~Part 1~

The small dark-haired girl stood on the seat of the wooden chair as she had for many hours on and off throughout the past days, ever curious about all that passed beneath her window no matter how mundane, ever watchful for the one face that she patiently waited to see. Most recently, she’d been captivated by a small group of children laughing as they played tag in the square, but now her wistful eyes were drawn away by a subtle movement from the corner of one eye.

Curiously, she turned her gaze toward the wide plains between Kalm and the Midgar Wastes to mark the source of her distraction and drew in a sharp, excited breath at first sight of the strange creature skimming low over the ground, far out across the grasslands. At first, she watched with rapt wonder as she tried to imagine what sort of flying creature it might be as she tracked the swiftly moving object to a point where it flew far out between town and sea. Then the mysterious beast eventually swerved toward the tower in which she stood with her small hands planted on the windowsill, and her dark eyes filled with apprehension as she watched the still distant thing fly steadily in her direction.

The woman sitting at the table in the center of the candlelit room, combing out her silver-threaded auburn hair as she read her open book, again glanced up to check on the little girl, just as she’d been doing every few minutes for days on end to insure that the child hadn’t put herself in risk of tumbling from the window in her fervor to see everything and everybody in the square below, an activity of which she seemed never to tire. She noted the tenseness in the little girl’s face as she stared into the distance, and the woman resisted the pull of the novel she’d been reading to watch the child a moment longer.

The girl suddenly recognized the beast as not a beast at all, but a machine, and one she’d seen before. The machines had flown in the airspace over Sector 7 many times, and she’d often wished to ride inside one. Until the day the machine took the flower lady away. That day was the day she found out why the machines came. They came to take people away and never bring them back.

The little girl cried out, voicing one indiscernible word that seemed to convey both excitement and fear as she silently jabbed a finger in the air, her mouth moving speechlessly as she struggled to find the word that would describe the horrid thing. The woman laid her comb between the pages of the open book and stood. “What is it, Marlene?” Elmyra asked, concern filling her eyes at the normally placid child’s rare display of excitement. “What do you see?” The child only continued to point, so Elmyra crossed the wooden floor to the little girl’s side and leaned against the windowsill to peer out into the distant hills in the direction the frantic finger seemed to indicate. Elmyra searched the expansive landscape but failed to find anything that would explain Marlene’s tense face and insistent gestures. She lowered a puzzled gaze to Marlene’s round beseeching eyes. “What do you see, Marlene?” she repeated her question more sharply.

Finally, Marlene found the word she sought and stammered out her identification fearfully. “H…h…h…hel…copper! Hel…copper!” She jabbed her finger even more frantically.

Failing to understand the child’s stuttered syllables, Elmyra’s bewilderment deepened, and she stared out across the plains again, more carefully this time, but only grass and cloud shadows and the occasional tree met her eyes. She slowly shook her head. “I don’t see anything, Marlene.”

“It went down.” Marlene informed her mournfully.

“I see…” Elmyra replied uncertainly, wondering if she should ascribe the whole matter to the child’s vivid imagination. Still, Marlene’s imaginative meanderings sometimes produced the most startling proclamations. Especially in regard to Aeris. 'The flower girl’, as Marlene referred to her.

“Will it take us away?” the little girl asked with fear trembling in her voice.

Elmyra propped her hand on her hips. “Of course not, Marlene. Nobody will take you away. I’ll see to that. We’ll stay right here until your Papa comes for you.”

Unconvinced, Marlene turned back to the window to investigate further, but Elmyra lifted her down from the chair, ignoring the child’s squeal of protest. “Time for you to read for awhile, young lady. I think your imagination is working overtime.”

“But the hel…copper! It’s out there!” she insisted.

Elmyra smiled disarmingly. “I know. It was out there. But it’s gone now.” She grimaced slightly at the uncertainty in the child’s dark eyes, and then she turned to reach for the knobs of the wooden shutters. As she drew them inward, the verbal exchange replayed in her mind, and she suddenly realized what the little girl had seen. Or thought she’d seen. A helicopter.

Elmyra pushed the shutters outward again and leaned far out the window for a more careful look, her eyes narrowed in intense scrutiny of the rolling green meadows that stretched toward the blackened wasteland where the decimated city of Midgar huddled in the distance like a festering sore. Still, she couldn’t see a single thing moving out there. No vehicle of any kind, much less a helicopter. Purposefully, she drew the shutters closed and turned to reach for the little girl’s hand.

“Would you like me to read you another story?”

Hesitantly, Marlene nodded and stretched her fingers to clasp the woman’s hand, her eyes still solemn and worried. Elmyra decided then to read the happiest story she could find, a story to chase away the shadows in Marlene’s face and the terrible memories in her mind, if only for a little while, and she wondered again, as she had many times before, at the uncertain life this child must have led. She vowed again to do whatever she could to make sure the child would not continue to suffer so in the future. She meant to have a long talk with Marlene’s father. If the man should ever return.

Lifting the child into a chair, Elmyra shuffled through the stacks of books she’d found in a dusty bookcase downstairs, and she chose one that depicted a flock of chocobos, dozens in every imaginable chocobo color, frozen in mid-frolick on the book's cover.

“Shall I read you The Chocobo Dance, Marlene?” She held up the book for the girl to see. Happily, Marlene nodded her head and eagerly reached for the book. Elmyra smiled encouragingly, hoping that the helicopter, whether real or imagined, had already slipped from the child’s mind.

As though Marlene had guessed where Elmyra's thougts had traveled, the child paused with her small hands wrapped around the storybook and turned fretful eyes to Elmyra’s face. “I hope Papa comes soon,” the little girl said anxiously. “He’ll make it go away.”

Elmyra’s smiled faded, and she laid a reassuring hand over the little girl’s tense fingers. “Don’t worry, Marlene. I promise you that I won’t let anything happen. No one will take you away. And your Papa will be here just as soon as he can get here.”

Marlene nodded her dark head empathetically. “I know,” she said happily. Satisfied by Elmyra’s reassuring words, the child drew the book toward her and flipped open the cover, now truly dismissing the helicopter from her mind to replace the image with pictures of dancing chocobos.

Elmyra leaned back in her chair to watch her as she traced the text with her fingers, her bow-shaped lips moving silently as she mouthed the words she knew. The woman meant what she’d said. She had spoken the truth. She would do anything to protect the child. Unlike Marlene, however, she wasn’t so certain that the child's father would return despite her assurance that he would. Still, until she knew otherwise, the two of them would continue to wait.

Derry shadowed the Captain, finding himself hard pressed to keep up with the older man’s long strides despite his own hurried pace. He resisted the urge to break into a trot. “Sorry about the plane, Captain Highwind,” he apologized breathlessly. “I’m sure I can find a way to…”

“Don’t worry about it, Heidegger.” Cid noisily released a cloud of smoke into Derry’s immediate path. “We’ll winch’er out of the sand. We had no choice but to land on the Flats, and I didn’t ‘pect it to go so smoothly. Good job, kid!”

“Er…thanks…I guess…” Derry replied reluctantly. He hardly found his performance as admirable.

Cid suddenly came to a stop and wheeled around to glare at Derry over the cigarette clenched between his gritted teeth. Only the young man’s quick reflexes prevented a bone jarring collision. As it was, he wound up standing too close to the Captain and his noxious cloud of stale cigarette smoke, and he hurriedly backpedaled a couple of steps as he silently assessed the level of intensity in the Captain’s fiery blue eyes. Abruptly, Cid ripped the cigarette from between his teeth, and pointed it at him.

“Don’t be so hard on yerself, Heiddegger. You more than met my expectations.” Derry uneasily nodded as he warily eyed the end of the wildly gesturing cigarette. “Now let’s move on to more important matters, like seeing what we gotta do to get those people outta that hellhole.” With an expansive wave of his cigarette toward the crippled city, a move that sent Derry backward another quick step, Cid wheeled back onto his former trajectory and strode several paces further on before he again slammed to a stop and pointedly planted the haft of the wickedly sharp Venus Gospel into the ground beside him.

Raising the cigarette to his lips again, he leaned against the lance and dragged in a deep inhalation, a breath which he held as he scanned the mangled ruin of the once vital city that had been Midgar. His already grim face grew bleaker with each passing second that he stood there, Finally, he forced the stale smoke from his lungs in slow exhalation. “Well…guess we better get busy,” he said with weariness in his voice. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, an’ standin’ here ain’t gettin' it done.”

Derry hardly noticed when the Captain yanked the staff from the ground and turned his fierce blue gaze on the mechanics and soldiers that had straggled up more slowly behind, trailing the Captain and Derry as they’d walked from the planes. All of them were now gathered in a silent huddle several paces back, and every face reflected the grimness of the Captain’s own, along with varied levels of doubt and despair. There wasn’t a single man or woman there that hadn’t become keenly aware of the enormity of the task that lay ahead at first sight of the massive amount of debris around the Sector Two Gate, and every one of them knew the fate of the city’s residents fell squarely on their heads. Cid’s temper gauge shot up several notches at the defeat he saw in their faces.

“Jimbo!” Cid yelled at the top of his lungs for his new assistant even though the man quite clearly stood mere feet away. Although the chief mechanic cringed at the volume of the Captain’s voice, he valiantly rushed forward to stand before the clearly simmering Captain. “What are your instructions, Cap?” he asked eagerly, if a bit fearfully.

“Get that crane unloaded and set up!” the Captain harshly commanded.

Jimmy gaped at the Captain for a moment as his mouth worked in tune with the many questions that fought for supremacy in his mind, the foremost of which involved the exact location the Captain wanted the crane set, as no place seemed more likely than another.

“Move it, James! Wasting time is not an option! People are countin’ on us!”

With an enthusiastic nod to project a confidence he did not feel, the chief mechanic jumped into motion and headed at a trot in the direction of the first plane while Cid turned to direct his remarks to the entire group. He glared fiercely at the lot of them as he gestured with both hands, the stub of his lit cigarette in one and the Venus Gospel in the other, completely oblivious to the nervous eyes locked on the glinting edges of the sweeping ornate blade.

“That goes for all o’ ya! Do you hear? We will not stop! Will not falter! We will open that goddamn tin can of a city! And we’ll bust our asses to get it done as soon as humanly possible! Now get on it!” He stabbed the air in front of him with the tip of his lance to punctuate his impassioned command. The motley group of mechanics and Junon soldiers instantly turned as one person to briskly follow Jimmy toward the plane, their thoughts more focused on escape than enterprise.

“Isn’t it a bit early for your blood pressure to be so high, Highwind?” Barrett inquired with a warning tone. Cid swept his angry glare around to the hulking man who had arrived beside him during his brief diatribe. The blue irises, alive with fire that could well rival the Mako flame in Cloud Strife’s, burned into the calm brown gaze that met his challenge full measure. Cid’s eyes fell beneath the reason in Barrett’s as his anger slowly ebbed away. He shot the cigarette butt to the blackened ground with a vehemence fed from the despair within him.

“It ain’t gonna be easy, Wallace. In fact, it might not even be possible,” he growled lowly. He wanted to add that they could use more help, but truthfully the help that he would wish for amounted to a grand total of one person, and that one person seemed more indispensable to him with each passing day. But there was nothing he could do about it. She was gone. For good.

Barrett’s deep chuckle rumbled into his ears and brought Cid’s head snapping up, his waning ire instantly reignited by the man’s levity, especially since it almost seemed he was laughing at the direction Cid’s thoughts had taken. The Captain opened his mouth to dump a load of swear words onto the man’s thick head, but then he acknowledged to himself that Barrett couldn’t know who he’d been thinking about. He settled for a return to his intense glaring instead. “What’s so goddamned funny, Wallace?”

Barrett grinned at the Captain’s obvious displeasure. “Since when did we ever have anything easy, Highwind?”

Cid’s glare continued unabated, his frown deepening at the unwavering amusement in the brown eyes until Barrett’s words finally sank in between his ears, and his tightly compressed lips relaxed in the semblance of a smile. “Huh…not lately anyway.”

“So why should you expect things to be easy now?”

Cid rubbed his chin with one gloved hand, wrinkling his brow as he feigned deep thought. “So…if it ain’t hard, it ain’t worth doin’. That what yer implyin’?”

“Damn straight, Highwind.”

A wide grin suddenly burst across Cid’s grizzled face. “Yup! You’re right! Damn straight!” he happily agreed. He looked back over his shoulder to appraise the situation with new eyes. Despite the irrefutable fact that the exact same mountain of debris met his gaze, a mess of scrap and rubble was all he could see now. Scrap and rubble that needed only to be moved. And he had the crew and equipment to move it. He reinforced that recognition with a sharp jerk of his chin as he purposefully stowed all of his doubt deep inside, and then he turned thoughtful eyes toward the huge cargo planes, unconsciously frowning at sight of the Gelnika that canted sideways with a wing tip buried in the ground.

“I guess we better see if we can raise the Cat Man on the plane radio,” he said slowly. “I’m not sure the signal'll reach though.”

“Well, I’ve got something better,” Barrett duly informed him.

Cid shifted skeptical eyes to the big man’s smug face. “Tin cans and a string?”

“Somethin’ like that,” Barrett agreed somewhat smugly.

“Let’s have it then,” Cid prodded.

“That way,” Barrett nodded his head in the direction of the plane with a mysterious smile as he moved away.

Cid turned to follow just as Yuffie brushed by him, apparently oblivious to his presence there as she plodded heavily past with slumped shoulders, her boneless arms hanging limply at her sides. A light sheen of perspiration coated her slack, pallid face, granting her fine features an ethereal softness not usually found in the girl’s normally animated and contrary face. A little concerned at her unusual state, Cid impulsively called after her. “Hey girl, you okay?”

“Just leave me alone, Old Man,” she groaned over her shoulder as she plodded on, her apparent destination the motionless Derrick Heidegger that still stood frozen where Cid had left him when he'd turned to address his crew.

“She’s not having a good day,” Nanaki informed the Captain as he dropped to his haunches in front of him. Cid lowered inquisitive eyes to the beast’s sympathetic face.

“Airsick, eh?”

Nanaki inclined his head. “Well yes, there is that. Then there was our unfortunate landing. A very nice touchdown indeed…until the right wheel hit that soft patch of ground…and then the plane…well…you know…pivoted and tipped and…wobbled…and almost went over and well…Derry had to peel her from the seatback…and then he had to pry her hands off his throat…and she threatened to dismember him and got out the Conformer…but then she got really…really…sick…”

Cid screwed his face up in disgust at the mental image of what had happened next, an image generated from his recollection of the ninja girl’s first trip on the airship when she’d baptized the well scrubbed wooden deck with the copious remains of her last meal. His stomach churned nauseously at the memory. “Yeah, I…er…get the picture. Better just leave her alone for now.”

“Yes…I believe that would be best. Until she has recovered her equilibrium.” Nanaki drew his distant gaze from Yuffie’s ponderously moving form and tipped his one golden eye up to look into Cid’s speculative face. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Cid pursed his lips in thought, half-turning to peer over his shoulder in pensive appraisal as Yuffie neared Derry’s location. She didn’t have the Conformer in her hands now, but that could change in a split second. "Yeah, Red. Why doncha keep an eye on my pilot. Make sure Yuffie doesn't hurt him. I need that boy to fly the plane back to Junon once we get these people out.”

Nanaki nodded. “I’ll do my best.”

“Gotta get the plane out first though…” Cid mused aloud. “…And mark out a solid runway across the Flats…but that’ll keep ‘til later.” The Captain suddenly realized he was talking to no one as Nanaki had already padded away in Yuffie’s footsteps to follow the Captain’s instructions regarding the young pilot, a matter he probably found most imperative when he'd noted, as Cid had, that Yuffie had almost reached Heidegger’s position despite her weary pace. Cid decided the matter best left to Nanaki, and he set out to catch up with Barrett, dragging yet another stale cigarette from the crumpled pack tucked beneath the strap of his googles.

Eyeing the bedraggled cigarette as he walked, he calculated the number of packs he had stashed on the Gelnika and tucked into the numerous pockets of his flight jacket, and he silently acknowledged that he would need to uncover a new supply of smokes. Very soon. The number of smokes he currently had available would not last him the length of this project. Another reason to get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible. Besides, his Lucky Lady was waiting for him to give her back the sky.

Just then, he remembered the chopper and the familiar face he thought he’d seen. A face he knew very well that he couldn’t have possibly seen. Still, he’d seen someone, and that someone bore a striking resemblance to a member of the Shinra family that he’d last seen at a Shinra Founder's Banquet, only a few weeks before the tragic accident that had taken her life in front of the Shinra Headquarters. He would never forget the sweet smile on her lovely face and the soft glow of happiness in her startling blue eyes that night. And he had noticed. He’d wager there were not many men there that night who hadn’t found themselves watching her at some point, and rowdy young pilot that he’d been, he was no exception.

Speculatively, he squinted his eyes at the empty sky as he wondered at the destination of the Shinra Corporate helicopter. The chopper had been headed in the direction of Junon when he’d lost sight of it, but who knew where the Turks might end up. They were a sneaky bunch. At any rate, he didn’t have time to worry about it. He was guilty of wasting precious time on pointless matters that didn’t concern him, and Barrett was waiting several feet ahead for him with his hand on his hip and an impatient glare pinned on his lackadaisical form. It was past time to get to work. Laying the shaft of the Venus Gospel across one shoulder, he lit his cigarette and stepped up his pace as he shoved all thoughts of the Turks and the deceased Caitlin Shinra from his mind.

Reno wriggled his lanky body into the tight space in the rear of the chopper and worked for several moments to get his long legs rearranged in a position that would allow for optimum comfort. Despite knocking his right knee soundly against the sharp corner of the metal chest, an act that resulted in a string of muttered imprecations, and after impatiently extricating a stray coil of cable from beneath his rear, he finally got settled in and narrowed his eyes on the metal equipment chest set flush against the contoured helicopter wall. Lifting the combination padlock in long fingers, he mentally reviewed his extensive list of memorized numbers and passwords until he’d settled on the right one with the tiniest lift of one corner of his thin mouth at the ease of his recollection.

Shoulders hunched and head bent, he easily worked his way through the 6-digit combination lock until he set the last one and the lock softly clicked open. Pocketing the padlock, Reno shoved the metal lid back against the wall and intently scanned the contents neatly organized into the various compartments. When he didn’t find exactly what he wanted, he lifted the first tray aside to examine the one beneath.

A shoe sole chunked against the outer step, followed by an almost complete obliteration of his best angle of illumination from the bright sunlight outside. He didn’t have to divert his attention from the contents of the chest to identify the intruder who’d ruined his search. The bored sigh, loud in the quiet confines of the helicopter, immediately identified her. Without looking around, Reno lifted out the middle tray to poke a long finger into a compartment full of softly gleaming articles of jewelry. He wrinkled his brow in disgruntlement.

“Get out of my light, Elena,” he curtly commanded.

“What are you doing?” The petulance in her voice wasn’t lost on him.

“Looking,” he replied economically.

“For?” She prompted.


Recognizing that Elena had no intention of moving from the doorway any time soon, he reached for a penlight from the first tray he’d set aside and clicked the light on to shine down into the chest.

“What are you looking for Reno?” she irritably persisted.

From her tone he could almost imagine the hands propped on slim hips and the hazel-eyed glare pinned on the back of his head. She’d certainly become less respectful of his authority of late. At the moment, he really didn’t care. At that moment when he did care, he knew quite well how to line her out.

“Stuff,” he remarked uncooperatively.

“Could you be any more specific?” she asked with more than a hint of sarcasm.


“Why not?”

“If I wanted you to know, I would have already told you, Elena,” he replied coolly.

The blonde Turk stared at the back of Reno’s bent head for a full ten seconds before she answered, all the while resisting the urge to reach over the back of the seat and give his wispy ponytail a hard yank.

“Fine Reno. Keep your secrets. But Caitlin said to hurry up. It’s hot out here. So hurry the hell up, will you?”

Reno carelessly shrugged. He knew that Caitlin hadn’t said anything of the sort. Elena was speaking for herself. “Apologize to Ms. Shinra for my languorous mode of operation and inform her I’ll be along shortly,” he replied indifferently. Certainly, he displayed no inclination to obey.

“Whatever,” she snapped.

Elena realized that she was wasting her time glaring at him over the back of the seat when he hadn’t so much as glanced her way, and she drew away with the intention of physically removing herself from the chopper and his presence. At her movement, Reno suddenly whipped his head around to encounter hazel eyes that were only momentarily startled before acquiring a layer of icy disdain. His own eyes seemed full of purposeful intent. He reached over the seat to dangle a silver bangle bracelet in front of her wary face. “Here, Elena. Put this on.”

She curled her lip at the elegant diamond shapes engraved in the plain piece of jewelry. She preferred soft gold and colorful gems. “Why?”

“Because we’re going incognito. Take off the ring and put on the bracelet.”

Tentatively, she reached for it. “So this bracelet serves the same purpose?”

“Pretty much.” Reno bent his head over the chest again. “Besides, it fits your new schoolteacher image.”

Elena’s sculptured blonde brows shot up. “School…teacher?” she asked in dismay. She was a Turk. Not a schoolteacher.

Amused at the distress in her voice, Reno turned back to smirk at her, deciding to press the point of his offhand and meaningless comment in light of her reaction. “Sure Elena, what’s wrong with that? A perfect disguise, I think. Besides…I like schoolteachers.”

She narrowed her hazel eyes in irritation at the playful glint in his green gaze. “I’ll just bet you do,” she remarked icily. Lifting her chin, Elena pointedly turned sideways in the open doorway to jump to the ground. “Thankfully, I’m not one,” she sniffed over her shoulder. Then she tossed her blonde head and stalked away.

Reno chuckled as he reached to gather several other potentially useful items from the three trays, along with three neatly rubber banded bundles of gil notes, all of which he deposited into his pockets or into an open black bag. “Thankfully,” he agreed to himself as he purposefully zipped up the bag. Swiftly, he returned the trays to the chest, closed the lid, and retrieved the padlock to secure the metal chest. Then he awkwardly untangled his legs and worked his way out of the close space to finally climb down between the two rear seats, dragging the bag along behind him. Leaning between the front seats, he quickly recovered the commpad from beneath the passenger seat where he had stowed it during the roundabout flight toward Kalm. After carefully placing the electronic device into a side pocket of the black bag, he tossed the bag over one shoulder and jumped lithely down from the chopper.

Straightening to his full height, he swept appraising green eyes over the waiting party gathered around the chopper, noting the petulantly compressed lips and impatient glare of Elena, the unreadable face and tightly folded arms of Rude, the mildly curious but noncommittal azure gaze of Caitlin Shinra, and finally, the small face that peered around one of Caitlin’s jean clad legs, dark eyes openly adoring. His brows drew together in a tight frown, an expression that had little effect on Rachel’s unerring regard of him.

“Are we ready to go?” Caitlin inquired quietly, interrupting his stare down with the little girl. Which was just as well, as he sensed himself on the verge of losing anyway. He turned his attention to Caitlin’s twinkling eyes, and then moved on to Rude’s stiffly immobile face.

“No, no quite,” he answered as he assessed Rude’s appearance. “Rude, lose the Turk. You heard the boss.” Then he turned on heel and walked away.

Elena tracked the redheaded Turk’s progress up the hill with interested eyes before turning to take in Rude’s motionless stance. He seemed to be at a momentary loss. “Well, come on Rude. Do something,” she urged. “It’s hot out here.” Pointedly, she shoved the heavy sleeves of the red cable knit sweater further up her arms. The garment had been bearable inside the cool confines of the Midgar slums, but not out in the mid-afternoon sunlight. In fact, she planned to lose the garment at the first possible opportunity. Schoolteacher indeed. She’d show the Leader of the Turks a thing or two. A chilly smile touched her lips at the thought.

Still, Rude didn’t move, and with an encouraging smile on her face, Caitlin stepped forward to see if she could move matters along. “Why don’t we start with the jacket, Rude?” she suggested as she tentatively reached slim fingers toward the first button on his blue suit coat. He instantly raised a hand to halt her movement, and she raised uncertain eyes to view his down-turned mouth and dark shades. Purposefully, she threw her long waves of golden hair over one slender shoulder and lifted her chin in determination. “Rude, you cannot go into Kalm looking like a Shinra Turk.”

Silently, he nodded his agreement, and she immediately reached for his jacket button again, but her fingers encountered the open palm of his hand. “I’ll do it, Caitlin,” he responded lowly so that only she could hear. She didn’t fail to notice the level of strain in his even voice, and she wondered if the proposition of giving up the Turk veneer posed some difficulty for him, which led her to wonder if he’d ever gone out in public donned in anything but his customary attire. Now that she thought about it, she couldn’t remember a time that he’d ever gone out in any capacity other than that of his employment. On the other hand, she had to admit that he’d always been acting in the same capacity whenever he’d come into contact with her before. She’d never been around Rude when he was off work.

She lifted placating hands into the air. “Okay Rude, but please get on with it,” she commanded in a quiet voice. “I don’t want to keep Avian Wulfe waiting if he’s decided to speak with us. I’m afraid it wouldn’t take much for him to change his mind.”

Rude inclined his head in respectful acknowledgement of her statement even as he continued to stare at her through his fathomless shades. Finding no measure of compromise in her face, he abruptly turned and strode away to stand beside the chopper where he purposefully put his back to them, and in a fluid sequence of movements, unfastened the buttons and shrugged out of the coat. Then, with a hidden look over his shoulder at the two watchful women, he deliberately balled up the garment and flung it into the open door of the helicopter.

Morbidly fascinated by the utter destruction of the expansive metropolis atop the plate, Derry stared at the decimated skyline, his eyes reflecting a mixture of awe and sadness. He’d resided half of his life in Midgar, the half he’d spent with his mother, and he could hardly absorb the reality that the city he’d known was gone. Hunching his shoulders in sorrowful acknowledgement, he let his eyes travel downward from the tangle of wreckage at the rim to discover a startlingly familiar landmark that had been tossed like a handful of building blocks over the high wall to top off the endless layers of rubble. Amazingly, the clock face of the tall brick tower that had once stood proudly at the entrance to the Viorli Plaza and had now been mostly pulverized to brick dust still marked the time with both ornate hands. Rather, the clock hands recorded the moment that time had stopped in Midgar. 9:37.

Derry forced pained eyes past the dead clock, only to find the skeletal remains of an office building, bent in the middle like a well-used piece from a child's toy erector set, the top section hanging over the rim of the city's retaining wall. The whole thing seemed held in place by a messy knot of steel cables that looked little more than glimmering threads from where he stood. Every mirrored window had been broken out, as well as most of the concrete, leaving little but the metal frame. In fact, if it weren’t for the half twisted pyramidal emblem that even yet remained affixed to the crest of what had been the forward façcade, he would not have recognized the building. For one thing, the debris had wound up on the opposite side of the city from where the slender, thirty-floor structure had once stood.

His throat ached at the sight. Not only at the knowledge that the office where he’d visited his mother on many occasions no longer existed and never would again, but also at the realization that if she had not suddenly grown ill and passed away just over two years ago, she would probably have been right there in her office, working, when Meteor hit. A silly thing to consider, since he’d already lost her, and he couldn’t lose her again. Still, there were times when he found he did lose her again. Over and over.

Like the times when he accidentally encountered a television, in a friend’s home or in a store window, at just that moment when the achingly familiar theme music would play. Always, he would be compelled to pause and watch with wishful eyes, absently expecting to see her beautiful face appear, only to see another woman sitting at the anchor desk in her rightful place.

Then there were those mornings when gentle fingers would touch his sleeping face, and he would wake with a welcoming smile for her only to discover that the warm fingers on his face had only been a slanting ray of sunlight and a soft breeze wafting through his open window. Like countless other times that came upon him unexpectedly, nostalgic moments that always served to remind him again that he’d lost her.

With a start, he became aware that someone stood at his elbow, someone who had silently arrived throughout his unguarded moments of bittersweet reverie, and an unidentified someone who had yet to say a word. He swiveled his head, and his troubled blue eyes turned wary at his recognition of Yuffie Kisaragi. When last he’d seen her, she’d been heaping inventive insults and threats of death and dismemberment upon his head, although he didn’t deem them particularly serious, screeched as they were between the fingers of the hand clasped over her mouth. In fact, she still seemed a bit green around the gills, and remarkably inert for someone so typically animated. He suddenly found himself awash in concern for her, as well as guilt. After all, she’d been holding her own pretty well, until he’d missed seeing that sinkhole in time to turn the plane away.

“Are you going to be all right?” he asked with a voice full of friendly concern.

Yuffie didn’t even bother to look at him. “Yeah…no thanks to you flyboy,” she said dully.

Derry jammed his hands into the pockets of his jeans and bent his head to examine the ground. “I’m really sorry about that.”

At his apology, Yuffie finally dragged her eyes away from the surreal scene of death and destruction before her, a horrible sight to be sure, yet hardly touching her inside, as though the scene had been framed inside a cinema, a sequence in a disaster movie she knew to be unreal, easy to dismiss but for the fact that it was all deadly real.

