Chapter 6: The Persistence of Loss

Cosmo Canyon wasn't much of a tourist destination. The journey to the mountainous hideaway was enough to make a less experienced traveler turn around and pursue the amenities of Costa del Sol back on the coast. But Ashe knew that the further from Midgar he got, the less likely they would be to waste money tracking him down. And knowing that Rocket Town on the other side of the Nibel Mountains was a hotbed for the Shinra Space Program, he decided going much further would be against his better judgment.

When he first arrived, he laid low at the inn for a few weeks. He was regarded as little more than someone passing through, but as time went on, paranoia began to set in and he knew he needed to look more like a permanent resident. He talked an elderly woman into renting a shack she had out back to him. It was nothing more than a one room shed where she stored her late husband's tools. But it was tall enough that he could add a loft for sleeping. It had a utility sink and a stove pipe so it could accommodate a cook stove that he traded work for. After a little sprucing up, the shed was a proper tiny house where he could rest his head at night. But now he owed rent and with his funds running low, he was going to have to get a job to keep himself fed and sheltered.

At first they were small, random jobs. He helped fix the town well when the ancient mechanics finally kicked the bucket. Using some of what he stole from his lab in Midgar, he was able to fashion a simple control board that would be able to maintain the water pump. Seeing as it decided to die on one of the hottest days of the year, when it was back up and running by noon, Ashe was revered as the town hero. Especially by the children who were eager to run through the cool water as it sprayed out wildly from the pump before he had replaced the shut off valve. But once it was repaired and back in one piece, he showed the townspeople that with the push of a button, the water would flow freely from the depths below; no more hand pumping required.

In addition to the well, the isolated village relied on several windmills for power. They had been donated by a Shinra scientist named Gast Faremis in the past. Over time, the silt from the surrounding mountains carried on the winds had found its way into the electronics and damaged the inner workings. Ashe was able to install a similar device on them to ensure that even when the wind wasn't blowing, they would still generate power. After a while, he was known as the local handyman and was able to pay for his tiny home with no worries. A scientist that had also taken up residence in Cosmo Canyon took notice and decided to show Ashe a project he was working on, but lacked the knowledge to get off the ground. He also met Nanaki, the man's 'so-called' grandson. But Nanaki was not a child. Though an adolescent of his species, Nanaki was not human, but a bestial cat with a thick mane and a fiery tail. Literally fire. And he could talk to boot.

The scientist, who was named Hubert Bugenhagen, explained that Nanaki was likely the last of his kind, a once prominent race that hailed back to ancient times. Ashe was definitely thrown off by meeting a large sentient cat, but he reasoned that there were stranger things in the world that were now accepted when they had once been a mystery. Ashe began working with Bugenhagen on his newest ambition; a hologram chamber that projected Shinra satellite images of the surrounding cosmos. He called it his greatest contribution to the modern world. Ashe was impressed with what the old scientist had already created, noting that it had a lot of potential. Bugenhagen asked him to help calibrate it and put in some final touches. Four months after he arrived to the backwater town, they no longer had to pump their own water, the windmills never ceased turning, and a planetarium had been created.

Ashe easily settled into life at Cosmo Canyon, feeling at peace for the first time in over a year. He began to forgive himself a little more and hoped that wherever his father was, he approved. But as much as the simple life had charmed him, he still felt as though he was missing out. He felt that he owed Shinra more payback than simply blowing up his lab. He wrestled with the idea, knowing it was far safer to keep his head down and stay out of sight. But with the whispers of the rebirth of Avalanche in Midgar, he felt that his skills could be put to better use than helping maintain a small town. The original group had been about the study of the Planet, but they fizzled out when their leader, Aldin Spears, died unexpectedly. When Ashe had heard rumors that the group was starting up again under new management, he became curious. But he pushed away the notion of ever joining them in their mission to stop Shinra Electric Power Company.

That all changed when she came into town..

Time progressed and soon the one year mark since Ashe had cut ties with the Company was upon him. On a particularly chilly afternoon, a stranger arrived. Ashe was on a rooftop, helping his landlady fix some shingles that had come loose when he saw her standing at the town entrance. She wore a hooded jacket so he didn't get a very good look at her, but the way she moved set off alarms in his head. She appeared to be looking for something. He readied himself, this was it, they had finally sent someone after him. He wasn't going down without a fight..

But nothing happened. He spied on her for a day and saw that she was doing regular stuff. She visited a clothing shop, bought some materia, and ended up in the tavern. He was sitting alone in the bar when she entered. A young woman, about mid twenties with shoulder length, dark burgundy hair and the brightest blue eyes Ashe had ever seen came in and sat at the counter about three seats from him. The owner asked her what she wanted and she asked for a beer, which was handed to her right away. Ashe eyed her with heavy suspicion but knew if he got up to leave, it might force an interaction. He hoped to avoid this at all costs and turned his back to her. Maybe she'd drink the beer and leave. But then she spoke, "Beer's not bad here."

She took another sip. Ashe turned around, then took a sip from his own. Feeling too awkward to leave the sentence unanswered, he replied, "It's passable."

The bartender tsk'd in annoyance.

Ashe stole another glance at her. Materia glittered in the bangles she wore on both wrists. Green and blue flashes caught the light and he was mesmerized by them for a moment. He kept waiting for something to happen, but nothing did. She finished the drink, placed a few gil on the bar, and stood. Ashe watched her leave and put his lips back to his own glass.

