IN YOUR DREAMS
~Part 2~


Vincent Valentine moved swiftly through the hushed and verdant forest cathedral, a somber-faced wraith of a man slipping through congenial shadow and grudging sunlight on hurried but silent feet. Undaunted by the untamed, bewildering terrain and driven by a singular goal, he unerringly cut through virgin forest and tracked across unexplored ground to forge a shorter and more direct route than the one he'd previously followed. A veritable fortress of towering trees and dense brush closed in around him to impede his view. Fallen branches and thorny briars sought to trip him. Long, low ridges of exposed rock, mossy slabs of cast-off stone, and half a dozen shallow streams created a virtual obstacle course that would have frustrated a lesser man. He surmounted every handicap the forest could throw at him with relative ease. His superior physical traits and preternatural instincts, along with the forest craft impressed in a child's mind by a zealous father long ago, facilitated his seemingly endless journey. His urgency to return to her motivated him to quickly end it.

Another man so disposed might have sacrificed vigilance for haste and caution for expediency, but a man like Vincent knew better than to take any situation for granted. No matter how innocuous and mundane it might seem. No matter how preoccupied he might be. On that basis, he continuously assessed the environment around him while he moved through the forest as naturally as a creature born to it. He passively attended to every whisper of sound and stir of movement as he actively sought the path of least resistance to his destination. He displayed an outward appearance of cool and efficient awareness despite a persistent prepossession with the woman to whom he was destined. Any other man would no doubt have lost his way for thinking on the particular woman that had entangled herself in his thoughts. Fortunately, an extraordinary man like Vincent possessed an innate proficiency for detail and multi-tasking as well as a wide range of highly specialized skills and knowledge derived from a broad spectrum of experiences, the combination of which automatically provided him ample resources to enable him to stay squarely on task and fret obsessively about her, all at the same time.

After all, he was still the man who had once been a Turk. A man trained to keep his senses alert to the first sign of trouble, precisely analyzing and executing the demands of his mission even while he unhappily revisited the most recent clash of wills on his own domestic front and pondered the most viable course of action he could take to deal with the problem.

He was yet the Avalanche warrior with his weapon close to hand, always ready to engage any combatant desirous of fighting him, always expectant and watchful of ambush in even the most deceptively peaceful of terrains. He was the detached team player that protectively watched the backs of his companions in arms while actively listening to every matter under discussion and duly filing away any article of pertinent information he thought he might make use of at a later date. Specifically, he was the selfsame man who could fulfill all the expectations required of him as the member of a small rebel band battling a corrupt global corporation and pursuing a madman bent on world destruction and still manage to discretely maintain surveillance of the activities of one Tifa Lockheart. No small task in and of itself, to be sure. Not when he deemed it necessary to keep track of her comings and goings, both inside and outside the group. Not when he found himself compelled to listen to every idle word that issued forth from her lips. Not when he had to record to memory every nuance of her transparently expressive face and appraise every shift in her emotions. And definitely not when he had to keep his other eye on Cloud Strife when he was near to her. Without a doubt, he could juggle all that and still find time to continuously brood about futile longings and unrequited love, loss and dispossession, condemnation and atonement.

At the moment, he was simply the lone hunter successful in the hunt. Alert and certain of step despite a vague befuddlement at his own distraction. A hunter evincing an unruffled calm despite being dogged by a nagging anxiety over his too lengthy separation from the woman that waited for him all alone in an isolated glade. The whole while his growing disquietude with the forest around him increasingly pressed forward in his mind to take precedence over all. Not for the first time, Vincent explored the input from his own extranormal senses, seeking to isolate the indefinable source of his pervasive unease.

More than once, Vincent had forced himself to a standstill against his own compulsion to haste, melting away into the deeper gloom of the murky forest shade to listen and to watch, stretching his senses to his utmost ability as he clutched the spoils of his hunt in one hand and held his rifle at the ready in the other. Each time, he’d been forced to concede his failure to detect that unidentifiable thing that was bothering him and simply hurried on, as he was wont to do anyway, shouldering his gun as he inwardly chided himself for his apparent inability to tease true substance from imagination. All the same, he hadn't relaxed his vigilance, despite the fact that he had yet to discover a trace of physical evidence to support his misgivings. He'd seen no predator tracks impressed in the dirt. His nostrils had discerned no feral animal scents to cause him anxiety. In short, he’d found no sign of dangerous wildlife lurking about at all. Indeed, the wildlife in the immediate area had proven elusive, dangerous or otherwise, a fact that had sent him further afield for game than he’d first intended.

The reminder of just how much distance he had put between himself and Tifa instantly set his feet to a quicker pace as his troublesome concerns regarding the woods ceded to anxiety about the woman he'd left behind. He sternly resisted a strong urge to break into an all-out sprint, deeming a headlong race to return to the glade to be counterproductive under the circumstances. Instead, he resignedly maintained his current ground-eating stride as he nervously reconsidered the possibility of danger from a human source. He'd already thoroughly examined such a potential threat earlier and had eventually discounted the idea as baseless. However, in light of his inability to determine the source of his uneasiness, he felt compelled to think on the matter again.

Admittedly, he'd been unable to find a scrap of evidence of human encroachment in the secluded mountain valley, even though he’d carefully scanned the surrounding vista as he’d walked the quiet meadows in a futile attempt to flush out a nest of wild pheasant or a covey of quail. The lush fields grew wild and uncultivated as far as he could see, and the low hills undulated gently toward the horizon in smooth folds unmarred by the clean, unnatural lines of any manmade structure. He spied no barns or silos. No houses or corrals. No curling wisps of chimney smoke rose into the clear blue sky. No roads tracked toward the narrow mountain gap that led to the wide expanse of countryside beyond. His hypersensitive ears had detected no sound of human industry or leisure. As far as he could tell, no one resided in that valley. No one traveled there. Strange in and of itself, now that he thought about it, for such a fertile section of land to be overlooked and unsettled.

As before, he reexamined his tentative conclusion that the land must be owned by some private entity that restricted public access on threat of prosecution or worse. Based on his discovery of the underground facility deep beneath the mountain range girding the valley, as well as the startling presence of a mysterious crystalline ruin and a Cetran mural of archaeological significance, he could hazard a guess that Shinra held title to these lands. Being in full possession of an intimate knowledge of the absolute enforcement policies of the Shinra Manufacturing Company for which he’d been previously employed, he could well imagine the unsavory consequences awaiting the foolhardy trespasser who would dare venture onto forbidden Shinra land.

Hardly a hapless, unwitting fool himself, and cognizant of the need to anticipate any potential source of danger that might threaten them, Vincent deliberately rerouted his thoughts to a careful assessment of all the measures President Shinra might have ordained to deal with trespassers on his property even as he approached yet another shallow meandering stream. He heedlessly bounded across with no more effort than that exhibited by an antelope leaping a branch in its path. He landed lightly on the opposite bank with hardly a break in his stride, only to come to an abrupt and jarring halt in the middle of his next step, the instant his ever busy and keenly observant gaze fell on the meandering line of clearly defined tracks impressed in the soft soil along the low bank of the creek. With a speculative eye, he tracked the impressions to their terminus near the edge of the water where a mess of like footprints disturbed the moist ground in addition to a scattering of imprints at the very edge that he could clearly identify as the bared sole and toes of small, slender and wholly human feet.

Vincent didn’t require a closer examination to identify the owner of the boots or the feet that had made the distinctive tracks, and the barest of smiles softened the determined expression on his face. A bittersweet wistfulness welled inside him, taking him unawares to inevitably divert his irresolute attention from matters of strategy and threat assessment straight back to the sweet and beauteous woman who ever managed to keep one foot firmly planted in the forefront of his mind. Perhaps out of sight, but always resident in his head of late, a fact he might have ruefully acknowledged if he’d possessed the mental wherewithal in that moment to do so. If she had not opportunistically seized custody of his thoughts.

Vincent hardly noticed when all of his nebulous concerns regarding the secluded valley forest slipped from his grasp, in accordance with the unconscious and contradictory suspension of his own impatience to rejoin her as he irresistibly conjured an image of her in his cooperative mind and committed the whole of his attention to it. Inside the fertile field of his imagination, he made a study of her as she knelt on one knee at the edge of the stream with wispy strands of her dark bangs caressing her soft cheeks and the long length of her hair, unfettered in this instance, tracing the lissome curve of her bent back as she stroked idle fingers across the cool liquid surface. In his illusory scene, he heard the pleasured sigh that slipped from her lips as she contemplated a plan to wade out into the shallow and pristinely clear waters to rejuvenate her tired feet in its gentle and cleansing flow.

Helpless to do otherwise, Vincent duteously walked the road laid down by his overly creative mind, and he next painted a compelling portrait of her standing ankle-deep in the creek with her pant legs rolled up over her slim calves, and her feet firmly planted in the silt of the streambed as she wriggled her bare toes into the malleable sand. Inside his entranced mind, Tifa suddenly sensed his silent presence there, and she turned curious brown eyes his way to catch him watching, a guilty man helpless to do naught but stare.

In reality, such a discovery would no doubt confuse her. Perhaps even frighten her. But in his willful illusion, she would happily accept his company. And she would gift him with a beautiful smile of welcome. And perhaps even...invitation. And why not? Twas his dream to dream after all. So be it.

Therefore, she would then most likely urge him to join her, with an insistent gesture of her hand and an unspoken promise in her eyes, should he offer her the slightest inkling of encouragement, and to his credit, he did pause to ponder the consequences of partaking in such a chancy pursuit, even in the midst of his imagining. Ultimately, he decided to take the risk, a mere contrivance after all, and with the ample material supplied by a too accommodating mind, he set out to write a breathlessly persuasive scenario of how the remainder of the evening might unfold. Should he agree.

Vincent frowned as an intrusive memory rose from the faraway yet not so distant past to reproach his infidelity. A vivid scene of what could have been one of many such instances when he walked barefooted in the sun-warmed surf with his trousers rolled up to the knee, Lucrecia’s hand tucked comfortably into his as she walked close at his side. Playfully, she would kick at the water with an idly swinging foot until she successfully achieved her seemingly inadvertent goal of splashing his dress pants with water. Then she would grin her challenge, green eyes twinkling at his poorly acted presentation of outrage, knowing full well that next he would punish her for her transgression, kissing her breathless as the wash of the sea lapped about their ankles. Lucrecia uncaring of whose eyes might see. Himself bold in his certainty of his place within her world. In those illusory days when he’d wrongly believed that she had loved him as he’d loved her. Beyond all comprehension. Forsaking redemption.

With such disquieting facility did he willfully consign his beloved Lucrecia to the erosive tidal wash of his mind, readily exchanging the woman who had played at loving him for the one who would never love him. The one who could so easily claim title to his thoughts with so simple a trace of her presence. With such disturbing swiftness did he manage to convert recollection to convenient illusion and a past reality to fanciful promise. Behind his shuttered crimson eyes, the strands of silken russet hair caught beneath entangling fingers darkened to the richest of coffee browns, and the sparkling green irises that coyly invited his retribution through lowered lashes became pools of mocha with the barest hint of rich wine, and lips only incrementally fuller and immeasurably more innocent softly parted beneath a whisper of anticipatory breath.

…Except the breath that touched his sensitive ears was his own, and the beguiling face inside his mind...a mere fragment of a disturbing dream…

Vincent convulsively tightened his fingers around the rifle strap inside his hand as he silently commanded his thoughts away from his incautious and foolish reverie of impossible fantasy. Feckless imaginings rife with wishes that could never be fulfilled and seductively pregnant with the allure of places he could never go. Unconsciously, he shook his raven head in rueful despair at his growing vulnerability to her unwitting power over him and at his utter lack of fortitude to resist thinking of her. At the same time he declined to refute his desire for her, deeming it an act of futility to attempt to deny that which he could not.

He huffed softly in self-derision, and he deliberately turned his thoughts from wishful ideation and irredeemable yearnings to more concrete matters regarding the stubborn woman who blatantly refused to surrender his mind. For instance, he should examine the evidence at hand and make a determination as to where she might have traveled from there. With that precise question uppermost in his mind, Vincent’s crimson eyes sharpened outwardly as he shifted his gaze from the footprints that decorated the creek bank to the boot prints that tracked up the hill before him. At the crest, he discovered a line of tall trees standing starkly against a golden backdrop of sunlight, impassive sentinels guarding the clearing beyond.

He'd already reached his destination, a realization that took him unawares to strike him to dumbness. He could probably hear her humming from where he stood, if he listened. He would probably see the shadows displaced by her movements if he watched. He pointedly reminded himself that only a few long steps kept her from her, yet he could only stare in wondrous abandon as a curious and dizzying sensation of euphoria took possession of him, an unexpected experience of emotion so long denied him as to seem wholly unfamiliar. One that he could steel neither mind nor heart against. One that rushed boldly in through a door that she had stealthily opened to fill that ever present hollowness inside of him.

Surprisingly, Vincent discovered the truth not so troubling to admit. The gods help him, he couldn’t deny it. His urgency to return to her hadn’t risen from any disquietude about these harmless woods, obviously a contrived sense of unease born from his need to provide himself a ready excuse for haste. Nor from any deep concern for her safety as he well knew that Tifa Lockheart could handle any physical threat that could conceivably arise anywhere inside the confines of this secluded valley, or on the whole of the continent, most probably. No, the eagerness that had granted his feet wings on his return to the solitary glade had risen entirely from the undeniable fact that he simply wished to be in her company. He desired nothing more in the world than to be with her. And he’d been too long away her, because an hour was too damnably long.

…Indeed…a minute was too long. A second…too long. The space of a breath…the thump of a heartbeat…much…too…long…

Vincent discovered inside himself a starved and impoverished man who had finally reached the end of a long and trying journey. A anxious man who could only stand in suspended animation, poised in dreadful anticipation mere paces from his own long forsaken doorstep, unable to move a muscle to approach in his fearfulness at what he might encounter behind the door, all the while thirstily drinking into disbelieving eyes the intricate lines and details of an illusory structure so soothingly familiar and so beautiful in its unspoiled simplicity. A man with only the breadth of a road to cross to reach his front door and find inside all that would meet his needs, now and forever.

In short, Vincent Valentine was a homesick man eager to be home, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt that way. If ever he had at any time in his life. He’d come home, and she waited for him. For him and…no other.

Not even bothering to so much as chide himself for his dangerous and futile fantasies, Vincent simply turned sharply on heel, and with feet that barely seemed to touch the ground, he traced her beckoning tracks straight up the hill to her.




Cloud Strife waited in the hot afternoon sunlight, standing front and center before the immense Sector Two gate with arms folded across his chest and the brunt of his weight shifted to one foot, his drowsy Mako-fueled eyes caught in vacant examination of the bare ground beyond his boots. Beside him, Nanaki rested patiently on his haunches at the warrior’s feet with his head cocked in keen interest and his single viable eye focused with singular attention on the stubbornly secured portal, as tensely immobile and passively alert as a fierce, sharp-fanged marble beast sitting in protective adornment at the entrance of some grand government edifice.

Derrick Heidegger idly inhabited the space to the left of the red beast, his squinted blue eyes pinned to the distant horizon as though he sought his fortune there. Slouched in place with his arms loosely crossed and most of his weight supported on the opposite foot, he looked like nothing more than the bookend to Cloud Strife, an illusion mitigated only in part by the long silver ponytail trailing like a banner in a brisk and arid wind.

An unusually subdued and largely immobile Cait Sith sat on Cloud’s armor-plated shoulder guard with one white gloved hand resting against the pommel of his sword and the other hand held above his eyes as though to shade sensitive electronic eyes from the bright afternoon sun. The cat had presumptuously appropriated the comfortable and visually advantageous seat just after he’d dutifully provided the conduit for his maker’s message regarding the imminent opening of the massive gate, simply leaping from the dozer roof to the Avalanche warrior’s shoulder to hitch a ride. He’d been so quiet since that Cloud had been momentarily roused to wonder if Cait Sith had been so long apart from his Mog that his internal batteries were on the verge of running down, but he hadn’t pondered the matter to the point that he’d stirred himself to ask the cat. In the end, he’d vaguely decided that Cait Sith would know better than anyone when he needed to charge, at the same time ruefully acknowledging the fact that he really didn’t understand the intricate and mysterious workings of his mechanical companion. For all he knew, the cat ran on Mako power or solar cells. He supposed he might ask Cait’s creator, should the man ever appear. But probably he wouldn’t.

The four of them, such that they were, comprised the whole of the self-ordained and semi-official welcoming committee for Reeve Alexander’s impending arrival on the scene. An event long awaited and reportedly near to hand, even though the languorously stretching minutes seem to make a lie of the expectation. Despite his outward display of ambivalence, Cloud, for one, wished they’d get on with it. Not that he was particularly bored or impatient. In moments of idleness, he always wound up inside the tangled landscape of his mind anyway, and he possessed a deep well of patience born of trial and resignation. It was just that he'd decided it was high time to move on. Soon, Cid wouldn’t need him around any longer, and he’d already pretty much reached the limits of his usefulness in the encampment. It was past time he centered his efforts on putting together a search party for Tifa and Vincent. Too long, he’d labored beneath a debilitating ambiguity, caught in the teeth of an approach-avoidance situation that seemed to perfectly balance his need to find them against his fear of what he might find. He couldn’t wait any longer. He had to look for her no matter what he might see. He couldn't leave her out there. He couldn't fail to bring her home. What his definition of ‘home’ might be, as neither of them had one, he didn’t have to consider. Home was the comfortable landscape of their shared memories. Home was their mutual past. She was his home, and he was hers. And he’d abandoned her in his reluctance to know, even with the full knowledge that he could not tolerate never knowing.

A sudden increase in the volume and sharpness of tone in one of the conversations going on behind his back served to draw Cloud from his painful thoughts, and he turned his head to peer over his unencumbered shoulder in wary appraisal of the parties involved. He only had to watch for a few seconds to accurately determine that the young man and woman standing several feet back were not engaged in argument with anyone, but only in excited chatter, clearly posing no threat to each other or anyone else.

A flirtatious wave of a pretty hand drew the warrior’s attention on past the chattering couple to a comely blonde woman standing with them. Her sparkling eyes brightened in several degrees of magnitude when his narrowed gaze marked her. She smiled becomingly at him, and he nodded respectfully in polite acknowledgement before coolly dismissing her from his regard.

Oblivious to the disappointment the young woman made no effort to hide, Cloud lazily swiveled in place to idly scan the remainder of the sparse collection of onlookers that had tentatively gathered around them to witness the opening of the city gate. They stood around in small isolated groups of two or three, all conversing in reverently hushed voices while they waited, creating an almost musical tapestry of intermingled speech that the warrior didn’t bother to sort out.

Though not a man remotely interested in matters of a social nature, Cloud had to admit that for such a momentous event, the turnout seemed pitifully small. A reflection of the hastily formed and unimpressive little welcome wagon team, he mused. He suspected the gathering might have been larger, but he knew that word of the impending gate opening hadn’t been widely broadcast as yet, and as for their own spare little group, they suffered from poor presentation due to the conspicuous absence of several of the parties that might normally be expected to attend. Caitlin and one or more of the Turks, for instance.

Cloud had clearly formed the impression that Caitlin meant to be on hand to greet Reeve, and he knew that Reeve had kept the Turks informed of his activities and would no doubt have already relayed the information about the unlocking of the gate. Apparently their secretive confab, one that he’d concluded early on had something to do with Avian Wulfe and his immediate future, had gone on longer than they’d planned.

As for the remaining Avalanche members, Barret Wallace would have been present and accounted for, but he’d already said his goodbyes and ridden off on a circuitous route around Midgar to head for Kalm some while back. Cid Highwind had subsequently disappeared, stalking away from the chocobo corral without explanation or suggestion, sucking on yet another one of his endless cigarettes as vigorously as though it were an oxygen tube meant to sustain his life.

Despite Cloud’s protracted search for him in the interim, he’d failed to run across the grumpy pilot anywhere, and no one seemed to have seen him since. Cloud figured that the Captain had holed up some place where he wouldn’t be disturbed to catch a quick nap. The man’s exhaustion could be easily read in the deep lines of weariness in his face, in the weighted curve of his shoulders, and in the effort it took him to lift a cigarette to his lips. Even if the intense energy that always radiated from his eyes seemed hardly diminished. Cloud felt inclined to leave the man alone for awhile, especially considering how contrary the man could get when he’d gone too long without sleep, but he didn’t have that option. Reeve had requested, via Cait Sith, that Cid meet him at the gate, and the warrior had gratefully accepted Jimmie’s eager offer to locate the Captain and deliver him on site, thinking that the mechanic might have better luck finding the elusive man. Especially as he didn’t relish the idea of being the one to wake him. A rather cowardly stance for one in his position, now that he thought about it. A wry smile curved his lips even as his thoughts traveled on.

Absently returning to his assessment of the general disinterest in the Sector Two gate opening, Cloud considered the possibility that all the drama and excitement earlier had simply used up everyone’s interest in spectator events. After a momentous fight between a Turk and an Avalanche warrior, most of the camp’s inhabitants probably didn’t find a mere gate opening to be that big of a draw. From all he’d heard, people were still gossiping about the entertainment provided by the fight, leaving little room for discussion of anything else, telling and retelling the tale with increased embellishment each time. Especially the developments after Elena and Rachel had exploded onto the scene. If not for their untimely intervention, the fight might still be going on even now, and everyone would have grown bored and left.

Cloud’s vacant smile widened at the memory of the ribbing Barret had stoically endured from Cid’s crew regarding his small female assailant. The mountainous, muscle bound man had offered them only a quiet little smile and simply kicked the chocobo into motion, racing off without a backward look toward the distant boundary of the city’s perimeter, off to see his own little girl.

“So…Cloud…who’d you bet on?” Derry suddenly asked as though his thoughts traveled the same path as Cloud’s.

The warrior glanced over to find the young pilot now studying the gate, a crooked smile of absent amusement on his face, not too dissimilar from Cloud’s own expression.

“If you mean the fight of the century, I didn’t know about it until after it was all said and done,” he dryly reminded.

In fact, Cloud had completely missed the furor because he’d agreed to remain out by the excavated gate at Avian’s behest, as the young man from Kalm had balked at accompanying Caitlin and Rude to the medical tent at the time. Easily surrendering to his inertia, he’d remained in his shady spot beside the dozer to watch Yuffie torment the dog and the farm boy, and he’d scratched his head more than once at their seeming enjoyment of her taunting. Cait Sith and Nanaki had also stayed, partly to keep him company and partly because they had nowhere to be. But Derry, who’d been napping off and on atop the pile of sandbags, hadn’t felt compelled to remain out on the flats after his brief conversation with Elena, and he’d shaken off his lethargy to amble off toward the latrines in her wake, apparently getting wind of the fight in time to catch the climactic end of it.

“So who would you have bet on?” Derry pressed the issue even as he dragged a hand from the pocket of his jeans to cover a huge yawn.

Cloud decided Derry had grown bored with waiting and just wanted to talk. He was game, although left to his own devices he wouldn’t have made the effort, wholly content with his own thoughts for company.

“Barret,” he replied without hesitation.

“Barret? How’s come?” He pursed his mouth in speculation. “Because he’s such a big bruiser?”

“Because he’s my friend,” Cloud bluntly replied. “You would have bet on Reno?”

Derry firmly shook his head. “Nope. I only invest when I’m sure of the bet, so my gil stayed in my pocket where it belongs.”

“You’re wise beyond your years, Mr. Heidegger,” Nanaki interjected then, swinging his head around to study the tall pilot in benevolent appraisal.

Derry shifted his placid blue eyes from the unmoving gate to the watchful beast. “And you’re a lot smarter than you look, Red Thirteen.”

“I have heard that before,” Nanaki wryly replied. And recently, too.

“Guess we’ve got everyone fooled, eh?” Derry blithely replied. “I’ve found it works to my advantage, to be underestimated. I mean, look at you. How often do people expect you to engage in conversation about the weather instead of biting off one of their legs? In fact, you can invite them to dinner and then have them for dinner. How can you lose?” The pilot grinned widely at the idea.

“Actually, I prefer waffles to people,” Nanaki promptly replied.

“I can’t say that makes me unhappy,” Derry dryly muttered in reply. “Even if I’ve lost all respect for you.”

Nanaki presented Derry with his disquieting predatory grin as his laughter snuffled from his mouth, and the pilot chuckled along with him, always finding more amusement in the beast’s comical exhibition of humor than at the jest.

Smiling quietly at the interplay between the two, Cloud shot another look around him, half thinking that he might catch sight of Cid Highwind finally headed his way, and it suddenly dawned on him that he hadn’t seen Yuffie in awhile. Not since she’d run out of the medical tent with Derry in her wake. Now he felt a twinge of guilt that he’d not only failed to ask about her, but that he’d completely forgotten her. He imagined that she must have recovered though. Otherwise Derry wouldn’t have left her. Still, that did beg the question of where she’d gotten off to now. That had been some while back, and Yuffie Kisaragi wasn’t one to forego any ongoing action for solitude and contemplative thought.

“Did Yuffie get over her little spell?” His casually intoned question didn’t convey his niggling sense of uneasiness.

Derry didn’t answer immediately, prompting Cloud to glance over at the unresponsive pilot to see if he’d heard him, only to find him again gazing off across the flats. Sensing the Avalanche warrior’s inquisitive scrutiny, the pilot cautiously turned his head to meet the luminous eyes head on. Poker-faced, he obligingly dipped his head in a semblance of a nod.

“Yeah, she got over that in a flash,” he readily assured him with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I left her in the mess tent chowing down on something that looked sort of like apple pie. Hard to tell with those military rations, ya know. Once she got out of sight of that medical tent, she was A-okay.” He offered Cloud a thumbs-up sign and a wide closed mouth grin in reinforcement of his testimony.

Cloud didn’t reciprocate either the grin or the gesture as he idly examined the pilot’s affable face, his brow knitting in concentration as he closely considered what he should have taken as a welcome response. The warrior had no reason to disbelieve the pilot, but he found himself feeling skeptical for some indefinable reason.

In the hopes of spotting the missing girl somewhere close to hand, the warrior turned in place to carefully scan the entire area for a sign of her. It wasn’t that he particularly wanted her company or that he was all that worried about her. He knew she could take care of herself. After all, Yuffie Kisaragi had been on her own long before she’d ever joined Avalanche. A free spirit roaming the world at will. Fighting her own battles and living well by virtue of her expert skill, her sharp wits, and her moral ambivalence regarding theft. Her deceptive vacuousness only served to her advantage. He just preferred to keep tabs on her. She had a propensity to get up to mischief when she was bored, and as the recognized leader of their group, displeasure at her actions often landed on his head. He’d rather not deal with the consequences if he could avoid doing so through some creative prevention.

Unsuccessful in his tentative search, Cloud completed his rotation to again face the gate, a slightest of frowns tinging his features with disgruntlement as he considered a decision to act on the matter. True, she’d made herself uncharacteristically absent, especially as she’d earlier proclaimed an eagerness to finally meet the man behind the mask of Cait Sith in person, but he could still see no reason for alarm. He couldn’t imagine that she could get up to too much trouble in the camp. Most likely she’d missed out on the information about the gate opening and had dragged the dog off for yet another walk out on the flats, since Avian wasn’t available to torture at the time. With an absent nod of his head at the reasonableness of the idea, the warrior shot a look over toward the dozer, only to find Soldier still curled up in the shade with his nose between his paws.

Cloud’s frown deepened only momentarily before he decided he was only borrowing trouble where there was none to be found, and he simply shrugged off his vague and baseless worries. Yuffie could have found any number of activities to entertain her. In fact, she was probably sitting in the mess tent even now, still filling her bottomless abyss of a stomach with all the military rations she could finagle out of the cook. Or maybe she’d curled up like a sated cat for a nap somewhere. Or even more likely, Cloud decided, she’d decided to dog the Captain’s heels to annoy him with inane questions composed precisely for the purpose of irritating him and would probably put in an appearance when he did, which would make her Cid’s problem, not his. All the better.

A thin smile curved his mouth. “So you haven’t seen her since then?” Cloud asked with a sidelong look at the pilot, his easy tone clearly conveying his newly regained indifference. He’d already answered his own question to his satisfaction, and now he was just making conversation.

Cloud fully expected Derry to answer negatively and move on to some other topic of interest. Like how much longer Reeve would keep them waiting in the hot sun before he decided to make his grand entrance, or exit, as the case may be. Although Cloud had to admit such a remark from him unlikely as Derrick Heidegger seemed to accept everything with equanimity. In fact, the warrior had yet to hear him complain about a single thing. The pilot had to be one of the most even-tempered individuals he’d ever met.

Derry surprised the warrior with his answer.

“Well…um…actually…I did run into her,” he carefully replied. “Later. Over by the mechanics’ tent.” He suddenly turned his head to gaze off toward the flats, but not before the warrior caught a fleeting glimpse of his twitching lips.