Her eyes sparked with the energy from a newfound well of ire at the reminder of his culpability in the whole affair. She pinned murderous black eyes on his profile and opened her mouth to impugn his flying abilities as well as certain aspects of his manhood, but when he raised rueful eyes to her face, the hateful words froze on the tip of her tongue. How could she berate him with those eyes looking at her? Was it really his fault that she’d become airsick? She well knew what Cid would say to her complaints about one of his flights.

You’re still in one piece, ain’t ya? So quit yer bitchin’.”
You think you can do it better little girl, you come on and fly the plane next time. I’ll just catch me a nap instead.”
“Well, ya ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Let’s see whatcha think of my loop-de-loops.”
“Now, how ‘bout my rollovers?”

Only Cid probably wouldn’t warn her beforehand. He’d just do them. The loop-de-loops and the rollovers and his whole repertoire of air acrobatic tricks. He’d show her, that’s for sure. As far as Derry the Fly and his apology, she’d expected to see sarcasm in his eyes if not his voice, or at the very least, amusement at her expense, but she could find nothing in his abject face, in his sorrowful loose-limbed posture, and in his beseeching sky blue eyes but for sincerity and concern. She’d wanted to yell at him. In fact, she wanted to hate him. If only because his name was Heiddeger, among other reasons. But she couldn’t hate him. And she couldn’t even find the motivation to say any of the sharply honed words she’d planned. Not when she could easily see on his open face that he truly cared.

With a dismissive shrug, she tossed her head and planted her eyes on the ruins of Midgar again, unable to view those amiable blue eyes anymore. “I’ll live, Heidegger,” she sniffed. “Don’t worry your thick head about that.”

“Well…you don’t look so good…” he noted aloud.

“Bug off, Flyboy,” she snapped.

“Sure thing,” he easily agreed, deliberately redirecting his attention away from the pallid-faced ninja girl to the motionless clock face. They both let several moments elapse in silence as they studied the wrecked city and listened to the imperative commands of the Captain and the equally imperative questions of the crew as they hollered back and forth far behind them. Finally, a loud metallic clang rang out, making them both jump.

Lowering his gaze to his shoes, Derry idly scrubbed the toe of one sneaker against the hard pack of the dead ground. “So…did you know anyone in Midgar?”

Yuffie turned to look at his downcast face, and her black eyes hardened. “Not really,” she sneered. “Nobody there I’d wanna know. Just Shinra.”

Just Shinra. So no great loss That was the unspoken implication, and she knew Derry couldn’t fail to hear it. She’d meant it as a dig at him, one he didn’t deserve. Yet, she couldn’t seem to stop herself, and even as the words fell off her tongue, she already wished them back. Especially when he turned pained eyes in her direction, eyes she pointedly refused to meet directly. He cocked his head to one side as he studied her expressionless face.

“Yeah, I guess you have your reasons for hating Shinra,” he quietly acknowledged. “Can’t blame you for that.”

His understanding voice lacked any hint of censure whatsoever, and that fact ignited the fuse to a powderkeg of irrational anger deep inside her. Irrational because she had no reason to be angry with him, except maybe for the fact that his name was Heidegger. And Heidegger and his military battalion had been responsible for unspeakable crimes against her nation, the death of her mother foremost. She noted with satisfaction that he actually took a step away from her at the dark blaze in her ebony eyes. She advanced a threatening step toward him to emphasize her advantage, but he stood his ground this time.

She jabbed a thin finger toward his chest. “You cannot possibly begin to comprehend what Shinra did to Wutai, Mr. Heidegger,” she snarled. “You couldn’t hope to know in your little playboy world. So keep your phony sentiments to yourself.”

Wisely, Derry held his tongue, instead crossing his arms and shifting casually to one foot to watch her with interest.

“In fact, you’d be well advised to never…ever…speak to me again. So don’t talk to me. Don’t think about me. Just stay the hell away from me, you brainless moron!” Her unreasoned tirade, building steadily throughout from a low threatening tone to a shrill crescendo, ended on a choked shriek, at which point she whirled away and broke into a run, careening full tilt away from the planes and people behind her in favor of the wide-open expanse around the debris lined city exterior.

Concerned at the direction of the route she'd taken, Derry called after her as he unconsciously took a tentative step to follow her. “Hey wait, don’t go that way, Princess!”

“Just let her be,” Nanaki suggested quietly from behind him. Startled, Derry whirled around to find the red animal stretched out comfortably across the ground, one golden eye watching him carefully.

“How long have you been there?” Derry asked warily, still uneasy around the ferocious looking beast despite their earlier conversations.

Nanaki bared his teeth at him in a sharp-toothed parody of a grin. “Long enough.”

Derry identified the subsequent snuffling sound as Nanaki laughter, and he finally relaxed at the beast’s wolfish display of humor.

“Don’t you think we should go get her?” Derry asked Nanaki with a slight smile on his face.

“She’ll come back. Once she’s settled down,” Nanaki reassured him.

Derry raised a hand to scratch his head, turning to watch the distant form of the fleeing girl as she continued to follow the curve of the wall, a path that would shortly take her out of sight. “Are you sure? I can imagine a lot of ways she could hurt herself around here.”

“She’s used to being on her own. She can take care of herself. Besides, it’s probably best for all concerned if she’s alone for awhile.”

“Yeah…I guess you’re right…she seems so angry…all the time…”

“Her burden is heavy,” Nanaki acknowledged. “At times, the weight becomes…unbearable. Especially when one finds the smallest of weaknesses overwhelming at times.”

“Well…I guess everyone carries a burden, of some sort or another…” Derry replied uncertainly, clueless as to what Nanaki meant by his cryptic statement. He frowned in concern as he watched her disappear around a tailing of rubble. “Maybe she just needs to let her friends…help her…”

Behind Derry, Nanaki nodded his head in agreement, setting his beaded locks to swaying. “It’s quite difficult to risk relinquishing one’s grip sometimes…one slip and all is lost…”

Curious at the gravity in the beast’s tone, Derry shifted around to examine Nanaki’s uninformative face. “You sound like someone who would know,” he prompted, hoping for elaboration.

Nanaki responded by rolling onto his belly to spring easily to his feet. Derry resisted the urge to jump away at the sudden movement, even as he began to wonder if he would ever get used to this talking predatory looking animal. Nanaki noted the nervousness in his eyes, and he parted his mouth in a slight grin as he turned in the direction of the activity around the planes.

“What do I know? I’m only a child,” he informed the wary pilot. “Let us go. There is work to be done.”

Derry hesitantly fell into step behind the huge beast. Then he raised pale eyebrows in astonishment as the import of Nanaki’s words struck him. “A child?!” he impulsively exclaimed. “Dude, I’d hate to see your grownups.”

Nanaki’s snuffling laughter filled his ears.

“Can I tell your fortune, Avian?”

“You already told my fortune,” Avian replied wearily as the Mog bounced a circle around his trudging form. Cait Sith was currently hanging upside down off the back of the Mog’s head with mittened hands clasped behind his ears and his red cape flapping against the back of his stuffed feline head. As far as he was concerned, Cait Sith and his ride had entirely too much energy, and he wondered where in heavens it all came from. He would certainly like to benefit from the source. He glared at the saucer-eyed cat in disgruntlement. Avian had two regrets at that moment in his life. First, he wished he’d never let Cloud Strife take his motorcycle, and secondly, he deeply rued the moment he’d given in to Cait Sith’s incessant requests to tell his fortune. That had been a major mistake on his part. “Cait…you’ve told my fortune sixteen times now. And funny, it’s different every time. Strange, isn’t it?” Thankfully, he knew their trek was nearly finished. The blessed village of Kalm would appear over the next rise.

“Well, can I tell your fortune again?” Cait Sith asked hopefully.

“What’s the point?”

Cait Sith somersaulted to the ground to scamper into step beside him with cat strides comically long in an effort to match Avian’s steps. Unconsciously, Avian shortened his own stride. “You don’t like my fortunes, Avian?” Cait Sith asked mournfully.

“Hey…what’s not to like?” Avian tossed his wind-tangled hair out of his face.

“I don’t know, Avian.”

“Well, let’s see…” Avian wrinkled his brow in thought. “You told me my road was long. I think I knew that already. My feet knew that before I did. And let’s see…you told me I’d be talking to someone important…which goes to show you’ve been paying attention or…your handlers have kept you informed…and you told me I’d be coming into some money, which goes without saying since I’m almost assured to get my job back…according to Cloud…and let’s see…what else…” He pursed his lips in thought.

“You will stumble into a deep well of secrets and intrigue,” Cait Sith prompted happily.

“Oh yeah, I forgot about that one. Very melodramatic. I can’t wait.” Avian’s sarcasm was completely lost on the beaming cat.

“You will meet a beautiful lady,” Cait added helpfully.

“Ah yes, foreknowledge again. At least it’s nice to know she’s as beautiful as her voice. I definitely can’t wait for that, if she actually shows up. But then I guess your sudden decision to accompany me assures that. I just hope I can trust her.”

“Who?” Cait Sith’s swishing tail shot up to form a question mark.

“The beautiful lady…that’s the mysterious Caitlin, right?”

“I don’t know Caitlin,” the robotic cat patiently informed him in his singsong voice.

“But…what do you mean?” Avian stopped in the sandy track and turned perplexed amber eyes down to look at the dancing cat, now stationary in one place yet constantly moving from one booted foot to the other. “She instructed you to go to Kalm with me didn’t she? And she spoke through you, right? You must know who she is,” he insisted.

“He did not instruct me to go to Kalm, Silly.” Cait Sith informed him huffily.

“Oh right, your creator, that Shinra guy Alexander, told you to go to Kalm. My bad.”

“I can’t tell you, Avian,” Cait Sith persisted. He started punching at the air with mittened fists, as though warming up for a boxing match. Avian eyed him balefully.

“Oh, give it a rest, Cait Sith,” Avian growled. He pointedly hiked his bag higher on his back and set off up the trail again. Cait skipped after him and jumped for his leg, tightly wrapping arms and legs around his calf the instant he made contact. Bemused, Avian stopped in place and looked down at the comical face that peered up at him from the vicinity of his kneecap.

“Give what a rest, Avian?”

Avian gave his leg a tentative shake, and then a harder one, but the cat would not be dislodged, so he shrugged his shoulders and walked on, although he now found himself with an unconscious tendency to throw his Cait encumbered leg out to the side with each step. The robotic cat was much heavier than his size or agility would suggest.

“Your boss, your maker or whatever, he already told me he made you,” Avian clarified. “So it follows that he commands you too. I wasn’t born under a rock, Cait. I can figure it out. Reeve Alexander made you. Reeve Alexander commands you. He told you that you’d better make sure I arrive in Kalm or he’ll dismantle you and scatter your parts. Didn’t he? Tell me I’m wrong.”

Cait Sith erupted into motion, reaching up to grab the hem of Avian’s woven vest. With a kick of his red-booted feet, he swung around to grab the dangling ties of his pack, moving so swiftly that Avian could hardly tell where he’d gone. The young man stopped in the trail and twisted one way, and then the other, in a vain attempt to reach behind his back and capture the illusive machine, but he couldn’t manage to get so much as a finger on the creature, although the weight on his pack told him Cait was definitely still on board.

Avian threw his hands out in surrender. “Come on, Cait, get back on your chubby pink friend there and let’s get this show on the road.” The robotic cat didn’t move, and Avian wondered if the machine had the capability to detect exasperation in the human voice. Suddenly, an idea occurred to him, and he threw up a hand to toss the pack off his back, but before he could follow through on his plan, Cait leapt onto his shoulders and planted soft mittened hands in the hair on either side of Avian’s head. Avian rolled his eyes upward to catch a glimpse of Cait’s crown and pointed black ears just visible above his forehead. The capricious Cait then shifted around to one side and leaned forward to peer around the hanging strands of sandy hair. Avian slowly turned his head to bring his amber eyes within a couple of inches of Cait’s electronically illuminated golden eyes. He might have reached up and grabbed the artificial creature around the neck and personally deposited him on the head of the Mog, but Cait sang out in his musical voice.

“You are wrong, Mr. Smartypants,” Cait informed him gleefully.

Avian winced at the shrillness of the words right next to his ear. “Wrong about what?” He frowned as he tried to remember just where they’d been in their nonsensical conversation.

“He told me to protect you.”

“Protect me from…”


“Uh huh…well…I do appreciate your efforts on my behalf…Cait…Sith…and your courage in the face of untold danger…but…er…you didn’t do so well against that guy…”

Cait Sith abruptly sprang from his shoulder with every bit the agility of his natural counterpart, landing on his feet only to instantly spring into the air to regain his seat atop the Mog that still bounded alongside. Cait settled into position and reached for his megaphone. At this apparent sign that the cat was through with his games and ready to continue on to Kalm, Avian looked around to locate his dog. Soldier had spent most of the trip snuffling through the fields to either side of their path, but he never let Avian out of his sight. The young man whistled for him now, wanting him close when they entered the village, and stepped out finally to climb the last long incline of their trek.

“I was not at my best, Avian.” Cait’s achingly sad voice came from behind him. “I lost my head.”

Again, Avian stopped and turned to look back, hopelessly intrigued by the very human quality of sorrow in the artificial cat’s unique voice. Cait Sith sat atop the Mog that now stood motionless in the trail, and the cat’s sadly bent head and hunched form made him feel guilty for having censured him at all, especially since the creature had almost demolished himself in his full frontal assault on the hulking assailant in his grandma’s kitchen. “Look Cait, I didn’t mean anything by it…I mean…what in the world could you do about that huge guy? You’re just a…er…ro…I mean…a…er…elec…tronic…little fellow…right?” Cait raised his golden eyes to appraise Avian’s face silently. “I mean…I don’t know for sure…but…that guy looked like some kind of a…military…er…assault vehicle…or something…” Avian’s voice trailed away helplessly. “…Don’t you think?”

Cait sprang to his booted feet and brandished the megaphone in the air as he responded in his typical singsong.

“Kendo, Julian Dana. Born Saragoza 580808. Enlistment Date Shinra Regular Army 760515. Upgraded Shinra Special Force Death Dragon 800902. Separation Date Shinra Military 880118. Designation Dishonorable. File Content Classified. Authority Department of Administrative Research Order 7845-23B.

Avian gaped at the now silent cat until he finally remembered to close his mouth so he could speak. “What was all that?” he asked in astonishment.

Cait Sith lifted the megaphone to his mouth to amplify his voice. “I do have powers, Mr. Smartypants.” Cait informed him with an ominous tone. “I will protect you.” Cait waved the megaphone to one side and a twisted corpse of a tree a few feet to Avian’s left explosively disintegrated into hot, raging flame. Avian stumbled away in shock, only to fall backwards and land painfully on his rear when a deafening crack of lightening transformed a sand plum bush to his right into a smoking crater in the ground.

Instantly, Avian scrambled to his feet and backed several feet away, a distance he hoped would insure his safety. His stunned eyes shifted from the blackened pile of smoldering tree ashes on one side of the trail to the smoking hole in the green grass on the other side. Finally, he turned wide eyes full of apprehension and awe to the robotic cat that had now settled down to sit cross-legged between the Mog’s ears, the megaphone at rest beside one furry artificial knee. Avian drew in a steadying breath. “Ah…I must say…Cait Sith…I’m glad you’re on my side…”

Avian vaguely recalled that he’d wanted to say a few other things to the robotic cat, some questions about something or other, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember. Partly because of his astonishment at Cait’s display of destructive magic and partly because his thoughts kept trying to coalesce around his recognition of the fact that he couldn’t be sure that Cait was truly on his side. He didn’t know how to reconcile his knowledge that Cait had been traveling with Avalanche and yet, had been manufactured and seemed currently guided by the commands of a high level Shinra executive. Those two factions were supposed to be enemies, he’d thought. He realized that he should probably try to get to the bottom of this contradiction before he actually met with these people who may or may not have his best interests in mind, but right now, all he wanted to do was make the relative safety of Kalm town. So with that desire imperative in his mind, he abruptly turned his back to the Mog and the Shinra cat, and with a whistle for his dog, set out, with alacrity, up the hill. A glance over one shoulder showed him that both dog and Cait on bounding Mog dutifully followed, and he picked up the pace even more.

The strange party advanced in relative silence as Avian’s thoughts traveled down many avenues. He had much to think on, not the least of which involved a scheme to examine the megaphone belonging to Cait Sith. The robotic cat obviously possessed some high level materia, and he found it disquieting that a machine could wield the powers within the orbs. He’d thought only the human mind could direct the innate power of the materia, a belief now revealed to be patently false. Cait Sith, for his part, now seemed uncharacteristically restrained, but Avian hardly noticed. Nor did he seem aware of Soldier, who trotted close beside him as though he sensed the uneasiness of his master and felt the need to remain near. In fact, he noticed no aspect of the physical world around him at all, caught in the mad race of a mostly aimless mental exercise, until he topped the ridge and the scene before him finally imprinted in his brain, bringing his thoughts slamming to a stop in consternation.

He could feel his heart sinking as he let his disturbed eyes scan the sea of canvas tents and makeshift shelters surrounding the high walls of the village of Kalm. “Looks like Kalm might not be so calm…anymore…” he remarked nervously to no one in particular. Then, even though he wanted nothing more than to turn back in the direction of the farm and his senile grandmother and his bossy aunt, simply turn tail and run all the way back despite his aching feet, he forced himself forward as he thought about the people he would meet and wondered just what he’d gotten himself into this time.

A deep well of secrets and intrigue…

Foreknowledge on Cait’s part? He could barely entertain the possibility of Cait’s duplicity.

Yet, he had to wonder why Cloud Strife would be hanging with that Shinra guy Alexander anyway.

Maybe that hadn’t been Cloud after all…but a trick…

For the first time since he’d placed it there, Avian reached beneath his vest to touch the hilt of the Laughing Dragon dagger in its sheath. His fingers met the cool metal with great reluctance, and he gained no reassurance from the contact.

He jerked his fingers away to wipe them against the cloth of his trousers, and then he turned his head slightly to regard Cait Sith from the corner of an eye. The cat paid him no mind, all his attention seemingly focused on the tent city as they neared. Looking at him now, Avian could hardly imagine the cat as a threat to him, but he knew better. Cait had shown him all too well.

Of course, the burning question was this. If he had to, could he wield the dagger in his own defense? And if so, would it be enough?

He deeply doubted it.

“This way, Mr. Alexander.” The Shinra officer solicitously lifted a hand to indicate the wooden steps leading to a narrow porch that fronted a crumbling stone building, one that appeared to have been a tavern, and not so long ago at that. Even as he stood there, he noted the curious faces gathering at both of the smudged windows that faced the front, the people inside crowding around to peer out at them, although he had to admit that Cloud Strife and his luminous sword seemed the main focus of their interest, if their excited gestures in his direction were any indication. For his part, Cloud paid them no mind, standing at ease, arms folded, as he stared with unfocused Mako eyes into the constantly moving stream of bodies along the broken sidewalks and buckled street around them, his thoughts seemingly taken by another matter far away from the slums of Midgar. The executive slid his hands into his coat pockets and pinned incisive dark eyes on the officer as he wrapped his fingers around the small computer in his pocket.

“This is the site General Sand deemed appropriate for our operations?” Reeve hid the uncertainty in his voice beneath a thin veneer of executive arrogance and disdain.

“Yes Sir! This is the place!” The officer smiled slightly, seemingly unfazed by the unrelenting regard, obviously not laboring under the doubts that currently plagued the executive.

“This hardly seems a likely location,” Reeve pointed out as he deliberately shifted his eyes to watch three men and two women, one with a child in tow, climb the steps and swing the entry door aside to walk through. A jumble of excited voices rolled from inside, only to fall silent again when the door slammed shut behind the new entrants. “In fact, there appear to be a number of people about...” A major understatement, in case you didn’t notice, Officer Whatever-Your-Name-Might-Be, the executive added silently. He returned his annoyed eyes to the officer’s face, and then dropped his gaze to seek out the man’s nametag. The identifying information appeared to be missing, and Reeve frowned into the man’s face. “…Officer…?” He raised an eyebrow in question.

“Lt. Atkinson, Sir,” the officer provided the information without hesitation. “I understand your reservations, Sir,” he promptly added before Reeve could protest further. “However, the actual location that General Sand ordered set up for you is in the back of the building, beyond the public rooms. A suitable space with a conference table and a rear exit, appropriately secured. The General believed the civilian crowd would provide some needed cover. In fact, he sincerely believes the site to be ideal, Sir.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Reeve duly informed the officer as he swept appraising eyes toward the building again, a sense of uneasiness overtaking him even as he spoke. Unconsciously, he raised fingers to nervously stroke his bearded chin as he studied the front door. He watched two more people pass through as he stood there, one entering and one leaving. Finally, he made a decision, the only one that he could under the circumstances, and his hand fell to his side. “Let’s see it, then.”

“Yes Sir!” The officer jumped into action, leaping up the stairs to open the door for the executive and his entourage. Reeve moved to climb the steps, but a hand fell on his shoulder to stay him, one that was just as quickly removed. “Wait, Sir,” the guard reminded him. With a nod, the executive stood aside to let his personal bodyguards precede him as Cloud came to stand silently at his elbow, evidence that the young man’s mind hadn’t traveled so far away from the matter at hand that he wasn’t paying attention. Reeve noted, with satisfaction, that Andy stood just beyond the Avalanche warrior, the crate full of the executive’s only possessions still cradled protectively in his arms. Reeve sought out Cloud’s Mako eyes, his own full of question, but Cloud merely responded with a shrug as he inclined his head to urge him up the stairs.

Cloud trailed right behind him, his presence more reassuring than all four of the elite bodyguards, especially as they wended their way through the crowded room, around tables packed with people who’d come to the building that had once been a pub to pass the time in conversation and card games during the stressful hours of waiting, or maybe they’d come just because they had nowhere else to go. The room slowly went silent as heads turned to look at the Shinra executive and his entourage as they passed through.

Reeve’s shoulders tensed beneath the dark jacket as he fought the urge to avoid any eye contact, instead forcing himself to peruse the upturned faces, and he respectfully nodded to more than a few when their eyes met. It wasn’t that he feared the shabbily dressed crowd, really. Nor did he hold them any ill will. He’d only ever wished them well, planned for a better life for them. However, he well knew that there were probably at least a few in the crowd that wished him ill. He was the one that had been in charge of the environment in which they lived, and he was the one that had failed them miserably. Actions speak volumes louder than words despite all the spin a corporate owned media might exercise in an attempt to persuade the masses. Some would always resent the deceit and hold the truth to their hearts to fester there.

His uneasiness grew. Not only for himself, but also for Caitlin. He should have left her alone, kept his need to know the truth where it belonged. Inside him. If she’d wanted to come forward, she would have, in time. But he’d forced her into the open, and now he had to wonder how the public would react when the fact that a Shinra still lived came to be revealed, especially a public that had been lied to about her death. He had to consider that public opinion might well turn ugly, an event that could not only prove dangerous to her, but would only serve to interfere with his plans.

“Through here, Sir.”

Lt. Atkinson’s verbal prompt drew him from his thoughts, and he passed into a long featureless hallway, brilliantly lit with fluorescent lighting all the way to a metal door at the other end, a door already guarded by two stiffly attentive Shinra soldiers with rifles in hand, gun barrels pointed at the floor but ready for immediate action.

Another short hallway bisected the first, and Lt. Atkinson directed the executive that way, shortly unlocking the door that stood in the way of their progress to reveal a large, clinically white room. White linoleum. Glossy white walls. White, white light. Reeve noted the wide conference table, already covered with the city plat he’d requested, as well as several cots set up against the wall and an operating refrigerator.

“Everything you requested is here, Sir,” Atkinson pointed out. “Food and bottled water in the refrigerator…bathroom facilities through that door.” The officer inclined his head toward a narrow doorway on the far side of the humming appliance. “Your bodyguards can cover the hallway, and there will be additional guards posted in the front hallway.”

Reeve nodded agreeably, pleasantly surprised at the arrangements. “I want someone inside the public room as well.”

“Of course, Sir. I’ll post someone right away. If you are satisfied with the location…Sir…”

At the officer’s raised eyebrow, Reeve opened his mouth to readily agree, until the almost inaudible voice whispered near his ear. “I don’t like it, Reeve.”

Startled, Reeve sought out Cloud who stood at his elbow. The grave face gave him pause. “Your reason?” he inquired of Cloud aloud.”

Cloud shrugged in uncertain apprehension. “Dunno…setup’s weird…”

“That’s it?” Reeve asked with mild astonishment evident in his voice.

Again, Cloud shrugged as though shaking an intrusive hand from his shoulder, and shook his head. He deliberately leveled his glowing Mako eyes on the smug smile that touched the officer’s lips. “Is there another exit out of this room?” Cloud posed the question with a tone of amiable casualness that he didn’t feel inside.

The officer’s eyes flickered with surprise, and he uneasily appraised the intense azure gaze of the warrior. He squared his shoulders as his own faltering gaze slid away to the hallway door. “There is the rear door at the end of the back hall,” the officer replied coolly to this man to whom he swore no allegiance. “You can use that to come and go.”

Cloud studied the man’s face for a moment more before he nodded and folded his arms. “Why don’t we look for a better place, Reeve,” he suggested to the executive, although he still watched the officer’s face, his eyes narrowing as he sought to gain a firm handle on just why the man bothered him. Perhaps they’d met before, during Cloud’s earlier stint in the Shinra Regular Army, a time that had been less than smooth, as well as he could remember. Those days were mostly lost to him.

At Cloud’s words, the officer folded his arms behind his back. “We can find another place if you wish, Sir,” he stiffly informed the now uncertain executive. “And we’ll get it set up as quickly as possible.” He paused momentarily in thought as though he felt the need to carefully choose his next words, which was probably the case in light of what he did say. “We can do it, and we will if you so order, Sir. However, the task could well take several more hours.”

That’s all Reeve needed to hear. He was shaking his head before the words were out of the officer’s mouth. As far as he was concerned he’d wasted too much time already. “This will do, Lieutenant. Has Mr. Cornell been notified?”

The officer nodded. “Yes sir, he’s on the way. We’ll direct him here as soon as he arrives.”

“Good. And the attempts to contact anyone with the rescue operation from Junon?”

“They’ve apparently not picked up our signal as yet, but we will keep trying, Sir.”

“Thank you. You may go, Lt. Atkinson.” He absently waved the officer away, turning toward the table as the man immediately departed, his busy mind already traveling to evacuation plans and the matter of freeing any survivors trapped in Sector Five, the two most pressing matters at hand. But even before that he had one task that would wait no longer.

Standing in place, he drew the handheld computer from his coat pocket and turned the power on. He unconsciously tapped one polished shoe tip against the linoleum as he impatiently waited for the device to boot up, after which he quickly proceeded through the keystrokes and passwords required to bring up his messages.

For long moments, he stared intently at the one message that filled the tiny screen. You have “0” messages at this time. How long had it been since they’d notified him of Cid’s arrival? At least two hours. Surely, they’d made it to Kalm already…


His name, spoken by Cloud with a mixture of concern and impatience, jarred him from his disappointed immobility. Unreasonably irritated at the interruption, Reeve snapped the computer off and jammed the device into his pocket.

“Do you disagree with my decision, Cloud?” Reeve curtly asked as he brought careful eyes to the warrior’s face.

Arms folded, Cloud lifted one shoulder in a dismissive shrug, his Mako eyes shuttered as he appraised Reeve’s stiff face. “It’s your call, Reeve.”

“I just didn’t want to waste any more time,” he remarked in a more conciliatory tone as he sought to explain his arbitrary dismissal of the warrior’s concerns.

“I understand, Reeve.” Cloud’s eyes sharpened on the executive’s face. “I’d appreciate it if you’d do something for me though.”

“What’s that, Cloud?”

“Get on the radio to your General Sand and confirm that guy’s identity for me.”

Puzzlement filled Reeve’s eyes. “What guy?”

“Lieutenant Atkinson.” Cloud sharply enunciated each syllable of the officer’s name, and Reeve swept startled eyes toward the empty doorway through which the man had left some minutes past. Uneasiness stirred deep in his gut again, the same uneasiness that had dogged him off and on since arriving on the sidewalk outside this place, and he slowly nodded. Abruptly, he turned on heel to face the blonde haired Coakley who’d just deposited Reeve’s crate of goods on the table.

“Andy, please get me General Sand on the radio,” he curtly commanded. Then, as though he didn’t find the urgency in his voice impetus enough, he added in an even sharper tone, “Immediately.”

“Why don’t you go in first, Bari,” fearful gray eyes stared at the sharp fangs of the carved beast in the center of the massive wooden door.

His taller companion deliberately shook his head, the straight ebony locks swaying against a tensed spine with the emphatic movement. He also stared at the door with great trepidation. “I went first the last time, Ozzie. It’s your turn.”

The man called Ozzie abruptly turned, his eyes brightening on the sharply featured face of the man he called Bari. “I’ll give you my next month’s pay,” he offered hopefully.

Bari emphatically shook his head again. “Your gil is meaningless to one such as myself.”

“Come on, Bari,” Ozzie pleaded. “Gil is meaningful to everybody. I mean, you gotta eat doncha?”

The ebony haired man swiveled his head and Ozzie found himself staring into implacable golden irises shot through with striations of black. “I hunt my food,” Bari reminded him coldly. “Now open the damn door. Let’s get this over with.” The man raised one huge hand to wrap determined fingers around the hilt of the katana sheathed across his back, an inarguable move that clearly emphasized his unwillingness to concede.

