rude’s frame. “Um…yes…”
Caitlin suddenly looked up at the Turk’s sharp interest. “What?”
“I asked you what you’ve sold? I’ve visited a few galleries here and there.”
“I…ah…” Had she really said that? She would have to be more careful. “I…well…you know…Gerald took a few things…here and there…starving artist sales…that kind of thing…”
Elena’s eyes sharpened. “I see…”
Of course, Elena knew she had lied. She was a terrible liar, and the Turk was trained to detect the best of lies.
“I don’t suppose you would have risked signing your own name to a painting,” Elena flatly stated, striking so close to the reason she’d lied about her art that she decided to divert Elena onto another topic, one that Caitlin knew would probably discomfit her and draw her away from the trail, divert the dogged bloodhound before she caught the full scent of her lie.
“Umm…what do you do, Elena?”
Elena shifted uncomfortably beneath Caitlin’s keen gaze. “What do you mean? I’m a Turk. You know that.”
“But if you weren’t a Turk what would you do?”
Elena’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “There’s no point in thinking about it. I am a Turk.”
“Yes, but what if the Turks didn’t exist, what would you do instead?”
“Why, I would…I would…” Elena floundered in her surprise. “I guess…well…I…don’t…really…know…”
“Well, isn’t there something that you like to do?”
Suddenly, Elena’s eyes frosted, and her face closed, as a door slammed shut in her mind, and when she spoke, icicle draped words broke brittly from her lips. “What’s ‘like’ got to do with anything? I ‘like’ being a Turk. If the Turks are finished, I’ll simply make a choice and make the very best of it, just as I’ve always done.”
Caitlin’s eyes fell. “I…see…”
“No, you probably don’t see,” Elena snapped. “But I don’t want to talk anymore. I believe I’ll take a nap.” All conversation finished as far as she was concerned, Elena pointedly scooted back against the wall and leaned her head back, purposefully closing her eyes despite the fact that her fitfulness had taken hold of her mind, now doubly fueled by Caitlin’s questions. Before long, her restless thoughts drove any hope of a nap from her mind, and she barely opened her eyes to watch Caitlin through a fringe of lashes. The inquisitive woman had returned to her sketching. Elena decided to put Caitlin and her annoying questions from her mind. She didn’t want to think about what she would do if the Turks were disbanded, even though she knew she’d have to think about it eventually. Probably sooner than she wanted, in fact. But she didn’t have to think about it yet. So she simply wouldn’t.
Daintily crossing one ankle over the other, she purposefully turned her hazel eyes to the corner just beyond the end of the wooden pallet, where Reno slept on his side, on a thick pad of bedrolls, with his long legs drawn up and wispy strands of his flame red hair scattered across one scarred cheekbone. True to his word, Reno had collapsed at the first opportunity, blood caked clothes and all, and not stirred since. The startling sight of his pale, blood smeared features, drawn even in sleep, finally wiped Caitlin and their conversation from her thoughts, but she didn’t like the memories that replayed in her mind either, so she moved her gaze to the other occupant of the sloppily arranged pallet.
The little girl, Rachel, slept curled at Reno’s socked feet, her bow shaped lips pursed in a slight frown of displeasure. Caitlin had gently placed her there, on the corner of the pile of bedrolls, a couple of hours ago after she’d fallen asleep in her arms, and Elena knew that Reno would probably blow a gasket if he found her there. In fact, Elena wished that she had a camera in hand. She smirked in amusement at the thought of blackmailing the redheaded Turk with the resultant photograph, although she didn’t really have a clue what she would blackmail him into doing. Didn’t matter anyway. He’d probably just zap her with his mag rod and take the photo anyway, and that would be that. He’d rip it up and burn it with his cigarette lighter and throw the ashes into the wind no doubt. However, the look on his face when he saw it would be priceless. Worth dying for? Nah, probably not. Her short-lived amusement faded into memory as her thoughts traveled on.
She well knew of Reno’s dislike of children. He wasn’t quiet about the topic whenever it came up, for whatever reason. He thought them noisy, destructive, demanding, disgustingly messy – he was one to talk - and always right in one’s way when they were around. In fact, now that she thought about it, an unruly child, in the wrong place at the wrong time, had been the occasion of her first face-to-face encounter with Reno of the Turks. A wry smile touched her lips. She could find humor in the incident now, but she certainly hadn’t been amused at the time, well mostly not. And neither had he. How long had it been? Two years ago? Three? Just after she’d transferred from Transporation to Security and Surveillance.
She’d only just gotten her foot in the door and had been assigned mostly to internal courier duty, running sensitive communiqués or documents in ‘secured’ envelopes from one high level department head to another and providing armed escort for the wheeled flats of large ‘Security Level 1’ cartons that were delivered on a regular basis to Hojo’s laboratories. It all seemed so long ago now, especially in light of recent events. Still, she could remember it like it was yesterday. She could still hear the overly stressed voice of her security supervisor in her head even now, just as he’d sounded that day.
“Elena, I need you to run this up to the 65th floor right away.” The thick manila envelope hit the top of her desk with a muted thump, and she looked up into the troubled eyes of Clyde Lawrence, her supervisor. “You’ll probably have to track that damn Michaels down in the conference room.”
Of course, she acted with appropriate alacrity, jumping to her feet and snatching the envelope into her hands. When Lawrence said ‘right away’, he meant ten minutes ago, especially in light of the fact that, as she would find out later, the package had just arrived by courier, late, and the contents of the envelope were apparently to be presented in a closed executive conference scheduled to start any minute. So, with the sealed pouch from the Head of Corel Plant Operations to Jackson Michaels, the Director of The Office of Foreign Development and Operations Management clutched tightly against her stomach, she walked rapidly through the hallways with every intention of delivering that package without pausing to take so much as a breath until she’d left it in the hands of Mr. Michaels, Esquire. At least, that had been her intention until she’d seen the lone person standing in front of the elevator.
Slovenly dressed in his rumpled blue suit, slouched in place with one hand in his pocket as he waited, red ponytail slightly askew, dark shades pushed up into his hair, he bumped the end of his rod against his right leg as he waited impatiently for the elevator to arrive. Reno of the Turks. Despite his casual, less than professional appearance, not a person to take lightly. Certainly not a person that she wanted as sole company on the elevator.
Reno of the Turks was, without a doubt, the most feared individual in the company, even more so than the Leader of the Turks, Tseng, a man who had actually smiled at her once and made her knees weak. Of course, she knew that Tseng, as head Turk, must be a dangerous man, but he hardly gave anyone pause, perhaps because of his smooth manner and polite nature, and the other Turk, the quiet and unobtrusive Rude, seemed to keep to himself most of the time. In fact, unless one ventured to the 69th floor and actually visited the Turk Headquarters there, one might never see Rude. She suspected that if Rude were to ever actually appear to someone not affiliated with the Department of Administrative Research, that person was probably in major trouble. Out of sight, out of mind, though.
No, Reno was the Turk that people noticed. Reno was the unpredictable man who might unexpectedly appear almost anywhere in the Shinra building, with no warning and seemingly without reason, other than some unrevealed motivation of his own. Reno was the man who fired people’s darkest imaginings and made them shudder when he passed. Reno was the one that Shinra employees whispered about behind their hands over coffee in the cafeteria. Tales of his alleged exploits of mayhem and murder moved through the gossip channels of the company and became the stuff of legend.
People said that he had a hair trigger temper, that he never forgot a wrong done him and always got even eventually and thoroughly, that he would take on assignments that no one else could stomach or live with afterwards as he had not even the slightest iggling of a conscience, that he could disappear people without a single trace, and that if one were to ever wrong the corporation in any way, his sharp featured vulpine face was most likely the last face one would ever look upon. Elena definitely knew him by sight, and although she really didn’t believe half of what she’d heard…not really…she wasn’t about to ride an elevator with him. She knew that a man that high up in the company wouldn’t bother to know any specific employee of the lowly security personnel, and she wasn’t about to bring his attention to the fact that she existed now. She most definitely preferred to remain beneath his notice. So she had turned her back to him and slowly walked the other way as though she’d been headed that way all along, head bent as she busied herself with a careful perusal of the minute details of the addresses on the oversized envelope she carried, until she heard the ping of the elevator door open and muted thump as it closed again, and the high pitched whine of the lift mechanism as the car rose upwards, taking him with it.
Even then, she’d turned cautiously on her high heels, as though she feared that he might still stand there, a trickster bent on catching her out, but he hadn’t been, and she raced to the elevator without further delay, secure in the knowledge that their paths would not cross as he was surely headed to the 69th floor at this early morning hour, and she would be getting off on the 65th.
Of course, things hadn’t worked out that way. Impatiently, she had tapped her foot as she waited for the elevator to reach the floor, muttering under her breath and obsessively checking her watch the whole way, and when the damn sluggish door had finally pinged open, she’d darted out into the foyer, shooting an apologetic smile at an executive secretary she’d nearly mowed down, and purposefully turned into the hallway that led toward Jackson Michaels’ office. Her heels tapped smartly against the marble floor as she hurried, moving as fast as she could without actually breaking into a trot. Then she’d rounded the corner and stumbled to a stop.
Reno of the Turks, apparently headed in much the same direction as she had been, had stopped in the middle of the corridor and turned back to see who followed, no doubt alerted by the almost frenetic tap of her high heels behind him. In fact, he had actually slipped his hand into his jacket where she knew his gun rested snugly in a shoulder holster. Her face flushed as she tried to pull her startled eyes from the snare of his glittering, suspicious green-eyed gaze. She knew she should move, continue on her way with her package, act with perfect casualness to disarm him, but she simply stood there, frozen, looking guilty. Partly because he stood adjacent to the door she needed to enter.
Then she did manage to pull her eyes from his, and she took a step with the intent of politely brushing past him into the quiet office of Jackson Michaels’ beyond him with the hope that he would simply dismiss her from his mind as being completely unimportant. But one step was all she had time to take before the office door swung in and a small streak of a figure dashed into the hallway, giggling maniacally. The child, a small boy of about four or five years of age, with a head of tousled straw-colored hair didn’t see the tall Turk in his path as his wide, dancing eyes were focused into the office behind him, laughing at the person who pursued.
The infamous Reno of the Turks had only managed a half-turn before the child darted between his long legs, tangling him up as the boy made impromptu use of the tall Turk to evade the flustered executive who had burst from the office and worked desperately to get a hand on him. To his credit, Reno valiantly struggled to stay on his feet as the boy danced around his legs, and being pretty quick on his feet in his own right, managed to stay erect for several seconds, but the nimble slippery maneuvers of the snippet of a human being were too much for him in the end, and he fell, his rear end hitting the ground first and legs flying up to land him flat on his back, cracking the back of his skull against the marble floor. He lay there for a long moment, motionless, staring up at the ceiling tiles with stunned eyes.
Even as she’d wondered if he was hurt, she had burst into spontaneous laughter at the sight of his sprawled form decorating the floor, even knowing that she should shut the hell up, and discreetly disappear before he came to his senses and decided to add her to his list of person or persons upon whom to wreak his revenge, but she could only manage to raise an ineffectual hand to her mouth, a completely fruitless gesture because he had then lifted his head to glare at her, which had only made her laugh harder.
Michaels, for his part, got a handle on his escaped offspring and shoved him behind him with a sharp command to him to be still. The playful boy, suddenly realizing the turmoil he’d caused, instantly burst into piercing wails and attached himself against the back of his father’s legs with tenterhook hands, pressing a tear streaked face against the neatly pressed trousers, even as the red-faced executive anxiously offered his hand to the fuming Turk, who brushed off his offer and simply erupted to his feet in one smooth move, his eyes glittering with barely suppressed ire.
Then Reno lifted the rod to point at the screaming child, and Elena’s bottomless well of laughter immediately dried up. Surely he wouldn’t. Surely he couldn’t. But if the stories she’d heard were true, he surely could and would. Her breath caught in her throat. No doubt at the look of intent in the Turk’s eyes, Michaels turned and snatched the child protectively into his arms and took a shaky step back, his eyes locked on the end of the stick as the Turk lifted the tip to follow the child. Then Reno of the Turks smiled, and dropped the rod to his side.
“Doesn’t that creature belong in the day care on the fourth floor, Michaels?” Reno drawled in seeming disinterest.
“I…ah…yes…but…you see…his mother is coming to get him in just a few minutes…and…and…and…my secretary was going to…as soon as she returns…” The executive stammered into silence as the Turk narrowed his eyes on the man’s pale face.
“Isn’t that why the Shinra Corporation provides a day care facility? So that employees of the company can be assured of progressing through the corridors without fear of being accosted by the undisciplined rugrats of other employees? Hmmm?”
To his credit, the apprehensive executive suddenly remembered just who he was. Certainly not the most top-level employee in the corporation, but high enough to make policy, and certainly as high level as Reno the Turk. Still, he’d probably heard the stories too, and although the term ‘undisciplined rugrats’ in obvious inclusion of his own child had raised his dander, a tone of deference remained in his voice.
“Please accept my apologies for this unfortunate mishap. I hope you weren’t hurt?”
“Hardly.” Reno drawled.
“Good. Very well. Er…good day, then.” And Mr. Jackson Michaels, Esquire coolly turned and strolled into his office with the whimpering child clutched in his arms, and shut the door a little too hard behind him.
Elena suddenly realized that she was still standing there, and she looked around for some place to go, but there was no place to go but back the way she’d come, and she decided that she wasn’t going to retreat. She still had a job to do after all. So she took one step forward, and the click of metal tipped heel against marble instantly brought Reno’s head around, and he leveled his smile on her, and the smile was anything but friendly.
Of course, she’d seen that smile many times since that day, and she knew exactly what it meant. She knew now that when Reno smiled like that, he was completely torqued. And the more torqued he was, the wider the smile. And if he actually chuckled while smiling like that, well…running was an option. She knew that now, but of course, she didn’t then. All she knew then, was that the mirthless, glittering eyes, and the tight smile made her blood run cold….
She froze in place, and stared as Reno of the Turks lifted one hand to point at her. Then he formed his fingers into the shape of a gun and playfully fired. “Kapoooowwww!” He made the sound under his breath, but she clearly heard him. Certainly, he meant to intimidate her, but the gesture only served to irritate her. Maybe he was a dangerous man, but right now he seemed little more than an immature child himself, a big irritating kid who was standing in her way. She lifted her chin and set off down the hall, avoiding his gaze as she brushed past him with a polite “…please excuse me…” and opened the door.
Although she could feel the weight of his stare, he didn’t utter a word until she turned to shut the door behind her, and if his smile had turned her blood to ice, his words froze every cell in her body. “Have a nice day, Ms.Taylor ‘slash’ Martin,” he remarked affably.
And she’d wanted to respond. She’d wanted to say something like, “You have a nice day too, Mr. Reno of the Turks”, but she found herself incapable of forming a single clear, concise word, so she clamped her mouth shut in a thin line and let the door fall shut as her stomach churned sickly beneath her fashionable belt at the knowledge that Reno of the Turks not only recognized her by sight, but actually knew her name. At that precise moment, she decided that when she returned to the office, she would approach Lawrence and vehemently request a promotion into the Advanced Security program. If he came for her, she wanted to be, at least, a little ready.
Elena shook her head in wonder. Yes, she could almost laugh about that day, knowing Reno now as she did. Of course, as a fellow Turk, she was pretty much safe from his retaliation if not his temper. She had also learned that the tales of revenge and mayhem she’d heard were largely exaggerated. Reno was definitely a proponent of the concept of revenge as a ‘dish best served up cold’ and would rather watch someone die of ulcers from worrying about what he might do rather than rouse himself to actually do anything. In fact, Reno didn’t rouse himself to do much of anything at all, but play, unless his job required him to do so or he deemed an action unavoidable. However, Reno could and would undertake any task without a second thought, before or after. Nothing seemed to bother him, on the surface anyway. And she’d discovered, of course, that he wasn’t all that invulnerable either. After all, she only had her job because Avalanche had injured him so badly that the Turks wound up shorthanded. So she’d been promoted and allowed to remain even though he’d regained his feet in record time. Of course, Turks weren’t simply dismissed from a job, so they’d probably decided to keep her rather than kill her.
…And he’d almost died…today…
This time Elena couldn’t keep the terrible images from her mind. She couldn’t stop the thoughts that sought to overwhelm her.
Yes, he would have died, and she couldn’t have done a thing to stop it. Even if she’d had her gun in hand, she couldn’t have created the miracle that little girl had managed. He would have died. Because of a bullet from her own gun…he would have died…and that made her feel….well…she didn’t like the way it made her feel…not the least little bit…
Her mind inexorably drawn down deep into the increasingly murky mire of her darkening reverie, the blonde Turk didn’t notice when Caitlin Shinra’s eyes landed inquisitively on her vacant face. Nor did she see when the petite woman shoved her long waves of golden hair over her shoulder just before she turned a page and set her pencil to a new task. Nor did she take even the slightest note of the critical artist’s eyes as they shifted from Elena’s pensive face to the image swiftly emerging from the tip of the racing pencil. And she certainly didn’t notice when, ever so slightly, Caitlin began to smile.
Cloud walked alongside the sentry in silence. Beyond their initial greeting, Cloud hadn’t felt compelled to carry a conversation, and neither had the messenger, except to inform him that he’d have to accompany him outside to talk to Reeve via the radiophone. He wasn’t even particularly curious about what Reeve wanted. His thoughts were wholly wrapped around Aeris and the strange dream that had left him feeling unsettled. The dream…it was almost like he’d been right there with her. And she was alive…breathing…smiling…but just a dream after all. Still so strange. The barren cliffside. The white bird. Aeris so serious. It isn’t over, Cloud. You have to be ready.
Ready for what…? What was out there…where she’d been pointing across that stormy sea?
He gave his head a hard shake. What was he thinking? There was nothing out there. It was only a dream. A creative one, but still just a dream.
“I…is there…s…something wrong?”
Cloud looked around to find the soldier eyeing him warily as they walked. “Ah no…” How had he looked just then? Probably annoyed. At himself. “…Just tired.”
The sentry nodded vehemently. “I know what you mean. Hard to get any sleep with everything that’s goin’ on.”
A part of his mind still firmly ensnared in lingering images of his dream, Cloud absently slid a hand into his trousers pocket to touch the ribbon, just to make sure the thin strip of satin was still there, that it hadn’t fallen out while he slept.
“You’re probably used to it though, huh?”
Cloud distantly realized that the soldier had asked him a question, but he realized that he didn’t know what. Self-consciously, he drew his hand from his pocket and swept his fingers through his spiky hair before letting his hand fall casually to his side.
“I said, ‘You’re probably used to it though.”
“Used to what?”
“You know…having to sleep under less than ideal circumstances.”
Cloud nodded vaguely. “Yeah, I’ve slept in some pretty rough places for sure.”
Yeah, he slept in weird places all right. Like in the woods while hungry monsters lurked in the brush with only a guttering fire to keep them at bay. Like in a bed inside an inn that he remembered perfectly from his childhood but that he’d seen burned to the ground. Or like inside a giant glass canister full of green gunk with tubes attached to various parts of his body.
“Yeah, I’ve slept in worse places all right…”
Suddenly, the face of his laboratory companion emerged from that dark hole that imprisoned most of his memories from that time, cheekbone pressed against the curved glass, large hand flattened alongside, smiling encouragingly at him as though he’d told him some lame joke and was waiting for him to get the punch line. Zack. A soldier of valor, strong, strangely impervious to Hojo’s cloning efforts. The only reason he still lived. If not for Zack, he couldn’t even imagine what would have happened to him in the end. Hojo probably would have disposed of him as the experimental failure he thought him to be.
When this was all over, when he had a minute to himself, when there were no dragons left to slay, no people left to save, he would go there. To that bluff overlooking Midgar where the Shinra troopers had shot down the bravest man he’d ever known and left his body to the carrion birds. He would find Zack and take him home. To Gongaga. To his family. He would do that for them. For himself. For Aeris. Who had loved him.
“Here we are.” The soldier informed Cloud unnecessarily as he pushed open the heavy glass door to exit the Shinra Building. Still preoccupied, Cloud walked through to halt alongside his escort as the man talked to a guard with the radiophone to his ear, his thoughts far away, already drawn back into the strange dream at his mental invocation of Aeris.
The two were talking, their words distant, but increasingly intrusive as a level of agitation grew in their conversation. Cloud forced his mind back to the situation at hand.
“What’s the matter?” He asked sharply of his escort.
“Nothing, Cloud…er…Mr. Strife…”
“Cloud,” the Avalanche warrior corrected him.
“Okay, Cloud. For some reason, we can’t get Mr. Alexander on the radio.”
Cloud’s interest sharpened. “Because of the transmission problem, do you think?”
The soldier with the radio answered this time. “It could be, but we haven’t had a problem transmitting there before, as long as both parties are out in the open.”
“Maybe they went in…” Cloud mused.
“Maybe…” the radioman shook his head doubtfully. “…But they were waiting for you. I don’t know why they’d move.”
“Where is Reeve?”
“Wall Market. Outside the Honeybee Inn.”
Cloud looked off into the distance for a moment, staring out above the heads of the milling crowd as though he could see all the way to Wall Market. He knew that there could be a lot of reasons why the radioman couldn’t regain contact with Reeve’s party. A radio at either end could be malfunctioning or they might have been momentarily drawn inside somewhere or some problem requiring immediate attention might have arisen. Reeve had so many demands on his time that something else could have easily taken priority. Still, Cloud didn’t like it. He didn’t like Reeve being out of contact with the Turks, with him. In fact, the communication issue had become a real problem in light of recent events. Cloud abruptly made a decision that Reeve might later chew on his tail about, but he didn’t care. Reeve’s security took priority over anything else in Cloud’s mind. He could only imagine what would happen to the people of Midgar if Reeve wasn’t in charge. He turned his head to look at the radioman, his fiercely glowing Mako eyes sharp with serious intent.
“Keep trying to raise him,” he ordered. “Tell him I’m on the way.”
“So, you’re just gonna go there?” The soldier asked in surprise.
Cloud smiled coolly. “I’m already gone.”
Cid stood in the middle of the tarmac, one gloved hand wrapped around the Venus Gospel and a smoldering cigarette in the other, baleful eyes unrelentingly focused on the pair crossing the pavement toward him.
Already, Yuffie’s companion had noticed him and returned his stare full measure the whole way, although with wide-eyed awe. The pair stopped in front of Cid, and before either could speak, the Captain sharpened his glare on the ninja girl’s face.
“You’re late,” he accused.
Yuffie shrugged nonchalantly. “Hey, I brought ya the goods, didn’t I?”
Cid turned the full weight of his penetrating blue eyes on the ninja girl’s tall companion.
“You’re Cid Highwind,” Derry noted, still suitably awestruck.
“Yep.” The Captain blew out a cloud of smoke. “You Derry?”
Nodding uncertainly, Derry unconsciously wiped his hand against his jeans, and then offered to shake Cid’s hand. “Derrick Heidegger, sir.”
Cid stuck his cigarette in his mouth and grabbed the young man’s hand in a tight grip. “Heidegger, huh? You related to the late General?”
Derry tightened his grip. “Maybe. Does it matter?”
“Not to me.”
“Then why’d ya ask?”
“Ever hear of Avalanche?”
Derry blinked, only marginally successful in hiding the surprise in his eyes. He lifted his chin. “So?”
“You do know what happened to the General?”
Derry shrugged dismissively. “Guess Uncle Freddie wasn’t the friendliest guy in town.”
“So long as we understand each other.” Cid finally let his hand go from his choking grip. “Can you fly that plane over there?”
Derry eyed the heavily laden plane skeptically. “What ya got on that thing? The contents of Rufus Shinra’s vault?”
“Liberation for the people of Midgar.”
“So, can you fly it or not?”
Derry nodded once. “Probably.”
