Through the Looking Glass Chapter 11

The Sword of Damocles

By Lucrecia Marionette

Cloud, Tifa and Cid stepped back from their positions at the head of the mass as they fought to keep them and their weapons at bay. With the threat no longer present, the people who had gathered with the promise of the valiant battle started to filter away back to their homes. Yuffie continued to stare up to the sky as though she could pierce the thin veil of clouds overhead and watch the disappearing figure of her friend.

With a sorrowful sigh, she eventually turned away and looked over at the three members of AVALANCHE who had daringly restrained the angry mob. It appeared as though arguments had broken out between the two groups and she slowly sauntered over not feeling particularly keen to participate in any hostilities.

"You let it escape!" exclaimed the unproclaimed leader of the ravel which had remained to fuel the conflict. He was a tall, heavily built man who Tifa vaguely recognised as the owner of the materia stall where Yuffie had encountered trouble a couple of weeks before. He still retained the same brutish anger despite his earlier scare with the members of AVALANCHE. In his hand he clutched his machete, the very same weapon which had been shot from him as he lunged at the young ninja. Now he waved it in a threatening manner. "Are you insane??"

"You know nothing about it," Cloud responded through gritted teeth. "Go back to your homes and stalls; there's nothing for you to do here."

"Our stalls and livelihoods have been destroyed by that monster!" yelled another from beside the materia stall owner and nods rippled back through the small, dangerously defiant crowd.

"There's nothing I can do about that. It's not my responsibility."

"It came out of your fucking bar!" the leader screamed. "You can't shirk from this! It killed three people today and five further on in the sector on Tuesday!! How the hell can you say that it's got nothing to do with you??"

"I didn't say that it didn’t have anything to do with us-" Cloud started hesitantly but Cid strode forward until his face was inches from the raging materia stall owner.

"Get this into your thick skull you Neanderthallic bastard! You don't know shit about what's happened today and unless you want to feel the ugly side of my spear up your ass, you're gonna turn around with your little buddies and get the fuck out of here!!" he yelled, his face a furious shade of red and his hands gripping the staff of the Venus Gospel tightly.

The ringleader's face went a hideous blotched purple through the utter rage building up inside him, but sensing that the fight would be futile, he snarled and turned back to the mob.

"Come on. We'll leave the murderers to themselves," he announced casting a malicious glance back at AVALANCHE. "But this isn't over. Mark my words AVALANCHE. You might have saved the world once but you're only human. You're only mortal like the rest of us and the people of Midgar will have their revenge for what's happened today."

Cid opened his mouth to hurl more abuse but Tifa quickly pulled him back with the help of Yuffie. Suitably restrained, the pilot could only watch as the crowd left the scene with angry mutterings, their hatred filled threat hanging ominously in the air like the Sword of Damocles preparing to drop down on their heads. When they turned the corner, there were a few moments when only a soft breeze blowing down the wide cobbled street disturbed the heavy silence.

Cid eventually shrugged off the two women angrily and turned back to the bar preparing to storm in but halting immediately as he noticed Sephiroth standing at the door. The once proud general had remained silent and impassive throughout the disturbance preventing himself from running out and putting force to Cid's violent promises.

Cid had been informed of the latest houseguest at Tifa's Seventh Heaven the day after the Sector Two explosion. Needless to say he had not reacted well to the news and the others found themselves watching him carefully in the fear he would sneak away and kill their old nemesis in his weakened state. Arguments and hostility had been common over the matter and it was obvious that he would not relent in his views. The already heightened sense of anger in the air furthered the aura of tension until Cid finally turned away and strode angrily through the gaping hole created by Vincent, passing as far as he could past the silver-haired warrior who watched him emotionlessly.

Tifa walked over to Cloud and once more linked arms with him, her face contorting with worry as he flinched in pain. She met his eyes apologetically and he patted her hand. "C'mon. There's nothing more we can do out here. We have a lot to talk about; a lot of questions need answering."

