~Part 2~

A dozen or so village children, girls and boys of various size and age, played a lively game of tag in the Nibelheim square, their shouts and laughter rising above every other sound to resonate in the calm rarefied atmosphere of the tiny isolated village cradled by tall mountains. They played and the Turk watched, as had become his custom in his off time of late. He found the exercise in passive observation quite relaxing on those occasions when he didn’t wish to walk the meadows alone or remain cooped up in his room reading. Those times when all he wanted in the world was to be with his Lucrecia only to discover, once again, that she was too immersed in her work down in the hidden basement laboratory to spend time with him.

The activity amused Lucrecia no end on those early evenings when she found him there, and she’d asked him more than once what drew him to watch the children at play. As he never provided her a concrete answer, preferring to elude the subject whenever possible, she’d finally concluded for herself that he watched them because they represented something that he’d never had in his life and never would. In one respect what she said was true, but not in the way that she meant. As a child he’d never had the opportunity to play as other children did, and as a man he would never know the pleasure of watching his own child at play. That’s what she believed. And although he’d never felt compelled to explain otherwise, and though her reasoned supposition was indeed grounded in truth, that wasn’t the reason. Not precisely.

On one level he enjoyed watching the children because he found them immensely interesting; a microcosm of human interaction at its most unadulterated level, their rivalries and alliances, their easy compromises, their innate sense of fair play, their intuitive knowledge of right and wrong, their swiftly administered retributions, even their innocent romances. And at a more basic level, he did indeed watch them because they represented something he hadn’t possessed in so long that he could find no vestiges of it in his soul, something precious that he could never hope to possess again. Actions made with pure intent. Thought drawn from a well of innocence. Lives so unmarred by ugliness, so unstained by cruel deeds that play came naturally above all else. Without even knowing, they granted him a momentary peace, a too short respite from the reality of his tainted life.

Upon further contemplation, he had to admit that Lucrecia would argue that her contention remained correct, if he ever found it necessary to explain the matter in depth, and he would be forced to concede to her premise if he were to be honest with himself. He’d simply overanalyzed the issue, as was his wont to do. Once one removed all the nuances, the matter perhaps could be boiled down to that one fine point. That he did want to be a child again. He wanted to start his whole life over and be the child he’d never been. He wanted to undo all the damage he’d wrought in his life, unravel all the pain. He wanted to experience a moment when he felt so free in spirit and so light of heart that levity might consume him, causing him to laugh so hard that he would helplessly fall to the ground clutching his stomach, as he would see the children do. An absurd and whimsical notion indeed. And a sight that would shock Lucrecia down to her toes, he’d wager.

Vincent drew his jacket sleeve back with one finger to bring his watch into view. The hint of a smile that had unconsciously developed at the imagined expression of shock on Lucrecia’s face if she were ever to see all six feet of him in his sharply pressed suit rolling in uncontrollable laughter on the floor, abruptly disappeared as though it had never been, banished by an irritated frown of discontent marked only by a slight tightening of the mouth and a indiscernible narrowing of the eyes. Where was she? She’d promised him that she would spend the entire evening with him, to make up for her recent neglect, but the hour was growing late. Certainly, he’d more than half expected to be stood up again. Her promises had too often become excuses of late. But what else could he do but wait? He couldn’t go to her.

Hojo viewed his visits to the basement laboratory as trespass, even when he was on duty and simply making his required rounds. When he dared to venture there off duty to speak to Lucrecia, the supercilious professor would not speak a word to him on the matter, but generally waited until he’d gone to land his unaccountable anger with the Turk’s intrusions directly upon Lucrecia’s unwitting head with snide commentary and subtle threats of academic humiliation. More than once, she’d come to him after one of Hojo’s scathing excoriations to plead with him not to seek her out there in his off hours, a concession he would not give her, until one night she’d come to him, rattled to her core and shaking like a withered leaf in an autumn wind, barely able to speak for her hiccupping sobs. Weeping copiously, she’d fallen into his arms and soaked his shirt through with her tears. That day she’d extracted his promise easily, though given in direct conflict with his better judgment, and now he was bound by his word. He wouldn’t break it. He couldn’t. He could not bear for her to suffer because of his defiance. He had no control over Hojo. On the contrary, he’d been given into the service of the scientists, to protect them and do their bidding, whatever their whim. He could, however, school his own actions to grant her plaintive request, to save her pain. Too many times of late, he’d seen her beautiful emerald eyes clouded with tears. Too many times, their disagreements, though fleeting, inevitably revolved around Professor Hojo. Too many times for his peace of mind, he’d sensed their relationship teetering, balanced on a razor thin line. And so he would wait.

As it turned out, he wasn't forced to wait long, for in the next instant, he heard her behind him, as though he’d finally managed to summon her by dint of his will. The sweet sound of her familiar laughter echoed hollowly in his ear in querulous contradiction of the lovely but sorrowful visage that still lingered to haunt his thoughts, a welcome manifestation of happiness of which he’d seen little in the last couple of weeks and one that instantly drew the whole of his attention to her. Yet, as he listened with a keen ear, her laughter grew nervous and high-pitched, as if she laughed guiltily at some private jest, an assessment on his part that was disquietingly reinforced by the male chuckle that followed in response, lowly expressed and vaguely intimate. Clearly, she wasn’t alone.

He twisted around on the wooden park bench to stare through the crisscross of weathered slats that comprised the framework support of the water tank, duly confirming his observation. His narrow brows lowered ominously as he frowned deeply, making no effort to hide his displeasure. His Lucrecia and the conceited professor stood close, only a thrice of yards beyond the tower, bowed heads nearly meeting, smiling cryptically as though they shared a delicious secret, speaking in voices little more than a low murmur. The professor peered down over the top of his reading glasses in benevolent wisdom as though he actually imagined he had intelligent information to impart, and Lucrecia raptly gazed into his smug face as though she expected a great scientific revelation to issue forth from his insipid mouth.

No doubt already aware that he waited for her, and no doubt knowing full well that he’d been waiting for a long time, or perhaps just because she sensed the heat of his intense and impatient regard, she uneasily resettled an armful of folders to redistribute the weight to both arms and chanced an anxious look his way. The faltering smile vanished when she encountered his unblinking gaze. She offered him the bare shrug of a slender shoulder in a silent and rather offhand apology as well as a faint semblance of a smile. Schooling his features into a mask of cool implacability, he respectfully granted her a slight nod in return, his acknowledgement that he’d clearly seen her and his unspoken oath to wait there in the square for her until she’d finished her business. And he would wait. All night if need be. He planned to ask her a vital question. One long overdue, in his opinion. He’d delayed far too long, although in obeisance to her expressed wishes, and he would delay not one minute more.

Dipping a hand into the pocket of his blue suit coat, he purposely faced forward, planting his spine firmly to the bench as he returned his eyes to the ongoing game of tag, absently watching the antics of the children with a vacant gaze as one little pigtailed girl, whose name he knew to be Martine, darted back and forth trying to lay a small hand on one of her slippery playmates as they danced just out of reach. His questing fingers eventually found the item he sought, and he gingerly withdrew his hand from his pocket with his plunder snared between two fingers. With a curl of his fingers, he let the ring fall into his palm, and at that point he finally relinquished his absent surveillance of the children’s game to peer down into his open hand, reverently bowing his head as incisive eyes studied the ring in critical appraisal. The simple piece of jewelry, set with a single pristine solitaire diamond that glittered against the soft patina of the gold band, symbolized his heart’s deepest wish, and the bright promise of the entirety of the rest of his life, the only viable course to gaining the happiness he sought, the one avenue left to him.

He’d found acquiring just the right ring for Lucrecia a most difficult endeavor, especially since he preferred simplicity to ostentation, and he prayed that she would be pleased with his choice, her satisfaction being his only true concern, as he had no doubt as to Lucrecia’s answer. He didn’t, did he? Of course not. Why then did butterflies flutter into flight inside his stomach every time he imagined that moment just after he posed his heartfelt question when he would not be capable of breath until she answered? And when he tilted his hand just so, why did the shifting twinkle of light reflected from the many facets of the diamond remind him of a…falling star?

A shadow fell across him, blocking the late afternoon sunlight to steal the luster from the diamond ring in his hand. With a barely discernible frown of disgruntlement at the interruption of his thoughts at almost the precise moment that he’d had the answer to that last crucial question in his grasp, he raised chilly eyes to the rapt face of the young woman hovering at the end of the bench with both hands wrapped around the ornate wrought iron arm, her appreciative brown eyes softly shining as she gazed at the engagement ring resting in his loosely cupped hand.

Vincent’s eyes widened in shocked recognition, and he wildly looked around to check his surroundings in bewilderment, after which he keenly inspected one hand and then the other before bringing his stunned eyes back to her preciously familiar face.

“What a beautiful ring!” she enthused breathily. “I’ll bet your girl will love it!”

He promptly closed the ring in his fist and stared up at her in consternation. She was not supposed to be here. She didn’t belong here. And more importantly, he didn’t want her to see him. Not in this place at this time. “What are you doing here?”

Startled chocolate eyes flew to his stiff face at his coldly voiced demand, but her astonishment at his unfriendly tone swiftly gave way to her irritation at his arrogance. “I live here, buddy. I could ask the same of you.” She haughtily looked him up and down, from the tips of his shiny black dress shoes to the top of his neatly combed and parted shiny black head, her annoyed appraisal eventually settling on equally annoyed golden brown eyes. “I don’t usually see your like around here,” she pointedly added.

Abruptly he rose from the bench, solely to regain the advantage that his better than average height rarely failed to grant him. Defensively, he folded his arms across his chest and landed cool eyes on her challenging face. “My like?” he inquired silkily with a lift of one brow. “What, may I ask, do you mean by that rather disparaging remark?”

She found herself strangely captivated by the black silk tie hanging loosely about his neck and the single collar button unfastened at his throat, an incongruous counterpoint to his sharply pressed suit, his crisp snowy white dress shirt and his spotless shiny shoes. “You know…” she absently explained. “A suit…type…” Her voice trailed off as she tilted her head to study his face more closely, her attention especially drawn to that elegantly quirked wing of an ebony brow.

“…A…Turk…type…in…fact…” she tentatively added when she realized how closely the suit resembled the trademark attire of the Turks, despite its rather outdated cut. Almost reluctantly, she examined the long straight nose at length, and uneasily followed that with an intense scrutiny of the tightly compressed lips. Her hand drifted absently to her throat as her dark eyes filled with confusion. She knew those features very well, and she’d seen that particular face take on just that exact look before. More than once. But the hair was all wrong with the exception of the long bangs falling against his cheekbones, too short and too neat for the most part. The eyes, such a pale shade of brown that they looked almost amber, were totally the wrong color.

She abruptly dropped her inquisitive gaze, narrowed eyes traveling from one hand to the other in wondering scrutiny. The right hand, still tightly fisted to hide the diamond ring from her view, sported no adornment but for a familiar narrow gold band on his little finger. And the left hand that lay atop one folded arm was exactly that. A hand. No golden plate. No sharp tipped talons. Instead, long supple fingers curved against the dark blue sleeve of his suit coat, a heavy gold insignia ring on his middle finger.

Tifa hesitantly returned a cautious gaze to those strange golden irises and absently gave her head a little shake to clear out the cobwebs. “Vin…cent?” she reluctantly queried.

“Tifa,” he coolly replied.

She raised a hand to rub a deeply creased brow as she stared at the familiar features in confusion. “Okaaaay, this is weird.” She couldn’t imagine why she’d want to dream up a Vincent like this one. She liked him better as an ex-Turk, sharp fingers and all. Of course, she had to admit that she didn’t really have that much control over a dream. Or maybe she did…

Tifa squeezed her eyes tightly shut and concentrated hard on conjuring Vincent as she knew him, as she preferred him, even though she had to admit to herself that he surely cut a mighty fine looking figure in the deep blue suit. Her lips moved silently as she counted to an arbitrarily determined number of ten and then she popped her eyes open again only to find the Turk Vincent still standing right in front of her, staring at her with golden-eyed bemusement. “Hmm…well…I tried,” she said with a helpless lift of her slim shoulders. Guess I’m stuck with you.”

“I suppose you are,” he smoothly replied, a flicker of bewilderment in his eyes the only hint of his uncertainty as to her meaning. Warily, he shot a glance toward the Shinra Mansion, only to find that Hojo and Lucrecia had vanished as though they’d never been. Oddly, he found himself remarkably undisturbed by their absence. He had to admit that his present company interested him more. In fact, he could hardly remember why he’d been waiting for Lucrecia now. Perhaps he hadn’t. Could it be that the whole time he’d been waiting for her?

“Well…I’ll…er…catch you later then…Vincent.” Tifa offered him a little wave of farewell and with one final head to toe look at him, she turned to go.

He looked back around in surprise to see her walking away from him. “You’re leaving?” he asked with an edge of alarm, suddenly consumed with anxiety that she might abandon him after he’d been waiting so long.

She paused in mid-step to gaze back curiously at his tense face. “Well yeah. I was going somewhere. I think…” She couldn’t quite remember where. “To get the newspaper maybe…” Confused, she pointed a finger back toward her house, and then swiveled in place to point toward the general store. “Or was I going…the other way…”

Vincent suddenly decided he’d better assert his long absent manners before she managed to escape him. “No matter, Tifa,” he politely interjected, his rich and mellifluous voice tinged with an uncustomary warmth. “Would you care to have a seat?”

She warily eyed the vacant bench with more than a little suspicion. “Why?”

“I thought we might visit for a bit.” He attempted a shrug of contrived nonchalance that would make a lie of his tense muscles and tautly strung nerves.

“You want to…visit?” she asked in a voice rife with skepticism. Now she was really worried about this Turk Vincent guy. Vincent Valentine offering to have a casual conversation? No way. This poser had to be up to no good. The very idea of Mr. Valentine wanting to chat suddenly struck her funny bone, and she lifted a hand to her mouth as laughter spontaneously sputtered from her mouth to dance lyrically around his ears.

The golden brown eyes widened in astonishment, and the sight only made her laugh harder. “Please…stop…al…ready…Vin…cent,” she choked out between guffaws. “...You…are…just…too…funny…”

“You find me…amusing?” he queried with wonder. He was unaccustomed to being a source of entertainment. In fact, most found him rather intimidating. Even Lucrecia sometimes complained that he was too serious and intense.

She raised merry brown eyes to his stupefied face. “You, Vincent Valentine, offering to talk to me? Right…” The idea reignited her laughter. “Come…off it…Vincent…” she sputtered. “You…aren’t…fooling…me…”

Vincent looked around as though in search of some knowledgeable person nearby that might shed some light on the situation, someone who could grant him an explanation for her unrestrained levity. He shook his head in awe, until he suddenly realized that he did know the reason. Clearly, she’d seen straight through his ploy and found his thinly veiled act lacking. Although why she would find his true intentions laughable he couldn’t begin to imagine. Personally, he deemed the matter most vital. Probably because she deemed his objective ludicrous. Still, there was no point in pretending any longer. He may as well get right to heart of the matter. Unnoticed by her because she was bent almost double laughing at him, he carelessly dropped the ring into his jacket pocket, and restlessly folded his arms across his chest as he bade himself to patiently wait for her laughter to subside. Surely, she couldn’t laugh at him forever.

As he’d surmised, Tifa’s hilarity did eventually dwindle, her guffaws giving way to giggles, and then to an occasional hitch of her breath. Straightening, she pressed a hand against her aching stomach and chanced an inquisitive look at the silent Turk, her brown eyes glimmering brightly with the last vestiges of her mirth. Grinning widely, she took note of the longsuffering face and the resigned golden eyes turned up toward the sky as though he searched the heavens for release. From her, no doubt. He was probably really sorry that he’d ever invited her to…visit. She clapped a hand over her wayward mouth, barely repressed sniggers slipping through her fingers as she struggled to put paid to her laughter before this Turk Vincent simply drew his gun and shot her.

Vincent the Turk chose that moment to intervene, before she suffered a total relapse. His resolution had been made, and he meant to act decisively. Dropping his arms to his sides, he deliberately lowered his head to pin golden eyes rife with purpose on her animated face. “You are correct, Tifa,” he gravely informed her as he firmly advanced one resolute step toward her. Her amused eyes narrowed on his solemn face at the purposeful move, her hand falling away to reveal a wavering smile. “I can deceive you no longer,” he duly added, lifting his shoulders in a tight shrug at the reluctant admission. He took another measured step that brought him to the end of the park bench, as which point he turned on heel to fully face her. “I shan’t even try.”

The somber voice and vaguely ominous demeanor finally registered, ringing a death knell in her mind, and the last trace of mirth promptly fled. She nervously eyeballed the rather presumptuous Turk-type Vincent’s determined face with a deep scowl of suspicion as she tried to divine what mischief this imposter might be planning. “What do you mean?” she asked uneasily, mentally cringing at the tremor in her voice. Apparently, he’d made her much more nervous than she’d first thought. And why wouldn’t he? He was Vincent, and he was a Turk. A rather intimidating combination, she had to confess.

She visibly winced as Vincent came yet another purposeful step closer, and she fought the urge to take an equally purposeful step backward as she shifted worried brown eyes from his intent gaze to his highly polished black shoes and back again. What in the world did the man have in mind? If her very peculiar dream incarnation of Vincent as a Turk didn’t truly want to talk as he’d said, just what did he want with her? What could he want? Maybe she’d unconsciously invoked him in this incarnation to enforce the rules that she tended to view so lightly. Maybe he meant to make her obey. Or else.

She made an unconscious half-turn away and froze there, part of her mind urging her to make good her escape, the other part held in fascinated wonderment at what this intriguing man might do. Instinctively, she knew she should make a run for it while she still could, yet the odd light in those whiskey gold eyes held her firmly in place. Those eyes both so familiar and so strange at the same time...

“I mean that…” Vincent replied in a husky voice that inadvertently exposed some unidentifiable hidden emotion not reflected in his expressionless face. “…I do not wish to talk.”

All motivation to flee vanished, along with the strength in her limbs, when Vincent Valentine of the Turks took a final decisive step to come to a halt a hair’s breadth away from her, the toe of one shiny black shoe nearly touching the steel kick plate of one dusty boot. Reaching out a hand to grasp a boneless forearm in strong but gentle fingers, he drew her unresisting body around to fully face him, and she absently tipped her head back to keep that remarkably fine-looking countenance in her sights. His thick sooty lashes, so very familiar, drifted down to hide all but a sliver of those unusual golden brown irises. His dark bangs fell forward to shadow his handsome features in mystery as he bent his head to look down into her hypnotically entranced face. Her lips parted wordlessly as she gaped into compelling eyes darkened with unshakable purpose.

Tifa didn’t move a single muscle when Vincent raised worshipful hands to her face. And she couldn’t manage so much as a whisper of protest when he gingerly slipped his fingertips against her silky skin as though he were handling fine porcelain. She couldn’t command her awestruck eyes away from lips that unconsciously parted as he fleetingly caressed the familiar curve of her soft cheeks before cupping her face within the frame of his long fingers. “I don’t want to talk…Tifa…” he murmured softly, his words a bare wisp of air across his lips. “…I want…to…kiss you…”

Her breath instantly stilled in her lungs at the startling confession. But truthfully, hadn’t she guessed his purpose all along?


Surely, she’d meant the anxiously whispered words as a question, a projection of the distant echo of surprise in the far corners of her mind at the boldness of this man both known and unknown, but somehow her words came out as a whisper of instruction, a breathy expression of whole-hearted accord. Truly, she could find no resistance to his plan anywhere inside her. In fact, she could only find within herself the desire to discover how that fascinating mouth, not too wide and not too thin but exactly perfect, would feel against hers. She found that she wanted to know, more than anything, how his kiss might taste. Without any prompting or uncertainty, she obligingly tipped her face in quivering expectation, her hands unconsciously rising to his chest as she savored the warmth of his hands against her face, her eyes slipping closed even as she impulsively painted him into her Vincent Valentine within the haven of her own mind.

For long seconds she waited, but his kiss didn’t come. “Vincent?” she queried restively, barely parting her eyelashes to risk a peek at him. Her eyes startled wide at her first glimpse of his stricken face. “Vincent…what’s the matter…what did I…” Her tremulous words instantly fled back down her throat with her sharp intake of breath, along with the question she’d meant to ask, her attention wholly captured by a frightening sight, one that bleakly provided her an answer. Helplessly, she stared as rivulets of bright blood trickled from Vincent’s darkly dilated pupils to seep into the narrowed rims of his anguished golden irises, inexorably obliterating the rich golden tint beneath the stark color of crimson. Her jaw came unhinged as she watched the neatly combed and precisely parted cap of ebony hair lengthen and thicken into the familiar untamed mane she well knew, the dark tresses unfurling to cascade against his shoulders and tumble loosely down his back.

Tifa distantly recognized that she should be exhilarated at the sudden return of the Vincent Valentine she knew, but she could find no joy in her heart. She could hardly lie to herself. She was most certainly the cause. Her innocent wish had sparked the transformation that for some unfathomable reason seemed to distress him so, and though he now appeared exactly the way she’d envisioned him, the way she wanted him to be, her heart ached at the pain and desolation that overflowed his crimson eyes.

Numb with shame at her selfish act, she hesitantly reached up a trembling hand in the hope that she might grant him solace, wanting with the whole of her heart to smooth the deep lines of grief from his downcast face, even as she felt the warm fingers against her cheek harden into metal, the strong fingertips elongate into sharp points. Vincent’s forlorn features abruptly twisted with anger, and his hands unconsciously tightened around her face. A tiny hiccup of surprise escaped her throat at the sudden increase in pressure, and her eyes flickered with fear at the unnerving discomfort of the sharp metal tips digging into her flesh. Vincent blindly stared at the bloodied sin-stained fingers and claws that marked her creamy skin where they lay. What in the whole of the universe had made him think he could dare to touch her? Had he gone mad? His crimson eyes overflowed with disgust at the blatant evidence of his monstrous nature, and with a strangled cry of protest, he stumbled back, instinctively jerking his hands away from her precious face, a convulsive action that caused one sharp talon to slash deeply into her cheek as he leapt away from her.

She cried out in alarm, and the hand that she’d initially lifted to touch his face in comfort instead flew to her own burning cheek. Warm blood gushed between her fingers as she raised brown eyes dark with pain to a pale face deranged by torment.

“I deserve to die,” he harshly confessed in a voice hollow with despair and roughened with self-hatred. She stared speechlessly in horror and denial as a single ruby tear slipped from beneath his dark eyelashes to trace the curve of one ivory cheek, leaving a faint bloody path in its wake.

All concern for the injury she’d suffered instantly left her mind, vanquished by an overwhelming need to refute his heartrending statement and to clearly assure him of her forgiveness for the accidental injury, but before she could move a muscle to touch him, before she could find the words that would deny him fault much less speak them, before she could somehow find the way to convince him that she could never hate him, the tortured man who stood before her with shamed eyes reluctantly pinned to her bleeding face and with anguished breath rasping through clenched teeth simply ceased to exist in this world or the next. In the snap of a finger, in the flicker of an eyelash, in the catch of her strangled breath, Vincent Valentine turned to soulless stone where he stood, leached of all color and every vestige of spirit. As though the very gods in heaven had deemed his pronouncement a just sentence, and in one merciful stroke, had meted out his punishment accordingly, with a cruel touch of irony and unquestionable finality.

Tifa Lockhart stared with eyes stretched too wide in horror, her head unconsciously moving from side to side in blatant refusal of the truth her eyes beheld, even as the words she’d desired more than anything to tell him crystallized in sudden clarity in her mind, all the truths that in a sudden moment of revelation she realized he refused to believe or accept. That he did not deserve to die, but that he deserved to live a life full of wonder and purpose. That he need not suffer endlessly for his sins, but that he should forgive himself and move forward, out of the deep shadow of the walking death to which he’d consigned himself. And above all else, she wanted to tell him that whatever he might think, he did deserve to love. And to be loved. All heartfelt words that Vincent would never hear from her lips or any other’s. Vincent Valentine had become a statue standing in a cobblestone square in a mountain village that had become as dead as he. The children’s voices no longer echoed around the small cluster of stores and humble abodes. The song of the birds had fallen to silence. Even the perpetual buzz of the village people coming and going and living their lives had gone, the world around him as void of color and vibrancy as he. The shiny ebony of his hair, the stark clarity of his crimson eyes, the pale ivory of his unmarred skin…the golden luminosity of his soul…all transformed to lifeless granite. As dead as the stones beneath her shoes. A monument to the sadistic capriciousness of fate.

Tifa Lockhart abruptly found her voice then, and her anguished scream shattered the suffocating serenity of the dead village. Mindlessly, she rushed forward, her hands reaching up for the tormented face locked in stone. Thinking she could change him back with just the power of her thoughts. Thinking she could save him from his undeserved sentence with just the force of her will. But the instant her blood-soaked fingers touched his cold, unyielding cheek, slivers of stone began to crackle and chip away. She audibly choked as thin cracks shot out from beneath her fingertips, and she ripped her hands away to prevent any further damage, but it was too late. Like dark bolts of lightning, the widening fissures shot throughout the entire surface of the stone figure that was all vengeful fate had left to her of him to create a veritable spider web of fractures, the irretrievable damage she’d caused with her own hands swiftly and inevitably reaching the point that the statue that represented the judgment of Vincent Valentine simply exploded to collapse in a thousand fragmented pieces at her feet.

“Noooo…” Her grieving moan of denial welled from the very depths of her soul. Acid tears fell down her chilled face and ragged sobs tore from her burning throat as she fell to her knees and frantically worked to gather the broken pieces into her quaking hands. She knew the gods laughed at her foolishness, but she didn’t care. She was bound to her mission. She would gather up every broken piece, and she would put him back together. No matter how hard the task. No matter how long it took. She would do it. She would. She had to. Somehow…some way…she’d bring him back…she’d give him back his life…she’d make him see the truth…he could have another chance…

As though in empathy with her futile plight, the heavens abruptly opened and wept copious tears. The driving rain swept in torrential sheets of rain across the empty square, pelting her body with stinging raindrops that soaked her through to the bone. At the same time, the cleansing rain, nature’s most efficient solvent, began to dissolve the shattered chunks of broken stone, melting them away into soft clumps of gray clay, and then into miniature rivers of thin slurry. Within moments, all that was left of Vincent runneled through her fingers and into the ground, seeping away along with bright ribbons of her own blood into the crevices between the cobblestones of the square. The gods had played a cruel prank, and they were chortling in glee in their lofty palaces.

“No!” she screamed her anguish into the rain as she madly dug her nails around the edge of one slippery cobblestone, her muscles mightily straining as she futilely labored to pry the stone away. “No! Stop!” she cried between sobs. She had to make it stop or Vincent would be lost to her forever. “Stop it! Please, no! Stop! Please, Gods! Stoooooooooop…”

Tifa snapped to her senses with an audible gasp, dazed eyes flying wide to stare blindly into space, the terrible dream lingering in her mind, still resonating in her pounding heart. Unconsciously, she raised her hand before her wondering eyes to discover her fingers miraculously unstained with blood or wet clay. Then her fingers drifted to her face where she was a little amazed to find her cheek unscathed, uninjured…unmarked.

“Tifa?” he summoned lowly.

At the sound of her name on his lips, her apprehensive brown eyes leapt to Vincent’s tranquil face, and she promptly drew her hand away from her unmarred cheek. There the man sat, vibrantly if somberly vital and perfectly fine, slumped in upon himself with his arms folded atop drawn up knees, still clutching that precious coil of rope and staring at her with a burning intensity in his crimson eyes that belied his apparent serenity. In fact, now that she really looked he seemed too still. His shoulders held too tightly. His posture almost defensive, even…distrustful. She wondered how long he’d been watching her like that, as though he’d awakened to find some alien and dangerous looking creature crouched at his feet, one that he half expected to lunge for his throat at any moment. She could hardly blame him. She’d probably made some god awful sound there at the end of that crazy nightmare. Gods, she could only imagine.

“Are you well?” His normally expressionless voice actually carried a detectable note of unease. Now she knew for sure that she’d made some god awful sound.

Drawing a slow breath to calm her tangled nerves, she offered him a sheepish smile. “Uh…yeah…I’m fine…” she assured him shakily. “I guess I fell asleep…after all…” Unconsciously, she hugged her arms around her chest to stave off a sudden chill, hunching her shoulders as a shudder coursed through her whole body.

Good heavens, what a horrible dream that had been. One of the worst dreams ever. And one she didn’t care to ponder too closely at that moment. What would make her dream something so nutty? She didn’t have a fever. She hadn’t watched any scary movies in a long time. True, Vincent acted stony at times, but that didn’t mean she wanted him to stay that way permanently. Maybe it was because she’d been napping on cold stone, or maybe it was…chocolate. Or course, that had to be it. Chocolate. She vowed then and there to never eat another of Vincent’s chocolates, ever again. No matter how badly she might want it. No matter how ravenous she found herself. No matter how much he might tempt her. Never again. Ever. Never.

“Are you ready to leave then?”

She noted that his uninflected voice had cooled a few degrees, as though now that he’d determined her mental state to be still somewhat intact, his fleeting concern had given way to an unspoken impatience to get back to the descent, a perception reinforced in her mind when she finally chanced another timid look at him only to rediscover that same unrelenting, unfathomable gaze on her face. When their eyes collided, he almost curtly averted his face to peer off toward the distant horizon, as though to make the point that her lackadaisicalness annoyed him no end. Feeling more than a little defensive on that score, she thought about reminding him that she’d been ready to go a long time ago, if he would recall, but decided that her argument lacked weight as she’d promptly fallen asleep despite her earlier protests.

Instead, she simply nodded to herself and climbed to her feet. “I’m more than ready,” she flatly informed him, managing to steady her voice despite a lingering tremulousness of heart and mind. Deliberately turning her gaze upward, mostly to avoid an accidental encounter with that strange penetrating gaze should he look her way again, she noticed that the sun had risen considerably in the sky since she’d last marked its position, indicating that more than an hour had passed since Vincent’s peremptory command that she rest. The radiating rays of the bright mid-morning sun had long ago chased away the cool air of the early morning, yet failed to seep into her chilled bones despite the almost uncomfortable warmth against her skin. She knew the coldness rose from inside her, as though the last vestiges of the dream lingered at the core of her to blow a wintry breath through her soul.

The terrible image of Vincent’s tortured face locked in stone abruptly and unexpectedly revisited her thoughts, and she tensed her back against the icy finger that traced the length of her spine. Chancing a stealthy look over her shoulder, mostly to exorcise the ghost of the haunting memory with the reassuring picture of Mr. Valentine looking hale and healthy, she found him still sitting on the ground with his hands dangling over his knees, contemplating the empty space between his boots as though he had all the time in the world. She couldn’t imagine why he was still lagging around, with the day dying and all, according to him, until the sudden realization came to her that at that moment the man didn’t look all that well. His face seemed more peaked than usual, and the tenseness seemed to have left his body so that he now looked as limp as a wrung out washrag. Heaven knows, she’d never seen the man ill. Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe it was just the way the bright sunlight washed out the little bit of color in his face and the way his spine curled into his drooping shoulders. Or could it be that he was truly as tired as he’d said? Or maybe the chocolates had been bad and had given him a bilious stomach. Did chocolates go bad? She opened her mouth to ask him just that, but instantly closed it again when he suddenly lifted his head, as though he’d sensed the direction of her thoughts and sought to deny them. Before he could turn his head to catch her studying him, Tifa deliberately put her back to the man and walked away toward the rim of the shelf, still too unnerved by her nightmare to endure his regard, not with the details of the dream starkly painted in her mind. She couldn’t bear to think on that last part at all. And the first part…

Tifa narrowed her eyes on the rippling field of yellow flowers in the faraway distance beyond the high ledge, her gaze turning speculative as she studied them as though they might whisper an answer to her on the breeze. Uneasily, she shifted her weight from one foot to the other as her mind slipped back to the moment in the dream when she’d recognized the blue-suited man with the sparkling ring. What was the deal with that anyway? Dreaming Vincent up as a Turk? That had been rather odd, hadn’t it? As she’d never seen him that way. But then, she knew he’d been a Turk. It wasn’t any secret. And she did sometimes wonder about his Turk past. So maybe it wasn’t so weird. But the rest of her dream… She deliberately closed her eyes in denial, as though to shut the images from her mind. She couldn’t imagine how in the world her sleeping brain had managed to cough up that whole insane and melodramatic and disturbing tale. Just as she had difficult grasping the preposterous idea that Vincent Valentine would ever in a million years want to kiss her. Nor had she ever in a million years thought about kissing him.

Where did that kissing business come from anyway? Probably just a guilty remnant of that…other business…before…when she’d been…well…whatever she’d been doing…hanging all over him. Or more likely she’d spent too much time appraising the man’s lips earlier, causing her silly brain to fixate there. Yep, that had to be it, now that she really thought about it. That made sense. Didn’t it? But if that were the case, why would she not dream about him smiling? That’s what she’d been thinking about. Vincent smiling. Not kissing. Why kissing? Well, of course she knew why. Because her mind totally rejected the idea of Vincent smiling as a cosmic impossibility. More so than kissing anyway. Kissing…

Her gaze grew vacant as she continued to stare into the distance, her mind dutifully turning onto a new track to explore a wholly different sequence of events for the end of her dream, a scenario where Vincent, the one she well knew, not the Turk one, didn’t gash her face and didn’t turn to stone, but instead simply drew her into his arms and lowered his mouth to her willing lips. What would that have been like? And what if that morning, high up on the rim of the world beyond the Cetran cave, instead of getting all tense and bossy, what if he’d just bent his head and what if she’d raised her lips…but no. Hell no. What a wild imagination she had. She gave her head a hard shake to dispel the unsettling and strangely compelling vision. Damn it all, she might not have been thinking on it before, but she sure as hell was thinking about kissing him now. Thanks to her stupid dream. Definitely no more chocolate for her.

Moving more slowly, almost languorously, as though still bone weary despite a respite longer than he’d planned, Vincent finally followed Tifa’s lead and climbed to his feet, wearily bending at the hip to retrieve his pack as he stood. He absently shrugged his shoulders into the straps as he reluctantly swiveled troubled eyes to appraise the motionless woman where she stood with her arms folded as though cold, her back tensely turned to him, the ends of her long ponytail ruffling lightly in the breeze. He directed his probing gaze to her feet, and every muscle in his body tightened when he realized that she stood less than a foot from the brim, too far from him to reach her if she fell. Fighting the urge to again take up the slack on the rope and drag her to safety, he instead stooped to pick up his rifle, taking his uneasy eyes off her just long enough to mark the weapon’s location. Slinging the rifle across his shoulder as he moved, he purposefully took a couple of quick steps toward her, only to freeze in place when her head came around at his sudden burst of energy. He wordlessly held his breath as she cautiously searched his face.

“Do you want me go first again?” she finally asked, unable to think of another single word to say to him, particularly in light of the recent direction of her thoughts. Her wayward brown eyes inevitably found Vincent’s mouth and darkened there as she intently watched his lips relax and drift apart as though he meant to speak. But he didn’t. He simply clamped his mouth closed again as he inclined his head in agreement, and finding herself a bit disappointed that he’d chosen not to say anything, she pointedly looked away toward the horizon. Deliberately, she put the obstinate man from her mind to concentrate on the task at hand. More than ever, she was ready to get off the side of that infernal mountain where she could plant her bare feet in the grasses of the wide open meadow below and maybe put some space between them. She’d obviously spent too much time in his company. Thinking about crazy things like…kissing…and…stuff.

Vincent stiffly forced himself to relinquish a few feet of rope as Tifa sat down on the ledge in preparation for slipping over the side. He intently watched as she bent her head and leaned out with her hands flat to the ledge to study the features of the cliff face below at length, carefully planning her next few moves, making a note of a tentative destination, and although his alert eyes didn’t move from the back of her head, his thoughts traveled inward, reluctantly surrendering to his mind’s wont to reexamine the disturbing sight of Tifa unconsciously touching her cheek with quaking fingers upon rousing so abruptly from her slumber. It had been exactly as though she expected to find something there. Something like a gash made by the sharp metal tip of a mechanical talon.

Unseen by her, Vincent vehemently shook his head in unspoken denial. The terrible dream had simply unsettled him, sparking his darkest imaginings. He’d merely seen what he half expected to see, from the moment he’d gasped his way into wakefulness after living through the mind numbing horror of gashing her face, saddled with a distressful albeit counterfeit memory that he knew would forever dwell on his mind.

