The stoic face was less stony than normal. "Good news or bad news?" Zack asked, holding out a sandwich to Sephiroth.
Waving the offer away with one hand, the man took a few steps towards the fallen log the two women were seated on. "I backtracked a mile and found a cave on this side of the river. I missed it initially, because my attentions were focused elsewhere. Evidence of a fire, one red hair, and signs of two people staying there. Nearly a half-mile towards Junon, within these very trees, I found the remnants of another campsite. Two bedrolls were trampled by the boots of many feet."
Aeris gasped. "Reno and Raieyana have been—"
Sephiroth held up an object. "This leads me to believe that your friends made camp separately last night."
A shattered pair of sunglasses.
"Goddammit," Zack swore, jumping to his feet. "Rude and Jessie!"
"They've been taken," Tifa said softly.
"There were chocobo tracks around the second camp," Sephiroth added, meeting her eyes.
"You think Reno was taken, too."
He laid the broken glasses in her gloved hand and laid his fingertips over his eyes. "Given the placement of all the evidence, I am led to wonder if your two friends betrayed Red and the girl."
"Jessie would never do that," Tifa said.
Zack nodded fervently. "He's an ass, but Reno's been her guardian for years."
"What of the other?" Sephiroth held up a hand to halt their protests. "I mean no disrespect to your companions, but there are many ways to make one talk."
"You would know!" the other man bit back.
"I would, indeed." His flashing eyes bore no argument.
Aeris bit her lip. "Do you think they brought them back to Midgar?"
"No. Junon is also Shinra's. They have facilities to detain and punish them."
The girl looked up at him in horror. "You know how to get in there, right? If we hurry, we might be able to get them out, before-"
"Our concern should be towards our own flight from the continent. The risk is—"
She jumped to her feet. "Even if you don't care about their friends one bit, you know that Reno and Raieyana will be framed for the president's death just as much as you are."
Sephiroth crossed his arms impatiently. "Do not tell me that you are still operating under the delusion that their safety is somehow my responsibility."
"Neither one of them would have been in the building at all that night, if it weren't for your actions." She laid a hand on his arm and felt the tension there. "It may have been your job, but you have a mind. You bear the consequences just the same."
"Pause and think. Where would we be if I threw all of us to the wolves in the infinitesimal chance that we could break them free? Deliver us all into Shinra hands. Would not the effort be better spent making sure some of us escaped?"
"Hey!" Zack interrupted. "You're acting like you'd have to do all of this on your own. We managed to fuck up two of their reactors and get completely out of the city without any help from your majesty. Surely our quick thinking with your knowledge evens the odds."
Tifa clutched Rude's glasses to her chest. "You must realize that we'll head straight for them, with or without you."
"I will, too." Aeris narrowed her eyes. "You don't want all of your good deeds to end up pointless?"
Sephiroth stepped back. "Why would I free you if I was unwilling to let you put your own life to waste? It is unfortunate, but I have no wish to lock you up myself." He sat himself down on the newly unoccupied log, snatching up the sandwich Zack had let fall to the ground.
"What are you—"
"I imagine that haste would be the best course of action, if you wish to 'rescue' your friends before they are executed," he sneered. "I shall not deter you from your noble, futile cause. Pardon me, if I think best my arrival to the city be separate from the commotion yours will surely be."
"Come on." Zack guided Tifa forward, hand on the small of her back. "He is right…we need to hurry."
Aeris remained rooted to the ground a few moments, before kneeling next to Sephiroth. "I am grateful for what you did for me. I just wish-"
He waved a hand in dismissal. "Waste little times on wishes, Ms. Gainsborough. They are for fools."
She dusted herself off and began to follow the others. "Everyone's a fool, sometimes."
Once the three had covered enough distance to cover him from their dull senses, he stood. His keen eyes were able to detect their flashes through the screen of the vegetation. "What marks the difference between a sage and a fool is the distance that divides his actions from his desires."
Reno had never talked very often about his time in prison. Jessie had never pressed him; she had thought she understood his reasons why. Now, however, she found herself wishing she had asked him more questions. Had he ever been put in solitary? Had he ever been interrogated? How many times did he believe that he was about to die?
"In with you," the guard grunted, as he used her cuffed wrists to propel her into the small room. On one side of a table sat two men: a large one, with a hint of something approaching glee in his eyes, and a smaller one, clean-cut and nervous.
