Walking the Wire

The bartender glanced up from his newspaper at the sound of footsteps on the metal stairs leading down from the street. A svelte blonde, dressed in a perfectly pressed blue suit and highly polished black shoes, paused in the door, glancing quickly around the small pub. Chilly hazel eyes came to rest on his face, and he shoved his paper aside and straightened behind the bar. He had only seen her once before, but he had a good memory for faces, especially when the face belonged to a Turk.

Most folks would be quaking in their shoes at the very presence of one of Shinra's Turks, but he was used to them. Tseng and his two subordinates both frequented his establishment often when they were in Junon. Reno drank like a fish when he was off-duty, and Rude liked to gamble a bit with a few regulars. Tseng usually leaned quietly against the corner of the bar and nursed the same drink all night, watching everyone who came in the door. The last time the Turks had been in town, this petite woman had accompanied them instead of the flamboyant Reno. He gathered from her conversation that she was promoted into the Turks because Reno had been incapacitated in an encounter with Avalanche.

He watched her silently as she strode across the room and came to a precision halt between the tall barstools, her eyes never leaving his face as she moved. Studying her ramrod stance, he wondered why she seemed so tense. The last time she was here, she had perched at the bar and talked her head off despite tactful suggestions to do otherwise from her boss, Tseng.

She glanced around the room more slowly, then brought her hard eyes back to his face.

"Reno of the Turks came here earlier." She flatly stated. "Can you tell me when he left?"

The bartender smirked. "He didn't."

Elena's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"

The bartender shot a glance toward the corner. "He's over there."

Puzzled, Elena turned and stared into the dimly lit corner. Hesitantly, she stepped across the glossy parquet floor until she stood in the center of the room. She could easily see that no one was there. Annoyed, she glared over her shoulder at the nonchalant man behind the bar.

"Under the table." He prompted as he swept a rag across the spotless counter, biting the inside of his lip to keep from grinning. He knew better than to make light of a Turk, especially an irritated one.

Elena sighed. She walked to the edge of the round table and eyed the two feet that protruded beyond the table leg, one clad in a scuffed loafer, the other bare. She jerked the chair aside with a loud scrape and knelt on one knee, peering into the dim space beneath.

"Reno!" She whispered loudly. She could barely see his slumped form in the darkness. She glanced back at the bar to find the bartender already buried in his newspaper again. She shook her head in disgust. In violation of her own sense of dignity, she fell to her hands and knees, and crawled underneath.

Sitting back on her heels with her head bowed low beneath the table, Elena stared at him as her eyes adjusted to the dim light, stared until his slack features finally swam into focus. He lay curled on his side, an empty whiskey bottle cradled against his stomach, the neck clutched in both hands. His attire, normally disheveled, now seemed beyond repair. His blue coat was missing along with a few buttons from his crumpled shirt. His red hair looked as though he'd just escaped from a cyclone. The wispy ponytail that normally hung down his back had come undone, and the long strands fell loosely across his face. The rest of his wayward hair stuck every which way, and his shades perched crookedly on the end of his thin nose. Elena had seen him drunk more than once, but she'd never seen him like this.

"Reno!" She snapped, no longer caring what the bartender thought. She figured that she couldn't make matters much worse when the leader of the Turks was sleeping on a barroom floor, obnoxious snores erupting from his open mouth. Tseng would never have behaved in such an outrageous manner. She tamped down hard on the sharp pain that tried to claw up her throat at the thought of Tseng. Instead she channeled her wayward emotions outward, striking out with a mean cuff across the top of her fearless leader's head.

"Reno! Wake up!" She snapped. When he didn't immediately respond, she leaned over and gripped his shoulder, her perfectly manicured nails biting deeply into the flesh beneath his shirt. She gave him a hard shake and choked as the pungent odor of stale whiskey roiled into the air around her. Still, Reno didn't move.

Disgusted, Elena wrinkled her nose and backed out from under the table. She stood and carefully straightened her jacket and tie, then turned her gaze to the bartender's still face, his cautious eyes focused on her as he waited.

She crossed her arms. "How long has he been asleep?" She demanded abruptly.

The bartender glanced at the clock above her head. "Oh...I'd say about four hours, give or take a few minutes.

"Elena nodded her head and let her hands fall to her sides. "Keep an eye on him for me, please." She spoke firmly, her tone conveying an order rather than a request. "I'll be back with reinforcements shortly."

Without another word, she spun on her heel and strode through the door, her hard soles rapping smartly against the metal steps.

The bartender grinned at the empty doorway. "I don't think he's going anywhere, lady."

Elena had nearly reached street level when a large shape moved onto the landing and blocked out the early morning light, throwing the gloomy stairwell into deep shadow. She paused and peered upwards at the dark silhouette, her hand automatically slipping inside her coat.

"Elena." Rude's low voice filled her with relief. She pulled her hand away from her gun and idly patted her flawlessly coifed hair into place.

"Rude, I was just coming to look for you." She spoke softly. "I need you to help me with Reno."

Rude didn't reply, but she didn't expect him to. The tall, broad-shouldered Turk only spoke when he absolutely had to. The man started down the stairs, and Elena turned as Rude fell in behind her.

"He has literally drank himself under the table this time, Rude." Elena commented. "He looks disgraceful. Tseng would never have allowed this behavior, much less carried on like that himself."

Rude silently followed, his shoes barely making a sound as he descended. Elena was probably right, but he didn't respond to her criticism. Reno would never be Tseng, but he was their leader. Despite the fact that Rude had been with the Turks longer, he knew that Reno had inherited the position for sound reasons.

With a quick glance around the empty barroom, Rude followed Elena the short distance from the doorway to the table, nodding briefly at the bar owner before his eyes fell on Reno's bare foot. With a barely perceptible shake of his head, he glanced at Elena. Although his tight lips traced a stern line across his face, his brown eyes gleamed with amusement, completely hidden from her behind his dark sunglasses. He decided that the reasons for which Reno had been appointed Leader of the Turks were not readily apparent.

Bending from the hip, Rude reached down and wrapped his big hand around Reno's bony ankle. With little effort, he backed away and drew the unresisting body from beneath the table. He sent an appraising glance over Reno’s vacant face, then silently knelt down on one knee and pried the stiff fingers from around the empty bottle, setting it on the wooden table behind him with a tiny clink.

Elena leaned down beside him, and he glanced up at her. She sniffed and crossed her arms tightly over her chest, her delicate features pinched tight with disapproval. “We have to get him awake.” She flatly stated.

Rude nodded. There was no other choice. Only Reno could respond to the mysterious Level 2 communiqué that had flashed up on the computer at their Shinra HQ suite. He gathered the redheaded Turk's sodden shirt in his huge hands and hoisted his upper body from the floor. He gave him a hard shake and watched his head loll over to the side, his loose hair falling into his gaping mouth. Rude could detect no sign of life other than the rise and fall of his bare chest and the noisome aroma exuding from his open mouth with each breath. Obviously, more extreme measures would be required to revive their drunken leader.

Rude reached down and removed the sunglasses from Reno's face. He folded them with one hand and slid them into his inside coat pocket. That done, he abruptly rose to his feet, and bending down, grabbed Reno beneath his armpits, easily hefting him upright. Grabbing the seat of his pants, he tossed the tall, lanky Turk over his shoulder and turned to Elena.

He jerked his shaven head toward the open doorway and waited. Elena raised one slender eyebrow, then dropped her arms and walked past him into the stairwell, her dainty chin tilted at an imperious level.

Rude turned his eyes to the bartender, who peered over the top of his reading glasses, his face a mask of studied indifference as he stared into the impenetrable lenses of the big man's shades. Regardless of their former acquaintance, chilly fingers slid through his intestines at the Turk's hidden appraisal. After a few long moments, Rude nodded politely and spun towards the exit, his steps soft and sure despite the added burden.

The bartender let out a long breath as he listened to the pair climb to the street, the woman's shoes echoing hollowly inside the stairwell, and the scuff of Rude's tasseled loafers barely audible against the metal treads. Eventually, they reached the sidewalk and moved away, leaving behind a deep silence broken only by the electric buzz of the neon sign behind him and the soft snick as the second hand swept the fluorescent face of the clock that hung over the door. Rude had made his point. Turk business would remain Turk business...as always.

Avian paused with his fingers wrapped around the brass doorknob and tried to quiet his ragged breath. After a headlong race to the house and a stumbling ascent up the old wooden staircase, he had dragged himself up the narrow and precipitous attic stairway and ended up here. In front of the splintered door that led to his room. Somehow he knew this was where she would be. He could feel it deep in his bones, and now he wasn't sure he wanted to open the door.

Still, nearly everything he owned was in that room, including his dog. His thoughts slammed to a standstill at the realization that Soldier would be at her mercy. Vivid images flew into his mind; slow motion frames clicking past behind his eyes of the large shaggy dog, cowering in doe-eyed fear as the ruthless ninja girl drew the silver shuriken back, light glinting wickedly off a blade edge as she paused at the apex of her swing.

"NOOOOO!" Avian yelled as he blindly turned the knob and flung the door inwards. He sprang into the small room as the door slammed against the unfinished attic wall and rebounded back. He stumbled sideways with a yelp when the hardwood surface whacked into his shoulder and hip. He tried to regain his balance, but his feet got tangled and he fell. Frantically, he grabbed for the edge of the dresser, but his fingers closed on a discarded shirt instead. With a teeth-jarring thud, his body hit the floor, a cloud of dust wafting from between the bare floorboards at the impact. A low groan escaped his lips as he rolled to his side and cracked his eyelids open, his cheek pressed against the wood. He peered at the useless shirt fisted in his hand and sneezed.

A quiet snicker came from somewhere, and his eyes flew wide at the sound. Abruptly, he shoved himself up and sprang to his feet, quickly spinning to forestall a rear attack. He whirled the other way and sent a fierce glare around the small space, hoping to intimidate any stray ninja girls. He didn't see anyone, but he knew she was there. After all, someone had snickered at his misfortune, and he didn't think it was his dog. Come to think of it, where was his dog?

"Soldier?" Avian called quietly. He turned at the muted thump of the dog's tail. Avian dropped to his stomach and plastered his cheek against the floor to peer under the low bed. He smiled with relief as he locked gazes with the grinning dog. At sight of his young master, the dog inched forward on his belly, tail thumping wildly against the plank floor, sending a herd of dust bunnies into flight. Then Soldier paused and half-heartedly swished his tail against the floor. A plaintive whine rose from his throat, and Avian reached underneath, his fingers stretched to grab the big dog’s woven collar, but a flurry of sneezes overtook him, and he cracked his head against the bedsprings. A sneezed curse flew off his lips, and he slumped limply against the rough boards as he waited for the spate of sneezing to abate.

"I don't believe this..." he muttered when he finally regained his breath. He looked into the dog's guileless face, and narrowed his eyes. "Why don't you stay there for now?" He suggested. "We'll probably both be safer." Soldier dropped his muzzle to his paws and swiveled his ears forward. Avian nodded. "I'm glad you agree."