“Good, let’s get this flying circus in the air.” Cid scanned the individuals scattered around watching curiously. “Everybody! Load up!”
“Wait a minute,” Yuffie sharply protested. “You gonna trust his word just like that?”
“Don’t have to,” Cid replied matter-of-factly. “Whole damn city of Junon vouched for him.”
“Cid…” The Captain looked around to find a worried Barrett at his elbow. “Cid, I still haven’t found Red. We can’t go without him.”
Yuffie, who had pinned suspicious eyes on the Heidegger person while she tried to sort out exactly what Cid meant, straightened in alarm at Barrett’s words, suddenly remembering just how long Red had been missing. “What?! We have to find him!”
“Dammit!” Cid snarled impatiently. “Everybody spread out and look for Red! He’s gotta be here somewhere! Find him pronto!”
Yuffie reached out and grabbed Derry’s arm in a punishing grip. “Come on. We’re gonna find him!”
“But…” Derry shot a wild look around. “…What’s he look like?”
“Red. Feathers in his hair. Flaming tail. Sharp teeth. Sharp claws. One eye.” Claws? Feathers? “Does he have wings?” A cycloptic species of carnivorous bird?
“No,” Yuffie snorted. “He’s more like a cross between a cuahl, a bandersnatch, and…er…a person.”
“Okaaaay. I’m not sure I wanna find him….”
“Well, we’re gonna.” She let him go and propped her hands on her hips, looking around the structures and aircraft scattered around the edges of the airpad. She lifted a finger to point toward a distant grouping of small planes inside a metal hangar at the edge of the pavement. You look over there, and I’ll head this way.
Derry hesitantly sidled away. “He won’t eat me will he?”
Yuffie smiled wickedly as she headed in the other direction. “Only if he doesn’t like you.”
Derry stuffed his hands in his back pockets as he faced the distant hangar and walked away, muttering. “I’m likable…aren’t I? Sure I am…I think…most people think so…I think…but there is that one guy…and Jessica’s pissed at me…don’t think she likes me much…now…sharp teeth….sharp claws…well, I hope so…maybe I won’t find him…”
Elena looked up to find Rude and Caitlin huddled together over that notepad of hers. She narrowed her eyes on the two of them. They certainly seemed pretty cozy of late. Well, as cozy as Rude could look with anyone. She didn’t know how long she’d been preoccupied, wandering lost somewhere in her mind. A place so distant she couldn’t even remember what she’d been thinking about.
With a toss of her head, she straightened out her leg and reached in her pocket for her compact. Flipping it open, she peered into the cracked mirror, turning her head this way and that to get the full picture. Unfortunately, the fractured reflection in the tiny mirror only served to depress her. She’d hurriedly washed the last of her decimated makeup, mainly the runny streaks of mascara, from her face when they’d returned from the reactor, and without it, she looked like a slum urchin who hadn’t seen any sun in months, and her hair would make her a shoe-in at an audition for one of those ‘limp and lifeless hair’ shampoo commercials.
She’d lost her lipstick and her comb, so she settled for combing her fingers through her hair. Then she looked at her fingernails in disgust. Even her nail polish had partially chipped off. She decided that the refugee life wasn’t her thing.
Irritated, she slid forward and stood up to stuff the compact down into her pants pocket again. Then she decided to see what Caitlin had in her notepad that so captivated the usually incurious Rude.
Rude looked up and stepped away as Elena approached. “What are you guys up to over here?” She tried to inject a measure of lightness into her tone, but her words sounded false to her own ears.
Caitlin looked up from her sketch warily. “Um…Rude was just admiring the sketch I’ve just finished of you.” At Caitlin’s words, Rude completely vacated the area, returning to his former position next to the door. Putting his back against the wall, he folded his arms and crossed one ankle over the other. Elena looked at him for a moment, noting the studied indifference in his face, before she turned back to confront Caitlin.
“You drew me?” This time, the blonde Turk’s voice held a mixture of surprise and disgruntlement. She didn’t think she liked the idea of being the prolonged object of another person’s attention, especially someone watching her close enough to put her down on paper.
Caitlin tilted her head and softly smiled. “Yes. Would you like to see?”
Elena folded her arms protectively around her waist and shrugged one shoulder in forced nonchalance. “Yeah sure,” she replied stiffly.
Caitlin turned the notepad around and held it up for Elena to see. The blonde Turk visibly stiffened at the image Caitlin had reproduced. With only a no. 2 pencil and an office notepad, Caitlin had captured Elena sitting cross-legged on the wooden pallet, her chin in her hand, gazing down with her eyelashes half-lowered, a look of wistful sadness on her quiet face…maybe even a sense of…longing…”
“No.” Elena bit out.
“No?” Caitlin turned the pad around to look at the drawing herself, a touch of dismay in her face if not in her twinkling eyes.
“Why did you draw me like that?” Elena demanded. “That doesn’t even…that’s not…I didn’t look like that…then…”
“Actually, Elena, I thought it a striking likeness,” Rude interjected smoothly.
Elena turned an accusatory glare on her fellow Turk’s unresponsive face as Caitlin wrinkled her brow. “I’m sorry, Elena. I didn’t think you would mind.”
She scowled her disapproval. “Well, I do mind.”
“Then…I’ll just…destroy the sketch…”
“Well, I mean…it’s your…art…”
“Would you like to have it, Elena?”
“I…no…I don’t…have a place to keep it…”
“Would you like me to keep it for you until later?”
Mutely, Elena nodded her head, anxious eyes skimming across Caitlin’s careful face to land on her own shoes.
“I’ll keep it safe for you,” Caitlin promised.
Elena floundered for the words she knew she should say, but couldn’t quite bring to her lips. Fortunately for her, a sharp, insistent beeping erupted somewhere behind her, drawing everyone’s attention from her embarrassed discomfort.
“What is that?” Caitlin laid the notepad aside and slid off the high box to land on her feet, curious eyes scanning the contents of the room.
Elena had already spun away and stalked to the center of the room, her fingers on the butt of her gun. Rude merely stood away from the wall and inclined his head toward a scarred oak desk shoved against the far wall between two stacks of cartons. “Reeve’s stuff,” he remarked economically.
Caitlin stared toward the desk in fascination. “Shouldn’t we check it out?”
Elena shrugged. “I don’t know anything about his gear.”
Caitlin looked over at Rude. “What do you think, Rude?”
He shrugged too and leaned back against the wall. “Elena.”
“Me?” Elena pursed her lips and turned speculative eyes toward the offensive sound. “I could shoot it, I guess.”
Undeterred by the Turks’ lack of motivation, Caitlin crossed the room, and kneeling down in front of the desk, she dragged the wooden crate from underneath. Quickly setting aside several rubber-banded map rolls, she carefully examined the electronic equipment left inside until she found the flashing red light that she supposed coincided with the intermittent beep. Tentatively, she pressed the switch next to the red beacon. The sound and the light immediately ceased, but she noticed a soft illumination somewhere deeper in the box. She moved the bulky, button-studded glove aside to find a pair of goggles that seemed to be projecting images across the inside of the lenses.
Intrigued, she lifted the goggles from the box and held then up to her eyes with both hands. She watched for a few seconds in wonder, and then her face collapsed in horror. She gasped and unconsciously jerked the apparatus away from her face. She stared down at them for a moment, and then held them out to Elena. “You should…see…this…I…think…this is happening…now…”
Elena reached for them, but Rude took them first, startling Caitlin who hadn’t noticed him come up behind her. As both women watched him, Rude viewed the entire video feed, his face taking on a grim cast toward the end. Finally, he pulled the VR device from his face and pinned stony eyes on Elena’s face.
“What is it, Rude?”
“Wake Reno now.”
Reno cracked one eyelid open to peer through his eyelashes as the strange tickle touched his nose again. The little girl, Rachel, sat on her heels beside him with her hand outstretched, already in position, with what looked to be a wad of cotton from the bedroll stuffing, to assault his nose again.
“You might get bit doing that,” he growled in a sleep-roughened voice.
She lifted a hand to her mouth and giggled.
Reno opened both of his eyes and gave her his best Turk glare. She giggled again. He stared at her for a long moment as he waited for his groggy mind to clear, a bit perturbed that she didn’t seem all that intimidated. So he bared his teeth at her, but she just giggled again. Then it occurred to him that she most probably wasn’t aware of his formidable reputation. Otherwise, she’d surely be shaking in her tiny shoes. More probably, she wasn’t worried about him because she knew something that he didn’t. Like maybe the fact that she possessed an as yet unrevealed power to melt him down to a pile of gelatinous cellular goop and stringy red hair. On the other hand, she didn’t seem inclined to evil acts. But then females always looked the most innocent just before they went in for the kill. Little ones probably worked that way too. They had to start sometime.
With a groan, Reno pushed himself up and folded his long legs to sit cross-legged beside the little girl. Long wisps of red hair tumbled forward across his face as he wearily let his head fall forward. “Guess I might as well get up, huh?” He asked listlessly.
“Uh huh.” She nodded her head emphatically, her bleached curls bouncing against her plump cheeks as she moved.
“I know you’re not gonna let me sleep.”
“Uh uh.” She shook her head just as emphatically.
Reno gave his head a little shake to clear the fuzz out of his brain, rubbing both fists in his eyes to clear out the sleep, looking like nothing more than an oversized kid himself. Then he wrapped his arms around himself, shuddering as a great yawn overtook his face, at the end of which he gave his head a harder shake.
“Man, I feel like shit,” he commented to no one in particular.
“AAAAAaaaaawwwwmmmmm.” Rachel pointed an accusatory finger at him. “You said a bad word.”
“So? What are you gonna do to me?”
“Wash your mouth out with soap.”
He smacked his lips experimentally, making a sour face at the taste in his mouth. “Could probably use a good cleaning anyway.” Suddenly, Reno turned his head and smiled disarmingly. “You wouldn’t happen to know what time it is, would you?”
She held up her bare wrist to show him. “Uh huh…hair past a freckle.”
Reno’s smile turned into a frown. “It’s getting pretty late.”
“What’s your name?”
Reno raised both eyebrows and popped his eyes wide. “What? You don’t remember my name?”
She mutinously stuck her lower lip out as far as it would go. “Reno.”
“You do remember. Good.” In one move he jumped to his feet, and then stood swaying as his head commenced a slow spin.
“What’s your last name?” She persisted.
“Then what’s your first name?”
“Sure it is.”
“Then what’s your middle name?”
“I don’t know.”
Rachel’s face dissolved into a studied frown of worried concentration.
“Yep.” He looked down at his socked feet. “Did you take my shoes?”
She looked up at him with stubborn eyes. “You’re s’posed to have three different names.”
“Just call him Reno to the third power,” Elena suggested wryly from where she stood leaning against the wall of boxes that girded the pallet of bedrolls, listening.
“And I took your boots and cleaned them up,” She informed him flatly. “They’re in the washroom.” She drew the bundle of clothes from beneath her arm. “I brought you these too.” Reno didn’t move to take the clothing from her immediately, so she tossed the bundle at him, and he threw up a hand to catch the clothes against his chest.
“Why, thank you Elena.” He quirked an eyebrow as he looked the bundle over, easily identifying a pair of black jeans and shirt similar to the blood caked ones he now wore. He pinned knowing green eyes on her face. “Guess you like me in this color, huh baby?”
She glared back. “Don’t flatter yourself, Reno. That’s all I could find to fit your skinny…”
She stopped when he held a finger to his lips.
“No bad words now…” He tilted his head in the direction of the intently watchful little girl.
“Hmph, I wasn’t going to say anything bad.”
“I’ll bet you were.”
“I was not.”
“Yeah, you were.”
“I was…” Elena clamped her mouth shut, and then tried again. “Reno, you need to get around and get out here. There have been some developments.”
His green eyes narrowed. “What developments?”
“I’m not sure.” Elena reached a hand down to Rachel. “Come on Rachel, I have a sandwich for you.” The little girl wrapped a small hand around two of Elena’s fingers and climbed to her feet. Dismissively, Elena turned her back on Reno and led the little girl away.
“Hey, what about me?” Reno demanded petulantly.
Elena glared back over her shoulder. “What now?”
“I’m hungry, too.”
“Well, don’t worry. I’ve got a sandwich for you too. Now, will you please hurry?”
“If you don’t hurry, you won’t even get that,” she retorted, her voice floating back to him as she disappeared around the stack of boxes.
“Hmph, you’d think I’d rate a little higher around here.” He shook his head sadly and set out after her.
Cloud stood uneasily just inside the entrance to Wall Market. No matter how hard he looked, he couldn’t detect the movement of a single person in any direction. Certainly, more than one person had stopped him and informed him of the evacuation of Wall Market as he traveled the old busted up road through Sector 6, so he’d expected the area to be fairly empty, but not completely deserted. He knew there should at least be an armed guard at the entrance to keep people out.
And Reeve should be here. Somewhere.
In one swift move, he drew his sword into both hands and lifted the luminous blade out in front of him as he slowly stepped along the dirt path that would carry him past the vacant inn, his eyes darting in every direction.
He paused in mid-step and peered into the open doorway of the Wall Market Inn. The empty entryway led back into a dim hallway inside. He could barely make out the illumination from the vending machine that stood against the wall down the corridor. Not a soul moved within.
He held his breath and listened. Distantly, he could hear music playing, as though someone had dropped a few gil into the jukebox at the bar down the lane, and the songs played on even though everyone had gone. He might have allowed himself to be drawn there on the off hand chance that someone remained, but he knew where he needed to go. The last place Reeve had been for sure. The Honeybee. The Morgue.
Relaxing his tense stance only a bit, Cloud moved forward on the trail, advancing cautiously on the junction of the lane that would lead him back to the dead end cul-de-sac where the Honeybee Inn stood, stretching his senses to the maximum to detect any hint of a threat.
Abruptly, raucous gunfire erupted nearby, crashing loudly around the silent, deserted marketplace. Instinctively, Cloud dove for the relative shelter of the nearest ramshackle building, flattening his body against the wall, gritting his teeth as the gunfire slammed against his ears, the chatter of an automatic rifle and the relentless thunk of the bullets ripping into wood and metal going on forever, unceasingly, unendingly, to the point that he almost dropped the sword at his feet to slam his hands over his ears. Then the racket stopped just as abruptly as it started, the ensuing silence almost as deafening, until the laughter started. Wild cackling, full of madness and pain. He’d heard laughter like that before. A chill touched his spine at the memory.
Holding the sword close, he slid along the wall until he reached the end. His cheek pressed close to the splintered wood, he peered down the side from the corner of one eye. Then he leaned out to better see the pair of troopers huddled behind a wooden barrel, both crouched, one down on a knee behind the other.
“Pssst.” Cloud hissed loudly.
Both soldiers gasped, and the one closest to Cloud nearly dropped his rifle as he tried to bring it to bear on the source of the voice. Cloud immediately stepped away from the building, and both soldiers slumped with relief at their recognition of Cloud’s Soldier First Class uniform.
“Man, you almost scared me to death,” the closest one weakly informed him.
The other one nodded his agreement. “Guess you got our radio message?”
“No,” Cloud said flatly. “What’s going on here? Who’s shooting?”
“Not sure, sir. Whoever it is has a military rifle and plenty of ammo though.”
Cloud eased up behind the two soldiers to take a look for himself. “Where’s he at?”
“He’s holed up back in some of that junk along the debris wall across from the Honeybee,” one guard said with disgust. “Hell, he’s had us pinned down here for forty-five minutes or more. Every time we even think about tryin’ to sneak down the lane, he shoots.”
“Do you know where Reeve went?”
“Mr. Alexander’s down there somewhere, but we don’t know what happened to ‘im. Someone got hurt though. Heard ‘em screamin’. Sounded in terrible pain. Then everything got quiet after that, ‘cept for that crazy loon shootin’ and laughin’ ever once in awhile. Gives me the heebie jeebies.”
Though he said a dozen emphatic curse words in his mind, Cloud silently stepped past the two soldiers to stand between their position and the wall of the shack, cautiously leaning forward to examine the empty lane. He could see all the way down the dirt trail until the point where it curved to the left to meet the clearing in front of the Inn. Nobody moved. Nothing made a sound. Wherever the shooter had gone to ground, he wasn’t showing so much as a hair. Cloud knew that as soon as he left the safety of the building, ramshackle though it was, he would be a prime target, easy for the shooter to hit with an automatic weapon in hand. But he had no choice. He had to go down that trail, because Reeve was down there somewhere. He had to get him out of there. If he was still able to leave…
Cloud slammed his mind shut on that line of thought. To entertain that thought would be to falter. Just as pondering the probability of death and pain would be to cower. Deliberately, he drew in a long breath as he focused his mind on the task at hand, mentally sweeping away all considerations of what came before or what might follow, directing all the energy of his narrowed concentration on the picture in his mind, the shelter he must reach, each step of the gauntlet he must run.
Without drawing his eyes from the trail or his mind from the goal, he spoke. “I’m going out there.”
Both soldiers looked up at him with wide eyes. “Someone hit you in the head, man?” the closest one asked. Cloud heard the words, but they didn’t register.
“I want the two of you to lay down cover fire, take him out if you can.”
“When I say. Can you do it?”
“Yeah, sure,” one said. The other nodded hesitantly.
“And don’t shoot me,” Cloud admonished.
“We’ll try not to.”
Cloud smiled grimly. “Are you ready?”
The soldiers scrambled into position, the clumsy one falling over the other’s outstretched leg before he managed to get his rifle propped atop the barrel in front of him.
Cloud turned an appraising eye on the pair of them. “Ready now?”
“Yeah, we’re ready man.” The soldier closest to Cloud shook his head at the futility of it all.
Cloud bolted into the open as gunfire erupted just behind him, and then all around him. Holding his sword broadside, he held the glowing blade before him and ran faster than he’d ever run before as all of Wall Market echoed with the unbearable din of bullets that seemed to fly in every direction.
Dr. Clement Minkin worked feverishly, his bared arms stained red to his elbows with blood. With an impatient jerk of his head, he tried to toss his sweaty bangs from his face. Dr. Frances Spiner quickly ran a cloth across his forehead to clear the runnels of sweat from his brow.
“Thanks,” he muttered vaguely.
Frances didn’t answer as she watched his hands closely, unerringly, ready to jump into action when he wanted, making sure he had everything he needed.
Gunfire crashed outside the building, but neither doctor looked up from their desperate work.
A strained voice spoke from the corner. “Please, will he be okay?”
Minkin shrugged impatiently. Frances shook her head.
“You have to save him,” the voice came again in a barely audible whisper.
Frances dared not remove her eyes from the impromptu surgical procedure in progress. ”We’ll do our best,” she finally said.
Only silence met her response.
Reno reached for the VR goggles that Rude offered him, dropping to the edge of the desk as he tugged the strap over his head to hold them in place, but just before he pulled them down to rest on his thin nose, he looked over at Elena where she’d taken up the watch that Rude had so abruptly abandoned beside the door. She lifted one sculptured brow when their eyes met.
“What?” She bit out.
“Sandwich.” He said pointedly.
Rolling her eyes, she reached into the box and grabbed the first one that met her hand. Her posture stiff, she crossed the room and held the wrapped sandwich out to him. He shook his head. “Unwrap it.” He drew the goggles down over his eyes and touched his finger to the replay button Rude had pointed out to him.
“Do it yourself,” she pushed the package against his hand.
“Can’t. Busy.” He watched a field of damp grass bounce before his eyes, the ground alternating with a star clustered night sky.
With an annoyed huff, Elena ripped the paper from the sandwich with one agitated movement. “Do you want me to eat it for you too?”
“You better not,” he warned. A change in camera angle brought the darkened face of a farmhouse into view. Moments later, he reached a fence line, and a white washed gate flew aside beneath a mittened hand.
“Here, take it,” Elena snapped.
Reno held out his hand, and Elena slapped the sandwich into his open palm, and then she did an about-face and returned to her former position beside the door.
“Messy yard,” Reno commented on the dark piles of scattered debris he found himself wending his way through. “Looks like the city dump.” He carefully raised the sandwich to his mouth and took a bite as the mittened hand turned the knob and pushed the door aside.
“Hmm…P B & J. My…favorite.”
Elena shot a nervous look at Rude, but only encountered his unrevealing shades. His favorite? She knew better. She clearly remembered the incident, not so long ago, when someone had erroneously given Reno a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of the one he’d requested. The clerk at the sandwich counter at the Shinra cafeteria, a surly young man who had apparently just arrived from some distant backwater of a town that Shinra had yet to make its corporate presence known, had foolishly argued with Reno of the Turks and wound up prone on the floor with part of the sandwich stuffed down his throat, part of it crammed up his nose, and even some of it shoved into his ears. After he’d finished disposing of his PB & J sandwich to his satisfaction, Reno had planted one loafer in the middle of the guy’s stomach as he reached into the display case for the sandwich he wanted. Then he’d glanced around the cafeteria at all the silent faces staring, faces that instantly averted when his glittering green eyes landed on them, and announced to the room at large that he hated peanut butter. Apparently, Reno was too hungry or too preoccupied with the video to care this time.
Reno watched the barely visible contents of a dark hallway pass him by as a lighted doorway loomed. “Nice coat rack. Just what am I watching here anyway?”
“You will see,” Rude bluntly informed him, still standing close beside the desk with arms tightly folded.
Caitlin was sitting across the room, back in her earlier spot on her oversized carton. Holding Rachel on her lap, she’d been watching her draw on a blank page in the notepad for several endless minutes, waiting tensely while Reno had locked himself into the washroom to change and clean up at the same time that Elena had commandeered the goggles to watch the video for herself, once she and Rude had figured out how to replay it. When Reno had emerged after a short time, a time that seemed to go on forever, she’d mentally fidgeted as he rummaged through the open box of office discards until he finally found a rubber band. She’d watched intently as Reno had scanned the tight, expressionless faces of his fellow Turks with narrow green eyes while he restored his wayward red hair to his customary ponytail. Then, he’d finally…finally joined Rude at the desk to take the goggles. Now, she knew that Reno had to be close to the part in the video recording that had first startled her. Unconsciously tightening her arms around the little girl, Caitlin looked up over the top of Rachel’s head to watch Reno’s face as the little girl squirmed on her lap, and although she couldn’t see his eyes, and he made no comment, she knew just when he reached the exact spot. He stopped chewing.
Finally, he swallowed. “Kendo,” he drawled. “Well, well. He’s not dead after all.”
“Yet.” Rude noted.
Reno stared hard into the goggles as the camera zoomed in close on the huge man’s pockmarked face and blonde buzz cut, obviously because the robotic cat had thrown himself off his ride and into the fray. Then the whole scene tilted sideways, followed by an expanse of floor, followed by darkness.
“That it?” Reno reached one hand to pull the goggles off.
“No,” Rude said sharply. “Wait.”
Reno took another bite out of his sandwich and made a face, crossing one ankle over the other as he watched snowy static for several seconds. “How long?”
“Just watch,” Rude replied curtly.
“Tsk…tsk…no need to be testy,” Reno informed him.
He didn’t expect Rude to answer, but even if he had, he probably wouldn’t have paid any attention, because the interrupted video suddenly reappeared. This time the angle remained stationary, recording from floor level, encompassing the whole of the kitchen.
Reno raptly watched as a big boned elderly lady clad in an oversized housedress and floppy house slippers pummeled the towering, muscled Kendo with a huge cast iron skillet. The man ducked and dodged, but she managed to land some solid blows. From her facial expressions and mouth movements, Reno guessed that the woman was either screaming her lungs out or giving Kendo a verbal dressing down.
“This thing have audio?” Reno absently inquired.
“Probably.” Rude responded.
“We just don’t know where?”
“Hmm…Kendo might have met his match…”
Kendo suddenly struck the woman’s skillet aside with a meaty fist and dove in before she could bring the cookware around again, wrapping his huge fingers around her throat. The blood vessels straining in his muscular neck, he snarled as he squeezed down hard, lifting the woman clear off the floor as he choked her. The old lady’s slippers flew off as she kicked her feet against the man’s thick, camouflage clad legs, her bare toes slamming against the huge man’s hard shins to no avail. Then the skillet hit the floor.
