Through the Looking Glass Chapter 15

Escape From Reality

By Lucrecia Marionette

"Cloud. Psst, Cloud," came the piercing whisper which cut through the sharp night air like a knife.

It emanated from the pitch-black shadow of the vast wall which stretched from the old HQ to the outer wall of the city. The tall, thick and partially rusting structure separated the chaotic hell of Sector Six and the oddly calm Sector Seven with solid efficiency. A fact which Tifa was grudgingly discovering.

Cloud's head lifted at the sound of his name. He stood in the shadows of one of the houses near to the impenetrable edifice. Sephiroth stood near to him, his narrowed aqua eyes gleaming like those of a cat's from the darkness near to him. Yuffie sat between the two men feeling weak and understandably shaken up after her narrow escape from the bar.

She had momentarily regained consciousness after falling into the arms of the two men and was horrified to watch the entire building collapse in on itself. The noise was tumultuous. Cloud had been grimly thankful for the roaring of the flames; they covered the wails of the grief-stricken girl as in a moment of madness she tried to run back in to rescue the cat who had been undoubtedly consumed by the inferno.

Deep in his heart he felt as though someone had shredded him to pieces, but fear for himself and those around him prevented him from taking the same action. Now, the young girl sat with her knees under her chin, rocking back and forth with subdued weeping. He had tried to comfort her, but she was too deeply in shock to comprehend what he was saying.

Every one of them knew that they had to find some shelter or something to stay in. Although for one of the first times that month it was not snowing, it was bitterly cold and having awoken so rudely from their sleep they had not had enough chance to change. Yuffie huddled into the large, old black shirt leant to her by Vincent as nightwear. Although she gave no visible signs of distress at the sudden contrast in temperature, when Cloud had carried her earlier, her body had felt like a block of ice.

He himself wore only a long night shirt with boxers whilst Sephiroth who stood nearby was clothed in only his black trousers, his torso exposed to the freezing temperatures. Tifa was sneaking around in the shadows a few metres away, on the other side of the street in a silken night-gown which barely reached her knees. Although amusing at first, the whole situation was rapidly becoming dire.

Cid had to gain the most pity though. He had not thought to grab any footwear as the others had and now was creeping around further down the wall from Tifa in a pair of boxers and his bomber jacket. Although Cloud cringed with every loud sound, the faint noise of the pilot cursing with every icy step prevented him from remaining overly serious.

"What?" he called in the same hushed tone to answer Tifa's hail. "Have you found something?"

"Cid thinks that he's discovered a climbable part of the wall further down," she answered in a whisper. "It's quite close to the gate though, and he says that he can see a few people walking around."

Cloud frowned and gave a helpless sigh. "We haven't got another choice," he told his two companions.

He looked back over to Tifa who was now standing half in and half out of the light cast down by a window in the building above them. He marvelled momentarily how beautiful she looked but quickly pushed it back down in his mind. She was faintly discernible by a glint of silvery light which reflected off the buckles of the Premium Heart strapped to her right fist. If there was one thing he could be thankful for, it was the fact that they had all managed to retrieve their weapons.

"We're coming over," he called softly and she nodded, stepping back into the darkness.

Sephiroth glanced up and down the narrow street they occupied and nimbly ran over, his silver hair flowing out behind him, the same colour of the Masamune as it caught the light of the house.

Holding his breath and not releasing it until the general was in the shadows, Cloud helped the less than eager Yuffie to stand. "C'mon," he urged gently. "It's your turn."

She, unlike Sephiroth didn't bother to glance around to ensure her safety and simply limped lightly across, Cloud following closely behind. He understood her deep sense of remorse at Cait's 'death', but part of him couldn't help but wish that she held back her mourning for another time. The situation was too dangerous and too dire to give up the luxury of time on lamentation. Nonetheless, he held back his cold words of authority and attempted to look out for the both of them.

Once all three were in the camouflaging darkness, hidden by the night like terrible secrets, Tifa motioned with her hand for them to follow.

They walked for what appeared to be hours, Cloud's eyes darting suspiciously over every dark alley expecting an ambush at any second. They heard the persistent cries of people from near the bar and the faint, orange glow of fires hazed the sky immediately above them. The plan of the mobs had obviously backfired. The all-consuming flames had spread out in their greed and were persisting to impartially destroy the buildings in the sector, uncaring as to their status or importance.

The side of Cloud which prevented him from reprimanding Yuffie for her carelessness and inability to restrain her misery also twinged with every scream drifting across the air and attacking his heart. AVALANCHE had, in their own indirect way, been responsible for the horrific blaze. Surely it was their responsibility to go and help to some extent?