Cloud studied what he could still see of Heidegger’s averted face with narrow-eyed suspicion. “What was she up to?” the warrior pointedly queried, a markedly increased level of interest in his tone.

Derry reluctantly swiveled his head back around to find not only Cloud’s luminous Mako eyes pinned on his face in keen scrutiny, but also the unblinking gazes of both Nanaki and Cait Sith, all raptly awaiting his answer.

His blue eyes developed an impish twinkle of amusement at his recognition of how abysmally bad he always wound up being at deception. “You probably don’t want to know,” he easily conceded.

“I don’t?” Cloud raised a quizzical eyebrow as he turned on heel to fully confront the pilot.

“Not really. No.” The pilot stood unruffled beneath the warrior’s dissatisfied regard.

“Well, why don’t you pretend I do and tell me anyway?”

“Uh uh.” Derry shook his head in denial. “I’ve been sworn to secrecy.” At Cloud’s deep frown of irritation, he quickly added, “On pain of death.”

“Should we be worried?” Nanaki asked with marked concern. He could only begin to imagine what sort of scheme Yuffie had cooked up now.

Derry tilted his head in a show of contemplative assessment. “If you are referring to my imminent demise, maybe so,” he mused aloud. “If you mean Yuffie, probably not.”

“Probably not?” Cloud’s countenance darkened further at the pilot’s evasiveness.

“Well…maybe…” he uneasily amended. “If she gets caught.”

“If she gets caught doing what?” Nanaki asked sharply. He hoped she wasn’t trying to steal materia from the Turks or short sheeting Cid Highwind’s cot again or something equally reckless.

His intense Mako eyes rife with displeasure, Cloud glared off toward the distant encampment in a more concerted effort to locate Yuffie Kisaragi, and Derry loudly and pointedly cleared his throat to draw his attention back to him. Cloud promptly returned his fierce, uncompromising gaze to Heidegger’s face, and the luminous eyes narrowed as the warrior clearly took note of the knowing glint in the pilot’s eyes. With the whole of Cloud’s intimidating regard firmly in hand, Derry ever so slowly inclined his head in the direction of the medical tent even as he wondered how many hapless villains had been forced to view that same intently serious and formidably purposeful face just before losing their respective heads beneath the sweep of a sharp and expertly wielded blade.

Taking his cue, Cloud immediately turned his head to look that way, not bothering to be circumspect. He had no interest in acting a part in Yuffie’s secretive games.

“She’s in the medical tent now?” he sharply queried. Had she gone back? That didn’t seem likely in light of her hasty departure earlier.

“No, she left the medical tent, if you’ll recall

Cloud couldn’t fail to notice Derry’s emphasis on particular parts of his statement, obviously trying to convey a message without literally breaking his word to Yuffie, obviously balancing his own concern for her against a futile attempt to retain some level of deniability.

Derry breathed a silent sigh of relief when the warrior unconsciously lifted a hand to scratch his head in perplexity as the intensity of his gaze softened into bemused contemplation.

“She became ill, right?” Nanaki offered helpfully. “That’s why she left, wasn’t it? She ran out of the tent because she thought she was going to be sick, didn’t she?” She’d almost stepped on his tail when she’d flown past him where he’d been curled up just outside the tent entrance, and her awful retching had unsettled his cast-iron stomach.

Derry rolled his eyes heavenward in a show of exasperation at the question, but he didn’t acknowledge Nanaki’s words one way or another. And he didn’t have to. In a flash of enlightenment, Cloud finally realized what Derry was trying to indirectly communicate to him. Yuffie’s bout of illness had been a ruse. He should have known. In fact, he’d almost suspected as much at the time, hadn’t he? And her illness had conveniently occurred just after the departure of the Turks. She’d almost stepped on their heels in her haste to escape. Literally. Blatantly apparent in retrospect, now that he recognized her ploy.

“Never mind, Red,” Cloud said dismissively, his tone tinged with a hint of disgust. “I’ve got a pretty good idea what she’s up to. And if she gets caught, she’s on her own.”

“But what’s she doing?” Nanaki looked up at Heidegger expectantly.

The pilot lifted his shoulders in a nonchalant shrug. “I couldn’t say.”

“But…”

“Don’t worry about her, Red,” Cloud said coolly. “If she’s a ninja worth her salt, she won’t get caught.”




Moments before Vincent would slip silently from the cool forest shadows into the gentle warmth of the sun-spackled clearing, he sought her out with questing eyes, tipping his head this way and that in a desperate attempt to catch sight of her between the obstructive trunks of the uncooperative trees, and at his first glimpse of her, a breathy and wordless expression of indeterminate verbalization whispered across his lips at his merciful release, silent to any who would hear but his own ears. In the same instant that he saw her, the pervasive sense of urgency that held his heart and mind in cruel thrall abruptly relinquished him, the visceral and overweening need to ensure her presence there finally satisfied. He permitted the swift pace of his steps to slow only incrementally as he deliberately entered the quiet glade on stealthy feet to finally gain a complete and unencumbered view of her, at which point he selfishly took undue advantage of her momentary obliviousness to his presence there to make full use of the rare opportunity offered him.

Unconsciously, he halted in mid-step as he raptly stared, clearly revealing to her should she look the thirsty man gone too long without replenishment, attempting to drink his eyes full of her beautiful face in repose and fruitlessly seeking an impossible satiation even as he bade himself to look away before she noticed him there.

A mesmeric study of humble serenity, Tifa rested upon an accommodating carpet of scattered leaves with her legs folded beneath her and one hand curled inside the cup of the other in her lap, her face raised toward the sky as she basked in a warm shower of afternoon sunlight. Her dark hair had fallen away to charitably grant him full access to her face. An undeserved gift, but one he readily accepted as he intently researched the details of her face, eventually narrowing with particular interest on the way her feathery brown lashes shadowed her cheeks beneath the subtle brush of the soft golden light that filtered through the trees overhead to paint her face with warm color. Oblivious to the sneak thief in her presence, she unwittingly favored him with good fortune, offering him a treasure of inestimable value when her dark lashes fluttered beneath his studious scholarship, and when her lips drifted gently apart as though in silent invitation. As though she knew of his foolish wishes of only moments past and meant to generously grant him the one. Just that one small concession to a pretentious man’s dream.

His breath pooled in his lungs at her unwitting petition as his own willing lips relaxed and parted in subconscious acceptance. Then his gullible foot moved a step to carry him to her, and the unconscious action driven by conscious desire sparked a sudden recognition of what he planned to do, and he came back to his senses with a start and promptly decided that he’d best occupy himself elsewhere. Before he made of himself a complete and utter fool.

A bitter guilt assailed him at his self-serving lapse into voyeurism, and he deliberately put his back to her to walk the few steps that would bring him to the base of a tree. There, he committed idle thought to purposeful action as he slid the rifle strap from his shoulder to gingerly prop the weapon up against the trunk, taking care to set the barrel firmly into a notch in the bark to ensure that it stayed. Swallowing hard against the knot in his throat, he moved a couple of paces away to set the carcass of the wild rabbit he’d brought her down into the leaves, along with the canteen he’d refilled from a cold water spring he’d discovered trickling from the cliff face at the far southern boundary of the wood. With both shoulders unencumbered and both hand and claw now relieved of all other burden, he drew the meticulously folded blanket from where he’d held it clamped beneath his left arm throughout his journey, and he paused in tense anticipation as he dragged in a long, soundless breath to brace his faltering will, all the while silently berating himself for his uncustomary shakiness.

The blanket provided him a prop, one that offered him the opportunity to gentlemanly gift her a surface preferable to dried leaves upon which to sit, and also, and perhaps more imperatively in that instance, one that would provide him the means of initiating an innocuous conversation full of mundane words that would distract him from the engaging images that yet plagued his mind. So with his tentative plan of action firmly in place, he clutched the blanket against his stomach as though the soft folds of the material comprised an impenetrable shield that could protect him from the dubious threat she presented, and with visible effort, he forced his feet to carry him around to face her, intending to offer her his gift right away, to avoid meeting those dark eyes that he knew must be warily watching him by now, to distract her from looking into crimson eyes that he suspected revealed too much. To his consternation, when he finally allowed his too eager gaze to fall on her, he discovered that she hadn’t even noticed him there. In fact, she hadn’t moved so much as an eyelash since he’d last looked, in spite of his relinquishment of any effort to keep his movement quiet. What’s more, he’d deliberately imbued his actions with more noise then would be naturally conveyed for the dual purpose of announcing his presence to her and to deny himself any further lapses into thievery.

A nameless and unreasoning trepidation clutched at his heart, one that he promptly commanded away as being unwarranted. “Tifa?” he tentatively called out to her.

She didn’t so much as twitch a muscle or speak a word in acknowledgement. He might as well be comprised of shadows and air for all the notice she paid him. He took a tentative, faltering step toward her, uncertain in his concern.

“Tifa?” This time his tone carried a stern command, his voice strengthened to unnecessary loudness by the stealthy and defiant return of his baseless fears.

Still, she didn’t answer, and he tensely stood in place as he forcibly quelled the urgent desire to run to her, instead bidding his mind to a practical if uneasy calmness. Clearly, she showed no sign of distress. Her respirations were unlabored and even, as evidenced by the gentle rise and fall of her chest. Her features were shrouded in a restful peacefulness. Still, she must have heard him call to her. Yet she refused to speak.

He wondered then if she now played another trick on him. Feigning sleep and pretending she didn’t know he was there. He couldn’t fail to notice that she’d been taken by a propensity to pranks of late.

Or…perhaps she’d truly fallen asleep sitting there. Growing so bored that she’d dozed off in her exhaustion. He’d already noted that she’d laid the sticks for the fire, although she hadn’t lit it. Truthfully, he hadn’t expected that she would, as she didn’t possess the tools to set the kindling afire. A simple explanation to be sure. And a convenient one. She’d finished her task and found herself with nothing to occupy her, falling into a deep reverie that had inadvertently progressed to slumber.

…Except…

Anxiously, Vincent chanced another uncertain step in her direction as he scrutinized her slack face with critical eyes. He decided at that point that she didn’t look asleep at all, feigned or real. She looked…entranced…or…besotted…

“Tifa!” His urgent and sharply expressed cry filled the glade and the woods all around, fearful enough to set hearts pounding, loud enough to wake the deceased.

With a sharp gasping intake of breath, Tifa’s eyes snapped open in shocked surprise, even as her head obediently flew around to find him, but her glazed and darkly dilated eyes wandered the glade aimlessly as though she’d gone blind, and her blank face exhibited no recognition of his presence there.

“Tifa! Are you alright?!” he sharply persisted, his uneasy features barely displaying the agitation within. “Can you hear me?!” Maybe she had fallen ill. She looked disoriented. Drugged. Could she have eaten something she shouldn’t have? He wouldn’t have thought it likely after her close call with the toxic berries. Maybe a venomous insect had bitten her. A snake…

As though to directly deny his tentative conclusion or perhaps in alarmed response to the determined steps he took toward her then, Tifa’s eyes suddenly zeroed in on Vincent’s clearly troubled face, and her mouth fell open in astonishment as she slowly blinked at him. “Vincent! You startled me!” she exclaimed much too loudly, causing her to wince sharply at the sound of her own voice.

Vincent halted in mid-step, his crimson eyes narrowing suspiciously on her face as he watched her cheeks flood with bright color. “Tifa…are you…”

“Yes! I’m fine! Just fine!” she bluntly interrupted in an attempt to forestall any inclination to interrogation on his part, her enthusiastic words falsely ringing with bright assurance. With a start, she remembered the rock in her hand, and she promptly fisted one hand around the other to close the rock inside, effectively hiding it from crimson eyes suddenly turned mistrustful. Clearly, her act lacked something in performance, and the wary man needed persuading.

“Really, Vincent,” she firmly persisted, forcing her tone to a more soothing level. “I’m fine. I was…umm…just…I was…er…just…daydreaming.”

And that was the absolute truth, may the gods be her witness. She had most definitely and positively been dreaming. In the daytime. While wide awake. But Mr. Valentine better not ask her exactly what she’d been daydreaming about, because she’d never tell him in a million years. Sweet Shiva, if he only knew…

“…And I…didn’t hear you…” She remembered to add.

Yet another absolute truth. She hadn’t heard him, sneaky man that he was. Although, she might not have heard a stampeding herd of Elfadunks had they thundered past, crashing deadfall and brush down beneath a hundred earth pounding feet.

…Under the circumstances…

Tifa tentatively smiled at Vincent as she fervently wished him away. She had hoped that once she’d reassured him as to the state of her continued good health, Vincent would go on to something else. Maybe put his back to her as he’d had a tendency to do of late. So she could dig up some composure from somewhere, and more importantly so she could put the damn rock away without him seeing. But Mr. Valentine refused to comply. Instead he just stood there motionless, like a block of marble, studying her as though he’d logged her in as a specimen to be closely examined under the microscope of his keen appraisal. Looking exactly as though he didn’t believe her, in fact. And how dare he not believe her? It wasn’t like she was lying to him. Hiding something pretty major from him, but not lying. A subtle distinction, she knew. And one that wouldn’t hold up beneath close scrutiny. Therefore she wouldn’t think on it any longer.

She regretfully admitted then, that she wasn’t being fair to him. It probably wasn’t that he didn’t believe her. She was just being paranoid due to her guilty conscience. Vincent had no reason to think she would lie to him. More likely he just wasn’t convinced that he shouldn’t be concerned about her. After all, he’d looked plenty worried when she’d first noticed him, before he’d schooled his face back into his customary expressionless mask. Maybe she’d been drooling spittle or murmuring…heaven forbid. And maybe he had every right to be concerned. Maybe even now he saw something in her face that didn’t look right, because truthfully, she didn’t feel right. She still felt disoriented from the vibrant and unsettling revival of her morning dream. And she could clearly feel the heat burning beneath her cheeks, a telltale sign of her embarrassment at his discovery of her. She should have known better than to try such a crazy scheme with Vincent lurking about.

Tifa frantically cast her eyes around the glade in search of something, anything, to draw his attention away from her. Not only because his unrelenting gaze was making her very nervous, but also because she still needed to distract him for just that necessary second or two. She’d already noticed the blanket he clutched against his stomach, but she didn’t dare ask him for that just now. Because such a move would only bring him closer. Much too close for her secretive purposes.

Fortuitously, she spotted the rabbit resting limply in the leaves behind him, and she rounded her eyes with a half sincere show of excitement. “Ah…I see you brought us some supper, Vincent!” she noted exuberantly.

Wild rabbit wasn’t her favorite thing to eat, but she wasn’t about to complain. She’d been prepared to eat frog legs. Rabbit legs were definitely several marks higher on her wild game menu. But her hopes that the reference to the rabbit would divert his attention away from her had been in vain. His unblinking crimson gaze never left her face, nor did he respond other than to offer her a single nod of his head in silent confirmation of her statement.

And truthfully, maybe that’s why he kept staring at her. Maybe that was his silent way of pointing out the fact that she was still lazing around in the grass when there was dinner to be cooked. Without a doubt, Vincent had definitely upheld his end of the bargain, and she had yet to fulfill hers.

Suddenly, she remembered her unlit fire. She most certainly had failed on her end. A lamentable yet happy fact that offered yet another potential road to Vincent Valentine distraction.

“Ah…I guess…I should do something about that…fire…”

She purposefully waved a hand toward the layered pile of firewood she’d constructed, and then she deliberately pointed, but he didn’t look as she’d fervently hoped, apparently deeming his wordless and unrelenting examination of her face more crucial than confirming that her meticulously arranged pile of firewood did indeed exist. Tifa realized then that he probably wouldn’t move until she did. Just to assure himself that she could. So she supposed that she’d better take action to do something, before Mr. Valentine decided to scrutinize her from a closer vantage point. Before he found it necessary to move her himself. Before he asked her to show him what she held in her hand.

Trying for a casual demeanor, she attempted a nonchalant shrug of her shoulders, which came off even to her as tense. Averting her nervous eyes from his face, she smoothly drew one leg up as though in preparation of rising and dumped the rock into the leaves between her legs before throwing her unencumbered hands out in a gesture of contrition.

“Er…I’ve been slacking…I’m afraid…” she confided sheepishly.

Vincent supplied no comment in support or denial of her tentatively proffered excuse, but he continued to watch her, closely assessing her actions with a critical eye as she climbed rather laboriously to her feet, moving as though the muscles in her legs had gone stiff from inaction. She took a clumsy step that looked almost like a stumble as she let one foot lag behind to drag a few leaves over the discarded rock. Vincent’s eyes narrowed incrementally, only serving to ratchet her tension up several degrees.

Once on her feet, she stood with one foot planted in front of the barely concealed rock as she performed a prolonged exhibition of bending and stretching to straighten the kinks from her legs and stiff back, the whole while hoping desperately for him to develop a sudden compulsion to peer at the clouds overhead or the trees to his right or a bird or his toes or anything but her, all to no avail. She had taken center stage in his regard, and he apparently found her to be most entertaining. Maybe she should take a bow. As she pondered Mr. Valentine’s possible reaction to that, stony faced and unblinking appraisal no doubt, she finally gave up in despair and helplessly surrendered her position, aiming a self-deprecating little smile in his general direction before ducking her head from his direct line of sight to cross to her neat pile of sticks and kindling.

Already relieved of the majority of his concerns about her health, Vincent now found himself completely bemused by her odd behavior and her atypical lack of grace upon rising. As she hurried across the clearing now, he tracked her hasty movements with incisive eyes, duly noting the graceful smoothness of her easy strides. He keenly watched with hidden intrigue as she knelt down beside the unlit fire and hesitantly picked up a stick in each hand. Then he knitted his narrow eyebrows in puzzlement as she inspected the sticks closely, one at a time. After long moments of fidgeting with them, she stabbed one down into her kindling material and tried rubbing the other stick against it, first rather half-heartedly and then more frenetically when a fleeting glance over her shoulder found him still in the same spot studying her.

A glint of amusement sparked deep in his eyes. Vincent knew that her dubious fire starting method, a viable one if done correctly rather than in the manner most appropriated by school children on the playground, would never work. However, he planned to hold his tongue and leave her to it for the moment. With carefully silenced footsteps, he traversed the width of the clearing to the precise spot where she’d been sitting, his stealthy but deliberate progress unnoticed by her as she concentrated more intently on the business of fire starting.

That she was hiding something from him, he knew. As a Turk, he’d been trained to recognize deception, and truthfully he had a knack for it, but he didn’t require the training of a Turk in this case. Nor any extraordinary innate ability. As he’d already recognized on more than one occasion, Tifa Lockhart was the most transparent person it had ever been his pleasure to know.

Vincent made a tight circle of the area in question as he searched, gingerly shifting the leaves this way and that with the edge of one boot even as he watched her from the corner of his eye, more to check her reaction should she notice him there than in any attempt to hide his actions. In the end, he discovered little to interest him. Certainly nothing he could conceivably identify as an item she might be compelled to hide from him. Just dirt, some wood ants traveling a preordained route, a layer of rotting leaves, a few sprouts struggling to push up through the ground cover into the sunlight, and a nondescript chunk of gray stone of similar substance and color to the miles of cliff face that surrounded the whole valley.

With the toe plate of his boot lightly touching one side of the rock, he stared down for a long moment, his eyes narrowing in speculation as he noted the exacting lines scored across its surface, without a doubt made by a human hand, and eventually he reached the conclusion that Tifa had probably been trying to use the rock as a flint to start the fire at some point, but that she’d failed and hadn’t wanted him to know.

Even before his tentative assessment formed solidly in his mind, Vincent groaned inwardly at the idea. The explanation seemed flimsy at best, but he couldn’t fathom any other motivation on her part that would make her feel the need to hide a rock from him, especially when there were scores of rocks just like it scattered through the woods, cast off and carried away from the numerous rocky outcrops thrust up through the earth all across the area. Probably, she hadn’t been hiding anything. He’d just embarrassed her by catching her daydreaming, just as she’d asserted, and he could easily conjecture, based on her enamored expression that her dreaming had been of Cloud Strife. He did not wish to be cognizant of the images she might have been nursing inside her head at that moment. And as for himself, he’d unconsciously cocooned his own rampant and barely contained emotions inside a pointless exercise in suspicious enterprise because he didn’t wish to examine just how close to panic he’d come. So close, in fact, that he’d almost surrendered to the overwhelming urge to race madly across the ground to close the distance between them, to sweep her up into his arms and gather her to him. And after that, he couldn’t consider what he might have done.

Quickly slamming the gate on that avenue of reckless thought, Vincent swiveled his head to appraise her awkward fire making efforts with an analytical eye. As he’d already noted, she didn’t possess a proficient grasp of primitive fire starting technique, but not many people did. Even people who possessed the knowledge to start a fire with such methods often failed to achieve the desired results as the process seemed more art than skill with a large measure of luck tossed into the mix. Additionally, most people who camped outdoors a great deal required no knowledge of such survival measures because they usually anticipated the need for the artificial means to start a fire and carried incendiary tools on their person. Just as he did now.

With the barest of smiles curving his mouth, he again tucked the blanket beneath one arm to free both hands, and then he reached his fingers beneath his cloak to retrieve the Quicksilver from its holster. Turning the pistol over in hand and claw, he resettled the weapon inside his metal digits with the inserted fire materia facing up, and lifting an appraising gaze toward a wholly preoccupied Tifa and her unlit pile of sticks, he laid a finger against the green orb inserted in the grip. Concentrating intently on his target, he exhibited unwavering confidence in his advanced expertise with the use of materia by casting only the minutest of fire spells to ignite the kindling beneath the pile of sticks in a manner that presented no risk to her.

At the sudden and unpredicted birth of her infant fire, Tifa fell back on her heels to stare in amazement at the results of her unexpected success. She hadn’t expected that stick rubbing business to work, and she’d mostly been doing it for busy work until Vincent got his fill of staring and went on. An impulsive smile of pride at her accidental expertise lifted her lips until she realized that those first tentative tongues of flame licked at the deeper layers of kindling, down inside the pile of sticks, and not near the edge where she’d been working. She held the sticks up before her eyes and inspected them for any sign of charring, smoking, or smoldering, and her ebbing smile promptly turned to a frown. Just as she thought, the sticks displayed no hint that they’d ever been near a fire, much less been the catalyst for starting one.

Suddenly consumed with suspicion, Tifa whipped her head around to look straight at Vincent, only to discover that he’d moved. She twisted away from the fire to find him, and her brown eyes filled with anxiety as she fearfully and unerringly zeroed in on the exact spot that she suspected he’d gone, just in time to catch him tucking his pistol away beneath his cloak.

She almost choked on her own breath when she noticed that his boots were planted in the leaves only inches away from the rock she’d left there, and what’s more, he’d inadvertently kicked the leaves away from it. It had to be accidental she knew, because he obviously hadn’t noticed the thing, because if he’d noticed the thing, he wouldn’t be messing around with starting fires because he’d be too busy chewing her ass off for daring to bring the damn thing with her. And even more disturbing to see, that damn cheeky little rock had started its little come hither flickering. Not so noticeable in the daylight, but Vincent would only have to glance to his side to catch a glimpse from the corner of his eye. In fact, the instant he turned back to look at her, he would undoubtedly catch sight of it, and then all hell would break loose. Because he would reach for it out of curiosity, and she would definitely have to make a flying leap to bring him down before he touched it. The ignominious consequences of that action rose in vivid depiction inside her mind, and she decided that she wouldn’t survive the embarrassment. With a loud huff of feigned indignation, Tifa erupted to her feet and planted her hands on her hips.

“Vincent Valentine! You started that fire didn’t you?!”

Mildly surprised at the vociferousness of her well-founded accusation, Vincent looked around from holstering his gun with inquisitive eyes and readily inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Is there a problem?” he coolly asked. “You wished the fire to be lit, did you not?”

“But…you tricked me!” she heatedly accused.

“Did I?” he impassively queried.

Vincent abruptly bent down, and the breath hitched in Tifa’s throat at the unexpected move. But he didn’t pick up the rock as she’d first thought he meant to, probably because the taunting little beastie had fallen momentarily quiescent, gathering its resources for a more spectacular burst of alluring illumination, no doubt. Instead, Vincent deftly drew his knife from where he had it tucked inside the cuff of his boot. He straightened to his full height, and with a slight pressure of his thumb against the switch embedded in the hilt, he released the blade with a tiny snick. Without another word or glance in her direction, he stepped away from the rock and the potential harm it could inflict upon him with the extended knife held lightly in his fingers. Crossing the clearing on silent but purposeful feet, Vincent laid the blanket aside across the roots of a nearby tree, and then he bent to retrieve the rabbit, obviously with the intention of dressing it out in preparation for their dinner.

Tifa let out a long, slow, soundless breath of relief. He hadn’t noticed the rock, thank the heavens. She couldn’t imagine what words might have passed between them if he had. At the very least, she’d been spared from tackling the man to the ground before he could lay a finger on the infernal thing, an assault she would have gladly undertaken if she had to, in order to spare him injury.

She ruefully admitted to herself that she should probably just tell him about it. Just as she’d considered doing the whole time she’d been attempting vainly to start the fire, all the while fruitlessly composing potential explanations in her mind for hiding the rock from him all this time only to come clean now. In fact, she longed to tell him. She really did. For one thing, she hated to hide things in general. She wasn’t very good at it, and she found herself particularly bothered about concealing anything from him in particular. And more than that, she craved his well-reasoned input. She wanted more than anything to tell him all about the amazing things she’d discovered about the rock and ask him what he thought about it. Vincent knew a lot of things she could never hope to know, and he might even know something about how such a thing might be possible. But every time she considered telling him, every time she tried to form the words to ask him, she always found herself backed up against the wall of her abject fear that if he knew about it, if she told him what she’d discovered, that he would be compelled to touch it. And she didn’t want him to touch it. Not after what had happened to him in that weird underground facility. She could not bear to see him suffer like that again. And she knew that if Vincent Valentine decided to risk it, she didn’t have the power to stop him. Therefore, she had no choice. Vincent could not pick up that rock. She could not let him be hurt. And curious man that he was, he probably would if he knew. So she would just continue to keep her mouth shut on that score, until she could permanently secure the rock from his grasp.

For that matter, she thought she might just dispose of the thing at the first opportunity. She knew now that the rock somehow made her remember her dreams. No not remember them, relive them. And the whole concept of some alien object having control over so personal a process as dream creation left her feeling very unsettled. Still, she didn’t know in what way the rock influenced her dreams, or vice versa, and there were several other lines scored in that stone, although she couldn’t begin to imagine what dreams those lines might represent. She couldn’t remember off hand what visions might be hidden there. At the moment she could recall no others, but if she saw them she might remember. If she dared do such a crazy thing again. She wasn’t at all confident that she would chance it again.

And as before, the idea of asking Red about the stone still appealed to her. Maybe he’d come across such a strange object before, in his planetary studies. Maybe he could explain it to her and assure her of its harmlessness, and then and only then would she consider sharing her experience with Vincent. She would only tell him about it though. No way would she ever think about showing him, because she would never survive the mortification should he ever see her crazy dreams.

Her thoughts caught up in a struggle to travel the disjointedly laid rails of her current problem, Tifa ambled across the clearing, idly kicking at leaves as she followed a circuitous and seemingly whimsical route that eventually carried her back to the blatantly active and unconcealed rock. She forced her actions to casualness by humming a formless ditty of a song improvised on the spot as she scattered leaves over the glimmering rock with an idly swinging foot before moving on to send more leaves fleeing from her path with deliberately capricious toes, the whole while shooting surreptitious glances at the busy Mr. Valentine from the corner of her eye. If he wondered at her odd behavior, he showed no sign of it, not even taking his eyes from his handiwork to notice her. Eventually, she worked her way back to her starting point beside the guttering fire, and she simply lowered herself to the ground and proceeded to feed in a twig or two from the pile she’d collected for the purpose.

As she watched the sticks blacken beneath the curl of the flame, she unconsciously reached a decision and nodded her head, in total accord with her plan. The whole business was settled then. She wouldn’t tell Vincent about the rock. She would just keep the stone tucked away out of sight. She already knew that it wouldn’t hurt her anyway. After all, she’d been carrying it in her pocket, completely forgotten for days upon days. A couple more days could hardly matter. And the second she deemed Mr. Valentine sufficiently distracted so as not to risk accidental detection, she would sneak the rock back into her pocket again, a place Vincent would never dare venture, and that would be that.

She felt so relieved at the decision she’d made that she almost forgot to feel guilty. Almost but not quite. Worrying her lower lips between her teeth, she pointedly turned her thoughts away from the stone, searching for something less disturbing to think about, only to be seized by the disconcerting memory of her very recent behavior in response to Vincent sneakily starting that fire, an instinctive and necessary action on her part for purposes of emergency distraction, but pretty embarrassing in retrospect. She couldn’t imagine what the man had thought when she’d accused him of tricking her.