“Wonder if Kendo is back in the collection business again…maybe the old lady didn’t make her loan payment…”
Reno stuffed the last bite of his sandwich into his mouth as he noted a blur of movement at the periphery of the camera’s range. A man clad in the uniform of an airship officer sprang into view with a tiny pistol in his hand. He raised the gun and took aim, but before he could fire a tall, lanky young man dressed in brown from the tip of his worn boots to his loose fitting, long-sleeved shirt and woven vest to a tangled mop of tawny hair that fell against his shoulders appeared just at the edge of the frame.
Almost entranced by the scene before him, the young man dropped his hand into the capacious vest pocket, and crouching slightly, he exploded in a blur of movement that Reno had trouble following in video. Then he noticed the knife jutting at an angle from Kendo’s chest. Impressively, the younger man had managed to fling the knife underhanded to slip right past the body of the weakly struggling woman to drive straight up into the man’s chest, and he’d seemingly moved with hardly any thought about the matter at all.
The big man stumbled, and his fingers slipped from the old woman’s neck. The woman fell in a heap at his feet as he clutched the knife in both hands. Apparently choking on his gurgling blood, he tried to draw the knife from his chest, but he had already grown too weak, and his nerveless hands finally fell away as his legs sagged beneath him, and he hit the floor. Despite the lack of audio, Reno could well imagine the dull thud he made.
“Ole Kendo’s dead now, most likely,” Reno mused aloud.
“Most likely,” Rude agreed.
The young man fell to his knees and commenced to vomit all over the linoleum floor, and a mangy looking brown dog limped from under the table and crossed the room to touch his nose to the young man’s face. The airship officer ran over to help the old lady, and another woman with a short bob of dark hair, every bit as tall as the young man on the floor, but much better filled out, and for that matter, quite eye-catching in a pair of snug jeans and close-fitting pullover. She appeared from the direction of the doorway to hover over the one on his knees. Everyone seemed to be talking at once, but of course he couldn’t hear a thing. Then the tall woman walked slowly out into the middle of the kitchen floor and bent down beside the motionless Kendo. With one swift movement, she jerked the knife from his body and, turning her head aside, let the dripping knife clatter to the floor. Then she knelt on one knee as though to check the man’s pulse, but she had barely lifted her hand to tentatively reach toward him when a brilliant white light flashed everything in the room into invisibility, no doubt blinding the occupants of the house as thoroughly as it did Reno, despite the fact that he instinctively slammed his eyes shut.
After the bright spackles of painful light vanished from the backdrop of the inside of his eyelids, he reopened his eyes to find that the body of Kendo no longer decorated the kitchen floor. Somehow, he wasn’t surprised.
“And there were three,” he mused aloud.
His mind reran the contents of the video as he watched all the players gather themselves and leave the room; the tall woman wrapping an arm around the young man’s shoulders to lead him from the room, following the airship officer who had gathered the big boned but frail looking old woman in his arms and carried her through the door.
For the next several seconds, the video camera recorded nothing but the expanse of vomit marred, blood splattered kitchen floor and the red stained dagger. Then the field before his eyes went black.
Reno jerked the goggles from his head and blinked owlishly as he tossed the VR device onto the desktop beside him. Standing, he languidly stretched before he slipped his cigarette case and lighter from his back pocket and popped open the silver lid to extract a cigarette. Dropping back to the desktop, the red headed Turk tapped the cigarette against the silver case as he stared off into the distance for several moments, obviously deep in thought.
Caitlin wanted to ask him about what he’d seen, but she recognized that she should wait, just as Elena and Rude waited, apparently well versed in Reno’s thinking routine. So she remained silent and, resting her chin on the top of Rachel’s head, she turned the page for her.
Eventually, Reno stuck the cigarette in his mouth and lit it with a sharp click of his lighter. Carefully, he set the case and the lighter on the desktop beside him and scanned all the faces watching him, his hooded gaze landing on Rude’s expressionless face.
“Reeve’s cat is still on the farm?”
Caitlin looked up at the strange question. She couldn’t begin to fathom why Reno would care whether or not Reeve had a cat, much less where it would be, but to her surprise, Rude answered without a pause.
Confused, Caitlin shot a glance toward the door where Elena still waited, hoping to gain a clue from her face, thinking that Reno and Rude might be engaged in Turk code, but Elena’s quiet, attentive face revealed nothing. She looked back at Reno who now stroked the scar on his cheek with one finger for a few seconds before tipping his hand to set the cigarette between his lips again.
“Who else is there?”
“I don’t know,” Rude responded flatly. “I stayed with the chopper.”
“You are positive the cat is on that farm, that it is the same place you landed,” Reno persisted.
“Yes, Highwind left it because the…er…Mog…component wouldn’t fit into the compartment.”
Caitlin wrinkled her brow, becoming more confused by the second. Cats and Mogs? Maybe the terms referred to some type of electronic devices. Named after domestic house pets and a species of mythical creature from children’s literature?
Reno squinted his eyes in thought as he took another drag on his cigarette. “Hmm…the fact that Kendo survived his diving accident is no great surprise. After all, the President had already sent down his termination order. Too convenient that he would save the Turks the trouble by drowning.”
“My father ordered his termination?” Caitlin whispered. “He promised me he wouldn’t do that.”
Reno turned interested eyes on her. “What do you have to do with Julian Kendo?”
Caitlin turned her cheek into Rachel’s hair. “Saria Kim. She was my friend. I’m the one that found her…in her office…that night.”
Reno raised an eyebrow in surprise. “So you were the unnamed witness that she talked to before she…” Reno stopped talking when he noticed Rachel raptly listening to him, big interested brown eyes glued to his face. “Er…went…”
Caitlin nodded against Rachel’s hair. “Yes, I told my father. But I wasn’t sure, because she was almost…gone…when I found her…I…I wasn’t 100 percent sure I heard her correctly.”
“Well, don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” Reno smirked. “The Turks made sure. Besides, I can’t imagine why you’d care what your father did with him, after the way he messed up your friend.”
“I just…wanted him to go through legal channels. I didn’t want him to…you know…do what I knew he’d do. He told me he would call the Midgar police. He promised me.”
Elena suddenly took a step away from the door. “Who is this Kendo, and why does everyone seem to know who he is but me?” she demanded.
Reno narrowed his eyes on her face and smiled coolly. “You don’t know anything about him, Elena, because at the time you were a still a carefree teenager kicking up the sand beneath your feet and catching rays in Costa del Sol.”
“Hmph. If it was so long ago, how do you know so much about it?” She propped her hands on her hips and narrowed her hazel eyes right back at him.
Reno shrugged nonchalantly. “Simple. My first case as a Turk. Tseng turned it over to me to wrap up, to cut my teeth on, so to speak. Besides, the case was pretty cut and dried.”
“Well, who is this Kendo guy?” Elena glared her displeasure at Reno.
Reno exhaled a thin cloud of smoke. “Kendo, Julian. Captain of General Heidegger’s six-man commando team, a.k.a, the good General’s personal brute squad. That was his day job anyway. Night’s he was working for a loan shark who went by the name of Lonica Dey. She had him collecting for her in return for a cut of the proceeds, but his methods lacked finesse, as Caitlin’s friend…” He waved his cigarette in her direction. “…Ms. Kim discovered. Unfortunately, he was also involved in selling misappropriated company property on the black market in addition to blackmailing Shinra employees for their paychecks.” He turned his gaze back to Caitlin. “So you see, Caitlin, your father would never have allowed Kendo to be processed through ‘legal channels’ no matter what he promised you. Shinra business always remains Shinra business.”
Caitlin had already started shaking her head even before Reno finished revealing all the criminal activities of the late Julian Kendo. “No, not Saria,” she burst out. “She wouldn’t have been involved in anything that would…”
“Caitlin…Caitlin…Caitlin…” Reno shook his head in mock sorrow. “…You are better off not knowing what your friend was doing. She had her secrets. People have secrets. Even you, I would imagine.”
Caitlin instantly averted her gaze at his words. Had Reno seen the truth in her startled eyes? Secrets…indeed. Had he been just talking to hear himself talk or did he suspect her of something? Was he taunting her? No, she didn’t think so. He couldn’t know. The guilty flee where no man follows. And she felt as guilty as hell.
Her eyes shuttered, she stared down at Rachel’s artwork. She could almost sense Reno’s amused eyes on her face. She simply could not look at him. She didn’t want to see what he thought nor did she want him to see her discomfort.
The corner of Reno’s mouth lifted as he ground out his cigarette against the sole of his boot. “We’ve talked enough. Kendo’s past would only be important to us now in terms of an investigation into his past associations. However, we can’t do anything about that now. We can’t access our records. We can’t question anyone. We can’t investigate. We’ll have to start from the other end.”
“The back end you mean?” Elena snapped. As soon as the words spouted off her lips, she turned her gaze to her shoes. For some reason, Reno was irritating her right now, even more than usual anyway, and she knew it was past time to stow her feelings and get with the program.
Reno studied her downcast face. “Well, Elena, our first order of business is to determine what Kendo and his two associates have in mind. In order to do that, we have to uncover how their targets are related. What do Caitlin Shinra and Rachel have in common with the person Kendo went after? What do all of them have that these people want? That’s where we focus.”
Elena looked up to meet his gaze. “But we don’t know who or what his target at the farm would have been. We don’t know anything about those people there. This Kendo might not have been after a person. And how are we going to find out anything about her?” Elena inclined her head toward the little girl sitting on Caitlin’s lap. “We don’t know anything, and we’re not likely to find out much sitting here.”
Reno suddenly sprang to his feet. “You’re right, Elena. We can’t do anything but watch and wait.” He walked to the table and peered down at the paper plate that held Elena’s partially eaten pie. “And eat,” he added.
“What are we waiting on?” the blonde Turk asked wearily.
“Cloud Strife,” Reno replied as he scanned the meager contents of the box on the table.
“We-ell, if I’m not mistaken, Strife spent some time on that farm a few days back.”
“You ate all the pie?” Reno asked in a hurt voice.
“Rude did.” Elena corrected him. “In fact, that’s all he ate.” She glared over at Rude who had dropped to the edge of the desk Reno had vacated. He just shrugged.
“This yours, Elena?” Reno poked a finger into the half-eaten pie and lifted it to his mouth to taste.
She turned her glare on him. “Well, it was. Before you put your fingers all in it.”
Reno picked up the plate and sat down on the edge of the table. “You weren’t going to eat it were you?”
“Oh no, hell no. Go right ahead and eat it, Reno,” Elena replied churlishly. “Enjoy.”
“Thank you, Elena.” Suddenly, Reno smiled. Not the chilly smile. Not the smart-ass smile. Not the pissed off smile. Not some other messed up, subtly threatening Turk smile. No. He smiled a genuine real person smile, much like the one he had given her in the reactor room when she’d found him still alive. She’d almost decided she’d imagined that one.
Elena’s breath caught in her throat. “Ah…you…I…I…mean…oh hell…you’re welcome,” Elena finally finished lamely. Then annoyed that she felt so off balance around Reno lately, she clamped her mouth into a thin line and put her back to him, leaning against the doorjamb as she intently studied the bare wall across the empty corridor outside.
The guard to her right was the only person who saw the pretty smile spread across the blonde Turk’s lips as she stood there, and he could hardly believe his eyes. And he didn’t dare acknowledge it. His face carefully expressionless, he pinned his eyes on roughly the same spot on the wall that had captured Elena’s happy attention, and he cautiously watched her from the corner of his eyes. He did not trust a Turk who was smiling. Even such a lovely one.
Cloud darted back and forth across the trail, although the way the bullets were flying, he doubted that it would matter how he got to the other end. A tug at his sleeve signaled a bullet passing much closer than he liked. Another whined past his ear. Bullets kicked up dust around his feet and one thunked into the sole of his boot, the impact almost causing him to stumble. At that point, he seriously began to question his own sanity, and not for the first time.
Surrendering his back and forth tack, he threw himself straight down the trail, spinning left to dash along the front of the building at the corner just as a the shooter laid down a sustained fire that stitched a curtain of dust across the ground right where he would have been had he stayed on the path.
Cloud might have made a mad rush for the entrance to the Honeybee, but he knew he would be in the open the whole way, and he had no guarantee he could convince whoever might be on the other side of the door to let him in before he wound up full of holes, so the warrior raced toward the game concession that stood opposite the Honeybee instead, angry bullets slamming into the dirt all around him as he ran.
He’d almost reached his goal when a stray bullet seared a path through his upper arm. He gritted his teeth against the pain and sent his sword spinning through the air to sink solidly into the ground in approximately the spot that he intended to go. Then he dove for the shelter, wincing as another bullet sliced across the back of his calf, and he hit the ground in a tight roll to come up hard against a the 4x4 wooden leg of a billboard.
His breath ragged from exertion and fear, he snatched his sword from the ground and scrambled for better cover at the far end of the concession stand as bullets thudded into the wall at the other end. Cloud settled to the ground and drew his sword close as he examined the wound on his upper right arm. Fortunately, the bullet had missed bone and tendon as it gouged a path through the fleshy part of his arm. Further examination proved the wound on his leg to be about the same, the bullet having torn a hot path through the muscle, cleanly missing the bone.
Sliding a finger across the magic materia set into the blade of his sword, he closed his eyes and tried to catch his breath as the soothing effects of the curative spell washed over him and banished the superficial but intensely painful wounds.
Cloud sat perfectly still for a few minutes even after the sparkling light of the spell faded completely away, resting his head back against the structure as he refocused his mind and rediscovered his calm center. Then, he finally looked out toward the Honeybee. His eyes were immediately drawn to the body sprawled across the concrete step leading to the inn’s entryway. The standard uniform of a Soldier Third Class told him that the dead man had probably been one of Reeve’s bodyguards.
A splatter of bright blood decorated the step on the other side of the motionless body, and a trail of blood spatter led from there all the way to the door where bloody handprints darkly marked the glossy paint of the heavy door. Lines of bullet holes crisscrossed the surface of the door and the front of the building from top to bottom. Every neon sign and glass lantern had been blown to bits and varicolored pieces of glass littered the ground in every direction, as though a storm cloud had moved in and rained the tiny pieces of brilliant glass like raindrops.
A rising tide of anger tightened Cloud’s chest and brought bitter bile into his throat. He wanted nothing more than to run into the Honeybee Inn and make sure Reeve was okay. Protect him. Get him the hell out of there. But he couldn’t. Not with that maniac shooting everything to pieces.
Cloud exploded to his feet and planted his shoulder against the wall as he tried to see through the thick windows of the concession stand, but the contents inside obstructed his view. Twisting the other way, he slid along the wall until he could see down the back.
The man had apparently gone to ground again. The shooting and laughing had stopped, and silence held sway once more. Apparently, the nut meant to wait. Well, Cloud could bide his time too. He’d wager he could wait a lot longer than the lunatic could. He would wait, and when his quarry made so much as a move, he would be on him before he could bat an eye. Cloud smiled grimly. For the moment, time was on his side.
“Stop, Clement,” Frances whispered, her words meant for only his ears. “He’s gone. It’s been too long.”
The surgeon made no sign that he’d heard her so Frances reached across and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Clement. Stop now,” she spoke quietly so that her words would only reach his ears.
The surgeon’s shoulders slumped, and he withdrew his hands, turning to take the towel Frances offered him as his eyes met hers in speechless resignation. She glanced toward the man who still sat motionless in the corner, watching, even as the hope in his eyes withered and died beneath the intense sorrow in her face.
“I’m very…sorry.” Frances found the leaden words difficult to speak. Even more so when his dull eyes fell to the white knuckled hands folded in his lap. “His injuries were just too…extensive...”
Dr. Minkin took a step away from the table, as though to cross the room. Opened his mouth, as though he might speak, but in the end, he couldn’t find his voice. Unreasonably angry with himself at his failure, he wheeled toward the sink.
Frances turned away from the motionless man in the corner for a few moments and watched as Clement bent over the sink and scrubbed the remainder of the blood from his hands and arms, her sad eyes shifting focus from Clement’s stiff face, to his vigorous movements, to the ruby thread running and twisting through the fall of water from the tap to slide forever away down the drain.
Reluctantly, she drew her gaze away to seek out the serene face of the man on the table. Her eyes pained, she took in the ripped buttonholes of his shirt, torn away beneath Clement’s impatient hands. The necktie turned askew, the ends thrown back to lie alongside his head, looking like nothing more than a hangman’s noose. The ruined chest, the bloody battleground where Clement had waged a desperate and fruitless campaign to save him. He belonged to her now.
Again, she raised her eyes to the distressed man in the corner who sat huddled in upon himself, his face buried in one large hand, his shoulders quaking as he silently wept. Purposefully, she walked across to the bed and retrieved a folded sheet from the small stack she’d appropriated from the Inn’s linen room. Her footfalls reverent, she returned to shake out the sheet, and gently, she drew the pristine cloth over the still body, pausing to draw the necktie down into place and smooth careful fingers through his hair. Then she pulled the hem of the sheet up to the knot in his tie.
Catching Clement’s attention, she inclined her head toward the door. He immediately conceded to her nonverbal directive, drying his hands on another towel as he crossed the floor to stop beside the soldier who stood with his back to the room, one large knuckled hand pressed flat to the doorframe, eyes squeezed tightly shut against the tears that seeped through his lashes anyway. He leveled a last appraising glance toward the corner before his critical eyes settled on the red stain that marred the bright blue material of the young man’s uniform. Dr. Minkin took the soldier’s arm in a capable hand. “Come on,” he quietly urged. “Let’s go take a look at that shoulder.” The soldier didn’t resist as the doctor threw the door open and led him out.
Frances paused in the open doorway as she thought perhaps she should stay with him, but she decided against it. Her instincts were usually true, and she sensed that he wanted to be alone. She addressed his bent head. “Would you like to spend a few moments with your friend?” For several seconds, he didn’t respond, but she patiently waited for her words to slip through the wall of his pain. Finally, he nodded against his hand. “Take as long as you like,” she added softly. Again, he simply nodded, and she left, closing the door quietly behind her.
As still as a statue in a park, Cloud stood completely motionless with the tip of his sword planted in the ground beside his boot, the bulk of his body hidden behind the wall of the concession stand. Only his eyes moved. Restlessly skimming back and forth across the wall of debris, sifting through the dim shadows of a hundred hidden spaces amidst the tangle of an extinct community’s wreckage, countless places in which someone might hide where a searcher wouldn’t see until it was much too late.
A spider in a web…
No, not even that calculating.
A snake in a hole…
No, not that predictable.
Rather, a rabid dog attacking mindlessly in his unthinking anger, trembling in the darkness of disease and cowardice.
Even as his mind formulated that thought, the crazy laughter rang out again, as though to reinforce his assessment. The sound echoed all around him, shattering into a dozen voices against the surfaces of the piled debris, the barrier wall, and the splintered, weathered wooden walls of the ramshackle buildings that girded this part of the Market, and the Avalanche warrior couldn’t pinpoint the source. A keen sense of frustration urged him to step away from the building, to bait the laughing clown from his hiding place and take him out, but he forced himself to stand his ground.
He was duly rewarded for his patience when the shooter suddenly rose with the automatic weapon in hand, bullets spewing mercilessly from the barrel as he swept the front of the Honeybee Inn again, screaming at the top of his lungs.
“Die you Shinra bastards! Die you life sucking….murdering…bas….tards…dead son of a bitchin’ bastards! Die! Die! Die!” The crazed man’s diatribe dissolved into wild laughter again as he held the trigger down, spraying bullets everywhere. However, he had apparently forgotten about Cloud. Bent as he was on destroying as much of his target as he possibly could, he paid the vicinity of the concession stand no mind, and the warrior knew he’d been granted a singular opportunity. He didn’t waste a second.
He sprang into the open as he swept the glowing sword in a low arc to bring the blade to the front. Leaping onto a wide slab of iron that jutted from the wall, Cloud bounded from one foothold to another, hardly looking where his feet landed, moving with such swift agility that the occasional surface that slid away beneath the weight of his boots didn’t slow him in the least.
Cloud rapidly closed the distance between them and had neared within twenty feet of striking range when the mad shooter ran out of ammunition. In the relative silence, he couldn’t fail to hear the racket of Cloud’s movement across the face of the embankment comprised mostly of scrap aluminum, angle iron, and crushed joints of pipe. The man turned his head, and his brow wrinkled in perplexity at sight of the oncoming warrior.
Cloud still thought he could reach the fool before he could reload his gun, especially since the shooter obviously had some springs loose in his head and seemed to be somewhat bewildered to find him there. Unfortunately, Cloud miscalculated.
The man’s face suddenly cleared. Reddened eyes fierce with intent, the man released the clip to fall with a clatter against the iron beneath his feet. All attention on Cloud’s progress, he drew another full magazine from a pouch he had slung around his neck, and he unerringly slammed it into the rifle, and it was just at that point that Cloud, who might have reached him anyway, came up short at the edge of a wide cleft in the monstrous pile of junk that was too wide to jump across and too full of jagged scrap to jump into, a mere ten feet from his goal. The warrior stood completely exposed to the wrath of the now fully loaded gun with nowhere to go.
Cloud let his fingers slide over the cool blade of the great sword as he watched the shooter settle the gun into both hands. He purposely touched the luminous green orb beneath his hand, his experienced mind instantly recognizing the nature of the materia without looking, and then he hesitated, but only for a second. He’d thought to cast a fire spell, or perhaps lightning, but he realized that neither would necessarily prevent the man from shooting.
With only a thought, he cast a sleep spell and silently prayed that the man would be susceptible as he watched the sparkling green light envelope the madman even as he swept the barrel in Cloud’s direction. Seconds later, a puzzled look spread across the shooter’s face, and the gun teetered from his grip even as he convulsively squeezed the trigger, sending bullets pinging into the sloping pile of debris below. Then the gun banged against the ground, and the sleeping man collapsed onto his knees and fell forward, knocking his head against a jutting pipe.
Cloud let out his pent breath. That had been too close. He would have preferred to use a stop spell, but he well knew of its high failure rate. So, he hadn’t taken the chance. No point in thinking about it now. It was done. He had to do something about that guy before he came to, and that wouldn’t be long unless the fall against the pipe had knocked him cold.
A shout came from below, and Cloud looked down to find the two soldiers who’d been holed up behind the barrels. His glowing Mako eyes narrowed to a suspicious glare.
“Why didn’t you take that guy out?” He shouted down at them as he jabbed a finger toward the unconscious man.
The two looked at each other, and then one yelled back. “You looked like you had things under control.”
“Barely…” Cloud muttered under his breath. Then he called down to them again. “Well, I’ve done my part, so get up here and secure this lunatic.”
The two soldiers shifted uneasily, the reluctance written on their face. Cloud’s eyes turned fierce. “Right now! Before he comes to!”
That prospect sent the two of them scrambling frantically into the debris pile. Cloud watched them long enough to ensure they intended to follow through on his command, and then he turned his head toward the front door of the Honeybee Inn. He’d taken out the threat. Now he had to find Reeve. Quickly, he retraced his approximate route through the debris.
By the time he set foot on solid ground, one of the members of Reeve’s armed guard had pushed the door open and poked his head out. He didn’t look too happy about doing it, and Cloud suspected he’d been ordered to do so. The red uniformed soldier spotted Cloud and recognized him.
“Did you get him?” he called across the clearing. “Is it clear?”
Cloud looked up over his shoulder at to see the two entrance guards prodding their drowsy, handcuffed prisoner down the face of the steep debris pile. He brought his eyes back to the skeptical bodyguard and nodded. “For now.”
