“Did the last Cetra on the planet get the better of you, Vendra?” Ozzie inquired with an inquisitive arch of one brow. Ice blue eyes gleamed with pleasure.
“She wasn’t the last Cetra,” Vendra informed him coldly. “She was just some simple-minded twit, and I could have killed her anytime I wanted.”
“So why didn’t you?” Ozzie pointedly asked.
“I didn’t want to.” Her tone held an implicit warning that Ozzie chose to ignore.
His pale eyes shifted from her scarlet tinted mouth to the narrow strip of snowy gauze just barely visible beneath the edge of the ghostly white bangs feathering her forehead. “And…you just managed to smack yourself head first into a cabinet door…in that dark ole mansion…” he idly commented, his words clearly underpinned by his disbelief.
“I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” Vendra snapped waspishly. Her wickedly long, scarlet-tipped nails commenced a frenetic ticking against the glass tabletop as she shifted impatiently in her chair to pin the lackadaisical waitress with a homicidal glare over one slender shoulder. “Who do I have to kill to get a drink around here?” she inquired loudly enough to draw the rapt attention of a half dozen of the other patrons in the back alley Junon pub as well as a troubled look from the young waitress who was in the middle of transferring tall glasses from her carefully balanced tray to an occupied table.
The young woman paused with her fingers around a glass to appraise Vendra’s wide china blue eyes, her full pouty lips, and the long, silky hair plaited into two braids that fell behind her ears to her waist, and then she dismissively returned to her work. Vendra’s countenance darkened, her unlined forehead creasing in a frown that made her look ten years older, a nearer representation of her true age. “Ozzie, find out where that woman lives,” she growled across the table. “I don’t like her.”
Ozzie deliberately leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, shaking his head slowly and adamantly to her directive. “Uh uh, sweetcheeks,” he replied with a crooked smile. “I’m not doing your dirty work anymore. You wanna do her, do it yourself.”
A middle-aged couple at the next table suddenly looked around from their drinks with concerned faces. Baron, alert for any undue interest in their business, immediately noticed and leveled cold black eyes in their direction. They hurriedly decided to mind their own business, both pairs of nervous eyes darting back to the glasses in front of them.
Satisfied at the effectiveness of his intimidation, Baron leaned forward to plant both hands on the table. He pointedly shifted the same deadly eyes from Vendra to Ozzie and back again in an attempt to convey a discrete, non-verbal warning. Neither paid him any mind.
Vendra smirked at Ozzie as she reached for the narrow pack of cigarettes she’d tossed carelessly down on the table when she’d first arrived. “Why don’t you just get over your little self, Ozwan,” she said coolly. “You weren’t all that.” The smile instantly vanished from Ozzie’s face, and satisfied at her easy success, Vendra raised the long slender cigarette to her lips and clicked her silver-trimmed mother of pearl lighter to light it up, exhaling a fragrant cloud of smoke across the table to drift into his face.
Ozzie quickly recovered his equilibrium, replanting his nonchalant smile back on his face. With an absent wave of a hand to dispel the smoke, he leaned forward on his elbows and went on the attack. “Chicks like you are a half-gil a dozen,” he replied silkily. “Don’t think I’ve lost a wink of sleep over you, little girl, cuz I’ve been sleeping just fine. Like a baby, in fact. My dreams have been soooo nice lately. And guess what? They’re not about you.”
Baron decided to interject before the conversation deteriorated into open and highly noticeable warfare. “May we dispense with the trite insults now?” he suggested in a low voice. “We’ve other matters to discuss.” He might as well have been whispering into the wind for all the notice they paid him.
Vendra’s brow lowered thunderously, and she pointed her cigarette at Ozzie. “You better watch yourself, Ozwan Parmady,” she informed him ominously. “One word from me about your screw up in Kalm and you’ll be fertilizer in the boss’s herb garden.”
Ozzie threw his palms up in the air and rounded his eyes. “Ooooh…I’m so scared…”
”You should be,” Vendra replied curtly. “The boss won’t kill you quickly. It’ll be so entertaining to see you bawl like a little baby at the end.”
Ozzie hid his unease behind a smirk and an indifferent shrug. “Whatever. He can only kill me once.”
A cocky, half-smile came to Vendra’s face. “Sure about that, Parmady?” she asked coyly.
Baron noticed several people watching their table now. Although the pub was hardly filled to capacity, the place apparently did a booming business in the wee hours just before closing. More business than he would have thought. Vendra opened her mouth to speak again, probably to further elaborate on Ozzie’s impending demise or to voice another unfortunate evaluation of Ozwan’s attributes, and Baron shot out a hand to grab her wrist in a painful grip, forestalling her comment and drawing a venomous, stormy-eyed glare for his efforts.
“Did you call us here for business, Vendra…” he hissed into her face. “…Or merely to create a spectacle?”
Vendra’s eyes narrowed speculatively, and she shot a quick glance around the room. She clearly noted more than one pair of eyes surreptitiously looking their way. Her eyes came back to Baron’s face, and she jerked her wrist from his grasp and rewarded him with a curt nod. “For business,” she replied curtly. “I have new instructions.”
“Then shall we get to it?” His tone chilly and eyes threatening beneath knitted brows, Baron glared at her before shifting his predatory gaze to Ozzie’s face to silently press his point on his largely unrepentant partner. The blonde gunman slumped back in his chair and inclined his head in easy concession.
The waitress abruptly deposited a glass down in front of Vendra with a solid clunk, and three startled pairs of eyes shot to her face. She smiled nervously at the sudden attention and waved a placating hand. “I’m sorry it took so long…” She hid her uneasiness in her task, directing all of her attention to the glasses on her tray. “We’re shorthanded tonight…and…” Setting Ozzie’s glass down in front of him, she chanced a look at him, only to find herself entranced by his warm smile.
“Don’t worry about it, sugar,” he reassured her. “We’re in no hurry.”
Her wane smile grew in several degrees of brightness. “Thank you, sir, but I still…”
He held up a hand, and she stopped talking. “What are you doing after work tonight?” he asked amiably.
The girl’s smile slowly began to slide away. “Er…going home to my husband.”
Ozzie’s eyes turned sorrowful. “Ah…my loss…” he replied with playful mournfulness.
The girl lifted a hand to her lips to hide the reluctant smile at his amiable teasing. Vendra rolled her eyes and tossed down her entire drink in a couple of gulps to slam the glass down on the table. The aggressive move startled the girl, and she eyed Vendra with trepidation.
“Did you spit in her drink?” Ozzie asked casually.
The girl’s eyes flew back to his face. “Of course not, sir!” she exclaimed with outrage.
“Well, you should have,” he shot back with a smirk.
Vendra let fly with one of her sharp-toed boots beneath the table and barked him a good one on the shin, but to her disappointment he only rewarded her with a pained wince of one eye.
“Do you have the water I requested?” Baron asked quickly, before either Ozzie or Vendra could say another word. He wondered, not for the first time, how he’d permitted himself to become involved in this dubious enterprise with the two of them. Perhaps, had he contemplated his options longer, he might have discovered a more direct way to exact his revenge.
The waitress looked up at the ebony-haired warrior, and her gaze froze on his exotically tinted, high-cheekboned face and piercing black eyes flecked with gold. Unsettled by the sight, she vaguely nodded and reached across the table to set the last glass in front of him. In her nervousness, she caught the base of the glass against the table and would have spilled it into his lap, but Baron’s fingers caught her hand to steady the glass. Reacting as though she’d been burned, she yanked her fingers from beneath his, and with one last look around the table, scurried away.
“Well…that was mildly entertaining…” Ozzie murmured as he lifted his glass to his lips.
Vendra vehemently stabbed her barely smoked cigarette out in the ashtray and leaned against the table on crossed arms to pin Ozzie with frigid eyes. “Why don’t we get on with our business, so I can get out of this hellhole.”
Ozzie shrugged dismissively. “Hey…I’m not the one holding up your show, sweetheart,” he muttered.
“What are the instructions, Vendra?” Baron firmly asked in a voice a bit louder than he normally used. The question successfully distracted her from whatever retort she had planned for the sulky faced Ozwan.
Deciding to ignore Ozzie for the remainder of the meeting, Vendra purposefully twisted in her chair and turned the whole of her attention to Baron. “He wants you to retrieve a package in Mideel,” she said tersely. She dipped two fingers into the neckline of her low-cut blouse and came up with a neatly folded piece of paper. She laid the square of white against the table and shoved it across to Baron with the same two fingers. The warrior took the note up into his big hands and casually unfolded the paper. He swiftly scanned the words that had been scrawled in a florid cursive and then read the contents through more thoroughly. Baron abruptly redirected his gaze over the top of the short missive to pin the messenger with implacable dark eyes. “This package is not on the list,” he remarked.
Vendra shook her head. “No, the boss received word about that item yesterday. It apparently possesses some…unique…qualities. He feels that item belongs in his collection.”
A chilly smile barely curved Baron’s lips at the prospect. He preferred the stalk to the search. “It will be done.” He refolded the note precisely and slipped it into his tunic. “What of you, Vendra? Have you received new instructions?”
Her lush eyelashes drifted partway down to shutter her eyes from Baron’s piercing gaze. “Um…no, my mission remains the same. However, I have no point of reference from which to continue. The man was not where he was expected to be, and no one in that village has resided there more than a few weeks. There is no one who might have seen him. No one with knowledge of his whereabouts.”
“So what do you plan to do?” Ozzie asked curiously. “How will you find him?”
“I’m going to Midgar,” she replied succinctly. “That’s where he’s from originally. He might well return. And while I’m there, I’ll check out the Turk situation more closely.”
Ozzie raised his hand to peer smugly at his nails. “Well, you don’t have to worry about their leader,” he slyly informed her. “I took care of him.”
“So you say,” Vendra replied coolly.
He looked at her in surprise. “What? You don’t believe me?”
She shrugged her indifference. “I’ve no reason to disbelieve you, Ozzie. But I happen to know Reno. I doubt he can be killed so easily.”
“I didn’t kill him so easily,” Ozzie retorted lowly. “That bastard left his blood all over the reactor tracking me down. In fact, I was pretty impressed at the time,” he added reverently. “If he’d had another pint in him, I might have had a real fight on my hands. Sadly, he flopped to the floor before I could shoot him again.” Ozzie smiled happily at the memory, until a worrisome thought slipped into his mind. He eyed Vendra suspiciously. “How do you know Reno anyway?”
A feline smile of satisfaction graced her lips. “Let’s just say…we’ve crossed paths before…” she murmured.
“I’ll just bet you have,” Ozzie snapped. “Is there anybody you haven’t…”
“Hold your tongue, Ozwan,” Baron deliberately interrupted. “Before you speak words you should not.” He well knew that any conversation between Ozzie and Vendra from that point on might well devolve to full-blown battle, possibly with attendant bloodshed, if he allowed them to continue on their current tack. “We will go now. We are not highly paid to patronize taverns at our leisure.”
Ozzie clamped his lips shut and reached for his hat. Vendra scraped back her chair and gracefully rose to her feet even as she turned appraising eyes to Baron’s garb. “You should find more common clothing to wear, Baron,” she commented lowly. “You draw attention with that outfit everywhere you go.”
“Do I appear common to you?” Baron asked icily. He turned on heel and strode away before she could reply. She redirected her argument to Ozzie. “At least the headpiece should go,” she stubbornly insisted.
“Don’t waste your breath, Vendra,” he replied wearily. “I pushed the issue once and nearly lost my head for it.” Ozzie planted his hat on his head and knocked the brim to a rakish angle with one finger as he stood. He moved to leave her, until an idea occurred to him. He turned back with a hopeful smile on his lips and a mischievous glint in his eyes. “Say…Vendra…since you’re going to Midgar anyway…why don’t you catch that pretty blonde Turk for me and bring her back? I think she likes me.”
“Why don’t you kiss my ass, Ozzie?” Vendra bit out. She displayed her middle finger for his benefit and wheeled away, her long silvery braids flying out behind her as she turned.
Ozzie watched her until she disappeared through the door. “And a fine one it is too…” he commented to himself as he reached for his glass. With a sharp tilt of his head he tossed down the dark amber liquid. No point in letting cheap whiskey go to waste, he figured. Besides, Baron had gotten so weird lately, he needed all the fortification he could get.
Ozzie looked up from the glass to find the waitress watching him curiously. Setting the glass down gently on the table, he politely tipped his hat at her with a broad grin and winked, evoking a pretty smile from her in response. Satisfied that his charm remained intact, Ozwan Parmady headed out the door only to slam to a stop when he came face to face with his glowering partner just on the other side. Evidently, Baron thought he’d been waiting too long.
Ozzie’s pleasant alcohol-induced haze instantly vanished. “Where are we going again?” he inquired with forced casualness as he slipped past his larger partner to turn into the dimly lit alley.
The tall, broad shouldered warrior fell into step beside him. “Mideel, Ozwan,” Baron replied coolly. “Were you not paying attention?”
“Not really, no.”
Baron shook his head sadly.
“Can we wait until morning to leave?” the blonde gunman asked hopefully. “I wanna catch a few winks.”
“You slept all day,” Baron reminded him dryly.
“Oh, that’s right. I did. So who’s the target this time? Another kid?” He grimaced at his own question.
“Not this time,” Baron drawled. “In fact, Ozwan, I believe this mission will allow you to utilize your talents more productively. An experience you will no doubt find enjoyable.” He drew the paper from his tunic and offered it to Ozzie.
Ozzie paused in a pool of light cast by a tall streetlamp and unfolded the note to read the contents. A sly smile came to his face, and he refolded the paper and slipped it into his coat pocket. “I believe you are right, Baron. You know me too well.”
Baron didn’t bother to reply, and the two walked several paces in silence as Ozzie’s thoughts turned to fond memories of the hot tropical climes of Mideel. Visions of long sultry nights beside the luminous green lake being entertained by scantily clad females danced through his mind, until he mentally revisited the note and the contents thereof. As the words ran through his mind again, his lips curved in a happy smile.
Ah…Arisara… Wait for me, baby…here I come…
A distant jackhammer chattered away, and Elena irritably rolled onto her left side. Again. She glared fiercely at the dim form of a peacefully sleeping Cloud Strife stretched out on the cot across the aisle a mere four feet away, and she briefly contemplated whipping out her pistol and shooting him. For general purposes, of course. But even more, for being so soundly asleep when she wasn’t. Instead of acting on the pleasurable thought, she deliberately rolled over to her right side yet again, and put her back to the Avalanche warrior. Fortunately for him. Impatiently, she wriggled around in the cot in a vain attempt to find a position that would induce slumber, and then she impulsively gave her pillow a vicious punch as retribution for its inability to provide her comfort.
Tightly, she squeezed her eyes shut and willed her brain to shut off. Tried to imagine a long stretch of pristine white Costa del Sol beach. Worked hard to picture something boring, anything that would redirect her mind into another channel than it had a bent to go. She decided she should find something to mentally count. Like maybe fish leaping over the frothy waves or grangalans cracking open to give birth to smaller grangalans, that would open to expel yet more diminutive grangalans still, subsequently parting to eject the smallest grangalans of all. She could imagine grangalans opening to produce more grangalans until she drove herself straight to sleep with the mind numbing tediousness of it all. Or into madness. Grangalans splitting apart forever. Infinitum. Ad nauseaum. A great idea, to be sure. But after a concerted and completely fruitless attempt to bring either grangalans or fish to mind, she had to concede that the damn grangalans and the blasted fish could not compete with the smirking mouth and taunting green eyes inside her head. Immensely frustrated, she frantically kicked her bare feet free from beneath the itchy blanket and flopped over onto her back with a silent huff of derision to glare into the shadows over her head.
How long had it been? How many hours? Long hours in which she’d fought to get even a single wink of sleep. A hopeless struggle it would seem. To hell with it. She’d had enough. Enough of battling her blanket. Enough of tossing and turning on the narrow cot. Enough of a flat pillow seemingly transformed to a slab of wood. More then enough of Reno haunting her thoughts. Enough of her pointless attempts to shut the memory of that damnable kiss from her mind. If sleep planned to elude her the whole night long, she might as well get up and relieve Reno from doing the watch that should have been hers. It wasn’t that she felt guilty about him suffering in her stead. Not on her life. He deserved the watch for being such an insufferable jackass. It was just that she prided herself on doing her job. And she wasn’t doing it. Reno was.
Abruptly, Elena sat up and swept her feet to the earthen floor of the tent, making a half-hearted effort to free herself from the entangling folds of the blanket before she decided to simply defeat her imprisonment by springing to her feet and releasing the blanket to pool warmly around her feet. With a muttered and indelicate imprecation directed at the absent Leader of the Turks, she viciously kicked the blanket aside to uncover her boots and discarded socks, and snatching them up into her hands, she dropped heavily back onto the cot to drag the socks and cuffed ankle boots onto her feet. As she worked, she mentally practiced the cool words she planned to speak when she informed him that she did not appreciate his thinking he could just kiss her at his whim and that she fully expected him to refrain from such behavior in future. If he didn’t, she’d just have to kill him.
As though to test her resolve, Reno instantly reappeared in her mind. Not the smirking Reno this time. Not the one with cold green eyes glittering with ire. Not the Reno with boyish face innocent in sleep, fiery red strands of hair coiling against his chest. Not the scarred face frozen in contemplative interest, eyes rife with intent on her mouth. No, the Reno she saw in her mind’s eye at that moment was the one she wished never to see again. Sprawled limply in an ever-expanding crimson pool of his own blood, green eyes glassy and leached of vibrancy and purpose, breaths tortured and raspy, soul slipping away in front of her eyes.
With a soft groan, she buried her face in her hands. Of course, she could never kill him. An idle threat, to be sure. What’s more, she wanted him to kiss her again. Who was she kidding? Surely not herself.
“Elena?” The single word rumbled lowly from the darkness.
She promptly lifted her head to peer into the shadows at the corner of the tent where Rude had appropriated the chair in which she usually sat in self-imposed isolation while her charges played cards and chatted. Rude’s voice, gruff and barely audible, conveyed an unspoken query regarding her welfare as well as an explanation for the cause of her seeming distress. She couldn’t make out the slightest hint of his silhouette in the dark corner, but she knew that Rude could probably see her in the dim wash of lamplight through the open entrance of the tent. She flipped a hand into the air in a little offhand wave to reassure the big Turk of her continued good health and mental stability. Maybe he could be fooled into thinking that she merely meant to rub the slumber from her eyes, although she realized that if he’d been awake the whole time he would be well aware of her endless attempts to find a comfortable position in her cot and of her inability to sleep. Rude didn’t answer, and she mentally shrugged him from her mind as she reached for the pistol she’d left beside her pillow. Careful to make no sound beyond the tiniest of clicks, she dutifully checked the load as she rose to her feet.
Elena tucked the pistol into the waistband of her pants at her spine, and then paused for a long moment to look around, checking to see if her activity had awakened anyone. Not a soul stirred, and the only sound to rise above the distant and ever-present drone of the heavy machinery out at the Sector 2 gate came from the cot just up the row from Cloud’s where the Kisaragi girl slept sprawled across her cot with one arm and one leg hanging off the side, her wide open mouth emitting mind rattling sounds that easily drowned out the rhythmic sussurations of everyone else’s collective respiration. Elena idly thought about doing everyone a favor and sticking a sock down her throat.
With a little wrinkle of her nose in disparagement of the idea, she turned her attention to the next cot down from hers where Caitlin Shinra slept on her side with Rachel spooned against her body, one arm draped protectively over the little girl’s huddled form. The two seemed undisturbed by the snores or the machinery. As did Strife. Another glance across the aisle that ran down the middle of the tent revealed that Cloud Strife hadn’t twitched a muscle since she’d last looked his way. She knew that Avian and Derry slumbered in their respective cots deeper in the tent beyond the sleeping Avalanche leader, but she didn't bother to look their way, aware that she wouldn't be able to see more than their dim forms in the deep gloom. Apparently the whole lot of them had the ability to sleep like logs. Unlike herself. But then they didn’t have Reno of the Turks haunting their sleep. She curled her lip in disdain at the spiky haired warrior’s still form and turned toward the exit.
Rude startled her to an abrupt standstill when he loomed out of the darkness to step into her path. Elena knew he wasn’t about to let her leave without knowing where she planned to go. She pointed a finger to her temple, and he nodded. He started to move away, but she touched her fingers to his left wrist. He dutifully pressed the tip of a finger to the light button on his watch in silent response, turning the luminous dial face up for her to see. A pained sigh left her lips at sight of the time. 3:23 AM. She’d been tossing and turning for over five hours. She inclined her head in wordless gratitude and walked past Rude as he slipped soundlessly away to melt into the shadows.
Ducking through the tent opening, Elena stepped into the circle of lamplight in front of the tent and sucked in a sharp breath at the touch of an unseasonably cool breeze against her bare arms. A cold front must have moved in from across the sea during the dark hours, a pointed reminder that September had finally arrived that very night. She might have returned inside for her jacket then, but her eager eyes had already zeroed in on the spot where she’d left the grouchy Leader of the Turks slumped in his seat, only to find the folding chair collapsed on the ground at the very edge of the circle of golden light cast by the lantern, with Reno nowhere in sight. Instantly, all thought of the prickly goose bumps on her arms and the idea of retrieving her warm jacket from the chair inside the tent where she’d left it flew from her mind.
Instinctively, her hand went to the small of her back to retrieve her gun as she took three quick purposeful steps toward the discarded chair, her heart pounding so hard against her sternum she thought it might escape her chest. Her slender fingers found the butt of her pistol, but before she could draw the weapon from her waistband, a laconic voice stayed her hand in place.
“Wild night, ‘Lena?”
At his teasing words, a bright spark of anger flared to drive away the fear that had been rapidly fulminating inside her heart for him. And why had she surrendered to that unreasoning fear so quickly? As Rude had pointed out on more than one occasion, Reno could take care of himself. And as she’d reminded herself repeatedly, she knew that was mostly true. Mostly.
She spun on heel to confront him, flinging her arms around her waist, not only as a barrier against the chill wind but also as a defensive gesture. Now that she knew where to look, she found him immediately, just as she would have if she’d not foolishly jumped to the worse possible conclusion and had instead engaged in the most cursory examination of the area, even despite the fact that he sat in relative shadow atop a crate against the canvas tent wall with his right forearm resting on a drawn up knee, his face shrouded in gloom. She could just barely detect the glittering of his eyes in the diffuse lamplight, and from his tone of voice she could well imagine the smirk on his lips and the taunting nature of his gaze. Her own face fell into a cool mask as she leveled challenging hazel eyes on those gleaming irises and lifted her chin to a haughty angle.
“What did you ask me?” she bit out in unmistakable displeasure.
Reno slid off the crate to plant both dusty boots on the ground. He walked toward her with ponderous but purposeful steps, and she fought the urge to take a few steps back as she jealously examined the faded black denim jacket that he’d managed to appropriate from somewhere. Chilled to the bone, she longed to dive into the tent for her own jacket, but she had no intention of surrendering ground at that juncture.
Stuffing his hands into his jacket pockets, Reno came to a halt a mere foot away, and he bent his head to hold her contemptuous gaze with implacable eyes for a few seconds before diverting his attention to her hair. “Your hair is in a sad state of disarray, Elena. As though you had been…” Reno fell silent when Elena’s hand flew to her hair in dismay. His smile turned lascivious and his tone suggestive. “Did you have a visitor in the night? Wildman…maybe…”
Elena’s eyes flew wide in shock as the sly words registered, and her fingers froze in the middle of her efforts to smooth her abused coif into place. “How dare you!” she spat venomously. In an impulse driven by her largely manufactured outrage, she threw up a hand and shoved hard against his chest with the intention of knocking him onto his narrow ass, but she only managed to set him back a step. A delighted chuckle escaped his lips, adding insult to injury.
Reno well knew that Cornelius Wildman wouldn’t dare and had not dared to enter that tent during the night. Not after he had pointedly dissuaded the lawyer from going a single step past him with a snake-eyed gaze and a casual bumping of his magrod against his knee. Without a word, the lawyer had promptly reversed his course, made a wide berth around the intimidating Turk, and gone into the mechanic’s tent to bed down for the night. Still, he’d invoked Wildman to rile Elena, and maybe to test her. Just a little. He found the results satisfactory. He quirked an eyebrow in question. “Couldn’t sleep then?” he inquired with keen interest.
Her neatly sculptured brows drew together in a frown. “No, I couldn’t…” She slammed her lips closed into a thin line at what she’d nearly admitted to him. “I mean…I slept just fine, Reno. Thank you very much. Those cots are just damned uncomfortable.”
“…Guess you’re not used to such crude…sleeping…arrangements…” His eyes drifted back to her unruly hair. He absently took a step to recover the ground he’d lost when she’d shoved him. “What brings you out, Elena?” he asked with casual indifference as he studied the golden sheen the kerosene lamp bestowed to the blonde tresses stirring lightly in the breeze.
“I came out to take the watch, Reno,” Elena replied with forced coolness as she warily pondered the strange distance in his husky voice as well as the heavy-lidded, contemplative expression in his eyes. Uncomfortably similar to the cast of his gaze just before he’d kissed her the other night. She shifted her feet uneasily when he didn’t reply. “So you can get some sleep,” she added in a slightly louder voice. “While you can.”
Finally, he nodded in vague acknowledgment. He suddenly drew a hand from his pocket and raised it to her head, a movement that made her flinch. She stood motionlessly and held her breath as Reno slipped his thin, spidery fingers into her hair at her temple and gently drew the wayward strands into place against her cheek. When his warm fingertips came into contact with her skin, she jerked her face away. “Stop that…” she commanded half-heartedly. A shiver abruptly shook her, and she tried to convince herself that the slight lift of the frigid wind had been the reason.
He turned the back of his hand against her cool cheek and a deep furrow of concern creased his smooth brow. “You’re cold,” he informed her unnecessarily. His eyes fell to the thin material of her sleeveless, scoop necked pullover and traveled to the point where the sapphire phoenix pendant dangled invitingly just above the shadow of cleavage barely visible beneath the edge of the snowy cloth. “Where’s your jacket?” he questioned with a disapproving frown. He raised mildly irritated eyes to hers and lifted both hands to her upper arms where his palms felt hot against her chilled skin. He rubbed his hands against her arms to warm her, and in direct defiance of her will, her eyelids drifted down at the pleasurable sensation. She had to admit that at the moment she wanted nothing more than to melt into his arms and absorb his warmth into her chilled body and stay there for as long as he would let her. She might well have surrendered helplessly to the impulse if he hadn’t suddenly stiffened in place, his head jerking up to bring alert green eyes to a point beyond her right shoulder.
Before she could force herself to draw away, he drew his hands from her arms and stepped around her. Fighting disappointment, she brought her own hands to her arms in an attempt to replace the warmth he’d stolen away at his abrupt abandonment. She turned to see what had captured his attention and found him examining the faraway bluff that loomed darkly above the mangled city skyline and the flat wastelands beyond with a protracted stare. She couldn’t see anything that would draw his interest.
“What is it, Reno?” she asked in perplexity.
He answered without removing his eyes from the bluff. “A bright flash of light.”
“Lightning?” she conjectured with the knowledge that a thunderstorm often accompanied a cold front at this time of year.
“Maybe,” Reno replied as he intently watched the sky above the rim. A silent and now equally intrigued Elena moved closer to his side. After a space of several minutes, he shook his head. “Maybe not,” he amended in a voice transformed to flint. “Get your jacket, Elena,” he coolly commanded. “And wake Rude. “We’re all standing watch for the rest of the night.”
Myron warily peered around the doorframe with one eye before he slipped noiselessly into the room. He wasn’t sure what he’d hoped to find, but certainly not the unchanged scene that met his eyes. The exact same scene he’d reluctantly left a few hours past when Staton and Maines had summoned him from the house to discuss the dispensation of the lands beyond the Nibelheim gate. A few of the new residents wanted to build there, and mindful of the growing population he had uneasily agreed with them that some plots might be laid out, knowing full well that he had no legal authority to do so.
His boot scuffed against the hardwood floor, but not even the sharp sound in the hushed room created the slightest ripple of movement in the frozen tableau, as though the figures in the room were frozen in amber, captured in oils on a canvas, impressed into the very tapestry of the room’s atmosphere. He carefully cradled the hot cup of coffee in his hands and studied his wife at his leisure. Her narrow face marked by skin tautly stretched over high cheekbones remained the same as the day before. Her thin frame hunched in the chair beside the bed still seemed too slight for her clothing. Her face and body remained marked by the rapacious illness. Yet something had changed in her. Something he could not deny or dismiss as a delusion born of his most heartfelt wish. He could detect an ethereal luminosity beneath her ivory skin. A vibrant energy radiating from her being, an aspect of her that he hadn’t even realized had vanished, until its return. Last night. He knew in his heart what he knew. But he could not put voice to it. He dared not.
He cleared the tightness from his throat to break the sanctified quietude in the room, and then he ventured to speak her name. “Nessa…” he said softly and hesitantly. “I’ve brought you some coffee.”
She slowly turned her head to look at him then, and the sight of her dark haunted eyes and vacant regard nearly brought his heart to a standstill. At that moment, he harbored a crazy notion that he didn’t truly exist in her realm, that she might not acknowledge him or speak to him, that he was but a mere specter that she had only sensed but could not see and would dismiss as fantasy out of hand, but she dispelled his fanciful idea by lifting a hand toward him to accept his offer. “Thank you, Myron,” she replied gruffly. “I sorely need some hot coffee.”
He gratefully came to her side then, and he gingerly turned the cup handle for her to take. She took the cup into her own two slender hands and held it there for a long moment, as though to draw heat into bones gone cold in the wake of the disturbing events of the previous night and the isolation of her painful vigil throughout the subsequent hours.
Finally, Nessa lifted the cup to her lips, her dark eyelashes drifting down as Myron moved beside her to lay a comforting hand on her thin shoulder. She took a long sip of the bracingly stiff coffee before she set the cup aside on the bedside table, taking care not to spill the dark liquid on the intricately crocheted doily that lay beneath an azure vase full of scarlet Melodias, an arrangement of flowers that Maya had placed there only the day before. Nessa stared at them as though she’d never seen them before that day, and her breath caught in her lungs as a wave of intense sorrow squeezed her guilty heart in punishing fingers. She bowed her head in supplication, as though seeking atonement, and Myron, sensing her pain, tightened his fingers around her shoulder and raised his other hand to gently stroke her hair.
“Don’t blame yourself, Nessa,” he pleaded without much hope that she would listen. He well knew it to be in her nature to take responsibility for everything that went wrong around her, and in this case, particularly so, as she thought herself to be the direct cause of Maya’s current condition.
As though embarrassed by her lapse, she stiffened in her chair and lifted her eyes to the lifeless girl lying beneath a heavy quilt, her slight figure somehow diminished by the width of the oversized bed, lightless emerald irises barely visible beneath gently closed lids, her thick chestnut hair tumbling all about her. A very shallow rise and fall of her chest the only visible sign that life had not left her. Not completely, anyway. Although Nessa could not attest to the viability of her soul. The beautiful eyes were dead. Emerald windows overlooking a bare room. As though the very essence of life had slipped away into the ethos, leaving behind only an empty shell.
“There’s been no change then…” Myron murmured sadly.
Nessa simply shook her head, finding speech difficult at the moment.
“Isn’t there something we can do?” Myron interjected a stilted hopefulness into his words. “Maybe I could ride to Rockettown and bring back a doctor.”
Nessa studied his earnest face for a moment, considering the merit of his suggestion, but in the end she merely offered him a single, decided shake of her ebony head. “It would be a waste of time, Myron,” Nessa replied dully. “No doctor can help her. The damage done to her…is not of this world…and would not be…responsive…to human intervention…”
Myron opened his mouth to argue, but instead he decided to probe into the cause of the girl’s current condition. Nessa had yet to reveal the details of the event that had lead to the horrifying scene he’d discovered in the basement bedroom. During the long moments when he and Nessa had attempted, fruitlessly, to revive the girl, and later, when he had carried her upstairs to her room with Nessa hurrying ahead to turn down the bed, he had not the wits about him or the idle time to ask, and any subsequent attempt on his part to query her had been met with a stubborn silence.
“Nessa…will you tell me now…” he started out hesitantly, but ended on a strong note. “Will you tell me what the hell happened?”
Her dark eyes lifted, and she searched his face before finally granting him a slight nod of concession. “I’m not sure…Myron…what happened.” She swiveled her gaze back to Maya’s slack face. “I believe she cast a spell.”
“A…spell?” Myron sought clarification with guarded eyes.
“Yes…a spell.” Nessa paused as she examined the truth of what she would say. “A healing spell, I believe. A healing spell unlike any I’ve ever seen or heard.”
“So…you believe…that she…” Myron paused this time, almost afraid to speak the word. “…Healed…you…”
Nessa solemnly nodded. “The pain is gone, Myron. The weakness is gone. The…darkness…crowding my mind…devouring my thoughts. Gone.”
Even though Nessa’s words were merely a confirmation of the knowledge he already held to his heart, he wanted to whoop with joy at that moment. Snatch his beloved wife up into his arms and dance her around the room, but he refrained, with some effort, from any exhibition of celebration, denying himself all but the tears of happiness that clogged his throat. Nessa would not deem such exuberant displays appropriate under the circumstances. He knew very well that Nessa would rather die than cause the girl she’d named Maya any pain. And he knew that Nessa would never forgive herself if the girl died to give her back her life. To give him back his love. Myron bent and pressed his lips against the crown of his wife’s head. “She’ll be all right, Nessa,” he whispered into her warm hair. She had to be okay. For Nessa’s sake. And his too.
“No, Myron,” Nessa replied woodenly. “I don’t believe she will.”
Myron jerked his head up in surprise at his wife’s unusually pessimistic response. “Why would you say that, Nessa? You can’t possibly know.”
“One does not cheat Death of his due, Myron,” she replied darkly. “Not without consequence.”
“But…Nessa…” Myron wanted to argue against her dire prediction. Take issue with her proclamation. But he couldn’t find the substance for a denial, and he feared the truth in her statement. Gray eyes turned stormy with pain drifted across the girl’s serene features and, unable to rest there for long, moved on to the broken silver and white bird that Nessa had so very carefully gathered into a towel and laid down at the foot of the bed. With feathers bloodied and ruffled, claws curled up against the motionless body, and head flopped limply to the side, the bird hardly resembled the magnificent creature that had been Maya’s ever-present guardian. Lifeless. Dead. Discarded.
“Should I take the bird out, Nessa?” Myron suddenly asked, his voice overloud in the quiet room. He found it easier to deal with a mundane task like burying the bird than to think any further on Nessa’s morbid prophecy. “I could bury him in the flower garden. She would like that, wouldn’t she?”
Nessa’s head came around, and her wide eyes, dark in a too pale face, captured his eyes full measure in her immutable gaze. “No, Myron. Leave him.”
Myron drew in a breath. “But…Nessa…the bird is obviously…”
“No, Myron. The bird…Angel…his heart yet flutters, even if he appears as vacant of spirit as…” Nessa abruptly looked away from him, unable to finish her sentence, her eyes falling to the slender hands folded in her lap.
The tiniest of smiles came to Myron’s lips as he peered down on his wife’s bent head. Even if her words were heavy with gloom, her heart was full of hope, and that knowledge lightened the weight on his own heart, if ever so incrementally. He gave her shoulder another reassuring squeeze and moved away from her. “It’s nearly supper time, Nessa. I’m going to reheat some soup.”
His wife barely moved her head in acknowledgment.
Myron came to a sudden halt with one hand on the doorjamb as an idea came to him like a bolt from the blue. Perhaps even…a revelation. He brought his gaze back to Nessa’s bowed head. “Nessa…” He waited for the few seconds that it took for his voice to register in her preoccupied mind, held his thoughts until her questioning eyes traveled to meet his gaze, narrow brows drawn with a hint of irritation, as though he’d beckoned her from a place she didn’t wish to leave.
“What is it, Myron?” she asked dully.
He pushed his bent glasses up his nose with one finger as he carefully formed his words. “Nessa, what if…” He paused to lift a hand toward the lifeless girl in the bed. “What if this thing…that Maya has done. What if she didn’t cheat death at all? What if it was meant to be? What if…” He raised his hand toward his wife, palm up in appeal. “What if you were the reason she came?”
A wry smile came to Nessa’s lips. “Has my earthbound husband turned mystical?” she inquired dryly.
He moved one shoulder in a slight shrug. “A bird that speaks inside one’s head? A girl that can revive flowers with little more than a touch? A miraculous power than can heal my wife of an incurable disease and give her back to me? It’s a little hard to keep my feet on the ground.”
Nessa’s eyes slid away from him, back to Maya’s still lifeless face. “You seek an easy absolution, Myron,” she murmured, almost as though speaking to herself. “If only it were so.”
“Maybe it is so, Nessa,” he persisted.
