Through the Looking Glass Chapter 18
By Lucrecia Marionette
A light rapping on their bedroom door awoke the sleeping couple as they lay contentedly in each other's arms. Cloud was the first to stir; Tifa merely moaned in her sleep and rolled over to face the bedroom window located opposite the entrance. He felt a smile creep up on his face at her reaction. The poor thing was so exhausted after so little sleep over the past few weeks that it would take a stampede to drag her from bed. Reviewing their present situation, Cloud realised with some numbness that what was trying to contact them was more than any physical action.
He reluctantly sat up and stretched luxuriously. His period of rest had been the first he'd had for. he couldn't even recall exactly how long it had been. Still, all good things had to come to an end and this brief time of tranquillity and respite was no exception.
As he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and pulled on his boxers he paused as a faint sound touched his ears. It sounded almost like. shouting. Frowning, he pulled up his underwear and walked over to the blind covered window, parting two of the slats in order to look out onto the main Sector Three road.
For a fraction of a second, his heart stopped and his breath caught firmly in his throat. As his eyes focused upon the huge crowd of people amassed outside of the Midgar Offices, the once faint sounds of yelling because so much louder until now the loud chants and shouts of Midgar's gathered population rattled through the glass pane. Although he was unable to discern exactly what they were collectively saying, he could take a pretty good guess.
From what he was able to tell by the amount of light in sky it was early night; he had been in bed for a day. A day was more than enough time for investigators from the Office to have sought out and discovered the cause of the massive blaze that would have swept across Sector Six. It would have taken them even less time to realise that there were no human remains in the charred shell that had once been Tifa's livelihood.
He turned, his mouth open in preparation to arouse Tifa from her doze fully, but a louder knocking on their bedroom door sufficed. Tifa's eyes opened lazily and she looked up at Cloud questioningly, trying to grasp what had awoken her from such a delicious stillness. He flashed her a forced smile, unwilling to spring the shock of what was happening outside upon her in her weary state. Lifting his gaze quickly, he turned it towards the door on the opposite side of the bed to him.
"Come in," he called out to the unseen disturber.
The door opened seconds later and Elena stepped in, her manner curt and cold. She put some clothes on the end of the bed and flashed an almost disgusted look in the direction of Tifa who was clutching the thin bed sheets around her; an embarrassed crimson mask flushing on her cheeks.
"These are to replace the clothes you lost," the female Turk announced icily. "As soon as you are both dressed you might want to come to Reeve's office."
Before Cloud could say anything, Elena turned and left as abruptly as she arrived leaving the atmosphere devoid of any of the comfort and warmth it had contained before. Cloud turned his eyes back down to his beloved who was now sitting up, the sheets wrapped around her naked body. Her cheeks were still tinged a self-conscious pink and she bit her bottom lip shyly, looking down at the floor beneath her feet.
Cloud sat down next to her and slid a comforting arm over her shoulders. He kissed the top of her head reassuringly.
"Was what we did. wrong?" she asked quietly after a long period of terrible silence had elapsed.
Cloud stroked her back as she started to wring her hands worriedly.
"No," he whispered softly in return. "It wasn't."
"But... it was like we didn't care about Cait or something," she breathed in return. "Cait went and sacrificed himself so that we could go on and we've hardly even mourned him. Instead we. ." Her voice trailed off as she let out a shuddering sigh. "I just feel as though we've disgraced him almost by dismissing his demise so quickly. That's what Elena thought as well. She knew what we did and she hates us for it. Even if she isn't a member of AVALANCHE, she can understand how disrespectful we've been to his memory."
Cloud's lips pressed together in a line as he thought deeply and searched for a way to comfort the woman by his side. For all his pacifying words though, he couldn't help but feel a twinge of the guilt she felt so dreadfully.
"The Turks have been weird with us ever since we first met them in the Seven Gardens," Cloud said eventually. "As guilty as we feel now. whatever was making Elena so offhand wasn't linked to our relationship."
Tifa looked up and gazed into his eyes. "Really?"
He nodded and he saw the corners of her soft lips turn upwards in a light smile. "I'm certain."
He stood up once more and moved to where the clothes had been placed. He passed a pair of blue jeans with a white T-shirt to Tifa. She took them gratefully and hastily dressed while he examined and pulled on his own clothes. He had been given a pair of dark blue sweat-pants and a pale purple polo neck sweater, a lot like his old tank top, only with sleeves. When they were both ready they looked each other up and down with approving gazes.
"This is going to be hard, isn't it?" Tifa asked calmly as they stood side by side before the entrance.
Cloud nodded. "We knew it would never be easy," he responded simply. "And so far it hasn't been. As awful as the possibility of all the month's events being linked, it still makes sense. There's a mystery here and come hell or high water we'll get to the bottom of it."
"To Reeve's office then."
"Yeah, let's go." He finished as their hands met and they walked out into the corridor.
"You took your time," came the not unkind statement which greeted the couple as they walked through the maple-wood doors to Reeve's work place.
"Yeah, sorry about that," Cloud answered, directing his apology to the whole room but mainly Reeve who had addressed them on their entry. The executive nodded wearily in response and sat down on his desk, facing into the room and the rabble assembled before him.
AVALANCHE members and Sephiroth stood huddled like refugees on one side of the room, their backs pressed up against the wall in order to get as far away as possible from the opposing force; the Turks.
Why has such a divide arisen? Reeve mused to himself as he observed the warring parties. The only things exchanged between them were now harsh, dangerous glares in the place of jovial insults and banter.
It was a shame that after six years of hatred the two archenemies had learnt to put their differences aside, only to have them once more reinstated. He couldn't bear to see such hostility. Such horrid undertones and violent atmospheres were common in places such as the old Shinra Corporation. Not in the light and airy world of the Midgar Offices.
