Chapter Nine - Time To Run
After a while, that infernal alarm is shut off.
Meanwhile, as I wait a few minutes longer for Sephiroth to arrive, I’ve perched myself on Yuffie’s bed and resigned myself to taking my anger out on an apple. After slicing it onto a plate, I start making rabbit ear shapes. I end up feeling every cut, every painstaking slice as I form the ears into the skin.
I seem to have no problems using my now smaller hands.
“So, you’re able to make rabbit shapes with the peels,” Yuffie says. “I’ve never been given the chance to learn.”
I scowl. “And I’m actually able to think of food!”
I hand Marlene another slice, with its little ears sticking up, and she gobbles it without savoring the taste. Understandably, she’s not smiling.
“Actually, I’m kind of hungry myself,” Yuffie admits sheepishly.
“That’s probably because you’re used to this sort of thing,” I surmise.
I cut another set of rabbit ears onto the fourth slice and pop it into my mouth. I start on the next one before I even finish chewing.
“That elevator takes forever,” Yuffie muses aloud.
This has to be the worst day of my life.
And now, to my utter dismay, I’m dressed up like this. Everything I’m wearing feels alien to me, right from the hair ties I’ve borrowed from Yuffie to the baby-doll shoes on my feet. To make matters worse, my hair has fallen flat, grown out, and has somehow managed to keep the tufts in place.
So, here I am, stuck in this “skin”, in an outfit that makes me look like a gyaru girl, with my hair done up in a set of double ponytails that reminds me of Big Bird from Sesame Street!
Adding insult to injury, when another set of bodyguards arrived to greet Yuffie, one of them leered at my legs.
Though… as far as my new endowments are concerned, it’s not so bad. In fact, they’re tolerably small size… a mere 34B.
And the breeze is still refreshing.
“I feel like a fool!” I mutter.
“I think you look quite nice,” Yuffie disagrees. “But Tseng-san should’ve given you some high-cut boots instead. Want some perfume?”
I groan and look down at myself. Perhaps, I’d actually think better of this get-up if I was a real girl.
Though, I find it very strange that almost everything fits me nicely. Only, the bra feels a tad snug. How did Tseng know all of my sizes before I ever changed?
But, right now, the state of my body is not my main concern. I’m impatiently waiting for his truly to come for me. It shouldn’t be much longer now.
“Are you really so angry with Skandon-sama?” Yuffie asks. “Surely, there’s an explanation…”
“He lied to me by omission,” I reply, my voice like ice. “They all did. Pure and simple. And don’t worry. I’ll just put a bruise or two on him.”
And maybe gouge his eyes out with this knife…
“Your parents withheld information too,” she reminds me.
“They’re my parents,” I counter. “I forgive them. And they’re dead.”
“Have you ever considered,” Yuffie answers, “that you were being protected?”
I stop to think for a minute. Yes, I can safely assume that that was the reason…
“That doesn’t excuse telling me nothing at all,” I argue.
Yuffie hums in agreement. “It’s a very strange situation. I can’t understand it.”
Someone knocks at the door. Yuffie becomes alert.
“What is it?” she inquires.
“Skandon-sama has arrived.”
Yuffie’s nostrils flare, and she turns to me. “Your victim awaits, sir.”
I finish the next slice and quickly fashion another one, both for Marlene to take.
“Go outside with Miss Kisaragi, dear.”
Marlene obediently slides off of the bed, and Yuffie takes her by the hand. They open the door, and slip out. I barely watch them leave as I fix the last two rabbits.
The door squeaks open, but I don’t look up. He doesn’t say a word, but I know it’s him. I just know.
The door closes, and I start carving at the last piece. Silence. He’s probably wondering what on earth I’m doing or, at least, why.
“Hello,” Sephiroth greets, in a saccharine sweet tone.
I stop in the middle of the first ear, put everything back onto the plate, and wipe my hands with a napkin. Setting everything to the side, I stand up, smooth out the wrinkles in my shorts, toss one of my long ponytails behind my back, and finally make eye contact with my lost companion.
We’re probably two doubles right now: two angry people under calm facades.
“Hello,” I reply back, in a similar tone.
And then, I ball my hand into fist and clobber him in the face.
Sephiroth stumbles back in a daze but manages to support himself against the door.