Maybe she is just a traveler.. Just passing through..

He stood, beer in hand, and walked to the entrance of the bar to look outside and see where she was going. She seemed to be heading towards the Cosmo Flame at the center of town. He was curious, as it was in his nature to be, but still wanted to keep his distance. One year may have been a long time, but he couldn't completely write off Shinra coming after him. He was surprised the Turks hadn't been called in to capture him, because there was no doubt they'd have come for him by now..

"Friend of yours?" the voice of Kiyo, the bartender, floated over to him.

Ashe turned in surprise, sloshing a bit of his drink onto the floor. "Mmph! No."

Kiyo shook his head at the mess and Ashe leaned down to wipe it up with his sleeve. "Gontu at the shop downstairs said she was asking around about Avalanche. That she came to join," Kiyo continued. "Too bad they're all the way out in Midgar now.. Not even the same group from what I've heard.."

Ashe wasn't even fully aware of what was being said, his mind absorbed with the notion of going back and getting a proper revenge. The journey might be easier with someone else along for the ride. He formed an idea that he felt wasn't the best, more so for someone trying to stay off the radar. Walking back to the counter, he finished his beer and ordered two more. "More than the usual.." Kiyo commented.

"I'll bring the glasses back," Ashe said as he headed out the door.

"You better!"

But when Ashe stepped outside, she was gone. He stood in the doorway momentarily before returning to the bar, both beers in hand. Kiyo was wiping down the counter top and watched as Ashe sullenly returned to his seat. He waited until Ashe spoke, "Hey Kiyo.."

"No refunds, Kincaid."


Ashe didn't see the woman until the next evening. He was in the bar again when she came in and approached Kiyo. "What's for dinner?" she asked quietly.

Kiyo adjusted the sunglasses on his forehead and said, "Special is Mideel Dirty Rice and Spiral Kebabs. Want me to fix you a plate? Ten gil."

She nodded and added a beer as well, then turned to sit at a nearby table by the balcony that overlooked the village. Ashe had grabbed a newspaper and was trying his damnedest to look interested in an article about the recent decline in viable real estate in Wutai. He peeked around the edge of the paper slightly as she pulled her hood back. He took the time to observe her, noting that she looked tired. Had she found somewhere to stay after leaving the previous night? Kiyo's bar also doubled as the inn for the town, but Ashe was fairly certain that she hadn't gotten a room. He was more curious that she had come looking for Avalanche. What was her interest in the faction that had recently proclaimed an unofficial war on Shinra? He decided to watch her for now. The longer he could remain anonymous, the more information he'd be able to garner.

"Yo Kincaid. Are you eating tonight?" Kiyo shouted from the back, completely blowing his cover.

Ashe clenched the paper in his hands, the noise causing the woman to look in his direction. He averted his gaze, internally cursing Kiyo. "Um, yea. That'd be great!" he called back, lowering his head in defeat.

He folded the paper and set it on the counter, the woman's attention was on him and he laughed. "Evening," he greeted nervously.

She only nodded and returned to staring outside as night fell over the town. Trying to play it cool, Ashe spoke up once more, "Nice night, isn't it?"

She didn't turn to look at him and only shifted when Kiyo returned with the plate of piping hot food. "Here you are," he spoke, sliding the meal before her.

She pulled out enough gil to cover dinner and the beer. Kiyo rushed off to put the money into the register. After which, he came out with Ashe's meal, all but throwing it at him. He then returned to his radio where a chocobo race was being broadcast. Ashe ate his food in silence and nothing more was said. When the woman finished, she brought her dishes to the counter, thanked Kiyo once more, and left. This time Ashe hopped up to tail her, Kiyo watching him as he walked away. "You better have left enough gil.." he halfway threatened.

Ashe took the wooden walkway to the ground below. The woman had taken a seat in front of the famous flame, the birthplace of Avalanche. The Cosmo Flame itself was much older than the town, so the legend said. The flame was ignited to ward off the evil spirits of the night and created a safe place for people to gather. The village sprung up around the flame and it had never gone out since.

"You know, they say that it was this very spot where Aldin Spears created the idea of Avalanche," Ashe spoke as he approached.

The woman didn't seem startled by his presence in the least. Almost as if she anticipated his arrival. "They also say that if you stare into the fire and concentrate, the faces of those who have died at the hands of negligence appear.." she added.

Ashe seemed surprised by her reply, thinking she knew nothing of the wives tale. He wondered if he'd see his father's face… And he wondered if the woman would see someone as well. He moved over to one of the nearby benches and took a seat. With a full belly and a pint of liquor in him, he was ready to wind down for the night, but he was more interested in figuring out her motives. For a long while nothing was said and Ashe wrestled with his thoughts as the sun sank lower, basking the canyon in a warm sunset.

She seemed to be distancing herself on purpose and it was likely that if he wanted any answers, he was going to have to find out for himself. Unfortunately, he was at a loss for words. Shy by nature, Ashe found it nearly impossible to say what was on his mind half the time, let alone when he was trying to press someone for information. "Look," she said across the fire, "I don't want to be rude, but I just want to be alone right now."

Feeling the awkwardness of the silence, Ashe nodded and stood slowly. "Well I—uh, I just wanted to let you know that Kiyo has rooms for rent over the bar, decently priced." Ashe felt that was sufficient and turned to leave her presence.