What kind of a state was the world once more elapsing into.?
He made a mental note to mention the new divide as soon as possible to Reno, the unproclaimed leader of the Turks in order to discover exactly what dastardly undertakings were beneath this glacial air. It wasn't right for them all to feel such hatred in a time of obvious peril. Especially with the most recent, fatal twist of events and not forgetting Cait's untimely departure.
He felt a ball of emotion knot in his throat at even the brief thought of the cat's name but he choked it back and coughed, drawing all of the attention in the room towards himself.
"We have. a new problem," he started falteringly. "Needless to say, my speech was not taken. as well as I would have liked it to have been by Midgar's population."
AVALANCHE and Sephiroth looked at Reeve questioningly. Their exhaustion had kept them asleep for the entire day and so they had missed any news or events surrounding the much-feared press conference which had been planned since Chaos' first witnessed slaughterings. As Reeve began to speak and retell the evening's events to them all, Cloud felt bile rising up the back of his throat as he was reminded strongly of the crowds gathered outside of the Offices that he had looked upon from his bedroom window. It was all coming together now with horrific clarity.
"In short, I failed," Reeve began quietly. "The conference was an astounding failure. Of course it wasn't in the eyes of the Midgar residents and the press, but to all of us gathered here right now, it was a catastrophe."
He paused as he let out a deep sigh and stared down at his feet. "I had it all planned out. I was going to give them the story they wanted; AVALANCHE are missing presumed dead. Their primitive and hate-driven blaze the cause. But that wasn't enough. The press wanted photos, evidence, accounts of the accident investigators and much more things that I couldn't provide them with. I hastily moved on to the topic which has been plaguing every newspaper since yesterday afternoon; the killer demon who has torn eight citizens to pieces. I told all gathered that the creature had fled the city and was seen heading towards Kalm at the last sightings. But again it wasn't enough for them.
"Meteor's demise has acted like a double-edged sword on the population of the planet. On the positive side? People are starting to look out for each other more, appreciating what time they have left and making the most of it.
"The negative side? Exactly the same. It's true that Vincent has left the city and is unlikely to return, but they don't know that. They don't know that what has happened cannot be solely put upon his shoulders-"
Reeve's train of thought was interrupted by Reno who gave a derisive snort. All eyes fell upon the Turk and he shook his head disgustedly and leant back on the wall, not following up his expression with anything more.
Undeterred, Reeve continued. "Because of this new 'neighbourly concern' across the world, the residents of Midgar don't think that we should sit back whilst the demon that 'terrorised' them moves onto the next community. They feel that all major towns and cities if the world should work together to eliminate such an 'obvious threat'." Judging by the Vice-Mayor's contemptuous use of the hellish descriptions of Vincent, it was obvious he had not warmed to the crusading idea. "I have been given no option but to contact other leaders of districts across the globe to begin to organise search and hunting parties."
A solemn and stiff silence elapsed and smothered the room's occupants.
"As for problems closer to home. we are in an even graver danger. I almost envy Vincent. At this moment in time, all of us gathered in this room are walking a tight-rope."
Again Reno gave an audible expression of scorn but Reeve shot him a sharp glare.
"All of us," he repeated firmly with a hint of anger. "As I explained last night, it was not just AVALANCHE seen at the events which have ravaged the city over the past few weeks. I could give them no firm evidence that you had met your demises in the flames last night. Because of that, they want the SP and MPs to begin raiding parties to hunt you down like animals."
He exhaled deeply and looked over to his friends. "Everyone who isn't insane or hasn't been living under a rock for the past six years will know that I am strongly linked with you all. I've tried to put across to the press and people that my priority is, and always will be the city and it's residents, but they're starting to see through me. If they even suspect that I could be housing you here, in the Midgar Offices of all places then we're all doomed! They're baying for blood and justice. I've been reading the newspapers all day and from what I gather, they don't think a public execution would be out of place."
Gasps of horror and utter shock sucked the air from the room. Tifa's hand unconsciously clutched at her throat while Yuffie's face drained of colour and she fell back onto the couch behind her. Cid and Cloud both let out explosions of colourful language while Sephiroth continued to stand stoically, only a frown marring his expressionless face. Even the Turks paled at the announcement. It was obvious they'd heard the entire story before, but the very mention of such a dreadful event taking place was enough to force them into sharing a reaction with their old and perhaps new enemies.
Reeve's posture and face remained as grim as ever. He had been there to hear and read about the horrible threats and stories as soon as they appeared but they still hung on his chest like a lead block, crushing his ribcage and weighing on his heart. He swallowed forcefully.
"Drastic times lead to drastic measures," he stated in a low tone. "We were tempting the devil by just allowing you to stay here for a day. Any more time and we would just be pushing our luck. I need to stay here and hopefully keep the public under check, and you three," he nodded towards the Turks. "Need to stay with me. Nothing must seem unusual or out of place."
He finally turned to his friends and the shadowy figure of Sephiroth clad in his normal black trousers and boots wearing a black trench coat, very similar to the one which was destroyed in the fire. The only things missing were the belt and shoulder-pads; items which only advertised and made obvious his old position in SOLDIER. Now he was no longer the general of the Shinra's army; he was Sephiroth. A silver-haired fighter and traveller, striving for a greater cause without all of the accoutrements. Reeve wondered if he found comfort in that thought.
The Vice-mayor's eyes wandered over the motley gang of five gathered before him but they eventually stopped on Cloud, silent messages passed between the two men.