Swallowing hard, Ozzie finally surrendered and gripped the heavy gilt door handle in one black-gloved hand. With a spastic move, he jerked the handle up and held his breath as the door fell inward on silent hinges to reveal the floor to ceiling screen at the front of the room. Already, the giant fingers filled the bulk of the screen’s surface, impatiently tapping, one fingertip after the other in a series of ominous thumps against an unseen surface, thumps that drummed through the huge speakers at either side of the screen to reverberate inside both men’s ears and within their hearts. Lacking the motivation to proceed, both men took a compulsive step backward, even knowing that he watched every move they made, and no doubt had heard every word they spoke.

The fingers suddenly slammed to a thundering halt, and the subsequent silence nearly made their hearts stop. Then the dreaded voice roared from the speakers and jumpstarted every part of their body. “I am sick and tired of waiting.” The voice rose with deafening intensity on the last word to shriek into their already overburdened ears, and the two men rushed forward. In the end, neither man crossed the threshold first or last, but together, as one body. A humongous fingertip expanded to fill the screen, pointing right at them. The door slammed into the frame behind them with a splintering crash. As one, the men, both seasoned killers with many victims behind them, fell quaking to their knees before the screen as a pair of angry red eyes swelled into existence, replacing the imperious finger to glare down at them while they both recognized the fact that their very next breath would be their last. With heads bowed, they waited to die.

Reno stood alone at the crest of the hill, gazing off in the direction of Kalm, keen eyes squinted narrowly against the rising smoke from his cigarette as well as in close scrutiny of the greatly altered landscape around the normally peaceful berg. A capricious breeze swept a wayward strand of hair across one eye, and he absently tossed his head to clear his view, idly lifting the cigarette to his lips as he returned to his slow, careful scan of the hodgepodge conglomeration of tents, unhitched chocobo vans, and all manner of makeshift structures cobbled together from a variety of imaginative materials.

A faraway outpouring of indistinguishable angry words barely touched his ears, an accusatory female voice softened by distance, and he released his pent breath, blowing twin plumes of smoke from flared nostrils, easily pinpointing the source even as he refocused his attention on the conversation several paces down the hill behind him. With interest, he watched the faraway couple apparently engaged in argument just outside one of the tents at the edge of the disorganized refugee camp, and as the distant woman’s hands flew about in accompaniment of her irate monologue, he listened as Caitlin’s voice reached his ears from behind, tempered steel wrapped in the velvet of her soft feminine tone.

“Please let me have your tie, Rude.”

The corner of Reno’s mouth lifted at the slight hint of exasperation beneath her insistent words.

“I’d rather not,” the cool voice rumbled lowly in response.

“Come on, Rude…the tie’s got to go, and you know it.”

“I fail to see the point,” he informed her tonelessly.

She audibly sighed. “I told you, we don’t want to attract any undue attention.”

“I’ll handle any undue attention.”

“But then, we’ll only draw more attention.”

“I’ll handle that as well.”

“Give me your tie this instant, Rude.”

Reno barely shook his head at the sharp command. ”Don’t piss her off, man,” he silently admonished him, wincing slightly as the painful memory of her sharp kick against his anklebone replayed in his mind, along with the flare of blue fire in her eyes. Surrender now, Rude, my man. It’ll be less painful in the long run.

Silence ensued behind him, and he imagined that the big Turk had done the pragmatic thing and caved. He usually wasn’t that intractable anyway, and he couldn’t refuse Caitlin Shinra for long, even in the matter of his clothing. Not when Rude had instantly, if unconsciously, acknowledged her authority at first sight of her. As far as Rude was concerned, Caitlin’s word was the only one that mattered. In fact, Reno had to admit, somewhat ruefully, that if Caitlin were to so command it, Rude would probably even take him out in the blink of an eye. He’d do well to keep that in mind. For future reference. Although he couldn’t imagine Caitlin giving such an order. He didn’t believe she was capable. Unlike her father. And her brother. Still, she might just be the best actress on the planet. He already suspected that she was hiding something. No, he knew she was hiding something. A knowledge born from well-honed intuition. And he would find her secret out.

Preoccupied with his thoughts, he watched the faraway man throw his hands into the air and turn his back on the woman, who still harangued him as he threw the flap back on the tent and disappeared inside. She also threw her hands in the air and dove through the tent after him. If the fight then recommenced inside the canvas domicile, he wasn’t able to hear it. Maybe they’d decided to kiss and make up. He smirked. Certainly, domesticity seemed to hold some reward, but as far as he was concerned, the disadvantages outweighed the advantages by far. Besides, who needed the fighting when one could just take the kisses and go?

Elena walked silently through the soft grass, and although aware of her arrival, Reno didn’t turn his head to look at her as she moved up beside him, instead once again scanning the entire scene of the ramshackle camp outside the high walls and the busy village square full of people milling about, just visible through the town’s entrance. In the wake of the brief domestic outburst, all seemed calm, just as the name of the town would suggest, despite what he suspected to be a very large and sudden increase in population. However, he knew the situation to be tenuous. Regardless of appearances, once the number of people outgrew the available resources - and without intervention that was a foregone conclusion – wildness would inevitably ensue. Anarchy would reign. Best to get their business finished and get out. He much preferred to stay mobile.

“Not the glasses,” Rude protested tightly.

At the hint of stress in Rude’s normally unemotional voice, Reno half-turned to peer over his shoulder just in time to see Rude, sans jacket and tie, stay Caitlin’s questing fingers with an upheld palm. She reached for them with her other hand, but Rude stubbornly shook his head and covered the shades with a huge hand. Defeated in her tentative plan, she dropped her hands to her hips, and Reno thought she might insist, although he couldn’t read her intentions from the back of her golden head, but in the end she relented with a nod of her head. Which was just as well, because Rude would never knowingly relinquish his shades. Those opaque frames were his first and last line of defense.

“Okay, you can keep them, but…” She fell silent for a moment, apparently looking him over to assess the potential for further adjustments. “Let’s just unbutton that collar,” she sweetly suggested, raising her hands to do just that. Rude retreated a step. “I’ll do it,” he informed her tersely.

An aborted sputter came from his left, and Reno swiveled his head the other way to study Elena’s face, especially the way her hazel eyes danced above the hand clasped over her mouth as she watched. Reno again shifted in place to see what made Elena’s eyes sparkle so, smiling slightly as Caitlin shadowed Rude step for step until she’d backed him up against the side of the chopper. Then he returned his lazy gaze to drink in Elena’s happy face. It wasn’t very often that he could see her in such a state as the woman rarely found much amusement in her life. He might have spent some time drinking in the view, but she eventually became aware of his silent appraisal, and she hastily dropped her hand and turned back to glare at him, although the slight twitching of her lips made a lie of the feigned fierceness of her regard.

With seeming disinterest, he returned his gaze to Kalm as he took a last drag from his cigarette before dropping the butt into the grass. Purposefully, he ground the burning ember out beneath his boot as he released the smoke from his nostrils. In light of her contrary, if somewhat unconvincing regard, he half expected her to berate him for littering or attempting to start a fire with the careless disposal of his cigarette, but she didn’t say a word, and when he looked back at her, he found that she’d now lowered pensive eyes to the ground between her feet, her expression exhibiting a marked sadness.

His eyes narrowed on the down-turned face, noting that all hint of good humor had fled, as though unable to maintain purchase there, and a hint of regret teased his mind as he studied her for a few moments before again returning his attention to the distant town, brushing off his disappointment at the change in her demeanor with an indifferent shrug. Then, the corners of his thin lips turned up, and he lifted his chin, his face in profile to her.

“What do you think, Elena? Is this my best side?”

“What?” she asked in surprise.

Reno smartly turned on heel to present her with his other side. “Or is this my best side?”

“Have you lost your mind, Reno?” she demanded with a hint of awe in her voice.

“C’mon, ‘Lena. Which is it? This side?” He pointed one long finger at his face, and then just as smartly returned to his original position. “Or this side?”

She frowned. “Why would you ask such an idiotic thing, Reno? What does it matter which side is your best side?”

His glittering green eyes turned serious. “For the picture you know. The obituary.”

She stared at him in incomprehension.

“Here. How about this?” He closed his eyes and let his mouth go slack. “Or maybe this…” He threw his head back and rolled his eyes upward.

“Stop it, Reno.” Elena pleaded in a strained whisper.

He carefully studied her stricken expression. “Well, I figured the newspaper would be the perfect medium for putting the word about that I’ve met my demise.”

She shook her head sorrowfully. “Since when do Turks have obituaries? Turks don’t die. They just…cease to exist.” Her eyes fell again to the ground, and she folded her arms defensively at the grief that welled up inside her. “…Just disappear…into nothingness…like…like…”

She fell silent, but Reno knew where her thoughts traveled. Like Tseng. Like Tseng. Like…Tseng…Unlike Tseng.

He took two long steps to reach her side, and then he hunched his shoulders to lay his head against hers. “Do you miss me now that I’m gone?” he asked in a mournful, syrupy voice.

She jerked her shoulder to shrug him away. “Will you stop?” Despite her previous sad thoughts, her lips twitched at sight of his sorrowful eyes and slight pout. “How can I miss you when you’re still around haunting me?”

His pout turned into a sardonic smile. He rather liked the idea of haunting her. Time to return to the matter at hand though. He turned his face in profile to her and lifted his chin again. “So…Elena…let’s have it. Which is my best side?”

She smirked her decision to play his game. “Why Reno, I believe your best side is…the back side.”

He raised one red eyebrow in quizzical wonder, and then he spun around to give her full view of the preferred aspect. “What? This?” Dragging the tail of his shirt away to present an unobstructed view, he pointed one finger at his rear, duly directing her gaze to the indicated part. “Well, I have been told that I do cut a fine figure,” he urged. “On more than one occasion too.” Her eyes lingered there for the space of a few seconds before she raised a reluctant gaze to meet his mischievous eyes.

Pointedly, she wrinkled her nose at him in disgust. “No, I didn’t mean your skinny ass,” she sneered. “I meant the back of your thick head. Same difference, I guess.”

Undeterred, he ran a hand over the back of his head before he drew his ponytail around to dangle the fine strands of red hair before his eyes. He examined them closely before leveling his gleaming green eyes on her rapt face. “So you admire the color of my hair? Is that it? Or the length? Maybe…the texture?”

With a snort, Elena threw her hands up in despair. “I give up, Reno. I’ll tell you the truth. Every side is your good side. Not one of your sides is no better or worse than the other, and all of it is all you. Satisfied now?” She shook her head in amazement. “Why did I allow myself to be sucked into this inane conversation anyway?” she asked of herself in a barely audible mutter. “I should know better by now.”

Reno smiled with satisfaction. He knew she’d never learn. He flipped the thin ponytail back over his shoulder and wheeled to glare down at the little girl who’d slipped up to stand beside him during the last of his discussion with Elena. “And what do you want?” he inquired silkily.

The girl studied him steadily, one finger wrapped in a coil of her bleached blonde hair, blue eyes full of adoration and hope. Reno propped his hands on his hips. “Well, spit it out,” he commanded. Wordlessly, she reached up her hands to him. “What? You want me to carry you?” Silently, she nodded. “Do I look like a chocobo to you?”

“You do to me,” Elena interjected.

“Don’t listen to her,” Reno instructed the little girl. “She has an agenda, therefore she is not a credible source.”

Rachel rose on her tiptoes to underscore her unspoken request.

“Hey, you got two legs.” He pointed to one diminutive appendage and then the other. “Count ‘em. One. Two. Just as many as I have. So you can walk your own self around.”

Rachel let her hands fall to her side and returned to her round-eyed regard of Reno’s face. If she was disappointed at his refusal, she didn’t show it. Reno gazed back at her noncommittally.

“So you don’t adhere to that unwritten law?” Elena inquired smoothly.

Reno lifted his eyes to regard Elena suspiciously. “What unwritten law?”

She smiled slyly. “You know, the one where if someone saves your life, then they own you until you save their life. Isn’t that one of those universal law type things?”

His brows drew together. “I think you’ve been watching too many movies, Elena. Would you adhere to that law?”

“Sure…seems reasonable to me.”

“Hmm…interesting…” He looked down at Rachel again, only to find her blue eyes still unrelentingly pinned on his face. “…Might provide me some cover,” he muttered to himself. Then he spoke aloud. “Well then, I guess you own me little girl. For the moment. Therefore, your wish is my command. But not every wish, mind you. Just the wishes I feel like fulfilling, and I’ll fulfill them in my own sweet time too.” Despite the Turk’s disclaimer, a brilliant smile possessed the little girl’s face as Reno knelt down on one knee and drew his ponytail over his shoulder. “Climb on board then, but you gotta ride on my back because, you know, I need my hands free, okay? I hear tell that’s my best side anyway.”

Rachel nodded happily and jumped with enthusiasm onto Reno’s back. She threw her arms around his neck and gained a secure hold that she apprehensively tightened to an alarming degree when he rose to his full height. Reno audibly choked as he plucked her arms away from his throat. “Hey, your ride’s gotta breathe.” He rearranged her arms lower, turning to face Caitlin and Rude as they walked up.

Reno lifted his eyebrows at Rude’s new look; jacket missing, tie and shoulder holster gone, white shirt unbuttoned to reveal a gold chain around his neck, shirtsleeves rolled up to expose the big Turk’s muscular forearms. Rude had retained possession of his shades as well as the various gold hoops and studs in his ears. The man didn’t look like a Turk anymore, but he still looked pretty formidable. Like a drug kingpin on vacation. Although drugs and Rude would never belong in the same sentence. Whiskey…another story. The hard set of Rude’s jaw dared him to remark on the new look, and he decided to resist the challenge, instead opting to study Caitlin’s attire. However, she’d done little more than plait the golden waves of her hair into two loose braids that now fell over both shoulders to hang down the front of her sweatshirt. The braids, along with her petite size and unpainted face, made her appear little older than a teenager. He had to admit that unless someone recognized one of them outright they wouldn’t be mistaken for Turks, not with Elena in her soft red sweater, and himself dressed in street clothes with a kid riding on his back.

“Are we ready now?” Caitlin inquired with an appraising look around the group.

Reno reached up to reposition his sunglasses over his eyes. “I’m ready. To find the closest bar.” Thinking about whiskey had made him thirsty.

Caitlin nodded and started past him to head down the hill. He reached out to grab her arm. “Uh uh. That way.” He inclined his head in the direction of Midgar. “We’ll pick up the road over that rise.”

She grimaced at him. “Of course, I wasn’t thinking.” She veered off in that direction, and Rude took several long steps to catch up with her, his hand automatically reaching to touch a gun that no longer rested in a shoulder holster. As Rude adjusted his stride to match Caitlin's step, he reached around to touch the handgun tucked in the waistband of his pants beneath the loosely tucked dress shirt. Fortunately, Rude preferred to use his fists, as his gun wouldn’t jump so easily to hand, Reno mused. Reno swiveled his head to capture Elena’s eye. He pointedly nodded to the black bag resting in the grass. “After you, baby.” She unconsciously frowned at his irreverent endearment, but she obediently snatched up the indicated bag, easily slinging it to her back to follow Caitlin and Rude without further comment.

After a last look at the secured helicopter, the redheaded Turk stepped out to bring up the rear, but halted again when Rachel, apparently startled at his unexpected movement, threw her small hands up to grab for a better handle and ensnared a couple of handfuls of his long bangs. He pointedly repositioned her hold, but as soon as he took another step, frantic hands flew up again, knocking his sunshades askew and nearly putting out one eye with a fingertip. Reno wrapped her arms around his neck and held them there with one hand while he drew his shades from his face to inspect them for damage before he meticulously replaced them over irritated green eyes. “Look kid, don’t muss the hair. Don’t pull off the ears, and don’t poke out the eyes. Got it?”

Rachel nodded against his head. “Got it,” she proclaimed exuberantly into his ear. He winced at the shrill volume even as he impulsively smiled at her response. Then holding both of Rachel’s arms in place, he sprang into motion, lengthening his strides until he’d almost caught up to the others, only then slowing his speed to trail a couple of paces behind Elena.

Long moments elapsed in relative silence as he shadowed her steps, studying her with lazy green eyes as she walked. One brow lifted as a sudden thought occurred to him.

“Oh Elena…” he called lowly.

“What Reno?”

“Haven’t I saved your life? At least once?”

“Nope, don’t think so, Reno.”

“Are you sure Elena?”

“I think I would remember something like that, Reno.”

“Hmm…have to work on that…might be nice to own you. For a little while…”

Elena suddenly stopped and wheeled around to glare at him. “Won’t happen, Reno. I’d have the law repealed. Just for the occasion.”

“That doesn’t seem quite fair, does it? Especially when you’ve pressed me into compliance.”

“Grow up, Reno,” she commanded. Unaccountably annoyed, she wrapped her arms around her waist and burned the grass at her feet with her hot gaze.

He stopped close beside her to peer down at her bent head. “What’s the percentage in that?”

“In what?” she asked petulantly.

“Growing up.”

With a grimace, Elena shifted her eyes from the trampled grass beneath her feet to the smudged tips of her once highly polished shoes. Then her eyes impulsively traveled to the toes of the black boots that had replaced Reno’s tan loafers, where they rested for a long introspective moment before her gaze slid upwards over his denim clad legs, his unbelted waistband, and his black t-shirt. Her eyes paused momentarily on the oversized pair of hands protectively wrapped around the wrists of the little girl, and then moved to the said girl’s contented face, only to helplessly gape at the sight of blonde hair against flame-red. Finally, she sought out Reno’s face with shuttered eyes to discover green eyes full of puzzled inquisitiveness at her absent appraisal.

“We don’t look much like Turks anymore,” she remarked a bit loudly.

“That’s the idea, Elena. Did you sleep through the discussion?”



“How do you think we’ll end up?”

“We, Elena?”

“You know…the Turks…our organization.”

He lifted his eyes to the horizon and stared off into the distance as his thoughts churned in his head. Then his eyes fell on the petite woman walking gracefully alongside Rude several yards ahead. “Badly, I imagine,” he finally replied.

“I was afraid you’d say something like that…”

Reno frowned irritably. “Look, Elena. You are a Turk, and I expect you to act like a Turk. We have a job to do, and we will do it.”

Anger flared in Elena’s eyes. “Don’t worry about me, Reno. I’ll do my job. I’ll always do my job.”

“I don’t worry about you, Elena.”

“Still…if we don’t have a job to do anymore…” She turned skeptical eyes in Caitlin’s direction.

“Perhaps I should worry about you, Elena,” Reno coolly amended.

“What? Why?”

“Look Elena, don’t worry about it,” Reno commanded curtly. “Just…breathe. Okay?”

“Breathe?” She wrinkled her pert nose in bewilderment.

“Yeah baby, that’s what it’s all about. Breathing. No matter what you’ve lost or think you might lose, as long as you’re breathing, everything else will just sort itself out.”

She stared at him in bemusement as she searched her mind for an appropriate response. In the end, she couldn’t think of much to say. “Breathing…yeah…I’ll just…keep that in mind.” With a wondering shake of her head, she turned and walked slowly away.

“You do that.” This time he fell into step beside her, and leveled appraising green eyes on her face. “Hey, Elena.”

“What now?” she asked impatiently.

“You wanna carry the cookie cruncher for awhile?”

She pointedly tugged the heavy leather bag higher on her back. “Nope.”

“Well…damn it.”

“Aaaaawhm, you said a naughty word,” the little girl’s voice sang into his ear.

“You wanna walk, kid?” he growled.

“Uh uh.” She shook her head against his.

“Then forget what you heard.”

Cid looked down at the battered metal box skeptically. “This is what you were crowing about? What’s in it?”

“Gift from the commander at Junon Base,” Barrett responded cryptically.

Cid suddenly recognized the chest as the box he’d seen Barrett and a trooper loading up just before they left. “Hope it’s full of smokes,” he commented hopefully.

“Nope.” Barrett dropped to one knee to flip the lock up with the tip of one of the pincers of his prosthetic arm. Throwing the lid back, he peered up expectantly at the Captain’s inquisitive face. “Radio.”

Cid snickered. “You got took, Barrett Wallace. That radio is older than I am.”

“Well, it’s not quite that old and decrepit,” Barrett remarked silkily.

“Decrepit!? Where’d ya get that I said that?” Cid glared down at him in outrage. Barrett shook his head at the Captain’s inability to appreciate the implied humor in the comment. He was older than Cid after all.

“Look Cid, this radio may be old and obsolete, but the commander said this radio has the output power to send signal that might possibly be picked up inside.”

Cid scratched his head doubtfully. “Gotta have some juice to run it,” he pointed out. “If the piece of junk even works.”

Barrett reached in and flipped on the switch. “It’s been retrofitted with a mako power pack.” He turned incredulous eyes upward. “You don’t think I’m stupid enough to lug something that heavy that far without makin’ sure it works do ya?”

Highwind shrugged as he studied the softly glowing dials, deciding not to respond to Barrett’s question, which he deemed rhetorical anyway. “Okay, I’ll bite. Let’s raise somebody. What frequency? 100.5 to start?” He remembered that as standard operating frequency during his tour of duty in the military.

“Why not?” Barrett responded agreeably. He bent to turn the dial to the suggested frequency, rotating the knob slowly as he listened for any hint of radio communication inside the static. He’d just managed to bring the plastic marker arrow to 101.9 when the glowing dials suddenly faded to darkness. “What the hell?” Barrett’s countenance turned stormy. He flipped the power switch on and off a few times, with no luck.

“Guess it’s not working, huh?” Cid inquired unnecessarily.

Barrett gave the metal chest a good shake and tried the switch again. Then he sat back on his heels with an irritated snort. “Dammit, it’s gotta be a short or somethin’. It was working. You saw it.”

“Yeah, I saw it, but it ain’t workin’ now, and I don’t have time to mess with it anymore. Gotta light a fire under these people.” He reached to draw a cigarette from his pack as he started to turn away. “Whyn’t you fix it?”

Barrett irritably slammed the lid shut. “Hell, I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout fixin’ radios.”

Just then, Cid noticed Derry walking past on his way to the plane. “Hey Heidegger!”

Derry swiveled his head that way, and promptly headed in their direction when Cid beckoned him over.

“What can I do for you, Captain Highwind?”

“You know anything about radios?”

“Well…I can turn one on,” he replied slowly. “Why?”

“Well, cuz you’re in charge of communications now,” Cid informed him. “Your assignment is to make that radio work.” The task duly discharged, Cid lit his cigarette and walked away. “Come on, Barrett,” he called over his shoulder. “I want you to ramrod those military types. You can focus on setting up camp before dark. An’ we’ll work on getting all the equipment set up ASAP.”

Barrett rose to his feet and shot a pained look at the silent Derry. “You don’t have to mess with it, if you don’t want to,” he said apologetically. “It’s so old, it’s probably got all kinds of problems.”

“Nah, it’s cool,” Derry shrugged agreeably, hands stuffed in pockets. “Captain says do it, I’ll do it. Try to anyway.”

“Well, good luck.” Barrett nodded, and then walked hurriedly away.

Derry bent to throw the lid to the chest back, and he froze in that position when his eyes fell on the ancient radio inside. “Okay…think I’m gonna need that luck…plus some…” He blew out a long breath, and reached inside the chest to lift the bulky radio free, but found the device too heavy to heft it out alone. He straightened to his full height and looked around for someone he might appeal to for help, but everyone seemed otherwise occupied with more important endeavors, as he should probably be. On the other hand, getting in communication with the people trapped inside was a pretty damned important task in itself. He’d just have to manage. He looked down into the box at the cumbersome radio again.

“Well…if the radio won’t come out of the box…then…”

Derry dropped to the ground and shoved his rear around to the point where he could plant the soles of both sneakers on the side of the box, and then with a mighty shove he completely upended the metal chest so that it came to rest on it’s open top, the lid hitting the hardened ground with a loud bang, along with the radio. At that point, he pondered the possibility that his move might have been ill advised. The radio could not have fared well from its impact with the dead, rocky ground.

Gingerly, he lifted the box away to find the radio resting on its face. He figured that was not a good sign, but he reached to set the device upright with the hope that he hadn’t broken any vital parts. When he managed to get the radio set in the position for which it was designed, he was pleasantly surprised to find the dials softly glowing. A smile split his face. The radio worked. His job was half done already. He reached to turn the frequency dial, and the lights slowly faded away, along with his smile.

Or not

For the next few minutes, he flipped the power switch off and on, poked at the back, prodded at the front, and even turned the radio back on its face a few times to see if it would come back on. In the end, he finally rose to gaze woefully at the dead device. Then, he gently touched the toe of his sneaker to the front panel just below the frequency dial. He decided he had nothing to lose. He pulled back his leg, and then gave the radio a solid kick, not enough to send it over, but enough to give it a good jar.

The radio rewarded his abuse with a soft hum as the lights slowly came on, this time reaching full illumination. He grinned triumphantly down at his handiwork. He decided that radio work wasn’t all that bad after all. A new career to add to his resume. Still smiling, he dropped to his knees and retrieved the radio’s missing antenna from where it had ended up when he’d overturned the box. With that, and the transmitter, wherever it was…still in the box he hoped…

With only optimism in his heart, he dragged the capsized metal chest toward him and flipped it around to peer inside. Triumphantly, he lifted the unattached transmitter with its dangling cord from the fitted compartment and raised it to eye level. His smile turned thoughtful. He was definitely in the communications business now.

Derrick Heidegger…your 24-hour radio entertainment source…

Yuffie kicked the chunk of brick again, her eyes following its trajectory as she absently adjusted her route to bring herself in line with its probable landing place. She’d lost all track of time, and she didn’t really care. She knew she’d been gone awhile. Hours even.

She came up to her target and gave it another hard kick. Eyes squinted against the afternoon sunlight, she watched it fly off toward the open wasteland. She really didn’t want to go that way, but what the hell, she’d just kick it back this way. Wearily, she trudged after the wayward piece of brick.

She knew she should be back with the others, helping in some capacity, and she would eventually go back, she supposed. She couldn’t imagine she’d be much help though. In fact, she could well imagine that Cid found her more useful out of the way. Besides, she was a warrior, not a mechanic.

Whirling, she whipped the Conformer from the sheath, spinning the weapon through her nimble fingers as she swept it around to halt the tip of one blade a fraction of an inch from her own nose, her whole body perfectly still as she balanced on one foot with her unencumbered hand stretched out in front of her. Then she burst from her stance to fall into a series of well practiced steps that made up the gist of one of many ninja exercises that had been drilled into her over the years, precision movements that she could execute as easily as breathing, the offensive and defensive poses of the warrior art into which she’d been born.

Settling again to both feet, she relaxed and reseated the Conformer in its sheath. A sigh slipped from her lips. Yes, she was a warrior. She’d passed the test of the Pagoda. Bested Lord Godo. Fulfilled every task required to become the ruler of Wutai, but for two. Her schooling in governance and the completion of her arranged marriage. She had but to return to Wutai to begin the transition of power, to learn what she needed to know to take up the mantle of a country steeped in strict tradition and rich culture and ancient bloodlines. And false pride. Shinra had stolen the soul of Wutai. Long ago. Almost before she’d been born. And they’d stolen her mother, before she could ever know her.

She exploded into motion, leaping forward to give the taunting chunk of gray brick a vicious kick back toward the debris pile. She didn’t even bother to watch where the brick would go. She was done with it. She flung her arms about her waist and spun on heel to stride back the other way, back toward the planes and her companions. They were her family, more of a family than she’d ever had in Wutai. Even if they did find her annoying. Even if they could have saved the planet without her. They were stuck with her and that was that. They’d just have to deal with that fact. Besides, she really felt guilty about how mean she’d been to the Heidegger. All that Shinra had done wasn’t his fault. Not that she would apologize to him. She wouldn’t go that far. She should keep an eye on him anyway. He could still be a Shinra spy. In fact, he was either a well trained Shinra spy or he was one of the most clueless people she’d ever met. No, not clueless. Sincere.

She heard the chunk of brick smack hard against the huge slab of concrete atop the debris. She’d kicked it much further than she’d thought. The stone ricocheted and struck a metallic surface with a sharp twang. A anticipatory smile touched her lips as she listened closely to where it would go next. A loud squawk met her alert ears. The smile instantly vanished from her face, and she wheeled around to stare hard at the approximate location of the sound.

A tailing of the debris pile stretched several yards across the ground, effectively blocking her view. She sprang into motion and ran back the other way, only to skid to a stop when a string of angry squeaks and squawks emanated from the far side.

Very slowly, she continued forward, carefully reaching into her bag to rummage around for one of her cereal bars. She knew very well that the loud birdlike noises she heard were exactly that. Bird noises. A Chocobo. And probably wild too. In fact, she probably didn’t have a hope in hell of catching the capricious creature alone, but it was worth a try. Save her from walking all the way back. Unless it chose to go another way. There was that to consider. Would it even be worth her effort?

She’d almost decided that it wouldn’t be when the Chocobo abruptly fell silent. She paused in midstep. The feathered beastie knew she was there. She rose on tiptoe to peep over the pile of rubble that yet separated her from full view of the bird. The bird had indeed sensed her presence just as she thought. The blue-feathered head was turned her way, unblinking saucer shaped eyes watchful, crown plumes fanned out. Tensely alert and ready to run away. A river chocobo too. She’d never catch the creature now.