No, maybe it was just his overactive conscience. His guilt was having a field day already without the grim provocation of others' suffering.

The line slowed to a halt at Tifa's hand signal. Cloud snapped from his thoughts and looked up at the wall where they had ceased their subdued trek in the shadows. It did indeed seem climbable; regrettably the only place of its kind along the stretch of metal. It was closer to the Six/Seven gate than he had dared to imagine and there were more than a few citizens moving around hurriedly in groups.

He prayed internally that they were all too concerned with the gruesome events further up the main street to consider watching out for their possible escape. Then again, revenge runs through the blood thicker than rationality. It was even a possibility that the cries further back were not as a result of the flames; more of the discovery of their escape. Surely though such a catastrophic event would be powerful enough to melt back any thoughts of malice over the instinct of survival?

Cloud hoped so.

"Cid's already climbed over," Tifa hissed to the small group to shatter their unsettling silence.

Cloud said nothing; only nodded coldly and moved to the barrier himself. Chicken wire had been strung up on the side like a trellis for the plants that grew along the shady alleyway during spring and summer. Only the brown corpses of those green tendrils existed now though, and as he put a hand over one of the leaves, it crunched and disintegrated in his palm. The freezing weather had also played a large part in the delicacy of the lifeless remains making them as fragile as snowflakes to the touch.

He put a foot in the most likely foothold and put his weight upon it testily. The oddly resilient metal netting took the pressure easily. He put his whole body on it as he started to climb and stopped barely a metre up. He looked back down at his anxious spectators.

"The quicker we get out of here, the sooner we'll be safe," he stated with a degree of obviousness. "As soon as I reach the top, the next person start climbing."

"I'll stay until the end," Sephiroth announced and Cloud nodded.

With that, he started to climb steadily up the trellis, wincing as the thin metal sliced into his

fingers and the skin of his hands. He felt thankful for his thick walking boots and wondered what kind of bloody state Cid was in as he finally set foot in the Seven Gardens.

I'm getting carried away again, he thought to himself irritably. Thrusting his idle thoughts to the back of his mind, he set his attention upon the mechanical action of reaching for the next handhold and pulling himself up. Then reaching for the next and edging up that little bit further.

Soon he was at the top of the tall structure. He looked back down at the cobble alley below and felt his vision swim momentarily in a bout of vertigo. He had been allowed too little sleep and felt too exhausted after the day's exertions to feel totally confident about the state of his body. He balled his fists, his fingers still entwined in the metal of the criss-crossed trellis and focused his eyes on the doll-like figures below.

They seemed to noticed his observance and he felt the metal wiring tremble in his hands as the next person climbed. There had been soft murmurs as he made his own ascent and as he continued to stare down the metallic cliff, Yuffie's reluctant shape became gradually obvious. Her climb was agonisingly slow, the broken ankle obviously tender and painful to the touch. He had to admire the way that she noiselessly moved with them, keeping up and not complaining despite the natural discomfort. He knew that had they been in the same situation barely five or six years ago, they wouldn't have been able to shut her up. The silence was more disconcerting.

Continuing to stare for only a few seconds more, he eventually dared a quick glance over the sector so that his wondering was satiated but his morbid curiosity was not. Staring down at what his hands were doing, he turned around and started to back down the opposing side of the wall. Again, he let his body take over whilst his mind went on auto-run.

As before, it went by quickly and it wasn't long before the somehow chilling orange light of the fires fell from his face and metal netting was replaced by crispy grass.

He turned. "Cid?" he whispered into the darkness. "Where are you?"

He heard the muffled crunching of the grass and looked to his right in time to see Cid walking like an apprehensive cat on a hot tin roof towards him. Cloud unsuccessfully suppressed a smile, but in the dark and embracing shadows it was lost.

"Sh, Shit! F, Fuck!" Cid cried in a voice that was of such a high pitch Cloud felt they didn't have to worry about their discovery unless the patrolling city-people had dogs with them. "This is f, fucking freezing!" the pilot squeaked with every step. "I think I'm g, gonna. h, have to amputate my f, fucking feet when we get outta here!! Even th, the chicken w, wire was better than this! It's like w, walking on c, cold, broken g, g, glass! Oh J, Jesus, my feet! My f, feet!"

There was a soft crunch from behind him and Cloud welcomed the diversion of his attention in the fear he was about to burst into hysterics. Yuffie brushed off her shivering legs and clasped the elbows of her opposite arms in her hands across her chest.

"Wh, Wh, What. D, Do we d, do. N, Now?" she shivered painstakingly.

Cloud hugged her and rubbed her back vigorously. She seemed to relax in his grip and he felt her body warm under his touch.