"You all have to go. Now," he said firmly and Cloud gave a slow nod of understanding. The others behind him bar Sephiroth appeared greatly upset by the order although they knew that it was inevitable. "To be honest, you should have fled yesterday but you were too tired then. Search parties have already started to comb the city; it is going to be a nightmare getting you out but I've been working on a plan all day. I knew this time would come but it doesn't make it any easier."
He stood and walked behind his desk, pressing a button beneath the writing surface after fumbling around for a few seconds. There was a mechanical buzzing and eventually a painting of Reeve and Cait Sith sat together in the office jerked and lifted to reveal a safe set into the wall. The executive moved noiselessly over to it and punched in a combination, opening the thick metal door with surprising quietness. He reached inside and produced an armful of paper scrolls and files. The door shut automatically as he moved away and the painting slid back into place.
After flipping through the many sheaths for a long time, he gave a grunt of satisfaction and brushed all of the paper messily onto the floor, smoothing out a single one on the desktop. Giving a slight motion of his hand to the separate parties behind him, they all walked forward and peered over his hunched shoulders.
He had rolled out what appeared to be a map of the train and sewer systems of Sector 3. There were hastily scribbled notes and arrows pointing in erratic directions, clearly where he'd thought out his plan earlier.
Cid whistled through his teeth. "Reeve, maybe if you'd worked on your speech a bit more instead of doodling on blueprints we wouldn't be in this mess!"
Reeve gave a weary chuckle at the comment but shook his head to dismiss the joviality on his mind. Becoming suddenly serious he pointed a finger a large building; the Offices.
"This is where we are right now," he stated obviously. His finger ran up the blueprint away from himself until it reached the outside of a vast circle; the city perimeter. "This is where you all need to get. The only way I can see you doing that quickly and without detection is through the train and old sewer systems."
Yuffie wrinkled her nose. "Sewer systems? Does that mean we have to wade to freedom?"
"No, don't worry. These are the old pipes and tunnels that were used by Midgar when the Shinra was in power. They've been out of operation for years now. I can't guarantee that it'll be pleasant; far from it in fact. But it's either this or getting executed and I know which I'd prefer."
The young woman gave a dour nod and continued to scan over the complex maps.
"You can gain access to the tunnels from the alley behind the Offices. There should be a ladder there; if not you'll need to find another route. From there you need to follow this map to the nearest centimetre otherwise you could end up getting lost," he said firmly gesturing with his hands over the mass of pipes and corridors. "It's a hellish labyrinth down there and one false turning could be a disaster.
"If you do what it tells you to on here however then you'll eventually come across a trapdoor. When taken, it will take you down onto the subway tracks. The trains run along the surface as you know, but because the richer civilians live on the outskirts of the city they don't want to see a dirty, loud train rumbling past every few minutes. That's why it goes underground for the last mile or two of its journey. When it does surface, it's well out of inhabited areas and to the train graveyard where it spends its night.
"If everything goes as planned, you can hitch a ride on the train (there shouldn't be any passengers that late at night and if there are they'll be drunk or asleep) and get off at the graveyard. From there it should be a clear run to the outer wall and freedom."
He took a deep breath and looked at his audience. Although there was puzzlement on some of their faces, others appeared calm and comprehending; he could be thankful for that at least.
"I've gone through it more thoroughly with the Turks so they'll accompany you as far as the trapdoor. There can be no margin of error, understand?"
His query was met with hesitant nods and he stood back, running his hand through his hair to scrape it back off his fatigued visage. "There's no point in staying around here then," he announced in a subdued tone. "The longer we wait, the more inevitable it becomes that you'll all be discovered."
Cloud nodded in agreement. "Just give us an hour, some medical equipment and something to eat. As soon as we're ready we'll move out."
Reeve nodded and turned to Elena. "See to that would you?"
She gave a curt acknowledgement, turned and left the room. Reeve looked to Reno and Rude. "You two go to the sewer cover behind the building, guard it and watch the corridors thereabouts. Make sure no one is around that could bump into you all or jeopardise our plans. It's too early for us to fall prey to something as stupid as a mistake like that."
The remaining two Turks left after Elena, closing the door quietly behind them. Reeve eventually glanced over his companions.
Cloud, Tifa and Sephiroth's attire he had already noticed and examined but it was the clothing of the final two members of the assorted group which took his attention. Yuffie was wearing a pair of blue-jeans like Tifa's, only the lady of Wutai had refused her sweat-shirt in favour of the huge black shirt which he recognised as belonging to the absent, tortured member of AVALANCHE. She had the sleeves rolled up to her elbows and seemed very comfortable huddled into it. Every now and then however she would pull and tug at her tight jeans irritatedly. Ever since he'd known the young ninja she had always preferred shorts to anything else because of the freedom they gave her. Stifling trousers were certainly not her thing and she looked most out of place in them.
Cid still had on his lucky bomber jacket (at least something had remained constant) with an unlit cigarette dancing along his ungloved fingers as he numbly toyed with the thin object. At first glance he appeared no different than usual but on his bottom half he donned a pair of new walking boots and dark blue training pants, like Cloud's only baggier. His face also showed signs that the undue and sudden stress of the months events had taken his age by surprise. The pilot, like any other member of the Eco-warrior group was not getting any younger. Although the initial bouts of activity had instilled him with a sense of vibrancy and youthfulness, now the long cold nights and many hours spent worrying and trying to remain calm sucked the energy from his bones and left a weary, abused outer shell.
None of the others were any better. Cloud and Sephiroth's illness, Yuffie's exposure to events that no-one no matter how old should have to bear witness to, Cid's general weariness and of course Tifa's over anxiety and concern for her companions. All situations taken into account; AVALANCHE were well beyond their years. Time had been cruel to them and fate was being crueller.
He imagined that he didn't look any better. Judging by the pitying looks he received in return from his comrades as he scrutinised them, he probably looked worse.