“Go to hell, you son of a whore bitch!” I hiss.
“L-leave my mother out of this!” he growls back. “Have you lost your mind!? I’m the one who supposed to be pissed!”
At that, I shove him into the door with all my might.
“Oh, save it!” I cut him off. “I’m mad, Mr. Skandon! I’m really steamed! Devil take it! Someone obviously wants to kidnap me or kill me or worse… and you didn’t have the common courtesy to say ‘duck and cover’! You didn’t even say Madame Luciano was involved with the Mafia! Or that she was my mum’s sister! Or that we were cousins… for heaven’s sake!”
Sephiroth quickly recovers from the blow and straightens up. “Stop pointing the finger! Everything would’ve been perfectly fine… if you hadn’t gone AWOL!”
“If everyone hadn’t clammed up on me,” I shoot back, “I wouldn’t have had to find information elsewhere! And how do you know I still wouldn’t have gotten blindsided?! Or ended up looking like this?!”
“You would’ve been safer… if you were in the group!” he huffs. “But when you set foot in this building—ON YOUR OWN—you were a sitting target!”
“Which I would’ve known… IF YOU HAD JUST TOLD ME!”
Sephiroth rubs his forehead in frustration. “I suppose you now realize that it’s not… that… simple!”
“Which I would’ve known if you had just thrown me a bloody bone!” I snap.
“Couldn’t you just accept that there were some things you didn’t need to know yet!?”
I grit my teeth and snatch a handful of my hair. “And I didn’t need to know that this was going to happen!?”
“This wasn’t supposed to happen to for another year!”
My fist itches to throw another punch. “So, you were going to keep me in the dark… for an entire year?!”
“No, no! We were going to tell you after you got comfortable… two or three months from now… when we knew it was safe!”
“Oh, that makes it all better! How could it possibly NOT be the right time to know I’m not normal?!”
“That’s what I told her!”
Sephiroth rubs his face. He mumbles something about the kick of a mule.
“God knows I’d eat shit for the Madame,” he says, shaking his head, “but I thought it was crazy from the start. So did Shera. At least I was given a fair warning.”
For a moment, I forget to breathe. Is he saying… that’s he the same as—?
He holds up his hand toward me in a friendly manner. “Welcome onboard, fellow freak.”
The next thing I know, I fall backside first into the bed again. I’m floored, absolutely floored.
“You want to hit me again?” he asks. “Or are you feeling better now?”
“No, and no,” I reply in defeat. “Are you feeling better?”
“Not really,” he responds. “You just punched me, and it kinda stings.”
I sigh and run my fingers through my hair. Bloody Mary, I’m a nutcase.
“How did you even find me anyway?”
“I had a feelings you were up to something, so I emptied your pockets while you were napping.”
My jaw drops. Forget Kitten or The Tiger. “Bloodhound” is a better way to describe what Sephiroth Skandon is.
And then, Bloodhound quickly brings a fist down on top of my head.
“Owww!!!” I cry.
“Why did you have to traipsing off to oblivion?” Seph-chan seethes. “You crazy little monkey! What do you even get out of it!? Was it worth it!?”
“Do we even need to have this conversation again!? I—”
“I’m asking what you found!”
“I went to Tseng’s apartment and got my birthday presents,” I grumble, smarting from the top of my head.
The corner of his mouth begins to twitch. He gives me a look that clearly states, “I’m going to break you in two.”
“I see…” he replies menacingly.
“And they were quite useful too. If I hadn’t gotten them, we might not have survived.”
“Yeah, and if you hadn’t come here, you might not have been attacked.”
“How did you even find all of that out… in just a few hours?” Seph-chan asks.
“Talking to Miss Kisaragi was very informative,” I answer. “And I hate to break it you… but this attack was planned. They knew I was at Tseng’s apartment… and that Lola Hopkins had a machine gun hidden in a guitar case. They must have followed me here and—”
Seph-chan stops dead. He grabs me by the shoulders; the look in his eyes is utterly fierce.
“You didn’t say it was Lola Hopkins who jumped you!”
“That’s even worse?” I inquire.
He grabs my arm and forces me to get up. “We’re getting out of here. NOW!”
“Wait a minute… my stuff!” I protest.