The youth started to push himself away from the bed, but paused to address the dog again. "Hey boy, why you hiding anyway? Did you see her? Is she here?" Avian inquired softly, not expecting the dog to answer. Soldier whimpered mournfully and turned his brown eyes away. Avian paused in thought. Was Soldier trying to tell him something? Avian tracked the trajectory of the dog's gaze until his eyes fell on a well-gnawed bone a few feet away. He sighed, his expelled breath sending dust motes skittering across the floor.

"Sorry, boy." He apologized. "I didn't forget. I've just been kinda...tied up. I'll get ya something in a little while...if I'm still alive..." With that said, he raised a hand to the mattress and pushed himself to his feet. Slowly, he scanned his disorganized bedroom, carefully scrutinizing the rumpled blankets on his bed, the pile of dirty clothes in the corner and the books scattered across the dusty floor. His intent eyes paused on the old cluttered dresser, appraising the two drawers that sagged halfway out, clothes trailing out of one. As hard as he tried, he couldn't remember if he'd left them that way or not, but he didn't think so. The skin crawled on the back of his neck as he turned toward the closet. That was the only place she could hide. He already knew that no one hid under the bed other than Soldier and a billion dust bunnies.

The curtain that separated the open closet from the rest of the room hung slightly askew. Avian leaned sideways in an attempt to view the contents, but the jumbled interior resisted his efforts. Despite the bright rays that streamed through the window from the eastern horizon, the small area behind the tattered drape remained murky.

He straightened and stared silently at the dark crevice between the frame and the faded material. He hoped to detect a slight movement, the glitter of an eye, a whisper of sound, anything that would indicate her presence. After several moments in which he became convinced that she stood behind that curtain, watching his every move and laughing at him, he finally moved. Slowly, he picked up his foot and set it down soundlessly on a crumpled rug. Then biting his lip, he picked up his other foot and placed it carefully into the pile of discarded clothes just beyond the foot of his bed. Another meticulously executed step and he stood beside the dresser. He paused and glanced into the open drawers, but he couldn't tell if anything was missing.

He shook his head and peered into the dark interior of the closet again. Despite closer proximity and a better angle, he still could see nothing inside. He started to take another step, when two things suddenly occurred to him. First of all, stealth was pointless. Obviously, if the girl was in his room...and he was positive that she was...then she had to be in the closet. That being the case, she undoubtedly had been watching him creep in her direction, probably with her shuriken held ready to slice him up, an amused smirk on her face at his ineptness. Avian's face flushed hotly at the thought.

What was the matter with him anyway? He'd acted like nothing but a clumsy, stammering oaf ever since he'd met up with these people, stumbling around with his head in the clouds. He needed to get away from this place. He'd been living in Grandma's shifting fantasy world for too long, and he was losing his edge.

He gave his head a hard shake, as though to clear out the cobwebs, and lifted his chin. He wasn't going to be intimidated by some would-be ninja-type person who appeared to be much smaller than he. So what if she was a member of Avalanche? He paused in thought. That question brought him to point number two. He needed a weapon.

He scanned the various objects and articles of clothing that littered the worn dresser top. The rumpled shirt wouldn't work. He could whip it around her neck and try to choke her into unconsciousness, but she'd probably make short work of it with her pinwheel bladed weapon. It wouldn't be very effective for defense for the same reason. Irritated, he swept the shirt to the floor and evaluated what was left.

He didn't think he could buy her off with the 10 gil. His mother's photograph caught his eye, an image of a handsome flaxen-haired woman in a flimsy hand-painted frame. No, not that. A pencil. He picked it up and twirled it between his fingers. Then he fisted it and stabbed the air a couple of times. Nope. Not enough range. His eyes skittered across several pieces of paper, three odd socks and a desiccated spider shell, fragile legs gathered around its long dead body. He doubted that she was afraid of dead spiders.

Finally, his eyes brightened at the sight of his rock, the one he'd brought from Midgar for good luck. The stone was the size of his fist, a gray-blue color shot through with gold veins. His lips curved in a slight smile as he hefted the heavy rock in his hand, testing its weight and durability. Tentatively, he lifted it into the air, swinging it back over his head. Then the smile fell from his face. With a snort of disgust, he let the rock fall to the dresser with a dull thud. Hell, she'd chop off his hand before he could bring the thing into play. Besides, if he could actually force himself to hit her with it, she'd probably repay him with slow torture.

He decided to focus on defense. He was being paranoid anyway. He had jumped to the conclusion, although based on sound reasoning, that she meant to do him harm. Maybe that wasn't the case. He bent down and picked up a large, hardbound book from the floor at his feet. He would just be...defensively inclined. He held the book tightly to his chest and quickly walked the six feet to the closet. He took a deep breath and tore the rotten drape away with a loud rip as he flinched and spun to the side in the hope of presenting a thinner target.

When nothing happened, he sent a furtive glance into the closet, and his mouth fell open. He dropped the heavy book to his side and let it hang. She wasn't there. He swept a stunned gaze around the room, as though he thought she had somehow slipped past him. After all that worry and preparation, she wasn't even here. He had been so sure. So positive, in fact, that he must have conjured that snicker he'd heard, kicked it up from his wild imagination.

With a shake of his head at his own foolishness, he turned and tossed the book onto his bed. "Come on, Soldier. Let's go downstairs. Guess she'll turn up when she wants to." He walked toward the door, and turned to wait on the dog who showed no inclination to follow.

"Come on, boy. What's the matter?" Soldier stuck his head out from under the bed and turned worried eyes on his master. Avian raised his eyebrows at the dog's reluctant behavior.

"Well, come on. I need ya pal. We have company and Granny to deal with. I can't do it all alone." Avian cajoled. "I need your moral support."

Soldier whimpered plaintively, then lifted his muzzle, his brown eyes rolling up toward the bare rafters overhead.

Avian turned slowly and swiveled his eyes upward. The dark-haired girl glared down from overhead, her hands and feet pressed against opposite beams, her body stretched tautly against the rough slant of the open attic ceiling, a small throwing star gripped in her teeth. His heart slammed into his throat, and he instinctively whirled away even as she dropped silently from above.

Avian stumbled when she landed on his back and immediately whipped an arm around his neck as she locked her slender legs tightly around his waist. Once her position was secure, she drew her arm tighter, closing off his air. Avian struggled to draw breath as he pried at her arm with both hands, digging his short nails into her skin to no avail. She didn't budge. He fell against the wall once, then again, as he spun around the room, trying to throw her off. A gray fog crept into his vision as he turned and threw himself backwards, slamming her body into the wall. She grunted and the metal star fell from her mouth to the floor with a muted clink, but she retained her tight hold, even drawing her arm impossibly tighter.

Desperately trying to draw a breath as the gray fog gave way to dark shadows, Avian tottered blindly across the room, struggling to keep his balance. He whacked a knee against the iron bedstead and turned an ankle painfully when he stepped on the edge of a book. Inevitably, his boot became entangled in a crumpled rug, and he toppled over against the dresser, his hands wildly scrabbling for something to fight with. All the things he'd considered before...the pencil...the rock...the dead spider...all eluded his grasp. He struggled to form a plan at the same time his consciousness started to desert him. Damn it. He was not going to let this slip of a girl kill him. Anger flared in his chest, and with one hard shove against the wooden dresser, he threw himself backwards and slammed into the floor, the slender girl beneath him. At the impact, she cried out and her hold loosened. He dragged in a huge breath and grabbed her wrist in vise-like fingers, wrenching her arm away from his bruised throat as he rolled away from her.

He jumped to his feet and spun, but she was already up. Her eyes black with malice, she stalked across the room as he backed away, her fingers reaching behind her to extract the sharp-edged weapon from her back. He turned to run and tripped over another of the stray books under his feet. He fell heavily on his side, cracking his elbow painfully against the hardwood floor.

Ignoring the bone-numbing pain, he scrambled to get on his feet again, but she dove headfirst onto his back, sending his stomach and chin into the rough boards. He turned his head to the side and shoved himself backward to throw her off, but froze when she pressed a sharp blade into the side of his neck. Defeated, he slumped to the floor.

Cid turned from his examination of the contents of the refrigerator to stare over his head. A series of loud thumps reverberated through the ceiling, and the pilot wondered if the whole house would crash down on them.

He glanced toward the kitchen table where Cloud leaned back in one of the ladder-back chairs, his fingers clasped behind his head. His fascinated eyes were locked on the swaying light fixture overhead.

"Guess the kid found her." Cid commented, returning to his search for something to alleviate the growl in his stomach.

"Yeah...guess so..." Cloud replied slowly. "Er...think we oughta...help him out?"

He winced as a particularly loud crash shook the whole structure. Concerned, he let the chair down with a thump and crossed his arms on the tabletop.

"You don't think she'd kill him do you?" Cloud asked uncertainly, his eyes locked on the ceiling as though if he stared hard enough he could see through plaster and wood.

"Nah." Cid remarked absently as he held an open package of some unidentifiable meat-like substance to his nose. With a curl of his lip, he tossed it back in and continued his search. "Why would she want to kill him? I think she's just playing with him."

Cloud wrinkled his brow skeptically. "I don't know..."

He swung his gaze to Barrett only to find the big man already asleep at the table, slumped in his chair with his face pillowed on his huge arms.

"In my opinion, the young man may be in dire need of assistance. I don't think she likes him very much." Nanaki offered, raising his muzzle from between his paws.

Cloud turned his eyes to Nanaki's face. "Why's that?" He asked curiously.

Nanaki yawned and uncurled himself from the hearthrug. He stood and stretched each limb one at a time before he finally answered.

"Well, it would seem that they have a history of sorts." Nanaki added. "He stole some materia from her a few months ago."

Cloud pursed his lips thoughtfully. "And…she didn't kill him then?"

"Well...she just found out about it."

Alarmed, Cloud jumped to his feet, knocking the chair to the floor, just as another huge crash resonated through the ceiling over their head, setting the light swinging wildly.

Cid jerked away from the refrigerator and swept shocked eyes towards Cloud, but all he saw was a blur of blond hair and blue-clad back as the soldier dashed through the doorway, Nanaki right behind him. He listened to Cloud's boots thump up the stairs two at a time and shook his head in awe.

"Well damn. I'm impressed." Cid remarked to the top of Barrett's head. "Kid might have some grit after all."

When he received no reply from the big man, he shrugged and turned his attention to the cabinets behind him. "Gotta be at least some damn tea around here..." He muttered to himself. So intent was he on his search, he didn't hear the backdoor swing open on well-oiled hinges or the stealthy footsteps of slippered feet.

"Go ahead and kill me." Avian snapped irritably. "But my death will be on your conscience forever."

The girl grabbed a fistful of hair and yanked. With a yelp, he lifted his head to relieve the pressure, wincing as the keen metal bit deeper against his carotid artery.

"What conscience?" "She asked idly.

Avian drew in a shaky breath and thought hard about how he was going to get out of this situation. He hadn't been this scared since he'd been cornered in an alley in Midgar by five members of the Black Dragon gang, but he wasn't about to let her know it.