At his words of assurance, the guard came out to kneel by his fallen comrade, and the other two shortly joined him. Stepping around them, Cloud headed straight into the main room of the Inn. The many displays of stark photographs, all the faces draped in the lusterless sheen of death, captured his attention the instant he crossed the threshold. He knew that the Honeybee had been converted to a makeshift morgue, but that fact hadn't really hit him. Until now. He forced his mind away from the pictures of the dead to the three people huddled together on the low step leading to the sunken common area.
Dr. Minkin, who he’d already met, looked up from bandaging Coakley’s shoulder to glance at Cloud over the top of his glasses. With a terse nod, he returned his attention to his work. His shirt off, Andy sat hunched in place, his arms hanging limply in his lap, head bent. He didn’t look up when Cloud crossed the floor to stand behind him. The woman in the lab coat rose from her spot on the other side of Coakley. She stuffed her hands in the pockets of her coat and eyed him warily.
“Can I help you?” she asked solicitously.
Cloud shot another quick look around the large room. He didn’t see Reeve, but then there were partitions everywhere. “Where’s Reeve?” Cloud couldn’t quell the harshness in his voice, born of the fear in his heart. “He’s here, isn’t he?”
“Who are you?” Dr. Spiner’s eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“He’s okay,” Andy said dully without looking up from the carpet between his knees. “He’s a friend of…” He released a shaky breath, “…Mr. Alexander’s…”
Frances nodded her understanding, though her eyes had turned sorrowful. She inclined her head toward the first closed door to her left. “He’s in there.”
Wordlessly, Cloud whirled that way, striding across the room even as Frances called after him. “Wait, I should warn you…” But Cloud already had his hand on the door, and he wasn’t waiting for anything. Squaring his shoulders, he turned the knob with bloodless fingers and opened the door.
Derry stared uncertainly at the six inches or so of strange, flame tipped tail that trailed limply across the concrete. He narrowed his eyes and cautiously took a step forward to round the tall, cylindrical fuel receptacle. He had no doubt the tail would be attached to the beast that Yuffie had described, and he still didn’t think he wanted to be the one to find him.
Derry took another step, wincing as his tennis shoe scuffed against the pavement, thinking the sound should bring the beast snarling to his feet to eat him. But the tail didn’t even twitch.
Another tiptoe step, much more careful this time, brought the sleek, muscled haunches of the beast into view. For a predatory looking type animal, he seemed unusually oblivious to Derry’s advance.
Suddenly, an idea popped into Derry’s brain, an unwelcome thought that perhaps the beast had been killed and thrown behind the fuel tank to hide him. Derry personally knew a few people in Junon who would love to mount the head of such a fierce looking animal on a wall.
If the beast were dead, Derry didn’t know if he wanted to be the one to find him. The others seemed to be rather fond of him. Or maybe they were just worried that he was out chowing down on the residents of Junon. At any rate, they might take it into their heads to blame the messenger. Wouldn’t be the first time it had happened to him.
Despite his reluctance, Derry took another step, and the whole of the beast fell under his nervous gaze. His mouth drifted open as he stared. He gaped at the size of the beast. He knew that it would stand nearly to his own height if it rose to its hind legs. Swallowing hard, he moved his rapt blue eyes to the tongue lolling over a row of sharp teeth and then to the humongous paws. The claws were withdrawn, but he could well imagine the size of them. He could well imagine what they would do to him. His curiosity still greater than his fear, he leaned in to examine the decorative ankle cuffs that adorned all four legs as well as the colorful beads and feathers woven into the beast’s thick mane. Then his eyes found the marks seared into the beast’s taut red hide, and he wondered that someone had branded him. Shaking his head at the cruelty of it, his questing eyes traveled further to discover the slow rise and fall of the sturdy ribcage.
He decided right at that moment that he did not want to be the one to wake the beast. He didn’t even care if the beast did have the trappings of domestication. He looked damned dangerous. Glancing back over his shoulder, he pinpointed the location of the nearest warm body of the distant scattering of people still frantically searching. He would just go drag someone else over to wake the slavering pet. Holding his breath pent behind pursed lips, he tiptoed quickly away. Very quickly.
Nanaki rested on his haunches, gazing up stupidly at the beautiful emerald eyes. “I don’t understand. What do you mean?”
The young woman’s loosened curls of hair fell over her shoulders as she stretched out a hand to push aside a stray lock of his mane that had fallen across his good eye. Then she sat down on the bench behind her and rested her forearms across her knees, her full azure skirt falling nearly to her sandaled feet. “Oh, I don’t know. I’m just dreaming you up. Probably. Just like I dreamed Cloud Strife. I doubt either of you really exist.” Her shoulders slumped in resignation, and she rested her chin in her hand, gazing at him as though if she looked hard into his face she would see the truth.
“…But…” Nanaki looked at the village square around him, his one golden eye pausing on the incongruous bank of swaying crimson flowers lining the length of the fieldstone wall around the mansion grounds. “…But…I am…real…Cloud is…real…”
She smiled deprecatingly. “Oh, really?”
He tilted his head at her. “Yes. I am Nanaki, son of Seto, Grandson of Bugenhagen, Protector of Cosmo Canyon….”
The young woman threw her hands out in despair. “See! I thought your name was Red. Now I know you are only a figment of my messed up imagination.” She sighed loudly. “My thoughts are like the river that flows into the sea, sifted over rocks and dashed against the sandy banks, first here, then there, then swallowed forever.”
Nanaki’s golden eyes sharpened on the woman’s disappointed face. “…But…I am also known as Red. Red XIII.” The entire designation that Hojo had given him always left a bad taste in his mouth when he spoke the words.
She perked up, placing her slender hands flat against the weather roughened wood of the bench as she leaned forward to look him in the eye. “Did you ever fight Funny Faces in Nibelheim?”
Nanaki hesitantly nodded. “Why yes, we fought them together, in the mansion.” He inclined his head toward the foreboding mansion behind her. “You were with me...and Cloud…”
“So we did fight them together!” Her face suddenly erupted into the brightest sunshine.
“Yes, and later…we fought them with Vincent.”
The smile faded only slightly as her brow wrinkled in perplexity. “Who’s Vincent?”
Nanaki’s face fell as sorrow welled in his heart. “…A friend…”
Aeris reached out to touch one soft ear. “You’ve grown sad. This Vincent…he makes you sad?”
Nanaki looked away from the empathy in her sorrowful eyes, even as he wondered that his dream Aeris didn’t seem to remember Vincent either. His averted gaze found the strange white and silver bird perched on the edge of the water tower, predatory obsidian eyes focused on him. The beast shivered and looked to the ground beneath his paws. “Vincent…he is lost...”
“It isn’t over, Nanaki.”
Startled at the gravity in her voice more so than her words, the red beast raised his head. Aeris had gone. The bench had gone. Nibelheim had gone. He exploded to all fours at sight of the barren stone palisade that rose unending into the sky, as soulless as the slate sky above, as lonely as the wind that howled mournfully through the snow trimmed crevasses.
An imperious screech tore through the wail of the wind, and Nanaki lifted his eyes overhead, somehow already knowing what he would find. The strange white and silver bird rode the turbulent air; his wings outspread, almost seeming to float on the keen edge of the bitterly cold gale.
“Be ready, Nanaki, son of Seto, grandson of Bugenhagen, Protector of Cosmo Canyon.” The commanding words touched his ears from behind. He whirled around to find her there, frightening close to the edge of a precipice, the wind whipping her long tresses around her body and into her face, ripping the loose blouse and full skirt against her steadfast frame.
Half-crouched as though stalking deadly prey, he cautiously moved up beside her to see the tempestuous sea shattering into white spray against the jagged rocks far below. His heart leapt into his throat. “Come away from here, Aeris!” he cried out in alarm. She made no sign that she’d heard him.
Ponderously, she stretched out her arm before her, one slender finger pointing out across the endless sea. “Your destiny waits for you there, Nanaki. Across the sea.”
He looked up into her serene face. “Where? What place are you talking about?”
“Zafallah?!” He tore his eyes away from her to squint out across the sea as though if he stared hard enough he might see what she saw.
“Someone’s coming. I must go.”
Alarmed, Nanaki looked around, only to see her walking away, holding the bird close to her, perched on her wrist. He loped after her. “Wait Aeris! I want to ask you about Zafallah! Don’t leave yet!”
But she had already vanished, as though she’d turned into a breath of wind and blown away, along with her strange avian companion, leaving him standing high above the stormy sea on a narrow ledge, all alone.
“It’s over here.” Derry pointed toward the fuel tank as Barrett followed closely behind, his chocolate eyes filled with amusement. He knew quite well why the latest addition to their party didn’t wake Red himself.
Derry circled the tank and stopped approximately ten feet away, right where he could see the whole of the sleeping beast but would still have a small head start if he needed to run. He hoped the predatory looking animal would be obedient to the huge man, who, now that he really looked at him, was pretty scary looking too. Derry eyeballed the pincer attachment at the end of the man’s right arm. Shifting nervously in place, he crossed his arms and watched as the big man dropped to one knee to shake the animal awake.
“Red! Wake up!” He growled insistently. The beast didn’t so much as twitch. Barrett didn’t like that. Red usually roused at the slightest whisper of a sound. He shoved harder against his shoulder and raised his voice. “Come on, Red! Wake up! Nanaki!”
Suddenly, the beast reared his head, the movement startling the tense Derry. Nanaki gazed at Barrett in a daze, the one golden eye slowly blinking. “Come on, Red, “ Barrett insisted. “We gotta go. What’s the matter with you? We’ve all been looking everywhere for you.”
Nanaki closed his one good eye for a moment, and shook his head. “I…just had the strangest…dream…” He said softly.
Bewildered, Derry looked from Barrett to the beast and back again. He surely didn’t hear what he thought he did.
“What about?” Barrett asked, wrinkling his brow in a frown. He wanted to get a move on, but anything that bothered Nanaki bothered him.
“I dreamed about Aeris, and she told me…”
His mouth agape, blue eyes thunderstruck, Derry unconsciously moved forward to stand just behind the kneeling Barrett. Nanaki instantly stopped talking, turning his golden eye on the hovering young man. “Never mind,” Nanaki said flatly, and rolled to his feet. Barrett glanced over his shoulder at the young man, noting the reason for Nanaki’s reticence.
“Okay, sure. Tell me later. We gotta go. Shoulda left a long time ago.” The big man rose easily to his feet.
“I’m sorry.” Nanaki guiltily ducked his head as he came to Barrett’s side, his beaded locks swaying alongside his jowls “I couldn’t be much help…and I didn’t get much sleep last night….and I kept getting in everyone’s way…”
“It’s okay, Red,” Barrett interrupted him. “Let’s just go. Cid’s about to blow a gasket.”
Derry fell into step with the two of them as they walked quickly across the tarmac, his long pale blonde hair fluttering behind him as he hurried along. He almost stumbled as he caught the toe of his shoe on a crack. He simply couldn’t take his eyes off the mysterious talking beast called Red.
Nanaki noticed his rapt interest. He tilted his head in curiosity. “I’m Nanaki,” He offered. “These guys mostly call me Red.”
Derry dumbly nodded his head.
“What’s your name?” Nanaki inquired politely.
“Er…Derrick…” Suddenly remembering the conversation with Cid and realizing that the beast had probably battled with his Uncle Freddy, and might even have eaten him, he quickly amended his self-introduction. “…Ah…Derry…I’m...ah…flying a Gelnika for Captain Highwind.”
Nanaki looked him over, his expression noncommittal. “Can you fly it?”
Derry shrugged nonchalantly. “Sure.”
He hoped so anyway. With no desire to think about it until he had to, Derry stuck his hands in his back pockets as he decided to take the leap. “You know, I’ve never seen anything…er…anyone like you before.”
“I’m not surprised.” Nanaki idly replied as he took note of the increased activity around the planes. Apparently, they’d been spotted.
“That’s cuz he’s the last of his kind,” Barrett remarked gruffly.
“Huh?” Derry said in surprise.
Barrett turned to glare at him. “Weren’t you listenin’? I said that he’s the ‘last of his kind’. That’s why you ain’t seen anything like ‘im before.”
“Oh…right…” Derry turned his speculative gaze back to the red beast.
“So…did you…have you always been able to…talk?”
“All my life.” Nanaki bared his teeth in what might have been a smile, but Derry wasn’t sure.
A snuffling growl of a sound emanated from the beast’s throat, startling Derry until he realized that the beast was chuckling at him. Derry smiled, feeling much relieved.
At least the beast named Nanaki and called Red had a sense of humor. He probably didn’t have to worry about being eaten by him after all. Probably.
What did he eat anyway? He didn’t look like a vegetarian.
Cloud softly closed the door behind him and walked hesitantly into the center of the room, his soft footfalls muted against the thick carpet, his eyes frozen on the hunched back of the man who stood beside the table, his arms tightly folded around himself as though he were cold.
Cloud’s eyes reluctantly traveled to the exposed face of the man on the table. He already knew what he would find. He knew the face of the man beneath the sheet would wear the same veil of lifelessness that the slack faces in the hundreds of photographs outside did. The woman doctor’s eyes had told him that. So did this man’s pain, manifested in his burdened posture, fueling the heavy silence in the decadent room. Cloud even knew whose face he would see, but in the end, he wasn’t prepared for the recognition and shock that slammed through him.
Hesitantly, he took a step forward, unconsciously extending a hand out.
The man at the table didn’t respond nor did he move a single muscle, much less turn his head to acknowledge the warrior’s presence. Cloud might as well not even be in the room. Suddenly, Cloud felt like an intruder, as though he’d accidentally walked in on something that he shouldn’t have, and he didn’t want to be there anymore. He’d already found what he’d been seeking. For the rest, he could wait. Dropping his hand, he started to turn away with the intent to simply retreat and leave him to his private thoughts, but the silent man finally spoke, and the deadness in his voice caused Cloud to pause.
“Why? Why did he do it, Cloud?”
At first Cloud thought he was referring to the actions of the deranged shooter outside, but then he realized he wasn’t.
“What did he do, Reeve?” He asked carefully. He asked, but in reality, he already knew.
“…We met in college, you know…” Reeve remarked, almost in an offhand fashion. The leadenness of his tone gave lie to any casualness the remarks might have conveyed. “We went to work for Shinra within weeks of each other…worked in the same department…”
Cloud shifted uneasily in place. He didn’t know what to say, so he just kept his mouth shut. What could he say?
“How will I tell Melissa? ”
Cloud stared at the back of Reeve’s head as though he might see the thoughts churning inside. “Is that his wife?” He finally asked.
Reeve lifted his shoulders in a tight shrug. “They aren’t married anymore. Haven’t been for a long time.” A bitter laugh broke from his mouth. “You know, the company does that to you…takes so much of you that you’ve nothing left to give…anyone else…”
The warrior silently nodded, unable to find any words that he felt would be adequate.
“…He’s got a son too…can’t remember how old…nine or ten by now…probably. I’ve been so damn busy, I’ve…lost track.” With a choking cough, Reeve dropped his face into a trembling hand. “I…I…don’t even know where she is to tell her…”
Swallowing hard, Cloud came a step closer. “I’m sure someone…knows where…she…is…” He shook his head in amazement at the lameness of his own words. He knew that wasn’t what was going through the man’s mind. He knew quite well that Reeve was blaming himself for his friend’s sacrifice. He knew, because he’d been there. And it was a hard place to be. So hard that his messed up mind had conveniently forgotten. Cloud steeled his resolve and came back to Reeve’s first question.
“Reeve…you’ll never know why he did it…most likely he meant to save you both…”
“No….no…he was safe…” Squeezing his eyes tightly shut against the tears that tried to start again, Reeve wearily shook his head as the memory replayed in his mind for the hundredth time, the duly recorded mental tape that he couldn’t shut off.
…the gunfire…without warning…the guard going down…the only person standing between him and the gun barrel…the poor man dropped like a load of bricks…and there he was…standing in the open…stunned into immobility as the shooter shouted down…Shinra bastards…yeah…he was one of those all right…
“…He was standing right behind me...right by the door…”
…Gunfire exploded all around him…the guards shooting back…he couldn’t think…he couldn’t move…he hardly felt the hands that snatched him back out of harm’s way…slinging him through the door to skid across the floor on his side…
“…He was in the clear…he would have been okay…”
…But he wasn’t…he was sprawled on the floor at Reeve’s feet where he’d fallen when the bullets had taken him…his blood splattered everywhere…pooling around them both as, cheek to the floor, Jack blinked in surprised bewilderment…his own voice shouting Jack’s name…but maybe only in his mind after all…as Jack didn’t seem to hear him…then the guards dragged them both deeper inside…
“…He should have left me…he would have made it…”
“And you would have died,” Cloud pointed out flatly.
Reeve bowed his head. “Better that way, I think.”
“Jack didn’t seem like the sort of man who leaves his friends behind,” Cloud remarked quietly.
Reeve didn’t respond, so Cloud pressed on.
“You would have done the same in his shoes.”
Another bitter laugh escaped his strangled throat. “I doubt that.”
“I don’t,” Cloud countered curtly. “Not for a second.”
For the first time since Cloud had entered the room, Reeve turned his head, bringing his face into profile.
“You’re giving me much more credit than I deserve, Cloud. I’m a coward. Inside and out.
Stubbornly, Cloud folded his arms. “I don’t agree.” The warrior didn’t miss the irony. Just a few days past, he’d threatened Reeve with death, trusting him so little that he thought he might double-cross him, and now, he was defending the man to himself.
“I don’t see how you can disagree. I am a coward. I’m the coward that didn’t stop the destruction of Sector 7. Instead, I went home and drank myself into oblivion. I’m the coward that hid behind a silly robot cat, playing both sides against the middle, unable to fight my own battles, the clown behind the controls.” Reeve’s eyelids drifted shut as he paused for a long moment in pained reverie. “And I’m the coward who didn’t have the guts to speak up to President Shinra, when I found out, didn’t have the balls to stand up and say, ‘She’s my wife, and I’m responsible for her. I’m the one. Not you.’ If I had done that, if I had just told him, demanded what was my right, then, I’d have known then. I’d have known my wife was not in that goddamned casket.” His voice rose the longer he spoke until his last words cracked apart beneath his own admission, a tempestuous wave building in momentum to shatter against the unyielding surface of a truth faced for the first time.
A few months back, Cloud wouldn’t have known what this whole thing was about, but after all he’d been through, he knew only too well.
“Look Reeve, there’s no point in second guessing your whole life. You can’t change the past. You just have to keep on goin’. You never forget, but you move on.”
“Forget?” Reeve choked. “It will haunt me.”
Cloud nodded slowly. “Yes, it will. But you use it. To keep going in the right direction. You don’t let your friend’s sacrifice be in vain.”
Reeve let out a shaky breath. “You’re not just talking about Jack, are you? You’re talking about Aeris too.”
“Actually…I was thinking about…Zack, but yes…Aeris too. Aeris didn’t want to…die…either. She had plans…but she did die…and maybe she had to…and maybe she even knew…deep down. In the end, maybe it was meant to be, because I think it was the only reason things turned out right…not for her…or even for me really…but for everybody…the whole planet. And Zack…he just wanted to be free…he meant to live…and didn’t. He probably would have made it too, if he’d left me behind. But he didn’t leave me. He wasn’t capable of leaving me. And when he died, I didn’t remember. My mind was too far gone. But somehow, he gave me his strength, so I could go on. Otherwise, I think I would have just laid there and died right beside him.
“Look Reeve, I’m not any good at words, and I’m not pretending to know everything, because I don’t, but everybody makes mistakes. Everybody gets caught up in a cage at some time, a cage that’s not so easy to get out of. Sometimes it’s hard to change the way things are, or even the way you think, especially when you can’t see the way out. Someone once told me that most people will spend their whole lives living a lie, because believing a lie is easier than facing a truth that means you have to do something, and most people are too comfortable or too afraid to take the risk. So a lie is easier to live, even if it means you never make anything right.
“…Sounds like something Valentine might say,” Reeve murmured.
Cloud smiled wryly. “Actually, he said it better. He certainly would have said it better just now. He’s good at words. So good, I sometimes can’t understand him.”
“...He can be quite eloquent at times…but you’ve said it well enough…”
Feeling discomfited at having spoken so much, perhaps even revealing too much of himself, Cloud nervously swept a hand through his spiky hair. “Look Reeve, like I said, I’m not good at this, I just talk around in circles or…whatever. But if Tifa were here, she’d say, ‘Be strong, Reeve.’ And maybe that’s all I’m trying to say. Just be strong. Don’t fold. You can’t lose faith in yourself now.”
Reeve stood silently for so long that Cloud felt maybe he’d finally said too much, outstayed his welcome, so to speak. “Ah…look, Reeve. I’m going to go check on Andy. I’ll just leave you alone.” Without waiting for an answer, Cloud turned away. He had his hand on the doorknob when Reeve finally spoke.
“Please wait, Cloud. I’ll come with you.”
Cloud withdrew his hand from the knob and turned his head to watch as Reeve leaned slightly to touch a hand to Jack’s cheek. The executive bent his head and spoke to him in a low whisper, the last few words of which Cloud could just barely hear. ‘Goodbye, Jack. You were the better friend in the end, I think. Sleep well, my friend’. Then, Reeve straightened and carefully drew the white sheet over Jack’s still face before he finally turned completely around to directly meet Cloud’s careful gaze for the first time since the warrior had entered the room.
Reeve suddenly lifted his chin. “I’ve no intention of folding, Cloud. I’ve too much to set right. Probably so much that it will require every minute of my life to make proper reparation.”
Cloud inclined his head toward the door. “I guess we better get going, then. Before we run out of time.”
The tiniest of smiles tipped the corners of Reeve’s mouth as he crossed to join Cloud at the door. “Yes, we better.” Then the trace of humor vanished just as quickly as it came. “Especially as I’ve made a terrible mistake that I now plan to take immediate measures to reverse.”
Cloud’s mako-enhanced gaze sharpened on the executive’s suddenly determined face. “And what is that?”
Cloud mulled the executive’s statement over as Reeve opened the door and brushed past him. The warrior wrinkled his brow in bewilderment as he followed Reeve out. Then it hit him. He knew what error Reeve meant to undo. “Uh oh,” Cloud muttered under his breath as he decided that this time Reeve might be biting off more than he could chew.
On the other side of the door, Coakley awkwardly waited, and he came to attention at the first sight of Reeve.
Reeve’s eyes immediately fell to the large bloodstain that decorated the right shoulder of the young soldier’s uniform. “Are you alright, Andy?” he asked skeptically.
“Sure, Mr. Alexander. The doc fixed me up.”
“Are you sure you’re up to continuing? If not, I’ll certainly relieve you of duty. You’ve well earned the rest.”
“Sir, I want to stay.” Coakley replied stiffly.
“Then you will stay.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Thank you, Andy.”
Reeve turned to the huddled group of bodyguards standing to the side. “Is the situation under control? Can we leave?”
One of them stepped forward. “Yes sir. The shooter was taken into custody.”
“Do we know anything about what happened here?”
“Well sir, the shooter turned out to be Lt. Webster.”
“A Shinra officer?!” Reeve exclaimed in astonishment.
“Yes sir. He’d been off duty. Apparently, he’s been looking for his family for days with no luck. The consensus seems to be that he just snapped. He certainly appears to be out of his head. Dr. Minkin went with the soldiers to supervise.”
Reeve shook his head sadly. “…Where will it ever end…” he muttered.
“Nothing.” Reeve glanced around the room. He had wanted to express his gratitude to the two doctors, but Dr. Minkin had left, and he didn’t see Frances. Then he realized that she’d probably returned to her work, beginning with the soldier who had fallen outside. And when she finished with him, she would return to Jack. She had plenty to do, and so did he.
Reeve suddenly moved, making a smart left turn to navigate the outer rim of photograph-decorated partitions. “Come on,” he shot over his shoulder. “I’ve got a lot to accomplish today.”