Waking to discover her peaceful uninjured face, relaxed in slumber, had left his limbs boneless with relief and his horrified mind numb with disbelief. Even after he’d spent an inordinate amount of time since that moment drinking in the lovely features of her unmarred face, the nauseating vision of her soft cheek ripped open, her blood welling from the wound to drip like rain onto her shirt, persistently returned to the forefront of his thoughts no matter how many times he rejected it, a sickening picture that reawakened the queasiness in his stomach every time he thought on it. The dream had seemed so real, like so many of his more vivid nightmares often did, that he’d found himself struggling against the urgent compulsion to reach over and touch her cheek, just to insure his eyes were not playing him false. Especially as the dark dream had illuminated one of his more pervasive fears as such dreams tended to do. No wonder he would give momentary credence to an innocent meaningless action on her part until logic reasserted itself. The mad idea that Tifa Lockhart had somehow divined the content of his dream could only be mere coincidence. Nothing more. A complete impossibility. The notion that she had managed to see into his mind, a ridiculous one. Like wishing upon stars…

With a soundless huff of derision, he deliberately closed that capricious idea from his thoughts. He would simply consider the matter no further. He surely had more important and concrete issues to think on. For instance, ensuring that Tifa Lockhart successfully descended the mountain in one piece, an increasingly worrisome task, as she seemed bent on intermittently testing the limits of her balance and the laws of gravity. He could not allow himself to be distracted, particularly by the nebulous horrors of a dream. Too many potential and equally terrible pitfalls lurked in the daylight. For the time being, he exiled the whole of his nightmare into the dark recesses of his mind to await his next dreaming even as he silently and fervently vowed to refrain from ever touching her again. If he never touched her, his nightmare could not come true. And his dreams he’d already consigned to the realm of impossibility, along with any fledgling hope he might ever harbor of obtaining happiness.

“What do ya mean he’s not there?” Cid Highwind demanded of Cait Sith’s comical little face.

Cait Sith readily replied, but it was Andy Coakley’s nervous voice that floated from the robotic cat’s mechanical mouth. “Mr. Alexander left with General Sand and Ian Cornell and some…er…bossy doctor lady, Dr. Zaffer or something or other, to go to the military prison.”

Perplexed, Cid narrowly squinted his eyes in thought, lifting a hand to scratch through the scruffy stubble on his unshaven chin as he tried to make sense of the scant bit of information offered him. “The prison…what the…” The exhausted Captain didn’t have a clue what the kid was talking about nor did he know any of the people the kid named, other than Sand, of course. What’s more, he didn’t plan to tax his sleep deprived brain to sort through the details.

“Did you want to leave him a message?” Coakley inquired encouragingly.

“Any idea when he’ll be back?” Cid wearily asked, drawing a bent cigarette from the crumpled pack behind his goggle strap. He couldn’t even fathom why Reeve would have left, knowing the gate would be opened any time, the event that the executive had supposedly been waiting on tenterhooks for.

On the other end of the transmission, Andy shifted uneasily in the threadbare seat of an oversized but still comfortable office chair he’d dragged from a musty corner of the cluttered office. He shot a hopeful glance toward the open door to the corridor with the hope that Reeve might suddenly appear. But the hallway remained empty, the incessant electrical buzz of the old fluorescent lights and the hushed conversation of the two guards standing to either side of the doorway the only sounds he could hear. “I don’t know, Captain Highwind. I thought he’d be back by now…”

Jimmy walked up to hover a few feet away from the pacing Captain, and momentarily distracted by the movement in his peripheral vision, Cid frowned impatiently and pinned the head mechanic with a fierce glare of displeasure. Jimmy promptly backpedaled a couple of steps. “Turks know he went?” Cid queried sharply. The more he thought about this whole situation, the more he didn’t like it.

“I think so…” Andy weakly replied, and then he realized that he was making an assumption that he didn’t know to be true. He didn’t want to mislead the Captain. “No…you know…I don’t know…really…”

Cid glanced askance at the lurking mechanic, and Jimmy held his hands out in question. Cid held up a finger to wait, the frown lines that scored his face beyond his years deepening incrementally. “Well, tell him I phoned, kid,” he suddenly said. “I’m gonna go see if those Turks can contact him in the meantime.”

“Okay, Captain Highwind. I’ll be sure to tell him.” Cid didn’t fail to detect the undercurrent of concern in the young soldier’s careful voice, reinforcing his decision to take up the matter with the Turks ASAP.

The Captain turned his attention to the head mechanic as Cait Sith gave a snappy salute and skipped away unnoticed by either man. “You eat yet, Jimbo?” “Yeah, Cid, I did.” His head bobbed with each enunciated word. “What about the gate? They gonna open it?”

Cid struck a match against the shaft of his lance and raised it to his cigarette. “Reckon they’ll get around to it,” he curtly replied with a tight lift of his shoulders. He’d done his part. If Reeve wasn’t around to order the gate unlocked from the inside, that wasn’t his problem. Still, that prison business was a bit troublesome. He should probably go find a Turk or two. “You seen the Turks, Jim?”

“Yep, they’re in the mess tent, along with Barrett and Red.”

Cid grimaced at the thought of Barrett and Reno in the same establishment at the same time. That was a recipe for trouble if he ever heard of one. “Hold down the fort,” he bluntly directed. “I’m gonna go eat. And then I might catch some shuteye.” He couldn’t remember the last time he’d closed his eyes in rest, but he ruefully acknowledged to himself that he probably couldn’t and wouldn’t take the time any time soon. For one thing, another more troublesome matter kept sliding to the forefront of his mind, no matter how many times he shoved it aside in disgust.

“Sure, Cap,” Jimmie easily agreed, always ready to comply with Cid Highwind’s wishes. “Take yer time. I got it covered.”

Cid absently nodded and took a long drag on his cigarette as he turned away. Then he realized that his current head mechanic might be able to shed some light on the problem that persistently assailed his mind. He looked back to see Jimmy heading for the relative shade of the dozer where Tak snoozed in the high seat with his feet propped on the frame and the bill of his cap pulled down over his eyes. “Hey, James,” Cid called out.

The head mechanic froze and brought wary eyes to the Captain’s face, wondering what he’d forgotten. Cid usually only called him ‘James’ when he was annoyed at him for some reason. “Somethin’ else, Cap?” he asked anxiously.

Cid offered him one curt nod. “Yep, James. I was wondering…” The Captain paused in thought then, as though he’d forgotten what he planned to say, but the truth was he was now questioning the wisdom of saying anything. He knew if he did, he’d be the focus of the team’s gossip in no time. But since when did he worry what people said? Besides, he had to know. And if the whole of his crew had been hiding her presence from him, there’d be hell to pay. He landed azure eyes full of suspicion on the worried mechanic’s face, an expression that only made the man fret more. “James, have you seen Shera around anywhere?”

“Shera…” he repeated cautiously. He clearly remembered how angry the Captain got the last time the topic of Shera came up. “Er…around here?” He took a quick look around the site just to see if she was hanging around and he just hadn’t noticed.

“Yeah, around here,” Cid brusquely replied. “In the camp anywhere. Ya seen her?” His words took on a marked urgency that didn’t escape the head mechanic’s notice.

Slowly, Jimmy shook his head. He wondered if Cid would find his answer agreeable or not.

“Ya sure?” the Captain persisted.

Jimmy hesitantly nodded, more from concern regarding the Captain’s response than from a lack of certitude. He would most surely have noticed if Shera had walked past him. “Are you expectin’ her, Cap?” He wondered if the Captain planned to take back his recent promotion. Truthfully, if he got demoted because Shera came back, he wouldn’t mind. As the lightning rod for the crew’s screw-ups, Shera had always handled Cid’s explosions of temper with a calm evenness that never failed to steal the wind from his sails. He didn’t have that ability. Cid could make him tremble in his work boots with one of those scathing looks even though he knew damn well Cid would never do anything more than yell.

“No, Jimmy,” Cid answered on a long exhalation of smoke. “Just heard she might be around. So tell me right away if ya see her.”

“Who’d ya hear that from?” Jimmy asked curiously. He found it hard to believe that Shera could be within fifty miles of the camp. He knew no one in the crew had seen her, because if anyone had it would be the hot topic of conversation in the mechanic’s tent.

“Turks,” Cid replied succinctly with an indifferent shrug. Without another word, he walked away.

“Well…they would know…wouldn’t they?” Jimmy muttered to himself. But where in the world could she be? The camp wasn’t that damn big.

“What’s his problem?” Elena asked sullenly.

“Whose problem?” Reno mumbled around a mouthful of buttered toast.

Disgusted hazel eyes landed on his face. “Don’t talk with your mouth full,” she snapped irritably.

Reno swallowed his food and raised glittering green eyes to her sulky face. “Don’t ask me questions when I’m stuffing my face then,” he countered.

“Maybe I wasn’t asking you,” she haughtily replied.

The redheaded Turk shot a look around at the empty chairs stretching the length of the table to either side of them. Several minutes past, Rachel had grown bored with the two Turks and their prolonged silence and impulsively deserted both of them for Caitlin’s more interesting company, the Shinra heir having taken up conversation with an elderly couple dining on the camp’s questionable breakfast cuisine in the company of their granddaughter and a cat. Rude had abandoned his chair at the end of the table and gone outside to stand at the entrance to the mess tent, probably to escape the incessant chatter inside, leaving the whole of the table to them by default. “Aren’t you a little old to have an imaginary friend, Elena?” he inquired with interest. He wondered why she was still sitting there anyway, since just his very presence seemed to be rubbing her the wrong way, a fact that hardly made him unhappy as irritating Elena had become one of his favorite pastimes of late. If just his existence annoyed her, he didn’t even have to make the slightest effort to gain satisfaction. With a complacent smirk, he pushed aside his plate and looked up to find Elena’s narrow-eyed gaze on his face, a dangerous glint in her hazel eyes. He lifted an eyebrow at her in question, prompting her to respond.

“Ha ha, Reno. Very very, funny,” she huffed at him. It suddenly occurred to her that she couldn’t even manage to come up with a snappy comeback and that just made her more irritable. She distantly recognized that lack of sleep hadn’t helped her disposition or her creativity. A deprecating little smile came to her lips, and she decided to change the subject, returning to her original question as she knew she wouldn’t win a verbal battle with Reno today.

Reno leaned back in his chair and eyed the abrupt change in Elena’s expression with calculation. A softening of her demeanor, although welcome, didn’t bode well for him in his opinion, but when she spoke it seemed a concession of sorts.

“I was referring to Wallace,” she quietly informed him.

“What about him?” Reno knew the man was sitting a couple of tables over, almost directly behind him, right in the center of Elena’s direct field of vision.

“Can’t you feel his eyes drilling holes in the back of your thick head?”

Reno shrugged indifferently. “He wants to kill me.” His casual tone implied a distinct lack of concern.

“You don’t seem bothered by that,” she pointed out.

“Wouldn’t be the first time someone wanted to kill me.” A cool smile curved the redheaded Turk’s thin lips. “And I don’t plan to let him succeed.”

Elena settled her elbows to the table and leaned forward with her chin in her hands, her eyes glittering with anticipation. “You plan to kill him first,” she said lowly with a smile every bit as cool as his.

“No, I plan to ignore him,” Reno steadily replied, green eyes crinkling in amusement at the disappointment that filled her face. Elena was such a bad girl. And with the sweet face of an angel too. Good thing she was loyal to a fault or he would probably have to worry about waking up with his throat cut one day.

“So you’re just going to forget about him, until he ambushes you in the dark?” she hissed in a loud whisper across the table. “If you think he’s just going to go away, you’re sadly mistaken.”

“Elena…Yvonne…” Reno shook his head sadly. “I thought you could read people better than that.”

Elena frowned deeply at his forbidden use of her middle name, but she decided to forgo her protest for the purposes of staying on topic. “I can read people just fine, Reno. And I can clearly see that Barrett Wallace hates your guts.”

Turning sideways in his chair, Reno propped one elbow on the table and crooked a finger at her to come closer. Laying her hands flat to the table, she leaned further over the table with her brows raised in question.

“Wallace is no coward, Elena,” Reno chided. “He’ll face me straight up in a one on one fight. So don’t worry your pretty head about me going down in some sneak attack with a knife in my back.”

“Well, if he tries to fight you, he’ll have to come through me first,” she vowed ominously as her chin lifted in determination.

“I can fight my own battles, Elena,” Reno replied icily, his eyes frosting at the idea that she didn’t think he could stand on his own two feet even though he knew intellectually that she only meant to lend her support. “I’ve been doing it as long as you’ve been alive.”

“Fine, Reno.” She threw herself back into her chair, folded her arms and averted her eyes to stare into space. “If I find your body lying around anywhere I’ll be sure to kick sand over it,” she impulsively added with a sniff of disdain.

“What? No rose for my grave?” he asked wryly.

She abruptly sprang to her feet, knocking over the folding chair in the process, and snatching up her shoulder bag, stalked away without another look or a word at the redheaded Turk.

Reno picked up his paper juice cup to take a sip, watching over the rim with speculative eyes as Elena dropped into a seat at a table near the back of the tent, and huffily crossing her arms over her chest, pointedly planted her eyes on Avian and Rachel who now sat together with a partial contingent of Avalanche members and the Heidegger kid. The younger members of the group, finished with their meal and obviously consumed by boredom at the enforced inactivity, had recently become engaged in a lively and sometimes noisy game of ‘rock, paper, and scissors’, to what purpose he couldn’t fathom, but at least the lot of them were occupied. Cloud Strife and Barrett Wallace sat across the table from each other a few chairs further down. The large red beast snoozed under the table between their feet. Reno suddenly recalled that Rachel had been with Caitlin only a few minutes ago, and it occurred to him then to wonder where Caitlin had gone as he didn’t see her in the immediate vicinity. A quick glance at her previous location confirmed what he’d already guessed. The elderly couple, the kid, the cat and Caitlin had vacated the table. He supposed that she might have gone outside to talk to Rude, but he wished she would have said so. He’d have to speak to her about that. With the unpredictability and elusiveness of the flasher gang’s movements, they couldn’t be too careful. Purposefully, he set the cup down and straightened in his chair to more carefully scan the confines of the tent for her, noting that the place had considerably emptied with the end of the breakfast rush hour long past.

“Elena looks pissed,” Caitlin commented behind his back. A very fleeting cessation of all motion providing the only hint that she’d startled him, Reno instantly recovered and looked up over his shoulder to see her peering off in Elena’s direction with worry in her azure eyes.

“She usually does,” Reno drawled with a tone of bored indifference that didn’t quite come off as genuine to Caitlin’s ears.

Her head swiveled in his direction, and her eyes sharpened on his bent head as he lifted the juice cup to his lips. “Maybe there’s a reason for that,” she said pointedly.

Reno tossed down the last of his orange juice and crushed the cup in a fist. “There is,” he flatly stated. “She was born that way.”

Caitlin opened her mouth to speak in Elena’s defense, particularly regarding the probable source of Elena’s petulance, but sensing her intent, Reno coolly interrupted her with a clear change of subject. “Where to now, Caitlin?”

She pursed her lips in thought and stared at him with the cool Shinra gaze of appraisal he’d grown accustomed to seeing on her brother’s face. He half expected her to make some imperious demand of him, but instead she simply answered his question in graceful surrender to his intentional deviation in the conversation. “I’d like to go to the medical tent.”

With a careless flick of his wrist, Reno threw the hopelessly mangled cup onto the tabletop and rose to his feet, gesturing with one hand for her to precede him to the exit. “Let’s ride.”

With Reno on her heels, Caitlin led the way as she sent a frowning glance around the tent. “Have you seen Cornelius?” she idly inquired.

“Maybe he died in his sleep,” Reno replied nonchalantly.

Caitlin halted in mid-step, turning on heel to examine the redheaded Turk’s mischievous face with suspicion. “Reno…you didn’t…”

“Why look!” Reno exclaimed in exuberant if false welcome. “Here comes the esteemed lawyer now!” Sleazy bastard, he added inside his head.

Caitlin turned her questing gaze back to the entrance to confirm the truth of Reno’s announcement, but not before she saw Reno roll his eyes in disgust. She waved Cornelius Wildman over, and he nodded respectfully in response, but he didn’t obey her wordless summons. On the contrary, the impeccably attired attorney pointedly veered out of the main aisle to walk down the far side of the tent, a move that placed several rows of tables between them. At first bewildered, and then suspicious, the Shinra heir shot a look over her shoulder to fleetingly catch Reno glaring at the attorney with a promise of mayhem in his green eyes just before his face instantly and miraculously transformed to display an affable smile and friendly gaze the second he noticed her accusatory regard.

“I’m going to go speak to Cornelius for a few minutes, Reno,” she informed him dryly. “I’ve a matter I forgot to address.” An important one too. Regarding her official marital status. She couldn’t imagine how she might have forgotten, other than for the fact that she had always considered herself still married to Reeve, but he been legally released from their secret marriage when the coroner signed her death certificate. Cornelius had indicated that the death certificate would be set aside once he completed and filed the proper paperwork, but they hadn’t discussed her marriage. In fact, she hadn’t even informed the attorney that she’d been married, a serious lapse on her part, from a legal standpoint. At any rate, she knew that it was imperative she find out, for the sake of her upcoming discussion with her husband. “I’ll be ready to go after that.”

Reno promptly stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets and strolled past her. “You’ll find me outside,” he coolly remarked. “Where the stench is less prominent.”

Cloud sat slumped over the table with his chin in a gloved hand, idling away time passively listening to the conversation around him and waiting for Barrett to finish his breakfast, all the while contemplating hopping a motorbike and taking a long ride across the wastelands. The nightmare that had awakened him so unpleasantly that morning ate on his mind, and he felt in need of some time to himself. To think.

Across the table from him, Barrett snorted derisively, and Cloud looked up to find the burly man glaring murderously at Reno with a forkful of fried potatoes suspended halfway between his plate and his mouth, hotly glowering eyes following the Turk’s every step as he crossed to the exit and left the tent.

“You should stop worrying about that Turk,” Cloud casually suggested. “You’re gonna get an ulcer.”

“Hmph. Wish I could,” Barrett growled without looking at the Avalanche leader. With a sharp stab of his fork, he drove the bite of potatoes into his mouth.

“Just let it go, Barrett. It’s not worth the wear and tear.”

The big man lifted an angry countenance to Cloud. “I can’t forget about Sector 7,” he said coldly. “I won’t forget about it.”

“There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then,” Cloud calmly reminded him. “Let the past be past.”

“Easy for you to say, Cloud Strife,” Barrett snarled back at him. “Wedge…Biggs….Jesse…they weren’t your family. They were mine.”

The Avalanche warrior gazed silently at Barrett’s averted face, not bothering to respond to his heated remark. The silence stretched long between them, underpinned by a blurred cacophony of overlapping voices all around them. The ex-miner suddenly threw his fork down against the metal plate with such a clatter that Avian, Derry, Yuffie and Rachel instantly froze in the middle of their lively game with fists collectively suspended over the center of the table to stare in startled unison in their direction. Seeing nothing of interest, they promptly returned to their count. Barrett rubbed a weary hand through his beard, and then he raised apologetic brown eyes to Cloud’s stolid face. “That wasn’t…fair,” he admitted sadly.

“It was fair,” Cloud coolly replied. “I barely knew them.”

Barrett nodded in unconscious acceptance of the warrior’s admission even as he continued on with what he’d meant to say. “I know you’re right, Cloud. It just eats at me, ya know? Every time I see that Turk, it just starts a burn inside of me.”

Cloud suddenly withdrew his chin from his hand and purposefully folded his arms on the tabletop, his eyes taking on a serious cast as he captured Barrett’s troubled gaze with his own. “What would Tifa say, do you think?” Cloud blandly inquired. Beneath the table where he lay stretched out at Cloud’s feet, Nanaki turned his head against one oversized paw to more closely listen.

At the mention of her name, Barrett’s face instantly crumpled in abject sorrow. “Why’d ya…have to…ask me that…Cloud?” he choked out brokenly, dropping his face into his huge hand. Cloud’s own eyes fell to the table as Barrett’s grief resonated painfully in his heart.

“I just…thought it was sorta relevant…” Cloud explained softly. “…Since they were her family too.”

“Ah…shit…Cloud…you know what the hell she’d say…” he replied in a voice rough with suppressed tears. “She’d say…you know…that maybe we…stuck our necks out…too far…got too cocky…did some wrong-headed things…and she’d be right…she’d be right…” He took a deep shuddering breath. “…Tifa…she’d say…to keep on gettin’ on…look forward…not back…have a life…with Marlene…and forget all that…” Momentarily at a loss for words, he dismissively waved his hand. “…Other…”

A startled look came over Cloud’s passive face. “Marlene…” he murmured. Suddenly sitting up in his chair, he straightened his leg beneath the table and drove a hand deep into his pants pocket. At the sudden burst of activity, Barrett fell silent and watched the warrior with reddened eyes. Cloud offered the big man a wry little smile. “Marlene gave me something for you. I…forgot…sorry…”

He finally managed to work the small asymmetrically shaped package from his pocket, and oblivious to the pink ribbon that fell out when he withdrew his hand, he handed Marlene’s gift to her father. “Er…guess with everything goin’ on….it slipped my mind…”

“It’s cool, Cloud,” Barrett brusquely assured him. He couldn’t blame Cloud for forgetting, knowing all he’d been through the past days. Hesitantly, Barrett reached for the package, his huge fingers dwarfing the gift. With the pincers of the prosthetic on his right hand, he awkwardly tore the brown wrapping away to reveal the sooty black object inside.

Beneath the table, Nanaki had started to rise, curiosity at what might be in the package grabbing his interest, but he’d been distracted by the pink ribbon fluttering to the ground beside Cloud’s dusty boot. On his belly, he scooted forward until the ribbon lay beneath his questing nose. Only one sniff granted him a wealth of scents; the strong essence of Cloud Strife, the sweet smoky scent of a candle, the musty pages of a book, another human smell that he couldn’t quite identify, but above all, a faint but dearly familiar and long absent aroma. Aeris… Nanaki laid his muzzle against the pink ribbon and softly whined through his nose.

Barrett simply stared at the rock in his hand, his mouth moving soundlessly as he searched for words. Cloud stared at the rock too, but with bemusement. “That’s a rock, right?” he carefully asked.

Barrett didn’t answer at first, and then he slowly began to nod his head. With shining eyes, he held the rock up between his thumb and forefinger to show Cloud. “This ain’t just any rock, mind you,” he said huskily. “This is a lump of coal.” He gazed into the befuddled warrior’s face with expectation.

“Coal…right…” Cloud unconsciously raised a hand to scratch his head in perplexity.

“Just Marlene’s way of sending her love, Cloud,” Barrett explained as he wrapped the coal back up in the paper and deposited it into his vest pocket. “Kind of a…what do ya call it…a good luck charm...a memento...just a little thing we made up once…probably wouldn’t make much sense to anybody else…” Barrett suddenly rose to his feet, determination written in the set of his jaw, a far reaching look in his dark eyes. “I’m going to Kalm,” he bluntly announced.

Surprised at the man’s abrupt decision, Cloud slowly stood too. “What? Now?”

“Yep, now,” Barrett confirmed. “I don’t need to be here anymore. I can’t cook. I ain’t a doctor. An’ I can’t fly a plane. Plenty of people around to handle the rest. Gate’s cleared, and my little girl needs me. I’ve neglected her too long.” Besides, he was the biggest kind of hypocrite, crying around about the family he’d lost when he’d abandoned his daughter to the care of a virtual stranger. Time to pull his head out of his ass and get with the program.

“Take Loki, Bear,” Yuffie magnanimously offered, her attention drawn from the game the instant he’d made his firm announcement. “Cloud told me she needs to go home to Kalm anyway.”

“Okay, thanks, Yuffie,” Barrett gruffly expressed his gratitude. “I’ll see she gets home.” The big man turned back to the watchful warrior. “Wanna come with me, Cloud?” he asked without much hope that his friend would agree. He knew Cloud had unfinished business here, and he also knew that the warrior wouldn’t leave until Reeve safely walked out of the city.

As Barrett surmised, the Avalanche warrior didn’t have to think long to arrive at an answer. “I better stay here for now, Barrett,” he said lowly. “Until I see Reeve. I want to keep an eye on the kid too.” He surreptiously inclined his head toward the preoccupied Avian. “Until I see what the Turks are going to do about him. But I’ll head that way when I leave here, and we’ll meet up. I’ll talk to Reeve about putting together another search for Tifa and Vincent.”

Barrett’s purposeful eyes dimmed with sadness. “Yeah...we need to go find her,” he gruffly agreed. “…Bring her home…one way or another…”

“I believe she’s okay, Barrett,” Cloud firmly reassured him despite his own doubt. “And we’ll find her. We will.”

…She’s okay…she’s with Vincent…

Cloud shuttered his eyes as her voice whispered inside his mind like a subtle breeze. He wanted to believe the words Aeris had spoken in his dream, and it was easy to be lulled by the assurance behind the words, but he knew that the entire dream had been invented in his own mind, from his own desires, and those words from her lips only what he wanted to be true. Still…he could hope…

Barrett moved his head in a semblance of nod. He found he didn’t want to talk about Tifa anymore right then. It was too hard when he couldn’t do anything about her, not until Reeve could free up the resources. Besides, he’d found it more difficult with each passing day to hold onto his hope, especially knowing that she might be inside that collapsed cave. The ex-coal miner had handled more than one cave-in throughout his previous career, and he had a pretty good idea how long a person might last without water. It was hard to think about much less talk about. Besides, he’d have to talk about Tifa soon enough anyway, when his daughter asked about her. That’s when things would get truly painful. “Okay, Cloud, I’ll see ya soon’s you get there.” Barrett gave him a half-hearted wave as he lumbered away. “Gonna go make my apologies to Cid…” he added over his shoulder. “Then hit the road…”

Cloud lifted a gloved hand in farewell, and then he dropped curious eyes downward at the second and more forceful nudge from Nanaki’s nose. Standing on all fours beside him, Nanaki peered up at him with his one undamaged eye, a pervasive air of sadness about him.

“What’s up, Red?” Cloud cautiously inquired, dropping a soothing hand to the crown of the beast’s head. He first thought that Red must be saddened by Barrett’s departure. “We’ll see him again soon.” Then on second thought, Cloud realized that Nanaki probably hadn’t missed the discussion about Tifa. A more likely source of the sorrow in his face, especially since he’d gone along on the one fruitless search for their lost friends. “And we’ll…find...Tifa…and Vincent…” he tentatively added.

“I think you lost something, Cloud,” the red beast murmured so softly that the warrior promptly sank down on one knee to better hear him.

Cloud dropped an arm around Nanaki’s neck in camaraderie and bent his head close to the feather bedecked head. “What did you say, buddy? Couldn’t hear you.”

“You lost something, Cloud,” Nanaki told him again, his voice strained.

“I did?” He tilted his head in question. “What?”

Nanaki lowered his nose to the ground to touch the bedraggled scrap of pink ribbon. The warrior’s curious eyes followed the beast’s head down, and his throat unexpectedly closed at the sight of the raveling silk ribbon beneath Nanaki’s snout. Reverently, he bent down to gather the ribbon into his fingers, and very gingerly, he laid it across one palm and attempted to brush the dirt away with his fingertips. Feeling Nanaki’s gaze on him the entire time, he eventually lifted luminous eyes full of sadness, only to find his own grief reflected in the red beast’s single unblinking golden eye.

“It’s hers…” Nanaki murmured as he moved his nose against Cloud’s palm to touch the ribbon. “I can smell her…”

“Yeah…” Cloud huskily agreed. “It’s hers…”

“I had a dream about her, Cloud,” Nanaki whispered softly. “It was so real…”

Cloud barely nodded his head as he wound the ribbon through his fingers. “Me too, Red," he sadly confessed. "Me too.”

“She seemed so lost,” he whispered again, barely audible this time. “In my dream...”

“We’re the ones that are lost,” Cloud hoarsely replied, his voice tight with pain. “Without her…”

The warrior swallowed past the knot in his throat and with an impulsive little hug around Nanaki’s sleekly muscled neck, he abruptly stood and smoothly returned the ribbon to his pocket before anyone else could see. “Come on, Red,” Cloud bade gruffly. “Let’s go find Cid. See what’s shakin’ with that gate.”

Nanaki held his place as he mournfully watched the Avalanche warrior stride away. He’d been filled with a compelling urge to tell Cloud of his dream in Junon, and had been just on the verge of relating the whole disturbing tale to him when Cloud had drawn away. Nanaki thought about catching up to him even now, his need to tell him what Aeris said to him in his dream nearly overwhelming him. That dream had been so different than any other. So palpably real, portentous even. For some reason, he thought Cloud should know, but he intuitively knew that this wasn’t the time. Cloud wouldn’t welcome any more discussion about her at the moment, and truthfully he couldn’t find a sound reason to impart the details of that unsettling dream to Cloud, other than to express his own anxiety. Cloud didn’t need that right now. He had enough on his mind. Besides, he had to confess that the dream had undoubtedly been more about Nanaki, son of Seto, a lone beast seeking his life’s purpose, than it had been about her.

Absently, Nanaki fell into motion, the still vivid details of the dream preying on his mind, the words of Aeris replaying in his head. Her voice, soft and otherworldly sifting through his troubled thoughts. …It isn’t over, Nanaki…be ready, Nanaki, son of Seto, grandson of Bugenhagen, Protector of Cosmo Canyon…your destiny waits for you there…across the sea…


Zafallah. The sudden memory of that word brought him up short, freezing him in place as though he’d caught sent of a predator nearby. Of course the word was one known to him. The place one of Cetran legend. The same place the Protectors called “Loi Ilos du loi Allors”.

The Eyes of the Others.

What did it mean? Nanaki vacantly shook his feather bedecked head, the whole of his attention drawn inward to worry over the little bit of knowledge he possessed. Nothing. It meant nothing. Merely a dream revisitation of the strange conversation he’d had with Lizbet. Her tale about six young travelers that had set out for the fabled land. A sister, Parna. And Pharon…a brother. His belated introduction to a family he had never known yet ate at his mind. No wonder he would incorporate their alleged destination into his dream. And that’s all it had been. A dream. Nothing more. Why then did he feel in his guts that it wasn’t ‘nothing’? That it was something indeed. Something vitally important. A life or death matter.

Yuffie snapped her fingers in front of the entranced beast’s face. “Hey Red! Yoo hoo. Anybody home inside that feathered head?”

Nanaki instantly returned to the present to find Yuffie in front of him, bent down with her hands propped on her knees, peering into his face with a hint of concern in her obsidian eyes. He drew his lips away from his teeth in an attempt at a reassuring smile, one he didn’t sincerely feel, but one which would surely fool her, despite its feral effect.

“Sorry, Yuffie,” he softly apologized. “Just woolgathering...”

“Man…I’ll say…” She straightened to her full diminutive height and glared down at him in unspoken censure. “You had me worried there for a second,” she chided. “Thought you were gonna spew sausage links or something.”

Nanaki sent an appraising gaze around the faces that watched their exchange; a keenly interested Avian, his amber eyes a deep well of inquisitiveness, a pensive Rachel with her chin in her hands and crystal blue eyes rife with awe, and Derry with his noncommittal gaze and serene face. All their attention focused on him. Nanaki swept an imploring golden eye to Yuffie’s face. “Can I play too, Yuffie?” he hopefully inquired.

She eyed him speculatively. “You mean ‘rock, paper, scissors’, Red?” she asked slowly, turning her worried eyes down to examine his paws. “How are you going to…do that?”

Nanaki suddenly laughed, the strange snuffling sound bringing a relieved smile to the ninja girl’s face. “Just kidding, Yuffie,” he clarified. “Another time.” Then he simply slipped past her to traverse the length of the mess tent to the exit, following in the steps of Cloud Strife. He could feel her bemused gaze on him the entire way.

Zafallah. The Eyes of the Others. The stuff of mythology. Devoid of substance and lacking in fact. Of no more significance than graffiti inscribed in the white sands of Costa del Sol destined to be momentarily swept away by the ever faithful tide. And the words of Aeris Gainsborough…just the imaginative dreams of a lonely child.

Jake warily stopped just short of Ring’s position and planted baleful eyes on the uneasy face of the hostage over Ring’s broad shoulder. Reeve’s raised hands had sagged wearily to half-mast throughout the nearly half hour that had expired while the prisoners had trailed out and surrendered to Sand’s men one by one. Now, at sight of the craggy, scarred face of the large prisoner glaring at him, his hands shot back up to their original position high above his head. Hiding a smile of amusement beneath his untamed facial hair, the Shinra warrior took his eyes off the executive’s nervous face only long enough to shoot a glance over his shoulder to mark the identify of the man he’d sensed standing behind him. He’d been keeping count, and Jake was the second to the last prisoner to emerge from the darkened corridor. The last one Jake carried over his shoulder.

Ring returned his alert gaze to the executive’s face before he spoke. He didn’t want to provide the man with enough of an opening that he might foolishly decide to get bold. “Gotta problem, Jake?” he quietly asked. He thought maybe the man was having reservations about being put in restraints. “Sooner you come out, the sooner we can get outta here. ‘Sides, Bug’s pretty sick. He needs to be seen to.”

Jake leaned closer to speak lowly in Ring’s ear. He really didn’t want the Shinra suit to hear what he had to say, but he supposed it couldn’t be helped. “Why’d ya ask Freckles ‘bout Friedmann?” he gruffly inquired.

Ring’s deep green eyes narrowed in thought, and he pointedly planted the end of the barrel against Reeve’s tie in silent warning and turned most of his attention to Jake, peering up over his shoulder at the man’s worried face. “Why? Ya know him?”

“Yeah…he was in my company once,” Jake slowly admitted with a guarded glance around at all the armed military people ranged around the doorway and out into the sewer tunnel beyond. The burly man made due note of Sand’s close attention to his exchange with Ring as well as the fact that the majority of his fellow prisoners had already been escorted away from the area. Only the few that had just preceded him remained. A calm and submissive Michael, a fidgety but amiable Freckles, a trembling Hick and a couple of others that Ring hadn’t personally become acquainted with were currently in the process of having their wrists secured together behind their backs with plastic strip ties. “He was a stand-up guy, Ring,” Jake added in a whisper. “Why’re they lookin’ for him? What do they want?”

Ring shifted his gaze to the tall blonde woman slumped against the wall with her back partially turned to the only slightly taller sandy-haired man with the short bob of a ponytail and the rimless glasses who reached up to awkwardly pat her on the shoulder in a gesture of solace as the warrior watched them. The woman forcefully jerked her shoulder from beneath his hand and pointedly turned her body into the wall, her head sinking as she leaned her forehead against the smooth surface. The man lifted his hand again and paused with his fingers outstretched a few inches from touching her, as though to make another attempt, but then he simply let his arm fall helplessly to his side with a rueful shake of his head.

During the exodus of the prisoners, the woman had boldly stepped forward despite the desolation in her gray eyes and intently searched the face of every prisoner that had passed. She’d grown grimmer and tenser as time elapsed and her brother didn’t appear until finally she reached the point where she simply couldn’t stomach yet another disappointment, and she’d surrendered her hopeless and pitiful vigil. Ring suspected that once she found herself alone, she would collapse in mindless grief, but she wouldn’t do it here, in front of everyone. She was one tough, tightly-laced lady, that one.

He inclined his head in her direction. “See that pretty lady over there?” he whispered to Jake.

Jake nodded his head without looking. He’d noticed her early on and had expended a great deal of time standing against the wall in the darkness appreciating her fine figure from afar while the others filed out. It had been a long time since he’d seen a woman, and even longer since he’d seen one so classy. “What about her?”

“She’s the one askin’,” Ring explained. “Claims Friedmann’s her brother. But the man here…” Ring inclined his head in Reeve’s direction this time, taking a moment to examine the executive’s stiff face with careful eyes. “…He says Friedmann was on the Row…and you know what happened to the Row…”

Jake pinned his eyes on the back of the woman’s head and stared as though intrigued by the wisps of blonde hair that had escaped her tight bun or the strips of snowy bandage wrapped around her head, but truthfully he was hoping she’d turn around so he could get a good look at her, and not simply for his viewing pleasure either. “What’s her name?”

“Hell if I know,” Ring replied with an indifferent shrug. He locked gazes with Reeve. “What’s her name, Mr. Slum Lord?”

Reeve wordlessly stared at him, unwilling to reveal her name. He expected his captor to pointedly reinforce his question with a more threatening positioning of his gun or the swipe of the gun barrel across his face, but instead Ring rolled his eyes in despair and playfully tilted his head as he swept his gaze in Katrina’s direction.

“Hey, you there!” he called. “Lady with the bandaged head!” He smirked slightly at the similarity of his address to the one she’d directed at him earlier. Apparently, she didn’t like it one bit more than he had. She shoved away from the wall and spun on heel to spear his nonchalant face with hotly gleaming gray eyes. “What do you want?” she snapped in disgust. He sensed that he rated in her estimation only slightly above those slimy gleaming slug things that one might find underneath a rotted log.

“What’s your name, lady?” he asked with a wolfish smile. “Dr. Zapper, isn’t it?” He couldn’t quite remember what Sand had called her before.

“I don’t think that’s any of your damn business,” she coldly informed him.