I wriggle out of his grip and collect all of my things. He quickly notices the metal tub.
“Is there a nodachi in that tube?” Seph-chan assumes.
“Yes,” I reply. “How did you know?”
He groans and opens the door. “Let’s… just… get out of here… before we get into even more trouble…”
Seph-chan grabs me and roughly ushers me out of the room. Yuffie, Marlene, and company are standing by. One of them is holding onto his metal tube (I still believe that there’s a sword in there too).
He turns to Yuffie and tells her, “Your father’s still going to have his meeting with the Madame… but you’re going to have to come with us.”
“They’ve seen my face,” she replies knowingly. “I’ll go get my pistol and my knives. It’ll be nice to see Tifa again.”
“And your bouncers can’t come with us.”
Yuffie is taken aback. “Why not?”
And her “number one” outspoken guard opens his mouth to argue.
“Are you insane?!” he sneers. “I’ll be damned if we hand Oujo-sama over to the likes of you!”
“Oh, you shut up!” Yuffie bellows, stamping her foot.
“You’ll either die or take up space!” Seph-chan adds brutally.
The bodyguard steps back and makes a choking sound. Yuffie scurries off back to her room to get her pistol and her knives.
I don’t think anything can surprise me anymore… but I already know that I’m dead wrong.
No pun intended.
Seph-chan covers his eyes with his hands. “Hopkins… so, that’s how it is.”
“I take it that the name Hopkins is a bad thing?” I ask nervously.
Besides the fact that Lola should be taken away.
“I’ll explain it to you on the way to Cape Town,” he answers.
I freeze in horror. Yuffie’s predictions were right on the mark.
“You asked concierge, didn’t you?” I declare.
Seph-chan glares at me and grapples me into a full nelson. I struggle in vain.
“Of course I did! And you were probably going to try and give me the slip through the dance club, weren’t you!? That’s the oldest trick in the book around here!”
All I can do it wheeze.
Well, nearly all of my plans have failed magnificently.
At the very least, I’ve learned four things. One, I’m in the midst of criminals. Two, I’m in over my head. Three, something about me just isn’t normal. And lastly, there is no escape from Sephiroth Skandon…
“Wait, you actually letting me go?!” I ask.
“Someone did just try to snatch you,” he answers. “I’d be an ass to take you back to the house. Besides, you obviously want to go very badly…”
And now, even after all of that, we’re still heading down to the dance club… in Satan’s elevator.
Yuffie and I silently exchange looks, while Marlene clings to me. Meanwhile, Seph-chan is speaking to Shera on his phone. He mentions something about boarding a helicopter, and tells her to bring everyone.
I am NOT looking forward to seeing Zack again.
He hangs up and sighs gruffly. “This is all wonderful! Beautiful! Ever since Dr. Strife died, everything’s gone spectacularly wrong!”
“Well, don’t blame me,” I grouse quietly.
Yuffie cradles the wrapped bottle in her arms.
“We’re taking a helicopter ride to the plane?” I ask.
“Standard procedure,” Seph-chan replies. “It cuts out traffic and all those tollbooths…”
“What’s so important about ‘Hopkins’ anyway?” I ask impatiently.
“It’s a long story,” he says, in a voice that doesn’t want to be argued with. “I’ll tell you on the plane.”
“You’re just stalling!” I accuse.
“Stalling!” Marlene chimes.
I love you, my dear.
Seph-chan raises his hands. “Great. I don’t need two pretty faces ganging up on me.”
“Thank you for that, Sephiroth,” I answer with a dark look. “I’ll kill you in your sleep tonight!”
“I don’t want to repeat myself! That’s why I’m waiting until the whole team is present. This is everyone’s problem now.”
At that, I have nothing to say against him. He exhales sharply.
“The original plan,” he admits, “was that your parents were going to tell you the whole truth right after your sixteenth birthday. Then, you were supposed to stay with them until January and then come live with us. That was how it was supposed to happen.”
“I thought you didn’t like repeating yourself,” I mumble.
“I’m trying to be nice!”
“You see?” Yuffie says cheerfully. “I told you there was an explanation!”
Better late than never, I suppose.
“By the way,” he says. “What’s in the bottle?”
“It’s saké,” I reply. “It’s for you.”