Cloud almost laughed as the guards scrambled after the executive. After all, they were supposed to be in front. Coakley followed at a more measured pace, and Cloud took a couple of long steps to catch up with him. Falling into step with him, he reached over his shoulder to draw his sword. Coakley noticed his action, but didn’t question it. The soldier figured the Avalanche warrior meant to be prepared. He certainly didn’t see the warrior lay the blade flat against his shoulder and touch a finger to the glowing green orb set into the blade. However, he did notice when the sparkling mist of iridescent light settled around him with the most curious sensation. And he noticed when the burning pain of his wound ebbed away along with the stiffness in his shoulder.
Wide-eyed, he darted a look at the warrior in time to see him settle the sword to his back, a small smile on his lips.
“Hey, thanks man,” Coakley smiled his gratitude.
Cloud merely shrugged. “No problem.”
Coakley decided then and there that, regardless of the terrible things he’d heard about Cloud Strife, and he’d heard plenty, the guy was a-okay in his books. Thank the stars, the man seemed to be on their side, whatever side that was. He really wasn’t sure anymore. But he did know that, for the first time in his Shinra career, he felt like he was working on the side of something good, and that was really all that mattered.
“You!” Cid pointed at the second Gelnika. “Ride with him!”
“What?!” Yuffie glared at him in outrage. “I am not riding with that guy! He probably can’t even fly that brick! He’ll probably crash right into the sea!”
“You can swim can’t ya?” Cid puffed on his cigarette as he turned his back on her and stalked away.
“Hey, I’m the one that found the guy for ya!” She called after him.
“Then you’re the one that can keep an eye on him for me!” Cid called back over his shoulder.
“But…but…I wanna ride with you…” she murmured under her breath. Her stomach churned with fear at the thought of flying with Derrick Heidegger.
“Don’t worry about it, Yuffie. I’ll ride with you.”
Yuffie looked around at Nanaki who sat on his haunches a few feet back. “You will?” she asked eagerly. “But aren’t you afraid of crashing?”
Nanaki tilted his head in thought. “Well, we’ll be flying over water. The plane floats too, right?”
“Hey, you’re right!” She slapped her own forehead. “Why didn’t I think of that? You’re the smartest guy I know, Red.”
Nanaki rose to his feet and set off for the second plane. Yuffie skipped to catch up. He looked up at her with one mischievous eye. “Yes, and if he does manage to sink the plane, at least we’ll go down together.”
Yuffie narrowed her black eyes on his smug face. “…And you’re so reassuring too…”
Nanaki bared his teeth in a smile.
Reno set the crate on the desktop and dropped down beside it. Digging around, he dragged out the control glove and turned it over in his hands. “So…anyone know how this junk works?”
“Why?” Elena smirked at him from the doorway. “Are you going to operate Mr. Spy Cat?”
“Hmm…no…I was thinking I might communicate with these folks out on the farm. Maybe they know what Kendo was after.”
“Well, I don’t know anything about it,” she sniffed.
“Why don’t you go see what happened to Strife then,” Reno suggested.
“Didn’t you say he was just going downstairs to take a radio message? He’s been absent a long while just for that.”
“So? He’ll be back sooner or later.”
Reno ran a fingertip over one engraved icon after another on the narrow control interface. After a couple of minutes, he looked up to find Elena still standing beside the door, watching him. He sighed loudly. “I’m beginning to detect a certain level of deterioration in this Turk organization. Why is that, Elena?”
“Well, I…” She straightened away from the doorframe and noted that every eye in the room had landed on her, including the little girl’s wide eyes. Despite the flush in her face, she lifted her chin to an imperious angle. “I can only imagine why you’d think that, Reno. I’ve read that organizational rot usually starts at the top.” That said, she turned on heel and vanished into the hallway.
Reno studied the empty doorway for several seconds as he listened to the angry tap of Elena’s hard heels fade down the corridor, and then he lifted his eyes to the end of the desk to encounter Rude’s expressionless face and fathomless shades. He shrugged his incomprehension of Elena’s behavior as well as the confusing device, and he offered the control glove to the stolid Turk. “Here Rude. Figure this thing out.”
Wordlessly, Rude unfolded his arms and took the glove from Reno’s hand, immediately turning his attention to a thorough examination of the device.
Reno then satisfied himself with staring across the room at Caitlin, who returned his steady gaze full force once she noticed his narrow-eyed regard.
Almost a full minute elapsed before Caitlin finally faltered and, under the guise of renewed interest in Rachel’s latest drawing, drew her eyes away. When she looked back up a couple of minutes later, he was still staring, and had propped his chin on his hand by that time to make his staring more comfortable.
“Do you have a problem with me, Reno?” she inquired sweetly.
Unblinking, he slowly shook his head. “Not at all,” he replied in his silky drawl.
Caitlin’s eyes fell away again as she searched her mind for a suitable reply, but as it turned out, she didn’t need one. Rude chose that moment to hand Reno the VR headset, and the redheaded Turk promptly donned the equipment, adjusting the mouthpiece with two fingers and flipping up the VR lenses with his other hand.
Caitlin watched him until he started speaking into the tiny microphone, trying to raise someone at the farm. At that point, she shut out his voice, her mind drifting inexorably into the strange exchange that had just passed between them. She knew exactly what that had been about, and admiration for her beauty had nothing to do with it. She knew it meant trouble later. She and Reno were bound on course for a head on collision. Reno had just made it very clear with his unceasing, knowing stare that he knew, or at the very least, suspected her of hiding something, and he meant to find out what.
Rachel suddenly looked up at her. “Can I show Reno now?” she whispered loudly.
Caitlin shook her head and smiled widely at the girl’s seeming attachment to the redheaded Turk. She’d lost count of how many times the girl had asked her a question with the word ‘Reno’ in it. “Hmm…better wait. He looks pretty busy, don’t you think?” Rachel bobbed her head. “Uh huh.”
Reno lifted his head to look at Rude, his eyes skimming across the two faces watching him as he swept his gaze across the room. At the smiles on both their faces, he did a double take, frowning as he brought his gaze back to them. At his annoyed look, Rachel just smiled wider, and Caitlin actually chuckled.
Pointedly, he dismissed them and looked up at Rude. “Is this thing even transmitting?” he asked irritably. Rude leaned down and pointed out the output meter. Reno watched the electronic graph as he again spoke into the mike. “Hullo? Anybody out there? Anybody home? Any warm bodies out there in M.E.O.W. radio land?” Reno watched the colorful red and green bars dance back and forth across the meter face. Clearly, he was sending out signal, but he didn’t know if his words were landing anywhere but dead air.
“Anyway to know if the signal’s getting through to the cat?” Reno asked hopefully.
Rude shrugged. “Might be, but I haven’t found it.”
“Cat could even be dead,” he remarked.
“Could be,” Rude readily agreed.
“I should keep trying though. Someone might fix it.”
“…If anyone knows how.”
“Wonder what those people are doing now,” the redheaded Turk commented idly.
“Don’t know,” Rude replied.
Reno suddenly shot a hard look toward the two females sitting side by side on the box across the room, but they had apparently lost interest in him and returned to their business, whatever it was.
With a heavy sigh of boredom, he picked up his cigarette case and turned his gaze toward the door. Elena sure was taking her sweet time. He stared motionless at the doorway for a few minutes, expecting her to appear. Finally, he withdrew a cigarette and lit it. He returned his gaze to the empty doorway. He tapped the butt of the cigarette against pursed lips as he mentally calculated how long she’d been gone. He’d give her a few more minutes, until he finished his cigarette anyway. Then he was going to look for her, and for her own sake, she’d better not be jerking him around.
He smiled coolly at the thought that she might be, and taking a long drag off his cigarette, he returned to his transmitting, but this time, he decided to sing into the mouthpiece.
999 bottles of beer on the wall…
Reno’s smile widened at Rude’s protracted groan.
998 bottles of beer on the wall…
Fighting not to succumb to the heavy pall of depression that hung over the whole room, Avian sat on the edge of the overstuffed chair with one hand pressed to his roiling stomach and the other idly tugging Soldier’s ear. For his part, the dog leaned heavily against the young man’s leg as they both watched Jae work. The model of medical efficiency, she had Grandma Lizbet stretched out on the couch with her snowy head propped on a pillow and her swollen feet planted on a stack of a few more. Already having checked out every other part of her, Jae now carefully felt the old woman’s darkly bruised neck with gentle fingers.
Surprisingly, the old woman remained quiet during the entire procedure, but then she seemed not to really be aware of Jae. Her teary eyes had remained on Avian the entire time. She winced when Jae touched the tender finger marks her assailant had left, and Lizbet chose that moment to speak as though the pain had reminded her.
“Avian,” she croaked. “You have to go.”
“Ssssh, Mom,” Jae admonished. “Lie still.”
Avian found his Grandma’s terrified eyes. “Where do you want me to go, Grandma?”
“Be quiet, Avian,” Jae commanded without looking up. “We’ll talk about it when I’m done.”
“Avian! Go! They’re coming for you!” Lizbet screeched in terror.
“Who are they, Grandma?” Avian pleaded in bewilderment. “What do they want?”
Jae swiveled her head and pinned him with stony gray eyes. “Avian, leave the room,” she ordered. Her tone told him she wasn’t going to waste time arguing with him, and he knew she could physically remove him if she wanted. He’d been about to go anyway, for his Grandma’s sake. His presence only seemed to be adding to her distress.
“Fine,” he muttered, mostly in response to Jae’s imperious tone. He jumped to his feet and quietly crossed the room, whistling once for his dog as he entered the hallway. He stopped at the stairway, thinking he might go to his room, but he immediately decided that he didn’t want to be anywhere all alone right now. He looked the other way, toward the kitchen. He realized that he might as well go clean up the mess on the floor, because he’d wind up having to do it anyway, one way or another.
He’d almost reached the doorway when a crunching sound brought him to a breathless halt just outside the kitchen threshold. Unconcerned, Soldier sailed past him, tail wagging, and trotted over to promptly sniff every inch of the crumpled robot cat that rested against the wide baseboard. Avian suddenly remembered that Jae had dispatched Jerol to the kitchen to fix some ice for Grandma’s neck. That had been awhile. Maybe the airship officer wouldn’t have to worry about being the object of Jae’s scathing censure, since he was an outsider, but he wouldn’t bet on it. Jae wasn’t shy about her opinions nor was she casual about her orders.
Jerol looked up from the sink when Avian stepped through the door, but Avian didn’t even note Jerol’s presence. The pristine kitchen floor had completely seized his immediate attention.
“Wow, you cleaned the floor,” he marveled aloud. “Thank you!”
Jerol pushed his officer’s cap back off his forehead with one frozen finger. “I thought it might be easier for me to do it.”
“I think you’re right,” Avian agreed. He knew he was right. Avian had already consigned himself to the fact that the floor would become a lot messier before it got much cleaner, with him doing it anyway. Just the memory of the floor was about to make him gag.
“Hey, what happened to that ice?” Jae’s irritated, but still distant, voice floated through the kitchen doorway.
“Er…Avian, how about helping me with this? I need three hands here.”
Avian called back, “Technical difficulties, Aunt Jae! Hang on a minute!” The lack of response told Avian that his aunt was suitably mollified, for sixty seconds anyway. He hurried to Jerol’s side and grabbed the rubber hot water bottle and the funnel Jerol had been wrangling with. Both hands now free, Jerol quickly dumped the crushed ice down the funnel into the bottle. Then he took it from Avian to top off with water and cap as the lad intently watched. Finished, the officer tried to hand it to him.
“Oh no.” Avian held up a hand in protest. “I’ve been exiled from the sitting room. You’ll have to go. Sorry.”
Jerol shrugged. “I don’t mind.” He took the rubber bottle full of icy water into one hand, and he lifted the ornate dagger from the countertop with the other. He held it out hilt end up to Avian. “Here’s your knife.”
Avian stared at it transfixed, with a hint of horror in his eyes, as though the laughing dragon might slither off the hilt and onto his arm if he touched it, and sink its sharp teeth into his wildly throbbing pulse. With some effort, he managed to tear his intent gaze away from the hollow materia slot that marked the dragon’s eye and raise his head to look at Jerol’s inquisitive face.
“I don’t want it,” Avian stated shakily.
Jerol’s eyes hardened. “Take it, and find a sheath for it. Then wear it and keep it close. You’re going to need it.”
“So you think…” Avian started.
“I think that man came here for a reason, and I think someone just like him will be back. You have to be able to protect your people, Avian. And yourself.”
Woodenly, Avian reached out and closed his numb fingers around the dragon’s body. When Jerol thought he had attained a sufficient grip on the knife, he released the blade and headed for the door with the ice bottle. He turned back to see Avian holding the knife in roughly the same position he’d grasped it, staring wide-eyed.
“Do what I said, Avian. Don’t kid yourself. Your Grandma would be dead now if not for you and your dragon knife.”
Of course, Avian knew Lt. Jerol was right. If not for the knife, they would all be dead right now. Still, he just couldn’t get his mind around the enormity of the act. He’d actually killed a man. Something he’d done many times in his imagination as a swashbuckling pirate or a dungeon crawling treasure hunter or a virtuous seeker of justice against Midgar street gangs. He didn’t think he could go back to his fantasies now. Not with that memory stuck in his mind.
Carefully, he slid the knife into the deep pocket of his woven vest and turned at the sound of his dog’s playful snarl. Soldier had his jaws latched around the neck of the robot cat and was in the process of dragging the limp body toward the door, giving the cat a good shake every couple of feet.
“Soldier, put him down!” Avian barked. Startled, the dog dropped the cat beside the table and dashed for the door with his tail tucked between his hind legs, rolling apprehensive eyes at Avian the whole way.
Avian walked over and bent to gather the mauled cat into his hands, listening to to the frantic click of Soldier’s claws as he escaped down the hall. He lifted the cat to look squarely into his dead golden eyes. “Cait Sith, you’d think I beat that dog everyday, the way he acts. But I’m tellin’ ya, I don’t. I swear.” The cat didn’t respond. Avian frowned. “You’re not dead, are you? What did that guy do to you, anyway?”
Gingerly, Avian laid the robotic cat out on the table and arranged his lifeless, red mittened hands beside him. “I guess if you’re dead, it won’t hurt to operate, eh?” The cat didn’t move. Avian shifted his assessing gaze to the motionless Mog in the far corner of the kitchen where Jerol had obviously shoved him. “Any arguments Mr. Mog?” The mog didn’t reply. “No? Guess there’s no argument then. I’ll be right back with my tools.” Unblinking, Cait Sith stared solemnly at the light fixture overhead.
Yuffie nervously eyed Derry as he visually marked the controls for the fourth time, muttering under his breath as his fingers touched each one. “Engine switch 1…engine switch 2…engine switch 3…flaps…brakes…altimeter…”
She looked over her shoulder at Nanaki, only to find him looking rather uncertain himself. Impulsively, she grabbed the would-be pilot’s frantic hand in her fingers. He turned startled blue eyes on her face, and she let him go. “Hey, you can fly right?”
“Well, you seem pretty nervous, and you’re making me pretty nervous with all this nervousness. So if you can fly the thing, then quit already. If you can’t, then tell me so I can get off.”
Derry took a deep breath and tugged a wide rubber band from around his wrist. Nodding, mostly to assure himself, he deftly gathered his hair in both hands and pulled the long, pale tresses into a loose ponytail. “Yeah, sure. I can fly it. It’s just been awhile. I just wanna make sure I remember where everything is located.”
“How long ago are we talkin’ here?”
“Ah…couple of years…” He dragged the bulky headphones over his ears and looked frantically for a place to plug then in.
Yuffie slumped down into her seat. “I’m starting to feel really sick…” she moaned.
Derry’s face brightened as he found the communications panel. “There it is.”
“Do you have your bucket, Yuffie?” Nanaki asked anxiously.
“Captain Highwind, you there? Captain Highwind? Damn, it’s dead.” Yuffie jumped in her seat as Derry suddenly smashed the heel of his hand against the panel.
“What did you do?” Her black eyes grew as round as saucers.
“Hey, just gettin’ reacquainted. I just remembered how stubborn this girl could be.”
“Just don’t break her, okay?”
Derry ignored the white-faced Yuffie. “Captain Highwind, you there?”
The expected voice finally roared into his ear. “About time. Where in the hell ya been, kid?”
“Had some radio trouble.”
“Well, we’ve wasted enough time. Get those engines fired up, and then follow me. Radio goes again, don’t worry about it. Just stay on my tail.”
One by one, Derry flipped the engine switches and listened closely as each one roared smoothly into life. “Engines sound good.”
Yuffie listened intently. “How can you tell? They all sound the same to me.”
“Looks like Cid’s rolling,” Nanaki commented from the back seat as he watched the plane move to taxi.
“That means we’re up next.” Derry grinned over at the petrified ninja girl. “Don’t like to fly, princess?”
“Just shut up and fly the plane,” she snapped back.
“I’ll do my best,” he chuckled. “I live to serve.”
He slowly eased off the brakes, and the plane moved ponderously into motion.
“Here we go.”
Yuffie’s stomach leapt into her throat as she watched the first Gelnika roar off the edge and drop heavily out of sight. Suddenly overwhelmed by the memory of her last Gelnika takeoff, she clapped her hands over her eyes. “Just tell me when it’s over.”
Reno had long ago finished his cigarette. He’d long ago finished his songs and his games and his attempts at transmission. And he’d long ago given up the last of his patience. Elena had been gone way too damn long, and he intended to find out why.
His glittering eyes on the door, his jaw set in dogged determination, he methodically returned his cigarette case and lighter to his pockets, double checked that he had his wire, replaced his sunglasses on his head and shoved his collapsed mag rod into a back pocket. Then he dragged the black cotton shirt that Elena had brought him and settled it into place over his t-shirt with a sharp tug. Leaving the shirt unbuttoned and the tails loose, he picked up his gun and checked the newly acquired load with cool efficiency. With one hand, he slid the gun beneath his shirttail to jam the barrel into his waistband at his spine.
He held out a hand toward Rude, and the big Turk dropped two extra loaded clips into Reno’s hand. He dropped them into his shirt pocket. “I’ll be back,” he promised in a chilly voice. Knocking his shades down over his eyes with one tap of a finger, he strolled across the room and out the door without a backward look.
The plane roared off the high platform and promptly swooped sideways toward the sea. Derry had expected the initial dive. All Gelnika takeoffs from Junon started the same way. However, the plane apparently wanted to favor the left wing, and Derry couldn’t have that.
“You need to get that wing up, Heidegger…” Cid warned in his ear.
“I know…I know…”
Almost without thinking, Derry had already made the adjustment, but he realized immediately that he’d overcompensated too much in trying to account for the drift as the plane rocked the other way.
“No…no…no…” he told her softly. “Down the middle, girl…”
Slowly, the lumbering plane leveled as though she’d responded to his encouraging voice. Unfortunately, she seemed bent on going for a swim in the drink despite the pilot’s attempt to point her snubby nose at the sky. He insisted and she shuddered in protest.
Derry gritted his teeth as he fought the sluggish plane for control, and ever so slowly, she began to respond, although her shaking grew much more pronounced. A high-pitched keening came to his ears, and he wondered at the unfamiliar sound, until he realized that the girl huddled in the seat next to him was creating it.
“Please…don’t…do…that…” he pleaded. But she was of no mind to hear him, much less to obey.
“Cap, I don’t think he’s gonna pull it out in time” Jimmie said tensely.
“Tend to yer own knittin’, Jimmie,” Cid replied testily.
“But he’s runnin’ outta room fast here…”
“Cut the chatter, James!” Cid snapped.
The Captain looked over to meet Barrett’s deeply concerned gaze. He couldn’t answer the question there. He didn’t want to think about the answer. Besides, the kid had to make it. He had no choice.
“Come on…girl…come on…you’re a bird…not a fish…” he coaxed in a gentle voice even as his muscles were strained to the limit to hold her true to her mission. She was trying, too. Trying hard, coming up, slowly but surely. But the sea was flying up fast. He knew the old girl was running out of room. He also knew the Captain wouldn’t say anything else. There was nothing he could say. There wasn’t anything Captain Highwind could do. Except wait.
Cid craned his neck to see out the wraparound window. He scanned as far as he could see behind and below, but he didn’t see any sign of the other plane. “Jimmie? Do you see him? Barrett?”
“No, Cid,” Barrett replied, his tone heavy.
“I don’t see him either, Cap,” Jimmie answered hesitantly.
“Well, look again!” Cid bit out. “He’s gotta be there.”
Derry leaned his head back against the seat as the big plane skimmed gracefully just above the surface of the water. So close, he could almost see the fish eyeballing them from beneath the waves. He turned to his head to smile over at the girl who’d curled herself into a ball in her seat with her hands pressed to her face. “You can look now, princess. We’re halfway there.”
She cracked her fingers to reveal one baleful eye. “Where’d you learn to fly?”
He chuckled. “Here and there.”
Yuffie turned in her seat to look out the window, and the sight of the sparkling sea skimming past brought her straight up against her harness. “Did ya have to get so close?!”
Derry shrugged dismissively. “Don’t blame me.”
“If not you, then who?” she demanded.
“Who loaded the plane?”
“Well…Shinra…I guess…” she replied thoughtfully.
“I’m truly amazed at your equanimity under pressure,” Nanaki remarked quietly. “Quite impressive.”
Derry looked curiously over his shoulder at the red beast who still sat inside his seat harness on his haunches, his body pressed into the seat back.
“Well, Red, it’s like my Dad always said, ‘Cool heads prevail’.”
“Yes, my Grandfather used to say that as well.”
Derry winked at the ashen-faced girl. “You should learn that lesson too, princess.”
She glared back at him. “I come from a long line of hotheads, hotheads with sharp weapons, and you’d do well to remember that.”
“Ah well, I doubt I’ll get outta life alive anyway, so there’s no point in gettin’ all worried about it.”
“Where ya at, kid?” Cid’s voice crackled sharply in Derry’s ear.
“Down here checkin’ out the fish, thinkin’ about puttin’ in a pole, Captain,” he replied cheerfully.
“What the hell?! Get up here! This is an emergency mission! Not a pleasure cruise! We gotta make time!”
“Yes sir, Captain. Be right there.” True to his word, he lifted the great plane away from the sparkling sea.
Cid watched through the window until he saw the cumbersome plane rise up from below to shadow his Gelnika across the sky. Then he faced front to grin at the windscreen. “Knew that boy was a pilot.”
Barrett slumped down in his seat and closed his eyes to take a nap, completely exhausted in the wake of his silent stress. He folded his arms. “Well, I thought he was a dishwasher. Er...and a window cleaner. And a fry cook. And a smelter.” Barrett yawned hugely. “And a piano player. And a butcher…a baker…a candlestick maker…”
“Nope, he’s a pilot. And a crack one, too. Flyin’s in his blood. You mark my words.” Cid reached for a smoke.
“Don’t light that cigarette,” Barrett warned ominously.
“Shit, I might as well quit with you around.”
“Well, I’m not.”
“Fine by me.”
“Mighty fine with me too.”
Elena hurried down the busted sidewalk toward the old Shinra Building. She knew that she’d been gone too long, but her investigation of Cloud had lead her on an ever widening quest, until she’d found herself all the way back at the officer’s mess tent, talking to an assistant to the newly appointed General Sand. Apparently, no one else had a high enough security clearance to be in the know. Which puzzled her to no end, until she’d been made privy to the facts.
Just before she stepped down onto the broken pavement to cross what was left of the street between the old City Hall and the Shinra Building, she checked out the people around the entrance, and her appraising eyes unerringly found him standing at the curb, smoking a cigarette. She was hardly surprised. She’d been gone for close to an hour, and she knew he’d be annoyed. However, she hadn’t really thought he’d come look for her so soon.