Clearing his throat, he stood and moved around his desk to sit down on his comfortable leather chair. Cloud and Sephiroth knelt down next to Yuffie's feet and proceeded to examine the damaged ankle. She met their advances with surprising resilience, only letting out subdued whimpers as Cloud twisted the limb in gentle motions in order to see what was wrong. A few minutes later the doors to the office opened and Elena walked in, pushing a box of supplies over to him with her foot. She placed a tray of food on Reeve's desk and went to stand next to him, her gaze flicking coldly over the rabble.
Cid was the first to stand and help himself to the food, shortly followed by Tifa who took the pallet and took it around the room like the hostess and matronly figure she was born to be. Reeve couldn't help but allow an affectionate smile touch his lips as she finally offered him a piece of bread from off the tray. He declined politely and she placed it down in its original place, finally sitting next to Yuffie on a chair.
The ninja let out a pained cry, shoving her head into a pillow as there was a loud click and Sephiroth snapped her foot back into place. He hastily strapped a splint onto the calf and tied bandages around it tightly. That done, Cloud produced a piece of cure materia from the supplies box and held it against the wound. There was an eventual green glow which spread from the green orb onto the limb and enveloped it in a healing haze. Yuffie's face contorted in malady as she felt the tissue and sinews fuse together once more, locking the bones in place and almost totally restoring her leg to normal.
Sephiroth pulled off the temporary binding around her leg and Cloud once more started to play with it. This time there was a tingling sensation in place of the agony that had ripped up her leg before. She gave a grim smile.
"Thanks," she said with hesitant gratefulness, turning her eyes to Sephiroth and Cloud.
Cloud patted her on the head affectionately as he stood and sat down next to Tifa.
Sephiroth however gave her a peculiar gaze and a light smile touched his thin lips. She felt a wave of shock run through her. The last time she had seen those chiselled features smile had been as she stood before him, frozen in terror and surrounded by the depravity of the Northern Crater. But then that expression had been to conceited, so arrogant and full of spite.
The smile which he flashed her now was so different that she found herself believing without doubt that the Sephiroth which now fought with them was a completely different person. It was just as Cloud had said. He was nothing to do with the 'One Winged Angel' that had almost torn them limb from limb, scattering their dismembered bodies with malevolence across the cosmos.
Sephiroth the general had returned once more and was crouched before her, tending to her wounds and gratefully accepting any attention they put his way.
That smile, that show of gratitude had been so thankful, so warming. It was as though he was basking in her praise, and bestowing his eternal thankfulness for her appreciation. He seemed to thrive and sustain himself upon that one moment of positive recognition, and as their eyes locked she found a smile creeping up on her own face.
He stood and turned away. The moment had lasted barely a second but as Yuffie felt a part of the immature child she had once been melt away, it stayed that way for a lifetime. The past could be laid to rest; endeavouring to keep its bitter memory alive was futile and pointless. The future lay ahead and with it brought new adventures, chances and friendships. Vendettas could be forgotten for the sake of what was to come.
Suddenly the feeling of sitting upon the plains of Gongaga around a campfire with the happy chatter of companions in her ears seemed so much closer. And the prospect was even more precious to her.
A foul burst of ancient, grimy gas burst upwards in a puff of swirling white, poisoning the night air with its potent stench. All present found themselves gagging back to prevent vomit from creeping up their throats at the vile smell; even those furthest away from it's epicentre. Shrugging back every fibre of common sense which screamed at them to get away as fast as they could from the obviously dangerous place, the group began to lower themselves into the hole.
Slippery rungs, wet with a substance that Yuffie didn't even want to think about were their only way of getting to the bottom. She simply focused her eyes on the green coated bricks which moved upward across her vision with each step she took down. All were eager to remove themselves from the grim situation and so hurried quickly down the aged ladder.
After a period of time which passed slower than many others in their lives, all eight members of the rabble assembled messily on the sludge covered floor. To their relief, the smell seemed to only hang in the air at the very top of the unimaginably huge tube that they found themselves in. It led off in front and behind them towards the myriad of passageways and tunnels they had to navigate through. Still, the visions they shared of hideous creatures writhing and twisting around their ankles, disguised and shrouded in the mucky-brown swampy water which came up to their calves were foul enough on its own.
"Which way?" Cloud asked firmly, turning to face Reno with eyes which glowed icy blue in the black air.
There was a soft click and a sudden beam of light emerged from the darkness. Reno held up a torch and threw it over to the leader of AVALANCHE who caught it a little clumsily. The two other Turks did likewise, throwing their light sources towards two other people and then lighting ones for themselves. Both Yuffie and Cid shone theirs around, gasping in a child-like wonder at the place they were in. A curved roof, the top of the tube they walked in, hung perhaps twenty-five metres above them. The walls bowed down to the floor which was the only flat surface in the area. Dark browny-green mire oozed out of the walls, dripping every so often into the stagnant lake they were stood in. Although amazement at the fact man could build such a vast place had stolen over then originally, now repulsion filled their minds until the feeling of the grim liquid surrounding their ankles was a sour relief to the revulsion they felt by looking at it.
The sound of shuffling, crumpled paper echoed around the vast tube as the members of AVALANCHE ceased their searching to watch Reno. The fiery Turk fumbled for a few seconds with the large map Reeve had given them. He eventually held it out before him and looked at it over the lit torch he had clamped between his teeth. After a few minutes of silence, he rolled up the sheet once more and put the light in his hand. Flashing over to his right he nodded towards the spot of illumination it formed where it hit the sludgy surface of the water.
"We go that way," he said emotionlessly.