“I can hardly imagine that I would wield any importance in the grand schemes of the powers that be,” Nessa replied chidingly. “I’m but a mere microscopic mite in the clockwork of the universe, one which the machinery would whisk away without the slightest hitch.”
Myron tilted his head thoughtfully. “Well…you’re pretty important to me.”
Nessa’s mouth softened in a bare smile at his simple words, even as her thoughts turned back to the events of the night before, Myron’s suggestion having impelled her to reexamine Maya’s actions yet again. And just as always happened during each hopeless search for an adequate answer, her mind always stopped on that moment when Maya had invoked her brother’s name, as though summoning him from beyond the grave, as though the very enunciation of the syllables of his name had energized her. What did it mean? How did she know? Had she slipped stealthy mental fingers into her mind and plucked his name from her memories? Nessa gave her head a tiny shake. No. She herself had been the one to speak his name. She had been the one to set events into motion. Valentine. She had spoken, and Maya had reacted. With revelation? Recognition? What? What did it mean?
Nessa looked around then, the words on the tip of her tongue to tell her husband of all that had transpired. She had not planned to tell him, had felt the overwhelming need to keep her own counsel on that particular matter, but now she experienced a more pressing desire to tell him everything, to see what he thought, while his mind was focused on matters of a less concrete nature than usual, even if her brother’s name was one that would evoke great displeasure in his mind. But her questing gaze found the doorway empty. He’d left her to her gloomy reverie and gone to heat his soup, which he would no doubt soon return to press upon her. And on second thought, that was probably better. Best not to tell Myron of the strange connection of her brother to Maya’s powerful spell. Especially when he would probably scoff at the mere mention of her brother and dismiss that aspect of the event as delusion. And maybe it had been simply that. A fabrication of her defeated mind.
Nessa suddenly leaned forward in her chair to bring the tips of her fingers to Maya’s brow, bending close to peer down into the death mask of the girl’s serene face as she intently scrutinized the lusterless slivers of iris beneath the girl’s lashes, as though she thought she could find the answers she sought there.
“What do you know of my brother, child?” Nessa impulsively asked, her voice strained to near inaudibility in the hushed room. The woman intently studied the girl’s face for a long time before she finally moved, tracing her face with slender fingers to eventually cup her hand against one cool cheek in a comforting gesture. She knew she’d find no answers here, and truthfully she didn’t need them. There was only one thing she wanted now.
“No matter, child…” Nessa whispered reassuringly. “You don’t have to speak. Just…come back...to this life…”
A floorboard creaked outside the door, and Nessa sat back in her chair as she turned expectant eyes to the open doorway just in time to see her husband appear carrying a bowl of steaming hot soup in both hands.
“I’ve brought you some soup, Nessa,” Myron offered hopefully, half-expecting her to refuse. To his utter relief, Nessa smiled and held her hands up to take the bowl from him. “I am hungry, Myron,” she replied with a newfound strength in her voice. And it was true. Her appetite had suddenly returned with a vengeance. Along with her hope. A gift given her by her husband. His steadiness and unrelenting predictability had always provided her stability in an unpredictable world, and that was true now more than ever. A gentle smile lit his face then, and the encroaching shadows fled. If only for the moment. A moment that would sustain her far longer than the moment would last.
Reeve Alexander stood at the expansive glass window of one of the small offices at the front of the recently repossessed Shinra office building. Absently stroking his beard, he leaned slightly forward with one hand splayed against the cool marble of the wide windowsill and peered down through the smudged pane that overlooked the deteriorated street that had once been a main thoroughfare through the city of Midgar. The Midgar of his past. Of ten years past, to be precise. Because that was the place to which Reeve had traveled.
Though his vacant brown eyes fell on the buckled and pitted pavement of the broken sidewalk and the ornate but rust-pitted pole of a long neglected street lamp with its electrical elements revealed through the wrought iron framework of its glassless shade, and though no one stood beneath the window but a pair of guards standing near the light pole, smoking cigarettes and idly chatting as they examined the shadows of the empty street and adjacent buildings with alert eyes, in his mind Reeve raptly watched the petite woman in a snowy white coat hurry down the sidewalk, wending her way through the press of people at the end of the workday, her golden bob of hair a shining cap in the late afternoon sunlight easily marked amidst a sea of bobbing heads.
The slightest of smiles came to his lips as she abruptly halted directly beneath him seven stories down, her head tipping far back as her eyes zeroed in on the window behind which he stood with his forehead pressed against the glass. She lifted a gloved hand in a little wave as though she knew he stood there like a statue, unable to take his eyes off her. Of their own volition, his fingers left the windowsill to make a semblance of a wave in return, before he remembered that she couldn’t see him behind the mirrored pane.
A radiant smile flashed across her face, and she suddenly darted toward the entrance of the Shinra office building, disappearing from his view to shove through the revolving door into the lobby below. He knew exactly how many minutes it would take her to reach him. Knew how long it would take her to cross the expansive lobby to the elevators. To ride the mirrored and brass-railed elevator car up to the seventh floor. To backtrack toward the front of the building along the corridor that ran from the elevator through the center of an emptied seventh floor already deserted by all the Shinra employees eager to start yet another welcome but all too short weekend. Only a few steps down the cross-corridor to reach his office where she would pause and check the hallway both ways to make sure no one was about to see her. Then she would throw the door open to stand framed in the doorway with a playfully stern look belied by twinkling azure eyes. Her chin would lift in her determination to coerce him away from the office, already secure in the knowledge that she would win. After all, he’d been waiting just for the pleasure of being coerced, and he always dutifully caved to her desires after a couple of teasing kisses. Yes, it was their every Friday ritual. And he could time her almost to the second.
The doorknob rattled softly behind him. Startled, he wheeled away from the window to face the darkened office lined with crates and discarded chairs along the walls. A single green-shaded lamp illuminated a small area of scattered papers in the middle of a long conference table, the only island of light in an otherwise shadowed room. As the door swung silently inward, Reeve swept a hand across his weary face and shoved his fingers into his hair to sweep his wayward hair back over the crown of his head. He chided himself for allowing himself to drift back into the past when he had meant to make notes for his upcoming business discussion with Caitlin. He’d been a fool to set up his temporary headquarters in the office that had been his ten years ago. His office in that time when she had still loved him. Before he lost her.
It had been the video, he knew. That’s what had started him down this path. A section of digital recording only a few seconds long. Duly made when Cait Sith had ventured onto the scene of his own accord. Heavens knew, he hadn’t sent Cait Sith to her. He’d successfully managed to resist every urge to use Cait Sith to watch her. Had pointedly avoided any contact with her, instead sending Cait Sith along with Cid to record the Captain’s efforts to free the Sector 5 residents and follow the progress at the Sector 2 gate.
What had she been doing then? With Reno? Leaning against his body on tiptoe, her hands against his chest, her lips lifted to his ear. Reno’s head bent low to meet her. It had not really been an embrace. But intimate all the same. And that had sparked his wondering. About the ten years when he’d thought her dead. What had she been doing? Did she have someone now? On her island refuge? Did she have a lover? Why wouldn’t she? Caitlin was now every bit as vibrant and beautiful as the Caitlin of his past. Why wouldn’t she be with someone? Certainly, he’d taken a few lovers over the years, as there had not been a single woman that had sparked an inkling of a wish to remarry. Not one that had ignited his desire as Caitlin had. No woman that aroused within him even a paltry semblance of the love he’d had for her. His Caitlin. And so they’d all gone by the wayside, some partings angry and some just weary, and he’d been satisfied to spend his life alone. With his cat. With his work. Perhaps he’d not been happy, but he’d been content. No longer. Seeing her with Reno had filled him with anxiety. The thought that she might be with someone else kept seizing his thoughts at a time when he should be focused on other matters. He couldn’t seem to make himself stop replaying all the intimate scenes of their lost relationship in his mind. Obsessing about what might have been. Imagining what might be. Except…she was leaving. Going home. As soon as their business was complete, she’d leave him again. And he wanted more than anything to keep her with him, but he didn’t know if he could find the courage to ask her. He still didn’t have a clue why she hadn’t found it necessary to tell him that she was alive at any time during the last ten years. If for no other reason than to tell him that he wasn’t a widower as he’d believed. What reason would she have not to tell him? Unless she was with someone else…and…
“Reeve? That is you, isn’t it?”
Though his eyes had been on the opening door the entire time, he’d again been sucked down into the vortex of his worrisome thoughts and had not seen or acknowledged the presence of the man who had entered the room only to stop a few steps past the threshold at sight of the motionless human outline starkly imposed against the silvered backdrop of the wide window pane. Now Ian Cornell’s tense query brought him back to the real world with a slow blink of his eyes.
“Yes, Ian,” he replied tersely with a curt inclination of his head. He didn’t welcome the intrusion.
Ian slowly crossed the room to come to a halt just the other side of the conference table. “I apologize for disturbing you,” he said solicitously. “I thought you had retired for the night. Otherwise, I would have knocked first.”
Reeve folded his arms across his chest, but he made no move to come into the light. “I slept for awhile.”
Not long though, Ian knew. He’d spoken to Reeve only four hours past. Just before the executive had said he planned to go to bed. “You should rest longer,” the engineer suggested, a hint of wryness in his tone. “You might not have an opportunity tomorrow.”
“You’re one to give advice,” Reeve said coolly, making subtle reference to Ian’s inability to nap more than an hour at a time.
“True,” Ian duly agreed as he reached for the scattered papers on the tabletop. The move prompted Reeve to approach the table and draw the papers from beneath the engineer’s fingers. “I’ll take these,” he informed him, his voice yet a few degrees cooler.
“Of course.” Ian readily relinquished them.
“Is there a particular document that you require?” Reeve curtly inquired.
“Yes, sir. I need the plate overlay for Sector 6.”
“Turn on the lights, please,” Reeve directed the engineer in response.
Ian silently retraced his route to the door to flip on the light switch, illuminating the fluorescent tubes of the overhead light banks, and causing both of them to blink owlishly in the overwhelming brightness.
Once Reeve recovered his ability to see, he moved to the end of the long conference table and drew the requested transparent prints into view from a pile of similar prints. He raised questioning eyes to Ian’s quiet face, and the engineer nodded his agreement that the overlay was precisely the one he needed. Reeve deftly rolled the overlay into a tube and held it out to the engineer. Cornell promptly took it from him with a quiet ‘Thank you’, and then he watched the executive over the top of his rimless oval spectacles as Reeve dismissively walked away to draw out a chair from the long table. Wearily, the executive dropped into the chair and gathered his papers to him. With a few taps of the scrambled sheets of paper against the table, he knocked the papers into neatly squared compliance and laid the thin pile of handwritten notes before him. He looked around and easily found his discarded pencil, and as he reached for it, he raised his eyes from beneath darkly drawn brows to find Ian Cornell still standing in precisely the same spot that he’d left him.
“Was there something else?” Reeve inquired with barely concealed impatience. It wasn’t so much that he had work he needed to do in private, matters that required a great of concentration on his part, but more that he wished to return to his memories.
“Actually…there is…” Ian Cornell replied hesitantly, exhibiting marked uncertainty in Reeve’s presence for the first time.
Intrigued by his manner, Reeve laid his pencil aside and folded his hands atop the table. “What is it then?”
“Ah…about…that…Scarlett…business…” Cornell turned guilt-ridden blue eyes to the tube he turned in his nervous hands. “We hadn’t really had time to…address the matter…but I just wanted to say…that I’m very sorry for…for my part…in the whole…unfortunate…affair…and…I hope you can…forgive me…”
“I can hardly hold you responsible,” Reeve promptly responded.
Ian brought his troubled eyes to Reeve’s face. “But I should have done something. Stopped her…somehow…”
“With what? Your pencils? Your calculator?” Reeve asked reasonably. “She had a gun didn’t she?”
“Perhaps you possess a black belt in ninjitsu and failed to exercise your considerable skills?”
“No…I…perhaps I should…though…get one…learn…get a black belt…in something…or other…”
Reeve sat back in his chair and idly stroked his beard in thought. He’d painfully experienced the feelings of helplessness that he knew now tormented the engineer’s mind. Indeed, feelings that never far left his thoughts. Still, he could only hold himself responsible. Not Cornell.
“Ian, we are both men of intellect…and ideas. We are hardly warriors. I would not expect you to sacrifice yourself in a situation that you cannot win. It would be pure folly. So stop with the self-recriminations. We haven’t time for it.” Now if he could only convince himself to follow his own advice. At the same time, he considered the idea of learning martial arts himself, or even simpler, the possibility of learning to shoot a gun. In light of recent events, it was perhaps not advisable to leave his safety and security solely in the hands of others. Still, the very concept of shooting another person made him ill. He didn’t know if he had it in him to do it.
“She sacrificed herself,” Ian replied gruffly.
Reeve’s eyes shot to the engineer’s face. “What? Who?”
“That young girl. In the tunnels.”
Reeve’s guts twisted in a knot, and he turned his eyes to the table, unable to look at the engineer any longer. “Yes…” he replied huskily. “She did. The height of foolishness.”
“I should have done something then,” Ian said sadly. “She shouldn’t have died.”
“No, I should have done something.” Reeve snapped, his guilt finally overwhelming his mask of composure.
“But…you did…” Ian pointed out. He lifted a finger to indicate the scabbed over gash that marred his face. “You tried. You’ve the injury to show for it.”
“And you’ve a knot on your head,” Reeve reminded him in turn.
“True.” Ian grimaced at the memory of how he’d acquired that painful goose egg on his scalp. “But that was later…too late…much too late…”
Reeve impatiently swept a hand through the air to cut off the engineer’s words. “Enough,” he said bluntly. “No more. You are not responsible for the girl’s death. I am wholly culpable. Entirely and solely. I should never have allowed her to become involved with my problems. Bottom line, she shouldn’t have been there in the first place. If she had not been there, she would not be dead. Now this topic of discussion is over. Do you understand?”
Ian silently nodded, a bit taken aback at Reeve’s vehemence.
“Good, now get out of here…” Reeve waved him away. “Go do your job and offer up your thanks to General Sand and Reno that you escaped Scarlett’s clutches intact.”
“Believe me…” Ian replied with an emphatic nod of his head. “I do…I…”
A knock came at the door, startling both men and interrupting what Ian meant to say.
“Come in,” Reeve called a tad irritably. He wanted more than anything at that moment just to be alone. To think. To plan. He had to find a way to get Caitlin to stay with him.
The door came ajar, and Andy Coakley stuck his head around the jamb. He eyed the two somber-faced men hesitantly, wondering if he’d come at a bad time. Reeve noted his hesitation and beckoned him in with a sharp wave of his hand from where he sat at the conference table. “Come on in, Andy,” he readily bade. A corner of his mouth lifted in a wry smile. Andy was supposed to be sleeping too. For three men that should be sleeping, they were a pretty lively bunch at 4 am. He suspected they would all regret their wakefulness tomorrow. There was no doubt now that Cid Highwind would open the Sector 2 gate within the next few hours, and at that point, there would be no rest for any of them, for a long time he suspected.
Andy crossed the room and came to a stop beside Ian’s elbow on the opposite side of the conference table. Reeve raised his dark eyebrows in question, and Andy cleared his throat. “Mr. Alexander…General Sand…sent me…” Andy paused and turned his head to look at a watchful Ian Cornell. The engineer could take a hint. He politely inclined his head. “Please excuse me,” he said pleasantly enough. “I’ve work to do.”
“Keep me apprised,” Reeve reminded the engineer as he steepled his hands against the tabletop. Ian simply nodded. He didn’t need to be told specifically what Reeve wished to know. The Sector 6 pillar being a priority. The fissure had incrementally widened during the previous day, and his team had taken measures to augment the strength of the structure, but he himself had devised a scheme that he hoped would substantially buttress the failing pillar. At least long enough for the population to be removed. And truthfully, time was wasting away. Without another word, Ian Cornell turned on heel and left the room, his mind already turning wholly to his mission.
Andy waited until the door had closed firmly behind the engineer to speak. “Mr. Alexander, General Sand sent me to report that the third search of the sewers has not turned up the…er…body…of the girl. He wants to know if he should send in the search team another time.”
Reeve bowed his head and stared at his hands. For almost a minute, he sat in complete silence, a deep furrow in his brow. Finally he shook his head. “No,” he responded firmly. “Tell the General to redirect the search team to the removal of the indigents in the sewers and the Dead Zone. We must be ready to evacuate this population as soon as humanly possible.”
“Do you think the residents of the Dead Zone will leave?” Andy asked curiously.
“Not willingly,” Reeve admitted wryly.
Andy nodded his agreement with that assessment. He also silently thanked the powers that be for the good fortune that had led to him being assigned Reeve’s liaison officer so that he was not now with his company in the tunnels headed for the Dead Zone while at the same time sending a silent but fervent plea for divine forgiveness for not feeling as guilty as he thought he should about his fortuitous escape. Then he forced his mind back to the messages he’d been dispatched to deliver. “Er…General Sand also asked me to pass on a request. It seems that…Scarlett…is asking to speak with you.”
“I’m sure she has nothing to say that I would wish to hear,” Reeve responded icily.
“General Sand said that she wants to make a deal.”
“She’ll just have to proffer her deal via her attorney of record to the Junon Criminal Court judge.” He could hear the impatience slipping into his own voice. As far as he was concerned, Scarlett could become intimately acquainted with her own gas chamber. He didn’t personally believe in capital punishment, but he thought he could make an exception in her case. Especially after she’d nearly murdered Tifa in that thing. And most certainly after seeing the woman shoot that young girl at point blank range. He thought he could justify it in his own mind. He surely held no doubts as to her guilt. Her sanity though, that was another matter. One for a court to determine.
Andy nervously cleared his throat. “Er…General Sand has told her, sir, that a meeting with you would be impossible,” Andy explained further, also cognizant of the irritable edge in the executive’s voice. “But she has taken to ranting nonstop through the bars…shrieking…and tearing at her hair. The General is afraid she might harm herself. Plus…she’s scaring the bejeebers out of…Gellner. She’s threatened to cut off…er…a certain body part or two…and she threw her shoes at him.”
Reeve expressed a heavy sigh of weariness. “Tell Sand to make a request to the medical staff of the Valencia Medical Center to evaluate her and sedate her if need be. And as far as Gellner is concerned, he deserves her.” In fact, now that he thought about it, he should order them put in the same cell. The very idea lifted the corners of his lips and erased the furrows from his brow. He peered up at Andy then. “Is that all?” he inquired.
“No sir, there is one more thing.”
“And that would be?”
“General Sand wants to know if the military prison facility has been evacuated.”
Reeve’s face turned blank at the question. “The military prison…” Then his mouth went dry. The state of the art underground maximum-security military prison facility. Specifications set by Heidegger. Brought to life by a special design team. Constructed by laborers only assigned to one small part so that no man would ever see the entire layout. No man except one. The President himself. Security was so tight that no human personnel worked inside the prison. Robotic devices operated the day-to-day routines in the prison and a small security staff monitored the operation externally from a control room in the Shinra Tower. A control room no longer in operation. Entrance could only be obtained by executive codes possessed by the President and by the highest officer of the Shinra military. Which would also have been Heidegger, if he hadn’t been killed. The main entrance was located beneath a small cement structure in Sector Four. Which now lay beneath a collapsed plate. How could he have forgotten about the prison? He didn’t even know if the power had been cut to the facility. Without power, the inmates could not have survived.
Reeve abruptly stood, shoving the chair back as he moved. Andy swallowed hard at the grim cast of his face. “Andy, I’ll need Mr. Cornell back here,” Reeve informed him gravely. “Yes sir,” Andy readily replied. “I’ll get him right away!” He immediately turned to go. He could catch Mr. Cornell before he got far, if he hurried. And he would have to hurry because the engineer walked as though his shirttail was on fire most of the time.
“Wait!” Reeve commanded, holding up a staying hand when Andy promptly brought inquisitive eyes to the executive’s face. “After you’ve found Cornell, please ask Sand to come as well.” Andy simply nodded this time, wasting no time on words. He didn’t have to be psychic to recognize the undercurrent of urgency beneath the executive’s steady voice. And realizing the source, he didn’t have to be a genius to comprehend the gravity of the situation.
Andy Coakley vanished into the hallway, leaving the office door ajar in his haste. One of the guards outside the door reached around to pull it closed in Coakley’s wake. Reeve slowly sank onto the edge of the chair that he’d vacated only moments before, his mind already churning through all the potential scenarios that might come into play regarding the prison, along with an ongoing mental castigation for not seeing to the evacuation of the inmates. For not remembering that they were even there. But then he’d never had anything to do with the prison. Not the planning. Not the design. Not the operation. He’d never been inside the facility, and he had no idea what sort of prisoners Heidegger had housed there. It behooved him to find out. As soon as possible. For one thing, he would need Heidegger’s access codes.
With a concerted effort, Reeve shook off the malaise that had overtaken his bones and bent to retrieve his crate from beneath the table. He well knew that he would not find the information he needed within the files of his handheld computer. He would have to access the mainframe. Since he’d already confirmed early on that the Midgar mainframe had been knocked offline, that left only the backup mainframe at Junon, if the system was still operational. He would need Cait Sith to find out.
He swiftly hooked his small computer to the folding keyboard and to the interface jack on the electronic glove. Donning his VR headgear, Reeve quickly typed in the command that would connect him to his electronic alter ego. Carefully, he tugged the digital visor into place before his eyes and touched a finger to the visor menu, activating the program command that would effectively replace his visual field with that of Cait Sith’s.
Abruptly, the brightly lit, cluttered office synced into a distant and sharply precipitous view of the activity at the Sector 2 gate. Unconsciously, Reeve’s breath caught in his throat as he watched an entirely too diminutive bulldozer shove aside a pile of debris far below his vantage point. He recognized the tiny figure of Captain Highwind waving his arms at the dozer operator just before the robotic cat swept his gaze toward the dimly lit encampment, causing Reeve’s stomach to flip sickly. He never knew where he might find himself when he slipped into Cait’s head without taking the time to check the video feed first, and often he found himself in some rather unusual circumstances. Such as the time Cait had decided to stick his head into the stream that ran through Wutai to record the colorful koi there. Or the time he’d activated the visor just as Cait had gone into a disorienting head over heel tumble down an icy chute somewhere on the Gaea Glacier.
Currently, Cait Sith had apparently decided to monitor the excavation progress from some high aerie, and Reeve knew exactly where in the next moment when the view of Cid and the bulldozer suddenly swept away to be replaced momentarily with a section of dark, cloud veiled star field before tipping toward the far side of the excavation where a group of antlike workers appeared to be carting off rubble near the edge of the debris tailings. He knew then that Cait Sith, who hardly suffered from the same physical aversion to heights that he did, was riding at the topmost end of the crane arm.
Reeve took a deep breath, and without looking, unerringly touched the switch on the electronic glove that would activate voice command. Then he repositioned the microphone closer to his mouth. “Cait Sith link home,” he commanded in a quiet but firm voice.
Almost instantly, confirmation feedback from the robotic cat appeared across the inside of the visor before his eyes, and his vantage point changed yet again when Cait Sith leapt to his booted feet and ran agilely down the crane arm. Reeve’s stomach somersaulted beneath his belt, and he purposely closed his eyes until he thought he’d allowed Cait ample time to dismount the crane. Eventually cracking one eye open, he found to his great relief that Cait had landed on solid earth and now raced across the blackened ground. The robotic cat abruptly turned his head as he passed the parked trucks and the three Turks came into view. They appeared to be caught up in a serious discussion of some sort, with Reno talking and pointing the tip of his magrod into the air as Rude listened stoically with folded arms and Elena argued, if the finger she stabbed in Reno’s direction were any indication. Reeve resisted the urge to activate passive audio and direct Cait Sith closer for the purposes of eavesdropping. Something appeared to be going down, and he was sorely tempted to find out what, but he simply could not afford the time.
A few feet beyond the trucks, Cait sprang into the air to land atop his idle Mog. Settling himself into position between Mog’s ears, the robotic cat executed link up and powered the Mog into life.
“Isolate location, Cait Sith,” Reeve absently instructed as his thoughts inevitably turned to Caitlin, the mental shift driven by the sight of the Turks and the tent beyond. He knew she must be asleep at this hour. Unless she suffered from insomnia as much as he. As the Mog bounded away into the darkness, Reeve’s view again slipped inward, his mind helplessly traveling to yet another long past day, spurred by a random but poignant memory of Caitlin sleeping. Curled warmly against him with her face turned to the sky on the beach at Costa del Sol where the waves washed soothingly against the shore with a soft hypnotic rhythm. Early in the evening when the blazing sun rode low on the horizon and the white sands lay in the cool shadow of the seawall and the village proper, at a time when most beachgoers had relinquished the sand and sea for dinner, leaving the long stretch of beach pleasantly quiet. He had been content to lie on the blanket next to her, resting on his side with his face propped in one hand, watching the golden strands of her hair drift across her cheek as she slept. But as the sun sank lower and lower, he’d eventually grown jealous of the time she spent with her dreams instead of with him, and with a mischievous smile on his lips, he’d picked up a single strand of her hair and barely tickled the end of her pert nose. Her pretty mouth had made a moue of displeasure and her eyelashes had fluttered promisingly, but she hadn’t awakened. After a few moments in contemplative thought, he’d launched a second assault, laying his captured strand along the top of her upper lip like a mustache, and the comical effect widened his smile. That time her nose had wrinkled and her upper lip had curled. Then her azure eyes had popped open to narrow in suspicious regard on his relaxed smile and the twinkling eyes almost hidden behind the long bangs of dark hair that had fallen into his face.
”Who ARE you?” she demanded in feigned dismay.
His eyebrows flew up in equally contrived surprise. He could recognize ham acting when he saw it, and he could more than match her technique. “What?! You’ve forgotten me now?!”
She swept the strand of hair away from her lip. “How dare you accost me in my sleep, sir,” she breathed with phony outrage. “I’ll have you arrested!” With that she rolled away from him and jumped to her feet. “Officer! Officer!” she called out to the nearly deserted beach, and then her merrily twinkling azure eyes returned to pointedly scan the length of his body from head to toe before seeking out his dark, challenging eyes.
Chuckling, he reached up and grabbed her slender wrist, falling onto his back as he easily toppled her into his arms with one playful tug. Giggling, she wriggled around until she could prop herself up, crossing her arms against his bare chest to peer thoughtfully down into his face. “You know...” she mused aloud. “You’re pretty sexy in those red swimming trunks. A bit pale…but…” She paused to appreciate the pained expression on his face with satisfaction.
“It’s hard to get a tan in Midgar in the winter…” he reminded her.
She waved her hand in a careless gesture, as though his excuse had no merit. “No matter,” she replied a bit imperiously. “Would you like to come back to my hotel room with me, before my entirely too serious husband returns?”
He gathered her left hand in his and carried her fingers to his lips. Very gently, he kissed the gold band on her ring finger. “My beautiful wife…” he murmured sadly. “She doesn’t love me anymore…”
The azure eyes turned tempestuous at his words. “Wrong, Reeve Alexander,” she reprimanded. “Guess again.”
“You do still love me?” he asked with exaggerated hopefulness.
Fighting a smile, she glared down into his twinkling eyes. “Of course I still love you,” she replied huffily.
He reached up a hand to push back a strand of golden hair that had fallen over one eye. “For now…” he murmured almost to himself, a deeply buried insecurity unconsciously slipping into his words.
Her eyes softened, and she moved a hand to touch a silencing finger to his lips. “Uh uh, Mr. Alexander. I will love you forever…”
“Forever is…a long time…” he reminded her as his gaze settled on her lips.
“Not long enough for me…” she whispered and bent her head…
Words flashed brightly in his eyes, and he came back to himself with a start. ”Isolation range acquired.”
With a slow blink, he cleared his mind and turned his attention to the dark, pre-dawn landscape. At the touch of a finger to the visor, Cait Sith dutifully turned about to give Reeve a 360-degree scan of the horizon. The executive could see that Cait had chosen a spot far out in the wasteland in the approximate center between the encampment, sea, and high bluff. Far from human and electronic interference. If Cait couldn’t make contact from here, he could consider it impossible to do so from anywhere.
Reeve flipped the visor up and drew the keyboard closer. “All right, Cait…” Reeve murmured as he deftly typed in the command to execute uplink. “Let’s wake up TIM-J.”
Vendra carefully laid her long barreled sniper rifle aside and then settled herself down into the brush at the edge of the bluff overlooking the encampment. Taking the binoculars that were strapped around her neck up into her hands, she rolled over onto her belly and propped her elbows against the ground to lift the binoculars to her eyes.
Drawn to the area of brightest illumination, she aimed the high-powered binoculars toward the excavation and turned the dial with one finger to bring the slowly moving crane into sharp focus. From there she tracked down to the bulldozer, the source of the distant growling sound that barely reached her ears. Then she focused on the Sector 2 gate to gauge the progress. She realized with a little thrill of shock that the gate had nearly been cleared. It could only be a matter of an hour or so before the job would be done. Her informant in Junon had reported that the crew faced a formidable task that would take weeks to accomplish. Months even. Apparently, the man had not factored in Cid Highwind’s formidable skill. She had to admit that Highwind’s reputation for being something of a miracle worker, greatly tarnished after the widely televised rocket launch fiasco a few years back, would be fully resurrected in the wake of this accomplishment, especially when the journalists got hold of it and broadcast the tale worldwide. They’d turn that crotchety, loud-mouthed oaf into a saint.
Already bored with the excavation scene, especially as she had more important information to gather, Vendra repositioned herself to point the high magnification lenses in the direction of the encampment, its location on the blackened wasteland marked only by a scattering of softly glowing lanterns. Slowly and meticulously, she panned across the camp, traveling the deep expanses of shadow to seek out each island of light, duly recording the details of everything she saw. She found the open cargo door of a plane that could only be a Gelnika, and a little further afield, she located another. Two Gelnikas. Information that matched with what she’d gleaned from the besotted airman at Junon base.
She located the medical tent, easily identified by the jumbled stack of discarded stretchers outside, and the mess tent, marked as such by a crude sign made from a splintered piece of wood that had been attached so loosely to the tent frame that the thing flapped up and down in the gusty wind. She noted a handful of people here and there. Some moving from one place to another, disappearing momentarily into shadow. Others just standing about, as though they couldn’t sleep and had nowhere to go. She wasn’t interested in any of them. She was looking for Turks, and she knew at least one of them would be awake and on watch. Somewhere.
Over and over, Vendra scanned each pool of golden light, looking for what she knew would be nigh impossible to see, with no success, and she had reached the point where she was more than ready to give it up. Her bones were aching from the cold seeping from the ground beneath her, and the dry, stickery brush was making her itch. She could just wait until daylight to take up her vigil again. Already the sky was lightening at the horizon to the east. She wouldn’t have to wait long. She pondered the idea of quitting after one last careful look around and maybe a cigarette, after which she’d go find a place to huddle out of the chilly wind until later. She’d almost firmed up her decision to do just that when her field of vision floated back to the edge of the encampment nearest the bluff.
Through the lenses, she again peered hard at the parked trucks, and finding nothing there, moved across the area between the trucks and the two tents nearby. A man slipped into view, and she looked at him only long enough to determine that he wasn’t a Turk and that he appeared to be staring at the stars and smoking a cigarette, a fact which only fueled her own desire for a smoke. Shoving aside the urge to lay the binoculars down and light one, she focused on the two tents, increasing the magnification to bring them closer, and that’s when she spotted him. Standing just outside the circle of light in murky quasi-shadow. If he had not lifted his arm to glance at his watch just as the lenses fell on him, she’d have missed him completely. Eagerly, she again adjusted the magnification to bring the man nearer, and she smiled triumphantly at her success. Not only was the man wearing the trademark Turk attire, but she also recognized him. Easily. Rude of the Turks. He might have been a legend as the longest serving Turk alive, if he weren’t so remarkably unobtrusive.
Now that she’d spotted Rude, Vendra next attempted to determine which tent he was guarding, but he had taken up watch in the space between both tents. So it could be either one. One or the other. Or even both. It didn’t really matter. She wasn’t about to storm the tent. She would have to use subterfuge to complete her task. The boss had instructed her to capture the boy if she could, an instruction she hadn’t bothered to pass on to Ozzie and Baron, but she would have to get him away from the others to do it. Which meant she’d have to come down off the bluff sometime and intermingle with the refugees. Exactly her plan, just as soon as the people inside joined the ones outside when the gate was finally opened. She could then lose herself in the masses.
Vendra brought the binoculars back to Rude’s face for one last look and caught him at a moment when he seemed to be speaking. She surmised that he might be talking to another Turk in hiding, so she panned in the direction he was looking and came across the man with the cigarette again. This time she thought she’d better examine him closer. She refocused the binoculars to see that he was wearing street clothes; boots, black jeans, and a black jacket. She increased magnification on his face just as he lifted his cigarette to his lips. Since the man was standing in the direct light of the lantern, she could see him clearly at tighter focus, and a little shiver of recognition ran through her whole body. She couldn’t mistake that wild mop of red hair or those scarred cheeks. Reno. Leader of the Turks. So he wasn’t deceased. And she wasn’t surprised. But Ozzie would be. The thought made her smile, until she realized that Reno appeared to be looking directly into the binoculars, as though he were looking straight at her, as though he could see her there. The hairs on the back of her neck rose even though she knew that he couldn’t possibly see her. Darkness and distance provided her ample cover. Suddenly, Reno turned his head as he blew smoke from his nostrils, and his lips moved as he spoke. His narrowed eyes were directed in the wrong direction for him to be speaking to Rude.
Her shoulders tight with tension, she jerked the binoculars in that direction and instantly spotted the blonde woman who had stepped just inside the perimeter of light. She was also dressed in street clothes, and Vendra didn’t recognize her, but she knew right away that the woman was a Turk too, when she defiantly tossed her head and immediately stepped back to vanish into the darkness between two trucks. Reno had ordered her back, and she had obeyed, but not happily. This woman was probably the ‘blonde Turk’ that Ozzie had referenced. She frowned in displeasure.
Three of them. Two in hiding. So they knew she was there. They knew she was watching. Apparently she’d not been far enough away from the edge of the bluff when she’d arrived via the transit orb. One of then had seen the flash, and she would lay a wager that it had been Reno. The Leader of the Turks knew she was watching, and he was watching right back. Standing right out in the open. Taunting her. Daring her to make her move.
Her lovely face twisted in anger, and on an impulse she laid the binoculars aside and dragged the rifle around in front of her. Purposefully, Vendra took the rifle up into her dainty hands and gingerly propped the barrel of the weapon against the rocky edge of the shelf of ground upon which she lay. Bringing the scope to one eye, she angled the rifle and scanned the area until she managed to bring the distant figure of Reno of the Turks into the crosshairs of her scope.
A cold smile of satisfaction curved Vendra’s lipstick-stained lips as she centered the scope on the man’s chest. How easy it would be simply shoot that damn Turk right now. Straight through the heart. How exhilarating it would be to see the shock on his face at the knowledge of his death, to see the cigarette tumble from his fingers as he fell, to see him crumpled lifeless on the ground. Nothing left of him but human debris. Her smile expanded and turned colder still. She drew in an anticipatory breath, and her finger tightened ever so incrementally on the trigger.
His brow knitted in concentration, Reeve’s fingers tapped furiously at the keyboard as he intently studied the diminutive screen of his handheld. Gaining access to the files that now displayed the layout of the prison had been surprisingly easy, and he’d subsequently been so deeply drawn into an examination of the resultant data that he didn’t hear the office door open.
Ian Cornell paused momentarily in the doorway at sight of the VR headgear on the executive’s head. He thought it a rather comical place to find such an apparatus as the last time he’d seen one had been on the head of his twelve-year-old nephew at the arcade in Junon. The serious cast of the executive’s face clearly indicated to Cornell that the man was not caught up in mere game play. With a little shrug of one shoulder, the engineer crossed the room on quiet feet and halted just the other side of the table from Alexander. After several seconds elapsed in which the executive made no note of Cornell’s presence, the engineer clasped his hands at the small of his back and resigned himself to a patient wait
Still completely oblivious to Cornell’s presence, Reeve copied the files containing the floor plan of the prison and adjacent access tunnels to his personal computer and closed the documents, after which he opened up the document containing the prisoner data he’d discovered earlier and saved for later examination. Now he turned his concentration to a more careful scrutiny of the convictions and sentences of the inmates of the prison. He had to know how dangerous these criminals might be to the population of Midgar and take appropriate measures to secure them outside the prison.
In the pilfered document, he found each inmate identified by name, rank and serial number, followed by a brief description of the circumstances surrounding arrest, the criminal charge, the date of conviction, and the case number from the military court. He had also saved to his computer a separate file that revealed the location of each inmate within the prison, but the cell numbers of the prisoners held no interest for him just yet, and he’d given the document scant attention thus far. At the moment, his eyes were glued to the current content on the glowing screen, and as he read through the prisoner profiles, a growing sense of disbelief filled his mind, accompanied by an expanding sense of heaviness in his stomach.