Impulsively, she waved and called out. “Hiya, Birdy. How ‘bout a lift? You goin’ my way?”

At the sound of her voice, the bird spread its wings and burst into motion, crown feathers flattening as it vaulted a small heap of broken concrete to leap across the ground with astonishing swiftness. However, the bird wasn’t running away. It was charging straight at her. Even as she watched, the chocobo sprang from the ground, its wings flapping wildly to bring it to the top of the rubble tailing that was her only barrier. Alarmed, she stumbled back, closing her eyes and throwing her hands up to defend her face as the bird bounded off the near side of the debris pile to land squarely in front of her.

With hardly a pause, the bird snatched the cereal bar from her fingers and commenced to munch. Yuffie opened her eyes warily and slowly straightened as she took in the bird’s bridle and saddle, neither of which she had noticed before. She’d been more concerned with the likelihood of the bird mowing her down. She also took note of the shortened tail plume that marked the chocobo as female.

“Well, I guess you’re not so wild after all…” she commented ruefully.

The bird threw up her head and swallowed the remainder of the cereal bar. Then she turned gentle eyes on the petite ninja girl. “So we’re best friends now?” Yuffie smiled encouragingly at the bird. The bird cooed and began to sway her head from side to side. Yuffie’s smile brightened at the sure sign of the chocobo’s sense of contentment and friendly nature.

Stepping cautiously to the bird’s side to keep from startling her, Yuffie grabbed the saddle horn to leap agilely into the saddle, and she quickly gathered the knotted reins into her small hands as the bird swiveled her head back to peer expectantly at her. “Let’s ride, girl,” she happily commanded the affable bird as she touched heels to the feathered sides.

At the awaited signal, the bird instantly leapt into the air, only to come down to the ground several feet further out, running swiftly with wings spread and head plumes flattened. Nearly unseated at the bird’s unexpected enthusiasm, Yuffie wrapped her fingers tightly around the saddle horn and scooted forward in the saddle as the wind whipped her short hair.

Chortling gleefully, Yuffe laid across the saddle horn to bring her head low along the chocobo’s neck. “Faster!” she yelled as she dug her heels in. The bird happily obliged, and Yuffie wondered if the river chocobo could run faster still. “Faster! Faster!” she urged the bird on. As she watched the ground race past beneath the bird’s three-toed feet, she decided that she could ride forever, just like this, and maybe she would. Just ride and ride and never stop.

She might have done just that, had she not finally noticed where the bird was going. “Not Kalm Town, girl!” Yuffie yelled into the wind. Startled, she yanked back hard on the reins.

A mistake, she was forced to acknowledge as the bird prodded at her prone body with mild concern in her gentle eyes. For a moment she actually felt kindly toward the bird, despite the numbing pain, until she realized that the chocobo was only searching for the source of the cereal bars.

“Roasted chocobo sounds good right about now,” she moaned.

The bird happily warked in oblivious agreement.

“Come on, Cait Sith,” Avian fumed as he paced back and forth behind the dancing Mog. “We don’t have time for this.” And he didn’t have time. He had preparations to make. Information to worm out of the robotic cat, now that he’d remembered just what he wanted to know. That stuff Cait had said. That stuff about “Kendo…Julian. Blah…blah…yadda…yadda….Death Dragon…blah…blah. He wanted to know what all that meant. He hadn’t even caught but the highlights anyway. He found that ‘Death Dragon’ reference particularly necessary to follow up.

“Just one more, Avian,” Cait Sith sang out as the little cat peered down into the expectant face of a pigtailed girl.

Avian slammed to a stop in mid-pace. “Oh no you don’t! Not one fortune more! We’ve been in this exact spot for thirty minutes now! We have got to go! So come on!” He raked a frantic hand through his tangled hair as Cait Sith simply ignored him and danced atop the Mog while the Mog danced under him, all the while concocting a nonsensical platitude to spew out of his electronic cat mouth.

“Caaaaaait!” Avian threw his pleading hands toward the oblivious Cait, and then proceeded to make throttling motions behind his back. The little girl peered around the Mog to glare at him. “Why don’t you leave him alone Mister…” The child paused as though she might say something else, and Avian had this wild notion that she might say ‘Smartypants’. He felt mad laughter bubble up his throat, but he choked it off as the girl screeched at him. “Go away!” Then she stuck out her tongue. The child’s command was instantly picked up by others in the small crowd of children and adults around Cait, so that a chorus of ‘go away’ voiced in various octaves, both male and female, filled his ears.

One particularly deep voice rose above the others, and its owner, a particularly strapping fellow, pointed a threatening finger at Avian. “Hey! I wanna hear my fortune. So git or shut yer face!”

Avian raised a placating hand. “Heeeey…no problem!” He forced an ingratiating smile to his stiff face. “I was just going anyway.” And now that he thought on the matter, it was a great idea. Losing Cait would be one worry off his mind. But then he wouldn’t find out what he wanted to know. Actually, he was beginning to think that he should find a safe hideout and hole up until everybody went away. Caitlin, Cait, killers, and the whole cockamamie world. On the other hand, losing Cait Sith might not be such a great idea. The robotic cat had the capability to set the entire landscape afire if he so wished. Which might prove detrimental to the town and its residents. Still, Cait didn’t seem the destructive sort. Or his programmer didn’t rather. Whatever. Cait was supposed to be protecting him but…

Avian slapped a hand against his forehead. Cait couldn’t protect him if he wasn’t there. He threw a hand up in farewell. “See ya later, Cait! Just…ya know…catch up when you’re done!” The young man whistled for his dog and strode purposefully away. Soldier sprang from his haunches where he’d been sitting at the edge of the crowd soaking up all the pats on the head he could get. With brown eyes full of canine curiosity, he glanced at Cait Sith before loping after the rapidly departing Avian.

Cait threw his red mittened hands in the air with excitement. “Your life will be filled with pink flowers!” he proclaimed to the pigtailed girl.

“Really?! Cool! How about candy?”

Cait raised one mittened hand to his crown and tipped his head. “Goodbye everyone!” he sang out. He pivoted halfway around on one toe to point a fat white finger toward the town entrance, and the Mog executed one rotaing bounce to land in the indicated direction.

The big man frowned. “Hey! Wait a minute! I want my turn!” He shot a hand out to grab Cait around his scrawny neck, but the robotic cat bonked his megaphone against the outspread fingers. “Ow!” The man jerked his hand back as Cait pointed an accusing finger at him. “Manners …now…” he chided. Then the Mog bounded away as Cait settled down on the wide head and gaily waved.

A chorus of disappointed groans rose from the group, and more than a few called after Avian with requests to make the cat come back. Avian halted to wait for Cait to catch up. Several of the people had started after them, and he decided he’d best divert them. Abruptly he held up one palm as though he would command the very skies. “Listen up, folks!” he called out. “You’ve just had the unparalleled great fortune to experience a preview of what Cait the Magical Circus Cat can do!” He cleared his throat and shifted to his best hawker’s voice. “So keep your eyes open for the big show! Performances in the Kalm town square at 2 and 4 and 8.” The protests turned to exclamations of excitement, and Avian executed an exaggerated bow as the Mog sailed past. “Big show! Coming soon! Watch for it! And bring your gil!” He smartly turned his back on the smiling faces only to find Cait standing in front of him with his tail in question mark mode.

“What show, Avian?” he asked with a scratch of his finger against one ear.

“The one where I kick your fuzzy little butt all around the town square exactly one hundred times,” he informed him through gritted teeth.

Cait threw his mittened hands out to the side. “You couldn’t do that, silly!” Cait proclaimed.

“And why not?”

“Cuz you’d never catch me, Mr. Smartypants!”

He started to respond with some sharp retort or another, but then it dawned on him that he was arguing with a machine, and an agile one at that. He noisily blew out a long, weary breath. “No doubt, you’re right,” he agreed tiredly. “Can we go find Tiko now?”

“I go where you go, Avian,” Cait reminded him as he sprang to the head of the Mog once again.

“No more fortunes, Cait,” Avian warned. “We don’t have time.”

“Okay…” Cait bowed his head sadly.

“What’s with this compulsive fortune telling business anyway? Some kind of programming glitch?”

“A programming glitch, Avian? What do you mean?”

Avian opened his mouth to reply, but instead found himself holding his tongue as he cautiously studied the comical cat face. “Er…never mind, Cait. I don’t even know what I’m talking about. Or asking about…rather. In fact, I don’t know anything.” Without another word, he walked away.

Why was he worried about the feelings of a machine anyway? Machines didn’t have feelings. Did they? Course they don’t, silly. He smiled as Cait’s singsong voice resonated in his memory. Still, this one did possess high-level materia. Why take a chance?

“Mr. Cornell, Sir,” Andy announced to the preoccupied executive.

Reeve’s dark head shot up, and he abruptly stood, shoving the personal computer into his jacket pocket as he stretched out a hand to take Cornell’s in a firm handshake. “Ian, isn’t it?” Reeve inspected the tall man with collar length reddish blonde hair tightly pulled into a short ponytail, a neatly trimmed mustache, and wireless oval spectacles. He’d seen him around the Shinra offices, but he hadn’t had much cause to deal with him directly before.

“Yes, sir,” the man politely replied, blue eyes steady on the Shinra executive’s face. “I apologize for the delay, but I wanted to assess the situation thoroughly before we met.”

Reeve nodded his understanding. “What can you tell me?”

“Which report do you want first?”

“The pillar, please.”

“The situation is static, sir. A team is currently working on a plan to augment the pillar support with the materials and equipment at hand. Until they’ve something workable to go with, we can only monitor.”

“Yes, that’s what Jack reported,” Reeve replied tersely.

“Of course, as they were the reports I passed on to him,” Cornell reminded him. Reeve lifted expressionless eyes from the city plat to the assistant head engineer’s impassive face. Cornell shifted uneasily beneath Reeve’s silent appraisal. He unconsciously raised a hand to readjust the rimless spectacles on his face. “As I said, the situation is static,” he added tensely. “And has been for some time.”

Reeve abruptly planted his palms against the table to lean forward, unrelenting eyes locked on the other man’s gaze. “Perhaps this is not the time, but regardless, while we are on the subject of Jack Wynn,” the Shinra executive spoke coolly. “I think I should inform you that I consider his loss a major setback to the forward moving plans of the Shinra corporation and…” Reeve paused to find the thread of words that had suddenly vanished from his mind beneath the sudden image that filled his mind, the memory of Jack’s face, the last time he’d seen him; lifeless eyes immobile beneath lightly closed lids, skin bloodlessly pale, countenance serene in death, conspicuously absent, forever. He resisted the urge to close his eyes against the picture, instead dropping his eyes to the city plat between his hands. “…And…a great personal…loss…as well…”

“I understand, Mr. Alexander,” Ian Cornell interrupted with a hint of impatience in his tone.

Reeve’s head shot up, darks eyes frosting on Cornell’s face. Abruptly, the executive straightened to his full height. The assistant head engineer blinked at the deadly cold expression in the Shinra manager’s eyes. Squaring his shoulders, Ian Cornell clasped his hands behind his back and waited for what would come with shuttered eyes.

“I don’t think you do understand, Mr. Cornell,” Reeve informed him icily. “Jack Wynn had been fully apprised of my expectations regarding the formidable struggle ahead for this corporation as well as for the people of this city. He was in full agreement with all the assessments and propositions discussed. He considered himself fully capable, and more importantly, wholly committed to the task.”

The Shinra executive paused again to study the younger man’s expressionless face. Wisely, Cornell held his tongue and silently waited for Alexander to continue, knowing that the man’s next few words might well define their entire corporate relationship, ad infinitum.

Reeve nodded slightly, a degree of coolness slipping from his eyes as he spoke again. “I am well aware of your degree of involvement within the engineering department as well as your more than satisfactory performance. As Jack’s handpicked assistant, I assume he deemed you a competent replacement for the position of head engineer, and I respect that judgment. The question I ask of you now, Mr. Cornell, is this. Do you feel confident that you can bring the level of expertise and commitment that Jack Wynn did to the job? Can you adequately step into the breech? Be thoughtful of your answer, Mr. Cornell, because failure, at this time, is not an option we can entertain.”

Ian Cornell fully met Reeve’s unwavering regard with equally steady eyes. His chin lifted, and he inclined his head. “Yes, sir. I do believe I am more than capable of stepping into Mr. Wynn’s shoes. However…” Cornell shifted his weight to one leg, and folded his arms about his chest, absently raising a hand to stroke his mustache as he carefully selected his next words.

“However?” Reeve inquired icily.

Cornell suddenly dropped his hands to the table and leaned forward. “I do doubt my capacity to achieve the sanctified state of sainthood.” The man held his breath as he awaited the executive’s response to his audacious comment.

Reeve inclined his head in acknowledgement. “A fair assessment, Mr. Cornell. Fortunately, you are only required to meet the measure of my expectations.”

Cornell nodded in response. “I will do my best, Sir.”

The corner of Reeve’s mouth twitched. “I believe you will, Mr. Cornell.” He redirected his attention to the city plat. “Now that we’ve that matter off the table, let’s move on to an issue more pressing. Have you developed a viable plan to reach the survivors in Sector Five as yet?”

“Actually, I may have,” the engineer replied smoothly. “The operation is in progress now.”

Pleasantly surprised, he peered up at the man from beneath dark eyebrows. “What is it?”

“We have been able to access a pipe chase from one of the main underground tunnels, and a team is attempting to navigate a remote controlled pipe crawler along the conduits and cables to reach the top.”

“A pipe chase...” Reeve frowned in thought. “I understood all access from the sewers were blocked.”

“One of the pipe chases inside the barrier wall, those that carry the electrical cables that provide power to the train system. There are two main ones, both with inlets from the tunnels and with outlets just beneath the plate.”

Then Reeve realized what pipe chases to which he referred. A multitude of electrical cables were fed through conduits that ran up shafts embedded in the steel barricade and fanned out across the underbelly of the plate to provide backup power to the transit system. No doubt most of the transit system in that sector had been smashed into junk, and the separated electrical cables probably dangled into the debris. As a matter of fact, the cables might even be live as their source originated far from Sector Five.

“Are the backup carriers shut down?” he queried sharply.

“Of course,” Cornell replied coolly. “I saw to it myself.”

“Of course…” Reeve’s thoughts turned inward again as he considered the ramifications of the scheme. “Still…those shafts would not be adequate for…rescue operations…” Questioning brown eyes moved back to Cornell’s watchful gaze. The engineer promptly answered the unspoken question.

“At this time, our goal is information and contact. The pipe crawler probe will permit both if the operation is successful.”

Reeve didn’t have to ask anything further. Simply put, there currently existed no way to recover the survivors from Sector Five. However, Cornell’s scheme might permit them to discover a way. He nodded with approval. “Please keep me informed of the progress of your operation, Mr. Cornell.”

Cornell blinked at the abrupt dismissal, and then inclined his head respectfully. “I will have news within the hour, Sir.”

Reeve mirrored Cornell’s nod in silent response, and the man turned on heel and strode from the room.

“What do you think, Reeve?” Cloud spoke from behind him. “Do you think it’ll work?”

The executive slowly shook his head. “The best we can do is talk to those people. Find out how many there are…what condition they’re in…tell them we’re working on the problem…maybe determine the extent of the blockage in the Sector Five gate…barring that avenue, any rescue attempt will have to be carried out after the city is completely evacuated…an extensive operation…probably requiring…demolition…”

“In the meantime, they’re sitting there in the dark with no food…no water...” Cloud’s voice trailed helplessly away.

“I’m afraid so,” Reeve solemnly conceded. He left the remainder unspoken though his stomach churned sickly as he acknowledged the probable result. He could not risk the thousands of people still in the city to save a few. And establishing contact, in the end, might only mean that he would know…when…how many…their faces even…until there weren’t anymore…to worry about…drinking himself into a stupor, in the dark, the wall clock ticking jarringly into his ears, relentlessly marking the time right down to zero…

“Reeve?” Cloud voiced his name sharply, as though he’d already said it a couple of times with no response, shaking Reeve from his dark thoughts.

“What, Cloud?” he asked wearily.

“Isn’t there something…we can…do?” His question, full of hope, yet dully voiced, indicated that the Avalanche warrior already knew the answer.

Reeve slipped his hand into his pocket to wrap his fingers around the compact personal computer. He wanted to draw the device out into the open, turn it on, check his messages, and perhaps even find a lifeline that he already knew wouldn’t be there. Instead, he forced himself to release the computer, and deliberately withdrew his hand to pick up his discarded pencil. Cloud moved up alongside the executive to peer with incomprehension at the detailed evacuation plans the man had drawn. Reeve didn’t look up as he set to work with his notations, his voice heavy with the weight of the whole world when he spoke.

“There’s nothing more to be done, Cloud. All we can do now is wait.”

Ozzie impatiently shoved the taller Bari through the doorway before he slammed the door shut and ripped his black hat off his head to send it sailing to the nearby table. Then he slumped against the door and commenced to bang the back of his head against the hardwood.

Bari crossed his arms and watched him with placid golden eyes for several seconds before he decided he’d best intervene. “Why are you so overwrought, Ozwan? We are still alive after all.”

Ozzie quit banging his head to turn a fierce glare onto the serene face of the tall warrior. “How can you be so calm, Baron? You were shaking in your sandals not three minutes ago.” The black-garbed man flung himself away from the door and into the center of the room where he fell into a frantic pacing. “Tell me again…why I got mixed up in this crazy scheme…”

“For the money,” Baron reminded him. “A substantial amount as I recall…perhaps you might guard your speech, Ozwan…”

“And you?!” The oblivious Ozzie threw up a hand in his direction. “How did you wind up in league to that…that…that maniac?!”

“For power,” Baron responded without a thought. “And revenge.”

Ozzie didn’t bother to respond to Baron’s assertion, his mind already moved on to another matter. “He yanks us back through like dogs!? Then he carries on like it’s our fault he had to do it! ”

Baron sighed helplessly. Ozzie exhibited no desire to cease his tirade, and probably wouldn’t until he’d used up most of the adrenaline left pumping through his veins, despite the likelihood that the ‘Master’ might well be listening. Surrendering to inevitability, he dropped his arms to walk across the stone floor to a long cabinet where he proceeded to examine a row of knives resting in a metal rack. He chose one and lifted the tip of the blade to eye level. His eyes followed the glint of the light against the keen blade as he turned it to and fro. Ozzie strode by just behind his back on his next pass, still ranting.

“And then…and then…he yells at us because that loon almost escaped again! Since when is keeping up with her our job?! I ask you?!”

Baron shrugged noncommittally, careful to keep his own counsel where that woman was concerned. “Since Vendra left…most likely…” he murmured, knowing Ozzie wasn’t listening anyway.

“I mean…first he yells at us because we aren’t moving fast enough. Then he yells at us to back off! It shoulda been a simple snatch! In. Out.” A wry smile touched Baron’s face as he imagined the degree to which Ozzie’s hands were flapping along with his mouth. He didn’t have to look to confirm that fact. He knew from experience.

“No one would have ever known…but…Hell! How was I supposed to know I’d run into the freaking Leader of the Turks?! It wasn’t like I asked to get shot at! Would I ask for bullet holes in my body?! Hell no…”

“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Baron finally interrupted in a hard voice. He sent the knife in an overhand spin, and then caught the hilt. With a frown, he set it back in the rack and removed another.

At his question, Ozzie stopped in his tracks, turning to stare at him in complete bewilderment. “Dead? Who?”

“That Turk,” Baron replied patiently. “He’s no longer a concern, correct?” Carefully, he scrutinized the blade of the new knife.

“Well hell, he’s just gotta be dead. He bled out on the damn floor.”

“Then don’t worry about him anymore,” Baron admonished him. “Don’t worry about the change in orders. The Boss called us back because of the Kendo fiasco, and the Boss is right. We need to be more cautious. More discreet. Too many will be watching for us to move on those targets again. We can’t risk exposing the operation. We’ll just take care of other business. We’ll lay low and look around. See if we can get a lead on this Valentine character. Work the rest of the list and keep track of our marks. We’ll watch and we’ll wait. Then when the Boss says move, we’ll move.”

“But what about Vendra?”

Baron’s eyes narrowed at Ozzie’s imploring voice. Deliberately, he sliced the air crossways, and then back, before returning the knife to exchange it for yet another, one with a longer and more slender blade. Eventually, he replied, even though his words did not provide the answer to the unspoken question that Ozwan had asked. “You were there. Did you not hear what he said? He has assigned Vendra to Valentine exclusively. The man hasn’t a chance. If we can’t find him, she will. Be assured of that.”

Finally silent, Ozzie walked over to stand a few feet from him. For a long time, he stared at the rack of assault rifles just in front of his eyes, only one section of a whole row of guns that stretched all the way to the corner of the room. Defeated, Ozzie slumped forward, his hands falling flat to the smooth marble countertop as his stringy blonde hair fell into his eyes.

Concerned, Baron darted a glance at his dejected face before returning his attention to the knife tip. “Now is not the time to waver,” he chided in a near whisper. “Nor the time to fall apart.”

Ozzie absently nodded at the warrior's words. “Have you ever seen him, Baron?”

“No,” he replied lowly. “Nor do I wish to see him.”

“I haven’t seen him either, but…Vendra has…hasn’t she?”

“Yes, he calls her into his presence,” Baron conceded, a hint of ruefulness in his voice.

“Why?” Ozzie asked dully.

“I think you can guess, Ozwan,” Baron replied coolly. “Personally, I don’t care to speculate further.”

“But she and I were…she told me that…”

Baron suddenly rounded on the man, annoyed at the whine in his voice, and angered at the reason for his concern. At the sharp movement, uncharacteristic of the normally deliberate man, Ozzie shot startled gray eyes to the dusky face and the golden irises that blazed through slitted eyelids. He swallowed hard at the typically expressionless face that was now twisted in barely concealed rage.

“Bari, are you…alright…” Ozzie asked weakly.

Baron whipped the knife up and pointed the tip at Ozzie’s face. The blonde man’s eyes zeroed in on the glinting tip as his muscles froze in place. He knew he dared not move at that moment, not with madness lurking in those golden eyes.

“She is worthless,” Baron snarled into his face. “Like every other one of her gender, she does what serves her. She cares not for my desire! She cares not for my love! Death is too good for her, but…I will kill her.” The final words, though voiced softly, lacked nothing in deadly intent.

Ozzie stared at the murderous expression in the taller man’s eyes. Then, he carefully took a step back. “Do you mean…to…kill…Vendra?” he queried hesitantly. Somehow, he didn’t think so.

Baron blinked in confusion. “Who?”

Ozzie nodded respectfully at the tip of the knife. “You said you would kill her.”

Baron frowned and drew away, letting his arm fall to the side, the knife hilt fisted tightly in his hand. “No, not Vendra,” he replied irritably.

Relief restored strength to Ozzie’s bones, as well as to his nerve. “Then who?”

“She is not your concern,” Baron responded coldly. “Forget about her. And forget about Vendra. We should go.”

Ozzie threw his hands up in exasperation. “Fine, don’t talk about it.”

“We are wasting precious time, Ozwan,” Baron reminded him coldly.

“Hey, heaven forbid I be the holdup,” Ozzie drawled. “I’m more than ready to be gone. In fact, I was gone. I thought.” To reinforce his point, he reached out with both hands to remove an automatic rifle from the rack in front of him.

“No,” Baron held out a hand to stop him. “We observe this time.”

“Even observers can get into trouble,” Ozzie pointed out.

“You have your handguns,” Baron replied with a nod to the pistols Ozzie wore on his lean hips.

“Well, your great big katana is fairly threatening and remarkably noticeable for one merely observing,” Ozzie spoke wryly as he crossed the room to retrieve his cloak. Instead, he reached for a long black coat.

“True,” Baron conceded agreeably. He swiftly removed the katana scabbard from his back and laid the katana inside its brightly beaded leather sheath aside. As Ozzie donned the coat and settled the garment in place over the pistols in their holsters, Baron slid the stiletto bladed knife into the leggings wrapped around his calf. Then he reached for a matching blade from the rack and slid it into the leggings around his other calf.

Ozzie reached for his flat brimmed black hat. “So where are we going? Do we know?”

Baron suddenly whirled, straight ebony hair flying out behind as he snatched yet another knife from the rack and sent the weapon spinning across the room in a blur of motion. The knife thwacked solidly into the map that stretched across the wooden divider wall in the center of the room.

Purposefully, Baron strode across the room to retrieve the knife from the center of the Northern Continent. “Icicle Village,” he duly informed a waiting Ozzie.

“Ah, c’mon, Icicle Village is too damn cold,” the blonde haired man whined as he settled his hat on his head.

“Well, if you can do better, I’ll abide by your choice.” Baron slid the knife in his waistband, beneath his tunic.

In a lightning draw, Ozzie squeezed his eyes shut and ripped a pistol from the holster beneath the coat, firing a single shot. Baron stepped close to examine the resultant hole. An ebony eyebrow went up. “The desert is better?”

“Best outta three?” Ozzie asked hopefully.

Baron closed his eyes and planted a finger on the map. Ozzie walked over to see where it landed. “Kalm?”

Baron opened his eyes and nodded. “Kalm suits me fine.”

“Me too.” Ozzie turned for the door.

“I will insure that Ms. ‘Loon’, as you call her, is secured in her quarters with a keeper of adequate intelligence this time, after which I shall meet you at the portal,” Baron offered.

Ozzie opened the door and stood aside to permit Baron to pass. “Better you than me, pal. She gives me the creeps.” He involuntarily shuddered to make his point.

“And Julian? You talked to the doctor about him, didn’t you? How is he?” Baron inquired curiously as he turned into the wide corridor. “Will he be going as well?”

Ozzie let the door fall shut behind him. “Er…no. The Doc says she better keep an eye on him for a while. The resurrection procedure left him a bit muddled. Well, more muddled than usual. In fact…she said…ah…that he was…quite mad.”

“How unfortunate,” Baron remarked sadly. “We shall be on our own for awhile, it would seem.” He turned into a bisecting corridor as Ozzie turned the other way. “I will see you in ten minutes.”

Ozzie touched a finger to his hat in acknowledgment. “I better. If you aren’t there, I’m going to come looking for you.”

Baron grimaced just before he turned away. “Please do.”

The small group entered the village and threaded their way through the crowd milling about the Kalm town square. To the untrained eye, they seemed no different than any other refugee in the small village, although the multitude of earrings in the taller man’s ears as well as his size did draw some curious glances. However, the newcomers passed all the way through the town square largely unnoticed in the motley crowd as the man with the shaven head and the petite young woman with braids took the lead, and the tall redheaded man with the child on his back and pretty blonde woman walking close by his side brought up the rear.

Eventually, Rude came to a halt near the concrete steps leading to the upper level where he knew the materia shop to be. He turned to Reno for confirmation. “Should we proceed?” Slowly Reno shook his head. “We’ll rest for a minute and gather our thoughts.” Rude inclined his head in agreement. He knew quite well that Reno actually meant that they should assess the situation thoroughly before approaching the materia shop, although he had to acknowledge that the redheaded Turk looked a bit worn around the edges, either because he hadn’t quite recovered his strength fully or because the little girl had spent half the long walk into the village bouncing on his back and spurring him onward with the heels of her shoes. Probably both.

As though in acknowledgement of Rude’s assessment, Reno moved to set the little girl from his back. “Time to get off,” he told her as he knelt down on one knee to let her down.

“Uh uh,” she refused, abruptly tightening her arms around his neck.

“Uh huh,” Reno insisted, taking a tiny wrist in each big hand to break her hold. Reluctantly, she slid off to watch him with rapt sapphire eyes edged in ebony lashes as he rose to his full height. Oblivious to Rachel’s continued appraisal, Reno shoved his shades into his hair even as he swiveled his head to scrutinize their surroundings; the layout of the buildings, the faces of the people, any undue attention they might have drawn. Eventually his eyes returned to the faces of his companions.

Rude stood motionless, but Reno knew his eyes moved constantly behind the opaque shades, continuously watching for a potential threat that might come from any direction. Caitlin leaned a shoulder into the concrete wall of the stairway; her head resting against the cool stone, her arms folded around her waist and her eyes closed. He wondered if she found herself sorely in need of sleep, and considered the potential of working that exhaustion to his advantage. Weariness could well make her vulnerable to a few trickily composed inquiries. Finally, his eyes fell on Elena, who stood near his elbow. Unlike Rude, she’d turned her assessment to the compact in her hand. If the grimace on her face provided any indication of the thoughts inside her blonde head, she obviously didn’t like what the cracked mirror displayed.

Reno stepped back behind her to peer down over her left shoulder into the mirror, and the little girl shadowed him, coming to a halt alongside Reno’s left leg. “Problems, Elena?” he drawled lowly. The feigned concern in his voice didn’t reflect the sarcastic glint in his green eyes.

Absently, Elena nodded. “I can’t go around in public like this,” she informed him. “I need to find someplace that sells makeup.”