Jake felt the weak tug at the back of his coverall. “Never mind,” he told Ring. “It’s her.”

Ring shot a startled glance up into Jake’s face. “Her who?”

“His sister. Katrina.”

“You know her?”

“No, he told me.”

“He told you what she looks like?”

Jake impatiently shook his head, annoyed at Ring’s seeming density. “No, he told me her name. I saw her on base a time or two. And she looks like him too.”

Ring frowned his bewilderment. He felt as though he’d abruptly been swept out to sea. “Why are we talking about this, man?” he irritably demanded. Jake was distracting him, and he couldn’t afford that just now.

“Because he wasn’t on the Row,” Jake informed him in a harsh whisper directly in his ear. “He was in the infirmary.”

“In the infirmary…” His eyes suddenly widened. Damn, he was slow, but he was pretty goddamn tired. “You mean…” he barely inclined his head backward to indicate Jake’s burden. “Bug?”

“Yeah,” he tersely replied.

“Are you sure?” Ring pressed in a low voice. He didn’t want to get the lady’s hopes up just to dash them.

“What’s the hold up, soldier?” Sand suddenly asked, his suspicions aroused by the whispered conversation.

Ring shifted his attention to the steely gaze of the Shinra officer. His green eyes turned speculative. “No hold up, sir. Just got a sick soldier here. We could sorely use that medic now.”

Sand nodded in ready agreement and swiveled his head back. “Medic,” he bellowed, instantly bringing two soldiers leaping forward with the stretcher suspended between them, the familiar Shinra military medical insignia adorning their shirt sleeves.

“Go on, Jake,” Ring quietly urged. “Get him outta here.”

Jake complied without another word, sidling from behind the warrior to stride out into the lighted passage. His scarred mouth twisted into a wry, closemouthed smile as he delivered Bug to the waiting medics. The battle weary ex-soldier wasn’t one to surrender to authority peaceably – the main reason he’d wound up in a cell – but he’d never been more ready to leave a place in his life. He could hardly imagine that Sand and his soldiers could find a worse place to take him. Therefore he would happily endure the restraints and merrily accompany them wherever their whim might take him.

Ring waited until the moment that Jake gently let Bug down off his shoulder and guided him into the waiting hands of the medics. Then he turned his head to find that Katrina had again slumped against the wall and closed her eyes, seemingly uninterested in what might happen next. “Hey, lady!” he called out to her. She didn’t respond, so he tried again. “Katrina!” He got her attention that time. Her head snapped up and gray eyes rounded with astonishment landed on his amiable face. “How did you…”

“Might wanna check out that soldier.” Ring bluntly interrupted what he suspected would wind up being a heated tirade, most likely directed at the hapless executive whom she would deem to be the most likely reason Ring had discovered her name. He pointed a finger toward Bug where the medics were gingerly laying him out on the stretcher. Two other soldiers had already taken Jake into hand and worked to bind his thick wrists with the strip ties. Lucky for them, the big prisoner was more than willing to comply or they might have had a brutal fight on their hands. “He’s the last one.”

Katrina continued to glare at Ring, seemingly loath to relinquish her outrage to look away, but truthfully she was afraid to look. Her anger provided her support, lent her a modicum of security. She thought that if she looked and that last soldier was not her brother, and she didn’t think he would be, her props would be yanked out from under her, and she’d simply break apart. And she couldn’t do that. Not in front of these people. She couldn’t break down here. “Thank the gods,” she snapped irritably. ”Maybe we can finally get the hell out of here.”

Ring purposefully inclined his head in Bug’s direction again and pointedly jabbed his finger to punctuate his ignored suggestion. Katrina’s eyes narrowed on the persistent warrior’s shaggy face. She detected something unfathomable in those green eyes. Perhaps arrogance or perhaps certainty. Whatever it was she saw there compelled her to look where the soldier pointed, somehow gave her the courage to seek the answer whatever it might be.

Her eagerly searching eyes unerringly discovered a face so dearly familiar and collided with a feverish pair of gray eyes so like her own that she simply stared wordlessly in wonder. Then a trembling hand flew to her mouth, and her heart filled to capacity with unadulterated joy. “Sweet Shiva…” she choked out. “Erich…” Then she rushed forward to drop to her knees beside him, taking the hand he reached imploringly out to her in worshipful fingers as the tears she’d held back for so long slipped unnoticed down her cheeks.

Ring watched the heart-gladdening scene for a few seconds, and then he deliberately brought his gaze back to his hostage’s face. Reeve’s eyes were still raptly focused on the emotional scene, his mouth agape as though shocked at the sudden turn of fortune. Ring reached up and gave his tie a little tug to draw his attention back where it belonged.

His irritation at the impudent summons clearly visible in the sudden clench of his jaw and the rampant disdain in his face, Reeve Alexander whipped his head around to plant brown eyes dark with anger on the warrior’s relaxed features, but the executive wisely kept his rude commentary from his tongue.

Ring grinned impishly at him. “I just love happy endings,” he idly commented. “Don’t you?”

“I’m very glad that she found her brother,” Reeve readily agreed. “But I could have wished for a happier outcome.”

Ring raised his eyebrows in question. “What more could you want?” he inquired with a humorous glint in his eyes. “That I’d fall dead at your feet?”

A wry smile came to the executive’s lips. “Well, there is that,” he coolly admitted. “But I was thinking more along the lines of a higher number of survivors.”

The humor instantly vanished from Ring’s green eyes and took on a feral light that made Reeve’s breath catch in his lungs. “Some days you take what you can get,” Ring growled into the executive’s face.

Reeve swallowed hard past the sudden knot in his throat and dredged up the courage to ask the question foremost in his mind at that particular moment. “Are you going to shoot me?”

The warrior arched one brow beneath the heavy fall of his unruly bangs. “Do you really want to know?”

“Yes, I do.” Reeve replied with a steadiness he didn’t feel.

“Why? You gonna write your will?”

“No, I’d just like to know,” he stubbornly persisted.

“Wouldn’t you rather be surprised?” A hint of a smile came to Ring’s lips, signaling a return of his good humor.

“I don’t like surprises,” Reeve coolly informed him.

Ring cocked his head to one side in thought. “Well, I hate to disappoint you, Alexander, but I haven’t decided yet.”

“When will you decide, do you think?”


“How soon?”

“Dunno. But I’ll guarantee you one thing, Alexander.”

“What’s that?”

“You’ll be the very first to know.”

Reno slouched on the tall water barrel just outside the mess tent where he’d been sitting for an interminable time, occasionally taking a rare drag on the smoldering cigarette he held between two fingers of the hand loosely draped across one knee. Consumed with boredom, he peered idly at the people passing by through his dark shades as he drummed the heel of one dusty boot against the side of the barrel, creating a rhythmic noise that set Rude’s teeth on edge.

For his part, the big Turk kept his irritation to himself, revealing no hint of the casual homicidal thoughts regarding the demise of the redheaded Turk that drifted pleasantly through his mind, not on his expressionless face or in his relaxed stance. Standing with feet planted wide and gloved hands clasped in front of him on the other side of the tent entrance, Rude concentrated on paying close attention to all the sights and sounds around him, checking every nuance of movement and listening intently to the tenor of conversation both inside and outside the tent. The busy eyes behind the dark sunglasses made a lie of the perfect stillness of his whole body as he performed his job with practiced ease and inexhaustible patience. Rude knew from Reno’s too relaxed posture, his slack face, and the long ash curving off the end of his cigarette that the Leader of the Turks had left the details of the job to him for the moment, and he would do it well, just as he always did.

When the pretty young woman sauntered into view with her hands tucked in her back pockets, Rude’s alert brown eyes promptly slid her way behind the impenetrable lenses. He automatically assessed her in terms of threat potential even as he acknowledged his recognition of her. She looked different but not radically so. Only enough to make him frown slightly in thought for the second or two it took to place her. As before, she’d drawn her waist-length sun-streaked sandy hair into a ponytail high on the back of her head that switched with each lazy step, but she’d lost the flight jacket, leaving her clad only in the pair of snug jeans she’d arrived in, a smudged mostly white t-shirt, and her lace-up work boots. A grease-stained red rag now straggled out of her front jeans pocket, and she still wore the military style sunglasses, but not the airman’s cap, leaving her head bare to the bright morning sunlight. Rude noted with passive appreciation the way the sun’s rays picked up and magnified the reddish highlights in her sun-lightened tresses. She moved slowly by, as though lost in a world inside her mind with no particular place to go. He deemed her harmless and redirected his attention elsewhere, but he marked the instant that Reno spotted her by the abrupt cessation of the annoying drumming sound. He supposed he should be thankful to be released from the distracting, teeth-gritting, incessant bump-bump-bump, but he suspected he’d have to endure a display of Reno’s dubious attempt at charm next. He wasn’t sure which would be worse.

With a sharp flick of his wrist, Reno shot the cigarette away from him and slid off the barrel to land both feet solidly on the ground. The movement didn’t fail to catch the woman’s attention, especially as she wasn’t quite as lost in reverie as she appeared. She’d just been very focused on the familiar gruff voice she could distantly hear around the far side of the mess tent. As long as the speaker remained there she’d be okay. Her head came around and her steps faltered to a stop at the realization that she’d inadvertently captured the redheaded Turk’s attention. Surrendering to the inevitable exchange between them, she drew her hands from her pockets and folded her arms beneath her breasts, turning to face Reno with an easy smile as he strolled up to her.

“So, Ms. Mud,” Reno lazily drawled as he shoved his shades into his hair to offer her the full force of his appreciative green eyes. “We meet again.” She didn’t reciprocate in kind, perfectly happy to leave her own sunglasses in place.

“So we do,” she replied with an offhand shrug.

Reno hooked his thumbs in his front jeans pocket and shifted to one foot as he carefully looked her over, taking in the pleasurable way her leg hugging jeans and soft t-shirt accentuated her lovely figure, but more importantly noting the red grease rag in her pocket and the oily smudges marring the snowy white of her shirt and the pale blue denim of her faded jeans. She’d obviously been working. On something.

Long accustomed to the company of men by virtue of her chosen career, his perusal hardly offended her, and she repaid him with one of her own which ended in a wrinkle of a prettily freckled nose at sight of the scattering of crumbs dotting his black t-shirt. The expression soured Reno’s face as it pointedly reminded him of that irritating person with the pert little wrinkled nose he’d been attempting, without much success, to put out of his mind. She kept popping into his thoughts, like a persistent outbreak of itchy ringworm, to needle him.

Reno frowned with displeasure as he noted the source of Ms. Drake’s deprecating smirk, especially as she didn’t seem so fastidious herself, and he swept a hand across his chest to sweep the scant remains of his toast away. Then he planted narrowed green eyes still glittering with a hint of discontent to her face. She nervously drew her lower lip between her teeth, suddenly remembering the nature of the person with whom she was conversing. She shot a quick look to the side, as though she might decide to bolt in that direction, but when her worried gaze came back to the Turk, she found a congenial smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes, an expression meant to disarm her.

“So…what have you been up to?” Reno asked casually as though making simple conversation despite the purpose behind the question intended to elicit information.

“Oh…this and that…” she replied cautiously, not taken in by his friendliness. She noted that his smile didn’t entirely displace the calculation in his green eyes.

“You’ve been keeping yourself to yourself,” he idly pointed out. “Staying out of sight,” he added more bluntly.

Her eyes shifted anxiously back in the direction from which she’d come. “Well…you know…I’ve been busy.” She couldn’t hear his voice any more, which meant she didn’t know where he’d gone. “Lot of work around here, you know.”

“Hmm…I asked Highwind about you,” he confessed with a impish arch of an eyebrow.

Startled at the news, her head snapped back around. She hadn’t expected that. She hadn’t imagined that the Turks and Cid Highwind would be all that cozy, although she had to admit she’d seen Cloud Strife hanging around them some. Fortunately for her, Reno couldn’t see the dismayed look she landed on his face through her dark glasses, but he couldn’t help but detect the dripping sarcasm in her voice. “Oh joy…”

Reno’s smile widened in self-satisfaction. “So have you seen the Captain yet?”

“Sure, I’ve seen him,” she replied with a stilted attempt at studied indifference. It wasn’t a lie. She’d seen him just a few minutes past, poking his head into the medical tent. He just hadn’t seen her, thanks to her speedy departure from the immediate vicinity.

“Did you get your problems worked out?” Reno asked silkily. The Turk had glommed onto the fact that there were indeed issues between this mysterious flight engineer and Highwind. Personal ones. He prided himself on a keen astuteness for reading between the lines, and there was a wealth of subtext here.

“You know…I hate to be rude,” Ms. Drake suddenly said with a grimace. “But I gotta go.” She made good her announcement by spinning away so fast that her ponytail flew out behind her. With an apologetic smile, insincerely expressed, she gave him a little wave and a cursory backward glance as she trotted away. “Been a pleasure, Reno. Later.”

“Pleasure’s all mine,” he murmured to himself as his amused eyes followed her retreat around the other side of the mess tent. Then he turned to face the empty spot into which the man who was on the verge of emerging into the open from the opposite side would shortly step, a man whose identity he’d already named based on the loud comments he made to his unseen companion as they walked together, the same familiar voice that had most likely led to the sudden exit, stage right, of the lovely Ms. Drake.

Cid Highwind strode out from behind the side of the mess tent with Barrett Wallace, his intense eyes coming around to land on the expectant Turk as he turned. He lifted his lit cigarette and pointed it in Reno’s direction. “Been lookin’ for you, Turk,” he announced.

“I’ve been right here,” Reno drawled in reply. In fact, he’d been there for a lot longer than he’d planned. Caitlin apparently had a great deal to discuss with the scurrilous lawyer. As for Highwind, the redheaded Turk hadn’t missed the sporadic appearances of the Captain into his field of vision as the man had dipped his head into one tent after another, a man seemingly bent on a mission. Highwind could have spied him in front of the mess tent at any time during his hurried search, a fact that led Reno to believe the Captain hadn’t been that bent on finding him. But he had been looking hard for someone else. Reno had a pretty good idea who that person might be.

The Turk shifted his attention to Wallace, and the big man’s eyes caught fire when their gazes collided. Reno coldly smiled. Abruptly, Wallace spun on heel and walked away. “Gonna get my stuff together,” he called brusquely to the Captain. “Catch ya ‘fore I go.”

Reno raised a speculative eyebrow. It sounded like the man might be taking his leave of their lovely encampment on the wasteland. That event wouldn’t hurt his feelings a bit, although he supposed it would merely delay the inevitable confrontation.

Highwind halted in front of him, his whole body bristling with impatience, and Reno gave the Captain the whole of his attention, deciding to get straight to the point. “Is there a problem, Highwind?”

“Probably not,” the Captain curtly replied. “But I need to get a hold of Reeve, and it seems he’s gallivantin’ around. He’s not where I can contact him.”

“Gallivanting around where?” Reno languidly inquired with narrowed eyes. Alexander had been told to report a change of location immediately, and the fact that he hadn’t tweaked the Turk’s suspicious nature, but he also recognized that the executive had more than likely just stepped out of the office for a while. The Third Class Soldier detail currently providing his protection could more than adequately keep the man secure in most situations at any rate.

“That kid, Coaker or whatever, he said he’d gone to the military prison. With Sand.”

“The military prison? Under Sector 4?” The alarm Reno experienced at the information didn’t register beyond a slight chill in his tone, but he didn’t like what he heard in the least. And he knew Caitlin would embrace the information with little equanimity. Still, just the fact that he’d gone, and with the general no less, didn’t indicate a problem at first blush. More information would definitely be required.

“Hell, I dunno,” Cid answered with an agitated wave of his hand, one that would have showered embers in Reno’s face if he hadn’t leaned out of the line of fire. “I don’t know a damn thing about this military prison. I just need to let him know he can open the gate. I thought maybe you could raise him on that little black box of yours. See what’s goin’ on.”

“Sure, I can message him,” Reno blandly replied. Discreetly, of course. He didn’t want to get Caitlin riled up for no reason. “Rude,” Reno quietly commanded, knowing that the big Turk had silently absorbed every word. Rude instantly responded, surrendering his position to duck into the mess tent without a word or look at Reno, no acknowledgement needed beyond his compliance.

The redheaded Turk gallantly swept his hand toward the tent indicating Highwind should enter ahead of him. “Come on, Highwind,” Reno cheerfully instructed as though no worries troubled his mind. “Let’s find out what Reeve’s managed to get up to now.”

Cid eyed him with a skeptical frown. He thought the Turk sounded entirely too jovial. Sorta like that pretty nurse that had guided him into the proctologist’s office in Midgar a couple of year’s back. He wondered if the consequences of obeying would turn out to be as unpleasant. He started to shake his head. “Look, Turk, I’m kinda busy…” Cid sidled away. “I got things to do…just raise Reeve on that computer of yours an’ make sure he’s okay. Tell him he can open the gate, okay?”

Reno smiled knowingly. “Sure, Highwind. I’ll get right on that. I’ll let you know what he says.”

“Sure…thanks…later…” Cid whirled around and trotted away. In the wrong direction.

“Hey, Highwind!” Reno called after him. “You’re going the wrong way.”

Cid came to an abrupt stop and landed intense azure eyes on the Turk’s face. “What the hell ya mean by that?”

“She went that way.” Reno raised a finger to point toward the right. “Toward the back of the mess tent.”

Cid’s eyes filled with bewilderment as he peered off in that direction. “Who went…that…way…”

“Drake did,” Reno succinctly informed him.

Startled, Cid stared at Reno with a hint of awe. Damn Turks always knew more than they ought to. “How long ago?”

Reno pretended to consult his nonexistent watch. “Uhmm…about one minute and thirty-three seconds ago.”

“Dammit!” Cid exclaimed in surprise as he sprang into motion. “Thanks, Turk. Owe you one,” he belatedly called over his shoulder as he dashed around the corner of the tent.

“I’m holding you to that, Highwind,” Reno called back. And he would too. Having Highwind in his debt could only be an asset.

Both feet firmly planted on the ground, Tifa lifted her hands toward the sky in a long sinuous stretch to loosen her taut muscles as she turned to face the much closer, therefore much more satisfying, vista of rolling valley and green forest and sparkling lake. Lifting her peaceful face into the breeze, she drew in a great noisy breath full of the warm scent of meadow grasses and wildflowers mixed with the crisp smell of the mountain air and the airborne moistness of the nearby waterfall. She exhaled slowly, her eyelashes drifting downward in pleasure, her breath hitching only slightly in her throat when Vincent set foot soundlessly on the trail behind her, his arrival more sensed than heard due to a keen awareness of his close proximity.

With vigilant eyes on the back of her dark head, Vincent promptly moved past her on the weed choked path to stand a couple of paces from her side, his presence apparently unnoticed by the enraptured young woman. Unbeknownst to him, she’d just decided to ignore him for awhile, especially as she didn’t really want to look at his face. Well, it wasn’t that she didn’t want to look, just that she didn’t think that she could without blushing, especially as she’d allowed the more intriguing parts of that blasted dream to replay relentlessly inside her head during the descent over that last stretch of mountain side, a task that had engaged little of her thought as the terrain had grown more hospitable and less demanding with each passing foot.

Vincent patiently waited for her to address him or grant him so much as a look of acknowledgement, but she seemed more interested in the distant vista than in him. “Let’s move on,” he abruptly commanded, his stern voice interrupting her pleasurable respite. A frown of disgruntlement more pronounced than the one that barely darkened Vincent’s pale countenance instantly banished her peaceful smile at the return of Mr. Valentine’s autocratic demeanor.

“I think we should rest for awhile,” she replied in sharp rejoinder. “Don’t you?” Still refusing to look his way, she stubbornly lifted her chin in silent reinforcement of her contention despite the fact that she wasn’t the least bit tired.

“We’ve wasted too much time already,” he bluntly retorted. He pointedly turned his back on her and walked away, clearly expecting her to follow without question. But then, wasn’t that one of his rules? Number three, as she recalled. If he were to command her to an action, she was to obey without question. Frankly, she wasn’t in the mood.

Tifa’s lower lip came jutting out as her jaw muscles tightened. Brown eyes overflowing with dissatisfaction burned holes in Vincent’s back as he strode away. Wasted too much time? Had that been a dig at her because she’d fallen asleep for an hour or more? And who was the bossy individual that had made her rest then? Who died and made him the boss of her anyway? Oh right, it was because he was older. An extremely arbitrary decision on his part, now that she thought about it. Her mouth suddenly curved in an impish smile, and she deliberately reached up to wrap both hands tightly around the rope that still connected them.

She bided her time as she watched him move easily along the broken overgrown trail, her captivated gaze filling with reluctant admiration at the smoothness of his gait, her eyes helplessly drawn to the length of his long legs as he walked. He looked so tall without the red cloak, dressed all in black as he was...and the absence of the cloak provided her an unencumbered view of…

She came back to herself with a start. He’d nearly reached the end of the rope, and she’d let him distract her. Again. With pent breath, she watched the last few inches of rope tauten, and then before she could completely lose her nerve, she gave the rope one solid jerk toward her. Her premeditated action abruptly stopped Vincent in mid-step with one heel barely grazing the ground. If not for his supernaturally adept reflexes, he might have fallen backwards. Instead, after an almost unnoticeable reflexive jerk of his muscles to maintain his balance, he stood motionless in the middle of the path with his back to her, unmoving but for the stir of his bound tresses in the breeze.

A little shocked at her behavior in the wake of her own mischievous deed, Tifa abruptly let go of the rope. As the seconds slipped past with no reaction on his part, she unconsciously raised a hand to her mouth. In retrospect, she had to wonder what she’d meant to accomplish. Had she planned to humiliate him by dumping him on his butt in the trail? Set him stumbling back on his heels? Make him cry out in surprise? Really, she hadn’t thought that far ahead. She’d only meant to give him a taste of his own medicine. Upon reflection of his stiff back and tense stance, she had to admit that it might have been an ill-conceived idea. If she had to guess, she’d have to admit that he didn’t like it. Not one little bit. Well…good. She hadn’t liked it much either. That would teach him to treat her like a soap on a rope. Now he’d probably come right back up the trail and teach her a lesson in return.

Nervously pursing her lips, she cautiously regarded his motionless figure for a few seconds more as she truly began to wonder what Vincent might do in retaliation. Did he plan to stand in the trail all day as though he were a Shinra robot that she’d inadvertently deactivated with her prank? A Shinra robot…that might explain a few things… She pressed her fingers against her twitching lips as a willful giggle threatened to escape. She didn’t want to make matters worse by laughing, especially since she really had nowhere to run. And why hadn’t she thought of that beforehand? Truthfully, she figured that he’d probably just turn around here in a few more seconds and land one of his coldest and most expressionless glares on her face. Or maybe he’d simply spin around in the trail, widely set his feet and take the rope in his own hands to inexorably drag her toward him, reeling her in like an oversized fish to shake a finger in her face and apprise her of the newest rules of the road, ones which would no doubt involve rope etiquette. She would make sure to remind him that the rules applied to him too. Or maybe he would just bend his head and…no…he wouldn’t do that…he’d never do that…

Vincent moved then, so abruptly that a startled gasp flew off her lips. He planted both boots flat on the ground a shoulder’s width apart, dropped his head, and with a few deftly executed jerks of his hands, he untied the knots and let the rope fall away from his lithe body. Without a backward glance, he strode away.

Tifa stood rooted in place and stared after him in dismay. She’d done it up right this time. Totally pissed him off with her impudent behavior. And now he would simply leave her there in retribution. Because she’d become more of a nuisance than she was worth. But he couldn’t leave her if she followed him. Not at the pace he was walking. She could easily catch up. If only she could make her stubborn feet move. If only her limbs weren’t numb with her deep regret. Vincent just wasn’t the sort of man to prank. True, he probably needed to lighten up a little, but she wasn’t about to tell him. Especially now…

“I’m sorry…” she ruefully said to him in her mind, her lips moving beneath the silent words because she couldn’t find the voice to project them. “Don’t hate me,” she mentally added.

Vincent halted in the middle of the trail and half-turned to look back at her, his crimson eyes devoid of any emotion. “Are you coming?” he blandly asked as though nothing untoward had occurred between them.

Immensely relieved at the man’s unexpected and somewhat inviting demeanor, Tifa managed to nod her head, although her command to her feet went unnoticed. “But…I…the…rope…”

“We don’t need the safety tether anymore,” he coolly informed her. “Let’s go.”

Vincent pointedly turned away again, and his imminent departure provided the impetus she needed to get moving, her feet leaping into action without conscious thought on her part. She shook her head in wonder as she hurried to catch up with his more leisurely pace, coiling the stray rope into her hands as she trotted along the path. It suddenly occurred to Tifa that somehow Mr. Valentine had won again, but she shrugged away the recognition. This time she didn’t care. As long as he wasn’t mad at her.

By the time she caught up to fall into step beside him, Vincent had schooled his face into an untroubled expression of dispassion. The slight upward tip of his lips that had momentarily softened his expression at her obvious dismay had already vanished into studied nonexistence, and he’d cloaked the glint of amusement that still lingered deep in his crimson irises behind lazy eyelids. He barely moved his head to look at her pensive face, his view of her hardly disturbed by a few stray wisps of ebony hair. “Point taken,” he softly said.

Tifa’s startled brown eyes shot to his face at the unexpected remark, only to find him gazing down the sloping trail, his dark lashes at half-mast. She brought her stunned gaze forward as an involuntary smile captured her lips. He’d completely conceded the win to her this time. And justly so

“Thank you, Vincent,” she murmured.

He didn’t reply, but she didn’t expect him to. And it didn’t matter. They’d both said all they needed to say.

Reno glared hotly at the couple huddled with blond heads together in seemingly intimate conversation over the center of a table at the rear of the mess tent. Even as he looked on with unblinking green eyes, Cornelius Wildman, sleazy lawyer at large, reached across the table and snaked his fingers over Elena’s hand, and he’d be damned if she didn’t bat her eyes at him like a simpering and besotted ingénue. His green eyes developed a murderous glint, and a smile slid over his lips, one as mirthless and cold as Elena might ever have seen on his face before, one that might well have reminded her of the pristinely icy miles of frosted glass windows in the Shinra Tower after a winter ice storm, if she’d noticed. In fact, if she’d bothered to tear her adoring gaze off Wildman’s face to look at Reno just then, she might have feared for her continued employment in the Turk organization, position terminated due to the unfortunate death of a staff member. Namely, herself.

With a protracted effort, Reno deliberately relaxed the two fists that dug against his thighs, even though he wanted nothing more than to wrap his fingers around that supercilious bastard’s throat and squeeze until his face turned a vivid shade of blue and his eyes popped out of his head. After which he’d probably have to shoot him a dozen times or two, but not before he zapped him with the magrod until electricity sparked out of every orifice and key parts of his anatomy fell off. And if that didn’t work, he’d get out his knife and exercise the artistry for which he’d long been touted in the vaunted corridors of Shinra, Inc.

“Rude.” He spoke with deceptive calm, not taking his eyes off Elena long enough to so much as glance over his shoulder at the man standing at his back, his voice every bit as icy as the smile on his lips. “Please relieve Elena of the compad and discreetly message Alexander to inquire as to his continued good health while I distract Caitlin.” Abruptly, he executed a right face to approach the location where Caitlin stood talking to a young couple at a table not far from the door, apparently waylaid in route to the exit to join him outside. Reno had devised the impromptu scheme to keep Ms. Shinra preoccupied until such time as they had acquired firm intelligence one way or the other regarding Reeve’s current status, solely to prevent the utterance of any command from her that might unnecessarily take them back into the destroyed and dangerous city, but by the time he came to an abrupt halt a half dozen steps away from her, he’d already forgotten why he’d come. “Caitlin,” he said tensely. “May I please have a moment of your time?”

Caitlin looked around at him with questioning eyes, curious at the overly polite tone. At sight of the frigid smile on his lips and the glittering frost in the green eyes, a chill swept through her veins. She didn’t need anyone to inform her that Reno was mad. He radiated anger despite his smile and serene face. Had she annoyed him with her delays that much? She couldn’t imagine him being bothered by so trivial a matter.

“Excuse me,” she expressed over her shoulder to the young couple even as the two slipped from their chairs and hurriedly fled. She gamely squared her shoulders and cautiously approached him. “I’m sorry…Reno…about the wait…it was rude of me…I know…”

Reno shot a finger into the air beneath her nose, effectively choking off her tentative apology. “Don’t apologize to me,” he curtly admonished in a voice clearly strained to the limits of his tight control. “Your time is your time. Not mine. Just get your lawyer away from my Turk. Right now.” In the back of his mind, Reno distantly acknowledged that he’d intended to offer his services for the express purpose of escorting her from the tent and away from Rude, but he did have his priorities after all.

Caitlin darted a look that way. She knew that after their brief and unsettling conference, carried out in hushed conversation while the lawyer ate his breakfast, Cornelius had excused himself and joined Elena where she sat alone at the back table still exuding vibes of displeasure, most likely over something untoward Reno had said, but at the time she hadn’t thought anything of it, especially as she’d been buried deep in her own thoughts about Reeve. Besides, Elena had said that Cornelius came from her hometown and she’d known him for years. Maybe no one had relayed the information to Reno. Or maybe it didn’t matter. A knowing smile came to her face as she watched Elena shoot a stealthy glance at Reno’s back and then draw her hand from beneath the attentive attorney’s fingers with a discontented frown. Rude walked up to her just then, and Elena promptly rose to her feet to meet him as though she welcomed the interruption.

“Why, Reno?” she reasonably inquired. “They’re just talking.”

“He is distracting my Turk from the efficient execution of her job.”

Caitlin tilted her head in bemusement. “Isn’t that an administrative problem better handled by you?”

“Normally,” he readily replied, his silky drawl still intact despite his internal turmoil. “But I recommend that you address your lawyer at this time as he is also employed by you. I suspect that you might handle the situation in a more socially acceptable manner at this time.” If he had to go over there and take care of this matter, and he most certainly would if Wildman did not remove himself from Elena’s vicinity posthaste, Caitlin would not appreciate the result.

Caitlin chanced another look to see Cornelius hurriedly departing the area with more than one nervous glance at Rude as he retreated with as much decorum as he could manage. Elena appeared to be digging around in her capacious handbag, Cornelius already forgotten. Caitlin landed amused eyes on Reno’s face. “This isn’t about Elena’s job performance, is it Reno? I think this is about Elena. I think you’ve let things get personal.”

Reno’s eyes narrowed on the Shinra heir’s largely unconcerned and mildly censorious face, and his cold smile slid away into the well of his deep frown. He leaned forward to point one long finger at her face, any pretense at nonchalance, however ill-concealed, discarded along with his lazy drawl. “And I think that you’d best advise your attorney to get away from my Turk,” he informed her with clipped syllables. “Unless you wish to engage another attorney to represent you.” Reno knew damn well that he’d let it get personal. He didn’t need Ms. Shinra to tell him that. And he also damn well knew that his temper was about to get the better of him. The lid that he normally kept tightly screwed down over a deeply buried cistern of rage inside of him had popped a few screws at the sight of Elena’s fingers beneath Wildman’s. He knew he’d be well advised to reign in his emotions immediately. He was currently the one not performing his job efficiently rather than Elena. Not only was he revealing too much of himself to Caitlin, but his behavior had become counterproductive, actually directing her attention to the arena of activity from which he’d meant to distract her, but he couldn’t seem to stop it. Not as long as he knew that slimy bastard had his hands on Elena. If Caitlin didn’t get go over there and get Wildman away from Elena, he could and would take care of the matter himself, and then that loosely attached lid would most likely pop off and release something ugly.

“It’s not really my problem,” Caitlin chided playfully. “But I think it is yours.”

“Then I suggest that you begin shopping the legal section of the business pages,” he growled at her.

“Don’t worry, Reno,” Caitlin informed him in a soft patronizing voice as she reached out to give him a reassuring pat on his upper arm. “Problem’s solved. Rude scared him away.”

“He’s gone,” Reno flatly responded, the question couched in inflectionless statement.

“Yes, he’s gone,” she assured him. “You can relax now.”

Her words effected an immediate change in Reno’s mental state, although the transformation hardly showed outwardly. His reason once again wholly intact, Reno unrepentantly realigned his actions to his self-assigned mission and pointedly stepped into position between Caitlin and Rude, blocking the big Turk from her line of sight even as the tension ebbed from his body. “Didn’t you say that you wanted to go to the medical tent, Caitlin,” he sternly reminded her with the lift of one eyebrow. “Some time ago?”

Caitlin propped her hands on her hips and studied his face at length. “You should really do something about that, Reno,” she suggested with a slight hint of exasperation in her voice.

“I will,” he bluntly replied. “Right now. Let’s go.” He reached out to take her elbow in hand.

She impatiently brushed his hand away and stepped out of his reach. “I didn’t mean that. I meant you and Elena. Why don’t you just…get on with it?”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.” Of course, he knew exactly what she meant, but that didn’t mean he had to admit it to her. Caitlin Shinra already knew too damn much about him.

“And I’m sure you do.”

“If you say so. Do you want to go to the medical tent or not?”

Caitlin audibly sighed her frustration with the stubborn redheaded Turk. “No, I do not. Not yet. I want to talk to Avian first.” She looked over at the young man where he still sat with Yuffie, Derry and Rachel. At that moment, they all burst into laughter at something Derry said, and she smiled sadly at their lighthearted levity. She really didn’t want to draw Avian away from his friends or upset him in any way, but she realized that she had to broach the long avoided subject of his immediate future. She would be leaving soon. That day, in fact, if things went as planned, and she wanted to insure his safety as well as get a handle on his state of mind. She’d decided that she’d better do it now, before the city gate was opened. She suspected that she’d be very busy after that.

Reno took the opportunity of her distraction to risk a glance at the table where he found Rude bent over the open computer, his big fingers tapping awkwardly at the small keypads. Elena sat next to him, inspecting her less than pristine nails with a critical eye. As though she sensed his gaze, she looked up at him then, and he purposefully averted his eyes in deliberate dismissal. “Do you think we can get on with it then?” Reno drawled silkily, his good humor completely restored.

Her worried eyes still captivated by Avian’s animated face, Caitlin shook her head. “Not we, Reno. Me. Get lost.” She had no intention of talking to the young man with the Turk or anybody else around. Avian had already shown great reluctance to discuss the matter with her, much less a third party. “Please,” she thought to add. Reno didn’t answer, and when she looked up, she found that he’d simply left, obeying her request without a word. She briefly watched him approach the table where Rude and Elena sat messing around with their computer, and then she steeled her nerves and forced her feet to move toward the table where Avian sat. Her task would not be easy, but it was long overdue. She gently laid a hand on his shoulder and bent her head to speak to him. At her touch, he looked up into her serious face with curious eyes. “Do you think we might talk for a few minutes, Avian?” she softly asked. The smile faded from his lips and the happiness ebbed from his eyes. He already knew what she wanted. He granted her a reluctant nod of concession and rose from his chair.

Reno came to a momentary stop at Rude’s elbow. “Let me know if there’s a development,” he casually directed. “I’ll be out front.” Rude offered him one curt nod in acknowledgement, and Reno walked away without a single word or glance directed in Elena’s direction. Stung at his pointed snub, she huffed in disdain and deliberately looked away from his departing back to return her attention to the message Rude had just finished composing on the computer’s messaging program. “I don’t know what the hell his problem is…” she churlishly complained, mostly to herself.

“You,” Rude bluntly replied as he stabbed a fingertip against the enter key to send his message.

“Me?” Elena snorted the word in amazement. “What’d I do?”

Rude turned his head to level the full weight of his regard on her face, his steady gaze hidden behind the dark lenses. He could inform Elena that she was most surely at the root of Reno’s problem, a point of fact just as certain as the rise of the sun in the morning. He could also apprise her of his privileged knowledge that she’d been Reno’s problem for a long time, an irritating itch under the Turk’s skin for a lot longer than she would ever guess, but he supposed that he’d best keep his own counsel for the sake of his interests. So he deigned to answer her, lifting his shoulder in an offhand shrug before shifting his attention to the far corner of the mess tent where Caitlin and Avian had just taken chairs at a deserted table. If she couldn’t figure it out for herself, that was her problem. But he suspected that she knew very well as evidenced by her earlier performance with Wildman, an act scripted solely for Reno’s benefit. He found himself bewildered at her professed ignorance in light of her success. Her scheme had worked, only too well. She’d just gone from being an annoying and persistent little itch to being a prickly burr under Reno’s saddle. And burrs caused chocobos to act up. He wondered if she knew that she was on the verge of stepping off the deep end, but then he reassured himself with the knowledge that a sophisticated woman like Elena would surely know how to swim. As Reno had told him more than once, Elena was a big girl. She could take care of herself. If not, he supposed he’d have to take care of Reno, but he’d cross that bridge when and if it loomed in his path.

Yuffie glared across the expanse of the mess tent at Caitlin Shinra’s earnest face as she spoke to an attentive but somber Avian in indistinguishable conversation, a glint of discontent in the depths of her obsidian eyes. “What in the world could she want with him?” she sniffed disdainfully.