With the exception of a half dozen inmates that had apparently committed acts of cold-blooded murder and, for whatever reason, had not yet found their way to Scarlett’s gas chamber, and a handful of offenders convicted of more serious crimes, the majority of the inmates locked in the maximum security underground prison had been convicted for crimes that in the civil courts would have garnered them simple fines or short sentences in the local jail. Drunk and disorderly. Petty theft. Possession of illegal substances. Discharging a firearm in a residential area. He even found one description of an event that clearly suggested the mental breakdown of one soldier. The guy sounded in need of mental health care rather than incarceration. Reeve shook his head in disgust. Surely he was no legal expert, but even he could see that the sentences, most for terms of a decade or more, represented an inhumane use of the prison system. Yet more evidence of the evil core of the corporation he’d given almost fifteen years of his life. As a high level executive in the Shinra Corporation, he was wholly complicit. If for no other reason than for his willing blindness. It wasn’t as though he shouldn’t have known. His wife had tried to tell him of the corporate disregard for the rights of human beings in the name of profit and greed. He’d just chosen not to believe her. And it had been a choice. He knew that now. A choice between her deeply held convictions and his driving ambition. He didn’t deserve her. Not then. And certainly not now.
Revulsion filled him, and he would have shoved the handheld away from him in utter contempt, if his eyes had not just then fallen upon a prisoner profile unlike any he’d previously read. This prisoner had no name or rank noted. No serial number. No description of a criminal charge and no conviction date. His inclusion on the list was marked only by an assigned prisoner number, and the subsequent description only contained an incarceration date and status. MP-0001. Incarcerated: December 1, 1996. Containment: Isolation. No other information had been included. In fact, now that he thought about it, he didn’t even know the prisoner’s gender. He had only assumed the prisoner to be male based on his knowledge that only males served in the combat platoons. Females in the Shinra military served in ancillary positions. Still, he could conjecture the prisoner was probably male as statistically males were far more likely to commit violent crimes. And a dangerous man this one must be. To be confined to solitary for nearly a year. He could imagine all sorts of heinous crimes that the man might have committed to wind up in solitary imprisonment, but without any information, it was all conjecture on his part. On the other hand, in light of the evidence beneath his fingertips, he could also pose a scenario in which this prisoner had done nothing except piss off Heidegger. He could see no evidence that the man had undergone a military trial. What if Heidegger had abused his authority and had put this prisoner away for personal reasons? Reeve could easily envision the possibility though he could hardly entertain the thought.
Increasingly uncomfortable at the range of emotions that he’d seen cross Reeve’s face over the last few minutes and feeling somewhat a voyeur, Cornell finally cleared his throat to gain the executive’s attention and reveal his presence there. Reeve’s eyes shot to the engineer’s face where he found the man watching him warily through his wireless spectacles. The executive’s eyes narrowed speculatively as he wondered how long the engineer had been standing there. He’d certainly been absorbed in his computer.
Mistaking the expression in Reeve’s eyes for irritation, Cornell sought to apologize. “Forgive me, Mr. Alexander. You appeared busy, and I didn’t wish to interrupt.”
Reeve waved a dismissive hand. “Don’t worry about it, Ian,” he replied vaguely. “Thank you for returning so quickly.” He lowered his eyes to the computer and moved his fingers to the keyboard. He’d expended too much time on the prisoner list, and he still had to obtain the access codes that would grant him entrance to the prison. First things first. His fingers went to work.
“What do you know of the military prison, Ian?” Reeve asked without looking up.
Cornell blinked owlishly at the executive’s bent head. “I…er…know of its existence,” he replied hesitantly.
Reeve frowned down at the error message displayed on the computer screen. File error. Files have been moved or deleted. Recheck data input and re-enter.
“Can you provide me any information regarding the military prison?” he questioned absently. His fingers set to work again. He would try another avenue of inquiry.
“No sir. I don’t personally know about the other aspects of the prison’s construction, but the engineering was not carried out in house,” Ian informed him.
Reeve looked up in surprise at that. “It wasn’t?”
“No, it wasn’t. The work was outsourced to a private contractor.”
Reeve returned his eyes to the glowing screen and frowned at the error message his last request had garnered. “Do you know the company?” He typed in yet another search command.
“No, I don’t, but…ah…I seem to recall that…er…Jack…said he knew but couldn’t say…”
Reeve grimaced, not so much at the reference to Jack, though that did bring him a sharp pang of remorse, but more at the fact that he’d received yet another error message. He had no recourse but to admit that he would never gain the access codes through this means. The files no longer existed. He couldn’t hack files that weren’t there. Not without physical access to the mainframe. “Well, that’s hardly any help, is it?” Reeve tersely responded.
“No, sir. I’m sorry.”
Reeve typed in another search command. He might not be able to retrieve the access codes, but he might find out the name of the person or persons that had set up the programming for the facility, the most likely person behind the setting of the original access codes. If that individual were accessible to him, he might provide him a means to enter the facility and free the prisoners, if any were still alive.
“All the power grids to Sector 4 have been shut down?” He glanced up at Cornell from beneath drawn brows.
The implication of Reeve’s query couldn’t fail to register in the sharp mind of the engineer, and he unclasped his hands from behind his back to fold his arms defensively across his chest. With a curt nod, he responded. “Yes, Reeve. Some of the grids blew out when the plate fell, but the majority of them were manually taken offline.”
Reeve simply nodded his acceptance. Cornell had given him the answer he’d expected. The engineer had done his job well. He entered another search command, since the first one had not provided the information he’d been seeking.
Cornell tilted his head to one side in thought. “I would think that the prison facility would, at the very least, contain an emergency backup system, but of course, that is mere speculation…on my part...educated speculation…but still…” Cornell’s voice trailed off when Reeve looked up at him with a strange light in his eyes. “What is it…”
“Do you know of a Dr. H. R. Friedmann?”
Cornell slowly nodded. “Yes, there was a Dr. Hilda Friedmann at University. Why do you ask?”
Reeve pointed a finger at the small screen. “The name has come up in connection to the prison facility. In what capacity did your Dr. Friedmann serve the university?”
“Er…she was Dean of Electronic and Computer Engineering…I believe…”
Reeve raised a hand to stroke his beard as the wheels in his mind turned. “She could well be the one then…” he mused aloud. “We have to find her…”
“I don’t think we’ll find her,” Ian interjected. “I recall reading in the newspaper that she was killed in a car crash on the main thruway last year.”
Reeve’s eyes shot to Ian’s face. “Are you sure?” he demanded irritably.
“I’m sure of what I read,” he answered tensely. “I’m not sure she’s the Dr. Friedmann you’ve referenced in the files.”
Reeve threw a hand in the air. “She must be the one,” he said wryly. “She fits the bill perfectly. It’s entirely too convenient that she’s dead.”
“No, it’s not convenient at all.” The accented female voice resonated forcefully in the room, and Ian Cornell looked around in surprise as Reeve slowly rose from his chair, uneasy eyes zeroing in on the annoyed face of the statuesque woman who stood framed in the doorway. With her blonde hair tightly drawn from her finely featured face and openly contemptuous smoke-gray eyes focused unerringly on him, she presented an intimidating presence, although the snowy white bandage around her head alleviated the severity to some degree. General Sand, only a few inches taller than the woman despite his immense size, stood just behind her, apparently blocked from entering by the immovable barrier in his path and seemingly unwilling to forcibly move her out of his way. Over the woman’s slim shoulder, he offered Reeve an apologetic look. The executive opened his mouth to demand clarification of the situation when he was momentarily distracted by a glimpse of Coakley’s face in the narrow space between the doorjamb and the woman’s hip. The young soldier appeared to have gone through some contortion to see around the tall woman and bulky officer.
Reeve tightened his lips to a thin line, purposefully to belay the smile that struggled to gain a toehold on his face, the result of which was to present an expression every bit as severe as the one the woman wore. Deliberately, he reached up to remove the VR gear from his head and carefully set it aside on the table before turning wholly to the matter at hand. He decided to skip the amenities and get straight to the point.
“Would you care to elaborate on your remark, Miss….”
“It’s Doctor,” the woman snapped. “Dr. Zaffron.”
“Forgive me, Dr. Zaffron. I’m Reeve…”
“I know who you are,” she bluntly interrupted. “And I must say, I’m hardly impressed.”
Reeve’s mouth curved in the slightest of smiles as he lowered his eyes to the table. “I can hardly fault your astute assessment,” he humbly conceded, a revealing admission which gave her pause.
Reeve swept a solicitous hand toward a chair on the other side of the table. “Why don’t you take a seat, Dr. Zaffron,” he suggested politely. Ian reinforced the executive’s direction by pulling a chair away from the table for her. Her chin stubbornly came up, and Reeve knew her answer before she opened her mouth. “I’d rather stand,” she sniffed.
“That is your prerogative,” he coolly replied as he took his own seat. “However, I would appreciate it if you would allow General Sand and Mr. Coakley into the room so they may join the discussion.” Reeve caught Ian’s eyes and inclined his head toward the chair he’d drawn from the table, indicating that he should sit in it. The engineer readily complied, sliding smoothly into the chair to lay one arm against the glossy surface of the table, displaying a nonchalance he didn’t truly feel.
Averting her face to hide her dismay at having impolitely if inadvertently denied passage to the one man who had bothered to listen to her frantic request, Dr. Zaffron took a long sideways step to permit the General and Coakley to pass. Andy took up a position against the wall on the opposite side of the door from where the woman stood, happy to remain completely out of the line of fire as he watched. The General promptly crossed the room with his measured officer’s stride to take the chair Reeve indicated with a brief nod of his head. Seeking to mitigate his perceived transgression in allowing Dr. Zaffron to burst into the room unannounced, he leaned forward to explain the security lapse.
“I wish to apologize, sir, about Dr. Zaffron,” General Sand said in a low, rumbling voice. “I agreed that she could accompany me under strict conditions to which she agreed and then promptly violated. She would not respond to my request to halt, and I could not bring myself to…er…shoot her.”
Reeve’s sternly drawn mouth twitched at the General’s reluctant admission. “That’s quite all right, General Sand. She seems a determined woman. And fairly harmless.” He raised his eyes to collide with Dr. Zaffron’s glare. She knew quite well that they were talking about her in their hushed voices, and she was not amused. “One with something on her mind, it would seem,” Reeve softly added.
Sand nodded in agreement. “She is the person behind the query about the military prison.” He lifted troubled eyes to the executive’s face. “I’m afraid that I had not given the facility a single thought, until she inquired about it.”
“Understood,” Reeve tersely replied. He couldn’t blame General Sand for that to which he should have attended. He was the man in charge. The newly promoted General had other matters to take care of, but he couldn’t fall back on that excuse himself. It was his job to consider every person in the city, including prison inmates. The responsibility rested squarely upon his head, whatever happened next. Reeve directed his next comments to Dr. Zaffron.
“Would you like to discuss Dr. Friedmann now?”
Dr. Zaffron barely inclined her bandaged head in curt acknowledgment, and then she stiffly crossed the room to come to an abrupt halt directly across the conference table from the executive. Pointedly refusing to take the chair in front of her, she deliberately crossed her arms and leveled her chilly gray eyes on Reeve’s expressionless face. She began to speak with stilted words, and Reeve let her say whatever she wanted with no interruption, content simply to listen.
“Dr. Hilda Friedmann’s death was not convenient, as you say, except perhaps for the Shinra Corporation. However, I do not ascribe any ulterior motive to her death despite the fact that I do know where to lay the blame. My mother drove her sedan into a barrier wall on the Midgar Thruway at the speed of 120 mph. Based on the behavior she displayed every night for the previous year, I have no doubt that she was very inebriated at the time. Had there been enough left of her to test her blood-alcohol level, I doubt the newspapers would have been so kind in their…re…porting…” Her voice unexpectedly cracked, revealing a chink in her unbending façade. Lowering her eyes to the table, she paused to draw in a long, shaky breath. General Sand and Ian uneasily shifted their eyes away from her face as she worked to regain her equilibrium, but Reeve kept his gaze focused on her face, folding his hands in front of him to gently tap his fingers together as he patiently waited in silence. All too soon, she’d regained her composure and her eyes again burned angrily into his. She pursed her lips, but didn’t speak, so he took the initiative.
“I wish to express my condolences…” he started in a polite voice.
“Don’t bother,” she snapped. “Your condolences mean nothing to me.”
“Why do you blame Shinra,” he bluntly asked, laying his hands flat against the table to lean forward. He could imagine any number of reasons, but he needed her to tell him the precise one. “Was your mother forced to take on the military contract?”
“No, she was not forced to take the contract,” Dr. Zaffron spat, dropping her own hands to the table to lean closer to Reeve. “My mother led a lavish lifestyle, and she took the contract for the money. Shinra paid her handsomely, and she was satisfied with her reward and proud of her accomplishments. The Shinra Corporation required of her the newest innovations in her field and she fulfilled their needs admirably. She didn’t give the nature of the work a second thought, not until later, when the consequences of her ingenious art came back to haunt her. With a vengeance.”
Reeve raised one dark eyebrow in question. “Why did she come to regret her work?”
“Why do you care?” Dr. Zaffron challenged. “Why should I tell you, Alexander?”
Reeve held her gaze as he silently and carefully considered his answer. In the end, he opted for the truth over a smoothly delivered but insincere response. “Because I believe that particular prison concept to be an abomination,” he flatly informed her. “Now please tell me why your mother, Dr. Friedmann, came to regret her participation in the construction of that prison.”
Reeve’s honest admission stole her defenses from her, and in her surprise, she relinquished her challenging stance. Now intrigued, she drew out the chair between Cornell and Sand, and she slowly sank into the seat across the table from him. She brought her arms up to hug herself, as though she’d suddenly experienced a chill. “My mother originally viewed her work on the prison in the abstract.” Her eyes fell to her reflection in the glossy tabletop. “The reality of her work, now that was another matter entirely.”
Reeve required only a second or two of thought to realize what would drive one’s perspective from the abstract to the concrete. After all, he’d traveled from one side to the other. He’d come to painfully realize the human cost of his own actions. “Someone she knew was incarcerated there.”
Dr. Zaffron’s shoulders slumped dejectedly at his words. “Is…Alexander…” she corrected. “…My brother is incarcerated there…” She closed her eyes at that juncture, and despite her firmest intentions, a single tear slid from her lashes. Angrily, she dashed it away with the back of her hand.
With renewed purpose, Reeve drew the handheld closer and again accessed the prisoner list, swiftly scanning the names until he found the pertinent one. “Lieutenant Erich Friedmann,” he read aloud. “He was convicted of murdering a fellow officer. He shot him pointblank in the head with his service revolver during an argument over a card game in the barracks.” Reeve raised cool eyes to gauge her reaction.
“He didn’t do it,” she replied with firm conviction. “It’s a trumped up charge.”
“You seem so sure.”
“I can be sure, because my brother told me.”
“He would not lie to me.”
“What is his story then?”
“It didn’t happen in the barracks. It happened on bivouac. In the woods some miles outside Junon base. My brother came out of the latrine and saw his commanding officer shoot his fellow lieutenant, his best friend. He saw it happen, but he didn’t understand why. Afraid for his own life, he slipped away unnoticed, and he immediately sought out General Heidegger to tell him what he’d seen. Heidegger took the report and assured him he would see to the matter immediately. He didn’t even make it back to his own tent before the MPs came. He was arrested for the murder and court-martialed. Two of his subordinates testified against him, both of them privates that he’d been forced to reprimand, and the military tribunal convicted him. But he didn’t do it.”
Reeve folded his hands on the table as he chose his words carefully. “Look, Dr. Zaffron, I know you’d like to believe…”
Her eyes caught fire. “No, don’t say another word. I don’t care what you believe, Alexander. I know Gellner did it, and I don’t need your validation to affirm the truth. All I need from you is your assurance that my brother is not in that prison now.”
“Gellner…” Reeve repeated weakly. He shifted his eyes to Sand. “Do you know about this case?”
General Sand shook his head. “No sir. This is the first I’ve heard of it.”
Dr. Zaffron abruptly stood. Planting her slender hands on the table, she leaned forward to capture Reeve’s gaze. “Forget about all that, Alexander. Just tell me that you evacuated the prison and that my baby brother is somewhere safe now.”
Reeve guiltily lowered his eyes to the glowing computer screen that still displayed Friedmann’s information. A knowing look came into her eyes, and she slowly straightened to her full height, her mouth twisting into a sneer. “Ah…well…I don’t need to be a rocket scientist…which I am by the way…to see that you’ve done nothing with the prison. You couldn’t be bothered with them, could you? So what if a bunch of worthless convicts die in a lightless hole in the ground? Isn’t that just about right, Alexander? So what?”
Reeve’s own temper flared at her unfair and snidely voiced accusation, but he promptly dowsed the fire before he said something equally unjust. He’d probably be incredibly angry if he stood in her shoes at that moment. “Dr. Katrina Friedmann,” he commented in purposeful non sequitur. “I know who you are now. You were with the aerospace program. I’m familiar with your work in navigational and telemetric systems.”
He chanced a look at her to find her gaping at him in astonishment. “I must confide,” he continued in the same vein. “…That I’ve made liberal use of a few of your less complicated applications. Most of your work is above my ability to comprehend.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” she asked in amazement. She decided that the man had snapped.
“Look, Katrina…may I call you Katrina?”
She defiantly shook her head.
“Dr. Zaffron…then. As you’ve surmised, the prison has not been evacuated. Quite frankly, I forgot about it.” She opened her mouth to express her outrage at his confession, but he held up a hand. “Hear me out, please.” She didn’t agree, but she did clamp her mouth shut, a concession of sorts, so he went on. “Though I offer no excuse for my failure, I do want you to be aware that I had no input over the building of the prison and no oversight over its day to day operation. Truthfully, I know very little about the facility, and the facility remained completely off my radar, so to speak. However, that said, I want you to know that now that I’ve realized my lapse, my top priority is the evacuation of any survivors from the prison. In fact, I’ve been working on nothing else since it came to my attention. Unfortunately, I now find myself stymied in my efforts to continue. I have accessed all the files I can locate regarding the prison. I have the layout of the prison as well as the location of the emergency access tunnel. I also have the prisoner list and the cell assignments. I do not have the access codes to gain entrance to the facility. Those files have been deleted. Do you, Dr. Zaffron, have any insight about how I may proceed?”
Although Katrina wanted nothing more than to expose Reeve Alexander to the sharp edge of her tongue, she reluctantly kept her thoughts to herself and realigned her mental processes to forming a response to his question. Her brother’s life depended on it. Deliberately, she reseated herself at the table and pinned implacable gray eyes on his face. “My mother mentioned an emergency bypass,” she finally confided.
“Do you know it?”
“No, but I know where I might find it.”
“In your files.” She held out her hand. “May I?”
“By all means.” He readily slid his handheld computer and attached keyboard across the table to her. “All the prison files are located in the open folder.”
She unconsciously nodded, her fingers already flying with amazing efficiency across the keyboard. “Thank you,” she absently and belatedly replied.
He watched her for a few moments before he realized there was something he’d forgotten to ask her. “Dr. Zaffron…I was wondering…why did it take you so long to bring this matter to our attention? I would rather have been reminded of the prison earlier on.”
“I was in the hospital,” she automatically replied. “I suffered a head injury after a scaffolding fell on me. I regained consciousness six days ago, and I was finally released three days ago. I spent the first day out of hospital trying to locate my husband whom I’d last seen standing beside me when the scaffolding fell.” Her face took on a grim cast at that point. “Once I identified his body at the morgue, I went searching for someone who could tell me of the prison. Unfortunately, most people would not give me the time of day, until I encountered your General Sand.” She looked over at the watchful military officer beside her. “Thank you for that…” She expressed her gratitude awkwardly.
Sand inclined his head. “My pleasure, ma’am.”
A wry smile came to her face. “Somehow I doubt that…”
Sand nervously chuckled at the accuracy of her assessment. On her other side, Ian surrendered to his rampant curiosity and leaned close enough to see the small glowing screen for himself. He figured it would be worth an elbow in the ribs to get a glimpse, but she didn’t seem to mind his nosiness, even turning the small computer so that he could better view the files.
Reeve settled back in his chair and crossed his arms. “I wish to express my condolences for the loss of your husband.”
She uneasily shrugged away the sentiment. “Condolences accepted,” she bluntly answered. Then she looked at him from beneath her slender brows. “This time,” she curtly added.
“Of course,” he smoothly replied.
She abruptly stopped typing, instead tapping the ‘enter’ button a few times with one fingertip. Reeve watched her closely. “I’ve found it.” She looked up with triumphant eyes.
Reeve held out his hand. “Let’s have it.”
She firmly shook her head. “No.”
“I’ll accompany you, and I’ll execute the bypass sequence.” When her brother walked out of that prison, she fully intended to be there to intercede on his behalf.
Reeve politely inclined his head. “I defer to you, Dr. Zaffron.”
She hesitantly nodded, watching with interest when Reeve reached for the VR headgear. He didn’t place the apparatus on his head but he did raise the microphone to his mouth. “Cait Sith, unlink,” he spoke softly. “Return to excavation.” He turned the visor so he could read Cait Sith’s confirmation track across the transparent screen, and then he replaced the VR gear in the wooden crate and set it beneath the table. Standing away from the table, he turned to address Sand. “We’ll pick up an armed security detail on the way.” Sand nodded his understanding, and rose to his feet, giving his uniform jacket a sharp tug to snap the garment back into its former pristine arrangement. Reeve caught Andy’s eyes. “Please continue monitoring Cait’s communications, Andy.” The young soldier instantly moved away from the wall to cross to the table. Coakley had no desire to visit the underground prison, and he was more than satisfied to remain in the quiet office and keep an eye on Cait Sith.
The executive then turned to Ian. “Keep me apprised regarding your progress, Ian,” he reminded him, almost smiling at the engineer’s crestfallen face. He could well imagine how the state of the art prison, and possibly the prickly Dr. Friedmann-Zaffron, might interest Ian Cornell a great deal more than a crumbling pillar, but that’s where he needed Ian’s attention focused. “Yes, sir,” Ian replied with a hint of disappointment. He stood and executed a smart about face, heading for the door. Before he’d taken more than a few steps, Reeve rethought his position. A situation might well arise at the prison that he would need Ian. The engineer’s assistant, Pieter, could monitor the pillar in the meantime.
“Wait, Ian,” he suddenly said. The engineer did as he bade, turning to look back at him, a silent question in his eyes. “I think you’d better come too. We might well need your expertise.” To his credit, the engineer hid his excitement well; a bright spark that energized his blue eyes the only obvious indication that he was pleased about his change of fortune. “Yes, sir,” Ian replied with a hint more enthusiasm this time.
Reeve came around the table and held his hand out to Katrina, silently demanding that she relinquish his personal computer. Reluctantly, she placed the device into his palm, but she didn’t immediately release it. “What about my brother?” she asked.
“What about him?” Reeve raised an inquisitive eyebrow.
“What about his case?”
“Hmm…after a cursory reading of the prisoner list, I feel a review of each case would be in order.”
“Who will review the cases?”
“A panel of fair-minded individuals, I’d imagine.”
“Will you be on that panel?”
For the first time since she’d entered the room, she smiled, an act that completely transformed her face. If he’d been another man, she might have stolen his heart away. But that claim had already been staked. He gave the handheld a firm tug, and she deliberately released the device to his possession. “You may call me Katrina,” she offered.
He merely inclined his head in acknowledgement. “After you. Katrina.”
Vincent pressed his back firmly to the tree and held his breath. He had to admit, he’d about run out of locations to hide, and this particular hiding place provided less than optimum cover. She’d become very adept at finding him, no matter where he hid, and he knew that she would find him easily now. She had only to walk past the tree, and she would clearly see him. He could hardly sink into the bark. Even now, he could hear her bare feet swishing through the grass. He wished for the power of the chameleon, so that he might fade completely into the background. Then as long as he held himself lifelessly still, her eye would overlook him. But he did not possess the power of the chameleon, only the soul of Chaos. He could never invoke Chaos in her presence. Besides, he had a suspicious feeling that she would simply bring Chaos panting to his knees with a single smile. Perhaps if he lost the crimson cloak. His fingers flew to the buckle, but froze there when he clearly heard a hushed footfall to his left. Too late…
“Vincent! There you are!” Her brown eyes lit up at sight of him, and her joyful smile momentarily leached luminosity from the blazing sun in the sky. He stared at her in stunned awe, his breath caught motionless in his lungs. This then was how the hunter felt beneath the bore of his own rifle. Caught in that hitch in time with the full knowledge that when the clock started running again, he was going down. Right at her feet. In the face of his mindless regard, her smile dimmed a few degrees, and her face turned playfully reproachful. She narrowed her beautiful eyes in suspicion. “Were you hiding from me again, Vincent Valentine?”
He hesitantly shook his head, and then realizing his less than definitive response, he shook it harder. “Er…no. I was…simply…ah…resting here.” Then his crimson eyes turned quizzical. “How did you find me so quickly?”
She lifted her open palms to the side and shrugged. “It was easy.”
“There wasn’t anywhere else for you to hide,” she informed him with a Cheshire cat grin.
Surrendering to defeat, he stepped away from the tree to look about, and his mouth drifted open in astonishment. Except for the ancient gnarled tree that had been his last refuge, a tree with spindly limbs stripped naked of every leaf as though it had been caught in a high gale, nothing marred the perfect symmetry of flat golden plain and cloudless azure sky, not as far as his eye could see. No place to hide, for miles in any direction he cared to look. How had she managed such a feat? She’d finally brought him to a place where she’d stripped the land bare of every bit of cover, of every hint of shadow, of all his defenses. Where would he hide from her now? She’d left him no options. Except to run…or concede. Unconditional surrender would grant him no surcease. Only sweet torment. How fast could he run…
In her sleep, Tifa curled her bare toes against Vincent’s warm thigh, a subtle movement that jolted the man from his uneasy slumber. With the unflinching instinct of a man accustomed to trouble, his fingers flew unerringly to the trigger guard of the rifle that rested across his lap and paused there as he struggled with knitted brow to reconcile golden fields and sunny sky with the cold stone wall at his back and the ghostly images floating in murky darkness, the reluctant decision to run for his life with his rather comfortable sitting position on the end of a blanket with his long legs splayed out in front of him. Hardly a stance from which to effectively make a break for it.
The warm toes again curled against his thigh, replaying the impetus of his awakening, and his eyes shot down to find a bare foot jutting from the end of a bunched blanket, an unsettling sight that brought him firmly back to earth. The ghostly images became the etchings on the opposite cave wall, the blanket the pallet beneath him, the foot clearly attached to Tifa Lockhart, the woman who would steal away his haven of shadow, if he let her.
Gingerly, so as not to wake her, he lifted her chilled foot away from contact with his leg and pulled her blanket down to cover her feet completely. Then he deliberately drew his own leg up so that her questing toes would not find him again. It wasn’t that he didn’t wish to provide her comfort. It was just that…it felt so…intimate.
Intimacy…a trap into which he could not fall…anathema to the distance he must maintain…
The mournful howl of a faraway wolf floated to his hypersensitive ears and plucked a melancholy chord within his heart. Wearily, he let his head fall back against the wide jamb of the stone wall that formed the archway, the place he’d chosen to rest only hours before, taking up a silent vigil in the entrance between Tifa Lockhart and the outside world.
Impulsively, he turned his head, bringing his cheek into contact with the cool stone of the wall to gaze upon her slumbering face in direct defiance of his denial of permission to do so. He had to admit that his disobedient eyes had a mind of their own. For long minutes, he made a study of her face, the same study he’d made on more than one occasion, and despite a well memorized and treasured familiarity with the minutest features of her face, he always managed to enthrall himself with a new discovery every time he looked. This time he found in her relaxed face a porcelain, angelic quality no doubt evoked by the ambient nighttime light, an unusual illustration of her beauty he knew no other human would ever view because no other human would be capable of seeing her face in such muted illumination, a vision of her that belonged wholly to him, a prize no one could ever take from him. Not even Strife.
…And an empty prize it would be…when he saw her in the arms of Cloud Strife…
Vincent squeezed his eyes shut and forced his face away. Again, he’d allowed himself to slide deeper into that trap. It was a slippery slope, he knew. Watching her sleep, when vulnerable and unaware…an act of stolen intimacy…
With an inaudible huff of derision at his own fancifulness, he gathered the rifle into his arms and climbed to his feet. Refusing to surrender to a compelling need to look at her again, he averted his eyes, and with one long stride, stepped over the end of the pallet and out into the chilled air of the pristine pre-dawn night. Tipping his head back, he peered up into the black velvet and twinkling diamond field above his head. A streak of gilt slashed the night sky, traveling an impossibly long distance before vanishing into oblivion. Yet another falling star, one that Tifa would certainly have tried to catch if she’d been awake. How many had she caught the night before? So many that he would have thought the heavens would have been emptied of stars by the time she was done. Make a wish, she’d told him. And a wish he had made, incapable of denying her, even such a nonsensical request. Well…not a request…really…more a command. Completely pointless. A falling star possessed no magical power capable of granting one’s deepest desire. It was a rock. Falling from space. Doomed to burn up in the atmosphere. Nothing more. Even as he watched, another shooting star zipped across the sky to again taunt him with the memory of his meaningless wish, this one more short-lived than the last.
Obviously, he and Tifa had emerged from the tunnels at the height of a meteor shower. He seemed to recall just such an annual meteor shower this time of year. If he were of a different mind, he might view the event as an omen, but whether he should interpret the falling stars as good omens or as bad ones escaped him. He well knew that some cultures viewed a falling star as a sign of impending doom, signifying a future catastrophe in the life of the viewer, a loss of fortune, a death in the family. On the other hand, others believed a falling star to be a symbol of good fortune. He could clearly recall reading of one version of falling star prophecy where the person who saw a falling star would find his or her true love within a fortnight. A ludicrous notion. Truly. And the idea that one could make a wish on a chunk of disintegrating rock and expect it to come true…
Still, he’d wanted to believe. She’d almost convinced him. He could well believe that wishes would come true for someone as good as she. But for him…never. Fate had never favored him. Why would she relent now? Yet…he’d made his wish. An impossible wish…that she might love him as she loved the light…that she might need him as she needed to breathe…that she might want him a fraction as much as he wanted her. A selfish wish, as he knew he could not love her in return. No matter. His wish would never come true. She loved Cloud Strife and restlessly hoped for the day when he would return her love. And even if she could love him…completely impossible…a fools’ dream…he could not be with her, because every person he’d ever loved had died, and every life he’d ever touched had withered. He would not do that to her. She deserved so much more in her life than he could offer. He would only steal all the magic from her dreams in the end. But why even ponder on the matter at all. She could never love him, and that was that. So why then did his silent protestations reverberate so hollowly in his heart?
…Lucrecia yet lives…
He frowned at the intrusive and contradictory thought. Lucrecia. In that long ago time that didn’t feel so far away, he had loved Lucrecia. Fiercely. And as he’d seen with his own eyes, she surely did still live, although he didn’t know where she might have gone since. Maybe she was dead now. He’d surely been convinced of her death at the time of his second visit to the cave, when he’d found no sign of her, only the high-powered rifle with the tiny goldplated metal plaque attached to the base of its richly grained stock, the neat pristine letters engraved there.
The Death Penalty.
Had she left the gun specifically for him? Or had its presence there been mere coincidence. Truthfully, he couldn't believe it had been mere chance. Although he didn't remember the rifle before that day, the tiny 'SVV' insignia at the bottom of the engraved plaque clearly indicated that the gun had once belonged in his own father's collection. Most likely lost long ago as a gambling bet or in the dispersal of the Valentine estate. Had the gun been a farewell message for him? Or perhaps a pointed message to him. Lucrecia knew the significance of the insignia. Maybe she'd only meant to offer him a gift. One tiny piece of his stolen life back. There was no way to know, unless he saw her again. Unless he could ask her.
Lucrecia. Her life had definitely been leached of any joy. She had surely been cursed. Every bit as cursed as he. However, he wasn’t entirely convinced that he should take all the credit for that anymore. Hojo should accept some responsibility. Lucrecia should as well. It wasn’t as though Hojo had coerced her. He could admit the truth now. Lucrecia had been driven by ambitions of scientific glory, and the arrogant Professor, driven mad by Jenova’s control over his weak mind, had used that against her. She had been lured by the potential of Jenova and blinded to the evil inherent in their actions. He had realized her hunger for recognition early in their relationship, and he shouldn’t have been surprised when she’d rejected him for Hojo and her career. But then, he had been blinded too. By his love for her. By his deeply held conviction that nothing in the universe held greater import than love. He had loved her. Truly, he would love her always. But, he had not done all for her that he should have, and he didn’t think he would ever forgive himself for that.
What if she did yet live? What if he should seek her out? They were both ghosts of another time. Kindred spirits. He would soothe her sorrow, and she would finally love him. Love him? Unconsciously, his head began to shake. She would only play at loving him, as before, when he’d only been a panacea to fill the empty spaces in her life. Try though he might, he could hardly envision any pleasure in seeing her again, could not imagine any release in holding her in his arms again, and no matter how hard he searched his heart, he could not find inside him any desire to do so. Frankly, he just didn’t care anymore. He wished her well, but he no longer wished to be with her. And when had that happened? When had he ceased to long for her? When had he stopped grieving for the love he’d lost? Had he left Lucrecia behind somewhere in the long journey through the darkness? Or had she quietly slipped away when another had supplanted her in his dreams? One woman that had not wanted his love traded for another that would never want him. Would he ever learn?
Half-turning in place, he helplessly surrendered to a compulsion to seek her out, his gaze inexorably sliding to her cocooned form beneath the blanket. The sight of her lying there all alone filled him with a longing to hold her, to comfort her, to kiss her awake. Obviously, he had not learned his lesson yet.
Abruptly, he whirled away, impatient at his weakness. Laying the rifle against his shoulder, he strode across the width of the ledge and came to a precarious halt at the very rim. Staring off into the distance, he noticed the lightening of the eastern sky. The sun would be rising all too soon. He took a step back and lowered himself to the ground. Crossing his legs, he laid his rifle across his knees and settled down to await a most welcome sunrise. The idea came to him then, that he should wake her, so that she too could see the sunrise. A sight she’d not seen in a long while. But then he remembered the lateness of the hour when she’d tired of catching stars and dancing in the moonlight, and she had finally collapsed exhausted onto the pallet he’d made for her and pulled the cover over her head. He would let her sleep. They had a long day ahead of them, and she would need to be well rested. There would be other sunrises for her. He was certain of that now. And more worthy company with whom to share them.
“Son of a bitch!” Vendra snarled. She convulsively released her finger from the trigger and lowered the rifle with a derisive snort. That damn Reno knew his stuff for sure. That blasted Turk knew that a person would need a freaking rocket launcher to get him from the bluff. She certainly couldn’t hit him with the rifle. The Turk was well out of range. He could stand out all day long and taunt her to his heart’s content. She’d have to come down from the bluff to shoot him, and she wasn’t about to risk her own neck in a confrontation with the wily Turk. And really, she could think of more entertaining ways to kill him, now that she took a moment to think about it. A knife through the heart. That would be most satisfactory. Or better yet…poison. She could get up close and personal before she killed him. They had a history, after all. A very short one, but a history nonetheless. And he hadn’t and wouldn’t connect her to Ozzie and Baron. He wasn’t that bright. Plus, he had a weakness for beautiful women. Reno of the Turks would be easy to manipulate. She’d kill him and take sole credit for his demise, stealing Ozzie’s one dubious victory away from him. The idea brought an angelic smile to her lips to chase her disgruntlement away.
Rolling off of her stomach, she smoothly sat up and tucked her feet beneath her. Carefully, she set the rifle on end in preparation for breaking the weapon down. She hadn’t realized how much time had elapsed since she’d arrived. The sky had lightened ever so incrementally while she’d been staring through that scope, and she realized that she was quickly running out of time to find a hiding place without being seen. She’d best light a fire under it. She wrapped her hand around the scope to make good her plan, but her fingers froze in place when a movement out on the wasteland caught her eye. Swiftly, she laid the rifle aside and reached for her discarded binoculars. Whatever was moving out there was a lot closer to her than the Turks and therefore represented a potential threat.
She panned across the landscape until the high magnification lenses eventually caught up with the swiftly moving creature, and when she finally saw the source of the movement that had caught her eye, she couldn’t believe what she thought she was seeing. Drawing the binoculars down, she gave her head a little shake to clear the cobwebs away, and then she lifted the binoculars to peer at the thing again. The night hadn’t retreated enough to permit her a clear view, but she thought, even though she knew it could not be, that the creature looked like a cat riding on the head of a mog. But mogs weren’t real. They were a popular figure in children’s fantasy tales, the stuff of legend. And the cat…it had a crown. And a cape. Clearly, she’d been moonstruck.