"What do you want from me?" He asked wearily, careful to keep the rising fear from his voice.

"Blood." The girl stated flatly. Avian's throat closed at the deadly indifference in her tone.

"W...well, get on with it then." He replied, his words only slightly unsteady. "I'm getting a crick in my neck."

"Beg me and I might let you live." She whispered in his ear.

Startled at the close proximity of her voice, Avian flinched against the blade and closed his eyes as it cut deeper into his neck. He thought he could feel a tiny bead of moisture trickle across his skin, but he wasn't sure. He swallowed hard against the knot in his throat. Then he drew in a slow breath and answered her.

"No." He bit out between gritted teeth.

"No?" She twisted her fingers painfully in his hair, but he was ready for her. He clamped his lips shut and refused to make a sound.

Yuffie blinked at the young man's stubbornness. He seemed such a wuss, she figured he'd have been crying crocodile tears and begging her to spare him by now. Oh well, time to get on with the program. She leaned against his body and brought her face down to his. A few seconds passed as she waited in silence. Bewildered, he turned his eyes upwards and gasped as she speared him with flinty obsidian irises, icy with malicious intent. A cold smile slipped across her lips at his reaction.

"Where is my materia?!" She snarled.

Obstinately, Avian refused to answer her.

She sighed tiredly. "I didn't want to have to do this...but you've left me no choice..." She admonished him, her tone falsely apologetic.

Avian's blood chilled in his veins, and he squeezed his eyes shut.


The new voice registered in his brain, and he opened his eyes to gaze at the soldier who leaned casually against the doorframe with crossed arms, the big red beast beside him.

"Whadaya want, Cloud?" Yuffie snapped. "Can't you see I'm in the middle of something here?"

"How do you expect to get any information out of him if you kill him, Yuffie?" Cloud asked reasonably. "Besides, where's your sense of fair play? Avian here doesn't even have a weapon...as far as I can see."

Yuffie paused in thought as Avian stared into Cloud's face with hopeful eyes.

"You're right, Cloud." She finally answered. "I'll give him one."

Abruptly, she released his hair and reached into her pouch, searching for another small throwing star like the one she'd dropped. She started to remove the tiny metal projectile from the leather bag, but her fingers froze when her eyes locked on Cloud's face.

He narrowed his eyes, alive with blue fire, and shook his head.

"No, Yuffie." His firm voice rang with authority. "Enough's enough. Let him up."

"Fine." She snapped. She drew her blade back, and Avian slumped with relief. Tightlipped, she rolled off his back and climbed to her feet, slipping in a quick kick in the ribs with her sneakered foot.

"Ow!" Avian yelped.

"Yuffie..." Nanaki chided, disapproval in his soft tone.

Ignoring him, she sheathed her weapon and stalked away toward the wall, bending to retrieve the metal star she'd dropped.

Avian slowly pushed himself up and stood shakily, his knees a bit weak at his close call. With jaundiced eyes pinned on Yuffie's every move, he cautiously backed away, putting as much distance as he could between them in the small room.

Yuffie dropped the recovered star in her pouch and turned to glare at Avian across the room, the threat in her eyes not lost on him or Cloud.

Cloud sighed. He decided it would be best to settle things now. "What's this all about, Yuffie?" He asked pointedly.

"This geek stole my materia." She accused, a disparaging sneer on her face.

"You were going to kill him over materia?!" Cloud let his eyes widen in feigned shock. "What was it then? Leviathan? Ultima? Hades? Knights of the Round?" Cloud scratched his head in puzzlement. "But don't we still have those?"

Yuffie crossed her arms defiantly, then dropped her eyes to the floor beneath Cloud's intent stare. Silence grew in the room as everyone waited for her answer.

"I…I don't know." She finally answered as she shifted from one foot to another. “I didn’t have anything like that…then.”

Cloud swung questioning eyes on Avian. "Well? What was it?"

Avian shrugged. "Just a fire." He glanced sheepishly from Cloud to Yuffie and back.

"I…I don't…have it anymore, or I'd just give it back to her."

"A fire." Cloud reiterated. He turned back to Yuffie. "You were going to kill him over a fire materia. I believe we have several between us, most of them mastered. I'll give them all to you. Will that satisfy you?"

Yuffie straightened to her full 5’2” and pinned Cloud with a hard glare, her eyes blazing.

"That is not the point and you know it!" Pointing at Cloud, she stabbed the air with her index finger to punctuate each angry word.

Cloud's eyebrows shot up, then he nodded slowly as he dropped his arms and stood away from the doorframe.

"You know...Yuffie." His eyes narrowed on her face. "I think I know just how you feel…"

Yuffie propped her hands on her hips and smiled. "Now you’re talkin'."

Cloud took a step into the room and paused, deep in thought. Nanaki watched him with one curious eye, Avian with two worried ones. Yuffie tossed her head and shot a glance at his face, eyes gleaming with triumph, before she turned her attention back to Cloud.

The soldier nodded. "Yeah, I do recall one time when SOMEONE stole all of our materia and left us to face an ambush without any."

The smile fell from Yuffie's face.

"Remember me telling you 'bout that, Red?" Cloud asked, his eyes still focused on Yuffie's face. The corners of his mouth turned up slightly as he watched a flush creep across her cheeks.

"Yes, Cloud. I remember." Nanaki nodded thoughtfully. "As I recall, the MATERIA THIEF made a beeline for Wutai, leaving you and Aeris...and…who was it…oh yes…Cid there, nearly defenseless, to face a Shinra Attack Squad, who made expert use of their materia."

"That is a low blow, Cloud Strife!" Yuffie retorted with a stomp of her foot. She shot a furtive look in Avian's direction only to find his wide-eyed gaze focused on her hot face. She dropped her guilty eyes and carefully studied the toes of her sneakers.

"Well, you know…I just figure all that's in the past. Let bygones be bygones." Cloud suggested lightly. "Don't you think?"

Yuffie refused to answer as she counted the eyelets in her shoes again.

"Yuffie?" Cloud folded his arms across his chest as he waited for her surrender.

The slight girl finally straightened and stuffed her hands in her pockets. She lifted her chin and sent Cloud a tight-lipped smile.

"Okay, Cloud. I concede the point."

"So you are going to forget all this and leave him alone." Cloud gestured toward Avian who had clamped his teeth down on his lower lip to stifle a persistent urge to chuckle.

"Yep." She replied tersely.

"I have your word?" He persisted. "Your promise that you won't slice, bite, kick, stab, punch, or otherwise injure our host here?"

"Yep." She reiterated.

Cloud raised a skeptical eyebrow at her offhand answers and opened his mouth to press his point, but paused as he heard his name float up the stairs.

He turned toward the door as Nanaki spoke. "I believe that's Cid. He seems to have some sort of problem."

'"Well, let's go see what it is." He strode onto the landing and shot a stern look at Yuffie as Nanaki slipped past him and sprang down the steep staircase. "You too. Come on."

Yuffie brandished her tongue at Cloud as his unruly blonde hair disappeared down the steps, then she turned a baleful eye on Avian.

Avian pasted a bland expression on his face and swept a gallant hand toward the door, careful to keep his distance from the disgruntled girl.

"After you." He offered, in the hopes of getting her out of his room ahead of him.

Yuffie uncrossed her fingers and pulled her hands from her pockets. "Sure. Whatever. Geekazoid."

She tipped her nose in the air and headed for the door, her steps dainty and slow. Ignoring Avian completely, she paused at the door and looked over her shoulder. "Come on Dog. Let's go."

Avian's mouth fell open as the dog…his dog…scrambled out from under the bed and trotted to his attacker's side, tail wildly sweeping the air behind him. Yuffie dropped one hand on his head and idly scratched behind an ear. Then she lifted her gaze to his stricken face. Her mouth stretched in a bright smile that didn’t extend to her hard eyes.

"Dogs love me.”

Avian gulped at the thought of what she planned to do to his dog. Perhaps she intended to get at him through Soldier, do some heinous thing to get revenge. He couldn’t let that happen.

“Soldier!” Avian called, tenseness giving his words a sharp edge. “Come on, boy!” He patted his thigh, and the dog turned towards him, tail still swinging. “Come here, boy.” Soldier took a step in his direction then turned inquisitive brown eyes back to Yuffie.

Yuffie smirked at Avian, and walked out the door, reaching into her pouch as she stepped through. Soldier stood at the threshold and swung his eyes to his master. He whimpered softly, then turned his attention to the doorway once again.Suddenly, Soldier yipped happily and dashed from the room.

“See ya, don’t wanna be ya….” Her playful words echoed up the stairwell as she stomped down the steps, underscored by the soft click of Soldier’s claws against the wood and the thump of his tail in the narrow passageway as they descended. Together.

He stood frozen into stone at the desertion by his dog for that…that…person. He’d had Soldier since he was a pup. His Dad had given the dog to him on his 12th birthday, a month before he left on that last mission, the one he never came back from. Soldier had been his constant companion ever since. So what was it about that obnoxious girl that the dog would leave him? Suddenly, he slapped his hand against his forehead. Only one thing would draw his dog away. Food. She must have fed him something when she sneaked into his room, and probably had food in her pouch. Soldier wasn’t stupid. Avian didn’t have anything on him, and the mutt was hungry. His face split in a wide grin. All was not lost.

He bounded onto the landing just as Yuffie stepped down onto the first riser of the main staircase. Soldier was already halfway down.

“Hey!” He shouted to get her attention. She paused with her hand on the railing. At first, he didn’t thing she was going to respond. Then she whipped her head around and glared up at him.

“What do you want?” She snapped, her voice full of contempt. Her brows drew together at the smile on his face, and she turned completely around and propped her hands on her hips. “Well?”

“You know that materia I stole from you?” He asked innocently.

Her face darkened. “Yep. What about it?”

“Well, I lied.”

Yuffie stared up into his mischievous eyes for several seconds, then she smiled up at him.

“I know.” She replied. “I lied too.”

Her eyes glowed with satisfaction when the grin fell from his lips, and his color gave way to a fine pallor as the blood drained from his face. She chuckled and spun away from him. Avian stared at her back as she bounced down the stairs, humming a lighthearted ditty, one that he recognized but couldn’t place, especially while his thoughts churned madly in his head.

She couldn’t have known. Unless…

He dove for the closet and fell to his knees, reaching for the heavy box of books that took up most of the space in the closet floor. With a grunt he slid it aside and peered into the dim light, but he couldn’t see a thing without standing up and pulling the string on the light fixture. Instead, he trailed his fingers across the rough boards until he felt the bent nail beneath his fingertips. With a tight grip, he yanked the loose slat away from the hidden space beneath and reached in with his other hand. His heart sank as his frantic search turned up nothing but dust and one extremely flat drawstring bag. His face pinched in a tight frown, he slowly climbed to his feet and reached up for the light. He gave the string a sharp jerk that set the hanging bulb swinging. He stared grimly into the hollow between the floor beams as the yellow glow flashed in and out of the empty space, creating a stroboscopic slide from dark into light and back again, much like the course of his life over the last few hours.

