Elena leaned against her safety harness to look over the side for any sign of land or maybe a stray cruise ship or a fishing trawler; anything to relieve her boredom. She could see nothing but the unbroken expanse of vivid blue ocean, glittering in the late morning sunlight, so bright that she could watch below for only a short time before her eyes grew tired. With a sigh, she straightened in her seat and glanced over her shoulder at Rude. He hadn’t spoken a word since Junon had fallen away behind them, and he wasn’t likely to now. With his arms crossed and head thrown back against his seat, he appeared to be sound asleep behind his opaque sunglasses.
“Rude?” She spoke softly into the mouthpiece and watched the big Turk closely for any reaction. He didn’t so much as twitch a finger.
Another bored sigh slipped from her lips. She let her eyes slide over Reno’s still face as she brought her attention forward again. He also sat loosely in his harness with his arms crossed, his chin resting against his chest. He’d bumped his shades askew at some point, and she could see that his eyes were lightly closed. The soft snores that emanated from his mouth and directly into her ears through the headpiece were making her sleepy.
She turned her eyes back to the endless carpet of ocean and sky before her and slumped against the back of her seat as a huge yawn overtook her. The duty of piloting the chopper now seemed more a punishment than a privilege. She itched to give Reno a cuff across the top of his head to make her displeasure known, but she preferred him asleep. Her lips tipped in a tight smile at the thought of doing it though.
She glanced at the navigation readout again. Still ten minutes to go. She watched the seconds slip by and willed the numbers to fly faster. Letting her head fall back against the headrest, she pinned her attention on a puffy cloud way off in the distance. She thought it looked like a huge bird with wings outspread; maybe a giant Zuu or even the Phoenix. That would be more apt, the magnificent bird that rises from the ashes of its own destruction to bring life.
The cloud swam out of focus as her thoughts turned inward, revisiting her turmoil the night before. She’d left Reno and Rude to their own devices and walked endlessly through the Junon military base, most of the time completely oblivious to anything around her. Eventually, she’d wound up back in their suite. She’d actually showered and climbed into her bed with the intention of going to sleep and shutting everything out. She wanted to be lost in a pleasant dream or cradled in comfortable unawareness when Meteor hit, but she hadn’t been able to sleep. She’d tossed and turned for hours until the annoying beep of the computer on the conference table finally drove her to untangle herself from her twisted blankets. Her plan to toss the offensive machine out the window dissipated when she realized the time. The danger had passed.
She smiled absently at the memory of how she’d danced around the room and bounced across the bed, shrieking in jubilation, before she’d reined herself in enough to get dressed and go look for Reno. She hadn’t behaved so impulsively in years. It was a good thing the guys hadn’t been around to see her. She’d never live it down.
The cloud swam back into focus as she returned her attention to the present. The Phoenix had swirled away into a shapeless blob of cotton floating along the line that delineated ocean and sky. She decided then that the world around her was the most beautiful she’d ever seen it. In fact, flying this chopper high over the sparkling water was absolutely awesome. Life was great.
Elena let her eyes slide across the readout again as she briefly entertained the idea of taking off on her own for a few days when she got a chance. She’d go to Costa del Sol and look up her father; see if he was still there and if he was all right, see if things were different now… She gave her head a little shake. What was she thinking? She wasn’t that crazy yet.
Five minutes remained on the readout. Dissatisfaction edged out her pleasant feeling of well-being. Why were the minutes ticking by so blasted slowly? She leaned forward and gazed through the windscreen again. Nothing appeared out there. Uneasily, she pondered the thought that nothing would. She knew this area of the ocean was not traveled, off the main road as it were. Maybe Reno had entered the coordinates incorrectly. She glanced at Reno’s slack face. No, he wouldn’t have made an error. Although the redheaded Turk seemed impulsive in his actions some of the time, nonchalant or irreverent most of the time, she knew that he never lost sight of his objective. He always remained on task, even though his agenda was not always apparent. Despite the fact that he wouldn’t reveal the nature of their mission, she was confident that he had matters well in control.
Elena jumped when a strident alarm abruptly blared from the panel, and she jerked her head around, eyes frantically scanning the instruments. The trip timer still showed over four minutes so she doubted that was the reason for the insistent racket. The instruments all appeared within parameters; no obvious malfunctions anywhere. She didn’t know what the alarm meant.
“Bring up your flight data screen.” Reno’s hoarse voice rasped in her ear.
She looked at the console and realized that the small monitor wasn’t on, and she had no clue which of the dozens of switches and buttons in front of her would activate the readout. Damn it all, she should know. She was supposed to know. The thing should have already been on. Frustration and shame clouded her mind as she fought to remember.
Reno leaned over and punched the appropriate button, and the small screen sprang to life. An equally strident electronic voice replaced the alarm.
“Warning! Warning! You are about to enter restricted airspace. Divert from your current flight path immediately. Warning! Warning! You are about to enter restricted airspace. Divert from your current flight path immediat…”
Elena’s wide eyes shot to Reno’s face when he abruptly reached across her and shut off the alarm.
“Ignore it.” Reno ordered before she could open her mouth.
She turned back to the monitor to read the words that appeared there, and felt the blood drain from her face as the message seeped into her brain.
“Reno!” She exclaimed. “We can’t ignore it!”
“We can, and we will.” His hard voice brooked no argument.
“Reno, it’s says the area is restricted because of high radiation levels! It’s dangerous to be here!”
As she spoke, she moved to shut off the autopilot and restore manual control. Elena yelped when Reno closed his fingers painfully around her wrist.
“I said to ignore it.” His voice dripped with ice. “Apparently you misunderstood me. That was not a suggestion.”
She prepared to voice her protest as she turned to glare into his face, but he’d lowered his head and pulled his sunglasses down his thin nose to let the full force of his glittering green eyes burn into her own. Her throat closed off the words she would have said, but she refused to look away until Rude tapped her gently on the shoulder with one finger. At his touch, she sharply jerked her wrist from Reno’s grasp and swept her angry eyes over her shoulder.
“What do you have to say?!” She snapped.
He didn’t respond, but merely gestured forward.
She whipped her head around to stare through the glass. A verdant island now marred the pristine surface of the ocean waters ahead. A white beach trimmed the edge of the landform halfway around; the other half of the island walled in behind a tall jagged cliff.
“Well, that’s certainly off the beaten path.” She sniffed.
The console emitted a soft chime, and she turned her eyes to the trip timer. The green digits were rapidly flying down to zero.
Reno leaned over and tapped the timer off, silencing the chime.
“That’s the place, kiddos.”
At the lightness in his tone, Elena turned to glare at him again. She couldn’t understand how he could ignore the danger of their presence here.
He turned to meet her hard eyes, his expression hidden behind the blank plastic of his shades. He suddenly smiled.
“Party’s down there. Let’s hit the beach.”
That said, Reno turned away and settled back in his seat, again crossing his arms over his chest. Elena shook her head in disbelief and turned to the controls. Her mouth drawn in a tight-lipped frown, she threw her shoulders back and abruptly sent the chopper into a sharp dive. Her lips curved into a satisfied smile at the yelp of pain and the muttered curse in her ear. From the corner of her eye, she could see Reno rubbing the end of his tongue with one finger, apparently to assess the damage. Too bad he hadn’t bitten it off. Oh well, a girl just couldn’t have everything.
She watched the island grow rapidly as they flew nearer. Now came the task of finding a place to set down. Her smile faded as she thought about the electronic warning and what it could mean, and her scalp tingled at the idea of radioactive particles zipping through her bones. Still, she couldn’t imagine Reno putting his scrawny rear in danger. Maybe he knew something she didn’t. On the other hand, he seemed to be unhappy that he was still alive this morning. With a mental shake, Elena turned her mind back to business. She was just making herself crazy anyway.
As the chopper crossed the pristine beach and skimmed in over the treetops, Elena watched for a break in the lush greenery that would indicate a clearing large enough to land on. A splash of light gray to the northwest caught her eye, and she stared in that direction, all her attention focused on what appeared to be a manmade structure.
“Watch it!” Rude’s low voice brought her eyes forward again. Her heart leapt into her throat even as she instinctively sent the chopper sideways around the lofty silver antenna that pierced the tree canopy. Her pulse still pounding, she glanced at Reno, fully expecting his censure. Fortunately, he wasn’t even looking at her. His attention was focused to the front where he peered into the distance, one bony finger tapping against his pursed lips, apparently deep in thought.
She returned her regard to the sharp lines of the structure she’d spotted and realized now that she was looking at the expansive roof of a house. She immediately swung the chopper that way. As they flew in closer, sweeping low over the treetops, a cupola and a row of dormer windows emerged into view. She glanced around to find that Reno and Rude had both spotted the large house.
“What is this place?” Elena asked curiously. “It’s huge…at least as large as the President’s Mansion…could it be another of the President’s houses? A vacation house?” She didn’t receive an answer, but she hardly noticed. ‘Maybe it’s a secret hideaway…or maybe in this remote location…a laboratory? Or an institution of some sort? Or a…”
“Elena!” Reno spoke sharply into his mouthpiece.
She turned to look at him, her eyes wide in question.
“What?” She responded.
“But I want to know what this place is. Come on, Reno…just tell us.” She persisted.
“Speculation is pointless, Elena.” His soft tone came with an edge of steel. “Land the chopper.”
She opened her mouth to argue, but the thought abruptly occurred to her that Reno didn’t really know where they were. In fact, the more she mulled the idea over, the more she was certain of it. The realization made her stomach churn. She reached inside her jacket to touch her pistol with nerveless fingers. Comforted somewhat by the cool metal of the gun, she sent the helicopter toward the house with the hope that there would be open ground around the building.
Reno was dead right. Speculation was pointless. Obviously, the radiation warning had been a ruse to steer all traffic around the island. Whoever lived on this island obviously had resources at their disposal. She couldn’t even guess who it could be, but she knew one thing. That person or persons would quickly discover their sad mistake if they tried to cross the Turks.
The old woman jumped at the sound of the heavy door slamming back against the doorstop. She wheeled from her task, twisting the dust rag in her hand at the sight of her employer’s flushed face. She couldn’t remember a time when she’d seen her so agitated. Strands of her red-gold hair had escaped from the tight bun and now straggled around her temples. Her blue eyes glittered in her flushed face, brows knitted as she frowned. She struggled to catch her breath before she spoke again. Obviously, she’d run all the way to the house. Mary quickly stepped toward her.
“What is it, Kitten?” She asked anxiously. “What’s the matter?”
“Th…there’s…a...ch…chopper…flying in…” She gasped out. “Are we…expecting…anyone?”
Mary started to shake her head, but stopped in thought.
Mary did shake her head in the negative at that. “No, ma’am. Gerald would have said so if he’d forgotten to get something last time and had to have it flown in.”
Mary watched as the young woman threw the front door shut and turned the deadbolt. Then she dashed down the adjacent hallway. Wide-eyed, the housekeeper moved into the shadowy corridor just in time to see her disappear into the study. Before she could reach the study herself, the younger woman emerged with a pistol in her hands. Mary froze and watched her expertly load the weapon, then tuck the thing into the capacious pocket of her smock.