"Thanks," came her soft reply as he walked away.

He made his way back to his own home, unsure if she would actually take the offer. At this point, he was ready for bed and was internally kicking himself for even approaching her. ‘Ashe, you dumb ass.. She's probably a Shinra spy! Should have just kept to yourself.'

He berated himself for the rest of the night and most of the next morning as he wrapped up fixing his landlady's roof. Around noon, he went home to wash up and head to Kiyo's for lunch. A small dust storm in the distance signaled travelers on the road fast approaching town. It struck him as odd; vehicles didn't usually make the trip all the way out here.. Unless..

He had just hit the bar door when he saw the familiar symbol on the side of the truck parked at the town gates: Shinra.

Voices inside the bar caught his attention; angry orders to, "Stand up!" being yelled.

Ashe peered inside to see the mysterious woman who had been sitting at the counter begin to stand, her hands up as if to surrender. "Turn around," one of three Shinra Soldiers commanded.

Ashe inhaled, knowing that the time had arrived at last. It had taken over a year, but Shinra had finally come for him. He burst into the bar suddenly, yelling out, "Stand back, they're here for me."

The Soldiers turned to Ashe in confusion, looking between the woman at the counter and the man who had just interrupted them. "Who the hell are you!?" the leader demanded.

Taking the chance while they were distracted, the woman kicked up the bar stool by her side and flung it at the Soldier on the right who was giving the orders. The one on the left readied his rifle in an attempt to shoot Ashe. He flinched, waiting to feel the pain, but the woman brought her boot up between him and the Soldiers, slamming it onto the edge of the table closest to the door. It shot into the air, blocking the haze of bullets from reaching their target. She grabbed onto Ashe, pulling him behind the temporary blockade.

"They're here for me, you idiot!"

Blue light shimmered around her and she shoved the table with surprising speed into the Soldiers. Two took the full force of the blow, but the one shooting dove to the side and tried once more to hit his mark. Ashe felt himself being shoved up and over the counter. He landed on the floor next to Kiyo who was cowering there to avoid being shot.

The Soldier was still coming for Ashe, bullets ripped apart the cheap liquor Kiyo kept on the wall, glass shards and booze spraying all over Ashe and Kiyo as they sat huddled for cover. "You've got to be kidding me!" Kiyo growled.

The Soldier leaned over the bar to shoot at them and Ashe latched onto a huge bottle of Stilva Sting Tequila. Without warning, he clobbered the Soldier with the bottle, it surprisingly not shattering with the impact. The Soldier fell back, the gun spraying bullets, leaving an array of holes in its wake. Amazed at his skill, Ashe jumped up, ready to smack him again, flipping the bottle into the air. "Bring it on, you Shinra dogs!" he warned.

He missed his mark on grabbing the bottle with the victory swing and it hit the edge of the counter, shattering everywhere. "Dammit, Kincaid! That was an import!" Kiyo shouted from his hiding spot.

The first Soldier had finally recovered from getting hit with the bar stool and was fighting the woman. She punched at him with lightning fast jabs, both fists lit up with what Ashe recognized as the use of materia. Fire ignited on the Soldier's uniform and he fought feverishly to put out the flames while also trying to guard against the woman's strikes. The one that Ashe had cold cocked with the bottle was getting back up to reload his gun and the third that had been hit with the table was preparing to shoot the woman.

A voice above the brawl spoke with authority, "Three against two, now that's not a fair fight.."

Ashe glanced to the stairs that led up to the rooms and was shocked to see Nanaki, Bugenhagen's ward. Having seen the cat in action in the past on wouldbe raiders, a smile flashed across Ashe's face. "Oh, you're in for it now," he taunted.

Two hundred and fifty pounds of raging muscle and claws dove into the fray. Though still considered an adolescent of his kind, Nanaki was well versed in battle and wasted no time in rushing up to the Soldier that was about to shoot at the woman. He clamped down the man's arm with massive jaws, refusing to let go amid the wails and curses that were issued. He became a fiery blur as he yanked the man down and tossed him off the balcony with minimal effort. He growled, turning to the Soldier Ashe had hit with the bottle and pinned him down, releasing a guttural roar into the terrified Soldier's face.

Razor sharp teeth and the threat of them being used were enough to make the man cower and shrink under Nanaki's powerful paws. Nanaki released the Soldier, yelling, "LEAVE!"

The final Soldier couldn't keep up with the woman's quick movements and soon found himself stumbling from the bar to escape her grasp. Her hands returned to normal, the materia in the bangles going dormant. She watched from the balcony as the Soldiers retrieved their fallen comrade and made fast tracks for the truck parked at the edge of town. Ashe dusted off his hands and yelled, "That's right! Beat down, Cosmo style!"

Nanaki padded up next to the woman and sat, licking his paw and flicking his fiery tail in mild annoyance. "They'll be back.. And with reinforcements.."

The woman nodded, knowing the cat's words to be true. "I'm glad that you showed up when you did," Ashe said as he joined them.

The truck had backed out and was driving at top speed down the canyon road. "I give it a few hours," the woman spoke solemnly to Ashe, "Maybe."

Nanaki agreed and said "Grandfather can hold them off for a while. He was once with Shinra and might be able to pull a few favors. It would give you both time to slip out of town."