"I have a feeling that our guest can afford some of the explanations." Tifa said quietly and Cloud shifted his stare to look at Sephiroth who was looking increasingly haggard and weary with the drawing night.

The couple started to walk towards the doorway and Sephiroth turned and walked back inside. Just as Cloud's foot crossed the threshold, Tifa paused and turned back. Yuffie was once more frozen in place staring up at the sky where Vincent had disappeared. Although puzzled by her fascination, Tifa held out her hand to the daughter of the royal house of Wutai.

"Yuffie?" she called softly. "Are you coming in?"

The young woman seemed to snap out of her trance and nodded. "Yeah," she replied softly and the three remaining members of AVALANCHE walked slowly into the half shattered building.


The ground floor of the rustic-style bar had been gutted and opened out to expose itself to the cold, late winter-early spring world beyond. Large, black plastic sheeting had been pinned up over the vast holes in the walls but as if to taunt them, a strong wind had started to pick up and the sheets were simply torn away seconds after they were originally hung.

The small group of five sat in the bar kitchen in uncomfortable silence. They shivered and inwardly longed to slip into their warm beds but no one said anything to object to the freezing conditions. Each person had sunk deeply into their own thoughts and for a long time not a sound was uttered. It wasn’t until a faint bell was heard chiming eleven o'clock when a voice spoke.

"We have a problem," it said and no one objected. "News will travel; soon the whole city will have heard about Vincent and we'll all be held responsible."

Cloud stopped. He didn't know why he had said it; they all knew the facts and they could all guess the consequences. It wasn't easy to find a good enough excuse that explained why a raging black demon had burst from their home into the street to kill innocent bystanders. The threat of the mob ringleader had scared them all deeply with its hidden promises and anger. Terrible things could happen when fury governed your actions. A fact every one of them knew well.

Nonetheless, he was surprised. In the past when AVALANCHE had been little more than a motley, disorganised gang of people out on a half-baked mission it had always been each man for himself. Now however, as time had passed and people had matured, the bonds between them were strong. The arguments which had greeted Vincent on his arrival and the hostilities that arose between himself and Cid were not due to their lack of friendship. They had simply been caused from the misuse of their loyal ties. Four years was too long for any group of people to be apart. All it took was time before things once more reinstated themselves and the natural order which had formed during the Meteor Crisis took shape again.

That order had made them closer than any other people on the planet could possibly be. That bond meant that each would willingly shed their last drop of blood for another. It had taken many battles and much trust for it to be thus, but time could break no pact like that.

And now as he looked at the three members of AVALANCHE that sat with him he knew that none of them regretted what they knew would occur. Of course they felt deep remorse over the events which had taken place but they knew that something was wrong. If one of them, if one of AVALANCHE faced a problem, they all did. If one of AVALANCHE did something terrible they would all take the blame.

They felt no worry or concern over this. They wouldn’t even consider blaming it upon Vincent. If anything, each person felt somehow responsible for the tragic occurrences earlier that afternoon. They could each think of a way that they could have somehow prevented the tragic outburst.

"But what can we do?" asked a hushed voice.

Cloud looked up and his gaze met Tifa's, her burgundy stare burning with old tears and sadness. Their hands met beneath the table and he forced a reassuring smile.

"I don't know," he answered quietly. "Somehow we need to let the people know that we're on their side."

"That's gonna be difficult seeing how they saw Vincent comin' straight outta this building." Cid sighed. "Maybe we could tell them exactly what's going on... ." his voice trailed off.

"What would you tell them?" asked another, less familiar voice. Everyone lifted their heads and looked to the occupier of one of the stools around the table who had shrouded himself in shadow. The fury and loathing seethed from the old pilot that sat at Cloud's side but pleas and exchanges of words earlier had begged him to keep his opinions quiet around the ex-General. Although Cid said nothing, the obvious hatred and mistrust he felt swamped the air at even the sight of Sephiroth. Inwardly he all thought they were insane for not leaving him to fall into the Mako and die from Rufus' shotgun wound, but to respect his companions he held his tongue.