“Mary, where’s Heidi right now? Do you know?”
“Of course I do!” Mary exclaimed. “She’s in the library working on her studies!”
“I’m sorry, Mary.” The young woman rubbed her forehead absently. “Of course you know. I’m just a bit…flustered.”
“It’s okay.” Mary reassured her. “Do you think it could be him? With all that’s been happening?”
“I don’t know.” She replied. “It could be I suppose. Whoever it is, I’ll handle them. Just go into the library and stay with Heidi. If you hear anything out of the ordinary…anything at all…take her into the room behind the bookshelf. Do you understand?”
Mary nodded uncertainly.
“You do know how to get in?” The young woman asked at the look of confusion on the housekeeper’s face.
“Yes, it’s just that…” Mary started hesitantly.
One red-gold eyebrow rose in question. “Just what?”
“It’s just that you shouldn’t handle this yourself. Gerald should handle it.” She suggested.
“I’ll be okay. Just get to the library.”
The younger woman brushed past her before Mary could argue further.
“Wait!” Mary started to follow her, but stopped at the musical chime of the doorbell. The sound reassured her. Whoever had flown in, they surely had no plans to storm the place to commit some heinous crime. Murderers and kidnappers didn’t ring the doorbell did they? Mary turned toward the library, positive that her employer could handle mere visitors. However, she couldn’t imagine who would be visiting here. It had to be him. Mary smiled.
She paused at the front door and stood on tiptoe to peer through the peephole. A young woman in a blue suit stood on the wide porch. A tall, lanky man with copper hair stood behind her, a pair of sunglasses pushed up onto the top of his head. He had a stick of some sort tucked under one arm and what looked like a laptop under the other. She stood back and pondered the situation. The woman was dressed like a Turk. The man too, although he appeared somewhat disheveled. If they were Turks, they’d definitely be armed. However, there were only two of them. She reached a decision and stepped to the intercom. She needed more information before she would open the door.
“May I help you?” Elena turned her eyes to the gold metal grate of the speaker next to the door. Reno pasted his best imitation of a friendly smile on his face. Rude stood to the side out of sight, his hand lightly grasping the pistol inside his jacket.
“May we please speak to the person in charge here?” Reno asked pleasantly.
“I’m in charge. What business do the Turks have with me?” The filtered voice responded.
Elena raised one sculptured eyebrow at that and swept a nervous hand through her hair. Reno took a step forward, his smile still firmly in place. As far as he was concerned, the fact that the person on the other side of that door knew they were Turks only simplified matters.
“My name is Reno, ma’am. I’ve been instructed to deliver a message.” Reno replied smoothly.
“How did you find me?” The unseen woman questioned sharply.
“The coordinates were conveyed to me via an encrypted message received on my compad this morning.” Reno divulged the information without hesitation, and waited to see what the reaction would be.
Several moments passed in silence. Elena shifted from one foot to the other. Reno stood perfectly still beside her.
“Reno…” Elena whispered, growing nervous at the lack of a response.
“Ssssh…” Reno hissed under his breath.
Elena wanted to look at Rude, but she knew better than to risk giving away his position just to gain reassurance. She knew he was there. She didn’t need to look. She just wished that she had her own gun under her fingers.
“Who sent you?” The voice finally came again. Reno thought he could detect a bit of a quaver despite the sharpness of the tone.
He paused in thought at how to answer this question. He didn’t know who was behind the message for certain, but he did know. He didn’t need proof. However, he opted to keep that information to himself for now. Instead, he conveyed the identity the sender chose to hide behind.
“Phoenix.” He replied succinctly.
Elena started when he spoke. Reno frowned slightly at her reaction. She needed to relax. She was as jumpy as a cat in the middle of a room full of sleeping dogs.
Again, the seconds stretched into minutes. Elena shifted from one foot to the other. She glanced up into Reno’s still face. He hadn’t moved a muscle since he’d stepped up to take a position beside her in front of the ornate door, and she envied his capacity for patience and self-control. Maybe one of these days she would attain his poise, with ample experience, if the Turks remained intact as an organization. Who knew what would happen now?
On the other side of the door, the young woman buried her face in her hands at the name “Phoenix”. She knew what this was about, and she wanted nothing to do with it. She didn’t want to have anything to do with him again either. She had hoped with every fiber of her being that this day would never come, but here it was. She couldn’t hide from it. She would have to deal with it, and give him an answer. That answer would definitely be no.
Her insides shaking, she straightened from the door. She gave her paint-smeared smock a sharp tug and swept the stray tendrils of hair from her face. She drew in a long breath to settle her nerves and reached for the door, lifting her chin as she turned the deadbolt. She paused with her hand on the door handle. Now all she had to do was open the door.
Elena jerked her eyes up from her examination of the smooth boards beneath her polished black shoes. She watched warily as the door swung in silently on well-oiled hinges. When no one appeared in the opening, she thought this might be a trick. She lifted her hand to reach for her gun, but paused when a young woman stepped around the door to stand in the portal. Silently, the woman inspected the two Turks. Elena smiled as she smoothed her coat lapel before dropping her hand back to her side. The young woman noticed that the smile didn’t quite reach the blonde Turk’s eyes.
For his part, Reno eyed her as well. For one thing, she was very beautiful. Her golden hair almost glowed in the sunlight, and her eyes were the color of the ocean beyond the beach. The delicate bone structure of her face, with its porcelain-like complexion, and her petite stature made her seem a fragile creature. The various paint smears across her white smock told him that she’d been painting before their arrival. Everything about her seemed innocuous. However, he didn’t make the mistake of underestimating her, because for another thing, she was armed. The hand that she had tucked away in her pocket was wrapped around a handgun of some sort.
He smiled amiably. “May we come in?” He inquired politely.
Hesitantly, she nodded. Then she pushed the door wide and stepped out onto the porch to let them pass. She wanted them in front of her where she could see them. She didn’t trust them one little bit. The female Turk seemed nervous for some reason, and the one called Reno frightened her despite his disarming smile and polite manners. The sharp angles of his face, the narrow green eyes, and the matching scars across each cheekbone all combined to give him the look of a hungry predator. She’d been around a few Turks in her time, and this one was no mere messenger boy. This man was one that walked the edge and found satisfaction in it.
The young woman turned her eyes to follow the blonde Turk as she stepped past her and crossed the threshold. Reno didn’t immediately follow his companion, and she turned to urge him inside. Her heart slammed into her breastbone at the sight of the huge man who now stood behind the red-haired Turk. She should have known they’d have one hidden. She unconsciously took a step back despite her resolve to maintain a strong stance. Then she froze at the stunned look on the big Turk’s face, obvious despite the dark shades that covered his eyes. She took in the shaven head, the row of gleaming earrings in the man’s left ear and the strong jaw. Could it be? He was different, but…
“Rude?” She queried softly. “Is that you?”
She moved slowly across the porch toward him, brushing past Reno as she did so, the potential threat of the other two Turks totally forgotten. In fact, they had ceased to exist.
Rude moved his mouth to say something, but his usual equanimity had flown. His throat working, he reached up and ripped off his sunglasses with the inane idea that if he looked at her directly, she would prove to be a figment of his overtired mind. Still, she stood there.
“Caitlin?!” Rude finally choked out past the rock in his throat.
At the sight of Rude’s soft brown eyes and the sound of her own name spoken in his voice, pure joy surged through her whole body. She literally sprang the last few feet to throw her arms around his waist in a tight hug, her head barely coming to his chest.
“It is you!” She cried out. She pressed her face against his jacket as tears flowed unhindered down her cheeks.
Woodenly, Rude lifted his arms with the thought of setting her away from him, but he compulsively drew her into a tight embrace instead, his stubborn mind finally accepting the truth of her presence here. He closed his eyes tightly to hold back the unwanted tears that burned behind his own eyes.
“I thought you were dead…” His voice came in a choked whisper. “I saw you…die…”
She nodded her head against his chest as she clutched the back of his jacket, twisting the material in her tight fists.
“I know…I’m sorry…I knew you would blame yourself…I hoped you wouldn’t…but I knew…I’m sorry…I’m so sorry…but I had to go…I just had to…I couldn’t…couldn’t…be there…anymore…” Her anguished words exploded brokenly from her lips. She was helpless to stop them. They were words she’d needed to say for ten years. “I…I…just…”
Rude shook his head and let his huge hands drop to her waist, the sunglasses dangling forgotten in his fingers. He disengaged himself from her, stepping back to put a space between them.
“No…it’s okay.” He whispered to her. “It was a long time ago. I’m okay. Don’t worry about it.”
She looked up into his face as she swept the tears from her cheeks with trembling fingers and drew in a long, ragged breath.
“I thought you were going to leave the Turks…” She spoke softly. “Leave Shinra…”
Rude didn’t answer her. He shot a look over Caitlin’s head to lock gazes with Reno. The tall, lanky man had drawn a wooden porch chair around and folded himself into it. He now sat with an ankle across his knee and an elbow propped on the wide arm, one finger stroking the scar on his right cheek. Rude could tell nothing from his leader’s inscrutable green eyes or the wry half-smile on his lips. He lifted his eyes away from Reno to find Elena standing behind the chair, her hands tightly clutching the whitewashed chair back. She stood frozen like a cokatolis in the headlight of an oncoming train, her hazel eyes impossibly wide and her mouth unhinged, rather unbecomingly at that.
Rude shifted nervously and lifted his hand to shove his sunglasses back on his face. He moved three steps in Reno’s direction and stopped in his tracks. With a twist of his shoulders, he straightened his back to stand tall and clasped his hands in front of him. Then he pinned his eyes on Reno’s face and waited.
Caitlin turned as Rude walked past her. As she caught sight of the other Turks again, she lifted her chin and opened her mouth to speak, but stopped when Reno abruptly sprang from the chair. Warily, she watched him as he clasped his hands behind his back and strolled over to pause in front of Rude. Reno gazed into the taller man’s still face for a few seconds, then turned to look Caitlin over from head to toe.
“Perhaps introductions are in order.” He suggested amicably.
No one seemed eager to speak, and the silence grew between them, the noisy chatter of the birds around them suddenly taking reign over the conversation.
Reno brought his narrow gaze back to Rude.
“Rude, since you seem to know everyone here, why don’t you do the honors.” The red-haired Turk suggested smoothly.
Rude stood in silence for the beat of several seconds, his irritated expression hidden behind the opaque lenses of his shades. Sometimes he really despised Reno’s games. He tore his angry eyes away from Reno’s face and turned to Caitlin. He might as well get it over with. Reno wouldn’t back down.
“Caitlin, this is Reno…” Rude spoke in a stilted voice, his hands still clasped in front of him. “…The Leader of the Turks.”
A look of surprise flitted across Caitlin’s features and away. Reno noted her curious reaction, then nodded politely.
“…And this is Elena…” Rude continued.
Elena stiffly inclined her head in acknowledgement.
Rude then turned slightly to face Reno.
“Reno…Elena…” He paused, not eager to speak the next words out loud. At the lift of Reno’s eyebrow, he continued.
“This is Caitlin.”