He nodded enthusiastically. “You are so right,” he cheerfully agreed. “You look absolutely terrible, Elena. How did you get into such a state? Maybe you’d better go shopping.” His voice turned silky. “Even some lipstick would help.”

She nodded her agreement. “I would give anything for a lipstick,” she sighed.

Reno raised one fiery wing of an eyebrow in interest. “Anything?”

Suddenly, Elena recognized with just whom she carried on this conversation, and she lifted her chin as she pointedly snapped the compact shut. “It was a figure of speech, Reno .” She emphasized his name with dripping disdain as she drew away to glare at him. “Why don’t you mind your own damn business anyway?”

Reno raised a finger to stroke the scar on his cheek as he regarded her with steady eyes. “Ah, but this is my business, Elena,” he informed her with deadly softness. “I’ve noted of late that you devote entirely too much time to the inspection of your own face and nails…” He briefly held his own blunt nailed hand before intent eyes in mock imitation of her. “…When you should be attending to the occupation for which you are paid. In fact, this obsession with your appearance was the exact reason…” With a glance at Caitlin’s relaxed face and lightly closed eyes, he lowered his voice. “…That your charge slipped away virtually unnoticed in Wall Market. I expect you to arrange your priorities appropriately.”

Elena sniffed. “I carry my end, Reno. I think you know that. You just don’t understand the importance of appearance as you’ve so little regard for it yourself.”

Reno frowned at her observation. Then he held out his hand. “Give me the compact.”

“I will not,” she retorted stubbornly. She compressed her lips mutinously and deliberately slapped his hand away.

His brow lowered menacingly, and he pointed a finger down into her face. “You will,” he promised her.

Purposefully, she shoved the compact deep into her slacks pocket as she smirked up into his glittering green eyes. The cool eyes narrowed on her face, and her smirk began to slip away as she wondered if she’d made a mistake in defying the redheaded Turk. Fortunately, she would not find out just then.

“Hey, you folks just get into town?”

Both Reno and Elena swiveled their heads to look at the affable man who returned their inscrutable regard kindly from watery blue eyes set in a ruddy face. His silvered bangs fell over a careworn forehead as he leaned forward to offer his hand. Reno scrutinized the man from the tip of his scuffed brown dress shoes to the threadbare brown dress trousers and jacket to the crooked bowtie at his neck and back to blue eyes now turned curious. He deemed the guy no threat. Merely a poorly paid civil servant, most likely. He let his face split in a wide smile.

“Sure did. Not ten minutes ago, Mayor.” Reno grabbed the man’s proffered hand in an exuberant handshake. “Town’s changed a bit since we were here last.”

The man retrieved his hand from Reno’s larger one and wiggled his fingers experimentally. “Yes, well, that is so. Certainly is.” The Mayor’s eyes discovered the pair of inquisitive eyes watching him from behind Reno’s leg. He beamed in cherubic delight. “You’ve a lovely daughter, sir. Surely do.”

Reno’s huge smile faded only a little. “Eh?” He looked down as Rachel fisted a small hand in the material of his jeans and peeped up at him. “Oh yeah, say hello to the Mayor, Rach.” Solemnly, she shook her head. Reno shrugged and his smile turned sheepish. “She’s shy, ya know.”

“I understand. Certainly do. The name’s Braxton Decker, by the way. I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure of an introduction.” The man thought to offer his hand for another handshake, but then rethought the matter. “And your name would be?”

Reno stared at him blankly for a brief moment as Rachel tugged at his leg. Not so briefly that the Mayor would really take note of his lapse, but long enough for Elena to open her mouth. “George.” She smiled sweetly. “His name’s George.”

Reno’s face went very still, just before he swiveled his head to land dangerous eyes on Elena’s smug face. “My friends call me Geo,” he clarified through gritted teeth.

The Mayor turned his attention to Elena. “So this must be your lovely wife,” he proclaimed happily.

Reno broadly smiled his intention as he watched Elena’s smugness give way to dismay. She gave him a little shake of her head to dissuade him. “Why yes, Mayor…Decker…” Reno beamed in his direction. “…My better half…Esmeralda.” He abruptly threw an arm around Elena’s waist and dragged her against his side, and then he winced when she planted the heel of her shoe into the toe of his boot.

The Mayor’s gaze fell to the little girl who still clung to Reno’s leg with one hand. He smiled broadly, and Rachel fell further back. “Well, your daughter certainly takes after your wife.”

Elena choked, and the Mayor fixed her with concerned eyes. “Are you okay, Esmeralda?”

“She’s a bit road weary, you know,” Reno answered for her. “We’ve been on the road a long time.” Then he bent his head to turn his mouth against her ear. “Get the hell off my foot,” he hissed beneath his breath.

“Make me,” she murmured just loud enough for him to hear. She ground the heel in a bit harder for good measure.

“I’m afraid accommodations are difficult to come by in Kalm these days. However, the proprietor of our local Hardware Store has been selling tents. He may still have a few, although he has been doing a booming business.”

Reno tightened his arm around Elena, bringing her hard up against his side to swing her off her feet. She wrapped a hand around his wrist and dug in her nails. Abruptly, he released her to her feet with a bit of a jar, and she might have stumbled but for her quick reflexes. With a toss of her head, she put her back to him, although she kept her sweet smile for the Mayor’s benefit. The man hadn’t even noticed the struggle, his attention directed toward pointing out the various locations of interest inside the town.

“…And the pub is serving food…as well as Mrs. Greene’s Café’…and one entrepreneurial spirit has set up a meal tent outside the town.” He finally returned his attention to Reno’s face. “I have to warn you, though, that prices have skyrocketed in the last few days.”

Reno winced painfully. “Guess we’ll be seeing that more and more…”

“Well…we don’t want your little girl going without…” The Mayor spoke with careful eyes on Reno’s face. “…So if you need anything…anything at all…just let me know.”

“Thanks for the offer, Mayor, but I think we’ll be okay,” Reno awarded him his most ingratiating smile.

“Good enough,” the Mayor replied heartily. “I’ll leave you to go on your way then. Just remember what I said…”

Reno returned the man’s wave and watched him for a few moments until he’d walked out of earshot, and then he rounded on Elena, only to find her peering anxiously into the crowd. “What’s the matter?” he prompted curtly.

“Rude and Caitlin are gone…”

He shot a glance over his shoulder to the spot where he’d last seen them. He couldn’t fault Elena’s assessment. The silent Turk and the sleepy woman had been replaced by two pretty young women currently caught up in animated conversation. One of them caught his eye and bestowed him with a beguiling smile. Another time, he might have returned it with a version of his own, but this time his cool eyes traveled on to scan the crowd around. Finally, he found Caitlin sitting on the edge of the upper level outside the row of shops, bumping the heels of her sneakers against the concrete. Rude stood just behind her, watching the crowd below with folded arms. At that moment, he turned his head to gaze in Reno’s direction.

“They’re up there,” Reno informed Elena succinctly. “Let’s go.”

He spun the other way to head for the stairs and almost stumbled over the little girl who still waited patiently beside him. “Uh, Elena…why don’t you take Rachel?”

Elena walked past him and put one foot on the first step. “No way. That girl’s a daddy’s girl.” She smiled at the promise of mayhem in his green eyes and started up the steps.

With a muttered imprecation, Reno snatched the little girl up into his arms and ran up the lower steps to catch up with the blonde Turk. He grabbed her elbow and jerked her to a halt. She twisted around to glare at him. At eye level with her, he brought his face closer, green eyes rife with annoyance. “I’ll just take that bag now.” He held out his hand.

“Gladly,” she snapped. She shrugged the black bag off her shoulder and shoved it against his chest. “You know, Reno, I realize that you said to improvise, but…your wife?” She stuck a finger in her mouth and made a gagging sound.

He slung the bag to his back and brushed past her. “Act like a professional, Elena,” he admonished her. “It’s cover, and one defined by the situation. The best kind of cover, as you well know.”

At the head of the stairs, she fell into step beside him, oblivious to Rachel’s curious eyes as she continued to berate him.

“But Esmeralda, Reno?” she pressed him in a low voice. “What kind of cover name is that?”

“George, Elena?”

“What’s wrong with ‘George’?”

“Nothing, but…do I look like a ‘George’ to you?” He halted again to pin her with a cool gaze.

Elena gazed at his narrowed eyes. Then she raised a hand to hide her twitching lips. “Well…you do remind me of a classmate named George that used to steal my lunch at school…er…a long time ago…”

“A bully, eh? I’ll remember that.” Then he smiled that smile that wasn’t a smile. “I saw a witch on TV once named Esmeralda.” He turned before she could close her mouth to form an appropriate response and walked on. She caught up to him with a ready retort on her tongue, but by then they’d almost reached Rude and Caitlin’s location. The golden haired woman had already climbed expectantly to her feet to meet them.

“Why’d you skip out?” Reno inquired of Rude in a chilly voice.

“Decker would have recognized us,” Rude responded in a monotone.

“How’s that? You know him?”

“He used to be the Mayor of Midgar,” Caitlin interjected. “Until my Father forced him out in a power struggle.”

“Blackmail?” Reno inquired with interest. “Media smear?”

“Attempted assassination,” Rude replied indifferently.

“Ah…that would do the trick,” Reno said with satisfaction.

“What did he want anyway?” Caitlin asked curiously.

Reno turned toward her. “Just exercising his mayoral duties, I expect. Here’s your kid.” With gently insistent fingers, he broke Rachel’s grasp of his shirt and leaned down to hand her to Caitlin. The petite woman took her and carefully set her on her feet by her side, offering Rachel her hand with a gentle smile. The little girl readily took her hand, but turned blue eyes up to the man who seemed to have already forgotten her.

“I suspect he’s just a nice man,” Elena offered. “After all, he offered to help someone as disreputable looking as Reno.”

Reno leveled appraising eyes on Elena’s face. “I suspect that was due to my schoolteacher wife.”

Elena’s eyes turned stormy as she folded her arms and pointedly refused to look into the taunting gaze of the redheaded Turk.

“Wife?” Caitlin asked with a half-smile.

“Don’t even go there,” Elena muttered.

“There’s the cat,” Rude informed them in a monotone.

Reno wheeled around to search the crowd, easily marking the location of Cait Sith on his Mog as well as the young man who walked beside him. They progressed slowly through the town square as people stopped the sandy haired youth several times to shake his hand or slap him on the back. Many were just openly curious about the robotic cat and appeared to be asking questions about him.

“Our boy seems popular,” Reno commented dryly.

“That’s…Cait Sith?” Caitlin openly stared at the dancing cat atop its Mog. “It looks like a toy.”

“Make no mistake, Caitlin, that machine is a state of the art intelligence gathering tool with superior offensive and defensive capability,” Reno coolly informed her.

Caitlin turned skeptical eyes to the Turk’s watchful face. “Shall we go meet him?” she asked uncertainly.

“No,” Reno replied curtly. “We won’t approach him publicly. We’ll make ourselves scarce until he settles somewhere.”

Caitlin nodded slowly. “That seems like a good idea.”

Reno narrowed his eyes on the petite woman’s face. “Besides, we need to take some time to define the direction of this meeting.”

Caitlin raised her chin at the challenge in Reno’s eyes. “I believe we’ll let Mr. Wulfe decide.”

“I think that unwise, Caitlin,” Reno chided in a low voice.

“You may think what you like, Reno,” Caitlin replied indifferently. “And now is not the time to discuss it, if we plan to stay out of his way for the moment. Here he comes.”

Reno whipped his head around to find that the young man had indeed reached the bottom of the stairway and already had a scuffed boot planted on the first step, the Mog bouncing in place just behind. At that moment, he’d paused to respond to a hail from the open doorway of the pub and his eyes were directed that way. The redheaded Turk looked around for a likely place to go.

“There,” Rude pointed toward the far end of the promenade.

Reno nodded agreeably. He swept a hand in that direction. “After you.”

Avian Wulfe had just started up the stairway as the small group straggled nonchalantly along the concrete walkway past the head of the stairs. By the time he set foot on the upper level, Reno had ushered everyone else through the doorway into a shop at the other end. Just before he closed the door behind him, Reno turned to look back, only to find Avian standing motionless with startled eyes frozen on the Turk’s face. With a cool smile and a polite nod of his head, Reno stepped into the shop and quietly closed the door behind him. Selecting an uncluttered spot near the door, he leaned back against the wall and drew his cigarette case from his jeans as he sought out Caitlin where she stood on the other side of a glass display case, examining the contents. At that moment, she looked up to meet his gaze, and her azure eyes sharpened on his face.

“What’s the matter, Reno?” she asked apprehensively.

One red eyebrow shot up. “Nothing. Why?” He opened the case and withdrew a cigarette, raising it to place between his lips despite the shopkeeper’s baleful glare. He knew the man wouldn’t say anything to him or he already would have.

“I don’t know…I just thought…” Caitlin chewed her lower lip. What had she thought? Something in his eyes had given her pause. Something that was gone now. Maybe she’d imagined it. “Oh…never mind.” She waved a dismissive hand and purposefully returned her attention to the decorative beadwork of the necklaces inside the case. “I’m just…tired…I guess…”

“I guess,” Reno replied sarcastically. He returned the case to his pocket and lit the cigarette with his silver lighter. Leaning his head back against the wall, he slowly dragged in a long breath of smoke and just as slowly released it. He hadn’t lied to her. Not really. There wasn’t a problem. Yet. However, he didn’t expect that to last. Because he knew he’d seen that young man somewhere before, a fact he hadn’t realized until just then. Something about the way he stood on the stairs. Unfortunately, he couldn’t quite place where he’d seen him, and that bothered him. What was worse, he realized that the youth had recognized him too, and Reno had no doubt that he did remember exactly when and where. Avian Wulfe knew of him, and that meant trouble.

Derry trotted alongside the Captain as he strode first one way and then the other around the crane, shouting directions and sucking on a cigarette as the driver worked to position the huge, lumberous machine. Normally, Derry would have stood out of his way and left him alone until he’d finished, but in this case, he didn’t have any choice. He had to talk to the Captain now.

“Captain Highwind!” he called out for the third time, only to be drowned out by the man’s frustrated shout once again. Derry halted and cupped his hands around his mouth, drawing in a deep breath to release the air in a protracted shout that strained the limits of his vocal cords. “Hey…Captain Highwind!”

Finally, the Captain whipped his head around to look his way, but before Derry could bask in his success, much less get a word out of his mouth, Highwind’s intense blue eyes had already skipped back to the task at hand as he leveled a string of vociferous curses at the hapless driver.

At that point, Derry decided that any further attempt at speech would be a waste of breath and time. He dragged in another long breath, stuck two fingers in his mouth, and exhaled a whistle so shrill and piercing that every single person in the area, even to the farthest reaches of the almost completed encampment, lifted eyes to look. The Captain had definitely taken note, turning to drill him with an annoyed glare. Derry quickly stepped forward.

“Excuse me, Captain Highwind…but I have…”

Cid’s eyes flew wide, and he abruptly yanked the cigarette from his mouth. “Well, would ya look at that?!” the Captain exclaimed in awe.

Derry paused in mid-speech as he wondered how the Captain could find any aspect of his appearance startling as he’d seen him more than once before. Then he realized that Captain Highwind’s eyes were focused somewhere past him. The young man whirled around, his platinum ponytail flying out behind, a testament to his haste. His own blue eyes widened at the sight he beheld.

The blue river chocobo raced toward him, full-tilt, with Yuffie Kisaragi riding low over the saddle horn. He might have moved, probably should have moved, out of her way, but by the time the fact dawned on him that she might not be able to stop or worse, didn’t plan to stop, the chocobo was almost on top of him. Every muscle in his body tensed as he wondered just how much pain would be produced from a collision with a chocobo. Fortunately, he wasn’t forced to find out. Yuffie straightened in the saddle and hauled back on the reins with all her might, bringing the chocobo to a full halt just before him. He could only manage to blink.

The Captain moved closer, eyes full of wonder. “I have to admit, that girl is the most resourceful person I’ve ever known,” Cid confided in a whisper near his ear. “Or the luckiest.” Derry might have agreed, if he could have moved his lips or his head.

Yuffie leaned out as she patted the chocobo’s feathered neck, irritated eyes on the serene face and motionless figure of Derrick Heidegger. He’d cheated her out of the satisfaction of seeing him stumble out of her way, and she was annoyed. “Do you ever get stirred up by anything, Flyboy?” she snapped at him.

At her question, he finally loosened his muscles enough to shrug. “Sure, doesn’t everybody?” Then he remembered how he’d wound up in this spot staring at the end of the chocobo’s beak wondering at the size of the bird’s nostrils in the first place. He spun around to speak to the Captain, only to find the man walking away, still shaking his head in wonder. He darted after him.

“Captain Highwind! Wait, please!”

Cid turned back to regard Derry with curiosity. He drew the cigarette from his lips. “What’s the problem, kid?”

Derry halted in front of him. “No problem…just…I’ve got someone waiting to talk to you.”

The Captain’s eyes sharpened and he turned his gaze past the young man’s face. “Where?” he asked curiously. He quirked an eyebrow in expectation when he noticed that Yuffie had ridden the chocobo toward Nanaki. “Who?” he asked more absently. He grinned as he watched the chocobo jump straight up in the air to hit the ground running with such speed that he would wager she had no intention of stopping no matter how hard Yuffie leaned back against the bit.

Derry half-turned to point back the other way. “On the radio, Captain.”

“Who is it?”

“Reeve Alexander.”

The broad grin vanished completely as Cid choked on an inhalation of smoke. “Shit! Why didn’t ya say somethin’ before?!” The Captain shot the cigarette to the ground and strode away before Derry could come up with an answer. The young man decided the question had been mostly rhetorical anyway, and not worth the effort of thinking about, especially when the Captain was clearly headed in the wrong direction.

He fell into a fast walk to catch Highwind before he got far. “Not that way, Captain!” he called out. Still striding, Cid turned in silent question. Hurrying alongside him, Derry pointed toward the plane he’d flown to Midgar. The Captain nodded and veered off that way. Shortly, the pair reached the location where the radio sat atop the overturned metal box. Derry halted and bent to retrieve the transmitter, turning to pass it into the Captain’s waiting hand. Except the Captain wasn’t there. In fact, he’d walked several paces on toward the open cargo ramp of the plane.

“Captain Highwind! Where are you going?!”

“You said this plane didn’t ya, Heidegger?” Cid yelled back over his shoulder.

“Not that radio, Captain! This radio!” Derry held the transmitter up as the Captain abruptly stopped and turned partway back to look. Derry pointed at the transmitter in his hand with a finger to emphasize his point. His eyes full of skepticism, Cid stalked back. “That radio, kid? You fixed that hunk o’ junk?”

Derry leaned down to turn the oversized volume knob. Static roared through the speakers. With a sphinx-like smile he lifted the transmitter to his mouth and compressed the transmitter button. “Mr. Alexander…you still there?”

“Affirmative, Mr. Heidegger.” The garbled, staticky voice rattled the radio’s one speaker. Derry returned the volume knob to its original position

“I’ve got Captain Highwind here now, sir.”

“Thank you, son,” the now more recognizable voice replied.

With eyes narrowed on the young man’s face, Cid reached for the transmitter Derry offered to him. “I’m impressed, Heidegger. Maybe I oughta keep you around after all this. You need a job?”

Derry stuffed his hands into the pockets of his faded jeans. “Only if it involves flying, Captain,” he replied smoothly.

“You got yerself a deal, kid,” Cid replied happily. “Damned if you don’t.” He raised the transmitter. “You there, Cat Man?”

The radio crackled, along with the broken words. “Cid…good…hear…your voice.”

The Captain frowned at the poor reception. “Ditto, Cat. You and Cloud tired of hangin’ out? Ready to get outta that rat trap?”

A moment of pure clarity fed Cid the executive’s voice pristinely clear. “More than ready.”

“That’s fine, cuz I’m gonna crash yer party.”

“Glad to hear it. When can we…” A wave of static washed out the rest of his words.

“What was that again, Reeve? I can’t hear you.”

Another blast of static burst from the radio, drowning the executive’s voice beneath the wave of the noise. Cid leaned down to turn up the volume. “…Another matter…need to talk…you about…need…ask you…” Reeve’s voice sank into the snow of static again.

“What’s that, Reeve?” Cid’s shoulders tensed at the gravity he’d detected in the Shinra executive’s voice despite the interference.

The static rattled the speaker again. “…Sector Five...Cid…”

“What about Sector Five, Reeve?”

Voiceless noise poured forth. “Reeve?” Cid’s voice sharpened in his frustration. “What about Sector Five?”

Only dead air flowed through the speaker. “Reeve!” Cid shouted into the transmitter. “Reeve! What about Sector Five?!” He received no reply.

“I think we lost him,” Derry said ruefully.

“Son of a bitch!” Cid threw the transmitter toward the metal box, where it cracked against the radio case and ricocheted to the ground. “Shoulda brought that damn cat!” He turned on heel and stalked away, muttering as he went. “…Would a brought the damn cat…wouldn’t have…these problems…shoulda found a way to bring the damn cat…”

Warily, Derry bent to retrieve the abused transmitter, examining it long enough to deem it free from damage before he clipped it to the oversized radio and swiveled his head to study the Captain’s rapidly departing figure. Finally, he raised a finger to scratch his head. “Cat?” With a wondering shake of his head, he considered the idea that the Captain might well be losing his mind from all the stress, and then he turned back to the radio. If he got Reeve Alexander once, he could do it again.

The backpack hit the rough wooden floor with a heavy thump as Avian dropped weakly onto the sagging mattress of the narrow bed in his tiny room above the materia shop. Between Tiko’s loud greeting and subsequent animated chatter about Kalm, Midgar and everything else under the sun and his wife’s exuberant hugs and persistent offerings of food and drink and his very disturbing sighting of the Shinra Turk called Reno, he could hardly find the energy to draw a breath. Obliviously, Cait Sith raced from one corner of the room to the other like an excited child eager to see everything from the esoteric collection of books in the cobweb draped bookshelf to the serpent lamp on the bedside table to the radio in the windowsill. The Mog, unable to fit through the narrow doorway, stood idle in the hallway just outside the door, serving no purpose at the moment but to block passage down the hallway. Avian could not care less, though somewhere in the back of his mind he knew he would be made to care if Tiko’s wife came along and wanted to get through.

For a long time, Avian stared into space, lost in a tangle of contradictory thought, oblivious to the persistent flash of shadow and light in his eyes as Cait turned the lamp switch on and off, over and over. He only vaguely noticed when Cait grew bored with the lamp and grabbed the headboard in both mittened hands to bounce up and down on the mattress. However, when Cait decided to switch on the radio and turn up the volume, the loud wash of static brought his head around. Still detached, he watched Cait wiggle the bent antenna around in an apparent effort to get reception. Then he remembered why his favorite radio station had been reduced to undifferentiated noise and why all Cait’s manipulations would achieve nothing. He stirred himself to speak. “Come on, Cait. Cut it out.”

“Don’t you want to hear the music, Avian?” the little cat inquired in his singsong voice.

“There is no music…anymore…” he replied morosely, his voice trailing away as he wondered when there would be again. Probably never. With a hard shake of his head, he made a concerted effort to resist the pull of his pessimistic thoughts, straightening up on the bed to turn a curious eye to the cat. Cait had turned to the radio knobs, turning both the volume knob and the tuner knob at once, an action that created a strange ebb and flow of formless sound. Pointedly, Avian shoved his hair over his shoulder and pinned purposeful eyes on the electronic cat.

“Cait Sith, can I ask you some questions?”

The cat slowly swiveled glowing golden eyes around to bring Avian into his visual field. “Sure you can!” he suddenly exclaimed. “Alleyoop!” Cait sprang to the headboard and performed a somersault that landed him flat on the sagging mattress beside the bemused young man. Cait put his mittened hands behind his crowned head and crossed one knee over the other to set one red boot casually swinging. “Go ahead, Avian. Ask away.”

Avian cleared his throat as he worked to gather his thoughts. “Cait Sith, that stuff you spouted earlier…that Kendo…death dragon business…what was all that?” He turned expectant amber eyes on the cat’s comical face.

“The answer to what you asked, Avian.” Cait reminded him, withdrawing a hand from behind his head to wag one fat finger at his face.

“What I asked…” Avian replayed the scene through his head. “I didn’t ask…anything…”

“I mean…I don’t know for sure…but…that guy looked like some kind of a…military…er…assault vehicle…or something…don’t you think?”

Avian’s head shot up at the sound of his own words in his own voice emanating from the electronic cat. “Hey! That was me!” He informed the cat in an accusatory voice. “How did you do that?”

Cait jumped to his feet and planted indignant hands on his boneless hips, bouncing lightly against the mattress like a restless boxer preparing for a bout. “I remembered what you said, Avian.”

Avian opened his mouth to protest the fact that Cait Sith had obviously been recording everything that he said, a blatant intrusion as far as he was concerned, when he suddenly realized that Cait Sith probably recorded everyone. He’d certainly recorded that Kendo guy in video. That’s how he’d wound up talking to those people in Midgar in the first place. Cait sent them the video somehow. And Cait apparently could identify that Kendo guy. How? He narrowed his eyes on the robotic feline. “Cait Sith, how do you know about Kendo?”

“I know everything, silly.”

“I mean…did you recognize him because of a…program?

“A program, Avian?”

“I mean do you…like…recognize faces…” A light bulb went off in Avian’s head just then. He pointed a finger at Cait. “And voices! Do you recognize voices?” Avian knew he’d hit on the truth. Cait obviously ran voice and face recognition programs and probably drew from an internal database to match his input.

“Yes, Mr. Smartypants.” Cait happily confirmed his suspicions.

Avian carefully sat back down on the edge of the mattress. “Hmm…Cait…do you remember those people that talked to me before?”

Cait jumped lightly down to the floor to sit cross-legged in front of Avian. “Of course, silly.”

“Can you…play…you know…remind me?”

“Which part, Avian?” Cait asked pragmatically.

“Start with that guy…Alexander…”

Cait responded in Reeve’s voice. “I’m Reeve Alexander. I created Cait Sith.”

Avian jumped to his feet to stand over the cat, excited at his success. “Exactly, Cait Sith! That! Can you tell me if that is Reeve Alexander? Your creator?”

“No, Avian.”

“No?! Why not?!”

“I can’t tell you, Avian.”

Avian nodded knowingly. “You mean you won’t tell me, Cait Sith. That’s what you mean, isn’t it?”

Cait bowed his head sadly. “I’m not allowed to tell you, Avian.”

At that instant, Avian recognized that Cait’s inability to tell him actually told him anyway. The voice did belong to Reeve Alexander, but Cait’s programming didn’t allow him to reveal information about his creator, even though Reeve himself had revealed the fact that he had created the electronic cat. He could clearly infer that the voice did belong to Reeve Alexander.

“Okay then, what about that other guy…not Cloud Strife…but that other one…”

The cool voice issued from Cait Sith’s mouth, all the man’s words repeated in one string.

“Where? Oh no, we’re not. You’re not. Not after what happened there. We need to discuss this Caitlin, in private, if you get my drift. Face to face, huh? You’re kidding, right?”

“Yeah, who is that guy?” Avian asked tensely. He had an idea.

“I can’t tell you, Avian.”

“But you know, don’t you?” Avian accused. “Well fine, I know too. That guy is a Turk. I know he is, so you might as well just tell me.”

“I can’t tell you, Avian.” Cait insisted.

“Fine, don’t tell me,” Avian shrugged with forced nonchalance. “But I just want you to know that I know.”

“Would you like me to tell your fortune now, Avian?”

“Uh uh, no.” Avian firmly shook his head, wondering if the robotic cat simply wanted to change the subject or if he’d just gone without his fortune fix too long. “I want to hear her voice now. Caitlin. I want to hear her voice again.”

Dutifully, Cait replayed her quiet yet firm voice, just as he had the man’s before, with all the words he’d spoken to her perfectly repeated in simultaneous order.

“Tell him we’ll meet him there. There. His house. Then Kalm. 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. Never mind. I’ll tell him. Avian? Can you hear me? 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?”

A slight smile touched Avian’s lips. Now, hearing her voice again, the words she spoke, full of sincerity and concern, he felt comforted, and his tension eased. The woman with that voice could not possibly mean him harm. Then, his smile faded away as his brows drew together in a frown, the image of the red-haired man in the doorway of the jewelry store suddenly returning to his mind. He wasn’t positive that the voice belonged to the Turk, but his gut told him it was so. He could not reconcile the soft, sweet voice of the woman who called herself Caitlin with the cold-blooded man he knew the Turk to be. He wanted to believe her, but he knew quite well that people often were not who they seemed.

“Cait Sith…” he asked absently, his mind still turned to the scarred face of the man outside the store. “Do you recognize her voice?”

Silence met his question, and Avian finally lifted his head in concern, only to find Cait Sith standing perfectly still in the center of the woven rug at his feet. “Cait Sith? Is something wrong?”

Abruptly, the little cat whirled around and raced for the Mog, his red cape unfurling behind him. With an agile leap, he gained the Mog’s head and settled himself in, only to freeze into perfect stillness, a state Avian could not recall seeing since the cat had reactivated. “Cait Sith, what’s the matter?”

“I’m thinking, Avian.” Cait finally responded.