Suddenly the cat atop the Mog stood up on two legs and hopped around to face in her direction. With a tilt of its head and a merry flip of its hand, it seemed to be waving at her. What if the thing was real? What if it did see her? Certainly, if it was really there on the wasteland, it had to be a machine. A cleverly disguised probe of some sort? Maybe the Turks had sent it out there to get closer than they could. And then Reno had stood out in the open to distract her. The thing might have come very close before she noticed it. Maybe it had even taken pictures of some sort. With night vision and a zoom lens, it might have snapped a shot that could be digitally enhanced to reveal her identity. She couldn’t let that happen. She had to stop it.
Again, she laid the binoculars aside and snatched up the rifle. She raised the scope to one eye and took aim. The cat and its mog ride were a lot closer than Reno. Well within range. And she was a hell of a shot. Of course, it meant she’d have to flash out of there afterward, but she could always come back later. As long as she wasn’t identified. She would insure that wouldn’t happen, with one little squeeze of the trigger.
Reno shot his smoldering cigarette butt to the ground and wheeled around to head for the chopper where the state of the art Shinra flying machine set just inside the outermost reaches of the bright excavation lights. After almost two hours of nerve-wracking vigilance, he’d grown tired of waiting for the watcher on the bluff to make his move. He could and would take the action straight to him. As he swiftly strode across the hard-packed earth with long, ground-eating steps, he drew his weapon from the waistband of his jeans and deftly checked the load. Satisfied that he had more than enough ammunition to fill the cowardly would-be kidnapper full of holes, he pulled aside his jean jacket and shoved the gun into his waistband just left of his belt buckle.
He’d almost reached his goal with only a half dozen steps to go, and he was in the middle of congratulating himself on making it there with no interruptions when Elena came flying out of the darkness full tilt. He couldn’t say he was surprised at her appearance. For some reason, perhaps the very recent memory of the finger she’d been jabbing at his face when she’d been arguing vehemently against his intention to fly up to the bluff earlier, he’d expected to see her now. He’d known that she would confront him, and he’d hoped that his unannounced decision now to go would escape her attention long enough for him to get a head start. That she could manage to run like the wind in those high heel boots never failed to amaze him. If he had to do it, he’d turn both ankles and wind up moaning on the ground. Reno broke into a lope in an attempt to make it to the chopper before she reached him, but to no avail. She simply leapt ahead of him and planted her back against the chopper door.
“What do you think you’re doing, Elena?” he demanded.
“Where do you think you’re going, Reno?” she demanded right back.
“I’m going after that bastard on the bluff, so move your pretty ass out of my way so I can get on with it.”
Elena crossed her arms and shook her head. “Uh uh. You’re not going up there alone, Reno.”
“Watch me.” He spun on heel and headed around the nose of the chopper.
Not one to lag, even when she wasn’t motivated, she darted the other way, stooping low to duck under the tail boom. Both emerged on the other side of the chopper and spotted each other at the same time. Each made a sprint for the pilot’s door, engaging in a race that Elena just barely won by virtue of the fact that she was slightly closer. She fell forward against the door just as he reached for the handle, and promptly reinforced her advantage by whirling to plant her back firmly against the door.
Having been forced to a stop entirely too close for her comfort, Reno folded his arms and glared down at her, his green eyes glittering with irritation. “Elena, baby, are you trying to piss me off?”
With her head tilted back against the door so she could keep those green eyes in her sight, she swallowed hard and shook her blonde head again. “I’m not letting you go up there alone, Reno.”
“Who died and made you boss again?”
She laid her hands beseechingly atop his crossed arms. “Please don’t go by yourself Reno,” she pleaded. “At least take me or Rude with you.”
“Nope, I need you both here. Now move or I’ll move you,” he coolly threatened.
Elena knitted her brows menacingly and folded her arms. “Go right ahead and move me, Reno. I double dog dare you. But remember. I bite.”
“I’ve had my shots,” he replied with an indifferent shrug.
“Reno…please…” Her plea sounded almost a moan, evidence of an almost physical need to convince him. “I’ve got a really…really…bad…feeling about this…”
Reno abruptly planted splayed hands against the chopper door on either side of her, a move that made every muscle in her body tense. Like a trapped animal, she hunched her shoulders and pressed her back, as well as the palms of her hands, against the chopper as firmly as the unyielding metal would allow. It wasn’t that she couldn’t escape him. She could simply duck beneath one of his arms, but that would mean relinquishing her strategic advantage. What was left of it anyway. He moved a foot forward to bump the toe of his boot up against the toe of hers.
Elena wanted badly to avert her gaze from Reno’s heavy-lidded snakelike regard, but she steeled herself to maintain eye contact. She would not surrender. Not one inch. She knew quite well that his sudden move had been designed to intimidate her into fleeing, but she would not cave, despite the trembling in her knees. She stubbornly lifted her chin and narrowed her hazel eyes, clearly broadcasting her intention to stay the course. He could use his taller body to crowd her space all he wanted. She would not be frightened away like a skittish schoolgirl, and he couldn’t wish her away. He’d have to move her or change her mind by offering a reasonable alternative. She was hoping for the latter.
It occurred to her then that only mere days ago Reno would never have tried such a move to enforce his command. Clearly, he’d violated all boundaries of professional propriety between a male superior and a female subordinate, and that realization suddenly drove home the undeniable fact that their relationship had radically changed. She didn’t blame him. Not for a second. She would honestly admit, at least to herself, that she’d been the one to overstep the bounds first, and she knew she had the power to step back and reset the limits, and he would honor that. But she didn’t want to back away. Even conceding that fact, her own culpability in the current state of affairs didn’t stay her from using his unprofessional behavior to needle him. Maybe she’d annoy him to the point that he would forget about flying the chopper up to the bluff alone.
A smirk came to her lips. “Is this how you get Rude to obey your orders, Reno?” she queried cattily.
Unfazed by her attempt to get a rise out of him, he smiled coolly. “Nope,” he curtly replied. “Rude obeys my orders without question or delay, unlike another Turk I know. An extremely obstructive one, at that.”
She smiled with satisfaction. She liked the idea of being obstructive. “Well, is this how you would enforce your orders with Rude if he didn’t obey you?”
Reno shook his head sadly. “What is this game you’re playing, Elena?”
Her eyes rounded in dismay. He’d smoothly turned the tables on her, without a single flicker of an eyelash. All hint of pretense left her face. “What? What game? I’m not playing any game, Reno. I just don’t want you to go up there alone. What if the Katana man is up there, just waiting in the darkness for you? What then?”
Reno examined her earnest expression in silence for a long moment. “Elena, I’d be more impressed with your seemingly sincere and flattering concern for my safety if not for the contradictory evidence available to me.”
She frowned in bewilderment. “Evidence? What evidence?”
His lips turned down in disgruntlement. “Does a boot on my cot ring a bell with you, Elena? Flying wrenches? Nails? Any of that sound familiar? I believe any court of law would accept an argument that such evidence could be construed as a marked disregard for my welfare.”
“What? No!” Elena cried out her dismay that he believed that she wanted to hurt him. “Reno…I would never…I was…just mad…I guess…but I would never…” Her hands came up to fist in the lapels of his jean jacket. “Just forget about me…Reno…that weird guy…he has a katana…he’ll lop off your head…and the other one…he has an assault rifle…he’ll drill you full of holes…and then you’d…be…you’d…be…” Her mouth worked silently as all capacity for speech left her at the horrifying vision that exploded full-blown in her mind. Finally, she managed to choke out the words. Not the word she meant to say and couldn’t give voice too, but as close as she could manage. “…Like…Tseng…”
Reno’s eyes instantly glazed with green ice, and his hands came away from the door of the chopper and flew to his chest where he wrapped his fingers around her two fists with the intention of prying her fingers off his jacket to free himself, but when his hands touched hers, he forgot and instead tightly closed her fists in his.
“I’m not Tseng,” he informed her coldly. “I’m a field operative with ten years of experience, not a desk jockey.” He jerked his chin up to indicate the machine at her back. “That helicopter is protected by armor plating and bulletproof glass, carries two built-in machine gun ports and a rack of Shinra Sunfire missiles, specifications that you, as a fully trained field operative yourself, should be able to recite without hesitation. Do not question my ability to do my job, Elena. I’m the Leader of the Turks. Not your redheaded stepchild or your…”
Whatever Reno might have said next, Elena would never find out. The sharp report of a high-powered rifle cracked through the crisp pre-dawn air and echoed off the distant bluffs and the high walls of the city. Reno reacted without hesitation. Dropping his big hands to Elena’s narrow waist, he bodily lifted her from her feet and with an economical twist of his body, whirled her away from the door of the chopper as though he were a dancer effortlessly performing an intricate dance move with his partner. Unlike a dancer, who would have set her gracefully to the ground, he dropped her rather awkwardly onto her feet, a move which left her wildly windmilling her arms to keep from falling. By the time she recovered and wheeled around to lodge her protest, Reno had already buckled himself into the pilot’s seat and was currently in the process of flipping switches.
She took a purposeful step forward, and he shot her a cutting look that stopped her in her tracks. “Be a Turk, Elena,” he commanded sternly. “Do your job.” Her head snapped back as though he’d struck her across the face. She did have a job to do. She was a Turk. Crap was going down, and she’d left Rude alone to protect their charges. With little more than a nod, mostly to herself, she snatched her handgun from her waistband and dashed away without a backward look.
Reno pulled the door shut and faced forward. A smile tipped the corners of his thin mouth as he set the blades spinning. “That’s my girl,” he murmured. Lifting the chopper away from the ground, he flipped on every searchlight the craft possessed. Then he sent the sleek machine swooping toward the distant bluff.
Elena slammed to an abrupt halt a few feet from Rude. The big Turk had not moved an inch from his assigned position, and he’d made no move other than to draw his weapon into his hand. She couldn’t see his shadowy face, but she thought she could sense waves of disapproval emanating off him. It was probably just her imagination though, driven by a keen sense of shame at her less than professional behavior. Like Rude, she should have remained in position and left Reno to his own devices instead of acting on her emotions. If Tseng were still around, she would be expecting yet another lecture on exercising self-control. She had no idea what Reno would do. Their relationship had wholly entered the realm of the unpredictable. She didn’t think he would shoot her though.
Putting her back to the entrance of the tent where her charges presumably still slept, she lifted her eyes to watch the helicopter float slowly toward the rim of the bluff with all lights ablaze, looking every bit as alien in the darkness as a spacecraft from another planet preparing to land.
“Be careful, Reno.” She mouthed the words silently so Rude wouldn’t hear. “Please come back…to me...” Then she huffed in disgust at her own ridiculous descent into rampant sentimentality.
Cloud Strife gripped the glossy wooden railing in two gloved hands and leaned out as far as he dared, his luminous Mako eyes intently focused on the ground slipping away beneath the great hull of the low-flying Highwind, hoping beyond hope to catch a glimpse of her or even the tiniest clue that might point him in the direction he needed to go to find her. She was lost, and it was past time he brought her home. So many miles traveled. So many days passed. And still his prayers remained unanswered. His chest ached at the thought that he might never know.
“Tifa!” He threw his head back and yelled desperately into the wind. “Tifa! Where are you?! Tell me where you are!” A fruitless effort, as the wind simply ripped his words away from his mouth and carried them away in the slipstream
The somber voice came from behind him, the softly spoken words seemingly impervious to the same wind that mercilessly snatched his own fervently expressed words from him. Reluctantly, Cloud drew away from the railing, partly turning toward the deck, bringing his eyes around at the very last second, hoping to see her there but expecting to find himself still alone. Just as he always did when he looked for her.
His heart stuttered at sight of her standing motionless on the deck of the Highwind, clad in a brightly colored skirt and snowy white blouse, her loosened chestnut hair tumbling down over her shoulders and down her back, unmoving in the same wind that flattened his own spiky hair against his scalp and blew several stray strands of blonde hair across his face, as though a holographic image of her had been projected there on the deck. Maybe that’s exactly what she was. A superficial facsimile projected from his own mind to fulfill his need to see her, to give him the opportunity no matter how meaningless to keep his promise to her.
“Aeris…” he breathed on an exhalation of air, the one word both wondering and matter-of-fact. “You came back…”
She humbly bowed her head and nodded, her movements languid, as though acted out in slow motion. “Yes…Cloud…very…difficult…to come…” Ponderously, her hand went up to cover her face, as though she might cry, and for the first time the aura of sorrow about her struck him, sending a chill through his bloodstream. He could not remember a time that he’d ever seen Aeris sad. Even at the altar in the Forgotten City, she’d been smiling…
Anguish flooded Cloud’s blue eyes. He couldn’t bear to see Aeris that way. Her sorrowful gaze reminded him too much of the moment the light had bled away from her beautiful eyes, along with the spark of gaiety, along with her life’s blood. He knew his desires to be selfish, but he had to see her smile again. He had to see her happy. Cloud didn’t believe he could live with the burden of her grief.
With some effort on his part, Cloud forced a semblance of a smile to his face and threw his hands out to the side. “Look Aeris!” he exclaimed, interjecting a note of excitement into his voice, a note that struck his own ears in discordant falsity. He winced, but didn’t let his bad acting deter him. “You’re on the Highwind now, Aeris,” he added more softly. “Just like you dreamed you’d be.”
She lifted her head then and slowly looked around, her beautiful emerald eyes dull and lightless. “Am I?” she asked without real interest. “Is the Highwind flying, Cloud? I can’t see the sky. I can’t feel the wind.”
A fist squeezed Cloud’s heart in punishing fingers. What had happened to Aeris? He took a faltering step toward her. “Can you see me, Aeris?”
Her head bobbed up and down very slowly. “I can see your face, Cloud. I can see your eyes.” Her hand rose toward him, and a glistening tear welled from an eye and traced a silver trail over the curve of her cheek. “But…I can’t touch you, Cloud. I can’t…touch you…”
As though his feet acted on their own accord, Cloud moved across the deck toward her, reached his hand out for her. He couldn’t give her back her smile, but he could do his best to comfort her, ease her pain, though he wasn’t very good at that sort of thing, usually tended to muck it up, but maybe she would understand. At the very least, he could wipe the tears from her eyes. He could fulfill her wish to touch him.
As he came near, she raised her hand up to take his. He smiled encouragingly, and he thought he could see the faintest glimmer of hope in her eyes, and then he closed his fingers around hers, and to his horror, they passed right through and closed on thin air, as though she lacked substance, as though she were composed of nothing more than his nebulous memories. He stared in disbelief at his hand, and she stared at hers. Then she burst into tears, weeping in heart wrenching sobs that ripped at the very fibers of his heart. He reached up to touch her face, only to see his fingers sink through her cheekbone and emerge from her nose and anguished mouth. Unconsciously, he took a backward step.
“What’s happening, Aeris?” he choked out in his fear and his pain. “What’s…happening to you?!” He knew he was losing her all over again.
“I…I…messed…up…Cloud…I messed up…” she sobbed.
He reached out his hand again, this time stopping just short of touching her. “What, Aeris?! What did you do?!”
“I know, Aeris…I know…but the Promised Land…Aeris…” Cloud now pleaded with her. “The Promised Land…aren’t you happy there, Aeris? Aren’t you waiting there?”
“There…is…no…Promised…Land…Cloud…” Her voice ebbed in volume with each word, and Cloud realized that her image appeared to be fading too. “There…is…only…darkness…”
She was leaving him, and he knew that this time, it would be for good. Forever. He lunged for her, throwing his arms out to catch her up into his arms, to hold her tight and keep her, to steal her back from whatever forces would take her from him, but at his touch, she simply broke apart into ribbons of color and light that swirled away from him to be carried away in the slipstream. Within mere seconds, there was no trace of her left. His heart clenched inside his chest in agony, and he fell to his knees on the deck as he stretched supplicating hands toward the stern of the ship.
“Aeris! Come back!” he cried in anguish. “Aeris! Don’t leave me! Aeris! I’m sorry! Please… please…I’m sorry! Aeris!”
Cloud bolted upright on his cot, gasping for air through a tightly closed throat. For a few seconds, he stared blindly into the gloomy interior of the tent with vacant eyes, until Yuffie’s snores registered in his brain, and reality seeped into his gray matter along with the annoying sounds. Weakly, he dropped his face into one hand. A dream. It had been a dream. Only a dream…
Startled, Cloud jerked his face from his hand and looked around to see the silhouette of Caitlin Shinra sitting on the edge of her cot across the aisle, her face cloaked in shadow and her figure barely delineated in the wash of dim light from the lantern outside. He stared at her wordlessly for a moment before he finally remembered to nod. “Yeah,” he confirmed. “…A bad dream...”
Nothing new. Nothing to see here. Hardly his first bad dream. Wouldn’t be his last, he’d wager. With a flick of his wrist, he tossed aside his blanket and swung his legs over the side of the cot to set his socked feet on the ground. He sat there in slumped weariness until a jaw-cracking yawn overtook his face, after which he looked up at the shadowed face of the woman still watching him. He wondered if he’d made so much noise during his crazy dream that he’d awakened her. He decided he should apologize. Just in case.
“Er…sorry if I woke you…” he mumbled.
He saw her move her shoulders. “You didn’t. The helicopter woke me.”
“Helicopter?” Maybe that’s why he’d been dreaming about the Highwind. Chopper blades incorporated into his sleep and converted to propellers.
“Yes, there’s something going on outside.” Caitlin replied in a hushed voice. “I’m not sure what. Elena won’t say, and she won’t let me go out there.”
“I wonder what…” Cloud murmured, mostly to himself. The unsettling information gave him the impetus to commence a fumbling search in the dark for his shirt.
“Would you like to talk about it?” Caitlin whispered.
“Huh? What?” Cloud found his shirt at the foot of the cot and shook it out just in case some six-legged critter had take up residence, a habit he’d acquired after once discovering he was sharing his shirt with a multi-legged centipede. He’d divested himself of his shirt very quickly, nearly pulling a muscle in his shoulder in the process, and providing a great deal of entertainment for his traveling companions.
“Your dream,” she reminded him.
“Ah…that…” Cloud turned his shirt inside out and stuffed his arms through the armholes to tug it on over his head. He settled the garment into place over his sleeveless t-shirt. “Not much to tell…” He bent down to feel beneath the bed for his boots. He didn’t have to think on the matter long to know that his dream had mostly been about guilt. Broken promises. Loss. Failure. That pretty much hit all the high points. He didn’t want to dwell on the low points.
“I had a bad dream too,” she softly confessed. “I dreamed that I was on an island…” Her island actually, but she didn’t feel the need to impart that fact. “…And the interior of the island was disappearing…all the land…the houses…the trees…just cracking apart and falling into the sea…and I was forced to run to the beach. But when I got there just ahead of the collapsing ground there were these giant sharks in the sea…huge ones…as big as an airship…with great gaping mouths and sharp teeth. They kept lunging onto the beach…getting closer and closer every time. Sharks in front of me…collapsing ground behind me…”
Cloud had found his boots during her recitation, and now he bent to drag one onto a foot. “Your dream sounds a lot scarier than mine,” he idly remarked. “Maybe it was something you ate.” He reached for his other boot.
The cot creaked beneath her as she shifted uneasily in place. “Actually…I think it represents…an untenable…situation,” she said softly. “One of those situations where no matter what you do, you’re damned.”
Both boots donned, Cloud sat back on his cot and looked over at her. His eyes narrowed as he tried to see the murky features of her face, now almost revealed by the muted light of early morning sifting into the tent. “Well…I’d think that in a situation like that a person might as well do the thing that feels right.” He shrugged at his own words and twisted around to reach for the wide armored belt and sword harness at the foot of the bed. “If you’re screwed anyway, might as well feel good about it.”
She sat silently watching him fasten his harness and belt as she pondered his words. When he reached for the sword he’d left propped against a tent pole, she felt compelled to finally respond. “Yeah…I know you’re right…but…”
“But?” Cloud set the tip of the sword into the ground between his boots and laced his fingers around the hilt.
“Sometimes there is…right…and wrong…in both sides of a…decision…”
He tilted his head in thought. “Go with your gut then. The right thing usually isn’t that hard to figure out.”
“Really?” she asked with a quizzical lift of a brow.
“Well…it’s usually the thing you find the hardest to think about doing…”
A rueful smile came to Caitlin’s face at the truth in his statement. “I guess you’d know, Cloud Strife, since you’ve a reputation for doing the right thing.”
Cloud snorted his amusement. “More like an expert at doing the wrong thing.”
“That’s not what I hear. I’ve heard some amazing things about you. That climb into Sector 5, that took a lot of guts.”
“Yeah…well…my friends keep me honest…” He abruptly stood and raised the sword over his shoulder to sheath the weapon.
Caitlin studied him in bemusement. “I’ve embarrassed you.”
The blonde-haired warrior shook his head. “Nah…you’re just giving me more credit than I deserve. If I did the right thing all the time, I wouldn’t have bad dreams about doing the wrong thing.” He reached for his discarded gloves.
“What are your dreams about, Cloud?” she asked curiously.
He worked both gloves over his hands, and then he shrugged uneasily. “Friends I’ve let down,” he replied bluntly. Purposefully, he gathered up the rest of his equipment and turned away from her to step into the aisle, effectively putting his back on the conversation. “I’m going outside to see what’s shakin’.”
Avian, who had been lying quietly trying hard to listen to the hushed conversation, abruptly threw his covers aside and jumped to his feet. “I’m going too,” he hissed loudly.
“No, you’re staying right here,” Cloud flatly informed him. “At least until I find out what’s going down.” He nodded toward the shadow that briefly darkened the tent door. “Elena’s pacing, and that can’t be good.”
“Damn it.” Avian dropped heavily to the cot as Cloud headed for the door. On a whim, he picked up his pillow and reached across to plop it down on top of Yuffie’s gape-mouthed face. If he couldn’t join the excitement outside, he could create some of his own. To his disappointment, Yuffie didn’t react in any way. Even the rhythmic snores rattled on unabated. Not a young man to be deterred easily, especially in matters concerning Yuffie, Avian reached across again and, with a pinch of his thumb and forefinger in the approximate center, lifted the pillow off Yuffie’s face about foot. After a moment’s consideration, he raised it a foot more, and then he opened his hand and let it go. This time his actions were amply rewarded.
Yuffie snorted through her nose at the interruption of her peaceful slumber, and with a string of unladylike and vociferously expressed curse words, she threw the pillow off her face and sprang off the cot, jumping to her feet with fluid ninja grace. By the time the enraged girl shot her hot glare around the tent, Avian Wulfe had fallen into his cot and whipped the covers over his head, curling up in feigned sleep. Yuffie’s gaze slid over him to land on the worried brown eyes beneath his cot. At the menacing expression in the girl’s face, the dog rose to his four paws and silently slunk away.
Yuffie’s gaze shot back to the motionless form beneath the blanket, and she appraised the sleeping Avian at length, until a prolonged yawn came from the cot beyond him. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously, and she lifted her chin to pin her icy gaze on the silver-haired young man stretching in his cot. He rolled to his side and tried to focus sleepy azure eyes on her rather threatening face.
“You!” she snarled. “It was you, wasn’t it?!”
His eyes rounded at the heated challenge and glittering eyes. “What?!” he asked in alarm. “What was me?!”
She didn’t bother to answer. Instead, she opted for action. Snatching up the discarded pillow from the ground, she swung her weapon over her head and vaulted over the silent Avian in his cot in one great leap. Frozen into immobility on his own cot, the pilot could only stare with gaping mouth as she brought the pillow down with both hands and a great battle cry that could make the bravest man’s heart tremble to slam him full in the face.
“Take that, Fly Boy!” she screamed triumphantly. Then satisfied at the motionless body on the cot, she strode away, her assault an undeniable success. Slowly, Derry drew the pillow away from his face and stared at her retreating back in bewilderment. “What’d I do…” he muttered to himself. Then he decided such an undeserved act demanded retribution. In a paroxysm of movement, he threw his blanket aside and jumped to his feet, bringing the pillow along with him. Sensing the new threat, Yuffie turned back with lowered brows.
“You don’t think I’m taking that laying down do you, Princess?” he asked in a disarming drawl as he stepped into the aisle.
Not lulled into a false sense of security by his amiable smile, Yuffie instantly grabbed a pillow from another cot, and lifted it over her shoulder.
Awakened by Yuffie’s loud ululation upon her initial attack, Rachel sleepily opened her eyes just in time to see the two combatants brandish their pillows as they slowly advanced toward each other. More intrigued than worried, she crawled into Caitlin’s lap to watch with wide eyes. Both pillow warriors let out challenging cries and leapt into battle, engaging in a relentless assault of swinging and pummeling. The snickering from the cot behind them went unnoticed in the furor, until the occupant tossed his own blanket aside and sprang from his hiding place to enjoin the fight, acquiring two pillows from a couple of vacant cots on the way. Without a warning yell of his own, he sneaked up behind the ninja girl and whomped a pillow down on top of her head.
Surprised at the unexpected attack, she whirled around to find a new enemy standing at her back, grinning like an idiot. “Oh, that is so wrong!” she exclaimed, and she slammed the pillow into his stomach with a vengeance. Avian snatched the pillow from her hands and lifted it high over his head. “You are so dead, Wutai,” he gleefully informed her. He brought the pillow down with a vengeance, and Derry seized the opportunity to whack Yuffie in the back of the head at the same time, after which the ninja girl began to falter beneath a flurry of blows from both young men, unable to acquire another pillow of her own in the prolonged assault.
Caitlin narrowed her eyes on the one-sided battle. “They’re ganging up on her, Rachel,” she told the little girl. Rachel turned inquisitive eyes to the woman’s face. “Do you think we should save her?” Caitlin asked her with mock seriousness.
Rachel simply nodded. It seemed a good idea to her. With a feline smile, Caitlin stood and set the little girl on her feet, and then she reached across for Cloud’s abandoned pillow. She handed the pillow to a puzzled Rachel and then gathered Elena’s pillow and her own into her hands. “Let’s get them!” she suddenly yelled, and springing forward, she let both pillows fly, one after the other. Giggling, Rachel threw her own, but it fell far short of its intended target. However, Caitlin’s pillows both found their mark. One hit the side of Avian’s face, and the other rebounded off his ribcage.
Avian turned in outrage at the attack from an unexpected quarter. Yuffie seized the moment to jerk his pillow from his hands, leaving him no weapon with which to retaliate, until Yuffie fortuitously threw it right back into his face. He threw a hand up to catch the pillow in midair, and he whirled to launch the feather stuffed missile at Caitlin. She easily dodged the projectile, snatching it up to fire it at Derry this time, and then hurriedly scrambled for more ammunition.
From that point, the pillow war was truly engaged, and the ensuing melee might have drawn the notice of the Turks outside, if their attention had not been directed elsewhere. No one intervened, and the merry battle raged on while Rachel and Soldier stood side by side at a safe distance, content to watch.
At sight of the oncoming chopper, Vendra hurriedly slung her rifle over her shoulder, looped the binoculars around her neck and fled across the flat brushy surface of the bluff, leaping over rocks and bushes as she ran. At one point, the wind ripped her cap off her head, and her freed braids tumbled out to fall down her back. She almost stopped then, to go back for it, but a glance over her shoulder found the chopper nearing the bluff, uncomfortably close. She could not give Reno an opportunity to identify her, not if she wished to carry out her plan. In fact, at this point she had only one option left to her. Her fingers chilled to numbness, she fumbled for the orb. With a touch of a fingertip and a single thought, she vanished into a brilliant flash that filled the cockpit of the oncoming helicopter with blinding white light.
Instinctively, Reno threw the back of one hand over his eyes, and although he felt like cursing loud and long, he didn’t bother to waste his breath but kept the words in his thoughts. Rather, he frowned with deep intent and set both hands to the controls, eyes glittering with his intention of setting the chopper on the ground in preparation for disembarking. Surely, even Elena couldn’t bitch if the enemy had vanished into thin air, thereby posing no more threat. He’d been left with only an investigation to carry out, and he intended to leave no stone unturned.
The chopper skids had barely touched the ground before he’d drawn the pistol from the waistband of his jeans and shoved open the cockpit door. Carefully, he scanned the entire area with an unmerciful eye in the early morning light. He didn’t believe there had been more than one, but a man couldn’t be too careful, especially when he’d probably have a subordinate female Turk to answer to on his return. He shook his head at his own tolerance of her behavior. He knew he should reprimand her. That’s what Tseng would have done. At the very least, Tseng would have sat in his chair on the other side of his expansive desk with his solemn sphinx-like gaze and piously folded hands to give her an arduous tongue lashing; about responsibility, and professional standards, and self-control, and discretion, and blah blah blah. He’d been on the receiving end of that lecture more than once, before Tseng had given up in despair. Personally, he wasn’t into all that administrative shit. It wasn’t his style. Besides, he figured such a procedure would be just as wasted on Elena as Tseng’s efforts had been on him.
On that note, Reno slid out of the chopper and landed his boots on the ground. He took one more long look around, just to doubly ensure that he would not be opening himself up to an ambush and giving Elena the opportunity to kick his bullet-riddled body while chanting “I told you so you stupid bastard” over and over again, and then he turned toward the rim. Reno carefully studied the ground passing beneath his boots as he crossed the wide expanse of ground, looking for any sign of human passage and meeting with little success. He planned to return and examine the area more closely later, after he’d located the watcher’s nest that he knew would be at the edge.
Immediately upon his arrival at the edge of the bluff, he lifted his eyes to the distant encampment where he quickly located their tent. With a squint of his eyes, he could just barely make out the figures outside. As he’d already known, the distance was too far for a sniper to pick off a target. Therefore he had already concluded the unwelcome visitor had been there to gather intelligence about the whereabouts of Rachel, Caitlin and Avian, and in order to accomplish that task the spy would have expended more than a few minutes hunkered down somewhere just along the edge with a pair of binoculars in hand. With that in mind, the Turk searched along the rim with ponderous steps and intense gaze until he duly discovered a wide patch of broken down brush in his path. Reno instantly halted and lowered his eyes to the disturbed ground where he easily spied a slightly crumpled pack of cigarettes and a single carelessly discarded cigarette butt at his feet. A chilly smile came to his lips. Sometimes he found his job entirely too easy.
A swirl of wind found its way beneath the sheltering overhang at the arched entrance of the cave inside which Tifa Lockhart slept, slipping icy fingers across one exposed cheek and into her hair to whip a wayward strand against her nose. With a start and a little gasp, she awoke from a dream to stare in bewilderment at the strange markings on the smooth wall before her eyes. At first, she thought herself still caught inside the dream, even though now that she thought about it, she couldn’t really remember her dream. Not any of it, in fact. The alien markings and crudely drawn figures had chased the last remnants of the dream images away. Crimson stained gashes like rivulets of blood in stone.
A line formed beside her nose as she frowned in concentration. The drawings reminded her of something, but she couldn’t locate the elusive memory from her sleep-fogged brain, and before she could think on the matter any harder, a more aggressive gust of cold wind blew across her, piercing directly through the thin barrier of her tightly wrapped blanket cocoon to send a shiver throughout her entire body. The wind caught inside the mouth of the cave in a vicious swirl of air that lifted a scattering of loose silt from the ground and sent it into her face. Squeezing her eyes tightly closed, Tifa whipped the edge of the blanket up over her face and rolled to her other side to put her back to the vengeful current of imprisoned air.
Eventually, the gust died a natural death, and Tifa cautiously drew the blanket down just far enough to peep over the edge. Her eyes fell upon another sight that evoked a strong feeling of déjà vu. The familiar figure of the cloaked man sitting cross-legged on the very rim of a ledge, his back ramrod straight, his still form silhouetted against a lightening sky, the ends of his ebony hair ruffling in the steady breeze. It didn’t require much thought on her part to remember when she’d seen him just so. High up on a ledge, on the face of a different mountain, only weeks ago, but a lifetime it seemed. The day their journey together had truly begun. Now they were near the end. Oddly, the thought filled her with an unexpected sense of melancholy.
Tifa abruptly stood then, letting the blanket fall to her feet as she chided herself for her silliness. Of course, she wanted to get to the end. She knew that Kalm couldn’t be more than a few days travel toward the northeast, and she wanted to go there and find out if anyone there knew what had happened to the Highwind. She needed to see her friends again. Wanted more than anything to see them. Alive and well. All of them. She had no doubt in her mind that Vincent wanted the ordeal over with too. The man was probably more than ready to see the back of her. How could he not be?
With rapt eyes still focused on the unmoving figure of Vincent Valentine, she unconsciously folded her arms about her body and hunched her shoulders against the cold morning air as she idly wondered what he was doing there. What random thoughts passed through the man’s mind? Maybe he was meditating or composing incomprehensible things to say or wishing them off the side of the mountain or, more probably, planning a whole new set of rules to impose on her at the first opportunity. Maybe she should just ask him.
Tifa took a step toward him with that idea in mind, and then as an afterthought, snatched up the discarded blanket and drew the warm mantle about her shoulders before continuing in his direction. She paused only momentarily when she stepped off the edge of the pallet and her bare foot came in contact with the cold windswept rock. A shiver coursed through her, and she pondered the idea of pausing to don her socks, but then she shrugged and continued on her route toward the rim of the wide ledge to falter to a hesitant stop beside the immobile Vincent Valentine.
At that point, Tifa fully expected him to look up at her, to acknowledge her presence either with a slight frown or one of his fathomless gazes, or even to tell her not to stand so close to the edge, but she might as well not be there for all the attention he paid her. In fact, he didn’t so much as twitch one muscle or flicker one eyelash in recognition of her arrival. He didn’t say ‘Hi’ either, but then she didn’t imagine he would. She didn’t believe the word to be in his vocabulary. But he could tell her good morning or ask after her welfare instead of just sitting there like a lump. He might as well be a stone gargoyle for all the liveliness he exhibited.
Piqued at the perceived slight, Tifa decided that she wouldn’t say a single word to him either. She knew damn well that he knew she was standing there, and that he’d probably known the exact moment she’d risen from her bed. So if he didn’t want to talk to her, she wouldn’t talk to him. If he could ignore her, she most certainly could and would ignore him right back. Even though she knew damn well that being ignored by her wouldn’t bother him a teeny fraction as he bothered her. In fact, he’d probably welcome it. With a little toss of her head to convey a nonchalance that she hoped didn’t come across to him as forced as it felt to her, a pointless consideration as he wasn’t looking at her anyway, she reluctantly shifted her attention from Vincent’s serene profile to seek out the distant point on which his unblinking gaze seemed so drawn that he couldn’t be bothered to even glance her way.
At the sight that met her questing gaze, Tifa’s eyes widened in wonder and her breath caught in her throat. Slowly, she sank to the cold ground beside Vincent and unconsciously tucked her feet inside the warm folds of her blanket without once taking her eyes from the far horizon where the brilliant crown of a molten sun had just commenced its glorious emergence from a narrow ribbon of sea that appeared in the distance as only a thin tracing of shimmering silver, visible to her only because of her high vantage point. With each passing second, the blazing sun slipped further into the sky and increasingly painted all in its purview to gold; the distant ocean, the rolling landscape beyond the foothills of the mountain range, the very sky itself. Her pent breath escaped her lips in a honeyed sigh of pleasure. When had she last seen such a sunrise? Any sunrise, in fact? She could hardly recall, it seemed so long ago. Before the Northern Crater certainly. Suddenly, she did remember, and she wondered in amazement that she could have forgotten. The very day they’d descended into the crater to seek out Sephiroth. That morning, Cloud had shaken her awake at daybreak, but he’d been so anxious to go, she’d hardly noticed the sunrise at all. Truthfully, she’d been more interested in keeping him there a few moments longer, wanting nothing more in the world than to rest her head against his sturdy shoulder for just a few minutes more. Coaxing from him whatever concession she could get, because she’d already resigned herself to the knowledge that he would never give her anything more. In that moment she’d known that when they left the crater rim that early morning, that would be it. She’d never be that close to Cloud again.
Strange, now that she thought about it. The last time she’d seen a sunrise, she’d been sitting alone beside one man, and now, at her very next experience of the dawn, she sat alone beside another. Thankfully, unlike Cloud that day, Vincent seemed in no hurry to go. He seemed as captivated by the break of day as she. But then he had the same compelling reason to appreciate the sunrise that she did. Both of them…they’d been trapped in darkness for so long, hungry for light. The sun’s golden rays provided sustenance she’d not truly appreciated until now, and the sight warmed her despite the chill breeze.