Tifa turned her head to keenly study him in turn, not even noticing when her interested gaze came to rest on the downcast crimson eyes all but cloaked behind thick inky lashes as he bent to his task, her mind busy in an examination of the incident under consideration, particularly in regard to the compelling idea that her accusation had been justified.

Had Vincent pranked her? Had he finally decided to get even with her for her showers of flower petals and rain clouds of leaves? She had a lot of trouble believing that. She didn’t think Mr. Valentine possessed a mischievous bone anywhere in his body.

More likely, he’d just taken pity on her pathetic efforts to start the fire and decided he’d better start it himself. Or even more likely, he’d decided that if he didn’t start the fire, it would never get done, and he’d never eat. A practical and accurate assessment on his part, she had to admit.

She narrowed her eyes suspiciously as she watched him deftly work his knife, seemingly oblivious to her appraisal. Maybe he did prank her. And probably he didn’t.

Still…Mr. Vincent Valentine bore watching…

She shifted around to a more advantageous position beside the now lively fire, and settling comfortably in, she drew up her knees and rested her chin on folded arms to do just that.




Jimmie trotted down the long flank of the Gelnika to emerge beneath the gigantic tail of the aircraft to one side of the wide ramp that led into the open cargo bay. Without breaking stride, he reached up both hands to grasp the edge of the ramp near the top, and with a mighty heave, he swung himself up to face the entrance of the cavernous bay. Straightening up, he took a single step, only to come to a stunned halt when he found himself nose to nose with a familiar face. He gaped at her in shock, momentarily at a loss for words. She took two hesitant backward steps into the beckoning shelter of the shadowy cargo hold and half-turned as though she might run, but then she realized the futility of it. Turning back to face the flabbergasted head mechanic, she folded her arms in resignation to wait for what her former crewmate would say.

“Shera!” he finally coughed out, his staring eyes like two cup saucers as he looked her up and down from head to toe, completely disbelieving of the sight his eyes beheld despite prior knowledge of her probable presence in the camp. He hadn’t truly believed it then, and he could hardly believe it now. “What are you doing here?!”

She shrugged with a pretense at indifference, one that probably wouldn’t have worked on Cid Highwind. Jimmie was an easier sell. “Just…hanging out, Jimmie.”

He narrowed his eyes at her in effortful thought. She could almost see the gears turning jerkily in his head. “So how ya been, Jimmie?” She hoped to distract him with idle conversation, but it didn’t work.

“Why ya hangin’ out on the Gelnika, Shera?” Jimmie asked with a hint of censure in his voice. “Why aren’t you working with us? Why aren’t you running the show like you should be?”

“Maybe I don’t want to run Cid’s show anymore.” Shera tartly replied. “Why? Don’t you like bein’ his chief mechanic?”

He shook his head sadly. “You know I’ll never be as good as you, Shera. And you knew how to…I mean you could…you know…deal with Cap…”

“Handle him, you mean?”

“Yeah…that…”

“I never handled him, Jimmie. I just tolerated him. I always took the heat for everything. Maybe I’m tired of it.” Tired of being taken for granted. Tired of being hurt…

Jimmie ducked his head in acknowledgement. “I don’t blame ya, Shera. I know he’s hard on the nerves sometimes, but he never means anything by it. And…we need you. We need your expertise. There’s a lot of work to do. And the crew isn’t up to it without you.”

“Like what?” Shera scoffed derisively as she raised her eyebrows high beneath her cap in sardonic inquisition. “You’re putting up tents and loading and unloading cargo. Soon you’ll be moving people to Junon. The hard work is finished. You got the people out of Sector Five. You cleared the Sector Two gate. And a damn fine job you did too, Jimmie. Ramrodding your end of all that. You can do it without me. You’ve proven that well enough.”

”And you probably did it faster without me,” she silently added. One of Cid’s criticisms that never failed to hurt her, though she’d never let him see. All thoughtless words born from their constant clash between her meticulousness to do things right, and his drive to get things done.

”Get yer ass in gear, Shera. You work like a snail.”
“Even the moon’d get tired waitin’ around on your ass, Shera!”
“Are you goddamn blind, Shera?! Are you goddamn deaf, Shera?! Are you goddamn stupid, Shera?! Are you goddamn….”

Whatever. Just fill in the blank. How many times had she heard it? So many times that she replayed the words in her nightmares. And in light of that fact, why was she here again?

“Yeah, I managed…I guess.” Jimmie shrugged uneasily. “…And thanks, Shera. That means a lot coming from you. But I was talking about the Highwind.”

“The…Highwind?”

Jimmie’s words had roughly the same effect of a sudden break in an overstretched rubber band, snapping Shera’s thoughts straight back to the present. His simple words had been so blandly delivered as to make his statement seem innocuous. But she wasn’t fooled. Her throat tightened with dread at what she might hear next. Because she could easily guess that whatever it would be, it wouldn’t be good. Shera knew damn well that Jimmie wasn’t talking about simple maintenance and repairs. The crew wouldn’t need her for that.

“What about her, Jimmie? What’s the matter with the Highwind?”

“She don’t fly anymore, Shera…” Jimmie informed her woefully. “She’s busted up. Cid crash landed her on some farm near Kalm, an’ after we’re done here, we gotta go try to rebuild her.”

“Crash…landed?” Shera’s face went white beneath her tan. “Sweet Shiva…”

“Yeah, she’s thrashed, Cid said. And I don’t know if we can put her back together without you. You know her inside out, Shera. Like the back of your own hand.” He backed up his wheedling voice with pleading eyes. “Please, Shera…will you come back?”

Shera pressed her fingers to her throat, partly to hide the tremulousness of her fingers, and partly to dispel the lump suddenly lodged there. She unconsciously shook her head in denial, not of Jimmie’s request, but of the horrible image that took possession of her mind. One hardly mitigated by her personal knowledge of Cid Highwind’s obvious good health, as evidenced by his vigorous search for her. Still, Jimmie’s plea had swayed her decision, but not as much as the information about the crashed Highwind.

…Cid’s Lady Luck. The only ‘woman’ that had ever truly mattered in his life. One that had been snatched from him by Shinra. One that he’d stolen back. She’d helped Cid build her before, and she would help him build her again, without reservation…without question…without expectation…

“I…don’t know…Jimmie…” she murmured uneasily. “I don’t even know if…Cid will have me back.”

“Cap’s been looking everywhere for you.” Jimmie frowned in disgruntlement at her. “Why would he look for you if he didn’t want you to come back?”

“Maybe he wants to tell me to get lost, Jimmie! Did’ja ever think of that? Maybe he wants to yell at me and order me away from his planes. Tell me to get the hell on outta here.” Shera knew Cid Highwind well enough to know that no matter what else he might be thinking or feeling, that would be his first reaction when he finally managed to corner her. She’d been disloyal after all. She’d left him that…note…

Jimmie adamantly shook his head. “No, Shera. I don’t think so. I think he needs you. And I think he misses you.”

She impatiently waved a hand in dismissal. “Ah hell, you don’t know. You’d tell me anything right now.”

“I wouldn’t lie to you, Shera. You know that.”

Guilt almost overcame her then. She did know better. The man didn’t have it in him to lie. “Right, Jimmie. I do know that. Sorry. But…I don’t know…I’ll have to think about it…”

“Okay…guess that’s all I can ask…but please, Shera…think hard about it...okay?”

Shera just nodded, her stomach already churning at the idea of being pinned down on her decision sooner than she’d planned. Because she knew it wouldn’t wait until tomorrow. Not now. Her hiding days were over. She had to make up her mind now, either to stay or go. Before she waited too long and lost control of her options. She knew the intelligent choice would be to go. She’d wasted too many years waiting on Cid Highwind to wake up and smell the tea already. But if she did make the choice to turn her back on Cid Highwind and go, she had to do it with the firm resolution to keep moving and never look back. And when she did it, she had to stop thinking about him…dammit…

“You seen Cid?” Jimmie peered imploringly into her vacant face. “I gotta find him. They need him at the gate.”

“Yeah…you just missed him…” Shera absently replied, still caught up in her conflicted thoughts. “…He came through a few minutes ago…” And he’d taken her by surprise.

Cid would have found her then too, caught out in the open when he came up the ramp. For a heart pounding second or two she’d breathlessly considered offering her unconditional surrender. But when his fiercely searching gaze swept her way, she’d panicked in the face of her uncertainty at what he might say to her in that instant. And just like the mice that were never completely eradicated from the cargo bay of the giant plane, she scurried out of his direct line of sight on rubbery legs and miraculously managed to squeeze into a dark narrow space between the bulkhead and an adjacent stack of crates fortuitously close by. She’d collected a spider web veil for her efforts, and she suspected she’d wind up with bruises from jamming her body in a place too small for it to go.

“Which way?”

“Huh?”

“Which way did he go?”

“Oh, toward the other plane.” She absently flapped her hand in that direction.

“Thanks, Shera. I better get movin’.”

Shera vaguely lifted her fingers in silent farewell, and with a befuddled shake of his head, Jimmie agilely jumped off the ramp and started away, planning to retrace his steps back toward the distant Gelnika. Apparently he must’ve just missed Cap, as he’d just come from that way.

A thought suddenly occurred to him, and he paused in mid-stride to gaze worriedly up into her troubled face. “Shera? You want me to keep mum ‘bout seein’ ya?”

Shera swiveled dull eyes to his earnest face and slowly shook her head. “Say what you want, Jimmie. I’d never ask you to lie for me.”

Besides, it didn’t matter now. Too many people she knew had seen her. Cid was looking hard for her. And he’d almost found her this time. There was no point in continuing this ridiculous and childish charade.

With an uncertain nod of his head, Jimmie threw a hand up in farewell. Shera hardly noticed as he raced off down the side of the plane and out of sight. Still half in a daze, she drew the bill of her flight cap further down her forehead to shadow her eyes and faded back into the bay, slipping around behind the bulkhead to weakly plant her back to the metal hull. With a protracted huff of despair at her own cowardice, she let her head fall back against the metal with a little clunk.

She didn’t have a choice really. Truthfully, there was only one decision she could make. Only one she could live with tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. She just had to dredge up the nerve to do it. While she still had the upper hand. Sort of…




The giant locking mechanism of the Sector Two gate disengaged with an ear numbing clank that reverberated throughout the length of the adjacent wall, sending a rain of loose concrete dust and pieces of shattered brick sifting down off the top. The chattering onlookers fell expectantly silent, and all members of the welcoming committee instantly turned their attention to the closed portal as every iota of interest in Yuffie Kisaragi and her shenanigans vanished from the forefront of their minds.

Inexorably, the massive iron door that weighed tons swung inward until an aperture opened wide enough to allow the passage of the three men who emerged from the dim interior of the city’s innards to walk purposefully toward them abreast. Cloud instantly recognized them all. General Sand strode smartly at one side, effortlessly exhibiting the military carriage of his rank and position. Private First Class Coakley ambled along at the other, carrying Reeve’s crate and looking more like the executive’s sidekick than an enlisted soldier. And Reeve Alexander walked between the two of them with his handheld computer clutched in one hand, squinting his eyes against the bright sunlight as he swept a cursory gaze of appraisal across the encampment that would be his new base of operations throughout the evacuation and relocation process.

Four guards drawn from the third class tier of the elite corps called SOLDIER followed the men out and took up their assigned positions outside the gate, alert and ready to come to Reeve Alexander’s aid at the first hint of trouble.

The instant he spied Reeve, Cait Sith vaulted from Cloud’s shoulder and hit the ground running, scampering across the distance to leap up into Reeve’s waiting arms, as though he were truly the pet cat after which he’d been modeled. With alacrity, the robotic cat pulled himself up onto Reeve’s shoulder to settle down comfortably, resting one gloved hand atop the man’s dark head and swinging his heels against his jacketed chest. Andy stared in amazement at the sight as Sand studiously ignored the strange creature. Reeve hardly seemed troubled, and the executive’s easy acceptance of what many might view as an annoying distraction signaled to Cloud that the man and the cat had probably interacted so on many occasions in the past.

Nanaki rose to his four paws and watched the executive and the military officer move toward them with a watchful eye. “Is that him?” the red beast queried lowly. “Is that Reeve?”

A quiet smile came to Cloud’s face. “Yeah, that’s him.” The warrior noticed the ridge of hair bristling down the beast’s back. “You can trust him, Red,” Cloud assured him. “Far as I can tell.” Then he left Nanaki behind, striding forward to meet the executive who picked up his pace in anticipation as he extended his hand.

Reeve smiled widely as he took Cloud’s hand in a hearty handshake. “It’s good to see you again, Cloud,” he greeted enthusiastically, genuinely gratified to see the warrior all in one piece even though he’d already been fully apprised of the Sector Five events. “I wasn’t sure that I would when you left.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t sure there for awhile either,” Cloud replied ruefully. In fact, he’d been positive he was a goner during those endless seconds he’d spent plunging through the dead air over the rooftops of Sector Five, wishing feverishly that he could sprout wings and fly.

Nanaki tensely came forward, his sleek muscles rippling under his sorrel hide as he move as though in stalking mode. He halted beside Cloud to study the executive with the keen eye of a predator appraising the weaknesses and strengths of his prey.

Reeve’s gaze fell to the visibly suspicious beast, and he bent at the waist to politely offer Nanaki a hand as Cait Sith wrapped an arm about the executive’s neck to hold him securely in his seat. “Finally, we meet in person, Red Thirteen. I’ve been looking forward to this day.”

Hesitantly, Nanaki lifted his paw and laid it against Reeve’s open palm, the size of the animal’s foot dwarfing the man’s hand. Nanaki set his beaded and feathered braids swaying as he tilted his head in acknowledgement. “Likewise, Reeve Alexander,” he solemnly replied. Based on his intuitive instincts, Nanaki found himself generally approving of the amiable Shinra executive, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t keep his one eye on him in future.

Nanaki withdrew his paw, careful to keep his claws retracted, and Reeve straightened to turn his attention to Cloud and Red’s other companion. He frowned in puzzlement. The young man looked familiar, but he couldn’t quite place him.

He extended his hand. “I think we’ve met, son, but I don’t quite remember when,” Reeve said with blunt honesty.

Derry readily took Reeve’s hand in a firm handshake. “We have,” he replied with a shrug. “And you wouldn’t. It was a few years ago, and I was a lot smaller. Name’s Derry. We spoke on the radio.”

“Oh yes…the radio.…” Reeve’s expression turned inquisitive as he released the young man’s hand. The name didn’t strike a chord in his memory regarding their prior meeting.

Derry answered his unspoken query. “Derrick Heidegger,” he clarified. “Deidre Marsh was my mother. Shinra News anchor. Until a couple of years ago.”

“Ah…yes,” Reeve nodded tensely. “Deidre.” She’d interviewed him a few times on air, and they’d gone to dinner a couple of times, and to a Shinra function or two. He could clearly recall that he’d met Deirdre’s only son, but he couldn’t bring a picture of the younger Heidegger to mind. The young man’s polite smile seemed genuine enough, but Reeve noted a cool circumspection in the blue eyes, a veil of wariness incongruous with his open face and friendly tone. And then Reeve remembered, and realized what lay behind the invisible barrier. A hidden reservoir of sorrow. “I was very sorry to hear of your mother’s death,” he added somberly.

Derry offered the executive an uneasy one-shouldered shrug. “Thanks, Mr. Alexander,” he simply replied.

Cloud interjected a comment then, uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation. “Derry’s flying for Cid.”

Surprise flashed fleetingly through Reeve’s dark eyes but was barely reflected in his tactfully diplomatic voice. “So you’re the pilot helping Cid fly the Gelnikas.” Derry Heidegger seemed pretty young to be certified on one of the oversized cumbersome planes.

Derry accurately interpreted the silent reservation in the executive’s careful tone, and he grinned roguishly. “Unofficially,” he qualified.

Reeve inclined his head in understanding. “Well, son, if Cid Highwind trusts you, so do I. And I hope you’re ready to work. We have a lot of people to move to Junon.”

Derry stuffed his hands in his back pockets and rocked back on his heels, the picture of cockiness and unswerving confidence in his own abilities. “I’m ready to fly anytime you say, sir.”

“Good.” Reeve tersely replied as he waved Sand forward. “General, you’ve met Cloud. And this is…Nanaki.”

The red beast offered his paw again, and General Sand cautiously took the oversized paw into his own huge hand, uneasy eyes pinned on the beast’s scarred face.

“And Mr. Heidegger…General Sand.” Reeve casually finished the introductions with a solicitous gesture of his hand, but neither man moved to take the other’s hand.

“We’ve met,” Derry offered smoothly.

Reeve looked from the smug expression on the young pilot’s face to the wary one on the General’s and decided that whatever tale might be revealed there could wait for another day, no matter how intriguing he might find the prospect of hearing it.

“And Mr. Coakley,” Reeve looked behind him, unwilling to leave the young soldier out of the introductions, only to find that Andy had vanished. A brief search revealed his new location, over by the dozer, where he clutched the crate tightly to his chest and watched Red with round eyes from a more remote distant. “Ah…never mind…you can meet Andy later.”

He then shot a longer more careful look around him before bringing his attention back to Cloud. “Do you know where I can find the Turks?” He kept his tone carefully circumspect.

Truthfully, he wasn’t asking about the Turks, but about Caitlin. He’d expected her to be waiting outside the gate for him, and a keen disappointment now weighted his heart at her obvious absence. Which annoyed him no end. Not that she wasn’t there to meet him, but that he’d let that fact bother him so. He had no reason to expect her. Why would she be there? She’d said they would meet later, when they could speak privately, and that time was fast approaching. In fact, he planned to seek her out right after he spoke to Cid. So they could clear the air. So he could say what he knew he had to say. Whatever the consequences. Whatever the outcome. So he could put it behind him and move on to the crucial work that awaited him.

“They were having some sort of discussion at the HQ,” Cloud informed him with an arch of one blonde brow. “I don’t really know what it’s about.” Although he knew of a certain insufferably presumptuous individual who very well might.

Reeve merely nodded his acceptance, satisfied with the scarce information and even inexplicably relieved at the reasonable explanation for Caitlin’s failure to appear. He would patiently bide his time until later to find out what the meeting entailed. Of course, he might never be apprised of the details of a meeting between Caitlin and her Turks. Reno had made clear almost from the beginning that his allegiance lay with her. And Rude’s loyalty…well…that was a foregone conclusion the moment he’d discovered that she still lived. Just as Tseng’s would have been, had he still been around. Cait had always had Rude and Tseng wrapped around her fingers. Especially Tseng.

“And Cid?” Reeve queried a little more sharply. “I need to meet with him.” He’d fully expected the Captain to be present, and he was surprised that he wasn’t. Cid had to know how much they had to plan and how swiftly they needed to implement their operations.

“Now, that I don’t know,” Cloud replied impassively. “Jimmie’s looking for him.”

“Well, I think we’d better find him,” Reeve coolly bade. “The sooner we set the gears in motion, the better off everyone will be.”

Cait Sith suddenly grabbed a fistful of Reeve’s collar and leaned way out to the side to peer into General Sand’s face with big eyes. “Wanna hear your fortune, Mr. Army Man?” the cat asked of the stolid officer. Sand’s bushy eyebrows flew together in consternation at the unexpected and unwelcome query.

“Not now, Cait Sith,” Reeve impatiently chided him.

“Okaaaay,” the robotic cat said sadly, hanging his head. As though Reeve’s sharply delivered rebuke had injured his robotic little heart to the core, Cait Sith abruptly bailed off Reeve’s shoulder and leapt to the ground, abandoning his comfortable seat for easier mobility.

“There’s the Captain,” Derry suddenly remarked, drawing everyone’s attention to the approaching figure coming on rapidly with his trademark loose limbed gait, puffing on a cigarette and trailing smoke behind him like a locomotive at full steam. Jimmie trotted along beside him, his face reddened at the effort to keep up. “Looks like Jimmie found him.”

“Thank the stars,” Reeve murmured as he gratefully rolled his eyes heavenward in gratification to the powers that be. Erupting into motion, he promptly set out to meet him.

Taking his cue from his maker, Cait Sith danced into highly animated action to accompany him, seemingly content to hop and skip alongside his maker with his tail switching back and forth. The executive strode purposefully toward the Captain, already lifting his hand to greet Cid Highwind with due respect and a hearty handshake. He had much to say to the Captain. A great deal for which to express his undying gratitude for starters, before they moved on imperative matters.

General Sand followed a few steps behind him, walking at a more martial pace. The warrior, the pilot and the beast trailed in their wake. And much farther behind, Mr. Coakley followed with his precious crate, his eyes mesmerized by the lazy back and forth swishing of one flame-tipped tail.




Avian sat astraddle the small motorbike, idly fiddling with the gauges and wishing sourly that he were many miles away, tearing up the country lanes around Kalm on his Shinra Speed Demon with Soldier riding the tank in front of him with his paws braced against the handlebars. With the wind whipping his hair and nothing on his mind but dodging the potholes in the poorly maintained road and making sure he got back to his job in Kalm in time to keep Tiko from chewing his ass. A matter that had never troubled him much as he knew Tiko would never fire him. He’d never get someone else to work for him that knew materia like he did. No matter where he went, no matter what he did, he was always assured of a job, as long as Tiko remained in business.

How had his life become so complicated anyway? Not so many months ago he’d been going to work everyday in the materia shop, reading books and listening to the radio in his small one-room apartment on his off days. Riding into Midgar to visit Tamitha when he could manage it. His life had been so boring and uneventful that he’d routinely invented swashbuckling fantasies of pirates and adventure to give his dull existence a little color. He hardly had to dream up his excitement now. In fact, he often imagined himself trapped inside one of his more vivid daydreams, one without the flamboyant heroics on his part and without the cheesy plotlines of a low budget action flick he was so prone to inventing. All the drama and the subterfuge of late hardly seemed real. And the events in his life had spiraled so quickly into a tailspin that he found all the details difficult to grasp, much less understand.

Even though he couldn’t lay the blame for everything at her door, he had to admit that it had all started to slide downhill the day his Aunt Jae hoodwinked him into staying with his senile Grandma. After that, the meteor had appeared in the sky to threaten the world and every living thing on it with annihilation. Then a whole airship had crashed into his yard. And a man he’d never met before had come for him, to do what with him he couldn’t even guess, and he’d killed him in a moment of instinctive and unthinking action that he could hardly recall, and really didn’t want to.

…And now…Avalanche rebels and Shinra Turks were both looking out for his welfare…

Tamitha would sure rib him hard if he told her such a wild story. He desperately wished that she could be here with him. She would take charge and help him figure everything out, help him sort out his memories. He would tell her everything that had happened, holding back nothing, because he’d never hid anything from her. And then they would crawl through the maze of tunnels to their secret hideout and shut out the whole world until they got the whole matter worked out to their satisfaction.

He didn’t have Tamitha to talk to though, and he longed for someone to help him untangle the crazily scrambled plotlines, because he couldn’t trust his own mind anymore. In light of recent events, he knew his memories must be deceiving him. Because he’d made a mental inventory of them more than once, from as far back as he could remember to the present day. A virtual autobiographical reflection. And he could discover nothing he hadn’t already known. But his memories must be lying. Because his memories were all so mundane. Not that many of them weren’t painful. Many of them he would sorely love to forget. And some he would die before he gave them up. But all of them...so ordinary. Things that happened to everybody. And whatever seemed to be going on inside him now could only be described as extraordinary. It was so damn frightening and…at the same time…so…empowering…

The memory of Reno’s startled face suddenly sprang into his head. He knew he’d taken the Turk by surprise. But he didn’t know for sure how or why. Had it been the expression on his face? He’d sort of blanked out the details, but he remembered being afraid. Not for himself, because he believed they wanted to help him. He’d been afraid that they’d make him talk about Aunt Jae. And he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to explore his troubling suspicions that she knew something about him that he didn’t, especially as he had no more to go one but his feelings.

He’d been angry too. That Reno wouldn’t let him go when all he wanted was to be left alone for a few minutes. To think and get his head straight. And he’d also known, for just a few breathtaking seconds, that he could snap that Turk’s wrist in two if he’d wanted. And for the space of that fleeting thought, he’d really wanted to.

Had that been what Reno had seen in his eyes? Had that been what had impelled the Turk to let him go? He hoped that Reno knew that he wouldn’t have ever tried to hurt him. Despite everything that Reno had represented in the past, despite all the horror stories he’d heard about the man, he liked the Turk, now that he’d gotten to know him. And he knew Reno only wanted to look out for him. He did know that, didn’t he?

…Besides, he couldn’t hurt anyone. Could he? But...he had…without even a thought. He’d thrown his dagger without even realizing he’d done so…

Avian reluctantly lifted his amber eyes from the power gauge he’d been blindly studying for the last several minutes to look over at the unmoving Turk standing square-shouldered outside the tent entrance with his hands loosely clasped in front of him. The unhappy child left in his charge drew pictures in the blackened soil at the Turk’s feet with a screwdriver she’d probably appropriated from the open toolbox that sat on the ground outside the mechanic’s tent next door.

A deep crease formed beside his nose in reflection of his troubled thoughts. Maybe he should just go back and talk to Reno and Caitlin again. To try to explain himself. To give voice to all the conflicted thoughts inside his head. He supposed the two of them were still in the tent talking, because if Reno or Caitlin had left, Rachel would surely have latched onto one of them to escape Rude. He found the big Turk intimidating himself, not only because he towered over him despite his six feet of height, but because he never showed any expression or really said anything. He could only imagine how scary Rachel found him to be. Rude was like a…zombie.

On cue, the idea of a zombie Rude suddenly coalesced into a full screen cinema inside his head and jerked into motion. The zombie Turk, Rude, clad in a suit stained and tattered from the grave, dark shades hiding his hollow eyes, walking deliberately and slowly toward him, with his dangling hands held out before him. Avian Wulfe, intended zombie food, simply reaches up his hand to hit the ignition key on his trusty motorbike. He will simply ride away and make that zombie Rude spit dust from his teeth. Well, after making a wide circle to ride by and scoop up the terrified and screaming Rachel from harm’s way. He had to be the hero in this scenario, since it was his show. Except…his motorbike won’t start. It coughs and sputters, but won’t fire up. He should have known. Always happened that way. So he leaps off his bike and bravely races into the face of the ponderously plodding zombie Rude to snatch the little girl Rachel into his arms, spinning in the other direction to quickly secure their escape, only to find himself surrounded by a lot more zombie Rudes than he could have ever imagined. But of course, that’s how the zombies always got you. In numbers. Because they were pretty clumsy and dull-witted. He had to come up with a plan pretty fast. And he might have. Had not a solid and brain slopping blow against the back of his head knocked his thoughts blank.

“Ow!” He raised one soothing hand to the back of his head, and the other he held up to ward off his evil assailant even as he glared up with eyes hot with accusation. “What’d you do that for?!”

She landed her hands on her narrow hips and glared back at him, waves of displeasure visibly radiating off her. “I said your name three times, Farm Boy,” she snapped irritably. “Figured I had to take more serious measures. What the hell were you thinking about anyway?”

“Er…zombie Turks…”

“Stop screwing around and be serious,” Yuffie imperiously demanded, raising a threatening hand in the air that made him duck away with an exaggerated expression of fear, but instead of taking another swing at his head, she simply waved him along as she whirled away, apparently off to other climes now that she’d given him a concussion.

“Come on, Farm Boy. We gotta talk,” she shot back over her shoulder.

Hesitantly, he swung one long leg over the handlebars of the bike to sit sideways as he watched her stride away with purpose. He chanced a stealthy look over at Rude where he still stood in exactly the same place in exactly the same stance with exactly the same expression on his face.

“I don’t think I better,” he called after her.

She instantly ground to a halt and spun around, her face collapsing into a deep frown of irritation at the fact that he hadn’t immediately complied, an expression that put him in mind of their very first meeting. She’d injured him that time. And almost electrocuted him for good measure, when she'd nearly thrown him atop the live electrical wires snaking through the wreckage on the heavily damaged Highwind bridge.

Yuffie stalked back to confront him as he nervously watched her approach. She came to a jarring stop in front of him to shake a threatening finger in front of his nose. “I wasn’t making a request, Farm Boy,” she snapped. “Now let’s go.”

He held out a hand toward Rude. “But…I…don’t think…”

“Don’t think! Just get moving!” She impatiently shot her hand out to snatch up a handful of his hair, including the slender braid that lay nested in the honey tresses, sharply jerking his head sideways as she turned to go. Avian found himself only capable of minimal resistance, and he wished fervently for a pair of scissors to magically appear in his hand as he helplessly rose to his feet and obediently followed her with curved spine, stooped shoulders, and a stumbling gait, his head bent at an acute angle to minimize the pain, although he didn’t come quietly.

“Ow! Ow! Ow! Will you stop, please!? Will you let go!?”

“Will you shut up?! You big wimpy-assed baby!”

“Come on! Let go! Let go! Heeeeeeelp!”