Derry shifted his lazy gaze from the little girl busily ruffling the fur of the wriggling dog at the foot of his chair to the irritated ninja girl. He tipped his chair back as his blue eyes took on a speculative aspect. “You like him, don’t you?” he laconically asked.

Her head came around, her challenging eyes locking in on his intrigued face. “Who?” she huffily demanded.

Derry silently responded with a pointed inclination of his head in Avian Wulfe’s direction and an enigmatic smile.

“Him?” Yuffie pointed with eyebrows raised in astonishment. “Ole Farm Boy over there?”

Derry nodded his head once in acknowledgement, his smile widening ever so slightly at her transparent act.

The ninja girl folded her arms and smirked across the table at the young platinum haired pilot. “Sure, I like him,” she silkily admitted. “About as much as I like you. Which isn’t much.”

“Right…” Derry lazily replied with a smirk of his own.

Cid Highwind examined the ratchet wrench he’d found between the seats in the cockpit of the Gelnica, turning the tool over and over in his fingers as though he could detect her fingerprints glowing from the unmarked metal surface with just his keen eyes. He frowned deeply in thought. He couldn’t say for sure who might have left it there, but he knew that the whole of his crew had been working on the Sector 2 gate. Who else could it be but her? It was just the sort of thing she would do, work on projects no one else had time to do or had even thought to do. He couldn’t doubt the Turk’s information any more. Not only was Shera in the camp, but she’d been on the Gelnika, right there in the cockpit where he stood, her fingers wrapped around the wrench he now held.

His wistful gaze abruptly vanished as he caught himself moping like an abandoned puppy, his azure eyes sharpening to two pieces of chipped ice as his temper flared. If she was here, it wasn’t for him that she’d come or she wouldn’t be skulking around staying out of his sight. Her behavior clearly indicated that she was up to no good. His fist tightened unconsciously around the wrench until his knuckles ached inside his glove. She was here, and he would find her. She couldn’t hide from him forever. And when he did find her, she would answer his questions. She would tell him why she’d come to the Midgar encampment unannounced, and she would clearly inform him as to what mischief she’d been up to since she’d arrived. What’s more, he meant to find out what business she thought she had being here in the first place. And then he meant to tell her to stay the hell away from his airplanes and fly the hell right back to Junon where she came from. He didn’t care why she’d left. She’d run out on him, and that was that. End of the story.

A scuffle of a boot sounded distantly behind him, and he whirled around to glare down the metal stairs beyond the cockpit door at the motionless figure caught in deep shadow halfway down the length of the enormous cargo compartment, the undeniably feminine shape silhouetted against the bright sunlight shining through the open hatch behind her.

His throat suddenly closed up on him, just as he opened his mouth to challenge her, and he only managed to choke one word off his uncooperative tongue. “Shera?”

She ran. Turned her back to him and sprinted for the exit, her hair flying out behind her, her shoes clapping sharply against the heavy metal floor as she fled. Cid Highwind gave chase without thought, tossing the wrench into the pilot’s seat to leap down the steps two at a time, his heavier boots pounding down against the metal risers behind her. The clanging sound hardly encouraged her to slow her progress. He hit the floor running and easily closed the distance between them by virtue of his longer legs and driving motivation, until she chanced a look over her shoulder to see him almost upon her. She put on a mad burst of speed and lengthened her stride to burst from the shadowy hold several feet ahead of him. Her flying feet carried her swiftly down the gangway, and she unexpectedly bailed off the side halfway to the ground. Landing gracefully, she darted off and vanished around the side of the plane just as he reached the hatchway.

“Shera! Wait!” Cid impulsively jumped off the top of the gangway and landed awkwardly with a sharp twinge in one ankle, but the pain hardly registered. He shoved the shaft of his spear hard against the packed ground and propelled himself into motion, racing from beneath the tail of the plane with only the slightest hitch of a limp to catch a glimpse of her reddish blonde hair flying out behind her as she darted into a stack of crates near the back of the tents. Too blonde really, he thought. But then he well knew how much the sun lightened her hair in the summertime, during all the hours they’d worked outdoors, side by side. By the time he’d raced the length of the huge cargo plane and crossed the expanse of bare ground in between the parked aircraft and the camp to reach the crates his breath wheezed noisily through his teeth. He vowed to himself right then, and not for the first time, to throw his cigarettes away and never take them up again, but he completely forgot his casual promise the moment he dove into the aisle between the stacks of crates only to find his prey trapped at a dead end where yet another tall stack of wooden crates blocked the exit. He fiercely glared his consternation at the trembling female.

“Who the hell are you?” he demanded in a voice roughened with frustration.

She raised pleading hands to stay his advance. “Please, Mister…I didn’t mean it,” she stammered, her fearful eyes imprisoned by the threat of mayhem in his azure eyes. “…I just wanted to see one…the plane…I mean…I never have…before…and I…”

“Dammit!” Cid simply executed an about face and stalked away, leaving the woman staring at the empty space he’d left in surprise with a hand pressed to her throat.

The Captain ripped a hand through his hair in despair, and although he’d started back in the direction of the Gelnica’s hatch with the vague notion of searching the plane more thoroughly, he abruptly deviated in his path and retraced his steps to head back the other way, away from the Gelnica and past the crates to head in the general direction of the mess tent. He’d wasted enough time chasing a shadow. If Shera didn’t want to talk to him, then why the hell should he bother? It was time he got back to the matter at hand and found out if the Turks had raised Reeve on their black box. Once the gate was open and the evacuees transferred to Junon, then he could leave this damnable place and return to his Lady Luck. She was one girl that would never let him down. With an irritable snatch at his head, he ripped a cigarette from the pack behind his goggle strap and jammed it into his lips as he strode away, completely oblivious to the pair of troubled sea green eyes that tracked his departure from the lofty vantage point of the Gelnica cockpit.

Shera leaned forward with both hands flat against the control panel and raptly gazed out through the bug splattered glass until he disappeared from her sight, loath to draw her eyes away before she had to. Then with a heavy sigh of resignation, she shoved herself upright and drew her sunglasses out of her hair to shove them over her eyes. He’d almost caught her with his surprise appearance in the Gelnica cargo bay. Would have caught her, in fact, if she hadn’t fortuitously left the cockpit several minutes before to take the sandwich she’d begged off the sweet lady cook at the mess tent to climb up onto one of the catwalks that ran along the top of the cargo bay to eat, ever drawn to high places during her rare periods of restfulness. She’d almost choked when she recognized his stalwart form in the open hatch, and she’d silently and stealthily taken her sandwich and retreated into the shadows near the bulkhead to bide her time until he gave up and left, even as she harbored little hope that he would give up. She had no doubt that he was looking for her, now that she knew Reno had told him of her presence in the encampment, and even as she hurriedly devoured the rest of her sandwich in the murky darkness near the curved wall, she’d been furiously composing the conciliatory speech she would offer him when he found her, knowing full well that he would search every nook and cranny of the spacious aircraft until he’d assured himself she wasn’t there. Lucky for her, the unwitting sightseer had saved her ass and lured him away. And he’d apparently taken his search somewhere else or given up for the moment. She knew it wouldn’t last. Cid Highwind didn’t have an ounce of surrender in him. But for the time being, she’d been granted a reprieve, and she felt like a woman facing her execution who’d been given an extra hour due to technical difficulties. Still, she found herself immensely relieved despite the inevitability of their confrontation.

With a tiny shake of her head in bemusement at the tenuous situation she’d willingly created for herself, she retrieved the hastily discarded ratchet and descended the metal steps into the cargo bay with quiet footsteps, heading toward the hatch with Cid Highwind foremost in her thoughts. Gods, she missed him. She’d loved him so long she could hardly remember a time when she hadn’t. But he didn’t love her, and she’d despaired that he ever would. She’d grown weary of waiting for him in his silent, empty house and convinced herself that she didn’t want to be his doormat anymore. His unpaid housemaid. His chief cook and bottle washer. And little else since the rocket program had ended. Thanks to her. It wasn’t that she blamed him. She’d chosen that role, in repayment for stealing his dream from him. A repayment that Cid Highwind had never wanted or needed, but had grudgingly accepted.

Standing at the stove, making tea for herself on yet another endless, lonely afternoon, she’d realized that the time had come to go. She’d wasted enough of her life waiting. She recognized that she’d taken on the role willingly, and she could cast it off just the same. She’d convinced herself that she could start her life anew and live a perfectly happy life without him. So she’d written her note, and she’d gone with a modicum of determination, only to find herself in Junon working a thankless job at the munitions factory running a forklift in the hot summer sun, a job for which she was sadly overqualified, still unable to let him go. She’d practically surrendered to her despair at her admission to herself that she would never chase those intense blue eyes from her mind, especially the way he’d looked at her in revelation that day on the rocket ship after the tank blew up and they’d rescued him from the wreckage unharmed, all but admitting that he’d wronged her. But even then he’d left her again. Leaving her out in the cold again. True, he’d embarked on a crucial mission and emerged a hero, but she should have been by his side. She should have been with him. Not once had he ever asked her.

The truth was that when Cid Highwind needed her, he wanted her, and when he didn’t, she hardly existed for him. Even so, she’d sat in her dismal and lonely one room Junon apartment day in and day out, helplessly thinking about him, and she'd eventually convinced herself that she could return to Rockettown before he came home and found the note, that she could happily settle for what he would give her because crumbs were better than nothing to a starving person. She had all but talked herself into packing and simply boarding the next ship for Costa del Sol when she saw him that day from where she leaned against the rusted balcony rail of her apartment overlooking downtown Junon. He’d strode bold as day past her window, with the whole of his crew trotting in his wake, and she’d willed him to look up and see her there, praying that when he did his eyes would ignite with joy at the sight of her, but he hadn’t. He’d kept his eyes forward and walked on, eventually veering into a side street that would carry him to the air base with all her friends trailing, his entourage clear evidence that he’d been back to Rockettown and had probably read the note, putting paid to her plan to return and take up where she’d left off unnoticed. Still, the too brief sight of him had reawakened her longing to be with him, and she realized that she would just have to concoct some new scheme, because now that she’d seen him, she realized that she didn’t want to live a life that didn’t include him. A few discretely placed questions later, she’d uncovered the plan to excavate the Midgar gate and rescue the trapped citizens of the heavily damaged city. So she’d decided to go, ostensibly to offer her formidable expertise, but mostly to be near him. Now here she found herself, hiding in the shadows. With him, but not with him. Unwilling to talk to him, but unable to leave him.

Shaking her head ruefully at her own foolishness, Shera paused to lift her heavy toolbox out of the hiding place where she’d stashed it, just inside the deep lip of a crossbeam in the bulkhead near the exit. Setting the box down at her feet, she knelt to open the lid and deposit the wrench inside the tray, replacing the tool in the exact spot from where she’d taken it. Then she duly closed the lid and flipped the latch down with the ball of her thumb, only to stare at the box in vacant appraisal, as though she’d forgotten what she’d planned to do. She hadn’t forgotten though. She’d intended to carry her tools up into the tail and check the rudder controls, but now she seemed to have lost the motivation to do so. Instead, she just wanted to curl up somewhere that no one would find her and cry her eyes out. Not so much at the fact that Cid didn’t want her, but more because she was so damn pathetic. What the hell was the matter with her? She should either stop her cowardly hiding or she should just go. She should either confront Cid and rejoin the crew or pack up her duffle bag and head out across the flats to Kalm and points beyond. She should either tell him how she felt or get on with her life.

Shera abruptly rose to her feet as though her decision had been made, but she’d merely decided to forego the decision yet again. Shoving the toolbox back into its hiding place inside the bulkhead girding, she deliberately turned to the hatchway. She promised herself then and there that she would make a decision, one way or the other, and she would abide by it without further vacillation. But not today. Tomorrow. She would decide tomorrow. But for now, she was just going to go for a walk. Away from the stress. Away from hiding. Away from Cid. Maybe then she could find one sane thought inside her head. Maybe then she could find the fortitude to make the decision she knew that she should. To put her back to Cid Highwind and leave him for good. For her own self-esteem. For her own peace of mind.

Avian started shaking his head before the words were barely past her lips. “No,” he adamantly informed her. “I don’t want to go. And I’m not staying with the Turks either. I don’t want to rot away on some godforsaken island, and I don’t need a babysitter.”

Caitlin reached across the table to touch his outstretched hand, a gesture of conciliation and reassurance, but he drew his hand off the table and out of reach. She remembered then, what had happened the last time she’d touched that hand, and she deliberately sat back in her chair and folded her hands against the table as she regarded him at length, her azure eyes full of concern. “Avian, it’s too dangerous for you to be on your own,” she said softly. “I’d never forgive myself if I let you come to any harm.”

He stubbornly held his tongue, staring at her with mutinous amber eyes as he defensively folded his arms across his chest. Caitlin held out a beseeching hand. “What will you do if they come for you then?”

“I can take care of myself,” he replied defiantly. “That guy on the farm didn’t get me, did he?”

“You took him by surprise,” she gently argued. “I think you surprised yourself. The next time will be different. Besides, they almost took you in Kalm.”

“I’ll worry about that when it happens.” The deep creases that bracketed his nose told her that he wasn’t as unconcerned as he wanted her to believe.

Caitlin bowed her head to gaze sadly at her clasped hands, her beautiful face reflecting such sadness that Avian could not help but relent. It wasn’t in his nature to be intractable anyway. He leaned forward to prop his chin in his hands. “I know you’re right, Caitlin, but…”

She raised hopeful eyes to his face. “But?”

“I just…don’t want to go away right now. I have stuff I have to do. My family’s here. I have my friend…Tamitha…the one I told you about…still trapped…in Midgar…I want to find her…and her family…and…and I…” His words faltered as he shot a look over at the table where Yuffie and Derry still sat talking while Rachel pulled Soldier’s ears beneath the table. The ninja girl’s dark eyes shifted his way, and he quickly averted his gaze.

“And you what?” Caitlin prompted.

Avian returned a shuttered gaze to her face and shrugged with a valiant attempt at indifference that failed to fool her. “I want to go with Captain Highwind back to the farm to help him repair the airship.”

A worried frown came to Caitlin’s face. “Do you think Captain Highwind would be willing to…help? If trouble arises?”

“I…don’t know…” Avian ruefully admitted. “I haven’t really talked to him about it yet.”

“Do you want me to ask him?” Caitlin’s heart filled with hope. Perhaps Avian had fallen upon the perfect solution. Cid Highwind and company, if amenable to the plan, would be more than capable of protecting Avian from his would be kidnappers, and he’d be close to home in the interim. Still, she deemed her self-assigned responsibility for him hardly absolved in that event.

“No,” he instantly refused her. “It’s my place to ask him. Besides, I have to go back anyway, and talk to my aunt. About what happened…” His gaze abruptly skated away from her face, and she scrutinized his averted face with speculation.

“Do you mean…about what happened…in Kalm?” she queried carefully. She wasn’t entirely sure of his meaning, and she was even less certain that he would allow her to address the matter in light of his previous rejection of the topic, but to her pleasant surprise, he slowly nodded his head, though he couldn’t seem to bring himself to look at her.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

He lifted his shoulders in a half-hearted shrug, a noncommittal response that offered her no decisive answer. She decided to continue to test the waters and see what floated up.

“I remember you told me that you’d never had anything like that happen before. Are you sure of that?” She posed her question in as non-threatening a tone as she could manage, her voice soft and tentative. If he had any inclination whatsoever to finally discuss his part in the miraculous resurrection of his dog, she didn’t want to dissuade him by being too insistent.

“No…nothing like that…” He replied with an uncertainty that led her to believe that there had been something, but maybe nothing like what had happened in Kalm.

“Have any other unusual…events…occurred…at any time in the past?” Her brow wrinkled as she mentally considered the same question regarding herself. She’d surely evidenced extranormal abilities in the past ten years, although nothing like the behaviors her daughter exhibited and nothing remotely similar to the momentous event in that simple cubbyhole of a room.

Avian brought his fisted hands to the table then, opening the backs of his fingers against the scarred wooden top to intently examine his palms with a wary eye, as though he half believed something vile lurked there. “Just the…materia thing…” he uneasily replied. “I never thought it was all that weird…but…”

“What materia thing?” Her breath stilled in her lungs in anticipation of his answer. Avian didn’t know about Reno’s miraculous recovery due to Rachel’s amazing manipulation of a ‘restore’ materia. Might there be a connection? Still, there’d been no materia involved in Soldier’s revival. Unless Avian had carried an orb concealed on his person. She thought back to that night and tried to remember where his other hand had been, but she found it a pointless endeavor. Her memories of the details had been obliterated in the course of the event itself. At the time, she didn’t have a firm grasp on the details. She could hardly expect to remember anything at this late date.

Avian drew in a deep breath and released it in a long shuddering exhalation. Then he closed his hands into fists. “I just have this natural…ability…to handle materia,” he explained with a hint of bewilderment in his voice. “I’ve always known how, from the first moment I held one of my Dad’s materia orbs in my hand.” A small smile came to his lips. “My Dad told me once that he didn’t know any Soldiers at the first class level that could cast a spell with materia like I could. I always thought he was just bragging on me…you know…like parents do with their kids…but now I don’t know…”

Caitlin pursed her lips in thought, casting a vacant-eyed glance around the sparsely occupied mess tent as she considered all the scant information available to her. Her gaze encountered the glittering black eyes of Yuffie who now sat crosslegged in her folding chair with her arms defiantly folded over her chest, all her attention directed her way, animosity exuding from her like a noxious cloud. Obviously the girl wasn’t happy that she’d stolen Avian away from the game, and she made no attempt to hide her feelings.

“What do you think about all this, Avian?” Caitlin finally asked, not sure where to take the discussion next, but hoping the open-ended question would prompt him to perhaps reveal some hidden and seemingly unimportant tidbit of information that might prove more crucial than it seemed, and more importantly, urge him to express his true feelings while he still seemed willing to talk about the matter at all. She clearly recognized now that he didn’t really believe that his pet had just been stunned into unconsciousness and had simply reawakened as he’d desperately insisted when she’d attempted to discuss the incident with him before. She could well imagine, from her own experiences, that he didn’t want to accept the possibility that his body, perhaps even his very life, might be anything other than what he’d always believed, sliding from comfortable normality into the realm of fiction.

As Caitlin patiently waited for Avian to answer, she let her noncommittal gaze slide away from the annoyed girl to the two Turks, still huddled together in serious contemplation of the open computer across the tent. Her azure eyes sharpened with interest. She realized that they might be messaging Reeve, perhaps to discuss the opening of the gate. All too soon, she would see him again. Face to face. Her face turned pensive at the prospect, the looming event filling her with mixed emotions. On the one hand, she longed to see him. To know he’d finally made it out safely from the dangerous confines of the heavily damaged city, and even more to drink her thirsty eyes full of the dearly familiar features of his face. But on the other hand, her trepidation about their upcoming meeting grew with each passing hour. She had so much to say to him and little ability to predict his reaction. When she told him about Heidi…

“Aunt Jae knows,” Avian suddenly said, instantly drawing her from her anxious thoughts. “That’s what I think.”

Caitlin’s speculative eyes landed on his face. “What do you think she knows?”

His hands clasped together on the tabletop, Avian unconsciously twisted his fingers in unspoken anxiety, and he finally looked her square in the face, his amber eyes rife with apprehension and certainty. “I think she knows something about my father,” he told her, his voice low and strained beneath the burden of his reluctant admission. “I think she knows what happened to him. And I think she might know why…these people…are after me. I think it’s about my father.”

“Why don’t we go and ask her?”

“No…I have to be the one…to ask her…”

“Avian, the Turks need to know if she can shed any light on this matter. These people…they want Rachel too. And me.”

Avian dropped his head into his hands and dug his fingers into his scalp in frustration. “I know. I…it’s just that Aunt Jae…the Turks…she won’t like it…” Abruptly, he surrendered, unable to refute the compelling reason behind her argument. He couldn’t deny her. His life wasn’t the only one at stake. “I know…you’re right…” Suddenly, he fell on a possible solution, a compromise he’d be willing to make, and raised his head to level steady eyes on her face. “You can bring a Turk. But only one.”

“Reno?” she asked tensely. “Can he be the one to go?” She felt the redheaded Turk, with his experience and incisive mind, might well pick up on some important nuance that would otherwise be missed.

Avian stared at her with alarm in his golden eyes. “No! Not him!” Avian exclaimed too loudly. Caitlin darted a nervous look around to see nearly everybody in the tent looking their way, including both Turks as well as Yuffie and Derry. She offered the inquisitive Turks a reassuring smile, and they both returned their attention to the computer as one. Her eyes narrowed on the serious cast of their lowered faces. They seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time with that computer, now that she thought about it.

Yuffie abruptly sprang from her seat, and the folding chair tipped over backwards to clatter against a discarded chair behind her, a racket that instantly commanded Caitlin’s attention. Her eyes widened in alarm as she watched the girl spin on heel and stride down the length of the table, her purposeful eyes directed toward Avian and her. Derry dropped his feet from the table and rose from his chair as though he might stop her, but then he apparently deemed any action on his part too late, and he shot a sheepish look her way, lifting one shoulder in a rueful shrug. She realized that her discussion with Avian had probably neared its end.

Caitlin suddenly leaned forward in her chair. “I thought you’d come to trust Reno,” she said urgently in a lowered voice. Avian also sat forward in his chair in unconscious imitation of Caitlin’s conspiratorial demeanor, planting his forearms on the tabletop to bring his face closer.

“I do trust him,” Avian loudly whispered. “But Jae knows him. She’d have a ringtailed hissy fit if she saw him. And she sure wouldn’t tell him anything.”

“Rude, then?” she succinctly asked.

“Elena,” he tersely replied.

She closed her eyes in weary surrender. She didn’t like it, and she didn’t think Reno would like it, but if it had to be, then it would be. “Okay. I’ll talk to Reno.”

“Are you done yet?” a petulant Yuffie snapped. “I’m ready to blow this place.”

Avian looked around in surprise to find the ninja girl standing tensely at his back, hot obsidian eyes centered on Caitlin’s face. He thought she looked ready to blow up the place. “Well…I suppose…” He swiveled questioning eyes to Caitlin’s face, and she simply inclined her head toward the exit in silent release.

Avian hesitantly rose to his feet as Yuffie pointedly turned away and strode toward the door. “I’ll talk to you later then,” he said tentatively, eager to be on his way but also wishing to impress upon Caitlin his keen interest in following through on their plan.

“Don’t go far,” she warned.

He slowly nodded, recognizing her statement as both a warning to stay close to the Turks and an assurance that she meant to pursue the matter right away. Derry strolled by then, just behind Avian’s back. “You’re in trouble, man,” he muttered lowly as he passed. Avian leapt into motion to fall into step beside him, Caitlin and the planned trip to the farm momentarily forgotten. “What do you mean?” he asked in bewilderment. “Trouble for what?”

An enigmatic smile touched Derry’s lips. “You kept her Highness waiting too long.”

“Oh boy…”

Caitlin idly watched the three young people converge at the door, her mind lost in thought. Avian turned back to whistle for his dog, and Soldier shortly came to his side. At the sight of the overjoyed dog, Caitlin suddenly remembered that Rachel had been with them at the table, and she obviously wasn’t with them now. Her eyes flew to the the empty chairs around the vacant table. Rachel wasn’t there. Abruptly, she stood, momentarily unable to tear her eyes away from the spot where she’d last seen the little girl, her heart filling with an unreasoning fear. She knew that no one could have taken Rachel from the tent, not with the Turks around, and Reno was just outside, but he’d been irritated…distracted…and Rude and Elena had been preoccupied...

“I’m taking Rachel to the bathroom.”

Caitlin’s staring eyes shot to the blonde Turk’s face. Elena stood in the aisle on the opposite side of the table with her fingers wrapped securely around the little girl’s hand. One of the Turk’s brows quirked at the haunted look in the Shinra heir’s face. “You can go with me or stay with Rude,” Elena added with a curtness designed to dissuade the Shinra heir from accompanying them. But if she did choose to go, then Elena would simply adjust her behavior accordingly.

A tremulous smile of relief relaxed Caitlin’s stricken face and brought color to her pale cheeks. “I’ll just stay with…” She glanced in the direction of the big man hunched over the small computer, his oversized hands moving as he tapped away at the keys. “…Rude…” Her voice trailed away. Just what was Rude doing anyway? She decided it was long past time she found out.

Elena nodded shortly and towed Rachel away without a backward look. Caitlin neatly set the chair in beneath the table and headed toward Rude. She was only three steps away from her goal when Rude abruptly looked up at her, his eyes unfathomable behind the dark shades.

“What are you doing, Rude?” Caitlin shifted intensely curious eyes to the open laptop. “What’s going on in Midgar?”

Without removing his eyes from her face, Rude lifted a hand to deliberately and gently close the lid. “Nothing,” he coolly replied.

“Nothing? Not a thing?”

“Nothing,” he firmly reiterated. The muscle beneath one lean cheek twitched, and Caitlin knew that he’d lied.

“Okay, son, that’s the last of them,” Sand quietly informed Reeve’s captor. “It’s your turn. Lay your weapon down.”

“Don’t think I will,” Ring refused with a contrived note of joviality. The successful culmination of his plan hinged on the next few critical moments.

“You can’t hold Mr. Alexander hostage indefinitely,” Sand reasoned gruffly.

“Don’t have to hold him indefinitely. Just ‘til you’re gone.”

“We’re not going anywhere without Mr. Alexander.”

“Guess we’re at an impasse then.” Ring shrugged nonchalantly.

“You can only shoot once before you’ll find a dozen rifles leveled at you,” Sand reminded him. “You’ve nowhere to go.”

Ring knitted his brow in deep contemplation, as though giving Sand’s pessimistic statement serious consideration. “I can see your point,” he casually agreed. “A dozen bullets would no doubt be painful.” Sand nodded encouragingly. “Of course, I’d bet my life on the belief…call me crazy if you like…that this guy…” He leaned forward over the rifle barrel to pat Reeve on the cheek, drawing a pained wince from the executive when the barrel dug into his breastbone at his captor’s movement. “…Is a lot more valuable alive than dead and a lot less expendable than my sorry hide. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Sand wearily closed his eyes, foregoing any response to the rhetorical question. “You’re holding the cards, kid. What do you want?”

“Why, I want all of you to hit the road,” Ring replied with feigned amazement. “What else? You didn’t think I was joining this party, did ya? I’ll go my way and you go yours.”

“What about Mr. Alexander?” Sand carefully inquired.

“Why, he’s been such good company, I think I’ll take him along with me for awhile.” Reeve felt the urge to lodge a protest at that point, but he sagely decided to keep his mouth shut and let Sand do the talking for the moment.

“And then what?”

“You leave me to my own devices, and I’ll let him walk in a couple of hours,” Ring flatly stated, all hint of friendliness now absent from his tone, his green eyes deadly serious. The ex-Soldier had no intention of going anywhere Shinra wanted. He’d tired of belonging to this screwed up company a long time ago, and he wanted to find a place on this planet where no one ever heard the word Shinra before, even if he had to camp out on a barren mountain peak or hike into the jungle.

“What do you want me to do, Mr. Alexander?” Sand asked the executive, knowing the decision would ultimately be his.

Reeve didn’t have to think about his answer. Sand couldn’t make a move without getting him shot, a fact the seasoned officer no doubt already recognized, and he didn’t think this Ring would suddenly decide to surrender. As the situation stood, they were at stalemate. His only chance for survival lay in trusting that the ex-Soldier 1st class would keep his word in the end. Reeve nodded his head, opening his mouth to clarify his decision to Sand in so many words, but the words stuck in his throat when the beeper on the handheld computer in his pocket started to chirp.

Ring tensed at the sound, tightening his hands around the gun. “What the hell’s that?” he demanded of the startled executive.

Reeve nervously licked lips suddenly gone dry with fear. “It’s my…computer.”

Ring’s eyes narrowed menacingly. “You gotta computer in your pocket? I don’t think so.” He grabbed a handful of Reeve’s shirt and raised him onto his tiptoes, the formidably strong muscles in his forearm straining as he held him there against the end of the plasma rifle’s barrel. “You’re lyin’ to me, man. I don’ t like bein’ lied to.”

Sand raised his rifle and took a stealthy step forward, thinking Ring wouldn’t notice.

“Back off, sir!” Ring yelled with a hint of exasperation. He didn’t want to be forced into an action he’d rather not undertake. But he would. To gain his freedom. He’d waited too damn long to give up the fight now. No matter the cost.

Sand obediently lowered the rifle, but he didn’t surrender the ground he’d won, a very tiny victory on his part.

“What’s that sound?” Ring demanded again. “And you better tell me the truth this time.”

“It’s in my coat pocket,” Reeve choked out, his voice strangled due to the fact that Ring had gathered his tie into his fist along with his shirt. “I’ll show you if you want.”

Ring suddenly experienced a sharp pang of guilt at his treatment of the beleaguered executive, and he abruptly released him. “Just tell me what that beeping means. What is it?”

Reeve resisted the urge to reach down and loosen his tie, instead keeping his aching arms carefully held in the air. “It’s a notification alarm. That I have a message. On my com…er…my handheld…data…pad…thing…”

Ring stared at him with interested eyes. “So…like your old lady’s callin’ or something like that?”

Reeve nodded slowly. “It might be my wife,” he answered, not untruthfully. It might also be the Turks, but he didn’t think Ring needed to know that information.

“What happens if you don’t answer it?”

Reeve cautiously shrugged. “Nothing. It just keeps beeping.” And the Turks would come looking, but other than that…nothing.

Ring easily smiled, his tension released at the executive’s innocent explanation. “Guess a beep can’t hurt me, huh? What’s your wife’s name, anyway?”

“…Cait…” Reeve nervously replied.

“Kate. Nice name,” he replied approvingly. He leaned closer. “Bet she’d like to have ya back, huh?” he whispered conspiratorially.

“I…could only…hope so…” Reeve hesitantly answered with a hint of wryness in his tone. He probably wouldn’t wager a gil note on the prospect.

“Well, I’ll see what I can do about that,” he promised with a playful wink of one luminous green eye. Reeve knitted his brows in a perplexed frown at his captor’s mercurial behavior. Ring suddenly straightened and turned his head to plant frosty eyes on Sand’s face. “Hate to cut short the fun and games, but it’s time for everyone to take their toys and go home now.”

"Mr. Alexander?" Sand formally inquired. He basically already knew what the executive would say.

"Do what he says," Reeve tersely replied.

“Okay, son,” Sand replied in resignation. He had to do what the boss said, even if he deemed it an ill-advised decision. Under the circumstances, there wasn’t much else he could do about it, until an opportunity presented itself. “Ball’s in your court.” He withheld the threat of mayhem should any harm come to Reeve Alexander from his tongue but not from his eyes. He started to turn his head to give the command to his soldiers to withdraw, but abruptly froze in place, his incisive gaze sliding away from Ring’s face to a spot beyond his shoulder, his attention drawn by a muted red glow seeping into the murky darkness near the end of the corridor. The severity of his expression gave way to bewilderment, and the military officer’s sudden distraction set Ring’s nerves on edge.

“What are you lookin’ at?” he tensely demanded.

“I’m not sure. It’s some sort of…red glow…very faint…” Sand replied uncertainly.

“Goddammit!” Ring cried out his despair.

In a lightning fast move that could hardly be followed, Ring shoved Reeve away from the door in a mighty heave that sent the executive flying sideways to slam painfully shoulder first into unyielding metal wall where he crumpled limply to the floor, behind the wall partition and out of the line of fire. Ring caught sight of Sand’s contingent of well-trained soldiers already raising their rifles to shoot as he whirled away, lifting the plasma rifle into firing position as he spun, but there was no point in worrying about them now. The robot was already into the turn, the sweep of its long range scanner, the soft red glow that Sand had spotted only because of the darkness in the corridor, now narrowing down to a thin barely visible beam targeting the electronic chip embedded in Ring’s chest. The robot began to fire, spitting bullets as the gun turrets swiveled toward him.

Ring knew he was screwed, no matter what happened next. If the bot didn’t get him, the soldiers would, but he had to take out the bot because the preprogrammed assassin would open fire on all the unencoded and unauthorized targets behind him next. The heavily armored machine would wade through their bullets unfazed, cut every one of them down in seconds like so many blades of grass, and move on to greener pastures.

Sand yelled at his men to hold their fire. The shouted command and the sharp pinging of the bullets striking the metal walls distantly registered through the adrenaline rush of blood in Ring’s ears as he gritted his teeth and slammed his finger down on the trigger of the plasma rifle with an unintelligible cry of challenge. The rifle discharged and the plasma blast of lethal electricity hit the robot dead center. Fighting a debilitating sense of despair at the futility of the act, Ring desperately threw himself sideways toward the wall, hoping beyond hope to avoid injury for the few seconds it would take for the gun turrets to fall silent, even knowing a single second would be too long, and he found that knowledge painfully borne out when the first of the endlessly spewing bullets burned a bloody path through his side, followed by a few more before he solidly hit the wall with bone crunching force. His legs turned to water, and Ring simply slid down the wall, luridly painting the metal with the red of his blood as he sank. In the end, he toppled over, audibly cracking his head against the metal plate paneling as he landed heavily on his side. The ex-Soldier prisoner ironically imprisoned for no crime but turned wholly criminal by his desperate desire to be free came to rest there, at the juncture of floor and wall, an unmoving bloodied rag doll, devoid of any sign of life.

Reno strode out of the latrine and let the spring-loaded door fly shut behind him with a satisfying bang that clearly illuminated his bad mood to anyone foolish enough to still be in his immediate vicinity. His deceptively boyish, sharp-featured face exuding extreme displeasure, he yanked his magrod out of his jacket pocket and snapped the weapon out to its full length with an angry snap of his wrist as he stalked across the wide expanse of ground that separated the row of chemical latrines from the outer boundary of the encampment, glaring fiercely at every person unfortunate enough to cross his path. He was spoiling for a fight and looking for the person who dared give it to him, even as he actively struggled to dredge up the slightest remnant of his customary equanimity.

Despite rumors to the contrary, the redheaded Turk possessed a fairly even temper most of the time, but on the very rare occasions that he did lose it, the results tended to be spectacular, the fuel for the majority of the stories which, over time, were exaggerated and imaginatively revised in number of incidents and detail by the Shinra cafeteria grapevine. In fact, Reno of the Turks rarely found anything in his life to annoy him overmuch, much less to the point of blowing his lid, mostly because there wasn’t much on the entire planet important enough to him to ruffle the calm waters of his life. And when someone or something did manage to pique him, he had a long fuse and a variety of strategies to defuse. At that particular moment, his fuse had been lit and the sparks were sizzling, and none of his strategies were available to him.

In Midgar, he would have headed for the Golden Chocobo or another likely establishment, drink himself into oblivious happiness, perhaps find a lovely companion or two to amuse him, and eventually stumble home to his apartment to pass out on the closest amenable surface; bed, chair, sofa, carpet or bathmat. Or if he found himself feeling particularly antisocial, he’d surround himself with his favorite imported beer and an ample supply of salty mustard pretzels, turn on his favorite and most pleasurably violent video game to perpetrate mayhem on the video populace at large via his game controller and oversized plasma screen television. But of course, the Golden Chocobo had been leveled, along with his TV, his games, his refrigerator, and every damn thing else in his messy, sparsely furnished apartment.

When all else failed him, he found solitude and prolonged meditation on all things destructive to be quite soothing, but he couldn’t vanish into the wasteland as he had the previous night, and truthfully, he’d been remiss to do it then. Still, he knew he’d better find some way to chill out, before his effectiveness and reason escaped him completely. Knitting his brows in deep concentration, he made a more concerted effort to locate his calm, affable center, but instead he only rediscovered the taunting image of Elena practically drooling all over Wildman, and a muttered expletive flew from his lips, the expression of disgust directed primarily at himself for even thinking about it.

The truth was that Reno wasn’t mad at Elena. He wasn’t even mad at that sleazy bastard, Wildman. No, he was angry at himself. Immensely angry. For letting this whole damn business with Elena get personal. For even caring what the hell she did. It wasn’t like Elena hadn’t had boyfriends before. Sometimes her choices weren’t so great in his estimation, like when she’d taken up with that weird, pasty-faced, self-professed poet down at the coffeehouse around the corner from the Shinra office building, the one whose rhyme had no reason and whose reason had no rhyme. Or the biker boy with the chopped Shinra Echelon and 220 piercings across the tattooed expanse of his body, if his bragging were to be taken seriously. He couldn’t imagine what in the world had attracted the prissy Elena to that guy. He must have had something to offer her not apparent on the surface. Or when she and that cheating Shinra executive, Jackson Michaels, had a thing going on, but he’d always suspected that to be pretty one-sided, the executive chasing, and Elena enjoying the chase but eluding capture. Bottom line, her boyfriends weren’t any of his damn business. Officially. Besides, most of her short-lived relationships had been shallow and convenient, merely her attempt to fill the empty spaces in her life while she’d fruitlessly waited for the one man for whom she openly yearned to finally see her as more than a Shinra employee, more than a rookie Turk. The only man she’d ever truly wanted. She’d had it bad for Tseng, and she’d cried for days at his loss. Not where anyone might see, of course, but her expertly applied makeup couldn’t completely hide the redness of her eyes from one who was paying attention. And yes, he’d been paying attention.