She studied him for a long moment, standing there on the opposite curb. Even though he stood in a lazy slouch with one thumb hooked in his jeans pocket, and in street clothes he was certainly not readily identifiable as a Turk, she knew no one in his or her right mind would think him approachable after one look at him. In fact, most people were already giving him a wide berth, including the building sentries who had moved inside the main lobby doors, even though, at the moment, he only had eyes for her. She could sorely feel the weight of his glittering stare, despite the dark shades that hid his eyes from her.
Her pulse jumping wildly, she held up one finger beside her ear, and he rewarded her with a slight nod. Somewhat eased at the grant of a reprieve, she stepped off the curb and crossed the street toward him. He shot the cigarette down to the pavement with a hard flick and a trail of embers. Then he stepped off the curb to meet her, grinding the glowing cigarette butt out beneath the heel of his boot on the way.
They met in the middle of the street, turning sideways to stand only a couple of feet apart. “Report.” Reno instructed lowly. Elena looked around at the large number of people milling up and down the street, many more than the last time she’d passed through here, and some were looking at the pair of them curiously. She moved another step nearer to him, lifting her chin to bring her mouth closer to his ear. He obliged by bending his head close. Unconsciously drawing the overlong sleeves up her arms, she started talking softly, her voice barely above a whisper, relaying her experiences from her discussion with the radioman to every piece of information she’d gleaned along the way to her discussion with General Sand’s assistant. At one point, she folded one arm around her waist as her other hand went into motion, moving in rhythm with her monologue, her face growing more animated the longer she spoke.
His thumbs hooked in his pockets, Reno stayed close. His head lowered, long red bangs falling in his face, he listened intently as he actively watched the passersby on the Shinra side of the street through the lenses of his dark shades, occasionally nodding his understanding, interrupting Elena to pose a question for clarification here and there, his own voice low and casual.
Although the couple stood square in the middle of the street, completely stationary in the flow of foot traffic to and fro, nobody bothered them. Everyone just diverted around them. Anyone other than the most critical observer simply saw a young couple engaged in intimate conversation, oblivious to anyone but each other. Some people smiled at sight of them. Some frowned. Some people shrugged and others rolled their eyes. But no one bothered them or berated them for obstructing the smooth flow of traffic. If anyone had drawn close enough to overhear their conversation, and no one dared, that person would have known the truth. Their words would have given them away.
“Two dead, both taken down outside, during the initial attack.”
“One of the bodyguards and…Jack Wynn.”
“He’s out now.”
“He’s with him.”
“Locked up. Medicated.”
“Reeve and his sidekick.”
“Not sure. Supposedly on the way back.”
“No, they sidetracked to talk to Dr. Minkin first.”
“The old Valencia Medical Center.”
“I…don’t know. I didn’t ask. Do you really think that’s important?”
“Maybe not? Although, you never know unless you ask.”
“They go anywhere else?”
“Er…well…I’d guess Reeve had to clean up at some point. I understand his clothes were soaked with blood.”
“But not his blood.”
Both fell silent, and Reno lifted a hand to stroke the scar on his right cheek as he fell away into deep thought. “He does still have his guard with him.”
Elena nodded silently.
“Let’s go, then.” Reno abruptly turned and stalked away. Elena scrambled after him.
“Where to?” She asked hopefully.
“You mean we’re not doing anything?” Her tone reflected her disappointment.
He leaned close, his low voice gruff in her ear as they walked. “Nope. We’re not. It’s over. It’s random. Unrelated. Reeve’s headed back with Strife in tow. Or vice versa. Under guard. And the military is doing quite an unusually efficient job at keeping the entire incident off the public grapevine. Probably because the psycho was one of them. Usually is, now that I think about it. In fact, we’re not going to say anything about it either. Do you understand, Elena?”
Reno shoved the front door aside and let her pass through in front of him, falling into step beside her as they crossed the crowded lobby to the elevator. “Well, Elena?” he persisted.
“Yes, yes, I understand,” she impatiently replied, waving a hand in his direction as though he were a pesky gnat she could shoo away. Then she thought about it a little harder. She turned a puzzled gaze on his face. “No, no I do not understand. Who isn’t supposed to know?”
“Ssssh.” He pressed a finger to his lips as the elevator door slid open. A couple with six kids streamed off, and Reno counted them as they passed, his mouth silently enunciating the numbers. Not waiting, Elena sidled onto the elevator.
“Hey, don’t you folks know what causes that?” the redheaded Turk called after the young man and woman. Her finger on the ‘open’ button, Elena leaned out and grabbed one bony wrist. “Reno, get in here! Leave those people alone! Good grief!”
Reno allowed her to pull him into the elevator car as the people gathered their children and hurried away, shooting nervous glances over their shoulders at him. “What’s the matter with you?” she hissed at him.
“Come on, Elena, someone’s got to tell them,” Reno reasoned. “Because I really don’t think they know.”
“I should have taken the stairs,” she snapped as the elevator door closed. A foot in the gap stopped the door from closing, and a man shoved it open with an apologetic smile on his face, but as soon as he took one look at Reno who now stood in the dead center of the elevator, his arms folded with a scowl on his thin lips, the smile abruptly vanished from his face, and he let the door go as though the surface had suddenly seared his fingers.
“I can depend on you, right Elena?” Reno continued on a different tack once the doors thumped shut again. “I won’t have to sew your mouth shut? Or cut off your lips? Remove your tongue? Superglue? Dirty socks? What will it take to ensure your silence?”
Elena rolled her eyes at his attempt at humor. Something had certainly put him in high spirits. “I still don’t understand who isn’t supposed to know, Reno.”
“You’re not even supposed to know, Elena.”
“But I knew before you did.”
“You don’t understand, Elena. You don’t know unless I decide that you know. Only then can you know.”
“Reno…are you feeling okay?”
“Well, after…what happened…you know…”
He lifted a shoulder in a dismissive shrug. “Oh sure, I still feel a little…out of sorts…maybe a little tired…but nothing that’ll slow me down. Don’t worry about that. Certainly better than the alternative.”
He turned his head to look at her through the dark shades for a long moment. “Remember, you don’t know anything,” he reminded her.
“I have my reasons.”
“You don’t need to know. Just sit back and watch. The situation is about to get interesting.”
Elena sighed in frustration. “Whatever you say, Reno. You’re the boss.”
“I’m happy you’ve remembered.”
Avian had just scooted his chair in at the table and flipped the small toolbox lid back when he heard the tap of his aunt’s hard-soled shoes traversing the length of the hallway. He slid the small handcrafted wooden box aside and turned to face her. She paused in the doorway and exchanged wary gazes with him for several seconds. She broke eye contact first and sent an admiring look around the kitchen. “Thanks for cleaning the kitchen. You did a good job.”
Avian watched her as she moved into the center of the room. “Wasn’t me. You’ll have to thank Jerol.”
“Oh, I see. I will do that then. That’s the Captain from the airship?” She pointed back over her shoulder.
Avian slowly shook his head. “No, he’s a lieutenant. The Captain left.”
She waved a dismissive hand. “Oh, you know I never could keep those uniform types straight. Except…it is a Shinra uniform...isn’t it?” Her eyes suddenly narrowed on his face.
He nodded his head emphatically. “Yes, he’s definitely wearing a Shinra uniform.”
Jae took another couple of steps toward him, her lips thinning in a stern line. “That’s what I thought. Why in the world would you let Shinra people come here, Avian?” She pointed a sharp nailed finger down at him, and a peculiar glint appeared in her eye. “Why? After all they’ve done to our family. After what they did to your father. Why would you?”
Avian suddenly shoved the chair back with a loud scrape and stood. She blinked when he swung around to face her. Standing only gave him a couple of inches on her. She was almost six feet tall herself. But he was tired of her talking down at him like he was a small child. And her censure, unfair as far as he was concerned, made him mad. In fact, the pressure of his anger built inside the longer he thought about it. “First of all, Aunt Jae, I did not invite those people to visit,” he snapped. “Their airship crashed here. After it was damaged in the explosion over Midgar. Remember that flaming ball, that meteor thing?” His voice raised a few decibels. “Grandma and I were here all alone when it came down. No, in fact, I was alone, because Grandma didn’t really know anything was wrong.” Almost shouting at the end, Avian took a deep breath to calm himself, eyeing her fiercely as he waited for her to respond to his heated words, but his Aunt Jae had clamped her mouth shut. Letting out his breath slowly, he continued on a calmer, but no less impassioned note.
“Secondly, the people from the airship are not from Shinra. They’re from Avalanche. They’re anti-Shinra people, and I think they’re probably the reason we’re not all dead now.” Again, he paused and waited a few seconds for her to reply to his blunt statement, but she just folded her arms at the lingering anger in his amber eyes.
“Thirdly, Aunt Jae, no one has ever told me what Shinra did to my father, other than to proclaim him missing in action. He chose to enlist in Soldier. No one made him do it. At least, that’s what he told me. So if you know something I don’t, then please enlighten me.” He stared hard at her as he waited for her to answer. He was particularly interested in what she would say about his father.
She mutely shook her head. A meaningless gesture to him. He didn’t know if it meant that she didn’t know anything or that she wasn’t going to tell him.
“And where were you anyway? You said you’d only be gone a few days. And…” he pointed a finger back at her, mimicking her own gesture. “…You didn’t even bother to tell me that Grandma was so sick. How could you do that? A little preparation would have been nice. A little warning. She almost gave me a concussion.” He finished the last of his complaints on a heartfelt sigh, most of his remaining anger expelled along with his words.
Still, he wanted her to say something. Anything. At least validate his feelings, just a little. He raised his tawny brows and rounded his eyes in exaggerated question. Still, she didn’t answer. Instead, her lip began to quiver, and tears turned her gray eyes into shimmering pools. “Oh, for crying out loud…” Avian threw his hands in the air and sagged into his chair. He’d been down this route before. The last time was when she asked him to stay with his Grandma, and he’d initially refused. Deciding to ignore her, mostly because he now felt like a heel, he reached out and drew the body of Cait Sith closer. When he looked up a few moments later, she’d silently left the room.
Reeve walked out into the center of the old executive office suite turned storeroom and carefully looked around as Cloud and Coakley trailed in behind him. Reno noted the change in attire, black suit pants and coat, definitely off the rack, or off the folding table in the clothing distribution center rather. Still, Reeve looked fairly dapper in the new suit. The freshly acquired shirt was a bit long at the cuff though. The Turk noted that Reeve had kept his expensive wingtips, his gold cufflinks, and his chocobo tie. Elena had been right about him taking time to clean up, but her guess had been no great leap in light of what she’d told him.
The redheaded Turk also noticed the way Reeve’s chilly eyes slid across Caitlin’s face as though she were no more consequential than another of the many boxes stacked against the wall. He also noted the troubled frown that touched her face as she looked Reeve over from head to toe. The woman didn’t miss a trick. She already knew something had happened, and it wasn’t really from Reeve’s change in clothes. After all, he’d been wearing the same old duds for a while. He was due for a change. No, it was the stiff Shinra executive manner he’d appropriated for his return, and the cool arrogance that virtually radiated from him now. He’d reverted to what she’d first expected him to be, and that was the thing that bothered her.
Reno knew, however, that it was just a pose. He’d expected it, or some variation thereof, because he knew Reeve would have only one burning issue on his mind just then. He had a pronouncement to make, and suspected, with good reason, that Caitlin Shinra would not like what he had to say. The executive thought to avert any battles before they started. The both of them were becoming too predictable. Yawn.
Reeve’s appraising gaze ended up on Reno’s face, and the Turk smiled coolly. “How’s it hangin’, Boss?”
“Fine,” Reeve responded curtly. “I see you’re feeling better.” Back to his best obnoxious form, certainly.
“Much better,” Reno drawled. “In fact, we’ve been having a lot of fun while you’ve been gone. Cat’s away…and all that…”
“I see. Are there any concerns we need to address?”
“Hmm…let me think…” Reno tapped a finger against his lips as he frowned in thought. “…Well actually…now that I think about it…” Reno uncrossed his legs and dropped his boot heavily to the floor to stand. “…There are a couple of little matters.”
“Well, they will just have to wait, unless they are of too serious a nature to table. I want you to leave. Immediately.”
Reno pointed at himself in surprise. “You want me to leave? What’d I do?”
“No, not just you. All of you. The Turks. You’re going to board the chopper and go. Leave Midgar. Caitlin isn’t safe here any longer. I want you to take her home and stay there with her.”
“What?! No!” Her eyes wide with shock, Caitlin slid off the box and landed on her feet. “I am not leaving, Reeve!”
The Shinra executive didn’t acknowledge her by either look or response. “Get whatever you need to take and go, Reno.”
“Yes!” Elena interjected triumphantly. “It’s about time we blew this hellhole!” Rude silently nodded his agreement. Reeve was finally exhibiting sound judgment as far as he was concerned.
Caitlin could have predicted Elena’s ready compliance, but Rude’s obvious agreement stunned her, especially in light of her overt protest. “I am not leaving!” she announced more loudly, just in case she’d been misunderstood before. No one looked at her, except Rachel, who had puckered up her face and looked like she might cry. Caitlin was starting to feel like a talked over, contrary little child herself. Her anger on the rise, she stalked across the room to come to an abrupt halt beside Reeve’s elbow.
“I don’t think you heard me, Reeve,” she stated flatly. “I said I’m not going.”
A tic developed in Reeve’s tightly clenched jaw. He focused on a point somewhere beyond Reno’s shoulder and stared at it for a long moment before he spoke. “You are going, Caitlin. It’s not safe, and there’s no viable reason for you to remain in Midgar.”
“But what about Rachel? What about her?”
“You’ll take her with you. She’s to remain in the protective custody of the Turks for the time being.”
“Reeve, what about our business? The reason you asked me to come.”
“We will take care of our business at a later date. I will simply come to you when I’m able to get away.”
“No! You can’t! I…I mean…there’s no point. There’s no reason for me to go. I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”
Reeve stubbornly folded his arms. “I’m not going to argue with you, Caitlin. You are going. End of discussion.” He nodded at Reno. “Take care of it.” Then he started to turn away.
Caitlin would not concede so easily. “Reeve! Look at me!” She commanded. She grabbed his sleeve for good measure. Uneasily, he looked down at her, finally, though he shuttered his eyes behind half lowered lids.
“What’s happened, Reeve. Why now?” She insisted. “Why do I have to leave?”
“Nothing specific, Caitlin. I have my reasons. There’s a great deal of unrest in the city. It’s time you left. While you still can.”
“I’m not going back to the island, Reeve.” Caitlin informed him coolly. “Not until I’m ready.” And only with the provision that the Turks would not be staying, she silently amended.
Elena decided at that moment to enter the conversation, and she stepped away from the wall to make her point. Reno knew it was only a matter of time now. “Come on, Caitlin. Be reasonable. I told you all about it earlier. Everything that’s been going on. Things are getting crazy out there. You don’t really want to stay holed up in this office for days on end, do you?”
“I don’t care. I’m not leaving until Reeve does. And that is the end of the discussion.”
“You will go.” Reeve informed her in a voice lined with tempered steel. “If I have to put you in the chopper myself.” He glared down at her.
“You can try, Reeve Alexander,” she snapped as she glared right back, her eyes taking on an eerie glow. “…But you better bring your army with you.”
Reeve opened his mouth to retort, but his words stuck on his tongue at sight of the azure flame burning deep in her eyes. The whole argument might have ended there, because he’d been on the brunt end of her temper before, and he really didn’t know what other effects he might expect in addition to the usual ones. However, Elena decided to put paid to the discussion once and for all.
“Good grief, Caitlin. Quit being such a baby about this.” Elena snapped.
“…A baby?” Caitlin inquired, a dangerous undertone in her cool voice. She turned her fiery gaze on the hapless Turk. “That’s what you think? That I’m being a baby?”
Reno held up a finger. “Ah…Elena…”
Rude, who had moved up to stand beside Reno early in the confrontation, started shaking his head sadly.
Nothing short of tackling her, gagging her, and tying her up would stop her now. “Yes, you’re being a baby,” she pointed out adamantly, with a curt nod of her head. “You know how things work by now, Caitlin. The Turks would have made the decision to take you out of Midgar anyway. After the shooting in Wall Market, there’s no way you can stay. So just deal with it.”
Fortunately for Elena, the anger bled out of Caitlin’s blue eyes to be replaced by concerned bewilderment. “What shooting are you talking about?” She directed her question to Elena, who now had a hand over her mouth. Much too late. The blonde Turk hesitantly looked at Reno who had taken up an intense, narrow-eyed study of his own knuckles. Rude was still shaking his head. She turned her anxious gaze to her own shoes and refused to answer Caitlin. She knew she was in hot water with Reno. He’d specifically told her to keep her mouth shut. Turning up the temperature by blabbing anymore would not serve her interests. Elena’s pointed silence provided more than enough reason for Caitlin to pursue it. She rounded on Reeve.
“Reeve? What shooting?” He looked away without responding, mostly because he’d choked up and couldn’t just then. “Reeve. Tell me.” He refused to look at her. So, she sought out Cloud where he’d taken up refuge on the opposite side of the door from Elena as the discussion had grown more heated. Coakley had shadowed him, and stood nearby.
“Cloud? Do you know what she’s talking about?” He eyed her nervously, lifting one shoulder in a shrug, trying to decide if he should respond or not. He might even have told her, once he thought it through, but Caitlin impatiently plowed on, zeroing straight in on the weak link. “Andy? What shooting?”
Andy stared at her in dismay, his mouth working silently as he tried to form the words to tell her. He wanted to tell her. He just couldn’t. Without warning, he whirled and fled through the door.
Caitlin’s frantic gaze made the rounds of all the faces in the room, except for Reeve’s. He had completely turned away from her and presented her with a fine view of his back. “Will someone please tell me what’s happened?” She pleaded in exasperation. A hand touched hers, and she looked down to find Rachel looking up at her with worried eyes.
The little girl crooked her finger, and Caitlin bent down to hear the little girl’s whisper. “I’m sorry, Rachel. I didn’t mean you. I know you don’t know.” The girl stood on tiptoe to whisper in her ear again. Caitlin looked up at Reno and nodded. “Sure Rachel, go ask him.” The little girl scampered across the room to stop in front of Reno who eyed her warily. “Whatcha want?” He scowled at her. She merely stabbed a small finger against the desktop next to him. “I want up.” Reno raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Well, ask Rude there. He’s good at that.” Rachel looked way up at Rude and shrank back against Reno’s leg. Reno threw up a hand in despair. “Okay already.” He picked the little girl up and plopped her down rather carelessly on the desktop. Then he pointed a finger at her as she settled into place beside him. “This is gonna cost you though. Do you have any gil?” Giggling, she shook her head slowly back and forth, her bleached curls bouncing along with the movement of her head. “Figures,” Reno muttered. “Now I’ll have to put it on your tab.” She smiled at him. “What’s that mean?” “It means, little girl, that I expect you to pay me when you get a job. So if you ask me to do this very often, you better get a good job.” Rachel nodded her agreement. “Okay.” Reno rolled his eyes. “You’re just too agreeable. That’s usually a bad sign.” The little girl shrugged her ignorance and proceeded to drum her heels against a drawer. Reno held out a hand, and she stopped. “Okay, you’re gonna have to stop that. Those sounds like that make me a little crazy, and you really don’t wanna see me crazy. So…hmm…why don’t you sit there very quietly and listen to everybody and let me know if anyone, I mean anyone, says a bad word. Since you seem to notice things like that. Sound good to you?” Rachel nodded and turned her head up to plant expectant brown eyes on Rude.
Smirking at the thought that Rachel would be waiting a long time for Rude to say a word, much less a swear word, the Turk raised his head to encounter Caitlin’s worried blue gaze. As soon as their eyes met, she spoke. “Reno? Will you tell me? Please?” Reno shook his head just as emphatically as Rachel had. “Nope. I’m staying out of this one. Ask your husband, Caitlin.”
“Her husband?” Elena looked around in complete bewilderment. “Who’s her husband?” Her hazel eyes landed on Rude and narrowed in suspicion. They had been pretty friendly earlier, very strange behavior for Rude, but then she furrowed her brow. When would they have gotten married? Reno stared at the perplexed blonde in utter amazement.
“Elena! Where have you been?!”
“I’m astounded at your lack of observational skills,” Reno marveled, his green eyes rounded with awe. “Apparently, I’ve misjudged you. I thought you more astute than that.”
“But…but…I mean…how did you…how would I…who?”
Reno held out both hands to pointedly direct her attention to a very annoyed looking Reeve.
Elena’s brow completely collapsed in furrows of frowning confusion as she looked from the executive, nervously stroking his beard, to the diminutive Caitlin who was busily studying the toe of her tennis shoe and chewing her lip. She pointed at the executive. “Him?!” She exclaimed in horror. “She’s married to him?! But how? When? Why?!”
“Elena, just go stand by the door and think about it while you keep watch,” Reno suggested coolly. “I’m sure you can figure it out.” Reno decided the entire discussion thus far had reached a stalemate, and he was bored with all the melodrama, especially the scenes he’d created. He abruptly stood and faced the Shinra executive. “As for you, Reeve. There is a matter that needs your attention. One that is too serious to table for now. Why don’t we take care of that, and then you and Caitlin can decide what you’re going to do.” He shifted his determined eyes to Caitlin. “Is that acceptable to you, Caitlin?”
“Yes, he should definitely look at the video,” she readily agreed.
“Actually, Cloud should look at the video,” Reno corrected.
“What video?” Reeve interjected impatiently.
“The one your cat sent us,” Reno pointed down at the VR goggles. “There’s been an interesting development back on the ole farm.”
Wordlessly, Reeve crossed the room and sat down in the spot on the desk that Reno had vacated. Cloud and Caitlin both trailed him across the room, and Caitlin settled to the edge of the desk on the other side of Rachel to watch. Drawing the goggles on, Reeve flipped the lenses down and touched a finger to the corner of the frames to power them up and touched a fingertip to the other corner to bring up the touch screen menu. A light brush to the outside of the eye lenses set the video playing. Reno watched him closely, noting that Reeve’s equipment seemed to be much more sophisticated then either Rude or he had managed to deduce.
Reeve gasped. “What the hell!”
Rachel peered urgently into Reno’s face. “He said a bad word,” she whispered loudly.
Reno had to agree. He bent and whispered back. “He most certainly did. Good job. Keep listening. I bet he’ll say more. ”
“I’m sorry, Avian.”
He turned in his chair to find his aunt standing just behind him, her face streaked with tears. She’d returned as quietly as she’d left.
He bowed his head guiltily, staring blindly down into the dead round eyes of the cat he held in his hands. “I’m sorry too, Aunt Jae. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
Jae hesitantly pulled out the chair next to him. “Can I sit with you?”
He nodded without looking up, his tangled hair falling across his cheekbones.
She slid into the chair and turned sideways to face him. Then she reached for one of his large hands, curling her long, slender fingers around his. “Are you all right?” Avian just shrugged, not wanting to put words to all the things that were wrong with him right then.
“Well, you don’t need to feel bad about what you said. You had every right. I shouldn’t have left you alone with Mom, especially with all the craziness going on in the world and in her mind. I guess I went a little crazy too, thinking I had to grab a little happiness before it was all over. I was just being selfish, I guess. I didn’t even try to put myself in your shoes. I paid for it though. With interest.”
Avian looked up with lively inquisitiveness in his amber eyes. “What happened?”
“Well, it’s a pretty sordid story. I’m not sure you should hear it.”
Avian idly stroked one of Cait’s ears. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” he told her, his tone offhand.
“Well…I guess it doesn’t matter…really. I had been writing this guy for a few months…one of those penpal things in the paper, and he wrote me too. The most wonderful letters. Anyway, I just decided I wanted to see him, you know, be with him…” Her voice trailed away.
“And it didn’t work out?”
“Oh no. He was supposedly an archaeologist in Bone Village, but it turned he wasn’t. He was their camp cook, and he’d taken off to Costa del Sol to buy supplies. I did have a nice conversation with his wife though.”