He wrinkles his nose. “If it’s from Tseng, then I’m not drinking it.”
A few minutes later, the elevator reaches the bottom, and I’m thankful to get out. I’ve developed a paranoia to this particular contraption.
We walk through a moderately lit hallway, with twists and turns, plain white walls, and nondescript carpet. We pass by several people who are going to and coming from somewhere else, some of them dressed casually and others in sharp business suits. One woman—covered in a sweat and smelling like hard liquor—is wearing a bikini top with a print of the American flag and a pair of skinny jeans.
All the while, Seph-chan has his arm practically glued onto my shoulder. I can feel his eyes burning into my skull from time to time, like a hawk scouting its prey. Oh, what I’d give to be with Mary Poppins, walking along some suburban street in late 19th century London.
“Let me go,” I beg. “Your hand’s cold.”
“I don’t trust you, Princess,” Seph-chan replies sternly.
“You’re making me look like your under-aged girlfriend!” I declare.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” he rejoins. “You look like a cute little sister.”
Yuffie stifles a laugh out of respect.
“I thought going through the club was the oldest trick in the book,” I recall irritably.
“We’ll be fine,” he replies. “For a member of the female species, Lola isn’t all that bright.”
“So, you know her well?” I assume.
“More than I’d care to.”
At the end of the hall, two, large bouncers are standing near a sound proof door; it’s decorated in purple leather. I immediately surmise that this is the club’s entrance. We stop right in front of them. They eye Yuffie and Marlene.
“Emergency, Mr. Skandon?” one of them asks.
“Unfortunately,” he answers.
The other one opens the door for us, and I’m able to hear muffled music coming through the dark hall.
“You know the rules,” they say.
“Thanks,” Seph-chan replies, and we all go through the door without incident.
A short flight of steps leads to another door.
“When we go inside,” I tell Yuffie, “Please cover Marlene’s ears.”
“Of course,” Yuffie responds, and hands the bottle to Seph-chan. He glares at it with disdain.
“Where is everyone else anyway?” I inquire.
“Waiting in a cushy, private room inside of the club,” Seph-chan answers.
“I wish Papa had one of those around here,” Yuffie muses.
As soon as the door is opened, the storm from inside gives me unforgiving slap in the face. As promised, Yuffie clamps her hands over Marlene’s ears, much to the poor little girl’s discomfort.
There is no way I’m letting my sweet love’s ears get damaged. I don’t care what the situation is.
To my absolute horror, I quickly realize that the song blaring through the speakers is one of my favorite oldie dance songs: “Good Morning, Paris (Dr. Kucho! Remix) by Dan Marciano.
Great. Just bloody great! Of all the songs in the world, it had to be that! Now, whenever I hear it, I’m going to think of machine guns, blood, a fuchsia-haired bitch in teddy bear underwear, and this God-forsaken building! This song is dead to me!
As I brood on my current misfortunes, we walk between rows of tables. We pass on through, and for some reason, my nose is overloaded with the smell of liquor, spirits, and beer.
Down below, on another floor, the crowd is happily gyrating to the music (lucky them). Up above, there’s a third floor. This dance club is absolutely huge!
In the back of the club, we stop in front of another soundproof door. Seph-chan produces a key.
“Are they going to know it’s me?” I ask as he opens the door.
“Probably,” he mutters.
On the other side of the door, there’s a small foyer, leading to the “cushy, private room”. I swallow for courage, and we walk right in.
“Good afternoon, kiddies!” Seph-chan announces. “Did you call the taxi van?”
All three of them look up. I swallow again.
“Yes,” Tifa says, “They should be here in ten…”
Tifa suddenly trains her eyes on me and stops like a deer in the headlights. She stands up on reflex and gasps as if the air’s being sucked out of her lungs.
She totally recognizes me.
Why couldn’t my face have changed along with my body?
Beside her, Elena sits as she is, bug-eyed and gaping.
“What’s with you two?” he asks, raising an eyebrow.
I never expected much from Reno.
He looks straight at me, gives me a good once over, and then leers at me. I want to hit him.
“Who’s this?” he inquires. “Did you get a new girlfriend, Seph?”
Seph-chan pushes me closer towards them. “Now, Cloud. Don’t be shy. ”
I grunt in dismay.