Reno couldn’t blame her either. The fault lay with him. He’d let her get out of control. He’d tolerated her insubordination. He’d fallen in with her games and initiated his own. He’d kissed her. In short, he’d lost sight of his own professional standards, reneged on his longstanding promise to himself to keep his distance from her, and now he was reaping the consequences of his lapse. He’d crossed that fine line he’d drawn between them, and he knew damn well that he’d better step right back across for the sake of his peace of mind, but he was discovering it a difficult matter to remember just where that line had been. And if he were honest with himself, which he usually chose to be as he found self-delusion to be counterproductive, he had to admit that he didn’t want to retreat. And what’s more, he definitely planned to kiss her again and at length at the first likely opportunity. If Wildman didn’t step in his way. His eyes flamed into green conflagration and he fisted his magrod so tightly that if it had been constructed of less sturdy material, the weapon would have snapped in two. And it was at that precise moment that a familiar figure loomed into Reno’s field of vision. A wintry smile came to the Turk’s lips. Just the person he wanted to see.

Though the whole mad thing seemed to go on forever as time seemed to slow to a virtual stop, the rapid sequence of events sluggishly played out in the thick syrup of disbelief, the whole violent episode was over in mere seconds. Every man there remained frozen in whatever position he’d fallen when the shooting had started, some prone on the floor with heads buried beneath the shelter of their arms, some half-turned away as though to run, some standing with guns raised, all staring in shock at the silenced robot, the sizzling and popping of frying circuits the only sound to disturb the silence, until the dead robot finally fell over with a solid clank against the floor.

At the startling sound, Reeve finally stirred from a stunned trance, shoving himself up on hands and knees to climb to his feet with the pained movements of a crickety old man to disrupt the unspoiled serenity of the frozen tableau. Biting back a groan, he clutched his sorely abused left shoulder in his right hand, and he cautiously moved out into the center of the corridor to stare with curiosity and apprehension through the empty gap between the partially opened doors at the smoking remains of the robot. Sand strode up to stand beside him then, instinctively raising his automatic rifle up in front of him as he moved. The other soldiers finally dusted themselves off and fell into their previous, rather casual, formation, and Ian Cornell finally shoved away from the wall where he’d plastered himself in a fairly convincing representation of a thin coat of paint while the bullets were flying. Now he hesitantly moved toward Reeve and Sand, anxious blue eyes staring through his rimless glasses as he kept the dimly illuminated aperture of the doorway in his sight.

“Soldier!” Sand suddenly called out, his commanding voice resonating in the quiet space. “You still in there!?”

Already, ten seconds had elapsed. The plasma rifle would have fully recharged. Conceivably, Ring might step out from hiding and blast one of them, but the officer didn’t believe that would happen. Ring had made a desperate play and lost, thanks to one stray robot, but he didn’t truly believe the ex-Soldier wanted to kill anyone. Besides, he thought it more likely that the man had been struck, and might even be lying dead on the other side of the partition. Still, he well knew that first class members of Soldier were damn hard to kill. “Soldier! Answer if you can, son!”

“Maybe we should just…check on him,” Reeve uneasily suggested, taking an unconscious step with the intention of acting on his own words. Sand firmly grabbed him by the coat sleeve to drag him back. “No, Sir! Not until we know it’s safe.” Reeve nodded his agreement, and nervously folded his arms to wait, grimacing at the dull throb his movement reawakened in his shoulder.

Long seconds ticked past as every person in the corridor held their breath and watched for any sign of movement, the collective level of tension almost palpable in the quiet atmosphere. Reeve restlessly shifted his feet, impatient at the wait. He didn’t like the idea that the man, no matter what he might have done, might be lying in desperate need of medical attention while they stood there waiting for something that couldn’t happen. “Sand…” he hissed under his breath. “…Do something…”

The general curtly nodded and hazarded a single step forward. If any man in his contingent had to be the one to risk his neck, it would be him. He listened intently for the space of a few seconds more and then he simply started walking forward, his rifle held at the ready.

As though he’d waited for the officer to make his move, Ring suddenly stepped into the gap between the jimmied doors, the plasma rifle tightly cradled in both his arms, dark green eyes glazed with pain. Sand instantly came to an abrupt halt at his appearance, purposefully lifting his gun to firing position even as he stared in alarm at the copious amount of blood that stained the entire side and front of the man’s prison coveralls.

“Guess…ya…got…me…” Ring’s weakly voiced words came out broken and hoarse. Before the general could respond, the ex-soldier weakly shoved the plasma rifle away from him, making good his surrender. The heavy weapon hit the pavement at Sand’s feet with an ear numbing clank. The general promptly strode a step forward and kicked the weighty gun to the side with a hard swing of his boot, automatically following his instincts even though he realized the pointlessness of the gesture. Even if the critically injured soldier changed his mind at this juncture, Sand knew he wasn’t capable of retrieving the weapon. Reluctantly, he raised his gaze from the discarded rifle to the trembling soldier, and his mind stumbled in disbelief when his troubled blue eyes found the bloody trail of bullet holes across the soldier’s midsection. He could hardly believe the man could still be standing.

With visible effort, Ring raised his arms up in front of him, his bloodied fingers stretched out and his wrists pressed together, obviously offering himself up to the expected restraints. “…I’m…all…yours…Colonel…Sand…”

The strained words provided the impetus Sand needed to shake off his stunned malaise. He slung his rifle to his back, and turned his head to yell. “Medic! Now!”

At that moment, every reserve of dwindling strength that Ring had dredged up by pure will to crawl up the wall and stand, to walk out and face Sand on his feet, to formally concede the battle, abruptly failed him, all used up for this final grand gesture, and his legs simply crumpled under him, dumping him face forward to the concrete floor. Reeve impulsively rushed toward him then, easily eluding the arm that Sand half-heartedly threw up to dissuade him, and dropped to one knee beside the fallen soldier. “Help me!” he snapped at Sand, and the general promptly obeyed, moving to the soldier’s other side. Working together, they gingerly turned him to his back.

Ring’s eyelashes fluttered open to reveal eyes clouded with confusion. “Hang in there, man, help’s coming.” Reeve’s steady voice served to temporarily focus the soldier’s attention, and the green eyes sharpened on the executive’s face, deep regret flooding his face at his recognition of the man he’d treated so poorly.

“…Don’t…bother…” he choked out. “…With…me…”

Reeve shot a fierce look at Sand. “Where’re the medics?” he whispered harshly. The general instantly stood and wheeled around to appraise the assembled soldiers remaining in the corridor. “Where are the medics?” he demanded, glaring all around.

“All of them left with that sick prisoner and his sister, sir,” one of the third class soldiers ventured to say. “Guess they thought…”

“Go bring them back,” Sand instantly ordered, impatiently cutting the soldier off in mid-speech. “They can’t have gone far.”

The soldier slammed his mouth shut and obediently sprang into motion, barreling through the scattering of enlisted men to sprint away down the corridor.

Reeve shifted his troubled gaze back to Ring’s pale face only to see him feebly shaking his head against the pavement. “You’ll be okay. The medics are coming. They’ll fix you up.” Reeve merely sought to assure him, to perhaps ease the fears of a dying man, but his words only seemed to agitate the soldier more.

“No…no…no…” he moaned. “…Just…leave…me…here…with the…others…”

“I can’t do that,” Reeve argued in a low voice. “Nobody dies on my watch if I can help it. Besides, you did save my life.” Reeve had no doubt that the soldier had deliberately thrown him out of harm’s way, and that knowledge, in addition to a realization early on in his forced role as a hostage that the man called Ring didn’t truly want to kill him, tempered any condemnation he’d initially held for the man, leaving only his innate compassion.

Ring tried to laugh then, but the effort set off a fit of coughing that caused his whole body to twist with agony. Almost a minute passed before he managed to rise through the pain to bring his darkened eyes back to Reeve’s face. “…Thank…your…Kate…” A flash of white teeth suddenly appeared in the midst of his untamed facial hair. “…Never could…stand…to make a…woman…cry…hope…you…de…serve…her…”

Reeve firmly shook his head. “Sadly, I don’t. I never did. I never will.”

Ring’s eyes clouded up again, this time in sorrow. “…Used…to…have a girl…like that…”

“I bet you’ll see her again.” Reeve tried and failed to offer him a reassuring smile, but it didn’t matter. The executive didn’t think the soldier could see his face anymore. The green irises had grown dark and distant, the soldier’s fading mind traveling to some faraway place.

“…She…wouldn’t…wait…that…long…” The soldier struggled mightily to get every word out, the valiant effort sapping the last of his will. A ragged breath wheezed out of his mouth, and his eyelids drifted down to veil his vacant eyes.

Reeve raised a troubled gaze to the two men who had been standing over the injured man listening to the exchange between the ex-soldier and the executive. At Reeve’s silent query, Sand shook his head sadly. Ian Cornell simply stared down with passive interest into the slack face.

Without warning, the man’s green eyes abruptly widened, and his unfocused gaze roamed in apparent aimlessness until they again discovered Reeve’s face. The soldier managed to lift a quaking bloodied hand to Reeve’s coat sleeve, instantly drawing the executive’s startled eyes back to his face.

“…Let…me…die…” he whispered with great difficulty. He labored hard to get out a last feeble utterance, producing a couple of unintelligible words that Reeve couldn’t comprehend, and then the soldier’s fingers slipped lifelessly from his coat sleeve and the eyelids fell closed with a marked finality.

Reeve drew in a weary breath and sat back on his heels. With a grave shake of his head, he again lifted questioning eyes to Sand’s face. “Did you hear what he said? At the last?” Sand solemnly shook his head. “I couldn’t make it out.”

Ian finally stirred to speak then, his intrigued eyes still captivated by the soldier’s bloodied hirsute face. “This time,” he said in a distant monotone.

“What?” Reeve shifted perplexed eyes to the engineer, at a loss as to his meaning.

Ian dragged his eyes away to lock gazes with Reeve. “That’s what he said,” he coolly explained. “This time.”

“Let me die…this time?” Reeve repeated, putting all the words together.

“I’m afraid he got his wish,” Sand regretfully conceded.

“Maybe not,” Ian countered. “He’s still breathing.”


Barrett stopped in his tracks and swiveled his head to find Reno standing ten feet away with feet widely spaced, challenging green eyes focused unblinking on his face, the fully extended magrod rhythmically bumping against a leg. It looked to him like the Turk wanted to start some shit, but frankly, after his talk with Cloud, he wasn’t in the mood. He just wanted to go to Kalm and hug his little girl.

“Whatcha want?” He figured he’d ask even though he pretty much knew.

“It’s time,” Reno ominously informed him.

“Time for what?”

Reno cocked his head in awe of the man’s apparent mental dullness, his smooth brow creasing in perplexity. “Thought you wanted a fight, Wallace,” he coolly prompted, hoping to stir the man from his stupor. “I’m a ready Teddy.” The Turk slapped his magrod into his hand in emphasis, and fell into a fighting stance, lightly bouncing from one foot to the other. “Let’s play.”

Barrett shifted the duffle bag against his back as he studied the Turk with speculative brown eyes. He would sorely love to pound the annoying little Shinra bastard into the blackened soil of the wasteland. Sure seemed an opportune time. But he’d already made the decision to set a new course. He lifted his massive shoulders in an indifferent shrug despite the glint of fire in his eyes. “I’m not really in the mood,” Barrett gruffly replied. He waved a dismissive hand in farewell and deliberately took his eyes off the Turk, strolling away with the intention of continuing on his route to the makeshift pen that held the blue river chocobo. He wanted to get the bird bridled and saddled before he went to say goodbye to his friends.

Reno straightened in surprise, the magrod falling forgotten against his leg as he stared in disbelief at the departure of the ex-miner, the planned recipient of the anger that still burned acidly inside him. He unconsciously raised a finger to stroke the scar on his right cheek as he contemplated the unexpected turn of events. “Afraid of me, eh?” he called out. Barrett Wallace froze in place, and a satisfied smirk came to Reno’s face. The big man’s head slowly swiveled back and irritated eyes landed on the Turk’s smug features.

“No, I ain’t afraid of you,” Barrett growled. “I just got better things to do.” Again he turned away, and the smirk fled Reno’s face. What did a guy have to do to get a fight started these days? Hell, this whole business was starting to be more hassle than it was worth.

“Oh well, you’re so slow and old, it probably wouldn’t be worth my time anyway,” Reno idly commented, raising a hand to inspect his knuckles in a pretense of indifference.

Reno’s smirk promptly returned when he heard Wallace’s duffle bag thump to the ground. His head came up to find Barrett Wallace facing him, the closed pincers of his prosthetic jabbing against one thigh and an oversized fist digging into the other.

“Change your mind?” the Turk silkily inquired with a cocky arch of an eyebrow.

“I’ve decided it’s a mighty fine time for a fight, Turk,” Barrett growled his intention. He strode toward the redheaded Turk, and Reno promptly raised his magrod. Barrett instantly ground to a halt, and Reno drew the rod back and laid the end against one shoulder to eye him with bemusement.

“Change your mind again?”

Barrett nodded his head toward the Turk’s weapon. “You got an unfair advantage with that thing,” he complained.

“What?” Reno raised the magrod to eyelevel. “This little plaything?”

“You’ll just drop one of those pyramid things ‘round my ass and that’ll be that.”

Reno considered his argument for a moment and decided that Wallace had a valid point. Besides, the fight would be a lot more fun without it. His decision made, he telescoped the magrod with a sharp snap and jammed the weapon down into his back pocket. “Don’t need it anyway.” He flexed his knees and raised his hands in front of him in a well-practiced martial arts stance, his body coiling for action. His lips curved in anticipation. “Let’s rumble.”

Barrett needed no further invitation. He raised his fist and pincer, lowered his head in a fairly striking resemblance of an angry Grand Horn and charged. Reno unleashed his tightly contracted muscles to launch himself into space with a flying spin kick to meet him.

“Rude.” Caitlin leveled determined eyes on the big Turk’s face. “What’s going on?”

“I told you, nothing.” He pointedly picked up the small laptop and rose to tower over her as he tucked the computer beneath one arm. “Are you ready to leave?”

Ignoring his pointed question, she tipped her head back to keep his taut face in full view, her eyes focused on the impenetrable barrier of his shades in keen examination. “What are you not telling me, Rude?” Although Rude was certainly an accomplished liar when so required, he’d never been able to lie to her very well.

“Caitlin, I factually know of no problem that should concern you at this time.”

Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. Rude hadn’t lied that time, but she easily recognized his precise wording as a smokescreen. “What problem do you not factually know of that might concern me at this time,” she dryly inquired.

“I know of no problem whatsoever, Caitlin.”

“Then what’s going on?” Something wasn’t right. Of that she was certain. Or Rude wouldn’t have lied to her. And there was no reason to lie to her, unless the non-factual problem he wouldn’t tell her about involved Reeve. Her stomach churned sickly at the thought that despite all their precautions, he’d been injured. Or worse... “Is this about Reeve?” she pressed him, her growing apprehension clearly evidenced in her tight voice.

Rude simply stared down at her through his shades, refusing to answer. Which was an answer in and of itself. A very telling one. Because she knew it meant that he wouldn’t tell her because he didn't wish to lie to her again.

“Did Reeve fail to send his signal?” she steadily persisted, her voice now rising as the first niggling of true fear crept into her heart. She held her breath for his answer, even as she commanded herself to be calm, in the back of her mind chiding herself for jumping to emotionally driven conclusions. Even if Reeve hadn’t sent the signal, it didn’t mean anything had happened, did it? His little computer might have malfunctioned. He might be busy. Heavens knew, he carried a heavy burden, the weight of the world, in fact. But that role also exposed him to all manner of dangers. What if there’d been a riot? An uprising that overwhelmed his military guards? What if Scarlet had escaped? That insane woman would go after him…

“He sent the signal when expected,” Rude coolly informed her.

Her madly racing thoughts slammed to a stop, and her wide eyes filled with surprise. She’d almost convinced herself of the worst, and now she found herself distrustful of Rude’s assertion. “He did?” She watched his face for his answer, searching for any hint of duplicity.

“Yes, Caitlin.”

“When? When did he send it?”

“At the appropriate time.”

“No, I mean when did he send it? How long ago?”

“Fifty-six minutes ago.”

“So he’s due to send the next one in four minutes.

“That’s correct.”

“So we just wait four more minutes, and he’ll message.”

“Yes, Caitlin.”

“And there’s no reason that he won’t message, right?

“I factually know of none.”

“There’s that word again, Rude. What does it mean?”

“Which word?”


“It’s just a word, Caitlin. Meaning that I have no reason to suspect otherwise.”

“I know what it means, Rude. Why are you using it?”

“To convey the fact that I possess no facts to suggest that Alexander will not message us at the appropriate time.”

“You aren’t telling me something, Rude,” she blatantly accused, unable to keep her suspicions to herself any longer. “What aren’t you telling me?”

Before Rude could decide how he should respond, preferably in a manner that would dispel Caitlin’s concern and redirect her attention into another avenue, the matter became a moot point when Cid Highwind strode into the mess tent and located Rude in short order with only the most cursory of searches as the blue suited Turk stuck out like a tall stalk of corn in a mown hayfield, especially standing next to the diminutive Caitlin Shinra. The Captain duly noted the black laptop tucked beneath the big Turk’s arm and happily determined that Rude was the Turk that most likely possessed the ability to answer his question.

“Hey, Rude, did’ja get ahold of Reeve,” he loudly called as he wended his way around the mostly empty tables to reach them. “An’ find out where the hell he went?”

Behind his shades, Rude closed his eyes in despair. How could a Turk perform his job efficiently when he had to deal with amateurs? And now he would have to answer to Caitlin for his prevarication. Cautiously, he pried his eyes open to the sight he pretty much expected to see. With her hands propped on her hips and her head tipped way back, Caitlin Shinra glared up at him with narrowed eyes that virtually radiated her irritation with him, underpinned by a glimmer of hurt at his betrayal.

“You had better tell me what he’s talking about right this second, James Rude,” she commanded as though speaking to an overgrown child. “Or there’s going to be hell to pay.”

“Do you think he’ll make it?” Reeve asked in a voice heavily weighted with his own conclusion. He really didn't believe that Sand would reach a different opinion, but it didn't hurt to ask.

“If I had to lay a wager,” Sand somberly replied, his eyes narrowly focused on the lifeless, bloodied hand that had slipped from beneath the blanket to dangle palm upturned over the side of the stretcher. “I’d have to say no.”

Reeve barely nodded his head in weary agreement, his heart burdened with regret. He sure wouldn’t take that bet. He knew he shouldn’t care so much, especially as the man had held him hostage and threatened to kill him to achieve his aims. Yet, in retrospect, Reeve truly believed that the ex-Soldier 1st Class would not have killed him, no matter what might have transpired. Nor had the man really harmed him, once he looked beyond the pointed insults and his bruised throat and aching sternum. Harsh words couldn’t hurt him, especially when he recognized in them the ring of truth. And his bruised body and ego would mend. The man called Ring most likely would not. Just another death in the thousands of deaths caused directly or indirectly by the actions of the Shinra Corporation.

“He may surprise us though,” Sand amended in the well of the executive’s grave silence. “I’ve never seen a man with such grievous injuries conscious, much less standing and talking. He’s one tough soldier, sir. He might well make it.” The Shinra officer finally forced his solemn gaze away from the injured man to scan the executive’s distant face. “But I doubt it,” he gruffly added, withholding the knowledge, gained by years of experience in the field, that soldiers with their guts ripped to shreds by bullets hardly ever survived, and even the ones that did typically died slowly from systemic infection in the hospital later.

The general's words belatedly elicited a preoccupied and belated nod from Reeve. One of Sand's men lowly called his name, and the Shinra officer walked away, his departure hardly noted by the executive whose thoughts had fallen into a looping mental replay of the entire hostage incident with a particular focus on the details of his captor’s appearance and behavior throughout. The executive had compulsively embarked on a silent and determined quest for a clue to the man’s identity, unwilling to concede that yet another person would die unnamed, and he was coming up empty at every turn. The man called Ring hadn’t left him much to work with on the surface.

Ring. The executive recognized the unusual name was not the man’s true one, although he imagined that someone knew the man’s real name, either inside the prison or out in the world. Surely, he had a family somewhere, wondering about him. And a girl, from what he’d said. Did they know where he’d been? Had families and girlfriends even be allowed to visit the prisoners in that infernal facility? He just didn’t know. He did know one thing though. He would discover the man’s name. He would find one person who knew. He would tell that family what had happened to their son. And he would do the same for every other son, lying dead inside that prison.

Reeve knitted his brow in thought as he absently worried his beard with two fingers and a thumb, distantly watching as the medics, having decided that they’d best get their patient to a trauma center if he were to have any chance at all, finally hefted the laden stretcher that held the comatose and critically injured man from the concrete floor, the resignation in their faces revealing their pessimistic expectations regarding the man’s chances of recovery. Behind him, he could hear General Sand and Ian Cornell talking in hushed voices from where they stood a few feet away, but their words didn’t register in his mind.

The medics started down the tunnel, their steps quick despite the burden they carried. Their imminent departure duly captured Sand’s watchful eye, and he drew away from the engineer to return to Reeve’s side. Standing silently, both men watched them until they reached the intersection of the tunnels and turned the corner, one with solemn attentiveness and one with half his mind elsewhere.

Even after the medics had disappeared from sight, Reeve continued to stare into the empty corridor in thought. His brow creased in concentration as all his mental efforts inexorably coalesced around one particular memory. His vacant gaze abruptly sharpened into narrow-eyed recognition, and Reeve swiveled incisive brown eyes to the stiff face of the Shinra officer. “He knew you.”

“What’s that, sir?” Sand gruffly asked as he turned his head to meet the executive’s implacable gaze.

“That man, Ring,” Reeve coolly clarified. “He knew you. He trusted you because he knew you.” The executive’s dark brows rose in question in direct contradiction of the certainty underlying his own statement.

Sand readily answered the unspoken question with a curt nod. “Yes, I believe he did.”

Despite the stocky officer’s firm words, Reeve detected a trace of doubt, and he realized the reason for it. “But you don’t remember him.” Another question couched in quiet declaration.

The general lowered his eyes to the floor as he considered the matter in silence, again deliberately stirring the depths of his memory, searching intently through all the faces of 1st Class Soldiers that he could recall, hoping to find the slightest chord of recognition, but in the end he had to admit that he just didn’t know, and he provided his response in a single shake of his head. “I probably do know him,” Sand finally acknowledged. “I’ve served with first class members of Soldier before, but fewer than a dozen. “I would venture to say that I would recognize him, if he were clean-shaven.”

Reeve silently studied the officer’s pensive features for a moment. “Why would he refer to you as a colonel, do you think? Do you think he was confused?”

Sand abruptly raised his head to lock gazes with the still-faced executive, his blue eyes developing a flinty expression that caused Reeve to wonder if he’d posed a particularly unwelcome question to the Shinra officer.

“No, Mr. Alexander, Sir,” Sand bluntly replied. “That soldier was not confused. I believe that the reference was deliberate on his part. I was a colonel in the Shinra First Army, before General Heidegger busted my rank.”

At the stilted reference to his rank, Reeve lowered his eyes to the Shinra Army red and black lieutenant’s patch that still adorned Sand’s uniform. He had already concluded that the ex-Soldier 1st Class, Ring, had no doubt noted and duly recognized Sand’s rank insignia but had then purposely chosen to ignore it, opting to acknowledge the officer’s former rank as a sign of his respect for the man. Naturally curious about the reasons behind the obviously dedicated and efficient officer’s demotion, Reeve almost asked him why Heidegger would have taken such an action, but then he remembered that why wasn’t so much important as when in terms of his aim to garner additional information about Ring, but before he could ask, Sand anticipated the direction of his interest and willingly divulged the information.

“My demotion in rank occurred over five years ago, sir,” Sand brusquely explained as he held Reeve’s undivided attention with a steely gaze. “I assure you that the demotion didn’t rise from any failing on my part, but from a shakeup in the command organization. For two years prior, I had the honor of serving under General Sephiroth.”

The mention of Sephiroth’s name brought a deep scowl of displeasure to Reeve’s face, and Sand briefly hesitated in his explanation, well aware of the cause of the executive’s disdain. The Shinra officer valiantly straightened his formidably broad shoulders and proudly lifted his chin.

“General Sephiroth was among the finest of military men before his mental breakdown, sir.” Sand tensely reminded the executive. “The General was a brilliant military strategist. One dedicated to achieving military victories with no more casualties than necessary. He held himself to the highest of standards and expected no less of those serving under him. Likewise he held those under him in the highest regard, from the lowest ranked enlisted man to his top echelon of officers. All were the same to him. All integral and valuable members of his team. I hardly condone his subsequent actions, but at the time…”

Reeve held up a hand to bring the fervent testimonial to a halt. “I understand, General Sand. I’ve no intention of casting aspersions on the head of your former commander, despite the fact that the consequences of his handiwork demand nearly every moment of my time. I do understand your point, and I do recall hearing such admiration expressed about General Sephiroth in the past, now that you’ve mentioned it. I would also say that, if true, your General Sephiroth taught his men well, if you’re any example.”

“Yes, sir,” Sand replied stiffly, and then he visibly relaxed as the entirety of Reeve’s conciliatory speech registered in his mind. “Thank you, sir.”

“You are very welcome, General Sand,” Reeve steadily replied. “Now you were saying…”

“Yes sir. I was saying that after Sephiroth’s…er…disappearance, General Heidegger took command of the Armed Forces, and in one of his first actions as commander, he decommissioned several of Sephiroth’s officers and demoted the remainder to fill the top positions with his own people. I was merely one of those caught in the fallout.”

“I see…” Reeve responded noncommittally even as his mind filled with disgust at the report of Heidegger’s petty machinations. “I must confess an ignorance of the dealings of the Shinra Army.” Reeve ruefully grimaced at his own words. “That will be remedied, General Sand. I assure you.”

Sand inclined his head in acceptance. “Thank you, sir.”

Reeve pursed his lips in thought. “Most likely this soldier was under your command during that time?”

“It’s entirely possible, Mr. Alexander,” Sand gamely agreed. “Or under another’s command. General Sephiroth’s own aide-de-camp was a Soldier 1st Class.”

“Do you remember the names of any of the 1st Class Soldiers?”

Sand slowly shook his head as he searched his distant memories. “Not right off hand, sir, but if I gave it some thought…”

“Don’t you have their names?” Ian Cornell interjected.

Reeve looked around in surprise to find the engineer standing a couple of steps from his side. The engineer had been so quiet that he’d forgotten about him, but apparently he’d been standing there the whole time passively listening to the conversation.

“What?” Reeve’s tone conveyed his impatience at the interruption. He’d imagined himself on the trail of important information, and Cornell’s question had distracted him from his narrowed train of thought.

The engineer’s steady blue eyes held the executive’s irritated brown ones while he carefully composed his next words. “Don’t you have the prisoner list with names and cell assignments in your computer? Perhaps General Sand might recognize the one you want.”

“Of course I…” Reeve’s words abruptly failed him as astonishment claimed him. A compulsion to slap himself in the head at his dim-witted lapse came over him. Apparently he’d been more addled in the wake of the whole disturbing event than he’d thought. Not only had he forgotten about the information that he could bring easily to hand in his computer, but more importantly, he’d forgotten about the message alarm. And the beep had fallen silent at some point. Not a good sign, he anxiously realized.

Sand and Cornell watched with bemused interest when Reeve suddenly erupted into movement, driving his hand down into his jacket pocket only to wrangle with his coat for too many long seconds before he finally managed to free the small handheld computer and drag it into the open. Turning the computer in his fingers, the executive immediately noticed the darkened power indicator light instead of the orange glow of stand-by mode, signifying that the device was currently inoperative. His stomach sinking at his recognition that the handheld had most likely been damaged in his bone rattling collision with the wall or his subsequent crash to the floor, he stabbed a finger at the power button, to no avail. The monitor stared up at him in stubborn darkness. He stared darkly back as his thoughts tumbled wildly in a quest for some other means of signaling the Turks of his continued good health before one or all of them should descend into the city upon Cait’s directive, a move that would threaten her safety. Distracting the Turk’s for a false alarm could impair their ability to carry out their primary task effectively. They had a lot on their hands to deal with already with protecting Cait, the little girl, and now the boy from Kalm day and night.

“Is it broken?” Ian stepped a pace closer, his curious blue-eyed gaze pinned on the unresponsive device.

Reeve shook his head in a denial born more from his fervent wish that the computer wasn’t broken than from any true knowledge. He examined the outer case with a critical eye. “It doesn’t look broken…” And then he turned it over, only to stare in disbelief at the empty battery case, marveling for a fleeting second at where the batteries might have gone, until he remembered how the battery cover had been dislodged during the attempted coup by Scarlet. The cover had not fit as tightly since then. With a sheepish grimace of a smile, he dipped his hand into his pocket again to retrieve the batteries one at a time, and finally the battery cover which he diligently fitted back into place. The cover promptly popped ajar when he removed his finger.

“Perhaps some duct tape would help,” Ian wryly suggested.

Reeve’s eyes shot to his face. “A perfect solution,” he replied sardonically. “Do you have any?”

“Not on me.”

“Too bad,” Reeve lamented as he held a finger tightly against the battery cover and flipped his wrist to turn the device over. He hit the power button again, and the computer dutifully booted. “Not broken,” he murmured with a great sense of relief. “Thank the stars…

Cid Highwind studied the silent combatants locked in unrelenting stare down, the one significantly shorter than the other but hardly intimidated by her opponent’s size or stiff demeanor.

“Er…did I say something I shouldn’t have?” the Captain inquired uneasily.

Both the stolid Turk and the bristling woman ignored him. He shrugged in unconcern and drew out a cigarette as he settled into a nearby chair to view the entertainment.

“Are you going to tell me?” Caitlin finally demanded at his continued refusal to speak at all, much less answer her heated query.

Rude simply held his tongue as he nervously studied the flame in her azure eyes through his dark lenses. He knew that anything he said now would only make matters worse, so he intended to say nothing. Just as he could easily continue to hold out against her anger to carry out Reno’s order. Unless she started pleading, then that would be another story entirely.

Caitlin suddenly unfolded her arms to snap her fingers in front of his perfectly still face. “Can you hear me, Rude?”

“Yes, Caitlin,” he tonelessly responded.

“Are you going to tell me what’s going on with Reeve?”


“No? Did you just say no?” Her azure eyes turned incredulous.


“Yes, you’re going to tell me?”

“Yes, I said no.”

His flatly spoken and uncooperative response left her speechless with indignation, and she hotly glared her annoyance at him, until her distress overwhelmed her anger. Then the first of her tears involuntarily welled into her eyes and her lower lip trembled.

Behind his shades, Rude closed his eyes in resignation. “Caitlin…please…just wait for the signal.”

Caitlin drew in a calming breath to reply past the lump in her throat. “It’s been over four minutes, hasn’t it?” she queried unsteadily.

Rude automatically lifted his wrist to check his watch, more for an excuse to take his eyes off Caitlin’s beseeching face than to affirm the time. He knew how long it had been. Four minutes had already elapsed, but not by much. He wouldn’t expect Reeve Alexander to be precise and would normally give him a few minutes of leeway before growing unduly concerned. Now he had to decide whether to tell her the truth about how much time had elapsed or just keep his mouth shut. Probably the latter. She would know if he lied to her again. Fortunately, the problem was taken out of his hands when the computer tucked beneath his elbow emitted a sharp beep, slow and steady, denoting Reeve’s status as normal, followed almost immediately by the coded beep that indicated his receipt of the message, one which didn't require a written answer.

Rude only barely managed to keep the relief that washed through him from his face, a relief not so much derived from the clear indication of Alexander’s well-being but at the termination of his unwilling confrontation with Caitlin. She didn’t even attempt to hide it. She collapsed bonelessly into the chair behind her with a huge shuddering release of breath and dropped her face into a hand.

“So that means everythin’s all right, right?” Cid asked for confirmation on an inhalation of smoke from where he sat hunched forward in the folding chair with his elbows across his knees.

Rude didn’t take his troubled eyes off Caitlin’s face as he curtly nodded. The Turk experienced a keen pang of empathy as he studied her huddled posture as well as a deep sense of guilt for his inability to spare her distress. “Do you want to message him?” he quietly asked.

Caitlin closed her eyes in thought. Rude’s offer tempted her greatly. She wanted nothing more than to get on that computer and talk to Reeve herself, but she feared that she would write words that she shouldn’t at that time, reveal too much to him. It was not an opportune time to cave on her earlier resolution to herself to wait until they could talk face to face. “No, not now.” She finally looked up, only to encounter Highwind’s intrigued blue eyes. “As long as we know he’s all right.” She offered the Captain a feeble smile of reassurance, and then she hastily unfolded herself from the chair to come to a stiff-backed stand. Rude inclined his head in question when her steady eyes landed on his face. “I need to talk to Reno,” she calmly informed him, all traces of her previous distress vanquished from her carefully schooled features. The time had come to turn her energies to Avian's proposed mission. Somehow she had to convince Reno to let Elena accompany Avian to the farm alone, and she wasn't at all confident of her ability to do so.

“He’s just outside, Caitlin,” Rude smoothly answered, more than happy to move on to another matter. Besides, Reno had created the whole situation due to the fact that he didn’t want Caitlin pressing him to fly the chopper back into Midgar on so little evidence of a problem when the gates were due to be opened at any time. Therefore, Reno could deal with any subsequent demands for explanation on her part. “I’ll accompany you.”

“No, he isn’t,” Cid querulously butted in. “I was lookin’ for Reno, and I didn’t see hide nor hair of ‘im on the way in.”

Rude turned inscrutable eyes to the Captain’s face. “Did you see Elena?”

Cid swung his shaggy head from side to side. “Negatory.”

Caitlin switched a concerned gaze from Rude’s still face to Highwind’s inquisitive one. “She took Rachel to the latrines, didn’t she?” she queried hopefully.

“Not exactly,” Rude brusquely responded.

Her azure eyes widened in dismayed comprehension. The two words imparted a wealth of information that she could clearly divine in retrospect. Chiefly, that Elena’s trip to the bathroom had been ruse to cover up her true mission, which most likely had been to inform Reno of their failure to contact Reeve, a matter she still planned to get to the bottom of come hell or high water, and now both Reno and Elena were gone. Presumably with Rachel. But why would they leave when Reeve’s safety had been in question. Unless…

“Did you see Avian?” Caitlin breathlessly asked of the Captain. “Was he out there anywhere?”

“Sure. The kid’s outside, up by the excavation playin’ fetch with his mutt.” He offered her a nonchalant shrug. “Nothin’s shakin’. Yuffie’s there. And Heidegger. An’ Cloud and Red are keepin’ an eye on ‘im. But I don’t know ‘bout your Turks.”

“Come on Rude, let’s go look for them.” Caitlin shot out a hand to latch onto Rude’s coat sleeve. She turned for the door and took a step with the intention of towing him along, but she was brought up short when Rude refused to budge, essentially as compliant as a concrete and steel rebar wall.

Surprised at his recalcitrance, she tipped her head back to examine his expressionless face. “Don’t you think we should go look for them?”

“Reno and Elena are fine,” he replied tonelessly. “Or they would have notified me otherwise.”

“Notified…what do you mean…” Then she remembered, and her eyes fell to the Turk ring on the middle finger of his left hand. “Oh…right…”

Cid tossed his cigarette to the ground and rose to his feet to grind the butt out beneath the heel of his boot. “Well, I’m gonna go look for Reno. I got somethin’ I wanna ask ‘im.” Namely, just exactly how much that Turk knew about Shera Drake and her whereabouts. The Captain wheeled around and strode away.

Caitlin watched Highwind until he disappeared through the exit of the mess tent before she swiveled her head back around to plant speculative eyes on Rude’s unrevealing face. “I still need to speak with Reno,” she adamantly informed him. “Why don’t we just go find him?”

“We’ll wait for them here,” he stubbornly replied.

“But why? What’s the point?”

“Caitlin, you know the contingency policies nearly as well as I do,” he wryly responded.