Tifa chanced a surreptitious look at her silent companion. Where had Vincent spent his last sunrise? Had it been the morning after her fall from the Highwind? Maybe sitting at the edge of that distant ledge waiting patiently for her to regain consciousness just as he sat at the edge of this one now where he’d most likely been wondering, prior to her rising, how long it would take her to wake up so they could go? Or had it also been that early morning before their long journey into the dark pit of the Northern Crater? She could almost see him standing at the edge of a steep, ice-incrusted cliff, peering out across the Northern Sea, the hem of his red cloak rippling in the wind, strands of his ebony hair trailing across his ivory face, a stark figure painted against a pale tapestry of snow and sky and sea. Had his decision to continue on and enjoin the battle been difficult? She suspected not. He’d probably stayed for the same reason she’d stayed. She had nowhere else to go. The Highwind had become her home, and Avalanche her only family. Of course, she’d stayed for Cloud too…
On second thought, she had to admit to herself that Vincent didn’t seem the sort of person to need anyone. Maybe his decision had been based on his wish to see justice done. Maybe even to avenge his Letitia...or...Lucille...or whatever her name was. "L". Good enough. Who knew with him? He didn’t reveal his motivations. Not to anyone. What would he do when their ordeal was over? She knew what she would do. Surround herself with people. Fall into a semblance of her former life. Seek the familiar. But Vincent…she thought he might just put everything behind him. Simply turn his back and walk away, and for some unfathomable reason, that idea filled her with anxiety. She thought maybe it was because she couldn’t bear the thought of him being alone, even as she acknowledged that the idea of being alone probably appealed to him. An exasperated huff of warm breath slipped across her chilled lips. Why the hell was she thinking about Vincent Valentine anyway? She was depressing herself, and it was much too wonderful a morning to be depressed.
At some point during her reverie, Tifa’s vacant gaze had drifted to the narrow valley below, and now in despair at her compulsive worrying about a man who couldn’t even rouse himself to look at her, she purposely shoved the taciturn man from her thoughts and instead turned her mind to the details of the landscape visible mere inches beyond her blanket covered toes. Folding her arms across her drawn up knees, she leaned forward to scan the far expanse of the shimmering lake below; a softly glowing milky pool in the moonlight the night before, now a silvered mirror in the early morning light, disturbed into motion only where the high waterfall from the curve of mountain to the north poured bajillions of gallons of water into the depths with a muted roar. On the opposite shore of the lake, she could see the white-capped surface of a fast flowing river that traced the contours of the land before eventually vanishing into a dark hollow in the curved mountain wall to the south. In the morning light, she easily realized what she had not noticed before; that the valley was actually almost completely enclosed within a roughly circular declivity formed by an inward deviation of the mountain range, the only apparent egress from the valley a narrow gap at the outermost boundary where the face of the mountain curved back the other way in both directions to reveal a hazily distant vista of green meadows and rolling hills on the far side. Inside the valley, a forest lined the banks of the lake and trailed along the riverside, sparse in places, lush in others, and beyond the edges of forest lay hilly grassland, tinted in places with pale yellow that she recognized to be patches of wildflowers randomly scattered across the hillside.
Another long and pronounced sigh of pleasure escaped Tifa’s lips. “So…beautiful…” she breathed in awe.
Vincent finally turned his head then, looking her way for the first time since he’d heard her stir in her bed, even though he’d vowed not to do so. And just as he’d known would inevitably happen if he surrendered and looked, his gaze was instantly captured by the entranced features of her wondrous face and his mind hopelessly enslaved by her beauty despite all his fevered and futile promises that he would not allow himself to be drawn so. Helpless to do otherwise, he wordlessly drank in her features with hungry eyes, a stealthy thief purloining all the treasures he could manage before he was caught; tucking them away for future torment on a faraway day, when she would be long gone. The warmth of her liquid brown eyes. The softly rounded cheeks rosy from the cold air. The inviting mouth parted in a sweet smile of contentment. The stir of her dark hair against the line of her jaw. His stomach tightened when he noted the slight trembling of her lower lip in the icy chill of the cold mountain breeze.
“Yes…” he impulsively concurred in a hushed voice, and he wasn’t referring to the glorious sunrise or the invitingly beautiful landscape. Not really…
Startled from her enchantment by Vincent’s unexpected and softly intoned agreement, Tifa’s eyes shot to his face where she found herself instantly caught in the trap of his unblinking eyes, her gaze hopelessly locked within his. Her breath fell still in her lungs as she stared at crimson irises that seemed to radiate unusual warmth. A trick of the light, she supposed. An optical illusion. Had to be. But then again, maybe not. Maybe the insular man simply felt more sociable in their newfound freedom from darkness. Maybe even Vincent Valentine couldn’t be cool and morose in the face of such a beauteous vista. The smile that had slowly faded from her face now brightly returned and widened encouragingly, her eyes filling with delight that he seemed to share her sentiments. “Isn’t this the most glorious morning you’ve ever seen, Vincent?”
He blinked then, as though she’d caught him unawares, and his dark lashes drifted down to shutter his eyes as his gaze skated away to the valley below. “The sun rises on a dying day,” he replied somberly.
“Huh?” Tifa’s eyes narrowed on his face in bewilderment at the pessimistic reply. Her brow creased with dissatisfaction. She felt like a child given a gift, only to have it snatched away. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked huffily, her annoyance at him evident in her tone. She found herself entirely too tired to summon the effort to hide it. Her frown deepened in thought, and her gaze turned suspicious. Then her eyes narrowed in consternation on his unrevealing profile. “Is that something like that depressing saying about how you start to die the moment you’re born?”
Vincent promptly responded by lifting the rifle from his lap and slinging the strap to his back as he climbed to his feet. “We should go.”
Tifa glared up into his closed face. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” she responded wryly. “We should go. While we still have daylight. While we’re still alive and kicking.” Why was he being such a wet blanket on her wonderful morning? Cranky thing probably hadn’t slept at all the night before. In fact, now that she thought about it, she couldn’t swear that he’d slept in days. She suspected that he often left the pallet they shared after she fell asleep in violation of their deal. She hadn’t caught him, but it wouldn’t surprise her, sneaky man that he was. And why was she letting him irritate her? She had to admit that she was probably cranky too. She felt like she’d hardly slept at all last night. She’d been too excited to settle down for a long time. Plus she hadn’t come close to making up for the long sleepless hours of travel through the claustrophobic darkness.
“The descent will take most of the day,” he quietly clarified, his brows drawing together ever so slightly, a bit mystified as to her change in tone. He hadn’t failed to detect the sarcasm in her words.
Tifa slowly nodded in agreement as her irritation at him faded as quickly as it had risen. It was difficult to stay annoyed in the face of such bland implacability. “I know…you’re right…”
Releasing a heavy and pointedly audible sigh of surrender for his benefit, she drew her blanket tighter around her and unfolded her legs. In an attempt to display her eagerness to comply with Mr. Valentine’s plan, she sprang to her feet and whirled in his direction. Unfortunately, one bare foot tangled in a fold of the trailing army blanket and tripped her with a result both inevitable and irretrievable. She lost her balance and fell forward with a choked cry of alarm, straight toward the edge where there would be nothing to grab hold of in her desperation but air, nothing to halt her long tumble into the lake hundreds of feet below. She marveled to herself, even as her hands futilely flailed for purchase, that she had been so remarkably careless. Even after her numerous near accidents over the past days. Even after her fall from the Highwind. Especially after nearly falling off a ledge on the other side of the mountain range in a situation startling similar. Vincent Valentine had saved her every time, and she seemed bent on testing the man’s reflexes yet again.
Without fail, the uncompromising band of Vincent’s metal fingers snapped painfully around her wrist, and he jerked her away from the yawning rim, nearly lifting her off her feet in his determination. Still entangled in the blanket, she stumbled against him, and only a last ditch and wholly instinctive snatch of a handful of his shirt and the strong support of his arm against her back prevented her from falling ignominiously at his feet.
Her heart pounding unmercifully at her close call, she scrambled to find her feet, one bare sole landing atop the cold metal toe plates of Vincent’s right boot before she managed to plant both feet on solid ground and pull herself upright. On rubbery legs, she weakly leaned against him, unconsciously bending her head to rest her forehead against his sternum as she waited for her world to steady. She barely took notice of the subtle tightening of his arm about her waist or the brush of his chin against the crown of her head, other than an unthinking acceptance of his unspoken invitation as she pressed closer into the warm security of his yielding body. As the moments passed, her fingers relaxed their death grip in the material of his shirt to flatten against his chest, and she slipped her cheek against him as she snuggled her head into the crook of his neck with a little sigh. Tifa might have been content to remain inside the protective circle of his embrace indefinitely, had Vincent not suddenly tensed in place, his whole body transforming into a slab of stone as unwelcoming as the rock beneath her feet, clearly communicating his discomfort with the current situation.
Tifa’s head flew up in alarm at the sudden clap of awareness inside her head, not only at the marked change in his posture, but also at her sudden recognition of just where she’d ended up, in an accidental but disturbingly intimate embrace with Vincent Valentine. Even now, the fingers of her right hand curled gently against his shoulder where he still held her wrist in the light clasp of his talons, and his stiff arm, even in seeming reluctance, still encircled her waist to securely hold her in close proximity. Her face flamed into hot color then, at the thought of how he might misconstrue her behavior. After all, she’d only meant to catch her breath, recover her senses after almost toppling over the ledge. What must Vincent think? She didn’t mean to give the impression that…that…she planned to stay…that she wanted to…
Her right hand fisted against his shoulder then, and she pushed against his chest with just enough pressure to signal her desire to be freed. Vincent promptly opened his talons to release her wrist and dropped his arm from her waist even as he deliberately insinuated himself into the space between her and the rim of the rock shelf, a move which placed his boot heels mere inches from an endless step into thin air. Stricken at the sight, she impulsively snatched a handful of his cloak into her hand as she backed away from him, giving the garment a sharp tug to urge him away from the edge, her eyes inexorably flying to his face despite her embarrassment. She fought the compelling need to duck her head and hide her rosy cheeks from his too perceptive gaze in order to reinforce her silent bid with her dark, beckoning eyes. She couldn’t look away until she’d successfully drawn him to safety.
Dutifully, he obeyed, mirroring each one of her backward steps with a forward step of his own until the heel of one bare foot landed on the soft material of her abandoned pallet, and she deemed his distance from the cliff edge adequate enough to reluctantly permit the handful of crimson cloak to fall from her hand. Even then she could not make herself break the strange wordless gaze that passed between them, and he didn’t seem inclined to do so either. She opened her mouth to say something, like maybe apologize, or maybe explain, but she didn’t know for sure what she should apologize for or how she could explain. Was she supposed to say she was sorry for stupidly tripping into space so that he was forced yet again to save her? Or did she say she was sorry for…whatever that had been…that she’d been doing. What had she been thinking? At that point, she couldn’t decide what to say, so she simply gaped at him.
Vincent abruptly folded his arms across his chest and came exactly two steps closer, a move which forced her chin up so that she could keep her eyes on his. One dark wing of an eyebrow quirked upward then, and she thought she could detect a knowing glint in his cool eyes, although what he thought he knew she couldn’t begin to imagine. Probably that he’d known all along that she would screw up, that he fully expected her clumsy self to topple over the cliff, and that, as evidenced by his quick reaction, he’d been more than ready to rescue her yet again despite an sudden urge to just stand there and leave her to the just consequences of her carelessness with an indifferent shrug of his shoulder. In fact, from the annoyed cast of his face, she could only believe that he planned to tell her all about it, in a voice full of weary resignation. She could almost hear the conversation in her mind even now.
“You’ve been unusually clumsy of late, Miss Lockhart. I don’t recall these problems in our previous travels.”
Her lips twitched in a smile at the imaginary exchange, until Vincent actually did speak, his narrow eyebrows knitting as he did so. “Please be more careful in future,” he reprimanded her in a stern voice, as though she were a wayward child. Her mouth instantly turned downward in disgruntlement, an expression that only deepened as he dropped his arms and dismissively stepped around her. She whirled in place as her hands defiantly came to her hips, a reflection of her irritation at the tone he’d taken with her.
“It was an accident, you know,” she informed him haughtily, stalking across the pallet after him as he rounded the edge of the spread blanket on his route to the backpack he’d left against the back wall of the wide passage beyond the entrance.
Only a couple of paces past her rumpled pallet, he halted in mid-step at her remark and turned his head as though he might look over his shoulder at her, but she could see nothing of his face but for the dangling strands of his ebony hair and the end of his thin nose. “I did not think you suicidal,” he replied blandly. He started to continue on his way then, but then seemed to change his mind, instead turning back and stooping to gather the blanket into hand and claw. He paused with the edge of the material in hand to lift depthless crimson eyes to her face. She knew that he only meant to roll up the blanket and that look was his cue for her to move off, but a stubborn and unreasonable urge to just stay there forever came over her, until an image suddenly popped into her mind, one in which a serene-faced Vincent Valentine emotionlessly yanked the blanket from beneath her feet to dump her painfully on her butt. She knew he wouldn’t do such an ungentlemanly thing, but…why tempt him?
Tifa darted off the blanket with alacrity, and then dashed around the pallet to his side where she pointedly snatched the material from his grasp as he straightened to his full height. “I’ll do that,” she flatly told him. “And…I’m not suicidal,” she bluntly added.
He shot her a noncommittal look and turned away from her, moving on to the back of the cave and going down on one knee to drag the backpack to him. After a few moments of silence, he deemed it necessary to respond. “I said that, did I not?”
On the verge of rolling up the blanket, Tifa suddenly remembered the other blanket that had tripped her in the first place. She glanced back toward the rim of the ledge only to find that the blanket was not there. At the moment Vincent spoke, she had just realized that it must have slipped over the edge. Her mouth went dry and her stomach knotted at the picture that formed in her mind at what might have been if she’d gone over with the blanket still around her. Still, Vincent’s words registered vacantly in her mind, and she absently responded.
“I said that I did not think you suicidal,” he reminded her in his quiet monotone.
She shifted troubled eyes to his bent back. “Oh…right…” she agreed vaguely. “You did…sorry…” She couldn’t even remember now why she’d felt the need to reinforce that point with him. She didn’t want to think about the whole business anymore anyway. She would just make a vow to be much more careful in future. Especially around Vincent. Actually, the problem hadn’t really developed until she’d wound up with Vincent, come to think of it. Shaking her head in despair at the tenor of her thoughts, she pointedly focused on the task of folding and rolling up the blanket so that Vincent could tie it to the backpack.
Opening the backpack, Vincent rifled through the contents until he found the rock hammer, pitons, and coil of rope in the bottom. He removed the necessary items and set them aside so he could repack the bag. As his hands methodically worked, his mind helplessly replayed over and over the moments that followed Tifa’s near fall from the cliff. Truthfully, he’d been on the alert, so wary of situations that placed Tifa Lockhart on ledges had he become. She’d not really been in danger, because he’d been watching. He’d been ready. Tensed to act. Despite the foregone outcome, the near accident had shaken him. But even more unsettling to him were the moments subsequent, when he’d propelled her into an unwitting embrace, and then had impulsively held her close, all the while knowing he should put her away from him, but unwilling, even unable, to let her go. He’d found himself hopelessly imprisoned by the sweet summer smell of her hair in his nostrils and the yielding softness of her body against his. She’d filled the entirety of his every sense while he’d shunned all else of the world behind closed eyelids, and for that too brief time, the world had seemed…right. A ridiculous notion, he knew. And one he should dwell on no longer. To do so would only bring him pain.
Vincent sensed more than heard her step behind him, soundless on bare feet, and he deliberately closed the flap on the backpack and deftly tied up the strings. She stood there without speaking, and he grew unaccountably nervous as the seconds elapsed without her saying a word. Finally, he surrendered to an impulse to speak himself, to dispel the thick silence between them, seizing on the first thought that came to his mind as he reached for the rock hammer, a topic most likely inspired by the prospect of spending the better part of a day descending a mostly sheer mountainside with her in tow, a matter of which he was keenly aware. A matter that he could convince himself to be behind the reason he found himself suddenly filled with anxiety.
Her own self-assigned task finished, Tifa had been waiting patiently for Vincent to finish his business with the rolled blanket cradled in her arms, her thoughts drifting aimlessly as she watched him repack the bag over his shoulder. At some point her gaze had settled on his busy hand, her attention drawn by the efficient economy of the long, supple fingers as they worked, and inevitably the memory of awakening to find her own hand atop his had slipped into her mind, duly followed by an intriguing image of how those same fingers must have looked curved about her waist when he’d had his arm around her. That was one wayward thought that she had pointedly shoved from her mind as soon as it materialized, and at the moment she was busy thanking her lucky stars that he hadn’t caught her that time with her hand on his and wondering just what he would have done if he had, and yet again thinking that it was a very good thing that he had not, because if he knew about that time in light of what had just happened a few minutes past when she’d been foolishly hanging all over him, he might begin to think…well…that she had…silly thought…designs on him or something utterly ridiculous like that…especially after she’d rubbed her face all over his shirt. Mentally, she cringed at what he must have thought about that.
“The descent will be difficult,” Vincent said coolly, the sudden words in the silence startling her from her pained reverie. Her face filled with heat at the unreasoning idea that he’d somehow divined the focus of her thoughts. “I’ve appraised the terrain below,” he continued. “And although there appear to be several slopes and ledges along the route to ease our travel, much of the upper face is quite precipitous.”
She silently nodded her acceptance of his evaluation even though he wasn’t looking her way. She had not harbored any doubt that the climb down to the valley below would be arduous, but she wasn’t worried. She’d spent many a year scrambling all over the Nibel Mountains. She was an experienced climber and quite capable, when she wasn’t faint from illness. Or…distracted…
Vincent slowly turned the rock hammer in his fingers, studying the tool as though looking for defects, awaiting her comments. His brows drew together at her lack of a response. He decided to press his case, illuminate his concerns. “Statistics indicate the primary cause of accidents to be carelessness,” he informed her blandly.
Tifa’s mouth fell slack at the sharp prick of his words, and she struggled to form a suitable answer. Carelessness? What was the man trying to say? That along with being a complete klutz, she was also a clueless dingbat?
“I expect you to pay close attention during the descent,” he curtly added. “And follow my direction. Be very careful. And take no chances. There must be no mistakes. Not a single misstep.”
Despite the soundness of his advice, and regardless of a distant awareness of his good intentions, her temper flared. Her mouth slammed shut, and her lips fell into a tight line of compression as her brows lowered menacingly. Purposefully, she took the rolled blanket into both hands. Who did Vincent Valentine think he was? First, he lays his ‘Rules of the Road’ on her. Don’t run away. Don’t go near water. Obey his every command. And this that and the other. And now. Now he was turning all preachy on her. Bossy and preachy. Lecturing her about climbing safety? The nerve. Oh yes. How satisfying it would be to just whack him. Lift her makeshift bat and swing away. Watch strands of his ebony hair fly up as the rolled blanket whomped against an ear. What would Mr. Valentine say about that? Would he make a rule about that then?
”No hitting allowed, Miss Lockhart. Not with a blanket, a canteen, or a boot. Not with a hand, a fist, or a foot. Not with a rock, a stick, or any like projectile.”
Yep. Yessiree bob, she’d attend to detail all right. She’d make damn sure to aim straight for that red bandana, at that precise spot just above his right ear. Her aim would be true. Her blow solid. Her lips curving evilly in anticipation of seeing those expressionless crimson eyes fly impossibly wide in surprise and that preachy, bossy, serene face fill with astonishment, she fisted her hands tightly around the bedroll and raised it over her shoulder in preparation for the swing.
Vincent twisted around to look up at her then, almost as though he knew of her planned assault on his person. She froze in place and let the bedroll flop uselessly against her shoulder. Working hard to school her face into that of a person of pure innocence, she peered down into crimson eyes narrowed in suspicion and tentatively smiled her sweetest smile. Vincent’s eyes narrowed further, and she decided he wasn’t buying her act. She hadn’t really thought he would anyway, had she? Valiantly fighting the urge to whomp him atop the head anyway, just for general purposes, she drew the bedroll down and magnanimously offered it to him, rounding her eyes in an effort to radiate nothing but good will.
Hesitantly, Vincent reached for the bedroll and slowly drew it from her hands. His wary gaze lingered on her forced and almost comical expression for long seconds, until he apparently deemed it safe to put his back to her and return to his business, but not without one last surreptitious look over his shoulder at her. At that point, she finally conceded that her act wasn’t working. She wasn’t fooling anybody anyway. Not herself and certainly not Mr. Valentine. She was a mighty poor actress, and he was a mighty sharp ex-Turk who could read her like the open book she was. She suddenly discovered that she didn’t care if he knew that she planned to bop him with the bedroll. Maybe Mr. Valentine would think twice before he decided to get all bossy and preachy and annoying next time.
With a dismissive shrug, she lowered herself to the cold ground and dragged her socks and boots toward her. While he fiddled with his backpack, she donned socks and boots, and after she managed to fumble her laces into neat bows with fingers numb from the wind, she jumped to her feet with a marked exuberance designed to display to Mr. Valentine her eagerness to go only to find him still bent over the backpack apparently examining the contents of a side pocket. With a heavy sigh that she knew he couldn’t miss, she pointedly looked about for something to occupy her time until the man pronounced it time to leave, and her eyes inevitably landed on the strange markings that decorated the wall beyond his head. Leaving him to his own devices, she walked around him to stand in front of the wall at his side. Absently, she raised her hand to one of the etchings in the stone outlined with the dark substance that she had earlier likened to blood, a depiction of a radiant sun hanging above a line of inverted v’s of varying size that she could easily see represented a mountain range. From there, her eyes traveled to a sketchily drawn but intriguing image of a woman in a flowing robe with hands raised beseechingly toward a circle of birds, not dissimilar to the birds drawn on the wall at the ruins deep in the belly of the mountain. Stepping slowly, she moved along the wall away from Vincent, her fingers trailing across the engraved illustrations, touching the stained grooves reverently as though she were a blind woman reading with her fingertips.
Ten feet down the corridor, her hand passed across a wide circular ring, and she paused to idly trace the etching with one finger, her hand pausing momentarily in its circular movement when she recognized a dozen or so staring eyes inside the circle. Uneasiness filled her at the sight, and she drew her hand down and quickly moved on a couple of feet further to find an easily discernible image of a boat with a wide square sail. An overly tall figure stood imperiously at one end of the boat and a great bird with outstretched wings soared overhead. In the middle of the boat, a creature’s head jutted above the side looking ahead with bared teeth. A wolf, she decided. Or maybe a bandersnatch. At the other end of the boat, stood a couple with arms wrapped about each other in a loving embrace, or maybe one of comfort, both standing in profile. Lines trailed from the woman’s head to her heels as though to depict long tresses stirring in the wind and one oversized tear adorned her face.
Laying her hand against the wall just beneath the boat, Tifa found herself inexorably drawn into that single tear, and she couldn’t help but wonder at the possible cause of the woman’s sadness and the story behind the drawings. Soon, she was so caught up in thought that she forgot about the impending descent down the mountain and Vincent Valentine. Until the man spoke over her shoulder, having obviously sneaked up behind her on silent feet.
The one word he said in a soft voice completely escaped her comprehension due to the mad lurch of her heart into her throat. The breath flew from her lungs in a gasp, and she pressed her hand to her chest as she whirled around to glare up into emotionless crimson eyes. “Don’t do that!” she impulsively exclaimed, her words resonating too loudly in the enclosed space. “You startled me!”
“Forgive me,” Vincent dutifully replied.
Tifa studied the serene face for a moment and decided that he didn’t look the least bit apologetic. In fact, now that she thought about it, Mr. Valentine had probably scared her on purpose, just to get even with her for thinking about hitting him over the head. She could hardly argue the point though. The man would just deny it. “Well…don’t do that again,” she reprimanded sternly, if a bit weakly. He simply crossed his arms and inclined his head in concession, seemingly unperturbed by her own attempt at bossiness. With a despairing shake of her head and a roll of her eyes, she turned back to the matter at hand as Vincent came to her side.
“Well…what do you think, Vincent?” She waved a hand toward the circle of birds. “Are these the same as the ones we saw before?”
“Undoubtedly,” he replied coolly. “They appear to be Cetran.”
“Cetran?!” Her eyes shot to his unrevealing profile in her surprise, and she suddenly recognized that he had just repeated the one word he’d spoken when he’d decided to scare ten years off her life. He’d said that. Cetran. As though a revelation to himself. “Why do you think it's Cetran?” she demanded. Her mind instantly replayed their previous conversation in front of the painted pillar back in the tunnels, and although she had to admit that she had been somewhat hypnotized by the sudden transformation of his voice from monotone to melody at the time, she thought she would remember if he’d made such an astonishing proclamation before. Maybe he had just been granted a divine revelation. The man seemed pretty damned mystical sometimes. She eyed him suspiciously. “You didn’t say a thing about it being Cetran before,” she informed him in mild accusation.
One shoulder lifted in the barest of shrugs. “I didn’t know,” he responded evenly.
“So how do you know now?” she pressed.
Vincent unfolded his arms to raise a finger against a series of acutely angled figures stretching in a line above the drawing of the boat that had so intrigued her. “The letters,” he explained quietly. “They are Cetran.” Folding his arms again, he brought his eyes to her rapt face to gauge her level of comprehension. “There was no inscription accompanying the paintings on the pillars below.”
She might have nodded in understanding, if her mind had not been caught up in the amazing fact that the man apparently knew Cetran. Did they teach Cetran in Turk school? She turned her eyes to the same line of script he’d just pointed to, and she wondered if the Cetran words would give meaning to the images below. “What does it say?” she asked curiously.
“I don’t know.”
Her hopes that Vincent might reveal the story of the sad woman and her lover dashed by his indifferent admission, she found herself glaring at him again. “Why not?”
“I don’t read Cetran,” he patiently explained.
“Then how do you know its Cetran?”
“I’ve seen Cetran before.”
“Oh, really?” she asked sarcastically.
“Yes, I have. So have you.”
“I have?” Her eyebrows rose in surprise.
“Yes, at the fountain in the Forgotten City.”
Tifa felt somewhat deflated at the exchange. She had seen Cetran letters in the Forgotten City, but she hadn’t really paid them any mind, much less memorized them. She’d left the reading and deciphering to Bugenhagen, who had definitely appeared to possess more expertise than she. Apparently, Mr. Valentine had made those Cetran letters his business too. To cover the embarrassment she felt at her past lackadaisical interest in the Cetran alphabet, she waved an open-palmed hand toward the figures in the boat and the eerie ring of eyes. “What do you think it means?” she inquired with a feigned casualness to disguise her keen interest in what Vincent had to say.
“The drawings could describe a number of different scenarios,” Vincent replied noncommittally.
Tifa laid a finger against her lips in thought for a moment, and then she proffered her opinion on the matter, directing her finger to the appropriate illustrations as she spoke. “Well…I think those people…and their dog…in the boat are going to that place…with the shining sun and the mountains. And the ring of eyes…those are people watching them come…waiting to greet them…” She paused to plant her fingertip on the figure of the woman with the single tear on her face. “…And this woman is sad that she’s going…or wait…maybe she’s happy…” At that point in her interpretation, she looked at Vincent to find him shaking his head, and she fell silent as her attempt at analysis ran completely out of steam in the face of his disagreement. She held up her hands beseechingly. “Okay then…she’s sad?”
Vincent shook his head again. “They aren’t arriving,” he quietly replied. “They are departing. Escaping.”
Tifa looked back at the paintings in bewilderment. “How do you know? Where do you get that ‘escaping’ business?”
Vincent took several steps back to the right and pointed at a rather large scattering of broken figures that she had noticed earlier, but had dismissed as some random designs thrown up by the artist. Broken angular figures with round circles for heads painted in black and edged in crimson. Bodies, she realized unhappily. Hundreds of them. Now she could clearly see the artist’s intent. She wondered if they had died in battle or if a catastrophe of some sort had occurred. Vincent’s interpretation surely made sense, more so than hers, but she didn’t find it reason enough to give up her pet theory just yet, especially since she didn’t feel particularly agreeable.
“Maybe the people in the boat are going there to help,” she argued. “They are clearly heading toward that big ring…or circle…or whatever it is…with all the…all the…eyes…” She looked from the drawing to Vincent again in anticipation of his concession, only to find him shaking his head again. She couldn’t win with this guy.
“What then?” she asked with thinly concealed exasperation.
Vincent nodded toward the depiction of the robed woman with arms raised to the sky. “That woman and the woman on the boat are one and the same. Therefore, that woman departed on the boat, probably to escape the mayhem depicted there.” He inclined his head toward the welter of broken bodies scattered across the wall.
Tifa stubbornly planted her hands on her hips. His explanation still didn’t trump her argument, no matter how reasonable it was. She already knew the woman with upraised hands was the same woman as the one on the boat, but he had no proof that she was going instead of coming, which made both of their ideas plausible. And why was she even arguing with him about it? Why did she even care? It was the principle of the thing. That’s why.
“Look, Vincent…maybe you’re right, or maybe I’m right. Right?”
He silently shook his head again, and she decided, then and there, that he was just being stubborn. The thought that maybe he wasn’t being one whit more stubborn than she was currently being fleetingly flashed through her head before she quashed the idea beneath her determination to make him concede that she could be right.
She threw her chin up and lifted a hand from her hip to jab a finger in his direction. “So what makes you think you’re right, and I’m not?”
Vincent warily eyed her raised chin and the glittering eyes, as well as a slightly jutting lower lip, and he decided that perhaps he’d engaged in this discussion far too long. “It’s time to go,” he suddenly announced. Purposefully, he put his back to her and walked the short distance to the place he’d left his backpack, effectively putting an end to the entire matter. Or so he thought. However, Tifa wasn’t quite ready to let it go.
Tifa hurried after him and darted around him to plant herself directly in his path, forcing him to come to a stop. She jabbed a finger back down the passage. “The boat could be arriving,” she informed him. Her hands came to her hips again as she waited for his answer. And why she had to have his admission, she could not even imagine. Why did it even matter? Vincent stared down into her face for a long moment, and she stared right back. She searched his eyes and face for some hint of what he might say, but his blank face and cool eyes revealed nothing. Finally, she could not bear his unblinking perusal any longer.
“Well? Are you going to admit that the boat might be arriving just as easily as it might be leaving?”
At her question, his gaze slid away from her face, as though her words had broken him from a trance. “If you wish,” he replied softly. “Then the boat is arriving.” That said, he walked around her and bent to lift the backpack from the floor.
A triumphant smile came to her lips at his conciliatory answer, and then disappeared just as quickly. “Wait a minute…” she murmured. Vincent Valentine had conceded nothing. He was just humoring her. He didn’t, for a single second, believe that the boat was arriving.
She rounded on him to demand an explanation, but he spoke before she could get a word out. “Take this,” he directed, holding the canteen out to her. Holding her tongue, she readily obeyed, drawing the canteen from his hand to loop the strap around her neck. That task done, she raised her eyes with the intention of returning to the subject of the boat, only to find him extending the coil of rope toward her. “Take this.”
Dutifully, she took it. “Vincent…”
Reaching for the buckles of his cloak, Vincent nodded at the rope. “Tie that around you. Just as you did before. Do you remember?”
“Yes, I remember,” she responded with a curt nod of her head. Of course, she remembered. It wasn’t like she didn’t already know how to secure herself for a climb before his tedious instruction prior to their climb up the broken cliff at the ruin. She busied herself with the rope, tying it around her waist, and then looping it over her shoulders and around her thighs. She was halfway through completing the makeshift safety harness when she realized that Vincent had managed to divert her completely away from the previous discussion. Pretty clever of him, now that she thought about it. And it might have worked. On somebody else. But she had news for him. It wouldn’t work on her. She could talk and loop rope at the same time. In fact, she could talk and do a lot of things at the same time if she wanted.
“Why don’t you think the boat was arriving, Vincent?” she asked as she paused to check her knots. A barely audible sigh drifted to her ears, and her lips curved in satisfaction. He didn’t immediately answer, so she prompted him, looking up to find him stuffing his neatly folded cloak into the backpack, his face hidden from her by the fall of his ebony hair as he bent his head to the task.
“Well? Why don’t you?”
Vincent secured the bag, and then he finally lifted his head to look at her. “I said the boat could be arriving, did I not?” he reminded her.
“Yes, you did,” she easily agreed. “But you didn’t believe it when you said it.”
Vincent’s eyelashes drifted down at the challenge in her words, and she fully expected him to simply pick up the backpack and walk away, putting paid to the whole business once and for all. To her pleasant surprise, he didn’t, instead answering her accusation with a nod of his head. “No, I didn’t,” he flatly agreed.
With that single word, she demanded of him not only the reason he didn’t believe the boat might be arriving, but also why he’d been so patronizing as to think he could humor her, but he merely answered to the first.
“Cetran text and illustrations are read from right to left,” he replied quietly. “Therefore, a properly read interpretation of the mural would definitely suggest that the boat is departing.” His explanation complete to his satisfaction, Vincent turned away from her and bent to retrieve the rock hammer and pitons he’d left on the floor.
Her mind caught up in the implications of the new information, her eyes idly followed his movements, landing with appreciation on the uncloaked view he offered her as he bent, an aspect of him she’d not seen in awhile. Then he straightened, and she suddenly realized just where her gaze had drifted. Blushing guiltily, she planted her back to him and bent down to gather the coil of rope at her feet.
“How do you know Cetran is read that way,” Tifa asked quickly as she picked up the rope, all in an attempt to cover her embarrassment. And why was she so worried about it anyway? He couldn’t know where her eyes had been, could he? But then she remembered that the man had eyes in the back of his head, expertly hidden beneath all that thick black hair. “Er…from watching Bugenhagen?”
“Yes.” Vincent responded from just behind her. “And Dr. Gast as well.”
Tifa snapped upright and slowly turned to look at him as she laid the coil of rope protectively against her stomach, fully and painfully aware that her cheeks were on fire. Maybe he would think all the blood had rushed to her head when she’d bent down. Unlikely, but she could hope.
“Well, you might have told me sooner,” she chided.
Vincent mutely offered her the rock hammer and handful of pitons he held. “Shall we go?”
Even as she took the tools from his hand, she thought about telling him no. She’d just tell him she didn’t want to go. Just because she could. Just to see what he’d say. Just to see what he’d do. Because she was annoyed at him for stealing her argument from her. Just as surely as if he’d simply ripped the blanket from beneath her feet and dumped her on her butt with his hidden information. He’d won again. And if she refused to go, he’d just win yet again somehow. In fact, he’d only have to threaten to go without her, and that would be that. If he tried to leave her, she’d have to put a chokehold on him. When had he become so irritating anyway? And why did she think she had to win? When had it all become a contest? When she had turned it into one, that’s when. There was no longer any question about it. He had driven her mad, finally. That’s why. No. She was just tired. And irritable. And what’s more, she was hungry. The sooner her feet landed on the ground below, the sooner she could find something to eat. She was so hungry that she was about to eat her boots, laces and all, and Vincent’s boots too.
She gave a little nod of agreement and lifted her gaze to his face, only to discover that strange glint in his crimson eyes again. What did it mean? Did he think he knew something she didn’t know? Well, maybe he did. Or was it evidence of amusement at her expense? He probably did find her pretty damn funny. Arguing about boats coming and going.
Vincent blinked, and the glittering light deep in his pupils vanished. It had probably never been there anyway. Just a trick of the new sunlight filtering into the cave to highlight his face. One of his eyebrows rose beneath his bandana, and she realized that she’d been silently staring at his face for much longer than was polite. She gave a more definite nod of her head and abruptly whirled away. “I’m gone,” she informed him as she strode away. At least she’d beat him out to the ledge.
A shadow fell across her path, and she looked up to find him standing on the ledge halfway between the cave entrance and the rim, waiting for her. Startled, she looked around as though she might find an explanation written on the chilly breeze. How the hell did he do that? Her shoulders slumped in resignation. She couldn’t deny it anymore. Vincent Valentine was playing with a stacked deck. She allowed herself a second or two of dejection, and then she purposefully straightened her spine and squared her shoulders. She’d just have to find a way to reshuffle his deck.
Elena glared at the bluff with folded arms. “Where the hell is he?” she demanded of no one in particular.
His arms crossed over his chest and feet widely planted, Cloud stood near the blonde Turk but at a safe distance of about six feet away. His caution rose from her periodic agitation as evidenced by her occasional pacing, her indiscernible muttering, her intermittent nail biting inevitably followed by curses directed at a newly damaged nail, and especially from the way she’d earlier spat her answer at him when he’d inquired as to the reason Reno had landed the chopper on the bluff.
At her question now, he redirected his luminous eyes from his own vigilant regard of the bluff to her troubled face. It wasn’t the first time she’d asked the same question, but it was the first time he had the answer. He wondered if she’d be grateful for the information or if she would retaliate violently for daring to speak to her again. He decided that alleviating her obvious concern about Reno might make her less prone to attack.
“He’s on the rim,” Cloud informed her.
Surprised that she’d actually received a response to her rhetorical question, she swiveled her head to study Cloud with marked interest. “On the rim,” she curtly repeated.
Cloud simply inclined his head as he watched her with wary eyes.
“Where on the rim?” She returned her eyes to the bluff to scan the edge with a more careful eye. For the life of her, she couldn’t see the redheaded Turk. “I don’t see him,” she said with more than a hint of irritation in her tone.