He walked away quickly, leaving the both of them bewildered at the statement. Kiyo rose above the counter and shouted at seeing the mess, "Goddammit, my bar!"

After helping tidy up as best they could, the pair left and headed to the village below. The woman was still very vigilant about the surroundings. When they reached the ground, she finally said, "Guess I better move on. I'll just bring more."

Ashe jokingly asked, "What, are you a fugitive or something?"

"Or something."

He took the hint, folding his arms behind his head as they walked. "Well, guess that means I better be moving on too. They heard my name. This time tomorrow, place will be crawling with Shinra troops."

"Oh, someone important or something?" she asked with a condescending tone.

Ashe scoffed but decided to change the subject. "So about Avalanche. By now you probably know that they left sometime ago. Headed to Midgar."

"Yea, I heard that they relocated."

She stood rigid for some time, eyeing the town entrance. Ashe finally just decided to bite the bullet and ask what he wanted to know since she had arrived, "What's your name?"


The question threw her off guard and she hesitated. "Oh.. Yea, I supposed after all that, introductions would be in order. I'm Kess. Kess Reignheart."

Ashe extended his hand to her and smiled. Despite the nagging voice in his head and against his better judgment, he replied, "Ashely Terrance Kincaid. Pleased to make your acquaintance."

They shook hands and she sighed, "Well Mr. Kincaid. I guess this is also goodbye."

She quickly turned to leave and Ashe called after her, "Hey, wait!"

Kess kept walking, looking back over her shoulder. "Really, I need to get going."

Ashe jogged up to her side. "Yea, and I'm coming with you. They're going to come back. I wasn't joking earlier when I said they were here for me. I— well, let's just say I'm going to spend the rest of my life in Corel Prison if they catch me."

Kess raised a curious brow. "So what, now we're heading to Midgar to join Avalanche together?"

"What better than to hide right under Shinra's nose? Whether they came for you or me is besides the point.. I tried to live a quiet life, but you and I both know that we stick out like sore thumbs in a place like this. But in Midgar, we'd blend in, disappear. Besides, it looks like you're a wanted person, like myself.. Maybe a little bent on revenge as well?"

She laughed. "It's hard to believe that someone like you has a beef with Shinra."

He tried his best to look offended. "What!? I've got beef! Oh believe you and me, I've got an entire truckload of beef with Shinra. But we're wasting time. Are you going to let me come with you or not?" He was still riding the high of the adrenaline rush and having a hard time suppressing his anxiety.

Kess sighed, looking to the dust rising in the distance. "Judging by the trail, you've got fifteen minutes before I ditch your ass. They aren't going to waste any time getting back here, so hurry up."

Ashe backed away quickly, racing for his house on the edge of town. Once there, he packed what devices, explosives, food, and clothes would fit into a backpack. He left a handful of gil for his landlady on the shelf by the door, grabbed his hooded jacket from a nearby wall hook, and booked it back to the center of town. He met Kess at the Cosmo Flame, actually surprised that she hadn't left without him. "Ready?" she asked.

"Yup. Let's go before I remember what a bad idea this is."

As they followed the trail to the canyon below, Ashe turned back to gaze at the place that had been his home for the last year. It may have been small and without a certain level of sophistication, but it had been home. He caught a glimpse of Bugenhagen on top of the observatory with Nanaki, watching him leave. He raised his arm to wave which was returned. He then turned his attention back to the road and Kess ahead of him. "We planning on walking the whole way?" he asked.

"Well.. There is an ocean between us and Midgar, so unless you're going to sprout fins and swim there, then no. We'll have to take a boat."

After leaving the canyon, they were able to hitchhike to Gongaga but had to travel on foot to Corel to avoid the Shinra checkpoints. Nestled in the Corel Mountains, the town was a bustling hub for coal production. Or at least it had been. They crossed a perilous rope bridge to get to the town. The beginnings of a mako reactor had sprung up from the Corel ravine. Skeletal structures of metal and wood held up the cooling tower in a makeshift attempt at scaffolding. The two travelers avoided getting any closer than they needed to on their way into town. Ashe couldn't be too certain, but he thought he had heard a familiar, haughty laugh above the sounds of heavy construction.

Once in the town proper, they bought new supplies and stayed the night at the inn. Before retiring to their rooms, a heated conversation between some of the townspeople took place in the dining room. They were arguing over the installation of the mako reactor and that it meant the 'death of coal'. Someone stood up, the table being pushed back roughly as a bear of a man rose above everyone else. "'Nuff of this bullshit!" he boomed. "Coal ain't a way of life any more. Shinra's offering an olive branch and all ya'll are turkeys if you keep thinkin' that coal is gonna be the future."

The large black man stormed out, leaving a bewildered group of men behind. Kess and Ashe buried their faces in their food and tried their best to remain anonymous. The next day when they left, a small crowd had gathered near the town square. A Shinra spokesperson stood at the center of the group, addressing the crowd. He spoke of the Company's great leader, President Shinra, and how he wanted all towns to know the power and convenience of Mako. He wanted everyone to embrace the new, clean energy. No more digging a day away in the mines for dirty rocks. No more lung diseases and other ailments that were side effects of burning coal. The crowd seemed mixed, with some cheers, but mostly boos. The large man from the previous night was next to the spokesperson, calling out his neighbors for their nay saying.

They took this opportunity to slip out of town and continue on their way to the coast. Once a good distance from the town, Ashe asked, "What do you think about all that?"