"Y, You didn't.. d, do that with me!" Cid exclaimed stutteringly and again Cloud almost collapsed into a fit of helpless giggles.

There was a long moment of silence as they waited in a huddled group for the final two members. Eventually Tifa and Sephiroth lowered themselves down the wall. Cloud bore a grudging admiration for the silver-haired man's ability to move around so well in the climate. It's all that SOLDIER training he reason inwardly I m, must be more out of shape. th, than I th, thought.

Out of the light and hesitant warmth shone out by the blazes back in Sector Six it seemed so much colder in winter's shadow. Each of them knew although no words were spoken that if they didn't start moving soon then it would be over before it began.

"Th, The river," Tifa stumbled suddenly and they looked unanimously at her. "We can shelter in th, that pipe where the r, river flows from. Wh, Where we came out of wh, when we left the HQ."

Cloud's eyes widened in realisation. "O, Of course," he forced out. "W, We haven't got m, much time. We'd. b, better make a move."

Not even bothering to speak, they formed a line and began to trudge across the sharp green ground, keeping their forms in the shadows and cutting across the light whenever necessary. Although without footwear, Cid seemed to cope well with the situation. Cloud reasoned that his constant and violent curses help to relieve the pain and pressure which built up with every agonising step.

They walked past trees which stretched up like skeletal hands to the dull skies above. Devoid of leaves or life, with such a cold winter they wondered whether Spring would ever come at all that year. When the constant crunch of the icy grass stopped, it was replaced by the soft thuds of their boots and feet as they ran on tiptoes across the broken tarmac which ringed the base of the shattered HQ.

Tifa felt a shiver run up her spine as she looked up at the corpse of the pillar and it wasn't from the cold. Then, more than ever she felt the presence of the fictional ghosts and angry ghouls which were said to haunt the once populated monument. She pondered whether it was due to the furious ghost of Hojo as he swirled around the opened rooms looking for revenge on his slayers. She fancied that she could even feel his slitted, almost black eyes boring into her soul. Her head snapped up as there was a scream from above.

"Just a piece of scrap blowing in the wind," Cloud consoled her as he noticed the reaction it had upon her body. He lifted an arm and pointed out the offending object.

It was a sheet of metal which had peeled away from the skin of the building and now hung by a thin twisted link that allowed it to blow in the chilly breeze. She nodded in recognition but still felt a twinge of suspicion as she stared accusingly at it. Another 'scream' rang out as another, lighter wind blew through the lifeless gap. The small and more drawn out noise it made reminded her of a laugh. She considered sticking her tongue out at it but quickly realised the childishness of such an action.

"It's just the cold," she murmured to herself like a mantra. "Can't let it get to me."

The sound of the laughing metal faded from behind them and was soon replaced by the faint burbling of a distant river.

"W, we're almost there," Cloud shivered in order to make some noise. He felt better for the mere action of moving and almost regretted that their journey was coming to an end. He feared that their escape and entire act of resistance against the angry masses would all prove worthless as they slowly froze to death in a supposed 'refuge'.

He could almost imagine the look of ironic contempt at the whole situation Vincent would wear over his glacial mask if he were present. But he's not. He's long gone; probably had the best idea if you ask me he sighed internally

"I can s, see the r, river," Sephiroth shivered as he pointed to a sliver of silver against the black floor.

Trudging forward, they didn't notice the two pairs of eyes which had been following them closely from the partition wall as they made their agonising trek to respite. One of the men turned to the other and nudged him in the ribs.

"That's them," he murmured with noticeable spite.

His companion nodded and together they leapt from the dead bushes slightly ahead of the fleeing group. Cloud looked up and his breath caught in his throat at the silhouettes of the imposing figures. The others reacted behind him by stopping suddenly. Their numb fingers clutched at their weapons in an act so pathetic Tifa was certain she heard a snort coming from one of the couple.

"Don't make me laugh," came the taunt that lacked any sense of joviality.

Cloud narrowed his eyes and stared with piercing cobalt irises towards the source of speech. It was a voice that sounded coldly familiar. To break his moment of thought however, there was a shrill whining which raised higher and higher in pitch until it was no longer audible. With it came a soft blue light that gradually spread out from one of the men until it faintly illuminated the surrounding area.

Sea-green eyes observed the motley crew with disdain and obvious hatred. The figure behind whose eyes were hidden behind black shades jerked his arm forward and threw several blankets to the ground before Cloud.

"Wrap them around yourselves," Reno ordered icily. "Don't ask me why, but Reeve seems to want us to keep you alive. You don't deserve it."

Cloud said nothing but shot a dark glare towards the fiery Turk and bent down. He picked up the white, fleecy sheets and passed them back to the others behind him. There was one spare.