The fact that she’d swiped his materia stash wasn’t a big deal. None of it was worth much, and every orb was replaceable, especially since Tiko was holding his job open at the Materia Shop in Kalm. He hoped he still had a job there anyway. Aunt Jae had been gone longer than promised already. He could only hope his boss hadn’t given up on him. No, it was the knife that she’d stolen that hurt. The knife his Grandfather had given him before he died. He’d not seen one like it before or since. A well-balanced knife with a bone handle and a fine mythril blade, an engraved dragon graced the sleek grip, it’s tail forking into two rings on either side of the hilt, the profile of its head forming the pommel. The antique weapon also contained two materia slots, one where the dragon’s eye would be, the other between upheld claws. Mostly though, the knife held sentimental value, the only thing he owned that had been passed down through his family. He had to get it back, and he had a feeling it wasn’t going to be easy.

He drew in a deep breath to quell the anger that burned in his heart. He couldn’t let his natural impulsiveness impel him into carelessly planned and pointless action. The ninja girl would be a wily adversary. He had to get his act together. He’d been a Midgar slum kid once upon a time, and he’d survived. He’d just let himself get too comfortable with country life. The time had come to exercise his wits.

His lips stretched in a grim smile of determination as a plan grew in his mind to bring Yuffie down a few pegs and reacquire his knife. Suddenly, a voice replayed in his head and his calculated scheme blew away as his thoughts froze on the remembered words. He seems to have some sort of problem. Red’s voice. Cid. The Captain had a problem. Downstairs.

“Oh no…Grandma…” He spoke aloud in a strangled whisper. Then he bolted for the door.


A satisfied smile crept across Elena’s face as she swung an amused gaze toward the bathroom door. She could barely hear Rude’s low voice as he replied to Reno’s vociferous protest. Standing up from her seat on the edge of the bed, she strolled across the room and pressed her ear to the thick door, but the wild splash of water in the tub and the splatter of it pelting the floor drowned out Rude’s soft words completely.


She heard another loud splash, then more of Rude's indecipherable words.


Several moments of relative silence elapsed when suddenly she heard Rude's low voice rumble clearly from just on the other side of the door. His words not even registering, she sprang across the plush carpet and plopped onto the end of the bed as the door swung inwards. Rude stepped out as water sloshed against porcelain and tile. He glanced at Elena who sat primly with her hands in her lap and raised an eyebrow when she didn't venture a single comment or question. He knew it wouldn't last.

Elena watched Rude silently cross the carpeted floor as she marveled at the fact that although she’d heard a lot of water traveling around in there, he didn’t appear to have even a drop of moisture anywhere on his person. The man was quick, especially for his size, but that was unreal.

Elena reached into the purse beside her and pulled out her compact and lipstick as Rude sat down at the round conference table and drew the trimline computer towards him. Lifting her mirror, Elena applied her makeup and pressed her lips together. She carefully examined the rest of her face before closing the compact with a soft click. At the same time, Rude opened the lid on the computer and punched the power button. With a quiet whine, the machine booted up, and the Shinra logo popped up on the electronic monitor as the icons loaded in across the bottom. He noted that the Phoenix icon still flashed in the right hand corner of the screen. Satisfied that the situation remained static, he slid the computer to the side and clasped his big hands together on the glossy ebony tabletop.

Elena opened her mouth to inquire as to Reno's state of mind when the bathroom door jerked open and he stepped out, raking thin fingers through his damp hair. Ignoring them both, he strode barefoot to the bureau and yanked open a drawer. Rummaging around, he finally located a rubber band, and with a couple of deft twists, captured the loose strands and threw the damp ponytail into place against his back. His blue trousers, although clean and pressed, hung loose on his thin frame. His shirttails fell over his waistband, and his collar gaped open, the tie missing. He threw open the wardrobe and poked around in the bottom. In short order, he found his rumpled blue suit coat and stuffed his arms into the sleeves. Then he rifled some more and dropped one scuffed black loafer, then another onto the carpeted floor.

Watching him out of the corner of her eye, Elena wisely kept her thoughts to herself for once. Reno's silent movements spoke to the tight control he currently held on his hot temper. She wasn't about to give him a reason to unleash it. She rolled her eyes as he stuffed his bare feet into the loafers, apparently deciding to forego socks.

Finally dressed in his usual Turk attire, Reno turned to face them, pinning each one of them with his narrow green eyes, barely suppressed anger glittering icily within. The thin scars that slashed across each sharp cheekbone did little to soften his expression. Still, Elena crossed her legs and leaned back on her hands as she stubbornly refused to look away. When Reno's stare moved to Rude, Elena let out a silent breath of relief and swung her gaze to Rude's face as well. The big man seemed impervious to Reno's icy glare, but it was hard to tell since he'd already hidden his eyes behind his shades, leaving the rest of his face an inscrutable mask.

The moments passed slowly as the silence grew heavy in the room. Then Reno suddenly smiled, his thin lips drawn away from his teeth. If Elena had any doubts before, she didn't any longer. Reno was livid. The redheaded Turk stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets and sauntered across the room, stopping in front of the large window that overlooked the main thoroughfare of the Shinra military base of Junon Harbor.

Elena nearly flinched when he finally broke the deadly quiet that pervaded the entire room. Rude remained as still as a statue. She didn't think he'd moved a millimeter since he'd set the computer aside.

"So…looks like we're all still here." Reno remarked casually. "How unfortunate."

For her part, Elena was very happy they were all still here, but she wasn’t about to say so right now.

“What, pray tell, was so…important…that the two of you felt the need to disrupt my perfectly oblivious comatose state?” Reno asked the question nonchalantly, although his voice, tight with anger or some other emotion, gave lie to the feigned casualness of his words.

Before either of them could come up with a reply, he answered for them.

"Wait, I have it!" Reno spun on his heel and glared from one to the other. "You decided to drown me in icy water to see if I was still alive so you could tell me I was still alive! That's got to be it! Right?"

Elena hesitantly shook her head as she sorted through his statement. "Reno…sir…that's not it at all."

At her response, he pinned her with his chilly green eyes.

"Oh? Perhaps you broke a fingernail then?"

"That's a ridiculous thing to…"

"We've received a level 2 communiqué." Rude tersely interrupted her.

"What?" Visibly startled, Reno turned and stared at Rude's still face. "From whom?"

Rude shrugged. "If you will recall, you are the only one who can access anything above a level 3."

"I know that." Reno snorted.

"Then why did you ask who it was…"

"Shut up, Elena." Reno snapped.

"…Yes SIR." Elena responded petulantly.

"Perhaps I should rephrase that. Who the hell could have sent it?" Reno tapped a finger against his lips as his mind worked on the problem. "Level 2 references communications from only Shinra upper management…and as far as we know…they are all deceased…so who…could…it…be…"

His hands still clasped on the table, Rude pointed towards the small computer with his index finger. "Find out."

Reno stared intently at the electronic device for a few moments. Then he shrugged. "Why bother?"

"What?" Elena exclaimed, her perfectly sculptured eyebrows flying up. "What do you mean 'why bother'?"

Her eyes flew to Rude, hoping to gain some support from that quarter, but he sat quietly just as he had been, as though he hadn't even heard what Reno had said.

"Reno?" She turned her attention back to her leader.

Reno turned his back on them and peered down into the street again.

"What's the point, Elena? Shinra's dead and so are the Turks. How about we go out and buy a newspaper and a bottle of whiskey?"

"A newspaper…?" She asked, her brow creased in bewilderment.

"Sure. We can go over the classifieds together. At least, until the words get too blurry to read."

Elena's temper flared at Reno's indifferent attitude. She jumped to her feet and stalked across the room to come to a stop at his elbow.

"Why are you acting this way?" She bit out. "We are standing in a Shinra suite in Shinra headquarters on a Shinra military base with a fleet of Shinra submarines below. Over there…" She yanked the curtain aside to point down the street. "…Is a Shinra airpad with two Gelnikas and the chopper we came here in."

She crossed her arms and waited for Reno to respond.

"Your point?" He finally asked.

"There is a Shinra executive still alive somewhere, and that person obviously needs us. The Shinra Corporation may be mortally wounded, but there could still be some life there. Please find out who sent the message, Reno."

Reno turned to her, his lips curved in a wry smile, green eyes shuttered as he stared down into her upturned face.

"Who could resist such a fervent plea?" He responded softly.

She smiled up at him. "Then you'll do it?" She asked hopefully.


"Dammit Reno. Give me the codes, and I'll do it myself!" She snapped impulsively

Reno leaned down and beckoned her to come closer.

When she did, he placed his mouth near her ear and winked at Rude.

At the table, Rude shook his head wearily. He wondered what Reno's game was this time.

"I'll do it if you promise to go out with me later." He offered, his whisper tickling her ear.

She jerked away from him, her hazel eyes narrowed in disgust.

"Not on your life."

"Ah, there's that look again…" He chuckled.

She raised one eyebrow. "What look?"

"The 'I wish Tseng was alive and you were dead Reno' look. You have it down to an art form now."

Elena sighed. "I don't wish you were dead Reno. Although sometimes I'd like to kill you."

"Could it be love?" He asked lightly.

"You're an idiot, Reno." She spun away from him and stomped across the room while he watched her, a smirk on his face. She slid into a chair across the table from Rude and turned her eyes to the wall, pointedly ignoring both of them.

Suddenly Reno clapped his hands together, and Elena jumped in her seat and turned her eyes back to see what he was up to now.

"Well, let's get down to business shall we?" He strolled to the table and plopped into a chair between them. He nodded at Rude, and the big Turk pushed the computer across the table, the earrings that lined his left ear glinting in the sunlight from the nearby window as he moved. Reno spun the black box to face him and scooted his chair forward. He leaned in and eyed the flashing Phoenix as he impatiently tossed his long bangs from his face. The loose strands fell forward again, and he sighed. He glanced around the table as he patted his jacket pockets, only to find them empty. Then his sunglasses appeared before him, the nosepiece gripped in two of Rude's fingers.

"Thanks." Reno took them and shoved them onto the crown of his head, pushing the bangs away from his cheeks. Satisfied, he placed his fingers on the integrated keyboard and tabbed over to the icon in question. With a strike of the enter key, the Phoenix expanded over the entire screen and the Identification prompt flashed up.

Reno rapidly tapped in his Shinra ID number and hit enter. Immediately, the Level 2 clearance code prompt appeared. Without hesitation, he inputted the 12-digit number and hit enter again.

The machine's drive spun, and Reno tapped his fingers on the table as he waited for it to respond. He glanced at Rude who had hardly moved a muscle the entire time he'd sat at the table. He turned his head the other way and caught Elena leaning sideways to catch a glimpse of the computer screen. The final prompt box appeared, a request for his 8 character personal password. He smiled and pulled the computer closer to him.

His brows drew together as he puzzled over the request. "My personal password…" He chewed his lips as he labored to remember.