He started to walk, his eyes focused firmly ahead as though he couldn't bear to look down and see just what the hell was soaking into the hem of his trousers. Elena and Rude flanked him impassively, not even glancing back at their AVALANCHE counterparts as they trudged forward through the muck.
"We should follow them," Sephiroth stated to break the tense silence once the Turks were out of earshot. "We cannot risk getting lost in this place. Reeve wasn't exaggerating when he said it was like a labyrinth."
Tifa gave a lopsided smile. "Yeah we know. we're all veteran Sewer Rats. I've spent longer down here than I'd care to admit."
Cloud nodded and flashed her a quietly amused smile. "Still, we should get going."
He was met with wordless nods and the group of five strode quickly after the blue-suited trio in order to keep themselves safe. The situation remained the same for an insanely long time; portholes and ladders placed in measured distances along the walls of the massive pipe. Every now and then they would hear a crash or shudder as trains moved below them and mobs charged overhead. The only grim satisfaction came from the fact that as they moved, with every step the revulsion they felt for the swampy water lessened until now it was a minor inconvenience.
The monotony ended after half an hour of silent marching however as the first junction in the journey appeared.
"Which way, Reno?" Cloud asked, finding it increasingly difficult to suppress his natural feelings of leadership. He was met with a cold aqua stare which eventually lowered to look down at the map. Cloud narrowed his eyes and took a few deep and calming breaths. He realised that his feelings of leadership weren't the only thing he needed to keep in check.
And again they started; the routine becoming frequent and no longer a break from the dullness of their circumstances. It became their circumstance. Walk for a few minutes, stop and look at the map. Walk for a few minutes, stop and look at the map. Cid wondered dourly how many people had died through sheer madness in the hellhole.
"Oh shit! Stop!" Reno suddenly announced after the twentieth (or was it thirtieth?) turn.
"What is it?" Yuffie gasped in alarm, whirling around to quickly count the members of the group. "Is everyone here??"
"No you idiot," Reno hissed through gritted teeth. "I think I made a wrong fucking turn."
"You what??" Cid cried in horror. "When?? If you tell me that we have to go through all that again, then I swear Reno I'm gonna make you scream so loud they'll hear you back at the Offices!!"
Reno glared with startling fury at the pilot. "You wouldn't dare touch me," he whispered dangerously in return. "I'll smash your brains out with my nightstick if you take a step towards me. if it hasn't been shrivelled by all that damned chain smoking that is."
"Why, you.!!" Cid screamed in a rage as he spun the Venus Gospel and thrust Yuffie out of the way in order to get a clean shot at the source of his ire.
Reno in return whipped out his nightstick, the map fluttering to the ground and deftly caught mid-air by Elena who leapt back in alarm as her boss sprinted forward. He gave a cry of anger and raised the stick in order to bring it down on the pilot who had pulled back his arm in preparation to fling the spear.
Both would have collided violently with the undoubtable screams of pain predicted had the four remaining members of AVALANCHE not grabbed and pulled back the warring men. Cloud smashed down Cid's hand on his knee and the jarring caused the fingers to release their grip on the elegant shaft. Sephiroth snapped back and twisted Reno's arm around his back yanking the nightstick from his grip and turning it off before throwing it far away where it was swallowed by the sludge.
"Damnit!! CALM DOWN!!" Cloud roared with fury. "What the hell do you think you're both doing??"
At the sound of Cloud's voice both men ceased their squirming and became guiltily still, flashing menacing glares at each other, and in Reno's case, at the accuser.
"This is no time to start up old feuds!" he continued angrily. "If you two have to fight like children, then for God's sake, do it where you aren't going to end up getting the rest of us killed!"
"Stuck up fucking Turk," Cid growled crassly. "I think you're trying to get us all caught, aren't you?"
"You honestly think I'd try to be seen with a bunch of murdering losers like you?" Reno contended venomously.
"You may think that we're losers," Tifa intervened with a sorrowful but vicious tone to her voice. "But we are not murderers."
"You try telling that to the people of Midgar," Reno answered. He had lost any of the furious energy in his voice and now seethed with a cool hatred. He shrugged off the grips of Yuffie and Sephiroth and straightened out his constantly unkempt jacket with obvious arrogance. He ran a hand through his hair and glared accusingly at the group of Eco-warriors.
"It was no one's fault that those people were killed-" Cloud began but was cut off promptly.
"Oh no? So I suppose they tore themselves to pieces did they?"
They fell silent and Reno shook his head with disgust.
"It wasn't their fault and it wasn't Vincent's fault," Sephiroth murmured unintrusively. "If it was anyone's it was mine for making him so angry. ."
Reno gave a bark of laughter. "I can't believe how stupid you all are!" he exclaimed incredulously with a laugh of disbelief. "Even when something happens which has nothing to do with you, you blame yourselves!"
Yuffie's face crumpled into a frown. "I don't get this. are you saying that you don't blame us?" she asked with a puzzled expression.
"Maybe you weren't the ones to pull the trigger, but you all sure as hell made the gun." Reno answered with a sigh.
"Now you're starting to confuse me," Cid announced with a shake of his head.
"Well that wasn't too hard," Elena piped in with narrowed eyes.
She opened her mouth as though she were about to continue, but Reno held up a hand and she fell instantly silent. "You know Elena. I think that they. genuinely don't get it. ." He gazed at the group of five before him contemplatively and Cloud glared back.
Not only was it bad enough having an insulting Turk accusing you of crimes no better than those they committed themselves, it was worse to have a group of Turks who knew something you didn't. He only had to glance at his companions to know that they shared his discomfort.
"So what is it, Reno?" he queried eventually, unable to stand the anticipation any longer. "Is this why you've been such a bastard to us since you found us in the Seven Gardens."