She felt herself being steered towards the empty chair on the other side. Rough movement on her shoulders forced her downwards. Her cuffs were removed, and her wrists were placed in shackles attached to either side of the table. Fighting panic, she glanced downwards, only to see that the table was bolted to the floor.
"That's all for now. We'll send word when we're done with her," the large one said.
(Done with me. What will that take, I wonder?)
He began to pace, back and forth, hands clasped behind his back. As if deep in thought. Jessie felt the dark eyes of the smaller man still upon her. She tried to still the trembling that threatened to take over her face, her body.
(I wonder what they did to Rude…) But she realized that she was the weak link of Phoenix. The person they usually left behind. She did not have fighting skills beyond being a moderate shot with a pistol. She lacked the scars the others did.
As the large man turned to her suddenly, she knew. Rude hadn't seen this room yet, because they were sure they could break her.
Reeve wasn't sure what he'd expected of the prisoners. He'd seen the surveillance cam images, revealing various members of a terrorist organization. As far as they'd known, there'd only been one woman, lithe, shapely, and scarred. This small woman with a pile of mouse-colored hair and eyes like the ocean was not what he saw in his mind's eye when he heard the word "terrorist."
(Stop trying to fool yourself, Jordan. The first thing you should think of when it comes to "terrorist" is what you see in the mirror each morning.)
Heidegger finally found his voice. "We are all aware of the reasons you are here. We are all aware that you did not do what you have done single-handedly. Where are the others?" He had made his way towards her, as he spoke, and his face was now very close to hers.
"I—I…" she croaked, shaking her head.
"Hang on," Reeve heard himself say. He was given a glare by his partner for the "interruption." He shook his head in return. "Do you think you'll be able to get someone to talk if they've not even had a sip of water since getting the shit kicked out of 'em? Physically impossible." His hands dug a bottle of water and a straw out of the bag next to him. Holding it up, so the prisoner could watch him break the tamper proof seal, he opened the bottle, stuck in the straw, and slid it within distance of her mouth.
Keeping her eyes on him cautiously, she leaned over and took a couple sips of the liquid.
"…I guess." Her voice was barely above a whisper.
"What's your name?"
"You mean you don't already know?"
He heard Heidegger snort, but he continued on. "You're here because we want to know all about you."
"I'm not going to get any amnesty, and I know you can't have any proof about anything I may have done." He could see her blink back tears. "So maybe we could be honest, and not waste each others' time."
Heidegger leaned forward, slamming his hands on the table. Reeve could see her hair move with his every exhalation, the man had moved so close. "It would be to your benefit not to waste ours."
"What do you want to know?" The fear in her voice had him biting the inside of his cheek to keep himself from interrupting.
"Jordan's question first. Name." An order, not a question, this time.
"Do you parents know the terrible things you've done? The people you've hurt? Killed?"
"My mother died when I was a child. My father…died in Wutai. He was drafted, and he didn't make it." A story similar to so many others. The classic tale of life in the Midgar slums. "If they knew what I did with my life, what I've accomplished…I think they would have been satisfied."
"Ah, you see, Jordan? The pointlessness of trying to debate restoration after the attack on Sector 7. Criminals beget criminals. The best course of action continues to be extermination."
"You killed them! There were whispers of what you might do, they knew it the slums. Just because we tried to stop you-" She was silenced by Heidegger's blow to the face.
Reeve watched her twist, testing the manacles subconsciously. Like there was a chance she'd get far if the restraints gave way. "Look, it doesn't have to be like this," he said, his words leaving quickly. "All we want to know is what happened to the others."
"Be like what? Even if I knew what or who you meant by the others…even if I knew where they were…even if I told you. I'm dead. What difference does it make?"
"I think once the pain starts, the difference will become crystal clear," Heidegger growled.
"I don't think she knows anything," Reeve argued.
He sneered. "Don't let the crying get to you so easily."
Reeve leaned in. "Haven't you realized that this woman isn't on any of the reactor tapes? The man was. At least we could get something of use from him. Maybe he fled with a whore from Wall Market or something." He didn't believe his own words, himself, but he wasn't going to be party to this woman's torture session, if he had anything to do with it. He needed the exact opposite of sympathy to convince his cohort.
He appraised the girl, watching the tears running down her face, her disheveled hair. "You are a good observer. I suppose even the slums have a market for men who need slot on the cheap."
Jessie winced at his words, but said nothing else. Reeve stood and began punching in the code to unlock the restraints.