Kess seemed to be more focused on the road and had to ask him to repeat himself. "What are your thoughts on Mako?"

She thought for a moment then answered, "Well, it seems alright, but I don't know if anyone has studied its effects to the full extent."

Ashe added, "Well, that and it's the main teachings of Avalanche. That Mako use is destroying the Planet."

"How did they figure that out?"

The coastline was coming into sight over the horizon. "Bugenhagen's been studying the Planet for years. He's the one that told Aldin what it was doing. So Aldin started Avalanche to teach others."

"Avalanche is doing a lot more than teaching these days," she scoffed, sardonically.

"True. But their origins were peaceful. Sadly, Shinra isn't going to listen to a bunch of tree-huggers.. Drastic times, drastic measures," Ashe concluded.

The road began to angle downward and the scent of fresh sea air filled their lungs. "I wonder if there's time for the beach.." Kess joked.

Ashe picked up the pace to jog next to her. "You do know this is a favorite destination for Shinra employees, right? I wouldn't be surprised if we came across them relaxing poolside."

Kess sighed and gripped her pack tighter, giving Ashe a side glance. "You're not good with sarcasm, are you?"

His cheeks flushed with embarrassment at missing her obvious joke. "What was your first clue?"

They both laughed and carried on until reaching the edge of the road before it became a trail of tan cobblestone. Both hoods were brought up as they entered the town and looked around for signs of Shinra. Sensing no danger after a quick search around the resort's main hubs, they resigned that it would be safe to stay the night before moving on.

Just after sunset, Ashe ventured from his room to get some ice and saw Kess standing in the sand on the beach below. The ice was forgotten and he moved in the shadows towards her. "The ice machine isn't down here," she reminded him.

"How did you…"

She turned to him and pointed to the bucket in his hand. "Oh! Damn, that's observant."

He stopped at her side as she turned to look back out to the rolling waves. Pale white moonlight shimmered across the water as it ebbed and flowed on the shore. "What's up?" Kess asked.

"Just.. Checking on you. That's all."


"I dunno. I guess I was wanting to ask you a few things.." he confessed.

She sat in the sand, letting it cover her hands up to the wrists. He noticed she wasn't wearing the wrist bangles but didn't think much about it. "Like what?" she asked.

Thinking for a moment, he plunked the empty ice bucket into the sand and sat next to her. "Oh, you know. Where are you from? Your favorite food? What's the reason behind your burning desire to see Shinra in ruins. The usual," he chuckled. "I feel like we know nothing substantial about each other. But here we are, traveling to Midgar together to join Avalanche."

She stared at him for a moment, studying his body language. He seemed nervous, unsure. Definitely socially stunted. She guessed that was a common trait among engineers. Which struck her even more that he was bold enough to do what he allegedly did at Shinra Headquarters. "Would it make you feel more comfortable if we knew more about each other?" she finally asked.

He turned to the sound her voice, listening to the calm of the distant waves before replying, "Just a bit.."

Kess nodded, closing her eyes briefly. "Well, look at what we do know about each other," she said. "We've both likely been done wrong by the Company and so we have our own reasons why we seek revenge. We're about to join a whole bunch of other people with the same sob story. What does it matter where we came from?"

Ashe pondered her words, taking her statement as a means to avoid him asking more questions. He tried to play it off. "No worries. I didn't mean to pry." He got to his feet and scooped up the ice bucket, brushing sand from the bottom. "Guess we'll be on our way tomorrow. Gotta cross this pond."

He wandered back up the trail, leaving alone Kess to ponder her thoughts on the beach. He glanced back momentarily to see her pull her wrists up from the sand and stare at them under the pale moonlight.

The next morning, she met him by the harbor. She had been scouting for their best chance across the ocean and when she pointed out a Shinra freighter, he almost choked. "Aren't we supposed to be avoiding them?" he hissed.

"Of course. And the best way to avoid them is to not get seen. If we take one of these local boats, there's no telling what other stops it will make along the way and a longer ride means more chances to get caught. The Shinra one is going straight to Junon. An overnight trip at most. We'll find a good place to hunker down and stay out of sight."

Ashe stopped shaking his head and sighed. "You're right," he said in defeat. "Faster trip, less chance of being spotted. When is it leaving?"

"Looks like they still need to fuel up then they'll be ready to leave by tonight," she explained.

Once on board, they laid low in the cargo hold. Ashe had a hard time keeping his dinner in check and before too long was puking in the pilfered ice bucket from the hotel. Before the ship arrived in Junon, they borrowed a life boat and paddled to shore under cover of darkness, a small distance from Delphini Port, or what everyone else called Under Junon. From there, they walked to Fort Condor where they stayed for a bit to rest up.

Known for its anti-Shinra sentiment, the people there were Avalanche sympathizers and more than happy to help them on their journey. They loaded the both of them with food and supplies before they moved on. The mountains and caverns that separated them from reaching the northern side of the continent would be the most challenging part of the journey.

Miners, mostly chain gangs from Corel Prison, frequented the mythril caves but monsters were abundant, so it was off limits to the public. Deciding it was too risky to trek through the place during the day, they moved at night. At one point, they were climbing over a group of fallen rocks, and Ashe slipped. Kess reacted instantly, grabbing him as he was suspended over a deep gorge. She seemed to be wrestling with some internal thought, but came to and gripped his arm tighter, pulling him up.