"What would you tell them?" Sephiroth repeated. "We all know that what has happened was not his fault, but an angry population out for justice will not sit back and listen to reason... especially when the source is their unanimous scapegoat. They have started to settle down and rebuild their lives - the last thing they want is another evil in the world. If one appears then they'll do all they can to eliminate it."

"Then maybe we should kill you now and get it over and done with," mumbled Cid under his breath.

The figures sat at the table turned to him sharply, all except Sephiroth with angry glares on their faces. Cloud opened his mouth to speak but Sephiroth shook his head.

"Please, the last thing I wish is for there to be hostility between you all over my presence." he said quietly. "I know that you are not comfortable with my being here, none of you are but whatever happened in the past is behind me. I am not here to begin some failed, insane quest for power once more. I have learned my lesson and I have been granted a second chance to return and prove this to you all.

"I don't want or expect you to even consider forgiving me for my crimes, but please, for the sake of your friend and whatever trials approach us; put whatever negativity you bear to one side. I don't ask anything of you for myself, but for your own lives and futures."

Cid's expression of misgiving and antipathy did not shift but under the pressure, he clamped his mouth shut and fell silent.

"Sephiroth's right." Cloud responded eventually as the atmosphere calmed once again. "There will be no reasoning with the type of people that threatened us earlier. They're looking for a target to vent their anger and fears out onto and we were chosen. There's no way in hell they'll shift that blame."

"As long as it stays just a figment of vicious rumours and idle threats, we should be okay." Tifa suggested but everyone present noted the element of hopefulness and desire for reassurance in her voice.

"Until of course those threats cease being 'idle'," Yuffie commented moodily.

The occupants of the table exchanged glances at the normally cheerful young woman's morose remark.

"The kid's got a point," Cid agreed. "It won't be long before they decide to act on their threats. I just hope to be ready when the bastards come."

"Violence won't solve anything." Tifa admonished calmly. "It will only provoke whatever hatred exists already. All we can do is hope that this whole thing blows over somehow."

"I don't see how that's gonna work," Cid objected with a derisive snort. "You saw how big-a deal they made of Vinny killing them five thieves further on the Sector. Imagine what they'll say about the same monster comin' from this bar and killing three perfectly innocent bystanders in cold-blood? We haven't got a chance in hell against the press and tabloids."

"When we were trying to cover up the holes in the walls earlier I saw several men with cameras and clipboards hanging around the alleyway across the street." Cloud reported. "They were probably getting pictures of the scene to put in the papers tomorrow."

"I'm surprised they didn't try to interview you," said Tifa.

"They probably think that if they tried to talk to us then they'd get their heads torn off or something," Cloud shrugged.

"It seems weird how we went for two years after the whole Meteor thing as heroes and perfect role-models," Cid sighed almost sorrowfully making certain to cast a sharp glance in Sephiroth's direction at the mention of Meteor. "Now the tables have turned and we're the bad guys."

"Why did everything have to change?" Yuffie asked rhetorically with sadness. "Everything seemed so great when Vincent first showed up... but then Reeve was kidnapped and this whole thing got screwed up."

"What I want to know is what caused all this," Cid announced. He lifted his head and glared over at Sephiroth keeping his words and body language in check although he mentally murdered the silver-haired warrior a thousand times. "Vincent was fine before he woke up. From what I've heard, you two had the same dream and you didn't wake up so cranky. You obviously did something and I wanna know what."

"Perhaps it was wakening to the sight of you that drove him over the edge." Sephiroth answered coolly and Cid's eyes narrowed. His face flushed and his mouth opened to snap back but Tifa put a calming hand on his arm whilst giving Sephiroth a warning glance.