Reno exhaled deeply and he turned to take the map from the female Turk behind him. As he pulled it out before him and glanced over it, his eyes were glazed with thought. "I honestly thought you knew," he breathed.
After a few seconds, he rolled up the sheet and passed it back to Elena who took it without complaint once more.
"We can talk and walk at the same time," he stated as he looked down the passageway they had just entered through. "I think it's almost midnight; we don't have much time."
Cloud nodded with understanding and he looked at his friends. "I'll walk with Reno for a while," he said quietly. "I'll tell you all what he says, but for now keep your eyes and ears open."
Cid looked as though he were about to object, but a comforting hand on his arm from Tifa hushed his complaint. And so they began again. .
"So what is it, Reno?" Cloud asked once he and the Turk leader were well ahead of the others. "Just. let me know something. Things between you three and AVALANCHE have never been perfect, but I thought we'd put everything behind us. Is this 'thing' you know that we don't the reason why you've been so cold to us?"
Reno cleared his throat and stared impassively at the muck beneath his feet as he walked. He seemed to be gathering his thoughts, and as Cloud opened his mouth to prompt him, Reno began to speak.
"I have one word," he whispered cautiously as though there were hidden demons listening in on their conversation. His eyes darted from side to side warily and wildly hoping to focus on something he suspected was present. "Valentine," he ended in a hiss.
Cloud's eyebrows raised. "Y, you mean that Vincent is the problem?"
Reno's lips pursed and he gave a single, slow nod. "Yeah," he answered quietly.
"We've already explained to you about why he killed those people. It wasn't his fault-"
"So you've said," Reno interrupted icily. "But you don't know anything; really you don't."
Cloud's eyes narrowed in puzzlement, but this time he bit down on his tongue to prevent himself to speaking. He wasn't quite sure whether the words which would come from his mouth would be ones of sick curiosity or ones of anger, warning Reno never to say a word against his friends ever again. Reno took his silence as a gesture to continue and he cleared his throat anxiously.
"I know that you, or any of your other little buddies don't think much of us three. But if you don't mind me saying so, you're all fucking hypocrites."
Cloud's jaw dropped and his eyes widened in shock. "I, I don't know what the hell you're talking about Reno!" he stumbled in stunned words. "We've all done things we're not proud of, but we've put them behind us-"
Reno shook his head and Cloud once more elapsed into reticence.
"As far as I'm concerned we've put things to rest; there's no point in keeping up old feuds, especially considering our current situation," he sighed. "But damn man! Valentine. I, I just can't believe how naïve you all are!"
Cloud's steps faltered as he attempted to piece together Reno's stilted speech without avail. Continuing to bite back the words and questions which threatened to spill accusingly from his mouth at any second, he swallowed hard and clenched his fists.
"There are thousands of laws and adages that we, as Turks, have to uphold. I'll be the first to admit that I've broken over half of them; I never could understand that crock of shit about not drinking during missions. I've seen things. and done things which could make a grown man go insane. I hate to justify my weaknesses, but if my brain wasn't as pickled as it is then I'd be nuts by now."
A slight smile crept up on Cloud's face as he pondered whether or not Reno was being serious. However, as the Turk finally continued, any joviality was drained from his voice leaving it uncharacteristically solemn and grave.
"But the one which has always stuck in my mind has got to be one of the best pieces of advice I was ever given in my life; 'Know yourself; know your enemies better'. That's stuck with me through thick and thin, and it's helped me to survive more than once. Knowing that little bit extra about who or what you're coming up against always gives you the upper hand in any fight.
"I know all about you, and what Hojo did to you. I knew all about your real past before even you did," Reno admitted and Cloud retained his impassive aura which grew even grimmer at the announcement.
"But. one of the biggest challenges I've ever faced in my life was finding out about Valentine," he paused and scratched the back of his head. "The old Pres knew nothing about Hojo's experiments on your friend and so official records state that he died in a climbing accident up on Mount Nibel when checking out the reactor. It took a hell of a lot of digging to uncover the truth, I can tell you that for nothing. Even to this day I don't know everything, and something tells me I don't want to.
"I can sure as hell tell you some things that you don't know about though," he whispered and Cloud glanced up at him curiously, trying to disguise his morbid curiosity.
"I know you see him as being some poor heart broken vamp who walks around talking about his long lost love who he was knocking off behind Hojo's back. Every now and then you can see that great big fuck off demon burst out of him like some kind of horror movie and tear a few monsters new ass-holes. But you don't know shit about what he used to be like, before Hojo had his wicked way with him."
"He was a Turk," Cloud answered quietly wishing all of a sudden that he was able to plant his hands over his ears and stop the torrent of foul truth coming from the blue-suited man's mouth.
"That's not the half of it!" Reno exclaimed with a bark of laughter. "He wasn't just a Turk! He was the damned God of Turks!! He's got his face in every Turk manual with authors talking about what a fucking genius he was! I know you may see me as being a cold murdering bastard. but if you think I'm bad." Reno's voice trailed off and he shook his head.
"Just reading about some of the things he did would make me feel sick even now. He killed for the hell of it, even when it wasn't required. He enjoyed it. According to a few diaries left behind by the old Pres, it even made him grimace to think about it! Valentine would kill a kid if someone challenged him to. He'd shoot a mother before her family if he was bored, just so that he could get a smell of gun-power.
"But if that wasn't bad enough. he was insane. The President's diaries talked about how although he admired Val for being such a wonderful Turk, he was scared shitless that one day he'd turn around and find the barrel of his favourite Turk's gun stuck in his face. The problem with your friend is that although he would obey an order without question, he was just as likely to turn around and kill the head of Shinra if he felt like it!" Reno's voice raised in volume and pitch as he continued until he was almost shouting at the leader of AVALANCHE. Suddenly becoming self-conscious of himself, Reno shoved his hands in his pockets and blew a scarlet bang from his eyes.