"What? You don't remember your password?" Elena asked sharply.

"Yeah, I do…" Reno nodded. "It's…" He tapped in the letters. "G…O…D…"

The machine emitted its version of an electronic raspberry, and Elena rolled her eyes.

"Nope, guess that wasn't it." He scratched his head.

"Oh yeah…" His fingers went to work again. "L…O…V…E…R…"

The machine blooped again, and Reno leaned back in his chair, an exaggerated expression of confusion on his face.

"Will you just enter your password!" Elena snapped.

He turned bewildered eyes on her and shrugged. "I'm trying."

Suddenly, his eyes brightened, and he leaned forward again. "I remember!" He cracked his knuckles and replaced his fingers on the keypads. "I…D…I…O…T…"

Knowing that he had to input the correct password on the third try or the security system would lock out his machine, he keyed in the correct eight-letter password as he spoke.

The machine chirped, and he watched the Phoenix background explode into particles and spiral away. At that point, the actual message popped up in front of him, encrypted of course.

"Guess that was it." The corner of his mouth lifted as he heard Elena's snort of derision.

His fingers danced over the keypad, and the computer whirred as the decryption sequence engaged. He steepled his hands together and leaned forward on his elbows, his narrowed eyes locked on the rapidly changing characters as he waited for the complete message to appear.

Suddenly, the words were there, blood-red letters against a dull gray background. Without moving a muscle, he scanned the message once, then again, a slight tightening at the corners of his eyes the only visible reaction. For several long moments the silence stretched as Reno stared at the two options available to him. Cancel or Confirm . Any other time, the answer would be obvious, but an assignment with so few details and commanded by a person hiding behind an unknown code name gave him plenty of reason to question their course of action. In the absence of Heidegger, anyone at Level 2 in the Shinra hierarchy could wield authority over the Turks, and there were only a few individuals in the company that held that position, most of them dead. He supposed someone could have hacked into the Shinra computer system and obtained the top secret codes, but the odds of that happening were extremely slim. Even if someone had accomplished such a feat, they would be brain dead to then summon the Turks to their location. Unless they were being set up for a fall. The redheaded Turk nearly snorted at that thought. Who would that be? Avalanche? They couldn't care less about the Turks. Under the circumstances, he had to consider the message legitimate. And that being the case, he had a pretty good idea who had sent it. Reno's mouth stretched in a feral smile at the idea of a confrontation with Mr. Phoenix.

With a decisive strike of a key, he confirmed acceptance of the assignment and waited for a reply. Instead, the numbers and digits that comprised the strange communiqué whirled away to form a spinning red orb that rapidly contracted into a tiny pinpoint of digital crimson light and blinked out, leaving nothing behind but a blank gray screen. Good thing he'd memorized the coordinates.

"How droll…" Reno muttered.

"What did it say, Reno?" Elena inquired eagerly, unable to keep quiet any longer.

Reno punched the power button and closed the computer lid, flipping the latch shut with a sharp downward stroke of one thin finger. Then his bland gaze traveled from the dark sunglasses on Rude's face to Elena's hazel eyes, bright with curiosity and unerringly focused on him.

"So…you guys have any plans for today?" He asked casually.

"What?" Elena asked, startled at his question.

"No." Rude answered succinctly.

"Well?" Reno raised an eyebrow at Elena and waited for her response.

She sighed. "How could I have plans for today, Reno? I wasn't even sure I'd be alive today."

"Well, I guess I don't have anything better to do…" He mused.

Abruptly Reno pushed his chair back and stood. Lifting the computer from the table, he tucked it under one arm and headed for the door. He swept up his nightstick from the dresser as he passed, twirling it through his fingers before he seated it under his other arm. Without a word, Rude stood and glanced at Elena as she also rose from her chair. With a jerk of his chin, he gestured towards the door and started across the room. Shrugging her shoulders, she fell into step behind him.

Reno pulled the door open and paused, turning playful eyes on the pair.

"Well, hurry up kiddos. Chopper's leaving ASAP."

"Reno, where are we going?" Elena asked, exasperation in her voice. "What is the assignment?"

Reno reached up and flipped his dark sunglasses down from the crown of his head to settle onto the end of his nose. He peered at her over the top of them for a moment. Then he smiled. "Guess you'll find out when you get there." With that, he shoved the glasses up with the tip of his middle finger and spun away. He disappeared into the hall, Rude right behind him.

"Obnoxious contrary son of a…" Elena muttered as she followed them into the carpeted hall, her fingers on the ornate brass door handle as she drew the door closed.

"I…can… hear…you…" Reno interrupted her in a light singsong voice.

With a jerk of her wrist, Elena slammed the door behind her. She clenched her jaw as she trailed them down the corridor.

"Good." She hissed between gritted teeth.

Keeping all subsequent thoughts to herself, she shadowed them silently through the command center and down the stairs. Quickly, Reno led them across the atrium, dominated still by the statue of the late Rufus Shinra, and turned into the short corridor that led to the air pad. They stopped before the thick metal doors that barred their further progress, and Reno produced a keycard from his jacket pocket. Rude and Elena waited while Reno passed it through the electronic reader, the laser scanning the code with a muted flash of green light. The door slid open with a hydraulic hiss, and they headed across the metal deck towards the chopper they had flown here after their aborted confrontation with Avalanche in the train tunnels under Midgar.

Reno turned his head in Elena's direction and flipped a finger toward the pilot's seat. "You drive." He ordered tersely. He tossed his nightstick into the chopper and then levered his lanky body into the right seat. Rude climbed into the seat behind them and picked up a headset. Elena's thoughts ran rampant as she rounded the nose of the helicopter and stepped up into the cockpit. Although the Turks were certified to operate all manner of aircraft, among other things, Reno had never allowed her to pilot anything before. Nervously, she ran through her pre-flight checks and donned her headset, shooting a surreptitious glance in his direction. She was relieved to notice that he was paying her no attention whatsoever. He had already slid the small computer beneath his seat and put his own headset on, and his fingers were now flying across the keypad of the navigation computer, his thin face drawn into a slight frown as he concentrated on his task.

She made a note of wind direction and fired up the rotors as she drew in a quiet breath. She held her position as she waited on Reno's command, her eyes fixed on the windscreen in front of her.

"Coordinates are in. Let's fly." His voice rasped directly into her ears.

Her eyes flew to his face, and he tilted his head, his eyes hidden behind the dark shades. He lifted his hand and twirled his finger next to his ear as one corner of his mouth lifted. With a brief nod, she turned back to her controls and berated herself as she felt her cheeks flush with embarassment at her hesitation.

Reno watched her closely as she lifted the chopper off the ground and turned it into the wind. Seconds later, she had them airborne and gliding out over the glassy sea. Satisfied that Elena had matters in hand, he leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms over his chest. He let his eyes drift wearily closed behind his sunglasses.

"Wake me when we get there." He spoke quietly into the mike.

"Yes sir." She replied automatically. She peered over her shoulder at Rude and raised a slender eyebrow in question. He lifted his shoulders in a slight shrug and turned his eyes to stare out the open cabin door into the heavily overcast sky to the northeast. Elena followed his gaze. The sky didn’t look too good in the direction of Midgar. Thankfully, their destination seemed to lie to the northwest rather than the east. She glanced at the navigation screen to confirm that the chopper remained locked in on the programmed coordinates. Still, she had no clue where they were going. They had never gone into an assignment without a full briefing regarding the details. She glanced at Reno only to find him slumped in his seat, the wind whipping his long bangs into his face, most likely sound asleep. No, it wasn’t like Reno to keep information about a mission to himself, and she couldn’t figure out why he would do so now. She reached over and punched up the flight time information. Her eyes widened at the digital numbers displayed on the panel. Obviously, any further speculation on her part would be pointless. In 56 minutes and 35 seconds, she would know. What's more, as far as she could tell, she would have to discover a dry place to land this chopper in the middle of an immense expanse of featureless ocean.

Cid backed away slowly, one eye on the old woman who now rummaged through the cabinets and one eye on the Venus Gospel that he'd left leaning against the china hutch on the other side of the room. He shot a quick glance at Barrett, still slumped against the tabletop, soft snores emanating from his open mouth. He figured the big man would be all right for now. He hoped. He glanced at the woman again to confirm that she still had her back to him, and he dove for the doorway into the hall only to crash headlong into Cloud who had just stopped in the threshold.

Cid tried to push Cloud back into the hall, but the blonde warrior planted his feet. He gave Cid a curious look as Nanaki peered around his legs.

"So…what's the problem?" Cloud spoke quietly, but his voice seemed loud despite a pervasive clatter of pots and pans inside.

"Sssshh!" Cid put a finger to his lips. Then he pointed towards the woman at the cabinets. "She's the problem." He whispered loudly.

Cloud leaned around the doorframe and peered at the silver-headed woman who now sorted through several sizes of frying pans, stacking the discarded ones to the side.

Nanaki poked his head through the door to view the object of discussion for himself. At sight of the woman, he quickly drew back and sat down on his haunches behind Cloud. Not many people had seen such a creature as he, and he didn't want to startle her into a stroke or heart attack.

Cloud looked back at Cid. "Who is she? Avian's mother?" He asked slowly.

"I don't know who the hell she is!" Cid hissed. "And will you be quiet?" Cid shot another glance her way to find that she wasn't paying any attention to them whatsoever.

"Well, she's just an old lady. What trouble can she be?" Cloud reasoned.

"Yeah, that's easy for you to say.” Cid growled below his breath. “She didn’t try to kiss you.”

Cloud's eyebrows shot into his hairline. "What?!"

"Yeah, she called me some name and tried to plant one right on the smacker." Cid visibly shuddered as he raked agitated fingers through his short hair. "She thinks I'm somebody called Arlan or Orwood or somethin'. I think she's #$%$ nuts."

"Orlon!" A hand fell on Cid's wrist, and he yelped in surprise. Cloud froze in his place with cautious eyes fixed on the old woman. Slowly, Cid turned and swallowed hard. Her mop of curly silver hair stood on end, and she gripped a huge frying pan in her right hand, her other hand painfully wrapped around his wrist.

The woman's rheumy gray eyes fell on Cloud, and her face brightened. "Terrin! You get in here too." Startled, Cloud quickly looked over both shoulders and found no one but himself that she could be addressing.

"Told ya!" Cid hissed.

"Come on. Come on. To the table with you both." She crossed the kitchen with Cid in tow and released him next to the head of the table, circling her way to the stove where she slammed the frying pan against the burner with a loud bang. "I know I overslept, but I'll get this going right away, and it'll be finished before you know it."

Cid took a step toward the door, and she spun. "Oh no you don’t. You sit down this instant." She ordered as she jabbed a finger toward the chair. Then she pinned Cloud with a narrow-eyed look. "You too, Terrin. Sit. Right now." She waited until Cloud finally moved hesitantly through the doorway and crossed the linoleum floor to the table. Then she stepped to the refrigerator and tugged the door open. "I know how you both are. I let you go out now, you'll get busy and won't come back and eat."

