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Other Roads

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"It's ugly," Cloud commented as Zack drew up beside him, looking down at the city. "We came all this way for this?"

Zack shrugged. "Midgar buyers pay well for Nibel-bred mountain birds. And better we sell 'em ourselves rather than risk 'em with a secondhand dealer, right?"

"Point taken." The chocobos were always Cloud's top concern.

"C'mon, then," said Zack. "If we hurry, we'll get there by sunset." He urged his big black onward.

Cloud called to the flock, sounding almost like one of them, and they thundered down the ridge, hot on Zack's heels as he led the way.

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As Gast helped Ifalna pack up the last of their few belongings, Vincent turned to the children. "Are you two ready?"

Sephiroth nodded reluctantly, though his displeasure was clear on his face. Aeris, however, was more vocal.

"No!" The ten-year-old girl scowled. "Just once, I want to say goodbye to my friends first!"

"You can't."

"Why not?"

Vincent merely looked at her, and Aeris huffed in frustration. She already knew the answer.

"How much longer will we be on the run like this?" asked Sephiroth quietly.

"The rest of our lives, probably," answered Vincent.

Such was the price of freedom.

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"—and saving the world from the evil madman while at the same time trying to help the hero put back together his shattered sense of self!" Tifa concluded triumphantly, waving the manuscript in the air. "Magic! Monsters! Psychological trauma!"

"A love triangle involving the hero, his childhood crush, and the girl with the mysterious past!" Aeris added, beaming.

Editor Strife sighed, shaking his head. "That's probably one of the most overblown premises I've ever heard," he said. "…And yet it's just the sort of thing our readers would eat up."

"So you'll…?"

"We'll take it."

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Yazoo swept into the training rooms, stopping well before the mats. "Have you seen Sephiroth? Mother's looking for him."

"Think he's out hunting with his shadow again," came the grunted reply, as Loz pinned his opponent.

Yazoo nodded, turning to leave.

"Oh," Loz added, "you might want to lose the dress. Mother'll kill you if she finds out you've been raiding her closets again."

An indifferent shrug. "Honestly, she's more worried about ridding Kadaj of his fits."

"Seriously? Doesn't she realize he's still pissed about being passed up as heir to the throne?"

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The City Guard may have had nominal control of the streets, but the poorer quarters were ruled by the Guild. All his life Rufus had known no more power greater than theirs as he begged and later picked pockets for sustenance.

He craved that power like nothing else.

They had scoffed when he had started organizing a bid for control of the Guild at only sixteen, but the aid of the assassin he'd charmed made the process almost too easy.

With Tseng at his shoulder, Rufus smiled at the wary assembly from the Guildmaster's chair. "Shall we begin?"

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Cloud had never noticed anything unusual about himself until one of the other kitchen boys had teased him about his slightly pointed ears. A close study of the castle's other servants proved that they didn't have that feature — only he and his mother did.

When asked, she told him they had an elven ancestor.

But there were no elves, Cloud knew; the last had vanished a millennium past, and not even the most powerful scrying magic on the continent could find any. He kept these doubts to himself, though… and grew out his hair to hide his difference.

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"I'm not sure whether I should accept Sephiroth's proposal," Aeris confessed to Nanaki.

"Well, an alliance would benefit all, uniting our divided kingdoms, but…"

"But?"

"Your Majesty, I'm sure you noticed how attentive Lord Zachary was to his prince?"

"Yes. Though not so much his interest in me was unclear."

"Indeed." A delicate cough. "Well, suffice it to say Sephiroth and his man-at-arms are quite… close."

Aeris's eyebrows rose. "Really."

"The nose never lies." Nanaki shook his head. "A pity, really. He's— your Majesty?"

"I think I need to… research a little more before deciding."

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Vincent left for America in 1930. His widowed mother, who'd declined to make the return trip, stayed in Japan with his father's sister. The increasing restrictions imposed on the Japanese made life difficult, but he did his best to provide for his growing family.

The night the government came for them in 1942, all hell broke loose.

When Vincent came back to himself he was covered in blood, the policemen dead, the baby wailing, his wife in hysterics. He stared at his shaking hands in numb confusion. What the…?

The creature in his soul stirred, and offered him its name.

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"I don't trust you," Tifa told him bluntly, watching him warily from behind the bar.

"In all honesty, Ms. Lockhart," Sephiroth replied, "I'm not sure I trust myself." He looked away. "I cannot understand why they would choose to bring a dangerous madman back to life…"

Tifa paused at that, the tirade she'd nearly begun fizzling as the former SOLDIER gave voice to her own opinion. The others she could understand — seeing Aeris again was wonderful, and they had all easily come to like Zack, but… why Sephiroth?

"Because everyone deserves a second chance," said Aeris, from the doorway.

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Today, Zack decided, struggling fruitlessly, was not his day.

He'd been walking through the slums, minding his own business, when he'd been attacked. Odd enough that someone was crazy enough to assault a SOLDIER — though it was odder still that this guy was stronger than he. And Zack could feel the strength ebbing from him, once the guy'd sunk his teeth into his throat.

The world spun, and suddenly his attacker was gone, blasted away. Zack stared, dazed, up at the boy who'd saved him — barely fifteen, but his eyes were so old…

"Oh, hell," said his rescuer.