Suddenly, the corner of Rude’s mouth lifted in a rare half-smile. Reno examined his face, his whole body tensing at the sight. Then he turned to look at the diminutive woman again.
“Caitlin…?” His silky voice didn’t betray his uneasiness.
“Caitlin…Shinra.” Rude finished.
“Shinra?!” Elena choked out. “She can’t be a Shinra! There aren’t anymore…”
“Elena! Be quiet!” Rude snapped.
Elena clamped her mouth shut at the unusual admonishment from Rude.
Reno stared at the woman’s face as he let the import of the stunning information sink into his brain. Under his intent perusal, she lifted her chin arrogantly, her heart pounding in her chest.
Reno nodded his head slowly, still not quite able to find his voice. Yes, he could see it now. She had the red-gold hair and vivid blue eyes of her brother. He knew without a doubt now that Rufus was her brother, not her cousin, not her uncle. Her brother. Reno’s temper suddenly flared, and his anger was projected from his glittering eyes and the cold smile that suddenly twisted his thin lips. The expression sent a shiver through Caitlin’s body that wasn’t lost on Reno.
“Actually, it’s not Shinra….” She suddenly blurted. “Not anymore.”
She tore her eyes away from Reno’s feral stare, and sought out Rude. His familiar face steadied her.
“I…was married.” She added, her voice more firm.
She turned to Reno again, frowning at his unchanged expression. Suddenly, her own temper welled inside her.
“And how is it that You are Leader of the Turks anyway?” She demanded icily. “Where is Tseng? Did he finally follow his heart and leave Shinra?”
The smile fell from Reno’s face at her words, but his eyes still burned into hers.
“Yes, he left. In a manner of speaking.” Reno finally spoke.
“Tseng is dead!” Elena blurted out, the intense pain evident in her voice.
Startled, Caitlin shot a look at Elena, a horrified numbness creeping through her whole body even as she found herself locked into the blonde Turk’s anguished eyes.
Shaken, Caitlin brought her stunned gaze across Reno’s face to find him staring out into the forest in the distance, seemingly fascinated with a couple of flittering jays.
Her wide eyes finally ended up on Rude’s expressionless face, the pain she knew he must have experienced at the death of his friend Tseng not reflected there, his brown eyes hidden behind the shades. Still, she knew the pain would be there. She knew they had been close. Her eyes fell to her feet.
“I…I’m sorry.” She whispered brokenly. “I…I don’t know what to say…”
At her words, Reno spun away and leaned down to retrieve his nightstick and laptop from beside the chair. Then he straightened to his full height and brought his attention back to the petite woman in the paint-smeared smock.
“Forget it. It’s done.” He spoke dully. “Obviously, we have important matters to discuss, matters which may be more pressing than I had first thought. So let’s get to it.”
He whirled away and stepped toward the door, abruptly stopping in place as he came alongside Rude. Pointedly, he turned his back to Caitlin and brought the full weight of his narrow-eyed gaze to the big Turk’s serene face.
“Elena…Ms. Shinra…shall we go inside?” Reno suggested lightly, his attention still focused on Rude’s immobile face.
Elena tossed her blonde head and moved to the door, but paused in the threshold to wait for Caitlin. The smaller woman wanted nothing to do with the whole business. All she wanted to do was return to the still-life she’d been painting when the rhythmic beat of the chopper blades had drawn her away, but she knew that these Turks wouldn’t go away until this business was concluded. Without another word, she headed for the door, making a wide circle around Reno as she passed.
She shot a surreptitious look at Rude’s face just before she stepped into the house, her nerves jangling in alarm when Elena moved in close behind her to follow her in.
Reno waited until both women had disappeared into the house, then he turned his gaze to the whitewashed floorboards beneath his feet. He drew in a long breath and let it out slowly. Rude didn’t move.
“Well…Rude…looks like we’re gonna have to talk…” The redheaded Turk finally spoke, his tone gruff in his effort to speak lowly.
“Yes…” Rude replied.
Reno nodded slowly.
“For now…let’s see if we can get a handle on this situation.” Reno added. “We’ll talk later.”
The tall, lanky Turk didn’t wait for a reply, moving toward the open doorway, the heels of his loafers tapping smartly against the wooden porch.
Rude stared off into the landscaped yard, the sound of Reno’s shoes echoing in his befuddled mind. His troubled gaze moved over the colorful flowerbeds and the classical statuary, coming to rest on a delicate winged sylph frozen in flight in the middle of a tinkling fountain. Absently, he shook his head in unconscious denial as he replayed the last few minutes, trying to bring his knowledge of past events in line with the facts before him. After a few moments, he shook his head again. He just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t figure it out. Obviously, he needed more information. He did know one thing for sure though, he had come face to face with the ghost of Caitlin Shinra today. But she was no ghost. Everything had changed.
He straightened and turned for the door, a feeling of dazed unreality dogging his thoughts.
What the hell would happen next?
Cloud abruptly braked, the motorcycle skewing sideways to a stop. He planted one foot on the wet, grassy track and stared at the indistinct shape of rooftops in the distance. He glanced up into the overcast sky, blinking as the fat raindrops splattered against his upturned face. He brought his gaze back to the rain cloaked view of the village of Kalm. He figured he’d better get going. He had a suspicion the sun wouldn’t be coming out anytime soon.
Cloud opened the throttle, and the bike sprang forward, clumps of mud flying out behind him as the rear tire bit into the soggy ground. He ducked his head against the icy pelt of the raindrops, sharp against his skin as he roared across the flat plain toward the sleepy village.
As he had expected, the engorged clouds abruptly opened up, and the subsequent deluge instantly soaked him through and through, plastering his spiky hair against his cheeks and his clothes to his skin. He didn’t think he could get any wetter. He was wrong.
Bending low over the handlebars, he peered into the curtain of rain, locking his eyes on the bit of weed grown track he could still see. He knew he couldn’t go wrong following the trail.
Minutes passed as he rode, the bike now struggling forward as the tires bogged in the mud, the strained roar of the engine muted in the drilling rain. He opened the throttle a bit more. He knew it couldn’t be much further.
The motorcycle bogged down again and lurched forward once, snapping Cloud’s head back. Then, the engine sputtered and died. The machine slogged instantly to a stop, and Cloud threw his foot down into the mud, his boot almost sliding out from under him.
Immediately, Cloud hit the starter and listened to the unproductive whine. He lifted his eyes to peer into the rain and hit it again. As he glanced around, he realized that several indistinct shapes loomed along the side of the trail. Startled, he froze and stared hard at the closest one, switching the ignition off as he tried to make it out.
He realized quickly that the objects weren’t moving, so he swung his leg over to dismount the motorcycle and moved toward the first one, laboring to push the heavy bike along in the mud. Within a few steps, the lines of the mysterious shape emerged clearly, and he immediately recognized the sharp angles of a large tent. Now that he was closer, he could see the flickering glow visible through the white canvas, no doubt cast by the dancing flame of a lantern within.
He pulled his eyes away from the curious sight, and continued forward, fighting against the tendency to slip as he forced the bike through the waterlogged ground. He picked out more tents as he trudged inexorably forward, the temporary structures of various sizes and colors all huddled together against the capricious weather. Although he thought he could hear someone talking somewhere, he didn’t see a soul. Obviously, everybody else had the intelligence to stay out of the rain. His lips lifted in a wry smile.
He ducked his head and bent into his task. The town should be just ahead. Obviously, these were refugees from Midgar who probably fled the city before Meteor came down and had set up a makeshift community around the tiny village of Kalm. He knew Reeve wouldn’t be here. The Shinra executive had been in the slums under Midgar the last time they’d had contact with him, and Cloud didn’t even know if Midgar still stood.
Abruptly, a vision of a bomb-torn Midgar street welled into his mind, the girl with troubled eyes looking around at the noise and confusion, her hands wrapped tightly around the handle of her basket. Her ethereal beauty and the bright petals of her flowers, incongruous in the midst of all the damage, immediately captured his eye, and he’d strolled over to her, the fact that he had just escaped the explosion in the Shinra reactor totally forgotten, an explosion he had caused no less. He dropped his eyes to the ground as the memory played on through his mind. Yes, he’d met her first on the streets of Midgar, selling her flowers to those with a few gil to spare. A hollow ache swelled in his heart as he pictured the way she’d smiled when he agreed to purchase a flower, a smile he would never see again, at least in this lifetime.
With a jerk of his chin, he broke free of his melancholy thoughts as he set foot on the first azure tile of the town square. He paused in the rain to look around at the houses and storefronts of the small village. Despite the weather, there were people everywhere, standing in groups under dripping eaves, sitting on benches under store awnings watching the rain fall, leaning in open doorways. Many of them watched him as he pushed the motorcycle through the center of the plaza.
Cloud stopped outside the tavern. He knew that would be the most likely place to get information. He kicked the stand down on the motorcycle and looked around. His eyes fell on the curious face of a freckle-faced kid with an unruly mop of red hair who stood just outside the tavern door. Tall and skinny, he looked to be in his late teens. The kid’s eyes were glued on the sleek motorcycle.
“Hey, kid!” Cloud addressed him. The tall youth reluctantly drew his gaze away from the bike to focus on Cloud. The eyes widened at the sight of Cloud’s luminous Mako eyes.
“Uh…h…hello…” He stammered.
“Wanna do me a favor?” Cloud asked, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth at the awestruck expression on the kid’s face. However, the kid’s eyes narrowed suspiciously at the request.
“Whatcha want?” He responded.
“I’m just lookin' for someone to watch my bike. Make sure nobody messes with it.”
The kid eyeballed Cloud silently.
“There’d be fifty gil in it for ya if you’re interested.” Cloud added.
The kid nodded as his face lit up.
“Sure Mister, I’ll do it.” He replied happily. “I’ll take good care of it.”
“Hey, what’s yer name?” Cloud suddenly asked.
“Well, glad to do business with you, Jorrie. My name’s Cloud, and I’ll be right in there if there’s a problem.” Cloud gestured toward the tavern doorway.
Jorrie leaned back against the stone wall and crossed his arms.
“I’m on the job, Cloud.”
Cloud nodded and strolled under the arched portal into the dimly lit bar. He paused to let his eyes adjust to the dim interior as he ran a hand over his dripping hair. The joint was tightly packed with people, their chatter a constant buzz underpinning the chink of glasses and rattle of ice. He felt the weight of several pairs of eyes as he stood there. Seemed the bar owner was doing a booming business.
Casually, he scanned the faces that were visible as he sauntered toward the bar. He didn’t see anyone that looked familiar. All the barstools were occupied, so he leaned against the end of the bar, returning the nod of a couple of people nearby.
The bartender noticed him there and approached, snatching up a hand towel from the counter as he neared.
“You look a bit under the weather, friend.” The plump man chuckled as he handed Cloud the towel. “How about a drink?”
“Thanks.” Cloud replied as he swept the towel over his head. “Sorry about the mess.”
“Nah, don’t worry ‘bout it. You’re not the first. How about that drink?”
“Yeah, just a shot of whiskey.” Cloud responded. “That ought to do the trick.”
“On the way.” The bartender turned away to his task.
