Tarnished Side Chapter 14

By Janet Monstwillo

"We're all headed to Junon then?" Jessie smiled happily. "Oh, this will be so much fun. Roaming around the countryside with all my friends."

Sephiroth stared at the perky, albeit slightly nerdy, brunette as she chirped about the high "fun-ness" of the journey they were about to take. He was afraid that he'd have to kill her if she kept it up much longer.

The very rag-tag group had gathered on the tiled village square, next to the well. It was only an hour or two after dawn, but everyone knew that it was in their best interests to get as far away from Midgar as possible. The Soldier forces searching for a murderer and a band of terrorists would eventually start looking outside the city.

"We never really got around to full introductions last night," Jessie continued, missing the furious glares shot her direction by Tifa and Sephiroth.

The girl in pink took to this offer warmly. Smoothing the crease out of her new, long-skirted, pink floral peasant dress, she extended her hand. "I'm Aeris Gainsborough. I sell flowers in Midgar proper. I love to brighten up people's days with a pretty flower." The two friendly girls shook hands.

"I'm Raieyana Amine. I've been training in weaponry and hand-to-hand combat, as of late." Her emerald eyes were fixed on Reno. (I'm not going to move from this spot. No way, no how.) It must be stated now that she was exactly as far away from the man as she could be, while still being "in the group."

Said man grinned cockily. "I think everyone knows me."

"Unfortunately," she muttered, giving Zack a good reason to grin.

"Well," the black haired man said, dark eyes flashing, "this is taking forever. I'm Zack Baines, and I'm a very important member of our group. We've decided to call ourselves Phoenix-because, well, I'm not too sure, Jessie's a bit better with the literature than I am-and our leader is Jessie Baxter. She's Reno's cousin, you see. And the silent man, the embodiment of stoicism over here, is Rude-"

Silently, Tifa had crept up from the fringes of the gathering and right into the center of it. She pushed Zack's arm aside, and introduced herself. "My name is Tifa Lockheart. I'm from the village of Nibelheim." She fixed her eyes on those of Sephiroth, challenging his memory to drudge up remnants of events long forgotten.

He did look a bit haunted, green Mako eyes transfixed on the woman whose mood had switched between sturdy and frail several times in the twelve hours or so he'd known her. Tossing a bit of silver hair back behind his back, he glanced around the people gathered in front of him. Annoyingly enough, he realized, they were waiting for him to say something about himself! "I judge you all realize just who I am."

They nodded.

"Let's be off then. We'll have to go on foot. The hail damaged our helicopter, and we wouldn't have all fit inside." (Unfortunately for me, I couldn't take my vehicle and abandon these wretched fools.)

The eight outlaws shouldered their gear and headed off onto the grassy plains, into the morning sun.

* * * * * *

"Still slaving away at the machines, I see." Renee Scarlet's laugh reverberated through Reeve's office.

Damn, if it wasn't the most annoying thing he'd ever heard. "Yes, Ms. Scarlet?" Though trained by years of private academy and business school, he hadn't quite hardened all his edges yet, unfortunately for one caught in the scope of a hawk-like coworker.

"Miss Scarlet," she insisted, voice honey-sweet, "though I hope we shall be come acquainted enough for you to handle my front name."

Reeve raised an eyebrow. "`Front name'?" he inquired, with a tone of amused confusion.

Briefly pausing to glance at the ceiling, she composed herself perfectly. A "whoops, was that really me" expression danced in her features, as she modestly smiled and ever so slightly pitched forward.

(She's unbuttoned the top of her blouse) Reeve noted with disgust. This woman was nearly ten years older than him, and not quite the type to go around seducing every man in power she could find. Well, not the type to actually succeed, anyway.

"Quaint lil' expression from where I grew up..."

(A barn?)

"...I was merely saying that I wouldn't mind, no I'd actually prefer, if you'd call me Renee. Last names are the norm here, and it's so dreadfully impersonal."