Avian reached out a beseeching hand in Rude’s direction as she towed him away, but the Turk didn’t pay him any mind. Apparently Rude had been ordered to protect him from bad people with katanas, guns, and flashy thingies. Not Avalanche members that pull hair. Soldier wouldn’t even help him in this case, since the disloyal mutt loved Yuffie more. No accounting for taste…

He desperately wrapped his fingers around the hand fisted in his hair and pried, but Yuffie Kisaragi’s fingers seemed superglued there. Through the dangling strands of hair that had fallen across his face, a glint of ruby caught his eye, and he shot out his other hand to press a purposeful finger on the materia orb slotted into the weapon that hung in the harness on her back.

“I have my finger on Leviiiiiiiathaaaaaaaan,” he taunted playfully.

She abruptly let him go and wheeled around to confront him, effectively carrying the materia orb out of his reach. “Hmph, you don’t possess the skill to cast Leviathan. You’d most likely drown your silly ass trying.”

“Wanna try me?” He wiggled his eyebrows at her as he gingerly smoothed his abused hair back into place.

“I just might do that,” she retorted. “I’ll make you put your gil where your big crybaby mouth is. But not right now. I wanna talk.”

At the grave expression on her face, the jaunty grin fell from his face, replaced by a frown of concern. “Why? What’s the big deal? Somethin’ the matter?”

Avian suddenly realized he hadn’t seen his dog in awhile. “Is it Soldier?” He turned his head to squint into the distance, and found his dog right where he’d left him, curled up asleep in the shadow of the dozer, apparently still worn out from all the stick fetching.

“No, I don’t wanna talk about your mangy mutt,” she replied petulantly. “I wanna talk about you.”

“Me?” His frown turned to one of surprise and consternation. He didn’t like it one bit when the conversation turned to him.

“I’ve been eavesdropping,” she bluntly confessed, her menacing black eyes daring him to pass judgment on her at risk of his life.

One sandy eyebrow lifted in defiance. “Oh really? Were your ears burning, Wutai?”

She huffed in derision. “No, my ears were not burning. Because they weren’t talking about me. They were talking about you. So…” She jabbed a hard finger into his chest. “…Let’s talk about you.”

He pointedly swiped her intrusive finger away with a brush of his hand. “Who are you talking about?” he asked in bewilderment.

But he knew didn’t he? Where else would that nosy Yuffie have been but outside the HQ tent snooping in where she wasn’t invited? And he could only imagine what she’d heard. He swiftly scanned through the highlights of the discussion to review what she might have gleaned from the various matters under discussion, especially the more heated parts, and he decided that if she’d been there the whole time she’d heard plenty.

“I’m talking about you, Farm Boy.” Her face took on a sly cast. “Would you like to tell me why the Turks are so worried about you?”

“No,” he stubbornly replied. He thought he should just go then, and put an end to the whole conversation, but oddly, he discovered that he didn’t want to. He still felt compelled to talk to someone, but he wasn’t entirely sure that Yuffie Kisaragi should be the one.

“Wanna tell me why they want to talk to your auntie?”

He silently shook his head and defensively folded his arms.

“Wanna tell me why they are going to lock you up in protective custody in Junon?”

To his credit, Avian managed to keep the dismay from his face, but just barely. He shuttered his worried eyes behind lowered lashes. “They wouldn’t do that,” he scoffed. “Caitlin knows how I feel about that. We talked about it.”

“Well, they were sure talking it up, I can tell you.”

“Whatever…”

He did turn away from her then. Because he planned to make a beeline straight back to the HQ tent and ask the parties in question. “…I’ll talk to you later…I gotta go…” he announced in brusque dismissal.

Yuffie’s next words stopped him in his tracks.

“Do you want me to tell your Granny ‘hi’ for you?”

He slowly swiveled his head to study her smug face with uneasy eyes. “What do you mean by that remark, Wutai?”

“I’m bored, Farm Boy. I miss my teddy bear that I forgot on the Highwind, and I promised your grandmama that I’d come back to visit anyway. She wants to show me more pictures of wittle Avian with his wittle puppy.”

Yuffie laughed out loud at the look of astonishment that instantly transformed his face. His mouth drifted open as he stared at her in silent indignation.

“Yep, Mr. Farm Boy, your grandma showed me that picture and looked to me like she had a lot more where that one came from. So I figure I’ll just go look at old family photos and maybe I’ll take some time to introduce myself to your Auntie Jae while I’m there. Catch up on all the family gossip. I’ll bet she’s got some cute stories to tell about you.” Yuffie smirked happily at the thought, until she remembered she planned to make good her strategic exit at that point. “So…laters…” she gaily called as she offered the pole-axed, gape-mouthed Avian an offhand wave and flounced away.

Avian numbly rotated on heel to watch her go, finally finding his voice in the process. “How you gonna get there?” he weakly challenged before she’d made it more than a handful of steps.

“I’m taking that motorbike right over there.” She stopped to gaze over her shoulder at him, sparkling onyx eyes dancing in mischievous challenge. She pointed a finger in the direction of the motorcycle he’d been sitting astride, before she’d dragged him off of it by his hair.

“Can you ride the thing?” he asked skeptically.

“Farm Boy, there’s nothing I can’t ride, with feathers or without,” she tossed back snippily. She broadly winked at him, and then turned and raced for the motorcycle.

“Wait a minute!” He leapt into action and dashed after her, the potential for disaster finally sinking home. “You can’t go to the farm!”

“I can do what I want, Farm Boy!” she sang out over her shoulder. She slowed her pace to a fast trot, seemingly to better address his protest and taunt him more effectively, but actually with a mind to allowing him ample opportunity to catch up. “I don’t answer to anybody but me!”

“Hey! It’s my farm and I say you can’t!” His footsteps slowed to a fast walk as he approached her, as though he meant to stay within arguing range but just out of her reach. With a hint of a frown at his uncooperativeness, she spun around to confront him, swiftly and agilely walking backwards and even slowing her pace even further at his deadheaded refusal to take advantage of her magnanimous efforts to permit him to easily overtake her.

“It’s your Grandma’s farm and she invited me!” she happily proclaimed even as she finally surrendered and let her feet fall motionless, coming to a halt still several feet short of the parked motorbikes. She dropped one casual hand to a jaunty hip and smirked at him.

“My grandma doesn’t need you out there, getting her all riled up,” he hotly replied.”

Apparently reassured by her non-threatening and seemingly relaxed stance, Avian Wulfe unwittingly fell right into her scheme, walking right up to her and dutifully coming into optimum range.

“I beg to differ, Farm Boy,” Yuffie shot right back. “And no one in this whole wide planet can stop me. Most especially not you”

Yuffie abruptly sprang into fluid motion, making a complete lie of the laxity of her posture. Taking Avian completely by surprise, she unexpectedly pivoted on one toe to circumscribe a tight spin as a ballet dancer might. Except that unlike a mere dancer, she ripped the sharp-bladed Conformer from its sling with one hand as she came back around to face him, and with the other she reached out for him. In a blindingly swift motion both gracefully lethal and theatrically artistic, she swept the conformer around in a flat spinning arc, tipping the weapon on end at the very last split second to bring it to a precision stop with one blade tip only a fraction of an inch from the end of Avian Wulfe’s nose, even as she held her other hand planted flat against his chest to stay any forward movement on his part, at every instant in absolute control of her weapon, her hapless opponent and her space.

Shaken to his toes, Avian jerked his head back from the blade with a sharp gasp, one hand instinctively flying up to bat the Conformer away, but before he could manage to cut himself on a razor thin edge and before Rude of the Turks decided to involve himself in the matter, Yuffie whipped the weapon away in a blur of motion to lay it flat against her spine. She smiled up into his rounded amber eyes while he still struggled to find the breath to speak.

“I can help you,” she said softly. “I can slice all three of your Turk watchdogs up into collops and serve them up on platters in a matter of seconds and then take on your Katana Man for dessert.”

Avian dragged in a shuddering breath as he worked to steady his racing thoughts, unconsciously checking the end of his nose with one fingertip. The bewilderment and alarm slowly ebbed from his face as he stared helplessly down into the fathomless depths of compelling obsidian eyes.

“You escaped from an asylum in Wutai, didn’t you?” he murmured in awe.

She inclined her head in contemplation. “I escaped Wutai,” she admitted. “From the royal abode. I suppose one might describe that place as an asylum…but I’m not insane.”

He absently nodded his head, still more than a little stunned at her dangerous move, even though he had to admit to an overriding respect at her skill, the very effect she’d no doubt been seeking. She’d meant for him to take her seriously, something he’d never been quite able to do, and he would have to judge her ploy successful, even if he didn’t plan to tell her. “Yes, you are,” he softly insisted. “You are quite mad, Yuffie Kisargai. You almost sliced my face in half. If that’s not evidence of insanity, I couldn’t guess what might be.”

Her dark eyes narrowed suspiciously on his vacant and mesmerized face. “I could have sliced your face off if I’d wanted,” she tartly replied. “And then disappeared before you’d even figured out it was gone. But I don’t want to. I want to help you, Farm Boy. Get the picture?”

“And I thought you were a nice girl…I let you play with my poor dog…I don’t know what to tell him now…he’ll be heartbroken…”

“Will you get a grip, Wulfe,” she irritably snapped.

Avian’s amber eyes instantly sharpened on her face at her tone. “What is your point, Kisaragi? To kill me before anyone else can?”

“To keep anyone else from killing you, you moron.”

Avian wordlessly stared in challenge even as he carefully processed her statement.

“So what say you, Avian Wulfe?” She unflinchingly held his baleful gaze, cocking her head to the side in question. Her voice softened with her next words, and her onyx eyes took on a warm, velvety aspect that seemed both pleading and promising. “Shall we depart these boring environs for a rustic sojourn on the farm?”

Avian suddenly looked away from her earnest face, unable to pretend any semblance of anger when she was looking at him like that, with that softly beseeching expression that he knew he’d never seen her wear on her petulant features before, and one that made his stomach churn queasily because he knew she expected an answer. His wandering eyes discovered the stolid Rude still watching from exactly the same spot. “I couldn’t ask you…to…” Avian replied woodenly, his stunned thoughts knocked out of sync with his sluggish motor functions.

“You’d be doing me a favor, pal.”

And just like that, her voice had turned hard again. Intrigued, he looked back down into her face to find that her features had returned to their customary configuration of insolence and challenge. “I don’t see how…” Probably he’d only imagined the change in her demeanor. Wishful thinking on his part? Could he actually conceive such a face on this girl in his wildest imagination? It must have been real. Contrived to knock the props from beneath him, but real. Just as her little demonstration of skill had been all too real.

“Well, it’s like this…if I stay here too long, my Pops is gonna find me and drag me home. If I go with you, he can’t find me, and I won’t have to go home. Plus, I’d sorely love to run into one of your would be kidnappers. I believe them to be in possession of a stolen Wutaian artifact, and I plan to steal it right back.”

“Why don’t you want to go home?” he absently queried as he diverted his thoughts away from the overly dramatic delivery of her offer to a swift mental inventory of his options.

“Er…long story. Tell ya later. On the road. So what about it?”

“I don’t believe you own a teddy bear,” he inanely replied

“I’ll show you,” she blithely promised. “And…I’ll let you hold Leviathan.”

Avian finally exhibited the first overt hint of interest in her plan, smiling a wickedly handsome smile that virtually stopped the breath in her lungs, until she coughed it out and reminded herself that she, Yuffie Kisaragi of Wutai was impervious to such charms. “So, what say you, Avian Wulfe?”

“Let’s do it, I say.” He underscored his surrender with an emphatic nod of his head. How could he resist a bribe of such magnitude? Besides, she offered him an alternative to going to Junon with the Turks, didn’t she? The last time he’d gone there he’d vowed never to return. The military base reminded him too much of his father.

“Okay, I’ll meet you out back. Say you’re going to the latrines.”

“What? We’re not going now?” he queried uneasily.

Yuffie reached up and thumped his forehead. “Duh. Doncha think we should be a little bit sneaky?”

Avian chanced another glance over at the watchful Rude. He could almost feel the Turk’s relentless gaze planted on him through the opaque shades. “Yeah…guess we better…or…I could just tell them I’m going…” He didn’t buy the idea that Caitlin would make him a prisoner, even to protect him. Besides…she was leaving…for that island…

“Do you really want to take the chance, Farm Boy? If you’re wrong, then you’re stuck.” She dropped her voice to a whisper. “In protective custody. In Junon. I’ve seen the prison cells there, Wulfe.”

“Been in one, have you?” he taunted, a futile attempt to distract her from his cowardly backpedaling.

“I’m not stupid enough to wind up in one,” she saucily responded. “Are you?”

“I…no…I’m not…” And what did he have to lose really? He’d just be going home. Where he’d been going anyway. He’d just be going sooner. But…he’d planned to try to find Tamitha first. On the other hand, he thought his chances of being allowed into the city to look for her right now to be slim to none. It wasn’t like the farm was that far away anyway. He could be back by the next day.

“Sure, okay,” he added with more certitude. “I’m game. Let’s do it.”

Yuffie smiled triumphantly at her success. “Out back then, Farm Boy. In fifteen shakes of dragon’s tail or fifteen minutes. Whichever comes first.” She turned away from him with a conspiratorial wink to head for the bikes.

“Hey! What about Soldier?” he remembered to ask.

“Got it covered. Fly Boy’s gonna watch him ‘til we get back.”

“Can’t we take him?”

“Not if we’re being sneaky, silly,” she hissed back at him.

“Oh…right…” He wrinkled his brow in bewilderment. The idea of leaving Soldier behind put him on the verge of abandoning the plan altogether, and she noticed.

“You backing out already, Wulfe?” she asked suspiciously.

“No! No way!” he sharply denied. “But…”

Yuffie signed her exasperation. “But what?”

“Well…what about Cloud?”

“What about him?”

“Won’t he say something about it?” He sure didn’t want to get on the warrior’s bad side.

“Cloud Strife is not my daddy.”

“But…”

“Besides, he’s going there too. Eventually…”

“Uh…right…that’s right…” He couldn’t find any more arguments to pose. And he’d already said he would go, hadn’t he? Besides, she’d said she would go with or without him, and if she planned to go to the farm, he’d best go to keep an eye on her. No telling what Yuffie Kisaragi would get up to out there. And he suspected that Yuffie and Jae would try to kill each other on sight. If he let that happen, he’d be responsible for his aunt’s untimely demise. As irritating as his aunt could be, he didn’t want to find her face lying in the dirt.

His maddening vacillation finally ended on a firm decision, Avian quickly looked up to speak more confidently to his agreement to accompany her, only to find that she’d made it all the way to the motorbike in the time he’d been dithering.

“Catch ya after my ride, Farm Boy,” Yuffie called out with startling loudness as she threw a leg over the bike. “Too bad you can’t go riding with me. Another time, maybe.”

With a turn of the key, Yuffie fired the motorcycle to pinging life and kicked it into gear. Avian raised his hand in a half-hearted gesture of farewell, and she waved back as she set the machine in motion. “Later, Avian,” she called gaily. “Much later, Reno.”

Avian stiffened at Yuffie’s offhand farewell to the unseen Turk. No answering hail came from behind him, and he suspected Yuffie of trying to play a not so subtle trick on him, until the smell of exhaust from the rapidly departing motorbike drifted away and his nose detected the familiar aroma of cigarette smoke wafting past on the breeze. Nerves that were already on edge tautened to an almost unbearable degree as every muscle in his body stiffened. Reminding himself to breathe, he tensely turned about to find the redheaded Turk standing about ten feet behind him, staring off toward the Midgar Bluffs with one hand wrapped around his collapsed magrod and the other in the process of bringing a cigarette to his lips.

Sensing Avian’s nervous scrutiny, Reno brought his head around to study him through the dark shades he’d knocked down over his eyes. He pulled in a long drag off his cigarette and slowly released the smoke through his nostrils as he silently stared in passive appraisal, whatever the Turk might be feeling in the wake of their last encounter completely hidden from Avian’s inspection.

Avian struggled to keep his emotions from his face, but the Turk, an expert reader of people anyway, had no trouble parsing the naturally expressive features of the youth from Kalm. Reno could easily detect the glitter of fear as well as a glint of challenge in the amber eyes. The Turk shot the half-smoked cigarette to the ground and rubbed it into extinction with the toe of his boot.

“That girl giving you trouble?” he coolly queried, opening the conversation with a relatively safe topic.

Avian shrugged uneasily as he wondered how long Reno had been standing there while he and Yuffie had been making their escape plans. “Always.”

“Just give her twice as much back, and you’ll always have the upper hand.” Reno idly advised as he turned his head to study the group huddled together in the distance halfway between the gate and the encampment.

Reeve appeared to be talking directly to Cid Highwind while the grizzled Captain listened intently with bent head. Cloud Strife, who he still planned to speak with about Avian, stood a few steps away to one side, along with Heidegger and Red. All three seemed to be paying close attention to the discussion as well. Cid’s head mechanic and General Sand had taken up closer positions, seemingly more involved in the plans under discussion. And some distance away, he spotted Andy Coakley, standing well apart for some reason known only to him.

Without a doubt, Reeve’s evacuation procedures were about to grind into motion, and Reno knew the camp would be a beehive of activity soon. The planes would be flying nonstop back and forth from Midgar to Junon, and there would be people everywhere, scurrying from tent to tent like ants, overflowing the limited spaces, straining scant resources.

More than ever, he felt an urgency to put Caitlin and Rachel on the chopper and get the hell out of town. Things didn’t feel right to him. Conditions were ripe for trouble and about to get overripe. But Caitlin wouldn’t go. Not until she’d had her discussion with Reeve. He considered trudging over there right now to collect the executive himself. He’d drag him across the camp by his shirt collar and bodily throw him into the HQ tent with Caitlin so they could get on with it, whatever ‘it’ turned out to be. But all things in due time, he supposed. Besides, he still had that little administrative problem to address, just as soon as he figured out the best way to handle it. He’d already spent several minutes strolling around the confines of the encampment contemplating the matter, looking generally threatening so nobody would bother him, and still he hadn’t settled on the best course of action.

“Yuffie claims she can beat the Turks single-handedly,” Avian suddenly remarked with seeming casualness.

Reno’s head came around, his interested gaze settling on Avian’s blandly innocent face as he pondered the kid’s motivation for making a comment so out of left field. Finally, he shrugged indifferently and returned to his inspection of the terrain, picking up where he’d left off.

“Probably can,” he coolly conceded. “She passed that crazy test of the Five Gods or whatever they call it. She bested Lord Godo. She can probably kick anyone’s ass she wants to in a one on one, face to face confrontation.”

“Even a ghost?” he impulsively asked. Helplessly, he turned his gaze toward the increasing sound of the pinging two cycle engine, his amber eyes following the rider as she steered the motorbike in from her long run out onto the flats and veered off in a wide arc toward the back of the camp. Avian missed the wry smile that came to the Turk’s thin lips.

“Now…that I couldn’t attest to,” he silkily replied as he looked away to return to his casual but meticulous sweep of the immediate area yet again. His lazy gaze came to an abrupt halt on a slender female form standing close to the side of one of the parked trucks. Not the female he was seeking however. The one for which Highwind had been relentlessly searching. Apparently he hadn’t found her as she seemed to be watching him from hiding. Only a couple of dozen feet away from the man. If he only knew…

Reno quirked an eyebrow in speculation as he pondered the probability that Elena watched him from hiding even now. “Speaking of ghosts, have you seen Elena?”

Avian nodded his head before he remembered to reply. “I saw her hanging out around the chopper a while ago.” A sudden smile brightened his face. “She’s probably busy plotting your demise.”

Reno took in the marked change in the kid’s expression before he shifted his keen inspection to the distant chopper. “Like that idea, do you?” He thought maybe he could make out the indistinct shape of a head inside the shadowy interior of the rear section of the cabin.

Avian hunched his shoulders as though a cold wind had blown up his shirt. He figured he might as well spit out the words. He’d wasted enough time. “Reno…I’m sorry about…whatever happened…in the…er…meeting…”

“Don’t worry about it, kid,” Reno coolly interrupted.

Avian felt compelled to explain himself despite the Turk’s ready dismissal. “It’s just my Aunt Jae, she doesn’t…you know…like…Shinra…”

“Who does? Don’t worry about it.”

“I mean…I know you’re just looking out for me…”

“No problem, kid. And no hard feelings.” Reno tapped the magrod against the side of his head in a salute of farewell. “I’ll have to catch ya later, okay? I’ve gotta inspect the chopper.”

Avian couldn’t help but smile at the Turk’s wording. He lifted his hand to wave, but Reno had already turned away. To go scour the chopper for Elena infestations, no doubt. And he’d better get on with inspecting the latrines himself. Right after he collected his dog. If Yuffie thought he was leaving Soldier behind, she had another think coming.

Before Reno had gone more than a dozen feet, and before Avian could dredge up the courage to act on his plan, the Turk abruptly ground to a halt and half-turned in place to look back at him. For a long moment Reno gazed at him without speaking a word to reveal his purpose, any intentions his eyes might reveal hidden behind the dark shades. Avian’s throat tightened with apprehension, but he met the Turk’s wordless scrutiny head on, his thoughts racing wildly inside his head as he tried to divine what game the Turk might be playing now.

Making a sudden decision, Reno fully turned and walked all the way back with purposeful long-legged strides. Despite a sudden trembling in his limbs and a nearly overwhelming urge to flee, Avian managed to stand his ground in the face of the Turk’s approach, even as he helplessly surrendered to the fact that Yuffie had been right. This was it. The critical moment when he’d become a prisoner of the Turks and lose his one chance to be free. Protective custody in Junon. Until his hair turned gray and his teeth fell out.

A sad image unfolded in his mind. A picture of him peering through the bars of a tiny square of a window set in a rusty steel door, staring blankly into a spartan and empty corridor with clawed, arthritic hands wrapped around the bars and his snowy white hair falling into his face. He briefly considered running then, but then he decided he wouldn’t get far on his rapidly weakening knees. Especially as Reno had almost reached him.

Reno stopped just one step out of arm’s reach, a crooked smile curving his lips at the round-eyed anxiety on Avian’s face. “Just a few words of advice, kid,” he silkily assured him.

Avian uneasily nodded, defensively folding his arms to await what the Turk thought so important to say that he’d deliberately delayed his all important helicopter inspection to say it.

“Watch out for that girl,” he coolly commanded. “With those big dark eyes, she’ll break your heart.”

Avian slowly nodded in acknowledgement. He could feel his face turning hot as he looked around to see who might have heard Reno’s indiscreetly voiced words.

“Yeah…sure…okay…” It wasn’t like he had anything to worry about. The future ruler of Wutai would hardly have designs on his heart, and he wasn’t stupid enough to fall for her.

“And watch your ass, kid,” he added sternly. “Every second.”

That remark, more lowly spoken than the one before it, brought Avian’s head back around in surprise, just in time to see Reno shove his glasses into his hair and lift his magrod to point it in his direction, leading him to wonder if the Turk’s weapon was loaded and if he planned to zap him where he stood.

Reno narrowed his green eyes on Avian’s bewildered face as he laid the magrod against his own shoulder. “Don’t ever let your guard down. Don’t let anyone come closer to you than I am right now. Don’t let anyone you do not intimately know lay a hand on you. Keep your back to the wall everywhere you go, and always leave yourself at least two routes of escape. At least. Do not let yourself be cornered.” Reno looked him over from head to toe with a speculative eye. “Change your appearance as much as possible and…give your aunt my regards.”

Before Avian could find the breath or the words to begin to form a response, Reno simply spun on heel and strode away.

Avian numbly stood in place and stared after him. That damn Turk. He knew. Whether he’d heard or whether he’d just guessed. He knew. And more importantly, he didn’t plan to stop him. In fact, he’d as much as given him his blessing.

Shaking his head in wonder, Avian turned and ran the other way, giving Rude a little wave as he passed. The memory of zombie Rude in his ragged moldy suit abruptly returned to his head, and he laughed out loud as he ran past the front of the mechanics’ tent. Now he just had to decide if he would tell Yuffie their secret was out or let her have her fun. But he’d figure that out after he said his goodbyes to the Captain and Cloud, and collected his dog.




Shera planted her back against the slatted wooden panels that girded the bed of the flatbed truck and bumped her head against the surface several times as though she might actually manage to knock some sense into her own head. What had she been thinking when she’d decided to do this crazy thing? Maybe she should have stayed in Junon and kept driving that forklift. Maybe if she’d never seen Cid strutting down the streets with that long legged stride of his, she might still be there. But she had seen him. She had left Junon to follow him here. And right here was where she was. So she might as well get it over with.

She had two possible choices she could make. She could snatch up her packed duffle bag and head on out to Kalm as she’d planned. Or she could march right up to Cid Highwind and inform him that she was here to stay whether he liked or not. And he probably wouldn’t like it, but who the hell cared? Not her. No way. Hell yes, she cared. That was the problem. She cared, and he didn’t. But maybe her caring would be enough.

…But it hadn’t been enough…

With a little growl of despair, Shera bent down and yanked her duffle bag up from the ground. Purposefully stepping away from the truck, she tugged her flight cap down to the top of her shades and peered off toward the tightly huddled group still caught up in discussion between her position and the bulldozer. Then she gazed narrow-eyed off in the other direction, marking out the path she would have to take to stay out of sight of the whole preoccupied lot of them, at least until she could make it far enough around the arc of the city wall to be far away and out of view.

There was no point in waiting any longer. She might as well get on with it now. If she didn’t do it now, she never would. She’d just stay plastered to the side of that truck until the sun set and the stars rose in the sky, and then she’d skulk away into the darkness.

Her head started shaking of its own accord. No. Hell no. That’s not the way she planned to do things from here on out.

Shera squared up her shoulders and lifted her chin, slung the duffle bag onto her back and strode out. She kept her steps measured and bold. No faltering steps here. No uncertain pansy-assed dithering for her. She’d been doing enough of that to last a lifetime. She would just do what she had to and let the chips fall where they would. And if it turned out to be all wrong, at least she could console herself with the fact that she’d done the right thing for Shera Drake at that particular moment in time. A small smile came to her lips. It was high time for a fresh start.




Reno yanked open the rear door of the chopper to peer inside. The tension inside the compartment was so thick he could probably carve it up with the dive knife he’d stashed beneath the seat.

“Out,” he tersely said as he stepped out of the way. Gripping the edge of the door with a firm hand, he pulled the door back against its hinges and redirected his glittering green eyes toward the ground to wait. He would not be entertaining any protests on this matter.

Despite the cast of his gaze, he surreptitiously watched from the corner of his eye, and he promptly noticed when the occupant of the seat on the passenger side reached stealthy fingers toward the door. “No, you stay,” he leveled implacable green eyes on hazel ones to back up his command, until she finally surrendered and drew her hand away from the handle, pointedly averting her face. Only then did he shift his gaze back to the first party. “You, out.” He reinforced his coldly voiced command with a curt wave of the magrod toward the distant bluffs, a pointed gesture to the lawyer to move his ass, preferably with alacrity.

His unease written all over his face, Cornelius Wildman slid down out of the chopper and offered Reno an obsequious smile as he deliberately smoothed the wrinkles from his suit coat with both hands. “I’d like to know when you plan to fly me back to Junon,” he informed Reno haughtily. “I’ve a practice that’s being neglected.”

Reno shrugged indifferently. “Ask Ms. Shinra,” he curtly replied. “She commands. I obey.”

“But I would think…”

“Beat it,” Reno interrupted coldly, planting reptilian eyes on the attorney’s face. “While you still can.”

The chilliest of smiles slipped across the Turk’s thin lips, and Wildman deemed the conversation at an end. Without another peep of protest, he turned sharply on heel and hurried away, surrendering lawyerly decorum for flight. Reno watched him until he disappeared around the nose of the chopper, and then he climbed into the craft to take the seat Wildman had vacated, gently closing the door behind him as he went. With two fisted hands he deliberately collapsed his magrod into its hilt with a sharp click that seemed overloud in the tense silence and laid the weapon aside in the narrow space between the seats. Then Reno landed his incisive green gaze on the woman that refused to acknowledge his presence by speech or look, and twisting around in his seat, he dangled his hands across his knees and studied the little he could see of Elena’s averted face with impassive eyes.

“So…you okay?” he finally asked, his casual tone a thin veneer for his anger.

“I’m…fine…” she stiffly replied, peering through the side window toward the distant tents. “How did you know?”

“Handprint on the left cheek. Always a sure sign that a right-handed woman’s been wronged.”

The tiniest of smirks came to her lips. “He deserved it,” she informed her reflection in the glass. “And I’ll have you know that when it comes to slapping, I’m ambidextrous.”

“Hmm…I’ll keep that in mind in future.”

“You do that.”

Reno leaned his head back against the head rest as he considered her words. “And what did Mr. Cornelius Wildman Esquire do to deserve a slap in the face?” he queried with feigned nonchalance.