Cloud rubbed the towel over his face and down his arms, then set it aside on the shiny counter. The bartender reappeared to set the tiny glass of amber liquid in front of him. Cloud tossed 10 gil down on the bar and picked up the glass. He lifted it to his lips, but paused at the tap on his shoulder.
“Hey, you.” A deep voice growled.
Cloud looked over his shoulder and examined the scruffy faced man that stood there. The guy was roughly the size of Barrett although not quite as muscle bound. Dismissing him, Cloud turned back to the bar and tossed down his drink. He coughed once as he set the empty glass down. The liquid burned all the way down, and he hoped it would warm him up a bit.
The tap came again.
“Hey, I’m talkin' to you.” The surly voice came close to his ear.
Cloud sighed and turned to face the man.
“Can I help you with something?” Cloud asked evenly.
“That’s a mighty big sword you’re carryin' there.” The man pointed out in a slurred voice, jabbing a hard finger into Cloud’s chest. “Can you use that thing? Or you just carryin' it for show?”
The drunken man chuckled at his own dubious wit. Enthralled as he was with himself, he didn’t realize that no one else was laughing. In fact, the room had suddenly grown quiet.
“Yes.” Cloud said simply. “I can use it.”
“Sure you can.” The man sneered. “I think you’re just…you know…makin' up fer other things…that you lack.” The drunk guffawed loudly in the silent room, totally oblivious to the lack of response to his awkward gibe.
Cloud sighed again and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Yes, well…you’d know more about that than I would.” He responded quietly, shaking his head. He pondered the fact that there always seemed to be one of these morons in every bar on the planet, no matter where it was located. Cloud smiled at the thought that maybe the bar owners hired them for comic relief.
The man swayed in front of him, his mouth gaping open as he sorted through his befuddled mind to find an adequate response to Cloud’s ambiguous statement.
Tired of the nonsense, Cloud turned back to the bar. The big man’s face twisted in anger at the smaller man’s indifference. He dropped a meaty hand on his shoulder with the intention of jerking Cloud back around to face him, but someone grabbed his elbow.
“Jake, you idiot.” A voice hissed beside him. “Can’t you see that guy’s in Soldier.”
“Huh?” Jake grunted.
Cloud turned his Mako-enhanced eyes on the huge hand that rested atop his shoulder, but made no move to dislodge it.
Jake dragged his bleary gaze to bear on the thin man that stood beside him.
“Soldier…Shinra…elite forces…” The man hissed under his breath.
The words finally sank into Jake’s thick head and the blood drained from his face. He snatched his hand away and stumbled back. Even he wasn’t so drunk that he didn’t know what Shinra’s Mako-enhanced Soldiers were reputed to be capable of doing.
“Er…s…sorry…” Jake stammered. “Sorry…just wanted to say…that’s a mighty fine lookin' sword…”
Cloud ignored the man and his slurred apology as the drunk scuffled away. He lifted his hand and gestured to the bartender instead. The hum of the room commenced once more now that the entertainment seemed to be over.
“Need another drink?” The bartender inquired.
“No, I just wanted some information.” Cloud responded lowly. The bartender leaned in, propping his elbows on the bar. He raised his bushy eyebrows in question.
“I was wondering if you’d heard of anything out of Midgar.” Cloud asked in a quiet voice. “I’ve got friends that live there and I’ve just come up from the South, and I hadn’t heard…”
Cloud stopped when the bartender started shaking his head.
“There hasn’t been anybody out of Midgar since that Meteor thing came down last night. No communication either.” The bartender said sadly. “Lot of people came before, got rooms or threw up tents. If ya got friends you might check with those people.”
“Been having many problems with all these extra people here?” Cloud inquired curiously.
“No…not really…surprisingly enough…" The bartender shook his head. “Only problem I foresee is that we’re gonna run out of food pretty fast, and since we got all of our supplies from Midgar…” The man’s gruff voice ground to a stop.
Cloud nodded. “I can see where that will definitely be a problem.” He replied softly. He glanced around at all the people crammed into the tavern, and he made a decision. Since no one knew anything about Midgar, he would go there himself to see what he could find out, just as soon as the rain let up a little.
“Thanks, man.” Cloud tossed another ten gil down on the counter and started to turn away before another thought occurred to him.
“Hey….” The bartender had straightened to move away, but paused. “Do you know of a woman named Elmyra? With a little girl? Dark hair about six or so?”
The bartender knitted his brows in concentration, but finally shook his head negatively.
“No, sure don’t.” He pushed away from the bar at the summons of another customer. “Sorry I can’t tell you more.”
Cloud nodded his thanks and headed for the door. Another patron stepped into the doorway, and Cloud stood aside to let him pass, but the man turned to glare at him.
Cloud rolled his eyes. Not another one.
“You Cloud?” The man asked, his tone hostile.
“Yes.” Cloud responded tersely.
“That yer ride out there?” The man demanded.
“Yes.” Cloud repeated.
“Well, I know fer a fact that it ain’t yers.” The man poked a bony finger into Cloud’s chest.
“Yeah, I know. It’s Avian’s.” Cloud responded. “He loaned it to me when my ride broke down.”
The man’s eyes flew wide, and he dropped his arm to his side.
“Ah…you know Avian then? Good kid ain’t he?” A broad smile lit up the thin face.
“Can’t argue with you there.” Cloud responded agreeably.
“Hey, name’s Tiko.” The man held out his hand. “I’m Avian’s boss.”
Cloud took the man’s hand in a firm grip. “His boss?”
“Yeah, at the materia shop. He had ta go take care of his Granny for awhile.” Tiko informed him. “But I guess you know that if you just seen him.”
Cloud nodded in acknowledgement.
“Hey, you look like yer in need of some dry clothes. Come on back to my place and I’ll hook ya up. You can grab a bite and rest up a bit.”
Cloud started to refuse the man’s kind offer, but realized that he probably wouldn’t be able to find any other place to stay until the rain let up.
“Sure, okay. Thanks.” Tiko stepped outside, and Cloud followed him, turning to Jorrie when he cleared the door.
Jorrie straightened away from the wall, his eyes darting nervously from Tiko to Cloud. He eyed Cloud closely as the soldier reached into the pocket of his trousers and retrieved a handful of gil. He held it out to the youth.
“Here you go.” Cloud offered. “Thanks for watching the bike.”
Jorrie eyed the gil for a moment, then turned his gaze to Tiko, who gave him a slight nod. Without a word, the carrot-headed boy snatched the gil from Cloud’s hand and trotted away, giving a backwards wave as he disappeared into another doorway down the street.
Tiko grabbed the handlebars of the motorcycle and kicked the stand up.
“Come on, I gotta place we can stash this.” He said over his shoulder as he moved out into the tiled plaza. Cloud fell into step beside him as he glanced around the small village again, carefully examining the faces of everyone he could see. He noticed that the rain had let up somewhat, now calmed to a light shower. Hopefully, the rainstorm would pass. He had too much he had to get done to wait around for the weather to change. However, the low hanging black clouds didn’t bode well. Maybe he should just buy a rain slicker and head for Midgar on foot. He’d traveled in worse conditions. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about freezing to death. He pulled his attention back to Tiko when he didn’t find who he was looking for. As a Kalm merchant, Tiko should be a person with his thumb on village gossip.
“Say Tiko, you know a lady called Elmyra? She has a little girl with dark hair…about six…?”
“Don’t ring any bells for me. Not from here I guess...” Tiko responded shortly.
“No. They would have come in a couple of weeks ago…” Cloud elaborated. “…Maybe with a guy in a suit, an executive type.”
“Hmmmm….” Tiko chewed his lip as he gave it some thought. “There’s been a lot of new folks in town…but can’t think of nobody that sounds like that right offhand…”
The shopkeeper stopped in front of a sturdy plank door, secured with a huge padlock and nodded to Cloud to hold the motorcycle. Cloud stood to the side and watched as Tiko produced a rusty skeleton key and opened the lock with a loud clunk. He turned to Cloud with a big grin.
“Store my goods here...” He proclaimed proudly as he dragged the heavy door ajar.
Cloud nodded absently as he scanned the faces around the town square again. New faces had emerged since he’d last looked, but no one he recognized. Still gazing around, he relinquished his hold on the handlebars when Tiko pushed the bike forward.
He turned his attention back to Tiko at the loud clank of the padlock snapping closed, and it suddenly occurred to him that this so-called Tiko could be anyone. Now Avian’s bike was locked securely behind the heavy door.
Finished with his task, Tiko faced Cloud and frowned at the wary look in the soldier’s eyes. The shopkeeper pursed his lips and nodded.
“Come on up. My place is above the store.” Tiko wheeled and started toward the stone stairway to the upper level. Cloud watched him for a moment, then sprang into motion, his long strides easily catching him up. He didn’t have anything to worry about anyway. Tiko seemed an honest fellow. Besides, the Ultima Sword would make mincemeat of the padlock if it became necessary.
Cloud trailed the shopkeeper up the wide staircase and paused with one foot on the upper street level when something caught his eye. He shot a glance upward to the high wall that girded the city, and scanned along the stone palisade until his gaze inevitably landed on the tower window that he’d peered from himself the first time he’d been in Kalm. The tower room provided a panoramic view of the entire village. Now a little girl bounced up and down in the window, waving frantically. A wide grin broke out over Cloud’s face at the sight of her. Marlene. He lifted his hand and waved back. Elmyra emerged in the window behind Marlene, and she stared down into the street at him. The smile faded from his lips, and he let his hand fall to his side.
“What’s up?” Tiko asked curiously. Cloud turned to find him waiting a few feet away, a puzzled look on his face.
He shot a glance at the window again. The shutters were now closed.
“Er…I’ve got some business I need to take care of…” Cloud spoke slowly, an ache forming in the pit of his stomach.
“Sure, just head for the shop when you’re through. I’ll be working.” Tiko replied.
Cloud unconsciously nodded in response, his eyes still frozen on the shuttered window. The shopkeeper shrugged his shoulders and walked away.
Woodenly, Cloud reversed his course down the stone steps and crossed the pavement to stop in front of the large house that gave access to the spiral staircase leading to the tower. For several minutes he stared at the ornate brass doorknocker set into the door at eye-level, oblivious to the attention he was drawing from passersby as he mentally rehearsed what he would say to her. Finally, he raised his nerveless fingers to grasp the cool metal ring.
He knew damn well that he had nothing to offer her, no words to mitigate the pain, no justification for his failure, only an abject apology that would no doubt be worth next to nothing to her.
Still, she deserved whatever he could offer her, even if it was just the right to spit in his face or scratch out his lying eyes. Whatever he had to endure, he would not walk out of this town without facing her.
Bound by his resolve, he lifted the metal ring and let it fall.
Cid stood on the deck with his foot propped on the wooden railing, safe from the deluge beneath the superstructure overhead. Silently, he peered into the heavy curtain of rain and lifted his cigarette to his lips.
Barrett poked his head out of the bulkhead doorway and saw him there. He strolled over and came alongside the Captain just in time to encounter his cloud of noxious smoke. Coughing, he waved his hand in front of his face to clear some of it away so he could breath.