"As far as I knew, Ms. Scarlet..." Reeve was being very insistent with company and general business protocol. "...we weren't supposed to fraternize with our co-workers."

"Oh, Mr. Jordan." The odd giggle again. "That rule is merely for subordinates, and the president tends to look the other way in most of those cases anyway. He doesn't mind what you do as long as you manage to do your job...as well as you can." She winked.

"Last I checked, the president is no longer with us. So, until we are sure of the policy that will be set forward by his successor, we might as well be more safe and less sorry." He finished the entry he'd been working on and hit "Enter" with a vengeance. "Do you have any actual business with me?"

His words stung. They weren't venomous, no, Reeve was always a bit too polite for that to ever happen, but Scarlet could feel the prickles. They gathered around her neck, the tips of her ears, a bit on her cheek... Blushing with embarrassment at the results of her little "experiment," she backed off a bit. "So I g-guess this means that you don't even want to hear my invitation for a drink?"

Reeve looked up at her with a bit of startled surprise. (Dear lord, is she still going at it?)

Not wanting to wait for his decline, she scowled at him, and a sneer entered her voice. "Well this is an unfortunate day for you, then. I doubt I'll have time for the newbie likes of you once Mr. Rufus has gotten settled in."

The young executive watched her storm out with a look of complete amazement on his face. (Does she think that she has anything that a guy my age or younger would want? She always seemed like the shy, quiet loner type until now.) He wondered a moment more about the circumstances that could change a personality so dramatically, before turning back to his monitor.

"Estimated Civilian Loss in Sector 7: 342,000"

He had looked at the calculation a hundred times, many more, leading his state-of-the-art machine into more series of calculations than he could remember. However, the math of computers did not replace the math of man without good reason; every single calculation had come back greater than the first startling total.

Reeve felt a pang at his conscience as he thought about a small city simply wiped out into nothingness.

(But that's what those terrorists wanted...to bring Midgar to its knees, and be destroyed by those evil Wutaians in the east.)

For once, however, Shinra excuses rang hollow in his ears as he stared at the cold harsh glow of the screen. (We have the technology and the forces to guard the reactors!) He had been running all the figures himself, and he knew the reasoning behind the massacre. (It's too expensive to keep innocent people alive.)

Another line of berating flowed into his ears, waving like a cloud of mist around his head. (I guess it's a good thing that Reeve Jordan is no longer an innocent.)

"Cost to maintain water levels until waste disperses: $32,000,000 gil.

Cost to drain Sector 7 and clean waste: $19,000,000,000 gil."

Breaking away from the monitor, he placed a hand to his forehead and closed his eyes, guilt-stricken. Thousands of innocents, dead without cause, denied burial, and left suspended in unholy water...to deteriorate and fade from memory.

All because of money.

* * * * * *

"No. I don't trust you to do what you say you will. I don't trust any of my friends to you!" Zack glowered at the taller man with the waist length sterling hair, and the ever-so-mocking green Mako eyes.

"There are two black chocobos and eight of us. I don't think that dragging so much dead weight through Mythril Mine is wise. Therefore, four people should take the birds and I will lead the rest. Believe me, an abandoned mine is no large peril, but even so, there are those I'd rather not be forced to be concerned with."

Following the ex-general's gaze, Zack's eyes came to rest on a certain redhead leaning on a fencepost, idly eyeing up Tifa. Tinges of anger flared up. (You know, Reno might have his faults, but that's one of our members he's badmouthing!)

"Do you understand?" Sephiroth said impatiently.

Resigning defeat, he hissed a whispering reply. "I don't want to get stuck with him, either."

"Who from your group will accompany you?"

He looked up, and the sight of Tifa stretching out her muscles, sore from walking, caught his eye. She looked up to meet his gaze, and he waved her over.

Warily, she joined him. "What's up?"

"Well, I think our traveling arrangements have been settled."

"Oh?" Distracted, she kept close watch over Sephiroth from the corner of her eye.