"Both of you stop this," she said firmly with a hint of anger. "Many things have happened in the past but now isn't the time to resolve them. Cid I know that there are a lot of things you want to say and there's a lot of aggression but for Vincent's and everyone else's sake, keep it under control." She changed her gaze to Sephiroth. "You may be free of Jenova's influence but we are not an army you can control and put down without fear of reprisal. In AVALANCHE we work in unity and you cannot give a speech reprimanding Cid on his anger when you are making such comments yourself. We all need to work together on this and if either of you can't handle that then you had better leave."

A static silence fell upon the group and Cloud gave the brunette at his side an admiring glance which she accepted emotionlessly and he loved her even more. Coughing to alleviate some of the tension he looked to Sephiroth who sat glumly looking at the floor.

"Tell us what you know," he ordered gently and he was answered with a nod.

"When I was asleep I dreamt that I was in a terrible place. There is no location on this planet that could resemble such a lifeless abyss. Everything was dead; I couldn't even see any signs of life other than long dead trees

"I thought myself alone but climbing up a pile of rock, I looked down and saw the remains of Jenova lying smashed and broken across the plain. I ran over to her and we spoke for a few minutes. She revealed many things. I, I can't really grasp them now; it all seemed so long ago." He sighed. "She said that Hojo, the one you believe to be a clone was in fact in inhabited by the same spirit that had occupied the original scientist's body."

AVALANCHE inhaled sharply in shock.

"Jenova alive??"

Cloud’s expressionless face adopted a look of horror as he stared back at the general "Janus said that the chances of a clone carrying the same soul as the original were phenomenal. How is that possible??"

Sephiroth shrugged. "She never illustrated how exactly. She simply said that she had ensured he was exactly the same person he had been before you destroyed his first incarnation. By doing this, she was able to seduce him under her power once more and force him to do her bidding. It would appear that although he acted under Rufus' orders, she was the true puppeteer pulling his strings." Stunned expressions stared back at him with bated breaths. "Using Rufus' plans and resources to his advantage he was able to recreate me and she used her command over the lifestream to give the clone the same soul."

"In other words, she wanted you to be the same as you were before, right?" Cloud asked trying desperately to understand the situation.

Sephiroth nodded grimly. "She told me that I had been brought back with the intention of once more attempting to take over the world. She presumed that I also would once more be won over by the promise of power but I learned from my past mistakes and refused her. She was driven mad by my audacity and started to fight me. I would have been killed if her attack had not been interrupted."

"By what?" asked Tifa, her eyes wide and her ears trained on his voice keenly.

"I had my eyes closed originally and could not see, but when I reopened them, she had gone and I clambered to safety back on the rocks I had originated from. Whilst there, I saw your friend, Valentine standing next to his demon form watching the horizon. I spoke with them and he was acting very strangely to say the least… ." he paused for a moment and seemed to gather his thoughts before continuing.

"Eventually Jenova dragged herself back over to us but the ground started to shake and tremble. When it stopped, the earth erupted and a creature that looked as though it had been created in the very depths of the abyss rose up from it," he swallowed hard as the fear of what he had seen shook his very soul. "It was like some massive cobra with vivid orange eyes and a strong sulphuric smell clinging around it. It appeared to be created from molten onyx with veins of glowing lava all over its body. When it spoke it was like a thousand people screaming in terror all at once and the very rocks trembled."

AVALANCHE's eyes widened further in horror and beads of sweat started to form on Sephiroth's brow. "It screamed at Jenova, calling Her a virus and said that she had to be destroyed. With that, it tore her to pieces and killed her before our eyes."

"I don't get this. It killed Jenova?" repeated Cid in horror. "But I thought we killed that damned monster five years ago??"

Sephiroth shook his head. "Did you honestly believe that a being with such power as she could be defeated so easily?"

"But if this monster, whatever it is killed her, then surely it's on our side, right?" asked Yuffie with knitted brows and once again Sephiroth replied with a negative.