“Oh…thinking…okay…” Avian threw up a hand in despair and then reached for his backpack. “Wonder how long that’ll take…” he asked himself under his breath. Unzipping the bag, he drew out the box that Jerol had given him with the intention of setting it aside as he meant to unpack the rest of his bag. Instead, he set the pack aside and settled the box on his lap. Tentatively, he turned the latch and ran his fingers along the edge of the lid to lift it. That was the moment that Cait chose to speak. Yet, the voice did not belong to Cait. Avian heard not the lyrical, singsong voice of the electronic cat nor did he hear the voice of Reeve Alexander. What he heard was alien and chilling, a tinny, monotone machine voice that startled him to his feet. The forgotten box tumbled from his lap to the floor, where the entire contents spilled out unnoticed as he forced his mind past the creepy, sonorous tones to the comprehension of the information offered.

Tonal pattern comparison match confirmed. Shinra, Caitlin Ariel. Born Valencia DOB 671010. Father: Shinra, Rupert Arlen. Mother: Sothern, Ariel Anne. Deceased 871221. File Closed. Authority Department of Administrative Research Order 0001-10A. File Transfer Presidential Executive Order 01-A. Contents Classified. Presidential Executive Order 02-A. No further information available this date.

Avian knew that he stared at Cait Sith, and on some level his mind recognized the electronic cat as the companion that had traveled beside him, but at the moment he didn’t know him. Nor did he wish to know him. He was not certain what had just transpired here, and he found himself incapable of any coherent examination of the event for the persistence of the three words that kept reverberating over and over in his numbed mind. ‘Shinra, Caitlin Ariel’.

His legs abruptly failed him, and he sank to the edge of the bed, his tumultuous thoughts rampaging inside his head. What the machine told him could not be possible. The Caitlin that spoke to him could not be Caitlin Shinra. There could not be a person found on the continent that had been of an age to know that would not remember the media circus around Caitlin Shinra’s death and funeral. The newspapers were full of it. The radio. The televisions. Everybody knew. He’d been only eight years old, and he could remember clearly. Even the machine voice had said it. Caitlin Shinra was deceased. Yet, the machine had identified the voice of the Caitlin that spoke to him as Caitlin Shinra. He simply could not comprehend what that might mean, except that he had to concede that the information probably didn’t bode well for him.

Slowly, he raised his eyes to the electronic device that had imparted the news and now danced atop his Mog in the hallway. With a concerted effort, he roused himself to speak to it. “Cait…Sith…what does…that…mean…” he asked weakly.

“What does what mean, Avian?” Cait asked in his customary singsong voice. Avian felt a great sense of relief wash over his body at the return of the Cait Sith he knew, the effect lending renewed strength to his bones and to his voice. His eyes narrowed in determination. “What you said does not make sense, Cait Sith. The voice cannot be Caitlin Shinra if Caitlin Shinra is deceased.”

Cait Sith lifted his narrow shoulders and threw out his mittened hands in a nonchalant shrug. “I don’t know, Avian. I do not know the things that TIM-J tells me. You will have to ask TIM-J.”

Avian’s face dissolved into frowning lines of bewilderment. “Who the hell is Tim…Jay?” he demanded, his growing frustration evident in his voice.

Cait Sith suddenly snapped to attention, his robotic body standing straight and still. Avian slowly stood, concerned at yet another strange move on Cait’s part. As though finally sensing his master’s tension, Soldier uncurled himself from the floor at the foot of the bed and rounded the bed to anxiously push his nose against Avian’s leg.

“What are you doing, Cait Sith…” Avian asked apprehensively. His nerves on taut edge and all his muscles bunched tightly for flight, he actually jumped when Cait suddenly threw up a mittened hand and waved. “Bye, Avian,” Cait called gaily. “See ya later.” Before Avian could make a move, the Mog bounded off down the hallway, carrying the evasive Cait Sith with it.

Avian rushed across the room with the intention of stopping the robotic cat’s departure with Soldier hot on his heels. The dog rushed past him and almost toppled him as he stumbled into the hallway. “Cait Sith! Where are you going?!” he called desperately. “I thought you were supposed to protect me!”

Although the Mog didn’t pause, Cait did an about-face to confront Avian, standing backward on the head of the bouncing Mog. Lifting the megaphone to his mouth, he called back. “I have to go, Avian. I’m sorry I can’t stay. Maybe I’ll see you later, and then…” Cait gracefully swept the megaphone through the air before him as he offered a gallant bow of farewell. “…I’ll tell you your fortune.”

Avian ran a couple of paces after him. “But…where are you going?”

“I can’t tell you, Avian,” the cat called back up the stairwell just before the Mog and Cait disappeared through the door at the bottom of the stairs. Avian started to pursue, but then deemed the effort pointless. For whatever reason, Cait had received instructions to leave him, and nothing he could do would bring him back. “Whatever you say, Cait,” Avian mumbled in disappointment. His steps heavy, he returned to his room. Pushing the door closed, he leaned wearily against the unpainted wood and met the sorrowful brown eyes of Soldier, who had apparently given up the chase sooner and preceded him into the room to curl up on the rug beside the bed.

“I think we’re on our own, buddy,” Avian informed the dog with forced casualness. Soldier responded with a soft whine. “Maybe we should just hightail it outta here. What do you say to that idea, boy?” The dog raised his head with interest. “Yeah, I think you’re right. That’s what we’ll do. No way can we fight a Shinra Turk. If that Turk came here, he’d do whatever he wanted to us and nobody would ever know.”

The thought of what that Shinra Turk might actually do to them drove all lassitude from his body. This was no matter to be discussing with his dog. They would be coming. The Turk had already seen him and marked his presence in town. And Cait had left. Probably at some sort of silent command from the Turk. He still didn’t know what Cait Sith’s role had been, but he was increasingly suspicious that the electronic cat had been assigned to herd him here and leave him to the mercy of the Turk.

Hurriedly, Avian bent to shove the contents scattered across the rug back into the overturned box, taking little note of the items that passed through his hand. Thankfully, he’d never unpacked his bag. In only moments, he and Soldier would be gone. He’d take the backstairs to Tiko’s garage, get his Speed Demon and burn rubber to get the hell out of this town. They’d go somewhere that Shinra could not find them. He didn’t know where that would be just now, but somewhere. His fingers fumbling in his haste, he almost dropped the box again as he tried to stuff the suddenly resistant thing into his pack. But despite his persistent clumsiness, he finally closed the pack and threw it onto his back.

Soldier jumped to his paws and started to whine. Then he growled deep in his throat. Avian felt his feet turn to concrete blocks as he ponderously turned to look where his dog now looked. The closed door. Even though he expected it, he flinched at the firm knock on the sturdy panel.

His heart pounding violently in his chest, he darted hopeless eyes to the one window behind the bed. He already knew that he couldn’t escape that way. The jump would break his legs. Disgusted, he threw the pack back onto the bed and turned to face the door, his chin lifting and shoulders squaring as he threw his vest back with one hand to wrap his fingers around the cool mythril hide of the laughing dragon. Then he took a deep breath to steady his voice against the trembling in his body and called out with deceptive nonchalance.

“Enter if you dare.”

“I’m sorry to report, sir, that the operation has failed.”

Reeve studied the engineer who stood on the other side of the table with his hands clasped behind his back. Though the man steadily returned his gaze, the executive could sense that failure did not sit easily with Mr. Cornell.

“What seems to be the problem, Ian?” Reeve inquired thoughtfully.

The engineer nervously adjusted his glasses with one hand. “We have deployed five different pipe crawlers, and each and every one has been disabled near the top of the shaft. I believe the vent security beams remain in place, sir. Any attempt to continue the operation would be pointless, as the beams will remain operational for days.”

Reeve slowly nodded. He’d forgotten about the new vent security system that had been installed just days after the second reactor breach. Avalanche had shown Shinra their security vulnerabilities, and the company had taken measures to close the weakness. Unfortunately, the vent weaponry, activated by motion sensor, drew power from a rechargeable system that ran on backup batteries installed just beneath the plates and serviceable only from above. As Cornell had said, the batteries would take days to deplete their charge. There remained no way to contact the survivors in Sector Five. Perhaps he should view this event with relief, but he couldn’t. Nor would he write them off. Truthfully, he was incapable.

Though Reeve’s eyes had never left the engineer’s face, Cornell patiently waited, not showing the slightest irritation at the executive’s unwavering regard. “Have you any other ideas, Ian?” Reeve finally asked with clipped words.

Cornell didn’t have to think about the answer. He’d already gone over all the options he could imagine and been forced to reject them all. “I believe we’ve exhausted all possible avenues, Mr. Alexander, unless you wish to consider the use of demolition.”

Reeve shook his head firmly at Cornell's tentative suggestion. “In my opinion, we cannot take that chance until the city has been completely evacuated.”

Cornell inclined his head. “I am in complete agreement, sir.”

Reeve turned troubled eyes to the table. “Well, that’s it for the moment…then…”

Cloud abruptly stepped away from the wall where he’d been leaning in apparent detachment during the entire interchange between executive and engineer, displaying a marked disinterest that now proved to be false. “What do you mean, that’s it?” he demanded

Reeve swiveled his head to find himself locked into Cloud’s intense Mako-eyed gaze. He pushed away from the table to face him. “There is nothing we can do at this time, Cloud. There never was…really…Ian’s plan would have only provided a means of contact. Not rescue.”

Cloud stubbornly straightened his back and folded his arms. “We have to do something. We can’t just forget about them.”

“I don’t plan to forget about them, Cloud. I think you know better than that.”

“I see you giving up,” Cloud informed him coolly.

“I’m not giving up,” he argued with quiet reason. “We will continue to work the problem. And as you know, I’ve informed Cid of the situation. I asked him to check the Sector Five entrance. Although, I’m not sure…if he…heard me…” Reeve’s words failed him at the Avalanche warrior’s unrelenting stare.

“We don’t know if he heard a single word of it,” Cloud said roughly.

“No, we don’t know,” Reeve replied with a hint of frustration in his voice. “That’s why I’ve recalled Cait Sith from Kalm now that the Wulfe boy has reached the village. When Cait arrives, we can communicate with Cid through Cait. Then perhaps we can find a way to proceed.”

Cloud suddenly transferred his demanding regard from Reeve to Cornell who had been listening to the unusual exchange between the Soldier First Class and the Shinra City Manager with curious impassivity. Now that he found the glowing Mako eyes focused on his own face, he shifted uncomfortably in place. His gaze faltered and slid down to the length of sword visible just behind Cloud’s right leg. His chest tightened as he studied the keen edge, but despite his unease, he forced his eyes to return to the warrior’s stiff face. When their eyes met again, Cloud spoke. “You can’t get a pipe crawler up there, but what about a person? Can’t someone just climb up the shaft and disable the security system? Would that solve the problem?”

Ian Cornell almost smirked at the naivety of the question, but his awareness of the sword on the man’s back led him to resist the urge. “Of course, that would solve the problem, and theoretically such an operation would be possible. However, there is no one who has the physical strength to ascend hundreds of feet up a narrow shaft with no ladder, and even if there were such a person, they can not reach the beam generator without first passing through the beams, an event that would no doubt prove as fatal to a human as to a pipe crawler.”

The warrior’s expression didn’t change nor did his steady gaze falter. Cornell began to wonder if the man had even heard him, and opened his mouth to ask if he’d comprehended a word that he’d said, but Cloud beat him to the punch. “I’ll go,” he said flatly.

Cornell’s brows shot up in surprise, and he stared in disbelief at the soldier, even as he awaited Reeve’s almost certain denial. If Reeve permitted such an ill-advised act, he might as well sign the man’s death warrant. But despite his expectation, the executive didn’t respond, even when Strife shifted his resolute stare to Alexander’s face. Finally, Cornell looked at the executive himself, only to find the two men locked in mutual and silent regard. To his utter shock, the executive slowly nodded.

“You might well become entrapped yourself, Cloud,” Reeve said in weary acknowledgment of his friend’s decision.

“I’ve considered that,” Cloud replied easily. “…And I accept that.”

“It’s a long fall if you…slip…Cloud…”

Cloud shrugged with seeming indifference. “Then I won’t slip.”

Reeve shuttered his eyes and turned to look at Cornell. “Show him where to go, Ian, and give him a radio.”

Cornell shook his head in refusal. “I beg your pardon, sir, but this insane scheme…”

Reeve’s dark eyes hardened. “Just do it, Mr. Cornell. You have a volunteer. Let’s not waste the opportunity.”

Cornell swallowed his protest and inclined his head respectfully. Then he wordlessly gestured to Cloud to follow him as he headed for the door. A small smile touched Cloud’s lips as he continued to study Reeve’s closed face. “You did say that guy checked out, right?” he prompted Reeve for reassurance. “Atkinson? Sand said he was cool?” The executive understood that Cloud still worried about his security despite several uneventful hours at their current location. “Yes, General Sand confirmed his identity,” Reeve reminded him. “I don’t believe you need to be concerned on my behalf. It would seem the General chose this location well.”

Cloud nodded in agreement. “It would seem.” He cocked his blonde head in thought. “Still…watch yourself…”

“I’ll be fine, Cloud. You watch yourself. Be careful. Please.”

“I’ll do that,” Cloud promised coolly. The soldier then turned to Coakley who'd been standing behind him during the interchange. Cloud looked into his sorrowful eyes. “You take care of him, Andy.” Cloud ordered him. “Keep him out of trouble.”

Andy lifted a hand in salute to Cloud. “I’ll do my best, Sir.”

“Just call me Cloud, okay?” the soldier chided him.

“Yes sir, Cloud,” Andy replied as he lowered his eyes to the floor, unable to look at the soldier any longer. Coakley wasn’t optimistic enough to think Strife could pull it off.

Reeve redirected his eyes to the city map on the table, his ears keenly attuned to the sound of Cloud’s footsteps as the warrior crossed the room to join Cornell. “See ya later, Reeve,” Cloud called back. Without looking up, Reeve nodded. Then the two men walked out the door, and the executive waited until their steps faded down the hallway before he finally lifted his eyes to meet Andy’s troubled gaze.

“Do you think he’ll be okay, Mr. Alexander?” Andy asked anxiously.

Reeve forced a reassuring smile to his frozen lips. “Yes, I’m sure he will.” Relief filled Andy’s eyes, his apprehension calmed by Reeve’s firm words, providing the soldier a comfort he couldn’t feel inside himself. He wasn’t at all sure that Cloud would be okay. In fact, he had to consider the very real possibility that he might never see Cloud Strife again, and the hollow feeling that formed in the pit of his stomach at the idea made him want to race to the bathroom and retch up his breakfast. But he didn’t. Instead, he forced his mind away from his negative thoughts and reached into his jacket to slide his fingers around the handheld computer. Withdrawing the device, he seated himself at the wide conference table and punched the power button. Within seconds, he’d pulled up his messages and stared numbly at the empty message box. His nausea grew worse.

Avian tensed his muscles for defensive action as the door slowly swung inwards, only to unconsciously relax again as he stared in complete bemusement when a small child appeared. She paused with the door half ajar, one tiny hand wrapped around the doorknob. For a long moment, she stood motionless and scrutinized the tall young man with solemn blue eyes, until a soft whisper came from just behind her. “Go ahead, Rachel, it’ll be okay.” The door creaked inward a bit further on ancient hinges as slender fingers fell on the little girl’s shoulder and gently urged her in.

Then the small woman replaced the girl in the opening, and Avian’s jaw fell slack as he gaped at her, wide amber eyes drinking in her beauty; the fine porcelain features, the irises radiating kindness in a color of sky somewhere between early evening and starlit dusk, the thick golden hair, loosely braided to fall down her shoulders and over her softly rounded chest, the ends of which dangled in soft waves near her waist. At first blush, she seemed little more than a child herself, standing barely five feet high, if that. In fact, from her appearance he could easily deem her to be about his own age, even younger, except for an aspect of her eyes that marked her as much older, the weight of her experience, maybe, or the measure of her pain, because when their eyes met he knew without a doubt that this woman had suffered terribly, a suffering that resonated in his heart. His eyes fell beneath the burden of that knowledge.

“Can we come in, Avian,” she asked him quietly.

Speechlessly, he nodded as he stared down at the rug beneath his feet, until the little girl stopped in front of him and peered straight up into his startled eyes. Strangely, something about her seemed familiar, and he wrinkled his brow in concentration. She smiled widely at his expression, and he found himself responding in kind. She reached up to touch his hand, but his jealous dog inserted his head in between. The girl’s face radiated her delight at the attention from the big brown dog, and she dropped to her knees at Avian’s feet to wrap her thin arms around the wriggling canine, closing her eyes to press her face against his soft fur.

“Do you know her?” the woman asked curiously, and Avian looked up to reply that he did not know her, despite the pervasive feeling that he did, but his eyes found the other three people crowded into the tiny room, ranged behind the petite woman like the guards they were. Not one Turk, but two. At least the two he knew about for sure. He didn’t know about the blonde woman, but her still watchfulness and her poised readiness indicated to him that she was probably a Turk as well. He easily sensed that she was a person trained for trouble.

He sought out the man he’d recognized earlier, and his eyes collided with the Turk’s cold gaze. His hand shot to the dragon dagger that he’d unconsciously released at sight of the harmless child. The redheaded Turk followed the action and his gaze sharpened. In a blinding move, the Turk spun a slender rod through his fingers to bring the end to bear in the target vicinity of Avian’s chest as a chilly smile drifted across his thin lips. He didn’t know what the rod might do, but he suspected it would probably hurt. A quick glance at the larger Turk found the business end of a pistol aimed at his head. Between the two tall men, the blonde woman frowned her intent, the hollow barrel of her handgun just visible above the smaller woman’s shoulder. Any doubt about his tentative identification of her as a Turk left his mind forever. Avian deliberately released his grip on the dagger and held his open hands away from his body.

The Turks responded in kind; the redheaded Turk again spinning the rod through his fingers to prop the end against one shoulder, the other two wordlessly relaxing their stance to redirect their handguns toward the ceiling, still at ready, but not pointed at his head anymore.

A puzzled look on her face, Caitlin smiled hesitantly. “Are you ready to talk to us?”

Cautiously, Avian shook his head, watchful eyes on the redheaded Turk who now studied him with amused eyes. Caitlin’s smile faded. “You don’t want to talk?”

Careful not to move a muscle, Avian shook his head again. “I won’t talk until they leave.” He barely inclined his head in Reno’s direction. The amusement vanished from the Turk’s eyes to be replaced with frosty derision.

Caitlin shot a look over her shoulder at Reno’s vaguely threatening face. Then she turned the other way to find Rude with gun in hand, face still, eyes no doubt drilling a hole in Avian Wulfe’s face behind the dark shades. She faced forward again to plant steady eyes on the young man’s face. “If you want them gone, they will go,” Caitlin informed him smoothly.

“Caitlin,” Reno growled her name lowly. “You are making a mistake.”

“Take a walk, Reno,” the petite woman responded in a firm voice that brooked no argument. He argued anyway.

“I don’t think so,” Reno drawled. “I’m staying right here.”

Caitlin half-turned to examine his face with amused azure eyes. Reno gazed down into her face with a smirk on his lips. Then her eyes abruptly turned icy, and a feeling of déjà vu came over the redheaded Turk. If he didn’t know better, he could well imagine the eyes of Rufus Shinra burning into his. “Do you want me to put you out, Reno?” Caitlin asked with dangerous softness.

“I don’t believe you’ll find that necessary,” Reno replied coolly after a slight pause. With a barely perceptible movement of his head, he sent Rude and Elena strolling for the door.

“Elena, take Rachel with you, please,” Caitlin instructed with a hint of apology in her tone. With a roll of her eyes, Elena crossed the room while Rude waited for her at the door. Avian watched warily as the female Turk coaxed the little girl away from the dog with insistent but gentle fingers around her wrist. Tucking the little girl’s hand in hers, she drew her along with her and preceded Rude through the door. Reno frowned as he found the little girl’s blue eyes on him again, unwavering until she lost sight of him. Once the two Turks and child had disappeared down the hall, Reno spun on heel to follow them out, but at the door he halted to swing his glittering gaze back to Avian’s tense face. Along with the lift of one eyebrow, the Turk lifted a hand to point a finger at him, a promise in his eyes of the damage he would inflict on Avian’s person if Caitlin should suffer the slightest injury. Satisfied at the anxiety that rose in the amber eyes, Reno turned his back and strode through the door, slamming it shut behind him.

Silence filled the room in the wake of the Turk’s departure, and Caitlin again directed a gentle smile in Avian’s direction, but the smile wavered at the naked suspicion in the young man’s face. She folded her arms around her waist. “Is there something else I can do to reassure you, Avian?” she inquired quietly. “May I call you…Avian?” She realized she hadn’t thought to ask before.

He continued to stare at her in silence for several moments as he worked up the courage to ask the question that he knew he had to ask. He realized, with some surprise, that he did not labor under a lack of trust. From the moment he’d heard her voice, he’d trusted her, and the sight of her had done nothing to assuage his faith. He sensed in her a gentleness and sincerity that he believed to be genuine. On the other hand, he knew himself to be somewhat gullible, and he’d seen the way that the Turks obeyed her. Anyone who wielded authority over the Turks must be a powerful person indeed. Sure, the redheaded Turk had sought to defy her, but he suspected that was just the man’s nature. Besides, he’d yielded fairly readily anyway. No, he knew he couldn’t trust her out of hand, despite a fervent desire to do so, because he now suspected, impossible as it may seem, that the information that Cait Sith or this Tim Jay or whoever had reported in that alien voice had been right on the money.

Caitlin watched the cogs turn in Avian Wulfe’s head, and she thought to prod him along by repeating her question, but then she realized that she’d best let him proceed at his own pace, and when his eyes shifted from distant stare to accusing glare, she knew the time had come. He meant to speak, and she had a feeling she wouldn’t like what he had to say. Avian took an involuntary step forward and raised a hand to point a finger toward her, much as Reno had done to him, but not with a promise of retaliation, but simply to mark her where she stood. “I want you to answer my question,” he said with grave intensity. “…And I want you to tell me the truth.”

“What is your question, Avian?” Caitlin asked uneasily.

“Who are you?” His suspicious eyes burned into hers.

Caitlin stared back at him as her uneasiness grew. She drew her lower lip between her teeth as she struggled with her reluctance to answer his question, well aware that the truth would leave her vulnerable. In the end, she could not find the courage to respond in any way.

“Who do you think I am, Avian?”

“I think that you are Caitlin…Shinra.” His voice broke on her name, the certainty of his knowledge welling within him.

She drew in a deep breath to steel herself to answer his question with a lie. Then she released the breath on a sigh. “You’re right.”

Avian experienced no triumph at the confirmation of his suspicions, and he made no comment. She watched him nervously as he slumped to the mattress, strangely deflated at her response. Long minutes stretched in silence as he stared at the floor, and eventually she found herself compelled to speak because she couldn’t endure the silence any longer. “Shall I just…go?” she asked hesitantly.

He replied, not with an angry affirmative, but a weary question. “How can it be that you are Caitlin Shinra when Caitlin Shinra is dead?”

She sighed again, overcome with an enervating weariness of her own. “It’s a…long…long…story…”

Avian looked up at her beseechingly. “Will you tell me?”

She shook her head no. “I will.” A slender hand flew to her mouth at the words she hadn’t meant to speak.

He smiled suddenly at her dual and contradictory reply. “Will you tell me now?” he asked eagerly. He could well imagine that her story would be unlike any he’d ever read or heard.

Her spirits lightened at his response, spoken with a childlike anticipation that brought her daughter clearly to mind and heart, and smiling behind her hand, she inclined her golden head toward the table. “Let’s talk, Avian.”

“So…what? Are we just going to hang out in the hall?” Elena asked churlishly.

“Why not?” Reno leaned a shoulder into the wall and drew out his cigarette case.

“I’m staying,” Rude informed her curtly. To make his point, he planted himself beside the closed door and folded his arms. She could clearly see that he meant to stay close to Caitlin.

Reno drew out his last cigarette and frowned into his empty cigarette case before he smartly snapped the lid shut and returned the engraved silver case to his pocket. He’d just lifted his silver lighter when he felt a tug at his leg. He lowered an irritated gaze to the little girl who looked up with pleading eyes. Then he leveled an accusatory stare on Elena’s watchful face. She didn’t miss the look, and she awarded him a smirk and an indifferent shrug.

The tug came again, and Reno sighed with exasperation. “What do you want, Rachel?” He clicked the lighter at the end of his cigarette as he inhaled.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” Rachel blithely informed him.

Reno choked on the inhalation of smoke. Elena’s laughter filled his ears as he coughed to clear his throat. When he finally caught his breath, he pointed the cigarette at a grinning Elena. “You better ask Elena,” he instructed Rachel gruffly. “She knows about those sorts of things.”

Rachel looked at Elena expectantly. The grin faded from her face and devolved into a devious smile. “You know, Reno, all of us don’t need to hang around here keeping an eye on Caitlin. Why don’t I take Rachel to the bathroom and get her something to eat. I imagine she’s pretty hungry.” Rachel nodded her head at the suggestion and skipped to Elena’s side. The blonde Turk held up a finger and whispered to the little girl. “Just a sec, Rachel. Wait right here.” Obediently, Rachel stayed in place, watching Elena curiously as the Turk walked to Reno’s side and leaned against the wall beside him. Bending her blonde head close, she spoke under her breath. “Do you have any gil, Reno?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

“Well, I don’t have any and…” She left the rest of the sentence dangling suggestively.

Reno took a drag on his cigarette. “Do I look like your sugar daddy, Elena?”

She straightened away from the wall with a haughty jerk of her chin and a toss of her blonde head, disgust rampant in her hazel eyes. “Operating expenses, Reno,” she reminded him curtly. “Unless you would like to take over the job of watching Rachel…”

“No thanks,” Reno replied coolly. Sticking the cigarette between his lips, he bent for the black bag at his feet. Lifting the bag into one arm, he held it close to unzip it. Elena moved around to his side to see into the bag, but he suddenly turned and put his back to her. She frowned and walked to his other side in an attempt to see, but he suddenly spun around with 20 gil in his hand. Hugging the bag close, he offered her the currency. Her frown deepened. “That’s not enough, Reno,” she sniffed deprecatingly.

He looked at the gil in wonder. “What? I thought you were going to get Rachel something to eat.” Elena watched the cigarette bounce between his lips as he spoke. He nodded at the gil in his hand. “That better be plenty.” She eyed the gil with thoughtful skepticism. “Well, Rachel needs a change of clothes too,” Elena chided him. “She can’t wear the same clothes all the time. Look at that poor child.”

Unfortunately, Reno did look, and when he did, Elena stuffed a hand into his bag and snatched out a bundle of 5,000 gil. “Hey!” He exclaimed in outrage. “Give me that back!”

Elena smiled prettily and dashed out of his reach. Grabbing Rachel’s hand on the way down the hall, she waved the wad of gil at him as she walked away. “We’ll be back in a little while,” she promised happily.

Clutching the bag in one arm, Reno crumpled the 10 gil notes in his hand and jerked the cigarette from between his lips to stalk after her. He halted at the head of the stairs and watched her descend, extreme displeasure radiating from glittering green eyes. “I want the rest of that back, Elena,” he irritably called after her. “Sure…Reno…you got it…” she called back indifferently with a little backward wave over her shoulder.

Reno stared in bewilderment at the empty stairs for a while, as though he thought Elena might immediately reappear with the purloined gil. Eventually, he surrendered his futile watch, and turned around to find Rude scrutinizing him through the impenetrable shades. Reno lifted the forgotten and nearly burned up cigarette to his lips. He exhaled the smoke along with the disgusted complaint he directed at Rude. “That woman is getting out of hand."

Rude squared his wide shoulders and shifted his hidden gaze to the wall across the way. “I wonder why,” he mused aloud. His tone seemed to indicate that he knew exactly why, but that fact apparently escaped the redheaded Turk.

Reno shrugged his perplexity. “Well hell if I know.” The butt of the cigarette burning down between his fingers, he opened his hand to look at the wad of gil in his palm. “I’m going to go find some smokes, Rude.” He started down the stairs. “Be back in a few.”

Rude regarded the wall solemnly, holding his tongue until Reno had slammed the door at the bottom of the stairs.

“Whatever,” he growled.

Cloud Strife stared speechlessly up into the endless abyss, a black maw that completely devoured the bright illumination of the worksite floodlights mere meters above his head. For the first time since he’d made the decision to climb the conduit shaft, doubt assailed him and shook his confidence. Drawing away from the shaft entrance, the warrior straightened and slowly turned to face the waiting engineer, Ian Cornell. Mulling over the newly awakened uncertainty in his ability to pull off the taxing ascent, he gazed absently at the engineer’s face as he unconsciously raised a finger to scratch his head. Cornell could clearly see that Cloud wavered in his decision.

“I beg that you reconsider, sir,” Cornell said carefully, seeking to persuade the soldier from continuing on such an insane course of action. Unfortunately, his words only served to refocus Cloud on the matter at hand rather than fuel the rampant doubts chewing on his mind. The warrior’s luminous eyes sharpened on Cornell’s hopeful gaze. Deliberately, he dropped his hand to his side and shook his head. He’d made his decision, and he would stand by it. “I’m going,” Cloud informed him coolly, and to reinforce his point, he turned toward the opening to the shaft.