"Hojo's experiments. did something to him. I guess that you could say they turned him into a schizophrenic," he began in a quiet tone of voice once more. "The man you see is riddled with the guilt of what he did, while the great big fucking demon is the side of him which loves the feel of blood on his hands, regardless of who it belongs to."
Cloud's face had drained of all colour throughout Reno's speech until he stood little more than a blue eyed spectre next to his flame-haired companion. "Th, The demon. Chaos. I thought that was some kind of monster Hojo made through him?"
Reno shook his head, but his expression remained ambivalent. "Yeah, there is a monster but you're looking at the wrong thing. If you want to see the real devil then all you have to do is put the pair of them together. That thing, Chaos you call it is nothing more than the embodiment of everything he was in the Turks without the intelligence. To understand what your friend, "he spat disdainfully, "Is really like, then just picture that fucking monster with the intelligence of the vamp."
Cloud stopped and leant up against the sewer wall he had been walking steadily closer to as Reno spoke, knowing full well if he heard any more he'd probably collapse. "I, I just can't understand," he gasped hoarsely, his eyes glazed and staring. "Vincent hates what he was."
"Yeah, and can you blame him? But no matter how much he dislike what he used to be, it's still a part of him. It's all very well laying the past to rest, but when its about to jump up and rip your head off if you turn your back, I think it's still very real."
"So why have you suddenly started to have a problem with it now?" Cloud asked, the composure returning to his voice with a disturbing element of emotionlessness.
"He's been missing for the past four years," Reno shrugged in return, helping the blonde-haired warrior to stand. "And I have a terrible feeling about what Hojo did to him up in that HQ."
Cloud allowed himself to stand without support and once more they began to make their way through the twisting tunnel.
"He's been screwed up ever since he became stuck in that demon form. He's in the body of his dark side, but with all the sorrow and remorse he felt in the past. Every now and then though, the twisted bastard he is comes through and takes charge. Even if it that is only for a few minutes, the effect is devastating."
"A. Are you saying that those people he killed in Sector Six are because. he became a Turk again.?" Cloud whispered and to his horror, he was answered with a nod.
"Exactly. And while he's trapped as he is I'd bet my flask of whiskey that the threat will become stronger. Who knows? If he's like this for too long, then maybe he'll revert back to how he used to be."
A long period of silence fell upon them.
"So what can we do?" Cloud questioned eventually and he was meant with a meaningless shrug.
"How the hell am I supposed to know?" Reno snapped. "I'm not a fucking scientist. All I can recommend you do is find him as quickly as you can. If he's found a cure then that's great, but if he hasn't then you might want to prepare yourself for the kindest option."
"W, We couldn't. Kill Vincent!"
"So you'd let him kill countless others?"
Cloud sighed and looked back over his shoulder. In the distance, faint beams of light could be made out as the others trooped after himself and the unkempt Turk. He suddenly longed for the feel of Tifa's arms around his waist and her lips against his mouth just so that he could hide himself away in her love and ignore Reno's words. But with just the two of them so isolated and alone he had no choice but to face the vicious words as they slammed into him like tidal waves attempting to throw him from his feet. Vincent wasn't a murderer. Hojo did things to him and made him into a monster. It wasn't his fault that he killed those men.
. or was it.?
The metaphorical waves were becoming gradually stronger as he mulled over Reno's words in his mind. This couldn't be right. .
"Of course not," Cloud murmured. "But, I couldn't murder him."
"From the reception Reeve was met with during his speech, I know about twenty million people who'd be willing to do it for you. And that's not including the people of all the other cities and towns all over the world. Your friend has gained quite a reputation, and I don't just mean in the Turks," Reno responded with raised eyebrows.
Cloud gave a dour nod and stopped suddenly and Reno ceased walking and looked down between his feet. Rolling up his sleeves, he bent down and stuck his hands into the mire, grimacing as he felt the slime ooze between his fingers. Eventually he gave a grunt as he felt something and clenched his digits around it. With a strained moan, he pulled upwards and with a loud slurp, a hidden trapdoor gave way from under the gunge.
"This is your stop," he said, his voice as icy and indifferent as it had been before his conversation with the ex-SOLDIER.
Cloud said nothing in return and instead looked up expectantly as he waited for the other members of AVALANCHE.
"A rat hole," Sephiroth commented as he stopped next to the others having lagged at the back of the line. "How appropriate."
Cid gave a snort of agreement but didn't so much as glance in the general's direction. "What's the time?" he asked to no one in particular.
Rude looked down at his watch. "3 am," he replied stoically.
"Perfect timing," Elena said, her voice echoing loudly in the pipeline. "The train is due any second now."
Tifa knelt down beside the hole and peered in, her eyes squinted as though she could pierce through the darkness. "How far is the fall?"
"Not much; a few metres perhaps," Reno muttered as he shone a torch down the new, lower tube. "The roof of the train will be about two metres under the ceiling. As soon as you drop down then get onto your bellies and crawl until you find a hatch."
Earnest nods came as his answer and seconds later they felt a rumbling beneath their feet.
"Perfect timing," Elena repeated.
Tifa walked over to the square hole first and sat down on the mud, her feet dangling into the blackness. "Good luck," Yuffie said with a bright smile.
An enormous gust of wind almost blew Tifa's from her position as the roaring train exploded with noise beneath her. Her lips moved and her eyes were screwed up as she seemed to shout something, but her voice was lost in the breath taking rumble of the train as it burst through the tunnel below.