She studied his impassive face with an inscrutable gaze. He was right, of course. She’d spent so much time in the company of Turks in her younger days that she had learned many of their procedures. Not as well as Rude. He’d exaggerated on that score. But adequately enough. Rude was simply complying with standard policy. In the contingency that one or more Turks were out of pocket in a passive surveillance setting, and in the absence of a direct line of communication, a factor since the wireless towers atop Midgar had been destroyed, and with no hint of evidence to suggest that the one or more fellow Turks out of pocket had fallen into a situation of peril, at least one Turk still in pocket would be required to maintain position until all Turks in the field regrouped at the point of departure or a second Turk still in pocket reconnoitered to make face to face contact with those out of pocket while at least one Turk in pocket maintained position. She recognized that Rude had no choice but to wait, being the one and only Turk in pocket. Or something along those lines. And that 'pocket' business had been her invention. The Turks called being out of position something else that she couldn't recall. At any rate, she wasn’t willing to wait, in pocket or out. For one thing, she couldn’t entirely satisfy herself that Reno and Elena had not fallen into peril. She could well imagine, based on their mutual bad attitudes throughout the morning, that they were happily killing each other at that very moment, with Rachel as an unwitting witness. And maybe she knew one or two ways around the contingency rules.

“Will you escort me to the medical tent then, Rude?” she queried softly. “I told both Reno and Elena we would be going there.”

He leaned a hip on the edge of the table and folded his arms as though he planned to stay all day. “Really,” he replied coolly, the skepticism in his eyes hidden behind his glasses. Clearly, he wasn’t buying it, even if it hadn’t been a total fabrication. She’d asked Reno to take her, and she’d almost told Elena she was going to get Rude to escort her, before she was distracted by his activities. Frankly, she’d never been a good liar. Besides, it probably didn’t matter. Rude hadn’t been the one to tell them of a potential change in locale, therefore the contingency remained unaltered.

“Well, we can at least stand just outside the tent, can’t we?” she argued reasonably. “That way we can watch for them and keep an eye on Avian at the same time.”

Rude studied her through his shades and silently mulled over her idea while she steadily gazed into the dark lenses and held her breath. If he chose not to grant her request in the end, then she’d have to resort to Plan C, but truthfully she could find no flaw in her reasoning. There was nothing in Rude’s precious rule book to indicate that one had to stay indoors as long as they didn’t leave the site.

And Rude finally did agree, not so much because he couldn’t fault her argument, but more because Avian, who had fallen into Reno’s circle of protection when he’d departed the tent, had apparently lost his Turk protection in Reno’s absence. He imagined that the redheaded Turk had left Avian in Cloud’s capable hands intentionally and most likely on a very temporary basis, but it could hardly hurt to keep an eye on him as well.

Rude finally unfolded his arms to stand, inclining his head in a respectful nod. “We will go outside, Caitlin,” he formally submitted to her request. “But no further.” Shooting a cursory glance at his watch to note the time, Rude reached for the oversized tote bag Elena had left crumpled on the table, and he deftly slipped the computer inside. Gathering the straps of the bag in one large hand, he held the bag to his side and stepped around Caitlin to lead the way.

Caitlin smiled secretively at Rude’s broad back as she followed. Little did he know, but she planned to discover the location of both Turks by hook or by crook, even if she had to fall into Plan C and make a run for it in the end. She would do whatever she had to in order to satisfy herself as to their wellbeing, and once she’d done that, she fully intended to have a nice long talk with Reno about information access.

A disgruntled Elena towed Rachel through the entrance only to find the sleeping tent completely deserted. She promptly ducked back out into the bright noonday sunlight with the gloomy faced little girl by her side. Halting just over the threshold, she raised her hands to her brow to block out the blinding glare of the sun and scanned the entire area from left to right and back again, but failed to catch so much as a glimpse of the redheaded Turk. She had set out on Rude’s order to tell Reno of Reeve’s failure to respond to the routine status request, but the Leader of the Turks was nowhere to be found. She found her irritation at him giving way to real concern. He hadn’t signaled any indication of trouble, but she couldn’t help but worry. Maybe he couldn’t signal. Nervously chewing the corner of her lip, she hastily swept the horizon again.

“Is Reno to the Third lost?” Rachel peered up into Elena’s uneasy face with woeful blue eyes.

“One can only hope…” The growing apprehension in her gut made a lie of the irritable and offhand comment. Suddenly, Elena realized her answer had not been an appropriate response for Reno’s little groupie, and she bent her head to see tears brimming at the corners of Rachel’s eyes. Damn, a wailing child on her hands was all she needed with everything else she had to deal with. She forced her lips into an approximation of a smile. “He’s not lost, Rachel,” she reassured the girl with an unconcerned little shrug. “He’s just…misplaced.”

The little girl’s face screwed up in distress, and Elena knew the bawling would start any second. She quickly threw up a staying hand as though she could stop the girl’s tears in their tracks the way a Midgar cop might halt traffic, and she shot a frenetic look around for something…anything…that would distract the child. Her hazel eyes discovered the distant figure of Cloud Strife leaning with folded arms against the frame of the Shinra dozer, his back and the sole of one boot planted against the metal side, the red beast curled at his feet.

“I know!” she exclaimed brightly. “I’ll bet Cloud knows where Reno went!” Elena smiled down into Rachel’s upturned face and raised her sculptured eyebrows encouragingly. “We should go ask him, shouldn’t we?” And maybe Strife did know where Reno had gone, now that she thought about it.

Rachel responded with a decided nod of her head, a tremulous smile breaking out on her small face, as bright as a single sunbeam sifting through a dark rain cloud. She tightened her grip on Elena’s hand and directed her teary gaze toward the distant warrior. Elena straightened and headed that way, blowing out a little breath of relief at the reprieve. Crying children brought out her homicidal tendencies.

Reno chopped down into Barrett Wallace’s rock-hard neck with the edge of his hand, connecting solidly at the join of shoulder and neck in a stunning blow that numbed his whole hand and hardly seemed to faze the huge ex-miner at all. Still, Wallace did open his arms to release him from the bone-crunching bear hug he'd held him in, letting him fall to the ground at his feet where the Turk landed on one knee in a crouch.

Barrett rubbed his neck with a meaty hand as Reno agilely sprang away to gain some distance. The hulking man glared irritably at the grinning Turk with heavily beetled brows. Reno crooked a finger with a ‘come hither’ leer on his face, and Wallace lunged, drawing his open pincer hand over his shoulder as he moved to release it in a wide arc that Reno easily ducked beneath to pop out unscathed on the other side with a bright opportunity available to him. The Turk leapt into the opening left by Wallace’s enthusiastic and fruitless punch and instantly let fly a flurry of jabs into the big man’s ribcage, only to instantly leap out of the way when Wallace, hardly stung by the Turk’s blows, let fly another powerful but ponderous swing as he turned back. Reno easily eluded the huge fist to dance around behind Barrett, giving him a good old-fashioned kick in the behind that elicited an enraged roar from the ex-miner and a gleeful chortle from the redheaded Turk.

Despite Reno’s obvious enjoyment in the battle, he’d reached the point where he was ready to quit and move on to other things. The fight had been going on for some time with no headway gained by either combatant, because as it turned out, the two men were closely matched in the battle. Reno’s tireless energy and agility keep him out of range of Wallace’s heavy fist and snapping pincers, a fact that prevented the ex-miner’s formidable blows from solidly connecting, although he had managed several glancing strikes that the well-conditioned and battle hardened Turk shook off like water, and Wallace’s rock solid muscles and sturdy frame took every kick, jab and chop that Reno could land, and he’d landed many, with hardly a dent. But Wallace was starting to tire, and Reno had grown bored. He’d worked himself into a good humor along with a sweat, his goal accomplished, and for his part, Wallace had lost sight of his anger early on and had now consigned himself to going through the motions. Yet neither man could just throw up his hands and quit. Reputations were at stake, and they’d drawn a fair sized crowd.

The two men circled each other in a crouch, hands, fist and pincers at the ready, narrowed brown eyes locked into glittering green ones, each man waiting and watching for the other to make the first move. Reno inventoried his brain for a serious strategic move that would bring the contest to a decisive end, and Wallace wished for the Turk to stand still just long enough for him to bring a meaty fist down on top of his red head and drill him into the ground, ending the fight once and for all.

“I’m gonna pound your scrawny ass into mincemeat,” Barrett threatened half-heartedly.

“Gotta catch me first,” Reno happily replied as he playfully moved his hands in a circle.

“Think it’s a joke, Turk?” he growled menacingly. “I’m gonna kill ya, that’s what. You better believe it.” Barrett frowned at the lack of conviction in his voice. He couldn’t remember why he’d started this anyway. Wasn’t he leaving for Kalm?

Reno grinned with pleasure. “If you’re gonna kill me, old man,” the Turk replied cheerily. “I’ve got some last requests.”

“Requests?” Barrett huffed in disgruntlement, particularly at that ‘old man’ comment. Now he remembered how he’d gotten involved. “What the hell ya mean?”

“First, I wanna be buried on the bluff overlooking Midgar.”

“Toss yer scraggly body in the city dump, that’s what I’ll do,” Barrett promptly countered.

“And I want white lilies on my grave.”

“Skunkweed for you, Turk.”

“And I want a dozen pretty girls in string bikinis crying over me.”

“I’ll bring some old toothless hags in black sackcloth.” Barrett smirked at that idea.

“And I want an orchestra to play me the theme song from “Loveless”.

Barrett suddenly threw out a punch that Reno easily sidestepped. “I’ll get one of them ragtag street bands to play “Happy Days. That do?”

“And a want a tombstone made of black marble with an angel six feet high…”

“A monument of black garbage bags…”

“And I want my epitaph to say…”

Barrett’s intent eyes abruptly left Reno’s face to widen in astonishment at some sight over the Turk’s shoulder. “Shera…” he muttered in awe. Wondering brown eyes collided with startled green ones just before the woman slipped away into the crowd.

Whatever had distracted Wallace didn’t interest Reno, only the undeniable fact that he finally had a serious opening. The man was gawking off into the crowd, and he’d dropped his arms, leaving his stomach completely unprotected, the iron hard abdominal muscles that would normally be tensed to take any stray blow Reno could manage to slip in currently at rest. With no utterance to warn him, Reno barreled forward to slam two doubled up fists in a driving uppercut that had all of his strength behind it straight to Wallace’s gut.

A drawn out and empathetic ‘ooh’ came from the onlookers as Barrett sharply cried out in pain, bending double as he clutched his hand to his aching stomach. Not one to waste an opportunity, Reno swept his leg around to kick for the injured man’s bowed head, but Barrett noticed the move and instinctively reacted, throwing out his right arm to catch the Turk’s flying boot in a pincer grip. With a mighty heave, he threw the Turk over into the dirt.

Caught off balance, Reno landed awkwardly on his side with a pained grunt, and shot a look up to find that Barrett Wallace had already recovered from the sneak attack and was now advancing upon his position with fire in his dark eyes, his ham sized fist and open pincers held before him. Reno hastily scrambled to his feet before Wallace could manage to stomp his face into the ground with an oversized boot, and he whirled around to face him, automatically falling into his customary battle stance, his own flexed hands held at the ready.

“You done pissed me off now, Turk,” Barrett roared his anger.

“So?” Reno smirked his indifference. “That supposed to scare little ole me?” he drawled.

“You better be scared, you scrawny bastard!” Barrett yelled at the top of his lungs. “Cuz you’re gonna die!” And on that note, Wallace charged with a murderous glint in his eyes and a berserker cry, and Reno instantaneously reached the conclusion that he’d best start taking the man just a tad more seriously.

“Here comes Elena,” Nanaki sleepily reported from his comfortable spot on the ground. He cracked his one operable eyelid ajar to visually confirm the information his keen sense of smell had already provided him. “She appears to have something on her mind.”

Cloud lazily shifted his gaze from the pair taking turns tossing a stick for the exuberant shaggy brown dog to the determined blonde Turk headed their way like a hotly stoked steamboat, the little girl trotting alongside with her hand wrapped around the woman’s fingers in what looked to be a rather desperate grip. “So she does,” Cloud idly agreed. “I wonder what.”

“Hard to say with her,” Nanaki replied dismissively.

“This is true.”

Cloud followed her progress with Mako eyes devoid of expression, swinging his head to keep her in sight as she came abreast of him. When she ground to an abrupt halt directly in front of him, clearly indicating that he had been her destination all along, he finally dropped his foot to the ground, unfolding his arms to shove away from the dozer. Standing tall and straight in front of her, he raised his brows in question. “What’s up?”

Elena came straight to the point. She didn’t have the time or inclination for mundane pleasantries. “I’m looking for Reno,” she bluntly replied. “Have you seen him?”

“Have you seen Reno to the Third?” Rachel echoed with plaintive eyes.

Cloud’s luminous eyes moved from Elena’s troubled features to Rachel’s upturned face. “Sure, I’ve seen him.”

“Where?” Elena spat out.

“Well, he was in the mess tent an hour ago or so…”

“I know, Strife,” she snapped in exasperation. “I was there. Remember?”

“Then he was standing outside the tent puffing on a cigarette.” Nanaki raised his head from his paw to check Elena’s reaction to his input.

“And after that?” she persisted with a fierce glint in her hazel eyes.

Cloud folded his arms and lifted both shoulders in ignorance, and Nanaki wearily laid his chin on his paw. “Dunno,” they replied in unison.

“Did you see which way he went?”

“Nope,” Cloud replied matter-of-factly. “Wasn’t paying attention.”

“I was asleep,” Nanaki drowsily responded, not bothering to open his eye this time. He’d lost interest in the whole conversation.

“So you don’t know where he went,” Elena flatly stated. “You didn’t see a thing.”

“Thought you Turks were supposed to keep track of each other,” Cloud commented, his offhand words intended to make the clear point that he wasn’t Reno’s keeper. Elena didn’t miss his meaning, and in fact, took his words to heart. The Avalanche warrior noticed the little girl’s face filling with distress at his words, and he regretted his remark. Maybe he should come up with some viable suggestions for where the missing Turk could be.

“We are…I mean…we do…but…” Elena stammered in dismay.

“He went to the john,” another lazy voice drawled from around the tail end of the dozer. “About thirty minutes ago.”

Heartened by the news and curious about the identity of the unseen speaker, Elena sidled away from Cloud until the young pilot, Heidegger came into view. Comfortably ensconced on a low stack of sandbags in the shadow of the dozer with his head pillowed on folded arms, one long jean-clad leg drawn up and the other stretched out along the top, the lethargic pilot rolled a toothpick between his teeth and languidly peered into the sky with his long platinum hair loosely fanned around his head.

“Did you mean Reno?” She tried to cloak the eagerness in her voice behind a tone of coolness, but she felt off balance by that point, and could hardly manage to mask her emotions. “Reno went to the latrines out back?”

Heidegger slowly turned his head to bring his startling blue eyes to bear on her face. “Yep, Reno said that’s where he was going. He told Avian to stick close to Cloud ‘til he got back.”

“And that was thirty minutes ago?” Elena’s eyes narrowed in consternation. That seemed a long time to spend in a chemical toilet. Who’d want to spend that much time in one? Her nose wrinkled at the implications.

“Yep, give or take a couple of minutes.” Derry turned his gaze back to the sky. “You’ll probably run into him if you head that way.”

“Thanks, Heidegger,” Elena succinctly expressed her gratitude and turned away to go, but yet another voice brought her to a standstill.

“Want me to tell your fortune, Turk lady?” the singsong voice queried enthusiastically.

Elena looked around until she finally found the robotic cat lying atop the dozer canopy on his belly with his chin propped in his mittened hands. Strangely, she found herself helplessly curious about what he might say. “Sure, why not?” she carelessly replied. “Let’s have it.”

Cloud Strife had returned to his previous relaxed position against the dozer frame, and he now shifted his gaze from the excited barking dog that Yuffie was currently engaged in taunting by holding the stick above her head to a bemused study of the expectant face of the blonde Turk. “You’ll be sorry,” he commented matter-of-factly.

A little smile came to her lips as she watched Cait Sith dance around atop the dozer with his hands stretched into the air. “It’s just a silly fortune, right?” she asked with a little shrug. Cloud simply diverted his eyes back to the distant dog in response. At least she couldn’t say she hadn’t been warned.

Cait abruptly quit dancing and froze in a one legged stance with his arms outspread to the sky, as though in homage to the sun, and peered sagely down into Elena’s expectant face. “You will marry a bald headed preacher man,” he gravely intoned. “And become the proud mother of a dozen children and make the best pound cake in six counties.”

Cloud lazily swiveled his head to find that the trace of the pretty smile on the blonde Turk’s face had mutated into a deep frown. “Told ya,” he teased.

Elena ignored the smirking warrior to glare up at the mechanical cat, irritated in spite of her acknowledgement of the meaninglessness of the cat’s prediction. “Your fortunes suck, Cat,” she snapped grumpily. Then she turned on heel and stalked away with Rachel in tow, muttering aloud to herself. “A dozen kids? What the hell? I’d kill them all…Bald headed preacher man? Hell, I’d kill him too…”

Elena hardly noticed the amused chuckles of the two men and the snuffling laugher of the red beast filling the air behind her, especially as she’d just noticed Rude and Caitlin headed her way.

Cait Sith flipped off the edge of the dozer roof to hang by two hands for a moment before he dropped to the cab compartment next to Cloud’s head. He draped himself over the edge to bring his black and white face close to the warrior’s ear. “Why did she say my fortunes suck, Cloud?” he queried sadly, a pre-programmed act on his part as the robotic cat could not experience any emotion, much less sadness.

The smile that still lingered on Cloud’s lips abruptly faded away, and he answered without looking at the cat. “Because your fortunes do suck, Cait Sith,” he flatly replied. “They suck in the worse way. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart.” Cloud Strife turned his head to gaze off toward the horizon, his blonde lashes sliding down to hide the sorrow in his luminous Mako eyes.

Vincent knew that she would run from him the instant she unconsciously let the scarlet material of his cloak slip from her fingers, and he might have stopped her in that bare space of breath between wonder and motion, but he could no longer justify his desire to keep her by his side. So he simply halted in the trail to watch her sprint toward the pale rainbow arch that summoned her, hand and claw tightly fisted against his thighs in barely contained restraint, his gaze cruelly bound to the fluid sway of her hips and the swish of her bound hair against her legs as she ran, the lack of expression in his eyes and face a frozen mask for the dryness in his throat and the ache in his heart.

She eventually vanished around a massive pillar of striated gray stone that bulged from the cliff face and forced a deviation in the trail. For endless moments, he vacantly stared unblinking at the place that he’d last seen her, wondering irrationally if he would ever see her again, as though he imagined that she was merely the stuff of his dreams and that he would wake from his dream of her to never dream of her again, or more realistically that she would simply keep running until she reached the man she wanted without another backward glance or fleeting thought for the man she left behind. Before he could worry overmuch about the matter or engage in serious self derogation for entertaining such an absurd notion, she popped her head back around the pillar and grinned widely in amusement at the sight of him still standing motionless in the trail in the exact spot where she’d left him. She could clearly see that the man was suffering from shock that she’d broken not one, but two of his rules. And both at the same time. What an unruly girl he must think her to be. That thought drew a delighted chuckle from her lips.

“Come on, Vincent!” She gaily threw an arm into the air to urge him forward. “Come look! It’s so…magical!” She promptly disappeared again, and he found himself helplessly drawn toward her as though by the sheer magnetism of that precious face transported by pure joy to unprecedented heights of beauty, his feet moving along the path with a will of their own. Not that he wasn’t willing to go where they desired. They would merely go where he so desperately wished to be. In truth, he could imagine no other place on the planet he would rather be than by her side, and the burden on his heart lightened that she seemed to want the same. Still, he wasn’t foolish enough to believe that her excited invitation to him to join her held any significance whatsoever, even if he might permit himself to pretend otherwise for the moment. He well knew that Tifa Lockhart possessed a generous nature and would wish for any person that accompanied her to share in her miraculous find, whether that person should be Vincent Valentine, Barrett Wallace, Nanaki, Cloud Strife or even a virtual stranger. Right now, he was merely the only one within her reach.

With steady but wooden steps that clearly reflected the eagerness of his heart as well as a paradoxical disinclination of mind, he eventually negotiated the curve in the trail, only to freeze in mid-step on the other side, his feet instantly stilled, along with the stir of breath in his lungs, at the enchanting vision that supplanted the dispassion in his crimson eyes with wide-eyed wonder.

Indubitably, he had anticipated that their route would converge with the waterfall at some point in their progress, even though his view of that particular feature of the craggy mountain terrain had been blocked by the intrusive pillar of stone for some while. The expectation of an eventual encounter with the falls had been an easy deduction on his part, primarily due to the fact that he could clearly see another two or perhaps three miles or so of faint track wending along the curve of the mountain above the lake, switching back and forth and even climbing at an acute angle for maybe a half mile before inexorably descending in a long sloping ribbon to disappear into the tall grasses of the lush meadow just beyond the farthest perimeter of the lakeshore. That assessment was reinforced by his memory of the terrain as seen from the vantage point of his earlier bird's eye view, granting him the knowledge that the waterfalls bisected the mountain between the point that they now stood and the point to which they must eventually travel. And he'd just as easily divined the powerful cascade to be the most likely source of the ‘magical’ treasure that Tifa wished to share with him. The thunderous roar of the great volume of rushing water surging down the mountain into the lake directly below provided him ample evidence, as did the misty iridescence of soft color painted in seemingly thin air by virtue of the sun’s rays shining through the fine spray from the powerful cascade. So yes, he’d expected to see the waterfall on the far side of the stone pillar, and he’d also anticipated the view to be breathtaking. However, it was not the picturesque vista that had mercilessly stolen the air from his lungs and left him standing vacuously staring in a dazed stupor. Nor was it the splendourous stage provided by nature, the details of which he distantly acknowledged.

A dazzling shimmer of refracted light twinkled like a transparent overlay of diamonds along the extensive length of the waterfall that had been diverted out over the trail and widely diffused along the edge of a high expansive overhang that jutted out over the trail. The swiftly moving yet thin curtain of rushing water barely slipped against the rim of the wide ledge over which his feet must travel should he find the will to move them. Betwixt the vertical and unyielding mountain face and the dubious shelter of the fractured overhang above and the luminous cascade tumbling to the lake below lay an oasis of cool shadow. A sacrosanct and mysterious chamber sparsely illuminated at various points by narrow beams of golden light filtering through a random scattering of fissures eroded in the high vault of the ceiling overhead and adorned by delicate, translucent ribbons of water sifting through the sunlight to create gilt threaded streamers that spattered musically against the stone floor of the ledge.

No, though admittedly a rare and beauteous sight indeed, the captivating vision that imprisoned his wide crimson eyes and sapped the strength from his muscles spun slowly in and out of the lacework of shadow and light and liquid gold with her arms outstretched into the air, her slender hands raised in prayerful worship, and her entranced, rain-spattered face turned into the caress of tumbling droplets while the bright song composed inside her head slipped over her parted lips in a soft hum. A music box dancer escaped the velvet confines of her ornate silver chest to dance all alone to her own melody amongst dangling foil streamers still decorating a darkened and deserted ballroom long after the ball had ended and the celebrants had gone home, patiently awaiting a lover that would never come.

With no knowledge of doing so, he shrugged from his pack and with one benumbed hand let it down to the ledge, and he absently set down his rifle, all as he helplessly watched her, powerless to tear his gaze away. Unwilling, in fact, to do so. And just as she had done when he’d found her dancing in the borrowed ivory wedding gown of another man’s bride, her bare feet moving gently against the cool concrete of the floor in the underground facility, and just as she had done when he had discovered her sinuously curled atop the sateen comforter inside the shadows of the richly draped bed aboard the decommissioned airship, reading by the taunting light of a single candle flame, and just as she had done when she’d danced for an endless and magical time in the glistening curtain of a midnight shower only the night before, she once again claimed him for her own. Except this time, she cruelly confiscated into her sole possession every part of him, all those parts that truly already belonged to her by right; his mind, his body, his heart and soul. And in those endless moments when he tried and failed to form a coherent thought that wasn’t full of her, and when his intense longing for her set every cell in his body aching in his need for her, and while his heart broke at the utter futility of loving her, and in a blinding instant of startling revelation he acknowledged that the preservation of the last fragile, untainted vestiges of his immortal soul rested solely within the compass of her grace and mercy, he despaired at that moment in the all too near future when she would leave him, and his lungs would demand that he draw breath without her, and his heart would insist on beating without her, and he could find inside him no inkling of a desire to live such a worthless, meaningless life.

Tifa spied him at that precise moment, in mid-spin, her soft smile of welcome at first sight of him freezing in brittle frailty at second sight when her blissful gaze caught upon crimson eyes overflowing with anguish, and on third sight, at her confirmation of what she only imagined she’d seen the second time around, her smile shattered into nonexistence, and her gently dancing feet fell still along with the vital breath in her lungs, and her floating hands died and fell lifeless to her sides, and her buoyant heart was crushed into a flattened, aching pulp beneath the weight of his misery.

She stared in shocked dismay into the exact same face she’d seen so recently in her nightmare at that moment when she’d changed him by dint of her desire into the man she wanted as opposed to the man he’d appeared to be, an agonized face that she’d never in her wildest imagining thought she would ever see in wakefulness. He stared straight back into her eyes in unrelenting anguish though she didn’t believe that he could even see her. Maybe he didn’t see her. Maybe he’d gone somewhere inside his own head, to compulsively relive some tragic moment in his past, of which she knew there were many. Or maybe she’d simply fallen asleep again, to return to her nightmare in the middle of what she thought to be a wonderful dream. But no, she could vaguely feel the stream of water that fell from the ceiling just behind her slipping coldly down her spine, soaking through both layers of shirt and pasting the long tresses of her hair to the back of her trousers.

“Vincent…” she finally managed to choke past a throat riveted shut. “What’s happened? What’s the matter with you?” As though the sound of her own words emboldened her, she finally discovered the strength to take a single wooden step toward him, her hand involuntarily rising to reach for him, just as she had done in her nightmare, but she paused in her motion at the memory of that instant when she had touched him in her dark dreaming, as the fleeting and nonsensical notion flickered through her mind that if she touched him now, he would simply break apart, just as he had then.

Tifa’s jerky, almost reluctant movement, startled Vincent to his senses, and ashamed at what he’d revealed to her but helpless to conceal his unbridled emotions from her at that moment in time, he violently propelled himself away, spinning on heel to plant his back to her, to shut the vision of her from disobedient eyes that refused to relinquish her. Fisting his right hand against the trembling in his fingers and the agony in his chest, he unconsciously bent his head out of habit to let his long tresses hide his face as he fervently prayed for her to leave him, even in his futility in the knowledge that she would not. But the thick raven hair bound at the nape of his neck offered him no concealment, and she had no intention of deserting him in his state of obvious despair.

Inevitably, she came to his side, her fingers closing around the tensed bicep of his right forearm as she lifted searching eyes to his taut face and lowered lashes. He could force himself to tolerate her close proximity for only a moment before he forcefully reacted to her burning touch against his bare skin, jerking his arm from her grasp to stride several steps away, again pointedly putting his back to her, but not before he glimpsed the hurt in her brown eyes. The pain he’d caused her seared his own heart. But he simply had no other choice. There was nothing else he could. He had to get her away from him. Because if he didn’t….if he didn’t…and she came near him again…if she touched him again…

Frankly, he would be hard paid not to snatch her into his arms and take full possession of her, devouring her just as completely as she had consumed him.

“Vincent…please…tell me what’s the matter…” Her plea, almost a moan in her fear for him, seemed to fall on deaf ears as he made no gesture of acknowledgment. “Is it…something…I did?”

She saw his shoulders hunch at her question, as though to defend against some expected blow. Her mouth dry as a bone, she swallowed painfully and schooled within her the courage to move toward him despite his withdrawal from her as though he found her some vile thing in his path. Again, she lifted a hesitant hand to offer him solace, her beseeching fingers trembling as she reached to touch him. At her advance, her movement signaled more by his intimate awareness of her close proximity than by any sound she made, his head alertly came up like a wild beast sensing danger close by, caught in that brief, indecisive moment just before fleeing or turning to attack with every muscle poised in taut stillness. He made no effort to look at her, and she ventured yet another step.

“Don’t touch me,” he harshly commanded, his normally placid and inflectionless voice tight with constrained emotion and so wintry cold in tone that she stopped dead in her tracks. “Get away from me, Tifa.”

Bending his head beneath the weight of his own hateful words and squeezing his eyes tightly closed to the internal sight of injured brown eyes he conjured in his mind, he weakly leaned forward to press hand and claw against the stone wall in front of him for support for his rubbery limbs, knowing that he had nowhere to go if she chose to disobey him. Unless he simply slipped past her and fled down the trail. He’d never run from any physical threat in his life without a fight, but he might well run now. Because she wasn’t the one that posed a threat. He bowed his head further to lay his fevered forehead against the cold stone, making a concerted effort to corral his rampant emotions and to close and lock a door that he should never have allowed to open.

Tifa didn’t dare move one step closer, but neither could she leave him as he’d so coldly demanded. “Vincent…I don’t understand…” She couldn’t begin to understand. She’d never seen him like this before. She didn’t know what it meant, but she intuitively knew that that she was the cause of it, and that knowledge ate at her guts, at her heart.

“There’s no need for you to understand,” he roughly informed her, an undercurrent of desperation in his voice. “Just…get away.” He needed a space of only a few moments. He couldn’t think with her standing only a couple of feet behind him. He couldn’t find the strength or the will to slam the door. To lock it. Hell, he couldn’t even find the door.

“But I feel like…I did something…to…upset you…” Her voice weakly trailed away. “I want to know…to fix it…to…” How could she fix it, when she didn’t know what she’d done. What could she have done? She didn’t do anything. Broke a couple of his rules, sure. But that would hardly stir him to do more then plant a cool gaze on her face. Surely, she’d done nothing to cause him such pain. Unless…maybe it wasn’t anything she overtly did. She’d been…what…dancing. Maybe something about her dancing or something about the waterfall or something she couldn’t even fathom had reminded him of his beloved Lavinia. Or Letitia. Whatever. “L”. His “L”. His lost love.

“This isn’t about you, Tifa,” he bit out between clenched teeth, cruelly interrupting her faltering words and unwittingly confirming her unspoken thoughts. “This has nothing to do with you.” A lie. A blatant, bald-faced lie. It has everything in the world to do with you, Tifa Lockhart.. “Do you think you are so important?” He fisted his hand against the rock surface at his own bitter query, spoken to her but directed at himself. You are more vital than breath to me, Tifa Lockhart.

Tifa Lockhart’s temper, usually extremely difficult to rouse, abruptly flamed into life, not so much at his nastily rendered question, which had deeply stung her despite a distant recognition that his words welled from the depths of his anguish, but more at his hardheaded stubborn refusal to explain himself, at his inability to share with her the source of his pain, and in her anger and her fear for his state of mind she found the strength to do something she rarely ever did. Speak her mind. And the words she would say flowed from her with hardly a thought, as though they surged up from some deep and forgotten reservoir inside her head.

“You know what, Valentine?” Her eyes darkened on his stiff back and bowed head as her hands came to her hips. “I don’t know what your problem is, but quite frankly, I’m sick to death of your stuck up act.” She paused for only the space of a breath to see if he would respond, at least in defense of himself, but he didn’t, so she plowed right on. “You brood around all the time like your life sucks and nothing will ever get better. Like you think nobody ever had it worse than you. Do you really think that you’re the only one who’s ever had their heart broken?” she brusquely demanded. “Do you really think you’re the only one who’s ever lost someone?” Her voice cracked at that point but she could hardly stop now. She was riding the crest of a wave of long suppressed anger and concealed emotion. “Do you really think you’re the only one that’s ever committed a deed so terrible that it will forever eat on your mind? Do you really think that you’re the only one with scars? Do you really and truly think that you’re the only one that’s ever suffered?”

Acid tears started down her face then, grief-stricken not only at the sudden explosion of anger so contradictory to her nature, but also at the distant realization that the disparaging words she rained down upon his head hardly provided the comfort she’d originally intended and were not the words she truly wanted to say to him, but she found herself powerless to stop. Her breath hitched in her throat as she paused in her impassioned rant to drag in a shuddering, bracing breath as she bored twin holes into his hunched back with fierce eyes, only to find her anger fueled even more by the fact that the man hadn’t moved so much as a muscle at her verbal assault.

“Well, do you, Valentine?” She again demanded his answer in a voice high and strained. “Is that what you think?” Still, he refused to respond, and she started frenetically pacing behind his back as she compulsively continued, making no effort to stem her angry tears beyond a single haphazard dash of a hand beneath an eye. “Why won’t you talk to me, Vincent? Why won’t you tell me? Why?” Her dark brows flew together in consternation, her thoughts abruptly skewered on one fine point. “You know what I think, Vincent? I think you’re selfish.” She stabbed a finger toward his back. “Selfish. That’s exactly right.” She nodded with one sharp jerk of her head in confirmation. “That’s what I think. You refuse to share a single part of yourself with anyone. You act like the whole world and everyone in it is beneath your notice. And then you call yourself a monster and try to convince the people that care about you that you don’t feel a damn thing and set yourself apart from everyone else, but ya know, Valentine? I’m onto you. You bet I’m onto you. I know the truth. Damn right I do. It’s just an excuse. It’s just an excuse so you don’t have to try. You don’t even have to make the effort.” She whirled around to confront his unmoving back, her hands again flying to her hips, the muscles working in her tensed jaw as she glared at him through her tears, her hurting and fractured heart just on the verge of shattering in an explosion of glass shards that would rip up her insides. “What is the point, Vincent?!” she cried out in anguish. “Huh? What is the point?! What is the point of living if you choose to walk around dead?! Well, Vincent! Are you going to answer me?! Are you going to tell me?! What. Is. The. Point?!” Her fisted hand flew to her mouth then, to block the sob that threatened to erupt from her throat, effectively silencing her vehement words.

Vincent finally managed to shake his head in response, a barely noticeable movement that taxed the limits of what he had to offer. He tasted the metallic tang of blood against his tongue as he bit down hard on the inside of his mouth to keep from crying out his anguish. He could hardly bear her contempt for him, no matter how well deserved. And he had no answer to give her, because he could only tell her that she was dead right, and that wasn’t the answer she wanted to hear from his lips. There was no point in living when one chose not to live. But truly it wasn’t a choice for him. It was an inability to see his own way. He knew that. He’d always known that. He didn’t know how to live. Not for himself. He’d always, ever, lived for another. First, he’d lived for his father, who placed the whole of his self esteem into a failed attempt to mold his son into what he thought his son should be with no regard to the person inside. And he’d lived for his mother who had always loved him, without condition and without reservation, loved him even with her dying breath when he had irrevocably failed her. And were she alive she would love him still, even knowing how he’d betrayed her. And then he’d lived for his sister, sacrificing all he held dear to give her what he thought she deserved, what he irrationally thought he’d stolen from her in a single moment of rage, only to drive her to her death because of his stubbornness and his cruelty. Then, he’d lived only for Lucrecia, who was irretrievably lost to him now, not only because he’d lost her to Hojo all those years ago, but because he’d lost the desire to love her. And now…now he lived only for Tifa Lockhart, lived to deliver her into another man’s arms when he ached with the desire to gather her into his own and keep here there. He lived for her, and he would lose her. And after that, he had no life. There was no point in living.

For the first time since that moment in the underground control room, when the memory of his broken vow to his dying mother had caught him unawares, Chaos stirred inside him, the demon darkness oozing around the edges of his mind as though to take him by stealth instead of seizure, that vile miasma of blessed oblivion beckoning him with its siren’s song. With a barely audible moan of denial at how much he desperately wanted at that moment to surrender the whole of his identity to Chaos and just forget her, he dug fingers and metal claws into the rock, every muscle in his body tightening to a trembling level of tension as he brought to bear every ounce of his wavering will to exile the demon back into the shadows of his mind, shadows so dark and so deep that he could never hope to touch them nor wish to. Chaos pushed back hard to fight his expulsion, and Vincent felt his resolve sharply weaken. And at that moment, he knew he would fail. Chaos would be loosed to wreak havoc, and she would be standing directly in his path. He cried out a strangled and desperate final bid for her to go, before it was too late. “Leave me alone, Tifa! Get away from me!”

Tifa surely heard the emotion-roughened hoarseness of his voice when he yelled, and she could clearly see him trembling like a dry, dead leaf on the verge of breaking away from the limb to be taken by a brisk autumn breeze, but she was so furious at him and so hurt by his unyielding rejection that she could hardly think straight. She was furious at him because he forced her to watch him suffer alone. She was furious at him because he refused to allow her to take him to her and ease his pain. But most of all, she was furious because he didn’t want or need her to care. And she rode that fury like a surfer inside the curl, with tons of water suspended above her, ready to crash down on her head and drown her in an unforgiving sea.

“Fine, Vincent,” she spat out tightly passed a clenched jaw. “You want to be alone? Then be alone. My gift to you!” The only gift he would take from her. Finally, the sob that she’d been barely holding at bay ripped up from the depths of her aching heart to sear its way to freedom past the confines of her tightly closed throat, and she simply turned and ran.