Cloud unfolded his arms to point a gloved finger toward the distant bluff. “See that V-shaped rock formation…there…straight out and to the left…”
She stared hard at the cliff face, but she didn’t find the place he indicated. “No, I don’t see it,” she snapped.
Cloud took a chance and relinquished his safe distance to move up alongside her. Again he raised a finger, ducking down a little to direct her line of sight. “Right there. See it?”
Elena started to shake her head, but then she did see the rock formation, but it really didn’t look like a ‘V’. “That looks more like a checkmark,” she said sulkily.
Cloud shrugged his indifference. “Okay, a checkmark then. Now look directly up from the left side of the ‘V’. You can just barely see someone standing there.”
“Checkmark,” Elena reminded him as she did as he instructed.
“Sure, a checkmark,” Cloud easily agreed as he straightened away from her and returned his own gaze to the rim.
Elena squinted her eyes trying to see Reno standing at the edge of the bluff, and then she lifted one hand to shade her eyes from the bright morning sunlight so that perhaps she could see better. But no matter how hard she stared, she couldn’t see anything resembling a human form. “I don’t see him,” she finally announced to Cloud.
By that time, Cloud had shifted his gaze to Rude, who stood a safe distance on the other side of Elena with his arms folded. Even as Cloud glanced his way, Rude turned his wrist so he could see his watch. Whatever he found the time to be, his expression didn’t change. Cloud figured Rude had become an expert at waiting over the years and that he merely checked his watch out of habit. At Elena’s complaint, Cloud turned his head to look back at the rim, only to find no sign of the redheaded Turk. “He’s gone now,” he told her.
“Gone!” Elena whipped her head around to pin him with icy hazel eyes. “Are you toying with me, Strife?” she demanded. “Because if you are…”
Cloud remembered then that he’d forgotten to move back to his former relatively safe location. He casually took one sideways step. “No, Elena. He was there. He just moved. He probably went to the chopper…”
She planted hands at her waist as she turned to confront him face to face. “How do you know it was Reno anyway? Maybe it was…someone else.”
With his eyes steady on her disgruntled face, Cloud carefully took another sidling step away. “I suppose it might have been someone else,” he conceded with a shrug. “It’s difficult to make out detail at that distance.” He was wondering why he’d even said anything now. He should have kept his mouth shut.
Elena took a sudden step toward him, and Cloud retreated yet another step. “I don’t think he was ever there, Strife,” she bit out. “I think you’re jerking me around. I think I oughta…”
“He’s coming back,” Rude suddenly said, interrupting whatever threat Elena had been about to make.
Elena eagerly spun around to look up at the bluff again. “Where? Where is he?”
Relieved that she’d forgotten about him, Cloud swept a hand through his unruly hair and turned away to fully retreat to his original position. It wasn’t that he was afraid of the blond Turk. He could easily take her in a fight. It was just that he didn’t want any trouble with the Turks. Not while they had to work together. Besides, he knew that Elena just didn’t like him much. He and Reno had developed a mutual respect for each other. Even an easy acquaintance, if not friendship. But Elena was different. She wasn’t a woman to surrender her rivalries easily. Plus, Cloud could see that she was very concerned about Reno. “He’s started up the chopper,” Cloud commented in an offhand tone, hoping to add reinforcement to Rude’s announcement without drawing her unwelcome attention again.
He found he didn’t have to worry. Elena’s eyes were glued to the rim, and when the chopper shot out across the plain, the smile she struggled to keep off her face, even to the point of biting down on her lower lip, in the end couldn’t be held back, but burst out full blown to soften the contours of her face and set her eyes sparkling. Cloud found the transformation remarkable. A revelation even. Hard-bitten Shinra Turk to beauteous angel. Then she caught him looking. Her eyes ignited with flame and her face turned sour. “What are you looking at, Strife?” she snapped.
He wisely held his tongue and simply lifted his shoulders in a non-committal shrug, pointedly shifting his attention upward to the chopper that now dropped slowly from the sky. Elena waited tensely in place until the skids touched the ground in front of them, and then she expressed a haughty ‘humph’ and turned on heel to duck into the tent.
Within seconds, Reno shut the helicopter down and shoved the door open to jump to the ground. Ducking low beneath the still spinning blades, he trotted in Rude’s direction carrying what seemed to be a cap. Unwilling to be left out of the loop, Cloud strode over to join them, and when Reno halted in front of Rude, Cloud asked the first question before Rude managed to stir a muscle.
“What’s going on?” he queried lowly. “What did you find out?”
Reno lifted one eyebrow as he landed glittering green eyes on the Avalanche warrior’s expressionless face. The corner of his mouth came up in a wry smile. “Why don’t we all go inside and talk about it,” Reno suggested silkily. “There’s been an interesting development.”
"What a histrionic female you are…”
She blinked and stared into the darkness, looking for the source of the bored male voice that seemed to resonate from everywhere and nowhere. “What do you mean by that?” she asked carefully.
“I can’t feel the wind! I can’t touch you, Cloud! I’m dead! I’m dead!” The faceless man taunted her with her own words in an exaggerated imitation of a feminine voice.
For the first time in a long time, a spark of anger flickered inside, lifting the hem on her heavy shroud of sorrow, and setting a flint to her dead emotions. That this interloper would slip unbeknownst into her darkness and eavesdrop on her dreams riled her.
“Who are you?” she demanded, glaring all around. “Where are you?”
Luminous eyes of an unusual shade of vibrant color somewhere between blue and green cracked sleepily open before her in the murky gloom. “Who do you think I am?” he asked coolly.
“Why…I’m sure I don’t know…”
“You’re not very astute, are you?” he inquired silkily.
“You’re not very nice, are you?” she shot back. “I don’t like you at all.”
“Oh, I’m so injured. How shall I go on? You’ve broken my heart.” The laughter in his voice suggested otherwise.
“I think it’s time for you to leave,” she informed him, her voice a little shrill in her distress. “Go away!”
“I wish nothing more than to honor your request, but…sadly…I cannot leave.”
“I’m bound to you, remember? Until death do us part, Cetra. Ah no, not death. Until I atone for my sins, I am bound to you in death as well. I should warn you, my transgressions are considerable. We might well be forced to endure one another’s company for a very long time.” His tone turned ominous, but with a trace of levity. “Perhaps for eternity.”
“Angel?” she asked uncertainly.
“Ah yes, that is the name you’ve given me.”
“What is your name then?”
“Angel will suffice. I rather like it, actually. It conveys an irony I can truly appreciate.”
“But what is your name? Really?”
“Does it matter? Call me what you wish. I am your slave.”
“I don’t want a slave,” she sniffed. “Especially not you.”
“You’ve no choice really. I’ve been given a second chance at redemption. Unfortunately, my path lies through you, capricious, hardheaded, histrionic female that you are. I’m doomed.” His sigh soughed through the darkness.
“And what transgressions did I commit to deserve you?”
“You are no transgressor. You are a savior. One who would sacrifice all to save those she loves. To save a world. Perhaps the only person in existence who possesses the strength of will and goodness of heart to save me. A formidable task, I suspect. I pray you will rise to the occasion.”
“But you said I was capricious and…well…all those other things you said about me…and now I’m good and strong? You’re confusing me…”
“Capricious, hardheaded, histrionic, strong and good are hardly mutually exclusive. You may possess all those characteristics at once, and you do.”
“You’re making fun of me,” she said sadly. “Why would you do that?”
The luminous eyes opened fully and zeroed in on her own faltering gaze, his regard unblinking and true.
“Why are you wallowing in self-pity?”
“What? But…I’m not…” Her words faltered to nothing. She knew what he said was true, and she couldn’t deny the fact. “What else is there to do?” she asked sorrowfully. “We’re dead.”
“No, we are not dead. We should be. I warned you after all, didn’t I? I told you not to cast the spell. However, we are not dead. We are in between. Out of body, but not dead. We are the space between the raindrops. The shadows that shroud the forest floor. We exist. Alive but without true substance.”
“Well, what can we do about it?” she asked in defeat.
“We return,” he replied firmly. “You’ve a task to complete. As do I.”
“You want to be a bird again? You didn’t seem so happy about it last time.”
“The world will be better served if I’m a bird, I suspect,” he admitted coolly. “And truthfully, the world is a more colorful place as one. The endless variation of color that meets the eye…Astonishing. Strange, really, now that I think about it, how limited are the senses of humans. An intelligent species, but limited. In many capacities.”
She stared at him in silence for a moment, floundering for an adequate response to his offhand remarks, and then she simply decided to go straight to the heart of the matter. She wasn’t in the mood just then to discuss color and limitations or the advantages of being a bird over being human. “How do we get back?”
“Concentrate?” Her voice rang with skepticism. “Is it that easy?”
“Do not think it will be easy. We must join thoughts and concentrate intensely, closing out all else but our goal.”
“I’m…not sure I can do that…”
“Do you prefer the alternative?”
“No. To be imprisoned in this suffocating darkness. Forever. With me.”
“Okay, you’ve convinced me.”
“Excellent. Shall we begin?”
The tightly formed group moved down the dark pipe tunnel in a bright cocoon of white light created by the combined illumination of the halogen lamps each armed soldier wore on his head, the echoing footfalls of many pairs of military boots drowning out any other sound in the close space. Sand and two third class members of the Soldier Corps headed the group, walking abreast with rifles at the ready. Reeve and Ian walked just behind with Dr. Zaffron closely shadowing their steps. The members of the regular army contingent Sand had acquired before entering the tunnels casually straggled behind in loose formation, the increasingly narrow tunnels having forced them out of their standard configuration.
The soldiers walking behind Dr. Zaffron made her nervous, and she constantly struggled against the urge to look over her shoulder at them, just to make sure they weren’t leveling their rifles at her back. To say that she didn’t trust any of them would be an understatement, but she could hardly do anything about it if Alexander betrayed her and ordered the guns turned on her. Truthfully, she didn’t really believe that he would, but she was annoyed at him for relegating her to a position behind him where she was forced into contortions to surreptitiously view the contents of the small screen of his personal computer around his shoulders, a waste of effort as she couldn’t see a thing from the side. Finally, she threw caution to the wind and picked up her pace to come alongside his left elbow.
“Are you certain this is the correct route?” Katrina asked coolly.
Reeve looked up from the computer in mild surprise, as though he’d forgotten all about her. Out of sight, out of mind, she supposed.
His dark eyes narrowed on her pale face, and he wondered, not for the first time, if she would last for the duration of their mission. He suspected that she’d left the hospital against medical advice, but he imagined he would have done the same in her place. Still, he again found himself regretting his decision to allow her to accompany them, especially as he had no idea what situation they would encounter at the prison. They might well find all the prisoners dead in their cells, including her brother.
Her eyes narrowed with displeasure, and he realized that he hadn’t answered her. “The computer indicates that it is,” he replied with hushed tones.
“And what is the source of your data?” she hissed in returned
“I inputted the coordinates from Heidegger’s files.”
She responded with one curt nod of her head. “How much further?”
Reeve tilted the handheld so she could see the screen. The two blips on the tiny map were quite close. “Just around the corner.” His words reinforced the information.
A panicky feeling unexpectedly rose inside her, setting her pulse racing, and she promptly ducked her head away from the executive’s gaze and fell back into her original position behind him. She knew her eyes radiated the fear in her heart, and she didn’t want him to see her weakness. She drew in a shaky breath and clenched her jaw. She would not falter, no matter what she found inside that prison. It didn’t matter as long as she found Erich alive. And she would find him alive. She had to believe that. She would entertain no other possibility.
“Halt,” Sand tersely commanded.
The entire group came to a stop, and Sand followed his earlier prescribed procedure as he had at every cross tunnel, stepping into the intersection and aiming his rifle before him as he checked ahead. Instead of nodding his head to indicate a clear route, as had been his custom, he instead made eye contact with Reeve and beckoned him forward with a brief wave of his hand.
The executive obeyed, moving ahead to turn into the cross corridor. He uneasily cast his gaze toward the end. His fingers convulsively tightened around the handheld computer at sight of the cinder block wall that blocked the tunnel a mere twenty feet or so ahead.
“A dead end,” he said tersely. He shot a glance down at the tiny screen in his hand to double check the destination. One blip partly overlaid the other. He shook his head in denial.
“It better not be a dead end,” Katrina snapped harshly as she rushed into the corridor to see for herself. Her stomach clenched at the sight that met her eyes.
Cornell moved into the cross tunnel and turned his gaze to the wall. Blue eyes narrowed behind the rimless lenses. “Maybe not…” he murmured. Several slow steps later, he stood in front of the wall with folded arms, scanning every inch of the construction in careful scrutiny.
Reeve walked forward to join Cornell at the wall, and Katrina made a move to do so too, until Sand laid a firm hand on her arm and stayed her in place. “No ma’am,” he said politely, but with an underpinning of steel in his voice. She thought about making a break for it, but one look at the muscle bound officer’s cool eyes and squared jaw led her to rethink her plan. She decided he might well shoot her this time around. With a little huff of impatience, she folded her arms and shifted her weight to one foot to watch with marked displeasure. She missed the glint of humor that flashed through General Sand’s eyes.
“This isn’t supposed to be here,” Reeve remarked to the engineer.
Ian lifted a shoulder in a nonchalant shrug. “They wouldn’t leave the rear access vulnerable, would they?” He took a step forward to slide his fingertips across the cinder blocks.
Reeve shook his head. “No, they wouldn’t.” What had he been thinking? Of course they wouldn’t have left the emergency entrance exposed where any indigent wandering the tunnels might discover it, even though he knew that under normal operation there would be security measures in place to protect the rear. He turned his eyes to the mortar seam that marked the juncture of the tunnel wall with the cinder block barrier.
Ian rapped his knuckles lightly against the wall as Reeve strode to the side to more closely examine the join. He traced his fingers along a barely perceptible line of demarcation where the walls met. Ian took a step to the side and rapped on the wall again.
“I believe this wall is inset,” Reeve mused aloud.
Ian moved to the approximate center of the wall and rapped a third time, and this time he detected a slight variation in the density of the material. With a little frown, he dug a fingernail into the masonry between two blocks. A piece of cement at the edge of one block curled away beneath his nail to reveal a space beneath. He lifted the curl to one eye. “This isn’t masonry,” he commented. “It’s some sort of polymer.”
Reeve turned back to look. Ian flipped the material off his finger and stuffed his hand into his pants pocket. Shortly, he came up with a small penknife and pried the blade open with a nail. The engineer pursed his lips and set to work scraping the tip of the blade against the fake masonry seam as Reeve retraced his steps along the wall to watch.
Ian paused in his efforts and smiled thinly at the straight edge of a panel exposed beneath his knife blade. He fisted his penknife, and with a sharp jab, drove the blade smoothly into the join. He turned to meet Reeve’s implacable gaze. “We’re going to need a crowbar, I believe.”
The corner of Reeve’s mouth lifted in satisfaction. “It just so happens, we brought one.” He turned around in place to look back down the corridor at Sand and the tall impatient woman that seemed held in place by only the General’s will. “General Sand, the crowbar, if you please.”
Caitlin righted the last overturned cot just as Reno ducked beneath the tied up tent flap. Avian hurriedly tossed her the last stray pillow to replace at the head of the cot. Reno narrowed his green eyes in suspicion at the furtive movement even as he stepped forward to let Cloud and Rude enter behind him. “Something happening?” he inquired coolly.
“No, not a thing,” Caitlin hastened to assure him. “Just straightening up…a little…” Her words faltered to silence when his gaze landed on her disheveled head. She smiled sheepishly and lifted a hand to smooth her hair into place.
Reno opened his mouth to comment further, but a challenging shriek pierced the relatively quiet atmosphere in the tent just to his left, derailing his train of thought and prompting him to jerk his head around to confront the threat just in time to take the brunt of a rather deflated pillow directly in the face. The pillow hit solidly and slid off to land at his feet to a chorus of giggles and snickers.
“Elena…” he growled threateningly.
Elena rose from her chair in the corner. “Hey, I’m not the culprit,” she sniffed disdainfully. “It was your favorite groupie.”
Reno shifted his eyes to the small shadowy form standing beside the canvas wall of the tent with her hand pressed to her mouth in a futile attempt to hold back her giggles.
“Rachel…” he growled in her direction. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Pillow fight,” she replied brightly before dissolving into a fit of uncontrolled giggles. She wasn’t in the least affected by his menacing frown.
Caitlin came forward with a soft smile. “I’m afraid we’ve been a bad influence on her,” she said apologetically. “But you are the first target she’s managed to hit.” Her smile widened as Reno’s frown deepened.
“Lucky me,” he replied dryly. He pointed a finger at Rachel. “Paybacks, little girl,” he promised. “Later.” He noted the increase in the number and volume of her giggles at his threat, and with a despairing roll of his eyes, he strode toward the far end of the table. Most people would tremble in their shoes at such a threat from him. Not Rachel.
Dismissively tossing the tan cap onto the narrow tabletop, he sank down into the chair at the very end. He propped his legs up on an adjacent chair and reached up both hands to pointedly straighten the sunglasses that had been knocked askew by Rachel’s well-aimed projectile. Then he drew the crumpled pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket. Elena crossed to his side and surreptitiously looked him over from head to toe as he drew the cigarette butt from beneath the cellophane with two fingers.
“What happened up there, Reno?” she asked, her brows knitting in consternation when he deposited the cigarette butt next to the cap.
“Tell me about those things, Elena,” he instructed with a curt nod at the items, casually sidestepping her question.
She obediently slid into the chair around the corner from him and leaned forward with her hands folded on the tabletop to examine the cap and the cigarette butt, darting a brief noncommittal look at him as he stuck a long slender ebony cigarette between his lips. She knew he was testing her, and she meant to prove herself equal to the task.
Standing at the other end of the table just inside the tent alongside Rude, Cloud folded his arms and pinned his Mako eyes on the redheaded Turk. “So…what’s this new development?” he casually inquired.
“New development?” Caitlin repeated uneasily as she came to a stop a couple of paces behind Elena’s chair. “What’s this about?”
Curious, the other three inhabitants of the tent emerged from the gloomy interior of the tent to the table to listen. Avian halted at Cloud’s elbow with worry in his amber eyes, and Yuffie flopped gracelessly into a chair by his side, a bored expression on her face. Derry paused behind Avian for a few seconds before opting to forego the impromptu conference for more interesting venues. Namely breakfast. He’d catch up on the details later. With his hands in his hip pockets, he silently strolled past Cloud and Rude and slipped out of the tent to head for the mess tent, seemingly departing unnoticed but for the barest movement of Rude’s head as he passed behind the big Turk’s back.
Rachel crawled underneath the table, patting Soldier on the head as she passed, and popped up on the far side of the table like a jack-in-the-box. With a happy grin at Reno, she climbed up into the chair opposite Elena to sit back on her heels, and with every bit as much seriousness, leaned forward with her elbows on the table and her chin in her hands to examine the items too.
Reno lifted his lighter to the cigarette and lit it with a long inhalation. He held his breath and then let it out slowly through his nostrils. “There’s a fourth one,” he proclaimed as he experimentally sniffed the smoke rising from the cigarette. He curled one corner of his lip at the smell, odd for a cigarette.
“A fourth what?” Caitlin asked with bewilderment.
“A fourth miscreant,” he clarified, watching Elena closely as she gingerly picked up the cigarette butt between thumb and forefinger and brought it to eye level for closer inspection. Just then the smoke drifted into the blonde Turk’s face, and she wrinkled her nose at the intrusion as well as the sickly sweet aroma. She glanced at Rachel’s intent face through the haze and then leveled baleful eyes on the redheaded Turk. “Put out that stinky cigarette, Reno,” she commanded. “You shouldn’t smoke around Rachel anyway.”
Reno deliberately took another drag on the cigarette. “Rachel grew up in the slums. Why worry about one little cigarette?” he asked matter-of-factly.
“So you should exacerbate her problems?” Elena asked sarcastically.
Rachel covered her nose with a diminutive hand. “Peeeeeeeeyeeeeeeeeew.”
“I have to agree, Reno,” Caitlin added her opinion to Rachel’s. “That thing does smell…weird.” She pressed a finger to her nostrils in an attempt to stave off the unusually sweet aroma.
Reno held the cigarette upright in front of his face. “It is rather exotic,” he conceded. “What do you think it smells like?” he asked with interest. “Cloves?”
“Not cloves,” Rude replied without offering an alternative.
“Cinnamon?” Avian suggested.
Caitlin shook her head. “Not cinnamon…more like…pumpkin?”
“Miss Myra’s candles!” Rachel announced with excitement, not willing to be left out of the discussion.
“Candles?” Reno frowned at the suggestion.
Elena suddenly looked up from her examination of the cigarette butt as though struck. “That’s right. Candles,” she agreed. “Elmyra’s candles. They smell the same. Just not as…” She waved a hand in front of her face. “…Powerful…
Caitlin snapped her fingers in revelation. “Vanilla. She said the candles were vanilla.”
“Vanilla?” Reno wrinkled up his whole face in disgust. “Yuck.” Then he deliberately took another long drag off the cigarette and blew the smoke out across the table. “Take a good whiff and remember that smell,” he instructed before stubbing the cigarette out against the tabletop. “Your life might depend on it.”
“I’ve smelled more than enough to last me a lifetime, thank you.” Elena wrinkled her dainty nose in disgust.
“What about this fourth miscreant?” Caitlin pointedly asked, deciding to bring the conversation back to the original topic. “What did you mean?”
Reno held up one finger. “One is the man you first encountered in the sewers.” He raised a questioning brow, and Caitlin nodded her understanding. “Right, the one that took Rachel twice,” she said. “The same one that shot you.”
Reno winced slightly at the reminder. “Right. And the same one Elena confronted in Kalm. That’s number one.” He held up a second finger. “Number two. The one we’ve affectionately dubbed The Katana Man.”
“The one we first saw when he tried to take Caitlin in Sector 3,” Elena interjected. “And the one that Reno foolishly chased down a dark alley in Kalm.”
“And the same one that would have separated your lovely head from your neck, if not for Strife’s blade,” Reno pointedly reminded the blonde Turk.
Elena frowned with displeasure at the memory. She’d worked very hard to forget that Cloud Strife had been the one to save her ass that time, and now, thanks to Reno, she had to remember it all over again. Redheaded jerk.
“The third is that Kendo guy, right?” Cloud asked. “The one that tried for Avian. But he’s dead.”
Avian’s stomach churned at the memory Cloud’s words evoked, and he chose not to comment on the matter, lowering his eyes to the table instead, until Yuffie poked him with the toe of her sneaker. He glanced over at her, and she winked at him, leaving him puzzling over her game.
“Probably dead,” Reno amended. “We don’t know for sure because the alleged corpse vanished into thin air, as this bunch has a habit of doing.”
“How do they do that anyway,” Yuffie suddenly asked, tipping her chair back onto two legs.
“A question we need to answer,” Reno replied coolly.
“Reminds me of the Starlight Rain Stone,” Yuffie nonchalantly commented.
“What’s that?” Cloud asked curiously.
The ninja girl shrugged and let the chair down to pull herself upright. “Just something Grandfather told me about when I was a little girl. The Starlight Rain Stone was supposedly one of the great treasures of Wutai stolen from the Pagoda of the Five Mighty Gods by Shinra during the war.”
“This Starlight Rain Stone could make people vanish?” Caitlin asked skeptically.
Yuffie bobbed her head. “Yup. Grandfather said that the wielder of the Starlight Rain Stone could travel to any point in space or time they wanted.”
“Sounds pretty farfetched to me.” Avian voiced his opinion to the ninja girl with a hint of a smirk. “Probably a fairy tale your Gramps made up to put you to sleep.”
She glowered back at him. “Think what you like, Farm Boy, but the Starlight Rain Stone existed.”
“Really? You’ve seen it?” Avian inquired with a hint of levity in his voice. “What does it look like?”
“How should I know? I was only a year old when Shinra took it,” she snapped back in disgust, her lifelong resentment at Shinra suddenly resurrected by the direction of the conversation. “Ask the Turks.” She turned glittering ebony eyes on Reno.
“Don’t look at me.” Reno shrugged his indifference. “I don’t know anything about this so-called Starlight Rain Stone nor was I employed by Shinra when this oh-so-holy artifact was allegedly acquired.” The redheaded Turk raised his eyes to Rude’s stony face. “How ‘bout you, Rude? You were a Turk then. Have you heard of it?” Rude merely shook his head, his face revealing no emotion whatsoever.
“This is pointless,” Elena sharply interjected. “Whatever this gang is using, they obviously have more than one. Two of them disappeared only minutes apart in Kalm.”
Reno’s eyes narrowed on her disgruntled face. “A salient observation, Elena,” he commended. “Time to get back on topic. Tell us about miscreant number four.”
Elena sat back in her chair and folded her arms, a smug smile curving her lips. She had successfully arrived at a couple of firm conclusions after close scrutiny of the items Reno had brought back from the bluff, and she was confident that she would pass Reno’s little test with flying colors. “The fourth one is…”
“What in the hell’s goin’ on here?” Cid Highwind demanded as he burst into the tent, prompting Rude to reach beneath his suit coat for his gun before the identity of the owner of the familiar voice registered in his mind. The big Turk let his hand fall, but leveled his hidden eyes on the Captain’s agitated face, tracking his movements as he rounded the table to come to a halt beside Caitlin. The Captain stabbed the shaft of the Venus Gospel into the hard packed ground and sent an accusatory glare around the silent group.
“What’s the problem, Cid?” Cloud asked with concern, noticing that he seemed more irritated than usual.
“Someone’s takin’ potshots at Cait Sith!” he barked. “That’s my problem!”
“What?! Right now?!” Cloud exclaimed in alarm. Out of habit, his hand flew to the hilt of his sword, and he half-turned for the door before Cid’s next words led him to relax his stance.
“I dunno when,” Cid growled. “He showed up at the excavation a few minutes ago cryin’ about someone shooting his Mog. So I took a look an’ pried this out of its rubbery hide.” Cid held up a flattened bullet between thumb and forefinger. “Shot right beneath the right ear. A few inches higher and it woulda got Cait Sith.”
Reno dropped his boots to the floor and rose. “I’ll take that,” he offered, holding his hand out for the bullet. Highwind stared at the Turk’s open palm suspiciously for a moment before he decided he had no legitimate reason to keep the bullet, and he released it into Reno’s hand with a tight shrug. The Turk gave the spent bullet a cursory examination before depositing it into his jacket pocket and turning his attention back to the Captain. “Cait Sith must have been out on the wasteland,” he curtly informed Highwind. “Do you know why?”
“Hell, I didn’t even notice he was gone,” Cid snapped back with a fierce glare. “How would I know why he went? Now how about tellin’ me who’s shootin’ so we can go get ‘em.”
“You can relax, Highwind. The shooter’s gone,” Reno informed the Captain as he returned to his chair to prop his feet up again. “The chopper scared her off.”
“Her?” Caitlin asked in surprise before anyone else could voice the same. “The fourth gang member is a woman?”
“That’s right,” Reno confirmed coolly as Elena slumped in her chair in disappointment that she hadn’t been the one to impart the news and prove her capability to Reno.
“So you saw her?” Cloud inquired with interest.
“Nope,” Reno replied curtly. “Just her blinding exit.”
“Then you can’t know,” Yuffie smirked at Reno. “You’re just pulling that out of your butt, Turk.”
“No he’s not,” Elena shot back, a homicidal glint in her eyes as she glared at the disrespectful ninja girl. “The fourth gang member is a woman with long blonde hair…” Elena held up a gossamer strand of hair so pale it was barely visible. “…Who wears bright red lipstick…” Now she held up the cigarette butt to display a red lipstick stain hardly discernible against the ebony tint of the cigarette paper. “…And who apparently smokes vanilla cigarettes.”
“And she wears about a size seven sharp toed boot with a riding heel and a decorative toe plate,” Reno added amiably. “And she’s 5 foot 4, give or take a couple of inches.”
Caitlin wrinkled her brow in thought at the information. “Could it be that woman that came on the chopper with Cornelius and Rude? That seemed odd, didn’t it?”
Reno didn’t need to think about his answer to that question. He knew intuitively that the woman he’d spoke to on the Gelnika and the one that had watched from the bluff were two different species of female. “Nope, not the same.” The redheaded Turk turned a speculative gaze to the Captain who had settled into a chair, mostly from exhaustion, to listen with half an ear, one blade of the Venus Gospel resting against a shoulder and an unlit cigarette stuck between his lips. “However, I was going to ask you about her, Highwind.”
“Ask me about who?” Cid asked with a frown of confusion. He realized he’d missed something important in the conversation when his thoughts had drifted momentarily.
“A woman came in from Junon with Rude yesterday to join the excavation team. Says she’s a flight engineer. Do you know anything about her?”
Cid narrowed his attention on the Turk’s face, his azure eyes filling with intense interest as he drew the cigarette from his mouth. “You get a name?”
Reno raised his gaze to Rude. “Rude?” he prompted.
“Drake,” Rude tersely responded.
At the name, Cid froze in place, the only sign that he’d even heard Rude’s identification perhaps the cigarette slipping from between his fingers to tumble end over end to the ground. Reno gazed at him in bemusement. “Do you know her, Highwind?” he finally asked.
Cid blinked then, and noticing his empty hand in front of his face, he shifted uncomfortably in his seat and dropped his fingers to the shaft of the Venus Gospel with seeming nonchalance. “You said Drake,” he flatly stated.
“That’s what the man said,” Reno answered in Rude’s stead. “Drake.”
“She’s nobody.” The Captain abruptly stood and turned toward the exit. “I got work to do,” he said gruffly. “Later.” He ducked beneath the tied up tent flap and disappeared.
“Guess he does know her,” Reno remarked to no one in particular. The redheaded Turk abruptly set his feet on the floor and stood, apparently taking a lead from Highwind. “Let’s take a walk, Caitlin,” he said with a tone that belayed any argument on her part. He walked around the table to take Caitlin’s elbow in hand, and Elena shot to her feet. “What about me, Reno?” she hurriedly asked.
He barely glanced in her direction and made a fist that he bumped once against his thigh. Her brows came together in a frown of displeasure, but she obediently sat down in her chair, pointedly averting her eyes as Reno and Caitlin Shinra left the tent together.
Yuffie sat up in her chair and looked at Cloud with puzzled eyes. “What’s up with the old man?”
Cloud shrugged his ignorance. “Dunno.”
“Maybe I’ll go ask him…” Yuffie mused aloud.
“Why don’t you,” Cloud quietly urged.
“I’d rather go eat,” she informed him.
“Good idea,” the warrior readily agreed. “Let’s go.” He was tired of standing around anyway. He already knew everything he needed to know. If trouble came his way, he’d take care of it. Cloud promptly turned to leave, and Yuffie jumped to her feet to follow.
Avian, who’d been turning the description of the woman on the bluff over in his mind, came back to the present enough to decide that going for breakfast seemed a mighty fine idea, especially as his stomach had been rumbling off and on. He absently trailed in the ninja girl’s footsteps until he almost got to the door. At that point, Rude stepped in front of him to bring him to a stop. “You stay,” the Turk said coldly. Soldier bounded past him and out the door to trot away at Yuffie’s heels.
Avian held a beseeching hand toward the sunlight outside and freedom. “But…I’m hungry,” he complained. Rude folded his arms and firmly shook his head, making it clear that he wouldn’t be dissuaded or moved. Avian’s head fell limply forward and his shoulders slumped in his dejection.
Elena looked around to find a sad-eyed Rachel looking on from her place across the table, obviously empathetic to Avian’s plight, and probably unhappy at being left behind and hungry too. She suddenly rose to her feet to face Rude. “Everybody’s hungry, Rude. Let’s just take them to the mess tent.”
The opaque lenses came around, and she could sense Rude’s gaze on her face. After several seconds of silent contemplation, he finally gave his permission with a curt nod.
As they filed out of the tent with Rude alertly leading the way, Elena noticed Reno and Caitlin talking together between the two parked trucks. The lanky Turk leaned against the side of a truck with his hands in his pockets and his shades over his eyes, his head bent low to speak quietly to the diminutive woman. With arms folded, Caitlin stood close with her golden head tilted back and rapt gaze on Reno’s face. Elena’s hazel eyes turned hot as she blatantly stared. She couldn’t imagine one thing that Reno had to say to Caitlin that he couldn’t say in front of her and Rude. She willed him to look up then, so she could level him with the full weight of her displeasure, but he seemed to have eyes only for Caitlin. The whole lot of them might as well have been invisible for all the notice he paid them. “Asshole,” she silently mouthed. “Prick,” she added for good measure. “Bastard”.
Rachel, walking on her other side, reached up and touched Elena’s hand, drawing the blonde Turk’s attention around to her pensive face. “What is it, Rachel?” she asked with barely concealed impatience.
“Are you mad at Reno to the Third?” the little girl asked with worry in her voice.
Startled that she’d noticed, Elena recovered quickly and rounded her eyes at Rachel in disarming innocence. “Why no, Rachel. Why would you think that?” She didn’t think she’d said any of those words aloud. She surely hoped not.
“You had your mad face on,” Rachel pointed out.
“Oh…no…that was my…” Elena scrambled around in her head for a plausible explanation. “…Hungry face…”
Rachel’s eyes turned suspicious, and Elena promptly pasted an overly bright and totally insincere smile on her face. “Who could ever be mad at Reno to the Third?” she reasoned with exaggerated cheerfulness.
Rachel responded with a brilliant smile of her own. “Nobody,” she happily replied, wrapping her hands around Elena’s fingers in solidarity.
“That’s right,” Elena exuberantly agreed. “Nobody.” With a toss of her head, the blonde Turk purposely put Reno and Caitlin from her mind. She wasn’t going to waste another moment of precious thought on his scrawny ass. In fact, he was dead to her from here on out.
Well, at least to the end of the day, she amended a few steps later.
And a few paces further on she decided most certainly, at the very least, until after breakfast.
“No, Reno,” Caitlin said bluntly. She punctuated her refusal with a firm shake of her head. “I won’t go to Junon now.”
“I can protect you in Junon, Caitlin,” Reno argued. “I can’t guarantee that I can continue to protect you here any longer.”
“I’m sure you’ll do your best, Reno.”
“My best would be in Junon. Inside a secure Shinra facility.”
Caitlin’s chin came up. “No, Reno. I’m not going anywhere. Not until I talk to Reeve.”
“We can bring Reeve to Junon.”
“He won’t come.”
“He’ll come if it’s the only way to get what he wants,” Reno flatly stated.
Caitlin’s eyes flared with anger, and she tried hard to glare through his shades straight into his hidden eyes. His comment roused her defensive instincts where Reeve was concerned. “What is it you think he wants?” she demanded.
Reno shrugged indifferently. “You’re the one who doesn’t trust him, Caitlin,” he drawled. “I just take my cues from you.”
Her eyes slid guiltily away from his face. She chewed her lower lip in thought. “Do you think I can trust him?” she finally asked in a small voice.
Reno studied her downcast face for a long moment before answering. “We’ve already had our discussion about trust,” he reminded her. “You’ll have to decide that for yourself.”
She studied the toes of his dusty boots. “Well, then…do you trust him?”
“I don’t have to trust him. I can keep him honest.”
“I’m…thinking about…telling him.” She chanced a hesitant look at the Turk only to find him watching her dispassionately through his shades. “It seems like the…right thing…to do…” she tentatively added.
Reno inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Good,” he said curtly.
“Good?” The one word contained a fervent plea. Her bid for reassurance.
“A father should know he has a son,” Reno replied with seeming indifference.
“A…son?” Caitlin frowned. She’d thought the Turk had a better grasp on the details than that.
The corner of Reno’s mouth came up in a wry smile. “…Or a daughter.”
Caitlin raised her head and openly stared at Reno’s face, startled recognition flickering deep in her azure irises. “Ah…I see…” she murmured. And she did see. Clearly. Reno had just inadvertently revealed something of himself to her. Certainly that this particular issue held personal connotations for him. “Obviously, you think I’d be wrong not to tell him.”
Reno suddenly straightened away from the side of the truck, a move that brought him into closer proximity and forced her to tip her head back at an acute angle to keep her eyes on his face. “Look, Caitlin, you have to do what you think is right for you,” he said lowly, bowing his head to peer down into her face. “If you’re asking for my opinion…well…I just think that a man should be given the opportunity to choose to do the right thing or to choose to be an ass. At least he’d have a choice. At least he’d know. But that’s just my opinion, and you know what they say about opinions.”
Caitlin smiled ruefully. “Oddly, I find that I value your opinion, Reno.”
“People value the opinions that conform with what they want to believe,” Reno replied silkily.
“I’ll prove it.”
“In my opinion, Caitlin, you should go to Junon now, for your safety.”
“I’ll be fine here, Reno.” She smiled coyly. “We’ll go when I’m ready.”
Reno quirked an eyebrow at her expected response. “Whatever you decide to do, Ms. Shinra, you may be assured I’ll have your back,” he dutifully complied.