“Wait,” Cornell dropped a hand on his arm to stay him. “Your radio.”

Cloud took the radio from the engineer’s hand, and after a couple of fumbled attempts, finally managed to secure the clip to his wide belt. When he looked up at the engineer again, Cornell held up a small penlight. “Take this too.”

The warrior took the light and clicked it on and off experimentally. He could barely see the illumination from the penlight in the white light of the floods. Cornell saw the wry smile curve Cloud’s lips. He lifted a shoulder in a shrug. “I know it’s not much, but up there…” He cocked his head toward the shaft. “…It will seem like…more.”

With a curt nod, Cloud shoved the small light down into his trousers pocket and again turned for the shaft. And again, Cornell touched his arm to stop him. “Your sword…I’m sure it’s quite heavy. Perhaps you should leave it,” the engineer suggested cautiously.

Cloud’s eyes turned hard. “The sword goes with me,” he succinctly informed the engineer, and without another word, he ducked beneath the lip of the entrance and stood up on the other side, the upper third of his body disappearing from the engineer’s view. The warrior gave a little jump, shoving off with his feet to reach high up on the conduit, and shortly his boots vanished too.

His hands clasped behind his back, Cornell watched for a moment more, and then suddenly darted for the shaft opening. He ducked underneath and looked upward, his eyes narrowing as he tried to see the soldier who had already been swallowed by the darkness. “Excuse me,” he called out, his voice echoing up the shaft.

“What is it?” The voice that resonated hollowly from above held more than a hint of impatience. Cornell knew the man just wanted to get on with it. “Forgive me, but…I just wanted to tell you…watch for the weld joins. You can use them to rest…”

After a moment of silence, Cloud’s voice echoed down. “Appreciate it.” Ian reverently inclined his head at the unseen warrior who had no doubt already resumed his climb and did not notice. Whatever happened now, his part in the madness was done. Although, he held little hope for the success of the mission, he prayed that when next he saw the soldier, he would be alive and well, and not a broken body at the bottom of the shaft. Cornell finally drew away and straightened as his assistant spoke at his elbow.

“Think he’ll make it, Ian?”

Cornell didn’t even look at the man, his gaze still on the entrance to the shaft. “I wouldn’t put any money on it,” Ian replied ruefully.

“Me either,” the man echoed his sentiments.

Ian abruptly wheeled and strode away. “Let’s go, Pieter. There’s too much work to be done to stand here loitering.” The man hurried to catch up, picking up speed to match the engineer’s rapid pace, their footsteps echoing hollowly in the narrow confines of the sewer passage. As the two men passed the last member of the work crew and neared the ladder exit invisible in the darkness beyond the last flood, Pieter opened his mouth to inquire as to the next project on their full agenda, but he never got out a word. A taunting, fathomless voice resonated from the darkness.

“Oh, Mr. Corneeeeell…”

Ian instantly halted and squinted his eyes in an attempt to see into the murky area beyond the light, uncomfortably aware of his own position, fully lit by the flood. Pieter, who had stopped at his elbow, took a nervous step back. “Who’s there?” Ian demanded.

The sharp click of shoe heels reached his ears as the unidentified person walked forward and emerged into the light. At his instant recognition, the air went out of his lungs and his eyes flew wide with dismay. Pieter gasped behind him. The newcomer smiled evilly. “I see you remember me, Mr. Cornell.”

The engineer pointedly schooled his face into a serene mask, even though every nerve in his body sang with his need to take flight. “Unfortunately,” he replied in a chilly voice.

“Well, good,” the cheerful voice sang out. “Then I can depend on your help.”

Cornell’s green eyes narrowed on the detestable face. “I can’t imagine how I could possibly be of assistance to you,” he drawled disdainfully.

A sudden movement drew Ian’s attention from the cold smile to the unwavering hand that held a gun with the barrel pointed directly at him.

“Can you imagine now, Mr. Cornell?” Mad laughter rang all around him in the narrow passageway.

Ian respectfully inclined his head. He hadn’t attained his position and status by being foolish. “How may I be of service?” He buried his disgust beneath a thin veneer of forced politeness.

“There are a lot of ways you might be of service to me, Mr. Cornell…” The suggestive undertone beneath the taunting words made his stomach roil. “…But for now, we’ll focus on one.”

“And what would that one be?” he inquired warily.

“I want you to help me get Reeve Alexander.” The voice had turned as cold as the depths of a tomb.

“Oh…shit…” Pieter spoke at his elbow, apparently having finally rediscovered his voice.

Quite frankly, Ian was glad he’d said the words for him, because he’d finally found himself helpless to find his own.

Arms crossed, a concerned Barrett watched Cid Highwind pace back and forth in front of the idling bulldozer, muttering under his breath and frantically sucking on a bent cigarette. “Perhaps we should intercede…” Nanaki suggested helpfully from where he sat on his haunches beside him. Barrett shrugged his bulky shoulders. “Why the hell not? We’re gettin’ nowhere fast this way.” he agreed. Nanaki rose to all fours. “Cid…about Sector Five…do you think that Reeve intended us to concentrate our efforts there?”

Highwind slammed to a stop and wheeled around to glare at the implacable beast with fierce eyes. “No! Hell no! The Cat Man said to open a main gate. Sector Five is not a main gate.”

“Maybe he changed his mind,” Barrett suggested helpfully.

Cid threw a hand up in despair. “Hell, I don’t know. Maybe he did,” he growled. Then he returned to his pacing, only to stop again after a couple of passes. He slowly shook his head. “No, he didn’t,” he muttered to himself. He wheeled around to find the dozer driver watching him drowsily with one foot propped on the frame. Cid waved a hand in the general direction of the city. “Tak, get on with it,” he commanded, raising his voice to compete with the dozer engine.

Straightening in his seat, the driver turned his cap around bill first and settled it onto his salt and pepper hair, and then he reached for the controls. He turned to look down at the Captain just before setting the dozer in motion. “Still Number Two, Cap?” he hollered down.

The Captain emphatically nodded his head in confirmation and waved him on. As the dozer rumbled away, Barrett and Nanaki moved up on either side of him as he intently studied the departing machine.”

“So…what about Sector Five?” Barrett asked.

With a little shrug, Cid scrubbed a hand across his grizzled chin. “…Sector Five plate is partway down,” he mused aloud. “…Couldn’t evacuate through there…even if it’s open…if it is open…but if it were open…then people would…probably…so it ain’t…”

Barrett and Nanaki looked at each other in bewilderment, both shaking their heads at the question in the other’s face, both lacking a plausible explanation. Cid suddenly snapped his fingers, instantly bringing his companions’ attention back to him. The Captain shifted blue eyes fueled with new determination to Barrett’s face. “Where’s Heidegger?” he demanded.

“Still messin’ with the radio, I expect,” the big man hesitantly replied.

The Captain nodded agreeably. “And Yuffie?”

“Ridin’ around on that damn chocobo somewhere’s.”

“Good,” Cid replied with a slight smile. “Time for her to do somethin’ useful.” Without another word, the Captain threw his cigarette butt to the ground and strode away.

Still laboring under a state of unenlightenment, Nanaki wrinkled his nose in his confusion. “What are we doing again?”

Barrett let out a heavy sigh. “Dunno what he’s doin’, but I guess I better get back to supervising that tent business.” He turned and walked away as Nanaki rose to follow him.

“What about me?” he asked with a hint of fretfulness, padding alongside the big man. “What can I do?”

“Dunno…you any good at drivin’ tent pegs?”


“But you’re good at lookin’ fierce, right?”

“I suppose.”

“Well, then, I’ll drive the tent pegs an’ you supervise.”

Nanaki’s mouth drew into a sharp fanged grin. “I think I like that idea,” he happily agreed.

Barrett smiled ruefully. “Figured you would.” He suddenly pointed the pincers of his prosthetic hand at the beast’s affable face. “Just don’t be thinkin’ you can scare me at all,” he growled ominously.

Nanaki’s grin turned wolfish. “Perhaps not,” he agreed easily enough. “…But then again…” He selected the most threatening growl in his repertoire and tried it out, his face transformed into a menacing mask to match.

Barrett’s chocolate eyes flew wide and he glared down at him in mock consternation. “What?! Have I created a monster?”

Nanaki’s grin vanished along with the sparking levity from his golden eye. Fingers of sorrow squeezed his heart. He lowered his gaze and turned to pad heavily away.

“Hey Red, ya know I was only kiddin’,” Barrett said in confusion. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“I know.” Nanaki swung his head to offer the big man a mollifying smile, one that didn’t rise from his heart, and one that only partially satisfied the big man, who fell into step with his friend and studied the carefully composed face as they walked. Eventually, Barrett gave up his scrutiny with a befuddled shrug and faced forward, pointedly redirecting his mind to the formidable task of directing the military soldiers in the erection of a virtual tent city complete with medical facilities and cafeteria.

Truly, Nanaki’s sadness had been evoked by Barrett’s words, not from the content, but from the memory sparked by them, the replay of the same words in another voice filled with exasperation and laughter.

”Oh my stars! I’ve created a monster!”
“Come on, Tifa, scratch my ears again…pleassseeee. And then, my back if you would…and maybe that little spot at the top of my tail…”

And she had indeed scratched every spot and then some, laughingly chiding him the entire time, and ending the whole exercise with an exuberant hug, wrapping her arms around his neck to rest her cheek against his nose.

Another time, he would tell Barrett his memory, but not this time. The man had too much on his mind to drag his worries about Tifa into the forefront. Maybe later…when they found her…when they knew…maybe then…but only if she came home…because otherwise…he knew he couldn’t bear to think of it. Not for a long time. Maybe never.

Absently, Reeve stroked fingers through his beard as he sat at the wide conference table and stared at the empty message screen. Briefly, he toyed with the idea of typing in the instructions that would take Cait Sith back to Kalm just so he could talk to Caitlin, just so he could see her and make sure she was okay. But he knew he couldn’t do that. Especially for purely selfish reasons. He had no cause to think she was not okay. He’d received no communication otherwise. Still, the lack of communication was troublesome. On the other hand, she had no viable reason to message him. Perhaps he should send her a message. But what? There were many things he’d like to say, but could not. He frowned in thought.

Suddenly aware of a presence, Reeve darted a glance up from beneath his brows to find Coakley standing just across the table from him, watching him with interest. “What is it, Andy?” Reeve inquired, careful to hold his irritation at the distraction from his tone.

The soldier seemed to sense his irritation anyway. “Ah…sorry, Mr. Alexander. I didn’t mean to be nosy. Just…I’m bored…I guess…” His voice trailed away as he pondered the inadvisability of admitting boredom to the Shinra executive.

Reeve returned his attention to the handheld computer. “Why don’t you see if they’ve managed to raise Captain Highwind on the radio again,” Reeve casually suggested. “Maybe they’ve succeeded in boosting the signal.”

“Yes, sir,” Andy snapped off a salute that Reeve didn’t see and did an about face to head for the door. The soldier had been gone a space of time when the executive looked up again, with mild surprise, to find the room empty. He’d been so completely engrossed in his thoughts that his offhand order to Coakley had slipped his mind momentarily.

Again, he returned to the computer as he worked to compose a message in his mind. He tentatively tapped in a few lines, and then upon rereading them, immediately deleted them. He sounded like an abandoned fool. He smiled ruefully at his thoughts. He had to admit that he missed her now that she’d gone. He felt as though he walked in a vacuum of airless space, difficult to move. Damned difficult to think. Especially when his mind was prone to turn to thoughts of her. Memories of her, memories that threatened to evoke emotions he’d believed long extinguished. Memories best left buried right where he’d interred them, sealed inside a vault comprised of agonizing pain and aching loss, closed finally beneath the mental detritus of ten years of a life he’d lived without her. He could not go back there. He would not. Not with the knowledge that his pain had been driven by a lie. Her lie.

He shook his head in denial, his face fleetingly twisted in disgust. Foolish to even entertain the idea. He wanted nothing from her, except perhaps for her signature on several pages of legal documents. And she wanted even less of him. For now, all he needed was the acknowledgement of their safe arrival in Kalm. For practical purposes.

Swiftly, he tapped in the simple message that would elicit that information. Please acknowledge arrival in Kalm. He typed in the key commands to set up the transmittal of the message to the Leader of the Turks. Then he quickly hit the ‘send’ key before he changed his mind. A rustle of clothing announced the return of Coakley, but Reeve didn’t look up, his concentration centered on his exit from the messaging functions. “What did you find out, Andy?” He queried absently.

A moment passed before it sank into the executive’s preoccupied mind that Andy hadn’t bothered to respond to his question, an unprecedented event. Puzzled, he looked up from the tiny monitor screen, and his eyes widened in incomprehension on the figure in the doorway. Slowly, he rose from his chair as he scrutinized the girl from the scuffed leather of her woven shoes to the slender hand fisted in the worn tan cloth of the full skirt that hit mid-calf. She clutched a bundle of blue material in a slender arm folded across a faded vest of once vibrant colors and a dingy white scoop-necked blouse. Her steady sea green eyes were planted on his face despite a decided hint of apprehension within them. Her other hand twisted nervously in a strand of the thick waves of copper hair that framed her flawless but smudged ivory face and tumbled over slim shoulders to her waist.

“You’re not Andy,” he informed her unnecessarily.

Fitfully, the girl tossed the handful of hair back over one shoulder and took a couple of tentative steps forward. “Excuse me, Mr. Alexander, I don’t mean to intrude but…”

“Just who are you?” Reeve inquired with cool arrogance, even as the fact suddenly occurred to him that he’d met the girl somewhere before, but he couldn’t recall just where or when that had been.

Her green eyes flashed in irritation at his interruption of her prepared but faltering speech, and she frowned her displeasure. She decided, then and there, to abandon her preamble, opting for the direct approach. She took two more steps, this time with firm intent, and she ripped the bundle from beneath her folded arm and tossed it onto the table. “Here’s your coat back, Alexander. Thanks and…I’m outta here.” She wheeled to make good her curt statement as Reeve stared down at his jacket and remembered when he’d knelt to drape the tailored coat over the huddled shoulders of the shivering girl with tearstained cheeks.

He bolted around the table as she headed for the door. “Young lady, please wait!” he hurriedly called out as he strode across the room after her. Impatiently, she stopped just short of the door and turned to meet his curious gaze. “Look, man, I have things to do…so I’d really rather cut this short,” she said defensively.

“I do appreciate your problem,” he replied smoothly as a quiet smile touched his lips. “I just wanted to ask you if you’re…okay.”

“Sure. Just peachy keen,” she rewarded him with an insincere smile that more resembled a grimace.

“Did you find your family?” he asked hopefully.

Slowly, she nodded. “Yeah, in the morgue.” Despite her tough tone, he could see the tears glittering at the corner of each eye.

“I’m very sorry to…hear that,” he said softly. “If there’s anything I can do for you…”

She waved a hand to cut him off. “You’ve done enough. Really.” Again, she turned for the open doorway.

“Thank you for returning my coat,” he persisted.

“Sure, no problem.” She paused with one hand on the doorframe. Then she swiveled her head to regard him solemnly over one shoulder. “You know, Mr. Alexander. You seem pretty nice. For a Shinra suit.” A hesitant smile, this time genuine, briefly transformed her face before fading away as though it had never been. “Nicer than most anyway.” With a dismissive shrug of one slim shoulder, she walked through the doorway and put him behind her.

Absently, he followed her into the hallway, a frown of concern on his face as he idly watched her depart, his thoughts already drifting back to Caitlin and Kalm. His fingers tightened unconsciously around the small computer in his hand as he resisted the urge to drag it out and check his messages for a reply, but the compelling need to do so abruptly evaporated when he suddenly realized that he and the girl were the only occupants of the wide hall. Startled, he whirled around to confirm his recognition that the guards that had stood to either side of the door were gone.

“Girl! Wait!” He hurried down the corridor after her, his shoes tapping on the polished linoleum. “Wait! Please!”

She halted, turning to wait for him with eyes full of trepidation, standing firm even though she wished to take flight. One hand floated to her throat. “What…is it…Mr. Alexander…” she asked with a slight tremble in her voice. He was probably pissed about what she’d said. She should have held her wayward tongue. In fact, she shouldn’t have come here at all. She should have given the coat away. Curses on her head for thinking she should do the right thing. Her Grandma had always advised her to stay away from the Shinra suits. For good reason.

Reeve came to an abrupt stop just before her. “How did you get in here?” he asked uneasily. “Did the guards let you pass?”

She swallowed hard at the anticipation of his probable reaction and forced herself to speak. “Ah…they wouldn’t let me in. I…waited around…hoping to see you. I was just about to leave when they did…leave I mean…and I…just…walked in.” She looked up tentatively into his face, and her heart quailed at the mixture of alarm and anger in his dark eyes. “I’m…sorry…” she apologized weakly. She prayed he wouldn’t have her locked up. Or worse.

However, the Shinra executive didn’t seem interested in her any longer. With a muttered imprecation, he brushed past her to stride to the end of the hallway where it intersected the cross corridor. Somewhat bemused at his behavior, she stood her place, content to watch. Until he entered the cross hall and all hell broke loose.

A shout echoed down the corridor and a not so distant gun barked out a single shot that sang against the linoleum just in front of the executive’s shoe before ricocheting away to thunk into the wall somewhere further down. Gasping in shock, Reeve whirled around and tripped over his own big feet. Arms flailing, he managed to stay upright long enough to stumble back into the side hallway, where he finally lost his tenuous balance, and fell headlong to the floor. The handheld computer flew from his hand and the back broke off, scattering batteries everywhere.

The copper haired girl unlocked her knees and started to run back toward the room as the executive scrambled to his knees to reach for the computer. She changed her mind and cursing herself the whole way, she ran to the end of the hallway to peer around the corner. Two soldiers were arguing, one jabbing the other in the chest as he shouted, the other throwing one hand about in distressed counterpoint, the rifle he held loosely in his other hand pointed down at the floor at the moment. Frantically, she looked the other way, toward the exit door, and her wild eyes met the cold, murderous glare of a military officer who promptly lifted his own rifle in her direction.

Fear clutched at her throat as she whirled around to dash back into the conference room. As she flew past the Shinra executive, she noticed that the man had made it to one knee by then, and had his hand outstretched to collect yet another escaped battery. She skidded to a stop. If she hadn’t been so frightened, she would have rolled her eyes at his lack of urgency. “Come on, Alexander!” she commanded. “Let’s go!”

He didn’t seem to hear her as he crammed the battery into his jacket pocket, darting panicky eyes around for the rest. She knew she should leave him, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to do that. Her breath hitching in her throat, she ran back a few steps and bent to grab his coat sleeve in firm fingers. “Move your ass, Mr. Alexander,” she snarled into his ear. “…Before you get it shot off!”

His eyes snapped wide in instant comprehension, and he yielded to her tug, leaping to his feet, the batteries forgotten as they raced down the hall side by side, his sleeve still held securely in her unrelenting grip. They both slammed to a stop in the center of the conference room as a multitude of pounding footsteps sounded distantly down the cross corridor.

“There’s nowhere to go,” Reeve gasped out as his heart pounded in his chest.

“Bathroom.” She tugged him hard that way, and he stumbled after her.

Once inside, she slammed the door shut and locked it as Reeve looked around, a deprecating grimace on his face as he noted the lack of windows or anything to use as a weapon. He didn’t believe the rolls of toilet paper, the bars of soap, or the hand towels would get them far. “Looks like this is the end of the line,” he said in a matter-of-fact voice. And hadn’t he always envisioned he’d end up this way? Well, maybe not in a bathroom, but certainly filled full of Shinra lead.

“Don’t throw yourself on their mercy yet,” the girl admonished him roughly. He swiveled curious eyes from the door to watch her dig her blunt nails into the seam of one wall panel. “I don’t think we’ve time to tear down the walls,” he informed her, amazed that he could find an ounce of amusement inside him with his heart sinking into his wing- tipped shoes and his chest tight with fear.

“There’s an exit,” she snapped at him as she pried at the gilt edge of the ornate mirror on the wall. “Get your ass in gear and help me find it!”

Surprised at the inarguable conviction in her inane assertion, Reeve shook off his dull lassitude and examined the walls of the bathroom with new eyes. With engineer’s eyes. His intent gaze fell to the decorative wood and marble frame that encased the bathtub.

“The tub,” he said excitedly as he fell to his knees. In the blink of an eye, she was beside him, digging at the bottom of one marble panel as he worked at another. Already, they could hear the soldiers running into the room outside and the shouted commands of the person driving them onward.

The panel beneath Reeve’s fingers moved, and he sidled out of the way on his knees to swing it upward on hidden and silent hinges. He peered underneath to find that the plumbing ran directly down through a hole where a large portion of the floor beneath the bathtub had been removed. The doorknob rattled behind him. “Go now!” he urged lowly.

The girl didn’t argue, swinging her legs around to slide on her belly through the hole almost before he got out the words. He heard her cry out when she landed down below, but he didn’t hesitate to follow as a fist pounded at the wooden portal. Then a second fist joined the first, the conjoined pounding so hard that the door shuddered beneath the impact.

With alacrity, he rolled beneath the lip of the tub and swung his legs into the hole. He let the panel fall inward as he kicked futilely with his feet to find a foothold. Outside, a splintering crack and a loud crash signaled the collapse of the bathroom door, and he released the edge of floor just as the girl tugged hard on his foot from below. He landed on his side in soft mud and went sprawling, but the girl was already yanking on his sleeve to urge him on, and he stumbled to his feet to stare into the inky blackness of the tunnel just beyond the tiny bit of light that leaked through the floor boards above.

She tugged at his sleeve again, and then her shadowy form disappeared into the passage. “Come on,” she urged impatiently. “It won’t take them long to find us.”

He well knew that was true, and he hastened to follow, one hand trailing across a rough cinderblock wall, his other hand already dipping into his trousers pocket for his small flashlight, although he was not at all certain that was where he’d left it. He almost sighed with relief when his fingers touched the smooth metal.

Quickly, he drew the flashlight out and activated the powerful krypton beam. Narrowing his eyes against the painful light, he continued to walk forward in partial blindness as the confused voices inside the bathroom fell distantly behind. Momentarily his eyes adjusted, and he could see the girl peering at him owlishly from eyes too large in her pale, ghostly face. Several feet beyond her, he spotted a ladder. “There,” he hissed in a loud whisper as he lifted the beam to shine fully on the metal rungs.

Far behind them, the passage flooded with light just as the girl started to climb. Immediately, Reeve shut off his flashlight and followed her up, the slender electric torch clutched inside his hand. “Hurry,” he urged softly. He knew the soldiers would be on them in moments. The passage only went one way, steering the soldiers straight toward them as surely as if they were following an arrow. Reeve swiftly climbed after her, almost overtaking her on the ladder. A brief burst of automatic gunfire chattered somewhere far behind, a soldier’s apparent attempt to frighten them into surrender. The executive had to admit that the sound did make his legs feel more than a little wobbly.

The girl threw aside a metal hatch and climbed out onto the roof, waiting only long enough for the executive to step out before taking off across the tarred surface in a run, her skirt flaring out behind her. Reeve slammed the lid down and wasted no time in following her to the edge of the roof where she now stood frozen. He looked over the low wall and saw why. The entire street in front of the pub had been cleared of civilians and several armed soldiers stood around on the broken pavement below, alertly looking about. Fortunately, they hadn’t thought to look up. Yet.

Reeve’s heart sank when he recognized a huddled form sitting handcuffed on the curb with blonde head bent as Andy Coakley. He’d probably sent him right into their clutches. “We’d better find another way,” he told the girl. “And fast.” She nodded her agreement with a curt nod of her head and ran back the way she’d come, veering off toward the side of the building.

Reeve joined the girl at the edge to look down into a narrow alleyway full of scattered trash and broken bottles. “We’ll have to jump,” she informed him, and he looked up to find her already sitting on the low wall, her feet over the side. “I suppose you’re right,” he said doubtfully as he measured the one story drop with troubled eyes. Cautiously, he sat on the wall and swung his long legs over. Then the metal lid flew up behind him, and he threw all caution to the wind, shoving himself off his tenuous perch and out of the line of sight.

He landed hard and fell forward, instinctively tucking his body into a roll to take the brunt of the impact. Unharmed but for a sharp pain in one shoulder, he came up on his feet and looked around to find the girl lying on the buckled pavement amidst a scattering of broken glass. He rushed over to her, reaching to help her up. “Are you okay,” he asked with a worried look up at the edge of the roof.

She latched onto his hand and pulled herself up. “Yes. Yes. I’m fine,” she assured him impatiently before she took off for the back of the narrow alleyway in a limping run. A bevy of excited voices on the roof above lent him speed as he closely trailed her.

At the back of the alley, she scaled a rickety wooden fence with a great deal more agility than he could muster, but he finally managed to drag his laggardly rear over the top, and just in time too, as a triumphant shout came from the rooftop behind.

Back on the ground, she wrapped a fist around his wrist and dragged him inexorably toward a solid wall of debris. His heart rate picked up again as he heard the sound of several pairs of boots hitting the pavement on the other side of the wall, a certain indication that the pursuing soldiers had bailed off the roof.

“Where are we going?” he asked breathlessly, looking wildly around for an escape even as she towed him along the curve of the unbroken wall of junk. “I know it’s around here somewhere…” she murmured.

“What? What’s around here?” he demanded with more than a little fear-inspired impatience. Dark eyes anxious, he looked back along the curve of the debris wall at the sound of the rickety fence rattling as the first of the soldiers climbed.

“Here it is!” she hissed victoriously. Reeve looked around to find that she’d pulled a section of twisted corrugated tin away from the wall to reveal the dark opening of a pipe not much bigger than a drain culvert. “Hurry and get in there,” she urged with a frantic wave of her hand. Despite the sound of running boots on pavement, he hesitated in indecision. “Do you know where this goes?” he asked, his voice tight with trepidation.

“Trust me, man,” she sighed wearily. “I know a place.”

And of course, he had no choice. Without another thought, he dropped to his knees and dove into the slimy, dank tube, his hands and knees sinking into viscous muck as he crawled as quickly as he could in the tight space, every respiration a struggle as his stomach rebelled in revulsion at the fruity odor of decay. A skittering of tiny feet against the interior of the pipe just ahead gave him pause, but he had no alternative but to press bravely on and hope the rats cleared out ahead. Then the girl dragged the tin in behind her and his tiny claustrophobic, aromatic, rodent infested world turned completely black.

Cloud stood in the shaft with his feet braced against the thin threads of the pipe joins, his overly strained arms wrapped around the heavy plastic conduit that ran straight through the center for hundreds of feet up and hundreds of feet down. The warrior wearily loosened his death grip on the pipe to plant his back against the steel wall behind. He hardly noticed the uncomfortable ridge of the blade pressing against his back as he raised a gloved hand to his forehead to dash away the dripping sweat.

For the first time since he’d set out on this mad exercise, he seriously considered climbing back down the pipe and abandoning the whole scheme, just as that engineer of Reeve’s had suggested. He knew the man believed he wouldn’t make it, and he had doubted himself at the beginning, but now he could not surrender to the luxury of harboring those doubts. He had no choice. He had to make it. Or die. He would not survive a fall down to the bottom of the shaft.

Carefully, he worked one hand into his pocket to drag out the small penlight. A press of the button flooded the shaft with blinding light, and he blinked as his eyes quickly adapted. Ruefully, he peered up at the conduit tube that ran endlessly upward to eventually be swallowed by the darkness beyond the reach of the small beam. Pursing his lips in thought, he turned the beam downward, only to find a scene identical to the one he’d just viewed, only running the other way.

His mind filling with weary acceptance of his predicament, he cut off the light and let his head fall back against the wall as his eyes drifted lightly closed. As was his tendency each time he paused to rest his mind and body, whether it be in brief moments of relaxation or in the nebulous minutes before falling asleep, or even on those rare occasions, like now, when he sought to shut out the world, he purposefully sent his thoughts in search of her, delving into his memories to hear her voice, to see her sparkling emerald eyes, hungry for her laughter, eager to resurrect his dreams. His dreams…

The strange dream he’d had so recently, unlike any he’d ever dreamed of her before, suddenly replayed inside his mind, in clips and jerky frames. Aeris in the garden inviting him to sit beside her. Aeris questioning his identity as though she didn’t know him. Aeris asking him to tell her that she was real. Certainly, the dream had all seemed so real, so vivid that even now he could visualize it all as though it had happened in real life. Still, he knew it was just a dream. Just a manifestation of his desire to see her again, of his own doubts about himself, of his need for her to be alive somewhere…just waiting for him…waiting for him to find her. And he knew the dark half of the dream was simply a projection of his loss. Or maybe it had all been just a random burst of electrical energy in his brain with no passive intent to produce meaning on his part. Just a dream…

“Just a dream,” he said aloud, his harsh whisper overloud in the close space. And he knew damn well that he didn’t have time to be daydreaming now. There were people trapped, and he’d committed himself to the task of finding them. And find them he would. If he could just dredge up the strength to go on.

”I believe in you, Cloud,” her voice said firmly inside his mind.

A wry smile touched his lips. Trust his memory to kick up her voice with just the right words to spur him on. “You’d better believe in me Aeris,” he murmured beneath his breath. “…Because I’m doing this for you.”