Cloud shrugged at Cid, who still stood poised for flight, and dropped into the closest chair. His eyes glued on Cloud's face, Cid jerked his head towards the door. He frowned when Cloud shook his head and slapped his hand against the tabletop. "Sit. She's just gonna fix us something to eat." Cloud pointed out. "Sounds good to me. Maybe she'll make you some tea." A smile slipped across his lips as he watched Cid drag out a chair and ease into it as though the seat was embedded with nails.

Cid dropped his elbows onto the table and buried his grizzled chin in his hands. Cloud leaned toward him. "Don't worry about it. Avian will be down here soon, and things will be cool." He whispered softly. Skepticism scored Cid's rugged face, but he nodded. Cloud straightened his legs out under the table and leaned back in his chair. He crossed his boots at the ankle and his arms across his chest, the picture of nonchalant ease. Annoyed, Cid cursed under his breath. Cloud ignored him as his eyes drifted closed, exhaustion creeping through his whole body.

Soldier bounded into the hallway and skidded to a stop at the sight of Nanaki sitting curiously in the doorway, just beyond the line of sight of the odd woman inside the kitchen. The red beast turned his good eye as the dog frantically backpedaled, his claws scrabbling against the hardwood floor, tail curled between his legs. Yuffie jumped over the last three stairs and landed behind the dog in a half-crouch. At sight of Nanaki, she straightened and grinned at him.

"Hey Red, wassup?" She asked boisterously, her high-pitched voice loud in the hallway. She swept a curious glance at the brown dog as he dove behind her and peered fearfully around her knee at the large creature that sat between him and his food.

"S'okay, Dog. I'll protect ya." She turned playful eyes on Nanaki.

Nanaki shook his head in warning, but she misunderstood his intent look.

"Come on! You aren't mad at me about that little thing upstairs are you?!" She exclaimed.

"Shush." He tried to get his message across, but it was too late.

Nanaki heard the rapid slap of slippers against the kitchen floor, and he slowly rose to all fours. He started to turn away, but he realized there was no time to go anywhere, so he faced the door as the woman froze at sight of him, a wooden spoon in one hand. She wrinkled her forehead in bewilderment, and he braced himself for her reaction.

"Pharan…?" She queried hesitantly. "W…what are you doing here?"

Nanaki tilted his head inquisitively. Pharan? Somehow that name sounded familiar, but he didn't know why.

"Well, what are you doing here? I thought you left with the others…a long time ago…" Her voice faded away as confusion flowed into her eyes.

Nanaki tried to come up with an explanation for her even though his thoughts floundered in a quagmire of uncertainty.

"He's visiting." Yuffie spoke behind him.

The old lady raised her eyes to the petite girl, and her face cleared.

"There you are Jae. Would you please set the table?"

Yuffie stared at the woman for several seconds.

"You want ME to set the table?" She finally asked, poking a finger into her chest.

"Yes, young lady. You. Now go."

Suddenly Yuffie smiled. "Sure thing." She strolled casually past Nanaki and the old woman, the scraggly brown dog glued to her side. At the door, she turned back and caught Nanaki's eye. "Fruitcake." She mouthed at him, and spun her finger next to her head. Unconsciously, he nodded in agreement before he caught himself. Yuffie snickered and disappeared through the door as Nanaki lifted his gaze to the old woman's face once more.

"Come join us Pharan. You can tell me about your adventures since you left Cosmo." Nanaki stared at her in amazement and opened his mouth to ask her how she knew about Cosmo Canyon, but he clamped his jaw closed when he remembered that she expected him to know her. She turned and scuffled her way back across the kitchen floor, and Nanaki entered behind her as he nodded to Cid and Cloud at the table, both pairs of eyes fixed intently on him. Barrett still snored into his crossed arms, and Yuffie was already occupied in a search for the necessary crockery to set the table, the weapon attached to her back out of place in the bright kitchen. Cloud pulled out the chair next to him, and Nanaki sprang into the seat to settle to his haunches.

"Wonder who she thinks Barrett is?" Cid asked in a tight whisper.

"Dunno. Still trying to figure out who I am." Cloud teased softly. "I thought I knew, but maybe I'm confused again."

"I do not believe that your identity crisis comes from within this time, Cloud." Nanaki reassured. "If so, we are both in trouble."

Cloud glanced around the faces of their group, a dull ache forming in his chest at the sudden thought of the ones that were absent. He smiled sadly as he imagined how Aeris or Tifa would have reacted to this strange situation. Or even Vincent. And what would the old lady have made of Cait Sith. Shaking his head, he forcibly turned his attention to the fact that Jerol didn’t seem to be around.

“What did you do with Jerol, Cid?” Cloud suddenly asked. “The old lady didn’t get him did she?”

“Nah, I told him to go crash somewheres.” Cid responded. “He was about to drop.”

Cloud nodded and smiled as he noticed the old woman glance toward the table.

"I think she likes you, Cid…" Cloud remarked. "She keeps checking you out."

Cid snorted. "That's not funny, Cloud." Cid impatiently dropped his arms to the table. "Where the hell is the kid anyway? You did make sure Yuffie didn't kill him didn't you?"

Cloud opened his mouth to answer, but paused at the distant sound of boots clumping heavily down the staircase. He smiled as both feet hit the hardwood floor running.

"That would be him." He finally responded. He turned as Avian slammed to a stop in the doorway, a hand flat against each side of the doorframe. He swept a quick glance around the room as he appraised the situation at hand. All eyes were on him except for the huge black man who slept in his chair, and Grandma who was busy cracking eggs into a bowl. Yuffie smirked at him, and he glared back at her. She tossed her head and turned back to her task of collecting silverware from the open drawer in front of her.

His face drawn in a tight frown, Captain Highwind gestured impatiently at him, and Avian started toward the table as he scanned the three upturned faces that watched his progress. On the surface, the scene in the kitchen seemed normal and peaceful, but he knew better. Although, his Grandma could be sociable and hospitable at times, the tenseness in the Captain's face told him that Granny had her own agenda. He just had to get a handle on it…if he could.

"Who the hell are you?!" Avian froze in his tracks as his Grandma's sharp voice ripped through the quiet atmosphere. Slowly, he rotated his head and flinched when his nervous eyes met her hard stare.

"Er…I…I…I'm…er…" He stammered as his mind raced for an identity that would satisfy her before she attacked. Obviously, his real one would not work in this case. The fact that she demanded one told him that.

"When did you say it would be cool, Cloud?" Cid whispered fiercely in his direction as he waited to see what Avian would say.

Avian wildly searched the faces around him, looking for a clue as to what his response would be. Nothing came to him. He backed up a step as the old lady reached for her broom.

"He's visiting." Yuffie offered, her back to the room as she dropped the flatware noisily atop the stack of plates.

His Grandma swept her eyes to Yuffie. "Humph! He didn’t even knock." She huffed. "You should teach your boyfriend some manners, Jae."

“Oh, I plan to do just that….” Yuffie responded. “…Among other things...”

Avian stared at the back of Yuffie’s head as he pondered the fact that his Grandma thought the ninja girl was his Aunt Jae. He wondered what was going on in her mind.

“Well, sit down boy!” The old woman swept her spatula toward the table as she turned to the stove. “Act like you weren’t born in a barn.”

Avian hurriedly dropped into a chair to the Captain’s left, and leaned in on his elbows. The Captain, Cloud and Nanaki all moved in as closely as they could.

“Okay, what the hell is up here?” Cid rasped quietly. “Who the hell is that weird woman?”

Avian sighed tiredly. “She’s my Grandma, and she’s senile.” He whispered back. “I don’t know what she’s thinking this time, except that she thinks that your friend is my Aunt Jae.”

“Well, she thinks I’m Orlon. Who’s that?”

Avian’s eyebrows shot up. “My Grandpa. He passed away four years ago.”

“Oh great….” Cid retorted sarcastically.

“And Terrin?” Cloud inquired in a low tone.

“My…father.” Avian stared at his clasped hands as he spoke. “He’s been gone for over five years. I guess she thinks she’s living in the past. She does that sometimes.”

Nanaki stretched his front paws across the table and leaned closer. “Who is Pharan?”

Avian’s brows drew together as he tried to remember if he knew the name. “I don’t…know…” He finally answered.

“She called me that name. It seems familiar.” Nanaki prompted. “And she mentioned Cosmo Canyon.”

“Well…maybe that’s the name of one of the Protectors…” He mused. “She was born in Cosmo Canyon. She used to tell me stories of the Protectors of the Canyon, but I thought it was another of her fantasies…until I saw you.” Avian peered into Nanaki’s face.

The red beast sank back into his chair as he pondered Avian’s statement. “Interesting…” He spoke under his breath. He wondered what she meant when she said Pharan had left long ago, especially if Pharan had been a Protector.

“The best thing to do is just humor her. She gets angry when you try to reason with her.” Avian suggested. “Then she can be…difficult to deal with.”

Avian jumped in his seat when Yuffie suddenly dropped the stack of plates in front of him and tossed down the utensils. “Pass 'em out.” She commanded. She slipped into the last chair to his left and drew a leg up under the other, as Avian slid the plates across the table. She grabbed one and pushed it against Barrett’s crossed arms. “Yo, Barrett. Ya still alive in there?” She asked the top of his head. He didn’t stir.

“You don’t seem too disturbed by Avian’s Grandmother…” Nanaki addressed Yuffie curiously.

She shrugged at his observation. “Nah, she’s just like my Aunt Mira before she died. A real nut bucket. Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt.”

“Ah…I see…” Nanaki nodded.

Yuffie sniffed the aromas from the stove appreciatively. “Man, I’m hungry. Hope she cooks as good as Tifa.”

At the mention of Tifa, the faces around her grew still, and Yuffie glanced around curiously.

“Where is she anyway?” Yuffie asked innocently. “And Vampire man. Where’d he skulk off to?”

Avian swept a startled glance around the table at her question. His eyes landed back on her face, and he watched the color drain away as her eyes darted from one downcast face to another, each set of eyes averted in any direction other than where she sat.

“Red?” Yuffie asked sharply as she dropped her foot to the floor and leaned forward.

“Yuffie…” Nanaki shook his head sadly. He'd forgotten that she didn't know, and now he struggled to find the words to tell her as his mouth worked speechlessly.

“Cid?!” Yuffie stared at him as his shuttered eyes slid across her face and away.

“You guys are scaring me here…” Her voice trailed away as her throat tightened.

Cloud looked up and caught her eyes. He cleared his throat and finally answered her, his voice tight with pain.

“They went…overboard…somewhere over the mountains.” His jaw tightened, and his gaze fell to the tabletop. He closed his eyes against the burning sensation behind his eyes and drew in a shaky breath in an effort to maintain control.

Yuffie stared hard at his face as the news seeped into her numb brain. Suddenly, she jumped to her feet, knocking the high-backed chair to the floor, unconsciously shaking her head as tears sprang to her eyes. Avian gazed up at her in utter fascination.