Lowering his voice, Zack looked her straight in the face. "I think Jess wants to spend some time with Reno...they never really got the time to catch up. Rude's gotten a bit protective of her ever since the Corneo incident, so I think it'd be best to let him watch over her."

"Do you trust him?" The timbre of her voice was very odd; her question pointedly about the cold, terse man speaking in hushed tones to Aeris.

"I don't think we have a choice."

Tifa bit her lip. "But he stands for everything that we've fought against."

"No," he whispered, shaking his head. "I don't think he's ever stood for anything in his entire life."

"The hell?!" Reno's outraged voice carried on the wind. "I am not going to baby-sit some overgrown canary and take the long way around the mountains just because you have no leadership skills!"

Zack and Rude were amused at his reaction; Jessie was slightly dismayed. Aeris merely furrowed her brow while Tifa pretended she wasn't there at all. Raieyana simply put a hand to her temple and sank onto the grass. (Iwon'tprovokehimIwon'tprovokehimIwon't-)

"I was being polite, but if you desire, I can take your chocobo and you can lead the group past the Midgar Zolom. Though I expect most everyone's tired out...Midgar slum life isn't exactly good training for a long expedition and a hard day's battle."

Reno examined the dirty marsh and the gaping cave off in the distance, comparing it to the dirty bird kicking up dirt beside him. Then he decided to foist responsibility off of his shoulders. "Whaddya think I should do, Raieyana?"

"Huh?" She looked up. "I dunno, take a long walk off a short pier?"

"I'll take the group through the mines if I can feed her to the worm." The pair traded mutually antagonistic glares.

Aeris smiled. "I'd trade her places," she said sweetly, "but I think my healing skills would be better off in battle than on boco-back."

"So." Jessie hopped up. "I guess we'll see y'all on the other side." Cheerful hugs were given to Zack and Tifa, with Aeris and Sephiroth receiving a timid wave.

"Take care," replied the flower girl in return.

With that, the four turned and began their course towards the distant marshes, readying for battle along the way.

...and then Rude boosted Jessie onto a saddled chocobo, before mounting behind her. Raieyana could do little besides gape at them in shock.

Jessie was sympathetic. "When everyone was `discussing' how to get from point A, to point B, Rude was preparing a chocobo. He figured someone from Phoenix would be using it. He's our `think ahead' guy." She winked, her friend gave a curt wave, and the two of them trotted off towards a nice pass in the mountains.

"I can't believe my luck." Raieyana simply sank down into the grass.

Reno watched her from his fencepost position. "For someone so down on their luck, you don't seem to want to head out of here very quickly."

She shook her head. "I just want to go home."

"C'mon then." Grabbing her hand, he jerked her up roughly, before turning to the gear that had been left for their use. He began to saddle the chocobo they'd rented. "I'd sure like to drop you off as soon as possible, hon."

"Can I help?" she asked meekly.

"I doubt it," Reno snapped.

Hot tears rose to her eyes. (It's not my fault I'm stuck here on a goddamn chocobo farm with someone with chocobo dung for brains, who's lazy and lecherous and stuck-up and hot and–) Raieyana's eyes widened in shock and disgust at her own thoughts, causing a single teardrop to slide over her lids and down her cheek.

"There, all done!" Cheer had returned to his voice already, and he turned to grin at her. The smile, however, went lopsided. "You okay?"

She shot him a look of pure exasperation. "Of course not, I'm stuck. With you. Again."

Reno shook off the sting. "Front or rear?" He pointed to the saddle.

"Get on. I don't trust you behind me."

He obliged, leaping up before extending a hand back to her.

Ignoring his offer of aid, Raieyana mounted on her own. She sat high in the saddle, hands gripping the sides of the leather, touching her saddle-mate as little as humanly possible.

(So tense.) Sensing the mood and feelings behind him, Reno coaxed their steed into a high-speed chase of their recently departed friends. Soon, the disharmonious pair was nothing more than a speck on the distant horizon.

They were long, long gone before the Gelnikas landed, and the troops burned Chocobo Joe's farm to the ground.

Final Fantasy 7 Fanfic