Reno becomes confused and glares hard at me, finally putting his miniscule intellect into hyper drive. He sits back, eyes wide in shock, but then, the corner of his mouth curves.
He points at me and bursts into a fit of laughter.
“Ha ha ha! I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it! He can actually grow a ‘skin’! Ha ha ha ha ha! At least your body finally matches your face! Ha ha ha ha! Sucks to be you!”
I’m going to put a bullet in your head and let the fish fight over your corpse in the Hudson… you brainless wonder!
Tifa scowls, walks up to where he’s sitting, and kicks him in the groin. Reno squeals bloody murder and collapses onto the floor. Marlene finally remembers to laugh.
“You’re the one who sucks!” Tifa mutters.
When things calm down, I’m going to ask Tifa on a date. If she’ll have me…
“Hello, Tifa,” Yuffie sings. She wraps her arms around Tifa and gives her a hug from behind.
“Hey, Yufs…” Tifa replies. “How’s you’re—”
“Wait a minute,” she interrupts. “A taxi? What about the complimentary private car? Should we cancel it?”
Seph-chan shakes his head. “No… if we let it go, Lola might think we’re still going to use it. It could buy us some time.”
He looks down, where Reno is lying in the fetal position.
“I think you kicked him too hard, Teef,” he says.
Tifa turns up her nose. “Just throw him over your shoulder and carry him.”
When the taxi arrived, about a block away, everything went with a bang. We slipped out of the emergency exit, hurried down the block like a herd of wildebeest, and piled into the car like scared little mice (though Seph-chan, who climbed in last, was relatively calm).
He offered the driver a large tip if he drove fast, and we were off like a rocket. The trip led us onto the freeway and out of New York City.
For the most part, it was a very uneventful and safe drive. Nevertheless, the majority of us had our fingers crossed. At one point, Elena started yanking covetously on my hair.
I want to cry right now. I really do.
An hour later, the taxi van stops in front of a tall, chain-link fence. On the other side, I see a large, gray, tandem rotor helicopter—almost as large as a small airplane!
I suppose I should be disturbed that I know what type of helicopter this is (when I’ve previously never even heard of one). But by now, I’m just too numb to care.
We all pour out of the van, the driver is paid a nice sum of money, and we walk along the fence towards a security booth and a gate. There are two female guards stationed at the booth. They glance over our faces and ask for the code. Seph-chan utters a nine-digit number, and they open the gate, letting us to go through.
A comforting hand pats me on my back as everyone makes a beeline for the helicopter.
“Don’t worry,” Tifa says cheerfully. “I know things look bad now, but everything will work out. And that skin of yours… it’s not permanent. It’ll be gone in the morning!”
Okay, now I feel a little better.
“I would’ve been much calmer if someone had told me that,” I reply.
The wind of the rotor fans practically blew right through me; my hair probably looks like a flying bird. Everyone files inside the helicopter, one by one. The pilot turns his head to acknowledge us.
“On the run again, eh?” he simpers.
“Go piss up a flag pole,” Seph-chan mutters indignantly.
I grab my companion’s arm. “I don’t think they would’ve set up a tandem rotor just for me.”
“I made a few changes over the phone when I went up to get you,” he reveals.
As soon as everyone’s climbed aboard, Seph-chan quickly orders us to crouch on the floor and stay away from the windows… even when Reno mentions that they’re bullet proof.
“Take off in twenty minutes,” he orders the pilot. “No exceptions.”
“But what about the rest?!” Elena squeaks. “What if they don’t—”
“They’ll get the idea and go to the plane themselves. If we stay too long, we might get caught up in a gunfight.”
The word “gunfight” sends a shiver down my spine.
And so, we wait. For five minutes. For eight minutes. For eleven minutes. For fifteen minutes. For seventeen minutes. Once or twice, we sneak a peek at the bottom of the windows. Everyone glares into their watches or the clocks on their phones.
“Eighteen minutes on the clock,” the pilot announces.
The air becomes thick inside the helicopter. Wishing… hoping… worrying. Would they make it in time? What would happen if they didn’t?
But then, as Tifa carefully looks out the window, she beats her fist on the wall.
“It’s them!” she says. “That’s one of our cars! They’ve… something’s happened!”