“Not gonna get much else done in this damn weather…” Cid idly remarked. With a jerk of his wrist, he shot his cigarette over the side.
“Well, at least we got those winch lines set so the ship’s not goin’ anywhere.” Barrett pointed out.
“Got that right.” Cid growled. “She ain’t goin' nowhere for awhile.”
Barrett nodded silently in agreement, and gazed off in the direction of Kalm.
“Doubt Cloud’s gonna be back right away either….” He muttered.
“Doubt it.” Cid readily agreed, leaning his elbows against the top rail.
“Lt. Jerol and I found that canvas and wrapped Lt. Keith in it. We put him in one of the storage bays until we can...put him…somewhere else…” Barrett stared into the rain as his voice faltered. “…At least he didn’t suffer…”
“Good.” Cid dropped his foot to the deck and straightened. “He was a damn fine officer. As soon as this rain lets up, we’ll give him a proper burial.” The Captain paused and swept a weary hand over his face. He sighed and stared intently into the distance where he could just barely make out an indistinct shape in the downpour. He lifted his finger to point.
“There’s a big oak tree out there that’ll make a nice place for him to rest.” Cid said gruffly. “Jerol says he didn’t have any family, so I guess that’s as good a place as any.”
Barrett dropped his eyes to his boots and nodded. Cid yanked another cigarette out of the pack stuck in the strap of his flight goggles as the silence grew between them.
“Well…anyway…” Cid started, but fell into silence again as he struck a match on the railing and brought it up to light the cigarette.
Barrett cleared his throat and shifted from one foot to the other.
“Er…Avian found those spare helium tanks you had him lookin’ for…” Barrett scratched his head as he spoke, a bit uncomfortable about changing the subject, but the talk of burying the young officer led him straight to thoughts of Tifa and Marlene, how he would face it if the worst had happened to either of them. He didn’t want to think about any of it right now.
“Well…we can charge the internal float tanks at least, get the old girl off her wing.” Cid mused. “Can’t put her under power though. Don’t have any extra prop engines, and she’s too broken up to fly under jet power.”
Barrett didn’t know what to say, so he just kept quiet.
“Dammit, I need my engineering team here.” The Captain snapped. “I need my head engineer. We’d have her in the air in no time.”
Cid spun to face Barrett and waved a finger in his face, exhaling another toxic fog around Barrett’s head. The big man choked on the smoke and stepped back, bringing his fist to his mouth as he coughed.
“I’m gonna do it!” Cid shook his finger at him and took another long drag. “I’m gonna bring my whole crew here. Don’t know how, but I’m gonna do it!”
Coughing hoarsely, Barrett leaned over the rail and sucked in a huge breath of fresh, rain-washed air. He coughed again as he straightened.
“Hell, you comin’ down with somethin’?” Cid asked, suddenly concerned. He scrutinized Barrett’s face. “Hope not. Don’t got time for it.”
Barrett took another deep breath. “No, I’m fine.”
“Well, let’s go see what we can do about charging those tanks.” Cid spoke over his shoulder as he passed Barrett on the way to the door. “Then I’m gonna hit my cabin and sleep for awhile. You should do the same.”
Barrett fell in behind the Captain, but froze in his tracks when the grizzled pilot spun on his heel to face him again.
“Hey, where’s that kid now?” Cid suddenly asked.
“Uh…I think he went up to the house.” Barrett responded.
Cid chuckled as he turned back to the doorway. “His funeral…”
Barrett didn’t disagree.
Avian slipped along the side of the house, his back flattened against the drenched siding. He paused to peek around the corner with one eye. The backyard was empty, so he rounded the corner and crept stealthily, inch by inch, towards the back door. He hoped that in all the uproar earlier, no one had remembered to turn the lock. If he could get in, then maybe he could slip past the misbegotten ninja girl and get to his room. First of all, he wanted to change his clothes. Never mind that he’d gotten soaking wet in the commission of his plan to sneak into the house. That was beside the point. He also wanted a shot at getting his knife back. If he could gain access to the house without the evil Yuffie’s knowledge, he might be able to get into her bag. Surely, she didn’t carry it all the time. She should be all kicked back and relaxed by now. He wanted to see how his Grandma was doing too, make sure she wasn’t tied up in the closet or something. Most importantly, he wanted to prove that nobody was going to keep him out of his own damn home.
He paused alongside the big kitchen window and shoved the wet clumps of his hair away from his face. Cautiously, he laid his cheek to the cold window frame and peered through the rain wet pane, trying to see inside without being seen himself. The part of the kitchen that he could see appeared dark and devoid of life. Still, he wouldn’t take a chance.
Ducking low beneath the windowsill, he shambled past, setting his boots carefully in the accumulated puddles beneath the eaves so he wouldn’t splash and alert the girl. Safely past that trouble spot, he straightened and eased slowly out around Grandma’s overgrown crepe myrtle bush to reach the edge of the wooden stoop.
With one hand, he parted the tangled branches and stared at the backdoor for several long moments, listening for all he was worth for the slightest sound. Every cell in his body screamed that she was there, but no one moved behind the glass, and he could hear nothing but silence from within.
Finally satisfied that she wasn’t there, he decided to move to the next phase of his infiltration. With his face turned up to watch the empty pane, he bent low and slid a foot onto the stoop. He drew in a slow breath and held it in as he shifted his weight to that foot. The board didn’t creak. He finally exhaled when nobody appeared behind the door. Cautiously, he lifted the other foot up and reached for the doorknob, letting his head drop. He’d developed a painful crick in his neck from holding his head at such an acute angle.
Avian drew in another long breath and smoothly eased the metal knob to the right. A triumphant smile formed on his face as the latch released with a nearly imperceptible click. He’d been dead right. She hadn’t thought to lock the back door. With excruciating slowness, he pushed the door inward, his eyes focused on the widening space between the wooden door and the frame. He sucked his bottom lip between his teeth as he started to straighten, but froze when the door bumped up against something inside. His eyes shot to the window, and he screamed. The twisted, thick lips and the lopsided nose of the face framed in the window sent the blood rushing straight to his head. He jumped back and tumbled off the edge of the small porch to splash flat on his back in the water-swamped grass.
Struggling valiantly to catch his breath, he stared up in horror at the deformed visage, unable to move so much as a muscle to rise from the icy water. His racing thoughts ground to a screeching halt when the face suddenly disengaged from the glass. His mouth fell open as she waved and kicked the door shut, her laughter grating on his raw nerves. His temper flared white-hot and adrenaline surged through his bloodstream in response. Instinctively, he sprang to his feet and dove for the door, but she turned the lock just as he grabbed the doorknob and slammed into the door.
He glared into her laughing face as he noisily rattled the knob.
“Let me in right now!” He yelled as he rattled the knob even harder. His eyes narrowed when she shook her head and spoke. He couldn’t hear what she was saying, so he let go of the doorknob and put his ear close to the door.
“What did you say?!” He yelled.
Yuffie suddenly smiled and bounced out of sight.
“Dammit…” Avian muttered. He pounded on the door with his fist, then waited for a response. He knew he wouldn’t receive one, but he banged again anyway. He felt like kicking the door in, but he couldn’t bring himself to do something that destructive. He leaned in and stared intently at the ghostly white linoleum barely visible in the weak daylight from outside. He could just barely make out the lines of the table. As he expected, she was nowhere to be seen.
Avian jerked his head around when he heard the big kitchen window rattle up in its frame. He bounded off the stoop and around the huge bush to slam to a stop at the sight of her in the opening, her elbows resting on the cracked sill, her chin resting in her hands.
“What are you doing?” He cried out in exasperation. “Let me in the house!”
“Uh Uh.” She smirked. “I just came over here to tell you what I said.”
Avian glared at her in stubborn silence.
“Well?” She arched an eyebrow at him. “Don’t you want to know what I said?”
Avian abruptly crossed his arms over his chest with an impatient huff.
“Well?” He asked.
“Well what?” She returned.
“Well, what the hell did you say?” He snapped.
“Oh well, I hope you don’t get mad or anything like that but…” Her voice trailed off as she rolled her eyes skyward.
“Will you just spit it out!” Avian almost shouted.
“Okay! Okay!.” She smiled innocuously at him. “I said you scream like a girl.”
Stunned into silence, Avian just stared speechlessly at her as she batted her eyes at him. Finally, he found his voice.
“That’s what you said?! That I scream like a girl?!” His voice cracked as his volume rose.
“Yeah, that’s what I said.” She agreed.
Avian started to yell back, but caught himself and took a deep breath instead, letting a few seconds pass before he replied. He recognized that she was trying to make him lose his cool, and he wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction.
“For your information, I do not scream like a girl.” He finally replied in a steady voice.
“Yes. You do.” She answered lazily.
“No, I don’t.” He took a step towards the window.
“Yes, you do.”
“Don’t.” He took another step.
“Don’t.” Another step brought him even with the window.
He moved his nose to within a few inches of hers.
Avian clamped his mouth shut. She wouldn’t catch him with that one. He almost snickered at the frown on her face.
“I’m glad you finally agree.” He smiled benignly into her face.
“In your dreams.” She snapped back.
“You’re the one that screams like a girl.” Avian pointed out.
She stared at him for a moment as she turned that over in her mind before she responded.
Avian lifted his fingers to grasp the edge of the sill in front her with both hands. In a minute, he would catch her off guard and shove her backwards so he could jump through the window. He knew that it would require meticulous timing on his part.
“It’s okay if I scream like a girl.” She finally replied, her narrowed black eyes pinned on his. “I am a girl.”
Avian’s eyebrows shot into his hairline.
“Really?!” He exclaimed. “I never would have guessed it!”
Yuffie erupted into a blur of motion. Before Avian could think, much less move, the blade of her shuriken sank deep into the surface of the sill with a resonate thwang, squarely between the first finger and middle finger of his right hand. His hand convulsively twitched as he stared stupidly at the keen blade, his mind stunned into incomprehension. Then a violent shudder racked his body. He jerked his hands back as though the windowsill had turned to flame and seared his fingertips. Before he could get his mind wrapped around a single coherent thought, she ripped the shuriken from the wood and jumped to her feet. Without another word to him, she slammed the window down and latched it. Then she presented him with a full frontal view of her slender middle finger before she vanished from sight.
Unconsciously, he backed away, still struggling to overcome the horror of how close he’d come to losing a finger or two. Another shudder worked its way through his body as he stood there, the rain pouring down unnoticed on his bare head.
He shook his head. Perhaps he’d gone just a little bit too far. He just had to keep running his mouth, and now he’d spoiled his chance of getting into the house. She was really pissed at him now, and he wasn’t about to go anywhere near her until she cooled down, maybe in a year or so.
He shook his head again and turned toward the barn, replaying the whole fiasco in his mind as he sloshed across the yard. His thoughts turned inward, he automatically pulled the wide door ajar and slipped through. He picked his way across the dimly lit floor and threw himself into a pile of scattered straw near the back where no daylight reached. Turning on his side, he burrowed down into the warm hay and closed his eyes. He figured he might as well sleep. They couldn’t do anything in the rain, and he was exhausted. He hadn’t slept in two days.