"Thanks, Kess. That could have been very bad."

She nodded, acknowledging his words and looked around to make sure their noise hadn't alerted anyone. Seeing and hearing nothing except the wind echoing throughout the caverns, they continued on. They cleared the mines, emerging into pre dawn light. The swamp surrounding them still seemed to be sleeping and they took this chance to creep through the area without awakening the beasts rumored to live here. Once safely across, Kess did have one request before reaching Midgar; she wanted to stop in Kalm. Ashe obliged and they sidetracked from the journey to visit the town. Upon arriving, Kess was amazed with how well it had been restored after the destruction.

"This can't be right.." she said aloud.

"Yea, I heard they did a bang up job rebuilding. But this is next level," Ashe agreed.

The inn her family ran was being operated by someone else, but when she saw it rebuilt, it took every ounce of resolve to not break down in front of Ashe. She managed to keep her tears restrained as she stepped inside. The new owner came out and greeted them with a kind smile. "You two need a room?"

Kess continued to wander aimlessly around the lobby, desperately looking for any sign of her past. Ashe approached the counter and took out his wallet. "Yes sir. One night please. Two beds?" he asked.

The man obliged and rang up the cost of the room. "Twenty please."

Ashe handed over the gil and took the key that was handed back to him. He thanked the owner and turned to see where Kess had moved. She was standing across the room, staring at a wall of photos. "Got a room. We can get a good night's rest before Midgar," he informed her as he walked up to her side. He stopped talking on seeing the pained expression on her face.

Ashe looked towards the wall to see her eyes fixated upon a small photo, the edges singed and part of the bottom missing. The picture was a family, laughing and enjoying themselves. The mother held the hand of a small boy no older than seven and the father was giving the daughter a ride on his shoulder. She appeared to be five or so, with dark hair. It contrasted drastically from the others who had fair hair. "Cute family," he said without much thought.

Kess turned away and walked towards the front door. "I'll be back later," she said as Ashe began to follow.

He stopped, realizing this was the nicest way she could say she wanted to be alone for now. Ashe returned to the counter where the older man was reading a newspaper. "'Scuse me, sir.." He wasn't sure what he was going to say.

"Mm? Yes, young man?" the man lowered the paper.

"What's the story with the damaged photograph on the wall? The one missing the bottom?" Ashe asked. This guy is going to think I am insane..

"Oh, the Reignhearts? They used to own the inn before the.. Well, you know," he explained.

"I see.."

"Yea, tragic. Their kids left to join the military… Oh had to be about five or so years ago.. First the son, then the daughter. They never did come home.. Then the accident happened. Sad stuff.."

He went back to reading his newspaper. Ashe turned back around and decided to get a bite to eat before heading to the room for the night. Kess didn't return to the hotel room that night and the next morning, Ashe found her at the edge of town. He could feel her anger, but still felt like it would be too awkward to ask if he could help. When he approached, she gathered herself up, asked if he was ready, and they continued to Midgar on foot.

They arrived in the city after a few more nights of traveling. The slums offered the best chance of finding out about Avalanche, whereas the upper plate would make them both too visible to the Company they were trying to hide from. They heard whispers and rumors, but nothing concrete for a few nights. They were about to give up hope of ever finding the group. That's when they were approached by a man dressed in a brown uniform with a red bandanna wrapped around his forehead while they ordered food in a back alley bar. "What are you two looking for?" he asked.

Ashe looked to Kess who answered for them both. "Shelter in the storm."

The man observed them for a moment then glanced around as if looking to see that they were alone. He motioned his head to the right and Kess turned to see a dark figure sitting across the room at an empty table. They began walking towards him and took seats opposite him. "What storm are you referring to?" the man asked once they were seated.

He wore a brown uniform like the other with a red band on the upper sleeve. A hood obscured his face for the most part, but Kess noticed he was wearing glasses. Ashe spoke up this time, "The one that looms over our heads this very moment."

Kess added, "We want to offer you our services."

The man chuckled with a short grunt. "Oh.. And what could two ex-Shinra employees have that I would even care about, hmm?" he replied.

Kess wasn't surprised that the man seemed to know a great deal about them but Ashe was caught off guard on hearing that Kess was ex-Shinra. "Oh yes. We've been watching you.. Who do you think you paid to get into the lower gates? We've had our eyes on you since you arrived. Your bangles may hide the tattoos at a distance, but were easy to make out up close." He leaned back in the chair as if to size them up. "A scientist and a Soldier.. I imagine they're looking for you, because there's no way they just let you two walk away.. So you likely ran. What sort of reassurance do I have that Shinra won't come looking for their property?"

Ashe glanced at Kess in surprise. A Soldier!?

His eyes darted to her slightly exposed wrist where he could see the top of a tattoo peeking out. The tip of a triangle or a diamond maybe.. Kess unlatched the metal bangles. The mark of Shinra was revealed on her left, Soldier on the right. He gulped, looking up to see her gaze still holding steady on the man across the table.

She was undeterred by the revelation and stayed the course. "We've cut our ties. Your group is made up of tons of ex-Shinra. Do you want us or not?"

The man smiled, admiring her tenacity. "Depends. What do you bring to the table?"

Kess tilted her head to Ashe, motioning for him to do his part. "Oh yea!"

Ashe hoisted up his backpack and set it on the table.