The old lady whirled from the stove at the sound of the wooden chair clacking against the floor. She pinned Yuffie with a dark look.

"Jae! What's the matter with you? Pick up that chair and get over here and put this food on the table!" She snapped out even as she turned back to her task.

Yuffie didn't even hear her. The tears ran freely down her cheeks now. She spun away from the table, but Avian instinctively grabbed her wrist before she could get away. He knew that his Grandmother might come unglued if Yuffie left the room right now, and he wanted to prevent that from happening if he could. She speared him with a watery glare and tried to yank her arm free, but he merely tightened his hold. At the same time, Cloud stood and leaned across the table towards her.

"Yuffie…listen to me…" He reached out and caught her limp hand lightly in his. "Yuffie!" He said more sharply when he didn't gain her attention. Finally, she looked at him, and Avian released her wrist to bend down and pick up her chair.

"Look, it's true that Tifa fell, but we think Vincent jumped to try and catch her." He paused at Yuffie's glassy stare. "Do you hear me? They both are probably fine…at least we hope so…” His voice trailed away as she sank slowly into her seat.

She huddled silently for several seconds as her mind worked over what Cloud had told her until she finally realized what it all meant. Tifa fell. Vincent jumped and he…and he…probably changed…into that giant pointy-eared…thing…with the huge bat wings and the wicked horns. And they hoped she was safe? Unconsciously, she shook her head. Maybe…if that thing didn't eat her. Her stomach churned at the very thought.

"I think I've lost my appetite…" She muttered. With a jerk of her hand, she swiped the tears from her face and opened her mouth to express her doubts about Tifa's would-be savior, but her teeth caught the end of her tongue when a rough hand grabbed her chin and yanked her face around. Tears sprang anew, this time from pain, as she glared up at the stern features. The woman's glittering eyes scanned her face while Yuffie wondered what she would do. Suddenly, the claw-like hand released her and the woman whirled and whacked Avian across the top of the head with her wooden spoon.

Avian yelped and grabbed the crown of his head with both hands to detour any subsequent blows, but his Grandma was already turning away. "You better not make my little girl cry again!" She snarled as she stomped back across the linoleum, the soft slap of her slippers diluting her angry step.

Yuffie didn't even have the heart to smile at his ill fortune. Something moist nudged her leg, and she peered down into the soulful eyes of the brown dog. She had forgotten about him. With a rueful smile, she reached down and scratched his ears. "Heeey, dog…" She spoke softly. She slipped the fingers of her other hand into her pouch and rummaged around until she found another piece of jerky. She drew it out and held it above the dog's nose. With a quiet woof, the dog lifted his muzzle and snagged the dried meat from her hand.

Still rubbing his head with two fingers, Avian watched her closely from under his bowed head, his eyes traveling over all the gear she had attached to her slender frame. There was the sling for that wicked looking weapon and the pouch with the jerky in it tied to her belt. Then there was another pouch slung to her back. Surreptitiously, he let his eyes travel over the leather bag, noting that although it was not as big around as the smaller one, it was much deeper. A slight smile touched his lips. His knife would be in that one. He just had to find a way to get it back, preferably without bloodshed.

"What are you lookin' at, Dweeb?" Yuffie demanded. His eyes shot to her face as he turned his own into a blank mask. Suspicion glinted in her eyes as she curled her lip at him. He turned a quick glance to his Grandmother only to find her on the way to the table, a steaming bowl in each hand.

"Nothing. Why?" He asked innocently, then pulled his gaze away from her hard face as his Grandma set the food down in front of them. Everyone else at the table had been silent since the exchange between Cloud and Yuffie, and now they all stared at the bowls of scrambled eggs and…something else. The old woman came back with a platter of buttered toast and a pitcher of milk. She banged them both down on the table, sloshing milk into the eggs. Suddenly, she ripped the wooden spoon from the bowl of eggs and rounded the table. Avian cringed, but she passed him by. Yuffie eyed her warily over her shoulder as she scuffled behind her. The old lady stopped to her left, and Yuffie almost grabbed her arm as the woman drew the spoon over her shoulder, crumbs of scrambled eggs dribbling onto the floor. Instead, she gasped as Granny brought the wooden utensil down across Barrett's head with a loud crack.

Barrett reared up, his eyes still glazed with sleep. "What the hell?!" He roared, grabbing his head with his left hand. She reached down and gave his ear a good jerk to boot. "There'll be no cursing at MY table, Ralph!" She informed him in a stern voice. "Who the hel…ulp!" He slammed his mouth shut at the sharp kick Cloud gave him under the table. He swung his angry eyes toward Cloud, only to find their spiky-haired leader with a finger to his mouth. He shook his head in warning, and Barrett's face filled with confusion.

Cid leaned over to Avian. "Who the hell is Ralph?"

"I have no idea." Avian whispered back, his wide eyes focused on Barrett's thunderstruck face.

Grandma placed her hands on her hips and glared at every face around her table. They all stared back at the rawboned woman with her silver hair standing on end and her oversized housedress falling off one bony shoulder.

"Well EAT!" She snarled at them. "I didn't spend all morning toiling over a hot fire just for you to look at it!"

At the weird glint in the old lady's gray eyes, Cloud threw his hand out and dragged the first dish his fingers touched in his direction, not taking his wary gaze off her face. Cid followed his lead and snatched the large bowl in front of him. Yuffie picked up a couple of pieces of toast and shoved the whole platter in Barrett's direction. Hesitantly, he gathered several pieces in his huge fingers. Avian lifted the pitcher of milk, but paused when he realized there were no mugs on the table. Grandma noticed at the same time.

"Jae!" Yuffie flinched at her shrill tone. "I told you to set the table! Now get some cups!"

Yuffie carefully slipped out of her chair on the opposite side from the irritated woman who now had her arms crossed with the wooden spoon jutting from one fist. Quickly, she retrieved several stoneware mugs, hooking the handles in her fingers, and brought them to the table, where she released them against the tabletop. She caught one that rolled off the edge and set another upright, shooting a nervous glance at the disgruntled face. Cloud grabbed a couple of cups and slid them over to Cid and Avian. Yuffie froze as Grandma reached over her shoulder and shoved one in Barrett's direction.

Nanaki sat very still and stared carefully at his empty plate, lacking the fingers to manipulate utensils or dishes. He feared the woman would pounce on him any second. Suddenly, Cloud turned and forked some of the eggs onto his plate, and Nanaki let out a sigh of relief.

Cid stared into the bowl that he held in his hand. He lifted it and sniffed. Then he looked at Avian. "What is this?" He inquired with a note of dread in his tone. Avian took it and set it down. He lowered his face and sniffed. Then he dipped a finger in and popped it into his mouth. He swished it around and finally swallowed it. "Oatmeal." He pronounced.

Cid pointed down into the bowl. "What's that then?"

Avian stared at the strange shape covered in a soft blanket of oatmeal. Slowly, he picked up his spoon and scraped the hot cereal away from the object beneath. For a while, he just stared at it. Then he levered one end out of the soupy substance. "Ham-bone." He muttered.

"Ham-bone?" Cid's eyes grew round as he stared at it, then he swept a searching glance across the table. "Cloud, pass the toast will ya?"

Avian looked at Granny to find her glaring at Barrett still. Quickly, he grabbed the oatmeal-covered bone in his fingers and held it down beside him. Immediately, Soldier latched his teeth around one end and took it, then Avian pushed the bowl of oatmeal away.

Shortly, everyone had enough on their plates to satisfy Grandma. Several long minutes crawled past where the only sounds in the room were the chinks of utensils against plates and the clumps of cups against the table as each captive at the table ate as little as possible with as much diligence as they could muster.

So busy, in fact, in trying to satisfy the old lady that not one of them noticed the strange look that crossed her face as she watched them. They only experienced a collective sense of relief when she moved away.

Cid shoved his plate away. "Well, I'm full." He announced with an exaggerated pat on his stomach. He pushed his chair back and climbed to his feet, stretching his arms over his head. He turned toward the china hutch to retrieve his weapon with the intent of making a beeline back to his crippled ship, but he froze in his tracks when he suddenly found himself staring down the inside of the long, pitch-black bore of Vincent Valentine's rifle. Instantly, he threw his hands in the air.

"O…O..kay…I'll just have some…er…oatmeal now…I guess…" He stammered.

Cloud raised his eyes and jumped to his feet as everyone else looked up to see what had transpired.

The old lady's eyes shot wildly around the table and came back to bring Cid to total gape-mouthed silence at sight of the madness within them.

"Who are you people?!" She shrieked. "What are you doing in my house?!"

"Uh oh…" Avian slowly climbed to his feet, his mind working hard to come up with a plan to rescue the Captain.

Yuffie and Barrett stood away from the table at the same time. Barrett raised his gun-arm, and Yuffie reached over her shoulder for her weapon. Cloud slapped his hand against Barrett's wrist and shook his head. "No Yuffie!" He said firmly. She shot him a frustrated look, but lowered her hand. Nanaki held his place, afraid that any movement on his part would set her off.

Cloud stalked around the table, and the old lady swung the rifle against his chest when he came close.

"What do you think you're doing Cloud?!" Cid exclaimed with his hands still in the air.

Cloud didn't answer. She pulled the trigger and the hammer fell with an empty click that seemed to echo in the quiet room. Cloud wrapped his fingers around the barrel and yanked the heavy rifle away from her. Trembling with fear, she stumbled back against the china cabinet, covering her face with her hands.

"I unloaded it." He remarked quietly as he slung it to his back.

Cid dropped his hands to clutch his chest, his heart pounding hard against his breastbone.

"Thought I was a goner." He choked out.

Annoyed at his own carelessness, Cloud walked over to the hutch and retrieved Cid's lance. "Here." He tossed the sharp bladed weapon, and Cid caught the shaft in one hand. He tilted it over one shoulder and reached behind his goggles for a cigarette, his fingers still shaky. Cloud lifted his sword and slid it into the sheath that hung down his back, shifting his shoulders against the combined weight of his large sword and Vincent's heavy gun. Once he had the weapons settled in place, he reached for Cait Sith only to find that the cybernetic cat was no longer where he'd left it.

Avian walked slowly towards his frightened Grandmother, but she shrieked when she saw him. He stopped, at a total loss as to what he could do to soothe her. She apparently still didn't recognize him even though she had obviously snapped out of her delusions about the past.

Cloud circled the room, his eyes scanning for the missing Cait Sith. He searched the countertops and the stove, the table and chairs, inside the cabinets, inside the refrigerator and the sink, on top of the fireplace mantel and inside the woodbox. There was no sign of the artificial creature anywhere.

Yuffie walked up beside Avian and peered at the old lady.

"Hey! Granny!" She called. "You want me to get rid of all these people?"

One tear-filled gray eye peeked at Yuffie from between two fingers. Then the trembling woman nodded.

"Okay then…" Yuffie bounced across the room and snatched the broom from its place between the end of the cabinet and the refrigerator. With a wide grin on her face, she swept the broom up over one shoulder and sprang into the middle of the room.