The wicked blade flashed in his mind, and he winced.
“Problems?” Avian’s eyes flew open at the sound of the soft voice beside him.
Uneasily, he studied the dark shape of the beast stretched out in the hay a few feet from him.
Avian drew in a shaky breath. “No.” He responded flatly.
“I heard you arguing with Yuffie…” Nanaki prompted.
Avian flopped over on his other side, pointedly turning his back on the big cat.
“She is a diabolical witch.” He growled. “And I don’t want to talk about her.”
“Actually, she is a royal princess…” Nanaki replied quietly, his lips stretching across his sharp teeth in a feline smile. “…The next ruler of Wutai.”
“Then may the Five Gods help them all.” Avian remarked, his voice dripping with disdain.
Nanaki studied the lad’s stiffly silent back and listened to the soporific drone of the rain against the tin roof. He settled his muzzle between his outstretched paws and let his eye droop sleepily. His thoughts meandered through the rooms of the past days and the familiar faces and voices of his friends, finally coming full circle to replay the words just passed. An image of Yuffie Kisaragi as Lady of the Pagoda, supreme ruler of Wutai, floated behind his closed eyelids. Almost asleep, he belatedly responded to Avian’s statement, his drowsy voice a soft murmur.
“It will take more than the Five Gods of Dachau to save them.”
Cloud ascended the spiral staircase, nervous eyes focused intently on the narrow opening above. The clump of his boots on the metal risers echoed hollowly in the dim recesses of the stairwell. He still didn’t know what he would say to Elmyra. Looked like he was going to have to wing it and pray he survived the experience. A wry smile twisted his lips. He had taken down the mighty Sephiroth, but he was terrified of a tiny redheaded lady with gray streaks in her hair. Afraid of her words. Why? Because they would confirm what he felt, that he should be climbing these stairs with Aeris in tow and the fact that she wasn’t here…well that fell squarely on his shoulders. He’d said he would bring her home, and he’d failed.
Cloud gained the tiny landing and moved into the open doorway. He tapped lightly against the doorframe with his knuckles even as his gaze fell on the woman and child inside, the two standing together side by side with all their attention pinned on him.
He shifted uneasily beneath the weight of their eyes, one pair filled with awe, the other as cold and hard as the glacial ice that covered the Gaea Cliffs. He tapped his gloved fingers against his thigh as he warily returned Elmyra’s stare, tension coiling tightly in his chest.
“Cloud!” Marlene sprang across the small space to fling her small arms around his legs. “I saw you from way up here!”
A bemused smile slipped across Cloud’s lips. The last time he’d seen Marlene, she would hardly talk to him…or anyone. He guessed that things had changed…for everybody.
“Yeah…” He responded softly. “I saw you too, from way down there.”
“Come look come look…” She exclaimed as she grabbed his fingers in one pudgy hand. Cloud let himself be led across the room as the dark-haired child tugged him along, grateful for the momentary distraction from the woman who stood to the side with her arms akimbo, her silence permeating the room with frost.
Marlene released him in front of the window, and he crossed his arms and waited as she stood on tiptoe and pushed the shutters open again. He blinked in the subdued daylight from outside, a bright contrast to the low, flickering light in the candlelit tower room.
“Do you see it?!” She asked him as she bounced up and down, her small fingers clasped around the edge of the wide sill. “Do you?”
Cloud stared down into the center of the village. The rain had stopped and more people had emerged to mill around in the tiled plaza. He let his eyes slide over the houses and businesses below, looking for whatever exciting thing it was that Marlene wanted him to see.
“Well…we’re really high…” He started hesitantly.
“No! OUT THERE!” She fairly danced beside him in her excitement, jabbing a finger toward the top of the far wall.
Cloud lifted his eyes and stared into the distance. He tracked the line of the Midgar Mountains to bring his eyes to rest on a dark, flat shape huddled on the horizon, where the foothills gave way to the coastal plain. There she was, the great metropolis of Midgar, the land around her dead for miles and miles, a malignant wart barely visible from where he stood. So, the main structure of the city remained. He thought he could see a wisp of smoke rising into the air above the city skyline, but it was hard to tell from this distance. One thing he did know, the damage to the structure had to be extensive, but his heart lightened at the realization that Reeve could still be alive in the slums if the main pillars had held.
“The flower lady was there!” Marlene exclaimed. “I saw her! She saved the city! She did! She did!”
“The flower lady?” Cloud turned to look at Marlene. She beamed up at him.
“You saw her?” He asked carefully.
The girl nodded and pressed her small hands to her chest. “I saw her here…in my heart.”
Marlene pinned her shining eyes on Cloud’s still face. “Did you see her too?” She asked hopefully.
At first, Cloud didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to say no that he hadn’t seen her, although that was the truth. Of course, there was that terrified scream that ripped through his head on board the Highwind, but that had to be an aberration brought on by his head injury. He started to shake his head, to tell her no, but then he remembered the moment that he’d seen the tendrils of Lifestream flow from inside the Planet and snake toward Midgar; remembered how, at just that moment, Aeris seemed a tangible presence, inside his mind and…yes…inside his heart.
“Yes, I did see her.” Cloud finally told the little girl, his voice barely above a whisper.
Marlene nodded sagely, as though she’d known all along. “She’s coming to see me soon.” She confided, her own voice a loud whisper. “I told Miss Elmyra, but it made her cry.”
Cloud shifted uncomfortably, his throat tightening at the innocence of Marlene’s words. He knew quite well Aeris wouldn’t be coming, as did Elmyra.
“Do you think so…?” He finally asked, at a loss for the appropriate response to the child’s fantasy.
Marlene nodded again. “Yes, she told me.”
Before Cloud could come up with an intelligent answer to that startling statement, he heard a choked groan from the other side of the room. He spun away from the window to find Elmyra slumped against the far wall, her face buried in her hands as she struggled to stifle the sobs that shook her body.
Without a thought, he quickly moved across the room to stand beside her, but once there he just helplessly watched her, his hands clenched at his side, not sure what he could do to comfort her or whether she would even welcome such an attempt from him.
“Elmyra…” He started weakly. He shook his head and took a deep breath.
“I’m…sorry…about everything.” He continued, his voice stronger this time. “I know you must hate my guts …” He stopped when she started shaking her head.
Suddenly, she lunged away from the wall and fell against him, burying her face against his chest, the tears coming in earnest now. Slowly, Cloud brought his arms around her, patting her back gently with one gloved hand even as he closed his eyes tightly against the burning in his own eyes.
Several long minutes passed, he wasn’t even sure how many, frozen as they were in a timeless space in a world that had ceased to exist. Eventually, the tempest of sorrow passed, and she pulled away from Cloud to peer up at him in the loose circle of his arms.
“I don’t hate you.” She spoke in a shaky voice. “I wanted to…I was angry…but I…c…can’t be…that way. Aeris, she wouldn’t have wanted that, and I know you must have done everything you could.”
“No, I made you a promise…” Cloud started, but she pressed a finger to his lips to still his words.
“Cloud, I know now that what happened to Aeris was meant to be. And you know it too. So don’t blame yourself. Please?” She studied his face with an intent gaze until he finally nodded.
Satisfied, Elmyra turned away, and Cloud dropped his arms back to his side. He watched her cross the room to a small wooden table, bare except for a lit candle and an open book. A pink ribbon trailed across the pages, and Cloud felt his throat close when she picked up the scrap of silk and twisted it through her fingers.
Then she turned to look at him again. “There’s just one thing I want to ask you.”
“Anything…” Cloud replied without hesitation as he brought his arms across his chest, wondering uneasily what the question would be. He didn’t know how he would handle it if she wanted to know how Aeris had died, but he would tell her the best he could.
“Did you love her?” Elmyra asked quietly.
His whole body tensed at her words, the muscles in his clenched jaw jerking spasmodically as he stared into her expectant eyes. He tore his gaze away to glance at Marlene who seemed oblivious to everything in the room, her attention completely focused on the plaza below. Then he dropped his eyes to the toes of his boots.
Elmyra returned her eyes to the silk ribbon in her fingers. She didn’t need his answer now to know.
“Never mind…you don’t have to…” She spoke quietly.
“Yes.” Cloud interrupted her, his terse answer reverberating with pain.
After a moment, she nodded slowly.
“That’s all I wanted to know.” She murmured. “I’m glad she had that at least.”
Cloud whirled away, unable to face her any longer, mentally floundering as several emotions fought for supremacy in his mind; astonishment at his admission, even though he now realized the truth of it, intense sorrow at their mutual loss, and overriding everything, shame and guilt.
He couldn’t tell Elmyra the truth, that he hadn’t given Aeris anything. He’d been out of his mind then, unwittingly under the control of Sephiroth. He couldn’t tell her that the last time they’d been together before her death in the Ancient City he had struck her with his doubled up fist, over and over, and wouldn’t have stopped if Vincent hadn’t jumped from the top of the wall and torn him away. No, he couldn’t tell her any of that.
“I have to go.” He said suddenly. He moved toward the door without looking back.
“Cloud?” Elmyra turned a puzzled look on his back as he paused in the doorway. “Will you come back?”
After a moment, he nodded.
“Yeah, I…I’m going to…Midgar.” He struggled to speak in a steady voice. “I’m going to go look for…Reeve…but I’ll come by…before I go.”
“Okay, Cloud.” She responded softly. “If you come by, I’ll fix you some food to take with you.”
Cloud nodded and half-turned toward the window. He gazed at Marlene who still peered into the square below.
“Marlene…you’re Daddy…he’s fine. He said to…”
“I know.” Marlene interrupted him. She turned to him with a bright smile on her face. “The flower lady told me.”
A fist closed tightly around his throat at her words, and he jerked his eyes away from her happy face.
“Later…” He croaked. Then he bolted.
Elmyra listened to his boots pounding against the metal steps as he virtually ran down the spiral staircase. Seconds later, the front door slammed in its frame. She shook her head sadly.
“She knew, Cloud.” Elmyra whispered as she balled up the ribbon in a tight fist. “She really did.”
Three hours later, Cloud sat just outside of Kalm on his newly purchased chocobo, the last one in town apparently. He’d visited Tiko who had indeed hooked him up with a shower and some food. He’d even managed to dry his clothes while he walked around town in a pair of Tiko’s denim jeans and a bright red T-shirt with a cheesy Gold Saucer logo. He was definitely glad to get his own clothes back. Tiko had loaned him a rain slicker too, and Cloud had left him in charge of Avian’s motorcycle for the time being.
In his saddlebags, he carried a package of sandwiches that Elmyra had given him as well as a gift that Marlene had asked him to give her Daddy when he saw him again. Wrapped in brown sack paper and tied with a straggly bow of yarn, its mysterious shape gave him no clue as to what was inside. Elmyra had also tried to give him the pink ribbon, but he’d refused. He could hardly bear to look at the raveling strip of silk much less have it in his possession. Besides, the ribbon was the only item Elmyra still possessed that had belonged to Aeris. He couldn’t have taken it even if he’d wanted it.