The man eyed it suspiciously, then looked back to Ashe. "And what is this?"

"Knowledge.. And a bit of leverage," Ashe replied.

The man looked intrigued. "How do you mean?"

"Well, I doubt you're going to let us walk out of here now. We've seen your faces, we know where you meet.. If I were you, I wouldn't let me leave. So as I see it, you've got two choices. Check us out, let us in, and together we can hit Shinra where it hurts, or..." He gripped the bag and gave it a gentle pat.

"Saying I've got two choices usually means there is a second option," the man reminded him.

"Well I don't like the other choice. You don't let us leave, Kess here snaps your neck and I detonate every ounce of explosives that are in this sack."

He pulled the back pack closer to him. "We came here to help you. Take it.. Or leave it."

Silence fell over the corner where they sat. The man glared at them both as if trying to stare through their souls. He looked between them and then beyond them. He gave a quick nod as if signaling someone and then smirked. "Well, when you put it that way.. Welcome to Avalanche."


Ashe awoke with a sudden start. The alarm clock on his desk was emitting the shrill sound, indicating that it was time to get up and start the day. He reached out with a clumsy hand and slapped at the surface until it stopped making noise. "Weird ass dreams.." he muttered as he turned over onto his back.

He stared at the ceiling for sometime, the only light in the room coming from the illuminated alarm face. He felt the emptiness in his stomach as he woke up more. "Guess I'll go see what's for breakfast.."

He dressed casually, and upon leaving his room, saw that the hallway was bustling with activity. Still half asleep, Ashe stumbled out and locked the door behind him. He took in a big, gulping yawn and saw Jessie rush by. "Yo, Jessie. What's good?"

Jessie turned back to him, her ponytail bouncing with her step. "Ashe, don't you have a briefing this morning? Did you oversleep again?"

He winced, the lengthy dream fading with the realization that he had overslept. "Yup, completely forgot. Sorry to keep you." He waved her on, rubbing the sleep from his eyes with his other hand.

Jessie shook her head with a smile and continued on her way. Ashe shuffled from his dormitory and started walking towards the briefing room where everyone involved in this latest mission was gathering. The base was coming to life under the streets of Sector Six. The smell of breakfast from Hobbs' corner wafted through the otherwise stale underground and Ashe's stomach growled in response. ‘Not now..' he reminded himself. ‘Meeting first.'

The briefing room was the main spot where the leaders gathered. Missions and plans were created and hashed out here at a large circular table beneath a projection lamp. Shears spent so much time in here that he had set up a small corner of the room as his personal space. Large tapestries displaying the skull and bones Avalanche logo adorned the fabric and hid his belongings from view as Morgan's team filtered into the room. When Ashe arrived, Rosco and Siena were already seated at the table with Fuhito across from them. They glanced up on seeing him enter and Siena shook her head as if to chide his tardiness. Ashe smirked sheepishly and scratched the back of his head, adjusting his red bandanna. Fuhito paid him no mind as he shuffled through his notes to prepare for the meeting.

Ashe trotted over to take a seat as Kess came in behind him and took the chair next to him. "Sorry, I'm late," she apologized.

Ashe caught a whiff of her freshly washed hair as she pulled her seat up to the table. Coconut?

Morgan came in next with Diego in tow. They took seats across from Kess and Ashe, Diego angling his chin upward as if to say ‘Good morning'. He crossed his arms and leaned back in the chair, pushing his sunglasses up onto his forehead. Fuhito finally lifted his eyes from his notes to see who had all arrived. "Ah, Ms. Narshe.. Good, everyone seems to be here. Higashi, please come have a seat."

All heads turned to a man that hadn't been noticed until his mention. He was gruff, battle hardened in appearance and with his aloofness. He said nothing, only moving from where he had been leaning against the wall and came over to the group. As everyone took the remaining seats, Fuhito leaned over and flicked a switch on the side of the table. The lights began to dim and the projector over the table hummed. The room grew quiet as an image of blue prints spread out on the surface before them.

"Alright, let's begin." Fuhito's voice held a hint of giddiness as he extended a thin pointer. It was during these moments that the cold scientist retreated and the shrewd tactician came out of hiding.

"As many of you now know, members of your team recently made it out of the Shinra Building with some technical intel. This information has allowed me to analyze the building layout in great detail."

He slid the pointer across the table where the words ‘Forty-Ninth Floor' were prominently displayed. "A lot of us have been inside the Shinra headquarters; some even worked there in the past. This floor should be familiar to those individuals because you all know that without a special key card, this area of the building is completely inaccessible."

"The materia labs.." Morgan said softly.

"Precisely. We're going to liberate some of Shinra's top secret research. You've seen the wonders of natural materia, staples such as the elements of fire and lightning. Now imagine what Shinra has been engineering all these years." His voice could barely contain the excitement building within.

"Probably all kinds of crazy stuff, eh?" Rosco interjected. "I mean, we've all ‘eard tales of great beasts from the past bein' unleashed from one of them orbs. Scary stuff.." he shuddered at the thought.

"Yes, thank you for your layman's point of view, Mr. Graves." Fuhito narrowed his eyes while zooming the projected image out.

More floors of the building became visible. "You will be looking for very specific types of materia.. Particularly ones that are blue in hue."