"Okay! Everybody OUT!" She yelled.

Avian just stared at her, so she darted across the room towards him, brandishing the broomstick in front of her like a jousting lance. He jumped away and stumbled into the table, which scooted away at the impact, legs squeaking against the shiny linoleum floor. Startled at the sudden commotion, Soldier darted out from under the table, the furry arm of Cait Sith captured between his jaws. He raced for the exit, the artificial cat bouncing along beside him.

Cloud spotted the dog immediately and bounded after him, his gait slowed by the gun that bumped awkwardly against his leg.

"Catch that dog!" Cloud yelled.

Nanaki sprang into sleek feline motion, his flamed-tipped tail swishing as he easily overtook Cloud and flew past. Barrett's huge boots thundered behind Cloud with Cid just behind him. The dog darted into the hallway where Lt. Jerol stood wide-eyed at the noisy crowd coming directly at him, his hand frozen on the open doorknob.

Soldier dove between Jerol's legs, nearly knocking the man from his feet. Nanaki squeezed between the man's legs and the doorjamb, and the normally reserved Shinra officer tumbled onto his rear with a startled yelp. He quickly rolled out of the pathway as Cloud's boot nearly landed on his outstretched fingers when he ran through the door, flinging it wide with the palm of his hand. Cid and Barrett jumped into the doorway at the same time and stuck there.

"Will you move!" The Captain growled as he wriggled his way past the muscle-bound giant, finally breaking free to fall to one knee. Barrett erupted through the door and stopped beside Cid, yanking him up on his feet by the back of his leather jacket. The dog had already disappeared around the corner of the house, with Nanaki on the verge of overtaking the mutt and Cloud in hot pursuit.

"Let em have it!" Barrett said with disgust as he waved a dismissive hand in their direction. "I'm too old for this runnin' around harem scarem."

Cid leaned against his lance, both hands gripped around the shaft. "Can't disagree with ya there." He turned as Jerol pulled himself to his feet with a hand on the doorframe. "Oh, didn't see ya there." Cid commented absently. Jerol shook his head in disbelief as he meticulously dusted his uniform off and straightened his rumpled jacket.

Cloud emerged around the house, Nanaki walking easily alongside. Cid raised his eyebrows at the absence of Cait Sith.

“Didn’t get him eh?” He asked as Cloud came up to him.

“Nope, dog skinnied under the house. Too tight for us to fit.” Cloud shifted the rifle strap and shrugged. “Doesn’t matter really. I think Cait Sith got broken in the crash. Just thought Reeve might like to have him back…if he’s still around to care…”

Cid nodded his head in agreement and lit a match against the shaft of his lance, lifting the flame to his bent cigarette. “Well, I’m goin' out to the ship. No way am I steppin' foot in that house again. Not in this lifetime.” With that said, he strolled away, stepping carefully around the junk that littered the grassy expanse.

“Come on Jerol. Let’s get to work.” Cid’s voice drifted back over his shoulder, the order unnecessary as Jerol had already fallen into step behind him.

“I'll come help ya with with Lt. Keith.” Barrett started to follow.

“Wait, Barrett.” Cloud’s voice stopped him, and he turned back. Cloud slid the rifle off his shoulder and held it out to the big man.

“Here, take this and lock it up in the weapons locker where it’ll be safe.”

“Sure thing.” Barrett took the rifle from him, the size of his hand dwarfing the thick barrel.

“I’m going to go on to Kalm now.” Cloud looked closely at Barrett’s face. “I’ll look for Marlene.”

Barrett nodded. “When you see her…tell her…well you know.”

A sad smile briefly touched Cloud’s lips. “I’ll tell her, Barrett”.

“Be careful, Cloud.” Barrett added tersely, his voice tight with suppressed emotion. Then he wheeled and strode toward the gate. Cloud spun back toward the house at the sound of the loud voices behind him.

“I told you to get out.” Yuffie yelled. “Now…get…out!”

Avian jumped backwards through the doorway to avoid another jab of the broomstick in his gut. He glared at her as she closed the door but for a thin crack through which she pinned him with one dark eye.

“But she’s my Grandma…” Avian pleaded. “…My house…”

“Ah…don’t worry.” Yuffie winked. “Old ladies love me.”

He blinked as she slammed the door in his face and turned the lock. He turned slowly to find Cloud watching him, a bemused smile on his face. Avian shrugged. “Guess I’ll go help the Captain.”

“Yeah, he can use the help.” Cloud agreed, crossing his arms over his chest. “Look, I'm going to head out for Kalm in a bit. About how far is the village from here?” He squinted into the distance as though he could see the structures of the quiet town from where he stood.

“Well…it’s about 15 miles. Quite a walk.” Avian informed him. His face suddenly brightened. “Hey…I have a bike you can use if you want.

Cloud scratched his head at the suggestion. He didn’t quite see himself pedaling across the grasslands. He’d probably arrive faster if he just ran. Still, he might as well look at it.

“Okay, let’s see it.” Avian smiled agreeably and picked out a path to the barn, Cloud following behind. Nanaki watched them go, then he meandered over to a soft patch of unlittered grass in the deep shade of a huge oak tree. The exhausted beast dropped into the verdant lawn and let out a long breath. Stretching all four legs into the soft bed, he turned his eyes toward the huge bulk of the Highwind, minimized by distance, but still a formidable shape on the horizon. Nanaki watched the three men move towards her through the wooden slats of the picket fence, growing smaller as they walked, until his eyes drooped closed, and he idly slipped away into the shadowy recesses of sleep.

Avian grabbed the rope handle and hauled one of the large, rickety barn doors open. Cloud walked through, his boots kicking up the loose straw scattered across the hard sod floor. He paused as he waited for his eyes to adjust to the dimness inside, broken only by the weak daylight that filtered through the cracks between the wallboards and the open door behind him. He sneezed as the musty smell of straw and long-gone animals assailed his nostrils. A skitter of movement overhead caught his attention, and he stared hard into the dark loft, trying to locate the source of the sound.

“This is it.” Avian spoke from his left. Cloud turned toward the corner where Avian had rolled the canvas away from his bike.

“That’s your bike!?” Cloud asked in astonishment, his eyes scanning the sleek, glossy lines of the machine, black as midnight with a swept back design meant for racing the wind, and wide spokes that glinted even in the murky light.

Avian nodded proudly. “It was my Dad’s, but it’s mine now.”

Cloud walked over to stand beside the tall youth. Reverently, he let his fingertips stroke the smooth finish and trail across the rich leather seat. “Sure you don’t mind if I take it?” He asked absently, his eyes captured by the smart red and black emblem embossed on the tank.

Avian shook his head. “Key’s in the ignition.”

Cid jerked his head around at the deep roar behind him. His hand froze with a cigarette half-raised to his lips. “Well, would ya look at that…” He marveled. At the sound, Barrett had already swung his narrowed gaze to follow the sleek motorcycle as it flew past, Cloud Strife bent low over the handlebars, the wind flattening his spiky blonde hair against his head. A cloud of dust welled into the air in his wake as the powerful machine ravaged the weedy track that led away from the farm in the direction of Kalm. Seconds later, Cloud and the motorbike disappeared as the trail curved behind the bulk of the Highwind. Cid turned his wide eyes to Barrett who just shrugged. “Cloud has a…what do ya call it…” Barrett paused in thought. Cid brought his cigarette to his lips and took a deep drag. “A what?” He prompted, releasing the smoke from his nostrils as he spoke. Barrett snapped his fingers as the word he wanted came to him. “Yeah, you know…an affinity. He has an affinity for those things.” Cid stared into the distance where the low thrum of the motorcycle already seemed to fade into the terrain. “An affinity huh? Well, all I know is we better get to our business. Got an idea he’ll be back ‘fore we know it.” Barrett nodded in agreement, and the three continued on their course toward the damaged ship.

Under the house, Soldier nosed the limp, soggy cat. A soft whir radiated through the thing’s synthetic fur coat and the half-closed lids shot open. Soldier scuttled away as the circuitry inside the glassine orbs flickered to life, giving the cat’s stare an eerie glow. The creature tried to rise from its prone position, but couldn’t seem to get its limbs to function properly, merely pushing against the ground and falling back.

The cat’s head suddenly rotated and locked in on Soldier’s dark silhouette, then panned back the other way, finally pausing on the square opening through which Soldier had brought it there, photocells drawing little power from the distant light source.

“Hey, anyone there?” Soldier whined at the voice that spoke from the cat’s mouth. “Hey, Cloud! Cid! Where is this? Are you guys okay? I think I hear a…dog. Where are you? It’s dark there.” The cat was quiet for a bit, waiting for a response. “Come on you guys. Tell me you’re okay.” The digital voice pleaded. The cat’s limbs came to life again, and the robotic creature actually managed to move itself a few inches across the packed earth before it ran out of juice. Soldier yelped at the strange thing’s behavior and skulked away, slipping out from under the house the same way he came, glad to leave the alien toy behind.

“Somebody please answer…”

At the other end of the transmission, Reeve finally pulled the VR headgear off his head and stripped the telemetric equipment from his body, his heart heavy at the thought that the Highwind might have crashed. He had disconnected from Cait while the airship still soared around Midgar, and he didn’t know what had happened to them. Unfortunately, all he could do was worry. He couldn’t expend anymore time trying to raise them right now. He had his hands full already, and probably more trouble on the way.

He picked up the telemetric glove and punched the button to activate Cait’s homing beacon. Then he flipped the switch that would put the little cat on standby/charge. He just prayed he would find them all well when he finally could track the signal to its source.

“Mr. Alexander.” Reeve brought his reddened eyes to bear on the Shinra trooper’s smudged face. He didn’t know anyone’s name, but they all seemed to know him. “Yes?” He asked tiredly.

“They found another family trapped in a house.” Reeve pushed away from the table someone had made from a few crates and some weathered boards. With a deep breath, he forced his body erect. He knew he would have to sleep soon before he dropped, but that was a luxury he couldn’t afford yet, not when there were still people trapped in the rubble.

“Okay, I’m coming.” The man nodded and withdrew his head from the open doorway.

Reeve quickly gathered his electronic equipment and carefully deposited it all into an upended crate. He shoved the wooden box underneath the table with the toe of his dusty wingtip shoe and picked up his palm-sized electronic notepad from the tabletop. He slipped it into the inside pocket of his ruined suit coat as he crossed the dingy room.

Pausing just inside the door, he picked up a canteen and took a long drink to stave off his thirst. Absently brushing stray water droplets from his beard with the tips of his fingers, he tossed the canteen back onto the shelf and stepped into the splintered doorframe of the tiny, dilapidated slum house. Looking back over his shoulder, his eyes sought out and found the tiny rhythmic flash on the discarded glove, barely visible inside the box beneath the table.

“I’ll be back, Cait.” He whispered into the empty room. Then he blanked his mind and stepped out to confront the squalor and din of the now overcrowded Slum City beneath the oppressive plates of Midgar.

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