“I’ll bet that was interesting,” Avian mused.
“To say the least. Anyway, I came home after that, but by the time I got to the truth of the matter, I’d spent almost a month digging bones with the real archaeologists.”
A sad half-smile touched Avian’s lips. “You must get pretty lonely out here, Aunt Jae, especially after living the high life in Midgar. You and Grandma should move to Kalm.”
Jae waved a dismissive hand. “Oh, you know she wouldn’t go. She won’t leave the farm.”
Avian suddenly grinned. “Then just tell her you’re visiting Kalm. She’ll forget after awhile.”
Jae laughed at his joke, but Avian’s grin slid away as he remembered his Grandma’s distressed face, and he looked up at Jae with troubled eyes. Jae’s laughter faded away at the serious expression in Avian’s face. “What is it, Avian?”
Avian looked straight into her eyes. “Aunt Jae, why would Grandma think that man was after me?”
“Ah…well…” Jae’s gaze shifted away. “…She’s just senile. You know that.”
“Not all the time, she’s not. In fact, she’s been a lot better lately.”
Jae looked down at her hands. “Look Avian, that man, whoever he was, probably has something to do with that airship out there. Obviously he’s got some sort of fancy technology. He’s probably with Shinra. They probably sent him. Don’t you think?”
“I dunno. Maybe.”
“What else could it be?” She suddenly rose to her feet. “Well, I better go sit with Mom so your friend can go. Your Captain Jerol has been kind to sit with her, but he probably has other things to do.”
Avian absently rolled one of Cait’s mittened hands through his fingers. “Lieutenant,” he corrected her in a quiet voice, but she’d already left his side to cross the kitchen. For her, the conversation was over. However, by the time she reached the doorway, she’d had second thoughts. She turned back to look over her shoulder at him.
“You know, Avian. You really should go,” she urged. “Back to Kalm. As soon as possible. You probably shouldn’t keep Tiko waiting any longer.” With that off her mind, she hurried from the room.
Avian didn’t bother to look up or respond. His aunt made a lot of sense. After all, his Grandma did live in a fantasy world most of the time. And Jae was right about Shinra too. They did have all kinds of weird technology. And that guy was probably sent by them to get Avalanche. What other reason could there be for him to come? He only had one problem with the whole scenario. One little glitch that wouldn’t let him accept that explanation out of hand, even though he really wanted to believe it. Just one tiny flaw stood in the way of his peace of mind
He knew. Just as surely as he knew his own name, he knew. His Aunt Jae had just lied to him. Lied right through her teeth, and the knowledge of her lie scared the hell out of him.
He lifted the cat up in his hand to look into the unrevealing golden orbs. “Cait Sith,” he solemnly addressed the cat. “I wish you could tell me just what the hell is going on around here.”
Cloud pulled the goggles off his head and handed them back to Reeve. “Pretty wild stuff,” he commented. “That vanishing thing…that’s not Shinra?”
Reeve shook his head. “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
“Well, I don’t think you would have, Reeve, in your little urban development world,” Reno drawled. “The important thing is I haven’t seen anything like that before. Shinra would not have access to that technology without the Turks knowing about it.”
“What about Scarlet?” Reeve suggested. “Could she have developed something like that?”
“Uh uh. We would have known about it,” he flatly stated.
“How can you be so sure?” Reeve persisted. “Scarlet seemed to have her own agenda.”
“Weeeell, I can be sure because…” He paused as he thought about how much he would say. Then he decided that where Scarlet was concerned, it didn’t matter. “Bottom line, she was being watched. Heidegger didn’t trust her in the slightest, so the Turks had her under constant electronic surveillance. I can safely say that, before her death, she was completely obsessed with the Mako cannon technology and her armored robots and her…ah…well…Scarlet being Scarlet…need I say more?
“What about Hojo?” Cloud offered.
“No way,” Reno responded impatiently. “Look, forget about the disappearing trick for now. I want to know about the people in that video. That’s the key to knowing why Kendo was there.” He pointedly turned his gaze to the Avalanche warrior. “So how about it, Strife? What do you know?”
“Not a lot. As far as I know, only two people live there. The kid with the knife, his name is Avian. Then there’s his Grandma who’s totally senile as far as I could tell.”
“Who’s the tall woman?” Reno prompted.
“Dunno. She never put in an appearance while I was there.”
“Could she have been a neighbor?” Caitlin spoke up for the first time.
Cloud shrugged. “I suppose so, but I didn’t see any other houses out that way.” The warrior tilted his head in thought. “You know, that kid just seemed kinda awkward and…I don’t know…zoned…sorta. I sure never would have suspected him of being that handy with a knife. There was that thing with Yuffie though…”
“What thing?” Reno inquired sharply.
“I…oh…nothing really…they just didn’t hit if off. You know, he’s really a nice guy. He loaned me his Shinra Speed Demon X2 Limited to ride to Kalm.”
Reno raised one fiery wing of an eyebrow in surprise. “That kid owns an X2 Limited? I’m impressed.”
“Well, he said it was his Dad’s.”
“Where’s this Dad?”
“He said he’d been gone five years.”
Cloud racked his brain as he tried to remember if Avian had ever said where his Dad had gone.” He finally shook his head. “He never said. ‘Gone’. That’s what he said.”
“For five years,” Reno reiterated.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Great! ‘Gone’ could mean anything.” Reno turned to zero his narrow-eyed gaze in on Reeve, who had drifted off into his own thoughts during the discussion. “Can you make contact with those people?”
The executive hesitantly nodded. “I can if Cait Sith isn’t damaged beyond repair. He wasn’t designed to take the kind of direct blow to the head he took from Kendo.”
“Well, get on it. Do your thing. Fix it or whatever you do.”
“It will take me a few minutes,” Reeve stood up from the desk and picked up a chair. “I’ll need the desk too.” His gaze fell on Caitlin’s curious eyes. “Please,” he added. She immediately slid off the desk and lifted Rachel down. “Come on, Rachel, let’s give the man his space.”
She stood back and watched as Reeve dropped wearily into the chair and began to lay out his electronic equipment; the control glove, the VR goggles, and several cords. He deftly plugged everything together, and then he reached into his coat pocket and drew out his handheld computer. He glanced over his shoulder at her as he plugged the cord from the glove into his computer.
“Do you mind if we watch?” Caitlin asked quietly. He absently shook his head as he tipped the crate to retrieve some sort of plastic apparatus that turned out to be a small keyboard when he unfolded it. Once he’d plugged that in as well, he turned on the handheld and idly stroked his beard as he waited for the device to fully boot.
Caitlin looked around to find that everyone had left, except for Rude. Cloud had gone over to talk to Andy, who had returned at some point. He still looked upset. Reno had joined Elena at the door, and the two of them were engaged in some sort of stare down at the moment. She turned back to catch Rude’s eye, and she smiled and inclined her head toward the room behind her. Without a word, Rude unfolded his arms and walked away. Caitlin then dropped to one knee beside Rachel. “Would you like to go talk to Reno and Elena while I help Reeve with his work?” she asked the girl softly. Rachel brightened at the prospect of being with Reno, and she adamantly nodded. Caitlin smiled as the girl scampered away, almost laughing at the look of consternation on Reno’s face when he noticed her barreling his way.
Dismissing them all, she walked up behind Reeve’s chair and watched as he typed in commands and ran through menus so quickly she couldn’t even begin to guess what he was doing. Then he scrolled through another menu more slowly and chose an option she could clearly see. Run Diagnostic. The program started running, and he relaxed in the chair. Seizing the opportunity, she walked around the chair to stand beside him. He knew she was there, but he avoided looking at her, pretending an intense interest in the small LCD screen.
“Reeve, what happened today?”
He shrugged tightly. “What didn’t?” His tone was cool, discouraging. She folded her arms and prepared to get firm.
“What is it that you feel the need to hide? I’m not a child, and I don’t appreciate being treated like one. Especially as you’ve told me that I’m supposedly the owner of Shinra, Inc., which would make me your…employer.”
A small smile touched Reeve’s mouth at her blunt words, and he suddenly turned his head to look up at her. His shadowed eyes traveled over her obstinate face and her long tresses of wavy golden hair that fell over her shoulders and over her tightly folded arms down to her waist. His gaze moved down to her scuffed tennis shoes, which he studied for several seconds before coming back up to land on her azure eyes, now full of puzzlement. “Jack was wrong,” he finally said softly, so that only she could hear.
“Wrong about what?”
“You’re more beautiful now.”
She opened her mouth to respond, but she found he’d stolen the air from her lungs, so she just stared at him in astonishment as he returned to his keyboard and started typing again. She struggled to regain her mental equilibrium as she watched the words form, letter by letter, on the small monitor. Define alternate neural pathways. She wondered if the command would work on her brain too.
Reeve sat back and started talking, just as softly as he had moments before, though the words were completely out of sync with his tone. “In Wall Market today, a man with an automatic weapon, out of his head with pain at the loss of his family, opened up on the most visible ‘Shinra bastard’ he could find. Me. He would have gotten me too, but Jack chose to get in the way, I’m afraid. Jack’s…dead, Caitlin.”
“Oh, Reeve…” Caitlin breathed his name as her heart quailed in her chest. “Not your friend…Jack…please tell me it’s not…” But she already knew. Jack that Reeve had known from college…had worked side by side with these long years…the Jack that had kept their secret all those years ago…
“I’m so sorry, Reeve…” She wanted to gather him in her arms and hold him, but his stiff posture told her he wouldn’t welcome that. She almost reached out to touch his cheek, but she pressed her hand against her aching heart instead. “He was a good man…a true friend…to you…”
Reeve bowed his head and folded his arms. “Caitlin, I’m going to ask you this time. Will you please agree to leave Midgar? I don’t believe the city is safe any longer. You’re not safe here.”
“Neither are you, Reeve,” she whispered. “I’ll leave if you will.”
He started shaking his head even before she stopped speaking. “You know quite well that I can’t leave, Caitlin. But you can. There’s nothing you can do here, because you can’t be seen. The fewer people who know about you right now, the better. You should just go home. I shouldn’t have brought you here.”
“But…I wanted to…talk…Reeve…” she floundered. “I just feel so lost…I need to talk to you.”
Startled, he looked up at her. “Talk about…”
The small handheld computer beeped three times, and Reeve leaned in to type, bringing up yet another series of menus, swiftly inputting his choices and moving on. Internal functions – ON. Motor functions – OFF. Auditory functions – ON. Visual functions – ON.
“…About everything…” she continued. “…But I know…you probably…don’t…want to talk to me…”
“Caitlin, I’ll talk to you. About anything you wish, but not now. There’s too much I have to do.”
“If you’ll leave with the Turks, Caitlin, I’ll meet you when I can, anywhere you say. Just please go. I cannot be worrying about you being trapped in this city along with everything else I have to worry about. I don’t need the distraction.”
“No…I guess…you…don’t…” she said slowly.
At that point, Reno strolled over with Rachel in tow, effectively ending the conversation. He held the little girl’s hand out to Caitlin. “Here’s your kid back.”
Her eyes downcast, Caitlin silently took Rachel’s hand in hers, and without looking at Reeve or Reno, turned and led the child away. Reno watched her, mildly curious at Caitlin’s sudden withdrawal, but when she lifted Rachel to her previous place on the box and climbed up beside her, Reno lost interest and dropped his hands to the back of Reeve’s chair, leaning forward to look at the small screen. “Is that cat up and running yet?”
“I believe so. I’m just about to try to establish contact.”
“Can you set it up so I can see and hear it too?”
Reno caught Cloud’s eye and crooked a finger at him. The warrior nodded and strolled over to stand beside Reeve. Elena noticed the gathering, and taking advantage of the fact that Rude had taken up the door watch, she walked across the room to join them too, coming to a stop at Reno’s right elbow.
He brought his mouth next to her ear. “Can you keep a secret?” he whispered conspiratorially.
She turned to glare at the redheaded Turk, still sore at him over the censure she’d already received from him about her little slip of the tongue. “If I want,” she informed him haughtily.
“Hmm…I don’t think you can keep a secret. Any secret,” he smirked at her. “I think you’re incapable.”
“Well, I think you’re an idiot,” she promptly replied.
“Resorting to personal attacks. I find that very revealing.”
“You usually do.”
Reeve made some adjustments, and then leaned in, folding his arms on the desktop. “Okay, look like we’re good to go.”
“Sssssh, Elena,” Reno hissed. “Quit talking.”
"I wasn't talking," she protested.
"Be quiet, Elena," Reeve curtly admonished.
"Shut up, Elena!" Reno, Cloud, and Reeve said in unison.
She clamped her mouth shut and settled for a string of colorful epithets and innumerable dubious aspersions cast upon the heads of her tormentors, all passionately articulated in her mind, of course. But she would save them for later.
Avian picked up the screwdriver from the table and sat Cait Sith on his lap. Then he turned him this way and that, looking for a panel or screws to open the robotic creature. “How in the world does anyone work on you, Cait?” He lifted one booted foot and then the other. Then he peered down into the cat’s ears. Finally, he raised him up to eye level and stared into the dead orbs. “I guess you’ll just have to stay broken,” Avian sighed. "I’d probably just mess you up worse, anyway.”
He finally stretched Cait Sith out on the table, crossing his little mittened hands over his white furred chest and straightening his legs. With his crown and red cape, Cait Sith looked like a comical feline warrior king lying in state. “Thanks for trying to save my Grandma, Cait. You’re the bravest…er…robotic…mechanical cat…thing I ever met.”
Scraping back his chair, Avian stood up, thinking he might go check on his Grandma, and then pack up some things, but first, he’d have to retrieve his dog from the sitting room. He didn’t want to go up to the third floor alone. He’d change his clothes. Pack up his stuff. Dig the knife sheath out from under the bed and get his keepsakes. Then he would join Jerol out at the Highwind until he figured out what he wanted to do now that Aunt Jae was home. He would probably just go back to Kalm tomorrow. Leave, just like Aunt Jae said. Go back to work at the materia shop. If he still had a job.
He took a couple of steps toward the door to do just that, but then he decided he better not leave Cait downstairs. His aunt might throw him away or give him to Soldier to gnaw on. He twisted around to reach for him, but his hand stopped inches away at the sight of the glowing golden eyes. “Cait? Did I write you off too soon?” Gingerly, Avian reached out and gathered him in two hands.
“Son, can you hear me?”
Startled at the strange voice coming from Cait’s mouth, Avian dropped the robotic cat, and it tumbled to the floor to land in front of his boots.
“You’re not Cait Sith,” he informed the limp cat.
The young man’s accusing eyes stared at them through the monitor, his shoulder-length hair hanging in his face.
“Can you hear me?” Reeve repeated.
“Who are you?” Avian inquired suspiciously.
“I’m Reeve Alexander. I created Cait Sith.”
“…Reeve…Alexander…” he ran the familiar word across his tongue. Then he remembered where he’d heard that name. He pointed a finger at Cait where he still lay on the floor. “You’re that guy from Shinra,” he said with disgust. “That city manager guy. Why would you have anything to do with Cait Sith? He’s with Avalanche.”
“Uh oh, you’re dual life has come back to haunt you, Reeve,” Reno snickered.
“Who was that?” Avian asked with even more suspicion. “Who else is there?”
Reno wagged a finger at Reeve, but the executive didn’t need Reno to tell him that he would be foolish to tell the kid a Turk was listening. He decided to change the subject instead.
“Cloud is here. Would you like to talk to him?”
“Cloud? From the airship?” Avian perked up considerably.
“Yes, Cloud Strife.”
“Well, okay, but is there some way I can see him? So I’ll know it’s him?”
“I’m sorry, no. But maybe you’ll recognize his voice.”
Reeve vacated the chair, and let Cloud take over the conversation. “Hey, Avian? How are you?”
Avian finally bent to retrieve the discarded cat. “Okay, considering…is that you, Cloud?” Carefully, he set the cat on the table and slid cautiously into the chair.
“Yeah, it’s me. Hey, I wanted to thank you for letting me use your bike. It got me to Kalm in no time. I gave it to Tiko for safe keeping.”
“You saw Tiko?”
“Yeah, he said to tell you he’s keeping his job open for you.”
“Oh…good…where are you, Cloud?”
“I’m in Midgar. I’m here with Reeve, trying to help get people out of the city.”
“Is everybody okay?”
“Yes, mostly. Everybody is in the slums. We’ve just got to get one of the main doors open, and everybody’s out.”
“Well, if you run into a girl named Tamitha, would you tell her I’m thinking about her.”
“Sure will, Avian.”
“So, did this Reeve guy really make Cait Sith?”
“Yes, he’s a friend. He’s okay.”
Reno impatiently tapped his wrist. “Get on with it,” he mouthed.
“Uh Avian, we wanted to ask you about the incident earlier. Cait Sith sent us video, and we’re concerned because we’ve had something…” Reno made a slashing motion across his throat, and Cloud stopped talking. He raised one shoulder in question.
“Cait Sith makes videos?” Avian asked warily. “Cloud? You still there?”
“Hold on a second, Avian.”
Reeve reached over and shut off the audio. “What Reno?”
“Don’t give him any information. Just stick to questions. Find out what he knows.”
Cloud shrugged. “Okay, whatever. I don’t see what the big deal is, though.”
“Just do it,” Reno said bluntly as Reeve turned the audio back on.
“Avian, did you know the man who attacked you?”
“Had you ever seen him before?”
“No way. I’ve never seen anyone that big before. Well…except maybe for Barrett.”
“Do you know why he was there?”
“No. He wasn’t here looking for you?”
“Is that what you think?”
“That’s what Aunt Jae said.”
“That’s the lady in the video?”
He just nodded his head.
“Why would she think that?”
“She thinks it’s Shinra, hunting for you guys.”
“I can guarantee he wasn’t with Shinra.”
“Can you, Cloud?” Avian asked skeptically.
Cloud silently looked at Reeve, and then at Reno, who impatiently inclined his head toward the small screen.
“Could he have been looking for someone in your family?”
Avian shrugged, his face full of uncertainty. “Grandma thinks he came for me. Aunt Jae says he didn’t.”
“Why does your Grandma think he came for you?”
“Who knows? Who knows if she even knows? You know she lives in her own fantasy world most of the time. You’ve seen her, Cloud.”
“Yes, Breakfast, right?”
Caitlin had quietly walked up behind them, drawn by the kid’s voice. Silently, she peeped around Reno and Cloud to see this Avian’s face. And now her heart broke for him, as his voice suddenly cracked.
“You know…Cloud, I…I…never…I never killed…anybody…before…I never even…wanted to…”
“I know, Avian, but you had to do it. Your heart may not have told you that, but your mind did. If you hadn’t, you’d all be dead.”
Suddenly Caitlin spoke, taking the group huddled around the small computer totally by surprise. “Tell him we’ll meet him there.”
“Where?” Reno demanded.
Avian’s face dissolved into total confusion. “Cloud…are you there…who’s…there…?”
“There. His house.”
“Oh no, we’re not.” Reno informed her. “You’re not. Not after what happened there.”
“We need to discuss this Caitlin, in private, if you get my drift.” Reno glared at her.
“So you’ve decided to leave?” Reeve asked in astonishment.
Caitlin ignored him, keeping her focus on Reno. “He has a job waiting. In Kalm, right? We’ll go there and talk to him in person, where he can see us, face to face.”
“Face to face, huh? You’re kidding, right?” Reno asked sarcastically.
“Never mind. I’ll tell him.” Caitlin shoved Reno aside and with one hand on Cloud’s shoulder leaned over him to see the bewildered face in the monitor. Reno threw a despairing hand into the air.
“Avian? Can you hear me?”
“Yes…but who are you?”
“My name’s Caitlin. We’d like to meet you in Kalm, if you’re willing, to try to sort out what happened at your home. Would you be willing to meet with us?”
“But I don’t understand…”
“Avian! Who are you talking to?! You were talking to that thing, weren’t you?! I thought it was just a toy! Give me that weird thing!”
Avian’s face disappeared from the small screen, and after a long sweep of the ceiling, the aunt’s face appeared. “Oh no,” Elena said with her hand pressed to her mouth.
“Give him back, Aunt Jae,” Avian yelled. “He belongs to Avalanche. What are you doing?! You can’t do that!”
“I can do whatever I want!” She screeched back.
The woman’s face disappeared and the floor appeared as an apparent tug of war had ensued between the two parties.
“Oh hell,” Reno said wearily. “Now all we need is Grandma.”
“Move, Cloud. Quickly.” Reeve pushed a hand against his shoulder. Cloud vacated the seat with alacrity, and Reeve sat down, drawing his keyboard toward him. With the speed born of his electronic experience and the coolness under pressure developed from years in the Shinra Corporation, Reeve unerringly paged through the appropriate menus and activated Cait Sith’s external functions. “Time to get with the program, Cait. And fast.” Reeve murmured.
Jae managed to rip the cat loose from Avian’s desperate hands, and she made a beeline for the door. He stumbled after her. “What are you going to do, Aunt Jae?!”
“Put the little monster’s head on the chopping block.”
“You can’t chop him up, Aunt Jae! He doesn’t belong to you!”
The cat’s mittened hand flew up to grab onto the woman’s wrist. “You better let me go!” The high-pitched voice sang out. “Or else!”
Jae shrieked at the creature’s alien touch and promptly dropped the cat. Cait hit the floor running, darting right between her legs twice in a nicely executed figure eight. She tried to jump away from the skittering creature, but only managed to get her legs tangled, falling heavily onto her side on the floor. Cait returned across the floor to honk her nose with one mittened hand, making the sound effects to go with his action. She shrieked again and frantically batted at him, but Cait merely somersaulted away and landed on his booted feet to race across the kitchen floor.
He dashed under the table and back out the other side, snatching up his megaphone from beside a chair leg as he passed. With a flying leap, he sailed onto the head of his Mog and settled into place. The Mog came to life and bounded across the kitchen toward the door as Cait Sith easily ducked and dodged the many flying objects, whatever article of kitchen crockery that Jae could snatch to hand now that she had regained her feet. Cait waved hugely, his cape flying out behind him as the Mog carried him through the door. He sang out through his megaphone. “Missed me! Missed me! Now you gotta kiss me!”
Avian collapsed into a chair in helpless laughter as his aunt shrieked again and stalked out the back door, probably still with the plan to acquire the axe, maybe even more determined to do so now, but Avian knew that Cait Sith would be safe on the airship by then, and there was no way Jerol would let his aunt harm one little artificial hair on Cait Sith’s head.
Reno mulled over the sudden shift in events as he followed just behind the diminutive Caitlin, who marched with purpose toward the heavily guarded helicopter, an automatic military rifle slung to her back. Rachel walked alongside her, with her hand clutched tightly around Caitlin’s fingers, making two steps to each of Caitlin’s one. Rude and Elena walked abreast of Caitlin and the little girl, but anyone looking their way would clearly know that Caitlin Shinra had taken charge. Her deliberate, measured pace and her delicate chin lifted in cool arrogance, along with her focused, unrelenting stare on the helicopter clearly conveyed that impression, along with the knowledge that one should most certainly get the hell out of her way. And people did exactly that, scrambling to clear from her path, but staring in awe as she passed.
Only ten minutes had passed since Caitlin had undergone this strange transformation, not only taking over the communication with Avian, but also seizing command of the entire operation. Reeve Alexander might as well have ceased to exist as she relegated him to the sidelines, standing in speechless bewilderment as his erstwhile wife, like a woman driven, denied any discussion on the matter whatsoever and demanded instant compliance on the part of the Turks.
Reno shot a glance over his shoulder at the man who walked behind him, still speechless in his bewilderment no doubt, certainly stunned to his core, if his glazed, unfocused eyes were any indication. A cool smile touched the redheaded Turk’s thin lips. He could have enlightened Mr. Alexander, if he wanted, which he didn’t. He knew exactly why Caitlin had suddenly turned. It was really very simple. Caitlin Shinra didn’t like what she was being told to do, so she’d decided to do what she liked. All with the confidence of her knowledge that no one could do anything to stop her. After all, she was a Shinra. The last one. Royalty. She’d always held the invisible scepter of power. She just hadn’t chosen to wield it. Until now.