The chocobo tossed her feathered head impatiently and fanned him as she flapped her wings. The bird was ready to travel, and so was he. The question was where. He could go back and check on the others back at the crash site. However, he hadn’t been able to acquire transportation to bring them all back to Kalm. It was now a foregone conclusion that they would have to walk the fifteen or so miles to Kalm unless he could find another way. He didn’t really have any solid information to give them either, other than the fact that Midgar still stood. Whether anyone had survived inside the thick iron walls remained debatable, and there was only one way to find out. He knew that Barrett was waiting for word of Marlene, but he thought he would understand under the circumstances, especially since the news would be good. If Reeve and his evacuees had survived, they could be in need of assistance.
His decision made, he turned the Chocobo in the direction of Midgar and spurred her into motion with a touch of his heels. The bird sprang into the air and came down running, clawed toes digging into the muddy soil as she fairly flew across the grass-covered plain. Already, Midgar seemed to loom larger on the horizon. He would be there in no time at this speed, and he knew he’d better be prepared for whatever he might face there.
A sudden bright flash of sheet lightning sent the Chocobo sideways into the air, nearly unseating Cloud. He threw his hand out as he slipped sideways, and his fingers closed around the wide saddle horn. Both recovered quickly, he securing his seat, she returning to her full gallop across the soggy ground. The lightning flashed again, and the rain came with it, a downpour to rival the one he’d traveled through earlier in the day.
Bowing his head, Cloud yanked the hood up and drew the slicker tighter around his body. As he squinted his eyes into the distance where Midgar had disappeared behind the dense barrier of water, he pondered the wisdom of forgoing the coastal road for the direct route. Without the horizon and nothing to see around him but rain and grass and more rain, he already felt vaguely disoriented.
On the other hand, the chocobo hardly seemed bothered by the deluge. A river bird, the natural oils in her feathers afforded her a rain barrier of her own, the icy water merely streaming off her racing body, and she easily maintained her current pace with purpose. The bird seemed to know where she was going even if he wasn’t sure.
Hunching his shoulders against the constant pelt against his body, he let the chocobo have her head. She squawked loudly, then lowered her head and spread her wings wide. Cloud grabbed the saddle horn with both hands as she leapt forward, the reins trailing through his fingers. The wind caught his hood and ripped it off his head. He yanked it back into place as he leaned lower over her neck. She fairly flew across the plains now, her claws barely touching down as she cut undaunted through the heavy rain.
At this pace, they’d make the Midgar Wasteland in no time. Cloud laughed out loud in exhilaration, and he couldn’t help but ask.
“Ever hear of the Gold Saucer, girl?”
As he expected, she didn’t reply.
Time seemed to pass slowly as the tireless bird flew over the ground. Cloud just held on, his head ducked low against the rain. He didn’t even notice when the grass gave way to weedy ground, then to blackened, sere earth, totally devoid of any growth at all.
Almost half asleep, he didn’t realize at first that the chocobo had slowed to a trot, but when she dropped her pace to a walk, he raised his head to see where they'd ended up and gasped out loud. In shock, he lifted the reins and halted the bird in her tracks. With a shaking hand, he flipped the hood back and stared at the wall in front of him. Even the rain, now falling in a lazy drizzle, did nothing to soften the terrible damage. Even though he couldn’t see the top plate from below, the immense pile of mangled debris deposited along the outside wall obviously came from above.
His mind numb with disbelief, he sent the chocobo walking along the outer wall toward the opening at Sector 5, the only entrance into the city that he knew that he could access from below. The better part of an hour passed before they arrived at the place where he knew it would be. He just sat motionless in the saddle and stared as the chocobo shifted from one foot to another.
The top edge of the heavy retaining wall bowed in and the domed structure of the upper reaches of Reactor 5 leaned with it. Cloud knew that only a mighty force could move these structures from their place, and he suspected that the great plate had fallen in, the tons of displaced iron bending the structures as it went. If so, Aeris's church...her flowers...were gone...
His stomach churning with nausea, he wearily dismounted and walked slowly toward the lofty wire gate, leading the bird behind. He stared at the locked gate for several long moments, then he tied the chocobo’s reins to the gatepost and left her there to cross the collapsed fence, stepping gingerly over the springy wire.
He walked across the hard packed earth between the fence and the iron wall to pause at the wide portal through which they used to pass into Sector 5. The opening remained, but the space beyond was completely filled with splintered wood and twisted metal, pipes and cables, hydraulic hoses and a crumpled secton of railroad track. He had a pretty good idea there would be much more behind. He drew in a shaky breath.
He would have to find another way in.
Caitlin stiffened when Reno dropped down beside her on the plush couch. Rude and Elena had both taken up positions on either side of the double doors like a set of matching statues, leaning against the wall with arms crossed. Despite their casual stance, she had no doubt that they were on the job. She gazed nervously at Rude, but she couldn’t tell anything by looking into his dark shades or still face. She shifted her eyes to Elena. The blonde woman seemed indifferent to the proceedings as she inspected her brightly painted nails. Her insides trembled at the thought of what might happen if one of her staff members suddenly came through the door. She really should apprise Mary and Gerald of their unwanted visitors and give them some instructions.
“Would you mind if I…went to the bathroom first?” She turned her blue eyes on Reno, fighting back the tremble in her voice as she spoke.
“Yes, I mind.” He replied silkily, paying close attention to her nervous demeanor. “This won’t take long.”
Without another word, he set the laptop on the glossy ebony coffee table and flipped the lid open. He tapped the power button and stared intently at Caitlin’s face as the machine booted up and loaded in the icons across the bottom. He saw her eyes widen and turned to see that the flashing Phoenix had returned once again to grace the screen. He pulled the computer around so she couldn’t see the monitor and, as before, he went through the level 2 procedures to access the encrypted message, except this time Reno completed the steps with businesslike efficiency.
The encryption program regurgitated the words rapidly, plain black text on white, the earlier electronic effects now absent. Reno rapidly scanned the message, a simple request for acknowledgment of the completion of the mission. Reno sent confirmation with one stroke of the keypad. The sender probably already had a pretty good idea that they had arrived at their destination as the laptop had a GPS beacon inside the case.
Another block of text appeared, and he read it though once, then again, more carefully the second time. Abruptly, he shoved the laptop in Caitlin’s direction. Her startled eyes flew to his expressionless face.
“It’s for you.” He said lightly. He picked up his nightstick and rose to his feet. “We are required to give you privacy.”
He stepped away from the couch and headed for the door as Rude and Elena stood away from the wall to follow him. Rude watched Caitlin stare blankly at the computer as he waited for Reno to open the door. Elena drew her brows together in a puzzled frown and pinned her question filled eyes on the redheaded Turk who didn’t seem inclined to answer them.
Reno grasped the ornate door handle in his hand and pulled the door ajar.
“Wait!” Caitlin suddenly blurted.
She grew nervous as all three half-turned to look back at her. “W…who…can you…t…tell me who this is?” She gestured at the screen with one finger.
Silence filled the room until Reno finally decided to answer her.
“W…well…is it my father?” She asked tensely. “…Because if is…I don’t want to talk to him.”
Reno narrowed his eyes on Caitlin’s face and shoved the door shut, turning completely around to face her. Rude almost visibly tensed beside him, and Elena didn’t bother to hide her surprise, her startled eyes focused on the young woman.
“Do you not get news from the mainland?” Reno asked quietly as he took a step back into the room.
Caitlin clasped her hands together in her lap as she took in the three faces. The atmosphere in the room had definitely changed.
“Not every day.” She responded apprehensively. “We used to but the receiver quit working a few months back, and we still have to get parts. Gerald brings newspapers when he goes for supplies. Why?”
“Gerald?” Reno inquired suspiciously.
“He’s my assistant.” She answered tersely. “Never mind about him.”
“Where is he now?”
“He’s out in the boat shed working on the launch.” She snapped, becoming impatient with Reno’s line of questioning.
Reno jerked his head toward Elena, and she opened the door and slipped out without a word.
Caitlin sprang to her feet. “Where’s she going?” She demanded anxiously.
“Never mind where she’s going. When is the last time Gerald made a trip for supplies?”
“I want to know where she’s going?” Caitlin demanded again.
Reno took another step toward her. “Please sit down.” He said pleasantly, though his green eyes burned into her own.
Caitlin dropped back onto the cushions and crossed her arms defiantly. She glared silently back at Reno.
Reno sighed noisily. “Elena is merely ensuring that no one gets surprised. You don’t need to worry about your precious Gerald.” He finally informed her. “Now when did he last go?”
“Almost two months ago.” She muttered petulantly.
Rude and Reno shot a look at each other that Caitlin didn’t miss. She straightened in her seat and dropped her arms as all her irritation at the interlopers instantly vanished.
“What?!” She asked sharply.
She watched as Reno walked across the room and sat down in the chair across from her, crossing his ankle over his knee. Rude moved silently to stand behind him. Tension coiled tightly inside her chest at their actions.
“A lot has happened in the last couple of months.” Reno started. “Too much to completely explain at the moment, so I will have to give you the short version.”
Caitlin nodded uneasily.
“First of all, I regret to inform you that your father, President Shinra, was murdered nearly two months ago.” Reno informed her in a quiet voice. He watched her closely for a reaction.
She turned her eyes to the windows behind Rude and wadded the hem of the smock in her fingers. “Well, I have to say I’m not surprised.” She responded slowly. “It’s a miracle it didn’t happen years ago.”
Reno raised an eyebrow at her response, but didn’t reply. He waited for her to speak first. Finally, she brought her eyes back to his face.
“So…my brother is President now…” She stated slowly. She knew he would step into their father’s shoes. He was the heir to the Shinra power and fortune.
Reno leaned his elbows on the overstuffed arms of the chair and steepled his hands. “Actually…he’s not.” The redheaded Turk finally answered her. “Unfortunately…Rufus Shinra was…killed during an attack on the Shinra Tower.”
Caitlin’s hand clenched into fists at his statement. “No…” She breathed. “That’s not true.”
“I’m afraid it is. I’m sorry.” Reno responded slowly..
Caitlin didn’t want to believe it, and she didn’t trust the Turk called Reno. She swept her eyes upward to search out Rude’s face, encountering nothing but his shades.
“Rude?” She asked hopefully. “Tell me that it’s not true.”
Tears started down her cheeks as Rude removed his sunglasses to reveal his sorrowful brown eyes. “It’s true, Caitlin. Rufus is dead.”
The tears ran freely now as Caitlin shook her head in denial. Reno watched her in fascination. Rude moved around the chair toward her, but she put up a hand to stop him.
“I…I’ll…be …okay…I’m…all right…” She stammered out brokenly. “Just…give me a…minute…”
The Turks remained quiet for several minutes as she mangled the paint-smeared cloth in her hands and cried soundlessly. Finally, Reno stood and walked over to stand on the other side of the wide coffee table.
She looked up at him and scrubbed the wetness from her face with her fingertips. “You know…he used to be so different…” She mused aloud. “…But Father worked hard to mold him to take his place…and he wound up being more ruthless and power hungry than our Father ever was when all was said and done. There was a time when he could have been so much more…”
“Ms. Shinra, you should respond to the computer message now.” Reno curtly pointed out. Several minutes had elapsed since he had been instructed to hand the machine over to her.