"Once it had destroyed her corpse, it turned to Vincent and I. I thanked the beast but it said that not only was Jenova a virus, but as were all other living things. It called itself the 'Vigilante' and stated that its purpose was to eliminate all threats to the planet. It reasoned that the lifestream was the planet's blood and so everything living that walks upon its surface is literally bleeding the planet dry." Sephiroth glanced around his audience. "With that, it turned on us.

"I leapt to the ground and shattered my shoulder while the demon and Valentine took to the air. It attempted to crush me, but I dodged it and instead it simply smashed itself to pieces and formed a huge molten lake. As I crawled away, it began to drag me back and I would have been swallowed had Chaos not swooped down and severed the bond. I stumbled away but as I looked up at the demon carrying Valentine, the lake burst and they were hit. They plummeted to the ground and were sucked down into the dark lake.

"I ran and ran as fast as I possibly could to get away but I realised that there was no point. I turned back, resigned to my fate but watched in horror as it coiled itself around the pile of rock I had stood on only moments before. I never realised how huge it was until that moment. It constricted and reduced the stone to gravel in a single movement. That's how strong it was. As for size, it was a few hundred feet long with fangs larger than I am tall. There was no way to escape and I waited for it to come to me.

"When we spoke once more, we argued about its foolish plans to destroy all life. There was no reasoning with it however and it prepared to destroy me where I stood. Suddenly it exploded and something burst out. Injured and furious, the serpent seeped into the ground and never reappeared.

"I stood in silence for a long time until I noticed that Vincent had appeared without Chaos. I asked him where the demon was and he vaguely explained to me how he was the demon and that it was a part of him.

"Eventually, he turned and asked to be alone. I explained to him that whatever he was going through, he could rely on his friends for help." Sephiroth stopped momentarily and purposefully missed out his account about Lucrecia speaking to him in the lifestream. It was too personal to discuss before anyone else no matter how close they were to the vampiric member of AVALANCHE. He continued, "I told him how much he meant to all of you and how he can't suffer alone but still he wouldn't listen. Eventually he turned and started to walk away; with which I called after him.

"He flew into a rage and screamed back at me. I stumbled away and he transformed and roared at me, telling me to leave him alone. With that he flew away and didn't look back." The story drawing to an end, Sephiroth bowed his head and his voice became a whisper. "I collapsed and when I awoke I was in bed upstairs."

Morbid silence reclaimed its territory over the group of five as each sank into their thoughts and opinions on the information presented to them. To anyone else it would probably sound like the result of an overactive imagination; however too many strange things were occurring for there to be a sane explanation. After several silent minutes had passed, Cloud lifted his head.

"It seems like we face a greater problem than I originally thought," he said quietly. "The return of Jenova; it was foolish of us to believe her gone for good. With her influence over AVALANCHE, havoc could have taken a grip with stronger vehemence than it did five years ago. We never would have seen it coming.

"This... Vigilante as you call it, killed Jenova. Surely we should be thankful for the trouble it has saved us?" Sephiroth shook his head.

"It clearly stated that all living things had to perish. I told it that I was no longer under Jenova's influence but it replied that it mattered not because all life was a curse inflicted upon the planet." he stated. "Whether its intentions for the planet are good or bad; I've seen the power of this thing. It will kill all of us when it gets the chance."

"We have to let the people know." Yuffie gasped. "If they realise that we're not the threat here, then they might back down and join us in fighting against it."

"It wouldn't work." Cloud responded almost angrily. "We're here right now with the bloody stains of eight deaths on our hands. In their view we're desperate to make anything up to avoid our punishment. A liquid snake out to destroy every living entity on this planet? They'd laugh in our faces sooner than they'd shove a sword through our gut."

Tears welled in Yuffie's eyes and Tifa blanched. "You didn't have to be so blunt, Cloud." she snapped as she stroked Yuffie's back. "You're not the only one worried about what's happening here."

"Yeah, I'm sorry." Cloud sighed. "Things were bad enough with a city against us. Now we're going to try and to save their ungrateful lives and they still want to string us up."