He smirked at her weary reminder. “Caitlin,” he easily conceded.
“Thank you, Reno.”
The redheaded Turk purposely ignored her expression of gratitude and cast his gaze toward the distant mess tent where he knew the others had gone. A lazy smile curved his lips at the memory of the murderous gaze Elena had directed his way as she’d passed. “Let’s go get breakfast,” he suddenly suggested in his silky voice. “My stomach thinks my throat’s been cut.”
"Back! Fall back!” Ring yelled in a ragged voice hoarse with recent overuse after endless months of minimal speech. He reinforced his command with an upward sweep of the heavy plasma rifle he brandished in both hands, and then he promptly re-leveled the heavy rifle to aim it at the empty corridor, his muscles straining to hold the weapon steady as he slowly stepped backward along the cool linoleum in the wake of his charges. “Watch the rear men!” he called out over his shoulder. The reminder was necessary. Nearly every man they’d lost had been due to inadvertent encounters with the virtually silent robots.
The contingent of sixty-three men under his informal command, all uniformly garbed in yellow coveralls and bare feet, hurried to comply with his order, leading the way down a dim corridor lit only with the emergency lights widely spaced along the ceiling, most with necks craned to keep fearful eyes on the route they’d just traveled, others carefully scanning the corridor ahead. They knew their lives depended on doing exactly what he said. They’d already seen too many of their comrades fall beneath the weapons of the lethally accurate robo-guards. Only sixty-four of them were left of 202. So the lot of them were more than happy to put their faith in the man they’d dubbed “Ring” based on the narrow band of interlocking rings tattooed around his right wrist.
Upon a cursory glance, the man didn’t look like leader material. In fact, the tall, tautly-muscled Ring looked like a wild man with his long thick locks of unruly black hair tumbling down his back and falling across his lean cheekbones and forehead, and his tangle of untrimmed beard and mustache that obscured all of his face but for his eyes. Still, one had to take the time to look directly into his face to see them behind the thick locks. Dark green eyes full of purpose and clarity, exuding good will and a hint of humor, and bright with an ethereal luminosity that every man there immediately recognized as the mark of a first class member of the elite Soldier corps, a mark that garnered him instant respect. Mako eyes.
Ring’s Soldier status alone would have been enough for the military prisoners to make him their de facto leader in clear deference to his greater skill and experience, but he had also been the one to release them from their cells – no one knew or dared to ask how he’d escaped from his own – and he’d been the only one crazy enough to charge the facility’s single S-3005 model robot after a dozen of their number had gone down. Suddenly realizing that the gun required a brief recovery period before it could be discharged again, he’d impulsively shoved away from the relative cover of a doorway partition to race down the long corridor, easily bounding over the bodies of the fallen, and dropping to the ground to roll beneath the plasma blast just as the soulless machine fired again without suffering so much as a singed hair, after which he’d wasted no time regaining his feet at close quarters and confiscating the rifle from the bracket of the robot’s metal hands. Then he’d backed off and stood in the path of the oncoming machine to fire the weighty gun with gritted teeth and clenched jaw, turning the powerful electrical plasma blast back on the robot to leave a smoking, sparking, blackened hulk littering the middle of the wide corridor. And he’d flashed them a triumphant smile and drove a fist into the air at the cheers that rose behind him. Their first kill in what would prove to be a long, bloody, heartbreaking campaign.
He’d also been the one to find the central food and water dispensers, and he’d been the one to stand at point and whittle the deadly, freely roaming, heavily armored cyber assassins armed with bio-scanners, rotary gun turrets and an endless supply of ammo down to three or four, primarily because he was the one man that possessed the strength to wield the only weapon that could take them down. Unfortunately, the plasma rifle required ten seconds to recharge, and ten seconds was an eternity when the smoothly gliding robots were spraying bullets like tickertape. So Ring had been relegated to a battle strategy of seeking them out, situating himself in an advantageous ambush point, firing a single well-placed blast to take one down and then turning tail to race madly toward the next cross corridor to set himself up to take down the next one, praying to his lucky stars that a pair of the electronic beasties hadn’t come up behind them in the interim.
Currently, Ring and company didn’t know the location of the last ones, having lost them in one of their headlong retreats, but the robots had no other purpose than to relentlessly track them down and terminate them as the escapees they were, and the machines would run them to ground sooner or later. Most likely sooner. Ring had hoped to locate a means to escape from the prison facility before he found the robots or they found them, but he knew they were out of time and nearly out of resources. Despite the superior physical traits dubiously granted him by the Shinra military, and despite the fact that he’d exercised religiously in his solitary cell to maintain his peak condition, he had nearly reached the end of his own rope. He’d sustained minor but painful injuries from a half-dozen bullet grazes, and he had a slug embedded in his thigh that made his leg ache. Constant vigilance, running, hiding, fighting and operating the heavy plasma rifle for days without end had spent all but the very last vestiges of his strength. He wanted nothing more than to drop to the floor, put his back to the wall, and rest for a while, but he knew if he did, he’d be hard paid to rise again. If he quit now, they would all die. He couldn’t let them down.
Intent eyes still focused on the end of the corridor, Ring took another step back and stepped on someone’s hand. The owner of the hand could do little more than grunt a pained protest. He stepped to the side and looked down at the prisoner sprawled across the floor where he’d collapsed in the retreat. Laying the plasma rifle against one shoulder, Ring knelt on one knee and grabbed the young man’s chin in strong fingers, meeting no resistance as he turned his face toward the light. He easily recognized him as one of the three prisoners they’d broken out of a locked down infirmary. The only surviving one, in fact. He’d been told that when prisoners in the general population got sick robots herded them there to quarantine them from the rest of the prisoners until they recovered. This one had been suffering from a bout of flu or some other like bug, and although he’d recovered, the illness had sapped his stamina to the point where their constant moving had just about finished him. Unfortunately, the rest of the men weren’t much better off.
The fallen man barely parted pale lashes to look up at him, and Ring flashed him an encouraging smile that he probably couldn’t see in the dim light. “Ready to march again, soldier?” he inquired in a low voice.
Gamely, he nodded his head, but made no move to rise. Ring leaned down and slipped his arm beneath his shoulder, dragging him up to a sitting position. “Time to get back on your feet, man,” he firmly urged. “This isn’t a good place to nap.”
“Hey, Ring,” a voice called lowly from down the hall.
Ring looked around and spotted the tall, loose-limbed prisoner that had earned the unfortunate and trite name of Freckles due to a mop of carrot colored hair and a smattering of freckles across his pale cheeks. The man typically radiated an aura of angelic serenity no matter what seemed to be happening, but he looked plenty worried now. “What’s up?” Ring inquired in the casual tone of a person simply passing the time of day despite his keen interest in what Freckles had to say.
The carrot-haired soldier flipped a hand back in the direction he’d come. “End of the line, man,” he said shakily. “It’s a dead end.”
Ring directed his luminous green eyes toward the end of the hall where he could see some of the exhausted prisoners standing in a confused huddle, but not the majority of them, indicating some were down a side corridor. His gaze came back to the troubled Freckles. “Help me get Bug off the floor,” he commanded.
“But what are we going to do?” Freckles queried fretfully as he bent to get a firm grip on the enervated soldier. Between the two of them, they easily lifted him to his feet. “We’ll figure something out,” Ring promised reassuringly. Freckles nodded his relief, the tension flowing from his body at Ring’s confident words.
Each man draped one of Bug’s arms around their neck, and they bodily lifted him off his feet, carrying him the length of the corridor and around the corner where they carefully deposited him against the wall. Bug’s head flopped weakly back against the wall, and Ring knew he probably couldn’t go any farther under his own steam, whatever happened next. The warrior gave the young man’s shoulder a comforting squeeze. “Hang in there, man. We’ll be outta here in no time.” Bug barely moved his head.
Still cradling the heavy rifle against his shoulder, Ring stood up and turned to face the end of the corridor only to find Freckles in his path. “Is he going to make it?” he whispered.
“He’ll be just fine,” Ring curtly replied. Even if he might not believe it himself, everyone else needed to believe it, especially Bug. He strode down the corridor as the men parted to let him pass, and within seconds he stood in front of the cross wall that Freckles had called a ‘dead end’. Only it wasn’t a dead end. He could clearly see the seam where the two panels met in the center.
“This isn’t a dead end,” he remarked aloud. “It’s a door.”
Excited voices erupted behind him, and someone finally asked the inevitable question. “Is it the way out, Ring?” After which he found himself bombarded by a chorus of such queries.
“Can we get out that way?”
Ring scanned the entire doorway from top to bottom and from corner to corner, but he could find no sign or marking to indicate that he’d found the exit. Eventually he came to the inevitable conclusion that he wouldn’t find out unless he opened the portal. It might be the exit they’d been looking for. Or maybe not. Casually, he strolled over to the right side of the doorway where the control panel jutted from a shelf on the wall at waist level. Without a word of warning, he upended the plasma rifle and slammed the titanium butt of the weapon into the glass touch screen panel over and over until the thick glass lay in shards. Then he stuck in a hand and yanked the bundle of wiring from the wall in a shower of sparks, not even flinching when a jagged piece of glass sliced through a knuckle.
The whole group had fallen into stunned silence at Ring’s sudden burst of destructive mayhem, and now he turned to face them, knowing he’d reached a point in their relationship where his implicit leadership might well be questioned. He didn’t think a single one of them would challenge him due to the fact that he had the plasma rifle. Still, he knew that he couldn’t surrender a single inch of ground at this juncture. “No one opens this door until I say,” he said sternly.
Angry words and murmurs rose at his arbitrary pronouncement, but no one addressed him directly until Freckles stepped forward. “What if that’s the exit we’ve been looking for, Ring?” He settled mournful brown eyes on the busted, smoking panel. “How’re we gonna leave now?”
Ring laid the plasma rifle across his shoulder and gave them a curt nod. “It could be the exit,” he acknowledged. “Or it could be a warehouse full of those goddamn machines. We open the door and a hundred of them pour out with guns blazing. What then?”
“So we just gonna sit here ‘til we rot or those bots get us?”
The angry demand came from an unseen prisoner somewhere along the wall, and a chorus of ‘yeah’s rose all around him.
Ring held up a hand and waited as the group obediently fell silent. He hadn’t lost them yet. “I’ve got a plan,” he told them.
A slightly built teenager with a stringy mop of shoulder length mousy brown hair shambled forward to peer solemnly at Ring through his little round spectacles. Although a quiet kid who never had much to say and one who carried an air of fragility about him, he could get plenty bold and tough when he wanted. Like his stubborn refusal to be called by the nickname ‘Specs’ that the others had pinned on him and his vehement insistence on being called by his given name of Michael, hotly objecting until they all relented. Ring met the kid’s straightforward regard with questioning eyes. “What’s the plan, Ring?” Michael asked quietly.
Ring deliberately lowered the plasma rifle into both hands. “I’m gonna go blast the rest of those cyber bastards to smithereens,” he proclaimed. “And then we’re gonna pry this door open just a crack an’ see what’s on the other side. An’ if it’s somethin’ we don’t like, we’re slammin’ it shut and lookin’ for somethin’ else. That’s the plan.”
“Why don’t we pry it open now an’ get it over with?” someone shouted out.
“Cuz he’s gonna buy us time, you moron,” the quiet Michael suddenly yelled back, the soft-spoken baby of the bunch surprising everyone with his uncustomary vehemence.
“That’s exactly what I’m gonna do,” Ring quickly interjected before anyone else could lodge yet another protest. “We want to take our time men. Not go off half-cocked. Without those bots on our backs, we’ll have all the time in the world. But right now we’re wastin’ time with all this blabber. We’re yakkin’ and they’re comin’ on.” He moved away from the door, wading out into the group of prisoners. As before, they all moved from his path as he strode through, murmuring amongst themselves. When he reached the main hallway, he walked past the last huddle of men and turned back to face them. Everyone fell expectantly silent to hear what Ring had to say.
“I want everybody to fall back into the side corridor and stay there, out of sight an’ out of range of the bio-scanners.”
“What if they come and you’re not here, Ring?” a cherub-faced prisoner nicknamed Hick asked uneasily.
A flash of white teeth appeared through the copious facial hair. “They gotta come through me first,” Ring quietly reminded him. Then he abruptly whirled away and raced down the corridor. He hoped to put a lot of distance between the men and the bots before he engaged them in battle.
“Watch yer ass, Ring!” someone yelled after him.
He paused just shy of the corner and leaned forward far enough to see that the corridor that led back toward the gymnasium stretched eerily empty all the way to the double doors they’d closed behind them when they’d come through. He looked back to see several faces poked out of the side passage watching. He made a fierce face and waved them back. They all ducked out of sight, and he darted around the corner. When they poked their heads out again, he was gone.
“I hope he makes it back,” Freckles murmured.
No one else commented, and more than a few held doubts that they’d ever see him again. Not one of them planned to disobey him though. All of them settled down in the close quarters of the side corridor to wait for his return.
“It’s not working,” she complained.
“That’s because you’re not trying hard enough,” he patiently replied.
“I have to rest. My head hurts.”
His sigh filled the darkness all around. “You don’t have a head to hurt,” he pointed out.
“Then my thoughts hurt.”
“I never knew you would be such a whiner,” he idly commented.
“I’m not a whiner,” she loudly protested.
“There’s no need to yell.”
“Well you don’t have ears, so why should it matter?”
“It’s not my ears you are abusing.”
“Can I wish myself dead now?”
“You can, but I’m not going with you.”
“Maybe we’re meant to be dead.”
“Why did you cast the spell?”
“Because it was the right thing to do.”
“What led you to that conclusion?”
“If I can save somebody, shouldn’t I?”
“Even if you lose sight of your goal in the process and cause the deaths of millions?”
“What if preventing one death would prevent the death of another who would save the lives of millions?”
“Rather convoluted reasoning to justify such an impulsive act, I’d say, and the most tenuous chain of events I’ve ever been asked to consider.”
“I’m not trying to justify it. It’s only…a feeling…”
“A feeling? A deep in your bones sort of feeling?”
“No, more like…a revelation.”
“I have to say that your ‘revelation’ lacks plausibility.”
“What do you mean?”
“You have based your impulsive act on a completely erroneous idea that you might control every facet of this woman’s life in future as well as the person that the prevention of her death would supposedly save.”
“I still don’t know what you mean…”
“What’s to prevent her being run down by an out of control chocobo cart or suffering food poisoning next month? What’s to prevent this second person you refer to from drowning in the sea or falling down an abandoned mine shaft? Do you plan to micromanage their lives from now on?”
“I…hadn’t thought that much about it…”
“Really. I wouldn’t have guessed.”
She fell silent for long moments, and then she decided she didn’t want to think about any of it anymore. Angel was making her crazy with his convoluted yammering. She deliberately changed the subject. “How come I can’t see your eyes anymore?”
He readily conceded to the new topic of discussion. “I don’t wish to expend the energy to project them.”
“So your eyes aren’t real?”
“I’m disembodied. I have no eyes.”
“I don’t like being disembodied,” she lamented sadly.
“Nor do I.”
“Okay then, I’m ready to try again.”
“It’s about time.”
“Isn’t that the usual?”
“Because I want you to.”
“I submit to your will, Cetra.”
“I think I like the sound of that.”
“Do you want me to count or not?”
“Oh, yeah. Are you going to count just now?”
“Yes. I’m going to count now. So be quiet.
“Okay, being quiet.”
Thanks to Ian Cornell and his crowbar as well as half a dozen soldiers with their boot toes and bare hands, the false façade of plaster and polymer finally lay in ruins about their feet, leaving the shiny stainless steel doors fully revealed to their eyes. Reeve turned to beckon Dr. Zaffron forward with the wave of a hand, and Ian hurriedly kicked debris from her path as she moved toward the door to halt in front of a small keypad set flush in the right panel. She tentatively raised her hand and paused with her fingers just short of touching the buttons as she stared at the numbers in thought.
Reeve noticed her hesitation and came to her side, lifting the small handheld computer toward her in offering. “Do you need the computer?” he softly prompted.
She wordlessly shook her head, and he made the assumption that she had memorized the bypass code. He slid the small computer into his jacket pocket and folded his arms across his chest to watch. After a couple of moments of intense study, she finally moved, swiftly punching in a series of numbers, only to be rewarded with an error message on the narrow digital readout.
“Do you remember the number?” Reeve asked her coolly.
“I don’t have the number,” she informed him just as coolly.
“Do you need the computer?” he asked again.
“The number isn’t in the computer,” she curtly replied.
His brows came together in bewilderment. “But you said…”
“I lied,” she interrupted him. “But don’t worry. I’m pretty sure I know what it is.”
“Why would you lie about a matter so vital?”
“So I could be assured that you would allow me to come.”
“You could have asked,” Ian Cornell said from his position at her other elbow.
“I couldn’t take the chance,” she explained. “I’m here for my brother. No other reason.” She punched in a second sequence of numbers and received the same error message.
Reeve sadly shook his head. “If you input an incorrect code a third time, the keypad will lockout.”
“Then I won’t input an incorrect code.”
“Obviously, you are guessing,” he pointed out.
“Obviously,” she easily conceded. She swiftly entered a third sequence of numbers, and the lock tumblers clunked open. “But I knew my mother’s mind pretty well.” She punched the wide button set at the bottom of the panel with a smug little smile, and with a soft hiss, the silver patina doors slid open on a short empty hallway that unfortunately ended at a second set of double panels. Her eyes traveled to the glass touch screen pad attached to the wall next to the left half of the door, and her smile instantly transformed to a frown of deep concern.
Reeve stared at the unwelcome expression on her face. “Do you have a code for this door as well,” he blandly inquired.
Cornell abruptly left Reeve and Katrina at the first door and crossed to examine the touch screen keypad. He tentatively touched a number with no obvious effect, and then he tried another one. Next he felt around the edge for a switch to activate the touch screen.
“What code did you use just now?” Reeve asked her, hoping it might be the same.
“Jinsie’s birthday. But she wouldn’t use the same code twice.” She narrowed her eyes in concentration.
“Who is Jinsie?”
“My mother’s poodle.”
“Did she have another one?” he queried dryly.
“No. Thank goodness.”
“A cat, perhaps?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Ian suddenly called out. “This panel is dead.”
“Dead?” Katrina darted forward to see for herself. “It can’t be dead.”
Ian gallantly gestured toward the panel with both hands. “See for yourself.”
And see for herself she did, going through the exact motions that Ian had, touching one dead number after another and then feeling all around the edges and along the wall for a power switch. Finally, she surrendered in defeat, her hands falling limply to her sides. “What now?” she asked in a forlorn voice.
“There’s only one other option,” Reeve informed her. She looked up in surprise. Only a moment before, Ian Cornell had been standing in exactly that spot. She looked around to find the engineer had returned to the sewer passage, apparently having left while she’d been fretting about the dead panel, only to be replaced by the executive who now regarded her with a scowl of displeasure. “What is it? What are we going to do?” she asked, bringing worried gray eyes back to the executive’s face. “Force,” he succinctly replied.
“What? Dynamite?” she asked in bewilderment.
“Crowbar,” Ian answered behind her.
She spun on heel to see the engineer there with the tool in question in hand. “Oh hell, this is going to take forever,” she remarked rather nastily.
Ian smiled slightly. “Maybe not.” Sweeping a hand across his forehead to sweep the few loose tendrils of hair from his face, he stepped forward and made quite a production of setting the tip of the crowbar into the approximate center of the narrow crevice marking the juncture of the two panels. “If I apply leverage in just the right spot, the doors should pop right open. Just like a jammed elevator.”
Watching doubtfully, Reeve decided at that point that Mr. Cornell possessed a bit of the showman in him. Or maybe just the showoff. Apparently his easy success in busting down the wall had gone to his head. Or maybe Dr. Zaffron had.
“These doors are quite a bit heavier than elevator doors,” Katrina coolly noted.
Reeve had to agree with Dr. Zaffron on this one, no matter how duplicitous she’d turned out to be. Ian would need a little less presentation and a lot more muscle. With that idea in mind, Reeve decided to save time. He left the two of them there, Ian displaying his dubious skill with a crowbar and Dr. Zaffron critiquing his technique, and went to retrieve a couple of the more muscular soldiers in the company, along with their tools.
The sole of Tifa’s boot finally touched down on the fan-shaped ledge that had been her goal for over an hour. With both feet planted firmly on solid rock, she flapped her arms to shake out the tension in her muscles from a painstaking descent of several hundred feet of sheer rock face. Loose pebbles and dirt sifted to the ground behind her, and she accommodatingly moved out onto the wider part of the shelf to give Vincent room to step down. He repaid her thoughtfulness by letting go and jumping the last five feet, almost startling her out of her skin when his boots clapped against the stone just behind her.
She whirled around with the thought of giving him a piece of her mind or more probably telling him to be more careful, but at the sight of him shrugging out of the backpack any words she might have managed to get out caught in her throat as her face filled with dismay.
“We’re not stopping are we?” she cautiously asked.
“Yes,” he replied simply. Obviously discounting any right she had to a say on the matter, he lowered himself to the ground next to the cliff face, drawing his legs up due to the cramped space. Resting his metal forearm on the backpack, he leaned his head back against the rock and closed his eyes, paying her no mind as she watched in wordless disbelief. She folded her arms about her waist and drew in a steadying breath, an unconscious reinforcement of her plan to complain, but before she could gather the fortitude to let the man know what she thought of his arbitrary decision, her annoyed glare landed fully on his face, and at the sight, her protest froze on the tip of her tongue, leaving her staring wordlessly with parted lips.
Only moments before they’d started their descent, Vincent had paused for a very brief time - just after he’d knotted the rope about his body to complete their safety tether, and just before he’d magnanimously instructed her to lead the way- to tie his hair back into a ponytail with his bandana. Obviously, he’d done so to keep his hair from blowing into his face and distracting him at a critical moment. And too, probably to provide an unobstructed view of her every move, just to make sure she wasn’t breaking any of his rules or being criminally careless. The man had those all so important statistics to worry about after all. At the time, she hadn’t really paid him any mind because she’d been examining the face of the mountain they’d have to traverse with her own expert eye, and she’d been too busy since then to do little more than check his position as she forged a route downward, making this the first time that she’d gotten a really good look at him. With his hair drawn tautly back and his head tipped so that even his bangs had fallen away, his face was the most exposed that she’d ever seen it, and since his eyes were clearly closed, she decided that there was no reason she shouldn’t enjoy a leisurely inspection. Was there? She didn’t have anything better to do after all. Did she? Not that she could recall.
An unconscious sigh of warm breath slipped softly over her lips as her gaze traveled from the smooth unmarked forehead to the narrow wing of an ebony eyebrow made even more elegant then usual by the unmarred view. She remembered how one or both of those eyebrows would rise at something she said or did, the only expression he ever truly allowed in his face, and she realized that she’d rather missed seeing that since he’d taken to wearing his bandana again.
Next, she found herself completely fascinated by the rare sight of his unconcealed ear, the delicately lined shell economically small and set neatly close to his skull. It wasn’t really that she’d never seen his ears before; just that she’d never examined one at such length. As much as the man managed to overhear, it was a wonder his ears weren’t huge appendages sticking out through his thick hair. The thought brought an absent smile to her face even as she helplessly traced the strong line of his jaw to his chin, at which point her eyes were pulled off course by a small murmuring movement of his mouth.
Captured there, she spent several moments carefully appraising the lips slightly parted in relaxation, eventually deeming his mouth not too full and not too thin. Not too wide and not too small. Just perfect, in fact. She wondered what it would take to make that mouth curve in a smile and how he would look if it did. How his face would be transformed. She thought if she ever saw him smile, an event she didn’t expect to see anytime in her lifetime, she would probably have a stroke she’d be so shocked.
She reluctantly relinquished her prolonged study of that particular feature to send her rapt gaze sliding over one high cheekbone, only to rediscover the thick sooty lashes that ever caught her attention at inconvenient moments as well as the pale eyelids smoothed down over those cool crimson eyes. Thank the heavens. She suddenly realized that she’d been staring without interruption from Mr. Valentine for quite some time. He hadn’t twitched a muscle or spoken a word to her, and she decided that he must have fallen asleep right there in front of her. He proved her evaluation totally false only seconds later when the sooty lashes cracked apart and a sliver of crimson iris slid over in her direction, just in time to catch her gaping. She wondered, not for the first time, if Vincent Valentine could read her thoughts. Gods, she prayed that wasn’t so.
Quickly, she redirected her guilty eyes to the ground even as her face inevitably flamed in embarrassment. Pretending a casualness she didn’t feel, she slowly turned and put her back to him even though she knew she wasn’t hiding a thing from him. From his position on the ground, he couldn’t have missed the sight of her rosy cheeks, no matter how low she ducked her head.
Truthfully, Vincent hadn’t really noticed anything other than the fact that she wasn’t resting, a matter that disturbed him. His eyelashes drifted closed again and his narrow eyebrows came together in a slight frown. “You should rest,” he suggested tonelessly.
Despite her keen embarrassment, Vincent’s paternally rendered instruction reminded her that she had meant to lodge a protest before he’d distracted her. He’d probably planned the whole thing, now that she thought about it. Just to keep her from saying anything. She decided, then and there, that she had to speak her mind, because if she didn’t she was only letting him win. Again. She stiffened her back and squared her shoulders, although she couldn’t quite bring herself to turn around and confront him face to face.
“Look…Vincent…I…I don’t want to stop now. We’re so close…and…and…” Her voice trailed away when she painfully realized that her argument lacked strength both in substance and in tone. What in the world was she afraid of anyway, she wondered in despair. She knew he wouldn’t hurt her. She didn’t fear the cool gaze of his crimson eyes or the occasional wall of cold intimidation he threw up between then. Maybe it was his certitude that dissuaded her. He always seemed so sure of himself. In his actions. In his speech. Even in his self-imposed isolation. Maybe her difficulty rested in trying to resist someone so self-contained. Or in going up against someone so bossy.
“We’ll rest for a few minutes,” Vincent bluntly informed her. “And then we’ll go on.”
She tried again, making a relatively successful effort to steady her voice. “But the sooner we go, the sooner we’ll get off this mountain. And I’m not tired.”
“I’m tired,” Vincent flatly replied. And it wasn’t a lie. He was tired. Not physically, but mentally. The diligent care needed to find adequate footholds and handholds as well as his constant worry about Tifa several feet further down the mountain had about worn him to a frazzle. He needed a space of time where he didn’t have to think. Unfortunately, she wasn’t cooperating.
“But I’m sure that trail we saw is just another hundred feet or so down…” She took several steps toward the edge to confirm her observation, but before she could walk far enough out to see over, she suddenly found herself stopped short in her tracks. Surprised, she looked around to find that Vincent had taken up the slack on the rope that connected the two of them and now held the loops against his stomach, clasped inside his metal talons.
She huffed in silent outrage. How dare Valentine treat her like a dog on a leash? The nerve. Her lower lip came jutting out, and she impulsively reached up with both hands and gave the rope a solid yank, thinking she could jerk the loops from his unsuspecting grasp while he had his eyes closed, but she barely managed to move his hand at all. Apparently, he’d braced himself in anticipation of just such a reaction on her part. With no change in expression whatsoever to give her warning, he suddenly raised his left arm away from his body to tow her a stumbling step back toward him before she managed to plant her feet firmly in resistance. His point clearly made, he relaxed his arm across his stomach again, but he didn’t lay down the rope. “Rest,” he coolly bade.
She threw her hands in the air in surrender. “I guess I don’t have any choice,” she muttered under her breath, knowing perfectly well that he would hear her. “Since I’m a prisoner…too careless to be left alone...lock me up and throw away the key now...save the world...” She sure couldn’t win in a struggle against Vincent’s strength or his mechanical arm. She couldn’t even give him a rope burn. She could untie the rope from around her body and steal his means of control over her, but then she’d only have to redo the harness for the rest of the descent, thereby wasting even more time. What she wouldn’t give for a parasail right about now.
Tifa retraced her path across the ledge in defeat and stepped over his drawn up legs, making sure to accidentally step on the toe of a boot, just to reinforce the notion that she was such a careless person, according to him, and to make her own point about her disenchantment with his behavior. He cheated her of a reaction of any sort; not a grunt of pain, a convulsive jerk of his foot out of harm's way, or even the flicker of an eyelash. But then, he had mythril toe plates on his boots. It had probably hurt her more than it had hurt him. Resisting the childish urge to stick her tongue out at him, she chose a spot just past him, and she carefully let herself down on the ground to lean back against the opposite wall in the fan-shaped declivity, drawing her knees up in mirror image of him. For long moments, she stared in disgruntlement at his serene features and closed eyes, willing him to open those thick lashes and view the expression she’d planted on her face just for him, but she finally gave up and leaned her own head back against the wall, deliberately shutting her eyes to the sight of him. Just as she’d told him, she wasn’t in the least bit drowsy despite a lingering weariness in her limbs, but she decided that she just didn’t want to have to look at his face any more. Irritating, bossy, disgustingly handsome thing that it was...
Several minutes passed by with no sound between them but the muted roar of the waterfall and the distant cry of a hawk, until a protracted rumble rose into the peaceful space around them. Crimson eyes and brown eyes both flew open at the sound, inadvertently colliding to lock gazes for several heartbeats. Then Tifa sheepishly averted her face, her eyes skating away as she pressed a hand to her stomach. “Sorry…” she murmured.
“Drink some water,” Vincent quietly suggested. “That should stave off your hunger for a time.”
“I think I’d have to drink the whole thing,” she bemoaned.
Vincent didn’t bother to respond, and she reluctantly brought her gaze back to his face only to find he’d closed his eyes again, a fact that annoyed her for some unfathomable reason. “Let’s just go,” she suddenly said, a hint of her irritation finding it’s way into her voice. “I’ll find something to eat when we’re down.”
“What do you expect to find?” Vincent inquired without inflection or real interest.
She leaned her head back again and lifted her shoulders in a careless shrug. “Something. Nuts. Berries. I’ll eat the grass if I have to. Or the bark off the trees.”
Taking her by surprise, Vincent suddenly opened his eyes and sat up straight, reaching to the side to drag his backpack toward him. The light of hope filled her eyes, and she sat up in anticipation. “Are we going now?”
He shook his head as he worked the ties free to open one of the small side pockets on the pack.
“Can I have that book then? The Broken Clock one?” She figured it would be a good time to ask while he was messing with the pack anyway, and maybe the book would take her mind off her empty stomach. Plus she’d rather read than watch Vincent study the back of his eyelids. Well, maybe not, but she probably couldn’t embarrass herself reading.
“No,” Vincent answered shortly, delving deep into the pocket.
“We’ll be leaving in a few minutes.” And he wanted her to rest. Besides, the book was in the bottom of the pack.
“But you just said…”
Vincent abruptly turned back, lifting his open hand to her. “Here. These may help.”
She eyed the two misshapen foil-wrapped lumps in his hand with marked suspicion. “What are those?”
She slowly reached out and gingerly lifted one from his gloved palm as though she were a child being offered forbidden fruit. Then she raised the lopsided candy to one eye to examine it more closely. “Candy?” she questioned skeptically.
“They haven’t traveled well,” Vincent responded a shade defensively. “But they are still edible.”
Tifa sniffed the candy experimentally, and a smile spread across her face at a familiar aroma. “Chocolate!” she exclaimed happily. Without further hesitation, she quickly peeled away the brittle foil and popped the piece of chocolate into her mouth.
“Hmmm…this is good…” she enthused. “Where’d you get it?”
“Icicle Village,” Vincent blandly replied. “Take the other one.” He moved his hand closer in emphasis, and Tifa automatically took the second chocolate and carefully deposited it on one bent knee, after which she relaxed her back against the wall and studied Vincent with a speculative glint in her eye.
“Have you been holding out on me, Vincent?” she teased. All hint of her irritation at him had fled and all of his sins were forgiven now that she had food in her mouth.
“No.” He promptly put his back to the wall and closed his eyes. Then as an afterthought, he reached over without looking and picked up the loops of rope he’d set aside, pointedly folding his arms across his chest with the rope clasped in his claw.
“Looks that way to me,” she idly commented.
“I misplaced them,” he informed her in a tone a few degrees cooler. He had, in fact, completely forgotten about them. He’d moved them from the pocket of his cloak to his backpack at some point, and the chocolates had slipped his mind until he’d noticed them while rummaging through the pockets of the pack earlier in the day.
“Uh huh…” she commented in feigned disbelief as she reached for the second chocolate. She didn’t believe Vincent would lie to her, but she’d discovered teasing him too satisfying to let him off the hook just yet. She wondered how many degrees in temperature his tone would drop before she was done. “Bet you have a whole stash in that pack. I’ll bet you’re still holding out.”
“No. There are no more.”
The smile fell from Tifa’s lips, and her finger froze in the middle of peeling the foil away from the second candy. “You mean…this is the last one?”
“Yes,” he absently replied. Then his eyes flew wide when he realized what would happen next. He should have known better. That information would have been better kept to himself. He had to admit that he was increasingly becoming too comfortable with her companionship, and he was growing careless. In more ways than one.
She carefully smoothed the foil back in place with a fingertip and held the chocolate out to him in the palm of her hand. “Then this one’s yours.”
He shook his head. “I gave it to you.”
“And I’m giving it back.”
“You are hungry,” he said in reminder.
“Yes, I am,” she readily agreed. “But you’re hungry too.”
“The candy is yours,” he firmly replied.
“But it’s not fair,” she protested. “I ate one. You should have the other.”
He thought about telling her that he’d eaten plenty of them without her, but he opted for a stubborn shake of his head instead.
“You might as well take it,” she persisted. “I’m not eating it.”
He simply closed his eyes in response, shutting off his view of Tifa Lockhart and the chocolate resting in her slender hand.
“I’ll throw it over the cliff…” she threatened.
“Fine,” he replied indifferently.
“I’ll make you eat it.” If one threat didn’t work, she’d try another, especially one that she recalled had worked before.
“Will you?” His tone conveyed a marked disinterest.
“I’ll hold your nose,” she sweetly replied.
Vincent suddenly remembered that they’d been through this routine before, and he also remembered that he’d surrendered too easily the last time. His lashes abruptly parted to reveal the cool challenge in his crimson eyes. “Do you dare?” His coldly enunciated words, vaguely ominous, might have chilled someone else into retreat, but Tifa Lockhart had embarked on a just mission, and she’d become well versed in Vincent’s favored mode of intimidation.
A promising smile curved her lips. “Yes, I think I will dare,” she blithely informed him. With the chocolate in one hand, she formed a menacing pincer with two fingers of the other hand and slowly but surely leaned toward him, bringing her hand closer and closer to his face. Her left leg brushed unnoticed against his as she moved with intent purpose, all the while giving him ample opportunity to concede, counting on him to snatch the chocolate from her hand before she actually had to make good her threat, just as he had with the cereal bar before.
Stony-faced, Vincent watched her come with the hypnotic stare of a coiled snake watching for the opportune moment to strike, unblinking, unmoving, and unrelenting. All the while, he’d begun to worry that she might actually try to do it, and he wondered what he should do if she did. He couldn’t very well whip out his pistol and threaten to shoot her nor could he disable her arm with a precisely placed nerve pinch. He could not and would not threaten her or hurt her in any way. He knew how he would wish to stay her advance, but under the circumstances, the idea didn’t bear contemplation. He could simply take the chocolate from her, but his pride would not permit him. Not this time. Not a hint of emotion or concession appeared on his tensely schooled face despite a slight tremulousness in his innards and a wavering of resolve in his mind. Nor did he reveal a trace of the blessed relief that washed through him when he spied the first flicker of hesitancy in her eyes, signaling her surrender mere seconds before she slumped in upon herself in defeat, her hands falling into her lap.
Tifa sadly shook her head at herself. She just couldn’t do it. Not with him staring at her like that. She couldn’t even imagine what he might do if she actually put the pinch on his nose. Probably turn into Chaos and eat her and the chocolate both. Defiantly, she reached forward and planted the foil-wrapped chocolate on the backpack beside him, and then she leaned back into place and deliberately closed her eyes.
She didn’t say a word, and neither did he. The silence grew between them like a high, thick wall. Restlessly, Tifa shifted her back against the cliff, mentally chewing herself out for even making the threat in the first place. But it had worked so well the last time. She just couldn’t understand where she’d gone wrong. She should have just eaten the chocolate and kept her mouth shut. Time passed, and eventually Tifa started thinking about that chocolate just sitting there on that backpack, just going to waste, and she chided herself for even putting it there in her defeat. He’d won the battle, but he shouldn’t have won the spoils, especially when he’d clearly said he didn’t want the damn thing. In fact, she should have the chocolate as her consolation prize. Finally, she convinced herself that she deserved the chocolate more than he did, and that he’d probably throw it away if she didn’t take it, so she took a chance and cautiously cracked open one eyelid to scope out the opposition in anticipation of snatching the chocolate off the backpack before he could notice. The chocolate wasn’t there anymore. Startled, she sought out Vincent’s face. Had he beaten her to the punch and tossed the chocolate over the ledge?