“He’s a sleazy bastard,” Elena tensely responded in a voice both hard and brittle, a deceptive layer of winter ice atop a farm pond. Make a wrong step and wind up soaked to the skin and cold to the bone.

He barely displayed a tight-lipped smile. “Ah…I see. You just now figured that out, did you?”

“No…I sort of knew it already…” She offered the hazy image of the woman in the window a tiny disbelieving shake of her head at the admission.

“Well, I could have told you, Elena,” he coolly informed her.

“Really, Reno?” she asked dryly. “You know a sleazy bastard when you see one?”

Reno thought about for a moment. “Takes one to know one, I guess.”

“You aren’t a sleazy bastard, Reno,” Elena coldly denied. “A bastard maybe, but not sleazy.”

“Still mad at me, eh?”

“Yes.”

Reno sat forward in the seat, sliding his forearms against his knees as he made a more concerted attempt to see her averted face. “Hmm…define sleazy for me, Elena,” he slyly directed.

“What?” Elena frowned at her reflection in the glass in bewilderment.

His smooth forehead creased in dissatisfaction at the failure of his probing question to draw her regard. “What’s the difference…say…between sleazy and…libidinous?” he clarified.

She responded with a wondering shake of her head. “You’re joking, right? Why would you ask me a ridiculous thing like that?”

“Well…you called me libidinous didn’t you?” he silkily reminded her.

“What? When did I…oh…”

“So you remember now?”

Her smirk returned to her lips in full force. “Yes, I guess I did call you that. Among other things.”

“So…what’s the difference?” He stared hard at her reflection in the window, but he couldn’t discern much from the faint and indistinct image.

“I should think we’ve more important matters to discuss, Reno.”

Her stilted words told him she’d rather he didn’t pursue the topic, which of course offered him the best reason to carry on. “Humor me, Elena,” he persisted, his tone taking on a new level of coolness that clearly conveyed his disinclination to abandon the topic any time soon.

Reno hoped that she would round on him then, to haughtily give him a substantial piece of her mind with hazel eyes blazing with heat, but she disappointed him, merely offering him a tight shrug of concession.

“I’m sure you already know the difference, Reno. So I imagine you’re trying to find out what I think the difference to be, just for your own perverse satisfaction. And I suppose I’ve no reason to keep it to myself. So I’ll tell you.” At that point, Elena responded emotionlessly to the heart of his question as though delivering a formal report, without hesitation and without pause.

“Sleazy bastards like Cornelius Wildman pretend they want something other than the one thing they’re after, and if that doesn’t work, they’re so self-centered and arrogant that they just try to take what they want. You’re different, Reno, because you’re up front about it. You don’t pretend. You don’t lie. So a girl knows where she stands with you. She knows what you want, and she knows what you’re offering. She can take it or she can leave it, and you don’t really care one way or another.”

Reno pursed his lips in thought as he scrutinized the back of her head. “So that’s what you think, is it?”

“It’s what I know, Reno. I’ve been around you long enough to see how you operate.”

“I guess you’ve got me pegged, Elena.”

Reno reached out a hand to smooth a disarranged strand of her hair back into place, and at his touch her startled eyes came around as she shied away from him, finally offering him the full view of her face he wanted. He carefully scrutinized her features for any hint of damage. His green eyes darkened at sight of her smeared lipstick, but outside of that single sign of Wildman’s unwanted advances she seemed unharmed, so he silently and reluctantly conceded that he couldn’t justify killing the lawyer just yet.

With her wary gaze pinned on Reno’s face, her own hand went to her head to touch the place his fingers had gone. “What were you doing?” she asked suspiciously.

“Your hair was sticking up…” He directed his finger back to the same place. “…Just there…”

She batted irritably at his hand. “Stop that.”

He shrugged indifferently and returned his hand to his knee. “Your lipstick’s messed up too, Elena,” he coolly informed her. “You should probably fix it.”

Her hand flew up to cover her mouth as though she could belatedly hide the evidence from his too attentive eyes. Averting her face again, she slipped her other hand into her jacket pocket to retrieve the new compact she’d purchased in Kalm. Taking the compact into both hands, she flipped it open to inspect her face, grimacing at the damage that met her eyes.

“Bastard…” she muttered irritably.

Reaching down into the tote bag at her feet, she rummaged around until she found her facial tissues. With an annoyed jerk, she tore one from the package and went to work on her face, pointedly ignoring the watchful Reno as she made her repairs. She could well imagine what he thought.

“I didn’t invite him,” she said churlishly. “If that’s what you’re thinking.”

“If you say so, Elena,” Reno replied with cool skepticism.

Elena paused to appraise her progress in the small compact mirror, and satisfied with the results, deposited the bedraggled tissue into her pocket in exchange for her lipstick. “It’s the truth, Reno,” she flatly replied. “He invited himself. He claimed he wanted to talk to me about some important matter. It was a lie, of course.”

Reno narrowed his eyes on Elena’s mouth as she deftly reapplied her lipstick, noting the faint lines of the brand’s trademark embossed in the metal of the lipstick case. A fancily inscribed letter ‘S’ impressed against a single lily. A mark he clearly recognized, because the lipstick she so expertly wielded happened to be the same one he’d impulsively purchased for her in Kalm. As contemptuous as she’d been of his gift at the time, he would have thought she’d have tossed it long ago. Maybe she liked it a little after all. Enough to keep it anyway. The realization made him feel…too happy.

“Why were you in the chopper, Elena?” Reno bluntly asked. “I distinctly remember ordering you to surveillance.”

Elena capped the lipstick and pointedly closed the compact. Avoiding his questioning gaze, she replaced both items into her pocket and evasively turned her head to peer out the window with shuttered hazel eyes before answering him.

“I was looking for my ring,” she tensely replied. “I noticed you were wearing yours again, and I just thought…I just wanted…mine back too.”

The thought to retrieve her ring had crossed her mind several times over the days since their departure from Kalm. Every time the faint impression of the absent ring on her bare finger caught her eye, in fact. But other events had intervened, and she hadn’t been compelled to the point that she’d made an effort to recover it from the secured compartment where Reno had deposited the rings days past. Not until now. When the desire to have her ring back on her finger became a requirement of her life as necessary as breath. The ring offered her assurance of her place in the world, and she’d directly sought out that reassurance after her expulsion from the meeting, after the uncustomary harshness of Reno’s words to her.

“You don’t know the combination to the lock box, Elena.” His lazy drawl carried a trace of chilliness that hardly gave her pause.

“That doesn’t mean I couldn’t have opened it,” she said with a smug little smile at her reflection. “…If I hadn’t been interrupted.”

“Your ring isn’t there, Elena,” he silkily informed her. “I have it.”

Her throat tightened at the threat implicit in his remark. A threat perhaps real or perhaps imagined. Elena reluctantly turned to appraise her leader’s sharp-featured face, and her blood chilled in her veins at the indefinable glitter in his green eyes.

“Do you mean to give it back to me, Reno?” Her own cool voice displayed a steadiness she didn’t feel. And her stiffly delivered words conveyed a legitimate question, under the circumstances.

They both knew that she was asking about more than a simple transfer of possession. Presented to her by Tseng in his capacity as Leader of the Turks upon her promotion into the Department of Administrative Research, the ring, with its blended design comprised of the standard diamond-shaped Shinra emblem overlaid with the stylized and hyphenated business trademark, the Turks’ own symbol impressed into each shank, and its well-disguised operational features, represented her official membership in the organization, the main reason she’d been reluctant to surrender it in the first place. Now the current Leader of the Turks had the power to withhold it from her, and now she very much feared that he might. She knew exactly what that would mean.

“Should I give it to you, Elena?” He lifted one eyebrow in question.

“Yes, Reno, you should.” Her voice almost quavered despite her efforts to keep her words firm.

“Why?” he succinctly queried.

Elena managed to retrain full possession of his unblinking gaze despite an overwhelming compulsion to look away. “Reno…if this is about…how I acted earlier…being insubordinate…I just want to say that I’m sorry. For yelling at you. And for trying to…er…hit you...” She wanted desperately to add a ‘but’ in there, but she wisely held her tongue at that juncture.

“And for attempting to undermine my clearly defined stance regarding the proposed mission to the farm?” he prompted.

“But I don’t understand why I couldn’t…”

“Elena…” he interrupted her in warning.

She promptly clamped her mouth shut against the rest of her protest, filling the space around them with her anxious silence.

Reno lifted a hand to stroke the scar on his cheek as he studied her tense face. “Elena, I don’t want apologies or excuses or arguments. I want you to answer my question. Why should I give you the ring?"

She stared at him in speculation, wondering what he wanted her to say, the thoughts stumbling inside her head in a futile quest for the appropriate response. She knew what she should say. That he should give her back her damn ring because it was hers. She’d worked hard for it. Earned with her blood, her sweat, and yes…her tears. And she damn well deserved to wear it. She opened her mouth to say exactly that, but the words that came out were something else entirely.

“Reno, if you don’t give me back my ring, you might as well kill me,” she said flatly. “Because without the Turks…I have no life.”

Reno silently gazed at her tense face for a long moment, his inscrutable face offering her no consolation, but finally he inclined his head in a nod of acceptance, a simple gesture that granted a disproportionate reward. Although her whole body went bonelessly weak with her immense relief, she refused to grant him any measure of concession in her stiff posture or her impassive face.

Hiding a vague disquietude at her nakedly honest response behind shuttered eyes, Reno pressed back in the seat to straighten out one leg and dug his hand into his jeans pocket to retrieve her ring. With the ring clasped between his thumb and his index finger, he held the ring up between them in a gesture more in line with a challenge than an offering. Hesitantly, she extended her open palm out to receive it, but Reno promptly fisted the ring inside his hand and shook his head in denial. Slowly, she drew her hand back, unconsciously chewing her lower lip as she wondered at his cruel game.

“Give me your left hand, Elena,” he coolly commanded, holding out his own left hand to reinforce his request.

She eyed his open palm suspiciously, but she didn’t dare deny him. Tensely, she offered him her hand, and with green eyes concealed behind his lowered lashes, he gently took her fingers into his and slowly slipped her ring into its proper place on her middle finger as she followed his movements with mistrustful eyes. He took a few extra seconds to carefully center the ring on her finger, and Elena suddenly discovered the simple task of drawing breath troublesome. Unnerved not only by the intimacy inherent in the unexpected gesture but also by the warmth of his fingertips against her skin, Elena tugged against his hold to retrieve her hand, but Reno refused to release her, tightening his fingers around hers in firm reinforcement of his denial.

To her complete bewilderment, he then drew her captive hand closer as he bent his head and commenced a keen study of her wary features from beneath his lowered brow. His unblinking green eyes almost seemed to challenge her as he carried her hand toward his lips in a move that she couldn’t help but interpret as an intention to kiss either her hand or the ring he’d placed there in some sort of an official and very unorthodox blessing to complete his little ceremony.

Elena’s eyes widened in a blend of consternation and wonder, and her lips came apart as though she meant to protest or question. Yet no words came off her lips. Not only because she suddenly found her tongue inoperative, but also because she couldn’t form the appropriate words to say. In the end, she could only in gape in dumb wonder as she raptly tracked the ascent of her hand to his mouth, unsure of what to do or what to say should he actually follow through on his plan, and yet again, Reno managed to defy her expectations, exhibiting his ever mercurial nature. With her fingers clasped firmly inside his own, Reno paused in a long moment of contemplative study with her hand held in suspension only an inch or two from his mouth. A trace of a smile came to his lips, and a hint of something that might have been regret flickered in his eyes, and he simply released her.

Justifiably confused and oddly disappointed, Elena drew back into her seat and protectively fisted the relinquished hand inside the other to hide her newly reacquired Turk ring from Reno’s inscrutable gaze. Her hazel eyes overflowed with a wealth of unspoken questions, all of which the redheaded Turk declined to answer.

Instead, Reno took his magrod into hand and deliberately turned away from the flummoxed Elena, sharply twisting the handle to swing the chopper door open. Sliding from his seat, he landed his boots on the ground, and with the flick of one finger, he dropped his shades down to hide twinkling green eyes. He offered her little more than a glance over his shoulder as he half-turned to address her.

“Come on, Elena,” he brusquely commanded. “Let’s work.”

“But…Reno…”

He slammed the door shut and walked away, effectively bringing an abrupt end to her feeble protest.

Quickly, she threw open her own door and snatched up her tote bag to scramble out. Leaping agilely to the ground on her high-heeled boots, she raced toward the nose of the craft with a firm plan to intercept him, only to discover that he’d apparently turned back and gone the other way when her back was turned, almost as if he meant to avoid her. Her deep frown of disgruntlement stole the sweetness from her angelic features. She instantly reversed her own route and hurried down the flank of the chopper to block his escape, arriving just in time to come face to face with him as he ducked under the tail boom.

He stepped clear of the aircraft and straightened to his full height to confront her. He cocked his head in curious interest at the purposeful cast of her face, his own features transformed with innocent inquisitiveness as though he hadn’t just tried to ditch her. “Was there something else you wanted to say, Elena?”

Her hazel eyes skated away from his hidden gaze. Now that she had his undivided attention, she wasn’t sure how to give voice to all she wanted to say. “Reno…about my…ring…”

“Don’t worry about it, Elena,” he interrupted with a hint of impatience. “The ring is yours, by right.”

“But Reno, were you…I mean…you were going to…”

“Look, Elena, don’t make this out to be something its not. The ring is rightfully yours, and I wouldn’t ever keep it from you.” He shrugged his indifference. “I meant to give it to you all along.” And that was the unadulterated truth. He’d collected her ring from the lockbox along with his own with the sole intention of giving it to her when next he saw her, but then he’d tucked it into his pocket and forgotten about it. Now he’d taken care of the matter, and the whole business was done, as far as he was concerned. Reno made a move to walk around her then, but she took one sideways step to block his departure.

With a protracted sigh, he folded his arms to gaze down into her troubled hazel eyes with a show of great patience and fortitude. “Spit it out, Elena.” He deliberately imbued his tone with a weary resignation, for the purpose of signifying to her that he’d rather be anywhere but there talking to her.

She wasn’t dissuaded by his show of reluctance. “Um…it’s just that…I thought you’d have more to say, Reno," she tentatively replied even as she silently reminded herself that sleeping dogs were better left snoring. Unfortunately, she chose to ignore her own admonition. “…After the way I acted…earlier…”

Reno shook his head sadly. “I can’t say anything, Elena,” he ruefully confessed. “I don’t have the room to say anything. This hasn’t been a gold star day for either of us, so I suggest we just let it go and try to do better for the rest of the day.”

“I don’t understand,” she stubbornly replied.

“What’s not to understand, Elena? You were 100 percent accurate when you jumped my case earlier about fighting with Wallace. It was a stupid and dangerous thing to do. I can hardly fault you for getting riled up about it. Likewise, trying to shoot Barret Wallace in front of a couple of hundred witnesses was not an ideal display of professional behavior. If you’re going to do it, at least do it with the proper discretion. As long as you can justify it to me. And as for arguing with my decision in front of Caitlin Shinra, that I won’t tolerate in future. But you get a free pass this time.”

For some unfathomable reason, Elena found herself opening her mouth to argue, and Reno held up a hand to stop her, not quite finished with what he wanted to say. “You know, Elena, I blame myself. Our roles have become muddled, and I accept full blame. As leader of this organization, such that it is, it’s my responsibility to ensure that doesn’t happen, and I’ve failed. I’ve crossed a line with you I never should have crossed. I’m redrawing that line now and making a commitment to it. So don’t worry about me calling you ‘baby’ in future. It’s not going to happen.”

Reno stepped around her again, and this time she didn’t stop him. Feeling like he’d zapped her in the head with a full charge from his magrod, she watched him go with her mouth hanging ajar, until he stopped in mid-stride to look back at her immobile form in hidden amusement.

“Coming, Elena?” he silkily prompted. “We do have work to do and plans to make.”

She dumbly made her head nod, and then she belatedly remembered to close her mouth. Apparently reassured by her affirmative if less than enthusiastic response, Reno pointedly put his back to her and proceeded on his way. Commanding her feet to move, she trailed after him more slowly, shaking her head in her confusion. Not so much at what he’d said. Everything Reno had said had been right, but…it wasn’t like Reno to say it. And why did she feel so disappointed? She’d gotten her ring back, hadn’t she? And she wasn’t even in trouble with him. Still…

“…My stars…the pod people got him…” she muttered to herself.

Walking a few steps ahead of her, Reno slyly smiled.




“How soon you wanna fly?” Cid asked as he blew out a cloud of acrid smoke.

Reeve waved the offensive fog away from his face and bent his head to consult his watch. “If we start moving the most critically injured patients from Valencia Hospital now, I would estimate about an hour.”

“How many are there?” Derry asked curiously.

“Enough to fill both planes and then some,” Reeve replied with a wry grimace.

“Guess we better get our asses in gear then.” Cid frowned deeply and shot a quick look around. “Nobody else is gonna get it done.” His grizzled jaw tightened as he glared off toward the encampment, his piercing blue eyes narrowed in some unspoken challenge.

Reeve nodded slowly in agreement, his brows knitting in contemplation of the Captain’s odd expression, incomprehensible in that it seemed to bear little relationship to the discussion at hand, but he decided not to ask in the interest of time and turned instead to the general.

“General Sand, please return to the city and commence Phase 1 of the evacuation plan. I’ve a meeting to attend, but I’ll check in with you shortly afterward. Until then, I’ll be at the HQ tent over there,” he inclined his head in the indicated direction. “If you need me.”

“Yes, sir.” Sand smartly replied. The Shinra officer almost saluted the executive then, but Reeve frowned at the anticipated move. The general modified his behavior accordingly and simply offered him a respectful nod. With a smart about face, he turned on heel and headed back toward the partially opened gate with hurried step.

Reeve absently watched the general’s departure for several paces, his eyes noting little as he uneasily turned to an exploration of thoughts suddenly unsettled by his own reminder of the confrontation at hand. Inside his mind, he discovered the memory of a visibly distressed man anxiously pacing a snow shrouded sidewalk on a cold winter night more than a decade past; the tails of his long black coat flapping against his legs in an icy wind, his muddied black shoes churning the virgin surface of new fallen snow into mush as he practiced the speech that he composed to convince her of his regret, the sentiments that would convey his sincerity, the poetry of his surrender. Insufficient words that he hoped would at the very least compel her to forgive him and take him back, and at best elicit her agreement to marry such an undeserving man. Words that he’d carefully nurtured on the tip of his tongue as he forced his feet to climb the icy steps and commanded a willing but stubbornly resistant hand to grab the ornate door knocker. All words that he promptly forgot the moment the door opened and his eyes met hers.

There would be no words to remember this time. No practiced speeches. He had only a firm notion of where he wanted to go and a vague idea of how to get there. There was so much he wanted to know and too much he wanted to say. He and Caitlin stood at either side of a ten year gulf with a murky sea between them. One comprised of pain and loss. Guilt and regret. The detritus of all they’d once possessed together. The shattered promises. The stolen dreams. All of it hidden beneath a deceptively calm surface of mystery and ambiguity. So he found himself consigned to an uncertain course, one that required him to jump in wherever he could without any idea of where the currents might sweep him. The inability to form a clear battle plan to achieve goals he found difficult to grasp left him feeling vulnerable, especially as he suspected the uncharted waters would dump him over a precipitous cascade to dash him on the sharp rocks below, in the end. But truly, as matters currently stood between them, he had nothing else to lose. Besides, he would drive himself mad before he even saw her with all his thinking about an eventuality he could hardly foresee.

Reeve made a concerted effort to shove aside all the fruitless and unproductive thoughts, deeming the effort a colossal waste of time under the circumstances, and he deliberately redirected his undivided attention to his companions with the sole intention of politely excusing himself from the group so that he could get on with the business of tracking down his elusive wife. Only then could he define the unknown temperature and hidden depths of the obscure waters, and at that point he would either surface to swim for shore or break his neck and sink to the bottom. Either way he would gain a much desired release. The tension born from his conflict about what he planned to say against how much he should probably say and the uncertainly of what Caitlin might do or say had his nerves jangling to the point of irritability. He wanted their discussion behind him. Now. For better or worse. So he could get on with what he had to do. He’d already prepared himself for the latter. He hardly found any reassurance in the fact that she hadn’t felt compelled to meet him at the gate. The meeting almost seemed a contrived convenience now.

Revealing little of his inner turmoil in his deliberate brown eyes, Reeve sought out Cid Highwind’s pensive face, only to halt short of his target with his attention abruptly arrested by the unexpected sight of the newcomer approaching their group. She commanded the whole of his regard with a direct and compelling gaze as well as with her confident and purposeful stride. He recognized her too. Not only by virtue of reputation, but through their recent albeit brief and indirect interactions. Although she’d altered her appearance somewhat and it took him a moment to place her.

Nanaki noted the transformation of Reeve’s impassive expression to one of surprise and intrigue, the only one to do so, and he curiously swiveled his head to look. His jaw relaxed in a sharp fanged smile, and he bumped his shoulder into Cloud’s leg to gain his attention even as his one golden eye filled with pleased delight. Cloud obediently tipped his head to the side to look down at Red, and finding the beast occupied elsewhere, he tracked down the object of such intense interest with his keen warrior’s gaze. The luminous Mako eyes narrowed in bewilderment, and then widened in startled recognition, at which point his mouth helplessly curved in a crooked smile.

The newest arrival to the group came to an abrupt and precise halt just short of the Captain’s elbow to address the Shinra executive with stiff politeness, every inch of the formal bearing borrowed from an early and long surrendered stint in the military air corps, every bit of it a guise to mask all the fear and uncertainty raging inside. “Sir, I wonder if I might have a moment of your time?”

Reeve shot a wary glance at the Captain who currently seemed to be staring vacantly at the gate in either deep thought or dumb exhaustion, and finding no direction there, he offered her a nod of his head in cautious encouragement. “You certainly may. How can I help you? Shera, isn’t it?”

Lost inside the busy clockwork of his mind, neither the close proximity of the chronically evasive woman currently standing in his space nor the familiar voice of said party managed to pierce through the dense fog of the Captain’s weary haze, but the name Reeve so quietly spoke blasted into his brain like a cannon blast broadside, and caught in mid drag, he choked audibly on an inhalation of smoke.

Disbelieving of his own ears, Cid jerked his head around to pin his erstwhile head engineer and housemate with azure eyes narrowed in silent and withering challenge, but his fierce glare failed to gain him the desired advantage he sought. Mostly because the stubborn woman seemed bent on ignoring his presence there, but partly because his would be expression of intimidation shifted into helpless amazement when he took in the whole effect of her altered appearance.

Her mousy brown hair had taken on a variety of shades from coppery red to golden blonde, the strands greatly lightened by long hours in sunlight, and although he'd seen her hair lightened by the summer sun, he’d never noticed that it took on such a rich and intriguing blend of color. The standard pilot’s sunglasses she wore over her green eyes had to be prescription, unless she’d taken to wearing contact lenses. And her pale milky skin had been browned to a tawny hue.

She wasn’t so changed given any single aspect, but her overall appearance, in conjunction with her air of confidence, revealed to his intense eyes a woman that bore little resemblance to the quiet and retiring woman he’d left behind in Rockettown. He recognized that wherever she’d gone when she’d abandoned his house there, rudely leaving behind only a ‘Dead Cid’ letter to greet him, she’d spent the majority of her time outdoors, and furthermore, life without him in it had obviously been good for her, a wholly irritating idea that promptly painted his face with sourness and reignited the azure flame in his eyes even as his throat tightened annoyingly at the realization.

Shera had a pretty good idea that Cid’s demanding eyes were already glued to her face, and she could only wonder at what thoughts were going through his head. Especially when she knew how hard he’d been looking for her, only to see her appear at his side without a word to him. But she had to do it this way. Otherwise she wouldn’t have a hope in hell of being allowed to stay. At least this way he might find it more difficult to refuse her help. With only a tightening of her jaw to broadcast the effort, she steeled her jittery nerves to resist her urge to look at him, and instead she unwaveringly kept her focus on the executive’s accepting face, refusing to offer the Captain so much as a glance from the corner of her eye. She knew if she looked at him then, she would lose what little ground she still managed to retain, and having come this far, she could hardly shift to her alternate plan.

“I believe I can help you, sir,” she firmly replied, displaying her self-assurance regarding her own training and expertise if not in her ability to maintain her current stance in a direct confrontation with Cid Highwind. “I’ve recently come from Junon to offer my services as an experienced pilot fully certified in the operation and maintenance of the Gelnika aircraft.”

“I’m well aware of your qualifications, Shera,” Reeve replied dryly with an eye on the captivated and clearly annoyed Captain. The man must have bitten down on his tongue hard to keep all the swear words he looked like he wanted to say locked away inside. A glance at all the other faces in the group revealed similar smiles all around, except for Heidegger who merely seemed bemused. Cid’s head mechanic held a hand over his mouth to hide his wide grin. The executive could see that they were privy to some information that he was not, clearly signaling to him that there was more to this matter than immediately met the eye. He needed clarification. “Ah…what exactly are you proposing here, Shera? To fly one of the planes?”

She promptly bent her head in affirmation. “Yes, sir. I can spell your other pilots when they need to rest or I can fly the third Gelnika that’s still sitting idle on the tarmac at Junon base. I’m willing to help in whatever capacity you think best.”

Reeve idly raised a hand to stroke his beard in thought. “I’m not inclined to refuse your generous offer, Ms. Drake. We can sorely use your services. However…” He inclined his head in Cid’s direction even as he studied her stiff face with kindly eyes to mitigate his circumspect response. “…The Captain is in charge of that end of the operation. The decision ultimately lies with him.”

Shera made her head nod in understanding, her resolve suddenly dwindling at the prospect of speaking to the aforementioned Captain directly. She found herself wishing that she’d chosen the other path, the one she’d been favoring right up to the second that she’d come to a halt at Cid Highwind’s side. But the argument that had won her over to her second plan of action still held. This course offered her the greatest gain, because a loss on this field of battle would simply default her onto her first planned course of action anyway. What could Cid Highwind do to her? Tell her to hightail it on out of there? She’d been planning to do that anyway. Land a thousand curses on her head? Wouldn’t be the first time. Make her live the rest of her life without him in it? She would learn how. Someday.

Reeve offered her a small smile of encouragement, an expression that promptly left his face when he shifted an appraising gaze to catch sight of Highwind’s blazing eyes. “Er…if you’ll excuse me…I’m late for a meeting.” With a last uneasy look at the captain and a fleeting glance full of commiseration at Shera, the Shinra executive detached himself from the group and strode away.

Andy Coakley, who had taken up permanent residence in the shade of the dozer at a comfortable distance from the hungry looking red beast, noted Reeve’s departure and snatched the crate up from the ground at his feet to trot after the fast walking executive, relieved that he could finally leave. His nerves were nearly shot from standing inside the animal’s direct visual field.

Abandoned to her fate as she’d made it, Shera drew in a deep breath to brace her faltering will and woodenly turned on heel to finally face Cid, her innate stubbornness all she had left to fall back on, now that her unwitting appointed buffer had left the scene. And truthfully, her mulish nature usually served her well in the face of Cid Highwind’s blustering demands and thunderous tirades. In fact, she imagined it to be one facet of her personality that mightily annoyed him. If not for her bullheadedness, she would have given up in defeat long ago and left the man, despite her deep love for him. Shera planted her unblinking gaze on his stormy face and held herself steady beneath the assault of his threatening scrutiny, a feat made possible only because of the dark pilot’s shades that covered her eyes. “Captain Highwind…” She addressed him in a formal tone that deepened his frown. “…Do you have a place for me on your crew?”

Cid forced his fist to relax around the shaft of his lance, and he let several moments pass in tense silence, taking the time to draw in a long calming drag off his cigarette as he roasted her in the hot blaze of his azure eyes, the temperature thereof hardly dissipated by a prolonged and honest consideration of her question. He suspected that she expected him to swear at her or yell at her, and another time he might have done exactly that. But at the moment he didn’t plan to. Not because he had an audience. Even that would not give him pause. To be honest, he didn’t plan to land loud curses upon her head because he didn’t feel so moved. And for some reason, he couldn’t find the energy. In fact, now that she stood in front of him, looking at him through the annoyingly opaque lenses of those infernal sunglasses, after all his searching and all his wondering, he found himself floundering for anything to say. She’d managed to swipe all the wind from beneath his wings. And she looked so calm too, with her thumbs hooked in the belt loops of her jeans, not speaking and not fidgeting. Politely awaiting his verdict. Offering him no reason to run her off. Especially when he needed her. Finally, Cid irritably pitched his cigarette to the ground and answered her. “Yeah, I can use you,” he gruffly replied, addressing her as though she were any potential employee making application for a position on his crew. “Report to Jimmie. He’s my head mechanic. You’ll receive any and all orders from him.”