In a sudden flash of psychic clarity, Vincent knew what she would do. His crimson eyes flew wide and he whirled away from the wall, already leaping after her on long legs to stop her before he even formed the thought to, not even noticing that Chaos had vanished instantly from his mind as though he’d never been there, a sleight of hand magician dissolving into a puff of smoke. But he was too late. Even as his staring eyes came around to find her, even as he stretched his hand out to reach for her, she launched herself full tilt into the tumbling cascade, and then she was gone.

Vincent’s strength instantly left him, and his legs simply folded to dump him to the ground on hands and knees. His head fell so low that his bound hair tumbled over his shoulder to coil darkly against the ground. Acting solely on the instinct of a wounded, shivering animal that seeks a safe haven, he threw up his hand to viciously yank the bandana from his hair, freeing the thick tresses to fall into a curtain around his face, as though he truly believed he could hide from himself and his own culpability. But he couldn’t hide. Not from this and not from her. Whatever happened now would happen. It was out of his hands.

“Report, Elena,” Rude coolly bade.

“Do you know where Reno went?” Caitlin hurriedly interjected.

Elena looked warily from the sharp planes of Rude’s taut face to the worry lines that creased Caitlin’s smooth forehead, and then she turned her attention back to Rude, his order for report superseding all else. “Nothing to report. Reno was out of position. Unresponsive to my signaled request for status. So I’ve been searching for him.” She shifted her gaze back to Caitlin. “And yes, I believe I do know where he went. Heidegger informed me just now that Reno went to the latrine.”

“He went to the bathroom?” Caitlin asked incredulously. “That’s where he went? The bathroom?” She could hardly believe that his absence involved so simple a matter.

Elena titled her head quizzically to inspect the petite woman as though she were a new and never before seen species of creature. “Even Reno has to visit the bathroom on occasion,” she reminded her dryly. “Despite the fact that he does seem to be full of…”

“That wasn’t what I meant, Elena,” Caitlin quickly interrupted before the Turk said something that Rachel probably shouldn’t hear. Elena shrewdly stopped talking and clamped her lips tightly shut. She arched an eyebrow in question.

“I meant that after all my…all the…worry…” Caitlin abruptly fell silent, because she couldn’t really explain. She’d been concerned about both Reno and Elena, for no good reason, and it embarrassed her a little. Especially in light of the fact that she really did know better. Turks rarely went quietly missing because of mischief, simply because a Turk could deal with mischief pretty effectively, and if not, a Turk summoned help. And Rude had known that. She should have remembered. At that point, she decided to change the subject altogether, seeing no percentage in continuing on that tack. “Would you go find Reno please?” she plaintively asked the blonde Turk. “I need to talk to him. I need to talk to you too. You and Reno. Together.”

“Really…” Elena replied with calculating eyes. She couldn’t imagine what Ms. Shinra had to say to them, especially as the woman seemed a bit discombobulated at the moment. The blonde Turk kept her keen gaze on Caitlin’s face as she addressed her next question to Rude. “What about the gil Reno owes you, Rude?”

“The debt is absolved,” Rude readily answered with the tiniest curl at the corner of his mouth. Their Turk-speak was a little pointless now.

“Yeah, Reeve finally messaged,” Caitlin reported with a little smile of relief. “Everything’s okay.”

Elena rolled her eyes in despair. “Why didn’t you just tell me that she knew, Rude?” she asked heatedly. “Good grief.” She held the small hand still clasped in her fingers out to Caitlin. “Here. Take her. I’m going to retrieve Reno.”

Caitlin reached out to take the little girl’s hand into her own, but Rachel pulled away against Elena’s leg and vehemently shook her head, setting her bleached ringlets bouncing with the motion. “No!” she loudly protested. “I wanna go too! I wanna find Reno to the Third!”

“But I know just where he is,” Elena assured her with a frown. “He just went to the bathroom. You can stay with Caitlin while I go get him.”

A devious glint appeared in the child’s sapphire eyes. “I have to go to the bathroom,” she blithely informed the blonde Turk. “I have to go bad.” She bounced up and down a couple of times to prove her contention.

Elena threw up a hand in disgust as she glared down at the determined little girl. “Fine. I’ll take you.” The blonde Turk looked up and frowned at Caitlin’s amused smile. “In case you weren’t paying attention,” she bit out. “There’s now been a change of plans. Rachel and I are going to retrieve Reno.”

Caitlin graciously inclined her golden head. “Okay, Elena. Rude and I are going to round up Avian and go to the medical tent. When you find him, meet us there.” Elena glanced over at Rude to seek his confirmation. He gave her a silent nod, a gesture that Elena returned in kind. With a little sniff of disdain, she walked away toward the encampment to head for the latrines on the opposite side of the camp, the happy little girl skipping along beside her.

Elena peered down at the little girl’s bleached head with speculation. “You sure are a manipulative little schemer,” she coolly remarked. “Are you sure you’re not Reno’s secret love child?”

Unsure as to the blonde Turk’s meaning other than the fact that she’d mentioned Reno, Rachel simply smiled up at her.

Vincent Valentine crouched on one knee at the very rim of the ledge overlooking the lake, so close to the cascade that the spray that filled the air all around had soaked his clothes through and pasted his hair against his pale face. The mighty roar of the rushing water drowned out all sound from his sensitive ears to leave only the angry words that echoed over and over in his head. With a dispassion in his crimson eyes that didn’t reflect the turmoil in his mind, he intently watched the disturbingly distant figure of Tifa Lockhart as she knifed through the sun spackled waters of the lake below, her unfailing stamina and fine conditioning more than evident in the ease of her progress despite the weight of her clothing and her recent illness. Soon she would reach the shore, and then she’d probably just plant her feet in the grass and start walking. And she’d probably just keep walking until she topped the next rise and disappeared from his sight, keep walking without a backward look at the craven man who had driven her to jump over eighty feet into the deep pool at the base of the falls to escape him, risking a broken neck from hidden rocks below or a drowning from an unseen undertow. He could hardly blame her.

In the blink of an eye, he’d surrendered control of his emotions, along with his good sense, and he’d almost relinquished dominion of his body and mind to Chaos. Of all the sharp words that Tifa had spoken to him, many of them struck to the heart, but some had missed the mark, not so much regarding the behaviors she criticized – on that score he could not fault her acuity – but more regarding the underlying motivation for those behaviors. And one of those had been her heated contention that he called himself a monster to provide himself justification to withdraw from the world. She was wrong on that score. He didn’t just call himself a monster. He was a monster, and he’d almost shown her how much of a monster he could be. Drawing in a shaky breath at the memory of just how close he'd come, he buried his shameful face in a still tremulous hand.

Tifa had been wise to jump. Thank the gods she’d jumped. She had most surely given him a gift as she’d so sarcastically declared. Chaos would have killed her. And he could not have…he couldn’t have…Sweet Shiva…he couldn’t even imagine…what it would be like to awaken to that…didn’t want to imagine…not when just the fact that she’d left him alone on the mountain had buried rapacious claws into his guts and driven a dull bladed knife straight through the middle of his heart that even now twisted and twisted. And he could at this moment still see her, alive and well. Right before his eyes. How would he ever make himself leave her? How, in the name of Odin, would he ever survive losing her? A bitter laugh erupted from his throat. How could he lose what had never been his?

He shook his head at his own foolishness. After all, he’d wrought this suffering upon his own head. He’d known almost from the beginning that she could never be his. He’d easily discovered early on how she pined for Cloud Strife. He’d seen the way her eyes hungrily followed the warrior when she knew he wasn’t looking. He’d seen the self-deprecating little smiles and the ill-concealed disappointment in her dark eyes when the warrior invariably and unconsciously chose Aeris over her, to sit beside, to converse, to ask advice. Not that Cloud didn’t also do those things with Tifa. Just that he always chose Aeris first. And that night at the Ghost Hotel, when he’d been lying wide awake in his inhospitable bed and heard the hushed and restless footfalls in the dimly lit hallway outside his door, he’d silently rose to cross the unlit room on bare feet, discreetly cracking the door ajar to discover her pacing back and forth along the carpet runner outside, shaking her head and murmuring wordlessly to herself, only to fall motionless in mid-step to stare in startled anticipation when Cloud’s door opened several feet down the hall, and then when Aeris emerged with Cloud in tow, her face had filled with stunned dismay, and she’d fallen back into the shadows near the wall until the couple vanished down the stairwell, releasing her to silently return to her own room, her distress revealed solely in the hurried pace of her steps. Only when her door had closed softly behind her, had he relinquished his sentinel.

Without a doubt, he’d known of the undivided focus of her affections, and still he’d let himself fall. Therefore he had no one to blame but himself. He’d personally built for himself a living hell, and in this moment of self-appraisal, he could finally admit to himself now that he’d laid the first flaming brick on that day all those months ago when he’d stepped from the shadowed cloister of the Shinra Mansion, squinting his hypersensitive eyes into the muted late afternoon sunlight as he’d cautiously walked out onto the stoop, not even truly appreciating then, despite the obviously deteriorated condition of the interior of the mansion he’d just passed through to reach that point, that it had been almost thirty years since he’d last set foot outside the front door. And he’d paused there, for only a moment, to draw in a clean breath of air that didn’t cram his nostrils with the fruity, overripe smell of decay and mold, and to let his eyes adjust to the stabbing light, only to feel the weight of her stare, almost like a physical touch against his face. He’d jerked his head around to mark her, sensing a threat from that quarter. And indeed she might have been. With her eyes full of apprehension at the horrid sight of him and her gloved hands tightened into fists, ready to make mincemeat of him if he made a single sinister move, despite her anxiety. He’d simply dismissed her out of hand and looked away, the young woman of no particular interest to him. Until Aeris felt compelled to introduce them despite Cloud’s haste to get on the road. Aeris had spoken her name. Tifa. A name he’d never heard before in all his years. And when he’d heard her name, the two syllables registered in his mind like the two musical notes that made up her name as they would sound on the piano keyboard. As they would look beneath his fingers were he to play them. Then Aeris had spoken his name, and at that point he’d finally granted her a nod of acknowledgement. She hadn’t let him get away with so simple a gesture. She’d forced her fists to relax as she walked steadily toward him, a hesitant but genuine smile capturing her lips as she offered her hand for a handshake. Her smile wavered only slightly when he ignored that hand, not because he thought her beneath him as she’d obliquely contended only moments ago, but because he’d been afraid to touch her, his memories filled to the brim of the cruelty and coldness of the last human interactions he’d known. So she’d simply reached out and taken his hand for herself, her fingers so blessedly warm against his chilly ones as she gave his hand one quick shake before releasing his fingers too soon, the first human touch he’d experienced since the day Hojo had arranged his body in the coffin and closed the lid down, hers the only human touch he’d tolerated since.

Yes, the fires had been ignited that day, but even then the flames had only licked about his boot heels. The night he’d dove into the maelstrom for her was the night he’d wholly flung himself into the deepest circle of hell where the flames would finally consume him, but he wouldn’t have chosen any other course. He would not have let her die. He couldn’t conceive of a day when he might not hear her bright, optimistic voice. When he could not glimpse her sweet and radiant face. When he could not bask in the warmth of her sunlight. All from afar. At the time, that had been enough. Then, he could be near her without the need to be with her. Now, he could not. And that was the hell of it.

Vincent realized that his hand had finally stopped trembling and that the tumultuous whirlwind of his thoughts had finally slowed to a lazy eddy. Thinking did that for him. Drew him apart from his emotions, lifted him above his pain, if only for a little while. The exploration of his bittersweet memories and his rueful self-confession had left him in a state of calm, the furor in heart and mind ceding to a weary resignation. And he also realized that Tifa had reached shallow water during his reverie.

His whole body suddenly tense again, he watched with alert gaze as she waded toward the bank, the water receding down her body from her waist, to her knees, and then to her ankles as the lake bed rose beneath her feet. His breath caught fleetingly in his lungs as she left the water and crossed the narrow stretch of muddy beach to climb the grassy bank with a modicum of effort, if he could assess her distant movements accurately. And finally, she walked a few paces to come to a halt amidst the first straggling specimens of the flowers that thickly crowded the rolling meadow before her, and at that point, he knew she would look. And after that, she would leave him behind as he well deserved. Or she would stay to grace him with her presence. His restless hand first came to his chin and then floated down to his bent knee, anxiously coming to roost to tighten there as though to provide himself an anchor as he awaited her judgment.

Her too distant figure slowly turned then, and he sensed more than saw her head come up, and though he couldn’t hope to make out the details of her face much less the cast of her eyes from so far away, he could feel the touch of her far reaching gaze on his face. And he gazed back with an intensity meant to convey his futile plea, even though he knew she could not see anything more than the outline of his kneeling figure high atop the ledge.

Abruptly, she turned away then, as though in dismissal, and his heart quailed in his chest at the certain knowledge that she would turn her back on him and defiantly walk away to continue to Kalm alone, leaving him behind to reconcile himself to the bleak prospect of journeying on without her. Yet, instead of striding off through the grasses as he believed she would, she bent down at the waist with her back to him, only to straighten up again a few seconds later, causing his narrow brows to knit in speculation. Then she turned around to face him again and dropped to the ground to sit amongst the flowers, the subsequent lift of her gaze toward him again more sensed than seen. He could clearly discern the bright splash of ocher against the black of her shirt as she raised the warm colored bouquet to her face. The stale breath he'd forgotten to exhale now soughed from his lips, and his head sagged on a suddenly boneless neck, every muscle in his body going limp with relief. She’d made clear her intention. She would sit there with her hands full of flowers and wait for him. And he intuitively knew that she would wait as long as he made her.

Slowly, Vincent raised his head because he sensed her still watching, knew that she awaited his answer. And this time he would give her a decisive one. With a concerted gathering of his strength, he fluidly stood to his full height to gaze across the distance between them with determination in his eyes, plainly broadcasting his own intention to brown eyes he could not see from crimson eyes she could not see. She would await him, and he would not keep her waiting. He did not wish to be alone if being alone meant being without her. So he would be with her every moment until the day she chose to leave him. And on that day, the viability would be gone from his existence, and he would truly be amongst the walking dead. Until that day, he would pretend.

Elena sauntered along with Rachel in tow, her stride relaxed and easy, her fears laid to rest now that she knew where Reno had gone. A simple explanation for his disappearance, and a simple task to return him to the fold. Once she figured out which one of the chemical toilets he’d made his home. As a matter of fact, once she figured out which one, it might be very pleasurable to just tip the thing over on its door and leave him there. A honeyed smile came to her lips at the thought. Until she realized that she’d be in big trouble with Rachel if she did that. Reno’s little groupie wouldn’t appreciate her mistreatment of her precious idol.

As though she’d divined the direction of Elena’s thoughts and meant to reinforce her presence, Rachel looked up at the blonde Turk’s pensive face with concern and gave her hand a sharp tug. Duly drawn from her thoughts, Elena turned disgruntled hazel eyes to the little girl’s face. “What is it, Rachel?” she asked coolly.

“What’s that funny noise?” Rachel queried worriedly.

“What funny noise?” Elena shot back a tad impatiently. And then she realized that the little girl must be referring to the distant hooting and hollering from the back of the camp, mostly good-natured, as far as she could tell. The sound had grown in volume incrementally with each passing step. “Oh, you mean the shouting,” she added in a more amenable tone.

Rachel silently nodded her head in agreement, her sapphire eyes closely searching the Turk’s face for an answer. Elena shrugged indifferently in response, her eyes already leaving the little girl’s face in dismissal. “I don’t know, Rachel. It sounds like a game. Maybe those boys are playing dodge ball again.”

The boys to which she referred were the ragtag group of teenaged males that Derrick Heidegger had brought with him from Junon. They frequently played games during breaks in their work, mostly dodge ball with a somewhat deflated rubber ball they’d discovered in the debris that abounded around the city, but a couple of times she’d seen them playing baseball with a two by four and an unraveling softball. Now that the work on the Sector 2 gate had been completed, and there wasn’t much else to occupy them until the gate was unlocked from within, those boys currently had a lot of time on their hands to play ball. At least they turned their energies to fairly mundane pursuits, despite their collectively disreputable appearance. But then Elena well knew that appearances didn’t mean much. As a Turk, she knew how to manipulate her own appearance in application to assigned tasks, although she hadn’t yet had a great deal of opportunity to exercise her skills. She wondered if she ever would. With each passing day, she found it more likely that she’d wind up back in Costa del Sol helping her father run the business as he berated her to do every time she got stupid and decided to visit him, hoping beyond hope that things had changed between them.

A brief glance at the little girl told Elena that the child had accepted her explanation, a well-reasoned one she thought, until two of the young males to which she’d just referred hurried past her as though she were standing still, their excited voices readily drifting to her ears as they talked and walked and counted the gil notes in their hands.

“I’ll bet ya 50 gil on Barry,” the tall one with the tattered bandana around his straggly brown hair firmly stated. “He’s too damn big to lick.”

“I’ll take that bet,” the shorter one with spiked blonde hair, tattoos on his knuckles and various studs and hoops stuck through strategic places on his face happily proclaimed. “In fact, I’ll up it to 100. They been fightin’ forever an’ Barry hasn’t taken him down yet. That Turk’s got some sweet moves.”

Elena gasped as her hazel eyes flew wide in stunned realization. “Dammit!” she vehemently exclaimed. “I’m going to kick that man's skinny ass!” Not one to dither with indecision, she simply snatched Rachel up into her arms to the little girl’s utter surprise, and ran, easily passing the two underaged gamblers despite her burden. Games were certainly afoot, just as she'd surmised. But they weren’t ballgames. They were Reno’s games. And the Turks didn’t have time for them. What’s more, she planned to most definitely and pointedly kick Reno’s skinny ass, just as she'd proclaimed, all the way into next week if he actually managed to get himself hurt.

Rachel might have found the courage to make mention of Elena’s two instances of inappropriate word usage at that time, if she could manage to catch a whole breath in the woman’s unrelenting embrace, and if she didn’t find the trepidation in the hazel eyes so infectious. Tears of distress welled into the girl’s own eyes. The child had easily glommed onto the fact that Elena’s startling burst of activity and marked level of stress had something to do with Reno, and clearly, that something was not a good something.

An explosion of sound suddenly filled the air. Shouts and hoots of triumph offset by a chorus of boos expressing keen displeasure, the ruckus a clear indication of a development in the fight. Elena managed to pour on even more speed, racing around the last tent into the open clearing beyond the encampment only to encounter the effective barrier of the crowd of people encircling the combatants and hiding Reno from her view. She raised up on tiptop in an attempt to peer over, but the extra few inches failed to enhance the view. Looking wildly around, she spotted a familiar woman standing uncomfortably apart from the rest of the onlookers. The blonde Turk strode over to her with determination, and the woman watched her come with concern in her green eyes.

Elena ground to a stop in front of her. “I know you, right?” Elena demanded in a spate of words that flew from her lips like bullets. “Rockettown, right? You’re with Highwind, right?”

Shera silently nodded her head in response to each one of Elena’s ‘right’s. She didn’t feel compelled to explain that she wasn’t with Highwind anymore and most likely would not be, and even if she had felt the need to clarify, Elena would not have given her the opportunity. The blonde Turk abruptly thrust the little girl she was carrying at her. “Take her!” Elena commanded. Shera obediently took the child, mostly because if she didn’t she thought Elena would simply drop her, but also because she had a pretty good idea what the Turk meant to do.

With Rachel safely off her hands, Elena instantly whirled away, drawing her gun from her waistband as she moved. A few steps away, she turned back and pointed at Shera and a clearly distressed Rachel. “Don’t let her out of your sight,” she snapped off. “I’ll be right back for her.” Shera nodded in understanding, but Elena had already turned to dive into the crowd, clearing herself a path by dint of her sharp boot heels and equally sharp elbows, her progress marked by loud curses and startled cries of pain.

Elena had hardly disappeared from Shera’s sight when the little girl unexpectedly kicked out with frantic feet at the female engineer, shoving at her body with both hands. “Put me down! Put me down!” she cried out. Unsure what to do with the vehemently struggling child and nearly about to lose her hold on her, Shera bent to set her feet to the ground with the intention of taking the little girl’s hand, but as soon as Rachel’s shiny black shoes touched earth, she took flight.

Shera desperately darted after her, but the slippery eel of a child easily eluded her grasp in the short time it took her to reach the crowd and dive in herself, scrabbling away beyond reach between the legs of the onlookers. Shera threw her hands in the air in resignation. She could hardly follow the child’s chosen route with any degree of effectiveness. Besides, she suspected that Elena of the Turks and the unidentified child would shortly end up in the same place.

At that precise moment, Cid Highwind burst into the open around the same tent that Elena had just rounded to foist the child upon her with a loud demand to no one in particular to immediately explain what the hell was going on. Fortunately, his attention and his keen eyes had been drawn to the arena of activity and away from her. Quickly, she melted away into a haphazard stack of crates behind her and made good her escape.

Shivering from the cold, clammy clothing pasted to her body and from the anguish in her heart, Tifa stared blindly down at the bundle of flowers strangled in the chokehold of her tightly clasped hands. Tears that felt especially hot against her chilled cheeks streamed unceasingly and uninterrupted down her face. She didn’t even really know why she was crying, other than for the fact that her anger had melted swiftly away along with her resolve during the frighteningly familiar sensation of falling through the air, immediately followed by a startlingly violent submersion into the frigidly cold water at the base of the falls, leaving her with only her deep regret, which had hardly been dispelled by a punishing swim to shore. But there was no point in crying. She’d said what she’d said. Spilled milk. Now she just had to find a way to apologize to him. No, she had to find the courage to apologize. She could hardly stomach the thought of looking into his face again, not with all those words she’d flung at him resonating over and over inside her head.

She raised her gaze to seek out the distant and tiny figure of a slowly plodding Vincent Valentine, easily distinguished against the earthen colors of the mountain by virtue of the fact that he’d once again donned the bright red cloak. She couldn’t even imagine what he must think of her outburst. What he thought of the hurtful things she’d said. And where had all that come from anyway? And why did she think it was her business to say all that? The man was entitled to his broken heart. To his scars. To his self-inflicted suffering. And she'd had the unmitigated gall to call him selfish. Could anything she'd said to him possibly be further from the truth? She'd called the man who'd risked his neck to save her life, spent many hours taking care of her when she couldn't care for herself, concerned himself with her comfort and sustenance above his own, selfish? She couldn't even begin to justify saying such a horrible thing to him. And who the hell was she to tell him how to live his life? If he didn’t want to talk or be sociable, it hardly made for friendly conversation to browbeat him into it. Maybe she should just kick him. Take him down to the ground and knock some sense into him.

A bubble of inopportune laughter escaped her lips, startling herself that she could manage to find an iota of humor in the whole situation. But for heaven's sake, she wasn’t even making sense anymore. She wanted to beg his forgiveness for her unfortunate outburst and pulp him for his stubborn and unrelenting moroseness at the same time. What was the matter with her? She was going nuts. He was driving her nuts. Between her falling into his arms that morning with the apparent intention of staying if not for his tense rejection, and that incredibly disturbing dream that hardly bore thinking on, and the abject pain in those anguished crimson eyes so like the ones in her dream, along with his refusal to explain the cause, his refusal to ever explain anything whatsoever in fact, and with her wayward mind traveling on occasion to kissing, she would soon be certifiable. They’d have to haul her off in a straight jacket and lock her in a padded cell where she could safely bang her head to her heart’s content and huddle in the corner gurgling unintelligible sounds except for an occasionally distinguishable “Valentine”. And what the hospital staff would make of that she could hardly conjecture.

The vision of some befuddled, gray-haired psychiatrist scratching his head over her and speculating about some terrible and deeply repressed Valentine’s Day trauma to explain her insanity sparked her irrepressible humor, evoking a tremulous smile that hovered tenuously on her lips, threatening to shine though her tears, but hardly got a toehold there before it completely vanished at the nauseating memory of how Vincent had looked, that horrible expression in his eyes, and how he’d been trembling all over, a fact which had hardly registered at the time, but which came sharply home to her now to drive a stake through her black heart. How could she have been so insensitive to his pain? But then, that had been the problem, hadn’t it? She wasn’t insensitive to his pain. Not by a long shot. But it almost seemed that he expected her to be.

Angrily, she dashed a hand at her tear-wet face. How could he expect her to just walk away and leave him alone when she saw him like that? Especially when his unusual and blatant display of emotion had been so frightening. But it wasn’t like she believed him incapable of emotion. No, she’d truthfully gotten over that notion a long time ago. At approximately the same time that she’d inadvertently wakened him from his nightmare and found his gun pointed at her face, his unseeing crimson eyes full of wildness and pain. She wanted to understand, but she didn’t understand. She wanted to help him, but she knew he would never let her. And she couldn’t help him anyway, if he wouldn’t tell her why. What had caused the complete loss of his tight control over his own emotions? It had to be what she’d thought earlier. Something had reminded him of that woman…Ladonna…Larissa…Lolita…what the hell was that woman’s name anyway? What the hell had she done to him to hurt him so badly? She oughta just track her down and kick her ass in retribution. She’d teach that baggins a lesson about messing with her Vincent. And when the hell had he become hers?

With a protracted groan, Tifa let the flowers fall into her lap and buried her face in her hands. She was just going round and round in circles. From crying to laughing to being angry at him all over again, only to flip right back to feeling bad again and sorry for him, and then to being mad at her. His “L”. “L” hadn’t been the one to hurt him that day. She’d been the one. The black hearted Tifa Lockhart. If he was capable of being hurt. But she knew he could be hurt. She’d seen the evidence written all over his face.

It occurred to her then that nothing would ever be the same between them again. He’d revealed a part of himself to her that he’d never intended her to see. Likewise, she’d loosed a side of herself that she rarely showed anyone. In fact, she couldn’t remember the last time she'd allowed herself to get so angry, much less to give her anger free rein to rampage. Maybe Zangan had been the last one, in those times when he pushed her hard to excel, and she’d pushed back just as hard in rebellion. Whatever had happened up on that ledge, whatever had unexpectedly flung them both into such states of high emotion, she knew that she and Vincent, they could never go back to before, and she didn’t know whether to be sad or optimistic about that. She could actually see some hope in such an eventuality. For him anyway. And maybe for her too. There were things on the table now that hadn’t been there before. Things starkly revealed to them both. And maybe he’d be willing to discuss them, if gently urged. Or maybe he would close up tighter than before. Throw up that cold, icy wall that had become increasingly too familiar. On second thought, she should probably just leave him the hell alone. But that was the coward’s road, wasn’t it? Was anything worthwhile ever easy? Didn't her Grandma used to say that to her all the time? But really, what could she possibly hope to gain?

With a tight shrug of her shoulders in pretended nonchalance, she retrieved one of the discarded flowers and lifted it to her face to run the silky yellow and tangerine petals along the curve of one damp cheek. She might as well stop fretting and crying about things she couldn’t change. Whatever would happen would happen. And she’d probably have a pretty good idea which way it would go when they again met face to face. Until then…maybe she’d just stop thinking about him.

Drawing the bedraggled flower down to rest her hand on her soggy leg, she pursed her lips and stared down into the delicate stamens. Impulsively, she lifted her other hand and snatched a petal away. “He hates me,” she muttered grumpily. She studied the petal for a moment, and then dismissively tossed it away. Then she ripped off another petal. “He hates me not.” She discarded that petal as well, and then she proceeded to rip off the rest, chanting her mantra with each one. “He hates me. He hates me not. He hates me. He hates me not. He hates me.”

She glared down at the stripped flower in irritation. Well, she should hardly be surprised. He had every reason to hate her. She’d hate her too, under the circumstances. But no matter how deserved his hatred, she didn’t care for the outcome. Throwing the destroyed plant away from her with a vehemence that expressed just how much she didn’t like the outcome, she reached for another of her discarded flowers.

One by one, she pulled off the petals. “He hates me. He hates me not. He hates me. He hates me not. He hates me. He hates me not.” The tiniest of smiles formed on her lips. She liked that answer much better. Then the smile turned downward as her brows flew together in a disgruntled frown. This flower just zeroed out the first one. Besides, he should hate her. What was the matter with that guy? And where was he anyway?

She lifted hopeful eyes to the tiny slash of red that marked the man’s position on the high mountain trail. He hardly seemed any further than when she'd last checked. Her frown deepened incrementally. It seemed that he’d found a way to punish her after all, by taking his sweet time coming down off the mountain. But really, was she in that big of a hurry to see him? Was she in that big of an all fired hurry to know? And again, here she was spinning herself around in circles. Wanting him back with her, but not wanting to see him, all at the same time. She was a complete mess.

Tifa peered down at the rest of the discarded flowers, and her eyes narrowed in contemplative study. Seemed she had answers at the tips of her fingers, whether they were right answers or not. Maybe she could console herself with the ones she wanted to hear. It seemed as though she had a lot of time and a lot of flowers. She could discover a lot of answers by the time Vincent made it to the end of the trail and deigned to grant her with his presence.

Purposefully, she picked up another bedraggled flower and closely inspected the petals as though she could read the answers blatantly written across the soft petals. But she couldn’t. A corner of her mouth lifted in a smirk, and she snatched a petal away. “I bug him.” She yanked another one off. “I bug him not.”

The petals fluttered through her fingers along with the words murmured off her lips until she came to the last one. She tore it away from the plant and let it fall. “I bug him.” A satisfied smile came to her lips, and she again lifted her eyes to the distance plodding figure, her gaze turning speculative as she watched him for long moments, eventually nodding her head sagely at the answer the flower granted her.


She planned to bug him a lot more. In fact, she thought that she might just get on his very last nerve before she was done.

The buzzing darkness of oxygen deprivation inexorably crept into the Turk’s brain, a shadowy blankness slipping across the surface of his mind to eclipse his capacity for thought even as he fought to drag a single breath of precious air into lungs crushed flat. He could sense the strength rapidly bleeding from his muscles now, and despite a concerted effort his desperate struggles to get free slowed and weakened into an ineffectual flopping of his limbs. His motivation began to desert him as the crushing pain at his spine increasingly consumed what few mental resources he had left to him, leaving him little else but one sweetly disdainful voice expelled from the dying gasp of a recent memory, spitting out words across the emptying surface of his failing brain. Words that promptly revived his will to fight. Words that granted him a renewed purpose in life

“If I find your body lying around anywhere I’ll be sure to kick sand over it.”

He’d be damned if he was going to give her the pleasure. A berserker cry of challenge rang in his thoughts if not off his slack lips as he laboriously dragged up the last of his dwindling strength to focus his mind and body to the task. Convulsively doubling up both his fists, he drew back his arms as far as he could and drove those two fists into Barrett Wallace’s ears. What the last ditch tactic lacked in force, was amply compensated by strategic application as the heavy Turk ring on Reno’s left hand sliced painfully through the skin and cartilage of his opponent’s ear, evoking a sharp intake of breath from the man and a roar of triumph from the spectators.

Barrett instantly released Reno from his deadly embrace, and the Turk poured out limply onto the ground at his feet with a tortured gasp for air as the injured man shot up a hand to check out his damaged ear with an unintelligible curse. He fiercely glared at his bloodied fingertips in grim displeasure as Reno struggled to rise from the ground. Barrett suddenly swept back his foot to kick out with the broad toe of one boot at his prostrate target, and at sight of the oversized foot coming his way the bone weary Turk discovered the incentive required to urge his sluggish body to action, just barely rolling out of range in time to prevent a broken rib or two. Barrett inexplicably took a step back to watch as Reno awkwardly scrambled to his feet to yet again confront his weary adversary.

Reno and Barrett circled each other slowly and warily, both men winded and still laboring for breath after this last intense encounter that had been a culmination of a prolonged engagement of blows more carelessly thrown and kicks more wildly and less accurately executed than previously. A flurry of violent motion that had ended when Barrett had finally managed to snag a ham-sized fistful of the exhausted Turk’s shirt, snatching him up into a deadly bear hug of an embrace in an attempt to relentlessly crush the life out of him by denying him the ability to draw breath into his aching lungs. A hastily executed but effective maneuver that had nearly succeeded.

Both combatants were beyond exhausted. Both men were bruised and battered. Both had long used up all their words. Both wanted the fight to end. Their reasons for fighting were long forgotten. Yet neither would cede the battle. It wasn’t even so much that people were watching. They hardly noticed the onlookers anymore. Their focus had narrowed down as the battle had grown much more serious, alert stares keenly drawn to the other man’s slightest move, like a sniper’s eye through a scope. It was just that neither man had an ounce of surrender in him. Both men knew that the struggle would continue until one of them fell and didn’t get back up, and both were resigned to that fact. So the two of them wearily paced, keen eyes pinned to their prey, watching for a clear sign of weakness that would cue an opportunity for the kill as both sucked in air and gathered their energy for the next clash of muscle and will. Technique had long gone by the wayside.

Reno swiped the back of his hand across his sopping forehead to dash away the runnels of sweat that threatened to trickle into his eyes, and Barrett gingerly touched a couple of oversized fingers to his injured ear to again test the injury. Murmurs and occasional catcalls came from the crowd to reach their ears, but the sounds didn’t truly register in their minds, leaving the combatants inside their own well of silence filled only with the adrenaline driven throb of blood in their ears and the raspy gasps for air.

“You ready to give up, Turk,” Barrett demanded breathlessly as he glared through squinted lids into Reno’s droopy eyes.

“In your dreams, Wallace,” Reno gasped out, unconsciously giving voice to Elena’s favorite line to him. She was with him after all, in the back of his mind, waiting rather impatiently to dump a handful of dirt in his eyes once he’d fallen. “What about you, pal? You ready to surrender?”

“Hell, no,” Barrett growled through teeth clenched against an overwhelming desire to say ‘yes’ instead.

Reno raised his hands with visible effort, and Barrett laboriously lifted his doubled up fist and open pincer in imitation.

“Suppose we better get on with it then,” Reno said half-heartedly.

Barrett nodded his head in reluctant agreement and clumsily jabbed with his left. Reno stumbled in an awkward sidestep as he ducked. Then Reno threw his leg around in a sloppily executed kick that Barrett avoided with a quick backwards step, the Turk almost losing his balance in the process, the big man almost falling over his own heavy feet.

And with that ignominious start, the fight was on again, such that it was. And the two antagonists valiantly fought on, completely unaware of the two interlopers about to emerge into the arena of battle. Two gate-crashers that would irretrievably upset the balance of power.

The first one frantically attempted to squeeze between two hefty men standing at the front of the crowd, finally managing to squirt out through the narrow gap created when, with a mighty shove, she managed to send one man stumbling sideways into the arms of another with a startled curse. She entered center stage to the bemusement of the spectators on a high, wavering, drawn-out wail of a scream.


Instantly alerted, not only by the recognition of his own name, but also by the frantic distress conveyed in the child’s cry, the Turk’s head came around. Reno stared in narrow-eyed consternation as the unaccompanied Rachel tore unimpeded across the bare expanse of ground toward him, all of her senses, every ounce of her being, every straining muscle in her pumping legs, directed to reaching one single person in the whole wide world.

Without the conscious thought of doing so, Reno took a tentative step toward her, his thoughts scrambling to readjust to the requirements of this unexpected situation even as a scathing self-accusation leapt to the forefront of his mind. Rachel was clearly alone, and he should have been with her.

The Turk had only enough time to make that one step and think only that one clear thought before Barrett Wallace took full advantage of the ample opening Reno had left him, all in the hope of finally putting paid to a fight that had completely slipped from the forefront of the Turk’s mind. Pulling his fist way back over his shoulder, he let fly a powerful punch that sledge-hammered into Reno’s face with such force the cheek split wide open against the underlying cheekbone with an attendant spray of warm blood, a solid blow that obliterated all trace of intelligent thought from the Turk’s head in a white-hot explosion of pain.

The crowd went wild with the excitement of bloodlust, and the roar completely drowned out the little girl's cry of horror and outrage as Reno went flying. Deaf to the noise of the crowd, his ears full of an undifferentiated cottony buzz, the Turk felt his boots flip out from under him as he went floating through the air, an incongruous sensation that sparked a single disquieting thought on the clean slate of his mind that he must be dead, a conclusion painfully disproved when his body solidly met the ground with all the grace and control of a sack of grain. He landed with a bone jarring impact on his side, but rolled on over with the momentum, coming to an abrupt stop on the hard surface with his back to the blackened dirt and his arms and legs splayed like a discarded cloth doll, unfocused green eyes at half-mast as he gazed senselessly through his lashes at the white fluffy clouds scudding past overhead.

Barrett Wallace only had a second or two to stare in amazement at the motionless body that was the result of the impetuously thrown and powerful punch that had hit so hard that his skin over his knuckles had cracked open before his attacker was upon him. The feral creature leapt for one thickly muscled leg where she dug in with the tenacity of a flea, fastening herself down with arms of steel to viciously sink her bared teeth into his thigh.