“I wish you wouldn’t call me that.” She said shortly. “Call me Caitlin, please.”
“Okay, sure. Caitlin.” Reno replied testily. “The message…”
Caitlin nodded her golden head, and pulled the laptop closer. She reread the message and looked up at Reno again.
“You know…no one else knew where I was but my Father and Rufus…” She stopped and chewed the inside of her lip. “I don’t suppose you can tell me who this is…”
“No.” Reno answered flatly. “The message, Ms. Shinra.” He turned on heel and crossed the room to the door without a backward glance. Rude shoved his sunglasses back on his face and followed him out, closing the door behind him with a soft click.
With a sense of trepidation, she stared at the monitor, her finger hovering just over the “Enter” key. She drew in a shaky breath, closed her eyes, and punched it.
Letters appeared across the white screen in large black letters.
The blood drained from her face as the words flashed into her mind and imprinted there.
No, it can’t be…
Rude leaned against the oak paneling outside the double doors and watched Reno cross the parquet floor of the wide foyer, returning from his unguided tour of the first floor of the house and premises. He came to a stop in front of the big Turk and scanned the area around him.
“See anyone?” He asked casually.
Rude shook his head.
“Neither did I, although I think that someone was in the library and left in a hurry.” He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. Elena’s been keeping an eye on the boathouse. The elusive Gerald hasn’t been inclined to leave, if he’s even inside.”
Rude silently nodded.
Reno brought his whole attention to his face and smiled. He lifted his nightstick and tapped the end of it against Rude’s chest.
“So, what’s the story, buddy?” He asked.
Rude lifted an eyebrow. “About…” He inquired recalcitrantly.
Reno dropped his eyes and tapped the toe of one scuffed loafer against the glossy wooden floor.
“Look, I’m…er…sorry about…earlier.” He apologized lowly. “That whole scene took me by surprise.”
Rude uncrossed his ankles and straightened away from the wall at the rare apology. Reno wasn’t given to such gestures, not unless something was in it for him.
Rude turned his head and focused his eyes on the brilliantly colored stained glass window over the entrance door. Then he spoke.
“I can’t tell you much.” He started, his voice hushed. “I’m sure you remember the funeral.”
Reno nodded. “Who wouldn’t?”
“I was there. Jaz was on her that night, but they were returning to the Shinra Tower, and I was outside on the sidewalk. A car came of nowhere and jumped the curb. Took them both out, then raced away into the night. They never even saw it coming.” A muscle twitched in his jaw at the memory, an indication of his tension despite the evenness of his tone. “They both were taken to the Shinra Hospital, but they declared her D.O.A. Jaz died later, in surgery.” Rude fell silent at that point.
Of course, Reno knew all about Jaz. After all, Tseng had drafted him right off the mean streets of the Midgar slums to take the deceased Turk’s position. Gave him a venue to use his particular skills. The Leader of the Turks had taught him a few more as well.
“So, the Turks were guarding her?”
“Yes, the President ordered it when she was fifteen after a run-in with the local cops. She was a handful. Always stirring up trouble, badmouthing Shinra, constantly trying to slip away, succeeding sometimes, too.” Rude suddenly smiled. “One time she really put one over on Tseng. He was mad at her for a month, and you know it took a lot to get him angry, even then.” He shook his head sadly. “Oh well, that’s another story.” He fell silent again.
“Can you explain her presence here?” Reno asked. “If this is Caitlin Shinra and not a conveniently planted impostor."
“No, I can’t.” Rude answered flatly. “And I believe that she is Caitlin.”
Reno mulled that over in his mind for a few moments.
“Because she knew about your desire to leave Shinra?” He asked him carefully.
At first Rude didn’t seem inclined to answer, but he finally turned to look at Reno. “Yes.” He didn’t elaborate, and Reno didn’t ask. He didn’t need to. That wouldn’t be something Rude would tell someone casually. The only condition for leaving the Turks was that you couldn’t be breathing when you left. Obviously, he’d trusted her a great deal. Tseng must have trusted her as well.
He nodded as he lifted a finger to stroke the scar on his right cheek. “Thanks, buddy.” He spoke absently as he continued to turn the ongoing events over in his mind. Obviously, the girl hadn’t died, and the President had chosen to put her away out here. Apparently, she didn’t agree with his business methods so maybe he had decided to get her out of his hair. Way out. What really torqued him off though was the fact that this so-called Phoenix, this mealy-mouthed, traitorous Shinra executive, knew something the Leader of the Turks did not. He would never have thought him to be privy to the President’s personal family business. Who the hell was this guy?
The front door flew open and banged back against the stop. Rude and Reno both whirled and started to reach for their guns at the sight of the tall young man standing in the doorway, a dangerous light in his angry blue eyes. Elena leaned out around him and smiled coldly. This guy tried to sneak up on me.” She marveled. “Can you believe the nerve?”
Reno and Rude dropped their hands as she shoved him through the door, one hand fisted in his sandy hair and the barrel of her gun firmly planted against his spine.
Reno smiled benignly. “This must be the mysterious Gerald.”
The loud curse that erupted from Elena’s captive didn’t faze Reno. His smile widened.
“What do you plan to do with him, Elena?” Reno asked, mild interest in his tone. He idly tapped the nightstick against his leg.
“Kill him and throw his bullet-riddled body in the ocean.” She smirked. Reno watched the anger ebb from the man’s eyes to be replaced by stark fear. Satisfied that the guy was no threat, he abruptly turned his back on them.
“Hmmm…perhaps that’s a bit extreme, Elena.” He remarked indifferently as he walked across the room to peer down the darkened corridor. He thought he’d heard something down there.
Suddenly, he whirled and speared Gerald with a hard stare. “How many people live in this house?” He asked, his casual voice belying the steely glint in his eyes.
Gerald didn’t immediately reply, and Elena prodded him sharply with the gun in her hand.
Elena’s captive opened his mouth to reply, but stopped when one of the double doors to the receiving room swung wide. Caitlin’s eyes narrowed as she took in the situation in the foyer.
“Let him go.” She snapped, her voice icy. “Now!”
Elena glared her displeasure at the command from the diminutive woman and made no move to comply, but Reno nodded once, and Elena released him, stepping away from the tall man and holstering her weapon. Gerald straightened his shirt and shot across the room to tower beside Caitlin.
“Gerald, get the staff together.” Caitlin instructed guietly, her suspicious blue eyes pinned on Reno who stood loosely, his nightstick bumping against his leg, the image of nonchalance. She knew better. “I need to talk to everyone.”
Gerald nodded and turned to go, anxious to leave the room. He paused when Caitlin grabbed his wrist.
“Send Mary and Heidi to my room to help me pack a few things.” She added in a low voice. Reno raised an eyebrow at that, and she didn’t miss it.
“Go.” She released her assistant and crossed to Reno. She lifted the closed laptop and offered it to him. “There are further instructions for you I believe.”
The lanky Turk took his laptop back and watched her narrowly as she turned away to cross the room. She disappeared into the hallway without a backward glance.
“What’s with her?” Elena sniffed. Reno shrugged carelessly and walked to a wooden bench near the entrance. He sat down and set the computer beside him. Flipping up the lid, he quickly moved through the preliminary steps to bring up the message, again inputting his codes.
Rude and Elena moved closer as the machine whirred through the encryption program. They both watched their leader closely as he read the message, inputted an answer, read another message, and hit enter to confirm. Then he shut down the power and snapped the lid closed. For a long time, he sat silently in place, not inclined to speak as his thoughts ran rampantly through his brain. He hadn’t yet managed to get a handle on what was going on here, but he would, just as soon as he met this Shinra executive again face to face. The Caitlin factor he had down cold, but the Phoenix factor remained an unknown piece of the puzzle. When they reached their destination, he would demand his answers, and he would get them. Or else. The corners of his mouth lifted in a wry smile.
Elena started to step forward and ask Reno for an explanation, but a look from Rude stopped her.
Caitlin appeared at the head of the curved staircase with a duffel bag slung to her back. At sight of her, Reno smoothly stood and tucked the laptop under his arm. He inclined his head and moved to the bottom of the stairs to wait for her, Rude and Elena falling in to flank him at his signal.
Nervously, Caitlin stopped three risers from the bottom, almost bringing her eye level with Reno. They stared at each other for a moment, then Reno smiled.
“The Turks are at your disposal, Ms. Shinra.” He deferentially informed her.
Rude didn’t react, but Elena nearly choked, although she quickly recovered.
“Caitlin.” The small woman reminded quietly.
“Caitlin, then.” Reno responded agreeably.
“Our destination is to be Midgar then?” Reno asked for her confirmation only as a formality.
“Shall we go then?” He swept his nightstick toward the door. “I understand time is a factor here.”
She nodded again and descended the remaining stairs. Without a word, she headed for the door and the Turks followed, all three abreast. Uneasily, she glanced over her shoulder at them. Reno and Rude both towered over her, even Elena was almost a head taller. She felt overwhelmed. She had a feeling she would regret her reluctant decision, but under the circumstances she had a moral obligation to follow through. He had made her some promises too, and she would hold him to his word.
As Reno sauntered along behind the small woman, gazing down onto the top of her head, he absently twirled the nightstick in his nimble fingers, his lips pursed in thought. Elena sidled in his direction as they neared the chopper.
“Reno, what’s going on here?” She asked sharply.
He turned his green eyes to her face, then glanced over to find Rude watching as well.
“Well Turks…” He responded nonchalantly. “What we have here is the beginning of a New World Order or…” He smiled.
“Or?” Elena prompted impatiently.
“Or…” He lowered his voice ominously.
“…The eve of our destruction.”
At the thunderstruck look on Elena’s face, he chuckled.
She leveled a malevolent glare on his face, but he ignored it as they came alongside the helicopter.
“Load up, everybody.” He sang out as he climbed into the pilot’s seat and stowed his stuff.
“You ride shotgun.” He informed Rude.
Rude nodded as he helped Caitlin into the rear seat. Elena clambered in after her as Rude rounded the nose and climbed in.
Reno shot a glance around the compartment to make sure everyone had buckled in. “Ready?” He spoke into the mouthpiece.
He received several murmured replies.
“Let’s fly then.” Without another word, he lifted the chopper into the sky.
Caitlin peered down at the house as they rose, hoping for one last glimpse of her daughter. She had no clue when she might see her again, and she missed her already, but she had to keep her away. A lump rose in her throat as Reno sent the chopper soaring over the treetops, and the house fell away in the distance. Finally, she slumped wearily into her seat and leaned her head back against the headrest.
Elena suddenly spoke as they flew out across the ocean, still ascending skyward. “I wonder how much damage Midgar has sustained…”
She didn’t expect an answer to her rhetorical question, so she jerked her head around in surprise at the small voice in her headphone.
“It’s bad.” Caitlin replied in a strained whisper.
“How bad?” Reno asked sharply.
“Bad.” She whispered, then she turned her head away to gaze blindly out the window.
After that, no one seemed inclined to talk and silence filled the cabin except for the rhythmic beat of the chopper blades.
Shortly after that, Reno flew into the storm.
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