"Maybe there is a way of letting them know." Tifa said eventually, receiving puzzled glances from the room's occupants. "If we told Reeve, he could tell Mayor Redford to explain everything to Midgar. They'll leave us alone and then we can be allowed to fight this battle without having to watch our backs all the time."

Cloud nodded excitedly. "I'll call Reeve now." he announced as he stood and walked over to the phone on the kitchen bench.

The others watched as he pressed a speed-dial button and placed the object to his ear. After a few rings, the line on the other end was answered.

"Reeve?" said Cloud and there was the sound of an exclamation on the other end.

"Cloud!" responded the vice-mayor happily. "Am I glad to hear from you! I heard about what happened at the bar today. Are you all okay??"

"Yeah, yeah we're all fine apart from Vincent." Cloud answered in what he hoped was a reassuring manner. "We told him to get away from the city."

There was no answer for a long time. "So... Vincent’s left?"

"Yeah. After the fight we let him get away. I don't know where he will've flown to, but he shouldn't be a problem for the city anymore if that's what you're worried about."

"When it comes down to it, Cloud I'm only vice-mayor." Reeve replied seriously with an obvious hint of weariness. Cloud seriously suspected he had woken the ex-Shinra executive up. "I'm also a member of AVALANCHE and when I heard what happened; half of me wanted him shot for what he did, but the other half of me just wanted to know he was all right. It's not easy for me being in this situation. Tomorrow I have to give a press conference on what's happening. I've had to send out MPs and groups of the Special Patrol to look for him just so that in the public eye, I'm on their side."

Although Cloud's heart sank he nodded. "I understand." he responded quietly.

"But you say that he's left the city?"

"That's right."

"The SP and MP have been ordered to shoot on sight. I've been tearing my hair out about it all night. At least now I know he won't be harmed."

"The Special Patrol?" Cloud said thoughtfully. "I'm one of their members and Cid's been helping out over the past few weeks. Why weren't we called in to help?"

Reeve paused again. "I probably don't need to tell you this, but AVALANCHE isn't exactly one of the most popular names in the city right now. Especially after what happened this evening. By tomorrow, every paper will have it as front-page news. From the reports I've heard, none of them will be in your favour."

"Shit." Cloud swore quietly. "I knew this was going to happen."

"The SP is an independent group hired by the Midgar Office to kill monsters and any other bestial threats to the city. Because it's run by the people of Midgar, it will have been the public decision to keep you and Cid out. I'm sorry. There was nothing I could do to influence their choice."

"I didn't even expect you to try," Cloud answered tolerantly, disguising his disappointment. "I know how much Midgar means to you."

"Thank you. I've done the best I can in helping you guys. But if I get forced to resign because I refused to send out some stupid bloody orders to eliminate the 'threat' to Midgar's population then I can't be of any use at all." Reeve sighed angrily, despising himself for the little help he could afford the people who had been to hell and back with him. "But look, I'm sure that you weren't just calling about that. Is there anything I can do to help you all?"

"There is," Cloud started hesitantly. "You might want to brace yourself because this news won't come easily," he stopped and Reeve's breaths quickened as he restrained himself excitedly.

"What is it?" he asked eagerly with a sense of apprehension.

"No doubt Reno and the others have told you about... Sephiroth?"

Reeve gasped. "So it is true??" he exclaimed. "Does that mean that Rufus and that other scientist were at Reactor Three as well??"

"It's true," Cloud answered solemnly. "Sephiroth saved all our lives and almost got himself killed in the process. We dragged him away and he's been recuperating in the bar for the past three nights."

His only answer was stunned silence, and he continued.

"Both he and Vincent shared a dream in which Jenova was killed by a monster which called itself the 'Vigilante'. It claimed that it was created to destroy all life on the planet; human or otherwise. Vincent got mad during the dream which is why when he woke up he went berserk," he swallowed. "I know it sounds far-fetched and I can give you more details later, but you have to believe us. We have a city after our blood when we're not the real danger here."