“Ow!” he yelled in startled surprise as his eyes jerked downward to stare in amazement at the small blond girl attached to his limb. He gave his leg a hard shake to dislodge the rabid child even as she unfastened her teeth for another chomp.

“Ow! What the…!!!”

Barrett reached down a huge hand with the intention of grabbing the little girl and plucking her from his leg, but she anticipated his move and abruptly released him to spring away, only to dart around in a tight flanking move to fly back at him from his blind side with dainty feet kicking and diminutive fists flying.

The exhausted Barrett clumsily danced and hopped around trying to avoid the frenzied attack of the merciless child even as he gaped in loose-jawed amazement at the ambitious creature. He could hear the onlookers laughing at a show that had descended from nerve wracking drama straight into vaudeville comedy as the huge mountain of a man that had finally bested a Turk, albeit only because of an unfair distraction, found himself completely at sea as to what to do with his pint-sized assailant. He looked around for someone who might help him, but he found only a sea of unfamiliar faces chortling and guffawing. Where were his friends when he needed them? And where were the kid’s keepers? The enraged child darted out of sight and dove onto to his other leg from behind, promptly clamping her incisors down into the back of his thigh, pointedly granting him the answer. Sure the hell not here.

Meanwhile, Rachel’s erstwhile keeper had found her own advance to the arena of battle stymied by a couple of playfully amorous but seemingly harmless young males who had attached themselves to each of her elbows like leeches as she’d shoved through the tangle of people that made up the impromptu audience. She’d briefly pondered shooting them, especially as the moron on her right didn’t possess the observational skills to note the gun she held close against her thigh, but she’d deemed it unacceptable in that particular situation. So she had expended several precious moments attempting to extricate herself with more socially appropriate means, first impatiently but civilly demanding her release, and then with a sharp tug against both sets of seemingly tentacled fingers and a sharply worded promise of mayhem if they didn’t comply. A threat the idiot pair of them found more amusing than anything, if their spontaneous laughter were any indication.

Occupied with bloodlessly liberating herself, Elena had heard the child’s scream, but from inside the crowd it seemed just another thread in a constant sea of sound, and the import of the cry failed to register in her mind. She’d also missed the sequence of events in the immediate aftermath, but at the explosion of laughter from the crowd, she ceased her struggles just long enough to twist her head to an angle that would allow her a glimpse of the scene through the gap between two onlookers. Hazel eyes burning fiercely with her ire abruptly turned bleak at sight of the limp body sprawled across the ground with his palms turned to the sky and the silken ends of his bound ponytail sprayed across his chest and face. The spectators in front of her shifted position, cruelly closing off her view of Reno, but revealing the small girl dancing agilely away from Barrett Wallace’s grasping hand.

Her gasp of outrage brought reviving air into lungs that had forgotten to breathe, and Elena came to life and quit playing around. With no other thought but to be free, she erupted into rage-fueled motion, her next unpremeditated actions mere reflexes drawn from training and instinct. With a vicious downward jab of her boot heel into the top of the first man’s sandaled foot, she made the good-natured grin bleed from his face and his tight hold on her upper arm loosen. Easily ripping her right arm from his weak grasp, she spun away from him and wildly swept her pistol barrel upward to stop it just short of her other captor’s nose. A startled yelp came off his lips at sight of the yawning black hole of the bore, and he instantly released her.

With a snarl of hatred expressed through tightly clenched teeth and with hazel eyes full of murderous intent, Elena violently shoved her way between the last spectators in her path and flew out into the open to race full tilt across the flat stretch of ground. Her unreasoning rage narrowed her focus to one man and left her completely oblivious to all else, including the many pairs of eyes looking on.

A cacophony of sound filled the air and filtered slowly into the muzzy wasteland inside the fallen Turk’s hammering head. First, the incomprehensible roar of the laughing crowd teased his mind with promise. Then, he incuriously noted the enraged shrieks of a child punctuated by the sharp protests of her helpless target. And finally, into the vacuum of sound left by a crowd fallen suddenly to a hushed murmuring, came the voice of one irate woman. A cold, shaking voice that finally reached through the thick mush of his bruised brain to snap him to full consciousness with the equivalent effect of a slap in the face. He blinked once in bewilderment at blue expanse of sky that lay beneath his direct line of sight before his dazed senses clicked back into place and his eyes flooded with intelligence, the content of her flatly enunciated statement fully registering with stunning import in his benumbed mind.

”You son of a bitch,” Elena snarled between gritted teeth. “I’m going to kill you.” She promptly raised her pistol in both hands to aim the barrel between two brown eyes startled wide in disbelief to make good her vow. The relentless, inexhaustible child sharply kicked the big man’s ankle right on the anklebone, and the staring eyes winced in pain.

“Elena, desist!” Reno shouted desperately in terse command as he summoned the strength to shove himself onto his side, his own imperative words banging painfully inside his head to awaken a vicious sharp-clawed and sharp-fanged beast within his cranium.

Elena froze with her finger on the trigger and risked a look at him. Her face darkened ominously at sight of the seeping gash across his cheekbone and the swelling that had already puffed the whole side of his face. “No,” she stubbornly snapped, and she instantly returned to the business of dispatching Barrett Wallace for his transgression against Reno of the Turks.

“That’s…an order…Elena,” Reno harshly informed her in a voice strained with effort as he managed to heft himself up on one knee. “Disobedience…will garner…serious consequences.”

She defiantly raised the gun higher to stare straight up the barrel and carefully lined up the sight, ready to squeeze off the fatal shot, yet she hesitated, narrowing her burning eyes as Barrett unconsciously shook his head. Reno suddenly surged to his feet, only to stumble a step sideways as his head spun crazily. With a concerted effort, he managed to plant both feet wide to steady his stance, and he leveled green eyes glittering with intense displeasure on Elena’s face. “Do not make me sorry, Elena,” he said in a hard, icy voice spoken lowly so his words wouldn’t travel much further than her ears. “That you’re a Turk.”

Elena’s breath caught painfully and audibly in her throat, and her finger tightened incrementally on the trigger, but then her anger deserted her, and her arm simply fell to her side as though her bones had dissolved just as quickly as her resolve. She lowered her distraught gaze to the ground, unwilling to look at Wallace any longer and unable to look at Reno. She wasn’t ready to examine how closely she’d come to making an irrevocable and grievous error, and looking at Reno tightened her throat with pain and threatened to reignite her temper. Barrett’s eyes closed in relief, but then flew wide again when the little girl, who had ceased her assault to watch Reno’s promising rise from the ground, suddenly hauled off and kicked him yet again.

“Could you call off your attack kid too, Turk?” he gruffly pleaded.

Reno worked hard to bring his eyes into focus, eventually merging the twin girls that moved in unison to pummel and kick Wallace’s tree trunk of a leg into just one determined little girl. “Rachel, desist!” he called out to her. He winced in pain as his own words echoed relentlessly inside his head. As he expected, she promptly halted her assault to turn wide blue eyes in his direction, responding to her name rather than his command, but her mouth puckered up and those eyes filled with tears at sight of his injured face. Reno rolled his eyes upward in despair. He would hate for the child to see some of the combat injuries he’d sustained over the years, if she was on the verge of caterwauling over this inconsequential little cut. “Elena, get her out of here,” he curtly commanded as he pressed both hands to his temples to hold his pulsating skull together.

Elena had drawn away from Barrett after Reno’s coldly voiced admonishment, but she hadn’t made a move toward the redheaded Turk or anyone else, instead standing stiffly apart with her eyes still averted. At his command, she stuck her gun in the waistband of her pants and made a wide arc around Wallace to take Rachel in hand. The child spurted away the first time she reached for her, but when she noticed the strangely intense expression in Elena’s hazel eyes, she permitted her capture at the blonde Turk’s second attempt. Wordlessly, Elena took the girl by the hand and led her away as Rachel craned her neck to keep Reno in her sights. Elena managed to tow the reluctant, heavy-footed child a few steps before she heard Reno speak again, and the words that came off his lips brought her to a stunned halt.

”Let’s finish this fight, Wallace,” Reno said coolly as he swayed unsteadily in place. He raised the back of his hand to swipe away the trickle of blood slipping into the corner of his mouth.

Elena whirled around in stark amazement, her mouth slackly agape with shock, all verbal utterances of protest locked in her constricted throat. Barrett saved her the effort of finding her voice or drawing her gun. A good thing, as she thought she’d probably just shoot Reno this time. In just retribution for the crime of displaying unprecedented stupidity.

Barrett started shaking his head. “Uh uh, Turk. This fight’s over.”

“I’m good to go,” Reno doggedly informed him, and with concerted effort, steadied his stance and raised his fists before him.

“Well, I’m not,” Barrett flatly replied. “Your kid did me in, and I got places to be.” Plus, he wasn’t so sure Elena wouldn’t turn and shoot him despite her orders, and despite the crowd of witnesses, but he left that unsaid.

“We’ll take this up later then,” Reno readily amended.

Again, Barrett shook his head. “No, we won’t. This fight is over.” He jabbed a finger at the ground. “And our disagreement ends here. We’re done.”

Reno relaxed his stance and tilted his head in respectful acknowledgement of Barrett’s proclamation. “No more beefs then?” he inquired, just to clarify the matter.

“Nope, no more beefs. We’re finished.”

Reno held out his hand and took an unsteady step forward. “Friends, then?” He smirked in anticipation of the ex-Avalanche leader’s reaction.

Barrett glared at the proffered hand. “I wouldn’t go that far, Turk, but…” He suddenly stepped forward and grabbed the redheaded Turk’s hand to give it a single hearty pump. “…That was one helluva fight, I gotta say...” Then he frowned at his own unthinking action and released Reno’s hand from his grasp just as impulsively as he’d taken it, unconsciously wiping his hand against his pants as he turned away. “Helluva fight…” he muttered to himself in disbelief. He shook his head in wonder as he left.

Reno absently touched his fingers to his injured cheek as he watched Barrett amble away, and then he turned too, his head coming around to seek out Elena and Rachel, only to find a fist flying directly at his face. Startled, he reflexively stumbled a step backward, and the fist whistled past the end of his nose with only a hairsbreadth of clearance. He opened his mouth to decry the blatant act of mutiny, but lost the ability to speak when his attacker instantly followed that fruitless punch with a second one, swinging her other fist unerringly toward his face, forcing him another clumsily executed step backward.

“Elena! What the hell are you…” he finally cried out in bewilderment.

“You want your ass kicked, Reno?!” she shrilly demanded in her anger. She drew back her hand and let her fist fly again, and he awkwardly ducked away out of the line of trajectory, green eyes widening at the near miss that he found had come too close to his face for comfort. “Because I can kick it for you!”

Reno started backpedaling then as she stalked him with hazel eyes blazing, too mentally off balance by the unexpected assault on his person to quickly devise a counter strategy, his own worried eyes mesmerized by the tightly clenched fist she drew way back over her shoulder as she mirrored his retreat step for step.

“Elena…you better not…”

“You’re gonna be sorry I’m a Turk?!” She illustrated her keen outrage by driving her fist straight for the point of his chin this time. He ducked away again, with a bit more proficiency this time, as he finally gathered his wits about him and found his focus. “Well, I’m sorry I’m a Turk!”

Unexpectedly, she fisted her other and and fired it toward his exposed stomach. His hand flew out to the side as he reflexively jumped backward, his spine curving as he sucked his stomach out of reach. “Elena! Desist!” he desperately commanded her, but his words fell on deaf ears.

“Damn right I’m sorry I’m a Turk! With a stupid dumbass for a leader! I feel like a…a…a goddamn babysitter!” She raised her fist again, and Reno cringed away from her, dropping into a protective crouch as he threw both hands up to shelter his head from the expected blow.

“Elena…don’t hit me…please…” he pleaded in a small fearful voice.

She paused in gape-mouthed surprise with her fist raised threateningly in midair, completely taken aback by his unusual pansy-assed behavior. Too late, she realized his scheme as he erupted into action at her hesitation and grabbed for her, one hand flying up to capture her fist in an unmercifully tight grip and one arm whipping about her waist to drag her hard against him. Her knee automatically came up, but anticipating the attack, he sharply twisted his body away to remove her intended target out of range, a pained frown coming to his face. Twisting the captured fist up behind her back, he tightened the iron band of his arm around her to jerk her onto her toes. Holding her there against his side, he bent his head to bring his mouth to her ear even as she fisted her hand in the back of his shirt to maintain her balance, grabbing a handful of his straggling ponytail in the process.

“Do you want to rethink your position now, Elena?” he growled lowly, his warm breath stirring her hair. “While I’m still in the mood to negotiate the terms of your continued employment as a Turk?”

Elena’s eyes burned hotly into his as she mentally reviewed her options. After fighting back against a momentary impulse to give his ponytail a hard yank, she decided that she had few choices left to her. None really, if she planned to remain in the Turks. She dimly recognized that she’d far overstepped her subordinate position by any conceivable stretch of the imagination. If Tseng had still been Leader of the Turks, he would most certainly have, at the very least, suspended her for a period of time while he considered the advisability of keeping her on. One particular Turk leader of the past that she’d heard tales about would probably have terminated her on the spot, literally. She didn’t know what the unpredictable Reno would do, but she suspected she’d better alter her behavior immediately. Even if she still wanted to strangle him.

“I’ll rethink my position,” she finally muttered in petulant surrender.

Reno studied her disgruntled face skeptically. “Sure about that?”

“I’m sure. Now put me down. Please.”

Reno did as she bade, not so much because he found her convincing. He didn’t find her convincing at all. But because the relentless pounding in his head increasingly usurped his will to fight with her and sapped the little bit of strength he’d dredged up from limbs rubbery with exhaustion to restrain her.

On her feet again, Elena pointedly smoothed her denim jacket into place, and with an insolent toss of her head, she stepped away from him and straightened her shoulders to stand at attention, a clear indication that all desire to flatten his pointy nose had left her. For the moment.

Reno tried to school his mind to the problem of Elena’s insubordination and what measures he should take to address it, but his thoughts slipped away from him as his head commenced a slow, dizzying spin. Unconsciously, he raised a hand to cradle his forehead in his fingers as he worked to refocus. To his misfortune, Rachel chose that moment, now that Elena had moved away from him, to exhibit her elation at his survival and to defend her personal territory, darting in to throw her arms about one unsteady leg even as she turned eyes full of challenge in Elena’s direction. Already feeling off center, Reno staggered sideways at the assault to his faltering equilibrium.

With a sharp breath of alarm, Elena instantly stepped in without a moment’s hesitation and threw out her hand to snatch his flailing hand into hers. Gratefully, he latched his fingers around hers, easily regaining his balance with her assistance. Elena simply turned into him then, draping his arm across her shoulders as she slipped a supportive arm behind his back. Reno’s thin lips curved in a small smile of amusement at the pained expression on Elena’s face. She looked as though she might be a tad bit concerned, perhaps about his condition, and maybe a little dismayed that she’d tried to pulp him while he suffered in that condition and more than a little irritated that she had to relinquish her display of annoyance at him to help him. He bent his head to bring his mouth close to her ear again.

“Sucking up, Elena?” he queried silkily.

Her irritation threatened to wholly overtake her face again as she turned narrowed hazel eyes upward to his face. “And if I am, Reno? Would it do me any good?”

“Maybe…” His green eyes developed a calculating glint. “Do you have that restore materia on you?”

As Barrett moved across the clearing, the crowd exploded with laughter, and he balefully glared their way, wondering what they found so amusing. Had he turned back and caught sight of the brief altercation between the two Turks, he would have known, but at that moment his eyes came to light on the Captain who stood waiting a few feet from the arena of battle with Barrett’s duffle bag over one shoulder and the shaft of his spear cradled in the crook of his arm, quietly smoking a cigarette.

Barrett’s brows flew together in disgruntlement, and he strode over to confront the lackadaisical Highwind. “Where ya been? This your idea of help? Standing around gawking?”

Cid offered him a one-shouldered shrug and frowned his displeasure at the undeserved criticism as he lazily blew out a long exhalation of smoke. “Hell, I just got here. I got waylaid by Jimbo. He wanted to make a wager on the fight. What’d ya want me to do? Spear the kid?”

“What?! No…” The entirety of Highwind’s words sank in, and Barrett’s dark eyes turned speculative. “Who’d ya bet on, Highwind?”

Cid grinned his refusal to say.

“You didn’t bet on me?” Barrett demanded in outraged hurt.

Cid waved a dismissive hand, cigarette smoke trailing at the movement. “Who says I didn’t?” He asked reasonably. “Does it matter? Nobody won this one.” He suddenly yanked the duffle bag off his shoulder and tossed at Barrett, who reflexively snagged it into one huge hand. “Shoulda bet on the kid, I’d say,” the Captain blithely added. “Thought she was gonna tear your ass up.” Cid chuckled at the irritated scowl that came to his friend’s face at his teasing words, and he threw his cigarette to the ground to crush it out with one boot toe, after which he took his spear into hand. “Come on, friend. I’ll walk ya to the chocobo pen. That’s where ya were s’posed to be goin’, right? ‘Fore you started all this excitement.”

“Sure…right…okay…” Barrett replied vaguely, his thoughts turning inward as he fell in with Cid’s shambling steps. “…But I…didn’t start it…”

“Sure ya didn’t…” Cid agreeably if skeptically remarked.

“Damn Turk started…this one,” Barrett absently responded.

Almost against his will, he glanced back over one shoulder to find the injured Turk swaying in place pretty much where he’d left him, at just the moment that the little blonde-haired girl exuberantly threw both arms around one unstable leg to press her cheek against his thigh. The child probably would have dumped the unsteady man to the ground if not for Elena’s quick step and the hand that she obligingly threw up to grip his windmilling arm, offering the redheaded Turk an anchor to keep him on his feet. Barrett’s steps slowed as he watched Elena come close to Reno’s side, allowing him to slip an arm around her shoulders for support as she looked up at him with obvious concern. As he watched, Reno bent his head close to exchange a few words with her, and then she drew the pistol from her waistband and slid her fingers across the butt to touch the green materia orb inserted there.

Barrett abruptly came to a complete stop and turned around in place to fully face in Reno’s direction. “Hey, Reno!” he hailed from where he stood, his shout bringing a startled Highwind to a stop as well. Cid unconsciously took a step and raised a gloved hand as though he might grab a handful of Barrett’s vest to drag him away, his brows beetling in bewilderment at Barrett’s unexpected move. “Barrett…don’t do somethin’ stupid…” he warned lowly.

At the shout, Reno looked up with wary eyes, and Elena and the little girl both glared daggers across the distance at him. Their remarkably similar expressions almost brought a smile to Barrett’s lips, but he rearranged his face into a tight frown to defy the urge.

“Change your mind, Wallace?” Reno called in a challenging voice that set off the jackhammers inside his head again and made him regret opening his mouth.

“Nope, Turk,” he bellowed in reply. “I said what I said, and I meant it. Jus’ wanted to tell ya, Turk, that ya better take good care of those girls. Cuz looks to me like those girls sure do take good care of you."

A jaunty grin came to Reno’s face, and a deep frown of displeasure to Elena’s. Chuckling in his throat, Barrett turned back onto his route, and a relieved Cid matched his steps. “What the hell was that about?” Cid asked with a hint of disgruntled perplexity.

Barrett shrugged his huge shoulders. “…I…dunno…just something about seeing the three of them together…struck me. Made me see…that everybody…no matter who they are…has somebody that cares about them…even if they don’t know it. An’ I guess I just wanted that Turk to see what I saw right then…to respect what he’s got right there…” Barrett paused in his explanation as his focus turned inward, and his brown eyes darkened with sorrow. “…Sometimes people get caught up in events…and they don’t see what’s right in front of ‘em…and they lose sight of what’s important…take it for granted…and then one day…it’s too late…”

“You guiltin’ yourself over Marlene now?” Cid asked uneasily, uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation, the whole topic suddenly hitting just a little too close to home. “She’ll understand…when she hears what…” Cid clamped his mouth shut on his words at a rather impatient shake of Barrett’s head.

“No…I was thinking ‘bout Myrna,” he corrected gruffly. “About how I was in a hurry that day and just sorta hollered ‘bye at her on my way out the door, just takin’ it for granted…she’d be right there…waiting dinner for me…when I got back…”

“Well, don’t be tearin’ yourself up over it. We all take people for granted without meanin’ to, Barrett,” Cid replied brusquely. “It’s just part of livin’. If everybody acted like everyday would be their last, nobody’d get a damn thing done.”

Barrett shifted an appraising gaze to Cid’s stiff face, and a sly glint came into his chocolate eyes. Still he held his tongue, not speaking again until they’d covered several feet of ground in silence, not until they’d rounded the barrier of stacked crates that bordered the northern boundary of the camp where the makeshift chocobo pen stood.

“So…Cid…whatcha gonna do about Shera?”

The Captain’s countenance darkened at the subtle challenge in his question. “Nothin’. Not a damn thing,” he snapped. “It’s none o’ your business, anyway. An’ I don’ wanna talk about Shera.”

“Okay, Cid.” Barrett complied easily enough, but he didn’t plan to stop there. “Just don’t wait around ‘til it’s too late. Cuz then you’ll be caught in a trap you can’t ever get out of.” Barrett halted in front of the gate to the chocobo pen and reached for the latch, completely ignoring the intense glare Highwind leveled on his unwitting head.

“Keep your sermons to yerself, Reverend,” the Captain growled irritably. “Just a bunch of hot air comin’ outta your pie hole today. Did that Turk knock you soft in the head?”

“Maybe so…” Barrett affably conceded as he swung the gate open and stepped through, meticulously closing and latching it behind him, effectively placing a barrier between him and Cid Highwind. “Guess I’ll jus’ keep my mouth shut from now on…” He walked over to retrieve the chocobo’s bridle from where Yuffie had draped it over a post as the curious bird watched him with keen saucer eyes.

Cid gave one curt nod of his head. “Good idea.”

“…Mind my own business…”

“Yeah, stay outta trouble that way,” Cid readily agreed.

“…And keep mum ‘bout seein’ Shera…”

“You’re gettin’ smarter by the…” Cid abruptly fell silent as the import of Barrett’s words sank home. He swallowed hard and turned to watch the big man slip the bridle onto the cooperative bird’s head. He clamped his mouth down hard on the question poised on his lips. He was not going to ask. He did not want to ask. He did not care to ask. So he would not ask.

“You saw…Shera?” Cid gruffly inquired, wincing at his own compulsive words.

Barrett began to whistle as he buckled up the halter straps, as though he hadn’t heard Cid’s query at all, even though the Captain stood only a few feet away on the opposite side of the corral fence with a gloved hand fisted around the top railing.

“Hey, Wallace!” Cid called out. “Did you hear what I asked?”

“Yeah, I heard ya, Highwind,” Barrett shot back over his shoulder.

“Well, ya gonna answer me?”


“Why not?”

“Cuz I don’t wanna talk ‘bout Shera.”

Barrett Wallace smiled beatifically at the chocobo as she tilted her head with curious interest at the amazing number of swear words and inventive names Cid Highwind managed to string together in response.

Reno intently scrutinized the spectators around them, his eyes narrowed to better see through the luminous glow of the high level cure spell. The pain of his injuries bled away as he noted with satisfaction that the majority of the onlookers were already moving away, some grumbling at the outcome of the fight, and some joking good-naturedly amongst themselves. A few still looked their way, some with smiles of appreciation for the entertainment. Others stared with less than friendly expressions, but a focused evil glare in their direction promptly redirected their attention elsewhere.

Rachel turned her face against him, a subtle movement that drew Reno’s curious gaze downward to the little girl who still had her warm cheek pressed firmly against his thigh and her arms wrapped viselike around his leg. With a little frown of discontentment, Reno jiggled his leg in a half-hearted and fruitless attempt to persuade the clinging child to let go even as he shifted his gaze to Elena’s stiff face in keen speculation. She’d turned to fully face him in order to cast the spell, displacing the arm that had been lying across both shoulders for support so that his forearm now rested atop one shoulder with his hand dangling down her back. Taking full advantage of her preoccupation, he ever so stealthily rotated his wrist and slipped his fingers up beneath the fall of her blonde hair to gently caress the nape of her neck. He smiled when she scrunched her shoulders up in unconscious resistance to his intrusion.

“So how about it, ‘Lena? Gonna kiss my owies?” Reno asked with a playful wiggle of one narrow eyebrow, sparkling green eyes roving her angelic but resentful features as he bent his head and puckered his lips in clear invitation.

Elena's anger had already been reignited by Barrett Wallace’s unwelcome commentary, and now the sight of Reno's teasing face only poured fuel on the fire. Displeasure with her unrepentant leader written all over her pretty features, she sharply jerked away as she tossed his arm off her shoulder with one hand. With a purposeful step back, she landed the brunt of her virulent glare on his roguish face as she jammed the pistol back into the waistband of her pants, her magic fueled ministrations completed. Reno didn’t fail notice her obvious indignation, and he could easily discern from the tight compression of her tinted lips her admirable struggle to hold back any fevered remarks that might place her on worse footing with her leader despite his unprofessional behavior.

“Spit it out, Elena,” he coolly instructed her, all hint of playfulness leaving his face. “Speak your mind.”

She averted her gaze to the vicinity of his chest and straightened her back to stand proudly before him. “Do I have your permission to speak freely?” she formally inquired.

“You do.”

She drew in a long bracing breath and expelled it along with her first words. “Fine then, Reno. Your so called ‘owies’ are healed,” she curtly reminded. “As you well know. But even if they weren’t, there’s no way in hell I’d kiss them. Putting yourself in this situation was a reckless and unprofessional thing to do, and you deserve to suffer the pain of every single cut and bruise. If we didn’t have work to do, I would’ve just let you keep them. Every single one.” She lifted her chin in challenge and planted her hands on her slender hips to await his reaction. She well knew that she’d overstepped her authority with her criticism despite his permission, but she didn’t care one damn little bit.

Reno’s face dissolved into a mask of bewildered innocence, an expression of blatant falsity designed to annoy her further as he well knew that she’d hit the nail dead on the head with her censure. He’d known it before she’d said it. He unerringly recognized that he’d allowed his wayward emotions to propel him into the fight with Wallace for his own personal gratification, and in the process he’d put those he’d been tasked to protect at risk as well as himself. Of course, that didn’t mean he intended to admit it to her.

“Are you mad at me, ‘Lena?” he asked sorrowfully.

Elena stared at him for a long moment in disbelief at his disingenuous attitude, and then she turned her mind to forming an answer that would convey an appropriate level of angry affirmation, but before she could spit the words out, she realized the response would be just as insincere as his. Her eyes skated away from his mocking face, and she peered off toward the departing stragglers as she shook her head in denial. “No, Reno…” she said with a hint of sadness. “I’m not mad. I’m…”

She paused as she struggled to find the right word for all the emotions that struggled for supremacy just then. Reno had run her through an emotional gauntlet with his behavior, from astonishment at the discovery of his feckless actions to a tremulous fear at sight of his prostrate body, only to then to be seized by her uncontrolled rage, followed by a cold immersion in her embarrassment at recognition of her own rash and unprofessional behavior, only to be consumed with anger that he meant to continue the fight. She’d been so irate that she’d meant to pound some good sense into his head, an ill-advised move to be sure. And now she felt…she felt…

“I’m…disappointed in you, Reno,” she finally answered him in a heavy voice. With a final sad shake of her head, she simply turned away and put her back to him, folding her arms about her waist as though the wind had suddenly turned cold as she headed off in the direction of the medical tent where she’d been ordered to go, not even bothering to tell him he was supposed to go too. Let him figure it out on his own. She missed the mild hint of surprise in Reno’s eyes and the transformation of his face from taunting to thoughtful. He tipped his head sideways to peer down into the wide pair of china blue eyes cautiously watching him.

“I guess she told me, didn’t she?” he commented to the little girl.

Rachel nodded her head in confirmation.

“You mad at me?”

Rachel shook her head against his leg, tightening her death grip about his thigh to emphasize her reply.


She shook her head again.

“Well, you should be.”

Rachel simply stared up at him with a troubled gaze, and he couldn’t begin to fathom what she might be thinking. He had to ask himself why he’d ever want to know. And why was he still lagging around here conversing with a child anyway.

Reno rearranged his affable face into one of irritated severity. “Okay, hands off the merchandise, kid. We gotta hit the road.” She made no move to obey, so he gave his leg a hard shake to dislodge her. Finally, she slowly and reluctantly let him go. She started to reach for his hand instead, but he promptly stuffed them in his jeans pockets, seemingly taking no note of her intention. She resigned herself to latching onto a pinch of the denim material of his pants, and he permitted her that small measure of security.

Side by side, the Turk and the child moved out, pausing after a few steps for Reno to bend down and snatch up his magrod from where it had fallen from his hip pocket during the fight. Reno jammed the telescoped weapon back into his pocket, and took another long step to retrieve his lost sunglasses. He inspected them closely for damage and then shoved them into his hair. Only then did he head out along the same route that Elena had taken in her departure, careful to adjust his steps to Rachel’s short stride. No words passed between them as they walked across the bare ground to reach the edge of the clearing, but when they turned into the cool shadowy alleyway between two tents, Rachel tilted her head in prolonged thought, and then she spoke that thought aloud.

“I want to be a Turk,” she bluntly informed Reno.

Reno turned an amused pair of eyes down to study the directness of her forward gaze and the straightness of her shoulders, a posture she had appropriated along with her proclamation in unconscious reinforcement of her words.

The Turk’s mouth curved in a thin lipped smile. “Sorry, kid, but I have to say no. I don’t think you’re Turk material.”

Wide blue eyes flew to his face in dismay. “But why not?!”

“Too short.”

“But I’ll grow,” she solemnly reminded him. “And I can fight!”

“True…” he absently replied. “…You are a nervy little thing too…” He shifted his eyes forward again as they stepped out into the open in front of the mess tent and came to a stop. He duly noted the busy crew out on the flats raising a couple more tents, no doubt in preparation for the influx of refugees. He knew there’d be a lot more of the makeshift shelters erected before they were through. All too soon, the Turks’ ability to maintain a level of adequate security would become increasingly untenable, and he’d have to make a decision about that. He swiftly scanned the area with a keen eye and found nothing to concern him, on the surface. The stalwart, silent figure of Rude standing outside the entrance of the medical tent clearly marked his next destination.

Rachel tugged sharply at the leg of his jeans, and he shot an exasperated look down to find her peering up at him with expectant eyes, reminding him that she still awaited his final verdict. He pursed his lips in thought for a few seconds as he examined her eager face, and then he nodded his head once, signifying that he’d reached a decision. “Tell ya what, kid. Fearlessness and initiative are definitely qualities the Turks seek in a potential recruit. You grow up, and we’ll talk.”

Reno almost experienced a sense of guilt at the joy that filled her piquant little face. He gruffly cleared his threat and tipped his head in the direction of the distant medical tent. “Come on,” he said brusquely. “We’d better report. Before neither of us get to be Turks.”

Reeve drew the VR headset connecting him to Cait Sith from his head, his plan to open the gate within the hour duly imparted to Cloud Strife. Replacing the headset into his crate, he drew the newly delivered roll of duct tape toward him and picked up the scissors that lay close to hand. He quickly cut several narrow strips from the roll and stuck the ends to the edge of the table to let them dangle. Then he reached into his jacket pocket for his handheld computer.

General Sand entered the room as Reeve wrapped the first of the strips around the plastic case of the handheld, and the executive looked up from his work as the Shinra officer came to a military halt in front of the desk. Reeve impatiently gestured at him, and Sand went into an only slightly less stiff ‘at ease’ stance.

“A scanning team is en route to the prison facility, sir,” Sand dutifully informed him. “And once they’ve judged the building clear of danger, a security detail will escort Dr. Minkin and his recovery team to the area to retrieve the casualties.”

Reeve grimaced as he wrapped a second strip of duct tape around the computer, holding the loose battery case cover down with one finger as he secured it in place. “Very good, General,” he replied approvingly. “I will provide Dr. Spiner with the prisoner names I have to aid in identification.”

“Identification will be no problem, sir. Every prisoner has an identification chip embedded beneath their skin.”

Reeve looked up in surprise. “They do?” He hadn’t known that, but well aware of the level of Shinra’s technology he should have realized that would be the case. “I didn’t realize.”

“Nor did I, sir. Dr. Zaffron told me.”

“I see…” Reeve smoothed the last piece of tape into place and turned the computer over in his fingers. “How is her brother?”

“He’ll be fine, sir. He was mostly just dehydrated, and he’s already responding well to I.V. fluids.”

“Good.” The executive punched the button to boot up the computer. “And the Soldier 1st Class?”

Sand shook his head ruefully. “Not so good. He’s still in surgery, and they almost lost him twice.”

“But still hanging in there…”

“Yes, sir.”

Reeve swiftly keyed through the files in his handheld to find the one that contained the prisoner names and cell assignments. “I wondered if you would take a moment to look over these names, General Sand…”

“There’s no need to look over them all, sir,” Sand steadily responded. “If it’s the name of the 1st Class Soldier that you want me to identify.”

“There isn’t?” Reeve landed speculative dark eyes on the officer’s stolid face. “Why is that, General Sand?”

“A Soldier 1st Class would never be incarcerated with the general prison population, sir. For the protection of the average soldier. Due to the phenomenal strength and stamina of a Soldier 1st Class, if such a soldier were to assault a regular Army soldier, he would easily kill him.”

Reeve returned his gaze to the small flickering monitor and pursed his lips in thought. “So I would find such a soldier in…”

“Isolation, sir.”

“Somehow I was afraid you would say that,” Reeve replied with a wry smile.


The executive pointedly shut down his computer. “There is only one prisoner listed in isolation, General, and he has no name. Unless the designation MP-0001 holds any significance for you.” Reeve raised his eyebrows in question. Sand slowly shook his head. “I have no idea, sir. But I will have my aide-de-camp research the code for you.”

“I would appreciate that information, General Sand. Thank you.”

“We could shave that Soldier 1st Class and see if I know him, sir.” Sand added with a deprecating little smile.

“That is an option,” Reeve coolly replied as he stood from his chair, his somber tone bringing the General’s bushy brows up in surprise. He had spoken mostly in jest. The Shinra officer watched intently in silence, holding his tongue on the matter, as Reeve efficiently packed up his belongings.

“Mr. Coakley,” Reeve called over his shoulder as his fingers fell on a stack of papers he wanted to take with him. “Would you be so kind as to carry my equipment, please?”

No answer came in response, and once Reeve had slipped the papers into the crate, he turned around to locate his liaison officer, only to find him slumped down into a worn but comfortable looking office chair sound asleep.

“Mr. Coakley!” Reeve raised his voice in summons, receiving nothing in response, not even a twitch of a muscle. “Andy!”

Andy Coakley jumped upright in his chair and stared wide-eyed into space as though he’d seen a ghost. And then his head creaked around to find Reeve and Sand looking at him in bemusement. His glazed eyes suddenly cleared, and he shot to to his feet like a puppet on a string and absently ran his fingers through his close-cropped blonde hair. Then he remembered that he’d meant to come to attention, and he slapped both arms down against his sides. “Yes, sir!” he barked enthusiastically. “Sorry, sir!” His face flooded with color as he stood there. How could he have committed such a serious lapse in front of General Sand?

“At ease, Mr. Coakley,” Reeve said with a smile as he turned back to pack the last of Cait Sith’s equipment in the crate. The smile faded from his face as his fingers fell on the sketch pad that lay revealed on the glossy table top. He’d completely forgotten about Caitlin’s sketches. Apparently, the pad had been under the stack of papers, and it was a very good thing that he’d needed those papers or he might have inadvertently left her sketch pad behind.

”Did you need me to do something, Mr. Alexander?” Coakley asked sheepishly from beside him. “I’m sorry about falling asleep,” he quickly added, before he could lose the courage he’d dredged up to apologize.

Reeve abruptly took the sketchpad up and turned to slide it down into the side of the crate with his papers. All too soon, he would see Caitlin face to face, and he would give it to her then. “Not a problem, Andy,” he smoothly replied. “I imagine you needed a nap.” He could use a nap himself, for that matter. His eyelids felt scratchy and his eyes kept blurring up on him when he tried to read. Reeve lifted the crate into both hands and swung around to face the young soldier. “We are moving to our forward location, Andy. I wondered if you would take my things, if you don’t mind.”

Andy sprang forward to take the crate from Reeve’s hands. “I’m sorry, sir. I should have realized.”

“Chill, Andy,” Reeve coolly bade.

“Yes, Mr. Alexander,” Andy ruefully replied with a wince. He kept forgetting that Mr. Alexander had told him to drop all that ‘sir’ business around him, but it was damn hard to forget his training, especially with General Sand standing right there watching him.

Reeve turned his head to land solemn dark eyes on General Sand’s expectant face. “Are you ready, General?”

“I await your order, sir.” Sand smoothly replied.

“Is the evacuation team in place?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Open the gate, General Sand.”

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