Of course, the burning question in Reno’s mind pertained to the reason that she had even balked at Reeve’s order that she go home when she’d made it clear in the Dead Zone that ‘home’ was exactly were she wished to return, at the first clear opportunity. Also, after several days of observation, he thought it interesting that she would leave Reeve’s side at all. Reno knew very well that Caitlin still had it bad for that guy. Now she seemed not only willing, but determined, to leave him. Perhaps something Reeve had said?
The walk from the old Shinra Office Building to the helicopter was short, so in no time at all, the tightly formed group came to a halt before the armed sentinels charged with protecting the only viable means of transportation from the city. With alacrity, the guards stepped aside to let the party pass.
Wasting no time, Caitlin directed Elena into the back of the chopper and lifted Rachel into the blonde Turk’s hands. Then she touched Rude’s elbow and stood on tiptoe to speak to him in a low voice. Reno couldn’t hear what she said, but Rude rounded the chopper to climb into the pilot’s seat. Now her beautiful azure eyes had landed on him.
“Get in, Reno.” Caitlin waved a hand toward the front as though she were a hostess for Shinra Air hospitably directing him to his seat.
“After you,” Reno replied politely. He lazily twirled his mag rod through his fingers, indicating his willingness to wait all day for her to board first.
However, she had no intention of engaging in argument with him nor did she have any patience for his games. Purposefully, she marched over, and wrapping a small hand around his wrist, inexorably towed him to the chopper. Of course, he let her, only pretending a minimal resistance.
Now standing together beside the chopper, he quizzically raised one eyebrow. She recognized the question. She lifted her chin. “I have unfinished business,” she informed him softly. Reno turned his head to look where she was gazing. Reeve stood several feet back with his guards lined up behind him. “Of course, how could I forget,” Reno drawled in his silky voice. He put his back to her and swung his body up into the chopper as she walked away.
Reeve stood his ground and waited for her to come to him, trying to maintain a cool façade even as uncertainty filled him. In light of her recent behavior and stubborn refusal to respond to his questions earlier, he couldn’t even begin to imagine what she planned to say.
Caitlin halted in front of him, her back to at least two pairs of rampantly inquisitive eyes watching from the chopper. She captured and held his gaze. “I’m going to find your planes for you, Reeve.”
He cautiously nodded. “I…appreciate that…”
“As soon as we find them, we’ll message you.”
Reeve inclined his head in understanding, but he had a more pertinent matter on his mind. “Caitlin…I think you should go home…after that. You’ll be safest there.”
She adamantly shook her head. “No, you’re wrong Reeve. After all you’ve seen, how can you think I’d be truly safe anywhere. I’ll go home when I’m good and ready to go. I’m tired of other people controlling my life. So, I’m taking charge of it, finally. It’s about time, don’t you think?”
He gazed down into her serious blue eyes for a long moment, and then he slowly nodded. “Be careful, Caitlin.”
“I intend to be very careful, Reeve. Don’t worry about that.”
“So…you’re going to Kalm,” he asked hesitantly.
“Yes, for now.” A small smile curved her mouth. “I’m looking forward to meeting your…Cait Sith. He seems to possess an intriguing…personality…especially for a machine…”
Although Reeve didn’t respond to her comment about Cait Sith, seemingly more interested in studying her face, she did note the barest hint of a twinkle in his eye despite the careful neutrality of his expression. “Stay in touch, Caitlin,” he finally said, as though he thought she would just pick up the phone and call him rather than converse through a plastic box of electronic gadgets and gizmos via the Turks.
“I will, Reeve.” She fought the sudden urge to reach up and touch his face, to throw herself against him and wrap him in her safe embrace, to never let him go. Instead, she forced herself to turn away. “Goodbye, Reeve.”
At her withdrawal, he almost raised his hand, nearly reached for her to draw her back, just so he could say one more thing. But he knew he wouldn’t say it. He knew he’d never say it again, so instead he fisted his hands against his trouser clad legs. “I’ll see you later, Caitlin.”
She walked a couple of steps away and halted. Suddenly, she turned around to look at him, and he was shaken by the sorrow in her eyes. “Reeve…please…please…don’t do anything foolish…please…take care of yourself…be very careful…” Then she pressed a trembling hand to her mouth and ran for the chopper before he could even find the words to reply.
“I will, Cait. I promise.”
Then the helicopter lifted away, and she was gone.
“So you’re leaving?” Jae asked in amazement, dogging his heels as he wended his way through the front yard.
Avian shifted his heavy knapsack higher on his shoulder and kept walking. “I don’t know why you’re so surprised. Didn’t you tell me I should go? Or was that my fevered imagination?”
Jae waved her hands around as she stalked after him. “But what about…what about all this junk?!”
He shrugged his indifference. “I already moved half of it. You can do the rest. There’s nothing all that big.”
Avian shoved the gate aside and went right on through, shaking his aunt’s hand off his arm as she sought to pull him to a stop. He’d had high hopes that she would abandon her resistance at the fence, but those hopes were instantly dashed when she chased him through, effortlessly keeping up with his fast walk on her long, coltish legs. “What about your Grandma? Aren’t you even going to tell her goodbye?”
Avian rolled his eyes at his aunt’s blatant attempt to make him feel guilty. “I already did, Aunt Jae. She begged me to leave, so I kissed her goodbye, gave her a big ole hug, and told her I’d see her later. How’s that?”
What Avian didn’t mention to his aunt was the way his Grandma dug frantic hands into his shirt and pleaded with him to go…to hide...from ‘them’, and the relief that washed the haggard strain from his Grandma’s face when he told her he was going. He’d even tried to question her about who ‘they’ were, but she just closed her eyes and whispered something about Shinra, which didn’t make him feel all that comfortable, in light of who he’d decided to meet in Kalm.
Despite rampant misgivings, he had decided to follow through on the plan for two reasons. First of all, he didn’t want to believe that Cloud would set him up to be harmed. Although, he didn’t know Cloud at all, and had little reason to trust the guy. For all he knew, Cloud might have sold out. But he did trust him. And maybe it was for no more reason than the glow in his Mako eyes that reminded him so much of his father, which in itself was ironic, as his father, like Cloud, had been a member of Soldier and Shinra.
The second reason. The voice. Her voice. That had been the other deciding factor that led to his decision to go. The sincerity and concern he heard in the woman’s voice. Whoever she was. Caitlin…she’d said. She wanted him to see them ‘face to face’. She wanted him to trust them. And he already did. At least, he trusted her. Her voice inspired his trust, and now, he would go to the ends of the earth to put a face to that voice. But, he only had to go to Kalm. He smiled at the thought.
“What’s so funny?” His aunt inquired sulkily.
“What? You’re still here?” He shot back. He’d forgotten about her while he’d been lost in his thoughts, and he figured she’d have turned back long before they crossed the drive. Now they were almost to the airship, and her eyes had been captured by the enormity of the craft.
“I…didn’t realize it was so…big…” she whispered in awe.
“Well, I don’t think big covers it.” Avian spotted Jerol leaning on the deck rail at midships. “Maybe huge…or humongous…or gigantic…or…” Avian lifted his hand in a wave. “...Gargantuan.” Jerol waved back and lifted his hat in gentlemanly fashion in deference to his aunt.
“I think I like ‘gargantuan’,” his aunt suddenly laughed. “That seems to fit the ticket.”
Avian looked at her in surprise. He well knew that his aunt had a mercurial nature, but sometimes her mood swings made him dizzy. Or maybe it was something else. Her eyes had found the sharply dressed figure of the Junior Lieutenant in charge of the Highwind, smiling down on them from above.
“Are you leaving now, Avian?” Jerol called down, his hands cupped around his mouth.
Avian nodded his head and waved. “Wait!” Jerol yelled. Then he disappeared from the railing. Apparently, he wanted to tell him goodbye.
“He certainly is a handsome captain…” Jae remarked absently.
“Lieutenant,” Avian corrected. Then he pointedly added. “Junior Lieutenant.”
Jae turned bright eyes on Avian’s disgruntled face. “He’s coming down, right?”
Avian sighed in surrender. “Yes, Aunt Jae, he is.”
Then again, maybe the man would welcome the company. He snapped his fingers, and his Aunt Jae pulled her eyes away from the open hatchway to blink at him. “I just remembered, Aunt Jae…do you think you could help me out…I totally forgot…”
“What did you forget, Avian?”
“Well, Lt. Jerol there…you see…he gets up really early in the morning, and he likes his coffee, and I usually bring him some…and…er…do you think you could do that too…for me?”
“Well…I don’t know…Avian…I suppose I could…but then…” she waffled.
“Don’t worry about it, Aunt Jae. I know you don’t get up all that early, being a night owl and all, and it’s not like he expects it. I was just doin’ it to be nice, you know. Just don’t worry about it. Forget I even asked.”
Jerol suddenly appeared in the hatchway and hurried toward Avian with a small box cradled in both hands. Jae chewed one long nail as he approached. Stopping in front of Avian, he offered him the box. “Here you go, Avian. I almost forgot that you wanted to look at my uncle’s stuff.”
Avian took the box in one hand and reached to open the lid. “No no,” Jerol admonished him. “Just take it with you. Consider it a gift.”
“But it was your uncle’s,” Avian protested.
Jerol straightened and clasped his hands behind his back. “No, it’s yours. I’ll never do anything with it. I have no interest. Besides, the stuff might come in handy.” Jerol smiled mysteriously.
“Well, thank you,” Avian tucked the box away in his knapsack. “It’ll give me something to do when I’m not working at the store.” Avian tugged his knapsack back into place and straightened to notice Jerol and Jae studying each other cautiously. “Oh Jerol, have you met my Aunt Jae? She used to be a nurse at Midgar General.”
Jerol turned his steady eyes on Avian. “Well, yes. We met inside after the…er…incident.”
“Right…” Avian nodded brightly. “Well, I’ll be going. I’ve a long walk ahead.”
Jae reached over and gave him a quick hug around the neck. “Be careful, Avian.”
Mildly embarrassed, he patted her arm and pulled away. “Oh, I will.”
She released him and he walked away, leaving the two of them standing there together, watching him. He looked back towards the house and gave one sharp whistle, looking back over his shoulder just long enough to make sure his dog was on the way. Once more, he turned to wave with an encouraging smile as he waited for Soldier to catch up, and then finally turned away for good, to focus determined eyes on the top of the hill where the sandy track would soon carry him.
“Wait! Wait! Don’t forget me!”
Avian whirled around to find Cait Sith jumping up and down, waving another of his numerous megaphones, as the comical Mog carried him bouncing up the track.
“You’re going too, Cait Sith?!” Avian exclaimed as the Mog came alongside and bounced from foot to foot in place. “I though you were supposed to protect the ship and Jerol.”
“Nope. I’m you’re personal bodyguard now.” The cat poked a finger into Avian’s forehead.
“Who says?” Avian asked in bemusement.
“I can’t tell you,” he informed him in a singsong voice.
“If you told me, you’d have to kill me, right?”
“Silly!” Cait Sith waved a mittened hand in dismissal. “I can’t kill you. I just won’t tell you.” He bounded away. “Come on. Come on. Time’s a wastin’.”
Shaking his head in despair, Avian plodded after him. So much for quiet reverie. And where was he going to put Cait Sith when he got to Kalm? Or would the creature simply vanish on some other electronically directed assignment. More probably, the Shinra people would take him when they met. At least Aunt Jae couldn’t get him now. Avian smiled.
“Hey, Avian! Do you want to hear your fortune?” Avian looked up to find Cait Sith sitting backwards on the bouncing Mog, looking at him expectantly.
“No!” He didn’t want to think about what might happen the next minute, even though he doubted that Cait’s fortune telling held any true prophecy. “Tell your own fortune, Cait Sith! To yourself.”
The cat sat on his Mog in contemplation for a long time. Then he shook his head sadly. “I don’t know how…”
“I know your fortune, Cait Sith!” Avian stopped in the trail and threw his hands into the air, gazing up in amazement at the sky, as though he were a great seer who could read the future in the clouds. Soldier stopped his ranging and snuffling along the trail to check out his master's strange behavior.
Cait Sith curled his tail into a question mark. "What is my fortune, Avian?"
Avian promptly answered him, his words pitched in appropriate sepulchral tones. “You are going to live long, drive me around the bend, and keep me from dying of boredom!”
Cait Sith stood up and scratched his head. “Which bend?”
Caitlin stared out the window with her chin in her hand as the destroyed city fell away beneath them. As when she’d left her daughter behind on the island, she felt as though a part of her were being ripped away, tiny pieces of her broken away, one for each inch…each foot…each mile, leaving nothing but a yawning, aching hollowness where her heart should be. How many pieces of herself could she lose before there was nothing left?
Silently, the tears fell down her cheeks, and she made no effort to stop them, didn’t care who might see. Although the occupants of the helicopter were strangely silent, each caught up in lonely reverie. Even Rachel sat silently in Elena’s lap, perhaps shaken into a trance by the nerve-wracking flight beneath the underbelly of the city. Perhaps everyone had been shaken to silence, dumped into a review of the frivolity of his or her respective pasts.
She wondered, then, where it would all end. But how could she even guess at an answer, when she didn’t even know where the chaos began. Maybe it began the day she was born.
“I think those are your planes, Caitlin.” Reno spoke without turning his head, his eyes fixated on a distant spot far out over the sparkling ocean. Surreptitiously, Caitlin raised the sleeve of her sweatshirt to her face and quickly scrubbed away the tears. Then she unbuckled her harness and turned sideways in her seat to look. Already, Rachel had her face pressed to the glass to see.
“Where?” Caitlin asked huskily. “There,” Elena answered with a slight smile, pointing at the glass. Caitlin leaned across, and finally, she could see them too. Just barely distinguishable as planes. One flying above and behind the other. She couldn’t hope to stop the smile that captured her whole face.
“Intercept them, Rude,” she commanded, her voice light with barely contained joy. “I want confirmation.”
With a nod, Rude swept the chopper that way.
Caitlin slumped back in her seat and closed her eyes as she spoke a silent but heartfelt ‘thank you’ to the powers that be. She hadn’t realized how tense she’d been until her utter relief at sight of the planes unshackled her into boneless liquidity. The radiant smile possessed her face again. Soon, the long siege would be over, and Reeve would be free.
Cid sat up straight in his seat and jerked the soggy unlit cigarette from his mouth. “Who the hell is that?”
Almost asleep, Barrett raised his head and peered at Cid with groggy eyes. “Who is who?”
“Out there!” Cid pointed to the distant craft framed in the center of his windscreen.
Barrett squinted through the glass. “Looks like a chopper to me. Probably Rude. Wonderin’ where the hell we’ve been.”
“Duh, you’re right. I’m slow, but I’m old.”
“I’d say you’re mostly tired.” Barrett corrected him. “When all this is over, I’m takin’ a long vacation, and I’m doin’ nothin’ but sleepin’.”
Cid watched the helicopter grow exponentially with each passing second, still beautifully framed in the center of the glass. “I sure hope he plans on flying somewhere else soon,” he muttered.
The words were hardly off his lips when the chopper abruptly pulled up over the oncoming Gelnika. Cid craned his neck to watch the machine pass over him with a wide margin of clearance. He easily recognized the distinctive Shinra logo painted on the belly of the craft.
"Shinra all right. Sure hope it’s Rude.”
“Well, where’d he go?” Barrett craned his neck out the window to look around.
“Who knows? That chopper can fly circles around these boats.”
As if to prove his words, the chopper settled into the space just beyond Barrett’s window. “There he is!” Barrett exclaimed. “And he’s got that damn Reno with him!” The huge man glared across the way. Cid leaned across to look as Rude lifted a hand in a questioning gesture. The Captain held his hand up and formed the universal symbol for ‘a-okay’. Rude nodded his understanding and turned back to his controls. Just as he pulled the chopper away, a movement in the rear window of the craft caught Cid’s attention. He looked at the small hand making the ‘okay’ sign back at him, and he nodded confirmation. Then he sought out the face, expecting to see Elena. He just barely snagged a good look before the chopper shot upwards to vanish into the bottomless sky.
Stunned, Cid fell back into his seat, not even hearing Barrett as he railed on about Reno and all the things he planned to do to the weaselly-assed, ferret-faced, snake in the Shinra grass, brainless fool of a Turk.
Barrett ranted on for some time about Reno before he finally realized he was not getting validation, verbal or otherwise, from Cid, and he flung himself back into his seat to look. At sight of the Captain’s ashen face, staring eyes and slack mouth, he shot out a hand to shake him. He looked like he’d dropped dead in his pilot’s seat.
Cid started into alertness at Barrett’s tight grip. “What?!” he gasped.
Cid’s sudden resurrection set Barrett’s heart pounding like a bass drum in his chest. “What’s the matter with you?! You scared ten years off my life, and I really can’t afford to lose ‘em.”
The Captain just shook his head in a daze.
“Well what? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Cid started bobbing his head. “You know, that’s exactly what I saw, Barrett. A ghost. Had to be.”
He suddenly straightened up in his seat and reacquired the controls. The coastline was coming up fast.
“Okay, you saw a ghost.” Barrett dropped his forehead into his hand. “…A ghost…”
Cid wrinkled his brow in deep thought. “…Or maybe…an angel…”
“An angel!” Barrett raised his eyes to the ceiling of the cockpit. “Please…whoever you are…and you know who you are…just please get me offa this plane…and make it quick…”
Reeve walked through the door with leaden feet, the strange melancholy that filled his thoughts not readily apparent in his guarded eyes.
“They make it out?” Cloud inquired as he dropped his feet from the top of the desk and stood up from the chair.
“Yes, they’re clear.” Reeve started across the room and noticed a discarded notepad, half open in the middle of the floor, some of the pages folded back under the weight of the tablet.
“Good. What now?” Cloud had grown weary of sitting around, and he knew Reeve had plenty to do. “Sector Five?”
The executive nodded absently as he flipped the notepad over to see the childish drawings on the foremost page. Despite the little girl’s apparent equanimity, and her propensity to laughter, and her fascination with Reno, her drawings contained elements that clearly revealed the darkness of the pain inside. As he crossed to the desk, he flipped through a few more pages, almost smiling at Rachel’s surrealistic stick drawing of Reno and Elena apparently glaring at each other, and then he did smile at another one of Rude with a huge plate full of what looked like a lot of pieces of pie. Then he turned the next page, and the smile fell from his face. Unconsciously, he settled to the edge of the desk as he intently studied all the flowing lines and subtle shadings that precisely formed the essence of Elena’s pensive face.
The first time he’d ever seen her work, he’d been dumbstruck by her talent, and he could see that, like the finest of wine, her ability had only improved over time, if that were possible. Eager for more, Reeve turned the next page, only to find a rough sketch of a figure that might have become Rude in the end. He turned the page, and wrinkled his brow at the image he found there. A young girl, maybe around eight or nine, judging by her features, with sweeping wings of long dark hair, her head tilted, playfully perhaps, catlike eyes dancing with mischief, a summer dandelion held, almost gently it seemed, in the slender fingers of both hands. Although he didn’t immediately recognize the child, something about her looked familiar, and he wondered who she could be. But then, he knew that Caitlin often drew faces she’d seen only in passing, retaining the images forever in her mind until she felt compelled to immortalize then in art. The girl could be anyone.
He turned the last page over, actually the first page in the book, and his eyelids fell to hide the surprise in his eyes. Tseng. Definitely an image from her memories. She’d drawn him with his ever-present cigarillo in hand and a sphinx like smile, one rarely seen, that Reeve knew the Turk had probably reserved for Caitlin. His tie loosened, his collar unbuttoned, and his long straight hair fanned out around his head, he looked like he’d just thrown his head back in his easy chair at the end of day, finally freed from his duties, with nothing to do but relax.
Gently, Reeve closed the notebook and stared at the front cover for a very long time, or so it seemed to Cloud who had moved off to stand beside the door and wait. Coakley poked his head in to see why the two of them were taking so long. Cloud just shrugged his ignorance at the question in Andy’s eyes, and swung his head back to silently watch Reeve, who had apparently retreated far into his own mind.
Woodenly, Reeve rose from the edge of the desk and slid into the chair, scooting forward to place his fingers on the small keyboard that he’d left attached to his handheld computer. For several seconds he chewed his lips and stared at the blank screen as his fingers rested motionless on the keys.
Finally, he hit one key and pulled up an empty message box, and then, in a near blinding flurry of activity, he started typing, his mouth moving silently with the words. What he had to say didn’t take long, so he finished in less than a minute and read the message. Then, he reread it.
With the cursor, he located the icon he wanted and clicked on it, an action that gave birth to several consecutive prompt boxes requesting passwords. Methodically, he worked his way through them, hesitating for longer periods of time before entering each successive code, until he reached the last one. That one drew only his unblinking stare.
The blinking cursor bade him to get on with it. His conscience told him no. In the end, he exited the program and deleted the message, in as much of a flurry of movement as he’d started. Almost feverishly, he disconnected his equipment, wrapping up the cords and placing all the components back in his wooden crate. Finally, he stood and slipped the handheld computer into his coat pocket, and then he slid the notepad down the inside of the crate where he hoped it wouldn’t sustain further damage. When he saw Caitlin again, he would give it to her, and maybe he would even ask her about the mischievous face that, for some reason, wouldn’t leave his mind.
Reeve picked up the crate and held it to his chest, turning to find Cloud eyeballing him suspiciously, even as Andy came to take the crate from him. “What’s wrong, Cloud?” He passed the crate to Andy, who sensed the sudden tension between the two of them and left the room to wait outside.
“What was all that business, with your little computer?” He asked coolly. Cloud hadn’t missed the reluctance with which Reeve had undertaken the task or the determination he’d undergone to cancel it.
Reeve bowed his head in thought. “Nothing really, Cloud. Just a communication program I meant to double check, but I realized that I didn’t have time. So I cancelled out of it.”
Cloud studied his face, and Reeve looked up to openly meet his searching gaze. Finally, the warrior nodded. “Okay, Reeve. Sorry about that. I don’t know why I’m so wary of that computer stuff.”
“Not a problem, Cloud. You should probably be wary of it, actually.” Just then, the handheld in his pocket started to beep. “See there? Can’t turn your back on the things.” Reeve drew the device from his pocket and switched the screen on to find a message waiting. He swiftly pulled it up and read it. He looked up at Cloud and smiled. “The planes are here.”
Cloud made a show of breathing out a long sigh of relief. “About time.”
“Yes, things are starting to move, finally.” Reeve pointed toward the door. “So, we better move too. I want to check on the progress of the Sector Five project.”
Cloud led the way through the door, not noticing as Reeve paused to take one last visual look around to ensure that he’d left nothing behind. Then he trailed the warrior out and down the corridor, his eyes blankly watching the slide of light across the surface of the sheathed blade as Cloud walked under the banks of fluorescent lights.
Shadow to light to shadow again. He hadn’t really lied to Cloud. Not exactly. In a way, he had been about to test a communication connection, although for the first time. He’d cancelled out of it too, but not because he didn’t have time. Because just then, when he’d been overwhelmed at just that moment with the weight of his lonely burden and the looming fear of personal failure, he would have taken all the time in the world to carry out his mad plan. But he’d set up the transmission connection just so on purpose, so that he would stop and think it through, and the last password was a specially chosen keyword to stop him. To make him think. And stop him it would. Every time. Until such time as he reached such a level of despair that he couldn’t stop. He’d given his word. No, he’d given his solemn vow. Nothing had happened to this point to justify the betrayal of that oath. He couldn’t envision that anything ever would.
He would simply handle Caitlin on his own.
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