At the brusque command, Jimmie’s face collapsed in dismay. “But Captain…Shera can…she should…”

“Shut the hell up, James,” Highwind sharply interrupted.

“But Cap…”

Cid pinned his head mechanic with eyes glittering in warning, and Jimmie promptly clamped his mouth shut and made a zipping gesture across his lips. Successful in his silent threat, Cid shifted his too keen attention to Derry.

“Introduce yourself, Heidegger. Miss Drake will be flying with you.” He shot a heated glare around the whole group. “And the whole lot of you, get movin’. We’ve got planes to load.” Abruptly wheeling away, he turned his back to all of them and stalked off toward the camp and the airfield beyond.

Derry wrinkled his brow in bewilderment, shifting his eyes from the Captain’s departing back to his new co-pilot. Obediently stepping forward, he extended his hand. “Derrick Heidegger, ma’am,” he said politely. “Glad to make your acquaintance.”

Shera exhaled a shaky breath of relief and took the young pilot’s hand in a firm handshake. “Shera Drake. Glad to meet you too, Mr. Heidegger.”

“Shera Drake…” Derry smirked down at her. “…You’re a bonafide legend around Junon Base.”

“You flatter me, Mr. Heidegger. I doubt that anyone’s talkin’ about me these days. But I’ve recently heard tell of your exploits.”

Derry smiled innocently. “All lies, Miss Drake. Every one of them.”

“I’m sure,” Shera replied with a smirk of her own. “Call me Shera.”

“Call me Derry.”

“Done.”

She released Derry’s hand and reluctantly turned to face Cloud and Red, both of whom inspected her affably enough, if one could describe the red beast’s relaxed but still intimidating expression that way. “Good to see you guys again too,” she greeted them with a self-deprecating smile.

“Likewise,” Cloud replied with a polite nod. Nanaki tacitly bobbed his head in response.

Neither of them dared to ask a question or offer an opinion on the matter, but both silently wondered at the reckoning that would be coming between Cid Highwind and his ex-chief mechanic. They both knew Cid well enough to know he wouldn’t let this business go unaddressed for long. But that was none of their business. The pair exchanged a long knowing look between them, both of them firmly on the same page.

Jimmie took a step forward to broach the subject uppermost in his mind. “Shera…I’m sorry…that Cap…”

She held up a silencing hand. “Don’t worry about it, Jimmie. You’re Cid’s head mechanic now, and that’s that. Let’s just put that all behind us and go do our jobs.” She had managed to plant her foot firmly in the crack of the door to Cid’s domain, and that’s all she could ask, for the time being.

Jimmie nodded eagerly and fell into step with Shera as she set out with purposeful steps to follow in Cid’s footsteps. She lifted her hand in an offhand wave to Cloud and Red. “Later, guys,” she gruffly told them.

“Later,” Cloud and Red said in unison, the warrior barely raising his hand in a vague wave as the red beast respectfully inclined his feathered head.

The two mechanics eventually moved out of earshot, and the warrior murmured his thoughts as he reached up to scratch his head in his bemusement. “Well, Red…this could get interesting…”

“…Indeed…” Red thoughtfully agreed.

Cloud pondered the situation for a moment longer before he lost interest in the whole matter and dismissively shrugged. “Guess we’ll have to track Cid down again, if we’re gonna talk to him about leaving...”

“Guess so…” Red reluctantly agreed. The prospect wasn’t so appealing under the circumstances, but both of them were chafing at the bit to move on to the search they’d previously discussed between them.

Nanaki obediently rose to his four paws, and Cloud turned to go with a half-formed notion of leaving Cid to his own devices for a little while despite a growing urgency to put the camp to his back, but before he could make a firm decision on the matter, a sharp whistle came from behind them. Cloud and Red both swiveled their heads to watch the shaggy brown dog shoot out from beneath the belly of the dozer and gallop eagerly toward his approaching master with tail wildly wagging and his slobbering tongue lolling over his teeth.

Avian bent to give the mutt a vigorous but brief scratching behind the ears while Soldier swept the ground clean with his tail and exuberantly attempted to lick his face, and then the young man straightened to his full height as Cloud strolled up to join him with the red beast shadowing his boot heels.

“What’s up, Avian?” Cloud greeted with a searching gaze. He found it curious that Avian had arrived on the scene unaccompanied.

“Uh…not much…”

Avian shifted nervously from one foot to the other, his amber eyes filling with anxiety as he tried to decide exactly what he would say to the warrior. Now that he was standing in front of him, he wasn’t so sure he should say anything at all.

Cloud folded his arms and eyed the young man with speculation. “You look like a man with a problem,” he said with a frown.

“Yeah…I guess I do…sorta have a…problem…”

“Somethin’ we can help with?” Cloud looked off toward the HQ tent to see the Turks standing in full view outside, and he wondered if Reno had sent the kid his way. If so, the redheaded Turk didn’t seem worried about confirming that the Wulfe kid had made a connection. The three Turks and Caitlin were chatting amongst themselves, and they seemed completely caught up in their conversation. To the point that they either hadn’t noticed Reeve’s approach or they weren’t paying him any mind.

“Er…It’s about me and…Yuffie.” Avian helplessly averted his anxious eyes toward the horizon.

“Uh oh,” Nanaki muttered uneasily

Cloud’s luminous eyes shot back to narrow on Avian’s troubled face at the tautness of his tone. “Should I sit down for this?” he queried dryly.

Avian pondered the idea for the space of a few seconds before he brought his amber eyes back around to encounter Cloud Strife’s disturbing Mako-eyed regard.

“Uh…maybe…”




Reeve emerged from between two parked trucks and came to an uneasy halt at sight of the group standing outside the entrance of the tent they’d made their headquarters. His wistful gaze unerringly traveled to the only member of that tightly formed enclave he cared at that moment to see.

She hadn’t noticed him there yet, and he availed himself of the rare opportunity to study her at his leisure. With a silent and motionless Rude standing protectively at her back, she faced the tall redheaded Turk, her golden head tipped back to look up at him, her small hands dancing as she spoke to him. Reno watched her raptly too, with his head attentively bowed in intent study of her animated face. Reno nodded his head at something she said to him, and Cait’s hand momentarily landed atop the Turk’s folded arm in emphasis or assurance before dancing on, the familiarity in the gesture tightening Reeve’s gut in jealous reaction. Elena stood at Reno’s elbow with her arms tightly folded about her waist, presumably listening to the conversation, although her slumped posture and petulant air indicated either a keen sense of boredom or general disgust with the whole business. Bracketed between the three of them, Caitlin seemed a captured waif, with even Elena standing almost a head taller.

…Caitlin and her Turks…

He’d hoped that their conversation would be more private, but he probably should have known better. The Turks had become entrenched at her side, and so far she’d exhibited little eagerness to speak with him, as evidenced by her continued lack of interest in seeking him out, even though she had to know the gate had been opened by now. And why should he have ever imagined it differently? After all, she was Caitlin Shinra, and she’d blown him off years ago. If at any point over the last ten years she’d remembered the vows she’d exchanged with him in Costa del Sol over a decade ago, vows that were still legally valid in light of the current circumstances, she exhibited little inclination to honor them. She’d said she was leaving, and she’d evidenced no desire for his company. He supposed that he should be angry, but he couldn’t find anything inside him at the moment but resignation and sadness.

“What are we doing now, sir?” Coakley’s hushed words at his back effectively drew him from his thoughts, reminding him that he wasn’t alone. Reeve made a decision then, and he turned on heel to face the worried young soldier, holding his hands out for his crate.

“I’ll take that, Mr. Coakley. Why don’t you go grab a bite to eat in the mess tent? It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?”

Andy hesitantly handed the crate into the executive’s waiting hands. “For you too, sir,” he carefully reminded.

A wry smile came to the executive’s lips. He actually couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten, and his last short-lived nap seemed a distant memory. “You have a point, Andy. Why don’t I join you there after I’m done here?” He swiveled measuring eyes back around just in time to encounter Elena’s bored, wandering gaze. The hazel eyes sharpened in recognition, and he offered her a polite smile, one that she didn’t return.

“Give me an hour, Mr. Coakley,” Reeve vaguely added.

“Yes, sir,” Andy replied as he reluctantly but obediently turned away. “And…good luck, sir.”

“I doubt Lady Luck will be attending this meeting,” he murmured to himself. Then he stepped away from the trucks, raising his voice only slightly to address his last remaining companion, one that had come out of nowhere to join him halfway to his destination.

“Let’s go, Cait Sith. It’s party time.”

The little robotic cat jumped off the running board of the truck and scampered after him to fall into bouncing step at his side. “I just love parties,” he enthusiastically gushed as he skipped and hopped alongside the somber faced executive. “Can I tell fortunes now, boss?”

“Not this time, Cait Sith,” he coolly replied. “This time, you watch and you listen.”

The cat saluted his master with a snap of one gloved hand to his golden crown. “Aye aye, Captain.”




Ozzie and Baron entered the so called ‘compound’ with remarkable ease, hardly drawing more than a scant glance or two from the milling inhabitants within, an unmitigated success that Ozzie could ascribe to the somewhat adequate disguise provided by their stolen robes as well as to their nonchalant and respectfully pious entrance as they strolled casually through the open gate of the high wall of the bamboo enclosure into the tiny village of huts constructed of leaf fronds and split bamboo beyond, looking and acting exactly as though they belonged. The gunman knew their disguise wouldn’t stand a close inspection, but they only had to discover the location of this mysterious Arisara and lay a single hand on her. Then they would be gone. And so would she. In the blink of an eye. In a blaze of starlight.

An androgynous looking child with dishwater blonde hair straggling wispily down a thin back and clad only in a nondescript calf-length white shift crossed his path, and Ozzie suddenly decided that the best way to find their intended mark would be to simply ask after her whereabouts.

“Excuse me,” he lowly hailed. “Little…er…kid. Can you help me?”

Both the child of indeterminate gender and the robed warrior at his elbow spun in surprise to look at him, the small child with a rounded brown-eyed gaze and the tall swordsman with black, gold-flecked eyes narrowed in keen displeasure. Ozzie obliviously ignored his companion’s fierce prosecutorial regard and stepped forward, humbly dipping his head to hide his face inside the shadow of the cowl.

“My companion and I have journeyed from the…ah…temple on the Western Continent in search of Arisara,” Ozzie explained with a sepulchral tone, his voice muffled inside the concealing hood. “Do you know where we might find her?”

The child’s eyes widened to a startling degree, this time in awe. “You came from the Western Continent?”

Ozzie merely inclined his head in affirmation, not trusting himself to speak further.

“The holy seer is in the sanctuary,” the child told him, turning to look in the direction of a rickety looking structure of leaves and sticks, its importance marked by the decorative flowering vines strung from corner to corner and by its central location in the compound. “But the priest isn’t here.”

Baron decided with grudging admiration that Ozzie had accidentally fallen onto a viable course of action, and he decided to take part in the scheme, especially as he knew something of the Ahmadia and their ways. “We have spoken with the priest,” he smoothly lied. “And he has already granted us permission to seek an audience with the holy seer.”

“But…only the priest may visit the seer…” the child anxiously protested.

Baron frowned down into the child’s troubled face. Apparently he didn’t know as much about the Ahmadia as he thought he did.

Ozzie chose that moment to interject. “Look here, little…er…kid. The priest said it was okay. So don’t worry your head about it.”

“You cannot visit the seer!” the child exclaimed in alarm. “The gods will be angered!”

“You’re not afraid of some silly ole griffin, are you?” Ozzie chided testily. “Not when a well-placed bullet will bring it down.”

The child cried out in wordless distress.

Baron resisted an almost overwhelming urge to bury one jagged bladed knife in Ozzie’s spleen, instead opting for more productive action. “Walk, Ozwan,” he coldly commanded.

Baron didn’t waste a second to ensure Ozzie compliance, deciding the gunman could manage on his own this time, and if he fell behind, he would offer up a Gnalish prayer for him. Whether he would pray for his salvation or his demise remained to be seen. Acting on his own suggestion, the warrior took off for the rudimentary temple with a bold step, all trace of reverence and piety gone from his demeanor.

The child darted off in the opposite direction, nosily screeching an alarm in a jarringly shrill voice that set Baron’s teeth on edge. Behind the rapidly departing warrior, Ozzie gaped in bewildered awe at the child’s vocal range, tracking the child’s swift progress across the expanse of the compound grounds only long enough to see a rather large man, also donned in a plain white shift, hastily emerge from a hut to meet the child. The concerned man followed the small, accusing finger that pointed his way, and his eyes turned stormy at sight of the gunman’s exposed face. Throwing his head back, he cried out a resonating alert in some foreign tongue, an imperative ululating call that galvanized the inhabitants of the compound to action. Instantly snapping to his senses at the ready response to the call to arms, Ozzie erupted into startled motion, darting after Baron in a ground-eating sprint that carried him past the fast walking warrior and straight into the dim interior of the primitively constructed Ahmadia temple.

His pupils contracted to accommodate the bright sunlight outside, Ozzie stumbled blindly into the deep gloom inside the unlit temple and slammed to a skidding halt a few feet across the threshold to look wildly around in confusion. Unhampered by such limitations by virtue of highly adaptable eyes gifted him through the evolutionary course of many successive generations of predatory ancestors, Baron brutally shoved Ozzie out of his way with a punishing hand to the spine, startling a crude curse from the visually impaired gunman, and he unerringly steered a direct course to a colorfully painted bamboo screen that stood across the back of the unfurnished chamber.

Ozzie recovered from the rude assault from his partner, opting to forego complaint as he gazed back through the doorway to appraise the threat from without. Already, Ozzie could hear the cries of excitement outside as the Ahmadia tribe came fully to alert, and the gunman suspected that their well-known pacifism wouldn’t extend to blatant temple invasions, especially as he and Baron had obviously committed the vilest of sacrileges by entering the cloistered sanctum of their precious seer.

With half his attention attuned to the commotion outside, Baron barely noted the vivid depiction of a griffin in flight displayed across the head high barrier before he violently ripped it aside with both hands, sending it cartwheeling away to crash to the floor several feet away. On the other side, the already alarmed Ahmadia seer stood facing him with a defensive hand to her throat, a semicircle of lit candles flickering at her back. A little cry came off her lips at sight of the very tall and very broad shouldered figure that had obviously come for her with ill intent. His lips twisting evilly in a smile rife with perverse pleasure, the predator threw a hand out to grab for the frightened rabbit of a woman, confident that she didn’t possess the will to escape him.

Reacting instinctively in a lightning move that took Baron completely by surprise, the seer called Arisara snatched a lit candle from the low table behind her and threw it straight toward the hollow and darkly shadowed interior of the deep cowl. The warrior reflexively batted the flaming projectile away from his face, but the distraction gave her the time she needed to dart past him, only to discover to her utter dismay that her assailant had not come alone when she encountered a second towering and robed intruder standing just beyond the first. Without hesitation, she dragged her calf-length shift up to her hips and went on the offensive, expertly swinging a foot around to deliver a solid kick into a hard-muscled but unsuspecting gut.

With only a muted grunt to express his surprise and pain, Ozzie staggered back a couple of steps as the Ahmadia seer gracefully regained her footing and whirled away to run. Hardly injured by the dainty foot, the gunman recovered swiftly and moved to stymie her escape. He agilely sprang for her with both hands extended, knowing he only had to get one hand on the woman to bring the battle to a startling end. His flailing fingers successfully captured a handful of her shift, and with a desperate jerk, he yanked her back toward him even as his other hand automatically moved to the orb.

In yet another surprisingly unexpected move, the seer clasped both hands together in a conjoined fist and readily surrendered to the force of his backward pull to pivot toward him on one foot. The much smaller woman easily slipped beneath his arm to dart behind him, and with her delicate features contorted into a mask of gritty determination, she solidly clubbed her tightly fisted hands into her captor’s unprotected kidney, the debilitating impact of her blow making a lie of her deceptively slender frame and clearly revealing the sharp-fanged wolf hidden beneath the gentile garb of the sheep.

Ozzie bent double in pain, unconsciously releasing the seer as he brought a soothing hand to his aching back. The woman promptly fled toward the doorway to meet the approaching crowd of villagers noisily converging on the entrance of the temple, wisely seeking the shelter of their numbers to save her.

Already reacting to Ozzie’s failure and apparent inability to stop the woman, Baron jumped after her, one hand reaching out for her as he ripped a curved knife from his sash. Clearing several feet in one explosive leap, he landed at her heels and snatched a handful of her flower bedecked ponytail into a strong, punitive hand, and with a single powerful and economical jerk, he snapped her head back and propelled her stumbling into his arms. Before she could display yet another effective fighting move, he pressed the sharp blade of the knife to her slender throat and released his grip in her hair to whip a muscular arm around her waist, gathering her into an unmerciful, bone-crushing embrace that at first glance might have appeared to be the intimate stance of lovers, until one caught sight of the decorative but lethal weapon in the warrior’s hand and the grimace of discomfort on the woman’s delicate face. With a sharp intake of breath at the biting pressure of the blade, she instantly recognized the hopelessness of her position and deliberately relaxed her muscles, forcing her body to go slack against him in a clear signal of surrender.

Holding her securely imprisoned inside the band of his tautly muscled arm, Baron rotated on heel and turned the panting woman about to face the pained countenance of his sorely abused partner, his black eyes glinting with satisfaction and an incongruous trace of humor from the deep cowl of the hood. “Pacifist did you say, Ozwan?” he teased silkily.

The gunman forced his back to straighten as he again shoved aside the robe to reach for the orb tied at his waist. “I guess I was wrong, Bari,” he ruefully admitted. “She can fight for sure. And she hits goddamned hard.”

Baron released the woman to raise his hand to his own orb, trusting the blade of his knife to hold her in place against him. “You were not misinformed, Ozwan,” the warrior coolly denied. “This woman is no ordinary Ahmadia seer.” He tipped his head then, to whisper directly into her ear in a murmur both ominous and melodic. “Are you?”

Careful to show no reaction to either the warm breath against her face or the subtle threat in his tone, she deigned to answer him by word or movement.

Baron gently rubbed his cheek against her hair. “Be assured, Arisara,” he softly whispered. “You will beg to tell me the truth, before I’m through.”

His soft, sadistic chuckle turned her blood to ice, and she might have surrendered to her growing despair at her unexpected predicament, if not for the blinding supernova of searing white light that blossomed around her and through her. Her feet lost contact with the ground as her body went weightless, and she spiraled straight into a turbulently whirling wormhole of vibrant green light. Though she attempted to gain purchase in a bewildering world of swirling tendrils and undifferentiated shrieks and howls, all she could make out in a blinding green blizzard full of screaming gales, she hardly managed to form a firm intention to attempt to orient her scrambled senses inside the dizzying spin before the nightmare ride spat her out onto her feet at the other end, still held tightly in place by her captor. Despite a strong constitution, she might have sobbed out her relief at the blessed cessation of the cacophony of motion and sound, except for the fact that her nervously darting eyes had already caught sight of the large room before her, discovering a view so amazing that she could only stare in stunned awe, her predicament momentarily forgotten. The mysterious chamber glowed softly in hushed illumination, comprised of crystalline walls any she’d ever seen in her life or might have ever imagined in her wildest dreams.

Her cruel captor abruptly released her, and Arisara would have fallen at his feet had her highly conditioned muscles and her formidable skill not served her so well in recovering her balance. His mission duly accomplished, Baron deserted her to the platform to descend the luminous stairs as casually as if he’d done it a hundred times, apparently confident in the knowledge that no path of escape lay open to her now. Accepting his indifference as evidence of that fact, she didn’t bother to put up a fight, sagely deeming such an exercise to be futile. Instead, Arisara directed her resources to an inventory of her immediate surroundings, slowly rotating in place to take in the whole of the vast hemispherical chamber around her, her mind staggering to catch up with her new circumstances as her apprehensive and wondering eyes vacuumed in the amazing details of the alien room.

Spackles of white light twinkled overhead like pristine diamonds strewn across a sapphire sky, offering her the impression that she stood beneath the vault of the heavens at twilight. Her head spun muzzily as she tried to take in the entire expanse of the astral display, only to reach a point in her journey where she found her questing view obstructed by the topmost rim of a wide glassy impediment. Her entranced gray eyes slid raptly downward, and then across, until she managed to take in the entire vista of the fan-shaped crystalline structure that adorned the rearmost rim of the roughly circular platform, softly emitting a pulsating blue light. Smoky tendrils of mist drifted across its delicate surface and dissipated into thin air as she watched.

One of her captors pointedly cleared his throat behind her, and her long absent instinct for survival abruptly returned. Whirling around to face them she found both of her kidnappers standing side by side at the base of the platform, now divested of the robes that they’d carelessly tossed aside to pool darkly on the luminous floor. The two of them were clearly revealed to her intrigued eyes, but she hardly took note of the details of the tall ebony haired warrior with a colorful hair ornament of feather, bead and bone that drew his sleek hair tautly away from his face or of the only slightly shorter rail of a man with an untamed mess of blonde hair feathering his neck and cheeks, clad all in black from the tip of his pointy toed boots to the top of his flat brimmed felt hat. She didn’t even really pay much mind to the twin knives the warrior fisted in each hand or the two pistols the gunman held leveled at her chest. The whole of her attention, along with her wondering eyes, were drawn past them, to a massive pair of doors lined on the inside with blue crystal, doors that even as she watched swung silently ajar, seemingly of their own volition, and inexorably traveled apart to eventually reveal the vividly colored insets of enameled tile and lustrous gilt trim decorating the opposite panels. The ever widening portal opened on a darkly lustrous stage beyond, a high corridor marked by a glossy expanse of black marble floor and a gleaming surface of obsidian wall inscribed with arcane symbols of blood-red.

“What is this place?” she finally asked in a strangled voice, speaking for the first time since she’d encountered the two of them.

“Oblivion,” Baron dully informed her.

“Hell,” Ozzie tersely clarified.

Their impassive features and expressionless voices hardly conveyed the heartfelt meaning hidden within the context of their words. “It is time to meet the Master,” Baron coolly added.

Ozzie backed up his partner’s command with a pointed wave of a single pistol toward the now completely open door.

Arisara wondered then if anything she’d ever known in her life or anything she’d ever learned, all the innate powers granted her with her birth and all the skills conferred to her through her lengthy if aborted training, would serve her in this strange and unfathomable situation, but before she could ponder the matter overlong, a man suddenly appeared in the doorway, leaping from the side like a child bent on surprising them, his arms outspread for dramatic effect as his smooth soled shoes skidded across the glassy floor. Arisara stared in shock at the unexpected sight even as her limbs turned rubbery beneath her.

Garbed in a luscious floor length robe of scarlet velvet trimmed in woven silk braid of gold with fuzzy yellow slippers that appeared to have chocobo heads for toes peeping from beneath the hem, she had to judge him the most weirdly dressed man she’d ever seen, even though she noted his attire only in passing. To be honest, the lion’s share of her attention had been usurped by a pair of glowing sapphire eyes as bright as the mako churning in the vats of a fully operational reactor. The madly sparkling orbs were framed to exotic effect inside the slanted eyeholes of a hideous mask of molten gold that appeared to be a strange hybrid cross of dragon and demon, a freakish artifact of disguise that completely concealed his face to hide the remainder of his features from her. An equally unusual headdress girded the man’s head; adorned with two appendages that looked a little bit like articulated horns.

Arisara had almost concluded that the man must have come from a masquerade ball to greet them when a tortured choking sound that she’d been hearing for several seconds finally registered in her brain. Anxious eyes tracked down the sound to the blond gunman. The man seemed to be struggling to breathe or maybe to speak as he stared with rounded eyes at the erstwhile partygoer. Her stunned gaze traveled on to the man that stood at his elbow, and to her utter astonishment, the strong warrior that had hissed his sadistic query into her ear also stared transfixed at the doorway, his cruelly handsome face frozen in abject horror. Their stark reaction to the bizarre interloper signaled to her that all three of them had been caught up together in this singular event.

Against her conscious will, her eyes were helplessly drawn back to the doorway, and her stomach did a complete flop beneath her shift. The two horns of what she had mistakenly taken for a headdress of some sort had transformed into fat slimy wormlike tentacles that now twisted about the man’s head like undulating snakes, slithering about in the air and wrapping seductively one about the other, only to uncoil and rewind again as though performing some animalistic mating ritual. Even as she watched, one of the strange appendages separated from the other and probingly swiveled in her direction, as though sniffing out the scent of food or prey. A slit opened up to reveal a glowing red eyeball at the very end of the disgusting thing and the alien orb directly focused in on a face stretched too tensely in a rictus of horror.

Arisara wanted to laugh hysterically and weep piteously, all at the same time. Had she actually described this…thing…as a man? It was no man. It was a monster. And clearly, her two stalwart abductors would heartily concur, apparently viewing the horrible creature for the very first time themselves, if their mutual shock and bald-faced fear were any indication. The recognition hardly provided her comfort. And as if the effect weren’t terrifying enough, the thing then chose to deliver the crowning highlight of his illusion – she was still praying it was only that even if she didn’t believe it– by speaking.

“The Master is here,” he gleefully informed them in a creepy resonating tone produced by a device embedded between the twisted lips of the mask. “Welcome, Arisara, my dulcet darling.”

At the sound of her own name issuing from the monster’s mouth, Arisara literally gasped in wordless terror. Her mouth rounded in a soundless scream, and her knees turned to water. Then the monster began to laugh in guffaws and chortles full of joyful and unapologetic madness, and thankfully she fainted, surrendering gratefully to the darkness that granted her the only means of escape available to her. In that instant and for a long time to come.




“Your old man’s here,” Elena coolly informed the Shinra heir, effectively interrupting the stultifying and pointless argument about Rachel going on between Reno and Caitlin. Fortunately the child had fallen asleep inside or she would no doubt have gladly offered her input into the conversation, most likely coming down on Reno’s side as Caitlin had been feverishly pushing her contention that Rachel should accompany her to the island for the time being while Reno stood fast to his well-reasoned idea that Rachel should stay in Junon in the protective custody of the Turks.

“Where?” Caitlin asked with helpless eagerness, her eyes flying around to discover Reeve sauntering toward her, making a response on Elena’s part unnecessary. And when her questing azure eyes encountered the direct, inquisitive gaze of his brown ones, her heart skipped a beat in her chest and her breath hitched in her throat as some nameless and underlying recognition seemed to pass between them, a visceral experience so wondrously familiar from long ago, and one that had eluded them earlier. Was it only her? Or did he feel it too? It was probably just that she was so happy to see him, hale and healthy, and looking so very…well.

She might have rushed to meet him then, if she had not in the next instant remembered her hard earned resolution, at which point she arbitrarily decided to ascribe the unnerving resurrection of their long absent mental connection to her fevered imagination as she pointedly averted her eyes, an act that etched a troubled frown across his handsome features.

“Reno, go collect Cornelius,” she huskily ordered as she pressed a hand against her stomach to command the wild butterflies inside to stillness. “Let’s get this business over with.”

Reno shook his head in a blatant refusal to comply as an icy smile lifted the corners of his mouth. “You do not want me to collect Mr. Wildman, Caitlin,” he softly informed her. “If you require his services to get this business over with.”

His chilly statement pointedly served to remind her of the redheaded Turk’s thinly veiled anger at the man earlier, and she promptly turned instead to Elena. “Elena, you go…”

“No, not Elena,” Reno curtly interrupted. “Rude will go.”

Caitlin frowned slightly in her frustration of Reno’s repeated efforts to thwart the swift implementation of her plan, but she readily conceded, feeling in no mood to argue as Reeve came tensely to an uneasy halt only a few steps away. “Rude, do it," she softly commanded the tall Turk with a quick glance over one shoulder. "...And hurry. Please.”

“Yes, Rude, please retrieve Mr. Wildman from whatever hole he’s slithered into,” Reno dryly added in sarcastic reinforcement of her order. Then he met her warning look with a face full of bland innocence.

Ignoring the byplay, Rude complied without comment, simply falling into motion to stride away, his appraising eyes sliding across Reeve’s impassive face as he walked past him. Although the executive couldn’t see the Turk’s hidden eyes, he thought he could almost sense the threat in his regard. He recognized the idea to be more than a little paranoid as well as a measure of his pervasive uneasiness at Caitlin’s close alliance with the Turks. Contrarily, he counted on that alliance to keep her safe, once she left here. If she insisted on leaving. Outside of the Turks, he had only one plan to fall back on, and hardly an ideal one at that, under the circumstances. An ace in the hole that he dreaded to use. But he might…if she forced him to. A definite last resort, to be sure. One that he could envision costing him much.

Caitlin steadied her thoughts and turned to confront her husband with a strained smile. “Reeve, it’s good to see you,” she said gruffly. “I heard you had some trouble awhile ago.”

He calmly responded with a quiet, self-deprecating smile of his own. “No trouble for me, really. Just a…situation.”