He pointed to the map and began assigning roles. "Five of you, Graves, Harvey, Reignheart, Kincaid, and Higashi will be entering the building using the outer stairwell. Most of the building guards will undoubtedly be keeping an eye on the hole that Mr. Kincaid created in the lobby, so sneaking in shouldn’t prove too difficult."

Rosco gave a nod of approval and slapped Ashe on the back, aggravating his shoulder. "Oi, sorry mate."

Siena shushed him as Fuhito tapped the table in annoyance. "As I was saying.. Take the stairs to the fiftieth floor. The door to the forty-ninth floor only opens from the inside. Once there, disable the camera over the elevator quickly."

He held up a small device about the size of a bottle cap. "This is an electronic jammer. It is magnetic and can be placed on the side of the first camera you encounter. It will scramble the signal to the system, effectively freezing the picture. Remember to remove it on your way out."

He set the device down and motioned to Morgan. "Ms. Narshe will be monitoring you all from here. The sensors that you will all be wearing are equipped with a Shinra detection function. It can sense an active key card from up to fifty feet away. This will allow her to guide you and assist in avoiding detection."

"What's my role in all this?" Diego interrupted suddenly.

Fuhito looked over to the man who had nonchalantly kicked his boots up onto the table. "Ah, Mr. Margriff was it? Of course we haven't forgotten about our newest addition." Fuhito flashed a smile, pressing his glasses back onto the ridge of his nose; the light from the projector gleaming off of them. "You will be our eyes on the street, particularly at the stairwell entrance in the alley behind the building."

Diego huffed, rocking his chair to put his feet back down. "Right, give the new guy bitch detail. I get it," he scoffed.

Fuhito's right eye twitched. "We all have our part to play, Mr. Margriff. A well oiled machine needs all pieces in place to be able to function. You of all people should know that.." There was a hint of familiarity in his last sentence.

The light on the projector started to dim and Fuhito collapsed the pointer, placing it into his breast pocket. "Meet in the armory at precisely nine-thirty tonight. You will be briefed once more and outfitted with your equipment. Do not be late. That is all, you are dismissed."

"Thank Minerva, I'm starvin'.." Rosco sighed as he stood.

Both him and Siena left quickly, heading to the bar to get breakfast. Higashi hung back to speak with Morgan and Diego slowly stood, stretching lazily in place. The room emptied and Ashe caught up with Kess in the hallway. "What do you think, Kess? Decent team?" he asked with a smirk.

She thought for a moment before giving her answer. "Well, Rosco is an ex-Shinra guard, so he knows about the shifts and protocol. Siena is a decent sharpshooter, so she should keep us covered. It's Higashi I don't know much about."

Ashe quickly added "I've only heard rumors about what he used to be involved in. Something to do with the military. I'm not sure what his specialty is but hopefully it's not 'being a little bitch'."

Kess snorted with laughter and turned back to the room to see if Morgan and Higashi were in earshot. "I see you’ve been working on that humor we discussed.."

"What? It's a valid concern!" he said in a hushed whisper. "I don't know the guy. Big, tough type, he probably has a butterfly collection or—"

Diego exited the room at that moment and smirked on seeing the pair talking just outside. "Ah good. You two stuck around. After this snooze-fest, I am all for getting breakfast." He placed an arm around each of their shoulders and stood between them. "You think that old fart has anything good on the menu today?" he spoke, indicating Hobbs.

Kess shrugged his arm from her shoulder and walked ahead of the two. "It's not like this is the Shinra Day Inn. Hobbs does the best he can with the little supplies he has. Show some respect," she snapped.

Diego leaned in close to Ashe and asked loudly, "Is she always this feisty? Or is she just nervous about the mission?"

Kess shook her head in disbelief and walked ahead, turning back to comment, "It's not like Ashe and I are new to this. And apparently, neither are you." She spoke without thinking. "I heard the Crescents were the most ruthless force in Wutai.. Until they were wiped out." Her words were cutting and to the point.

Diego's eyebrows lowered and his mood changed instantly. What else did this woman know about him? He grimaced but played it cool, pulling his arm back from Ashe's shoulder. "Welp, you caught me." He put up both hands with a sheepish smirk. "It's true, I was with the Crescents. But when one anti-Shinra group fizzles out, you've got to go somewhere..right?"

He walked ahead of them both. "It's not like I went AWOL and abandoned my duties, like someone else here.." Diego lashed out and grabbed Kess' wrist with the Shinra tattoo. "What's this? A fashion statement?"

He tossed her wrist away. "You know what the Crescent did with traitors?" He dragged his thumb across his neck. "You wouldn't be standing here if you went derelict with them," he growled and turned to leave.

Ashe stood in place, stunned at the exchange that had taken place. Kess glared as Diego sauntered away. He tossed back. "I would have told you if you asked. So much for comradery.."

He stormed off and Ashe turned to Kess who was grimacing. "Almost had him.." she sighed.

"You.. You meant to rattle him?" Ashe asked in disbelief.

Kess turned to him. "Now we wait for him to slip up.. I still don't trust what he says.. You do know what happened to the Crescents, right?"

Ashe indicated he did not. Kess returned her gaze to the hallway ahead of them as Diego disappeared around a corner. "They were betrayed.. By one of their own. And wiped out by Soldier. Every one of them was killed."

She turned back to Ashe and saw the realization in his expression. "You think Diego.."

Her eyes met his and he saw the seriousness in them. "I think he's the one that betrayed them.."

--End Chapter 6..