Vincent had returned to his original position with his head back against the wall, and his eyes lightly closed in rest. The slight derangement in the smooth line of one lean cheek told her exactly where the chocolate had gone. A wide smile helplessly spread across her face. If he looked at her right then, he’d wonder what she was foolishly grinning about. Or maybe he would know, the sneaky man. He'd let her have her little victory after all. Only on his terms of course, but she could still enjoy the moment while it lasted, couldn't she? Her heart suddenly felt as light as a feather.
"Where’s Cid going?” Nanaki tilted his head in wonder as he watched the Captain wander past the excavation site as though in a daze.
“Where’s it look like he’s goin’?” Barrett punctuated the absently posed question with a grunt of effort as he shoved a foot against a fallen stanchion, his muscles bulging as he finally managed to create enough lift to pull the winch cable all the way around.
“Into the wasteland…” Nanaki replied uncertainly.
Barrett didn’t respond, his mind completely engaged as he expertly snugged the heavy hook around the winch cable and tested the hold with a mighty jerk.
“Do you think he suffered heat stroke?” The red beast suddenly rose to all fours in concern.
Barrett dusted off his hand against his pants and looked around at Nanaki in question. “Whatcha talkin’ about Red? Who had a stroke?”
“Cid. He looks like he’s lost.”
Barrett squinted into the bright morning sunlight to see Cid shuffling across the bare ground several yards beyond the outer limits of the excavation site. “Nah, ain’t hot enough to stroke out. He’s probably just thinkin’.” Cupping his hand around his mouth he yelled. “Hey, Highwind!”
The Captain’s head snapped up at the shout, and he came to an abrupt halt. After a moment, he swiveled his head in Barrett and Nanaki’s direction. “What?!” he shouted back. Barrett threw up a hand and lifted a shoulder in question. Cid silently stared back, but he made no move to join them. Nanaki and Barrett looked at each other. “Come on, Red,” Barrett directed. “We’re in the way.”
The red beast and the huge ex-miner walked clear of the stanchion and headed in the Captain’s direction. As they passed the dozer, Barrett signaled Tak to let him know he was clear to tow the metal obstruction away from the gate. Cid still remained in place, seemingly content to wait for them to join him as he drew a cigarette from the pack behind his goggle strap. As the two approached, he touched a match to the end to light it up.
Barrett carefully inspected Cid’s face as he came to a halt in front of him, an act mirrored by Nanaki as he settled to his haunches. The Captain looked from one concerned face to the other before landing his intense stare permanently on Barrett. “What’re lookin’ at?” he growled.
“Where’re ya goin’?” Barrett shot back in response.
“Jus’ takin’ a walk. Problem with that?”
“Nope. Just wanted ya to know the gate’ll be clear when Tak gets that chunk of metal moved and scrapes that last pile of rubble outta the way.”
“I can see that,” Cid curtly replied.
“Glad to hear it,” Barrett replied gruffly, scowling a little at the Captain’s cranky demeanor. He wondered if it had anything to do with Cait Sith’s Mog getting shot. “Did ya find out anything from those damn Turks?”
“Yeah, I did,” Cid replied without elaborating. He took a long drag on the cigarette and let it out just as slowly.
“Well…what?” Barrett urged with a hint of impatience in his voice. He felt like he was pulling teeth.
“Someone was on the bluff shootin’ an’ Cait Sith got in the way, I guess. They claim he had to be out on the wasteland to get shot.”
“So that’s why the Turks flew their chopper up to the bluff,” Nanaki commented.
Cid shrugged indifferently. “Yeah, I guess. Shooter’s gone, Reno says.”
At the mention of the redheaded Turk’s name, Barrett frowned deeply, but he kept his opinions to himself. “Where is Cait Sith?” He looked around the excavation, but didn’t see him. “Did you ask him if he was out on the wasteland?”
“Ain’t had a chance,” Cid answered somewhat vaguely. “I think he went back up the crane.”
“Why would Cait Sith go out to the wasteland?” Nanaki swung his head to look off toward the bluff. “And why would someone be shooting?”
“Dunno,” Cid answered with little interest. “I think it has to do with that business Cloud was tellin’ us about.”
“Jus’ let ‘em bring their trouble here,” Barrett said coolly. “I’ll give ‘em trouble right back.”
“Yeah, keep yer eyes peeled.” Cid suddenly fell into motion, walking past Barrett and Nanaki to head for the site. “Think I’ll go have another talk with Cait Sith,” he muttered as he passed them. “It’s ‘bout time I got a hold of Cat Man anyway. Tell him to get set.”
“We’re gonna go grab some breakfast,” Barrett told him. “We’ll be at the mess tent if ya need us.”
Cid stopped just as suddenly as he’d started. He took another drag off his cigarette, and then spoke with his back to them. “Hey, you guys seen Shera right?”
Barrett and Nanaki shot a glance at each other again. Everybody connected to Cid pretty much knew Shera had left Cid’s house in Rockettown by now. Cid’s team had openly speculated and gossiped when Cid wasn’t within earshot, and Yuffie had mentioned the event though she hadn’t imparted the juicy details that she was typically prone to do. Despite all the discussion, no one really knew how Cid felt about her leaving. Some thought he was angry about it. And some thought he was glad. Others thought he just didn’t care. Nanaki and Barrett were no exception. They didn’t know either, but they both had their suspicions.
“What do you mean, Cid?” Nanaki cautiously queried.
“You know what she looks like, right?” Cid clarified.
“Yeah, we know what she looks like, Cid.” Barrett’s brows drew together in mystification. Cid knew they’d all met Shera. More than once.
“Why do you ask?” Nanaki tilted his head in curiosity.
Cid turned his head slightly as though he might look their way, but he just stared off into the distance and took another drag off his cigarette before answering. “Jus’ wondered if you seen her,” he said a little bleakly. “Around. You know.”
“Around here?” Barrett asked with surprise in his voice.
“Yeah, ‘round here.”
“Nope, ain’t seen her, Cid.” Barrett emphatically shook his head.
“I haven’t seen her either,” Nanaki replied. “Is she around?”
Cid abruptly shot his cigarette to the ground. “If you see ‘er, I wanna know,” he growled, and then he strode away without a word of explanation.
Nanaki and Barrett stared after him in mutual perplexity. “Would it be good news or bad news, do you think?” Nanaki asked Barrett.
Barrett raised a finger to scratch his head. “Hell if I know.”
Ring braced the heavy, fully charged plasma rifle against a shoulder, cradling the weapon in the crook of an elbow as he put his back to the wall on one side of the double doors leading to the gym. With a toss of his head, he threw his bangs out of his face and pivoted away from the wall just enough to peer into the huge room filled with exercise equipment at one end and a basketball court at the other. A scattering of basketballs from a capsized ball rack rested at various points across the otherwise bare floor, their round shapes darkly silhouetted in the wash of light from the double doors on the other side. Those glass doors were still closed as they’d left them, and he couldn’t see any sign of the robots. However, he couldn’t see into the corners either.
Knowing he’d have to gamble, the Shinra warrior planted his back to the wall again and slid his palm over the smooth surface until the round button that opened the unlocked glass doors fell beneath his fingers. He pressed the button with a sharp tap of his fingertips and the door hissed apart, sinking flush into the walls with a solid clunk and clearly signaling his presence there if the bots were anywhere in the room. Even now the mindless machines might be gliding across the floor toward him, ready to spray bullets in his direction the moment the scanners detected him.
Dropping the rifle into both hands, he leveled the weapon into ready position, bracing the narrow metal stock against his waist and curling his trigger finger around the trigger guard. Gripping the barrel so tightly with his other hand that his fingers ached, he wheeled away from the wall and around the doorjamb with blinding speed, his eyes darting into every nook, cranny and shadow of the expansive and barely illuminated gymnasium. Of course, he knew the bots would have seen him first. The machines didn’t need light to detect a human target with their electronic scanners. The fact that bullets weren’t already ripping into his body indicated the bots hadn’t traveled to that point yet. They were probably still chasing their tails in the maze of hallways beyond the main lobby.
Ring let out the stale breath he’d been holding trapped in his lungs, and dashed the entire width of the basketball court on bare feet, vaulting over half a dozen stray basketballs as he ran, his overtaxed muscles straining to hold the unwieldy gun at the ready. Just as before, he planted his back against the wall just the other side of the double doors and leaned his head back against the cool surface long enough to steady his jangled nerves and focus his mind even as he shut out the unmerciful aching in his left thigh. The injury was hardly enough to stop him. In the past, he’d been injured a lot worse and kept right on going.
Finally he risked a look, tossing his hair from his face and laying his cheek against the metal doorframe to peer into the long hallway. His breath caught in his throat, and he instinctively ducked away. His heart picked up a few extra beats as he pressed his back hard against the wall. “Shit,” he said to himself. Three of the infernal cyber monsters traveled in a triangular formation several feet down the hall, silently gliding toward the gymnasium while he stood there floundering for a viable plan. He couldn’t take on three of them from his current position. If he opened the door, they’d mark his location and unload their ammo at his worthless hide. He could run for the opposite hallway, but when one of the bots opened the door, he’d be completely exposed. He had no choice but to move. But where? He frantically scanned the gymnasium for cover even as he admitted that he’d be hard paid to get out of this deal intact. Wouldn’t be the first tight spot he’d been in though. He wasn’t about to lie down and let them kill him, especially when he was the last barrier standing between those goddamn bots and the men he’d promised to protect.
Ring bolted away from the wall. He didn’t have time to think. He had to act or he’d die. He hunkered low and raced across the floor in front of the door to dart into the scant cover of the freestanding exercise equipment on the other side. The doors shattered behind him beneath a rain of bullet fire, the robot on point acting on input from its motion sensors. Ring vanished around the other side of a tall weight machine, drawing back behind the stack of weight bars to carefully aim his rifle.
The gunfire from the robot had ceased once the target had disappeared from the sensors, and Ring patiently waited for the first robot to advance. Number one would be a cinch to take down. The other two would be a major problem. The doors parted and slid into the walls, shards of glass cascading to the floor at the movement. The bot glided through on a thin cushion of air, and with a sneering twist of his lips and a flare of hatred in his eyes, Ring convulsively slammed his trigger finger against the narrow rubber-covered metal flange that served as a trigger, instantly discharging the devastating blast of electricity.
Hit dead on, the robot made a partial turn even as every circuit within its frame overloaded with the loud crackle of sparking wires and the popping of microchips. Smoke began to seep from every join, and the machine finally toppled over onto the floor with a loud clank of its armor plating.
Ring hadn’t wasted a moment basking in triumph or wondering if his shot had been successful. He knew from prior experience that the electronic innards of the machines couldn’t withstand the plasma blast. The instant he’d punched the trigger, he’d already marked out his next destination and started his countdown, having made painful note of the fact that his current, hastily acquired position would be unprotected the moment the remaining robots moved out into the room. His muscles bunching for a probably fruitless race for his life, Ring prepared to rush from his relatively safe position to make a mad dash for the metal bench he’d spotted across the room, but then he noticed that the fallen robot had blocked one side of the door, preventing the other two robots from entering abreast. He fell back and aimed the plasma rifle. His infamous streak of good luck was still holding up.
The second bot glided through the unblocked door and immediately began to rotate toward Ring’s less than adequate hiding place, the sensors obviously detecting a hint of his presence. The warrior held perfectly still as he counted down the last three seconds, and then he partially stepped out into the open and discharged the rifle from the hip even as the machine opened fire from its still swiveling gun turret. Ring threw himself back behind the weights. Bullets pinged off metal exercise equipment and stitched a path across the wall. The robot sustained an indirect hit from the plasma rifle, but it was enough to overload its electronics. The immense surge of electrical energy ripped through the machine, and soon the damage from the shorting circuits and frying chips had reached the extent that the bot malfunctioned and abruptly powered down, its last bullet hitting the outer frame of the weight machine and fragmenting, sending a small piece of metal slicing across Ring’s exposed cheek. He gritted his teeth at the sting as he watched the robot topple over on its side with a great deal of satisfaction.
The last robot had already attempted to pass through the doorway, only to bump up against the smoking heap of the warrior’s first casualty. Now the machine abruptly reversed course and adjusted its route to carry it through the other open panel where it bumped into the sparking junk heap that Ring had made of the second robot. The warrior had no reason to surrender his position now. The effective strategy he’d inadvertently stumbled upon would buy him the time he needed for the rifle to recharge. He’d simply wait right there and blast the third one with a great deal of relish the moment it finally managed to shove its way through the smoking debris. Ring grinned in anticipation. His freedom was only a heartbeat away.
Caitlin headed to the food line for a tray while Reno paused just inside the entrance of the mess tent to locate his party, a task he didn’t find difficult, as Rude had duly claimed an entire table for the three of them. The big Turk, apparently having already eaten, lounged in a chair that he’d pulled away from the end of the table, with his long legs crossed at the knee and his hand resting against his abdomen within easy reach of his shoulder holster. His eyes alert on the entrance behind the fathomless shades, he noticed Reno the moment he’d entered, and now that Reno had marked his position as well, offered the Leader of the Turks the barest nod of acknowledgement.
Noting that Avian appeared to be missing, Reno scanned heads until he found the sociable young man two tables over having breakfast with Cloud and Derry while Yuffie appeared to be running her mouth and shoving her food around on her plate. Soldier hovered eagerly nearby for whatever scraps he could beg. Satisfied that Avian Wulfe would come to no harm in the presence of two Avalanche members, especially with three Turks on site, he redirected his attention to the blonde head that belonged to the person that was the main target of his interest. Assigned to keep a close eye on the rear of the tent while Rude watched the front, Elena had her back to him, a fact that set the scheming gears in his head in motion.
Making a circuitous route around a couple of tables to prevent Elena catching sight of him from the corner of her eye, he slipped silently up behind her. Across the table, Rachel noticed him and looked up from her cereal with wide eyes. Reno pressed a finger to his pursed lips, a silent warning which did nothing to prevent the delighted smile that lit her face. If Elena had caught a glimpse of Rachel’s face at that moment, his game would have been up then and there, but Elena had just noticed Caitlin at the end of the line, and the Shinra heir seemed to have drawn the whole of her attention.
The corner of Reno’s mouth came up as he reached out and flicked a finger into her hair, disarranging a few strands and almost making her choke on a bite of her scrambled eggs. Her head snapped around even as Reno leaned his body out of her line of sight. While she expended a few seconds glaring off in that direction, he reached around her other shoulder and stole her toast off her tray. Rachel clapped her hand over her mouth to hold back her giggles, but her laughter sputtered out between her small fingers when Reno took a big bite of Elena’s toast. At the sound of Rachel’s levity, Elena jerked her eyes back around to plant suspicious eyes on the little girl, and Reno took the opportunity to make devil horns behind Elena’s head with two fingers, an act which only fueled the child’s giggles.
Elena narrowed her eyes on the little girl’s face. “Is Reno behind me?” she asked her with a frown. Rachel started to nod until Reno vehemently shook his head, making his ponytail switch against his back. The little girl began to shake her head too, mimicking the same exaggerated movements of her idol.
Without warning, Elena whipped her head around to look over her shoulder again, forcing Reno to exhibit his lightning reflexes as he quickly leaned back the other way. She had no doubt he was there though, and simply defeated his strategy when she abruptly turned halfway around in her chair to pin him with a disgruntled hazel-eyed glare. He waggled his fingers at her and took another bite of her toast.
Her eyes narrowed on the piece of toast. “Is that my toast, Reno?” she demanded. He simply lifted both shoulders in a shrug as he thought it impolite to talk with a mouthful of her toast. With a quick glance, she checked her tray to confirm the absence of the food item in question, and huffed her outrage as she stared at the empty spot on her tray. “Go get your own damn food, Reno!”
“Aaaaaaahhhhhmmm,” Reno replied. “You said a naughty word. Didn’t she Rachel?” He lifted his eyebrows in question, seeking the little girl’s reinforcement for the purpose of annoying Elena further.
Rachel giggled and nodded her agreement.
“What’s the punishment again?”
“Soap,” Rachel readily replied.
Before Reno could open his mouth, Elena pointed one sharp nail at his face. “If you bring a bar of soap around me, Reno,” she said in a low, ominous voice. “You’ll be the one eating it.”
“Want your toast back?” He waved the half-eaten toast beneath her nose with a satisfied smirk on his face.
Not bothering to reply, she pointedly put her back to him and picked up her fork, deliberately ignoring him as she took a bite of her eggs. Seeing that she’d finally gotten wise and opted out of the game, Reno winked at Rachel, stuffed the rest of the toast in his mouth and sauntered away to get his own breakfast.
“There he goes, ladies and gentlemen,” Elena muttered under her breath. “The Leader of the Turks…believe it or not…”
“Reno to the Third is pretty funny,” Rachel informed her enthusiastically.
Elena found herself in partial agreement. “Funny looking, maybe.”
The prisoners huddled in the side hallway in near darkness, listening intently for what would come next. They’d all heard the distant echoes of the battle in the gymnasium sifting down the hallways to reach their ears. They’d held a collective breath at the first rattle of machine gun fire from the robot, and when they’d heard the odd thwack of the plasma blast resonating through the corridors, they’d all breathed a mutual sigh of relief. Then much too soon, machine gun fire erupted again, almost masking the sound of the plasma rifle discharging.
“That’s two,” Freckles reported in a reverent whisper.
“Are you sure?” Hick asked nervously.
“Yeah, I heard the rifle go off again.” Several murmurs rose in agreement.
The plasma rifle blasted again, and silence reigned for almost fifteen seconds after.
“Three…” Bug whispered hoarsely through lips dry and cracked with lingering fever.
“That’s it, right?” Michael asked with excitement. “There were only three left, right?”
“Ring thought there were four left,” Freckles reminded them. “Remember?”
A distant pounding resonated in the claustrophobic hallway, bringing all discussion about robots to a halt. “What the hell is Ring doing now?” Hick asked in bewilderment.
Michael tilted his head as he tried to identify the sound. The pounding stopped for a few seconds, and then started again. The teenaged prisoner turned his head one direction and then another. “That’s not Ring,” he suddenly pronounced. “That’s coming from the door.”
“Man, no way,” a man standing against the wall replied.
“Yes, way,” Michael bit back, not in the least deterred by the man’s shaven head, his giant arm muscles or the copious number of self-rendered tattoos covering almost every visible inch of arm.
The man sprang away from the wall. “Come here you scrawny little bastard,” he snarled. “I’ll teach you to give me attitude.”
“Shut up, Jake” a short man near the door cried out. “The kid’s right! I can feel the pounding through the door. Someone’s tryin’ to come through.”
“Or some THING,” Hick replied anxiously as he climbed to his feet and started backing away.
A wrenching sound commenced on the other side, and the rest of the prisoners started getting up on their feet. Several of them disobeyed Ring’s orders and fearfully gravitated into the main corridor.
Michael stared at the door as the wrenching grated at his nerves, and then he suddenly exploded into movement, darting around the corner and down the hallway.
“Come back, Michael!” Freckles called out. “Where ya goin’?”
“I’m gonna get Ring!” he yelled back.
“Good idea,” Freckles muttered to himself. “Since he’s got the gun.”
A hand touched the leg of his coveralls, and the carrot-headed man looked down to find Bug slumped against the wall at his feet. He decided that he’d best move the ailing man out of the direct path of whatever might come through the door.
“Hey, Hick,” Freckles said to the nervous man standing nearby. “Help me move Bug around the corner.” He bent down to grab him by one arm.
The moon-faced Hick just stared with wide eyes, making no effort to move.
Jake strode up and gave the trembling Hick a shove, sending him stumbling to the side. “Outta my way, dumbass,” he growled to Freckles. The lanky redhead quickly moved aside, and Jake bent down and lifted Bug off the floor as though he were no heavier than a rag doll, and then hefting him easily onto one broad shoulder, he carried him around the corner to gingerly settle him to the floor several feet down the main corridor.
“Thanks…Jake…” Bug whispered hoarsely.
Jake gave his cheek a little slap with one huge hand. “No prob, buddy. You jus’ cover the floor an’ we’ll take care o’ those tinkertoys. Deal?”
Bug weakly smiled. “…Deal…”
Ring stood with the plasma rifle at the ready, staring intently down the empty corridor leading away from the gym toward the lobby. The pile of acridly smoking robots and a sea of broken glass stood in his way, and now he found himself remarkably and unusually indecisive. Although he didn’t relish treading across the broken glass bare-footed, he would if he had to, but he didn’t want to continue the hunt if it wasn’t necessary. He’d much rather find some tools and open the door that he intuitively believed to be a probable exit from this hellhole of a prison. He’d told the guys that he thought there were four of the bots left after their run from the bloody ambush when the bots had caught them by surprise at the main entrance. A double defeat at the time. They’d just had their hopes dashed by the discovery of the main elevator crushed by debris from above and an emergency stairwell collapsed into a pile of broken concrete and rebar. And then the bots had come upon then and killed many of them as they’d fled from the inadvertent trap under constant and direct gunfire. He’d blasted several in the long retreat through the hallways, but in the end he could swear he’d counted four. But then if there’d been four, wouldn’t they have been together? He just wasn’t sure. He wanted to believe there were no more, and he could almost convince himself that he’d destroyed them all. But he felt uneasy, like he had unfinished business.
He heard the sound of bare feet running up the opposite hallway, and he whirled around to look, instinctively bringing the barrel of the rifle around as he moved. Michael ran through the double doors and came to a stumbling halt at sight of him. The seasoned Shinra warrior couldn’t see much more than the kid’s silhouette, but he didn’t need to see Michael’s face to know something was going down. He could sense the agitation radiating from every pore.
“What’s the matter,” he demanded lowly, his voice resonating hollowly in the huge gym.
“Something’s tryin’ to come through the door!” Michael cried out breathlessly. “It’s breakin’ through!”
Ring didn’t waste his breath or time on any more questions, but shouldered the heavy plasma rifle and broke into a run. Michael waited for him to reach him, and then joined him, laboring hard to keep up with the taller man, trying desperately to match him stride for stride.
Within seconds, the pair rounded the turn into the last long corridor together, and Ring slowed his pace at sight of all the prisoners huddled along the walls. At Ring’s appearance, several started to talk, but Ring held up his hand for silence. He could already hear the nerve-jangling wrenching sound from the door. “Don’t say a word,” he warned them. “Just stay put.”
As though stalking an enemy combatant in hiding, he padded silently and purposefully down the length of the hall, his luminous green eyes narrowed in concentration, the plasma rifle held at the ready. He didn’t know what he’d find, but he was positive it wouldn’t be bots. The machines didn’t have the programming or ability to break through an inoperative door, the reason he'd busted the panel in the first place. He paused at the corner and leaned out to peer at the double panels that blocked the exit at the end of the short hallway. Bright light poured through a narrow aperture, and though he couldn’t make out any words, he could clearly hear the indiscernible murmur of several voices outside. He looked back into the alert, anxious eyes of his involuntary troop and broadly smiled. “Stop worrying, guys,” he said in a firm, reassuring voice. “I’ve got this covered.”
He raised his eyes to the emergency lamp attached at the top of the wall over his head and stared into it for a long moment to force his pupils to contract, an act that would dispel the marked disadvantage he would have suffered as he stood blinking blindly for several crucial seconds in the bright light outside after standing in the dim hallway. He knew he would gain the visual advantage by default. They’d never see him until it was too late, peering into the dim hallway from their brightly lit environment. The prisoners silently watched him.
“Listen closely and don’t do anything until I say,” he instructed in a low voice. “Don’t move or make a sound.” He drew his gaze from the lamp to scan the faces closest to him. He could just barely see several heads nodding in understanding.
The grating sound of wrenching metal again came from the panels, and a wide swath of light painted a path across the linoleum as the doors were pried ajar. “Isn’t that far enough?” a woman’s petulant voice demanded.
“Please stand back, Dr. Zaffron,” General Sand pleaded in exasperation. “You don’t know what we’ll find.” The woman swatted the General’s hand away from her arm. “Don’t tell me what to do,” she snapped.
Ring’s smile turned feral. He stiffened his arms to raise the plasma rifle up in front of him at chest level and stepped into the hallway, steadily advancing toward the doors just outside the path of illumination. When Ring had reached a point only a couple of feet from the doorway, several hands dragged the panels even farther apart, and Ring simply stepped into the gap and pointed the rifle at the woman’s chest.
Katrina emitted a little squeak of dismay and slowly raised her hands into the air, hoping that the wild looking hirsute creature with the blood streaked beard and the big assed gun pointed at her sternum would understand the gesture and hold his fire. Heavens knew, she recognized a fully charged plasma rifle when she saw it. “Please don’t shoot,” she whispered in a strained voice.
“Lower the guns, and maybe I won’t,” Ring easily replied.
General Sand and all the alert soldiers ranged around the open doorway had snapped their rifles up to target him when he’d first appeared, and now Sand silently gestured at them to point their weapons at the concrete floor. Reeve and Ian both stood tensely against the wall where Sand had instructed them to go, and now Reeve took an impulsive step forward. Sand shot him a stern look and shook his head before turning his attention back to the young man with the plasma rifle, a man he clearly recognized by his Mako eyes as a former Soldier 1st Class. “How about lowering your weapon too, son?” the general asked without much hope of compliance. “We’ll have a friendly chat.”
“Nope,” Ring flatly replied.
“You may say “I told you so” now, General,” Katrina generously offered in a wry voice. Sand didn’t bother to reply, but her words sparked Ring’s curiosity. He tilted his head inquisitively. “What’s a pretty girl like you wanna come to a hellhole like this for?” he asked amiably.
Katrina privately thought the guy didn’t have full possession of his mind, but she didn’t figure she had anything to lose by talking to him, and maybe everything to gain. “I came for my brother,” she coolly informed him.
Her statement startled him, but he hid his surprise behind shuttered eyes and a chilly tone. “So you got a brother in here, huh? There aren’t many folks left in this place.”
“What do you mean?” Katrina asked uneasily, the first real hint of fear in her voice.
“I mean the bots got ‘em,” he bluntly replied.
Reeve, who had obediently halted at Sand’s silent command but had not retreated, now ignored the military officer’s instruction altogether and stepped away from the wall to walk out into the middle of the corridor where the prisoner could see him, slowly lifting his hands as he advanced. Ring instantly noticed him and scowled. “Better stop, buddy,” Ring suggested. “Or the girl gets it.” He smiled deprecatingly at his own words. He sounded like a gangster from a B movie.
Reeve immediately halted, feeling a little lightheaded at the position into which he’d currently thrust himself. However, he hoped to convince the man of their good intentions. “We came to evacuate everyone from the prison,” the executive steadily informed him. “We need to have access to the facility to release the prisoners from their cells.”
“They’ve all been released,” Ring coldly informed him. “In one way or another, Mr. Slum Lord.”
Reeve blinked at the negative appellation. “I guess you…know who I am,” he said carefully.
“Yup,” Ring succinctly responded, curling his lip in disgust. “Standard Shinra scumbag.”
“Look…I just want to escort the prisoners to safety and…”
“Shut up,” Ring commanded.
Reeve instantly stopped talking, his mind racing for a solution to an increasingly untenable situation.
“Come over here,” Ring suddenly commanded.
“Who…me?” Reeve looked around uncertainly.
“Yeah you,” the warrior clarified. “Get over here.”
“Don’t go any closer, sir,” Sand bade him in a low voice. The officer knew he didn’t have any real control over the executive. All he could do was advise him, and he didn’t figure the executive would pay him any more mind than had the hardheaded woman scientist.
“Mind your own business, Colonel Sand, sir.” Ring told him as he gestured at Reeve with an impatient jerk of his head. “And you, Mr. Alexander, hurry it up. I don’t have all day.”
Reeve didn’t have any choice at this point. The man still had Dr. Zaffron at gunpoint, and he’d most likely shoot her if he didn’t comply. He forced his feet forward despite an urgent compulsion to flee, coming to a halt beside an unusually compliant Dr. Zaffron. Ring pinned purposeful Mako eyes on the executive’s face and abruptly aimed the rifle barrel at Reeve’s chest instead. “Beat it, lady,” he told Katrina. “I’d rather shoot this bastard.”
Katrina’s eyes darted to Reeve’s tense face. She didn’t like the idea of being shot, but she certainly didn’t wish for Alexander to be shot in her stead. “But I…you shouldn’t…shoot anyone…”
“Last chance, babe,” Ring coldly interrupted.
Katrina promptly spun on heel and swiftly walked over to stand by the wall next to a wide-eyed, gape-mouthed Ian who seemed stunned to immobility by the sudden turn of events, at which point she remembered to put her hands down.
“You in charge of this little operation?” Ring asked conversationally. Despite his uncomplimentary remarks, Ring knew the city manager to be a cut above the usual Shinra VIP. It wasn’t saying much, but it was something. Maybe.
Reeve nodded his head and stiffened his trembling knees. “For the time being.” He suddenly thought of Cait then, and he realized that Caitlin and Reno would probably be rather put out if he managed to get himself killed despite all their precautions. In fact, the prison matter had come up so quickly and been so pressing that he hadn’t even thought to communicate his plan to them. In addition to that, he’d just sent the pre-programmed signal to indicate his continued good health only a few minutes past. No one would be coming to his rescue anytime soon.
“So what you plan to do?” his captor asked curiously.
“With the prisoners.”
Reeve took note of the fact that the man spoke of his fellow prisoners as though he wasn’t one of them despite his prison uniform. The executive answered in kind. “Take them to safety.”
“Medical care? Food? Shoes? Bed to sleep in? All that?”
“Yes, we’ll see to their needs. And we brought a medic.”
“Your cases will be reviewed too,” a closely attentive Katrina suddenly called out, thinking the information might prove persuasive.
Ring shot a quick look at the hopeful scientist and then back at Reeve, his eyes narrowing in intense scrutiny. “Why would ya do that?”
Reeve drew in a steadying breath. The man seemed disturbed by the news, and the executive had no idea why. A wish that Cornell would snap out of his trance and clap a hand over Dr. Zaffron’s mouth flashed through his mind, a thought immediately followed by surprise that he could still manage to find humor in the situation.
“Speak up, man,” Ring demanded impatiently.
A nervous tic appeared in Reeve’s tightly clenched cheek. He didn’t know what answer would appease the man. He knew he’d be better served by the truth, and he would prefer not to disturb the man further with slick doubletalk. He supposed it wouldn’t matter if he told him. It was just that he’d been speaking off the top of his head to Katrina at the time and hadn’t really given the idea much thought yet. He questioned the wisdom of discussing the matter with him at this juncture, or at all, for that matter.
Reeve carefully schooled his thoughts, making a mental effort to steel his nerves, careful to keep a steady gaze on the man’s eyes even as he struggled against the urge to look down at the gleaming silver barrel of the plasma rifle pointed directly at his heart. “There’s been a recent change in corporate leadership as well as a change in military command,” the executive smoothly explained. “I’ve decided upon a brief examination of the prisoner files that a dispensation review would be in order.”
“Dispensation.” The man’s luminous green eyes flared with anger, and Reeve’s stomach roiled queasily at the sight. Apparently his words didn’t sit well with his captor, and the man proved it by leaning forward over the barrel of the plasma rifle to grab a handful of Reeve’s tie. Ring yanked the knot tighter around the executive’s neck as he spoke. “You know there’s a sixteen year old kid that’s been in that goddamn prison for over a year for punching his sergeant because he insulted his girl? Do you know that?”
Carefully, Reeve shook his head. Now he knew where the man stood. “I…didn’t know about that case specifically, but I’ve discovered similar cases in the files. That’s the reason I believe they all…every one of them…deserve a review. If what you say is true, then he will be freed.”
“Oh, it’s true, Mr. Slum Lord,” Ring coldly declared. “Mark my words.”
“I’ll see to the matter personally,” Reeve promised. “You have my word.”
Ring cocked his head in appraisal. “I don’t think your word means anything to me, Alexander,” he decided aloud.
Reeve stared at him uneasily. “Then what can I do to assure you…what can I…”
“I’ll accept Colonel Sand’s word,” Ring suddenly said, shifting his gaze to the general where he still stood, carefully holding his position a few feet away, his own rifle held tensely in his hands with the barrel aimed at the floor. “What about it, Colonel?” Dark green Mako eyes unblinkingly engaged the officer’s implacable gaze. Not for the first time, Sand silently wondered where he might have encountered this Soldier 1st Class before, because he had no doubt that the man knew him. Maybe he’d even served under him before, but he couldn’t tell for all the hanging, tangled locks and unruly mass of facial hair. Neither the voice or the ring tattoo that encircled the man’s wrist rang any bells. But whether he knew the soldier or not, he could give him his word.
“You have my word, son,” he vowed. “I’ll look over the files myself, and I’ll be fair.”
“And compensation,” Ring bluntly added. “For the families of the dead.”
“I can’t promise that…” Sand started to say, until Reeve interrupted.
“I can,” he flatly stated. “They’ll have compensation.” It was the least he could do, and he knew Cait wouldn't object.
“You’ll hold him to that promise, Colonel?”
“I will, son,” Sand replied quietly. “Now how about putting down the gun so we can all get out of here.”
“Sorry, no can do,” Ring refused. “I’ll keep the gun, but the men can go.”
“How many prisoners are there?” Sand queried.
“Sixty-three,” Ring curtly replied.
“That’s it?” Reeve’s face took on a grim cast.
Ring’s gaze came back to the executive’s face. “Told ya, your bots got ‘em.”
“Where are the robots now?” Sand sharply inquired, suddenly realizing that the robots could well present a problem.
“I smoked ‘em,” Ring coolly responded.
“What about A Section?” Reeve asked in a lower voice. He didn’t want Katrina to hear what he would ask next.
“You mean ‘Killer Row’?” Ring inquired dryly.
“I suppose so. How many survivors came from there?”
“The robots shot them all?”
“No, that part of the prison collapsed.”
“I see…and Section B? Isolation?”
“Yeah, that whole end. All smashed.” Ring’s tone conveyed a nonchalance that cloaked his true feelings on the matter. “Cheap construction, I guess.”
Katrina suddenly stepped away from the wall, impatiently shaking off the hand that Ian valiantly dropped on her shoulder to forestall any rash action on her part. “Hey, you!” she called imperiously. “With the plasma gun!”
“Lady, you’re taxing my patience and wasting my time,” Ring called back without taking his eyes or the end of the barrel away from the executive’s face.
“I just want to find out about my brother.”
Ring heaved a weary sigh. He knew the odds were against her brother being alive, with almost three quarters of the prison population turned to worm food. “Okay, what’s his name?”
“Don’t know him,” he carelessly replied. But then, he didn’t really know anybody in the general prison population, only the ones that had survived with him long enough to develope a passing acquaintance. Besides, he didn't know their names anyway. Nor did he want to.
“He was in Section A,” Reeve informed his captor in a strained whisper.
“Oh, shit. That sucks,” Ring commiserated.
“Look, isn’t there someone you could ask?” Katrina impatiently demanded, unaware of the exchange between criminal and hostage.
“Why, sure,” he replied affably. He turned his head slightly to call over his shoulder. “Freckles, get out here.”
“You want me to come out, Ring?” the ghostly voice came drifting down the hall.
“That’s right, man. C’mon out. It’s okay.”
“Your name’s Ring?” Reeve inquired with interest, making note of the name for future reference.
“Well, that’s what my friends call me,” he responded with an indifferent shrug. It wasn’t his real name, of course. No one in the prison knew his real name, and he meant to keep it that way. Sand might figure it out, but he doubted it.
Freckles emerged from behind him, blinking in the bright light. “What’s going on, Ring?” he asked nervously.
“We got rescuers here, pal. Come to take us out of here.”
Freckles eyed the armed soldiers uneasily. “Want me to get the guys?”
“Yeah, in a minute. But first, do you know Erich Friedmann.”
Freckles slowly shook his head. “Nope, never heard of him.”
“Guess that settles that.” Ring shrugged with seeming indifference. “You’ll just have to look ‘em over yourself, lady,” he called to Katrina. He wasn’t about to be the one to impart the news that all the ‘A’ prisoners were dead. He shot a glance in her direction, and his heart wrenched at the stricken look in her eyes. Seemed like maybe she'd already guessed. Another time, he would have offered her comfort. He’d always been a sucker for a lady in distress. But not this time. He narrowed his eyes on Reeve’s face. “So how you wanna do this prisoner transfer?”
“I have a say?”
“Long as you treat the boys right, and just so you know, none of them are armed. So any soldiers take potshots at ‘em, I’ll light you up.”
“I completely understand.”
Ring turned his gaze to Sand’s face. “Colonel?”
“I’ll be in charge of the prisoners,” he assured Ring. “They’ll be treated well, but they’ll have to be restrained.”
Ring simply nodded. He’d expected as much. “Go get the guys, Freckles. Tell ‘em it’s cool. Colonel Sand’s runnin’ the show.”
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