Discounting the fact that he’d been held hostage at gunpoint and then propelled forcibly into a solid steel wall just before nearly being drilled full of holes by an armor-plated roboguard bent on threat elimination, the event that had finally led him to his decision to lay his cards on the table, no matter how they might play.

“What sort of situation?” She managed to keep her soft voice devoid of her rampant curiosity, but her concern for him lingered in her azure eyes.

Reeve uneasily averted his gaze as he wondered how much he should tell her, only to lock eyes with the watchful Reno. His lingering smile lost its last tenuous toehold and vanished from his face as he pointedly turned back to study his wife’s face in silence for several seconds as he formed a response. “It was brought to my attention that Shinra’s underground military prison had not been evacuated as yet. I took steps to remedy the oversight.”

“Shinra’s…underground…military prison?” she asked nervously. The very idea that such a facility existed made her stomach churn sickly. “I…hope it all came out…all right…”

Not really, no,” he responded grimly. “We were able to rescue a few. But the security robots killed the majority of the inmates.” The machines had been too damn efficient in their pre-programmed tasks. He supposed he should deem it a miracle that any had escaped.

“Oh…I’m sorry…to hear that…” Her words sounded trite and ineffectual, despite her sincerity, but she truly didn’t know what to say. In truth, she felt so sickened that she could hardly find the motivation to consider the implications inherent in his sketchy report, but she knew she had to learn to confront such issues head on, if she wished to effect change.

“Can we sit down somewhere, Caitlin?” Reeve suddenly asked in a clear diversion from a topic of conversation that so obviously pained her, and one he didn’t care to discuss in detail. “I’d like to put down my things.”

The haggard lines and deep creases of exhaustion in his face finally registered in her brain, and a feeling of guilt assailed her at her careless insensitivity. “Of course, Reeve.” She graciously lifted a hand toward the tent. “Let’s just go inside. Cornelius will be here in a few minutes.”

Clearly recognizing the name of the Shinra family attorney, Reeve merely inclined his head in acknowledgement, holding his tongue as he walked past her into the tent. The atypically quiet Cait Sith emerged from behind his designer’s legs when he moved, and Caitlin watched the robotic cat scamper after him with more than a little curiosity and a hint of awe. A soft smile curved her lips at the memory of his seemingly endless string of failed robotic creations so long ago. Obviously, he’d fallen upon a model that worked for him, albeit an unconventional one. That Reeve had designed and built such a comical creature amused her no end. Both man and mechanical cat vanished into the tent and out of her sight, and she reluctantly brought her attention back to the ever observant Reno.

“Have you spoken to Cloud yet?”

“Not yet,” he drawled unapologetically, exhibiting a nonchalance that conveyed a marked unconcern in the matter. “I’ve been otherwise occupied.” His eyes slid beneath lowered lashes to take in Elena’s passive features. Her mind seemed to have vacated her cranium, leaving her in absent reverie, apparently staring vapidly off across the wasteland at nothing.

“Well, go now.” She waved him away with both hands. “And see to it. Both of you.”

“You don’t have need of our services, Caitlin?” he slyly queried. “For information gathering, at the very least?” Reno had accurately picked up on her attempt to rid herself of their august company and felt the need to offer minimal resistance, for the purposes of perversity at the very least.

“Rude will provide ample protection for this meeting, I should think. And you’ll have plenty of opportunity to interrogate Reeve at a later date.”

Reno smiled coolly, and Caitlin reconsidered her poor choice of words. “Nicely though…” she quickly added. “…Interview…”

Reno offered her a noncommittal nod of acknowledgement. “Elena and I will go,” he coolly replied. “When Rude returns.”

Caitlin directed a finger to a point beyond his shoulder. “Well, here he comes now. So maybe you…er…better go.”

Reno shot a glance over his shoulder to confirm her contention. He scowled at the distant sight of a pasty-faced Wildman walking toward them with Rude at his back. “Yep, it’s time to go,” he promptly agreed. Better to graciously retreat than to become embroiled in mayhem and bloodshed. “Come on, Elena. Let’s go track down Mr. Strife.”

To her credit, Elena instantly snapped out of her lackadaisical haze at his bidding to pin a sharp, clear-eyed gaze on his expectant face, her curt nod of agreement ample evidence that she’d at least been listening, if nothing else. The two Turks turned away as one and took their leave, Reno lazily sauntering with both his hands stuffed in his pants pockets and his magrod tucked under his arm, and Elena walking with short quick steps that kept her abreast of Reno despite his long ground eating strides, her arms defensively folded about her waist and the oversized tote bag hanging off one shoulder to bump against her back as she walked.

Caitlin watched them go as she dredged up the courage to face the difficult task she’d set, and then with her heart lodged firmly in her throat, she forced her feet to carry her into the tent. Stepping from bright sunlight into the lantern-lit interior, she peered intently toward the first row of cots to check on the quietly sleeping Rachel where she lay curled beneath a single blanket before she shifted her attention to Reeve. She found turning toward him a more daunting act than it should have been due to an internal struggle with an irritating and nearly immobilizing blend of reluctance and eagerness.

She found that he’d taken possession of one of the folding chairs halfway down the length of the table, and he’d already laid several neatly squared papers in front of him in preparation for the meeting. She noted the inevitable presence of the handheld computer lying close to his hand, and she studied the strip of duct tape wrapped around the device with hidden amusement. She noticed that he'd shoved the crate to one side, and the quiescent cat now rested inertly on the table beside it, collapsed upon itself like a stuffed animal resting on a child’s toy shelf.

She cautiously eyeballed the robotic creature as she rounded the table to gingerly slide into a chair across the table from him. “Is that…cat thing…turned on, Reeve?” she asked nervously.

He warily looked up to find her worried eyes planted on the wide eyed and motionless cat. “He’s self-charging right now,” Reeve calmly explained, answering her truthfully, but leaving much out in omission. “Caitlin…” He reached across to draw the battered tablet from his crate, his move effectively taking her attention off Cait Sith. “I have your sketches.” He leaned forward in his chair to hand the pad over to her, and her eyes widened in surprised recognition.

“Where did you get that, Reeve?” she queried tensely, her eyes clearly broadcasting her uneasiness at his possession of the sketches she’d drawn in the old Shinra office building.

Frankly, she’d forgotten about the tablet Rude had gifted her in the mad rush of events since, although she’d sorely missed the opportunity to draw, especially in those long minutes after Reno had left her in the tent floundering in the sea of her indecision. Sketching would have helped her focus, but she didn’t possess the tools, and in the end, she’d reached a decision in the depths of her desolation without any help.

“You dropped it on the floor in your father’s old office.”

“Thank you, Reeve,” she simply replied with a small tremulous smile, unable to press her troubled thoughts to further conversation. With trembling fingers, she reached out to take it from him, and flipping the book over in her hands, she opened the cover to rifle through the pages. Trepidation filled her at the scenes that met her eyes. Swallowing hard, she paused on the sketchily drawn and unfinished pencil study of their daughter as she wondered if he had looked inside the book and noticed the drawing, and if so, what he’d thought. Unexpectedly, he answered her unasked question as though he’d read her mind.

“Your skills have improved, Caitlin,” he idly complimented as he looked through his papers. “I wouldn’t have thought that possible.”

“You didn’t think I had it in me?” she asked with a hint of irritation, mostly at herself for being so careless as to leave the sketchpad in the first place.

“It isn’t that, Cait,” he protested with a chiding look across the table at her. “It’s just that I always thought your artwork so beautifully rendered already. That sketch you did of Tseng…you captured him in repose perfectly. And the one of Elena…so pensively sad and fragile. Like a…melancholy angel. I can hardly imagine she could ever look like that.”

Caitlin labored at a loss for words beneath his searching gaze, until he redirected his attention back to his papers and obligingly released her. “Thank you, Reeve,” she murmured again, feeling uncomfortable at his positive appraisal of her work. She’d never been capable of comfortably accepting compliments on her work, even though she knew them to be well deserved.

“The picture of the little girl…” he absently commented as he skimmed the lines of text beneath his fingers in casual perusal. “She looks familiar. Who is she?”

Caitlin opened her mouth and paused there, searching for the words to answer him. It was the perfect opportunity after all. She only had to say, “Her name is Heidi, Reeve. She’s your daughter. Named after your grandmother. She has your nose. And she has your chin. And your thick dark hair. Isn’t she gorgeous?”

And she thought she might actually be able to tell him then, despite her tentative and shaky resolution to wait, because she truly wanted him to know about Heidi. Every thing there was to know about her. Both good and bad. But just as she managed to draw in a breath to actually speak the words, Wildman and Rude entered the tent, the Turk right on the heels of the attorney, and she gratefully expelled the breath with a guilty sense of relief.

“Good evening, Ms. Shinra,” Cornelius solicitously greeted while barely applying the will to keep his appreciative eyes averted from her compellingly beautiful face. “Reeve,” he added with a hint of disdain. Neither bothered to verbally reply, Caitlin offering him only a nervous smile of encouragement, and Reeve responding with a curt nod of his head.

The executive didn’t care for Cornelius Wildman. He’d seen him in full operation at many Shinra functions, and the attorney wasn’t a man Reeve would ever choose to include in his circle of friends or social acquaintances. He now obliquely scrutinized Wildman from beneath lowered lashes as the attorney, full of his own self-importance, strode smartly to the head of the table to deposit his briefcase. Drawing a chair out, he primly sat down and snapped open the latches on the expensive leather case. Oblivious to Reeve’s appraising sidelong gaze, he deftly removed several folders that he stacked neatly to the side.

Caitlin lowered her worried eyes to the table. The time had come to get down to their business, and she dreaded every bit of it. “Rude, will you wait outside, please?” she tensely requested.

The Turk didn’t reply, but when she looked up to see if he’d heard her strained command, she found that he’d already gone, without a word.

Caitlin’s pulse rate jumped along with her level of anxiety. She tried another long, slow intake of breath in an effort to settle her nerves, but the air seemed to clog in her throat, creating a false sense of breathlessness that only increased her tension. Biting down on her lower lip, Caitlin raised her small hands to the table and folded them together in an attempt to hide her tremulous fingers from Reeve’s too observant eyes.

“Have you completed the preliminary drafts, Cornelius?” Her cool steady voice surprised her, given the frightened woman huddled inside.

“Of course, Ms. Shinra,” the attorney smoothly replied. “I never fail to deliver.”

Caitlin’s eyes narrowed irritably on the attorney’s smirking face at the remark, one she suspected to be a sly double entendre, if his impudent gaze over the top of his open briefcase lid at her was any indication. Ignoring the unwelcome comment, she pointedly directed her eyes to the stack of folders.

“Give Reeve the drafts, Cornelius,” she curtly ordered. “All of them. He can read them over, and then we’ll talk.”

The attorney reached for the folders as he shot her a skeptical shot from beneath lowered brows. “I believe it advisable to address each item separately, Ms. Shinra,” he protested uneasily. “But if you say so.”

“I say so,” she flatly replied.

Cornelius shrugged indifferently, deeming it more advisable not to argue with a Shinra, and without another word, he shoved the folders across the table to Reeve. The executive hesitantly reached out for them and gathered them into both hands. “What exactly is all this about, Caitlin?” he asked tensely.

”Just read them, Reeve,” she steadily replied despite a marked increase in the reproduction of the butterfly population inside. “Then you can ask what you wish. Or suggest any changes you think necessary. Those are legal drafts. They aren’t written in stone. Not yet.”

With a vague nod of his head, he set the folders neatly in front of him, squared the corners up with worrisome fingers, and then he opened the first of the folders and lifted the papers out. Without another word, Reeve began to read, and an uncomfortable silence filled the room as Caitlin and her lawyer silently waited.




Vendra emerged blinking from transit to find herself completely hidden behind the concealing barrier of debris she’d marked out earlier from atop the bluff, again confirming her finely honed expertise at manipulating the transit orb. Of all the students her employer had instructed in the use of the ancient transport system, she was the only one to display the precision and skill to risk landing in such an insecure and unprotected location. The boss had once told her that she possessed a talent that even he couldn’t match, just before he’d bent his head and kissed her. And in those days, not so long ago really, she’d eagerly met his kisses. But that was before he’d become…whatever he’d become…

A shudder of revulsion coursed through her whole body at the disgusting mental image that came to her mind of what a kiss with him as she’d seen him earlier would have been like, and it was a picture she didn’t care to ever revisit. So with a silent offering of gratitude to the fates for ensuring her escape, she dismissively put the whole matter from her mind and reached up both hands to check the positioning of her lustrous black wig. Stroking her fingers through the waving tresses, she drew a couple of silken strands over her shoulders to let them fall strategically against the soft curves of her breasts. Then she tipped her head down to inspect the satisfactory effect of her efforts before moving on to appraise her appropriated clothing with a critical eye. She lifted her slender hands to smooth the full ankle length skirt beneath her palms as she pursed her lips in contemplation of the very revealing sight of the bulk of her breasts exposed by the deeply scooped neck of the loosely tied cotton blouse. She deemed the look counterproductive in this situation, and she promptly retied the drawstring bow at the neckline to modestly hide all but a hint of her cleavage. With perhaps a couple of minor exceptions, she planned to be unobtrusive for the most part.

Satisfied with the authenticity and effectiveness of her disguise, she set out toward the end of the debris pile and paused just shy of walking into the open to scope out the area, standing on tiptoe to peer keenly over the tailings at the beehive of activity on the other side, looking for any sign that the fleeting bright flash of her arrival had been noted in the wash of golden afternoon sunlight. No one even looked her way. Either with pointed interest or idle curiosity. All seemed preoccupied in the ongoing bureaucratic process.

Already, the first of the evacuees straggled from the open city gate, guided in orderly fashion by members of Shinra’s regular army toward a table where they stood in line to await their turn. For several moments, she keenly studied the prescribed procedure for her own intelligence purposes, and she eventually concluded that the soldiers sitting at the table were taking down information from each person, mostly likely names and home addresses and the like, after which the soldiers gave the evacuee some sort of paper, the purpose of which Vendra could only guess. Once a person had that paper in hand, the rough line of a dozen or so soldiers that stood with guns ready just beyond the tables, obviously a guard detail placed there to block any attempt at unauthorized entrance into the encampment, would open up to allow the newly approved person of refugee status to pass.

Vendra didn’t foresee any problem going through the line as the whole procedure didn’t seem terribly exacting. The soldiers weren’t even requiring the evacuees to show identification, even though every resident of Midgar presumably possessed one. At least the ones that wanted to use all the services provided by Midgar pre-Meteor had to have one. Otherwise they couldn’t use the train system or shop in the many stores atop the plate, acquire government documents like driving permits or marriage licenses, enroll in school or even obtain basic medical services. People without the electronically coded identification cards were those forced to live in the cracks of Midgar society. Thankfully, the cards were easy to duplicate, and she possessed several. The one she planned to use, if needed, she had tucked into her skirt pocket. But no one was showing them, and now that she really thought about it, she could guess it was because the soldiers possessed no access to the system that would normally read those cards. She imagined the whole network had gone down, along with the Shinra Tower. Clearly, making it past the tables would be no problem at all. However, getting into the line might present a challenge, as the queue originated somewhere inside, and she could only conjecture what hoops one might be forced to jump through to gain a place in line.

The rumbling engine of a large truck instantly drew her attention, and she turned to watch with keen speculation as the truck made a wide arc in her direction to skirt the line of guards. The truck roared past her, and several yards beyond the lumbering vehicle abruptly slowed and came to a screeching halt just outside the gate with a tortured squeal of its brakes and a grating of its gears as the young soldier behind the steering wheel clumsily operated the stick shift and clutch. More regular army soldiers, this time wearing the distinctive armbands of the medical branch of the Shinra army, emerged from the interior of the city carrying several laden stretchers between them. Moving hastily but carefully, they approached the truck and handed the casualties up into the hands of the soldiers already waiting in the rear of the truck to receive them.

Vendra decided it was high time she got into the game, so with mincing steps and a toss of her artificial locks, she surrendered the relative security of her hiding place and headed toward the truck. As she’d already determined, she couldn’t get past the perimeter of attentive soldiers into the camp without going through the line so she figured she might as well start at the gate.

Surprisingly, no one seemed to pay her any mind as she crossed the bare stretch of ground, and she covered the distance unimpeded, all the while wondering if she should have tried for the encampment instead, skirting the soldiers just as the truck had. But the reason she hadn’t tried that scheme in the first place remained valid. They would probably shoot her if they caught her trying to elude the sentinel. This way, they would most likely think she’d slipped from the gate and simply return her.

She’d almost reached the relative safety of the truck when several more of the medical corpsmen hurried through the open gate with more stretchers to load. With only a cursory glance and a deprecating grimace at the injured inhabitants of the stretchers, she came to a stop beside the truck just short of the rear bumper where the large vehicle would effectively block her from the view of the guard detail and from the soldiers scrawling away at the table. Biding her time, she clasped her hands demurely in front of her and turned an interested ear to the ongoing conversation of the trio of soldiers that had almost reached the truck with the next stretcher.

“I can’t believe this guy’s hangin’ on,” one of the soldiers said with a hint of awe in his tone.

“Yeah…not for long, I don’t think,” his stretcher mate dryly replied. “Didn’t ya hear that doc say that the guy’s heart already stopped a dozen times? No goddamn way he’ll make the flight to Junon…”

“Dunno, he might surprise us. Seems like a fighter.”

“Huh. Maybe so. But don’t get your hopes up.”

“Man…you’re such a pessimist…”

“No, just been doing this too long. I’ve seen too much, and I know what I know.”

Despite her disgust with all things medical, Vendra grew helplessly curious about the patient under discussion, and she moved forward a couple of steps to peer into the stretcher as the two soldiers handed it up while the third soldier carefully held the patient’s IV bag aloft. The bearded and scraggly sable-haired man swathed in blankets appeared to be unconscious, as she’d already guessed based on their insensitive discussion about him. With his slack face, barely cracked lifeless eyes, and bloodless complexion, Vendra thought he looked like a corpse already. She decided that the ‘pessimistic’ and probably more experienced soldier knew exactly what he was talking about. Personally, she’d be amazed if the man survived the take-off.

Vendra retreated a couple of steps after the soldiers successfully completed the handoff of the stretcher to the soldiers in the back of the truck. The three of them hurried away, taking no notice of her, and disappeared behind the barrier of the partially opened gate. Another two stretchers arrived at the truck after them, carried by grim-faced soldiers moving quickly and silently. One of them glanced at her in passing as he hurried away, but seemed to dismiss her despite her unauthorized presence there. A frown of disgruntlement deranged her pretty features.

Happily, the talkative soldiers dutifully appeared with another stretcher and started toward the truck to load their next patient, but then they stopped in their tracks because the older soldier, Private Pessimistic, had commanded them to halt. Bringing up the rear this time, the soldier had just gotten a good look at their unconscious burden, and from the expression of disgust on his face, he obviously didn’t like what he saw.

“What’s up with this bullshit?” he called back irritably over his shoulder to some unseen person inside. “This one’s a mess.”

Another soldier with the rank insignia of a mid-level medical officer appeared from inside to answer him, and Vendra perked up with interest. “Don’t worry about it,” he curtly replied. “Just take her. We only had time to stabilize her for the flight. We’ll clean her up in route.”

“But why not take care of her now?” the first soldier demanded. “For crying out loud, she’s covered in muck.”

“No time,” the commander snapped back, but at the disbelief in the medic’s face, he relented with a resigned frown to explain.

“Look, they found her less than a half hour ago, dumped in a pile of garbage with a gunshot wound. The surgeon has already vacated the operating rooms to transfer to the planes. The sooner she gets to Junon, the faster we can help her. So stop worrying and get that girl loaded up. You’re only hurting her by holding up the show.”

The subordinate soldier wisely kept his own counsel despite his skepticism, swallowing his indignant protests to apply himself to more productive action by urging his companions back to the business at hand. Once in motion, they hurried with quick steps to carry the critically injured patient to the truck. Again consumed by rampant curiosity, Vendra stared down as the stretcher went past her, and she blinked in astonishment at sight of the ashen faced woman’s long mud caked tresses and soiled face. The disgusting creature looked and smelled like she’d been lounging around in the rubbish for a few days, and she could understand why the medic would give such vehement voice to his disgruntlement regarding her condition. The patient would probably die of infection before her bullet wound did her in.

Still standing in the open portal, the superior officer watched his medics carry the stretcher all the way to the truck, insuring that they obeyed his command without further hesitation, and once satisfied he started to withdraw, until he noticed the gawking Vendra standing there, just as she’d hoped.

“Hey, you there,” he called out. “Get away from there. You’re supposed to be in line.”

Vendra obediently backed away from the truck and hesitantly turned to confront him, her dainty porcelain features shrouded in dismay. “But…I don’t know what to do…” she whined plaintively, holding her despairing hands out to her sides in her ignorance. “Someone shoved me out of line, and now I don’t know where to go. Do you want me to get back in line where I was? Or go to the back of the line or…”

The medical officer rolled his eyes in disgust and lifted a hand to snap his fingers. “Private Franks,” he called out loudly to get the attention of one of the soldiers that made up the human barricade of armed gatekeepers “Take this woman…” He jabbed an irritated finger in her direction. “…And put her back in line. At once.”

Franks promptly jumped to obey, hurrying over to retrieve her. Tentatively, he reached out a hand to clasp her elbow in gentle fingers as he made a study of her delicate features and wide blue eyes. Vendra willingly complied with a flutter of her lashes at the handsome young soldier. With a quiet smile, he guided her to the head of the line.

“This one got lost,” he told one of the soldiers at the table.

The man raised his pencil with an exaggerated sigh of displeasure. “Whatever,” he said dully. “Name.”

Vendra granted her soldier escort a bright smile and a little wave as he walked back to his position, almost stumbling over his own feet as he tried to keep her in sight.

“Name!” the soldier with the pencil said more loudly, and Vendra’s startled blue eyes came around.

“Oh! You want my name?!”

“No, I want someone else’s name,” he retorted sarcastically.

Vendra gaped dumbly at him. “Whose?”

“Give me your damn name lady,” he snapped irritably.

“Alison Annabelle Fain,” she readily replied. “And you needn’t be so rude.”

“Residence?”

“1221 Spring Street.”

The soldier looked up to examine her more closely. “You’re from up top?” he queried with a hint of interest.

“Yes, of course,” she blithely replied.

He frowned skeptically, but in the end merely shrugged.

“Property in storage?”

“What?”

“Did you place any belongings with us to be stored in the Shinra bunkers for safekeeping?” he clarified with careful patience.

“Oh, no. It was all…smashed.” She slapped her fist into her open hand to illustrate her point. He didn’t flicker an eyelash.

“Marital status?”

“Widowed,” she said sadly. “By this sad catastrophe.”

“Dependents?”

“Er…killed. All six of them. Plus my two cats.”

“Employment?” he asked, unimpressed with her loss.

“I am…er…I was a cocktail waitress at the Golden Chocobo.” Not entirely untrue. She had worked there once. A long time ago. And a very lucrative job it had been. Until she’d been fired for blackmailing the wrong government official. But anyone can make a mistake…

He duly jotted down the information with little interest, made a numerical notation beside her name, and handed over a like numbered set of papers. “Take these and fill out all the forms. Be sure to make specific note of the family members and property that you’ve lost in the Meteor incident. Keep them with you until you are asked to present them. And don’t misplace them. Or you won’t be able to make a claim. Now move along.” He dismissively waved her away.

“But…” She vaguely looked around. “Where do I go now?”

“The instructions are on the papers, lady,” he responded wearily. “At the top. Now get going. You’re holding up the line.”

Vendra did as he so curtly bade, making a show of reading the papers as she ponderously moved away with a chorus of impatient grumbles rising from the people in line behind her. Private Franks stepped aside with startling alacrity to open her up a pathway into the encampment, and she smiled prettily as she brushed just a bit too closely past the hopelessly bewitched man. She flirtatiously held his gaze as she sauntered away with her skirt swishing about her calves. She offered him one last little wave before she put her back to him and walked swiftly away, promptly shoving Franks down into her mental file of people she might use at some future date. At the first opportunity, she ducked out of sight of the soldiers at the gate and carelessly tossed the unnecessary forms into the next trash barrel she encountered. Then instead of going straight to the processing tent as the papers instructed, she briskly strode off on a route of her own making, in search of the prize, Avian Wulfe. She most surely planned to stake a claim this day, and she didn’t need any papers to do it.




Caitlin managed to maintain an outward appearance of patience and unruffled calm as she sat with her chin propped in her hands and watched Reeve’s face run through a gamut of emotions. Most of the time, he simply nodded to himself in understanding, but many times he frowned in bewilderment, and once he shot her a dark look rife with displeasure, although he didn’t say a single word. She could only wonder which papers had put that look on his face, but she had an idea. In the end, he set the papers to the side with quiet resignation and sat back in his chair to scrutinize her pensive face with cool regard.

“Do you have any questions, Reeve?” Cornelius solicitously queried from behind his open briefcase.

“A few,” Reeve replied, though he addressed his terse answer to Caitlin instead of the lawyer.

“Go ahead, Reeve,” she stiffly instructed. “Speak your mind..”

He absently raised a hand to his chin to stroke his beard in thought, and the gesture drew her gaze. She found herself intrigued by the seemingly unconscious and probably habitual gesture because it was one he’d never displayed during their relationship. Obviously, he’d developed it later, after he’d taken to growing facial hair. And although she knew she would have protested vehemently had he even suggested growing a beard back then, she found the look strangely compelling on him now.

“I understand most of what I’ve read, Caitlin,” he finally stated. “But I have some questions about a few specific matters.” Leaning forward in his seat, he folded his hands against the table and planted inscrutable eyes on her face. She shifted uneasily in her chair, fretting about what he most likely planned to ask.

“You have declined to give me power of attorney, and I fully understand your decision. I would not do so under the circumstances either. You’ve generously granted me authorization over a broad spectrum of financial and business decisions, and I can hardly foresee requiring anything further in that regard. However…” At that point, he knitted his brow in confusion. “I don’t fully understand your reasons behind a complete reorganization of the company. What do you hope to accomplish, Caitlin? It seems a waste of precious time and capital.”

She laid her hands flat to the table and leaned forward on her elbows to explain. “It’s simple, Reeve. I want to bury the Shinra Corporation, along with the corruption and the greed. All assets, authorizations, and responsibilities will all transfer, of course, but the company will undergo a complete reorganization and be born a new company with a new name.”

“I see…and what will you call this new company, Caitlin?”

“I don’t have anything in particular in mind at this time. As far as I’m concerned, you can decide. I’ve designated you Chief Operating Officer, and I trust your judgment. The only thing I ask is that Shinra appear nowhere in the name of the reorganized company. I also want a complete and detailed accounting of all remaining assets here and abroad.”

“For this…proposed liquidation you’ve requested.”

“That’s right, Reeve. As you obviously know, the Shinra Corporation holds ownership to an immense amount of property, much of it obtained through dubious means. I want all properties unnecessary to the operation of the corporation liquidated for sale to the public or reverted to the rightful owners in the case of outright chicanery. I’ll leave the details to you. As I said before, I trust you to take the proper steps in each case.”

“For instance?” He quirked one dark brow at her.

“You want a ‘for instance’, Reeve? How about Nibelheim? How did the Shinra Corporation come to own an entire village?”

“It’s quite simple, Caitlin,” he steadily replied. “The village of Nibelheim was razed to the ground. Most of the villagers relocated. The land defaulted to the central government due to nonpayment of tax monies, and Shinra acquired the land by purchasing the tax lien.” Of course, Reeve now knew that what he said was not entirely true, as he’d discovered during his unauthorized forays into company records. Most of the villagers had not left. The survivors that hadn’t escaped had been rounded up for Hojo’s mad human experimentations, but he didn’t want to go into all that with Caitlin. He actually didn’t care to ever apprise her of the details. She already knew more than a daughter should have to know about so corrupt a father as one that would cruelly order the imprisonment and medical torture of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of human beings.

“Well, I don’t think our corporation needs a distant mountain village, does it?”

“There is still a Shinra mako reactor located there.”

“Is it currently in operation?”

“Minimally.”

“Then we’ll provide an alternate source of energy and shut the beastly thing down.”

Reeve slowly nodded his head, returning worried eyes to the draft beneath his fingers. “I understand, Caitlin. I’ll take care of it, but I can’t promise I’ll do it right away.”

“I’m aware you’ve more pressing matters, Reeve. I don’t expect you to do more at this time than take care of the people of Midgar.”

“Speaking of Midgar, Caitlin…” Reeve paused to gather his thoughts. “I don’t understand. I thought you understood my position on the matter. Midgar is not retrievable. I plan to build a new city, probably somewhere along the eastern coastline where the city will have access to the sea and…”

Caitlin vehemently started shaking her head, and Reeve stopped talking.

“I believe a new city to be an unnecessary waste of resources. I think the gil would be better utilized in Midgar.”

“What then, Caitlin? Do you plan to just turn the people loose to fend for themselves? You’re opening the door to anarchy here. If we don’t construct a new city…a NeoMidgar if you will…where do you expect them to go?”