Turning back to her target, Tifa pushed off from the ground and slipped into the hole. Cid took a running jump after her with both Sephiroth and Yuffie in tow until only Cloud remained with the Turks.
Pausing and thinking, his foot hanging over the hatch as he took a few seconds together his thoughts, Cloud turned back to Reno and yelled into his ear.
"How do I know you're telling the truth?" He shouted as loudly as he possibly could, his throat tearing itself apart in objection.
"You don't," the Turk cried in return. "But do you really want to risk it?"
Cloud pulled back, his expression fixed with a cool resolution and his lips pressed together tightly. He gave a single nod before stepping back and falling after his comrades.
With a final blast of wind, the persistent clickety-clack and roaring scream of the engines faded away into nothing leaving the Turks to rid their eardrums of the ringing and partial deafness.
Sticking a finger into his left ear and wriggling it around, Reno shook his head painfully.
Elena blinked a few times and rubbed her temples, attempting to not even think about the impending headache resulting from the night's events. "Did you tell him?" she asked cryptically once they had straightened themselves out.
"Yeah," Reno nodded in return, his eyes fixed on the open pit.
"Do you think they'll take heed?" Rude queried and the leader shrugged.
"If they have brains they will, but who knows with them? It's not for us to worry about any more. All we need to concentrate on is getting back to the Offices and getting cleaned up before anyone catches us."
".Like that," he ended humourlessly.
"Damn." Elena whispered as she raised her eyes and looked towards the direction they had originally entered the sewers through.
Across the twenty-five metre wide path there stood a line of two men thick blocking their way. Each of them held a rifle, all pointing at the heads of the three Turks.
From behind them, a floodlight exploded into light, bursting through the shadows with all the delicacy of a baseball-bat slicing a piece of paper. They felt their eyes burn from the vivid radiance and found that even after a few minutes illuminous blobs floated before their vision.
"Shit," breathed Rude as his eyes focused upon the small army of men. Each of them wore the now familiar uniform of the Office Military Police and even some with the insignia of the Special Patrol on their breast.
"I want a lawyer!" Reno yelled in return but his remark ended in a sick thud as the butt of a gun slammed into the small of his back. He fell to the ground, dazed and half-unconscious from sheer pain.
"Shut up, smart ass," ordered a cold voice from behind them. "Hold your hands behind your heads and march. One word and you'll each get a limb blown off until we have to drag you back to the Offices by your hair."
Reno bit his tongue so hard that he tasted blood in order to prevent himself from retorting.
Rough hands yanked the back of his jacket and he was pulled to his feet and pushed forward, almost losing his balance again. He looked at his companions, and although their mouths were fixed in straight, impassive lines Elena's eyes glimmered with fear and Rude's were hidden behind his glasses.
A brown eye looked at him askance and he flashed Elena a comforting smile before falling into line, a thousand and one new curses fresh in his mind.
Cloud gasped in pain as he hit the roof of the tube-train on his stomach. Winded and stunned, it was several seconds before he learnt how to breathe once more. Gathering his wits about him, he dared to raise his head, the fear of some hanging object above catching him and snapping it off like a child flicks the head off a daisy fresh in his mind. There was no sight of his friends, and gritting his teeth he began to move commando-style across the slightly bowed metal roof.
There was no light in the dank tunnel, and relying on touch alone, his fingers felt along the middle of the train carriage until they met with a slightly raised surface. Pulling himself over to it, he proceeded to prise the hatch open, pausing every now and then to push his body as low as it would go to avoid overhanging pipes.
Just as the tunnel opened out into the night ahead of him and the first few carriages of the train went through, the metal lifted and he slipped inside; the roaring wind still humming in his brain. He landed on the grimy floor of the train and rolled to absorb the impact. Remaining in a huddled position for a few seconds, he eventually raised his head to examine his surroundings.
The carriage was abandoned and he was very much alone. Seats lined the walls facing into the thin walkway which ran between them. Electric lighting flickered with every jolt the machine made whilst handholds swayed to and fro with the steady rocking. Satisfied of his isolation although not revelling in it, he stood and brushed himself. He pulled a face as his muscles protested at the unexpected movement and he picked old cigarette butts and candy wrappers from off his clothes.
Brushing himself down, he looked up wearily as one of the doors opened. The familiar form of Sephiroth stepped in and looked around warily as he had done before.
"Are you all right?" he asked when at ease.
Cloud nodded and looked behind him. "Where are the others?"
The door opened once more and this time the three others walked in. "We're here," Tifa said as she moved over to him and wrapped her arms around his neck. She kissed him delicately on the cheek and stepped back, sitting down on one of the padded seats.
Cloud sat next to her while Yuffie and Cid slumped down opposite them. Sephiroth walked nonchalantly over to one of the windows at the other end and gazed out wistfully at the stars. Due to their distance from the city centre, the artificial haze cast out by the street lamps and homes had lessened dramatically allowing a faint view of the heavens. He felt himself overjoyed for just this slight glance. It was a symbol of their flee from danger and oppression and now it was almost at an end.
Tifa rested her head on her lover's chest and allowed her lids to half close contentedly. Cid gratefully pulled out a pack of cigarettes which had only been slightly crushed and lit up, much to Yuffie's repulsion.
"The next time you guys invite me to come and stay for a few days, remind me that Shera's cooking isn't that bad," he grinned after taking a drag and Cloud chuckled to himself, too tired to speak.
Sephiroth looked back at the four friends and shook his head, a slight smile playing on his lips. Perhaps this destiny thing won't be as bad as I thought. . He mused silently as he heard the pilot's gruff laugh and a scream of horror from Yuffie.
"Chewing gum!" she cried in disgust. "I've got chewing gum on my new jeans.??"
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