"What are you doing?"
Flashing Heidegger a cocky look, he grabbed the prisoner's arms and cuffed them behind her once more. "You don't think I can handle taking her back to the cell? No point in wasting the time getting some minimum wage shitstain to do it. I'll have someone drag the other down."
"Whatever floats your boat, Jordan. I'd think you'd be above Wall Market."
Reeve schooled his features. "Always liked taking advantage of a bargain." He jerked the girl to her feet and shoved her through the doorway.
She didn't know that her level of panic could rise any higher. But, when she realized that the younger man's prior appearance of concern and boredom had an ulterior motive, her legs began to quake.
One of his hands found hold under her arm, pulling her up. "I could take you back, if you're that opposed to being safe in your cell."
"You…call…it safe?" Jessie berated herself for the pathetic tone.
"It's the best I can do." The man sounded almost…apologetic.
With the press of a few buttons, and the swipe of his ID card, the door to her cell swung open. She was back. To the room where she'd spend the rest of her short life.
A deep breath, and her voice sounded stronger. "I don't know where they are. But they will come for me."
The man she'd heard called "Jordan" leaned in. "For your sake, I hope they do. But it would be best for them if they did not." The door bolted itself shut upon his exit, and she sunk down to the cold floor.
It was over, for her. She could only hope that she couldn't hear Rude's screams from the interrogation room. She could only hope that her friends were sailing over the ocean, safe. Jessie had no hope left for herself.
"I didn't expect the place to be as nondescript as this."
"We used to have several red-and-white bulls-eyes painted around the exterior, but then we decided it was a touch too conspicuous." Raieyana rolled her eyes before turning a key at the front door of the duplex.
"Doesn't Evil, Inc pay well enough to retire to a single residency?" Reno's voice was more curious than mocking, so she indulged him.
"My aunt and her daughter live in the other half. So, it's more a matter of choice than convenience." She strode in, calling as she entered. "Da-ad! I'm back!"
Nothing but silence.
A bit puzzled, she made her way further into the room.
"He must not be home, doll."
There was an unsettling air to the room. A strange odor that Reno had initially written off as unfamiliarity, but had a bit of a long-forgotten tang, now that he thought about it. A bit metallic. The silence that hung around them broke when Raieyana's breath caught in her throat.
Three of them, slumped behind the couch. Hands tied behind them, positioned execution style.
"Daddy?" She fell to her knees, pressing her hand against the neck that lay beneath a wounded head.
Reno touched a hand to his nightstick. The green haze of the Cure spell that enveloped them all was an exercise in futility, but still something he had to try.
"He's cold. I'm sure they all are." That was when she looked up and met his eyes. "I'd like you to meet my Aunt Aula and her daughter, Aysta. I'm sure they'd be delighted to meet you, if they were actually still alive."
Urges rose within him, to say the comforting sorts of things that he never said, to explain the inexplicable. Instead, he broke eye contact. "If we stay here, someone will find us."
"That's not the only thing I'm worried about." She moved the hands of the smallest body, a girl who could not have been much older than herself, resting them on the girl's chest. "Shinra didn't do this."
"Come on, just because they humored your father, let him think that he was safe…that he could let his guard down…"
Raieyana jumped up, holding onto him, hands gripping his biceps. "Fine. Believe what you want to believe. But I can't let Shinra find them like this." Her body shook in a silent sob.
"What do you want me to do?" He still thought her motivation came from denial.
"I need a few moments to retrieve some personal things, but… Were you one of the ones from Phoenix who made the bombs?"
"I can make due in a pinch, but I—"
"I want to keep them safe."
"Honey, they're beyond our help now." He moved to pull her closely, ease her grief, let her wait for reason to sink in.
She pulled away. "Set it up. I won't be more than five minutes."
"Raieyana, they're dead."
That was what made the tears break free. "Don't you understand what we saw in the lab? If death was the end of it all, they wouldn't have had Jenova locked up in a tank millions of years after its death. People like me aren't safe from them until our bodies are dust. We can do this one thing. They'll escape forever." She ran from the room.
As Reno began to dig things out from his bag, a thought struck him. Tseng had seem normal, if a bit harried. The experiment who'd been smuggled from Shinra science lab was still kicking in a room down the hall from where he stood. So what did these poor souls need protection from?
He walked over to the young girl Raieyana had protectively repositioned. On the inside of her wrist, the girl had a blue tattoo of the numeral II.