“Back to Midgar.”

Reeve stared at the stubborn set of her jaw in dismay at her untenable position. He’d become familiar with that look long ago, and he recognized her intractability on the matter. He started shaking his head in blatant denial. “Caitlin, it’s not possible. We have three collapsed plates, and a heavily damaged pillar beneath a fourth plate. Only concerted efforts on the part of our engineering department have kept the pillar viable thus far. All of Sector Six might well be crushed before our evacuation has been completed.”

“Then remove the plate over Sector Six, Reeve,” she coolly countered. “I’m not flexible on this issue. Remove that plate and all of the others. Clean up the debris and rebuild Midgar. There are still viable areas in Midgar where people can live even now. And they don’t want to leave. Midgar is their home, and they want to stay.”

“We don’t even know the extent of the damage on top, Caitlin,” he coolly argued. “And the reactors are incapable of operating beyond a tenth of their previous output at this time.

“Then fix it. You have educated and experienced people at your disposal. I see no reason it can’t be done.”

“Caitlin, you are asking for the impossible.”

“Since when did you add the word impossible to your vocabulary, Reeve?”

“Caitlin…what you’re asking is…untenable…”

“Is NeoMidgar your dream, Reeve?” she asked sternly. “Or my father’s? I seem to remember a man with a different dream. A dream for the expansion and development of the grandest city in the world. A city called Midgar. I believe that man is sitting in front of me right now. With the wondrous opportunity to rebuild Midgar at his fingertips. Midgar as it should have been. As that man conceived it before his architectural plans were snubbed for another’s. Am I wrong in believing that, Reeve? Am I?”

Reeve dropped worried eyes to his folded hands as he shook his head in wonder. “Those plans are forever gone, Caitlin. They cannot be impressed on Midgar as it stands. Not without building from scratch. That’s why a new city…”

“Reeve…please…”

Finally, he relented with a heavy sigh that clearly displayed his continued reluctance on the issue. “I will see what can be done, Caitlin.” He shook his head in amazement at his own words. “If it can be done, I will do it. But it will take…years…a lifetime…”

“I have faith in you, Reeve,” she softly affirmed. “I know you can do it. And I expect you to try.”

Reeve held serious doubts as to his ability to fulfill her wishes, but he kept them to himself. And as he’d promised her, he would begin the first steps to doing as she asked by taking her impractical plan under advisement. But for now, he had one last matter to address. A most crucial one. One that he’d rather discuss with her alone, but seeing as he didn’t have that option, he might as well get on with it. He reached out a hand and lifted the top folder from the stack, his temper suddenly flaring again at the memory of the content he’d read. With an irritated flip of his hand, he threw the cover open to reveal the handwritten legal documents inside.

“What about this, Cait?” he tensely asked. “I don’t understand this.” He thumped his fingers against the papers. “Why divorce papers? Why now?” His countenance darkened with anger as he raised accusing eyes to her face. Every muscle in her body tensed at the unexpected question. So this was the reason behind his angry expression earlier, and not the issue that she had imagined, the one regarding the power of attorney which he had graciously accepted. The divorce papers were not even supposed to be included until she had discussed the matter with Reeve. Apparently, Cornelius had misunderstood her.

Too nervous to sit still in her chair, she unconsciously rose to her feet to stare down at him with anxious eyes. “Reeve…I wanted to discuss…that…” She blindly waved a hand at the damning papers. “…Because…when Cornelius files the papers in court…to overturn my…certification of…death…then we will be…still be…”

“Married?” he curtly interrupted.

She tensely nodded. “Yes…married. And I didn’t imagine…I didn’t know…if…I mean…it’s been ten years, Reeve.”

“Yes, Caitlin. It’s been ten years.” She could hardly miss the blatant accusation in his cold voice.

She threw her hands out in placation. “Reeve! I just wanted to offer you a choice,” she protested in exasperation. “You might be with someone now. You might have remarried for all I know.”

“You could have asked,” he snapped back at her as he rose to face her. “And why offer me a choice now? Where was my choice ten years ago, Caitlin? Or five years ago? Last year or the year before that? Where was my choice then?” He glared hotly at her, his dark eyes silently demanding answers from her.

Drawing in a ragged breath in a vain attempt to steady her nerves, she pointedly turned to the fascinated attorney. “You may…go now…Cornelius,” she shakily informed him.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Ms. Shinra,” he promptly responded.

“I don’t recall asking you, Mr. Wildman,” she shot back at him in desperation. “Leave now. Or I will have Rude assist you in leaving.”

The attorney instantly sprang to his feet and slammed his briefcase shut. She didn’t have to threaten him twice. “If you’ll mark all revisions clearly and return the papers when you are finished reviewing them, Ms. Shinra, I will take them to Junon and have them properly drawn for filing.”

“Certainly, Mr. Wildman,” she tautly agreed. “As soon as we are finished here.”

When the lawyer had made good his departure, all the while silently questioning his wisdom in ever taking the Shinra family on as clients, Caitlin reluctantly turned the whole of her attention to Reeve and found that he’d retaken his seat in the interim, and with his dark head bent, he stared blankly down at the words of the divorce drafts framed beneath the outspread fingers of his hand. The brief interruption in their increasingly heated conversation had allowed her the time to calm her tumultuous thoughts and had apparently stolen his anger from him, if the weary look of resignation on his face were any indication.

She gingerly retook her seat too, and clasped her hands against the table to still their trembling as she leveled sorrowful eyes on his tense face. “Reeve, I never wanted to leave you…that day in Costa del Sol…” Her throat closed up at the memory of how she had left him that day, and she fell silent.

“I know, Cait,” Reeve softly admitted. “Tseng told me what happened.”

“Tseng?! He told you?!” she asked in surprise. “But he was going to…” She bit back the remainder of her words, loath to give voice to her thoughts, unwilling to tell Reeve what Tseng had planned for him.

A wry smile came to Reeve’s lips. “Shoot me?”

She could only stare at him in disbelief. “Don’t tell me he told you that too…” She could hardly imagine Tseng relating his business to anyone, much less the man who would have been his target that day. It must be true then. No overstatement or misrepresentation. The two men had indeed become friends. But she could hardly fathom how in the world that could ever have happened or why.

Reeve silently nodded his head, and unconsciously provided a possible answer to her unspoken question with his next words. “He did. He came to see me. One week after your…funeral.”

Reeve’s dark eyes turned murky as he purposely turned his thoughts back to that day, when the firm knock at his front door had stirred him from his trance. The jarring sound had only served to remind him to toss back the glass of brandy he’d been holding numbly in his hand for over an hour, but he’d pointedly ignored the intrusive summons, instead slumping more deeply into his chair in stubborn resistance, unable to find the energy to climb to his feet and respond, unwilling to exert the labor required to converse with anyone. But his unknown caller had refused to go away, persistently knocking as though he knew he was hiding inside and had made it his goal in life to roust him, increasing his efforts to the point that Reeve hadn’t been able to withstand the racket thumping around inside his banging head and had grown so irritated that he’d finally shoved himself to his feet and shambled across to yank open the door without first looking through the peephole as he normally would, too anxious to send his caller packing, along with the bothersome intrusion. To find Tseng of the Turks standing outside his door had been a sobering moment, and his greeting to the Turk had been an unorthodox one, an impulsive question that smacked of one part fear and two parts hope. It had been ten years, but he could remember it like it was yesterday.

”Did you come to shoot me?”

To which Tseng eloquently replied, “You look like shit.”

The unmitigated truth, for certain. Though he hardly cared. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d shaved or even changed his clothes. And living in a recliner for days on end with a bottle of brandy and a clingy cat didn’t do much for the constitution. But even in his bleary-eyed and befuddled state, he noticed that Tseng, despite his meticulously pressed suit and carefully groomed appearance, didn’t look much better.

“So…you’re going to shoot me, right?”

“You haven’t been to work in two weeks,” the Turk coolly pointed out, prompting Reeve to formulate the inane idea that the Turks were now enforcing work attendance policies in addition to their other duties.

“Are you going to shoot me or not?”

If the Turk planned to shoot him, either because he’d been ordered to terminate the slacker from the urban planning department for declining to appear at the office or, more likely, because he’d found out about his secret relationship to Caitlin, he wanted him to get on with it. He knew they'd both feel better for it.

...But Tseng hadn't come to shoot him. And he hadn’t just found out about him and Caitlin. As it turned out, the Turk had always known. But then, there hadn’t been much about Caitlin that Tseng hadn’t known...

“Not today,” Tseng tersely replied, and then he simply shoved his way past the lackluster and befuddled engineer, and walked out into the middle of the living room to take complete possession of the space with his commanding presence, leaving Reeve in the doorway to blankly gape after him. The Turk had then impatiently rounded on him and planted those implacable dark eyes on him.

“Close the door and sit down," he curtly commanded. "I’ve come to talk to you. About Caitlin." Then the cold, hard mask had slipped. Just enough for Reeve, even half-drunk and consumed with anguish, to see the pain seep into the dark eyes. And he did as the Turk bade without protest or question, weakly pushing the door shut to put his back to it for moral support, knowing that even if Tseng hadn't come to shoot him, he'd brought him something much worse.

“Tseng deeply regretted his actions that day in Costa del Sol, Caitlin,” Reeve remembered to say as he vacantly studied his own splayed hand against the surface of the scrawled page. “He blamed himself.”

“It wasn’t his fault.” Caitlin firmly shook her head in denial, perhaps needing to convince herself more than Reeve. “He was just following my father’s orders. And he didn’t act on…the final one…”

Reeve looked up at her then, uncertainty in his brown eyes. He struggled with the idea of telling her, and he wondered what purpose it could possibly serve other than to cause her pain. That he did not wish to do. Yet he also believed that she should know the truth. He’d grown weary of all the subterfuge; the lies and deception. Some of it couldn’t be helped, but at least about this he could be honest, no matter how much it might pain him. About this particular matter, he had to tell her the truth, because he intuitively knew that the only way they could go forward would be to go back and wipe clean the slate. Even if, to this day, he found the truth disturbing to dwell upon. And on that thought, Reeve drew in a deep breath and slowly released it, knowing that his next words could well open the door to a multitude of heartaches.

“Tseng wasn’t following your father’s orders, Caitlin,” he gruffly informed her. “There was no…final order…that he could choose to decline.”

“Tseng wasn’t…he didn’t...” Her azure eyes filled with confusion. “What do you…mean?”

“Tseng wasn’t following your father’s orders,” Reeve coolly reiterated, his resolve stiffening now that he’d begun. “Your father didn’t even know or care that you were there. Tseng was acting on his own volition that day.”

“But…why? Why would he?” She suddenly found herself angry at Tseng all over again. “I know he was overprotective of me at times, but to…to…take me away…to threaten to…” She could hardly entertain the idea in light of this new information. She could hardly believe it. Her long golden ponytail switched against her back as she vehemently shook her head. “No…he wouldn’t have…not on his own…he…he…”

“He had his reasons,” Reeve interjected uneasily.

“No!” she exclaimed in blatant denial. She refused to accept the idea that Tseng had been the reason she’d been in Midgar that day. It was easier to blame her father, because she expected it of her father. Not Tseng. “He had no reason to be there, Reeve!” she cried out desperately in her unwillingness to believe what she already knew must be true. It had to be true because Reeve had never lied to her in the past, and she could hardly accept that he would lie to her now. “No.” She stubbornly shook her head. “Tseng wouldn’t have come to Costa del Sol. Not on his own. No.”

“He did, Cait. It’s true.”

”Do you hear what you’re saying? You’re telling me that Tseng basically came to Costa del Sol to kidnap me and shoot you. At his own whim. That’s completely insane, Reeve.”

Reeve lifted his shoulders in an uneasy shrug, and then he dully told her what he had hoped would not become necessary. But he should have foreseen that it would. “He loved you, Cait.”

She threw her hands to her sides in exasperation. “I know he loved me, Reeve,” she protested the oversimplification. As far as she was concerned, it hardly exonerated him. “I…loved him too.”

Reeve slowly shook his head, averting his pained eyes to the table because he couldn’t look at her anymore. “You’re misunderstanding me, Cait,” he wearily told her, the admission taking too much out of him. “Tseng was in love with you. He went after you because he was jealous. And he never forgave himself for being the reason you were in Midgar the day you were...killed.” And he’d never completely forgiven Tseng either.

Caitlin gaped at Reeve as though he’d grown two heads and a set of flaming antlers. “Have you lost your ever-loving mind, Reeve Alexander?”

He smiled sadly. “It’s the truth, Cait, whether you want to accept it or not.” There had been too many bitter truths to accept of late…

“I suppose he confessed all that to you,” she heatedly replied.

For some reason, the idea of the two of them sitting in some dimly lit pub discussing her death and their guilt over foaming beers after her funeral annoyed her no end, disregarding the fact that neither man drank beer. She could hardly accept the contention that Tseng had destroyed her whole future with one selfish act, according to Reeve. Especially as the man had purportedly been in love with her? That she simply could not believe. But she could accept that Tseng had told Reeve that.

“He did,” Reeve simply replied. He studied her agitated face in cautious assessment.

“And then you became friends?! After that?!” Her outrage rang in her voice. “After he told you all that?! How in the world could that happen?!”

“Well…Cait…there’s something about the mutual experience of unremitting pain that binds people together,” he softly remarked.

Her strength abruptly left her as the barely concealed pain underlying his words sank home, and she slumped weakly into her chair. Shaking her head in disbelieving wonder, she stared blindly at the table, unable to look at him any longer. “I…hardly know what to…say…Reeve…I…can hardly know what you must have…what it must have been like…when he told you…that…”

Reeve nervously and softly drummed the fingers of one hand against the tabletop as he considered his next words. Caitlin was dead right. She could never know what he’d gone through, especially that day when Tseng had absolved himself of everything and then strode out the door to leave him to his armchair and his cat and the resounding silence in that dead apartment. But he didn’t see any percentage in dumping all that on her head. It was all so much water under the bridge. Bloodied waters…but waters dumped into the ocean of the past long ago.

“You don’t have to say anything, Cait. I just thought you should know. Tseng and I…we came to terms with it a long time ago.”

…Except…how could he have forgotten…the terms had changed…

“And how am I supposed to come to terms with it, Reeve?” she queried plaintively. “I can’t even…hit him or yell at him or…or…talk to him. He’s dead.” Her own sharp words drove a dull knife into her aching heart, and she visibly winced in pain. “He’s…dead…” she repeated softly, as though if she said it again, and not so loudly, it wouldn’t hurt as much.

Reeve didn’t have any words to say to her. He couldn’t take back the confession, and he couldn’t change anything. Nor did he have the power to deny her anguished claim. He’d surrendered that power with his oath. As though the exhaustion he barely managed to hold at bay suddenly rushed up to sap his strength, he sank back into the folding chair and let his head fall limply against the back. A heavy silence grew long between them as he studied her desolate face from beneath his lashes while locking his own pain away from impassive brown eyes, unwilling to speak for fear he’d say the wrong thing. Until she buried her face in her hands. And then he said the wrong thing anyway. But it was what he wanted to say. It was the one thing he wanted to know. So why pretend otherwise?

“We aren’t here to talk about Tseng and me, Caitlin,” he flatly reminded her. “This is about you and me. And I want to know why. Tell me why you never told me the truth. Tell me why I had to find out in some deeply buried and encrypted computer file that you were not dead. Tell me why I spent ten years thinking I’d lost you forever, only to find you were never lost at all.”

“You’re wrong…Reeve…” she said hoarsely into her hands, her voice strained with unshed tears. “I was…lost…so damn lost…”

“You weren’t lost, Caitlin.” His voice took on a hard edge. “You were hiding. Why?”

Several long moments elapsed in which she didn’t answer him, and finally he straightened in his chair and pressed on. “Was it your father, Cait? Did he want you to disappear? Or was it…me?”

”Was it me?”

That was the all important question, wasn’t it? Had the daughter of President Shinra realized her mistake in marrying a lowly architectural engineer and taken advantage of a bad situation to put him out of her life? But then…wouldn’t divorce have been easier? But a divorce would have become public. Some tabloid reporter would have sniffed it out no matter the level of discretion.

Caitlin wearily raised her head to meet his shuttered gaze with uneasy azure eyes. Despite his stolid demeanor, she thought she could detect a glimmer of his hidden pain, buried deep in his dark irises. A trace of hurt accusation. She had to admit that Reeve had grown more proficient at hiding his emotions. In the past, the man had worn them on his sleeve. She supposed he’d become well practiced at it, working for the corrupt company her father had built into a global empire. She would have apologized then, if she’d thought it would fix anything, but she recognized that he didn’t want to hear her sorrow or her regrets. Reeve wanted an explanation, and she didn’t know where to begin, except at the beginning.

“What do you know?” she asked dully. “About what they did to me?”

“I know all about the Phoenix Project.” His words came off his lips hard and cold as he found himself growing angry again, not so much at her, but at them. “I’ve unlocked all the files and read them. The project notes. The procedural summaries. The Valentine Protocol files. The post-operative notes. I know who ordered it. I know who did it. I know how they did it. And I know about the…complications.”

The unfamiliar name instantly caught her ear, and she blinked at him in bewilderment. “Valentine? Is that…was that one of the doctors?”

“You don’t know?”

“I don’t know much about the procedure, Reeve,” she curtly replied. “Since you’ve read the files you know I was dead at the time. So you know a lot more than I do, I’m sure.”

”I have the files, if you’d like to read them, Cait.”

“I…think I’d rather not…Reeve. Just…tell me. If you think I need to know…”

“As you wish, Caitlin,” he coolly conceded. “The Valentine Protocol was one of the procedures that Hojo combined with others to achieve the results your father commanded. Valentine was the experiment from which Dr. Hojo devised the procedure. The man he did it to first.” His last brittle words floated up from the dark icy depths of the Northern Sea. “Of course, Hojo modified it somewhat…since then…”

Caitlin gaped at him in stunned surprise. “They did this before?! To someone else?!” Her shock reached all the way into the core of her, even though she’d known a little about the revolting experimentation undertaken by the Shinra Science Department under Dr. Hojo. After all, she’d told Reeve back then, and he hadn’t believed her. She’d just had no earthly idea as to the scope of that research, until she’d been at the receiving end of it. “How many more are there, Reeve?”

“I only know of the two of you. But it wouldn’t surprise me to discover others.”

“This Valentine…I could hear it in your voice. He’s someone you know…” Caitlin slid a hand halfway across the table, as though she planned to offer him comfort but awaited his permission to do so. He didn’t respond to her tentative gesture in any way, but only continued to steadily watch her with frosty eyes. She nervously withdrew her hand to press her fingers against her stomach, a vain and unconscious attempt to still the queasy churning inside.

“As well as I can know a man I’ve never personally met, I suppose,” he finally replied, his tone dull and devoid of inflection.

“So…you don’t know him?” She frowned her confusion.

“He’s a member of Avalanche.”

“I see…” And she did see. She’d already soaked up the fact through osmosis that Reeve had also been a member of Avalanche, in a remote capacity anyway, through his robotic spying device, Cait Sith. Again she turned a wary eye on the lifeless mechanism, and she wondered what the thing was up to inside its electronic little mind.

“You still haven’t answered my question, Caitlin,” he coolly reminded.

She almost expected him to accuse her of stalling then, just as Reno had during their long discussion on the flats. She had to admit, if only to herself, that she had latched onto the first viable topic she could find to put off what would come next, an unfortunate choice that held personal connotations for Reeve. At any rate, she knew her delaying tactics were over when the chilliness in Reeve’s tone gave way to sorrow with his next heavily expressed words, as though he’d finally grown too exhausted at maintaining the pretense and simply let the façade fall.

Reeve’s dark eyes turned bleak as he repeated his request for her answer to the question she’d left hanging too long. Ten years too long. The one that, if she satisfied, might mitigate a fraction of all the long anguished days and nights of suffering all those years ago. An unquenchable hell that in retrospect didn’t seem so far behind him after all. “Why didn’t you try to contact me, Caitlin?” He almost whispered the question, his eyes falling to the table between them, looking like he’d already resigned himself to living without a satisfactory explanation. Looking as if he already knew what she would say. “Why didn’t you let me know you were alive?”

Caitlin drew in a shuddering breath and guiltily averted her eyes toward the dim interior of the tent beyond him, unable to witness the desolation she would see in his eyes when she finally confessed her lack of a justifiable reason.

“I…I…suppose I have…no excuse…for my actions…really…” Her words stumbled off her lips clumsily and inadequate, grinding lamely to a halt. With a pained grimace she squeezed her eyes tightly shut in an effort to shut out his resigned face long enough to school her thoughts and her will to composing a tolerable response. Then she tried again.

“...Reeve…I don’t know what to say...it’s just that…” Her eyes flew open in surprise at what she’d thought to say next. Again her words faltered to silence when she encountered his wary gaze, worrying that maybe he’d read the unspeakable thing that she kept locked away inside her mind. She silently shook her head in denial.

“It’s just that…what, Caitlin?” he carefully prompted.

She uneasily held his gaze in silence as she fisted her hands together in her lap. The punishing force of her grip set her fingers to aching before she finally settled on the course she would follow. “Reeve…you said that you read…about my complications…”

He wordlessly inclined his head in acknowledgement, his tongue unwilling to begin to respond to all he’d read, patiently withholding any further questions until he could gain a sense of her direction.

“Did the…reports…mention the…catatonia?”

Again, he silently nodded his head. He couldn’t begin to relay to her all the arcane information he’d teased from the dry medical assessments of her condition. It had required long, stressful hours of demanding reading to even begin to understand it.

“Well…the catatonia…it lasted for almost a year and a half…and when I finally regained full possession of my senses…it all just seemed…too late…”

“Too late?”

“Yes. Too late.” Her earnest azure eyes beseeched him to understand. “Reeve, I awoke one day to find that my father had put me away in that unfamiliar place…on that island. Far away from him. Far away from you. With miles of ocean between. As though I were…an embarrassment…a…pariah. I saw the recording of the grand state funeral he’d organized for my benefit, televised worldwide for all to witness. Do you see, Reeve? Do you understand?”

Again, she slipped her hand partway across the tabletop toward him, hoping beyond hope that he would meet her halfway, but the skepticism in his dark gaze told her he couldn’t. She could clearly divine the fact that she hadn’t even started to convince him. Her fingers curled futilely against the table.

“Reeve, you have to understand, I woke up…in someone else’s life. The person I used to be…she was legally dead with the official story firmly in place…and it seemed too painful…too difficult…to attempt to defy it.” She hunched her shoulders in a tense shrug. “So I didn’t. I settled for what I’d been given, and I thought...I imagined…that you’d moved on by then.” She gauged his reaction then, with cautiously questing eyes, but he offered her nothing. No solace or empathy. No understanding or concession. Only that same wary watchfulness.

“…And I…wasn’t…mentally right…for a long time after that. I ran through bouts of…paranoia…and depression. I suffered anxiety attacks where I literally thought I would die. I was pretty messed up, Reeve. And in case you haven’t noticed, I’m still…not exactly right.” Her words now dripped with her disgust at the acknowledgement of her own defects. “In fact, Reeve, I’m pretty screwed up.” More screwed up than he would ever know, and hiding a daughter that she should tell him about immediately. But Heidi was pretty screwed up too, in ways that she suspected she didn’t even know yet.

Again, she tested his reaction; anxiously appraising his tightly clasped hands against the table, searching his inscrutable face with pleading eyes. Everything she’d told him had been the truth. She just hadn’t told him all of it. In the past, he probably would have known that. She’d never been very good at hiding from him, even if he seemed preoccupied with his work most of the time. He’d always been a man who paid keen attention to detail, and he’d always applied that in their relationship as well as his work. And now he just gazed at her impassively, tormenting her with his silence. As though he intended to bide his time until she spilled everything. But she knew his mind was working. Mulling over all that she’d said. Examining the evidence. Reaching his conclusions. Her judge. Her jury. Her executioner. She found herself wishing that he would just get to it. Pass his judgment. Say something. Anything. Even if he coldly expressed his condemnation of her feeble explanation. His contempt would be just.

“…Reeve…I don’t…deserve your understanding…I won’t blame you…if you hate me for…”

“I don’t hate you, Cait.”

She blinked her surprise at the softness of his response. She had mentally concocted several scenarios of how he might react, but his gentle demeanor now wasn’t one that she would have predicted.

“…You…should…”

“I can hardly imagine what you’ve been forced to endure, Cait. I wish I’d been there for you.”

“…I…wish you…no…you…Reeve…you didn’t…” Her mouth wouldn’t work properly. Her thoughts were all scrambled. She’d been prepared for his anger, and now he’d left her teetering off balance.

“I…never moved on, Cait…” His rueful tone held a trace of amazement at the discovery of a long denied truth. “I…accepted it. Eventually. But I never…left you. Maybe…I always knew…”

“…Reeve…I…don’t…”

“I never found anyone else, Cait. I never wanted anyone else. No one could ever have replaced you…”

She numbly shook her head in refusal of his softly voiced claim. “…Ten years…Reeve…it’s been…ten…years…” Had she truly damaged him so much? Left his life so bereft of joy? She’d always held to her heart the hope that he’d found happiness without her. Ten years of hoping…of holding that assurance to her heart…all for naught. If he meant to punish her, he couldn’t have chosen a better method.

He frowned slightly in bewilderment. “But…it’s true, Cait…” He hesitantly slipped tentative fingers across the table, but recognizing the intent behind the gesture, she drew back into her chair to clasp her hands together in her lap before he could touch her and knock loose her shaky foundation.

“I’m not that person anymore, Reeve,” she dully informed him. “I’m…a mess…”

“Not to me, Cait.” The tenderly expressed words almost unhinged her.

“You saw, Reeve!” she suddenly exclaimed, fear and pain driving her words. “What I did to Scarlet! You saw! You can’t deny it! I’m not right!”

“I know what I saw, Cait,” he softly reasoned. “I know what I’ve read. And I can imagine…knowing…Vincent…”

“…Vincent…” Her face went blank.

“Valentine.”

“…Oh…that guy…” she said slowly. “So he’s screwed up too?”

“…I’m just saying…from what I’ve read…you and he most likely…have a few things in common…

“Does he have nightmares?”

“…I don’t know…”

“Does he think he’s going nuts?”

“I…don’t know, Cait. He doesn’t talk about himself much.” He held out a placating hand. “Please, Cait. I don’t want to talk about Vincent. I want to know where you stand now.”

“Where I stand on…what?” She examined his purposeful face with azure eyes rife with bewilderment and uncertainty.

“On…us…”

“What do you mean,” she dumbly asked.

“I’m just saying, Cait…that whatever your issues…what I’ve already seen…what I already know…well…I can live with it. Anything…all of it…I can live with anything…”

“Reeve, I don’t understand…” But she did understand, and the stunning realization of what he was saying filled her heart full of elation and her mind full of dismay. It took every resource she had to keep from gaping at him in awestruck horror.

Reeve curiously appraised Caitlin’s odd expression; a stiffly unrevealing face captured in indecision between conflicting emotions, one that put him in mind of a time early in their relationship, when they were still discovering each other, testing and cautious in their exchanges. One night, the two of them had gone to an out-of-the way bistro with an outside terrace of pebbled tiles and tables lit by candles in glass jars, all surrounded by exotic plants in terracotta pots and white wrought iron railings. He’d been gawking helplessly at her beautiful face like a besotted schoolboy, marveling that he was even there in that place with her, and fruitlessly scouring his brain for a topic of conversation that didn’t involve his work or the weather. Then the waiter had arrived with their drinks, tripped on a crack in the tiles, and dumped the whole thing into his lap. Caitlin’s face had looked the same way then. A contrived blankness captured in amber, one that provided her a mask for her horror at his predicament, her uncertainty of his reaction, and the hilarity that lurked beneath the surface. He’d tipped her carefully balanced emotional scale to the latter when he’d dumbly looked down at his brightly stained shirt and inanely remarked, “I thought we ordered white wine.” That was the catalyst that caused Caitlin to lose her taut control. She’d erupted into helpless laughter so unrestrained that she’d collapsed quaking against the table top, and although he hadn’t seen quite the same level of humor in his honest observation that she did, her amusement had been so long lasting that every time she looked directly at him for the rest of the evening, she’d been rendered incoherent. In turn, her behavior had amused him no end. All of which told him nothing about the bent of her mind now, as the same circumstances hardly applied here. Other than to pointedly remind him of how much he missed being with her.

Reeve deliberately closed the folder containing the hand scribed divorce documents and shoved it across the table to her. She stared at the folder in trepidation as he clarified his request. “I’m asking you if that’s what you want, Caitlin.”

His strained words prompted her to look up at him, a move she regretted the instant her worried gaze collided with his pleading brown eyes. “And I want your answer now. Whatever your decision…I will abide by it and never speak of it again.”

Go To In Your Dreams: Part 3




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