Cloud threw it back to Reno who caught it clumsily having not expected the move. "We don't need this one," he said in a voice so devoid of emotion that even Sephiroth was surprised.

Reno frowned and Rude looked over AVALANCHE and Sephiroth with purposeful movements.

"The cat isn't here," he reported eventually

Reno's eyes widened slightly. "That robot thing? Shit. Reeve's gonna be heart broken. Poor guy." He looked up at Cloud, any trace of sympathy gone from his face. "Where is it?"

"Cait," Cloud began placing extra emphasis on their friend's name. "Sacrificed himself so that we could get out of the house. He died in the blaze."

A look of misplaced remorse flashed across the Turks' faces but it was gone quickly. Reno and Rude turned without another word and started to walk back into the bushes. The remaining group glanced around at each other for a few seconds.

"I believe we're meant to follow them," Sephiroth announced with barely a tremor in his voice as he huddled into the warm blanket.

"Yeah?" started Cid. "Well I b, believe that if we don't get movin' soon, my damned feet are gonna fall off. And I believe, th, that Reno is gonna get my spear up his ass if h, he doesn't start changin' his a, attitude."

Cloud nodded grimly from his side but said nothing in return and started to move after the two Turks. The others followed behind him like a funeral procession through the corpses of undergrowth. The harsh sound of their chattering teeth which had rattled in their skulls had subsided leaving only the empty crunches of the dead flora. Even Cid bit back the curses which threatened to burst forth every time he trod on a sharp stick or jagged pebble.

Cloud no longer paid any attention to his friends however. He had placed his arm across Tifa's shoulders, and even now she was huddled against him. But it was an empty gesture. His mind was so absorbed in his thoughts that his heart was elsewhere. Sensing his coldness, Tifa said nothing and felt simply pleased for the extra warmth and human touch.

Sephiroth marched at the back of the line, one hand constantly upon the hilt of the Masamune and the other clutching the blanket which covered his chest and back. Yuffie limped a few steps ahead of him, her posture plodding and utterly unfeeling for the world around her. An unfamiliar twinge of sorrow and a desire to help deep inside his soul took Sephiroth by surprise although he didn't act on them. Not only would it be inappropriate as they fled for freedom, he honestly didn't think that he would know how to console the mourning young woman.

He turned his head away and instead looked back towards the river which they now walked parallel to. If he didn't see her plight, then maybe he wouldn't feel so useless about it, he reasoned numbly without much belief in his own words. He pondered seriously trying to recall when he had last felt so alone.

Here he was with a group of people who had pushed away their prejudice and hatred to care for him. Here he was without the voice of Jenova claiming to be a part of him, her cadaver smashed and broken somewhere in another world. He was free, but in that he was isolated.

When the demon, Vincent had been present at least then it had not been so bad. When he was awake, the link between them as a result of their shared Jenova cells had given him the feeling that he was not alone in his suffering and nightmares. As the day had drawn on, that Jenova bond had become weaker and weaker until now it had faded. He was well aware that Cloud had once harboured many Jenova cells but they had gone, put into himself in order so that he might once more be alive. But as a result, there were no voices; no mutual words exchanged without the need for a sound.

He suspected greatly that the only reason he was walking through a dead jungle and out onto the icy grass of the Seven Gardens with half of AVALANCHE was because he had done them a favour.

An eye for an eye he unconsciously recalled.

He had saved their lives and because of that they felt obliged to look after him as though he were a grudging burden that had been thrust upon them against their will.

It was, of course, against their will. He couldn't even imagine that they would want any of this to happen. After all, they had lost one of their nearest and dearest and gained their infamous nemesis as an ally. Even he felt confused and uncertain.

For a brief second he realised that his strength had almost returned and that it would be easy for him to break off from the group and try to make it on his own. Naturally he dismissed the thought quickly. As simple as it would have been to carry it out, there would have been repercussions.

Besides, there was something, a feeling that told him on an instinctual level he was to stay a member of their team. Perhaps it was this mysterious 'destiny' that had become the very fuel for his existence?

He snorted contemptuously. I'm no philosopher and I make no claims to be. I'll follow this feeling until it reaches an end. When it does I know I can hold my sword high and feel glad to have lived again. Until then though, I shall walk the path laid down no matter how many twists and turns lay along its route.

As his morose thoughts came to an end, they broke free of the oddly suffocating maze of lifelessness and onto the massive and elegant lawn. The shadows of the two Turks could be seen well ahead, their heads bowed down

"Yes. No matter how many twists and turns," Sephiroth muttered under his breath as he followed the people before him onto the silver expanse.


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