Suddenly, everyone gathers around the left side of the helicopter in a thick cluster, trying to get a good look out of the window. From the little room I have—Reno’s red hair is obstructing some of my view—I’m able to see a silver truck stopping at the security booth. The fender’s been damaged, and I can see cracks in the windows.
The truck gets past the booth and speeds frantically towards the helicopter. When it draws close, I’m able to see the extent of the damage. One side of the car is badly dented, and the paint job is severely damaged. The windows have spider cracks.
Bullets, I thought (without really thinking).
“I’m glad we didn’t go back to the house,” Elena muses thankfully.
The truck skids to a stop by a few meters from the helicopter, and the passengers rush out in relief. Shera is holding her arm; she’s bleeding. My heart skips a beat.
We first help Shera get into a seat. Tifa goes to the back of the helicopter and produces a first-aid kit from a compartment. After the last person comes inside, the door is mechanically closed, and the helicopter takes off. Everyone takes a deep breath and lets it out.
“What happened?” Seph-chan asks her.
Tifa begins cleaning Shera’s wound. She winces and closes on of her eyes. Thankfully, it was just a bad graze.
“Alice Hopkins happened,” she curses. “She tried to put the ruddy drop on us when we were leaving the house.”
“Hopkins again,” he says.
There’s more of her?!
“What about the hired help?” he asks.
“They know the drill,” she replies. “They’re safe.”
“Are… are you alright, Shera?” I ask meekly. “Your arm…”
Shera turns to me with a curious glance. “Who are—”
She looks at me hard and draws back in surprise.
“CLOUD?!” she squeals.
The helicopter becomes very quiet, save for the steady hum of the engine.
The humiliation never stops.
Shera glares at him. “You never mentioned this over the phone!”
“Must’ve slipped my mind,” Seph-chan answers.
No one else speaks.
“But it’s not supposed to happen!” she shrills. “He’s not even seventeen!”
“Don’t get your panties in a bunch. We’ll have him checked out as soon as we get to Cape Town.”
People are after us, and all they can think about is my body?
I clear my throat. No matter.
“Your arm,” I ask her again. “Are you alright?”
Shera tries to smile and opens her mouth to respond.
“This is all your fault!”
A chill goes through the air. Everyone looks up, and Jessie is absolutely boiling in her seat. Her eyes are trained on me.
“Jess!” Zack chides her.
“We were living just fine until you showed up!” she seethes. “And then, you created that incident when you put yourself on the spotlight in the facility. If it weren’t for you… none of this would’ve happened.”
Well, for the most part, I’m completely startled. And incensed! How on earth was this supposed to be my fault? After all, I’m the one who knows little to nothing! Am I the scapegoat only because I just got here?!
“But that isn’t true!” Yuffie tries to defend me. “Cloud-sama is not to…”
“My fault?” I snort.
And then, I find myself laughing. Actually laughing. My world is falling apart, and I’m laughing. And the words start dripping out of my mouth like sweet venom.
“You silly, little twit!” I mock. “You won’t even accept me or consider me as part of the group, And yet, when trouble arises, everything is suddenly my fault!? I just went to that building to get something that belonged to me. Why Miss Lola Hopkins decided to attack me there is her business! So, get off my back! Blaming others for your problems is not professional!”
Marlene clutches my arm and throws her little raspberry at Jessie. Jessie grits her teeth but doesn’t reply. Seph-chan claps in the background.
“Well said,” he agrees.
And then, I decompress. I really need to ease up on my temper.
“But—!” Jessie murmurs.
“They were going to pounce on us,” he continues, “whether he went to the facility or not! Lola isn’t smart, but the Hopkins planned everything. They knew Cloud was coming. It was a disaster waiting to happen. So, can we all promise to pull our heads out of our asses and get along?”
The helicopter grows silent again.
“I’m glad we understand each other,” he says.
“But I just decided to go this morning,” I tell him. “How could they…”
Seph-chan waves me off. “I’ll explain all I can when we get on that plane!”
Shera hisses a little as Tifa wraps the bandage. “Why are we even going to Cape Town?”
“That’s not a question for me.”
He glances my way.
“I’m not spilling anything,” I answer, “until we get on that confounded plane!”
I sigh wearily and rub my sister’s head. Why can’t everything just go back to normal?