And he was doing it for her. For the people of her community. The people she’d grown up with and lived amongst all of her days in Sector Five. The old woman who didn’t know whether to look up or down. The little boy on the old bus who loved trains. The children who tended her flowers in the dilapidated old church. That little girl and boy especially haunted his mind, perhaps because they loved to inhabit the spaces that she’d inhabited, were drawn to watch the flowers grow that she’d nurtured. He couldn’t leave them there alone, even if it meant he would die with them. If that was his fate, then so be it. At least he would die close to her there. His memories would be with him…her presence all around him. Truth be told, he was probably doing it mostly for himself.

Unsettled by his thoughts, he stirred and forced his heavy eyelids open again. It was time to be moving on. He shoved the flashlight down into his pocket and dragged his body up against the conduit to regain his tight hold. Pressing his face against the cool plastic, he turned his face up to stare into the darkness, all his previous indecision gone from his mind. He had nowhere to go but up. The Aeris in his mind wouldn’t allow him any other destination. He couldn’t live with her disappointment. Wrapping his legs around the conduit again, he shut his mind to his exhaustion and began to climb.

Derry stared dumbly at Yuffie as he completely ignored the reins she offered him in outstretched fingers. Yuffie simply stared unrelentingly back, her unblinking ebony eyes noting appreciatively that the young man had loosened his platinum hair from its rubber band to stir lazily in the warm breeze. “What’s the matter, Flyboy? You don’t like chocobos?” she inquired tauntingly.

Derry stuffed his hands in his pockets and shrugged. “It’s not that I don’t like them,” he replied with easy nonchalance. “I’m sure they’re real sweethearts. Once you get to know them.”

“You haven’t been around chocobos before?” This time Yuffie’s voice held only mild astonishment.

The tall young man and the long necked blue chocobo regarded each other with little interest. “What can I say? I’m a city boy. Don’t have many chocobos in the city,” he argued reasonably.

“So you don’t know how to ride one…” Yuffie said slowly.

“Nah, but I suppose it can’t be that hard.” He finally held his hands out for the reins. “I’ll give it a try.”

“Oh no, you won’t.” Yuffie clutched the reins protectively against her stomach. “It’s not that easy. And she’s a notional bird.”

“Aren’t they all?” Derry asked as he rocked back and forth on his heels.

Yuffie eyed him with dark suspicion. “Aren’t what all?”

“You know…birds.” His grin told her he hadn’t meant birds at all.

“Whatever,” she sniffed disdainfully. Gathering the reins in her hand, she set her foot in the stirrup and swung aboard. “I’m driving. Get on.”

He cocked his head to one side. “Worried about me getting hurt, eh?”

“No,” she informed him with a smirk. “I just want my bird back.” She kicked a foot out of one stirrup. “Now hurry up and get on. We gotta make tracks.”

Wordlessly, Derry removed his hand from his pocket and walked forward. With an eyebrow raised in question, he pointed one finger at the stirrup. “Do you see an elevator on this thing?” she snapped impatiently.

Tentatively, he slid a foot into the stirrup and planted a hand on the chocobo’s feathered back behind the saddle cantle, and then awkwardly searched for a place to grab hold with his other hand so that he could lever himself up. Every place that he thought about putting it he figured could potentially land him in trouble. “Er…maybe you should install an elevator,” he finally commented wryly.

Yuffie lifted her fingers to cover a huge yawn, and then she relented and graciously offered her hand. With her help, Derry managed to swing onto the bird’s broad back just behind the saddle, where he might have settled himself with great relief had he not found himself nose to blade with Yuffie’s sheathed Conformer. “Do you think we could lose the sharp objects?” he asked apprehensively. He could well imagine the bird taking a tumble and him finding his nose missing in the end. He’d gotten his nose from his mother, and he was rather partial to it.

“Just keep your distance, Flyboy, and there won’t be a problem.”

Derry took her advice and leaned back a few inches. Yuffie lifted the reins and shot him a glance over her shoulder. “You’d better hold on,” she warned him. “Just watch where you put your hands or I’ll remove them. One finger at a time.” She smiled happily at that idea and faced forward as Derry judiciously placed a hand on either side of her waist.

Yuffie frowned at his choice. “Better hang on tighter than that, Flyboy.”

Derry leaned around in an attempt to see her face. “Where, Princess? I would like to keep my fingers.”

Looping the reins over the saddle horn, Yuffie grabbed his hands and locked his fingers together around her slim waist. Then she gathered the reins again. “Now hang on, because I plan to get to Sector Five in record time.”

Derry tightened his hold, leaning to the left to lessen his proximity to the one visible blade that jutted from the leather sling as Yuffie wrapped a hand around the horn and dug her heels into the chocobo sides.

The bird leaped into the air and came down running as Yuffie directed her on a path that would carry them along the long curve of the city wall. The ninja girl had thought to startle the erstwhile pilot with the breakneck start, but she discovered just how dismally she’d failed when he leaned close on her left to speak into her ear. “This is cool!” he exclaimed. “Like flying!” His warm laughter almost brought a smile to her face, but a concerted tightening of her lips put paid to that tendency. She turned her head to yell back at him. “Yeah? Well, you haven’t seen anything, Flyboy.” She hunkered down over the saddle horn and kicked her heels.

With a happy ‘wark’, the blue river chocobo lowered her head, her crown plumes flattening as she spread her wings. After that, Derrick Heidegger could have sworn that the bird’s toes never touched the ground again, and despite Yuffie Kisaragi’s best intentions to unhinge him, he found the entire experience most exhilarating.

Ozzie emerged from the brilliant flash a bit dazed. He ran a trembling hand down his chest to his stomach as he looked around with blinking eyes to find Baron watching him curiously from his seat on a large rounded rock. “I hate this shit,” he informed him succinctly.

Baron unfolded his legs to stand. “I was wondering if you’d gotten lost in transit, Ozwan. I was beginning to consider leaving without you.”

Ozzie turned hurt blue eyes on the big man’s expressionless face. “You’d really leave without me, Bari?!”

A flash of strong white teeth appeared fleetingly in the bronzed face. “Of course not, Ozwan. You are entirely too entertaining. Shall we go?” Baron swept a hand toward the distant road.

“How far is the village do you think?”

“Approximately five miles south-southwest. Possibly an extra half-mile to gain the roadway.”

“Couldn’t we have come out a little closer to town?” Ozzie complained. “My feet are already griping.”

The whine in Ozwan’s voice instantly set Baron’s nerves on edge, and he found himself hard pressed to resist backhanding the petulant man. But resist he did. For the sake of expediency. “We must be discreet, Ozwan. To avoid exposure of our mode of transportation.”

“I know all that already,” Ozwan said in disgust.

“Then you’ve no reason to complain,” Baron informed him reasonably. “Now let’s walk.” The taller man made good on his own command when he turned without a further word and strode away. Ozzie reached beneath his coat to check the load in each gun, and then he trotted after him.

“What are we doing here again?” he asked Baron plaintively.

“Did you pay attention, Ozwan?” Baron’s tone had turned icy.

“Well, yeah.”

“Did you memorize all the photographs?”

“Well yeah.”

“What are we doing here, Ozwan?”

“Er…looking for anyone in Kalm who might be on the list.”

“If you know, why did you ask?”

“Ah…to make conversation?”

“I don’t wish to converse, Ozwan. I wish to ponder. So do not speak to me.” Ozzie opened his mouth to argue, but wisely clamped his mouth shut, suddenly recalling the incident in the armory, when he’d mentioned Vendra and revealed a level of rage inside his stolid friend that he would never had suspected. He didn’t have a clue what woman had elicited such a reaction, but he knew, for a fact, that he would not wish to be that woman if ever Bari should meet up with her again. He certainly didn’t intend to test the man’s temper himself, so he remained silent and contented himself with thoughts of the perfidious Vendra. Maybe she had moved on, but he had his memories. A satisfied smirk slid over his lips.

For the better part of an hour, the two men walked through the fields in uneasy silence, passing within a hundred feet of the abandoned Shinra helicopter, almost completely hidden from their view behind a low rise to their left. If they had bothered to look that way, they might have noticed the crest of the rotor, just visible above the swell of ground, but nothing drew their attention in that direction, and soon they set foot on the road and headed toward the town, none the wiser.

The elderly storekeeper eyed his next customer warily. The patron flashed him a disarming smile that didn’t fool him in the least. He’d been around a lot of years, and he knew just from the way the man carried himself that he was not one with whom to mess. “What can I do for you, sonny?” he finally inquired, his tone carefully polite.

One fiery red eyebrow quirked in amusement at the ‘sonny’ reference, but Reno chose not to remark. Instead, he tossed one crumpled ten-gil note on the counter. “Do you sell smokes?”

The storekeeper inclined his head, careful eyes on the opaque lenses of the sunglasses that covered the man’s eyes. “Certainly do. What brand?”

“White Griffins,” Reno replied as he half-turned from the counter to scrutinize the other patrons in the mercantile. Elena was not one of them one. But then, he’d already noted that fact when he’d first entered the store.

“I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t stock that brand.”

“Spyders, then,” Reno easily amended, his eyes focused in appreciation on a lovely woman with long blonde hair leaning over a counter to examine the price tag on a blue tortoiseshell hairbrush.

“I’m…sorry…sir…” the man replied reluctantly

Reno abruptly turned back to pin his eyes on the storekeeper’s face. “What do you have then?” His voice had turned a tad cool, the first breath of chill air off an approaching thunderstorm. The storekeeper swallowed past the knot in his throat. “Well sir, since you…appear…to be a…fan…of the more exotic brands…” Reno’s brows drew together at that comment, and the man hastened to modify the comment. “…A man of discriminating tastes, obviously…” Reno’s frown deepened at the blatant attempt at flattery, and the man hurriedly turned to point a trembling finger to a shelf behind him. “…Perhaps you’d find the Ultima Blacks to your liking.”

With a curt nod of his head, Reno agreed. “They’ll do.” The Turk pointedly shoved the gil note forward and picked up the pack of cigarettes the storekeeper laid on the counter. As he waited for his change, he idly examined the contents of the glass case beneath his hand. A row of lipsticks in various shades lay beneath his outstretched fingers, and he wondered if Elena had discovered this stock yet. He couldn’t imagine that she would find many places in Kalm village to purchase makeup. Certainly, she would be hard pressed to locate the ridiculously expensive cosmetics he knew that she preferred.

Tearing the cigarette pack open in deft fingers, he drew out his silver cigarette case and opened it up on the counter. Swiftly, he transferred the sleek black papered cigarettes from the package to the case, shaking his head slightly at the silly looking things as he did so. The old register pinged, and the storekeeper returned with his change. He noticed the vague look of displeasure on the red-haired man’s face. “Is there a problem with the cigarettes, sir?”

“They are just fine,” Reno replied coolly as he closed the silver case in one hand, effectively finalizing the matter. He swept up his change and stuffed the bills down into the pocket of his jeans. “Thanks.” The storekeeper released a silent sigh of relief as the man tapped the edge of the silver case on the glass counter, and then abruptly spun on heel and walked away, his boot heels silent against the hardwood floor.

The storekeeper busied himself rearranging stock on the shelf behind the counter, but he’d barely gotten started when he heard the drum of fingers on the glass top behind him. It occurred to him then, that he’d never heard the bell attached to the top of the door ring when the redheaded man had left, and sure enough, he slowly turned his head to find him there. The man had returned just as silently as he’d left. “Is there something else I can do for you?”

Reno pointed one long finger at the glass. “Those lipsticks. How much are they?”

The storekeeper smiled slightly. “For your girl, sir?” Reno jerked his head up to stare at the man through his shades, causing him to catch his breath and mentally curse himself for his audacity. Then the corners of Reno’s thin mouth lifted in a sardonic smile. “Something like that,” he conceded dryly. “How much?”

“Well, they do vary in price…”

“The red lipstick with the gold case,” Reno specified with a tap of his finger.

“An excellent choice, sir,” the storekeeper commented with satisfaction. “Ten gil.”

Reno whistled at the steep price, more for the storekeeper’s benefit than his own, and he tossed the other crumpled ten-gil note on the counter. With careful eyes on the redheaded man’s face, the storekeeper took the money from the counter and shortly placed the lipstick directly into his open palm. Reno shoved his shades into his hair and held the lipstick up to eyelevel to examine it with narrowed green eyes as the storekeeper looked on. Satisfied with his purchase, he dropped the lipstick into his shirt pocket, and with a curt nod, he drew his shades down and left. This time, the storekeeper didn’t move from his spot or take his eyes off the customer until the redheaded man walked through the door and turned right to saunter past the storefront windows, finally disappearing from his view.

The girl dragged the lantern close and struck a match from a tin box that she’d drawn from a niche in the tangle of scrap metal that formed the walls of the small room the two of them now occupied. Almost unconsciously, Reeve switched off the brilliant white beam of his flashlight to leave the alien chamber diffused in the warm light of the dancing wick. His head fell back against the slab of iron behind his back, and his hands went limp against the rough boards of the makeshift floor beneath him, the small flashlight rolling from lifeless fingers. Eyelids barely at half-mast, he wearily watched as the girl on the other side of the lantern crossed her legs beneath her full skirt and settled back to study him, green eyes transformed to molten gold and her copper hair virtually turned to fire by the lantern’s lively flame.

He had no idea how far the two of them had been traveling through the maze of twisted passages inside the walls of debris beneath the plates – crawling, stooping, climbing, and slithering - but his used up body told him that it had been miles upon miles for hours upon hours. And there she sat, looking pretty much as fresh as when he’d first seen her, except for the soiled clothing and muck-smudged hands and face. He, on the other hand, felt every one of his thirty-four years plus three decades or so.

He rocked his head slightly against the sheet metal, shifting his eyes to examine one outstretched hand through the filter of his eyelashes. His palm and fingers were encrusted with black muck and crisscrossed with a myriad of tiny cuts. He couldn’t, and really didn’t, want to imagine what organisms might be living inside the dried sludge he’d collected crawling through more than one slimy pipe. He decided at that moment that he didn’t care. His eyelids slipped completely closed.

“Are you gonna make it, Mr. Alexander?” the girl asked with more than a little concern. No doubt she thought she might have killed him. His lips twitched slightly as he tried to smile. Weakly, he nodded his head against the metal slab. “Maybe,” he tempered his response in a hoarse voice, his own words distant to his weary mind. He hadn’t really decided yet. “Quite a…hidey…hole…you have…here…” he added with great effort, finding it difficult to pry the words from his dull brain.

She shifted in place and propped her chin on one smudged palm. “Yeah…well…it’s been a couple of years since I’ve been here. My best friend and I…we used to hang out here…play games you know…tell stories…hide from the gangs sometimes…”

“…Games…” Reeve couldn’t imagine what games a couple of kids would play in such a bare space.

“You know…games…like…well…like…um…play acting…I guess…” her words trailed away.

“Yes?” Reeve prompted.

“Well, it’s hard to describe…just games you know…but like he’d be the good guys and I’d be the bad guys…or vice versa…you know…and we’d make up like…missions…or…battles…you know…and then we’d do like maybe “rock, paper, scissors” to see who’d win …or maybe sometimes we’d throw matches…” She fell silent as she scrutinized his motionless face and closed eyes. She wasn’t at all certain that he’d heard a word she’d said. “It’s all really pretty silly…to someone like you…I guess…”

“…Sounds like…fun…” Reeve forced the words past uncooperative lips, just to keep her talking, to hear her voice, his anchor to reality in a situation that had become completely unreal. “…So…who were…the bad…guys?” He couldn’t know, but he could well imagine whom the children of the slums might identify as the ‘bad guys’. A dry chuckle escaped his parched throat.

Her gold-flecked green eyes turned knowing. “Maybe not who you’d think, Mr. Alexander. But you are right. There’s no love lost for Shinra down here.”


“I’ll be eighteen in a couple of months. I do remember what Sector Three was like before the plates went up. I lost my mother to a disease that the doctor said came from the bad air and pollution. The doc…he said we should leave…move away…but that takes gil…”

“…I am…sorry…”

“Apologies don’t change anything. I’ve heard plenty of those before.” He could find no recrimination in her voice, only a weary cynicism.

“…Why…did you…help …me?” Reeve cracked his eyelids open to see her face.

She stirred uneasily and lifted her slim shoulders in a shrug. “Because you helped me, I guess. You know, I was really wigging when you came along. What you did…might not have seemed like much…but it made me…you know…focus…”


“Yeah…you know…losing it…freaking out…”

“…Ah…yes…I know…what you mean…I think…I was…sort of…’wigging’…too…if it hadn’t been for…your help…”

She waved a dismissive hand. “Just consider us even, Mr. Alexander. After this, you’re on your own.” Her mischievous smile told him that she was teasing him.

His own lips managed a closer facsimile of a smile. “I won’t get…far…without you…I don’t think. You’ve gotten me…completely…lost…”

“Well, we are still in Sector Three. Not far from my school, actually.”

“Haventown School?” Interested in her answer, he opened his eyes fully to look at her.

“Yeah…we aren’t that far really. I sorta had to bring you in here the back way. We could actually walk out in five minutes or so.”

At her words, Reeve made a visible effort to rouse himself, turning his hands flat against the floor to shove himself straight up against the steel slab behind him. Reaching into his pocket, he withdrew the handheld computer from his jacket. Then he dug out the batteries and inserted them into their respective slots, only to stare at the three empty slots remaining. He looked up to find the girl watching him. “I don’t suppose you have any batteries, do you?” he inquired ruefully.

“Sorry. No.” She straightened up to study the device in his hand with interest. “What is that anyway?

Reeve’s contemplative eyes fell on the flashlight he’d left on the floor. With a burst of energy, he shot out his hand and snatched it into eager fingers. Laying the computer aside, he unscrewed the end of the flashlight, only to stare into the tube in disappointment. More slowly, he recapped the flashlight’s battery compartment and shoved the flashlight into his jacket pocket. Weariness already settling into his bones again, he retrieved the handheld computer with even more languor and replaced the useless device in his other pocket.

When he looked up to encounter the girl’s inquisitive gaze, he recalled that she’d asked him a question. “It’s a computer,” he responded belatedly.

"Really? That little thing?” she asked skeptically.

“Yes, really. More importantly, it would have provided me with a way to communicate with my people.”

“I don’t think you can trust your people, Mr. Alexander,” she curtly informed him. “I think your people have turned on you.”

He slowly nodded as his thoughts turned inward. “Yes, the military certainly has done so. There are other people though…”

“Be careful who you trust, Mr. Alexander,” she advised him in a voice turned hard. He could see in her eyes that she well knew of what she spoke from experience. Her words forced him to consider matters that he’d avoided before, although the thoughts had teased his subconscious mind. He’d just refused to entertain them. But now he had to. Could it be that Caitlin had been the one to betray him? Had she returned to take over the military and Shinra with the Turks behind her? How easy it would have been for them to return to Midgar unbeknownst to him and usurp his authority. On the other hand, why would she find it necessary to send the military after him? Unless she thought he would defy her. Unless she just wanted him dead and out of the way? But no, she was not the sort to wish harm to even a fly. On the other hand, did he really know? She’d let him believe she was dead all these years. He couldn’t even be sure she was still the person he’d known. The woman he’d…loved. Circumstances could break people. Change them. Maybe she secretly hated him for not listening to her all those years ago. For becoming exactly what she thought he would. He could hardly blame her, but the admission did little to ease his pain. The thought wrenched his heart and his face fell in sorrow.

The girl studied him with interest, the way one might study a bug turning on a pin. “Mr. Alexander? Are you okay?”

He held up a hand. “Yeah…I just…” He dragged in a bracing breath and steadied his gaze on her quiet face, purposely shoving all thought of Caitlin aside. He couldn’t bear to think of her at the moment. “Er…there are people I know I can trust.”

“Shinra people?” she queried cautiously.

“Ah…no…not Shinra…”

“Then who?”

He eyed her for a moment, and then he suddenly smiled as he imagined her response to his answer. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Try me,” she smiled at the twinkle in his eyes, the first sign of humor she’d really seen him display, a welcome change from the grief she’d seen in his eyes only moments before. She’d thought he might cry.

“Ah, it doesn’t really matter anyway,” he replied dismissively. “I can’t reach them anytime soon.” The smile slid away as the reality of his situation abruptly returned to mind. Tiredly, he let his head fall back against the steel plate again. “We should go.”

“No, we should not go.” She shook her head with emphasis.

“No?” His eyelids drifted down.

“No. Let’s give the military time to get tired of looking for you first.” She examined his closed eyes. “Besides, you should rest. Gather your strength. Because we’re gonna have to leave here sometime, and I suspect when we do, there’s gonna be trouble.”

He conceded silently that she was right as his thoughts turned vaporous and swirled away from his grasp. Besides, he didn’t want to go anywhere anyway. He wanted to stay right in that spot forever. And just…sleep.

Overtaxed muscles straining, Cloud gathered his strength and reached up a hand to gain a new hold, a move that activated the security beams and lit up the blackness around him to blind him with sickly green light. Only his tensely held expectations and his lightning reflexes saved his fingers as he jerked his gloved hand back, his world already returned to darkness but for the echo of the afterimage lingering fleetingly on his retinas.

With his legs tightly wrapped around the conduit, he loosened his arms to lean back against the shaft wall, reaching one hand into his pocket to retrieve the penlight. He turned the light on, and once his eyes had adjusted to the change in illumination, he directed the beam upward to mark the location of the beam generators. A cool smile curved his lips. The part of his task that the engineer, Cornell, thought would be impossibly difficult would actually be the easiest.

Dragging himself up against the conduit again, he stuck the small penlight between his teeth and reached over his right shoulder with one hand. He wrapped his fingers around the hilt of his sword, and with gentle pressure, lifted the blade a few inches from its harness. Then he returned the penlight to his pocket so he could stick a finger between his teeth to tug off his glove. Stuffing the glove behind the wide studded belt around his waist, he reached over his shoulder and slid his fingers across the materia orbs set into the top of the blade. A fingertip found the mastered magic orb, and he closed his eyes to concentrate, picturing the location of the beam generators in his mind. A green glow formed around the orb as he focused, and then exploded in dazzling light as he mentally cast the lightning spell.

Pressing his cheek against the cool plastic conduit, he listened to the sizzle and pop of the frying electronic machinery above his head as the lightning discharged its lethal energy into vital wires and circuits, eventually vanishing back into the nothingness from whence it came.

Again, Cloud turned his cheek against the pipe to look up, tentatively raising his hand into the original path of the beam, every nerve wired to snatch his hand back if need be, but the beams didn’t activated. Not a single one.

Driven by a second wind born from the knowledge imparted to him by the engineer that the terminus of the shaft loomed just beyond the deactivated beam generators, he swiftly ascended the next ten feet until the thick plastic pipe curved beneath his hands, a clear indication that he’d reached the point where the cables fed out across the underside of the plate to various locations along the rail system. Easily negotiating the bend in a near scramble, he slumped against the now horizontal shaft to lie with his cheek pressed against the cool surface of the conduit, suddenly boneless legs supported only by the steel surface of the shaft wall beneath as he granted himself several precious moments of much needed physical rest and mental recovery.

Eventually, he roused from his near stupor to level an appraising gaze forward into a darkness several degrees less dense than that through which he’d been climbing. Cautiously, he inched forward to the point where he could look down from the narrow rectangular outlet at the very top of the barricade wall just under the underbelly of the plate. Only then could he appreciate how far he’d traveled, how high he’d climbed, when he saw all of Sector Five, or rather what was left of it, spread out far below.

Cloud had expected to see nothing below but for a yawning abyss of suffocating darkness. Instead, his Mako eyes were met by winding strings of isolated firelights that flickered distantly against a bed of soft black velvet and created faint islands of welcoming light, stealing away the inky night from a portion of the depths far below.

He narrowed his scrutiny, turning his gaze downward to trace the miniature shapes of the ramshackle structures near the base of the great barricade, tiny roofs barely silhouetted by the diffuse light from even tinier windows. If equally tiny people moved somewhere below, their figures were lost in darkness and distance. With recognizable landmarks such as byways and partition walls cloaked in darkness, he wasn’t able to determine the area of Sector Five over which he’d emerged. Still, he purposefully sought the one house he hoped to see, the one house he prayed to find intact, but despite the decorative lines and well maintained condition of the two story structure, unique among the shacks around, he could not identify which, if any, of the silhouetted roofs could be the one.

Keenly disappointed at his failure, Cloud surrendered his pointless scrutiny, his gaze turning lackadaisical as he focused his mind inward on the problem of motivating himself to relinquish his lofty haven, to give up his temporary comfort and security for the certain stress and physical demand of a perilous descent. As he schooled his mental resources to the task, his absently wandering eyes were drawn to a single island far to the left, a smear of gold against a pallet of midnight, just clinging to life in the murky darkness of its isolation.

A sense of loneliness and futility overcame him, and his weariness resurged to chase away all his hard won arguments. Absently, he again rested his cheek into the surface of the conduit and idly studied the source of the distant illumination. He wondered, then, if those souls who resided inside the light from the fire they’d lit to stave off the unthinkable felt as hopeless and useless as he did just at that moment.

Cloud abruptly lifted his head, his fleeting indulgence in self-pity turned to disgust at his weakness. He’d come for the survivors trapped in the slums below, maybe a fruitless endeavor in the end, but he couldn’t know that until he contacted them.

With renewed determination, Cloud rose up on one arm and twisted to reach for the coil of delicately thin steel cable that Cornell had clipped to his belt. The engineer had suggested, with disquieting uncertainty, that Cloud might be able to find a place to attach the cable so that he might ascend down the barrier wall, and at Cloud’s skeptical appraisal, he had assured the warrior that the cable would indeed hold his weight. Cloud had little choice but to trust the engineer’s word, as his only other option would be to climb back down the shaft, making all his effort meaningless.

Setting the coil of cable beside him, Cloud sat up and braced himself securely in the narrow aperture. Drawing the penlight from his pocket, he leaned out just enough to shine the beam on the wall around him. A sigh of relief slipped silently from his lips when he discovered the heavy platform hooks that Cornell had speculated should be there just above the opening, leftover from the original construction.

With extreme concentration focused wholly on not falling, Cloud reached up to loop the wire around the hook and gave the cable a hard jerk to set the treble hook, all the while pondering the ability of the setup to hold his weight. What he wouldn’t give to sprout wings at that moment.

Ruefully conceding the unlikelihood of that event, Cloud tugged his glove over his hand, and then made one wrap of the cable around his waist before throwing the coil over the side. He held his breath and listened as the hook on the other end chinked against the steel surface of the barricade several times on the way down. Eventually, the cable tightened around his waist, and Cloud knew that the treble hook had reached the end of its tumble. He fervently hoped that end would be very near the ground. He knew there was no point in sitting there thinking about it any longer.

Shutting his mind to all thought of the consequences of failure, Cloud grabbed hold of the cable with both hands and shoved himself out of the aperture, his pent breath forcibly expelled from his lungs mere seconds later when the wire took his weight and spun him into the steel wall back first. The warrior allowed himself no more than a few seconds to recover his equilibrium before he planted his feet against the wall and started hastily down, fully intending to swiftly set his boots on solid ground before the whole setup came capriciously apart and surrendered him to fate.

Time lapsed with painful slowness as he descended, all his thoughts deliberately dedicated to the placement of his soles against the wall as he moved down in almost total darkness. He didn’t risk a glance up or down, content in the comfort of the physical space directly defined by the touch of the steel beneath his feet, all his mental effort focused on maintaining a steady pace, until one of the sharp points of the treble hook at the end of the cable dug into his thigh. He’d reached the end of the line, and he could only see darkness below him.

A quick glance at the distant firelights burning out along one of the passageways through the debris indicated he’d come close to his goal, but not close enough. Not close enough to avoid injury and possible death if he should jump from this point. Cloud pulled himself back up the cable far enough to set a foot against the treble hook, and then he fished out the penlight with one hand. To his dismay, he found that the beam didn’t penetrate very far in any direction, lighting nothing but empty space in its path. Then he swept the light across the wall, and to his great relief, saw his salvation loom into the weak light at the edge of the penlight’s beam in the form of a catwalk. However, reaching it would require a higher degree of acrobatic skill on his part.

Marking the location of the catwalk in his mind, Cloud stuck the penlight back into his pocket and dropped down the cable to dangle on the end with both hands wrapped around the treble hook in a death grip. Shoving off with one foot, he set the cable swinging to carry his weight back and forth through the darkness in ever increasing arcs until his boot finally grazed the metal frame. Satisfied of his target, Cloud waited through one more complete swing until he reached the furthest extent of its reach, and steeling his mind against his fearful thoughts, he let go, stretching hand and foot blindly into the darkness to grab hold of the metal framework. Unfortunately, his arm grazed the wall and slowed his forward momentum, barely, but just enough. His boot missed the bar completely and his gloved fingertips merely brushed the railing. He’d sadly misjudged.

All the dark, debilitating thoughts of failure and fear of death that Cloud Strife had barely managed to keep at bay up to that point rushed forth to claim the Avalanche warrior’s mind as he plummeted straight down into a well of deepest night and to a fate as certain as the grave.

Go To Revelations Part 2

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