There was an agonisingly long pause and for a while Cloud thought that Reeve had hung up on him.

"I can't do anything to help you directly. A bizarre dream which resulted in the death of innocent citizens telling of a monster out to kill everything isn't the best explanation I could present to the press tomorrow. I need solid evidence which doesn't sound like it's been copied from the pages of a fantasy novel. If you can get me that proof then I can help you; but otherwise there's nothing I can do.

"If you like I can distance you completely from today's events and explain Chaos as the result of Mako testing. You'll be let off the hook although there'll always be the suspicion in the population."

"It's alright Reeve." Cloud sighed wearily. "Tell them what you want; don't put yourself on the line for us but respect Vincent's privacy. Don't tell his life's story for God's sake or you'll have him to contend with. Just make up some excuse along the lines of we found it injured outside the city and tried to tame it without avail. You're a politician; you're good at making up stories."

There was a laugh on the line. "I'm not sure whether that's a compliment or not, Mr Strife," Reeve retorted jovially and a slight smile played on Cloud's lips. "Listen, I'll send Cait over to see you. Tell him everything you know and he'll bring it back to me. For now, stay inside and don't do anything which could result in more suspicion or worry. I'll protect you all for as long as I can but if it looks like I'm sympathising with you, it would put us all in jeopardy."

"I'll see you around, Reeve. Thanks for everything."

"No problem. I only wish I could've done more. Take care and try not to worry."

"Will do. Bye."

The phone switched off with a blip and Cloud put it down on the bench. He turned around to face the expectant visages of his friends with a grim expression. "There's nothing he can do. Vincent's being hunted like some kind of animal and it’s just as we thought; we're all being held responsible. Reeve's giving a press conference tomorrow but I told him not to sugar-coat the truth."

Looks of dour understanding met his gaze and the room once more elapsed into silence.

"Where do we go from here?" Sephiroth asked as it became increasingly obvious that no one else was about to speak.

Cloud shrugged. "The only lead we have is a vague dream set in an unknown landscape about a giant snake. We can't stay here; that's for sure. We have a population of millions baying for our blood and I'm not intending on giving them that pleasure."

The future was starting to look increasingly foreboding for the small group; no words had to be spoken to emphasise this point. They needed time and they needed a plan; both were luxuries they couldn't afford.

As Cloud prepared to speak again, there was a light rapping on the back door to the kitchen. Fearful yet puzzled expressions were exchanged as their heads lifted suddenly and their eyes fell on the innocent looking wooden rectangle. There was another knock, louder and more urgent although the sound remained barely audible.

Tifa slid from her stool and crept to the entrance as Cloud moved silently next to her. The couple standing either side of the doorframe, Tifa slowly opened it in what she hoped appeared to be a casual manner keeping her eyes fixed firmly ahead. Wariness gave away to puzzlement as her gaze met with nothing but the alley wall opposite her decorated by a thin layer of ice crystals gathered from the night's sudden frost.

A small and inconspicuous cough brought her attention down with a jolt and her eyes focused on a small black and white figure huddle in a red cape upon a massive white moogle. A grin split her face as joy surged through her veins at the sight of the bizarre creature.

"Cait!" she exclaimed thankfully. "What on earth are you doing here??"

"Mind if I come in?"

She stood to one side and the robot entered with a slight nudge of its steed which responded dumbly by shuffling forward. Once inside, Tifa closed the door casting a wary glance down at the dark passage behind the bar. Cloud moved over to speak with the cat.

"Am I glad to see you," he said with a smile. "How did you get here so quickly? I've only just finished talking to Reeve."

"I was in the neighbourhood," Cait grinned in return, happy to have cheered them up. "I came along with a bunch of fellas from the Office's called in to investigate the incident earlier. I stuck around and when I was able to get away from them, Reeve contacted me and told me that y'all need some messages passin' on."

His brief report was answered with bleak nods. "That's right," Cloud replied. "Maybe you should get comfortable; this will take a while...."


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